“Thank you,” I said faintly. “I’ll . . . ah . . . do something with it. Thank you.”
Keziah beamed and bowed his way out, leaving me in personal custody of a sack containing what appeared to be a small but highly annoyed rattlesnake. I looked round frantically for some place to put it. I didn’t dare throw it out of the window; Jemmy often played in the dooryard near the house.
Finally, I pulled the big clear glass jar of salt over to the edge of the counter, and—holding the bag at arm’s length—used my other hand to dump the salt out on the counter. I dropped the bag into the jar and slammed the lid on it, then rushed to the other side of the room and collapsed on a stool, the backs of my knees sweaty with dread.
I didn’t really mind snakes in theory; in practice, though . . .
Brianna poked her head through the door.
“Mama? How’s Da this morning?”
“Not all that well.” My face evidently told her just how serious it was, for she came into the room and stood beside me, frowning.
“Really bad?” she asked softly, and I nodded, unable to speak. She let her breath out in a deep sigh.
“Can I help?”
I let out an identical sigh, and made a helpless gesture. I had one vague glimmering of an idea—or rather, the return of an idea I’d had in the back of my mind for some time.
“The only thing I can think of doing is to open the leg—cut down deep through the muscle—and pour what penicillin I have left directly into the wounds. It’s much more effective against bacterial infections if you can inject it, rather than give it orally. Raw penicillin like this”—I nodded at the bottle—“is very unstable in the presence of acid. It’s not likely enough would make it through the stomach to do any good.”
“That’s more or less what Aunt Jenny did, isn’t it? That’s what made that huge scar on his thigh.”
I nodded, wiping my palms unobtrusively over my knees. I didn’t normally suffer from sweaty hands, but the feel of the amputation saw was much too clear in my memory.
“I’d have to do two or three deep cuts. It would likely cripple him permanently—but it might work.” I tried to give her a smile. “I don’t suppose MIT taught you how to engineer a hypodermic syringe, did they?”
“Why didn’t you say so before?” she said calmly. “I don’t know if I can make a syringe, but I’d be really surprised if I can’t figure out something that does the same thing. How long have we got?”
I stared at her, my mouth half open, then shut it with a snap.
“A few hours, at least. I thought if we didn’t get any improvement with the hot poultices, I’d have to either cut or amputate by this evening.”
“Amputate!” All the blood drained out of her face. “You can’t do that!”
“I can—but my God, I don’t want to.” My hands curled hard, denying their skill.
“Let me think, then.” Her face was still pale, but the shock was passing as her mind began to focus. “Oh—where’s Mrs. Bug? I was going to leave Jemmy with her, but—”
“She’s gone? Are you sure she isn’t just out in the hencoop?”
“No, I stopped there when I came up to the house. I didn’t see her anywhere—and the kitchen fire is smoored.”
That was more than odd; Mrs. Bug had come to the house as usual to make breakfast—what could have induced her to leave again? I hoped Arch hadn’t suddenly been taken ill; that would just about put the cocked hat on things.
“Where’s Jemmy, then?” I asked, looking round for him. He didn’t normally go far away from his mother, though he was beginning to wander a bit, as small boys did.
“Lizzie took him upstairs to see Da. I’ll ask her to look after him for a while.”
My exclamation made her turn back at the door, eyebrows raised in question.
“Do you think you could take that”—I gestured distastefully at the big glass jar—“outside, darling? Dispose of it somewhere?”
“Sure. What is it?” Curious, she walked over to the jar. The little rattlesnake had crawled out of its bag and was coiled up in a suspicious dark knot; as she extended a hand toward the jar, it lunged, striking at the glass, and Brianna jumped back with a yelp.
“Ifrinn!” she said, and I laughed, in spite of the general stress and worry.
“Where did you get him, and what is he for?” she asked. Recovering from the initial shock, she leaned forward cautiously and tapped lightly on the glass. The snake, who appeared irascible in the extreme, struck the side of the jar with an audible thump, and she jerked her hand away again.
“Kezzie brought him in; Jamie is meant to drink his blood as a cure,” I explained.
She reached out a cautious forefinger, and traced the path of a small droplet of yellowish liquid, sliding down the glass. Two droplets, in fact.
“Look at that! He tried to bite me right through the glass! That’s a really mad snake; I guess he doesn’t think much of the idea.”
He didn’t. He—if it was a he—was coiled again, tiny rattles vibrating in an absolute frenzy of animosity.
“Well, that’s all right,” I said, coming to stand beside her. “I’m sure Jamie wouldn’t think much of the idea, either. He’s rather strongly anti-snake at the moment.”
“Mmphm.” She was still staring at the little snake, a slight frown drawing down her thick red brows. “Did Kezzie say where he got it?”
“I didn’t think to ask. Why?”
“It’s getting cold out—snakes hibernate, don’t they? In dens?”
“Well, Dr. Brickell says they do,” I replied, rather dubiously. The good doctor’s Natural History of North Carolina made entertaining reading, but I took leave to doubt some of his observations, particularly those pertaining to snakes and crocodiles, of whose prowess he appeared to have a rather exaggerated opinion.
