I was torn by a confliction of duty and she would have gone on but we heard footsteps. There came a light scratching of fingernails on the curtains, and Doc Muswell entered, along with the Mother Superior or some other bigwig, by the look of her.
In his single-breasted Prince Albert suit, Id call Doc Muswell pretty nobby-looking for a country sawbones. Before I married, Id worked as his housekeeper and assistant, so we were old pals. I knew his wife to be a malingerer, and he knew I had a wasting disease. He had trained me as his nurse, and manys the time Id saved him the weary night work of delivering infants. As he saw it, childbirth was long hours for short wages.
Does Sister suffer from any known disease? he asked the Superior nun.
Only the disease of scrupulosity, she answered back. She told him to report to her before he left and excused herself.
Once hed overlooked the situation carefully, Doc asked Sister if she knew the day and place she was. She said, I thought I was on the Ganges plain between Patna and Benares, but now I see Im in Watervliet.
Thats right, Sister, I said, to encourage her. I didnt know where the Ganges plain was located. Somewhere near the road to Damascus most likely.
Doc Muswell took out his stethoscope, and I thought hed see her scar, but he turned his head to one side and listened without looking, as doctors did in the presence of modesty back then.
You have heatstroke, Sister, he told her. Forgive me for saying so, but you are chronically overdressed for garden work.
Your rebuke is well-taken, Doctor. The great discovery is in the heavens above us, not the garden below. She liked to browbeat herself. Id seen that instantly.
Well, Doc, I said in her defense, Sisters skirt, sleeves, and veil were pinned up, under, and back when she had this spell.
In accordance with Protocol Number 17, said she.
The words no sooner left her lips than her breathing told us she was asleep. Doc Muswell asked me to stay awhile and see she drank all of the potion hed leave. He inquired after my own health, and I told him I was expecting.
The married womans disease, he said. When I confessed to coughing blood, he shook his head. Mamie, its as Ive said. Youll have to get by on one lung the rest of your life.
Then he took a packet from his bag and pressed it into my hand. As a sedative for coughs, this is five times stronger than morphine, he said. By the lion and globe on the label, I recognized it as Bayer Heroin Powder. Use it sparingly, and you wont become habituated. You will have call for it, I think. I was grateful as this medicine was very dear, and the more costly the cure, the more effective. With your constitution, youd do well to avoid stimulating food and drink, heat and cold, singing, hallooing, and declamation. So saying, he donned his hat and took his leave. Sister opened her eyes then, and I fed her the potion hed left. She was looking more chipper. I could not but overhear your conversation, she said. You are in a delicate condition. I have a remedy that will damp the fires of bodily mechanism and shallow the breath, resting your inflamed lung and encouraging the cavities to close.
Nothing could be more powerful than the nostrum of a consecrated virgin. This I knew.
It is Indian Perfection Medicine. Take it when your time comes, and the pain will not threaten you, she said.
Hearing this, my heart soared, for I knew Katherine Tekakwitha had answered my prayer. I figured Sister got the recipe from a Mohawk maiden with a difficult vocation, and I thanked her feelingly.
Reprinted from The Nightingales of Troy by Alice Fulton. Copyright (c) 2008. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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