The Doctor’s Mask – Taylor Hornig

metaphorosis_2016-12I let Cameron take me to him, but I already knew where he was. I smelled him as clearly as I smelled old Barty’s woodsmoke. He had a bad scent. Sweet and sick, like rotting flowers.

“Did you touch him?” I asked. It was a frigid afternoon, the sun clear and bright, the air frosty and still. When Cameron spoke, his breath bloomed in a cloud of white.

“No, Dr. Slatewall.” The boy clambered onto a snowdrift and pointed at the squat stony water mill. It perched next to the frozen river, its curved walls dusted with snow. “He’s behind the mill, on the ice.”

I inhaled. The scent was potent and foul. I looked at Cameron’s unperturbed face and felt a pang of jealousy. He did not have the vasku; the air might have been scentless, for all he knew. But I was used to hiding jealousy, and the vasku too. When I faced him, it was with a doctor’s smile—calm, reassuring, competent. “Thanks. Stay here while I take a look.”

He nodded, his eyes shining in the winter light. I couldn’t make out the color, but I knew they were blue. Everyone had blue eyes in the lands north of Havenstok. A curious genetic quirk, those eyes. Sometimes I wondered where it had come from. Most likely a reduction in genetic diversity following the Last War. But I could only guess. Havenstok had trained me as a doctor, not an historian. I knew even less about this place than the townspeople, who themselves knew next to nothing.

I turned and trudged toward the mill. Last night’s sleet had left the snow shiny and slick. It was all I could do to keep my footing as I made my way to the river, where the snow gave way to a vast sweep of glittering ice.

On it lay a man. A small man, his limbs splayed in an awkward X. He wore leather breeches, sheepskin boots, and nothing else. His gleaming back was sickly white, his shoulders a darker shade that looked like green.

The diagnosis should have been easy. His photosynthetic shoulders marked him as a man of Havenstok. A man of Homo herba, we doctors would say. And his symptoms—excessive sweating, overheating, unconsciousness—were standard in herbas who suffered from mutant-herbal fever, the terrifying plague that had swept the region during the past several months.

A Homo sapiens doctor would already be gathering a disposal team. Townspeople armed with leather gloves, cloth masks, and an impressive amount of courage. They would drag the body far into the snowy woods, far enough to keep it from contaminating town property. Then would come the quarantine. The waiting. And, possibly, the death. Unlike herbas, sapiens never survived MHF. They just boiled with fever until their organs shut down. A fact the townspeople knew too well.

But I was not sapiens. I was herba. And I knew the scent of MHF. It had a sharp odor, sour and acrid. This disease smelled softer. Almost cloying. I sniffed again. The scent poured into my nose, intensely putrid—and completely unfamiliar.

This wasn’t MHF.

This was something else.

“Dr. Slatewall?” Cameron’s words, reedy with distance. “Is he going to make us sick?”

“No,” I called back.

“Will you make someone get rid of him?”

A note of fear in that boyish voice. Or maybe anger. Since the outbreak they’d become almost the same.

“Yes,” I told him. But I ached when I did it. And when I looked back at the man, I seemed to see the vine-wrapped towers of Havenstok, circling the Great Tree that gave them life.

Havenstok, which I had abandoned.

Havenstok, which I had betrayed.

A cold wind blew across the river, scattering snow across my goggles. I wiped it away. My gloves smudged the tinted lenses, turning the man into a blurry brown smear. Still I regarded him for a long moment, my sleeves rippling in the last of the wind, before I returned to the road.

“You’d better go home,” I told Cameron. “It’s getting dark.”

He blinked nervously. “You’ll make someone get rid of him. Won’t you?”

“Yes. Now go.”

After he left, I returned to the river. The man still lay on the ice, motionless. I climbed over the bank and crouched next to him. There was no sound but the empty whistle of the wind. But I checked behind me anyway, ensuring no one had followed, before I heaved his body over my shoulder.

