And the third and most important effect of Mrs. Landrum’s friendship was that I found myself once more a doctor.
We had been in Savannah for a few weeks when Mrs. Landrum came up to our room one afternoon and inquired as to whether I might know anything regarding cures for the toothache, she knowing that I had a way with herbs?
“Oh, I might,” I replied, with a surreptitious glance at my medical bag, which had been gathering dust under the bed since our arrival. “Whose tooth is it?”
The tooth had belonged to a gentleman named Murphy from Ellis Ward, the one we lived in. I say “had belonged” because I had the badly broken and infected bicuspid out of Mr. Murphy’s head before he could have said Jack Robinson, though he was in such pain that he could barely recall his own name, let alone Jack’s.
Mr. Murphy was extremely grateful for his deliverance. Mr. Murphy was also the owner of a very small vacant shop on the other side of Ellis Square. It was the work of a few moments to acquire a small shingle with TEETH EXTRACTED on it. And within twenty-four hours of hanging out my shingle, I was proudly depositing my earnings on the kitchen table—which was also my herbal-preparations counter and Jamie’s desk, as it occupied the center of our single room.
“Well done, Sassenach!” Jamie picked up a small jar of honey, taken in payment for a nastily impacted wisdom tooth. He loved honey. I’d also acquired two large speckled turkey eggs (one of them filled the entire palm of my hand), a loaf of reasonably fresh sourdough bread, six pennies, and a small silver Spanish coin.
“I think ye could support the family all on your own, a nighean,” he said, dipping a finger in the honey and licking it before I could stop him. “Ian and Fergus and I can all retire and become gentlemen of leisure.”
“Good. You can start by making supper,” I said, stretching my back. Stays did keep you upright through a long day’s work, but I was looking forward to taking them off, eating supper, and lying down, in quick succession.
“Of course, Sassenach.” With a small flourish, he drew the knife from his belt, cut a slice off the loaf, drizzled honey on it, and gave it to me. “There ye are.”
I raised an eyebrow at him but bit into it. Sweetness flooded my mouth and my bloodstream simultaneously, and I tasted sunlight and flowers. I moaned.
“What did ye say, Sassenach?” He was busily buttering another slice.
“I said, ‘Well done,’” I said, and picked up the pot of honey. “We’ll make a cook of you yet.”
THE BASIC ISSUES of housing and food taken care of, plainly the next order of business was to retrieve Bonnie. Jamie had located the Bell family, and three weeks after our arrival in Savannah, he and Fergus had scraped together enough money to hire a cart and an extra mule from the livery stable where Clarence boarded. We met Richard Bell in the morning, and he came with us to the farm of one Zachary Simpson, the farmer with whom Bonnie boarded.
Mr. Simpson cleared away the last of the hay and pulled away the canvas with the air of a magician producing a rabbit from a hat. From the reaction of three-quarters of his spectators, you’d think he had: Jamie and Fergus both gasped audibly, and Richard Bell emitted a hum of satisfaction. I bit my lip and tried not to laugh, but I doubted they’d have noticed if I’d rolled on the floor in paroxysms of mirth.
“Nom de Dieu,” Fergus said, stretching out a reverent hand. “She’s beautiful.”
“Best I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Bell agreed, clearly torn between regard and regret.
“Aye.” Jamie was pink with pleasure, trying visibly to retain a modest constraint. “Aye. She’s bonnie, no?”
I supposed “she” was—if one was a connoisseur of printing presses, which I wasn’t. Still, I confessed some fondness for Bonnie; we’d met before, in Edinburgh. Jamie had been oiling some part of her mechanism when I’d returned to find him after twenty years, and she had been witness to our reunion.
And she had withstood the rigors of disassembly, sea travel, reassembly, and months of being immured in a barn with commendable fortitude. A pale winter sun shone through a crack in the barn’s wall, making her wood glow with somber pride, and her metal was—so far as I could see—quite free from rust.
“Well done,” I said, giving her a small pat. Mr. Simpson was modestly accepting the applause of the crowd for his feat of preserving Bonnie from harm, and I could see that they’d be some time in getting her onto the cart we’d brought, so I made my way back to the farmhouse. I’d noticed a number of chickens scratching in the yard and had some hopes of acquiring fresh eggs.
