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A Sonorous Expiration

Kat Otis lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there's no country music involved. Her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She can be found online at katotis.com or on Twitter as @kat_otis.
President Abraham Lincoln stopped breathing entirely and the assembled doctors all consulted our pocket watches; it was 6:50 A.M. After several moments, the terrible silence was broken by a prolonged inspiration and a sonorous expiration. He still lived, but not for long.
I rose from my chair at the President's bedside, yielding my place to his son, and exited the bedroom to inform Mrs. Lincoln. Her weeping had been so distracting that Secretary Stanton banished her to the front parlor. Not that our ability to concentrate made any difference in the prognosis. Everyone knew it was impossible to recover from such a mortal wound.
She was still hysterical when I found her and, as I hesitated to increase her grief, she stifled her sobs long enough to cry, "How is he?"
How did one answer such a question? Perhaps the others knew, but I had barely been a doctor for six weeks and was still inexperienced in the ways of the dying. I opened my mouth to tell her the truth, but somehow different words emerged. "We are doing all that we possibly can."
The gratitude in her red-rimmed eyes drove me from the room. My own guilt took me further--not back to the bedside vigil, but outside across the crowded street and into the theatre beyond. I made my way through the foyer and pushed open the doors that hid the bloody box where the President had been assassinated.
Looking out across the empty theatre, I relived those terrible moments in my mind. There, perhaps forty feet away, was the chair in the dress circle where I had been sitting when I heard the report of a pistol. And there, four feet away, was the torn flag that had slowed the assassin's escape as the audience cried out for his blood. And there, at the foot of a high-backed armchair, was where I had stood the first time I promised Mrs. Lincoln that I would do everything possible to save her husband's life.
I lied.
True, we had done everything my teachers at Bellevue Hospital would have said was possible with modern medicine. For hours, we had struggled to keep the wound free from coagula. The Surgeon General himself had sent for a Nelaton probe and tried to find the bullet in hopes of being able to remove it. All the other doctors agreed that nothing more could be done but monitor his pulse and wait for him to die.
But my first lessons in medicine were not as a young man at Bellevue, but as a small boy on my grandfather's knee. There I had learned about humors and sympathies and other folk remedies that were anathema to the learned, modern doctor. There I had learned of the weaponsalve that, when applied to a gun or blade, could heal the injuries that weapon had caused.
I searched the box until I found it--a single-shot flintlock, barely the size of my hand, discarded by the assassin before he fled. Feeling like a fool, I anointed it in the congealed puddle of the President's blood. Then I withdrew my pocket watch from my coat--the pocket watch I had inherited from my grandfather--and opened the case.
As a small packet of herbs fell out into my palm, I nearly lost my nerve. I had always laughed the herbs off as sentimental heirloom, a final gift from my superstitious grandfather who had never learned the ways of modern medicine. But, deep down inside, I knew that his medicine had always worked just as well as mine. I was not enacting a pointless ritual to make myself feel better, I was meddling with powers I did not fully understand. I was an amateur--a hack--who might do more harm than good.
But the President was dying. And I had promised Mrs. Lincoln I would do everything I possibly could.
I dumped the herbs onto the flintlock, rubbing them into the blood to make a paste. Then I bowed my head, drew in a deep breath, and began to pray. My voice carried throughout the empty theatre, filling the silent spaces, ringing out both strong and hopeful, a sonorous expiration. I could feel the weaponsalve's power, vibrating in my very bones. It was working.
But had I done it in time to save the President?
The echoes of my prayers faded away into silence and I consulted my grandfather's pocket watch; it was 7:22 A.M.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

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