They went to visit him at night. They had to. They could not walk about by day, for the light of the sun was abhorrent to them.
Those words were taken from the writings of a nurse who resided in the town at the foot of the hills, a charming and lively town in modern times. But steeped in accounts of strange—some say otherworldly—events from only a few generations past.
One particular account was of a mysterious plague that afflicted the town. A plague that might not have been a plague at all, but the nefarious deed of a single sinister soul.
There is a rare inherited condition with seemingly bizarre manifestations. Teeth glowing in the dark and pulling back from the gums. A great sensitivity to sunlight, where the skin burns far more quickly than the skin of the average person. An aversion to sulfur—and foods that are rich in sulfur, say garlic perhaps. A draining of iron from the constitution, leading to the need for some source rich in iron to consume, say…blood.
It is said that one early sufferer of a particularly rare variant of this condition was a rich lord of the town, who became a hermit in his home, his vast and cavernous home, inhabited only by himself and…bats, all the bats that came to reside there after his servants fled. The lord fed upon the residents of the town, in an effort to strengthen himself, and by doing so, he spread his condition. But the authorities closed off the town, banning the outer world from coming in, and keeping him from leaving. They protected themselves from him. Unable to feed, he became so gaunt and weak that when he was found, it was said that his bald head with its stretched and thin skin resembled the face of a bat. And from that spread the legend that he had the power to transform into a bat, and was in the middle of such a transformation when he collapsed. He was thought to be dead, but there was some life left in him. When men tried to gather up what they thought was his corpse, he suddenly roused, and the men recoiled. And so spread the legend that such a creature as the old lord was neither living nor dead, but in a most unnatural state of undeath.
Such legends arise from bits of truth, swirled with rumor, and patched with conjecture.
But as more bits of truth are discovered, as they replace the patches of conjecture, and displace the coils of rumor, a new story emerges.
A new legend.
It started nearly a year prior, when the doctors began noticing that more and more people in town were beginning to suffer from an otherwise rare condition, one that caused them to shun sunlight, be averse to garlic, and stop taking most food and drink, save for organ meats. The town was just risen out of poverty and ignorance over the recent generation. And it had risen high, high enough to consider the consumption of organ meats to be crass behavior. High enough to worry that the particular constellation of symptoms observed might evoke images of superstition rather than the refinement that the town so desired to evoke.
The condition was more prevalent in the region a few generations back, so its nature and symptoms were known. But the cures listed in the texts were not sensible. The doctors were certain of only one thing. It was a disease of the blood.
One of its sufferers was one of the wealthiest men in the town. Neither recluse nor rebel, the man was known and respected, and spoken of favorably by those who met him, and more so by those who knew him. But he made no particular marks on society outside of the business he conducted, the business of trade.
Like the others who fell ill, he grew pale and frail, intolerant of the sun, lacking in appetite for anything other than that which seemed to be draining from his person as the days wore on…blood. He ate meals of fried spleen and roasted livers. And he was seen less and less often at social gatherings. He even handed the daily operations of his business to partners outside of the town.
More people grew ill. The condition could not be the same one that had once afflicted the region, for that condition had been inherited. This one appeared to be contagious. But how it was passed, and what the contagion was, the doctors could not yet determine.
The town’s doctors wrote letters to their distant colleagues, asking for advice. Some of those out-of-town and foreign doctors traveled to the town to study the condition for themselves. One of the foreign doctors had been found and invited to the town by the wealthy trader himself. The trader paid the doctor to stay the whole day and even the following morning in his home. The doctor later reported that the trader asked him many detailed questions about the blood condition, and what was known—or even guessed—about how it ran its course through the human body.
The trader bid the foreign doctor to come at least once or twice every week for the duration of his stay, which was not long, for he had his own patients to tend to back in his home, and he had learned and done all he could. All the while, there were large crates, heavy crates, arriving in town for delivery to the wealthy trader’s home. It was noted that the trader received more crates than the townsfolk were accustomed to seeing. It was noted that the trader was seen about town less and less often. And it was noted that when he was seen, he did not look well.
