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Rare & Strange

Osteitis deformans preciosa

The Disease of Precious Bones

The invalid with Osteitis deformans preciosa first notices curvatures in his phalangeal bones. Over the next few weeks, his fingers curl backwards until the nails are flat against the back of his hands. The toes likewise fold back onto the dorsum of his foot. The condition is painless thus far, but the changes are so terrifying that the invalid brings himself to the attention of a physician.

Unfortunately, no treatment can stop the progression of Osteitis deformans preciosa. The bones of the wrists fold back over the forearms, which themselves curl towards the elbows. The shins bend until ankles press against knees. Then the large bones themselves deform and coil back, and the invalid is reduced to a head and torso with grotesque rolls for limbs.

The vertebrae then twist, bowing the invalid’s pelvis to his sternum, while the ribs tighten like vises around his chest. The invalid’s torment ceases to be a matter of mere dread. Unbearable pain and suffocation set in. The last moments are gruesome, for the invalid and for all witnesses, and physicians administer opium in liberal quantities to ease the passage.

But the disease doesn’t stop at death. Indeed, it quickens. Funeral rites have to be performed in haste, for the skull crumples and the shoulders collapse before the eyes of the mourners, who hurry to consign what remains of the body to the earth. The family of the invalid, or else some wealthy patron whom the physician has alerted to an opportunity for profit, appoints armed guards at the cemetery to keep the grave from being plundered.

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The Afflictions
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A year later, the coffin is exhumed. The flesh has all been eaten away by worms and insects, and some- times clumps of hair are found in the coffin, along with nails and teeth that rattle like pebbles. But the bones themselves have been crushed into a thing of ferocious beauty. A spherical diamond the size of an eyeball, perfect in its clarity and internal symmetry, is all that remains of the invalid’s skeleton.

Scholars have offered no mechanism to explain Osteitis deformans preciosa. The disease has spurred speculations on the origins of gemstones found in mountains and mineshafts—what species of burrow- ing creatures might have had the right bones to produce each one? But the diamonds of Osteitis deformans preciosa are different in one crucial way. Though their quality is such that they can sell at ten times the price of others their size, the purchase comes with a risk. In one of every ten cases, the affliction will release the invalid from its grip many decades after death. An incident involving a duchess of Burgundy put a swift end to the fashion of wearing these diamonds as jewelry. She was found in her chamber, her face white and bloodless, her heart stopped by shock. A full skeleton lay draped across her chest where the diamond had once hung, in an ornate setting fashioned after the Byzantine style.