Forbidden by law and denounced as an abomination by the church, the Kure has been hidden for centuries . . .
John Tyler has never met Sarah Sheridan. But he knows he must find her, and somehow convince her that she is the key to unlocking the power of an ancient ritual that will rid his body of a rare and ravaging disease.
But as cure quickly becomes curse, John realizes the ritual is more than a faded promise scrawled on a page of crumbling paper, and he discovers, too late, that the unholy text has unleashed a dark power that is driving him to consider the unthinkable.
Ultimately, John must choose between his desperate need to arrest the plague that is destroying his body, and the virtue of the woman he loves, knowing the wrong decision could cost him his life.
“In vain thou shall use many medicines, but thou shalt not be kured. And even though you search for a virgin to lay upon her balm, there is no healing for you. You multiply your remedies in vain as your cries fill the earth, and you will stumble, one over the other, and both will fall down together.”
The Book of Eternal Regret
John Tyler tried to focus, clear his head. “Are you sure?” he stammered. “There’s nothing else you can do? Maybe an ointment or salve, or some pills?”
“No.” The doctor’s voice was flat, absolute. “We have to remove the poison from your body. And we need to start immediately.”
John had remained calm throughout the examination, asking an occasional question with rhetorical confidence, expecting the doctor to confirm his affliction as something minor and easily treated. Now he fought to control the choking fear surging in his chest.
He glanced down at the treatment table, absently brushing his fingers over the sweat-stained leather. He wondered if he would be offered whiskey to dull the pain, or if the doctor would insist on bringing in other men to hold him down. He quickly swiped his forehead, trying to hide the beads of sweat streaking down his face and hoping to disguise the sudden chill that visibly shook him.
He swallowed hard and looked back to the doctor. “Maybe some saltwater, or some of those medicines up on the shelf. I know it might take longer to—” His throat clenched, squeezing off his appeal.
The doctor’s eyes narrowed, his expression even more rigid and uncompromising in the stark morning light. “I know this is difficult, John, but we need to begin at once.”
The doctor’s words faded into a dull roar as John felt the room begin to sway. He sat back and closed his eyes, trying to control the waves of nausea.
John had spent most of the night on his feet, unable to sleep and afraid to lie down. He had filled the time by moving from one end of the house to the other, feeling his way through the dim candlelight, listening to the constant ticking of the clock grow louder, then soften with each pass. Often forced to lean against the nearest wall for support, he fought the dizziness, praying that he wouldn’t lose consciousness.
Waiting for morning.
An hour before sunrise, he made his way to the barn. He was determined to arrive at the doctor’s office before morning’s light could expose him to well-meaning questions about his short, choppy walk or why he looked so pale and drawn. Too impatient to strike the oil lamps, he had saddled his checkered mare in the darkness, deftly threading the cinch and fastening the buckle by feel, reassuring the horse as he secured the leather girth. But before reaching the main road, he’d been forced to rein the horse in, unable to stand the bone-rattling shocks of pain.
He’d started out again in the supply wagon, and although the relative comfort of the flat seat provided some relief, the trip had been a solid hour of pounding vibration from the rain-gutted road. By the time John finally passed the outer village marker, the burnished glow of the oil-burning street lamps had been nearly absorbed in the smoky, pre-dawn twilight.
The doctor’s office was on the main street. The familiar shape of the arch-topped shingle hanging over the entrance was little more than a vague outline against a somber gray sky, but John picked it out from a block away. As he drew closer, he stared at the words engraved into the weathered wood, as if seeing them for the first time:
Lucius D. Harwell
Doctor – Caretaker
Edging the wagon against the side of the building, he quietly set the brake and pushed hard against the hand rest, lifting himself halfway off the seat. He groaned as he fell back, unable to support his own weight. Sitting with his head in his hands, he forced the air in and out of his lungs, trying to control the pain.
I need another minute. That’s all. Just another minute.
John knew the merchants would soon open their doors for business and customers would begin arriving with empty wagons to fill. Without the cover of darkness, his chances of being recognized increased with each passing second. Regardless of his suffering, he had to get off the street.
His boots sank deep into the reddish-brown powder as he carefully lowered himself to the ground. As he stepped up onto the planked sidewalk, his right foot slid forward, scraping over the loose grit until his heel hit the rise of the next uneven board. He stiffened, waiting for the cutting twist in his gut. But it wasn’t bad. Not this time.
“I’m walking like an old man,” he muttered. “If someone sees me, they’ll know. They’ll have to know.”
At just over six feet tall, John had always carried his muscular build well. Today he was noticeably bowed, his gait unsteady and cautious, as if every ounce of agility and strength had been drained from his body.
