By Madeline (12/9/99)
The world had changed. It was as if God Himself
had turned His back on His children, such as the time when Noah
had roamed the lonely, torrential seas, when Sodom and Gomorrah
fell, when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden and
forced into a wasteland devoid of the rich colors and peace that
they had been born into. Now they were being punished for the
many tongues they had carried from Babel, the comfort they had
readily jumped into, the sins they had thought so small, yet
apparently unforgiveable. The earth was dark, black; a rancid,
fearful planet on the brink of apocalypse. Without Him, love,
charity, and hope were gone, lost behind doors marked with red
crosses and crushed under stiff bodies in mass graves. It was
1348; the time of the Black Death.
The room was mercifully awash in vague shadows. Luka had not lit the lantern that stood cold on the table in the center of the room, abiding the wishes of the man who now thrashed in the throes of death in the bed in the corner. But the doctor knew how the man looked; black boils burst open, eyes bulging with the force of the coughs that racked his body. Luka could smell the blood and pus from his safe distance, and imagined the man was swimming in his own diseased fluids; the poisonous odor permeated each fiber and swirl of air in the tiny hut. Behind the glass goggles of his mask, Luka shut his eyes and prayed to the Lord that the man would die soon, and his suffering would end.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of strangled whoops, gags, and ungodly screams, the man, Marq, lifted up his hands, hooked into claws, and grabbed at his swollen throat. Luka watched as half a choking sob erupted, then the hands fell away, dropping to his still sides. Silence followed, save for the crackles of rain on the thatched roof of the hut.
That was all. He would notify the constable that there was another body to be buried, though with the way things were, Marq would be left to rot for days before anyone came to collect his corpse. Two of Luka's patients, passed away three days before, were still in their deathbeds. As he stared at the fresh corpse, a bit of anger flared in his chest. The priest had abandoned the village a week ago, terrified of God's wrath befalling him. There was no one to perform last rites. Though the Pope had issued an edict absolving all victims of their sins, knowing many of his clergy had themselves been struck down, Luka still thought it unfair that so many died alone, without the personal comfort of truly knowing they were going to a better place. With one last look, he picked up his useless medical bag and walked across the wooden floor, boots heavy and loud, and pulled open the door.
Outside, the night sky was falling, and the rain had dissipated; a spattering of stars twinkled in the violet blue of the heavens. Luka pushed back his leather hood, tore off the mask that covered his face, and spat on the ground, ridding his mouth of the aroma of angelica. Dragging in a long gulp of semi-fresh air, he tried to purge himself of the haunting visions of the two villagers who had died that day. He was unsuccessful; the outside air was as damaged as inside the hut. There was a mass grave nearby, uncovered, and even the cold weather of late fall did not prevent the putrid odor from travelling. Groaning, Luka once again sought out the distant solace of the stars.
Blessed. That was what he'd been all his life. Son of Petar, a wealthy gold exporter, he and his wife Anya had left Dalmatia, hoping for a better life, escaping the wars. Making the dangerous trek across Europe, Anya had taken ill while in the last stages of her pregnancy, and died the moment her one and only son had taken his first tinny, hesitant yell, perfectly healthy. Though devastated by his wife's death, Petar showered his son with love, and provided him with only the best, guiding him toward one of the most noblest of professions. Educated at the University of Padua, learning with the best minds of Europe, he returned to France and met his future wife, Gabrielle, a music teacher. Though he longed to practice in Paris, Gabrielle was from the beautiful countryside of Bordeaux, and it didn't take much convincing, once he was trapped in the pools of her dark eyes, to agree to return with her to her homeland and raise a family. That had been six years earlier. His father was now gone, as well as Gabrielle and their child, Emmanuelle. All taken by the black sickness that, for all his education and luck, he had yet so far been unable to find a cause, unable to prevent taking the ones he loved more than anything else. Luka gritted his teeth and yanked off his heavy gloves. Sitting by the graves he himself had dug, he had once contemplated returning to Paris, but what would be there? Death multiplied; the reports out of the city told of bodies piled in the streets, the stench dizzying and thick. Though the memories he held were just as unescapable, at least he was not reminded of them at every turn.
Still looking at the brightest star above him, Luka snorted contemptuously. He did not share the belief of some scholars that the world was dying because of a certain alignment of the planets. Nor did he believe that it was the fault of the Jews that were now being slaughtered for their rejection of Christ as the Savior. Though he did reason that God had turned His back on his followers, his scientific mind knew that this plague was just a horrible, terrifying twist of medical fate. Horrifying in its speed and stealth-- some of his patients had been healthy at their bedtime, only to awaken in heaven---; terrifying that for all the protection he wore, or no matter how far others ran, the disease knew no boundaries or speed constraints. It attacked with no preference or prejudice, and he himself, the only doctor in the area, could wake up tomorrow with goose egg-sized boils in his armpits, his skin turned black.
