The Remedy Men

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“You must make a chicken to peck at the wound.”  The remedy man smiled as he presented the treatment.

The wounded man glanced down at the festering gash upon his forearm.  He blinked.  “Are you certain?  It is quite painful as it is.”

The remedy man placed a gentle hand upon his patient’s shoulder.  “You must trust me in this”.

The wounded man’s wife placed her own hand on the other shoulder.  “He is the vulnerary, not you.”

“Of course,” the wounded man said.  He sighed.

The two men observing from the corner of the kitchen exchanged a glance with each other, but said nothing.  They called themselves “physicians,” and had come to the village to study the ways of the remedy man, or as this village called him, the vulnerary.

The wounded man, his wife, the vulnerary, and the two physicians made their way out of the kitchen and into the yard where the chickens were still pecking away at their breakfast.  It was winter, but a mild one.  The risen sun had already baked the chill out of the ground and the air.  The vulnerary coaxed a rooster toward his patient.  The wounded man gripped his wounded arm with his opposite hand.  He held his arm out as the vulnerary corralled the rooster toward it.

“I’m afraid I must object,” one of the physicians said.  It was the older man, the one called Nagle.

“Respectfully…object,” the younger physician added, the one called Reustap.  He added a slight bow of his head to the vulnerary.

Nagle persisted.  “That wound must be drained of putrefaction, cleaned with fresh water, stitched perhaps if it is not too late, then properly dressed.”

“Perhaps, Master Chiweth, if you explained to us the logic of your treatment,” the young physician offered, “it would help us to understand its value.”

Chiweth, the vulnerary, smiled at the young physician and returned the nod of respect.  “Of course,” he said.  And he explained.

The physicians had observed the vulnerary as he answered the call for aid from a local chicken farmer who had torn open his forearm when he slipped from a ladder a few days prior.  The farmer had bound the wound and gone about his business, but it seemed to be growing worse, and had taken on a most objectionable odor that caused his wife to call the vulnerary to visit right away.

He had first examined the wound carefully, trying not to touch too closely or roughly.  He asked the man what he had been doing when he received the injury, asking him to recall as many details as he could.

From his perch upon the ladder, against the roof of his barn, the chicken farmer had been watching his chickens.  He thought he caught movement in the thick forest just beyond the barn, a rustling that he feared might be a fox.  Distracted thus, he rushed at his work in repairing the roof, and in his rush to climb down and assure his hens were safe, he tripped on a rung.  He caught himself before he fell all the way to the ground.  But he also caught his arm on a nail that torn through his flesh.

“So you were of a mind to protect your flock of innocent chickens,” the vulnerary said, half-turning to the farmer. “As you sought to protect them, so they can protect you.  You must make a chicken to peck at the wound.”  He flourished his hands as if the answer given was the answer true.

The old physician crossed his arms. “I cannot fault you for the kindness in your logic.  But I must fault the logic itself.”  He tipped his head toward the chickens that wandered about, pecking at specks of grain on the ground, and stared at the farmer.  “Why should they care for you as you care for them?  They haven’t your sense.  They’re just chickens.”  He turned to the vulnerary.  “And if this man’s chickens are like all the other chickens I have encountered in the world, there is no special property of their beaks that serves to heal wounds.”

“But we must do something,” the vulnerary said, pointing to the ugly wound on the poor farmer’s arm.

“Oh, on that point, we agree.”

“There is time to try both remedies,” the young physician said.  “Perhaps we can try ours first and if it does not work, I am certain these chickens will remain at the ready.”

The farmer, who did not wish to have his throbbing wound pecked at by the sharp beak of his rooster, agreed to the treatment of the physicians.  He was in too much pain to acknowledge any disrespect to his village vulnerary.  His wife cast many a regretful look at the remedy man, though he seemed to suffer no insult, but watched with interest as the physicians treated the wound according to their knowledge.

***

“I suppose it may work,” the vulnerary said later at the tavern where he bought his guests a meal and a drink.  “Simple actions to treat a simple wound.”