He tried the doctor’s door. It was locked. He pressed against it anyway, twisting the knob, pushing hard until the bolt rattled against the jamb-plate.
He can’t be late. Not today.
Pulling out his pocket watch, John barely felt the thin gold cover snap firm against his fingers. It was 6:50.
Harwell should have been here twenty minutes ago.
Surveying the empty street, John was relieved to see the slate-gray storefronts shrouded behind drawn shades and bolted shutters. It meant most folks were still upstairs, finishing breakfast or getting dressed.
That was good. No one would see.
Maybe the doctor is in the back, changing his clothes or cleaning up.
John shuffled to the large plate window and leaned in until his forehead rested against the glass. Peering through his own shadowy reflection, he searched for some sign of the doctor—his familiar black bag sitting on the desk or his long woolen coat thrown over the back of a chair. But there was no indication Harwell had arrived.
John had been inside before—mostly on behalf of others—to pick up medicine or bring in a suffering friend. As the pale orange halo cast from the glowing horizon gave sudden life to the bleak interior of the office, he could see little had changed since his last visit. The same wainscot of varnish-washed slats covered the bottom third of the walls like a tightly nailed picket fence. High above the chair rail, rows of shelves held a store of powders and salves. In the far corner, dozens of empty apothecary jars laid in a jumbled pile, the opal-white glass streaked with dried remnants. Off to the side, loose cork stoppers were stacked in a shallow box, their natural tan color now stained and discolored from the certain sweat of the doctor’s hands.
Toward the front of the office, the doctor’s desk was plainly visible, and above it, the dim outline of the instrument rack. Always in full view of visitors, the rectangular oak frame supported several sets of evenly spaced iron hooks. The largest size cradled a tapered saw and a pair of long metal forceps. The others held a complement of pliers and cutters, and a small metal hammer and chisel.
John knew the open display of tools was deliberate. The doctor often placed them one at a time in front of a patient unlucky enough to require their use, carefully explaining the order of application and the amount of discomfort that could be expected from each one.
With more light, he would be able to see the treatment table located in the very back of the office. Offering more convenience for the doctor than comfort to the injured, the table was barely two feet wide, thinly padded, and covered with dimpled cowhide. He had seen others lying there, twisting from side to side, begging for help. More than once he had watched the doctor restrain a patient with thick leather straps, using the table’s two-inch iron rings to tie down flailing arms and legs. John remembered thinking how fortunate it was for those who were brought in unconscious, to be unaware while the doctor worked.
He tugged at the collar of his jacket, pulling it up around his neck, fighting the sudden and unwelcome chill of memories better forgotten.
Where is he? If he doesn’t get here soon, someone is bound to see me. Maybe I should leave and come back later.
He dug for his watch and pushed on the stem, waiting for the familiar snap against his fingers.
I’ll give him five more minutes. No more.
As he cradled the thin gold case, habit drove his fingers to trace the few remaining lines of the worn engraving. Although most of the design was gone—erased from a lifetime of handling—the image remained complete in John’s mind. He had seen his father open the watch a thousand times: in church, anxious for the sermon to end; in the early morning, waiting for sunrise to warm the fields; at night in front of the fire, hunched over a pine-topped desk, worrying over expenses as he wrote them down in a large, dog-eared ledger. He would always remember the day his father first brought the watch close, explaining how the hands moved, then turning it over to show him the fine detail on the back. Occasionally, John still reached inside his pocket, without any need to know the time, just to touch the few remaining lines he knew by heart.
John’s mother had died in childbirth, her influence on his life reduced to a few faded tintypes displayed on the fireplace mantle. As a child, he had studied her pictures, curiously looking at her long wavy hair and kind eyes, especially on days when others commented on how he had inherited her strong profile and handsome features. Their compliments were his only substitute for absent memories.
Growing up, John had never considered his single-parented childhood a disadvantage. While he understood that most children had both a mother and a father, he never felt deprived or inferior to his peers. In fact, the difference had brought him an early recognition—and appreciation—of William Tyler’s inexhaustible devotion and frequent sacrifice.
His father’s death three years ago had come as an unexpected blow, and John still felt the occasional echoes of grief and anger when he remembered the needless tragedy.
It had happened while William Tyler was traveling alone at night, returning home from a trip to the county seat. Although the evidence was never conclusive, John believed his father was shot by a Confederate bushwhacker—murdered for the two twenty dollar gold pieces in his jacket and the hand-tooled leather saddlebags stripped from his horse. In late 1865 such attacks were rare, as these irregular militia members—some called them vigilantes—had long been disbanded. But John was convinced that one of these post-war predators had waited in stealth, ready to prey on unsuspecting travelers making their way along that dark and deserted road.