Marsali’s hoard—and Jenny’s novena to St. Bride, Queen of the Sea, plus a modest assist from my acupuncture needles (Clarence luckily proved a good sailor)—had got us safely to Savannah, but the requirements of housing ten people and renting premises suitable for a small printing business had exhausted both the Caslon English Roman gold and the insurance money paid to Fergus for the fire’s destruction.
With the need for income somewhat acute, Ian and Jamie had found employment at one of the warehouses on the river. A wise choice, as it turned out: in addition to their pay and the odd damaged cask of salt fish or biscuit, being on the docks all day allowed them first—and cheapest—choice from the fishermen coming in with their catch. We therefore hadn’t been starving nor yet threatened with scurvy—the climate was mild enough that plenty of green things grew, even in late November—but I was getting tired of rice and fish and winter kale. A nice dish of scrambled eggs, now . . . possibly with fresh butter . . .
I’d come equipped for trading, with several packets of pins and a bag of salt, and Mrs. Simpson and I amicably concluded a bargain for a basket of eggs and a small tub of butter before the men had got Bonnie out of the barn and were sat on the back stoop, comfortably drinking beer.
“What remarkable chickens those are,” I said, stifling a small belch. The beer, of Mrs. Simpson’s own production, was tasty but strong. The chickens in question were more than remarkable: they appeared to have no legs but to be trundling round the yard on their bottom sides, pecking at their corn with cheerful imperturbability.
“Oh, aye,” said Mrs. Simpson, nodding with pride. “My mother brought those—well, their great-great-grandmothers—with her from Scotland, thirty years a-gone. ‘Creepies,’ she always called them—but they’ve got a true name. Scots Dumpy, it is, or so a gentleman from Glasgow told me.”
“How very appropriate,” I said, taking another sip of beer and peering at the chickens. They did after all have legs; just very short ones.
“I breed them for sale,” Mrs. Simpson added helpfully. “If might should be ye should find yourself in want of a good hen or two.”
“I can’t think of anything I’d like better,” I said wistfully. The rice paddies and palmettos of Savannah seemed infinitely far away from the clean sharp air of Fraser’s Ridge . . . but we were in the South, at least. And come March and good traveling weather, Marsali and Fergus should be safely established, and we could turn our faces toward North Carolina. “Perhaps in a few months . . .” I added Scots Dumpy chickens to the mental list I was accumulating and returned to the beer.
The men had got the printing press onto the cart, suitably swathed in canvas and repacked with straw for the journey into town, and now came into the house to resume their own well-earned refreshment.
We sat companionably round Mrs. Simpson’s scrubbed kitchen table, drinking beer and eating salted radishes. Jamie and Fergus were glowing with excitement and satisfaction; the looks on their faces warmed me more than the beer. Poor Richard Bell was trying his best to be generous and share their delight, but it was plain that he was low in both body and spirit.
I had met him only a few days before, and that briefly, so had not yet cultivated an acquaintance sufficient as to allow me to make him undress and let me palpate his liver, but I was morally certain that the “relapsing ague” Mrs. Bell had written of was malaria. I couldn’t say so with complete certainty without looking at his blood cells under a microscope—and God knew when I might ever have one again—but I’d seen enough people suffering from “the quartan ague” or “the tertian fever” as to have little doubt.
Luckily, I had a small supply of Jesuit bark among the selection of herbs and medicines I’d brought with me. It wouldn’t cure him, but I could, with luck, limit the more-severe attacks and relieve some of the symptoms. Thinking of this reminded me suddenly of Lizzie Wemyss. Coming to America as Brianna’s bond servant, she also had contracted malaria from the coastal mosquitoes. I’d managed to control the disease in her fairly well, but how had she fared in my absence?
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” My attention was jerked back to the conversation, but I added LOTS of Jesuit bark to my mental list before replying.
LIKE PLUMBING, MEDICINE is a profession where you learn early on not to put your fingers in your mouth. I smelled my next patient coming and was reaching for the jar of soft soap and the bottle of raw alcohol before she came through the door. And the instant I saw her, I knew what the problem was.
