art by Jonathan Westbrook
Into the Forest
by Dana Dupont
"You must come," she says. "My son is sick." Her hands, worn and wrinkled, twist together in the dim light that filters into my room.
"I'm not a doctor," I say.
She stares at the floor, frightened or nervous. "The doctor has visited three times, and each time, my son felt better for a few days. But he always gets worse again. I went to see the doctor before I came to you, but he sat behind his desk, pale and shaking, and refused. You are my only hope."
"I don't know what I can do," I say, but I'm already reaching for my bag. No doctor, but at least a healer, and I've seen many a sick child in my time.
The cottage smells of dirt and root vegetables. The child lies on a narrow bed in the corner, his breathing shallow, though he stirs as his mother approaches. A hectic flush stains his cheeks.
"William," she says. "I've brought someone to help you."
I sit next to him and touch his forehead; his skin is warm against the back of my hand. "Can you get him some water?"
"I'll go to the well and get it fresh," she says, gathering her skirts in her hand and picking up a bucket that sits by the door.
I judge William to be eight or nine years old, but small for his size. "How do you feel, boy?"
"Tired," he sighs. "I don't want any more medicine. The doctor gave me medicine, and it tasted bad."
"Doctors' medicines usually do. I want you to open your mouth, and I'm going to look at your tongue and your throat."
The thin lips part, and I lean closer. His tongue is a healthy pink, not discolored or spotted. He's missing one of his front teeth, but I can see the new one growing in.
"Open a little wider," I say. I insert a finger into his mouth and gently pull his jaw down. He makes a small noise in the back of his throat, and I look up to check for discomfort. His brown eyes widen a little. His pupils dilate. His breath is sweet and brushes my cheek.