Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror


Faith and science. Belief and disbelief. But who is the believer and who truly the skeptic depends on your point of view. And just how far can you go -- should you go -- to prove your point...?


When is a Man?

By Richard K. Lyon
About the author

“Father, I have a moral problem.”

“Then see Father Gardiner. He’ll be glad to hear your confession.”

“No, Father Jacob. I haven't done anything that I want to confess. What I have is a moral problem, one I need to talk to you.”

He shrugged. “I’d still rather you went to Father Gardiner. While I'm a priest, I gave up the pastoral ministry some time ago and just now I’m very busy."

"Now, Father," she replied, shaking her head, “I know your flight to Boston was cancelled due to bad weather. We're alone here in the church and you’ve nothing better to do than talk to me.”

“Woman," he snapped, "I simply don’t want to hear your troubles. When I was a parish priest no one ever came to me for advice until it was far too late for advice to do much good.”

Father Jacob's office had been furnished and decorated by his sister, the late Helen Mary. She had believed that there were far too many people who wanted to waste her brother's time. Accordingly she had made the office as empty and unwelcoming a place as possible; oak paneled walls, no pictures or decorations anywhere, a dark rug, an imposing desk with one chair behind it.

A set of chairs was stored in a stack in a corner in front of the desk. Pulling one of these off the stack the woman seated herself in a very final manner and declared, “Father, this is extremely important.”

Grumbling his consent, he asked,” Then, who are you and where are you from?”

“I’m Dr. Grace Thane, until recently employed by the University.”

“Well, if you’ve come to complain about the way I run the University, you can say your piece and be gone. When the Board of Governors appointed me they knew that I'd make changes many people wouldn’t like."

“You mean," she asked bitterly, “such things as eliminating funding for scientific research and firing the research staff?”

He sighed. The charge of downsizing research was hardly fair. Thanks to his fundraising University spending on research would be more than ever before. Unfortunately, however, his fundraising had all been focused on one project that he regarded as supremely important and his success had had the effect of drying up sources of funding for other projects. "Actually," he replied mildly, "if you count spending for the drug testing program --"

"That's not research!" Thane protested, "It is a completely useless waste of time and money! It doesn't even make business sense! None of the drug companies are interested in finding a cure for cancer anymore! Cancer is a host of different diseases, nearly all of which already have a cure! Finding a general cure will benefit only a very few rare cases, not nearly enough to matter!"

Jacob's pregnant sister had been one of those very rare cases. At the time he became a priest, giving up the sons and daughters he might sire in favor of the nieces or nephews his dear sister might bear had seemed a small sacrifice. It hadn't worked out that way. When her cancer had been diagnosed Jacob had learned of Prazopan. Every test that could be done in a test tube or by computer modeling had shown the drug to be a true general cure for early stage cancer. Since further testing was needed to prove the drug safe and effective, his sister got the standard treatment which had saved so many others. When it became clear that the standard treatment wasn't working it was far too late for Prazopan. She had died slowly and painfully.

In a controlled voice that gave no sign of his emotions, Father Jacob said, "You're wrong. One cancer case is enough to matter. Besides nearly everyone I fired found another position quickly and …" Realizing what he'd just said, he stopped himself. "And, of course, one person having trouble finding a job also matters. Do you have your resume with you? There's probably nothing I can do directly, but I know some extremely good people."

"I'm not unemployed!" Dr. Thane snapped. “Two days after you fired me, I had another position at better pay!”

“Then what," he demanded, “are you complaining about?”

“I didn’t come here to complain. I have a moral problem”

With a tired sigh he asked, "And what is this great problem?”

“It’s complicated; first tell me, when, if ever, is violence justified?”

After looking at her sharply he replied, "According to Canon Law violence is justified if one has no other effective means to resist the commission of a great wrong.”

"My second question is this: when is a man?”

“Come again?”

“When is a man? What does it mean to be human, to be a person? Since I know the definition of a chair I can tell whether or not a given object is a chair. Tell me the definition of a person that I may judge whether or not a given creature is a person.”

His smile was very faint. Perhaps now he understood. “A person is any creature with an immortal soul, and since the soul enters the body at conception abortion is murder."

Laughing without humor she shook her head. “No, Father, that’s not my problem. For the past several years I’ve been as devoted to my research as you are to the Church.”

