Sketches at the Inquisition

The Monster was born, far from the vast and glowing Metropolis, in the Hills where only the odd light flickered in the distance, beacons for the weary traveller, too long tossed about by the tempests of the road. According to reports, he had no hair upon his head, and his ears were jagged, almost reptilian, and close to the skull. A single eye glared out savagely from his forehead, slightly off-center, and his expression seemed to rest in something resembling a tortured grimace.

Upon hearing of this occurrence that suggested so many tantalizing questions for one who had read Cuvier and Lamark, the Inquisitor decided to make his way to the Hills to discover where the Monster lived. Up until his leaving the Inquisitor had led an uneventful, somewhat distinguished, career running a cabinet in one of the deeply boweled buildings at the academy. His main innovation had been the slight modification of Cuvier’s structural classifications of some fauna. As he had noted in a talk given at one of the academy’s annual open air plenary sessions, this suggested some interesting new directions for analysis, as well as some slight revision to several species’ classification. He also held monthly tutorials, for any who wished to attend, on the art of anatomical drawing, following the von Soemmerring method.

But nothing in his career to that point had suggested a man with the curiosity or bravery—some would say foolhardiness—to set out on such a long and uncertain journey. The Hills were wild lands, a violent jungle of tangled and twisted things, where the weather seemed always to threaten and the inhabitants lived life to the bone. And the story of the Monster was just that, no more than a tale. To risk a respectable, if modest, career for a mere rumor seemed to many the height of madness.

The Inquisitor drew up detailed plans for the studies he wished to conduct in the Hills. This was by necessity, of course, for the academy grant forms demanded a specific accounting of the expenses he would incur, in order to determine the extent of funding he would receive. In brief, he aspired to conduct a complete botanical survey of the far reaches of the Hills, utilizing modern and rational techniques that had not been available to previous explorers. The Monster, so central in his thoughts about the project, went unmentioned in his various prospectuses.  

The equipment he brought with him for his researches was as follows: a microscope, a pair of binoculars, several notebooks for diary entries and the like, as well as several more for his sketches, many pens and pencils, a compass, a thermometer, his dissecting kit, a rifle, a fully illustrated copy of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, some basic medical equipment, a camera, a barometer, various jars to preserve specimens, and several pounds of coffee beans and a grinder, for who was to say what its availability would be in such far flung regions.

The prospectuses were a long time making their way through the various academy bureaucracies, but approval arrived eventually and the Inquisitor set out on his way. He started on the train that led from the Metropolis through the Known Territories, passing through many lands with many people, all more or less civilized as he judged such things. When he arrived at the edge of the Known Territories the Inquisitor was forced to hire a coach and driver, at what he felt was surely an exorbitant price. There was little help for it, for there seemed no other way to reach the Hills, and to have come so far and fail was something he could not countenance.

From the confines of the coach he observed the scattered villages that formed the outskirts of the Hills, where the jungle receded somewhat for humanity to take a tenuous grasp of the landscape. In one everyone made their way through the meandering streets on unicycles as they led their pack animals. Another group had carved away a massive amount of the forest to build elaborate houses with interconnecting walkways. Strangely no one inhabited these structures, rather the populace lived somewhere within the jungle itself, though they never ceased in building.

Gradually they left the trees of the jungle behind and emerged onto a vast plain. The Inquisitor was deep into pondering this new landscape, and determining whether it was indeed some sort of veldt, when he realized that the carriage had come to a halt. The driver climbed down and let it be known that they were in the Hills. He also made it quite plain that he had little idea where to go. The Inquisitor tried to convey the nature of his search to him but it was hopeless. The driver knew nothing of the Monster and at last they settled on heading for the nearest settlement to see what might be learned there.

The first village they came to was a ramshackle place that, by all appearances, had been abandoned years before. The Inquisitor was about to call to the driver to head on to the next settlement when a man emerged from the ruins of a shack. The Inquisitor called out to him and dug in his purse for a coin. The man acknowledged the Inquisitor with a curt nod and strolled over to the carriage.

“Could you tell me where the Monster resides?” the Inquisitor said.

This drew a raised eyebrow from the man. “What sort of monster are you looking for?”

The Inquisitor attempted to describe the creature, at least as it had been depicted to him.

“Well, I don’t see what exactly makes him a monster then. More of an oddity,” the man said with a shrug.

“What do you mean?” the Inquisitor demanded.

“What in particular makes you call him a monster, as opposed to something else?”

“What else could I call him?”

The man scratched his beard. “I don’t know. But I don’t see as you should necessarily call him a monster either.”

Exasperated the Inquisitor said, “I can’t know exactly what to name him until I see him. That’s why I’m on this journey. So that I can know what he is.”

The man nodded in agreement but said nothing.

“Do you know of anyone who would resemble this picture?” the Inquisitor said at last, but the man did not.

The next few weeks were spent wandering the Hills from town to town. The locals, whether through distrust or a foreign exuberant wit, gave exceedingly misleading directions as to the whereabouts of the sought after creature. Several times the Inquisitor was forced to abandon the carriage and make his way on foot, for the roads were mere paths and sometimes non-existent. He would return days later to find the carriage and its faithful driver waiting placidly, while the Inquisitor would have exhausted his patience in another fruitless search, having found no evidence that humans had ever even wandered those parts, his clothes torn and muddied.

The Monster remained little more than a figment, a fragment from a story told to amuse locals and lead interlopers astray. He spent years in the Hills, cataloguing and describing all he found, but the Monster remained elusive. Finally, as his funds began to dwindle and his supply of coffee was exhausted, he began to consider returning to the Metropolis. He had more than achieved all he had set down in his prospectuses. His works would be read in the salons and academies across all the Known Territories. The Monster did not seem so important now, given all he had achieved.

It was then, of course, that he came across the creature, tending to a herd of alpacas. He spent a day following the creature, sketching him, and even interviewed him, recording everything that he said. When he was finished the Inquisitor returned to the Metropolis where his discovery was well-received. He gave extensive lectures on the Monster at the academy, and at various salons, to enamoured audiences. The Monster, naturally, was named after him and included in all the updated natural history volumes published thereafter.

The Inquisitor later wrote volumes detailing the rest of his journey and the investigations he had conducted, particularly focused on classification. Indeed he devoted an entire volume to delineating a complex classificatory scheme for the various grasses he had encountered. Whenever he attempted to broach discussion of these aspects of his researches, usually following an exhaustive talk on the Monster, he was dismissed and his work ridiculed as unimportant and of little significance for the scientific community. The volumes went unpublished in his lifetime.

Image Credit: University of Liverpool Faculty of Health and Life Science

A new flash story will be available next Thursday.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Fiction: Sketches at the Inquisition | Lost Quarter Books


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