Eventually the trader retired from society altogether. Before leaving town, the foreign doctor who was his guest reported that the trader was bedridden and sickly. He reported that the man’s mind and spirit were still keen and spry, but his body, like that of others in the town who suffered from the blood condition, was failing.
So it came as a surprise, one month later, when the trader appeared in town one crisp fall day, emerging from a carriage, walking slowly, but under his own power, down the main street of the square, nodding to those whom he passed on his way to the hospital.
At first, the sight of him was heartening, if somewhat startling. He came more and more often to the town, and each time he visited, he looked heartier and heartier. The color had returned to his cheeks, which appeared to be just a touch fuller. On his first walk in town after the long absence, he appeared to be slightly bowed. But soon, he was standing and striding with a straight back.
It was rumored that he must have been treated by the foreign doctor, and the town’s own doctors were bombarded with questions and demands. Had they learned the treatment before the foreign doctor left? Why had they made no announcements? Were they treating the other patients?
It soon become known that the wealthy trader’s apparent recovery was not due to any treatment that the foreign doctor had discovered. Indeed, upon receiving and responding to letters from his colleagues in town, the foreign doctor was perplexed. He had only spoken to the trader. He had never even examined the fellow.
Word spread that there was no treatment after all, and yet, the trader came to town, saying nothing, revealing nothing of how he came to be recovering from an illness that had already claimed three lives. Rumors sprung up out of bitterness and suspicion. Perhaps the trader was getting better because he was feeding upon the well-being of others. Almost a dozen people fell ill in the days following his reappearance in town. Perhaps the treatment he had found had no basis in medicine at all, but in sorcery.
The doctors said that the condition had changed its nature, become more contagious. But some of the townsfolk still watched the trader with narrowed eyes and theories that hearkened back a few generations, to the times when their ancestors believed in hauntings and evil spirits.
Through friends, the trader heard of these rumors, and was troubled by them. He asked the town’s officials if he might speak in the town square one day, for he would reveal the secret of his recovery to all, if only they would truly listen.
Flyers were printed and posted in public buildings, on fences, and on light poles, and handed out on the streets.
On the appointed day, the wealthy trader, his cheeks full, his eyes clear, and his back straight, stood upon a makeshift stage in the town square, surrounded by townsfolk, doctors, officials, children sitting upon the shoulders of their fathers, and mothers whose eyes were filled not with hope but with steel.
“You may ask me why I have not told you until this moment how I have come to recover from the awful ailment that confounds our good and learned doctors,” he said, waving a hand toward the doctors gathered near the foot of the stage. “Why I have not shared the secret with them—with you—so that you and your dear ones too might recover. What cruelty could possess me to withhold a helping hand to a drowning man? It is not cruelty, but caution. For I am not a patient. I am…an experiment.”
He paused. The crowd was quiet, expectant. And quiet they remained as he told them what had been contained in all those crates that came to his home, and what he had discussed with the foreign doctor who had visited their town—the doctor who had much experience with ailments of the blood—and what he had built with the parts and the knowledge he gathered.
“A blood purification machine,” he said. He knew the townsfolk would be puzzled. They knew him only as a trader.
“I was an inventor once,” he said. “It is how I began to trade. I built a machine, not a unique one.” He smiled. “A kind of typewriter. I still hold the patent, and it was a profitable one. But that is of little import to my current story. Before I came to this town, I left inventing behind for the business of trading in the inventions of others. But when I came down with this blood condition, and when I heard of so many others who were succumbing and suffering, and of how our town was suffering, visited only by curious doctors, instead of the tourists and traders that we have become accustomed to entertaining, I felt as helpless as many of you feel. I am not a doctor, what could I do?” He turned in a circle so he could sweep his gaze across all who were gathered.
“I remembered a story I heard when I was in school. It was just a story, and I did not see its point until now. A pair of married mathematicians had a daughter who fell ill from a wasting sickness. The doctors could not help her. Days and weeks of prayers could not help her. The mathematicians were both brilliant, and at first, they lamented that at least one of them had not studied medicine. So they began, and it was a futile study, for the field was as vast as their own. So, one night, as they sat awake, unable to sleep through the sounds of their daughter’s moaning, they wondered if they might use their own discipline of math to find a solution. They wondered if they could present the problem of the illness in its purest form, so that they could then solve that problem. In short, they were able to do it. They discovered a series of equations that led to the invention of an elixir. And when their daughter drank the elixir, she was cured.”