Staring at his uninvited guest, the priest wondered. Her age he couldn't guess except that she was no longer young. There was nothing soft or pretty about her and probably there never had been. She was lean and hard of face and body. If her problem wasn’t sex or money, what could be bothering her?

“I defer," she continued, "to your convictions about the human soul. Still, as a scientist I’d prefer a definition in terms of things I can observe.”

Puzzled, he replied, “Well, the usual definitions are that a person is a rational animal or a moral agent, a being capable of knowing right from wrong.”

“Isn’t there a third definition: a person is a witness, someone whose testimony is acceptable in a court of law?”

“Well, I never thought of it that way but yes, that would follow logically the other definitions.”

Nodding, she said, “Now I want to show you something.” Reaching into her purse she drew out a small silver whistle. When she blew it there was no sound.

As she sat silently waiting for something to happen, he fumbled with his pipe and abruptly remembered. “Dr. Thane," he said accusingly," how did you know my flight was cancelled because of bad weather?”

“The airline," she answered absently, “didn’t phone you. I did.”

“What!” He was up from his chair and had taken two steps toward her when the door flew open. The thing that entered was dressed in a child's clothes but it was black and furry.

“Meet Johnny!” she declared proudly.

“Get your monkey out of my church!” he roared.

"In the first place Johnny is a chimpanzee, a member of the Great Ape family, not a monkey.”

"Apes, monkeys, it’s all one to me. Get the beast out!”


“WOMAN, I’m not asking, I’m telling.”

“Johnny has a right to be here. This concerns him.”

“I’ll call the police.”

“And how would that look in the newspapers? Woman asks priest for moral advice and he has her arrested.”

He sat down. “Is the beast housebroken?”

Her eyes flashed as she snapped, “Johnny’s toilet training is better than yours!”


“It’s a fact. A man your age and weight can rarely hold a pint of beer more than an hour. Given the same quantity of fluid per unit body weight Johnny could hold for two hours.”

He settled back in his chair. “If that’s the sort of research you were doing, I’m glad I fired the lot of you. Now will you please get to the point of all this.”

“In due course. Johnny, go get your box.”

The ape scampered away to reappear a moment later carrying an attaché case. This it opened to display an array of blocks of various shapes and colors.

“Say hello to the man, Johnny.”

Reaching into the case the ape selected two blocks and placed on the desk in front of the priest. On the first was printed “Greetings” and on the second “Sir”.

After staring at the blocks for a moment, he said, “Ahh, yes, now I remember. You had an ape colony and were trying to teach them to talk.”

"Not trying, succeeding. Johnny is fully the equivalent of a human three year old.”

He snorted. “Not one of your animals could say a single word.”

“Of course not. Chimp brains don’t have speech centers, but Johnny can still communicate. These blocks are a modified deaf/mute sign language, and watch what he can do with them.”

“I’ll watch your show, but I’ll not change my mind. The way you were using that ape colony was a terrible waste. It's a resource that could be used to relieve human suffering."

“Suffering!” she yelled. “How can you talk about suffering when you're going to use my chimps to test your damned cancer drug? Have you any notion what those tests will do to them?” Her calm surface had cracked, revealing a depth of anger.

While the intensity of her feelings disturbed him, he replied softly, “Yes and you're right to think it's a terrible thing, but that doesn't mean it isn't necessary. Saving human lives requires sacrificing your animals." He paused. Knowing full well that what he'd said would not satisfy this woman, he continued, “Why not proceed with whatever you wanted to show me?”

“Johnny, are you thirsty?”

It blocked “(Johnny) (want) (candy) (water)”

“After a little," she said. Turning to the priest, she continued, a hint of pride in her voice, "You see that? He wants Coca Cola, I never taught him a word for it and he devised an appropriate combination. That’s inductive reasoning!”

“It’s not," he frowned, “really new, an ape doing this sort of thing, is it?”

“No, but Johnny does it better. Watch!” She held up a photo of a cat nursing its kittens. “Johnny, what is this?”

“(Miss Grace) (Cat) (and) (Johnny) (Cats)”

“How much are two and two?”


“Now wait," he demanded, “is that fair? Are there other numbers in that set of blocks besides four?”

“No, but that’s beside the point. He didn't say two and two are dog or cats and in fact Johnny can use almost two hundred blocks accurately.”

The ape blocked out, "(Miss Grace) (Give) (Johnny) (Candy) (Water)(?)”

