Fantasy about magic's source.
|THE PRICE OF MAGIC
My husband was not a very good doctor. With any other doctor, I suppose this would mean that his patients would suffer. John, however, never hesitated to resort to magic when his medicinal skills would not suffice. Therefore, only I suffered.
My father, a wise and respected physician, had very strong opinions on magical healing. He said that any man or woman who resorted to magic to effect a cure had not earned the right to be called a doctor.
"The first rule of the physician," he said, "is to harm no one. Using magic in spite of its penalty--hurting the person one loves best in the world--clearly violates this rule. Now, if the laws of magic let the caster bear the burden of its use, it wouldn't be so bad. But then," he added, "no one would use magic if they had to suffer themselves."
Perhaps John would have become a better doctor if my father had lived to finish his training. Or maybe not; my father never had high hopes for John. He told me that I would have made a far better doctor than my husband. But I loved John and would not hear anything negative about him. And when my father died, John took over his practice and his home. I hate to think what Father would say about my husband now. Or about me.
One midsummer day, Lydia and I sat sewing and talking in my parlor, as we had done since we were little girls. The only thing that seemed to have changed was the skill of our stitches. As usual, Lydia made me laugh.
"I'm serious, Isabel," Lydia said. "Someone's got to find out who is responsible for this!"
"Spoken like a baker's wife," I said, finishing one shirt's mending and beginning another. "Village boys steal a couple of pies and you think we should call out the dogs."
"Baker's widow," Lydia said.
Oh, dear. I glanced at my best friend, half expecting her tears to start again. Before I could apologize, however, Lydia said, "But right off the windowsills! Is nothing sacred?"
I was relieved to see her impish look. After a year of mourning, Lydia seemed to be recovering from her loss. Lydia was too young to remain a grief-stricken widow forever; it was good to see some of her old spark returning.
"Good afternoon, ladies." My husband, returning from his rounds, seemed to fill the room with his charismatic appeal. His athletic build, windswept black hair, and sparkling blue eyes never failed to draw attention.
"John!" I received his quick kiss with a smile. After four years of marriage I was no less mesmerized in his presence than I was when he first applied to my father for training.
"Hello, John." Lydia smiled at him as he moved a pile of mending and took a seat nearby.
"How is the lovely Lydia today?" he asked.
"Outraged," I said. "Lydia has just been telling me that we have pastry thieves in our midst."
"A scandalous affair," John said to Lydia. "Is nothing sacred?"
Lydia gave me a smug look that set us both laughing. I glanced at John to see what he made of the joke, and spotted the book on his lap.
"Oh, is someone sick?" Lydia asked, noticing the same thing.
"Warren Spencer's fever continues to worsen," he said, turning serious. As he shifted the book in his hands, I glimpsed the spine. 'Oh, gods,' I thought, unable to stifle an involuntary shudder. It wasn't one of my father's well-worn medical books as I had hoped, but the magic book John bought after my father died eight months ago.
On four separate occasions my husband had spoken incantations from that book to heal injuries or diseases he couldn't cure naturally. As a result I was missing a finger, two toes, and my left ear. What price would I pay for Warren Spencer's fever?
John took his book to the study, and Lydia and I returned to our sewing. I don't know what we talked about the rest of the afternoon, though I told myself to savor our conversation. If John read from that book, my remaining ear might pay the price for his lack of skill.
After Lydia left, I asked John whether he'd like me to go with him when he visited his patient. Several times in the past I'd been able to prevent John's use of magic by "assisting" him in his work. John told me not to trouble myself, that Spencer's fever was probably breaking already. We both refrained from mentioning the magic book.
"You know I never want to hurt you, Isabel," he said, smiling that wonderful smile. "But how will these people learn to think of me as their trusted physician if you are always there to remind them of your father?"
I could only nod, and hope that his love for me would keep him from opening that cursed book.
After dinner, John went back to the Spencer house to see what he could do for Warren. I meant to stay up as late as necessary to greet my fate, but I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke in the morning, John had been in and gone again.