#

I carried him home in the chill evening light. In summer the streets would have been thick with workers returning from the fields; now, in the dark depths of winter, there was no one but the occasional dim figure glimpsed through a curtained window. Normally that would have bothered me. Even after so long I missed the biolumes of Havenstok. How they hung from every tree, banishing the shadows with gentle golden light. But this time I gave silent thanks to the darkness. If anyone saw me with a sick herba, I would be chased out of town.

No. I corrected myself. If anyone saw me with any herba, I would be chased out of town. MHF had originated in Havenstok, and the sapiens thought we were all carriers. Even those of us who were healthy.

I had never told them what I was.

I knew better than that.

I brought the man into my office and laid him on my examining table. His head lolled on a burlap pillow stuffed with down. His limbs were limp, his skin bloodless. I held a hand in front of his blue lips. No breath. I pulled off my gloves and touched his chest. A long moment passed. Then his heart beat once. I waited ten seconds. It beat again.

I withdrew my hand. So my odd patient had gone dormant. Exactly what I would have expected from a sufferer of late-stage MHF.

But he didn’t have MHF.

Frowning, I began to strip off my clothes. The fleece-lined jacket I would sterilize with heat and disinfectant. Good jackets were hard to come by, and I would be no use to anyone if I froze to death. Everything else I would burn.

I dropped the contaminated clothes in a basin and went to the sink to wash my hands. As I scrubbed my palms with a lumpy bar of soap, I stared at my reflection in the mirror: black hair, mussed from my heavy leather cap, and a white face half-obscured by those ever-present goggles. The townspeople thought I wore tinted lenses to protect my light-sensitive eyes. That was true, in a sense. They did protect me—but not from the light.

I pulled the goggles off. The world filled with color, and nothing was brighter than my own reflected eyes, staring back at me as clear and green as fresh leaves.

My secret herba eyes. My secret herba patient.

I was so tired of secrets.

I turned to the man. He lay still as a corpse, his pale skin shining in the lamplight.

I wondered if he would live. I wondered if the townspeople would learn what I’d done. I wondered why I felt so guilty.

I wondered when I’d felt anything else.

#

For the next several days I saw patients in my sitting room. “I’m renovating the office,” I told them. “We can’t use it for a week or two.”

Most of them didn’t mind. They were happy as long as I kept treating their cuts and sore throats. Only Jake Clearsoil seemed suspicious. He was Cameron’s father, a huge man with arms as thick as the logs he cut for a living. He eyed me from beneath bristling brows as I cleaned a burn on his hand.

“Cam said he found a greenie,” he informed me. “Near the mill.”
I dabbed the burn with herbal antiseptic. “Yes. But I took care of it.”

“Haven’t heard of anyone in quarantine.”

“Some traders were passing through. I asked them to take him.”

“And they agreed?”

“For a few furs.”

He frowned, flexing his calloused fingers. “You gave them our furs?”
“It seemed worth it to avoid a quarantine.”

“True.” But he didn’t sound convinced. I pretended not to notice as I bound his injury in a clean cloth bandage. I made my own bandages, woven using the traditional methods of Havenstok. They usually pleased the townspeople, who’d wrapped their wounds in rags until the day I’d stumbled onto their land. Jake, however, seemed unimpressed.

“The medicine stings,” he muttered as he got to his feet. “Is it supposed to do that?”

“It isn’t supposed to. It just does.”

He squinted at the bandage. “Are you sure?”

“Mr. Clearsoil, I’ve been treating injuries for a long time. I know what I’m doing.”

He gave me a long hard look. Then he glanced at the door to my office. For a heart-stopping moment I thought he smelled the sick man within. I’d grown used to my strange patient’s scent, but anyone else with the vasku would have been coughing the second they entered the house.

Of course, Jake Clearsoil was not an herba. He did not have the vasku. And he could not smell anything.

But I was frightened all the same.

