Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 89


His hand, blindly groping after sustenance, encountered the muffins. He picked one up and glanced up at me. “Damned if I’ve ever seen that, myself. D’ye think it likely?”

“No,” I said, pushing the curls back off my forehead. “Does that book have any helpful suggestions for dealing with vicious pigs?”

He waved absently at me with the remnants of his muffin.

“Dinna fash,” he murmured. “I’ll manage the pig.” He took his eyes off the book long enough to glance over the table at the empty dishes. “Are there no more eggs?”

“There are, but I’m taking them up to our guest at the corncrib.” I added two slices of bread to the small basket I was packing, and took up the bottle of infusion I had left steeping overnight. The brew of goldenrod, bee-balm, and wild bergamot was a blackish green, and smelled like burnt fields, but it might help. It couldn’t hurt. On impulse, I picked up the tied-feather amulet old Nayawenne had given me; perhaps it would reassure the sick man. Like the medicine, it couldn’t hurt.

Our impromptu guest was a stranger; a Tuscarora from a northern village. He had come to the farm several days before, as part of a hunting party from Anna Ooka, on the trail of bear.

We had offered food and drink—several of the hunters were Ian’s friends—but in the course of the meal I had noticed this man gazing glassy-eyed into his cup. Close examination had showed him to be suffering from what I was convinced was measles, an alarming disease in these days.

He had insisted on leaving with his companions, but two of them had brought him back a few hours later, stumbling and delirious.

He was plainly—and alarmingly—contagious. I had made him a comfortable bed in the newly built and so-far empty corncrib, and forced his companions to go and wash in the creek, a proceeding which they plainly found senseless, but in which they humored me before departing, leaving their comrade in my hands.

The Indian was lying on his side, curled under his blanket. He didn’t turn to look at me, though he must have heard my footsteps on the path. I could hear him, all right; no need for my makeshift stethoscope—the rales in his lungs were clearly audible at six paces.

“Comment ça va?” I said, kneeling down by him. He didn’t answer; it was unnecessary, in any case. I didn’t need anything beyond the rattling wheeze to diagnose pneumonia, and the look of him merely confirmed it—eyes sunken and dull, the flesh of his face fallen away, consumed to the bone by the fierce blaze of fever.

I tried to persuade him to eat—he desperately needed nourishment—but he would not even bother to turn away his face. The water bottle by his side was empty; I had brought more but didn’t give it to him right away, thinking he might swallow the infusion from sheer thirst.

He did take a few mouthfuls, but then stopped swallowing, merely allowing the greenish-black liquid to run out of the corners of his mouth. I tried coaxing in French, but he was having none of it; he didn’t even acknowledge my presence, just stared past my shoulder at the morning sky.

His thin body sagged with despair; plainly he thought himself abandoned, left to die in the hands of strangers. I felt a gnawing anxiety that he might be right—surely he would die if he would take nothing.

He would take water, at least. He drank thirstily, draining the bottle, and I went to the stream to fill it again. When I came back, I drew the amulet from my basket and held it up in front of his face. I thought I saw a flicker of surprise behind the half-closed lids—nothing so strong as to be called hope, but he did at least take conscious notice of me for the first time.

Seized by inspiration, I sank slowly down onto my knees. I had no notion at all of the proper ceremony to employ, but I had been a doctor long enough to know that while the power of suggestion was no substitute for antibiotics, it was certainly better than nothing.

I held up the raven’s-feather amulet, turned my face skyward; and solemnly intoned the most sonorous thing I could remember, which happened to be Dr. Rawlings’s receipt for the treatment of syphilis, rendered in Latin.

I poured a small bit of lavender oil into my hand, dipped the feather in it, and anointed his temples and throat, while singing “Blow the Man Down,” in a low, sinister voice. It might help the headache. His eyes were following the feather’s movements; I felt rather like a rattlesnake charming away in its “Quoil,” waiting for a squirrel to run down my throat.

I picked up his hand, laid the oil-drabbled amulet across his palm, and closed his fingers round it. Then I took the jar of mentholated bear grease and painted mystic patterns on his chest, being careful to rub it well in with the balls of my thumbs. The reek cleared my sinuses; I could only hope it would help the patient’s thick congestion.

I completed my ritual by solemnly blessing the bottle of infusion with “In nomine Patri, et Filii, et Spiritu Sancti, Amen.” and presenting it to my patient’s lips. Looking mildly hypnotized, he opened his mouth and obediently drank the rest.

I drew the blanket up around his shoulders, put the food I had brought down beside him, and left him, with mixed feelings of hope and fraudulence.

I walked slowly beside the stream, eyes alert as always for anything useful. It was too early in the year for most medicinals; for medicine, the older and tougher the plant, the better; several seasons of fighting off insects ensured a higher concentration of the active principles in their roots and stems.

Also, with many plants, it was the flower, fruit, or seed that yielded a useful substance, and while I’d spotted clumps of turtlehead and lobelia sprouting in the mud along the path, those had long since gone to seed. I marked the locations carefully in my mind for future reference, and went on hunting.