The loss of his father had left John with the responsibility to manage the family homestead, a not-so-prime forty acres with a basic but well maintained two-bedroom house, a detached barn, and seventy head of cattle.
Determined to build the ranch into a profitable business, John had worked hard. But after three years, his labor produced only a meager living, and he’d come to realize, just as his father had years before, that his efforts would seldom affect much beyond the day’s work. Once, after a particularly difficult week, John had buried his face in his hands and swore he would sell everything—the acreage, livestock, even the house and barn. But he ultimately put the thought out of his mind. The ranch had been in the family for four generations, ever since John’s great-grandparents settled in Kentucky.
“Some day it will be your turn,” his father had told him. It was a conversation John never forgot, even though the meaning would not become entirely clear until years later, when he was old enough to understand that working the ranch was a part of preserving the family heritage. He would do it because it was his responsibility. His turn.
So like most of his neighbors, John had learned to struggle with all of it—the seasonal droughts, the early frosts, and the torrential rains. But unlike most of them, he did it alone.
Not that there wasn’t opportunity. John’s rugged good looks and quiet manner frequently arrested the attention of young girls and captured the imagination of older women. And while he often overheard their whispers and noticed them angle their bodies toward him as they approached, he returned each one’s greeting in earnest, without pretense or affectation, seeming to be unaware of his physical desirability or thinking it of little importance.
Now in his twenty-third year, the village was the only life John had ever known. And although still considered young in age, most regarded him as a good neighbor, a hard worker, and the kind of man who would eventually assume a position of leadership within the community.
“So,” the doctor said. “Are you ready?”
John stared at the shaft of light spilling from the window, covering everything with a thick ashen pallor. It made his breathing fall shallow, and he wondered if he could actually choke on the sunshine.
“John?” Doctor Harwell pinched his eyes, his impatience obvious.
John looked down at the treatment table. He had seen firsthand how torturous the doctor’s remedies could be, often worse than the suffering brought on by the ailment. He licked his suddenly dry lips. He had to know.
“What about the pain?” He forced out the last word on a puff of air, leaving his lungs empty and strained.
“Yes, there is some pain associated with the procedure, but it will pass. It’s all part of the healing process. And to my knowledge, there’s nothing more effective.” The doctor’s jaw noticeably tightened. “Wishing it away isn’t going to help,” he added. “You should be grateful we caught it in time.” The doctor began rummaging in his desk. “I’m going to need more of these,” he muttered, holding up a fistful of wide leather straps. He bent lower, struggling to open an ill-fitting drawer, the bound wood eventually submitting as he slammed his fist against the side rails.
John closed his eyes, wanting to shut it out. I can fight this. I should wait, see if it’s better tomorrow. “Maybe I should come back in the morning. After I’ve taken care of—”
A knife-edged spasm ripped through John’s torso like an axe through brittle timber. Sucking back a labored breath, he grabbed at the treatment table and leaned hard, praying it would remain level under his weight. As he hunched over the cold surface, he felt his legs turn weak and useless.
“You see, John, the symptoms are worsening. We need to begin right away.” The doctor spoke without sympathy.
“I just need a minute,” John wheezed.
“Don’t you remember what I told you, and what will happen if we don’t act quickly?”
Unable to answer, John stared at the floor. His skin covered in clammy sweat, he tried to focus on the planks beneath his feet—anything to take his mind off the constant ache. Concentrating on the gaps between the boards, he tried to pretend the dark intersecting lines flowing through the wood were tiny roadways leading away from the doctor’s office, to somewhere safe and unthreatening. But as he lifted his gaze to the front of the room, he could see the lines in the floor ran back to where he was standing. Back to where it would be done.
John labored to get it out. “What . . . about . . . the scarring?”
“That shouldn’t concern you,” the doctor said. “It’s not an area of your body normally seen by others.”
John ran his hand over the dimpled leather surface, curious if anyone had tried to comfort the animal in the same way when it was alive, before turning it into upholstery.
“Lie back on the table,” Harwell ordered, “and I’ll begin the preparations. The sooner we get started, the sooner you can return home.”
John struggled with how to say it, how to tell the doctor he needed more time.
The symptoms had come on rapidly and without warning, the first burning wave jarring him from a sound slumber. But when the piercing spasms had abruptly subsided, he dismissed them as simple irritation, or even the imagined sensations of sleep. It wasn’t until several hours later, when the pain returned with agonizing intensity, that he knew it was no dream.
