Sadruk-the-Physician and Kolyek-the-Physician
Pinea and Greece
We had been warm in the night, since the fire had been kept up by the intruders, and also since we had warmed one another by sharing the same bed. But it was truly cold when at last, about mid-day, I left the bed and left my “wife” soundly sleeping.
I built up the fire, of course, and prepared a breakfast for us, and then slipped outside to see what I could determine.
They had departed, for certain. Their tracks led to the road and off in the direction of Drizha. Even by horse it would take at least a very long day getting there, but there were stopping places along the route. There were some modest houses like Gonashi’s, the nearest of which, a very long day’s journey from Pinea by horse, perhaps two days by foot, belonged to an overbearing slob called Polotnoy. He pretended it to be a hostel, because it included a second hut with a raised floor for livestock or guests and had a stable (poorly constructed of woven saplings).
Polotnoy and the other people in the houses south of me would remember the carriage with the young man and the lady. Our just-departed visitor, if accurately informed by Polotnoy and by the citizens of Drizha, would readily determine that the ones he sought had indeed progressed past Polotnoy’s lodging, moving in our direction. What was left to conclude but that I had seen them? However, travelers often passed my house, set back as it was, without stopping. If this nobleman believed my denial, then Gonashi would have been next in line to see them. If the nobleman believed that Gonashi, too, had not seen Davnoy, then the villagers of Pinea would next be suspect, and he would return there in great anger.
If the nobleman suspected me, or poor Gonashi, he would return in a couple of days, deliver a terrible punishment, and return forever to Dneprokiev. To do that, though, he would be admitting he’d lost hope. He seemed more nearly convinced that the ones he sought could yet be found. I hoped he would persuade himself that his lost party had achieved Pinea, as indeed he must already have concluded, finding the horse there. And if he wanted to accuse the village of harboring a secret about lost travelers, he would need more than his two guards to bring any retribution down upon them.
When Laïsha awoke she professed to be exhausted beyond words and stayed in bed. I believed her, but I pressed her for some conversation. I told her of the direction the intruders had taken, and that I could imagine they might return once they found others farther along who had seen Davnoy and a lady depart in our direction.
“These were people whom you knew?” I inquired.
“The soldiers, only a little. They are of the household guard of Abru. The arrogant ‘nobleman’ is Davnoy’s older brother, Raznoy. It was him I expected when Davnoy did not return. It was only for last night that…” — she put up a hand to touch her nose and eyebrows — “…that I ruined my face.”
I pulled her hand back gently and held onto it, regarding the contours of her roughened fingers.
I had to know, too, I told her, whether she were fully in possession of her faculties the previous night when she had moaned and wailed and gone on about the children and wolves.
“I was, fully,” she assured me. “It was a good story you made up from the nonsense I uttered,” she smiled weakly.
“It was clever of you to conjure wolves,” I said, returning the compliment. “And children, and ‘the dream!’ And of course the three horsemen, although you didn’t have to conjure them!”
Laïsha leaned forward where she lay, a signal that I was to prop her head so she could peer around the room. “My imagination provided the children and the dream,” she said, straining while I packed furs behind her neck. “But the wolves are not imaginary.”
I stood over her and held her gaze. “There haven’t been wolves in these woods and plains in hundreds of years,” I said after a moment.
“They have returned.” She looked at me as if pitying me, and I think my expression showed concern for her sanity. “It is true, and well you may not know it yet,” she allowed. “Davnoy and I were pursued for a distance by what we thought were wolves. Soon after that, we arrived at the hostel belonging to your distant neighbor, Polotnoy. When we told him of this experience, he acknowledged that he had begun to hear from others of their being nearby. He had heard them howling on occasion, and thought he had seen a pack of them himself on a return trip from Drizha a month earlier.” She stopped, then added, “I am sorry; I didn’t conjure the wolves.”
I was stunned. This meant that wolves were making their way roughly from west to east, Drizha being to our southwest. This bode ill for those few like Gonashi, my friend, and Polotnoy, whom I disliked, who chose to live apart, in the country.
