“To heal is the noblest purpose.”
By now I know what the Doctor meant by that. He’d come to Antlerpoint three moons ago, just a few days before Lin Kee, the first of the sick, lost his mind and split Dubb Brunner’s skull with a woodcutting axe. The Doctor must have known, must have smelled it on the wind before any of us knew scalesick had come to us. He appeared as a dark sliver walking out of the setting sun, a masked man pushing his little handcart laden with strange tools. He was taller than anyone here, his smell clean, his posture upright and trustful. When we asked why he had come, he told us because a terrible sickness was soon to emerge. He was right, and now I help him with his healing work.
As I help him with his work, I try to learn all I can. Mostly he answers my questions, but sometimes not. Even when his answers are strange or unhelpful, I enjoy his voice for its own sake.
“How’d scalesick come to Antlerpoint Stead?”
“Someone from another settlement brought it here. Perhaps they did not know they were sick, or had reasons for traveling we could only guess.”
“Why ain’t I gotten sick like my parents or my sister?”
“I do not know why, Jo Park. You may be immune. Or you may carry it, yet show no symptoms. Either way, it is a beautiful thing.”
I wonder if he means I’m beautiful. I hope so.
“Do the scalies always turn crazy?”
“Almost always, in advanced cases.”
Advanced cases. His words are strange but beautiful, a kind of music.
“Some of them don’t?”
“In all my years of curing, I have only known one exception.”
“Did there used to be more Doctors like you?”
“Yes, a very long time ago, when there was more of everything. When people lived in forests of metal and glass.”
More music from his hidden lips. I imagine these forests, full of wise people like the Doctor.
“Why’d you become a Doctor?”
“To help others. One needs a higher purpose, and to heal, to spread the gift of health, is the noblest of all.”
“Where’d you learn your ways?”
“From the Doctor who taught me.”
“How did you know the sickness would come here?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Can you show me what your face looks like?”
“It is improper for a Doctor to remove his mask while working.”
“Do you even recall what air feels like?”
He doesn’t answer.
We didn’t believe the Doctor’s first warning when he told us what was coming. We didn’t want to believe.
Then Lin Kee got sick. We were all of us afraid to go near Lin, who was shut up in his house, hollering all-the-day like a wild dog when he wasn’t coughing. The Doctor, in his black frock and his shimmery black gloves and glimmery false face with its eyes like mirrors, set fire to the house with Lin Kee still inside. That was the only way to deal with one so far gone, he said.
And who could argue with him? No one even had the courage to look into the dark lenses of his mask.
The others—my folks included—were afraid, but not me. I saw from how he burned Lin Kee when the rest of us were cowering in our homes that he’d come here to help—to do good. But even a helper needs help, and the Doctor was no exception. He needed someone strong and brave like me to dig burning pits and gather up the supplies for making his salve. Brightweed and frog liver was all he needed to make the salve. If you get the salve on a sick person straight away, it cures them half the time, but if you wait too long, there’s nothing doing. Those on whom the salve worked would be safe, immune, the Doctor said. Scalesick starts with coughing, then with shivers, then the yellow scales start up, breaking through the skin and stretching it and bleeding all the time. After the scales comes weakness, and then awful strength and madness, melting the person you knew and leaving a wild dog like poor Lin.
The salve didn’t work for Momma, whom the Doctor killed and burned like so many others, and Dad lied and hid his scales until he was too weak to dress himself. The Doctor didn’t kill him, I did—cut his head from his neck with a spade. I was so mad he hid it from us, and that he got my sister sick.
The Doctor and I burned him together.
As we watched him burn, I felt something touch my arm. It was the Doctor’s glove; his firm grasp. When I tried to put my hand on his, he let go and stepped away.
“I am sorry for your loss, Jo Park.”
“What’s there to be sorry about? Good riddance to him.” He looked away from me, and I wondered what face he was making under his mask. I wondered if that face was as beautiful as his voice, and why he kept it hidden from me. “You said it came from some other stead.”
“Scalesick. You said a traveler brought it.”
“Oh. Yes, the most likely vector.”
“But who? Other than you, there ain’t been many travelers.”
The Doctor silenced me, laying his other glove, so cold, on my face. I was afraid to speak; afraid he might let go of me if I did. “I am a Doctor. I go where I am needed.”
But what did a Doctor need? I laid my hand over his glove. The fire crackled. One of the pyre logs split with a crack like thunder and a gasp of sparks. Jostled, one of Dad’s arms flopped out. Stubborn, just like him; but still it burned in the end.
That was a moon ago. Today, it was sister’s turn to burn. Her ashes drift down like snow, gather on the roofs of the empty houses. The sickness is done, and for each three houses in Antlerpoint, two are empty. Every night, while I lie in my cot in my empty house, the sound of weeping drifts from the trees. Maybe I’m just imagining it. Maybe it’s a ghost, the sound is so faint. Salve didn’t work for sister, or maybe we got her too late. The Doctor says it’s not for us to wonder why some live and some don’t, only do what we can to save as many lives as we can.
‘Rubber’, is what he calls the false face over his face, the mask he wears. Such a beautiful mask it is, the like of a beautiful face, and in the black puddles of his eyes I see my own longing. I wonder if he knows how I feel. I wonder if he feels the same way. If he feels at all. Always he talks like he’s near to sleep, a little whisper like mothwing flutter.
How is it I got wrapped up in someone without a face? Maybe it’s how different he is from all I’ve known, how rare and special. And if I’ve never seen his face, does that make what I feel any less? What if it makes it more? No one talks like him; nobody’s got words like his. Scalpel, patient, palliative care, symptoms, pustules, terminal—I learn his words so I can be like him. So I can be worthy of someone like him.