“Strange folk.” Jake was looking at me again. “Those greenies. Sometimes I think they’re trying to kill us off.”

I rolled up the extra bandages and stowed them in my satchel. “Why do you think that?”

I sounded perfectly calm. I’d developed a remarkable talent for calmness, or at least the appearance of it. Jake studied my face a moment more, then lowered his eyes.

“The Fever kills us.” His fingers went to his bandage, tugging at a loose corner. “They just sleep it off. And they have all that pre-War gene stuff. They can probably make any disease they want.”

That was untrue. If we could control pathogens so easily, we’d have obliterated MHF a long time ago. Even a non-fatal disease could destroy a community. A subtle destruction, not a shatter but a warp. Havenstok lived, but it had changed. The thought came with a flare of anger, and for the first time in months I felt my mask crack.

Relax, I told myself, willing my twitching cheeks to smooth. Relax.

Calm won out, as it always did. I smiled at Jake, all kindness and concern, and offered my hand. “I wouldn’t know. Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Clearsoil. I hope the burn heals quickly.”

He clasped the hand in a grip like a clamp. “I hope it does too. Thanks for the help, Dr. Slatewall.”

But as he left, slipping on his deerskin jacket, his eyes darted again to my office. As if he’d heard a sound he could not quite place; as if he’d smelled a scent that did not quite belong.

#

The lie about renovations was only partly a lie. After I’d brought the ailing man home, I’d turned my office into a Havenstok-style sickroom. Bags of dried manure lay stacked in one corner with buckets of snowmelt clustered around them. A makeshift filtration apparatus fashioned from mesh sheets and scraps of wood bubbled softly by my desk. Across the room, the examining table stood beneath the single high window, bathed in winter sunlight.

The man never moved. At least not of his own volition. I’d repositioned his limbs so that I could place his hands and feet in tubs of effluent—nutrient-water strained from crushed manure. His heart still beat slow as a summer stream, and he still stank of sickness.

But he did not die.

Sometimes that scared me. More than once, as I stood over him in the unsteady lantern light, I thought about dragging him into the woods. Leaving him to rot beneath the spindly, leafless trees.

I could have done it.

I wanted to do it.

But I did not.

And one day his cheeks flushed a bright, clear pink.

He would be awake soon. Awake—and aware.

I went to my desk, tripping a little on the feet of the filtration system, and unlocked the smallest drawer with a brass key I kept on a chain around my neck. It was empty but for a huge book bound in leather—The Havenstok Encyclopedia of Medicine, 14th edition, read the faintly bioluminescent title—and a dusty glass bottle half-full of amber liquid.

I withdrew the bottle and squeezed the rubber bulb near the neck. Pungent mist burst from the nozzle, scalding my sinuses with the spicy scent of cloves. I’d never been an innovative doctor—the treatments the townspeople found so miraculous were some of the most basic in Havenstok—but this reeking concoction was all my own. Steeling myself, I sprayed great clouds of it over my neck, my arms, my chest. It felt like thrusting my nose into a bottle of smelling salts. I coughed, gasped, and shoved the bottle back in its drawer. Then I put on my goggles. My heart was beating fast, much too fast.

I ordered myself to relax. The spray would mask my herba scent; with luck, the man would attribute the stink to the primitive medicines of a sapiens doctor, and think little of it. Either way, I had to seem calm. If he saw my fear, he might wonder what I was hiding. And if he wondered what I was hiding, he might even suspect that—

A sound interrupted my thoughts. A soft sound, like the rustle of leaves.

A breath.

I went to the examining table. The man lay perfectly still, his hands and feet afloat in their metal tubs. I lowered trembling fingers to his chest. His heart throbbed under them. Seven seconds between each beat. Then six. Then five.

I stepped back as a shudder ran through him. His hands twitched, splashing water on the floor. He opened his mouth and sucked in a great gulp of air. His eyelids fluttered as if he were dreaming, and all at once I wondered if I were the dreamer—if this were nothing but a freakish nightmare. I couldn’t have been so foolish, could I? Foolish enough to bring an herba into my own home?