Throwing off the covers, he had struck a match and lit the oil lamp. Afraid he would find the sheets stained with blood, he scanned the bed linens. They were clean.
Sitting back on the bed, he brought the lamp close. At first, it was difficult to tell. The pinpoint patterns cast by specks of soot from the glass chimney mottled his midsection with a flickering, spotty mask. But as he moved the light back and forth, he could see the damage was real.
Large red pustules covered his abdomen. Some were as large as a tack-head, with many of the white-tipped eruptions raised on two layers. Just underneath the skin were more blisters, sprouting like angry seeds, pushing toward the surface. He waved the lamp, moving the shadows, hoping the malady had gone no further. But even in the tainted glow, he could see the center of the outbreak was lower, concentrated in the worst possible area. He touched himself with a fingertip, then jerked back his hand, concerned he might have accidentally transferred the disease to a different part of his body.
He had spent the rest of the night on his feet, worried that returning to his bed might force the infection higher into his chest, affecting his breathing or slowing his heart.
“What are you waiting for? I need you to lie back on the table.” The doctor was becoming visibly annoyed with John’s hesitation.
John stared at the floor, ignoring the question as he slid his boot across the deep hollows of wear surrounding the treatment table. He noticed the wood was stained, and unlike the rest of the floor, dotted with what looked like small medallions of dry red clay.
Probably street mud, left from dirty boots. It’s odd, almost arranged in a definite pattern, as if each clump had been purposely dropped from the very edge of the table.
In spite of the discomfort, John bent down, almost thankful for the distraction. Not caring the doctor could see, he poked at one of the reddish-gray mounds. It was surprisingly hard and stuck firmly to the floor. Pressing on it with his thumbnail, he applied more pressure, finally cracking the brittle surface.
That’s strange. Little rings of light and dark. And the texture is different on the inside, with tiny cavities that look like they could have held—
John groaned as his arm flew back in a contracted spasm. He prayed it was something else—a dried clump from an old poultice or a scrap from a dirty plaster cast. But the deep red streaks radiating from the center of the mound left little doubt.
Pulled from previous patients, they had been thrown to the floor and squeezed under the heels of the doctor, their exploded bodies left to dry into hard crusty lumps.
He tried to stand, but a wave of nausea held him like a vise. In dizzy blindness, he reached out, desperate for support. Finding the tall cabinet located to the left of the treatment table, his fingers skated across the ornately carved doorframe until he found the cold smoothness of the stopped-in glass. Lowering his chin, he forced his throat closed, fighting the acrid liquid pushing up from his stomach. There was nothing else he could do but hold on, suspended between the cabinet and table, waiting for the queasy feeling to pass.
“Well, John? Are you ready?” The doctor was standing a few feet away, leather straps cascading from his hands.
Unable to find his voice, John managed to shake his head before surrendering to the cradle of his arm.
The doctor’s frustration was evident as he responded with a deep, labored sigh. “All right, I’ll show you.”
John heard the bindings drop to the desk.
Just a few hours, that’s all I need. To secure the house, feed and water the animals. Then tomorrow I’ll be ready.
Lifting his head, John tried to find something to focus on, to clear his mind and settle his stomach. Scanning the interior of the cabinet that supported him, he looked at the shelves with forced scrutiny. Most were empty, revealing only the dusty outline of missing instruments and odd-shaped containers. The top shelf, however, still held medical supplies: cloth wrappings, stranded cotton, several small boxes of Jesuit’s bark and ground chalk. In the back, he could see a half-empty bottle of alcohol and a tarnished metal tray holding six scalpels, their tapered wooden handles coated with the blood of previous patients.
“Look at this,” Harwell ordered.
John shifted his eyes in the direction of the doctor, expecting to see a drawing or some new instrument that would be used in the procedure. Instead, Harwell was reaching under his desk, pulling at something heavy. The room echoed with a raspy, abrasive grate as he dragged a large wooden bucket out into the open. Using both hands, the doctor raised it high enough to clear his desk, then let it drop to the oak top, the impact shooting down into the floor and rattling the glass shelves in the cabinet next to John.
It had been a recent fill, the pail overflowing with black river bottom, and the staves bleeding with ribbons of thick slime. Suddenly, the surface broke, the contents stirring under their own power.
Oh God! The bucket is full of them . . . and he’s ready to set them on me!
He had seen it done before. Once, he’d even stood by the doctor’s side, as one by one, Harwell made the attachments. He had wanted to leave. But the doctor had insisted he stay, especially since John had brought the woman in and Harwell was sure his presence would help calm her.
