Amicus Verus est Rara Avis
A True Friend is a Rare Bird
Dr. John Wakefield was seized by an inexplicably ominous mood the morning of his drive out to Sussex. The day was bleary and gray, its pallor unrelieved even when London's smoky closeness was far behind. The open countryside trembled beneath a roll of heavy gray clouds, like so many ghostly bladders, awaiting the inevitable downpour. John tried to distract himself from the dreary scenery with the book he had brought along, but his eyes kept wandering to the train's windows.
With a sigh, John shut the book and put it aside. He removed his journal from his jacket's inner pocket. A bit chagrined by his mood, he wrote,
"A restlessness has settled upon my soul this morning. I have only had this feeling a few times before, and it has never failed to predict the most difficult sort of patient. The last time that I had this feeling, my intended patient actually took my fountain pen from my hand and attempted to harm me with it!
"Looking back upon that unpleasant memory, I cannot fathom why this foreboding would be with me now. This man that I have been called out to see is merely the witness of a tragedy, not the perpetrator of one. As far as I know, he is not dangerous at all. Why such anxiety over meeting him, then? Is it merely the day preying on my better judgment? It must be … and yet …
"Perhaps it was the look on the face of the man that drove out to request my assistance. That police inspector who rung my doorbell at such an unholy time of morning some hours ago. The look on his face chilled me, and I did not like the way he refused to comment on the death that my soon-to-be-patient uncovered. It was strange, come to think of it, that the man would have ridden all the way out from Sussex to London simply to request help for a witness. I suppose he is eager for details of the discovery of the body, though one would expect that sort of desperation more in regards to a murder than a suicide.
"Why does it all feel like some sort of riddle? Why is this morning so cold?"
Try as he might, John could not shake his dark mood. He arrived at the hospital just as the first drops of rain began to patter down. Inside, a rather nervous young police officer greeted him in the waiting area. After a brief introduction, the man led Dr. Wakefield to see his intended patient.
"Are you all right?" John asked in concern. "You don't look very well, if you don't mind my saying."
"Oh, tired is all, sir," the youth said. "Inspector West told me to wait here for you, so I've been here since early."
"I see," John said, though he did not entirely believe the man. "What can you tell me about my patient, the Mr.-?"
"Devitt, sir, Jeremiah Devitt, and a devil of a time we had getting that out of him," the copper said. He shuddered. "Not that I blame the poor bas—I mean, the poor man, of course. After what he saw, who could think straight, let alone speak clearly?"
"Inspector West alluded to some particularly disturbing misfortune," John said. Hoping for details, he further inquired, "Might you know anything about it? It would greatly help to know what sort of trauma I am dealing with."
The policeman, Jennings was his name, was silent for so long that John did not expect an answer. Then, Jennings stopped short in the middle of the hallway, and the words all came tumbling out in a rush.
"Oh, God, it was awful!" he blurted. He rubbed his face with a hand. "Begging your pardon, sir, but it was the most terrible thing I ever seen. I ain't never seen a suicide before, that was bad enough, but the birds, Christ! Excuse me for that, sir, but those birds!"
John gave the man a moment to collect himself, shocked by the mist of sweat that beaded upon Jennings' forehead. The youth took a deep breath, gave his head a shake, and continued walking. John followed.
"I didn't think nothin' of them at first, sir," Jennings said grimly. "It was a bit odd, that was all I thought, to see so many of them outside that house. It was a murder upon a murder of crows, it was. They was all over, the trees, the ground, everywhere, just sitting and watching, like. But they was only birds, I thought—then. After seeing the body and what your man, Devitt, said, though … I swear, when I came out of that house, those birds looked like the wings of Lucifer himself."
"But why? I don't understand."
"The man we found hanging upstairs in the attic, Anthony Beechworth, was in pieces," Jennings explained with another shudder. "Blood everywhere, the stink—oh! When Devitt came to the police station, he was wild, raving about birds eating someone, eating their eyes, just screaming and screaming about birds. We thought he was mad with grief is all, but when we saw 'is friend, we understood. The birds had burst through the window for the body, right? They'd … Well, they had … "
Jennings drew a very deep breath and let it out slowly.
"The crows had stripped almost all the flesh off, so we found the body hangin' there in tatters," Jennings said. "Skin stripped and hanging like rags, the muscles snipped and shredded, dead veins bulging like dead worms—and the eyes! They had taken the eyes. Took most of the face, too, so we saw teeth through a hole in 'is cheek, like he was smilin' somewhere deep inside at the whole mess. It was terrible."
John opened his mouth to speak, but he had no response for this grisly tale. The two men walked the rest of the way to Devitt's room in utter silence. At each window, they could hear the incessant drumming of the rain.