Shivering in spite of his heavy garments, he spotted a tall, lithe figure jogging toward him in the twilight. As the person neared, he saw it was Jean Cartier, and he frowned.
"I sent for you earlier," he called, and Jean stopped several feet away. "Where were you?"
Jean reminded him of a little dog; eager, always running in circles, catching his tail more than anything else useful. He wanted to be a physician, but could not afford to attend university. Luka, knowing that he needed help, and there may come a day when he would not be around, had taken the silly young man under his wing. He had been the only one. "The messenger drank away the money you gave him," Jean told him, and Luka sighed, irritatedly. "I only found out after he had stumbled drunkenly into my path." Jean's eyes travelled to the door over Luka's shoulder. "Is he...?"
Luka stopped berating himself for paying the ogre before he'd made the delivery, and snapped, "Of course he's dead! Have we seen anyone who has lived through this?"Jean blinked, startled by his outburst, and suddenly Luka's broad shoulders sagged. It had been a long, exhausting day, and he only wanted to return to his home, empty as it was. "Come," he said to the younger man, turning. "We'll have supper, and you can continue your anatomy studies."
"No!" The exclamation was too loud, and Luka stopped and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Jean looked nervous. "I came to also tell you that Marcioness Kerry has requested you come to the manor immediately. Her cousin Carole is in labor."
"Why?" Luka asked. "Where is Midwife Adrienne?"
Jean replied hesitantly, "Dead on her floor."
The news was a shock. Though traditionally doctors and midwives were mistrustful of each other, Luka and Adrienne had shared a friendship, teaching each other, trading anecdotes for herbs and supplies, delighting in knowledge so few knew. Biting back his grief, he simply gestured and murmured, "Let us go then."
Nervousness began to creep in after a few meters in the foggy night. Though he knew how, he had never delivered a baby. That was what Adrienne had been for in Bordeaux. His expertise would be tested, and he hoped for an uncomplicated delivery. Walking quickly, Jean and Luka passed through the silent village, save for the pub, and along the outlying road, passing a sheep-filled field, each woolly body lying flat, blood black in the moonlight, and Luka felt another pang. Even God's mindless creatures could not escape the plague.
Ten minutes later, they reached the grand front entrance of the manor. Several pulls of the bell sounded before a servant, Lucy, opened the heavy door, curtseying as the two men entered.
"Where?" Luka asked the girl quietly, once the door was closed against the cold. She began to reply, but her words were drowned out by a loud, commanding voice.
"This way." Luka looked up, and saw Marcioness Kerry standing in the middle of the marble staircase, a wine glass in hand, her red hair dimmed in the candlelight. He kept his expression as stoic as possible as she approached, knowing any less, in spite of the circumstances, would bring on another bout of amorous advances from the marcioness. With her husband, the Marquis Romano, gone to Paris on business much, and with the death of his wife, she had tried with all her wiles and might to make Luka her kept man. However, he would never be interested, even if his grief was a distant memory, and all his riches were depleted.
As she neared, though, he saw that her eyes were devoid of the usual lust; tinged with fear instead. "You must hurry," she said, and he let her take his arm and lead him toward the staircase. Jean followed closely behind. "She has been sick most of last night and today," Kerry continued as they walked quickly up the stairs, their heels clicking and echoing. "And then--- just a few hours ago, the baby decided to come--"
"Sick?" Luka interrupted, alarm clogging his throat. "What are her symtoms?"
br> Kerry stopped on the last step, still clinging to him. Jean nearly bumped into them, then stood close, leaning in to hear her whispers. "Her cough is thick and painful.... and a most foul stench issues from her body." She looked at them both, full blown terror threatening to erupt. "Is it the plague?"
"Is the stench diarrhea? Does she have the blackness?" Luka demanded, trying to remain clinical. Kerry nodded, then shook her head in response. Though just as frightened as she was, he remained silent, weighing his options, quickly realizing he had none. If it was the plague, then the disease had already infested the manor, and they were all damned. His protective garments had been rendered useless the second he'd stepped inside. The knowledge nearly knocked him to his knees, and he waved in the air until his hand found the bannister, and clung tightly.
"Monsieur?" Kerry bleated, sensing his panic. "Is it the Black Death?"