Sitting up in bed, I took a quick inventory of my body, fearing the worst. Finding nothing missing, I checked again, more carefully. I even began to wonder if I'd lost something internal, but everything seemed to be in working order. Maybe John had been able to cure Mr. Spencer without the book. With this thought, my confusion changed to the first stirrings of relief for myself, and pride for my husband. Perhaps after a shaky eight months, John was finally coming into his own as a natural doctor. I needed to find out right away if Warren Spencer was well.
I dressed and went downstairs to find a note from John on the maple table near the door. "Good morning, Dear. Going to Gibson farm. Will see you this evening." Nothing to indicate success or failure at the Spencer house, nor whether he had employed his magic book. I would have to find out for myself.
Collecting my basket and my light cape, I stepped out the door and walked to the market square where I saw Cappie Steward rearranging her yarn stand. If anyone could be relied upon to know the local gossip, it was our Miss Steward.
"Good morning, Cappie," I said, fingering a skein of soft lavender. "What's new?"
Cappie, pleased at the opportunity to disgorge her store of gossip, launched into a catalog of Brookhill's doings. There had been another pie theft, Mrs. Hunter was pregnant yet again, and Warren Spencer was back at work in the mill this morning.
"But I'm sure you already knew that," Cappie said, giving me a pointed look.
For a moment I panicked, assuming she was alluding to my physical fluctuations. Was Cappie performing a diagnostic survey similar to the one I did this morning? With an effort at calm, I reassured myself that no one but another magic-user would know what my missing pieces meant. If my neighbors thought it was odd that the town doctor couldn't cure his wife's "mysterious wasting illness," they never mentioned it to me.
No, Cappie was probably attempting to construct a hypothesis about portentous non-communication between John and me.
"John was up at first light to ride out to Gibson's farm this morning," I said with a smile. "I'm glad to hear that Mr. Spencer's better today. I'll take a bit of this purple, I think."
Cappie wrapped up the yarn and shared a bit more intelligence about our neighbors, while I wondered about Spencer. I couldn't ask Cappie whether Warren's cure was natural or miraculous--I wouldn't want to draw attention to the difference, anyway--so I still didn't know if John resorted to speaking an incantation.
Walking home with my news and my incidental yarn, I thought about the information Cappie had provided me. I supposed it was conceivable for Warren to recover so quickly, but even if his fever had broken by the time John got there last night, a man who'd been that sick would need a few days bedrest. Still, I was certain that my body was the same today as it had been yesterday.
Well, one day older, of course.
Chuckling under my breath, I bumped into someone.
"Oh! Excuse me," I said, and looked up to see Lydia.
"So you were having such an engrossing conversation that you forgot to watch where you were going, eh?" She said, grinning at me.
The pert reply I might have made dissolved when I saw that grin. Lydia displayed a gaping hole where her right front tooth should be.
"Gods, Lydia! What happened to your tooth?" I said. Surely, surely a coincidence, I prayed.
"Oh." Lydia covered her mouth. "I don't know. I must have knocked it loose in the night. When I woke up it was gone. I didn't even find it in the bed sheets. I hope I didn't swallow it," she said, trying a hesitant smile with her lips closed.
Transfixed with shock, I couldn't think of a reply. When Lydia's attempt at a smile changed to a look of concern, I realized that I was moaning softly.
"Are you ill, Isabel?"
"No--yes, I think I need to lie down."
Lydia insisted on helping me home. I managed to assure her of my health and thank her for her concern by the time we reached my door. Stumbling inside alone, I dropped my basket and collapsed on a chair in the hall.
My initial plan was to sit there with my arms clasped over my stomach, rocking and moaning. But another part of my mind kept probing the problem, looking for reasons and clues that I might have overlooked. I began to recall odd looks and unfinished statements that I had never noted before. Matching these incidents with dates, I was able to put together an all-too-believable story.