"Well, here we are, sir," Jennings said, stopping outside a door. He managed a polite smile, opening the door. "The doctors gave him something for his nerves, though, so he might not be fully himself. He was hysterical, you see."
"I understand." John extended a hand. "Thank you, my good man."
"Right, welcome, and, er, good luck, Dr. Wakefield."
The ward for those more mentally than physically troubled was small, given that this was a medical hospital. A woman lay groaning in the bed closest to the door. John could see some men in beds, and he realized that he did not know what Jeremiah Devitt looked like. He was just about to return to the hallway to ask Jennings about it, when a movement at the far end of the ward caught his eye. He turned back, and his eyes fell upon a man in the last bed of the room, just next to the window. He walked further down the ward, craning his neck to see the solitary figure.
The end of the long room was empty, save for this one man. He had lifted his hand to touch the cold glass of the window, and now his fingers shrunk away in a wince. He turned his head back and forth on the pillow, whimpering softly and shutting his eyes tightly.
All at once, John knew that this must be Jeremiah Devitt. No one else in the ward bore such a profound expression of terror. His pleasantly even features were twisted into a grimace, his skin was deathly pale and drenched with the acrid sweat only fear can set flowing. There were dark circles beneath his eyes, and they were glossy and rimmed with red from crying. His hair was very red, the brighter shade that looked orange, and it was plastered to his face messily. His lips moved, muttering something repeatedly. When he got close, John could make out the words: "The birds," Devitt whispered, "the birds, the birds, the birds."
"Mr. Devitt?" John ventured. "It's me. Dr. Wakefield."
John wondered, why he had said that, 'it's me'? Devitt was not expecting him, of course. It was an odd thing to say to a stranger. Devitt's breathing did begin to slow, however. He looked terribly warm, almost fevered, and John reached over the bed to open the window.
All at once, Devitt's hand shot out and grabbed John's arm. John's heart skipped a beat. Wild, haunted eyes flew open and bore into his own.
"Don't!" Devitt cried. "Don't let them in! Don't let the birds in!"
"Yes, yes, I understand," John said gently. He delicately pried Devitt's hands off of his arm and then drew the drapes over the window. "There we are. Is that better, Mr. Devitt?"
Devitt blinked, and then sank back into the pillows. His breathing finally fell into a normal pace. John sat down in the chair beside the bed, trying to get a psychological image of his new patient. He could not tell very much about Devitt, admittedly; all he could see was the fear.
"Mr. Devitt, my name is John Wakefield," he tried again. "I am a psychiatrist from London. You live in London, do you not?"
Devitt nodded weakly, though his eyes darted back to the curtain-covered window. His pale fingers picked at the worn white bed linens. John poured him a glass of water from the pitcher on the nearby table and handed it to him. To his relief, Devitt drank.
"Mr. Devitt, I must ask you some questions to determine whether or not you are capable of returning to London just yet," John said, getting to the matter at hand. "Do you understand me?"
Devitt set the glass on the table and met John's eyes. He still seemed highly nervous, but there was lucidity in his eyes now. He nodded.
"Good," John said. "Now. Do you know who you are and where you are?"
Devitt repeated his name and the name of the hospital.
"Do you remember your home address?"
Devitt drew a breath, calming more. He told John his address in London. They went through more basic information, such as Devitt's date of birth, the names of his parents (there was some reluctance to name his father, John noted), and finally the name of the friend that he had lost.
"Anthony," he murmured, staring at his hands. "Anthony Beechworth, and his wife, Anna. I did not know her, but … but in a way, I lost them both. I feel that I could have known them both as friends, if I had only … come sooner … "
"You must not blame yourself, Mr. Devitt."
"But I do, Dr. Wakefield," Devitt said softly. He turned his face to the curtains. "I do."
John gave the man a moment, seeing that he was deeply anguished. John was a professional man, one who had always prided himself on his ability to put a patient's care above his own interests and feelings. Yet as he watched the subtle nuances of Devitt's pain ripple across his face as waves do over water, he felt a stirring in his heart. He wanted to help this man, wanted it with a desire that almost breached his professionalism.
"Do you believe that you could withstand the journey back to London?" John asked. "You seem competent enough to at least return to your home, in my opinion."
"Oh, yes, I would like to return home," Devitt said earnestly. His stomach growled, and he blushed slightly, returning his gaze to his hands. "Well, I would, only … I am starving, really. I haven't been able to eat a bite since … since … "
"Do not worry, we will get you a meal," John said, too quickly. What was he thinking? He had never been so doting with a patient before. Well, the offer was made, and Devitt was eyeing him hopefully. John cleared his throat. "Let me send for a nurse, so that you might dress. We shall find you a meal in town, and then we shall ride back to London together."
