It had always been one of John’s favorite spots.
With enough sun filtering through the canopy to brighten the leafy floor and a small stream running its frothy fingers around clusters of scrub oak and white pine, the wooded knoll was a natural sanctuary. The kind of church God would build, he’d once thought while enjoying the solitude.
He especially liked the view, and the way the land gently sloped to a grassy meadow dotted with old poplars and maples.
Today, their dry, withered leaves fluttered across the landscape in a constantly changing palette of red and gold.
John looked up at the pale blue sky and inhaled deep.
He could smell it. Lifted from the cut fields of maize and wheat, it drifted on the wind like a rich spice. It was the scent of change, the setting of seasons, a sign of the approaching winter.
The sun was unusually warm for late fall, and although the temperature was not uncomfortable, Sarah had taken advantage of the shade. Sitting back against the trunk of a large oak, she stretched out her legs on a blanket of autumn foliage.
“There’s plenty of time,” she called out as she loosened her braided hair. “We can still make it to the doctor’s office by mid-afternoon.”
John nodded he understood.
Carefully holding the thin, deteriorating sheet by the edges, he leaned back against the wagon and lifted his arms toward the midday sun, hoping the intense light would make the words easier to read.
He had done it for Sarah, because she seemed so sure, so certain. And because disagreeing with her—telling her no—hurt him almost as much as the disease.
“If there’s a chance it will work, we need to consider it,” she had pleaded. Then glancing away, she paused, agonizing over what she had to say next. “I’m afraid if the doctor uses his leeches, you might not be the same. You might not be able to—” She had stopped, unable to finish.
Sarah’s confession had gone beyond simple caring and kindness. John now understood it wasn’t fair to exclude her from determining the best way to treat his illness. If he continued to insist on making decisions alone, and his choices were wrong, they would both suffer the consequences.
He was also beginning to doubt his chances of surviving the bloodletting intact. The area of greatest damage would have to support the bulk of the distending leeches. And after seeing how rapidly the infection had progressed, he was convinced the additional punctures—and weight—would tear his weakened skin, increasing the probability of disfigurement or even detachment.
Yet his decision to read the remaining part of the ritual had not been made easily. Before taking the page from Sarah’s hands, he had made a silent, sacred promise: If any part of what he read might be threatening to Sarah, if its use would require her to compromise her body or soul, he would immediately destroy the foul writings and regardless of the outcome, resume his ride to the doctor’s office to begin the painful blood-purge.
His eyes stinging from the bright sun, he lowered his arms and glanced back at Sarah. She seemed peacefully centered and unhurried in nature’s surroundings. Noticing John’s attention, she playfully scissored her legs through the leaves, inviting him to join her. Her encouragement was tempting, but fearing the wrenching contractions that would tear through his gut if he attempted to move to the ground, he offered her a weak smile, hoping she would understand.
“Do you realize what has to happen to make this work?” John rustled the page for emphasis.
Sarah started to speak, and then stopped, sensing that John didn’t want an answer. She raised her hands in deliberate interest, inviting him to work through his own doubts without argument.
“And some of the letters are so faded, I had to fill in as best I could,” he added.
Sarah picked up a large golden-hued leaf and twirled it in her fingers. “Maybe you should read it out loud.”
“You think it would help?”
She nodded and smiled, her blonde hair shimmering against the brown tree bark as she eased back into a cradle of surface roots.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll read it, and then you can tell me what you think it means.”
John stepped back into one of the irregular circles of light breaking through the canopy and angled the paper until it caught the sun. Before reading the ancient script, he mumbled under his breath, and although he didn’t mean for Sarah to hear it, she looked up at him with sudden concern. She nodded slowly, and John realized she had momentarily bowed her head, his words having drifted across the knoll to find her: “God forgive me.”
He swallowed hard and began to read from the timeworn page.