Early in the morning and barely out of bed, Dr. Robert Henry Lang couldn’t ignore the rumblings coming from the waiting room he’d set up on the lower floor of his medieval townhouse.
“Patients,” Hans said, appearing from nowhere and startling Rob. “They’re growing restless and debating whether to eat the cat.” The whippet-thin Hans was light on his feet and tended to lurk just out of Rob’s field of view.
Rob dipped his fingertips in a washbowl and began to clean the sleepers from his eyes. “Bathroom. Coffee. Glasses. Then patients.”
Hans grabbed a rag to scrub Rob’s face as a parent might with a child, though Hans was several years younger—and inches shorter—than the doctor he served. “There’s no time for a bath. If you want the privy, the line’s three deep and hasn’t moved since the rooster began crowing. I still don’t know what coffee is, but I’ve put a cup of boiled water on your workbench.”
“Which I’m sure is long drunk by now. I realize you’re the doctor, but I don’t see the purpose of these ‘clinic hours.’ Sick people should stay at home where they belong. You’re supposed to visit them, not the other way around.”
“It’s a work in progress,” Rob said. “Glasses?”
“By the washbowl. And may I raise the issue of our pantry’s honor? I believe it’s being violated even as we speak.” Hans fingered the bag of bread crumbs he kept tied to his belt. “Robert, I can only be in one place at a time. I suggest we hire a guard—someone fat and well fed—to keep your patients from eating us into the street.”
“No guards, Hans. We have plenty of food.”
Hans shook his head. “Not anymore we don’t.”
“Look,” Rob said, “we have plenty of money to buy more food. Okay?” Hans did not appear okay with much of anything at the moment, but Rob’s finances remained secure. Months ago, when Rob had first arrived in this strange land, the king’s wizened Chancellor hadn’t been able to take his eyes off the digital watch Rob was wearing. He’d drawn Rob into one of the castle’s storage rooms, filled with broken spinning wheels and three wooden chests of the small, medium and large variety, and offered to trade one of the chests for the watch. Rob’s choice, of course.
Rob’s digital watch was barely worth 20 bucks at Wal-Mart, and as he was new and didn’t want to offend anyone, he’d politely agreed to trade it for the smallest of the chests. The Chancellor wailed at his choice, and when Rob opened it up he discovered why. It had been stuffed full of gold.
Rob didn’t ask what was in the other chests, and the Chancellor didn’t tell, but the king’s chief advisor had kept his end of the deal. After Rob ran the Chancellor through the watch’s basic functions, he’d rolled the chest out of the castle in a wheelbarrow. Since then, Rob hadn’t had to worry about having enough money to buy food to eat, or clothes to supplement the jeans and cotton shirt he’d arrived in, or a townhouse where he could set up shop, or anything else he wanted.
Almost anything else.
“That golden chest of yours isn’t bottomless,” Hans said. “And we aren’t a charity.”
“Like I’ve told you before, we sort of are.” Rob ran a tiny brush around his teeth and spat into the bowl. “But I don’t want to get into this again. Not so damn early.” Rob stuck his glasses on his face and squinted into the rectangle of polished metal hanging above the bowl. The reflection showed a beard that, despite a few patchy spots high on his cheeks, Rob liked the looks of. He certainly liked it better than the scratchy, scrape-jobs he saw on some other men’s faces. Despite the lack of cartridge razors, a surprising number of locals shaved, and Rob’s beard had become one more thing that set him apart. Which was okay, Rob figured. After all, he wasn’t exactly from around here.
Rob was reaching for the beard scissors, made by a blacksmith he’d hired to craft medical equipment, when a wooden crash, a cat’s howl of fury and a string of incomprehensible swear words sloshed up from the floor below.
“Patients?” Rob said to Hans.
“Patients,” Hans nodded. “And right away, if you care about having any breakfast left to eat. Or dinner, for that matter.”
Rob walked down the steep stairs and pushed open the heavy wooden door to his front room. Inside, feathers hung in the air while Rob’s elderly cat squared off against a chicken he guessed was payment for his services. The chicken perched atop a broken stool while the old cat circled, searching for a way to get at the chicken without being pecked in the head.