A scream, agonized and awful, broke through Luka's fog. It came from the end of the long hallway to their right. Kerry jumped, digging her fingernails into his coat, threatening to pierce through the leather. He shook her off as she told him, "I gave her wine for the pain, but still she screams."
That scream, and Kerry's words, brought him back to the present situation. If he was already doomed, then at least he would enter the Kingdom righteous. Remembering his position, and his duty, he began firmly walking toward the dwindling shriek, followed closely by the two. "Jean," he said, and the younger man jogged up to his side. "We will need hot water. Have the servants fetch it, and bring it to her room." Jean immediately turned back in the direction they had came, and Luka was thankful for the man's hyperness. Opening his bag, he pulled out a small bottle of herbs. "I will need another glass of wine," he told Kerry, stopping at the closed door at the end.
"Right in here," she said, and moved ahead of him to twist the knob. Upon the opening of the door, he was greeted by the sight of dim lamplight, surrounding a heaving, sweating pregnant woman in the middle of a dishevelled bed. Carole, the kind woman, who had offered her sympathy and ear after his wife and child had been so cruelly taken from him. He recalled their talks, in the middle of the vineyard, under a blue sky, with the scourge and despair that France had become so far away, seemingly never there. There was no resemblance to that bright, content woman he had shared his feelings with now, and he could barely bring out his clinical eye as he approached the bedside. Her face was flushed with fever, the heat almost visible with the redness. An awful smell surrounded and contaminated the bedclothes.
"Don't let me die," she whispered, and it gave him a start, setting his bag on the table by the bed and removing his coat. He hadn't thought she'd seen him. Looking into her glazed eyes, she repeated, "I don't want to die."
Though the last thing he wanted was to lie to his friend, he smiled slightly, and reached out to smooth back her curly dark hair from her forehead, his hand burning with the contact. "God is with you," he told her kindly, then turned to take the glass of red wine from Kerry's hand. He quickly mixed the poppy mandragora and herbane into the liquid with his forefinger, then bent to lift the burning woman up. "Drink this... for your pain," he ordered. Carole took a few sips, made a face, then, after his silent urging, gulped the glass down. She fell back to the bed, gasping.
"Do you need anything?" Kerry asked, gently, leaning over her cousin. Luka was momentarily amazed by the transformation of the older woman, from high mistress to caring female. Carole paused, a bit of clarity coming back into her eyes.
"Douglas," she whispered, and Kerry's lip curled. "Bring me Douglas."
Luka turned away before his friend could see the disgust that also covered his face. Douglas, her husband, the man who was now part of the flagellant movement; groups of men, travelling from town to town like a faire, except instead of providing fun and games for the villagers to enjoy, they took turns whipping each other to shreds, all in the name of penitence from God. It was a lie-- it was cowardice, pure and simple: the man had not wanted to stay in a town that was dying, terrified of catching the fatal disease himself, and leaving his pregnant wife to fend for herself. Luka knew he should not lay blame, for the plague had wiped out much charity and community, turning simple faith and trust into hysterical suspicion, but he could not help himself. In spite of his nature, he wished the man dead.
Another scream shattered the silence. Carole writhed and jerked on the bed, the labor pain threatening to break apart her fragile body. Luka moved to the foot of the bed, knelt on the mattress, and suffered through the shriek until she once again fell limp. Touching her bare knee gently, he told her, "I have to examine you. Can you remain still?" He nodded to Kerry to go to the woman, and after a bit of hesitation, she took her cousin's hand.
Luka inserted his hand into her vagina. Though he was being as kind as possible, above him, Carole moaned and twisted her hips. "Sshh," he said, and probed at her cervix. Immediately, he found that she was fully dilated, and smiled at her. "Your pain should be over soon," he told her. "You can begin pushing." But his smile vanished as his fingers abruptly found tinier versions of his own. Quickly, he placed his other hand on the skin above her uterus, and explored the hard mass until his fears were confirmed: the baby was lying transverse.
Luka quickly pulled away and rubbed his hands on his pants. Another set of options, neither welcome, both most likely resulting in a death. Amputate the baby's arm, and attempt to rotate it while still in the uterus, or perform an operation that he'd only seen once, in a public dissection on the streets of Paris? The shivering that had started in his body built into tremors, and a sheen of sweat appeared on his brow, in spite of the chill of the room. He had to decide now... his friend, or the potential life of a newborn?