“By the way, I hope neither of you ate the bread and cheese his wife laid out,” the old physician said.  “I saw mold upon that bread.”

The vulnerary laughed aloud.  “My friend, you are observant.”  He raised his glass to the old physician and drank deeply of it.

But the young physician, Reustap, noted the irritated twitching of his teacher’s brow.  He had only been apprenticed to Nagle for half a year, but had studied under the respected physician for five years.  It was Reustap’s idea to study the ways of the village remedy men, who were, after all, a dying breed.  And that was well, for there was little room for their oft-false “remedies” in the field of modern healing.

“What about foot rot?” Nagle asked.

The three men had been challenging each other with the remedies for ailments that varied from splinters to tumors.

“I have devised over a dozen remedies for foot rot.”

“A dozen? Why so many?  Do any of them work?  Having a dozen remedies, my boy, is as good as having none.”

“Have you organized your remedies, Master Chiweth,” the young physician asked, “into records or even recipes, say?”

“I have indeed.”  The vulnerary pulled from an inside pocket of his coat a small stack of papers, bound loosely together by leather cord.  “This is just a brief I drafted to carry with me when I am called out as I was today.  The full volumes are in my apothecary, along with the actual remedies.”

The young physician asked to examine the brief and flipped through its pages.

The vulnerary listed the many types of remedies he had learned of, discovered, and added to his records.  “There are potions and tinctures, applications of pastes and clays.  Transference of healing energies and powers from other people and animals. The use of plants and spirits.”

“When you say spirits—”

“Of the departed.”

“Of course,” the old physician said, grunting.

The young physician cleared his throat.  “It has only been a few days,” he said, “but I have already observed that the people of your village have a great respect and affection for you and your skill, Master Chiweth.”

The vulnerary smiled humbly and slapped the young physician’s back.  But the old physician scoffed.

“One wonders why when your ministrations must surely leave a good number of them worse off than before,” the old physician said.  “But even people of good sense and solid intelligence will believe in foolish things if they are ignorant of wise things.”

The vulnerary seemed unfazed.  “Skull moss has proven a faithful remedy for the stopping of a bleeding nose,” he offered.

“Yes, yes, and the tears of a virgin can cure a broken heart.”

“Sir!”

“Now tell me, Chiweth,” the old physician said, ignoring his flustered apprentice.  “What is your greatest remedy?  The pride of your pantry, as it were.”

“Well, it is not in my pantry.  I would have you meet me at my dwelling tomorrow at morning, my friends and fellow healers.  And I will show you.”

***

The young physician stood at the peak of the hill, staring in awe.  The old physician and the vulnerary were already making their way down the hill toward the expanse of valley where grew a myriad variety of flowers, fruits, herbs, and trees.  The valley seemed speckled and splashed with colors soft and colors bright.  All grew in odd assortment, summer berry next to winter blossom, the soft petal of a red rose beside the crusty bark of an elm.  The growth in the valley seemed not to follow any season.  As the young physician walked down the hill, he noted a shift in the air, a warming and a dampening.

A number of villagers wandered through the valley, some picking flowers or fruits, others walking along paved paths, and a few tending to the growing things in the most wondrous garden.

The vulnerary explained how the great garden grew and why he claimed that it was source of his best remedies.  As he spoke, the look of wonder upon the young physician’s face slowly turned to horror.

For the vulnerary told the physicians of a particular custom within their village, a death ritual.  When a villager of particular renown or high significance died, say a wise woman or a charitable man, their bodies would not be consecrated to flame as was the proper custom to preserve the dignity of the dead and grant the living a means to show their respect.  Their bodies would be placed in the bare earth, buried deep, and then certain plants, as chosen by the vulnerary and the family of the deceased, would be planted over the body.  The vulnerary believed that what grew upon the earth above the deceased would be imbued with the special abilities and qualities of that person.