Again, he paused, as if expecting a response from those gathered, heckling perhaps, boos, or hisses. Impatience perhaps at this story that seemed to be stalling the revelation they were all awaiting. But they were still quiet and watchful.
“It is just a story. It never happened,” the trader said. “But its meaning was to teach us that we must not constrain our thinking so much that we fail to see all the possibilities. Sadly, in reality, some problems do not have solutions—at least not ones that we can discern. It seemed so with this blood condition. Just like the mathematicians in the story, I never studied medicine. Nor did I study mathematics. What I did study, what I know, is machines.”
He went on to explain briefly how his machine worked and to explain that he was still unsure of its safety, still unsure if it was working properly.
“Seems to be working just fine on you, sir!” someone yelled out from the crowd. They were the first words that anyone other than the trader had uttered.
And with those words, some tension in the crowd seemed to loosen. More spoke, mostly with questions. People asked if they or their loved ones could try this machine. They asked the doctors what they thought of the machine, and before the doctors could answer—possibly with hope-extinguishing skepticism—they turned again to the trader. They asked him if he would build another. Some volunteered to help him.
The trader held up his hands to quiet them, but their questioning only stopped when he raised his voice and proclaimed.
“I have a plan!”
The doctors were indeed skeptical, but some of them had examined the machine and the trader, and they allowed that it might actually work. One of the more certain—and dramatic—tests for detecting the condition was exposing a patient’s urine to the sun for a few days. The urine of patients who had the condition turned a particular purple-maroon color. The trader’s urine had not turned color since he began treating himself with his machine.
The doctors had helped the trader determine who the sickest patients were, so that they might go first. The trader helped the doctors to determine how many patients the machine could process in one day. It had to be sterilized between each patient, lest other blood conditions be passed among them.
When the crowd learned that there was indeed a plan, and that if it worked, none more would die, they were satisfied. Their stores of patience were restored—for the time being. And they went home that night filled with hope for the first time in many, many months.
The townsfolk began their treatments with the blood purification machine. They went to the trader’s home. They had to. The machine was large, heavy, and complex. It could not be moved to the hospital without dismantling, reassembling, and recalibrating it, which would have taken several more weeks.
They went to visit him at night. They had to. They could not walk about by day, for the light of the sun was abhorrent to them.
It took several sessions for each of the first patients to begin noticing a change. Appetites returned. The sensitivity to the sun and to spices faded. Like the trader, the treated patients regained their strength, managing to leave their bedsides and walk about their streets.
Those who were less ill, and those who had recently contracted the illness were soon to follow with their treatments. They too benefited, for they never became bedridden.
There were those who feared to use the machine, for one reason or another, and they remained ill, hoping for a medicine. Some doctors began to insist to their reluctant patients that they must try the machine, for it would save them. Others remained skeptical and respected their patients’ wishes to refrain.
Some of the trader’s friends pressed him to file for a patent and build another machine in the meantime, situated in the hospital this time.
The trader—whom the townsfolk now thought of as the inventor—would not be able to keep up with treating people with the machine and pursuing its mass production. Those who were treated were not forever cured. Their blood had to be periodically purified.
The trader-inventor needed help. He wanted someone schooled in medicine to learn how to use the machine and treat patients, so he could see to the patents and production. It remained to be tested, but he was certain that the machine could treat any kind of blood ailment, because of the way it purified the blood.
He explained it to the nurse he hired. She was not a native of the town, but wished to settle there because she was fond of the region. The inventor hoped to have the town’s doctors use the machine he intended to build in the hospital. For his own machine, he sought to hire someone who was learned and experienced, particularly in ailments of the blood. The foreign doctor he’d met recommended the nurse. She had been working at her profession for over three decades of her life. Her children were grown, and her husband retired, so they were poised to move to the town.
Though he had explained the machine to the doctors, the inventor felt a different kind of excitement showing his nurse. Perhaps it was because she was his employee, his colleague, his ally. She too held the machine to the standards of skepticism and would only believe when she saw proof. But she was as enthused as she was skeptical. She wanted the machine to work.
