Radenth 23, 1014
The little boy beside Brother Andy — Basil — was struggling to hold in tears and mostly failing. Brother Andy wished that he had some words of comfort for him. He hadn’t. If he had learned anything from all the many, many times when peasant families had specifically requested that he — the least charismatic, some would say the least caring — of the Pascalian Brothers — come tend to their dying, it was that there was very little he could say that would ease the pain of the young messengers who turned up at the monastery door.
That never stopped him from wishing there was something, anything, that he could say … and that wouldn’t be a lie.
Once again, Brother Andy shook his medical bag, experimenting with the weight and heft of it. He always brought his medical bag with him when he went on these calls. When he had first come to Albion, he hadn’t. He’d bought into the rule that the order observed in Camford, a rule said to have been promulgated by St. Vidcund himself: doctors tend to the living and likely-to-live. Monks tend to the dying.
But that rule made a sort of sense in Camford that did not make sense. In Camford, the poor who were sick and in desperate need of care could stumble into St. Pascal’s Hospital or one of the other hospitals. There the doctors — monks though they were — would tend to them until it was clear that there was no hope to be had. The monk-doctors would make the patient as comfortable as possible before they left, and another monk who was not a doctor would be sent in to tend to the patient’s spiritual needs until the end.
St. Vidcund had sworn it was better this way. He had insisted that a monk could not properly tend to the dying while he still had one foot in the land of the living. A doctor might try to save his patient’s life until the last moment and thus lose his soul. Besides, sending in a doctor often gave the patients’ relations false hope, and that was the last thing they needed.
And that was all well and good — in Camford. In Camford, there were options even for the least and littlest to get some kind of care. In Albion? There was the midwife, Kata Thatcher, and three university-trained physicians. Two of them were monks. There were also assorted apothecaries and healers, but they weren’t as good as the Camford-trained physicians. They were also … not expensive precisely, but sometimes more than a poor family could afford. Monks could not in conscience refuse to see to the dying — certainly not for money.
So Brother Andy always brought his bag. He’d never come to the door of one of these cottages, walked inside, and found someone he could still save. Peasants lived too much with death to not understand when it was inevitable and send for a monk then. All the same, often Brother Andy could ease suffering. The bag was worth it just for that, and if St. Vidcund had a problem with that, well, Brother Andy could tell him just where to stick his stricture.
They were just outside the house. Soon Brother Andy would have to go in and face the inevitable. So would Basil.
Of course he wanted to take a minute before all that happened. Brother Andy turned to him. “Yes, Basil?”
“Ye–ye’re gonna help Michel, ain’t ye?” Basil’s blue eyes were filling up with tears. The glowing sunset stained his hair a deeper red than it was already. “Please? Mama told me ter axe fer ye ‘specially …”
Brother Andy closed his eyes. There was nothing in his bag that could ease this kind of suffering. Sometimes he wondered if there would ever be anything on his tongue that could help.
“Basil … I will do my best for your brother. I promise you that. But …” Brother Andy took a deep breath. “Your — your mama and papa explained to you why they wanted me, or any brother … didn’t they?”
“Mama wanted ye,” Basil insisted. Then he hesitated. “Well–she wanted Father Hugh, but Papa said we can’t go axin’ fer ‘im. But ye’re a doctor, too.”
Brother Andy let the implicit criticism roll off his back. He did not care to judge if Father Hugh was the better doctor of the pair of them. He certainly had the better bedside manner and was probably better with the dying. Still, none of that was here or there.
“I am a doctor. And like I said — I will do everything I can for your brother. But Basil … if the Lord is calling your brother home, there’s nothing we men can do to keep him here.” Once he had made the mistake of telling a child that it would be sinful to do that, even if it were possible. He would not make that mistake again.
Not that it made much of a difference with Basil. “That’s not fair! Why can’t the Lord axe fer somebody else’s little brother?”
“I … don’t know why the Lord has decided that now is — or might be — your brother Michel’s time.” It was never a cause for celebration, admitting one’s ignorance before a seven-year-old, but it certainly beat all other alternatives. “And … remember, Basil, everybody is somebody’s brother, or child, or lo–er, loved by somebody. No matter who the Lord called … somebody would be hurting because of it.”
“It still ain’t fair!” Basil protested.
Brother Andy smiled as much as he could, which admittedly wasn’t much. “No. But it is just. Somehow.” He took a deep breath. “Why don’t you lead the way inside, Basil?”
Basil did not look convinced by this speech — but he knew enough to know that when a grownup was telling him to do something, it was best just do to it. He trudged to the door, Brother Andy following.
When they got to the door, Basil opened and muttered, “After ye, Brother.” Brother Andy took the hint and went in.
He did not find a scene of chaos before him. Instead all was calm and orderly. Peasants knew that dying — especially young children dying — was no excuse for disorder. But all the same, tension slithered on the floor and crept along the walls. After all, adults did not hold children that tightly and that closely unless they knew that they would shortly be losing one of them.