The Doctor sleeps in one of the empty houses as once belonged to Ossie Bowman, the saltmaker. When he sleeps, I watch him through a crack in the door. He slumbers in his clothes—his gloves, his boots, his mask. He even keeps his big brimmed black hat on. His boots together, his hands crossed over his chest, his glassy eyes staring at the thatching. What does he dream about? How does he sleep so soundly? Does he even breathe? Would his hands be cold? What do his lips feel like?
Today, as sister’s ashes drift all around, the Doctor tells me he’s leaving. The words strike me like a pole to the gut.
“Can I come with you?”
“No. A Doctor’s life is a solitary way.”
“What if there’s more scalesick after you leave?”
He reaches to me. His glove is like winter on my cheek. “Then you, Jo Park, will cure it. You have learned well.”
“Why leave so soon? There could still be more—”
He cuts me off. His moth of his voice becomes hardshelled. “I must continue my work, there are other places in need of healing.”
“What did I do wrong? Tell me.”
He doesn’t answer. He walks off. For a blink it looks like he might turn back and speak some more. But then he keeps walking back to his house, to sleep there one last time.
Night comes and the big moonpiece sits high and pale at the top of the sky, while the little moonpiece smolders low and red over the rooftops. For one last time, I sneak to the Doctor’s house to watch his sleep. But this time, watching him, I can’t help myself. I push the door open—it’s unlocked. The old wood only creaks a little on the rusty hinges. What a quiet floor soft silt makes, cold and shifting under my toes. I creep and kneel beside the sleeping Doctor. How nice it must be to sleep so soundly, like a yolk in its eggshell, closed to the world’s troubles. I feel his arms—hard as stones. To handle scalies as easily as he does, of course he’s strong. Shoulders and chest tell the same story—there is no softness anywhere. Still he doesn’t stir. My hand travels toward a dangerous place—is he like me, does he even have what I have?—but as my fingers reach his belt, the low nightbreeze carries a sad music to my ears.
It’s the weeping again. Somewhere out in the Wilderthere, outside the Stead, someone is bawling their eyes out, as they have each night. Only this time it’s louder, more pitiable than ever. I make space between me and the Doctor, wait for him to stir, but he doesn’t. The crying keeps on, and between mewling and blubbering, there’s another sound, unmistakable, awful: the cough of lungs heavy with pus.
“Doctor,” I say. “Doctor, wake up.”
But the Doctor doesn’t wake.
How could we have missed someone? We treated all the sick, saved those we could save, killed the rest. Who did we forget?
I reach down to shake the Doctor, but stop myself. Why not show him he needs me? Why not prove my worth? I leave the saltmaker’s house and hurry to mine, where I gather my bow and quiver. Armed now, I move under the moonlight, following a trail of footprints and the sound of sobbing to the edge of the lake that divides Antlerpoint from the rest of the world. Watching through the brush and leaves, I see the weeping, coughing man. Sometimes moonlight paints brighter and clearer than sun; sometimes it shows what sun’s too shy to show.
Is it a man when most its skin has turned to scales? Huge, wrong-shaped hands with nails like claws wrap around an overbig head, where clumps of dark hair hang like beansprout shocks from scaly cracks in the scalp. Hands and head tremble with each heave, each sob, each shudder.
I nock an arrow and draw the bow. Wood, bone, and sinew creak and shake as the bow bends. The scaly’s crooked spine draws straight in answer, the claws drop, and a face I ain’t never seen in this Stead looks my way. Moonglimmer puddles in two small, dark eyes and my arm aches from holding the bow taut.
It’s him. It must be. The man who started all this, the stranger from another Stead who brought the scalesick to Antlerpoint. Three moons worth of anger jump from my arm and out the bow, and the arrow strikes true.
The scaly dies quieter than most. A few little mewls, but nothing more, a shudder, then nothing. But in dying, the scaly does a strange thing. Easy as it would be for it to fall forward into the lake and poison the water with its bad blood, it throws itself the other way, and falls into the leaves and pine litter. Then it goes still.
I run back to the Stead. Smash my way through the door to the Doctor’s house. This time I don’t bother with quiet. I run to his bed and grab his hard shoulders and shake, shake, shake.
“Wake up!” I shout. “Your work’s not done! There’s another scaly for burning!”
The Doctor’s head rolls off, his arms pull off in my grip. A cabbage and two thick branches from a blackwood tree, tucked under the mask and hat, under his frock. First there’s quiet, then there’s a sinking feeling, like I’m at the bottom of something dark and cold and the world’s pushing me under. Then, then I just start laughing. Laughter and tears are such close siblings, almost twins.
When my eyes dry up, when my throat hurts from all the laughing and shouting, I take up the mask and put it over my face. The gloves are loose, but I reckon I’ll grow into them. The frock is heavy but warm, a needful shell between the world and me. So this was why he wore it. He wasn’t as lucky as me; scalesick changed his face and body, even if it left his mind untouched. But that wasn’t why he wore the mask and gloves—it was to keep the ache of the world out, as much as to keep the scalesick in.
I don’t say goodbye to anyone in the stead. After burning the last Doctor’s body, I take his handcart, and follow the rising sun to a path in the woods. There are other steads out beyond the Wilderthere, and only I know how to help them. Help them like the Doctor helped Antlerpoint. To heal is the highest, noblest purpose. Somewhere there’s sickness, and nobody but a Doctor can cure it.