On her first day, the inventor explained how the machine worked. He walked to the main body of the machine. Its metal housing reached from floor to ceiling, was as wide as five men standing shoulder to shoulder, and deep as one man with his arms outstretched.
“The blood is being passed through a series of strainers and centrifuges within the housing,” he said, “that work with sufficient force to separate the blood into its many components without damaging those components—for the most part. Then it reassembles the blood before passing it back into the body. As such, it could theoretically treat any blood disease.”
The nurse nodded, peering at the dials, nodes, switches, and lights.
“And it could even be used to deliver medicines into the blood in a more thorough manner than an injection,” the inventor continued. “Perhaps the blood could be infused.”
He then described how the machine was cleaned after every use—flushed, drained, dried, and exposed to bulbs that emitted ultraviolet light, copying the light of the sun, whose rays, even on cloudy days, were potent enough to bleach and burn, enough to purify the purifying machine.
The nurse became so adept with the machine—and was so much more cordial with the patients, given that she excelled at her profession—that her patients fondly began to call her “the machinist.” As she was given a name, she granted one. She suggested that the inventor name his machine Porphyrion. It was the name of a giant from Greek mythology, defeated by the gods, but mighty all the same. But it also sounded much like porphyria, the name of the inherited blood condition that the town’s doctors had initially suspected in the first few patients. The inventor liked the sound of the word.
With the nurse-machinist’s help, more patients were treated. There was even a contingent of patients from outside of the town, the region, even the country. They were happy with the machine’s treatment, but not with being anchored to the town. They awaited news that a machine could be built for and in their own home towns.
To that end, the inventor submitted his patents, and began working with the administrators of the town’s largest hospital so that they might begin construction on a second machine.
All was well for a while.
The first patient to relapse was a young boy who despite keeping up with this treatments began to lose his appetite for food and drink. He grew pale and listless. He spoke little. The curtains in the room where he slept were always drawn. Sunlight became so unbearable to him that the room outside his own had to be cast in darkness as well, so that light would not seep into his room when others entered. His skin became dry and thin, peeling like tree bark. He developed a fever that sometimes infused him with enough strength to scream and seize when others tried to restrain him. When his mother tried to soothe him during one such fit, he nearly bit off her finger.
She would soon fall ill as well.
The boy was placed under sedation, brought to the home of the inventor, and treated by the machinist.
All were troubled by his relapse. They remained troubled as he slept through the night, still pale, still feverish. The boy and his family stayed in the inventor’s home for that night, and the next. The boy’s blood was purified four times over the following week.
His condition did not change.
And the inventor, both unsettled and frustrated, took over the task of the purification.
The boy’s condition did not change no matter who performed the purification. The family took him home so that he might rest. And so that they might try to find some other treatment.
The inventor and the machinist were struck by the hollow looks in the eyes of the boy’s family as they left uttering equally hollow thanks.
“What went wrong?” the inventor asked. He examined the machine that afternoon, peering at each setting. “Could it be a metal toxicity? But I accounted for that. Did you tamper with it?”
The machinist stood behind him, arms crossed. She could never re-build the machine if he were to take it apart, but she had learned its intricacies quickly and knew them well. “Why would I do that?”
The inventor swiveled on his feet and faced her. “To discredit me perhaps. The doctors have never been pleased that I found a solution when they could not.”
The machinist—the nurse—frowned. “No worthy doctor would make false promises to his patient.”
“Then perhaps you made a mistake during the boy’s treatment.”
“You treated him as well, sir. And had no better luck.”
“How is it that all was well,” the inventor said, “when I was treating the patients with the machine? And now that you have taken over, a patient has relapsed?”
For a moment, the nurse said nothing. But she could not let the accusation remain unchallenged.
“I have been in the business of caring for people for most of my life,” she said, “caring for them, treating them, curing them sometimes, losing them other times. I have seen suffering even worse than that of the poor people suffering this blood condition and I took an oath to do all I could do to allay that suffering. I don’t care who invented this machine of yours. I don’t care if the devil himself invented it. I only care that it works. I rejoiced when I saw that it worked. But something is wrong. I fear it’s not just the boy. I’ve seen two other patients who complained that their recent treatments did not seem to work. They appeared to be relapsing too. We must stop treatment until we can determine if the machine is doing harm, or if something has changed with these patients. Something that the machine cannot treat, even if it is working perfectly.” Her words started with passion, but ended with a calm so firm and certain that the inventor felt himself calm as well.