Jean appeared in the doorway with two other girl servants, all holding steaming pots of water. At that moment, Kerry called out, alarmed, "Monsieur!" He turned and saw that Carole had fainted; her breathing shallow and barely perceptible. Rushing to her side, he placed a hand over her heart and counted the beats. Though long between, they were still regular, and he straightened up. He'd have to take it as a sign from God; that perhaps the blessings that had been bestowed upon him throughout his life would carry on to Carole. Before his agonizing thoughts could resurface, he briskly clapped his hands once, and began giving orders.
"Marcioness," he began, taking her arm and speaking lowly. "I will need four men. No less; they will be needed to hold her down."
"Hold her down?" Kerry asked, alarmed. "For what?"
"The baby will not come out the natural way. I will have to perform surgery to save them."
Kerry gaped, sputtered, then tore herself away. "I will not have you doing that! You're only a physician! I will send for the surgeon!"
Luka's temper flared at her haughtiness, and he couldn't contain his outrage. "You'd rather have the village barber cut into your own flesh and blood, than have me, who learned from the best of Europe, and has a much better chance? Go ahead; have Monsieur Benton come here and hack off her leg instead of opening her uterus. But do not come to me when the gates of Hell open up to welcome your arrogance and stupidity!"
She knew his words were right. Monsieur Benton was unschooled, and had made ghastly mistakes more than once. With a huff, she whirled around, long dress rustling, and yelled at Lucy, "Get any four men who aren't asleep or drunk!" The girl set down her pot on the floor and fled from the room, eager to escape the wrath of her mistress and the smell of imminent death.
"Jean." Luka waited until the young man reached his side. "In my bag, you will find different packets of herbs. Artemesia, agrimony, betony, mallow..." He struggled to remember the rest. "...birthwood, sedge, and bulrushes. I want you to make a mixture of them with black wine. I will use it to help close the wound."
"What are you going to do?" Jean asked, eyes wide and alarmed.
"A caesarean section," he answered, and the young man immediately looked distrustful, yet still fearful.
"Caesarean sections are almost always fatal to mother and child," Jean said, after a moment. Luka nodded, and looked at the unconscious woman on the bed, worried by the visible hardening of her uterus, and her inability to awaken through the contraction. Perhaps the anesthetic was finally working.
"Almost," he stressed, and turned back to Jean. "We will have to pray for that little bit of success. Now, do what I told you. In haste." The young man nodded reluctantly, took the herb packets from the Luka's bag, and again left the room.
Left with the sleeping woman, and her terrified cousin, Luka took out a slender knife from the folds of a piece of wool at the bottom of his bag, and examined the blade, running his finger over the sharp edge. He felt Kerry's eyes on him, suspicious, but ignored her as he knelt at the side of the bed and closed his eyes, willing God to take over his worries and surround him with peace. When he felt, hoped, his words were heard, he opened his eyes and stood just as Lucy returned with four fieldhands.
"You are to hold down her arms and legs," he commanded, pointing. "Two on each side. Hurry; we haven't much time."
The men, wary, but unable to refuse, did as they were told. Luka waited until he was sure she was securely pinned, then again knelt at the end of the bed, between her parted legs, and pushed up her nightdress to above her stomach. Her swollen belly was mammoth, daunting, but before he could lose his nerve, he remembered his faith, and quickly sliced his knife through skin and muscle, trying to make the horizontal slash as rapidly as possible.
Almost as soon as her screams began to rip through the room, the new stench assaulted all five men, and Luka could sense the fieldhands' grips loosening. "Hold tight! Do as I say!" he commanded, raising his voice powerfully over Carole's tortured shrieks. Kerry shrank away, to huddle next to the wall on the other side of the room. Finishing the eight inch cut, he dropped his knife and pulled apart her stomach wall, immediately seeing the red, inflamed tissue of the uterus, and the white substance resembling curdled milk surrounding her vital organs. Puerperal fever, well advanced. Ashamedly, he felt an ounce of relief that she had not been stricken by the plague; that they were spared that contagion.
It was hard to concentrate; despite the horrible pain, Carole was still thrashing her torso about the bed, and he could barely bite back a scream of his own as he pulled apart the shell of the uterus and saw the baby, its shoulder and side turned in his direction. Grasping it, he pulled it through the slit and laid it on her stomach. "A girl," he panted, but Carole continued to yell, her throat raspy and hoarse. He had to remove the placenta and cut the umbilicus, but as he looked down, a feeling of doom fell over his heart. There was something else inside Carole. Something else besides the fever, and the remainder of the newborn. A fetus, a quarter of the size of the crying one on her mothers belly, seemingly stared up at him, though its eyes had never fully formed. Shrivelled, white, dead long before the labor had begun. Quickly, before Carole could have thought to pause and look, he removed the fetus from the uterus and placed it on the bed behind him.
