He’d seen himself as something different then: greater than he was, more worthy of acclaim.
Someone is often ill there. Someone is often recovering. No one has died under his care in a long time. Twenty-five years earlier: Laurel, then lady’s maid to the current Countess’s mother, gave birth to a beautiful child. He had tended to her at the request of her mistress, who asked that he keep Laurel safe and her condition secret. (He had not realized the elder Countess meant only until Laurel had delivered the baby.)
Laurel was a plain and stoic girl. How radiant she became in pregnancy, and how frightened. She squeezed the doctor’s hand at the end, and begged him to save her child, even though she did not want it. The elder Countess’s husband had, by that time, decided to spend the winter in London.
Soon after the birth and the death of her infant, Laurel was sent to another household in a far-flung village. The doctor was not told where, and though he searched, he never found her. She had barely recovered herself, and so he feared the worst.
The doctor was young himself then. He had loved Laurel from the moment he saw her on his first day in the house: tending vigilantly to her sick mistress, the elder Countess. (He never told Laurel how he felt. They barely spoke until the end.)
The elder Countess died many years after Laurel had already been sent away. “It was her time,” the family said. And it was true about the woman’s age: She said herself she’d taken what she could from life—travel, entertainment, great jewels she bestowed on her grandchildren and the British Museum.
The doctor knew she had a hardness under her skin, that the hardness had spread, and that he could order nothing for it from the Apothecary. He also knew the elder Countess didn’t want to know; knowing wasn’t why she and her husband, the boorish Earl, had employed the doctor as their physician all those years ago. It wasn’t why he had accepted the position either; he’d seen himself as something different then: greater than he was, more worthy of acclaim. Possibly capable of true miracles.
And so, at the Countess’s request, he’d placed leeches on her skin, even though he understood they removed nothing but her precious blood. Soon after, she had refused his medical attention and sent for a surgeon from the continent. The man arrived with scalpels in addition to tinctures and perfumed satchels—none of which served as either a lasting balm or a cure.
Eventually, the doctor is relieved to see the outline of the village, where he has a suitable flat with a good hard bed, from which he is often called out into the night.
Every knock on the doctor’s door is heavy with fear. When he stands in the cold in his dressing gown, looking into familiar faces filled with doom, he understands his role is more religious in nature than he once cared to admit.
On the night he helped Laurel deliver the child, he held an incantation in his mind: She will recover. She will be well. He told Laurel the child would be held by God, though he did not believe in God. While carrying the dead blue infant in one arm, the weight of a feather and also of a storm, the doctor touched Laurel’s wrist. That little beat of life ran through her yet, and he told her exactly that—“The beat of life runs through you yet”—of all the things he could have said. He watched her eyelids flutter and open. In the moment, it was all he’d ever wanted.
The doctor’s mother had wanted him to join the priesthood, but he had no liking for its loneliness or limitations. In rejecting what his mother asked of him, he knew he had disappointed her, and she made certain he never forgot in all the years before she died. Now he wonders at his old hubris: choosing prestige over prayer—only to have found prayer his central, faithless weapon.
Once he has flung open his door, it takes the doctor no time to change out of his robes and to double check his bag: His medicine therein is the one truth he knows—that beyond this night there is nothing he can tell his patients with certainty. Nothing except that the morning will be quiet, and when they draw back the curtains, the light will shine on their faces.
Sara Schaff is the author of two story collections, The Invention of Love(Split/Lip Press 2020) and Say Something Nice About Me(Augury Books 2016). Her writing has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Yale Review Online, Gay Magazine, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. Sara has taught creative writing at the University of Michigan, Oberlin College, St. Lawrence University, and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Follow her on Twitter at @schaff_sara and read more of her work at saraschaff.com.