Basil slipped behind Brother Andy and pounded over to the couch, where he flopped himself down beside his little brother. He sulked — a brave boy’s way of holding back tears. His little brother watched him, mystified.
Betsy Pelles held the little girl to her breast. Her blue eyes — the same as Basil’s — were helpless as she stared at Brother Andy. But it was Edmond Chevaux who kissed the littler boy’s head, tousled Basil’s hair, stood and crept to Brother Andy.
He took a deep breath. “Thank — thank’ee fer comin’, Brother Andy.”
Brother Andy smiled what he privately termed his “deathbed” smile: a minimal upraising of the corners of the lips, but slow, so that the soon-to-be bereaved could understand that the due of politeness was being paid. “It is my duty, Edmond. There is no need to thank me.”
Edmond’s eyes went to the bag; his eyebrows went up. They didn’t leave the bag when he next spoke. “I think there is, Brother.”
Brother Andy didn’t look at the bag. He was breaking the rules. He didn’t need to shout the fact from the rooftops. “Then you leave me nothing to say but that you are welcome. However — I must see to my … charge. Are they in the loft?” He gestured to the ladder.
“They’re in the back,” said Betsy. She rocked the little one in her arms. “It’s — it’s where Meg an’ Pierre sleep — an’ always the littlest one …”
“Ah. I see. Thank you, Betsy.” Brother Andy nodded to all, and with no more ado, hurried into “the back.”
When he opened the door, he saw nothing but what he was always expecting to see.
The little boy had been moved to his parents’ bed. The father and mother both were hovering over him like guardian angels. Peasants lost many children, but Brother Andy knew that this was the first time that this particular couple was facing that loss.
Brother Andy knew his eyes should go to the boy. But he would examine the boy moment–
The little boy breathed. It was loud enough that all could hear it. And Brother Andy heard the rattle.
Barring a miracle, it would not be long now.
The father — Pierre — looked up and seemed to see Brother Andy for the first time. “B-Brother!” He stumbled past his wife, who was still bending over their son. “Ye–ye’re here!”
Brother Andy nodded.
“Is — is there anythin’ ye can …” He looked over his shoulder at his boy, swallowed, and turned back to Brother Andy. “I’m hopin’ ye’re not thinkin’ it’s sinful …”
“Hope is never a sin.” There were probably orders that would dispute that, but Brother Andy dared them to do it in front of soon-to-be grieving parents. “And I’ll do everything I can. I promise you that. Now, if you’ll just excuse me–”
Brother Andy tried to move past Pierre. Pierre’s hand shot out and grabbed Brother Andy’s sleeve. “He–he’ll go ter heaven?”
“He’s too little for sin,” Brother Andy answered. “And–you’ve had him baptized?”
Pierre nodded so vigorously that his hair flopped into and out of his eyes.
“Then there can be no doubt. Now, please excuse me …”
He edged past Pierre, around Meg and the not-inconsiderable bulk of her stomach, and finally came to kneel by the bedside.
The little boy hadn’t moved since Brother Andy came in. To the untrained eye, he appeared to be asleep. But there was that rattling that came whenever he breathed. And nobody who was merely asleep slept so deeply, so thoroughly.
He felt the little boy’s head — fevered. Very fevered. His hair, what little hair he had, was plastered to his scalp. Brother Andy could feel the sweaty strands beneath the coif.
“That–that ain’t hurtin’ ‘im, is it?” Meg asked. The first thing she’d said since he walked into the room.
“The coif? No, no.”
“It’s, it’s jest,” Meg stumbled, “he were so hot, puttin’ a blanket on ‘im seemed–seemed a cruelty — but I didn’t want his head ter c-c-catch cold …”
Her hands were shaking. The rest of her was trembling, too. Brother Andy looked away.
But the boy was breathing shallowly now and irregularly. His feet and hands had a faint bluish cast to them. He was not moving. Brother Andy would have to be quick.
He reached into his bag, into the other compartment. He could navigate the compartment by touch alone. He found the jar of sacred oils, unscrewed it and dipped a finger inside. Then he turned the little boy over, and, holding his arm so the boy’s mother couldn’t see what he was doing, he made the sign of the Plumbbob over the boy’s forehead, his lips, and his heart. There was a prayer that went along with the anointing, traditionally, but for children who had not yet reached the age of reason, it was not necessary. And it would only upset his mother.
Rest well, child. Your suffering will be over soon. Brother Andy swallowed. As he rose, he looked up and prayed for strength.
“B-B-Brother?” Meg whispered.
Brother Andy sighed.
There was no good way to say what was to be said next. Brother Andy always stumbled over this moment. He liked to hope he wasn’t the only doctor, or even only monk, to do so. It was hard enough to tell this to a patient. To tell it to people who loved the patient more than they loved themselves …
But they knew this was coming. Pierre seemed to have already realized it. If Meg had not … a mother’s hope was as hard to break as her heart was easy.
Brother Andy closed his eyes and breathed a silent prayer — Help me. Then he answered. “He’ll be going home soon. Very soon.”