Gonashi’s herd would perish. I grieved for him. For me, it was no threat. I was leaving soon. But now I knew for certain that neither could I leave Laïsha behind alone nor could I travel alone toward my vague destination in the south.
If anything, though, both her deranged behavior and the near certainty that Davnoy’s brother would at least hear confirmation of the wolves, if not encounter them himself, comforted me. I felt that Davnoy would ever more pass us by. We must surely have seemed completely authentic. Raznoy’s search would end, but not at my house.
Laïsha remained in bed for some days and became more ill after the departure of the intruders. She was drawn by fever, and fell to moaning and panting often. She accepted my preparations made from sage to reduce her sweating and nausea, but even though I plied her with bitters of goldthread, she had no appetite. Once again she alone occupied the bed, while I returned to my loft. For as many days as she remained this ill the only visitors were incidental local people with injuries or illnesses I could treat in the yard outside my door.
Laïsha’s illness seemed less related to the injury, although I could not be sure, but more like a mild case of the plague, which in various forms afflicted some to the death and others to lifelong weakness. Still others, and many enough they were, recovered completely.
The symptoms she possessed pointed to a plague, but she did not get them all at one time. She vomited on occasion, coughed often, ached in the head and in the joints, had liquid bowels, and endured waves of nausea. I watched for changes in skin color, for victims killed by the plague often darkened quickly in the final stages. At one point I even thought the joke might be on me after all: Earlier, I had imagined obtaining a perfect female cadaver. Now, if she died, this very body of hers could be ruined both by the plague and also by my fondness for her, for I could now no longer conceive of hacking her cold carcass to pieces for study.
If she died! The thought petrified me now. At first she was nobody, only a bloody accident victim near death. Now she was my charge, a product of my care, a person with a history of her own, the very mystery of which intrigued me, a lovely and compassionate woman, and, I reckoned advisedly, my companion for a time, of whom I had become strangely enamored.
I had no choice but to clean her thoroughly every so often, for her monthly discharge began, followed with diarrhea for a couple of days, and I tried not to make these ministrations seem too frequent or prolonged, whether she were conscious or asleep. (For one thing, as things stood, I had few enough rags even without such a mess to attend. I was continually soaking strips of cloth and drying them on the stove only to use them right away again to clean her.)
But pure as I tried to keep my thoughts, the ideas these duties stirred in my private reflections sometimes consumed me for hours. When she was clean again, and covered and clearly unconscious, I could hardly resist the urge to have a look just for my own pleasure. But I controlled these impulses by pulling my forelock and chewing my beard and devising concoctions and keeping track of the treatments I was applying to her. In spite of the temptation and the opportunity that lay before me, I only ever looked at her and touched her in a manner that was appropriate to her care.
For days that seemed interminable she held on. The few things she said, on one particularly dark day, were only requests to be allowed to die. I met these moments with my greatest outpouring of tenderness, both to console her and from my own despair at the thought of losing her. I could not let her go.
And, almost imperceptibly, she began to improve. Slowly. I chattered to her when I knew she was awake, and crept around silently when she slept. We didn’t cook or do other light chores together during these days as we’d previously begun to do, although at one point she coached me in raising the bed by its four corners to bring it to a more natural height for sitting. This she wanted to do so that one might then be able to rise and sit back down without starting off so near the floor. I accomplished this task with blocks of wood which I shaped to the desired dimensions and placed under the bed’s short legs. By lashing slim poles crosswise between the wall posts and center posts of the house and tying strips of linen to these rods I made a curtain that I could drop around her for privacy when she wanted to bathe herself or use the pot.
While she lay disabled by this aggravation, I, a true procrastinator, became impatient for something for maybe the first extended period in my life: impatient to see her fully well again, yes — and impatient to leave this place, yes — but impatient for something else that I could not solidly identify. The nearest I came to an explanation was that I wanted to understand things better. I wanted to grasp this business of ease and disease, the processes of hurt and healing, and, as all men have desired: the mysteries of life and death.
As I tended Laïsha during these days some elements of understanding penetrated my mind for fleeting moments, and I seized them. I spoke them aloud to her un-listening ears, and with my limited knowledge of writing I inscribed these thoughts, using Greek characters my master had taught me and others that I had devised myself, so that I might ponder these ideas later. Chiefly, I began to understand that for a person to get well, his injury or illness must be of a kind not exceeding certain limits.
