THE DAMNED THING
By Ambrose Bierce
Reprinted by permission. From "In the Midst
Copyright, 1898, by G. P. Putnam's Sons
By the light of a tallow candle, which had been placed on one end of a
rough table, a man was reading something written in a book. It was an old
account book, greatly worn; and the writing was not, apparently, very
legible, for the man sometimes held the page close to the flame of the
candle to get a stronger light upon it. The shadow of the book would then
throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening a number of faces and
figures; for besides the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of
them sat against the rough log walls, silent and motionless, and, the room
being small, not very far from the table. By extending an arm any one of
them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table, face upward,
partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.
The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all seemed
to be waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was without
expectation. From the blank darkness outside came in, through the aperture
that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of night in the
wilderness—the long, nameless note of a distant coyote; the stilly
pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of night birds,
so different from those of the birds of day; the drone of great blundering
beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always
to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased, as if
conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was noted in that
company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest in
matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of
their rugged faces—obvious even in the dim light of the single
candle. They were evidently men of the vicinity—farmers and woodmen.
The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him that
he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire which
attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of his environment. His
coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco: his footgear was
not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the floor (he was the
only one uncovered) was such that if one had considered it as an article
of mere personal adornment he would have missed its meaning. In
countenance the man was rather prepossessing, with just a hint of
sternness; though that he may have assumed or cultivated, as appropriate
to one in authority. For he was a coroner. It was by virtue of his office
that he had possession of the book in which he was reading; it had been
found among the dead man's effects—in his cabin, where the inquest
was now taking place.
When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast
pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered.
He, clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was clad as those
who dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as from travel. He
had, in fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.
The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.
"We have waited for you," said the coroner. "It is necessary to have done
with this business to-night."
The young man smiled. "I am sorry to have kept you," he said. "I went
away, not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper an account of
what I suppose I am called back to relate."
The coroner smiled.
"The account that you posted to your newspaper," he said, "differs
probably from that which you will give here under oath."
"That," replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, "is as
you choose. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It was
not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go as a
part of my testimony under oath."
"But you say it is incredible."
"That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that it is true."
The coroner was apparently not greatly affected by the young man's
manifest resentment. He was silent for some moments, his eyes upon the
floor. The men about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom
withdrew their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner
lifted his eyes and said: "We will resume the inquest."
The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.
"What is your name?" the coroner asked.
"You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?"
"You were with him when he died?"
"How did that happen—your presence, I mean?"
"I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my purpose,
however, was to study him, and his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a
good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories."
"I sometimes read them."
"Stories in general—not yours."
Some of the jurors laughed. Against a sombre background humor shows high
lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in
the death chamber conquers by surprise.
"Relate the circumstances of this man's death," said the coroner. "You may
use any notes or memoranda that you please."
The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he
held it near the candle, and turning the leaves until he found the passage
that he wanted, began to read.
"...The sun had hardly risen when we left the house. We were looking for
quail, each with a shotgun, but we had only one dog. Morgan said that our
best ground was beyond a certain ridge that he pointed out, and we crossed
it by a trail through the chaparral. On the other side was
comparatively level ground, thickly covered with wild oats. As we emerged
from the chaparral, Morgan was but a few yards in advance.
Suddenly, we heard, at a little distance to our right, and partly in
front, a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes, which we
could see were violently agitated.
"'We've started a deer,' said. 'I wish we had brought a rifle.'
"Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching the agitated chaparral,
said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his gun, and was holding it
in readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited, which surprised me,
for he had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even in moments of
sudden and imminent peril.
"'O, come!' I said. 'You are not going to fill up a deer with quail-shot,
"Still he did not reply; but, catching a sight of his face as he turned it
slightly toward me, I was struck by the pallor of it. Then I understood
that we had serious business on hand, and my first conjecture was that we
had 'jumped' a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan's side, cocking my piece as I
"The bushes were now quiet, and the sounds had ceased, but Morgan was as
attentive to the place as before.
"'What is it? What the devil is it?' I asked.
"'That Damned Thing!' he replied, without turning his head. His voice was
husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.
"I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the
place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly
describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only
bent it, but pressed it down—crushed it so that it did not rise, and
this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.
"Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this
unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall any
sense of fear. I remember—and tell it here because, singularly
enough, I recollected it then—that once, in looking carelessly out
of an open window, I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for
one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the
same size as the others, but, being more distinctly and sharply defined in
mass and detail, seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere
falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost
terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural
laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our
safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity. So now the apparently causeless
movement of the herbage, and the slow, undeviating approach of the line of
disturbance were distinctly disquieting. My companion appeared actually
frightened, and I could hardly credit my senses when I saw him suddenly
throw his gun to his shoulders and fire both barrels at the agitated
grass! Before the smoke of the discharge had cleared away I heard a loud
savage cry—a scream like that of a wild animal—and, flinging
his gun upon the ground, Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot.
At the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact of
something unseen in the smoke—some soft, heavy substance that seemed
thrown against me with great force.
"Before I could get upon my feet and recover my gun, which seemed to have
been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out as if in mortal
agony, and mingling with his cries were such hoarse savage sounds as one
hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet
and looked in the direction of Morgan's retreat; and may heaven in mercy
spare me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than thirty
yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a
frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in
violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm
was lifted and seemed to lack the hand—at least, I could see none.
The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this
extraordinary scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if
he had been partly blotted out—I can not otherwise express it—then
a shifting of his position would bring it all into view again.
"All this must have occurred within a few seconds, yet in that time Morgan
assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler vanquished by superior
weight and strength. I saw nothing but him, and him not always distinctly.
During the entire incident his shouts and curses were heard, as if through
an enveloping uproar of such sounds of rage and fury as I had never heard
from the throat of man or brute!