I realized that things had begun to change between John and Lydia about five weeks ago, right after I lost my ear. This newest disfigurement mortified me worse than the others, and I confided my agony to Lydia--although not, of course, the reason for the loss. Lydia had reassured me that John's feelings for me would not change because of a simple physical imperfection. She had even helped me to arrange my hair so as to hide my mismatched features.
"And all the while, the lying backstabber was taking advantage of my compromised position to make up to my husband," I said, cursing my inconstant friend and berating my own blindness.
I didn't even consider the fact that she had spared me the loss of a tooth. Her gap was merely a symbol of her perfidy. The sacrifices I made for John's career were my burden and my crown. How dare she take them from me?
It was proof of my hysteria that I was able to begrudge her the sacrifice she made while gloating over her loss. I can only conclude that the same madness inspired the actions I took afterwards.
Retrieving my basket (sans yarn), I left the house again, this time by the back door. I entered the woods behind our village, collecting blackberries and raspberries and putting them in my basket. Roving the quiet woods did not calm me on this day, and the fact that my usual purpose on these paths was to collect healing herbs for medicines failed to strike me as incongruous with my current actions. By early afternoon my basket was full of the sweet, plump fruit, and I turned toward home. Nearing the village, I stopped at a baneberry bush, which every Brookhill child knows to avoid, and plucked a double handful of its small red berries.
When John returned from the Gibson's that evening, I had dinner prepared. Roasted turkey and baked ham, golden potatoes and sweet young corn competed with fresh bread and butter, applesauce and asparagus for room on our trestle table. A fresh berry pie would finish the meal.
The pie was as perfect as I could make it. I could not help admiring it myself, although I would not share in its consumption. The crust was golden and bursting with juices, and the smell pervading the entire house from the kitchen windowsill shamed the aromas of the rest of the feast.
"I couldn't eat another bite," John said as I offered him another helping of ham. "I'm saving room for that pie," he added, with a boyish gleam in his eye.
Laughing at his enthusiasm for a treat, I went into the kitchen.
"Oh! Oh no!"
"What's the matter?" John asked, rushing into the kitchen.
"The pie thieves have struck again! Oh, John, I'm so sorry," I said when I saw his crestfallen face. "Shall I make you a tart? I think I have some berries left..."
"No, Isabel, don't worry about it. I'll just--"
Urgent knocking interrupted whatever he would have done. John reached the door a moment before I did, and opened it to reveal Mrs. Halverg, the smith's wife, and two very queasy-looking boys.
"Oh, doctor, you've got to do something! My Jimmy and young Clarence here have got hold of something that's taking it right out of them!"
It looked to me like some of "it" was about to be taken out of young Jimmy right there on the stoop. I ushered the boys into the surgery while John asked Mrs. Halverg about their symptoms.
"We were just sitting down to dinner -- only Clarence was eating with us 'cause his Ma's taking care of her sister who just had a baby girl, right? Anyway, there we were, starting dinner, when all of a sudden the boys grabbed their bellies and started heaving. Well, of course I told them to leave the room if they were going to act that way. But then Jimmy here fainted right at the table. I saw they were really sick, so I brought them over here. They're both burning up. Feel."
"You say you were just starting dinner? They hadn't eaten anything yet?" John asked, pressing his hands against the boys' red and sweating foreheads.
"Not a thing since lunch, and that'd be about six hours back," Mrs. Halverg said.
Jimmy and Clarence squirmed a bit and glanced at me. Undetected by John or Mrs. Halverg, I treated Jimmy and Clarence to an all-too-knowing glare. Jimmy blanched and Clarence threatened to have an eruption from one end or the other. I think it was this last that galvanized John's decision.
"Mrs. Halverg, I don't want you to worry. Isabel will show you to the sitting room, and I'll do what I can for Jimmy and Clarence. I'm sure they'll be better in no time."
"Oh, thank you, Doctor," the matron said. There was so much genuine relief in her face that I knew she couldn't hear the panic in John's voice. As he closed the door, I saw him reach for his magic book.