A man whose head has been chopped off, for example, is clearly beyond healing. But Laïsha’s deep wound was not necessarily fatal. It was not beyond the limit. Maybe some day I could determine, through observation or experiment, what the limit is for a severe injury such as hers.
The limit for diseases proved more difficult to define. I wanted to use the plague as an ultimate disease, just as losing one’s head might be an ultimate injury. But the plague had many forms.
Even so, there seemed to be a kind of plague that a few people fell victim to from time to time that was more horrible than the rest. It took them swiftly but with wretched suffering. Perhaps these were different plagues, different diseases altogether. Maybe Laïsha suffered from a disease that should not properly be called a plague.
All manner of complicated possibilities attacked the clarity of my first ruminations on this subject, like: What if a person has both an injury that is below the limit for injuries, but also has an illness that is below the limit for illnesses? Together might they conspire to reach the limit of human tolerance? Might this, then, be grounds for further concern for Laïsha? I knew from the beginning that all my skill as a physician must be called into play in her case, and I saw now that there was still no room for error.
But oh, how poor were our methods and our understanding!
Sadruk, my teacher, brought me to believe that there is no healing in magic, in spells and incantations, in the stars and talismans. Privately, like him, I dismissed the spirits and their associated diseases altogether. I still harbored suspicions that the spirits existed and conferred some power on their minions in the human world, but I could see that they were truly ineffectual in conferring or withholding healing.
All healing, Sadruk taught me, is a combination of the medicines that the body stores within itself, and those that a physician can apply to complement the body’s defenses.
Sadruk was firm in this conviction, and it made so much sense that I base all my work on it. He had come to this truth through the study he had taken himself in Bulgária, where, when he was young, he had worked for a year with a Greek physician, and in meetings with other physicians of his persuasion, and by his own observations. His own regret was that he had never been able to go all the way to Thessaloniki or Athens for an extended period of study. He made sure that his son, though, had been able to go.
Sadruk also taught me that a person’s own spirit, or determination to be healed, served greatly in the process. This latter principle I suspected was fraught with far more importance than even he had given it. And as I watched over Laïsha in these days, one of many corollary principles came to me. For Laïsha had seemed to be doing fine until severe stresses to her mind were brought on by the intruders. I speculated that, without these stresses, her course of healing would not have been set back. So, yes, her determination was crucial, but so was an atmosphere free of pressure.
While she lay at my mercy I studied — oh! I studied! Sadruk had left notes on his readings of Dioscorides and Aurelius Celsus and Galen. He quoted Socrates often, and I had recorded these sayings in my own translations. And he had obtained a codex containing the advice of Anthimus, a Greek physician, a book which I now slowly read and reread for hours until my head would ache.
Anthimus believed that fasting was beneficial to health. Well, Laïsha had certainly received all the benefit of fasting while with me. If I were to try to survive even on twice what she consumed I am sure I would have withered like a dried berry.
I was versed in the nature of herbs, of course. And what I lacked in knowledge of the internal parts of the human body I deduced from my butchering of pigs, sheep, and other hairy creatures. I also took seriously, but with only vague understanding, Sadruk’s reliance upon — upon a kind of faith in his ability. He would do his best, and was adept at convincing his sufferers that they had received the very best of care. After that he didn’t worry. I even suspected that he had a secret god that he invoked without divulging so to me or to his sufferers.
The importance of this reliance on faith in one’s self was borne out the more because the other physicians I knew of, such as Bugra-dezhu, the ancient one in Pinea, relied heavily upon things that Sadruk ridiculed. The old one would first require his sufferer to name the star under which he was born. If he knew not, then Bugra-dezhu would deduce the star from something in the sufferer’s eyes or hands. It was essential for the sufferer to drink the medicines only when the moon was in a favorable position. Over the years, many who came to him for treatment were allowed to die anyway for lack of a medicine, because to consume the medicine under the wrong phase of the moon might prove fatal! There were lucky and unlucky days for blood-letting. Many of his preparations included the physician’s own urine, or animal excrement. He made pastes of dried maggots, and brews from animal hair and from the sufferer’s own blood.
