“Could I spend the night in your barn?”
His beard is speckled with frost and his sheepskin coat is water-stained. He must have figured out that I, unlike my neighbours, can’t turn him down. It’s courteous of him to ask for my permission nonetheless.
My wife, Hannah, said she’d try knitting Ruth’s scarf tonight. A needle falls out of her hand when she turns to wave at the man. She hasn’t made a single stitch.
“Good evening.” she says.
“Good evening Mrs. McCowan.”
Her smile falters. The last time I saw her smile so crookedly was when we went to visit the cemetery, when I assured her that Ruth would recover.
“I’ve given up on structure and money and invisible fences.” The man says as I walk him out to the barn, keys in hand. “I used to be a doctor, a proper one, but a proper doctor’s compassion only runs as deep as their patients’ pockets do.”
“So you gave it up?”
“I still help people when I can,” he waves his hand dismissively, “just couldn’t stand the title anymore.”
Hannah nearly jumps out of her seat when I stomp my boots clean at the door. She rubs her eyes with both hands and reaches for the needle she dropped earlier. I go to her side and hold her arm.
“We can’t blame ourselves. It will be alright.”
Ruth begins to cry upstairs. Hannah moves as if to stand, so I gently weigh her shoulders down with my hands.
Ruth shakes so violently that the bedframe rattles. Her fits are getting worse and more frequent every day. I stroke her hair with shaky fingers, whistling a lullaby with unintentional vibrato.
I have nightmares about Ruth’s red face being buried in wet soil, only to be wakened by her wailing in the next room. Though I am always glad that her cries save me from witnessing the end, they only bring me back to its excruciating pretext.
Hannah and I went to visit St. Andrews church a few days ago to pray for Ruth’s recovery. When we visited the children’s graves, Hannah began to quake.
“I should have seen this coming.” she whimpered.
McCowan children often contract fevers. I thought I wouldn’t see it happen to my own, but the curse latched itself onto sweet Ruth. It doesn’t surprise me that Hannah has started to squirm at the sound of my name. There is contempt in her voice when she introduces herself as Hannah Ashbridge McCowan now.
Ruth’s fit isn’t settling. I call for Hannah and she comes to take my place changing Ruth’s cold towels.
“I’m getting help.” I say, doing up my coat again.
“No doctors are available at this hour, there’s no hope tonight.”
I light the hand lantern at Ruth’s bedside and scuttle down the stairwell. If there is no hope tonight, I feel certain that my nightmares will come to fruition.
The lantern light barely penetrates the darkness outside. I accidentally trample over the children’s vegetable patch, where Ruth plays with potato bugs in the summer. Suddenly I imagine the spindly branches of the apple trees plucking her from the garden and pulling her below their roots.
I shoulder the old barn doors open and close them as best I can against the wind. The man, who is sleeping on my hay bales, opens one eye to see who has intruded. Upon seeing me he decides to go back to sleep.
“Sir,” I pant, “I really need your help.”
“Sir? You’re calling me sir?” the man mutters with his eyes still closed. I kneel beside him and lift his head to face me.
“My daughter has a terrible fever. Please tell me there is a way to bring it down. You are a doctor, aren’t you?”
He blinks his eyes one at a time.
“Judas Priest, wake up!” I shake him a little by the collar and he chuckles.
“Have you ever asked a proper doctor?”
“Nothing works anymore. She cries all night and can barely swallow water.”
“You’re going to need potent stuff then.” He wipes his eyes of yellow tar and pulls out a satchel from underneath his hip. He tosses out some parchment bags and a jar of round brown tablets.
“No, no, high fever – where is it?” He rifles through his coat pocket before triumphantly pulling out a leather pouch. “There y’are you little devil! Now, where is the poor girl?”
I lead him through the orchard back to the house. He laughs with the jolly warble of a drunk at how much I have to lean into the wind. Once inside, we go straight upstairs to Ruth, where Hannah sits red-eyed beside her.
The man takes a tiny corked bottle of pearly liquid out of the leather pouch. He pulls the cork out with his teeth, then gently tips the bottle’s contents past Ruth’s lips. We stare as if it’s magic.
“And there you go. If you don’t mind Mr. McCowan, I’ll be getting back to sleep.”
“What on earth did you do?” Hannah asks, looking a little dazed by the quick string of events.
“Hopefully that’ll do everything for me. Keep using cold towels on her forehead, make sure she eats t’morrow and drinks a lot of water.”
The man sets the empty bottle down on Ruth’s bedside table. He bids us ‘good night’, but I only realize it long after he’s left the room.
I don’t sleep at all. I tangle the blanket at my feet and dream of Ruth’s wailing, her red face, the graves, but Ruth does not wake me. I run to the barn the next morning to tell the doctor the good news, but he is already gone. Ruth came out of her fever overnight.
I ask my friends in town about the doctor and they either call me mad or gullible. No one knows who I speak of, haven’t seen any vagrants in months. It’s as if he never existed in the first place.
We keep the empty glass bottle though, hoping that one day the doctor might come back for the paltry little thing like he did the comfort of our barn. I thank him under my breath as Ruth shows me an unusually large potato bug from the garden.