I sat with Mrs. Halverg in the parlor to keep her mind off the boys' condition, but I was more nervous than she was. I was taking a huge risk: I could lose one or more body parts for nothing this evening. John would not know the warning signs of baneberry ingestion as any Brookhill native would -- indeed, Mrs. Halverg would have known what she was seeing had she been privy to her charges' illicit snack. John would also not know that the baneberry's effects fade within an hour or so, with or without intervention. I knew from the beginning that in his panic over these, to him, inexplicable symptoms, he would resort to magic. I told myself that if I had been wrong to suspect my best friend, I would deserve what I got.
If I were right, Lydia would deserve what she got. Or, more to the point, what she lost.
After what felt to me like an hour, but was probably only ten minutes, John and his patients emerged from the surgery looking relieved. Mrs. Halverg leapt to her feet and gathered both boys to her generous bosom.
"Oh, thank you so much, Doctor Brown," she said, releasing the youngsters to pump John's hand with both of her own. "I don't know what I would've done if anything had happened to them."
While John and Mrs. Halverg were occupied, I caught both boys' eyes. After a long moment I grinned at them, and they relaxed and grinned back. I don't believe they ever stole another pie.
I had a harder time catching John's eye. Neither of us could pretend that the boys' instantaneous cure had been natural, and my unchanged body demanded an explanation. John showed Mrs. Halverg and the boys to the door, and for a moment I thought that he was going to walk them all the way home rather than face me.
A messenger arrived just as the first trio stepped into the street, saving John from a confrontation. Without asking for any particulars, John grabbed his coat from the hook and bolted out the door.
By the time John got home, I had retired to the bedroom. He entered our chamber, unfastening his shirt with a distracted air. When he saw me in our bed, he paused. I thought he would turn away, but he took a deep breath and sat on the edge of the bed.
Putting his head in his hands, he said, "It was Lydia who summoned me. I've just been to see her." He paused for such a long time that I wondered if he would say any more. He dropped his hands and looked at me. "She's caught the 'wasting illness,' Isabel. I can't tell you how sorry I am."
I didn't know what to say, so I just stared at him.
"Say something!" he said.
"Does Lydia know the cause of the 'illness'?"
He sighed. "She does now. She was horrified by her spontaneous amputations and wanted me to cure her. I had to tell her why that would be impossible."
We were both silent for a moment. "Perhaps now she will think twice before dallying with another woman's husband."
John gave me such a look that I wondered if he suspected my part in this evening's activities. Then I decided that I didn't care, rolled over, and pretended to sleep.
The following weeks were lonely ones for me. Even the fact that I was finally safe from sudden maiming did not soften the knowledge that the man I loved most in the world did not love me.
How I missed my friend at this time! But the knowledge that Lydia had what I had lost--both my husband's love and the honor of sacrificing myself for his career--kept me from seeking her out.
John could not ask me to leave the house; it belonged to me, an inheritance from my father. He could--and did--leave me alone in it, however. John stayed at the pub whenever he wasn't working. I suspect he spent his evenings playing cards and drinking ale with the regulars there. I didn't ask him for details when our paths crossed, and he didn't volunteer anything.
One morning I ran into Cappie Steward in the market. Garrulous as ever, she regaled me with news of the local goings on.
"And I hear that your John is going to visit Mary Harris this afternoon," she concluded, "to see what can be done about her baby girl's cleft palate. I hope he can help her. A lovely little cherub she is."
"Yes," I said. "I hope that he can help her."
Cappie went on to tell me about Judge Martha throwing her own husband in the drunk tank, but I didn't hear the rest of the conversation--a fact which did not deter Cappie in the slightest. I was busy thinking about Lydia. John would have to read from his magic book this afternoon, and Lydia would endure some sort of loss. For the first time since the morning I realized Lydia's betrayal, I pitied her for the sacrifice to come. I, of all people, knew how it felt.