Reluctantly, John had waited until the dark filthy creatures sucked the very last moments of life from her body.
The mud rippled and fell, then swelled again. At least a dozen of the huge parasites were writhing in the slimy muck.
As the doctor rested one hand on the bucket, his gaze was locked on the churning sludge in unmistakable admiration. “To achieve maximum bloodletting, I choose each leech by hand, agitate the jaws to ensure a strong attachment, and then select the sites as close to each other as possible.” He talked as if describing plans to build a new hay barn.
“How long?” John could barely get it out.
“What do you mean, how long?”
“How long do they have to be left on?” It was little more than a whisper.
“Eight to ten hours a day. For a week.”
“I’ll need . . . to think about it.” John wished he had more to say, a reason to delay the leeching.
“What else do you need to know?” The doctor had retrieved the straps and was walking toward him, ready to bind his arms and legs to the table.
Exhausted and out of questions, John lowered his head, only to see the repulsive entrails at his feet. He stepped back a few inches, desperately needing to distance himself from the encrusted filth. “I didn’t think it would be this serious, bad enough to require leeching.” Then he added the only thing he could think of. “There must be some other way to get rid of this.”
Doctor Harwell was hovering a few feet away, twisting the rawhide in one direction, then the other, the leather groaning with the strain. He frowned and tossed the straps on the table.
“John, your affliction is rare. In my thirty years as a physician, I’ve seen it less than a dozen times. Until today, I never would have expected a case to be found this far inland. Our climate, our temperature—neither are favorable for the making of the disease. It was in the tropics, the islands below the equator, where I first saw it.” The doctor’s eyes grew wide as he talked, as if fascinated by the telling of his own experience. “Sailors mostly,” he continued. “I saw several of them die from it. But that was before we learned how to stop it, and prevent it from taking over the entire body.”
Harwell paused and looked squarely at John, seeming to need confirmation that he was listening. John offered a single nod.
“I believe your condition is caused from some sort of insect, like a chigger or mite, but much smaller. Too small, in fact, to be seen without a special glass. It could have penetrated your skin through a cut or an open wound. Even a scratch would have been enough, although you might not have noticed it. Then the infection settles and grows until it shows itself.”
“If it’s so rare, how is it possible I caught it here in the village?”
“We’ll probably never know for sure. It could have come in on trade goods, or inside a package you picked up at the store, maybe in the wrapping. But where it came from isn’t as important as the remedy. The illness progresses rapidly, and it will get much worse if the poison is not drawn from your system.”
John waited a few seconds before speaking, careful not to reduce the importance of the doctor’s explanation by bringing on his questions too quickly. “I know we need to begin as soon as possible, but isn’t there another method, some alternative to using those?” John pointed in the direction of the bucket.
Harwell had returned to his chair and was leaning forward, his hands folded on the desk. A receding hairline had always made his promontory brow appear large and foreboding. A deepening set of furrows made it clear he was not in the mood to debate his diagnosis. “Look, John, it’s my job to give you the best medical advice I can. So rather than waste any more time, why don’t you—”
“But there must be some other kind of treatment,” John interrupted. “Even if it takes longer, or means more money. I know I could find some way to work off the debt.”
Harwell’s eyes drew thin. “I’m afraid not.”
John knew the doctor’s reputation for unleashing a quick temper on anyone who disagreed with him. But with the leech bucket only a few feet away, he was more than ready to risk the threat of Harwell’s volatile disposition. He began slowly, pushing the words out with tense uncertainty. “I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Stories . . . rumors of elixirs and potions used long ago. I’ve heard some of the old men in the village talk about such things, about books that contain cures used by healers,” John nodded toward the doctor as if indicating Harwell’s participation was a matter of record. “To treat their patients, especially when there was no other way.”
It was a half-truth at best. Several years ago, John had overheard a few of the older men talking in hushed tones about ancient remedies, but they abruptly changed the subject when they suspected someone else might be listening.
The doctor bristled. “We need to concentrate on getting you well, John. And we need to start now, before more damage is done. The methods from the past have no bearing on the present.”
“So there were other ways?” John was surprised the doctor would admit to their existence, always having believed they were more fable than fact.
Harwell’s features grew stern, his face turning the color of dull river stone. Finally, he spoke, his words delivered with an unmistakable growl. “Yes, John, there were other cures. But they were used long ago.”
It brought a flash of hope, and John waited, ready to hear more. But Doctor Harwell sat silent, finished.
“Can you tell me about them, the old ways of treating this condition?”