Then his eyes opened. I knew their color, though I could not see it: a beautiful green, clear as fresh leaves.

“Where am I?” he whispered in a tired voice.

I smiled my best doctor’s smile. “In the town of Clarity Falls.”

“On the Great Northern River?”

“Yes.”

“Ah.” He sighed. “And you saved me?”

“I did.”

“I appreciate it.”

I shrugged. “I’m a doctor. It’s my job.”

“Most of your doctors won’t touch us.” He nodded at my gloved hands. “Even with protection.”

“Most of our doctors lack my confidence.”

I’d prepared that answer, as I’d prepared all of them. To my relief he seemed to believe it. With a feeble grin he said, “Then I’m a lucky man. May I ask your name?”

“Nadia Slatewall.” I’d picked it for its averageness. It sounded like someone you’d pass on the street. Someone you’d wave to, and forget. “May I ask yours?”

“Lavr of Havenstok-East.”

“Nice to meet you, Lavr.” I pretended to study the tubs. “I need to change your water. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”

He closed his eyes, and his breath grew slow. I busied myself with the tubs, knowing he slept, fearing he would wake. His eyes had unnerved me. They were sleepy now, unfocused with fatigue, but who knew when they would sharpen?

And what they would see when they did?

#

The day after Lavr woke, a storm rolled in from the west. It dropped a foot of snow on the town’s tiled roofs before dissipating into shreds of dense wet cloud. I spent the afternoon outside, clearing a path to the unplowed road.

When I was done I leaned on my shovel, listening for the rattle of wheels, the clatter of hooves. But the town was as silent as the frozen river. The plow must have been delayed—unless it had found its own trouble. Broken axles and lame horses were all too common in the lands north of Havenstok.

I returned to the house. I’d made a fire that morning; its heat forced sweat from my skin and fogged the lenses of my goggles. I took off my hat and jacket but left the goggles on. I didn’t dare take them off. Not with Lavr awake.

I stood in front of the fire until they cleared.

Then I went to my office.

Lavr lay on the table. His eyes were shut, his breath imperceptible. A strip of sunlight splashed across his naked chest.

I did not want to disturb him. I feared those green eyes, that too-sensitive nose. I’d reapplied my scent that morning, doused myself in huge stinking clouds of it, but I still felt uneasy.

I also had to talk to him, whether I liked it or not. I’d spent most of last night poring over my Encyclopedia, trying to diagnose his condition. But the book had been useless. Nothing matched his symptoms except for MHF. Which, of course, he didn’t have.

I needed more information. More specifically, I needed to question him. With luck, I would learn enough to make a diagnosis. With a little more luck, I would be able to cure him. Then I could release him, and free myself of his all-too-dangerous presence.

I coughed lightly. “Lavr?”

His eyes slid open. They blinked slowly, then rolled towards me. “Dr. Slatewall. Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you, too,” I said. “How are you feeling?”

“Much better.” He lifted a wet hand, then let it fall back in its tub. “Which isn’t saying much. But your nutrient baths are a big help. I never thought a sapiens doctor would be so well-versed in Havenstok medicine.”

The implicit question made my skin tingle. “My predecessor treated one of your people,” I lied. “He taught me his techniques.” Then, changing the subject: “If you can, I’d like you to tell me what you know about your illness. The more I know, the better I can treat you.”

A strange expression pinched his face—a quick wince, as if I’d pricked him with a needle. “You can only do so much. All of this—” He waved a hand at his chest, dripping effluent on his pallid skin. “—it’s just a symptom of something else. Something you can’t cure.”

That made me anxious. I needed to cure him. Otherwise I’d have to choose between throwing him out and keeping him here indefinitely. Neither option was appealing. I forced myself to speak steadily. “What would that be?”