“You are right,” he said, beginning to pace. “You are right. I want my machine to be the salvation from this illness, not the cause.”
Most of the patients were irritated, some angry, when they learned that their treatments would be halted because a few had experienced problems. When more people began to relapse, growing weak and bedridden within a manner of weeks, sometimes days, they blamed the inventor for withholding the treatment. He himself seemed yet unaffected.
But he too had stopped the treatments upon himself. He felt himself growing weaker. Waves of dizziness would pass over him as he paced in his study. He took to walking the grounds for fresh air, as he pondered the problem of the machine. And as the days passed, he found himself waiting till the light grew dim.
One twilight eve, as he walked down the street from his home, he spotted a figure striding toward him. He glanced around and saw that there were others about, a couple strolling on the opposite side of the street, a mother in her front yard, corralling her children to bed. When he glanced back, the figured was suddenly before him, looming over him. The inventor gasped, for the man had doffed his hat and his head was completely bald underneath, not from natural loss, but from sickness. The man was pale, his skin lucid and wrinkled.
Quite involuntarily, the inventor licked his lips. It was nervous gesture. The man before him suddenly stopped, his eyes bulging.
“Is that your tongue?” the man said. “It looks rather tasty.”
The inventor glanced about again. Now the streets were empty. The couple had turned a corner. The mother had managed to bring her children inside. He was alone with the man. The man reached out. The inventor batted his hand away, feeling how weak the man was, and yet, the inventor still felt panic rise in his chest. He turned around and dashed back toward the house, not looking back to see if the man followed.
It was only when he shut his front door, turned the lock, checked all the windows, and checked the back door, that the inventor relaxed into a sigh. He would not let his servants leave the house that night on foot, insisting they stay the night or take his carriage if they must return home, which all did, for they had families waiting for their return.
The next morning, the inventor and the nurse spoke—she was nurse once more now that the machine was shut down. Patients came to the hospital throughout the day, demanding that the doctors force the inventor to start up his machine again. More and more people were beginning to relapse, and the doctors began to sequester them as they had done before the machine was actuated. Since the machine was put to use, fewer had grown ill. But the doctors feared that the relapses might lead to more new cases if the relapsed patients spread the disease from their now-unpurified blood to others. In a bit of good news, with the machine off, more and more patients were willing to stay at the hospital.
A few sufferers—those who lived a bit longer—seemed to be seized by the occasional manic fit. One family reported that the bedridden patient in their midst suddenly rose and attacked her sister who was sitting nearby, trying to bite her. In another case, a man was trudging to the hospital on his own, when he was overcome, fell upon a stranger and tried the same. The biting was due to a great hunger and thirst that abided in the sufferer at what seemed another stage of the illness, for something had gone wrong with the natural organs of their body, and they could not take in food. Nor did they produce any waste.
“There is uncertainty in medicine,” the nurse said. “It may take a long time for us to figure out what this disease truly is and how to treat it.”
The inventor sighed. He reached for his cup of tea, knocking it over as a spasm passed through his hand.
The nurse peered at him. “Perhaps you too should come to the hospital.”
The inventor frowned. But then he looked up at her. “Perhaps you can be my personal physician.”
“I am no physician.”
“Forgive me, I meant no insult.”
The nurse smiled, but he saw beyond the smile, in her eyes, a grave concern.
There came a knock on the door of the study where they were taking their breakfast meeting. It was the housekeeper. She had collected the morning paper. She presented it to the inventor, nodding to him and to the nurse, noting the nurse’s empty plate, and the inventor’s still-full plate.
The inventor’s eyes grew wide as he spotted the story on the front page. He turned the page toward the nurse.
“My eyes begin to fail me,” he said. “Will you read it out?”
The nurse stared at the headline. “I…had just left.” She shook her head.
