respiratory system — resuscitator

By John Shea

A Tale from Webster’s

The boldfaced words are consecutive entries in Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition. One in a series of such tales.

— J.S.

respiratory system — resuscitator
“I should have taken better care of myself.” After drink and drugs and various forms of excess — some better left in memory’s shadows — his hands occasionally shook and his
respiratory system
was . . . well, let’s just say it was not always reliable. As long as Maxwell could
most of the time, he’d be all right. But tonight, with a gibbous moon and a breeze that carried the noxious perfume of a charnel house, he tossed the spade aside and took a brief
. He had counted on the moon’s being more
than it was this night, because he could not risk bringing a lantern. He could not let anyone find him here, in this graveyard. How could he
if the thick-headed village constable was called by some busybody? “And just what do you think you’re doing, Mr. American?” Next thing you know, he’d be hauled up as a
at some ridiculous inquest. And the moment would be lost — possibly forever. He had begun the mystic call. Now he had to see if there would be a
. A nice euphemism there! Maxwell wiped the sweat from his brow, peered behind him toward the cemetery’s gate. Too dark to see its rusty bars. He laughed. What sort of horrible
would come from the being he’d summoned? Not a nice one, not nice at all, and it would be up to him to keep things manageable. And despite his shaky hands, he felt he could bear the
. And if not, it wouldn’t matter! Because it would all be over: his life, the whole race of puny humans, this planet as we knew it. And in some ways, Piggott — rotting in his grave — would be just as
, for it was his cryptic writing that had led Maxwell to this point. If Maxwell hadn’t discovered the manuscript of Piggott’s vile Oxford
, when the budding scholar, possibly already out of his mind, had scrawled instructions for the Summoning and shocked the dry dons who had expected the same old rehashing! Oh, they were
, that was plain: they’d had young Piggott hauled away to the nearest prison for the dangerously insane. But being clerics, no doubt they’d also intoned some sort of
for the good of his eternal soul. And 400 years later, it was Maxwell’s awesome opportunity to follow through on Piggott’s vile hints. How ironic that the welfare of the
res publica
was now in Maxwell’s hands! He coughed, looking around again. The breeze whispered darkly. In his pocket was his copy of Piggott’s words. When the time was right . . . but he did need to
. He was not a young man. Still, he was not in the least like those desiccated Oxford dons who had looked down at him when he arrived from the States, with his antiquarian queries. And the
of them, the doubters, those who had scorned him! They would learn. Especially Silas Trump. “Let me see if I can
your claims, Maxwell.” They were in a small
in Arkham — hell, it was a greasy spoon, that’s what it was — huddled in one of the booths farthest from the windows. “You’re telling me that loony Piggott was . . .” He fell silent as the
, a slovenly type who was never seen without his apron, passed too close to the table. “So Piggott managed to translate some phrases in the Necronomicon from Arabic into English? You need a
rest cure
, my friend. How would Piggott know Arabic? And why wouldn’t his tutors or whatever they’re called at Oxford have confiscated his ravings?” Maxwell tried his best to maintain his
demeanor, but it was difficult. The man obviously had a skull full of
and dandelions, not brains! As Trump prattled on, Maxwell tried to imagine how the pompous ass would shriek held fast in the many oozing
limbs of Yog-Sothoth. If that indeed was his incarnation. Well, if Trump was not interested in helping to rouse the
god, then he’d not share in the glory. He’d cheated Maxwell once or twice in the past, gotten hold of invaluable charms and blocked his path to knowledge. Trump would make
, no doubt about that . . . before feeding the hungry lord. But even as Trump recited all the reasons the trip to England was foolish, he seemed
, fidgety, as if something troubled him. He nearly knocked over his beer as he sweepingly dismissed the whole plan. “Fine, bow out, Trump. I don’t need you. And you’re acting tense and
, anyway. Wouldn’t be much help.” “What are you talking about! I’m not tense!” “Hell, man, you’re acting like a
restless cavy
who’s just blundered into a den of jaguars!” Trump shook his head. “It’s just a few . . . business concerns. I’m extended a bit too much.” “Do what I do to take my mind off things. Ponder
rest mass
or the concept of an entire novel without the letter ‘e’ or Abelian groups or…” “Very helpful,” snapped Trump, rising. “Have fun on your vacation.” Not quite, Maxwell thought. More a
, in which his proper place in the universe would be made clear to everyone. But enough dawdling. He’d had his
daydreaming. Back to the reality of hard earth, sickly breeze, chilly night. But as he picked up the spade again, he wished some unbeliever like Trump could witness his work to
the true state of existence. Translating Abdul Alhazred’s feverish poetry, Piggott had scrawled in the margins of his Oxford examination what looked like
— meaning what? Restaurant? Unlikely. It was even unclear whether it was Latin — in which he’d written his answers — or the English he’d lapsed into for his ravings. Perhaps
or restriction? Maxwell could certainly imagine needing some kind of powerful supernatural amulet or
once the god had answered his summons. It’s not as if you could wave a
restraining order
in his — its? — face! If there was a face, that is, and not just a gelatinous hulk with a maw of a thousand razor-sharp teeth. Maxwell resumed digging without
