Spring 2008, Volume 4

Fiction by T. R. Healy

In Fear and Reverence of Right and Wrong

Speicher adjusted the drafting lamp above his desk, leaned forward, and examined the sprig of holly he had painted. It was as clean and accurate as he could make it, he believed, but it seemed rather drab and lifeless. He then squeezed a worm of red paint onto his palette, picked up another brush, dipped it in, and carefully added a bow that was bright as a bead of blood. Gradually, as he added other bows, the sprig began to look warm and inviting, like a Christmas wreath, which was appropriate for a patient as congenial as Miss Nessenson.

The telephone rang in the kitchen but he didn't want to interrupt what he was doing and let it ring. He figured whoever was calling could leave a message on the answering machine.

In a couple more minutes, he was finished and, after cleaning his brushes, sat back in his chair and held the artificial eye up to the light. Carefully he rolled it across his fingertips, the hint of a smile gleaming in the corners of his mouth. He was clearly pleased with its appearance. An ocularist, he made the prosthetic for a nineteen-year-old woman who lost her left eye when she dove into a lake and struck her head on a submerged tree branch. As with all his patients, he scheduled five visits with the young woman so that he could create as accurate a match as possible with her good eye. Obviously she would not be able to see out of the eye he made for her, but he wanted her to feel confident that it resembled her seeing eye closely enough that others would not immediately notice it was not real.

He always personalized each of his creations with a tiny illustration, it was the very last bit of work he did, and because her first name was Holly he decided to paint the holiday decoration on her artificial eye. His previous patient was an avid fisherman so he put a rainbow trout on his eye, and for another who was a seamstress he painted a blue ball of yarn. Such whimsical illustrations also had a functional purpose in that they identified the top of the prosthetic to assist patients in placing the eye in the correct position. Without them, he suspected, many of his patients might appear to be looking upside down when they looked at themselves in the mirror.

He placed Holly's eye in a small myrtle wood box then idly glanced around the studio at all the different images of eyes that graced the wall;s. There were scads of them, maybe as many as a hundred. Many of them were given to him by patients in appreciation of his work, many more were items he had collected over the twelve years he had worked as an ocularist. If anyone had a right to be paranoid, it was he, he laughed, because all the eyes were looking squarely at him.

Only one cigarette remained in the tray on his desk, and though he was tempted to save it for after dinner, he lit it and inhaled slowly and deliberately. Then he got up from his desk and shuffled into the kitchen to see if the caller had left a message on the answering machine. The person had so he pressed the playback button and listened.

"Hello, Herb. This is Susan. I know you're probably hard at work with your brushes and paints, but I called to remind you that the birthday dinner we're having for your brother is tomorrow night at seven sharp. Now don't be late or you might not get any cake."

There was silence, and he assumed the message was finished and stepped over to erase it when his sister-in-law resumed, after swallowing something, "Oh, I almost forgot to tell you but we've had some very say news in our family. My aunt's Irish setter passed away the other day. I think I may have mentioned that she wasn't feeling very well but no one thought she was doing that poorly. My aunt is convinced that the dog must've eaten something bad in the park where she walks her every day, but who knows? Anyway, see you tomorrow, Herb.

He didn't bother to erase the message, not now, he was too startled to do much of anything for the moment but brace himself against the broom closet should he lose his balance. His shoulders and back were so damp with perspiration he felt as if he had just stepped out of the shower. In another moment, his whole body was shivering despite the rising temperature outside.


Nearly every morning, before he received any patients, Speicher went for a stroll in the park a few blocks north of his home. For years, he had followed the same circuit, regardless of the weather, and never experienced any trouble until last spring when the moronic parks commissioner decided to designate Joshua Park as one of three parks where dogs did not have to be kept on leashes. Only a few days after the designation, he was bitten by a Doberman pinscher. He did nothing to provoke the animal, indeed he didn't even see it until it was too late. Its teeth sank through his corduroy pants leg deep enough to break the skin and draw blood. He was furious and picked up a branch and threw it at the dog.

"There ought to be a law against these dogs running loose in the park," he complained to a bystander who saw the attack and offered to drive him to a hospital to get a tetanus shot.

"There used to be but not anymore."

"It's ridiculous."

"I know. You feel as if you have to wear a suit of armor to walk around here now."

