In public, most people admitted that they had failed to care for the most desolate and fragile members of their community. Surely unbalanced mothers and fathers would not have thrust, not just their own hands, but the hands of their children as well, into the flames if their destitution had not been neglected by the more stable souls around them? Surely those wounded men and women would have eschewed such violence if they had been offered any other recourse? No matter how many demented preachers urged them to fanaticism? Listening to children in cruel pain sob through the night taught the well-meaning people of the county to desire some form of prevention.
Yet this sense of communal guilt ran deeper than most people would acknowledge. On some level, the entire county understood that the terrible events which had led to Covenant's murder would never have happened if he had not been shunned and execrated, forced into the traditional role of the outcast, the pariah. He had been, inexplicably, a leper: he had what the doctors called a "primary" case of Hansen's disease, one with no known etiology. Such cases were rare, even by the standards of an illness as rare as leprosy, but they occurred often enough to suggest the wrath of God; punishment for sins so vile that they sickened the sinner.
Viscerally frightened and full of loathing, people had spurned Thomas Covenant as if he were a carrier of corruption. For over a decade, he had occupied Haven Farm on sufferance: seeing no one, never coming to town, avoided by his neighbors; occasionally harassed by the county sheriff, Barton Lytton; uncomfortably tolerated by his own lawyer, Megan Roman; befriended only by Julius Berenford, then Chief of Staff at County Hospital. Indeed, the county's repugnance for Covenant's illness would have driven him into exile if he had not once saved the life of a snake-bitten girl. In addition, however, he made significant contributions to the care of the county's indigents--money which he earned by writing novels about guilt and power. In effect, he had supported the very people who brought about his death: the same people, presumably, who had driven his ex-wife mad. Therefore he was tolerated.
Then he was gone, irretrievable, leaving only Joan and Linden behind.
Dr Berenford believed that he had been too silent while Covenant lived. Afterward he raised his voice. Impelled by her own regrets, Megan Roman acted on his words. And the voters and politicians of the county felt more responsible than they cared to admit. They lobbied the state legislature: they passed mill levies: they applied for grants.
Eventually they built Berenford Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, named for Julius when he had slipped away in his sleep one night five years ago. And they appointed Linden as Berenford Memorial's CMO. She was the only one among them who had accompanied Covenant to his last crisis.
Now she presided over a small facility of twenty beds, all in private rooms. Her staff included five nurses, five orderlies, one janitor, one maintenance man, and a coterie of part-time secretaries, in addition to volunteers like Maxine Dubroff. Berenford Memorial had two psychiatrists on call. And one physician--herself--with a background in emergency room medicine and family practice: trauma, triage, and pink eye.
From the lobby, she guided Covenant's son upstairs to the "acute care" wing: ten beds devoted to patients who were inclined to injure themselves, assault the staff, or run away at random opportunities. Instead of proceeding to Joan's room, however, she paused at the top of the stairs and turned to face Roger.
"A moment, if you don't mind, Mr Covenant. May I ask you a question?" When he had seen his mother, he might not give her another chance. "The more I think about it, the less I understand why you're here."
Again his smile seemed merely reflexive. "What is there to understand? She's my mother. Why wouldn't I want to see her?"
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