Far from being alarmed, his patients were egging the animals on, like spectators at an interspecies fight club. Rob ignored the animals for the moment and scanned the human beings. The man with the broken arm needed attention, but if Rob had to set the break, the man’s screams might scare the others. He’d ask Hans to take him out back for a stiff drink, which should loosen him up for Rob’s probing hands.
The mother with the swollen jaw was breathing comfortably and conversing with her children, so she could wait. The old man with the spewing cough sounded terrible, but he probably wasn’t going to get any worse in the next few hours. There wasn’t much relief Rob could offer for bronchitis exacerbated by a lifetime of open fireplaces and soot-filled air.
The fellow clutching his chest worried Rob. There weren’t any reliable tests he could run, so he’d be forced to rely on guesswork, the laying on of hands, and a superstition-fueled patient history. On the bright side, he was shouting for the chicken to get back in the fight, so whatever was wrong with him wasn’t likely to prove immediately fatal.
Still, everyone needed his help. Rob swore at himself for not having gotten out of bed earlier.
Finally, he pointed at a woman with a finger-sized shard of wood jammed into her upper thigh. Her face was drawn and pale, but she looked like she’d weathered a few childbirths, so Rob guessed that she’d be brave when he removed the shard and sewed her leg shut.
“Ma’am, let’s begin with you, please,” Rob said, shooing the cat into the back room with his foot. “Hans, pull the curtain and boil some water while I help her over to the exam table. And will you see what’s going on with that chicken?”
The doctor was in.
Many hours and many patients later, Hans shuttered the front window, blocking the late-afternoon light as well as the faces of those who’d lined up to either seek medical treatment or watch those who had. Entertainment in town was scarce, and although Rob didn’t like it, his drop-in clinics had become must-see TV.
“Clinic day is over!” Hans shouted, peeling back fingers from the window frame so he could bolt the shutters. “Come back next time, unless I can convince the doctor to stop this nonsense. House calls tomorrow, for payment. Money, no livestock!”
Rob leaned back, resting against a rough-hewn wall. “Hans. Don’t do that.”
“Robert, we just worked a full day for nothing. Less than nothing, because we lost a nice stool, half the bandages and most of our food.” Hans grabbed a straw broom and angrily swept cinders from the stone hearth into a pile on the hard-packed dirt floor.
Rob raised his eyes to the low, blackened ceiling. Although his chimney was better than a hole in the roof, as he’d seen in too many of his patients’ homes, the house never wholly cleared of smoke. To make matters worse, Hans seemed compelled to keep a fire going 24-7. Even now, a log lay smoldering in the hearth. “We got a chicken,” Rob said. “And a blanket, which we can wash and turn into slings or bandages or something.”
“That’s not enough. And nobody paid us any money.”
Rob sighed. “I told you, we’ve got money.”
“For now,” Hans said. “But what happens when we’re cold and hungry and your grateful patients are nowhere to be found?”
“We could survive on the food you’ve squirreled away for a month. Maybe longer.” Rob reached into the pocket of his well-worn jeans, fishing out a handful of silver coins. “Here, take these. We’re doing fine.”
Hans scowled, looking embarrassed, but he grabbed the coins. “I wasn’t asking for money.”
“It’s your salary. You don’t have to ask. That’s the point.”
“All those people that come here. It’s too much.” Hans stood the broom by the hearth and fixed Rob with his tiny blue eyes. “You can’t fix everyone, you know.”
Rob threw up his hands. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. But I think you just don’t like seeing other people eat our food.”
“Robert, it’s not theirs to eat!” Hans said. “They should get their own.”
Rob laughed, although he couldn’t say whether he was laughing at Hans or just falling into exhaustion. Hans had grown up the poor son of a woodcutter, making him hyper-sensitive to food and money. He’d also been the one to find Rob, laying in the middle of the forest, damp with his own vomit, upon Rob’s arrival in this strange world. After a cautious introduction, Hans had helped Rob to his feet and guided him to nearby medieval town that wasn’t close to anything Rob recognized as civilization. Though Rob’s comfort level with his surroundings had grown by giant steps since those shaky, first few weeks, Hans continued to assist the doctor in his personal and professional business.
Rob walked the small man to the door where Hans bobbed, half-in and half-out, like a cat wanting to go outside but unsure about the weather.