, feeling new urgency. And it was only minutes later that he felt the spade hit something harder than earth. He dropped to his knees and began to scrape away the dirt. Wood. There’d be no
restraint of trade
, nothing to stand in his way now! With the handle of the spade, he smashed through the ancient coffin. Then he thrust his hand into the darkness. Nothing to
his movements until he felt a small, cold, hard thing. A finger — Piggott’s! Or should he say finger bones? Controlling his repulsion, he felt around. Something harder. His breath came as if
. With an exclamation that was part curse, part prayer, he pulled it off Piggott’s dead finger. And slipped it onto his own, half convinced that it would vanish nevertheless. “There’s a
against grave-robbers, Maxwell.” As the cold snaked down his spine, Maxwell looked up from the hole he was standing in. “There’s a very persuasive reason for such
— respect for private property, respect for the unearthly forces that somehow seem to collect around places like this.” “You talk too much, Trump,” he responded. “Ah. No, I’m afraid we must be
at this point,” said Trump as Maxwell tried to scramble out of the grave. “My colleagues here” — Trump gestured, his face partly visible in the moonlight — “will make sure of that. A kind of
restrictive covenant
.” “As I said, you talk too damn much,” snapped Maxwell. “But don’t think you’re getting Piggott’s invocation. That is, unless you come down here to join me.” “Smells a bit like an untended
rest room
, so I’ll decline. Hand it up, or Trevor and Nigel will be forced to take it from you.” Maxwell said nothing. “Think, my friend. I wouldn’t want them to
your face for you.” As if they would let him walk away even if he gave them what they wanted. Finally, with an exaggerated sigh, he reached into his pocket. The immediate
was the loud — uncannily loud — cocking of pistols. “I don’t have a gun, you moron. What use would a gun be with . . . The Guardian of the Gate?” “True,” said Trump. “The
melee would not be pretty. The paper.” Maxwell dug out the paper he had brought with him and held it up. “Thank you,” said Trump, snatching it. “You can
your digging. It’s Piggott’s grave, I gather. What I don’t understand is why, with a sterling
in the dark arts like his, he achieved nothing. If he could indeed summon Yog-Sothoth from his extra-dimensional home, why did he end so badly, with so little to show?” Maxwell halted his
of the digging, trying to make out the brutish faces of the two local thugs Trump had hired. “A failure of nerve, perhaps.” “You seem nervous, too. To take your mind off things, consider the
orchid or recall Abelard’s Sic et Non, or think of those quiet days of your youth — you were young once, weren’t you? — when you lazed along the Miskatonic River,
, letting the sunlight tickle your eyelids.” “Very poetic, Trump. But none of it will help my nerves if the god does
, if you’re foolish enough to utter the incantation.” Trump laughed. “Shall we try? ‘Arise, awaken, appear, O Mighty One, both Gate and Guardian of the Gate! Arise and
from Your troubled sleep! This I bid You, O Yog-Sothoth!’ And let me add, Maxwell, if these words from Piggott fail to work, you will . . .” Suddenly, the heaped soil from the grave seemed to be
, animated, mindful. It swirled off the ground, glowing with a frightening colorless light. Then its shape changed — and swelled. “With these words,” shouted Trump deliriously, “I Thee
!” The sky crackled. Overhead, the shape grew and grew. Maxwell glimpsed a vast globular thing before squeezing his eyes shut. He stroked the skeleton’s ring, reciting its charm as the
continued. He heard Trump gasp, he heard the two thugs howl in fear . . . and then agony. “My God, Maxwell, it’s —” But the words were snuffed. So Trump had learned the hard way that
was not a fool’s game. To be safe, Maxwell recited the charm again. Then, all at once, there was silence. When he opened his eyes, he saw only the moon smudged by clouds. The would-be
and his local thugs lay dead. No sign of Yog-Sothoth, except for the gouged land, the shriveled grass, the scent of burning. The only thing that would ever grow here again was a
resurrection plant
, thought Maxwell. But Yog-Sothoth was the god of resurrection, and Maxwell had memorized Piggott’s incantations. “Lord Yog- Sothoth, I beg You,
these creatures, in Your honor.” A moment later, Trump’s eyes blinked. He breathed hoarsely. Sounds worse than me, thought Maxwell with a laugh, thanking the dread
. Restr.? The two thugs stood by, expressionless. Trump gazed blankly at him, waiting. “Well,” said Maxwell, “you wouldn’t work with me alive — but you’ll damn well work for me dead.”
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About John Shea

John Shea was born in Rome, graduated from Columbia College, and studied at the University of Pennsylvania, where he now works as an editor and writer.  He may be the only person to have published stories in both Partisan Review and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  His story "The Real World" received an honorable mention from Writer's Digest; was published in Columbia; and was later performed as part of Writing Aloud, a program of InterAct Theatre Company of Philadelphia.  The Café Irreal ran his "How to Make Something Out of Nothing," one of a series of "Instructions" on "Matters, Large, Small, and Scarcely Conceivable."  In 2005, he won second prize in the Philadelphia City Paper fiction competition, and his story "The Bus Ride" appeared in Shadow Regions, a horror anthology, in 2006.


  1. Posted January 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely, unequivocally brilliant. I loved it immensely!


  2. Kathryn
    Posted February 2010 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    Excellent! Chilling! Has anyone ever thought of using the dictionary this way beform as literary form?

Post a Reply to Kathryn Cancel reply

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