“It’s hard to explain.” He shifted a little. “You see, Havenstok has a sort of core. A Great Tree that sustains the entire habitat. And something’s wrong with it. We’re not sure, but we think it has a mutated version of MHF.”

He closed his eyes. He looked suddenly weak, as weak as he’d been the day I brought him home. I felt weak myself. I had never thought MHF would mutate. Or maybe I just hadn’t cared. Because I was a hypocrite. Because I was a liar. Because I had hidden so well behind my doctor’s mask. And I kept hiding even as he opened his eyes and said, “Dr. Slatewall, the Tree is going to die. And when it does, so will Havenstok. The habitat is already contaminated. There’s poison in the air, the water. Most of us are already sick. If we don’t find a cure soon…our own Tree will kill us.”

“Then why are you here?” I asked. Now I sounded concerned. Detached. The small-town doctor, soothing her anxious patient. “Shouldn’t you be in Havenstok?”

He gasped, coughed. His hands spasmed. Cloudy water sprayed across his thin chest.

“We had someone special,” he whispered finally. “Someone who could help us find a cure. But we lost her months ago. We’ve been searching for her. We—”

His words dissolved in another coughing fit. I took the opportunity to pick up a pair of empty buckets. I hoped he couldn’t see my face. My mask was cracking again, and I had no clue what lurked behind it.

Still I managed to speak gently. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.” I lifted a bucket. “I need to refill these, but I’ll be back in a minute.”

I went outside and scooped fresh snow into the buckets. Then I set them down and put my hands on my knees. I felt like I couldn’t move—like I’d just aged a century.

I stood there for what felt like eons, the wind blowing my hair, swirling the fresh snow in great clouds of white.

Thinking of Havenstok.

Thinking of a young doctor waking healthy next to her sick family. Of Havenstok’s medical elite arriving at her door. Of a white sterile lab where pathologists prodded her skin and sampled her blood. Of strange experiments that intensified as whole communities fell dormant. Desperate experiments. Dangerous experiments. She was immune to MHF, and her immunity was killing her. If she ran away from those experiments—if she refused to sacrifice herself—was that really so wrong?

Was it?

After a minute, or many minutes, I was shaken from my thoughts by a high voice calling my name.

I looked up. In the street, up to his knees in snow, stood Cameron Clearsoil.

“Cameron,” I said. “How can I help you?”

He stepped into the path I’d cleared. Snow scattered around his booted feet. “Daddy sent me.”

Jake Clearsoil. My heart sank another notch. “Why would that be?”

Cameron glanced at my little house. “He wants to look in your office. He thinks you might be keeping the greenie in there. He says maybe you’re a traitor and you want to kill us all.”

The boy announced this matter-of-factly, as if he were reading a list of medicinal ingredients from my Encyclopedia. I wondered why Jake Clearsoil hadn’t told me this himself. Probably because a child seemed more innocent. And harder to deny.

“How could I do that?” I asked. Perfectly calm, as usual. “If I exposed myself to the Fever, I’d die.”

My hundredth lie. Or my thousandth. But I’d become a skilled actor, and my words seemed to reach him. Doubt flickered in his eyes as he stepped back, frowning at his scuffed boots with what looked like guilt.

“I guess,” he said slowly. “Maybe I’ll talk to Daddy again.”

“Please tell him I won’t hurt anyone.”

He nodded and started back down the road. I watched him push through the snow, and wondered when Jake Clearsoil would show up at my door.

Probably soon.

Probably very soon.

I ran up the path and into the house. I had to get Lavr out of here. Where I would send him, I had no idea. The forest, maybe, with a bundle of firewood and enough effluent to keep him awake. Not that that would save him. But at least it would protect him from the wrath of a furious sapiens.

But did I really want to save Lavr?

Or did I only want to save myself?

The fire’s heat washed over me as I slammed the door shut. My goggles fogged, reducing the familiar furniture to a wash of blotchy gray. I pulled off my gloves and rubbed the lenses with clammy fingertips.