“What a ridiculous conceit,” the old physician said as they stopped upon the path so that the young physician could remove a stone from his shoe.  “Alas for the poor wise woman whose wisdom was only passed on through the eating of fruit that grew upon her grave, and not from the teachings and counsel of the woman while she yet lived!”

A woman working nearby at trimming the branches of the willow had obviously overheard.  She frowned and turned to the men, to the old physician in particular.

“With a temperament such as yours, sir,” she said.  “I should not like to see what rotten fruit might grow upon your grave.”

The vulnerary admonished the woman, kindly but soundly, to be respectful of their guests.  But the young physician, who felt otherwise apologetic for the comments and behavior of his teacher, was in complete agreement with Nagle with regard to the great garden.

“We are not so foolish as to leave the passing on of wisdom to chance,” the vulnerary said.  “And this entire garden is a chance, for the remedies grown here may or may not work.”

“But you’ll get paid all the same, eh, Chiweth, so what does it matter?”

Chiweth did not bite at the bait.  “One must be fairly compensated for the execution of one’s profession,” he said, “so one has time to study and experiment.  But did you not observe how I regarded my patients?  Do you believe my care for them is a ruse?”

At this, the old physician paused.  “There is a strange custom of burial in the west.  The dead are placed in wooden crates shaped to fit their forms.  Sometimes the crates are even made of the finest wood and carved with patterns, made to look beautiful.  These crates are lowered into the ground and the spot marked with stones upon which the names of the dead are engraved.  It is meant to be a good and holy practice, but I must confess, I find it troubling.  By compare, your garden of graves is a rather beautiful and fitting place for the living to visit and pay their respects to their dead.”

The vulnerary bowed his head, and the young physician felt a bit of his faintness fade as he was comforted by his teacher’s tender sentiment.

Even as they paused for a moment of peace, they heard the sound of shouting and footfalls upon the path, and as they turned, they recognized the shouted words as the name of the vulnerary.

***

“Master Chiweth!”  The shouting was soon followed by the sight of the shouter.  A man came dashing down the hill that led into the garden valley.   “You must come quickly,” he said as he reached the spot where the three healers stood expectant.  “Cyrus’s daughter has fallen ill.  It’s some kind of fever.”

The vulnerary’s eyes widened and his form stiffened.  He followed the messenger and entreated the physicians to join him.

***

The physicians waited outside of the bedchamber, while the vulnerary examined the patient within.  The young woman’s mother and father insisted that no one else be allowed in the bedchamber.

The old physician paced and cast impatient glances toward the door to the bedchamber.  His medicine bag lay at the ready on the bench where his apprentice sat with folded hands upon jittery knees.

“Sir, I’m certain they meant no insult to us.  They are familiar with Master Chiweth and trusting of him. It is fitting they turn to him in their time of greatest despair.”

The old physician grunted.  “If these daft people would rather have this unschooled imaginarian minister to their ailments then so be it.”

“Begging pardon, sir, but perhaps it is in part his manner that wins their favor. He approaches them with care and humility.”

Nagle paused in his pacing and shot a startled look at his apprentice.  “I care! I am humble!  How could I not be so and still call myself a healer?”

“You have shown little regard and much disdain for Master Chiweth.”

The old physician sighed and met his apprentice’s gaze.  “You are too young to remember the days when every village, township, and capital was overrun by such…vulneraries.  There was one in my village when I was but a youth.  Most meant well, but it is not enough to mean well.  They caused much harm and even much death.  They had no understanding of how the organs and tissues of our bodies worked, of how injury and ailment affected those organs and tissues.  And certainly, they had no understanding of remedy.  They did what your precious Master Chiweth has been doing.  They acted upon notions arising in their own minds and dreams, concocted remedies made of effectless—or worse, poisonous—things, and presented them with confidence to the people who sought their aid.”

“They did not know any better, none of us did.”

“Then they should have done nothing.”

“It is not in the nature of good people to do nothing when their fellows are suffering.”

“Sometimes, my boy, the best and most healthful course of action is to do nothing.”

“Yes, sir, but only sometimes.”