She nodded, not taking her eyes off the snake.
“See, the thing is,” she said, sounding rather dreamy, “pit-vipers have beautiful engineering. Their jaws are disarticulated, so they can swallow prey bigger than they are—and their fangs fold back against the roof of their mouth when they aren’t using them.”
“Yes?” I said, giving her a slightly fishy look, which she ignored.
“The fangs are hollow,” she said, and touched a finger to the glass, marking the spot where the venom had soaked into the linen cloth, leaving a small yellowish stain. “They’re connected to a venom sac in the snake’s cheek, and so when they bite down, the cheek muscles squeeze venom out of the sac . . . and down through the fang into the prey. Just like a—”
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said.
She nodded, finally taking her eyes off the snake in order to look at me.
“I was thinking of trying to do something with a sharpened quill, but this would work lots better—it’s already designed for the job.”
“I see,” I said, feeling a small surge of hope. “But you’ll need a reservoir of some kind . . .”
“First I need a bigger snake,” she said practically, turning toward the door. “Let me go find Jo or Kezzie, and see if that one did come from a den—and if so, if there are more of them there.”
She set off promptly on this mission, taking the glass jar with her, and leaving me to return to a contemplation of the antibiotic situation with renewed hope. If I was going to be able to inject the solution, it needed to be strained and purified as much as possible.
I would have liked to boil the solution, but didn’t dare to; I didn’t know whether high temperatures would destroy or inactivate raw penicillin—if, in fact, there still was active penicillin in there. The surge of hope I had experienced at Brianna’s idea dimmed somewhat. Having a hypodermic apparatus wouldn’t help, if I had nothing useful to inject.
Restlessly, I moved around the surgery, picking things up and putting them down again.
Steeling myself, I put my hand on the saw again, and closed my eyes, deliberately reliving the movements and sensations, trying also to recapture the sense of otherworldly detachment with which I had killed the buffalo.
Of course, it was Jamie who’d been talking to the otherworld this time. Nice of you to give him the choice, I thought sardonically. I see you aren’t going to make it easy on him, though.
But he wouldn’t have asked for that. I opened my eyes, startled. I didn’t know whether that answer came from my own subconscious, or elsewhere—but there it was in my mind, and I recognized the truth of it.
Jamie was accustomed to make his choice and abide by it, no matter the cost. He saw that living would likely mean the loss of his leg and all that that implied—and had accepted that as the natural price of his decision.
“Well, I don’t bloody accept it!” I said out loud, chin uplifted toward the window. A cedar waxwing swinging on the end of a tree limb gave me a sharp look through his black robber’s mask, decided I was mad but harmless, and went about his business.
I pulled open the cupboard door, threw open the top of my medicine chest, and fetched a sheet of paper, quill, and ink from Jamie’s study.
A jar of dried red wintergreen berries. Extract of pipsissewa. Slippery elm bark. Willow bark, cherry bark, fleabane, yarrow. Penicillin was by far the most effective of the antibiotics available, but it wasn’t the only one. People had been waging war on germs for thousands of years, without any notion what they were fighting. I knew; that was some slight advantage.
I began to make a list of the herbs I had on hand, and under each name, all the uses that I knew for that herb—whether I had ever made such use of it or not. Any herb used to treat a septic condition was a possibility—cleansing lacerations, treating mouth sores, treatment of diarrhea and dysentery . . . I heard footsteps in the kitchen, and called to Mrs. Bug, wanting her to bring me a kettle of boiling water, so I could set things to steeping at once.
She appeared in the doorway, her cheeks bright pink from the cold and her hair coming down in untidy wisps from under her kerch, a large basket clutched in her arms. Before I could say anything, she came and plunked the basket down on the counter in front of me. Just behind her came her husband, with another basket, and a small open keg, from which came a pungent alcoholic scent. The air around them held a faint ripe smell, like the distant reek of a garbage dump.
“I did hear ye say as how ye’d not enough mold on hand,” she started in, anxious but bright-eyed, “so I said to Arch, I said, we must go round to the houses nearabouts, and see what we can fetch back wi’ us for Mrs. Fraser, for after all, bread does go bad so quick when it’s damp, and the good Lord kens that Mrs. Chisholm is a slattern, for all I’m sure she’s a good heart, and what goings-on there may be at her hearth I’m sure I shouldna like even to think about, but we—”
I wasn’t paying attention, but was staring at the results of the Bugs’ morning raid on the pantries and middens of the Ridge. Crusts of bread, spoilt biscuit, half-rotted squash, bits of pie with the marks of teeth still visible in the pastry . . . a hodgepodge of gluey orts and decaying fragments—all sprouting molds in patches of velvet-blue and lichen-green, interspersed with warty blobs of pink and yellow and dustings of splotchy white. The keg was half-filled with decaying corn, the resultant murky liquid rimmed with floating islands of blue mold.