Twice more he was bitten by unleashed dogs in the park, each more seriously than before, and on numerous other occasions was frightened by dogs charging out of the bushes as if they were going to bite him. The pleasant neighborhood park he had enjoyed walking through so many mornings had become an obstacle course. It was absolutely ridiculous, insane. Soon he had enough and thought about avoiding the park and walking somewhere else in the morning, but he rejected the idea because he knew he wasn't the problem. The owners who refused to keep their dogs on leashes were the ones who had made the park so inhospitable. They were the people who needed to be taught a lesson they wouldn't soon forget.


The first night he visited Joshua Park it was quite late, well after eleven, and it was raining as hard as it had all week. So he doubted if anyone else would be there, certainly not anyone who might recognize him. Not wanting to take any chances, though, he wore dark clothes and pulled the hood of his jacket over his head. He had proceeded only a few steps along the cedar chip trail near the southeast entrance to the park when he paused and pulled a roll of sausage out of his pocket and tossed a piece of it into the bushes. He continued on a few more yards then tossed out another chunk of the tainted meat. Earlier in the day he had laced the sausage with a small amount of herbicide that was likely to make any dog that swallowed it nauseous for an hour or two but otherwise not in any serious danger. He figured any dog on a leash would not be allowed by its owner to wander off the path into the bushes, only unleashed dogs, and it was their owners he wanted to target. They were the ones he blamed for all the aggravation he had suffered the past couple of months.

By the time he reached the end of the path, all the sausage was gone and he went back to his car and drove home. He intended to return a couple more nights that week, hoping when he was through the irresponsible owners had become frightened enough to leash their pets. Sometimes drastic measures were required to make people do what was right, and however much he hated to leave the tainted meat, he felt he was justified because sooner or later someone, a small child most likely, would be seriously injured by one of the dogs roaming loose in the park.

Not until nearly two weeks after he began his one man campaign, while watching the eleven o'clock news one evening, did he see any mention of an apparent dog poisoning at Joshua Park. Soon other poisonings were reported, invariably with interviews with tearful owners who never once admitted any negligence on their part. Signs were posted at the main park entrances, warning people about the recent poisonings. Angry letters appeared in the newspapers, denouncing the heinous attacks. Many in the neighborhood volunteered to patrol the park at night, usually in pairs, to look for pieces of the tainted meat and anyone who might have left them. Speicher even volunteered to join the patrols on a couple occasions, figuring the gesture would preclude anyone from suspecting he had anything to do with the attacks.

"I sometimes wonder if a poisoner really exists," his next door neighbor, Wayne Durrell, admitted to Speicher one evening as they patrolled the park with flashlights the size of jack-o'-lanterns.

"What makes you say that?"

He shrugged, causing the beam of his flashlight to stray off the path. "It's just that these days the folks who tend the parks are always spraying every blade of grass and twig with so many different pesticides that I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the days that have become sick just happened to come in contact with some of these chemicals."

"I don't know."

"Neither do I, Herb, but it makes as much sense as thinking that someone is skulking around out here deliberately poisoning dogs."

Not replying, he suppressed a smile and continued along the familiar path.

"If you want my opinion, even if such a person does exist, we'll probably never find him. This park is pretty good size, and he could slip in and out of here without anyone ever spotting him. We might as well be chasing a phantom."


One dog, to his astonishment, died from the tainted meat, or so claimed one of the last signs to appear in the park. A colored photograph of the Boston terrier was attached to a corner of the sign, and right below it, in bright red ink, the owner condemned whoever left the meant "to burn in hell." Speicher was mortified when he first saw the sign. Also, he was quite skeptical of the claim, certain that no animal could have perished after taking the modicum of herbicide he had injected in the sausage.

His clandestine efforts worked, evidently, because soon after he stopped he noticed fewer and fewer unleashed dogs in the park. He was so gratified, he almost wished he could share what he had done with some of his neighbors and patients. Still, he remained troubled by that last sign posted in the park, even made a special late night visit to pull ;it down from the elm tree it was nailed to and crumpled it up in his pocket. In particular, he could not rid from his thoughts the part of the message in which the owner of the terrier accused him of being "a sick person who needed help." He didn't believe that for an instant but he did start to have some reservations about what he felt he had been forced to do and suspected he would not do it again however many dogs roamed loose in the park.