“Paying customers tomorrow, all right Robert?” Hans said, tugging his cap down on his head.
“I fed the donkey for you.”
“And if you decide to eat the chicken tonight, don’t do it in front of the rooster. He’ll crow his head off and won’t stop until he passes out.”
“I remember,” Rob said. “Good night, Hans. Say hello to Greta for me.”
Rob closed the door, sucking in a breath of quiet air before returning to work. Trudging upstairs, he grabbed Galen’s ‘On Anatomical Procedures’ and a volume of Oribasius’s ‘Medical Collections,’ a pair of ancient—at least from his perspective—medical volumes he’d borrowed from the abbey library. The books were ridiculously heavy; the librarian had bound the hand-written texts in oak and fitted them with iron rings for shackling to his reading tables. In a world without printing presses, books were precious objects indeed.
Although Rob hated lugging the clunky tomes around, he hadn’t brought his paperback Grey’s Anatomy with him, so these books—as primitive and contradictory and just plain wrong as they could be—were all he had. Rob dropped the books on his goose-feather mattress, watching the fleas spring up in the air like trampoline artists. No matter how many times he shook out his blankets, the fleas always came back, and Rob had learned to live with them. His body hardly reacted to the bites now, with just the tiniest of red bumps that drew an occasional scratch.
A rust-colored mutt peeked out from behind the bed.
“Just me,” Rob said. “Go back to sleep.”
Rob had inherited the dog, along with a cat, rooster, and donkey, when he took possession of the townhouse. While they were too old to do much other than sleep, he’d grown used to their company and their occasional bays, brays, and animal songs.
Rob wrestled open ‘Collections,’ carefully turning the thick, fibrous pages until he found an anatomical cutaway of the torso. A patient he’d been treating had a mass growing in his abdomen. Rob couldn’t tell whether it was a cyst or cancer, but if it didn’t come out, it’d be the size of a basketball by Christmas. If the patient survived that long.
Using his finger, Rob traced the hand-colored drawings, silently navigating the layers of muscle and tissue. Real body parts looked so much different than they did in books, especially the slick, shiny tubes that made up the gut. To complicate matters, he’d trained as an otolaryngologist—an ear, nose and throat specialist—and although he was an experienced surgeon, he hadn’t cut into anybody below the collar bones since his first year of residency.
Which was the least of his worries, given that he lacked anesthetics, proper instruments, or a sterile operating theater. First, do no harm, Rob reminded himself, just as the front door banged open and quickly slammed shut.
“Zev?” he called out. “Zev, is that you?”
Powerful footsteps attacked the stairs, hitting each step hard and square. Rob dragged the book off his lap. Not Zev, he thought; his cousin’s sneakers didn’t make that kind of noise. Certainly not Hans. That only left . . .
Magda the Red slammed through his bedroom door, nearly knocking it off the frame. She was tall—not as tall as Rob, of course, but tall for this world—and strong. He could almost hear her shoulder muscles humming.
She looked angry, and the braids in her dark red hair snapped, whip-like, against the red hood that draped against her back. As was her custom, she wore a tunic that barely fell below her hose-covered knees, a veritable mini-skirt in this conservatively-attired town. An axe hung from her belt, and tall leather boots covered her legs to the top of her calves.
“You,” she said, her lips trembling. “You son-of-a-bitch!”
“Maggie?” Rob said. “What’s going on?”
“Stand up,” she growled.
“Because I’m not going to punch you while you’re sitting on the fucking bed!”
“Punch me?” Rob stood up, whereupon Maggie slammed a fist into his stomach, dropping him to the floor. “No hitting,” he wheezed.
When his eyes cleared, Rob saw tears running down Maggie’s splotchy face. “I’m pregnant, damn you! Pregnant!” she shouted, and then stormed out as quickly as she’d come. Bam-bam-bam-bam down the stairs, boom-BOOM went the front door, and she was gone.
The dog lifted its head, glanced at Rob, then returned to sleep.
Clutching his stomach, Rob dragged himself up onto his bed. He lay there for some time, recovering from Maggie’s unexpected blow—or blows, if one counted the punch and their pregnancy both.
And he did. He surely, certainly did.