Five Instances of Curious Light

David Torrey Peters Click to

dpeters-252David Torrey Peters has had stories and essays published in Prairie Schooner, Epoch, Fourth Genre, Indiana Review, The Pinch, Best Travel Writing (2009, 2010), and  David is currently living in Chicago, researching and writing a book about crossdressing.

In 1825, two discarded cadavers at the London Royal Academy of Anatomy began to glow. The bodies had once been inhabited by two thieves, ill with pneumonia, who had died in the gaol while awaiting trial.  When no family members appeared to claim their kin, the bodies were delivered to science. The papers that identified the cadavers listed the ages of the two men as 52 and 24—although by the time their necrotized flesh began to glow, their ages would have been quite difficult to determine. The bodies had already been to the operating theatre and been run through the gamut of dissection, from the pulmonary system to the lenses of the eye. What remained after the clumsy poking and prodding lay wrapped in burlap in the dark of a stone basement, awaiting burial. The young medical student assigned to direct the disposal had dallied in arranging for burial in the paupers’ square, a delay that had left the bodies decaying in the dark for an extra day. By the evening he arrived with the gravedigger, the air in the basement had grown foul and the flesh had begun to seep moisture through the burlap covering the bodies. There was no missing that glow.  The seeping fluids stained a faint shining outline of the bodies through the burlap.  In the time it took the medical student to locate his superior, Dr. Browning, and for Dr. Browning to locate his superior, Dr. Ebbins, the glow had only intensified.

The doctors convened a hasty experiment in which they made an interesting discovery. By scraping at the glowing necrotized flesh, and applying it to the dead flesh of a fresh cadaver, the glow could be induced to spread, an eerie light that shone in the dark, chemical-doused air of the operating theatre. After thirty hours, the glow petered out in the bodies of the two thieves, the stench of their putrefying by then nearly unbearable, but the glow persisted in the more recently dead flesh of a third and fourth cadaver—both donated by a West London mental hospital.  The glow might have been spread to a fifth and possibly sixth cadaver, had Dr. Browning not, in an effort to stave off decay, doused the cadavers in alcohol, which had the effect of extinguishing permanently any sign of the eerie bluish light.

*  *  *

In 1667, Robert Boyle, after arriving home late one night, had just sat down to a dinner consisting of a neck of veal purchased the Tuesday before and boiled greens from his back garden, when a gust of wind blew out his lamp. Looking down, he discovered that parts of his veal were still quite visible, illuminated by their own light. An unlearned man might have discarded such a meal and an especially hungry man have eaten it, but Robert Boyle was neither. Although Boyle had achieved fame as director of the East India Company, translator of the Bible into Irish, and author of “The Sceptical Chymist,”—which in later years would prove to be a founding text of modern chemistry—he nonetheless prided himself as an alchemist above all else. Thus, he took his plate directly to the laboratory, where he discovered that, unlike common fire, the light from his veal could not be extinguished by his stepping on it. Nor did subsequent experiments show the light from his veal to be anything like the light produced from a piece of burning coal.

Boyle published his findings on his veal dinner in one of his less famous works, Observations upon an Artificial Substance that Shines without any Preceding Illustration, in which he wrote, “Tho’ a quick coal be actually and vehemently hot; I have not observed luminous flesh to be so much as sensibly lukewarm. A live coal, being pressed betwixt two planes of glass will not continue to burn for very many minutes, but a piece of shining flesh will shine for some days, moreover, whereas a live coal as it burns fends forth store of smoak or exhalations, luminous flesh does not.” Only by introducing the luminous flesh to a prolonged vacuum could Boyle manage to extinguish the light, at which point in the text, Boyle’s observations move on to the subject of glow-worms.

*  *  *

In 1847, Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish poet known for his children’s stories, wrote a short story in which an anthropomorphized street lamp, having run low on wick and oil, auditions replacements for a new light source. The hopefuls include a star, a glow-worm, and the severed head of a herring.  No mention is made as to how the severed herring head will produce sufficient light to illuminate the street-lamp; the herring head’s luminous capacity is simply assumed by the narrator to be as self-evident as that of the glow-worm and the star.

Anderson was born in Odense, on the Kattegat, a narrow strait that connects the Baltic to the North Sea, and where, every spring, millions of herring rose from the depth of the North Sea to spawn, until the sea seemed thicker with fish than water. Each female herring could annually lay more than seventy thousand eggs, and the fisherman of Odense believed that if even a fraction of the spawn were to survive the haddock, cod, dogfish, suckerfish and their own nets to subsequently grow to size, the herring would shortly displace all the water in the North Sea. As it was, vast shoals of herring, trapped in the Kattegat by aberrant winds, could cover a coastline with a crust of fish two feet thick. The Danes of Odense went out with baskets, collecting what they could, but the majority of fish flesh rotted, and the stench tainted many of Anderson’s childhood summers.

Not including the shoals of herring that beached themselves, in each year of Anderson’s childhood, men pulled an estimated sixty billion herring from the North Sea. The herring swam in giant wedge-shaped shoals, and the fisherman of Anderson’s day tracked them at sundown, when a pulsating glow could be seen on the water, a glow which Odense tradition held to be the reflection of the setting sun on millions of teeming fish, although more scientifically minded fishermen argued that the reflection could just have easily come from the sheen of floating silver scales, numbering in the hundreds of millions, shed by the herring as they surged up from the Northern depths. In any case, once a shoal had been located, the fisherman of Odense unspooled long nets into the shoals, setting them in an S pattern, so as to create to double concave spaces, netting the fish no matter which direction the shoal swam. Rather than close the nets, the mass of herring pressed against the nets and caught their fins and gills on the thin black silk, and, after a period of two to three hours, thrashed themselves to death. At daybreak, the fishermen simply rolled up the nets, hung so thickly with herring that they resembled carpets.

The fisheries of Odense barely kept up with the volume of herring deposited each morning. The fish had to be gutted, salted, and placed in barrels at a fantastic speed, for in the nineteenth century, the herring underwent a strange change upon their death. After all the thrashing, rushing blood colored the gills a crimson red and the skin a striking blue—if the fish were not salted and packed at this point, it began to glow, a strange phosphorescent light, and it was from this light that a discerning customer could know that the fish had begun to decay. In the fields beyond the Odense fisheries, massive piles of discarded herring heads and guts shone in the evening dark, a sight familiar to Anderson and the children who read his stories. A short number of decades later, as a consequence of overfishing, the Kattegat Strait would be declared the world’s first marine dead zone, devoid of herring, and thus, of the strange glow that Anderson imagined might have been chosen to illuminate a charming Copenhagen streetlight.

*  *  *

In 1840, a twelve-year old boarding student at Saint Donetien Collage sneaked away onto The Coralie, a three-masted ship bound for India. The night before the ship was to embark, the ship’s bos’n spotted the boy, Jules Verne, peering out from under a lifeboat. In the morning, the bos’n put the boy ashore, where his waiting father immediately delivered a sound whipping. Jules responded to this whipping by resolving to henceforth travel primarily in his imagination.

Twenty-nine years later, one of the explorers of his imagination finally made the journey to India. When his ship, The Nautilus, entered the Bay of Bengal, he encountered hundreds of corpses, bobbing on the waves that crashed against the hull of his ship. “They were the dead of the Indian villages, carried by the Ganges to the level of the sea, and which the vultures, the undertakers of the country, had not been able to devour.”

Passing through the bay of corpses, night fell, and The Nautilus was immersed in what appeared to be a sea of milk. “At first sight the ocean seemed lactified. The whole sky, though lit by sidereal waves, seemed black by comparison with the luminescent whiteness of the waters.”

Verne, ever the scientist—or science fictionist—was quick to invent an answer to this mystery: “It is called a milk sea. The whiteness which surprises you is caused only by the presence of myriads of infusoria, a sort of luminous little worm, gelatinous and without color, of the thickness of a hair and whose length is not longer than seven-thousandths of an inch. These insects adhere to one another, sometimes for several leagues. If I am not mistaken, ships have floated on these milk seas for more than forty miles.”

The milk sea thus explained, the Nautilus sailed on, leaving behind it a “sky that reflected the whitened waves, and for a long time seemed impregnated with the vague glimmerings of an aurora borealis.”

After Verne published his imagined travels upon a milk sea in Chapter 24 of his 1869 Novel, Vignt Mille Lieues Sous les Mers, translated into English four years later as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, he began to receive, on a fairly regular basis, letters from sailors, inquiring about his account of the milk sea, or quibbling with his description. The letters from the sailors kept up for twenty years or so. The light of the milk sea, they wrote, was bluish, not white. And they encountered it more often in the lonely stretches of the North Sea, not India. And there were no worms, certainly there were no worms—wherever did he get the idea that it was worms? What he had gotten right, the sailors wrote, were the corpses. Even if the corpses weren’t visible, from the bright opaque waters of the Milk Sea rose the stench of decay, the smell of death. One Welsh sailor, who’d been a harpooner on a whaler out of Nantucket, wrote to Verne to inquire whether Verne had personally encountered a milk sea, and if so, for Verne to take care. Those who sail a milk sea encounter tragedy soon after. The death marks them, clings to them, and sooner or later, takes its inevitable toll.

Shortly after having received this letter, Jules Verne arrived home one spring night to find his young nephew, Gaston, who suffered from symptoms of delusion and paranoia, standing at the wrought-iron gate that opened to Verne’s garden. Verne gave Gaston a friendly wave. In return, Gaston produced a pistol from inside his jacket, aimed it at Verne, and fired twice.

*  *  *

Just after the battle of Ypres, The Times of London hired Ernest Daub, an American raised in Holland, as correspondent to cover the conditions in the scorched “dead zones” of Belgium, between the German and English entrenchments. Although he had been hired on the strength of his Dutch, he had exaggerated the depth of his experience as a reporter. Intimidated by the brusque, hardened manner of the English reporters, Daub avoided any sign of wires, afraid of encountering one of the three other Times reporters, who would certainly inquire what he had wired to London, when, in fact, he had yet to have wired anything. Consequently, he spent a good deal of his time at the field hospital attempting to interview wounded soldiers, who, being confined to beds and suffering equally of pain and boredom, did not scorn him when his lines of questioning revealed him to be hopelessly green.

He had a gentle manner, and perhaps his constant presence caused the soldiers to confuse him with a chaplain or nurse, for in a tent housing primarily soldiers from Driffield, the bedridden men began to describe for him the horrible nights of their last battle. Their regiment had been ordered to move forward into the no-man’s land under the cover of dark, but the Germans had sent up flares and directed artillery fire and gas into the dead zones. The men fell back, ducking into the miasma of the trenches, but left a third of their regiment dead or dying within eyesight. Hearing the pleas of their wounded comrades, they launched tin canteens out into the dead zones, hoping that the water could sustain them until the fighting lessened, but the shouts and screams grew ever feebler. In the gray light of morning, they saw three men, as close as fifty yards to the trench. A quick-footed, red-haired boy from Hull scampered out in hopes that he might find one or two alive, but as he leaned over the nearest man, a sniper bullet caught him beneath the ear, so that he dropped into a motionless embrace with the dead man. The two corpses lay cheek to cheek, as if whispering secrets to each other. The next night, a strange light shone from around the bodies, illuminating pockets of drifting mist and mustard gas. Their dark-haired lieutenant, a Southerner from Brighton, declared the light was an effect of the gas, which reacted with the flesh of the bodies—but the men familiar with the bogs of Northern England knew better: corpse candles.

Daub happened to remember mentions of corpse candles from his reading of the Denham Tracts, records of English folklore collected the previous century. Embers of Hell granted by the Devil to guide the lost dead through a twilight world, or perhaps, floating to illuminate a path for the soon-to-be dead. Both the Welsh and Irish reported that the corpse candles always preceded the death of those who saw it, or of a loved one—one could even determine the coming death by the color of the light, reddish for men, pale blue for women, or yellowish for children. The lights bobbed and flickered, almost intelligently; if a lost traveler followed them, they would lead him deep into the dark and vanish, whereupon the traveler would find himself sinking in a bog, or standing at the edge of a precipice.
Having loved ghost stories since his childhood, Daub wrote up the story of the Driffield soldiers, mentioning that nearly a dozen men had claimed to see the light, and adding his own literary touch by mentioning the ghost stories of the French writer Prosper Merimee, who had also described above a corpse a blue flame which disappeared upon the approach of an observer. Daub, quite proud of his report, wired it to London, whereupon it was rejected as fanciful, in poor taste, and a detriment to troop morale. His stint as a Times correspondent ended one month later, and he was not asked to continue. Upon his return to London, he published the story in The Stem, a literary journal that folded two years afterward, after which the journal’s reputation increased significantly.

Nearly a decade later, Daub received a letter from an man named Henry Wasties, an esteemed doctor of biology who had made his name working with cholera bacteria and who had happened upon Daub’s story.  “The glow,” wrote the doctor, “likely emanated from a colony of vibrio fisheri, a relative of the cholera bacteria that produces a luminescent protein at the end of its life cycle.  And although v. fisheri makes its natural habitat among the algae floes upon the far reaches of the oceans, it can thrive in any putrefying and decaying matter—both plant and animal—which is why such glows are often associated with harbingers of death.”

The doctor’s suggestion, Daub decided, was a plausible explanation—more rational than any other he had heard. Yet, by that point, a failed marriage and the horrors of the war had led him to a conservative order of Catholicism; the thought that there could be no purpose or plan for the striking imposition of light into decay left him hollow and unsatisfied. How could one find any trace of order or grace in the vagaries of bacteria?  Much more consoling, much more humane, Daub felt, was the final line from his own story, in which he had quoted directly from the son of a Driffield butcher recuperating at the field hospital, where his leg had been amputated below the knee. The boy had shut his eyes to recall the dead zones of the battle and shuddered when, from his white-sheeted bed, he gripped Daub’s hand to insist, “It was their souls out there, by God. The light of their souls.”


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