The Woman who gave birth to Rabbits
Dr. Steiner stood in the center of the operating theater, on the white-tiled floor directly below the gallery where the young medical students sat. The student body was sober, quiet, and dressed in black, giving the impression of being gathered for some conclave that was half-funeral, half-Torah study.
Next to old shatter-pated Steiner with his unruly shock of hair was a much younger man. He wore a worsted wool suit that was bespoke but still bulged from his muscles, which he accrued by participation in fencing, rowing leagues, and by some years hiking with the Wandervogel. He was no nudist, but would have stood worthy inspection next to the most bronzed of sun worshippers.
In his right hand the young doctor held a black M.D.’s bag made of vulcanized rubber. To his left was a large box resting on a pedestal and sheathed in a black velvet cloth. Dr. Steiner grinned at the young man and noticed he had a crosshatch of scars on his face, one of which was the vestiges of a powder burn left from a duel, another of which was caused by the explosion of a bell jar when a chemistry experiment had gone awry.
“Doctor Linz is here from the Viennese Anti-Quack Society to give a brief presentation, which you may find illuminating.” Dr. Steiner gazed around the theater as his voice echoed through its tiers of wooden benches. He then looked at Dr. Herbert Linz, getting him to understand by a slight gesture that he should continue and that the floor was his.
“Gentlemen,” Doctor Linz said, for there were no ladies present, “Here is my story.”
We are all of us from a very young age told the story of the Virgin Conception, and, while its particulars are of no concern to the theologian or the layman plowing his field, as an obstetrician I find the faith of my Silesian youth to be in conflict with what I have learned of female anatomy and childbirth.
I say this not to antagonize the faithful, but to merely point out that they are more susceptible to the kinds of hoary chicane I was unfortunate enough to encounter in a small village in Bavaria whose name I shan’t tarnish by mentioning it here.
Suffice it to say that I was fresh from my recent success in exposing a charlatan who claimed that, by application of x-rays from his ‘revivifying box,’ he could restore a man’s waning sexual potency. Many a deutschmark had been squandered by these men suffering from the unfortunate malady of impotence. Imagine their shock then, when, during one of this gentleman’s spiels extolling his nostrum’s efficacy, I pointed out that his revivifying box was nothing more than modified barrel organ, like the ones you see at carnivals, fairs, and in the seedier byways of our Berlin.
The hustler in question fled in shame, so startled that he left behind his contraption, which had a stowaway compartment where the accumulated Danegeld of the swindled and impotent men was stored in large banded stacks. The money’s power may have been diminished by our recent bout of inflation, but I still take some surcease in thinking that I had deprived the bad man of his box and his ill-gotten provender.
That is all mere digression and prelude, though. The main case, and the one I wish to speak of here, involved a tale told to me of a woman who lived in a small town and gave birth to a litter of dove-colored lilac rabbits every Easter. An assortment of country rubes paid this woman’s husband in trade to witness these births, as money was scarce in the country. By the end of each conception the woman would yield a lot of rabbits, numbering eight to ten, each seemingly glazed with placental fluids as they emerged from her womb. And the country folk would leave lighter some chickens, sacks of grain, or whatever meager items could afford them a standing-room-only ticket in the barn where this act took place.
I heard of this rabbit-birthing woman in early February, while hiking near the Alps’ lower ranges and occasionally attempting to make charcoal sketches of nature’s snowy splendor. By mid-March I had found lodgings in the town near the barn in question, in a fachwerk inn situated at the end of a cobblestoned cul-de-sac. I lived modestly on a stipend from the Anti-Quackery Society, and dined on farmer’s fare in the inn’s main room. Nightly I sated myself in the shadow of a stuffed black bear, placed just below a coat-of-arms mounted on the limestone wall.
I let the publican know that I was an itinerant researcher for a large farming concern, there to take notes on the calving habits of the sheep in his region. After sufficiently boring the bartender, I rested my case, convinced that he would not give word that an intruder was in town, possibly to debunk the mysteries of the strange Easter conception. Tales of the rabbit-bearing woman no doubt helped him sell his store of wheat beer at a faster clip than if the town lacked such an attraction.
