Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 175

   

“Probably a lot more than one,” I said. I pushed the slave gently onto his back and began to palpate his stomach. The spleen was tender and slightly enlarged—also a common finding here—but I felt no suspicious masses in the abdomen that might indicate a major intestinal infestation. “He seems moderately healthy; why have you got him in here in the dark?”

As though in answer to my question, the slave suddenly wrenched himself away from my hand, let out a piercing scream, and rolled up into a ball. Rolling and unrolling himself like a yo-yo, he reached the wall and began to bang his head against it, still screaming. Then, as suddenly as the fit had come on, it passed off, and the young man sank back onto the pallet, panting heavily and soaked with sweat.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said. “What was that?”

“A loa-loa worm,” Geilie said, looking amused at my reaction. “They live in the eyeballs, just under the lining. They cross back and forth, from one eye to the other, and when they go across the bridge o’ the nose, I’m told it’s rather painful.” She nodded at the slave, still quivering slightly on his pallet.

“The dark keeps them from moving so much,” she explained. “The fellow from Andros who told me about them says ye must catch them when they’ve just come in one eye, for they’re right near the surface, and ye can lift them out with a big darning needle. If ye wait, they go deeper, and ye canna get them.” She turned back to the kitchen and shouted for a light.

“Here, I brought the needle, just in case.” She groped in the bag at her waist and drew out a square of felt, with a three-inch steel needle thrust through it, which she extended helpfully to me.

“Are you out of your mind?” I stared at her, appalled.

“No. Did ye not say ye were a good healer?” she asked reasonably.

“I am, but—” I glanced at the slave, hesitated, then took the candle one of the kitchenmaids was holding out to me.

“Bring me some brandy, and a small sharp knife,” I said. “Dip the knife—and the needle—in the brandy, then hold the tip in a flame for a moment. Let it cool, but don’t touch it.” As I spoke, I was gently pulling up one eyelid. The man’s eye looked up at me, an oddly irregular, blotched brown iris in a bloodshot sclera the yellow of heavy cream. I searched carefully, bringing the candle flame close enough to shrink the pupil, then drawing it away, but saw nothing there.

I tried the other eye, and nearly dropped the candle. Sure enough, there was a small, transparent filament, moving under the conjunctiva. I gagged slightly at the sight, but controlled myself, and reached for the freshly sterilized knife, still holding back the eyelid.

“Take him by the shoulders,” I said to Geilie. “Don’t let him move, or I may blind him.”

The surgery itself was horrifying to contemplate, but surprisingly simple to perform. I made one quick, small incision along the inside corner of the conjunctiva, lifted it slightly with the tip of the needle, and as the worm undulated lazily across the open field, I slipped the tip of the needle under the body and drew it out, neat as a loop of yarn.

Repressing a shudder of distaste, I flicked the worm away. It hit the wall with a tiny wet splat! and vanished in the shadows under the cheese.

There was no blood; after a brief debate with myself, I decided to leave it to the man’s own tear ducts to irrigate the incision. That would have to be left to heal by itself; I had no fine sutures, and the wound was small enough not to need more than a stitch or two in any case.

I tied a clean pad of cloth over the closed eye with a bandage round the head, and sat back, reasonably pleased with my first foray into tropical medicine.

“Fine,” I said, pushing back my hair. “Where’s the other one?”

The next patient was in a shed outside the kitchen, dead. I squatted next to the body, that of a middle-aged man with grizzled hair, feeling both pity and outrage.

The cause of death was more than obvious: a strangulated hernia. The loop of twisted, gangrenous bowel protruded from one side of the belly, the stretched skin over it already tinged with green, though the body itself was still nearly as warm as life. An expression of agony was fixed on the broad features, and the limbs were still contorted, giving an unfortunately accurate witness to just what sort of death it had been.

“Why did you wait?” I stood up, glaring at Geilie. “For God’s sake, you kept me drinking tea and chatting, while this was going on? He’s been dead less than an hour, but he must have been in trouble a long time since—days! Why didn’t you bring me out here at once?”

“He seemed pretty far gone this morning,” she said, not at all disturbed by my agitation. She shrugged. “I’ve seen them so before; I didna think you could do anything much. It didna seem worth hurrying.”

I choked back further recrimination. She was right; I could have operated, had I come sooner, but the chances of it doing any good were slim to nonexistent. The hernia repair was something I might have managed, even with such difficult conditions; after all, that was nothing more than pushing back the bowel protrusion and pulling the ruptured layers of abdominal muscle back together with sutures; infection was the only real danger. But once the loop of escaped intestine had twisted, so that the blood supply was cut off and the contents began to putrefy, the man was doomed.

But to allow the man to die here in this stuffy shed, alone…well, perhaps he would not have found the presence of one white woman more or less a comfort, in any case. Still, I felt an obscure sense of failure; the same I always felt in the presence of death. I wiped my hands slowly on a brandy-soaked cloth, mastering my feelings.