Watercress was abundant; patches of it floated among the rocks all along the margin of the stream, and a huge mat of the spicy dark green leaves lay temptingly just ahead. A nice patch of scouring rushes, too! I had come down barefoot, knowing I’d be wading before long; I tucked up my skirts and ventured cautiously out into the stream, cutting knife in hand and basket over my arm, breath sucked in against the freezing chill.

My feet lost all feeling within moments—but I didn’t care. I quite forgot the snake in the privy, the pig in the pantry, and the Indian in the corncrib, absorbed in the rush of water past my legs, the wet, cold touch of stems and the breath of aromatic leaves.

Dragonflies hung in the patches of sunshine on the shallows, and minnows darted past, snatching gnats too small for me to see. A kingfisher called in a loud, dry rattle from somewhere upstream, but he was after larger prey. The minnows scattered at my intrusion but then swarmed back, gray and silver, green and gold, black marked with white, all insubstantial as the shadows from last year’s leaves, floating on the water. Brownian motion, I thought, seeing puffs of silt float up and swirl around my ankles, obscuring the fish.

Everything moving, all of the time, down to the smallest molecule—but in its movement, giving the paradoxical impression of stillness, small local chaos giving way to the illusion of a greater order overall.

I moved, too, taking my part in the stream’s bright dance, feeling light and shadow change across my shoulders, toes searching for footholds among the slippery, half-seen rocks. My hands and feet were numb from the water; I felt as though I were half made of wood, yet intensely alive, like the silver birch that glowed above me, or the willows that trailed wet leaves in the pool below.

Perhaps the legends of green men and the myths of transformed nymphs began this way, I thought: not with trees come alive and walking, nor yet with women turned to wood—but with submersion of warm human flesh into the colder sensations of the plants, chilled to slow awareness.

I could feel my heart beat slowly, and the half-painful throb of blood in my fingers. Sap rising. I moved with the rhythms of water and of wind, without haste or conscious thought, part of the slow and perfect order of the universe.

I had forgotten the bit about small local chaos.

Just as I came to the willows’ bend, there was a loud shriek from beyond the trees. I’d heard similar noises from a variety of animals, from catamounts to hunting eagles, but I knew a human voice when I heard one.

Blundering out of the stream, I shoved my way through the tangled branches, and burst through into the clear space beyond. A boy was dancing on the bank above me, slapping madly at his legs and howling as he hopped and fro.

“What—?” I began, and he glanced up at me, blue eyes wide with startlement at my sudden appearance.

He wasn’t nearly as startled as I was. He was eleven or twelve; tall and thin as a pine sapling, with a mad tangle of thick russet hair. Slanted blue eyes stared at me from either side of a knife-bridged nose, familiar to me as the back of my own hand, though I knew I had never seen this child before.

My heart was somewhere in the vicinity of my tonsils, and the chill had shot up from my feet into the pit of my stomach. Trained to react in spite of shock, I managed to take in the rest of his appearance—shirt and breeches of good quality, though splashed with water, and long pale shins blobbed with black clots like bits of mud.

“Leeches,” I said, professional calm descending by habit over personal tumult. It couldn’t be, I was telling myself, at the same time that I knew it damn well was. “It’s only leeches. They won’t hurt you.”

“I know what they are!” he said. “Get them off me!” He swatted at his calf, shuddering with dislike. “They’re vile!”

“Oh, not so terribly vile,” I said, beginning to get a grip on myself. “They have their uses.”

“I don’t care what use they are!” he bellowed, stamping in frustration. “I hate them, get them off me!”

“Well, stop whacking at them,” I said sharply. “Sit you down and I’ll take care of it.”

He hesitated, glaring at me suspiciously, but reluctantly sat down on a rock, thrusting his leech-spattered legs out in front of him.

“Get them off now!” he demanded.

“In good time,” I said. “Where did you come from?”

He stared blankly at me.

“You don’t live near here,” I said, with complete certainty. “Where did you come from?”

He made an obvious effort to collect himself.

“Ah…we slept in a place called Salem, three nights past. That was the last town I saw.” He wiggled his legs hard. “Get them off, I say!”

There were assorted methods of getting leeches off, most of them somewhat more damaging than the leeches themselves. I had a look; he’d picked up four on one leg, three on the other. One of the fat little beasts was already near bloat, gone plump and shiny with stretching. I edged a thumbnail under its head and it popped off into my hand, round as a pebble and heavy with blood.

The boy stared it, pale under his tan, and shuddered.

“Don’t want to waste it,” I said casually, and went to retrieve the basket I had dropped under the branches as I pushed my way through the trees.

Nearby, I saw his coat on the ground, discarded shoes and stockings with it. Simple buckles on the shoes, but silver, not pewter. Good broadcloth, not showy but cut with a deal more style than one saw anywhere north of Charleston. I hadn’t really needed confirmation, but there it was.