Devitt nodded, still introspective. John stood and turned to leave.
John turned around to find Devitt's eyes tentatively raising to his own. There was a shyness beneath the sorrow, John noted, a look of the boy the man had never completely outgrown. John found himself wondering about Devitt's parents, as he had seen this kind of attitude predominantly in men whom had never bonded well with their fathers or mothers.
"Thank you," Devitt said softly.
"You are welcome, Jeremiah," John said, allowing himself the informal usage of the man's given name. He paused awkwardly, unused to such familiarity and the emotions that had caused it. "Well, let's get you sorted, shall we?"
Not very long after, Jeremiah Devitt and John Wakefield sat in a very adequate restaurant together. John was famished after the ride out, having skipped breakfast, and Jeremiah really had not eaten since discovering his friend's body the previous day. For a time, they concentrated solely on the meal, with only common decorum keeping them from wolfing it down. Given that Jeremiah knew a wealthy man such as Anthony Beechworth, John had expected him to be well-bred, and he could tell by his table manners that this was indeed the case. Devitt recovered nothing of the natural confidence a man of his class should have, however, and John suspected that his nerves had never been particularly robust.
He is a thoughtful, introspective man, a bit sensitive, John observed. If what Officer Jennings told me was true, then what he witnessed would have been enough to shatter even the stoutest and most rational, or the simplest and most unimaginative man's nerves. What must it have done to an intelligently pensive man such as Devitt?
For his part, Jeremiah was only just beginning to recover his sense of self. The experiences in the Beechworth manor had unhinged him, and the final ghastly display had left him insensible. If Jeremiah was perfectly honest with himself, the mindless interlude at the hospital had been almost pleasant: a reprieve from thought, emotion, and all the suffering that accompanied those matters of the mind and heart. Now that he could no longer bask in the thoughtless void, at least his body had overtaken him, the pure, animal instinct to consume in order to survive. He knew that when his needs were satisfied, the shock worn off, the sedatives cleared from his body, the pain would come. It would come, he would be helpless to it, and in the back of his mind, dread was building like the storm that had accumulated outside.
"You are from London, Dr. Wakefield?"
As the eating slowed to allow digestion a grace period, the silence ended. John was relieved. The incessant drumming of the rain had been grating on his nerves, for some reason.
"Why would you ride all the way out here?" Devitt inquired. "For a stranger, I mean?"
"Inspector West rode to London to ask for my assistance," John replied. "I am afraid that I was not entirely honest with you at the hospital. Before you can return to London, you must make a statement detailing all that you saw at Beechworth Manor."
"I-I see." Devitt stared at his plate, pushing food around with his fork. He inhaled through his nose and nodded. "Yes, yes, I can do that. I am … much restored now, doctor."
"I am glad to hear it."
"That is not all, is it?"
"Well, no." John hesitated. "Mr. Devitt, might I be frank with you?"
"Recovering from a shock such as you have endured is not a simple process," John said. "While you do seem quite capable of returning home, I would highly recommend that you take care with your recovery. I am a psychiatrist, and I would like to offer my services to you during this difficult time."
"Do you think me mad, doctor?"
"No, no, of course not," John assured him. "No. Were you mad, I would have had you taken from the hospital to an asylum, frankly. However, there is much to be gained from exploring the mind. Even for those who believe themselves to be untroubled, comprehension of the psychological needs that guide the heart can be of much benefit. Given your recent trauma, I believe that such a practice is, in your case, imperative, if I may be so bold."
Devitt mulled this over. Their dishes were cleared away. Outside, the rain pounded the restaurant's many windows. They had sat a good distance from the windows, as Devitt had winced passing them, but the rain was now too heavy to be ignored.
"You want me to be your patient?" Devitt asked. He shifted in his seat, frowning. "I've never thought much of psychiatric care. What would that entail?"
"Nothing much more than talking, Mr. Devitt," John said. "My job is to help you understand yourself, your pain and its causes, your history and the way it has shaped your present. I would never submit you to anything that you would be uncomfortable with."
"I … I appreciate your offer to help, I really do," Devitt said. "I … I must think about this. You do understand?"
"Of course," John said. "Yes, you must do whatever you feel is best for yourself. I understand. You would not mind my company for the day, though? While you make your statement to the police, and perhaps ride back to London?"
"No," Devitt said. "No, Dr. Wakefield, I would welcome your company today. You are very kind."
"Think nothing of it, Mr. Devitt."