John swallowed hard as he saw the veins rise in the doctor’s neck, the deep blue streaks throbbing under Harwell’s ashen skin.
“Why do you persist in this?” Harwell roared, his voice penetrating all corners of the room. “Why this ridiculous interest in old, outdated remedies?”
“Because it’s my body that needs curing, just as your own need would drive you to seek out every possibility.”
Harwell was noticeably taken back at the boldness of John’s answer, and when he spoke, his tone was less sharp. “Yes, John, there were books, very old books, that contained remedies of a sort.”
“Something that would help me?”
The doctor crossed his arms. “No. Not in the way you’re thinking.”
John was silent for a moment. He remembered the village farrier refusing to water down a bottle of horse tonic for an ailing neighbor, explaining the dosage would be a dangerous guess and could just as easily kill as cure. “Is it because the treatments were for animals? Is that why they can’t be used today?”
“No, John, that has nothing to do with it.” The doctor paused as if gathering his thoughts, choosing his words carefully before speaking. “Back then, medicine was not practiced in the same manner as it is today. There have been many improvements in the way we treat sickness and disease.”
“And those leeches,” John shot back as he pointed to the bucket, “are better than the old remedies? They will heal me faster?”
“Yes. That’s correct.” Harwell waited a moment, undoubtedly wanting to make sure John understood the finality of his answer. “And if we don’t begin immediately, it will be dark before you can leave for home. Dealing with that road is hard enough in the daytime, and in a weakened condition . . .” The doctor paused, correcting himself. “What I mean to say is that I don’t want you attempting the ride home too soon after a bleeding.”
“I guess that makes sense,” John said, almost too softly for Harwell to hear. Then he added, “Perhaps if you could describe the old remedy, tell me how it works, it would be easier for me to—”
“You don’t understand,” the doctor interrupted. “It’s not something I can put in front of you, like a jar of ointment or a bottle of laudanum.”
“But if you explained it to me,” John insisted, “then the decision would be easier.”
The doctor thundered back. “Why do you believe you have a choice in the matter? If you want to be healed, the treatment is here.” Harwell pointed to the leech bucket. “And besides,” he added, trying to calm himself, “it would be inappropriate for me to speak of such things, particularly when it would only serve to distract you from proper medical attention.”
John could tell the doctor was out of patience, but the sight of the bloodsucking parasites squirming through the foul river mud drove him to speak. “But what if it was only to satisfy my curiosity. What would be wrong with that?”
Lucius Harwell rocked forward and back in his chair, his expression unable to conceal his struggle between anger and the discipline his profession demanded. “There are reasons,” he said, his voice metered with patronizing restraint. “The old cures were not based on proven medicine, not back then. Most were useless folk remedies, or worse, toxic potions that did more harm than good.” The doctor hesitated. “And many of those harmful concoctions were grounded in . . . witchcraft.”
John shook his head in defiance. “There’s no such thing. Stories of witches and goblins are for children, to keep them quiet and huddled in their beds. I have no interest in silly superstitions. I just want to know if there’s any chance I can rid myself of this illness and be spared the leeching.” He winced at his own insolence as he noticed the doctor’s hands beginning to shake.
Harwell glanced down at the bucket, then back at John. “Listen to me, John. Listen carefully to every word.”
John straightened his back, giving Harwell his full attention, hoping the doctor understood it was need and not arrogance driving his persistence.
“There are only a few who still know about the ancient ways and of the old books that contain them. And neither the books nor the cures are ever discussed. Even between those who know, the subject is carefully avoided. Many generations ago, the dark manuscripts of healing were condemned, first by the Church, and later by the state, as a violation of common law. To acknowledge their existence is not only blasphemous, it can result in severe penalties imposed by the magistrate.” The doctor paused, undoubtedly considering how his participation—an intentional breach of the public trust—could result in even greater consequences. “Now that you know this, do you still want me to tell you about the old ways—reveal to you secrets so immoral, that the law and even the Church have forbidden the passages to be repeated?”
John knew he was about to further irritate the man who would ultimately be responsible for healing him. But he wouldn’t let unsubstantiated threats dissuade him, and without hesitating, he nodded, hoping it would be enough.
The doctor’s mouth twisted into a disapproving scowl. “You’re stubborn. Like your father.”
John smiled. He knew it was a compliment. And the implication—even though very subtle—gave him a glimmer of hope. He could sense Harwell’s resistance was weakening, and he made it a point to choose his words carefully, to avoid any more conflict. “If I knew, then I could be done with it and I’d be ready to start the treatment.”