Movement caught his eye-- Jean had returned with a bowl of the concoction in his hands. Luka ordered him to get his needle and thread from his bag, as he finished removing the placenta, and tied off the umbilicus. "Come get the baby," he said to Kerry, but the woman refused to move from her cowering position. "Get the baby!" he yelled, panicking, knowing he had to finish soon, and finally Lucy darted forward and gingerly plucked the baby off her mother. "Clean her.... give her honey and boiled water for the first two days," he told the girl, and she nodded and left the room. Gasping, adrenaline pumping his heart like a hammer, he again checked the mens' positions. One looked close to passing out himself, but his grip was still firm. Luka paused, perspiration dotting his body, his hand in the air, readying to begin the suturing, when Carole's screams abruptly cut off. In the terrifying stillness, he looked up to see her staring into his eyes, her own suddenly full of clarity... and a happiness he could not understand until she spoke.
"God--" She stared, her mouth agape, holding onto the moment, then collapsed, her entire body limp. A small gasp escaped her parted lips, then no more.
Luka moaned, then scrambled over her, knocking aside the men to touch her heart. It lay still in her chest, never to beat again. Feeling an agonized sob building within his own chest, Luka laid his face on the pillow next to her hair, biting back his overwhelming anger and sorrow until the feelings abated enough for him to show his face.
"She is dead." It was a flat statement from the marcioness. As he straightened up, he saw that she had finally left the wall, and was now standing beside the bed, looking down at the dead woman.
"Yes," he answered, hollowly. "I am sorry. If not this... the fever would have taken her by morning."
Kerry nodded. Her voice was different, and there was no anger or superiority left in it. After a moment of hesitation, she asked, "Can you... make her whole again, for a proper burial?" Luka nodded mutely, and she slowly left the room, in a daze. Vaguely, he hoped that she would come back to her senses soon, for now she had a new cousin to care for. Thankfully he could not hear the baby's cries, and wondered what she would be named.
Jean silently helped Luka stitch up Carole's incision, then they pulled down her dress and covered her face with the bedclothes. The mood was properly somber as they cleaned the dried blood from their hands; Luka internally trying to reassure himself that he had done all he could, and anything different would have resulted in the death of the baby, as well. He hoped Carole was with God; whom she'd seemed to see in her final seconds. Though Luka could not grasp the happiness in that vision at that moment.
After checking the sleeping baby, healthy and sleeping, wrapped in a thick blanket of red wool, the two men left the manor in the early hours of the morning. Before Jean turned east to return to his own home, Luka called to him.
"You think what I did was wrong." It wasn't a question; he'd seen the look in the younger man's eyes. Haunted.
Jean paused, gathering his thoughts, then stared straighforwardly through the darkness. "I would not have done it," he admitted. "But you're the doctor, not I.... I would have been wrong."
Luka was surprised by the answer, and he pondered it. "I wish I could have been more right in my actions," he finally admitted, bringing some of his shame to the surface. "I wish I could have saved them both."
"I am not surprised that she died," Jean stated, and Luka looked up. The young man's voice and eyes were suddenly full of pain, and close to tears. "It would not be a day in France without a death to end it." He abruptly turned, and began walking away, down the dirt road. "Goodnight, Monsieur."
"Goodnight," Luka replied, stunned by the man's words, yet knowing them to be true. So much death he had seen in the past year; it was amazing that it still affected him so strongly. Luka walked home in the foggy silence, replaying the night's scenes in his mind, mingling them with the death throes of his wife and daughter, until he reached his own doorstep, physically and mentally exhausted.
Harsh coughs racked his body as he lit the lantern in the front room, and he was bent over by the force of them. Straightening up, he realized that he was still sweating, and even after tearing off his coat and tunic, left in his undershirt in the chilled house, the fever would not leave. How could he have missed this? Was he so consumed with his thoughts that the warning signs of his body could not penetrate them? Luka went to his bedroom, so long empty without a wife, and with trembling fingers, pulled his undershirt off. Sitting down on a hard chair, he breathed heavily, then lifted his right arm and probed the hollow of his armpit. There it was, faint, but distinguishable; a lump, that in a day he would have felt without examination.
Luka was suddenly dizzy, numbness invading all the way to his bone, but he had to know. He pulled his skin, stretching the armpit for a clear view. There, within the dark hairs and olive skin, were tendrils of black, seeping through his tissue, invading his blood. The beginning of the end.
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