The Head May Err

The stink of charred rosemary was acrid; it burnt my lungs.

“This way, this way, milord.” He fawned and walked almost bent double, beckoning me deeper into the darkened and stifling room, the broken old man. They’d covered the southern-facing windows with burlap, this was good. They burned herbs, to ward off miasmas. This was good.

She lay in the bed, dragged into the center of the single room. Her tattered night gown was soaked in sweat, pressing every inch of her wasted form. This was bad. Through the chicken-shit and hay walls I heard the muffled ringing of the church bells, calling the plague-riddled to mass, to pray their afflictions away.

They might as well go; God had long since left this room.

Three today. The first was the boy, walking the road near my estate. His eyes sunk deep into his skull, coughing into a blood-soaked rag. This was bad. He held a wrapped haunch of beef in one hand, and offered it to me as payment for services.

“My daughter–my daughter, milord–” The old man hunched over her, arms spread, a flesh and bone gargoyle. The fawning adoration in his eyes turned my stomach.

The blood, it’s in the blood, boy. The head lies, but never the blood.

“I need to inspect her, alone.”

The second, a girl with her chaperone, awaiting a flagellation in the town square. Her pale brow and hollowed-out cheeks called me. Her lips told lies, but her blood sung true. The truth is in the blood.

His face bent in dumb, animal confusion, as they always did. They never understood, what it took to become a doctor. The highest calling, the noblest art. Their ape-like emotion got in the way, tripped them like Satan’s serpent twined around their feet.

“But–milord, she’s my–“

“Daughter, you’ve said. Leave us.”

His protestations died and he shuffled away, his bare hawthorn feet scraping the packed dirt floor. The screams of mourners and rattle of dead-carts swelled and faded. The door clicked shut. Outside, the church bells rang.

I knew the truth, but I pulled the blade from it’s home anyway. I knew the truth, but I was a man of science. Her skin was stretched tight and cold to the touch, but her brow was damp. This was bad.

Three today, four yesterday. A difficult time, most difficult. But I was a doctor; it was my duty to help my fellow man. I helped three today, and four yesterday.

A small nick, inside the arm, just above the armpit. She groaned, stirred.

“Who’s there?” She slurred her words, still trapped in half-sleep. I ignored her. I pressed two fingers against the delicate well of carmine threading down her arm, raised them to my nose. Salted iron, yes, but there–there, beneath that. Sweet. Like meat, gone to rot. I remembered the smell. The same as this morning, spilling in waves onto the dirt lane. The same as this morning, dripping in a curtain down the alley stairs.

“I am not sick.” Her eyes were open. “I am not sick. I–please, please listen, I feel fine, wait, just–“

Outside, the screams of mourners and church bells. I rubbed my fingers together.

“I am not sick.” Her voice rose, and a measure of color returned to her cheeks. She brought her arms up beneath her. “Who are you, anyway? Where’s my father?”

“I am a doctor. Lay back down.” The truth is in the blood.

The third, a fat man in a carriage, taking up the whole road. He yelled at me to move, tramp, get out of his way. I was a doctor. I smelled the sickness in his blood from fifteen feet away. As a doctor, it was my duty to help my fellow man.

“Father? Father?”

The words ended in a bubbled hurk. Beneath the wave of red flowing from her chest, the silver of my scalpel glittered. I turned the blade, punched deep. She fell back against the sheets. It was painless; she didn’t feel a thing. This was good. The head lies, but never the blood.

Four today, four yesterday.

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