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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Into the Forest

Dana Dupont is a technical writer currently living in the Northwest with her husband, though her heart belongs to the South. She enjoys singing, cooking, and borrowing other people’s pets. This is her first published story.
"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.
The door shuts as his mother returns with water, and the noise makes me start. I pull my finger away and look at it, confused to see the teeth marks and the wet, red drop of blood welling from the wound.
The child smiles.
"William?" his mother says, setting the bucket down next to the bed and taking her son's hand. I notice that his cheeks are no longer flushed, and his chest rises and falls with regular breaths. She turns to me excitedly.
"Oh, he's better! What did you give him?"
"Just some herbs," I mumble, hardly knowing what I'm saying. "He'll want that water now."
I shrug away her offer of payment and stand, though my legs quiver under me. I am desperate for the sunshine.
He is not the first sick child I've seen, and not the first time I've been called into the forest. I know now why the doctor was pale and shaking, why he refused to see the child any more. I know that William will sicken again, and his innocent mother will come for me again. I know I will not survive three visits, and when she summons me next time, I will make sure that my bag contains a knife.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, January 12th, 2012

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