The door to the bedchamber opened then.

The young woman’s father, his brow well-furrowed and his eyes full of doubt addressed the old physician.  “The good Master Chiweth wishes for you to examine my daughter as well.”

Nagle swept up his medicine bag and approached the door, and the girl’s father took a single step, allowing the old physician just enough room to enter.  His apprentice followed.  And under the observation of the vulnerary and the girl’s parents, the two physicians examined the weak and feverish young woman, placing scopes upon her heart, shining lights into her ear and her throat, using gauges to measure the strength of her squeezing fist, and so forth.

When they were finished, Chiweth smiled warmly at the girl and her parents, informed them that he and his fellow healers would confer, and assured them of his confidence that they would devise a remedy.  The young physician noted that the remedy man made no promises.  In this he had some hope for the village vulnerary.

That hope was soon dashed when they sat in their vulnerary’s study.

“Her grandmother is buried in the garden,” the vulnerary said.  “Above her grows the dandelion and the crocus.  If we but make a tincture from the flowers and the earth upon the grave of the once-vital woman, I believe we can transfer that vitality to her granddaughter in her hour of need.”

The young physician caught his breath, in anticipation of a tumultuous response from his teacher.

But the old physician merely crossed his arms and peered at the vulnerary.  “And how do you come by this remedy?”  His question and his curiosity appeared sincere to the perception of his apprentice.

“It seems similar to an illness that once swept across the western regions,” the vulnerary said.  “Do you know of the Weep?  I have read much of this illness.  If I am not mistaken, the remedy was found in a flower that grew in a distant land, but was found and brought to the west.”  He turned to search the shelves and nooks where he kept his books and scrolls.

The physicians knew of the Weep, though it was an ailment that no longer troubled any in the modern age.  The vulnerary was correct in identifying the source of the remedy.  A flower.

The young physician leaned toward his teacher and whispered.  “You see, sir? He has knowledge of real remedies.”

“Some knowledge, perhaps,” Nagle whispered back.  “But I have found that knowing half the truth is oft more dangerous than knowing none of it.”

But the old physician said no more, and Reustap realized that his teacher was testing him, expecting him to speak up in defense of their profession and their patient.

The young physician cleared his throat.  “Master Chiweth,” he called.  And when the vulnerary turned toward the physician, his face turned down to the tome he had pulled from his shelf, the young physician called again.  The vulnerary looked up and gave his full attention Reustap.

“We believe this ailment is being caused by an infestation,” Reustap said.

Chiweth frowned.  “An infestation?”

“Imagine, if you will, your home being infested with mice or insects.  The same may happen with our bodies.  At times, they can become infested with pests, only these pests are so small that we cannot see them with our bare eyes.”

“Then what makes you think they are there?  What makes you dare to compare our wondrous and living forms to a simple husk built from wood and clay?”

The young physician took a breath.  “There are glass-makers who have built lenses able to see very small objects and creatures.  Some physicians have been able to see these infestations within people who are ill with certain fevers.  We are still gathering more and more information and putting together case studies and observing the course of ailments within the human body, so that we might discern one fever from another, and thereby devise a fitting treatment for each.  That is…when a house is infested with mice, there is one way to be rid of them.  But when it is infested with insects, one must use different methods.”

Reustap paused.

The vulnerary set down the book he was holding.  “I do not agree with your reasoning, my young friend, but I do follow it.  Continue.  What particular infestation troubles this girl?  And what remedy do you propose?”

“We have gathered different treatments with different types of fevers.  We will need to examine her to determine which fever she has.  If we do not apply the proper treatment, we may do more harm than good.”  The young physician felt a moistness upon his brow.  He was not as confident of his words now.

“But you have already examined her,” the vulnerary said.  “You measured the heat of her skin.  You checked the inside of her mouth for sores.  You went on and on, and you still do not have a satisfactory answer.  Begging pardon, Master Nagle, but you did not even speak with the girl.  You did not ask her what she had been doing in the days before she fell ill, how went her mood, how much pain she was suffering, whether or not she was hungry or thirsty, and so forth.”