She had just left the hospital before it happened. She had not known. Five of the patients who’d relapsed after being treated by the blood purification machine had gone mad. In what seemed a manic fit that struck all at once, they began to scream and howl, knock down lights, and attack and scratch nurses, orderlies, and other patients. Two of them became locked in a skirmish and one of them bit the face of the other before they were pulled apart and restrained.
Though no one was seriously injured before all five could be contained, no fewer than two dozen people were scratched or bitten. Some of them would surely contract the blood condition.
Before the nurse could finish reading the full length of the article, the inventor rose and stopped her.
His face was twisted in anguish.“ This never happened with those who were never treated. My machine has done this. Porphyrion has turned them into monsters.”
“No, sir, don’t you see,” the nurse said, glancing down at the paper. “The ones who were never treated did not live long enough for the transformation to take hold. The machine did not turn the treated patients into monsters. It just kept them alive long enough for the natural course of the condition to continue until this…partial metamorphosis occurred. They are not monsters. They are just…” She took a deep breath and sighed. “They are just sick.”
“Either it worked and something went wrong. Or perhaps it never worked,” the inventor said. “Perhaps it was a placebo, a shared illusion.” He felt a wave of dizziness pass over him and placed a steadying hand on the table. “Either way, or even if it is as you say, it is unconscionable to use the machine. To extend someone’s life only so long as they might suffer longer, and others with them…it is unconscionable.”
“We found a treatment that seemed to work and we acted upon it,” the nurse said. “That is not unconscionable. What other choice did you have at the time? To continue treating only yourself while others were dying? Your choice was sound and it was right. As was your choice to stop using the machine. I don’t believe the machine is to blame for what is happening, but whether I am right or wrong, we will not know unless we investigate further.”
“No…no, there can be no further investigations. No further horrible mistakes. We must destroy it.”
The nurse frowned. It was she who rose now. She set the paper aside. “Sir, that would be rash.”
“Please, I am already grown too weak. You must see to it. I will trust you to do as I instruct, as I…wish.” He straightened, summoning the strength left in him. “You must see to the dismantling and destruction of the machine. I will see to the records.” He walked a few steps, then turned back to her. “I am not mad, dear madam. Not in this moment. Yes, it is a rash decision. But it is mine to make. Porphyrion is mine.”
The nurse complied with her employer’s wishes, or rather with his original wish. She hired workers to come and dismantle the machine, but as they did, she watched them and made note of every screw and bolt. By the time the first of the crates was loaded, the inventor had grown too ill to leave his bed. He had hired another caretaker to tend to him, not wanting to go to the hospital, but promising the doctors that he would remain sequestered in his home.
The nurse was allowed to leave the town with her husband after their urine was tested for the presence of the illness and found to be clear. She had the crates shipped to a wharf-side warehouse that belonged to a family friend. From there, they would be taken, not by ship, but over land, out of the region and far to the west. The inventor had retracted his patent applications. She hoped another friend could procure a copy. But that way was uncertain. Of the inventor’s personal notes, she had managed to salvage nothing. She had only her own notes and sketches, taken when he was teaching her the machine, while she used it, and while she watched its disassembly.
It was many weeks before she was able to return to the region. And she had not been able to keep in touch often. She had heard that the inventor had taken a turn and had asked that he be restrained lest he hurt someone. But the illness did not progress in the same way in each patient.
The inventor remained lucid until his last day.
The nurse was not allowed back into the town to pay her respects to the inventor, to help with the treatment of the sick. The entire town had become quarantined by the town’s doctors.
A cure was never found. The quarantine was only lifted after the last of those with the blood condition either died or recovered on their own. One year after.
The nurse returned to a town both devastated and relieved. A town that was no longer concerned with either great prosperity or mere survival, but only with living peacefully and happily.
She went to visit the graves of all those who had fallen to the illness. In the custom of the town, she laid a single petal of a pink flower on each grave to signify a sweet and fond farewell. She visited last the grave of the man who was her patron, who was a wealthy trader, a tinkerer, a patient, and an inventor. Upon his grave she placed a pink petal and upon the petal, a broken knob that he had once replaced on the wondrous machine that he had built.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel
One thought on “The Porphyrion Machine”
A fascinating tale !