There were two women, in fact: one was a tall, rather commanding-looking woman, well dressed and wearing a hat rather than the usual bonnet. The other was a small, slight girl who might have been any age between twelve and twenty. She was what they called a mulatto, half black and half white, with café au lait skin and snub features. I set her lower age limit at twelve only because she had apparent br**sts bubbling over the top of her stays. She was dressed neatly but plainly in blue gingham, and she stank like an open sewer.
The tall woman paused, looking me over consideringly.
“You are a female physician?” she asked, in a tone just short of accusation.
“I am Dr. Fraser, yes,” I replied equably. “And you are . . . ?”
She flushed at that and looked disconcerted. Also very dubious. But after an awkward pause, she made up her mind and gave a sharp nod. “I am Sarah Bradshaw. Mrs. Phillip Bradshaw.”
“I’m pleased to meet you. And your . . . companion?” I nodded at the young woman, who stood with her shoulders hunched and her head bent, staring at the ground. I could hear a soft dripping noise, and she shifted as though trying to press her legs together, wincing as she did so.
“This is Sophronia. One of my husband’s slaves.” Mrs. Bradshaw’s lips compressed and drew in tight; from the lines surrounding her mouth, she did it routinely. “She—that is—I thought perhaps—” Her rather plain face flamed crimson; she couldn’t bring herself to describe the trouble.
“I know what it is,” I said, saving her the difficulty. I came round the table and took Sophronia by the hand; hers was small and very callused, but her fingernails were clean. A house slave, then. “What happened to the baby?” I asked her gently.
A small, frightened intake of breath, and she glanced sideways at Mrs. Bradshaw, who gave her another sharp nod, lips still pursed.
“It died in me,” the girl said, so softly I could scarcely hear her, even though she was no more than an arm’s length from me. “Dey cut it out in pieces.” That had likely saved the girl’s life, but it surely hadn’t helped her condition.
Despite the smell, I took a deep breath, trying to keep my emotions under control.
“I’ll need to examine Sophronia, Mrs. Bradshaw. If you have any errands, perhaps you’d like to go and take care of them . . . ?”
She unzipped her lips sufficiently as to make a small, frustrated noise. Quite obviously, she would like nothing better than to leave the girl and never come back. But just as obviously, she was afraid of what the slave might tell me if left alone with me.
“Was the child your husband’s?” I asked baldly. I didn’t have time to beat around the bush; the poor girl was dripping urine and fecal matter on the floor and appeared ready to die of shame.
I doubted that Mrs. Bradshaw meant to die of that condition, but she plainly felt it almost as acutely as did Sophronia. She went white with shock, then her face flamed anew. She turned on her heel and stamped out, slamming the door behind her.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’ then,” I said to the door, and turned to the girl, smiling in reassurance. “Here, sweetheart. Let’s have a look at the trouble, shall we?”
Vesicovaginal fistula and rectovaginal fistula. I’d known that from the first moment; I just didn’t know how bad they might be or how far up the vaginal canal they’d occurred. A fistula is a passage between two things that ought never to be joined and is, generally speaking, a bad thing.
It wasn’t a common condition in civilized countries in the twentieth century but more common than one might think. I’d seen it several times in Boston, at a clinic where I gave time once a week to provide medical care to the city’s poor. Young girls, much too young to be considering the opposite sex in any serious way, becoming pregnant before their bodies had ripened enough. Prostitutes, some of them. Others just girls who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like this one.
A full-term baby that couldn’t be forced out through the birth canal, and days of nonproductive labor, the child’s head a battering ram against the tissues of the pelvis, the bladder, the vagina, and the bowel. Until at last the tissues thinned and split, leaving a ragged hole between bladder and vagina, or between vagina and rectum, allowing the body’s waste to drip out unhindered through the vagina.
Not a matter of life or death, but revolting, uncontrollable, and bloody uncomfortable, too. Sophronia’s inner thighs were swollen, a bright, patchy red, the skin macerated by the constant wetness, the irritating fecal slime. Like a permanent diaper rash, I thought, suppressing a deeply visceral urge to find Mr. Bradshaw and make a few fistulas in him with a blunt probe.