We found the old doctor’s bag in some weeds next to the woodpile, not far from the old carriage house. The bag was locked, but the dark leather had long since dried and was brittle enough to break. We each took a side and pulled, spilling the bag’s contents on the ground. We examined our new treasures carefully ; three glass bottles with yellowed, crumbling labels, four rusted metal scalpels, two evil-looking syringes, and an old black case containing a strange wooden horn. Sam grabbed the horn first and blew it enthusiastically. When it failed to make a sound, he frowned and tossed it aside, turning his attention to the scalpels. I picked up the discarded horn from the dirt and examined it. The wood was light and smooth. I turned it over in my hands and it shone like one of my father’s pipes. The side opposite the funnel-shaped end was circular and flat. Unlike the rest of the horn, it was white and looked to be made of ivory or bone. On an impulse, I brought the instrument to my ear and listened.
Tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump. A strange drum beat in the distance. I took the horn away from my ear and the sound was gone.
“Sam,” I called, “Listen to this.”
I tossed him the horn and he listened as I had.
“What?” he said. “I don’t hear anything.”
I took the horn again, but this time when I raised it to my ear I heard nothing. I shrugged and Sam turned back to the scalpels. He was testing their edges with pieces of his hair; I could tell they were duller than he would have liked.
I put the mysterious object back into its case and slipped it into my satchel, then stood and looked at the sky. It was mid-June, and the sun was high and hot.
“We should get back, it’s almost four o’clock.”
Sam grunted but remained crouched.
“Okay, see you tomorrow,” I called as I turned and began to walk down the dusty road towards home. The flies buzzed around me and the sweat bees hovered close, but for once I barely noticed. Though the sun burned on my back and my shirt was soaked in sweat, I could not get the haunting beat of the horn out of my head. And my blood was as cold as winter.
I took the horn to Dr. Randall the next morning, hoping he would know more about its utility.
“Ahhh,” he said excitedly, “I know what this is. This is an old stethoscope.”
“A stethoscope? But it looks nothing like it.”
“This is one of the first. Here,” he said and gestured to his chest,
I placed one end of the stethoscope on his chest and brought my ear to the earpiece. Almost instantly I could hear the drumbeat again, though now I knew it was a heart. The beating was louder this time, but it also sounded wrong. I cannot describe how I knew this. The doctor’s heartbeat was neither particularly fast nor slow, and its rhythm was strong and steady, but all the same I knew. I looked at Dr. Randall. He laughed, mistaking my uneasiness as bewilderment.
“Now get along, I’ve got patients to see.”
Still speechless, I was pushed out of his office before I was able to utter another word.
Dr. Randall died that Saturday. They said it was a heart attack. He was old, almost seventy, but somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that the stethoscope had something to do with it. I still carried it with me in my satchel, and frequently now I would take it out and listen. The heart-beat had grown stronger; I could feel its pulse beating constantly against my side. I hadn’t told anyone else about the stethoscope, and I was afraid of the consequences that might result should I use it again . Still, the thing beat with such insistency I could not ignore it.
There were orphan cats in the field behind my house that the neighbor fed each night from her porch. Often I would sit and pet them as they came for their food. One night, a brown tabby I called Mud followed me home, rubbing against my leg and purring . I could feel the heartbeat of the stethoscope consuming me. It was as if it was a metronome and my own heart beat along to it, slightly out of time. I held the stethoscope in my hand and bent to listen to Mud. The beat of the stethoscope grew stronger as the cat grew weaker and the light disappeared from its eyes. I timed my footsteps to the rhythm of the heartbeat and walked home.
I did not hear my parents when they spoke to me. I could not hear the wood floors creak as I walked to my room or the sound of the door closing behind me. I no longer felt my own heart within my chest . I was ruled by the relentless beat of the stethoscope, and it was growing stronger and faster with each passing hour.
The next day it took all my strength to meet Sam back where we had found the doctor’s bag. Tears poured from my eyes as I tried to explain what had happened, what we had really found. All I could manage was one word. “Stethoscope,” I sputtered, thrusting the instrument towards Sam.
Sam turned the stethoscope over in his hands, unable to understand my hysterics. I could not stop him when he held it to my chest; I could not stop him from listening. He brought his ear to the stethoscope. Tha-thump, tha-thump, t ha-thump.