It's Kind of Like Healing
At first, I thought I was a healer. I had a talent for flesh and bones that kept me at the top of my class throughout medical school, despite a long-standing tradition of coming to class hung over. Mostly, it was the things grandma taught me that gave me the edge on the other students.
She was the doctor in our village. Tall, powerful, and austere she enlisted me as her eager assistant from the moment I was old enough to show curiosity. My parents didn’t like me hanging around so much pain and gore, but I kept going anyway. I wanted to be like grandma. I wanted to help people.
There was some of the same things we were learning in school of course; biology, setting a bone, what chemicals treat which ailments, but there were other things too. Chants and folk remedies were on the curriculum of grandma’s office, as were transference, lore, and alchemy. It was all normal to me.
No one ever mentioned those methods in college. Instead we read from dry, over-priced tomes while trying to absorb chemistry, physiology, and cell structure. I didn’t think much about the lack until long after I started being able to write Dr in front of Abernathy.
For years I worked the hospital circuit, and I stuck to what I was taught in school. For the most part the administration kept me with palliative patients, so it was all that was needed anyway. Apparently, I had a relaxing bedside manner that made me a favourite of the seniors. Last October however, I pulled a shift in Emergency.
We could hear the guy screaming as soon as they opened the ambulance doors. The sound doubled, and then doubled again as the automatic doors swished aside for the paramedics, grim-faced as they rolled their stretcher straight towards the operating room, cleared in preparation. As I entered behind them I tried not to breathe the dual smells of antibacterial cleaners and decay.
Meat was all that was left of the arm. According to the 911 call it was the work of farm equipment, ‘treated’ at home with Polysporin and bedrest. The farmer’s wife had finally despaired and called the paramedics when her husband woke up from his torpor and wouldn’t stop screaming.
The arm was twisted, hand facing the wrong way, right where the machine had left it. There were small lacerations on the hand, hot and swollen and red with angry skin. The infection was visible as it drew dark red lines along his veins, stopping just past his elbow.
I did not envy the nurses as they held the patient still, their work cut out for them as muscles built from years of hard work bucked under my examination. The skin and tendons of the arm rotated freely around the bone without much effort on my part, eliciting another animal screech from the farmer. The anesthetist was running late.
The going was easier once the patient was under the calm, assuring hand of unconsciousness. It took myself and one of the nurses fifteen minutes to get his arm twisted back into position, finding and filling the right veins with antibiotics.
When the wife arrived she began wailing a cacophony of her own in the waiting room, so I sent the nurses to help calm her down. They were reticent, but I insisted. I wanted a moment alone with the farmer.
He had a kind face, sun-worn with wrinkles beginning around his eyes and mouth. According to his chart he was 30, but I would have put him at a robust 45. His arm would need to be amputated soon, before the infection moved further. Whatever the bacteria was, it had used the two days of bed rest given it by the wife to maximum effect. Where the hand wasn’t red, it was grey, fingers unresponsive to reflex tests. Dead.
While we’d reset the rest of the arm, I’d been feeling the muscles underneath the skin, imagining the life that must have built them. He wasn’t insured, and now he wouldn’t have much chance of earning enough to pay for the operations required to stop the infection, nor the prescriptions needed to dull the pain.
Grandmother, rest her soul, was with me in that room. I could feel her judging what I would do next. I think I made her proud.
It only took a handful of chants, a small rune carved into the palm, well hidden among the other scars, and a ferocious will to banish the fever and calm the red in the farmer’s veins to pink. As I heard the nurses returning, their sparkling white sneakers squeaking on the hospital floor, I turned my attention to the issue of the very dead hand.
Moving faster than I would have liked, I grabbed the suturing needle, still threaded from our previous efforts, and made quick, measured stitches along each finger, connecting them across the back of the hand. Technically, I wasn’t threading skin, I was threading the patient’s will, but sweat still crept up the back of my neck. I did not want to explain to the nurses why I was sewing strange patterns onto a wounded man.
I finished my incantation just as the doors swung open, the thread I was working on bursting into flame for the briefest moment before burning back to nothing. If you focused your eyes just right, it was still there.
The rest of the night was uneventful, the nurses too caught up in admonishing the farmer’s wife to notice the subtle changes in the patient. The man was whisked off to another unit on my orders, and I knew he would make a surprisingly complete recovery. I fudged a few details on the chart, little things to make the initial injury seem less severe, then went on with the rest of my night.
I hadn’t thought more on it until today, seven months later.
Doctor Jardir was a friend, so when he knocked on my office door I invited him in without hesitation. I was not prepared to see the farmer follow him in. He looked relatively healthy, so it took a moment to recognize him. But when I saw the hand there could be no doubt.
“Dr Abernathy, I was hoping you could help shed some light on this fellow’s condition. I understand that you were the doctor on staff the night of the original injury,” Dr Jardir watched my face closely as he spoke.
The farmer held out his hand for inspection. His grey, dead hand. His surprisingly dexterous, grey, dead hand. As I watched he touched each of his fingers to his thumb in turn.
“It don’t hurt none, but it’s beginning to unnerve the wife. I caught myself on a door jam the other day,” the farmer gestured to a long scratch with his other hand, “but it didn’t bleed or close up.”
I tried to look fascinated, but baffled, betrayed by the sweat and redness taking over my face. I’d forgotten to weave an illusion of a healthy hand. I flinched slightly as I imagined grandmother’s familiar slap to the back of my head. That’s the last time I rush a necromancy job, no matter how minor.