I kept a small notebook bound in stained red Moroccan hide, the same one I had used to make my previous sketches. I managed to take some notes on the rumors surrounding the rabbit births, soaking up stories in the tavern while eavesdropping on a nightly basis. I also wrote some general notes on the case, which I am partially relying on to give this speech to your medical lyceum, notes which will one day soon form the basis of a chapter to be published in the Anti-Quackery Society’s Yearly Journal.
But I digress.
Easter finally came, its arrival announced by the pealing of the town’s ancient ironclad bells slamming against one-another in the brick-encased belfry of the local Lutheran church. I had done such a good job of keeping a low profile in town up to this point, and I had no desire to suddenly draw attention to myself. I therefore set aside all of my suits of serge and poplin, and instead chose to go to the birthing barn in shirtsleeves and a wrinkled pair of slacks bloused into my hiking boots. A straw boater hat of the kind common in America completed the rugged impression I wished to give, and after grabbing a few other articles I was on my way.
The procession carried through town like a Whitsun march, and the sun rising over the flowering edelweiss in the hills gave the festivities a pagan, Sol Invictus quality that belied the Christian nature of our short pilgrimage out of town. Cows and other farm animals garlanded with crowns made of interlocking clover walked in slow-motion, in a pathetic play on the bull run of Pamplona, while young maidens caroled and sang songs I hadn’t heard since the bygone days of my Silesian youth. Tallow and spermaceti dripped from their hands in rivulets as the candles the virgins held began to melt and the menfolk followed behind.
“Come,” a barker in a black top called from the open door of the red barn seated on the other side of a firebreak adumbrating a green field. “Welcome one and all.” The man was obviously in on the grift, and he had a snake oil salesman’s ear-to-ear grin ready for the people as they passed by his cart. There they left dry goods and bantam birds whose Irish was up perhaps owing to their proximity to the little rabbit hutch that was the woman’s womb. I studied all the offerings that went into a wheeled wooden bed that, while dismounted from its car, I pegged as belonging to a newer model harvesting truck. Motorized coaches were rarer than hen’s teeth in this part of rural Bavaria, and I hazarded that this “virgin birth business” had been quite good to those involved in fleecing this particular flock of sheep lacking a shepherd.
I set a number of clanking Groschen in the man’s greased palm and his already-watery eyes grew so wet that I thought he might start shedding tears if he blinked too rapidly. For a moment, I feared that being the only one to pay cash on the barrelhead had marked me as an outsider, worthy of suspicion. A few seconds later though, when that Cheshire grin was still pulling the proud flesh of the man’s face to its limits, I knew he was too greedy to suspect anything.
His part in the ceremony was over at any rate, other than to hold the door open for me and my fellow-marks as we entered into the barn. The roof of the wooden structure was pitched, and because there were cracks in the wood that hadn’t been correctly tarred over, shafts of sunlight were allowed entry unto the tableaux, giving the golden straw that covered the room a holy light. In the center of the room, next to an ancient and rusted threshing device, sat a man and wife.
The woman was as serene and motionless as a sculpted cameo Madonna. Her husband was slightly more animated, and sweated profusely.
He looked up at us as his wife averted her gaze modestly and pulled up her dress whose gingham pattern was so similar to my own mother’s tablecloth that I experienced a moment of Proustian recall, thinking of hazelnut tortes and rye bread. As she hiked the dress higher, my recall grew more protean, nigh-on Dionysian as I gazed on her womb, from which long and silky black hairs coruscated outward like the legs of spiders. The labia were slicked and wet, fatted as if through the artificial action of a bicycle pump.
“Avert your eyes,” the husband said, “for those of you who are squeamish.” The man had a ruddy sunburned face, but his features were fine and thin, bespeaking gentry or at least petit-bourgeois origins.
Most of the men closed their eyes, winced, or gagged, while the women and girls in attendance remained rapt, albeit breathless. This may have surprised the layman, but was exactly what I as an obstetrician would have expected. Woman was born to endure such suffering and thus could not afford the luxury of turning away from what she had either already endured or was an inevitable trial on the horizon, unless she became a spinster or sought out the cloister.