Pierre’s face crumbled, but Brother Andy could see him trying to himself together, be a man. Meg made no such effort.
“N-no,” Meg murmured. “No no no no no no …”
She was shaking her head, her whole body starting to shake with it. Pierre put his hands on her shoulders to calm her, restrain her, but she shook them off.
“No! Not me Michel!”
Silence was a useful virtue. When there was nothing else to be said … what else could the responsible do, but take refuge in silence? Brother Andy bowed his head without a word.
But his eyes flicked to Meg — or rather, to Meg’s stomach. He was no expert in obstetrics, as a monk had no business being near the privy parts of a woman, even in a medical context, but he was a doctor. To look at her, Meg was in her seventh month or thereabouts. A great shock could cause premature labor. By rights this shouldn’t be a shock, but … well, very little at a deathbed that happened happened “by rights.”
So he took a deep breath. “Meg, please, try to calm yourself. You don’t want to risk injuring your child.”
“Aye, Meg, think o’ the baby –”
“I am thinkin’ o’ me baby! He’s lyin’ right there!” Meg snapped, pointing to her son. Brother Andy squeezed his eyes shut.
“But Meg –”
The little boy’s rattling breath stopped all words.
“Mickey!” Meg swooped in and grabbed the limp, unresisting child, holding him close to her breast. “Oh, Mickey, don’t do this ter me, don’t leave Mama, be a good boy an’ stay …”
Brother Andy swallowed and brought his hands up in prayer.
“Meg …” Pierre said.
“Leave her,” said Brother Andy. Do not tell the grieving what they ought to feel. He’d done his duty as a doctor, warning Meg about the danger to her baby. She’d chosen to disregard it. She wanted to be a mother, not a mother-to-be. Who could blame her?
Brother Andy bowed his head and continued his prayer. Not aloud. Praying aloud would be a sacrilege. Times like these needed the most sincere, most pure prayers. A monk praying aloud could never be as pure and sincere as a monk praying silently, for a monk’s spoken prayers were as much about his audience as they were about the Lord. That would never do.
So Brother Andy prayed: Help me, help them, help that boy, help us all, Lord — let us all get through this —
And let Meg and her child be safe. Help us, Lord, help us.
The boy breathed in, he breathed out. Brother Andy knew that sound. He closed his eyes and stopped praying. The monk was retreating, the doctor was coming out.
He was counting time — time between the boy’s breaths — using the beat of his own heart.
One, two, three …
Seven, eight, nine …
Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen …
“M-M-Mickey?” Meg finally whispered. She brought the hand that had been holding the boy’s head back. His father leaned closer to look.
The boy’s head flopped back as far as she would let it.There was nothing left in him to hold it up.
Meg collapsed inward, sobbing, holding her baby close to her breast, rocking him even though he was already fast, fast asleep. “No, Mickey–me baby–Mickey, sweetie, come back, come b-b-back –”
Brother Andy stepped forward, trying to unhook Meg’s hands from the little boy. “Let me have him.”
“You did everything you could for him. You …” Brother Andy bit his lip. “When — when many men, older men, leave this world, they often cry out — with their souls, with their minds, if not their voices — for their mothers to hold them as they leave. You did that for him. You did everything you could. Now, please — let me have him, so he can rest.”
Meg stared at Brother Andy. Her arms turned to jelly then, and Brother Andy had to spring forward to grab the boy before she dropped him. His skin was already cooling to the touch.
Meg sobbed, and thankfully her husband was there to hold her close to him.
“Meg, Meg, Meg …” Thank Heaven one of them could be strong. Brother Andy did not want to have to ask the grandparents to come in yet. If the grandparents came in, so would the children, and the parents should be allowed to get over the first storm of grief before being forced to weather their children’s.
That left Brother Andy holding the child. He laid him on the bed, on his back. His arm was flung out behind his head. To all the world, he looked like he was asleep.
To the trained eye, he was clearly not.
Brother Andy knelt and continued to pray.
“Meg, Meg –” Pierre had crushed his wife to his chest, where she continued to sob into his shoulder. “We’ll name the new baby Michel. Or Michelle. How’s that sound?” He looked up, swallowing, at Brother Andy. “‘Cause — ’cause little ones, they’ll come back ter their parents, won’t they? Ain’t that what sometimes happens?”
As a living child? In Brother Andy’s opinion, that was highly unlikely. Children who died before the age of reason were guaranteed paradise. Why would they come back if that meant gambling with losing it?
However … there was more than one way for a soul to return to the world …
“The souls of the deceased are never far from their loved ones. That I know,” Brother Andy answered. It wasn’t an answer. But for now, it would have to do.
And as Brother Andy prayed, and Meg cried, and Pierre tried to comfort her, Brother Andy felt his eyes slide toward the little boy. His mind wandered off its course of prayer. He wondered — what had sickened this little boy?
If he had had access to good quality medicine sooner, could he have been saved?
And if it could have — was it wrong that he had no access to that medicine?
More than that Brother Andy could not think. Not then. But later … later, he would wonder.
Later still, he would act.