We were going back to 1849, a popular destination for school groups. Each year the trip would alternate between The Irish Potato Famine and The California Gold-Rush. This Gold-Rush year appealed to these opportunistic young captains of industry. The department head would escort the Advanced-Placement Honors kids to Dickens' London, to observe the social impact of the recently published David Copperfield. I got the four "Alternate Studies" kids. These were the weird kids, who could only stay at Havenwood by grace of family money. We were off to witness the final days of Edgar Allan Poe. I hoped my theory, the basis of my book manuscript, would prove to be correct.
The school provided costumes for the Gold-Rush / Potato Famine trip. Ragged youth was pretty much just ragged youth on either continent. The Honors kids excelled in their exquisite Dickensian finery. I told my group wear "whatever", our appearances would hardly be regarded as odd by Poe in these final days before gin and opium took his life. Period West Point cadet uniforms (and a lot of mascara) suited the two punk girls who insisted on being referred to as "Ami" and "Umi." I found an old frock coat and top-hat for Besztep, the exchange student who never spoke. Rickiii the Goth Kid turned out in the blackest of sinister clubbing cloths. I patiently explained to my charges that I did not care in the least measure what they did on the trip, since they were all up-to-date on their cancer, HIV, and substance abuse vaccinations.
"Just stick together" I told them, "and don't get lost!"
The original coroner's report determined Poe's death to have been the result of "Brain Congestion." He had been found delirious outside a tavern in the Baltimore harbor district (mysteriously wearing another man's clothes). This seemed to be a closed case. The mysterious aliment "brain congestion" was a broad enough diagnosis to cover a wide variety of fates. About eighty years ago, in the early 1990s, forensic pathologists from Johns Hopkins determined Poe had actually died of rabies. They offered up some vague theory that he might have been scratched by one of the several cats he was know to have kept, but I knew better. He had become a werewolf. He was found wearing his victims cloths after shedding his own. How all this transpired, I hoped to soon learn.
We timed our arrival for early evening. The streets would still be busy as the city grew dark and I hoped we could travel unnoticed. Normally time travelers do go unnoticed, residents of the past show little interest or concern regarding our presence. It is impossible for people traveling in time to actively participate in the past, or change it in any significant way. We are observers, perceived if at all only at the very corner of ones eye. People in the past might vaguely notice you, but they'll find your presence completely unremarkable.
Upon arrival the kids were impressed and, honestly, so was I. Life here had so much more texture than I had imagined! The lack of all technology we took for granted was dangerously exciting. My group was well behaved, they seemed awed as we traveled the grimy and primitive streets of Baltimore. Passersby possessed faces more closely related to the old world, their garments course and worn. A different attitude regarding personal hygiene was apparent as well. The rank odor of a the commercial harbor was combined with open sewers and unwashed citizenry. Ami and Umi got horrid cheroots off some sailor and were smoking like fiends. Quietly we slid into Poe's rooms. He occupied a small suite on the third floor of a waterfront rooming-house.
Poe was unconscious, sprawled and disheveled in a stained and tattered wingback
chair. In the grim shadows provided by the one dirty window he appeared gravely ill, a clay pipe near his hand. The scene was not unexpected, I suppose, considering the author's declining circumstances. Ami and Umi immediately commenced going through his pockets for trinkets and mementos, while Rickiii got busy with the pipe. Besztep turned to me and smiled. I heard his voice, but only in my head. It was high and beautifully musical and not, I realized, at all human.
"We will be leaving now, Mr. Gargiulo; do not become concerned. You can see there is a problem here and we must go."
Besztep's smile was unchanged; his lips did not move as his dialogue continued.
"This body is dying and I must hurry to get its occupant home to our world."
"Besztep, what do you mean? You're saying Poe is an extraterrestrial, and for that matter, you are too?" I heard his voice laughing.
"Do not be concerned Mr. Gargiulo, nothing will change for you or the others, an empty body will be left to explain his absence and no one will remember me. Excuse me please", he continued," I am only a medical rescue-tech, (with a minor in literature) and have called for evacuation." I was completely fascinated as he continued. "Humans are mistaken that life is unique to Earth. There are many inhabited worlds, but they are all silent worlds. Only Earth has sound. That is what sets you apart and that is why he came here. Many consider him the finest writer of our age, he left our world to research a great literary anthology. Here he tried to explain that he was an Editor of Alien Poetry. Speech was so new to him, listeners thought he was saying his name was Edgar Allan Poe. He longed to hear the sound of language. Something that none of us could begin to imagine." All this was beyond my comprehension.
"Our dear editor is very ill, so thank you for your help,but now we must go."
Besztep stepped behind Poe's chair and placed his hands on the great writer's shoulders. With one last broad smile, they were gone.
"Come on you three, we're leaving." I said.
"We don't want to get back on the bus yet!" Ami and Umi chorused.
"No" I said. "we are not getting on the bus, We are going to a tavern where I may drink and you may not. I still have period trip expense money so we can eat."
And so we sat till noon the net day The girls cheating drunks at cards and getting tanked (they thought I didn't notice). Rickiii, pipe in hand, was perfecting his gargoyle lurking technique on the roof.
Great. Poe was an alien. Well so much for my theory and so much for my book. But by next spring I should be able to pull a first draft together for a new book. Fiction, I think, would be best, taking place during the time of the Great Potato Famine. Maybe I can introduce a werewolf character or two and use at least some of my previous notes.
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson