“Poor Yorick” by Theodore Sturgeon
Categories: Excerpt Literature & the Arts
With Halloween just one day away, what better way to celebrate than to share a spooky story? We’ve picked a short story by Theodore Sturgeon from our collection Killdozer!.
Tags: Theodore Sturgeon Science Fiction & Mystery
If you don’t want to read an unpleasant story, we are even. Because I didn’t want to write it either.
It can be told because it’s doubtful whether June will ever get hold of it because she doesn’t read the way you do. She is one of those who flatter themselves that they are too busy to waste time reading. She talks a great deal instead, and is only one-third of a person, the other two-thirds being entertainment-receptors for the radio and the movies respectively.
But she is inordinately pretty. She is very very blond and her lips are full and red, and her eyes are the color of grape juice, but bright. Her skin has indirect lighting and the lobes of her ears are always pink. She has a fiance, as she calls him in two syllables, in the South Pacific. He is a nice fellow and entirely suited to her. He and her kid brother had been inducted together and managed to stay together, and were buddies the way they always had been. She called him her kid brother because she was three-eighths of an inch taller than he, although he was older. So it was all nice and cosy, with them to watch over each other and with her to stay home and be proud of them both. The fiance, whose name was Hal, wrote all the time, and her kid brother never wrote, which was all right too, as long as one of them did.
There was a lot of hard work and rough stuff out there but Hal found time to wrap up and send a present for her, and by hook or by crook it got to her. She opened it with two oh’s and an ooh, in the presence of both of her elderly and very gentle parents, and as the last of the wrapping fell away her mouth tried to “Eeek!” while she swallowed her gum, and her father spun on his heel and started to walk out but had to come right back to fix up her mother, who had silently fainted. The present was a Japanese skull.
After her mother was quiet and comfortable June went back into the front parlor—not a living-room, a parlor—and she and the skull stared at each other for quite a while. All the courage she had concentrated in the gingerly tip of one index finger which went out and touched it and jumped back as if the thing were hot. But it wasn’t hot. It wasn’t cold either. It was just smooth, and quite as clean-looking as anything could be. It was as clean as a kitchen sink. She touched it again, and gradually she saw that it was just ugly, that was all. She put out both hands and put one on each side of the skull and lifted it. She almost dropped it then because it was so light and she wasn’t prepared for that. But she held it and she had it and it was of value because Hal had sent it. And war was like that anyway, and it is good to have us at home care a little less about how we used to think about such things. All this she thought while she held the skull and it grinned quietly at her. After all, we all got one like it behind our face, she thought. She carried it upstairs and put it in her kid brother’s room, because that was the only place where no one would have to sleep with it, and after all they all ate in the parlor.
It was in the house for two days. The rest of that first day she kept it to herself but after that it was too good to keep, so the parade of her young contemporaries was called up and filed in awed and low-toned morbidity past the skull. Each of them was shocked and in a few minutes began to get raucous and crack wise to cover it up, and it made June feel good to see how scared they all were. It belonged to her and she wasn’t scared—any more.
One of them put her kid brothers’ new top-hat, that he had gotten for a present with his tuxedo three months before he was drafted, on the skull, and that seemed to take the curse off it because it sure looked comical. It wasn’t a bad fit either because her brother was a little bit of a fellow too.
After a while there wasn’t anybody new to call up and show off the skull to. June racked her brain and suddenly thought of Doc Winninger. Doc Winninger was the dentist and he was the only man she knew of that had a skull. It perched up on top of his chiffonnier-thing in his office, that held all the drills and picks and things, high up, right where you could see it when he was working on you. Only hardly anybody ever noticed it. She called up Doc Winninger and he promised to come around because she made it so urgent although she didn’t tell him what for; she wanted to surprise him.
When he came she took his hat and coat and led him right upstairs. She got him lined up just right in front of her kid brother’s room and said, “Here’s the Jap that Hal sent me,” and threw the door open. Doc Winninger took two steps into the room and then saw the skull and stopped and said, “Good God!” And the shocked expression on his broad red face with the heavy jowls and the brilliant oval spectacles was all that she could have wished. “Isn’t he a beaut?” she said. The skull was wearing her kid brother’s topper and sure was a scream.
“Hal sent you that?”
“He sure did. Isn’t he the one, though? The big crazy.”
Doc turned his back on the skull and faced her. She didn’t know why his face looked the way it did, but whatever it was made her stop smiling. “A fine trophy,” he said.
He made her defensive. “That little yellow rat is prettier now than he ever was when he was alive. That’s what Hal calls a good Jap!”
“Those Burma nurses… are we fighting that kind of war now? Is that what this means?” he said, thumbing over his shoulder at the skull.
“Do you mean is Hal shooting little kids? Gee, Doc, you know better than that.”
“Oh. Well—I have to go.” He started out but June blocked him. She felt somehow cheated. “Wait. You didn’t even take a good look.”
“I saw enough, Junie.” He sounded as if he was sorry for her or something. As if he was sick.
“Aw, now wait. There is something you’d want to look at. That Jap’s had teeth filled. Don’t you want to see if the Japs do as good a job as you do?”
She had hit him where he felt it. He turned back into the room and picked up the skull. He glanced at the two fillings in the upper lateral incisors, suddenly stared. June had the feeling that he stopped breathing. When he turned around his old face was working. “June—this is—is…” He stopped and swallowed and then sort of grinned at her. “June, could I take this along and keep it for a couple of days? There’s something very interesting that I—I want to show to somebody.”
June was annoyed with him but she could see he was so excited about it that she couldn’t refuse him. She laughed. “I knew I’d get you going! Sure, go ahead. But be careful of it. It means a lot to me.”
“I can see it would.” He walked out the door and down the stairs, carrying the skull, and making small talk over his shoulder. “What do you hear from Hal?”
“Him! He’s well and fighting mad. Him and my kid brother got separated a while back on little mopping-up patrols, but we’ll hear about the kid when Hal joins up with him again. That little monkey never writes.”
June’s parents were glad to see the skull go out of the house although they didn’t say anything about it. But they were just as mad as June when Doc Winninger called up two days later and said he was sorry but he had left the skull in a taxi and when he located the taxi the skull was gone. They were so mad about it that they got another dentist and never went to him again. Even if he had been their dentist since before the kids were born.
Which was all right with Doc Winninger. He knew the family too well. He knew every filling in their mouths. He didn’t lose the skull, he took it right to the middle of the bridge and threw it into the river. He didn’t take it to a doctor to find out for sure if it was an oriental skull or not. He didn’t want to know. He liked to think the whole thing about the fillings was a coincidence, even if June’s kid brother was such a tiny little fellow.
Excerpted from Killdozer! Volume III: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon by Theodore Sturgeon. © 1996, Yhe Theodore Sturgeon Literary Trust. Published by North Atlantic Books.