“There is no need for such,” the old physician said.  “Speaking to the patient only introduces assumptions in the physician.  It only confounds our diagnosis.  The human body can be examined without engaging the human character.  Her symptoms will provide all the information that we need to determine what her ailment is.  We simply need to review our findings more carefully.”

The young physician inhaled deeply.  “Perhaps, sir, it would do no harm for Master Chiweth to follow up on our examination with the questions that he suggests.  Having more information could only be beneficial to our purpose.”

“Very well,” the old physician said.  “But whatever we do, we are not feeding her crocuses.”

“Until we identify the fever that troubles her,” the young physician said.  “We must at the least bring her fever down, and give her broth and such aid to her as to strengthen her body, so that it might withstand the illness on its own.  In the meantime, we will consult our own volumes for further clues.”

So the three men went to work, the vulnerary returning to the young woman’s home to further examine and interview her and her parents, and the physicians returning to their quarters to consult what texts they had brought with them concerning fevers.

***

When the physicians entered Master Chiweth’s study upon his summons, they found him sitting at his table, his complexion pale and his expression dire.

“I’m afraid you were right, Master Nagle,” the vulnerary said.  “Dandelions and crocuses will do nothing for her.  And though there are many remedies listed among the records of past vulneraries, none have succeeded in saving a single soul with this fever.”  He went on to brief them of what he had observed and learned.

The girl had traveled in recent weeks to the closest great township to the north, and on her travels had been bitten upon the ankle by some creature, most likely while walking through the town.  She had not noticed until much later, and as the wound did not fester, she did not bother with it further.  She complained of feeling a wrenching thirst, but when her mother tried to give her water, she turned her head and resisted drinking.  She spoke little, but when she did, she only claimed that it caused her great pain to swallow.  She could not take water, or broth, much less any solid food.  The vulnerary spoke to many travelers who passed through their village.  And so he knew that there was a plague of fevers in that northern township where she had visited, fevers that struck both man and beast, fevers that were passed on to people when those people were bitten by those beasts.

And the physicians understood, and their expressions grew dire as well, before the vulnerary uttered the name of the fever.

“I fear she has the rabies,” Master Chiweth said.  “I beg of you, have the physicians found a cure?  Have you triumphed where we have failed?”

“There is no treatment, I’m afraid,” the old physician said, “if that is indeed what she has contracted.  We have no recourse but to give her as much comfort as we can until she passes.”

The young physician frowned.  “Can we be sure it is rabies?  Was it a dog that bit her?  Or a bat?”

The vulnerary shook his head.  “She does not know.  And I cannot tell.  I examined her ankle, but the wound healed long ago.  There is little scarring.”

“Given her symptoms, what else do you think it can be?” the old physician asked, turning to his apprentice, for nothing else came to his mind.

But the young apprentice had been reading about fevers for hours upon hours.  They all had many similarities, which made it difficult to discern one from the other.  He remembered a particular fever that had very much the same qualities as rabies, but was far less severe.  It too once caused much death, but much like that ancient illness, the Weep, this other rabies-like fever could be treated in their day.  Its sufferers might survive if treated well and quickly.

The young physician moved toward the vulnerary’s cabinet of potions and powers.

“If she has rabies, there is little harm we can do now but to cause her pain,” the young physician said.  “But if she was bitten by something else, a rodent perhaps—“

The old physician narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms.  “Then she likely does not have rabies, but some other fever.  But we cannot know what bit her.”

The vulnerary’s eyes widened.

“What is it, Master Chiweth?” the old physician asked.

“The girl traveled with a friend, a rather well-to-do friend.  The girl’s mother mentioned that this friend complained about the inn in which they stayed.  It was teeming with mice, she claimed.”

“Teeming, you say?” the old physician asked, his own eyes widening.  “Like an infestation?”