Lucius Harwell leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. He stared intently at John, the same way he might appraise a horse at auction, trying to judge his stamina and strength. “There would be . . . conditions.” Harwell set his fingers on his temples. “Very. Specific. Conditions.”
John nodded, hoping the subtle gesture would convey the appropriate reservations, and if necessary, warrant later forgiveness.
The doctor looked to the very back of his office, scanning the entire space from corner to corner, as if wanting to make certain no one else could hear. “First, you’ll have to promise me you won’t delay the bleeding because of what I tell you, or hold out false hope based on some old witches’ tale.”
Harwell’s expression grew even more solemn. It was evident John’s answer was not what he hoped to hear. Realizing his patient was not going to relent, he rose from his chair and, shaking his head, walked to the front window. As he looked out over the eerily deserted street, the sun caught half his face, splitting his features into light and dark.
“Second, you must understand the old cures often required the one in need to cast away their good name and to denounce all things holy and pure.”
This time Harwell didn’t look directly at John, but simply paused, offering him an opportunity to speak. But John remained silent, hoping his passive consent would be enough.
“And third,” the doctor continued, “you would have to promise on your very life never to disclose the existence of these books or to speak of what is contained on their pages.”
John cleared his throat. “I agree.”
Lucius Harwell straightened, crossed his arms, and then looked down. John wondered if the doctor was reconsidering, preparing to change his mind. But Harwell said nothing as he reached out and slowly lowered the window shade. Seemingly oblivious to the unmistakable tremble in his hand, he secured the privacy bolt on the office door. Then with slow, determined steps, he walked to the back of the room and paused in front of a wide, ornately carved bookcase. Sinking to one knee, he scanned the umber leather bindings on the bottom shelf, finally resting his hand on one of the larger volumes. Swiping his thumb back and forth across the spine, he wiped away the dust, as if to be certain of his choice.
Untouched for years, the natural oils in the book’s cover had formed a bond with the adjacent bindings. Bringing both hands to the task, the doctor finally forced the covers to separate with a loud crack. John waited, expecting him to rise and return to his desk, but Harwell remained on the floor, continuing to remove additional books until the shelf was nearly empty.
As the doctor’s arm disappeared into the vacant space, John could see Harwell was reaching beyond the back of the bookcase and into the wall itself. He heard him muttering, cursing under his breath as he fumbled with something inside the hidden cavity, trying to maneuver it out through the narrow opening.
“I’ve got it,” the doctor grumbled as he slowly held up a tattered cloth pouch. Brushing away the dirt and cobwebs, he set to work on the knotted drawstrings. But as large portions of the bag began to separate, he simply pulled the material apart, releasing a bound manuscript from the rotting fibers.
Carrying it with outstretched arms, the doctor moved to the single window at the back of the office, pushed open the glass, and raised the book above the ledge. Taking a quick breath, he blew hard, shooting a mixture of cobwebs and rat droppings into the rear alley. Leaving a swirling haze in his wake, he returned to his desk, where he pushed the loose papers off to the side and carefully set the crimson-cased volume in the very center of the space.
Although still covered with a layer of dust, John could see the book’s blood-red binding was ornately stamped with strange markings, the front cover finely tooled with a border of scrolls and flourishes. In the very center, a single word served as its title:
While the main part of the cover appeared to be bound with the familiar cowhide common to the rest of the doctor’s library, the outer trim was thinner and nearly transparent. John wondered if the material had been taken not from an animal, but from a different kind of donor.
The doctor scooted his chair back and sat, his full attention seemingly captured by the elaborately detailed cover.
“Are you sure, John?” Harwell asked without looking up. “Are you absolutely sure you want to know this?”
He could hear it in the doctor’s voice—a final chance to turn back, to reconsider his decision to ignore the possible penalties of both law and Church. John answered without hesitation. “Yes. Please.”
Lucius Harwell raised his glazed eyes. “Come over here and lay your hand on the book.”
It seemed like a strange request. John could only assume the doctor wanted him to make some kind of symbolic gesture, acknowledging that his demand to learn from the forbidden script had made him a willing accomplice in breaking the sacred bond of secrecy.
As he placed his palm on the leather—if that’s what it was—John took a closer look at the extravagant design now framing his hand. What he had originally assumed to be symbols were actually bizarre and grotesque figures—creatures clearly not human. Some were portrayed in agony and suffering, while others were shown coupled with naked female forms. Even more sinister was the feel of the book—icy cold, like a solid block of frozen stone.