“Ugh,” the wife groaned. “I can feel the rabbits coming.” I and a few others in attendance shivered as if suffering the tremens of morphium withdrawal.
The already-inflated labia pressed outward, and a cornflower-blue mass of fur, fine as angora, pushed free from the wet and ballooning contours of the poor woman’s vagina.
“My god!” A voice said.
Two tiny limbs, rabbit feet absconded miraculously from a human womb, kicked free into the mote-filled air of the sunlit barn.
“It’s a breech,” I said, forgetting for a moment that I was here to find out a scam, so convinced was I by this scene that I thought only of my Hippocratic oath. I, unlike the other men in attendance, was far from squeamish. To cite only one example of my previous work in a woman’s womb, I was once called to a private residence (I will provide no further details for legal reasons) to suture a length of a female’s intestines that had been pierced with a knife and pulled free with tongs during a failed abortion scraping in which the attending physician mistook a coil of intestine for the walls of the uterus. If I could work catgut thread through human offal while breathing in the stench of feces and having my hands soaked in the same, I had few compunctions about performing a Caesarian on a woman to save the rabbits I believed to be trapped in her womb. As for the tiny hare attempting to kick his way free from that contorted mandorla of a vagina, he would either escape or make fine stew and produce four lucky gypsy amulets from his furry feet.
“No!” The husband shouted, and stood as I came forward. As he did so, his wife stood in unison with him, becoming erect and yet flopping like a scarecrow, turbinating like a marionette. And that of course brought my scrutiny to the heretofore-transparent wires attached to the man’s hands at one end and grafted to his wife’s back at the other end of the line like a black widow’s web clinging to its prey. As he ran past me and through the crowd and out the door, the lines severed that had previously attached him and his wife. She flopped to the straw bed like a mere automaton, no longer a virgin in her manger here to perform a miracle for this multiplied fold of wise men, or rather wise women and their squeamish husbands.
“Stop!” I shouted, and now brandished my scalpel in an entirely different manner than previously.
The husband continued to run and managed to hop into the wheeled bed where the chickens and grain and my Groschen were stacked. The force of his weight landing on the wooden planks set the apparatus in motion and it began to roll down the hill. His partner shouted to his retreating form as chickens flew from the bounding cart that rollicked until it was out of sight.
“You swinish cur!” The barker shouted, and then turned to the angry throng. He flashed us a wan and queasy smile, realizing the game was up. He sensed these simple Bavarian hill folk, both religious and taken for a gang of fools, were ready to get pitchforks and torches and administer provincial justice out of the sight of the official law.
He may not have been wrong, judging from the grumbles I heard coming from behind me. I quickly put a halt to the escalating tensions, however, by placing my scalpel quickly against the man’s pulsing carotid and speaking. “See here, I am an obstetrician from the Viennese Chapter of the Anti-Quackery Society, and you and your partner have been found out. I don’t ask that you remunerate us as your friend has lit out for more favorable climes already with the meager goods these people sacrificed to see this spectacle. Tell me now your name and the manner of the trick, and you may at least escape with your artery intact. I cannot promise that you will escape imprisonment.”
The man then sighed, so heavily that the motion almost caused me to poke him with the sharp edge of my scalpel without intending to. My blade left only a small nick though in the granulated flesh of his neck. He told me his name and explained that the man who had fled was a mortician, schooled in the embalming arts. The wife in question was his actual betrothed, though she had died many years ago from tuberculosis. Saddled with debts due to his love of the cocaine hydrochloride he ordered by the case from Merck of Darmstadt, the man decided-no doubt under a cocainized cloud- to not only rouge his dead wife’s pale and tubercular cheeks but to empty her arteries, byways, and the various channels of her body and fill them with assorted waxes, putties, and clogging resins. He performed this labor in the backroom of his funeral parlor and then carried his wife home.