The following evening, there was a quiet knock at my front door. I was surprised to have a visitor; everyone in town knew that they could now find John at the inn of an evening, and I tended to keep to myself. I opened the door and found a veiled woman on my porch. I stepped aside, and Lydia came in.
I followed her into the parlor, but before I could speak, she dropped her veil. Any residual anger I felt for my friend dissolved when I saw what she revealed. My oldest, dearest friend's once beautiful face had been ruined by the loss of her nose, and she was missing her right hand as well.
"Oh, gods! Lydia, I'm so sorry," I said, flinging my arms around her. We stumbled to the settee and sat sobbing and holding each other.
"Isabel, I'm the one who should apologize. I deserve everything I've gotten. I would never choose to hurt you! But after Harry died, I was so lonely, and John was so kind," she said, melting into tears once more.
I patted Lydia's back and offered her a handkerchief.
"Isabel, I've betrayed my best friend and I've become a monster for it. I need no other reason to feel wretched, but..." Lydia took a deep breath and crushed the handkerchief in her good hand. "Did you hear that Mary Harris had a daughter with a cleft palate? Well, John healed her...and Alice Carver lost a thumb."
"Alice at the inn? But she--How could he--? Ooh! That floozy's been after John for years."
Lydia just looked at me.
"You're right," I sighed. "It's not her, just like it wasn't you. It's him. He betrayed us both, and look at how he left us."
We were quiet for a moment, contemplating our losses.
"Gods help me, Lydia," I said, putting my head in my hands. "I still love him."
Lydia stroked my back and offered me the moist handkerchief. I began to reach for it, but stopped part way, letting the cloth fall to the floor.
"What is it?" Lydia asked.
I could feel the blood drain out of my face. "Lydia... I still love John more than anyone else in the world."
Lydia stared at me in confusion. Suddenly she gasped and covered her mouth with her remaining hand, her wide-open eyes fixed on mine.
"Come with me!" I said, leading the way to the surgery.
Half an hour later, there was a commotion on my front step. Lydia and I, whole once more, opened the door to find Matthew Miller supporting John.
"Mrs. Brown, something terrible has happened," Matthew said, helping my crippled husband into the parlor. "He was playing backgammon with Old Thomas. All of a sudden he just screamed and fell off his chair." Matthew propped John on the settee and stepped back. "We checked to see what was the matter with him and--well, you can see for yourself..."
Indeed, I could. John's right foot, two fingers on his left hand, his right eye, his nose, and his tongue were gone.
"Frank threw him out of the inn. Said he was either diseased or cursed. John couldn't walk by himself, though, so I brought him home."
"Thank you so much, Matthew," I said, but he was staring at Lydia.
"I'll take care of him now," I said louder, making an effort to catch the burly miller's attention. "Will you walk Lydia home?"
"I'd be honored to," he said, taking Lydia's arm. I spared a moment to hope for the best for those two, before turning to care for my husband.
Our reconciliation took some time. John, unlike me, bore all of his losses at once, so he had a lot to get used to. He also had not been expecting it, as I always did. He'd never had reason to believe that anything like this would happen to him. That incredulity irritated me, considering how he'd consigned me to a similar fate not so long ago. Because of this, I decided to keep the magic book, despite the fact that I'll never open it again. It satisfies me, for now, that he should sample some of the dread I felt while our positions were reversed. I love John very much, but I am human after all.
Somehow I do still love John as much as ever. His deformities don't seem to bother me as mine used to bother him. Those deformities have the added benefit of ensuring his fidelity; who but I could love him like this? And he, to whom physical imperfection in a mate is less tolerable, has gotten back the woman he married.
I took over the practice when it became clear that John could no longer pretend to be a doctor. It was easier than I thought it would be. Most of Brookhill remembered that I had studied under my father before John came to town, and the gossips were quick to remind each other that I had been meant to inherit more than just my father's house. While my cures are not as miraculous as John's sometimes were, my patients trust me more than they did my husband. I enjoy my work and am pleased to carry on my father's trade.
And I am a very good doctor.