They refused to clear. I swiped at them once more; then, in frustration, I tore them off. The warm air felt strange against my eyes, so unused to being exposed. The world burned with strange colors, and I ran through their brightness until I reached the office door and flung it open.

Lavr lay sprawled on the examining table. At the sound of my entrance he glanced up.

“Dr. Slatewall,” he began. “What—”

Then his green eyes met my green eyes. For an instant they narrowed in confusion.

Another instant, and they lit with recognition.

I had no time to be afraid. I strode to the table and leaned over him, planting my hands next to his tubs. “I’m not Dr. Slatewall. I’m Denr of Havenstok-West.”

I expected anger. Rage, even. But he only laughed a weak laugh and said, “Denr. I should have known. Those goggles, that smell…the sickness must be making me stupid.”

“It doesn’t matter. Listen—a sapiens is coming. He knows you’re here. You have to leave.”

He smiled bitterly. “Because you care so much.” He shook his head, rolling it back and forth on the pillow. “Why did you take me in? It would have been easier to let me die.”

“I felt sorry for you.”

“At home they say you never felt sorry for anyone.”

I thrust buckets beneath the filtration apparatus, filling them with cloudy effluent. I wondered how to tell him that sorry and sacrifice were not the same. That I could be human without being a hero. That I loved Havenstok and feared it, just as I loved and feared my perfect doctor’s face—the mask that had saved me and lied for me and made me someone I never should have been.

“Lavr,” I said.

“What?”

“I feel sorry for all of you.” I found lids and secured them to the buckets with sturdy clamps. “Take these buckets. I’ll find firewood and clothes. If you wear enough, they probably won’t recognize you.”

He pushed himself into a sitting position. His damp hands clutched the table as he faced me. “I was looking for you. I’m supposed to bring you back.”

“I know.”

“So will you come?”

If I had been a hero, I might have said yes. But I was not a hero. I was Denr of Havenstok-West, and I would not let my people destroy me. Did that make me a bad person? Perhaps. And yet I wanted to save Lavr, whom I had already saved once. I wanted to save my home, which I hated and missed and loved.

Maybe I could find a way to save us all.

“No,” I said. “I won’t. But tell Havenstok I want to help. Tell them I’ll come back if they promise not to hurt me. Tell them to send me a messenger with their decision.” I fixed my gaze on his. “Tell them they only get one chance. That I escaped once, and if I have to, I’ll do it again.”

His shoulders tensed. I thought he might be about to rise; to try to seize me with those wet hands. But he didn’t. He just looked at me, immobilized by his sickness, or maybe, just maybe, by his gratitude.

“You have to go,” I said. “Now.”

He let me dress him, load him with supplies, and hustle him out the back door. He hesitated briefly on the snowy path. Sunlight sparkled in his tinted lenses—my tinted lenses—as he glanced back at me.

Then he walked away.

I went to the sitting room and lowered myself onto the sofa. Through the window I watched Lavr walk, slowly but steadily, down the street. Just before the bend he passed another man. A burly man, with arms thick as logs.

They both looked bright. Vibrant. Colorful and alive. It was strange, how many colors I’d forgotten.

I wondered if I had truly wanted to save Lavr. His departure certainly made my own life easier. I doubted I could convince anyone to excuse my protection of a sick herba. But to excuse my own identity, after all the times I’d served the people of Clarity Falls? I thought I had a chance. Not a good chance, but a better one than I’d had with Lavr sprawled on my examining table.

Then again, it was nice to watch him walk away. Free and secure, like I wanted to be. Maybe I had tried to save him, in the only way I could.

Maybe I would never know.

Maybe it didn’t matter.

I gazed at the street until my doorbell rang.

I rose and went to the door. Then I put on my best doctor’s face. Smiling, pleasant, with eyes so very green.

###

2 Comments

  1. Nice. Very well done, but did feel like it was just an intro to a novel instead of a stand-alone story. 🙁

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