Because he missed his wife’s company so, his morbidity soon grew to a desire to converse with his departed, and he thereby developed a great store of ventriloquist’s techniques to give himself the impression that he was still enjoying matrimonial bliss. He set his wife in a wicker rocking chair in his study, and sat across from her in front of a fireplace with a regal marble mantle. There he sipped Vin Mariani and other patent medicines containing extracts from the coco leaf (since he no longer had the funds for the crystalline form of cocaine, and his veins were already a collapsing and bruised patchwork addict’s impression of holy stigmata). His friend related that the husband had so exhausted his nasal cavities that when he wanted to imbibe cocaine through the nose, he first had to heat a knife and then burn a cauterized path through the septum to open a path through accumulated scar tissue and scabbed capillaries. Only then would his nose produce enough blood to flush his sore and reddened nose open. Then he would sniff more of the addictive white powder through his blood-besotted nostrils.
Things were bad for the man, and the previously-alluded to morbidity that led him to converse with his wife grew into a desire to copulate with her, though his first efforts were pyrrhic churnings on his part, while his dead and embalmed wife remained ragdoll limp on the connubial bed. In order to give his efforts the feel of something greater than mere masturbatory calisthenics, the man hit upon the ingenious idea to affix a series of wires and thin pulley mechanisms to his wife’s appendages to give her a lifelike quality when the necrophile’s whim struck him. Between his ventriloquism (moaning in ecstasy when he thought his wife might be reaching climax) and the keen manipulation of the marionette strings, he learned to create what was for him a satisfactory simulacrum of genuine coitus. And because he was such an expert embalmer, his wife did not rot or produce stink, and thus no neighbors were alerted to the mortician’s doings, beyond noting that he had allowed his general embalming practice to lapse entirely and had given up on hygiene, grooming, and the cleaning of his quarters.
His house became such a sty indeed that a small pregnant rabbit took up residence in the walls of his home without him noticing. It was only a matter of time until the rabbit gave birth in her secret mouse hole eyrie and the little animals started wandering out of the walls. The doctor, in a dreaded, satanic inversion of the scientist’s Eureka! moment, crafted his device from his wife’s womb (now lovingly shellacked and polished to a high shine with coats of his accreted semen applied over numerous nightly sessions).
I should note at this point that I had the displeasure of unearthing this compartment in the wife’s belly, after having obtained this confession from the barker outside that barndoor at the point of a scalpel. I temporarily remanded him to the custody of the mob (who assured me they would not gibbet him or engage in any other form of vigilante justice), and then I returned to the barn and to the now-immobile lilac rabbit trapped in the wax-encrusted vagina of the dead woman. He had unfortunately suffocated in his breeched backwards attempt at birth, and I moved in haste to rescue his brothers and sisters, who I surmised were hidden in the chamber of the woman’s inflated belly.
A quick slash through the gingham material of the dress followed by an incision to tear through the skin surrounding the stomach confirmed my suspicion. Inside of the woman’s polymer-coated ribs that yielded to my knife as easily as glazed brisket was a nest of writhing, furry rabbits, gnawing at her skin like laboratory rats feeding on water bottles or babies suckling at their mother’s breast. A bellows-like device had caused the artificial inflation of the woman’s stomach and diaphragm cavity, and a gaze inside revealed that the majority of her sexual equipage had been removed in the manner of a hysterectomy.”
The young doctor then pulled the black velvet from the glass case in which the woman’s sliced remains rested, finally free of both rabbit infestation and the torturous games to which her husband subjected her.
Dr. Linz stood next to the glass case, silent for a moment, bracing himself on the strange enclosure in which the wife rested, still as a chloroformed frog.
As for Doctor Steiner, he was speechless, mouth agape. The students were rapt, this symposium one of the few to command their total attention, though amid the looks of shock there were also a couple who appeared on the verge of vomiting or bursting out laughing, thinking some kind of prank was afoot.
Dr. Steiner fortified his own nerves by projecting his voice to the young men in black who stood behind the wooden benches going from pit orchestra level up toward the groin-arched contours of the ribbed copper dome resting atop the hospital. “You see, gentlemen, that as men of medicine, you must never avert your eyes.” Despite saying this, though, Dr. Steiner could not bring himself to look into the glass box where the mummified remains of the woman lay.
Dr. Linz had no problem gazing inside however, and continued to stand next to the woman in the box as if she were a trophy he’d bagged with a shotgun while hunting in the Black Forest.