"For a moment only I stood irresolute, then, throwing down my gun, I ran
forward to my friend's assistance. I had a vague belief that he was
suffering from a fit or some form of convulsion. Before I could reach his
side he was down and quiet. All sounds had ceased, but, with a feeling of
such terror as even these awful events had not inspired, I now saw the
same mysterious movement of the wild oats prolonging itself from the
trampled area about the prostrate man toward the edge of a wood. It was
only when it had reached the wood that I was able to withdraw my eyes and
look at my companion. He was dead."
The coroner rose from his seat and stood beside the dead man. Lifting an
edge of the sheet he pulled it away, exposing the entire body, altogether
naked and showing in the candle light a clay-like yellow. It had, however,
broad maculations of bluish-black, obviously caused by extravasated blood
from contusions. The chest and sides looked as if they had been beaten
with a bludgeon. There were dreadful lacerations; the skin was torn in
strips and shreds.
The coroner moved round to the end of the table and undid a silk
handkerchief, which had been passed under the chin and knotted on the top
of the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed what had been
the throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better view repented
their curiosity, and turned away their faces. Witness Harker went to the
open window and leaned out across the sill, faint and sick. Dropping the
handkerchief upon the dead man's neck, the coroner stepped to an angle of
the room, and from a pile of clothing produced one garment after another,
each of which he held up a moment for inspection. All were torn, and stiff
with blood. The jurors did not make a closer inspection. They seemed
rather uninterested. They had, in truth, seen all this before; the only
thing that was new to them being Harker's testimony.
"Gentlemen," the coroner said, "we have no more evidence, I think. Your
duty has been already explained to you; if there is nothing you wish to
ask you may go outside and consider your verdict."
The foreman rose—a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.
"I should like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner," he said. "What asylum
did this yer last witness escape from?"
"Mr. Harker," said the coroner, gravely and tranquilly, "from what asylum
did you last escape?"
Harker flushed crimson again, but said nothing, and the seven jurors rose
and solemnly filed out of the cabin.
"If you have done insulting me, sir," said Harker, as soon as he and the
officer were left alone with the dead man, "I suppose I am at liberty to
Harker started to leave, but paused, with his hand on the door latch. The
habit of his profession was strong in him—stronger than his sense of
personal dignity. He turned about and said:
"The book that you have there—I recognize it as Morgan's diary. You
seemed greatly interested in it; you read in it while I was testifying.
May I see it? The public would like—"
"The book will cut no figure in this matter," replied the official,
slipping it into his coat pocket; "all the entries in it were made before
the writer's death."
As Harker passed out of the house the jury reentered and stood about the
table on which the now covered corpse showed under the sheet with sharp
definition. The foreman seated himself near the candle, produced from his
breast pocket a pencil and scrap of paper, and wrote rather laboriously
the following verdict, which with various degrees of effort all signed:
"We, the jury, do find that the remains come to their death at the hands
of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits."
In the diary of the late Hugh Morgan are certain interesting entries
having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions. At the inquest upon
his body the book was not put in evidence; possibly the coroner thought it
not worth while to confuse the jury. The date of the first of the entries
mentioned can not be ascertained; the upper part of the leaf is torn away;
the part of the entry remaining is as follows:
"... would run in a half circle, keeping his head turned always toward the
centre and again he would stand still, barking furiously. At last he ran
away into the brush as fast as he could go. I thought at first that he had
gone mad, but on returning to the house found no other alteration in his
manner than what was obviously due to fear of punishment.
"Can a dog see with his nose? Do odors impress some olfactory centre with
images of the thing emitting them? . . .
"Sept 2.—Looking at the stars last night as they rose above the
crest of the ridge east of the house, I observed them successively
disappear—from left to right. Each was eclipsed but an instant, and
only a few at the same time, but along the entire length of the ridge all
that were within a degree or two of the crest were blotted out. It was as
if something had passed along between me and them; but I could not see it,
and the stars were not thick enough to define its outline. Ugh! I don't
like this. . . ."
Several weeks' entries are missing, three leaves being torn from the book.
"Sept. 27.—It has been about here again—I find evidences of
its presence every day. I watched again all of last night in the same
cover, gun in hand, double-charged with buckshot. In the morning the fresh
footprints were there, as before. Yet I would have sworn that I did not
sleep—indeed, I hardly sleep at all. It is terrible, insupportable!
If these amazing experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful
I am mad already.
"Oct. 3.—I shall not go—it shall not drive me away. No, this
is my house, my land. God hates a coward....
"Oct. 5.—I can stand it no longer; I have invited Harker to pass a
few weeks with me—he has a level head. I can judge from his manner
if he thinks me mad.
"Oct. 7.—I have the solution of the problem; it came to me last
night—suddenly, as by revelation. How simple—how terribly
"There are sounds that we can not hear. At either end of the scale are
notes that stir no chord of that imperfect instrument, the human ear. They
are too high or too grave. I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying
an entire treetop—the tops of several trees—and all in full
song. Suddenly—in a moment—at absolutely the same instant—all
spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all see one another—whole
treetops intervened. At no point could a leader have been visible to all.
There must have been a signal of warning or command, high and shrill above
the din, but by me unheard. I have observed, too, the same simultaneous
flight when all were silent, among not only blackbirds, but other birds—quail,
for example, widely separated by bushes—even on opposite sides of a
"It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the
surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between
them, will sometimes dive at the same instant—all gone out of sight
in a moment. The signal has been sounded—too grave for the ear of
the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck—who
nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral
are stirred by the bass of the organ.
"As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the
chemist can detect the presence of what are known as 'actinic' rays. They
represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which
we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its
range is but a few octaves of the real 'chromatic scale' I am not mad;
there are colors that we can not see.
"And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!"