Excerpt of The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
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The flies were collected over a pile of rubbish. The tremendous scent caused her eyes to tear as she approached. She secured a wheelbarrow and, as she did, recalled the calf the Healeys had permitted the stableboy to raise on the grounds. But that had been years ago. Both the stableboy and the calf had outgrown Wide Oaks and left it to its eternal sameness.
The flies were of that new fire-eyed variety. There were yellow hornets, too, which had taken some morbid interest in whatever putrid flesh was underneath. But more numerous than the flying creatures were the masses of bristling white pellets crackling with movement--sharp-backed worms, wriggling tightly over something, no, not just wriggling, popping, burrowing, sinking, eating into each other, into the...but what was supporting this horrendous mountain, alive with white slime? One end of the heap seemed like a thorny bush of chestnut and ivory strands of...
Above the heap stood a short wooden staff with a ragged flag, white on both sides; it was flapping with the undecided breeze.
She could not help knowing the truth about what lay in that heap, but in her fear she prayed she'd find the stableboy's calf. Her eyes could not resist making out the nakedness, the wide, slightly hunched back sloping into the crack of the enormous, snowy buttocks, brimming over with the crawling, pallid, bean-shaped maggots above the disproportionately short legs that were kicked out in opposite directions. A solid block of flies, hundreds of them, circled protectively. The back of the head was completely swathed in white worms, which must have numbered in the thousands rather than hundreds.
Nell kicked away the wasps' nest and stuffed the judge into the wheelbarrow. She half wheeled and half dragged his naked body through the meadows, over the garden, through the halls, and into his study. Throwing the body on a mound of legal papers, Nell pulled Judge Healey's head into her lap. Handfuls of maggots rained down from his nose and ears and slack mouth. She began tearing out the luminescent maggots from the back of his head. The wormy pellets were moist and hot. She also grabbed some of the fire-eyed flies that had trailed her inside, smashing them with the palm of her hand, pulling them apart by the wings, flinging them, one after another, across the room in empty vengeance. What was heard and seen next made her produce a roar loud enough to ring straight through New England.
Two grooms from the stable next door found Nell crawling away from the study on her hands and knees, crying insensibly.
"But what is it, Nellie, what is it? By Jesus, you ain't hurt now?"
It was later, when Nell Ranney told Ednah Healey that Judge Healey had groaned before dying in her arms, that the widow ran out and threw a vase at the chief of police. That her husband might have been conscious for those four days, even remotely aware, was too much to ask her to permit.
Mrs. Healey's professed knowledge of her husband's killer turned out to be rather imprecise. "It was Boston that killed him," she revealed later that day to Chief Kurtz, after she had stopped shaking. "This entire hideous city. It ate him alive."
She insisted Kurtz bring her to the body. It had taken the coroner's deputies three hours to slice out the quarter-inch spiraled maggots from their places inside the corpse; the tiny horny mouths had to be pried off. The pockets of devoured flesh left in their wake spanned all open areas; the terrible swelling at the back of the head still seemed to pulse with maggots even after their removal. The nostrils were now barely divided and the armpits eaten away. With the false teeth gone the face sagged low and loose like a dead accordion. Most humiliating, most pitiable, was not the broken condition, not even the fact that the body had been so maggot-ridden and layered in flies and wasps, but the simple fact of the nakedness. Sometimes a corpse, it is said, looks for all the world like a forked radish with a head fantastically carved upon it. Judge Healey had one of those bodies never meant to be seen naked by anyone except his wife.
Excerpted from The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl Copyright© 2003 by Matthew Pearl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.