Sadruk, too, had methods that I doubted, but I adhere to them still, until the day I learn of something more effective. For example, for a toothache, Sadruk would burn a candle of mutton fat, mingled with the seed of sea holly, as close to the tooth as possible, holding a basin of cold water underneath. Worms gnawing the tooth, he maintained, would fall into the water to escape the heat of the candle. I marveled that Sadruk believed the worms could know the water was there and even that it was cool water.
I lean toward the herbs — sage and rue, poppy, mint, and parsley; I use the aromatic bark of certain trees, oil extracts of any oil-producing plants, clear water sometimes boiled, finely ground minerals, especially powders made from any kind of crystal. Some parts of animals are recommended for unusual ailments, and when combined with clay, make useful poultices. These are my weapons in the struggle against disease and injury. These are the things I now relied upon in my effort to revive Laïsha.
During these days I kept Laïsha calm and talked to her in ways that I thought would aid in her determination to get well. In time she was able to smile at me weakly, and seemed to appreciate the peace I tried to provide. Still, she could not draw a sufficient breath of air, and her nausea discouraged her from eating and from accepting the preparations I made for her, although she trusted me and tried. As much as possible, I presented her with clear broths, which I would trickle onto her tongue. She could control her swallowing this way, and even though it took hours, I saw that she consumed a cupful of something nearly every day.
At all times, out-of-doors, I was alert for the coming of wolves. I wanted to send word to Gonashi, but then, if they would not penetrate this far east, why alarm him? Besides, Gonashi would hear of them from other travelers. His house stood at the river crossing along the road, and while it was possible for travelers to pass the path leading to my cottage without realizing it was there, they could not miss Gonashi’s. He would hear.
Outside I had planted some root crops from some seeds given to us. Spring was not fully upon us, but certain shrubs had burst their buds, exposing frail green leaves, and certain trees likewise. The nights were still frosty. We endured much rain by day, and at last were relieved for a couple of days when the sun shone again. Laïsha had begun to take an interest in her recovery, and my hopes rose for both of us.
And then, on the evening of about the twenty-first day of Laïsha’s stay, as I fumbled in front of the house for dry fuel in the pile, I heard a distant, chilling cry. With it rose another. For a few seconds I listened. The howling ceased and then resumed. And, unmistakably, it drew nearer.
Frantic, I dropped the half load of tinder from my arm and collided with the door post and with the lintel as I rushed into the house. Panting and with tears of fear in my eyes I rolled the wind stone against the closed door and leaned my own back against it as well, pointing toward the outside so that Laïsha would grasp the circumstances while I regained my voice. A moment later I rushed to board up the window from the inside and returned to lean on the door.
Together we listened. And then it became loud enough to hear clearly from inside.
I scrambled over Laïsha, saying inside myself that I must cover and thereby protect her with my body. But I realized the stupidity of this soon enough — that I must not crush her and harm her — and landed instead on the empty side of the bed. We clutched each other and I confessed to her that I didn’t know what wolves would do once they found our house. I couldn’t express all my fears in words, but I know we shared the same thoughts. Would they linger for days, waiting for someone to emerge? Would they try to enter? Would they climb to the roof and steal the remaining meat stored there? Would they claw through the roof? How on earth does anybody drive away wolves?
Incredibly, they howled boldly right up to our very door, and then, even more incredibly, in their chorus we began to make out words of speech! — (although not words we could readily understand).
While I sat straight up, stupefied by this latest revelation, Laïsha tried to laugh for the first time in many days, and as she did she pushed me from the bed so that I might answer the door. No one was knocking yet, but it was plain, once my mind sorted out the truth of our scare, that we were about to have visitors, and not only that but visitors who loved to sing even though they could not.
I stood inside, awaiting a knock and glancing about for an implement of self-defense. Outside the door two or three hoarse but strong male voices filled the evening stillness with chorus. I paused to make certain that they had advanced as far as the front of the house. Still I waited. They sang. I waited still longer. Inexplicably, as they sang on, they were standing before the house, waiting too.