Although John suspected the large volume had remained undisturbed for years, the cover inexplicably opened as he drew back his hand. The first few pages lifted in the still air, fluttering as if controlled by an unseen presence. Mysteriously, they began to turn, advancing without the influence of human touch, the movement continuing until the text was divided into roughly equal segments.
Seeing the pages move under their own power brought a look of unmistakable fear—but not surprise—to the doctor’s face. He looked up at John, appearing to offer him one last opportunity to escape the consequences of giving life to the ancient passages.
John remained quiet. Waiting.
The doctor moved his chair closer to the desk and adjusted his glasses. “I’ll read only the part that applies to the disease, and how the cure is administered.”
A quiet pause seemed to separate them, giving both a chance to change their minds, but neither broke the silence.
Finally, Harwell looked down at the open tome. He read without emotion, without feeling, the words rolling off his tongue as if he were a reticent schoolboy delivering a half-prepared assignment.
“The afflicted must call upon the healing power of a young virgin, for it is only through her that a man’s body is kured.”
Harwell paused to swipe at the bead of sweat streaking down his forehead.
“Her pure essence must cover the affliction. She must purge it with her own heat, and only on the single day that is eighteen years from her birth.”
The doctor stopped, his lips drawn, his skin a ghostly gray. He shook his head in obvious regret. Bringing his hands together, he covered the pages, as if trying to prevent any more of the unholy words from leaving the paper.
“I don’t understand,” John said. “Is that all?”
“Only the final sentence remains, but it will make no difference, no change in my diagnosis. We should close the book now, before—”
“No! I agreed to your conditions, and I want to hear all of it.”
Harwell rested his face in his cradled fingers, leaving John to wonder if it was sweat or tears the doctor wiped from his cheeks.
“Then listen carefully,” Harwell said. “This is the last of it.” He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“Set within the virgin’s mouth, the affected member must be held constant within her care until the affliction is burned away and the man is kured.”
Lucius Harwell closed the book, his expression no different than if he had just heard his own name read from the Book of the Damned.
“It’s some sort of riddle,” John said, “meant as a test or fashioned in the form of a puzzle.”
“No, it’s not a riddle. I read the passage exactly as it was written and practiced over five hundred years ago.”
John’s confusion gave way to exasperation, and he shot back in a fit of anger. “How would such a thing be possible? To find a young maiden, one who would be willing to comply with such a revolting request?”
Harwell started to speak, but John cut him off. “I don’t care how long ago it was written, such blasphemy should never have been put to paper. You’ve seen the sores on my skin. Can you imagine a young woman, or any woman actually doing such a thing? And even if one could be found who was willing, how could such a vile act have the power to cure me?”
“I never suggested these old writings could heal anyone,” Harwell said flatly. “You wanted—”
“What possible purpose could have been served by such instructions?” John was raving, not caring that he was interrupting the doctor again. “To expect anyone to find a young virgin, one who would . . .” His frustration had surpassed his pain, and he had to fight the impulse to scream at Harwell, to tell him what a waste of time it had been to read from the ancient text. But he knew the doctor was not the one deserving the blame. He had been the one who insisted.
Lucius Harwell slowly pushed the book to the edge of his desk. “And now that you know the outdated treatments offer no promise for you, we should begin the bleeding.”
John’s anger gave way to disappointment. He had been holding out far more hope than he was willing to admit, and although the doctor’s warnings were fresh in his memory, he felt deceived. He had expected to learn about uncommon ingredients that could be combined to make a special medicine or salve. Instead, Harwell had read the most perverse instructions imaginable, a prescription designed to justify the actions of corrupt and evil men who craved the touch of a young maiden.
John looked at the leech bucket, its dark muddy contents cresting and falling as the filthy parasites thrashed just below the surface. “Can I wait a day before you make the attachments?”
“There’s no reason to wait.”
“Surely one more day won’t make that much difference.”
“It will put you at greater risk,” Harwell said. “A day, maybe two is all you have. If you let your condition go unattended, it will worsen rapidly. And without treatment, your member will fall away from your body, just as a dead limb separates itself from a tree.” The doctor paused, then pointed to the muddy bucket. “You would be the first to receive these. They have yet to feed, and will draw the poison quickly.”
John remembered the old woman he’d brought in, watching her face turn pallid and sunken as the bloated leeches continued to drain her lifeless form long after the doctor had closed her eyes.
“I need a day,” he said, “to make arrangements, to put things in order on the ranch.” John adjusted the buckle on his trousers and began moving toward the door.
Harwell grimaced in disapproval. “Then I’ll expect you first thing in the morning,” he said sternly. “First thing.”
Without answering, John stepped out on to the sidewalk, hoping he could make his way out of town without being recognized.