Washington University Hospital Baltimore
October 7, 1849
Speaking softly, Dr. Moran leaned over his patient. His eyes traced the wan and pallid countenance of the famous poet, Edgar Poe. But the man who lay on the hospital bed before him now, bathed in the dim yellow lamplight, bore little resemblance to his dignified portraits. He seemed, instead, more like a ghostly shell of that man, a wasted imposter, his cheeks shadow-sunken, his skin waxen, white as the sheets beneath him. Dark lashes fringed his bruise-purple lids, serving to blacken the deep crescent-shaped hollows beneath each eye. Sweat glistened on his broad brow, less from fever and more, the doctor knew, from exertion.
Rain pattered against the vaulted Gothic windows, glittering crystal beads that quivered into long streaks against the backdrop of darkness.
Though morning approached, the shadows of night pervaded the otherwise empty room.
Outside, the wind moaned, while the clop of horses’ hooves and the rattle of carriage wheels echoed from the alley below.
“Edgar,” Moran spoke again, “can you hear me?”
Poe’s eyes drifted lazily open, glassy and distant, like the sightless eyes of a child’s doll, black as inkwells. He stared at the ceiling.
Moran checked his patient’s pulse, his thumb and finger clasping the clammy skin of the poet’s wrist. There, a racing throb marked the seconds.
The doctor hesitated. He did not wish to send his patient into a frenzy yet again. Still, he could not help but press for another moment of lucidity, another brief glimmer of the man locked within the mania. Another clue to the puzzle of what had happened four days ago, when Poe had been brought into his care, delirious, covered from head to foot in ashen grit, insensible, dressed in another man’s clothing and unable to relate a single coherent detail as to where he had been—or who he had been with, for that matter.
“Do you remember where you are?” Moran asked. The doctor shifted in his seat, and the old wooden chair creaked beneath him.
Suddenly Poe’s arm shot out. He grasped for the doctor, locking his wrist in a grip that held all the strength of rigor mortis. “Who is it?” Edgar gasped, a rattle sounding in his chest, his voice husky, raw from the hours of screaming. “Who is here?”
“Be calm,” Moran urged. He allowed Edgar’s clammy grip to remain, hoping that the physical contact would somehow ground him, that it could bring him back, tether him to reality.
“Reynolds?” Poe whispered. His hand tightened around Moran’s wrist with unbelievable strength, quivering with urgency. “Reynolds . . . tell me that you’ve come at last.”
The doctor swallowed. He wet his lips, which fought to form words before he knew what to say. “It is Dr. Moran, Edgar. Your physician. As I’m sure you remember.”
Poe’s face contorted. His eyes squeezed shut. His mouth opened, the corners collapsing in silent anguish. He released the doctor, his grip falling limp. “I should have known,” he moaned, every syllable dripping the blackest despair, “that you would leave me here. Like this.”
“Edgar,” Moran whispered, “I wish only to help. Can you tell me what happened? Can you tell me how you came to be in Baltimore?”
“But I am not,” Poe said, rocking his head back and forth against the damp pillow. With these words, his breathing turned shallow and quick. A shudder ran through him, causing the bed itself to tremble.
Moran frowned at his patient and groped for what next to say, for whatever words might keep Poe’s mind present, distracted from hallucination, from the entities he claimed he saw slipping through the walls in swirls of black smoke. “Mr. Poe, you mentioned yesterday that you had a wife. In Richmond. Can you tell me—”
“Almost,” Poe whispered. “Almost. But then, Reynolds, I have a wife.” With these words, he traced his fingertips lightly across his chest, over a place where a portion of his shirt lay open. “Here. All the while,” he murmured. “Locked within this feverish heart. All the while.”
“Who is this Reynolds you speak of?” Moran asked. “A friend, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” Poe replied, his hand falling away as he fixated on the ceiling. “We shall see. The shadows gather. Can you hear them whispering? She is coming. And so we shall see.”
Poe’s eyes grew wider then, their centers expanding, black as pitch.
Moran watched, transfixed. He had treated delirium many times before. But what was it about this man’s condition that made him want to steal a glance at the barren walls that encircled them, to be certain that there was truly nothing there?