“My fellow healers,” the vulnerary said.  “If the girl was bitten by a mouse or something else, then do we have a chance to heal her?”

“There is a fever traveling through the north,” the young physician said, “carried by mice and rats.  It is something newly discovered.”

“The vagabond malaise,” the vulnerary said, nodding.  “I have heard a traveler or two mention it.  I had not heard that it had struck our lands.  Though I have been working on devising a remedy for it.”

“Of course you have,” the old physician said, shaking his head.

“We must be quick,” the young physician said as he gathered bottles and vials from the vulnerary’s cabinet.  “We will need to visit that ghostly garden of yours, Master Chiweth.  I believe there are some rare herbs growing there that will aid us in treating the young miss.”

“What if we are wrong?  What if she wasn’t bitten by a mouse?  What if she does have rabies?” the old physician said.

The young physician turned to his teacher.  “We still must do something to ease her suffering.”

***

The healers gathered the treatments according to the knowledge of the physicians and the stores of the vulnerary.  When next they spoke to the young woman’s parents, they asked even more questions about their daughter’s trip.  The vulnerary questioned the girl’s friend, who had come to visit and pay her respect.  And they noted further symptoms, ones that did not match rabies, but did match the so-called vagabond malaise.  She wanted light, more light, in her bedchamber.  And she suffered a strange rash upon her neck and shoulders.

The young woman remained weakened and bedridden for several days, taking little food or drink, delirious with a fever that her healers desperately tried to cool with frost-chilled waters, groaning and moaning from the spasms that wracked her muscles, restless and wrestling.  They fed her potions to bring down her fever from the inside.  They placed pastes made of clay and herbs upon the rashes and sores that formed under the pits of her arms and the nape of her neck.  They made water to trickle down her throat to soothe her thirst.  At least one of the three healers stayed with her at all times, as the others rested and read and gathered more materials to maintain their treatment.

The young woman was strong, but the longer she struggled against the fever, the weaker she became.  And her mother and father, and her healers, and all who held her dear, feared for her even as they labored to heal her.

Then, at last, the girl’s fever broke.

She fell into a stupor and slept soundly through the night.  All still feared for her, for now they watched and wondered if she would wake.

The next evening, she woke and smiled at her mother.  She sipped water and broth throughout the day.  Color returned to her cheeks and recognition to her eyes.  And the healers began to retreat.

***

Several more days passed.  The girl was not yet strong enough to walk, though she claimed to Chiweth that she felt the strength returning to her legs.  She also claimed that even if she never walked again, she was grateful to the vulnerary, and to his physician allies, for their valiant efforts.  She was too shy and modest to let the physicians examine her, for they were strangers to her, so they had instructed the vulnerary in some of their ways.

And he had instructed them in some of his.  For the old physician softened his stubborn stance and granted that there was some value to be found in consulting patients about their lives and activities surrounding illness and injury.

The three healers had spent much more time conversing about their shared trade.  But it was drawing near to the day that the physicians would return home.  The men gathered at the tavern where they had upon the physicians’ arrival, for a final drink together.

***

As they ate and drank, the three healers spoke of their trade, and still had their disagreements over treatments and remedies.  The physicians had not convinced the vulnerary to abandon all of his remedies, especially the ghostly garden.  Though he did agree to consider any remedies they presented to him when they began a correspondence upon their return home.  And the vulnerary had not convinced the old physician to learn every little detail about his patients from gout to gossip.  But the old physician had agreed to at least interview his patients for any facts surrounding the injury or ailment they presented to him.

After a quiet moment, the vulnerary raised his glass.  “Perhaps we can agree upon this one thing, my good physicians, that we are all remedy men.”

Nagle sighed and the young physician glanced expectantly between his teacher and the vulnerary.  But then, the old physician raised his glass and nodded.  He smiled at the vulnerary and he smiled at his apprentice.  For the sigh he had sighed was a sigh of relief and of gladness at the returning good health of their gentle patient.

“All hail the remedy men,” he said.

And they all drank deeply of their spirits.

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel.

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