“Do you," she asked, 'deserve Coco Cola?”

It blocked, "(Johnny) (Good Boy) (Not) (Do Nono)”

“All right Johnny, but now. See Father, by both of your definitions Johnny is person! He has a limited but real ability to reason and he can make simple distinctions between right and wrong. Now I’ll prove that he meets the third definition. Johnny, do you know the difference between the truth and a story?”

“(Johnny) (Know) (Johnny) (Tell True)”

“There, you see, the courts have often accepted the testimony of children on such simple oaths. By every definition my colony of apes are people! What you plan to do to them is monstrously wrong!”

"That’s daft. If your trained apes are people then all apes, trained or not, are also people.”

“Why not?” she snapped. “Why not consider apes as limited people? Children and mental defectives are people, so why shouldn't apes deserve a like measure of compassion?”

“Because,” he replied, “money and resources spent on animals means less to spend on people. The world’s a poor place with most its people in great misery. Why do you realize that in India today...” He stopped he could see that his words were only fueling her anger. In his most calming tone he continued, “But there’s small use talking about what can’t be changed. What can be done is this: I can see that you’re very attached to Johnny and something less harsh can be arranged for him, perhaps a good zoo.”

The priest was aware that the ape had been watching him. The deep liquid brown eyes starred very intensely with seeming understanding. That, of course, was an illusion; the beast couldn’t possibly understand more than the tiniest fraction of what was said. Nevertheless the last words seemed to disturb it. Pulling on the woman’s sleeve, it demanded attention then blocked out, “(Miss Grace) (Keep) (Johnny)(?)”

Patting its head she said, "Yes, Johnny, I won’t let anyone take you.” There was great tenderness in her manner.

It blocked, "(True)(?) (Not) (story)(?) (Miss Grace) (Keep) (Johnny)(?)”

Taking it tenderly into her arms she declared, “I swear, Johnny, I’ll never let anyone take you from me.”

Watching them the priest had an uncomfortable thought. It was not uncommon for a scientist doing research on apes to raise a baby ape as one would a child. Had Dr. Thane fallen into that remarkably dangerous emotional trap? Since she'd neither husband not children of her own, she was particularly vulnerable and … the ape had called the mother cat the Miss Grace cat! It literally told the woman that she was its mother! With growing apprehension the priest asked, “How did you educate Johnny?”

“Why, obviously I raised him the way one would a human baby.”

Nodding he said, "I'm sorry, Dr. Thane. You've a problem and it's too late for advice I could give. I wish you were pregnant for then I’d tell you to have your child and love it, but your problem is that you haven’t had a child and still you love it. You’ve taken an animal and loved it as your own child.”

"NO!" She snapped in a voice as cold as ice. “Johnny isn't an animal! MY SON is a limited person.”

After looking at her for a long moment he said, “It seems we’ve come to the end of the road for there’s no more to be said. While I’m sorry for you there’s nothing I can do to change your situation. Even if I could let you keep Johnny, I wouldn’t. Continuing such a relationship could only do you more harm.”

“And the chimp colony?”

“The cancer drug must be tested.”

There was another silence, broken only by the whimpering of the frightened ape. While she comforted him, she said, "You're determined to do what you believe right, regardless of the consequences or opinions of others. I suppose we’re alike in that, but have you realized that there is one way in which the whole matter could be taken out of your hands?”

He looked at her intently, for she was obviously leading up to something important. “Since the apes are all university property I can’t imagine any way this decision could be taken from me.”

“Suppose there were a legal precedent, a court case in which the testimony of chimpanzee was accepted as valid evidence?”

“Oh to be sure that would upset the apple cart, but no court would give such an absurd ruling...No, I tell a lie. The courts nowadays rule logically and common sense be hanged. There’s much logic and no sense in what you’ve said and perhaps they might agree with you. Still it’s all academic. No such case could reach a court for how could an ape have testimony that a court would need”

Again she gave him a cold, utterly humorless smile. “Suppose there were a major crime with not physical evidence and only an ape like Johnny as witness. What would the authorities do if it was a choice of using Johnny’s testimony or letting a criminal go free?”

He shook his head. “That’s a most unlikely situation.”

“No. It’s a certainty.” Rising she pulled a small black gun from her purse. Leveling it slowly that Johnny might see every detail she fired twice.

The End.

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This story is copyright Richard K. Lyon. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)