Dr. Steiner grunted, tried to regain his footing, stuttered, emitted a phlegmatic sound and finally said, “Questions for the good doctor?”
There was silence, until one man in the back of the theater, quite ambitious and without reservations, raised his hand, holding his pointer finger aloft. Dr. Linz squinted into the darkness and pointed at the lad. “You, young man. Yes?”
“When you detained this man’s partner …” The boy faltered.
“Yes?” Dr. Linz tapped the glass face of the box that held the remains and the more senior doctor flinched each time the action was accomplished, knuckles scraping on glass.
“Did he ever intuit that there had been any other close calls, brushes with the law, or charges of charlatanism previous to your investigation of the quackery?”
Dr. Steiner seemed to relax, going slack with relief that the question had been tasteful, or at least as tasteful as this session would allow. He was starting to regret inviting the good Dr. Lenz to speak, despite his credentials and burnished bona fides sent in advance by the institution.
“Yes,” Doctor Lenz said, and stood before the glass case now, obscuring the view of the contraption. “The man in question, a one Herman Rathner, confessed that he and the husband and wife team had been travelling near Hohenschwangau, within sight of the spires and turrets of the Mad Swan King’s castle, when they came across a gypsy caravan. The matriarch of this gypsy caravan reeked of opium smoke, and thus Rathner said his friend detained the woman for no short time in an effort to barter or purchase some of the pellets, or perhaps a bit of tincture, if she would be willing to part with it.
“The husband’s affinity for cocaine has already been well-established in my speech here,” the doctor said, moving away from the corpse so that the students could see it in its glass case again. “But he also used whatever narcotics could be found close at-hand to assuage his withdrawal pains when he had depleted his store of hydrochloride crystals ordered from the Merck firm.”
Dr. Steiner visibly winced as if shocked with the lashes of a cat-o-nine. He wanted to tell Dr. Linz that Merck was sponsoring key research at the medical institute, and he was doing no good by repeatedly stating the firm’s name. Dr. Linz was too preoccupied with his speech to notice his aged colleague’s discomfort.
“Through some dealings which Mr. Rathner never elucidated, however, the gypsy matriarch spotted the gutted wife in the berth of the travelling coach, the same coach which the husband later used to escape my clutches, although at this time the bed was hitched to a motorized vehicle.” The young doctor looked down at the wife in the glass case. “The gypsy crone spoke oaths and curses in some dialect, probably Sinti, mixed in with some Yiddish and other bastardized, pidgin tongues, further mangled by the fact that she was enraged at the sight of the eviscerated wife, and also suffering under the influence of opium herself.”
A young student spoke from the gallery, so curious that he forewent order and asked his question without raising his hand or standing. “Any guesses as to what the woman said?” the young man asked.
Old Doctor Steiner was so yearning for the answer that he didn’t even manage to shoot the boy a withering stare for his impertinence. Dr. Linz laughed.
“Well, you will just have to purchase the latest edition of the Anti-Quackery Society’s Journal to read my speculations.”
A murmur of laughter rippled through the black-clad ranks of young medical students. Dr. Linz continued, grinning. “We must all earn our daily bread, doctors as much as grifters.”
Waiting wasn’t necessary, however, for the gypsy’s words, so long-dormant inside the scraped and excavated contours of the dead wife’s body, now animated the girl’s limbs like a jolt of electricity, or Hebrew characters on papyrus slipped into the mouth of a golem. Dead of tuberculosis these many years, plaything to rabbits and men, she punched her fist through the glass plate through which the students stared down on her in voyeuristic wonder. She sat up, her vivisected innards shining luminous and redly for all to see under the operating theater’s harsh white lights. Her pendulous breasts dangled above her empty stomach, the nipples harder than India rubber from age, their supple, gutta percha contours now reduced to something dry as pemmican and covered in purple blotches large as leopard spots that were the result of ill-disguised livor mortis.
The students looked to the doctor, but he had no answer for this, and even if he tried speaking his words would have been stifled as the woman latched onto his windpipe, pressing until a hollow crack caused the bones in his neck to yield as easily as a quill made from a single flight feather. Her action was not motivated by personal animus. It was merely the good doctor’s misfortune to be the first man the dead wife saw upon waking.