One to the good, one to the bad—and Ian still to be found.

“Since I’m here now, perhaps I’d best have a look at the rest of your slaves,” I suggested. “An ounce of prevention, you know.”

“Oh, they’re well enough.” Geilie waved a careless hand. “Still, if ye want to take the time, you’re welcome. Later, though; I’ve a visitor coming this afternoon, and I want to talk more with ye, first. Come back to the house, now—someone will take care o’ this.” A brief nod disposed of “this,” the slave’s contorted body. She linked her arm in mine, urging me out of the shed and back toward the kitchen with soft thrustings of her weight.

In the kitchen, I detached myself, motioning toward the pregnant slave, now on her hands and knees, scrubbing the hearthstones.

“You go along; I want to have a quick look at this girl. She looks a bit toxic to me—you don’t want her to miscarry.”

Geilie gave me a curious glance, but then shrugged.

“She’s foaled twice with no trouble, but you’re the doctor. Aye, if that’s your notion of fun, go ahead. Don’t take too long, though; that parson said he’d come at four o’clock.”

I made some pretense of examining the bewildered woman, until Geilie’s draperies had disappeared into the breezeway.

“Look,” I said. “I’m looking for a young white boy named Ian; I’m his aunt. Do you know where he might be?”

The girl—she couldn’t be more than seventeen or eighteen—looked startled. She blinked, and darted a glance at one of the older women, who had quit her own work and come across the room to see what was going on.

“No, ma’am,” the older woman said, shaking her head. “No white boys here. None at all.”

“No, ma’am,” the girl obediently echoed. “We don’ know nothin’ ’bout your boy.” But she hadn’t said that at first, and her eyes wouldn’t meet mine.

The older woman had been joined now by the other two kitchenmaids, coming to buttress her. I was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of bland ignorance, and no way to break through it. At the same time, I was aware of a current running among the women—a feeling of mutual warning; of wariness and secrecy. It might be only the natural reaction to the sudden appearance of a white stranger in their domain—or it might be something more.

I couldn’t take longer; Geilie would be coming back to look for me. I fumbled quickly in my pocket, and pulled out a silver florin, which I pressed into the girl’s hand.

“If you should see Ian, tell him that his uncle is here to find him.” Not waiting for an answer, I turned and hurried out of the kitchen.

I glanced down toward the sugar mill as I passed through the breezeway. The sugar press stood abandoned, the oxen grazing placidly in the long grass at the edge of the clearing. There was no sign of Jamie or the overseer; had he come back to the house?

I came through the French windows into the salon, and stopped short. Geilie sat in her wicker chair, Jamie’s coat across the arm, and the photographs of Brianna spread over her lap. She heard my step and looked up, one pale brow arched over an acid smile.

“What a pretty lassie, to be sure. What’s her name?”

“Brianna.” My lips felt stiff. I walked slowly toward her, fighting the urge to snatch the pictures from her hands and run.

“Looks a great deal like her father, doesn’t she? I thought she seemed familiar, that tall red-haired lass I saw that night on Craigh na Dun. He is her father, no?” She inclined her head toward the door where Jamie had vanished.

“Yes. Give them to me.” It made no difference; she had seen the pictures already. Still, I couldn’t stand to see her thick white fingers cupping Brianna’s face.

Her mouth twitched as though she meant to refuse, but she tapped them neatly into a square and handed them to me without demur. I held them against my chest for a moment, not knowing what to do with them, then thrust them back into the pocket of my skirt.

“Sit ye down, Claire. The coffee’s come.” She nodded toward the small table, and the chair alongside. Her eyes followed me as I moved to it, alive with calculation.

She gestured for me to pour the coffee for both of us, and took her own cup without words. We sipped silently for a few moments. The cup trembled in my hands, spilling hot liquid across my wrist. I put it down, wiping my hand on my skirt, wondering in some dim recess of my mind why I should be afraid.

“Twice,” she said suddenly. She looked at me with something akin to awe. “Sweet Christ Jesus, ye went through twice! Or no—three times, it must have been, for here ye are now.” She shook her head, marveling, never taking her bright green eyes from my face.

“How?” she asked. “How could ye do it so many times, and live?”

“I don’t know.” I saw the look of hard skepticism flash across her face, and answered it, defensively. “I don’t! I just—went.”

“Was it not the same for you?” The green eyes had narrowed into slits of concentration. “What was it like, there between? Did ye not feel the terror? And the noise, fit to split your skull and spill your brains?”

“Yes, it was like that.” I didn’t want to talk to about it; didn’t even like to think of the time-passage. I had blocked it deliberately from my mind, the roar of death and dissolution and the voices of chaos that urged me to join them.

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