Intently, Speicher examined the series of photographs he had taken of Colonel Rutherford's good eye with a small magnifying glass, trying to decide the correct shade of thread to use to simulate blood vessels in his artificial eye. The retired Air Force officer, who lost his right eye to diabetes, was a heavy drinker and his good eye was often bloodshot so the ocularist figured he should select a brighter shade of red than he usually chose.

A few moments later, near the conclusion of the noon newscast, the reporter announced that another dog had died from an apparent poisoning in China Grove Park. It was the third fatality in the past four days. At once, Speicher slammed down the magnifying glass and got up and walked over to the window and stared down at a small boy jumping rope on the corner. He was so angry he wanted to bang his forehead against the plate-glass window, bang it and bang it until the boy jumping rope could hear him. He blamed himself for what was going on in China Grove Park, convinced if he had not done what he did last spring these new attacks would not be occurring. His apparent success had made it more likely that someone would follow his example, only much more recklessly.

Just as happened last spring, several people in the China Grove neighborhood decided to patrol the park after dark, and when his sister-in-law informed him of the decision, he told her he wanted to volunteer for one of the patrols.

"Whatever for?" she asked, surprised by his offer. "This isn't your problem. You live on the other side of town."

"I know, but I didn't have any success in catching whoever was doing the poisoning in Joshua Park so I thought, maybe, I might have better luck this time."

"You think it's the same person?"

"Not at all," he said emphatically. "Only one died in our park, in China Grove three have died already, and there's no telling how many more will follow."

"What makes you so sure, Herb?"

"The other poisoner wasn't trying to kill the dogs who ingested his poison, this guy obviously is."

"I don't understand it," she grumbled. "Joshua Park was designated an off-leash area and apparently for quite some time was swarming with dogs running wild, but that's not the case in China Grove."

"Some folks are ornery enough that they don't need a particular reason to act badly," he replied somewhat hesitantly. "It's just in their nature."


Speicher patrolled the park the next evening, from eight to nine o'clock, with a high school geography teacher who wore a miner's lamp above the bill of his baseball cap. He claimed he wanted both hands free in case they came across the dog poisoner, but the only suspicious person they saw was a vagrant who appeared too intoxicated to be bothered with anything but where he could cadge his next drink. Speicher was paired with him two nights later, and instead of being as cocksure as he was before, the teacher began to express some doubts about their efforts.

"You think we'll ever find who's doing this?" he wondered aloud as they crossed a small footbridge at the north end of the park.

Speicher gritted his teeth. "We better."

"Personally, it doesn't matter to me if we do or not so long as he stops," the teacher admitted. "And he seems to have done just that because there haven't been any reports of dogs getting sick here in nearly a week."

"Maybe so, but you never know when he could start up again. So I'd just as soon catch him and see that he gets what he deserves."

"Yeah, I suppose."

"And I'm sure we will sooner or later."

"I hope you're right."

"We have to or else no animal or child will be safe in the park."


After another week, the patrols were suspended indefinitely because there were no further reports of casualties. Several neighbors even began to wonder if there ever was a poisoner, suspecting the dogs became ill for other reasons, but not Speicher. He remained convinced that someone was emulating him so he continued to patrol China Grove Park in the evening. Gradually, he began to limit his practice, taking nearly twice as long to make one eye as he had before, so he could spend more time searching for the poisoner. Not only did he look for him at China Grove but also in other parks in the northwest part of town.

"The dogs are not the problem," he recalled his sister-in-law insisting one day last spring. "I don't see how anyone could think so and want to harm them. I know I couldn't. I don't really know anyone that could. Who'd want that on his conscience?"

She was right, of course, and if he could not tell her so, maybe he could find whoever was responsible for the recent spate of poisonings. It was his obligation, he believed, because without his apparent success last spring, it was doubtful if someone would be poisoning dogs in China Grove Park. He was convinced he was as much at fault as the poisoner. At times he almost felt transparent, as if others could see right through him and knew he shared some of the responsibility, and now it was up to him to atone for what he did. So night after night he went out to another park, as meticulous in his searches as he was in composing one of his eyes.

BIO:  T. R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His stories have appeared in such publication as The Flask Review, Freight Train, Keepgoing, and The Square Table.