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Xenolith, Page 51

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 43: The Infirmary

  In the bright sun of the open-air infirmary, Frank held a metal skewer in his bare hand, preparing to jab it into a young man’s belly. The victim, to his credit, seemed completely unperturbed by the prospect of his piercing. Indeed, beaded keloidal scars from prior procedures cobbled his abdomen. As the medic urged Frank on, a small crowd of onlookers gathered to watch.

  Before handing it to him, the medic had prepared the skewer by passing it through a flame and dipping it in a concoction that looked like molten lime sherbet and smelled like turpentine. An intricate charcoal tracery of triangles and arcs decorated the patient’s torso, coinciding with no feature of human anatomy that Frank recognized. Whatever medical theories guided their inscription, they lay beyond his comprehension. He couldn’t even understand why the young man was seeking treatment in the first place. He seemed perfectly healthy: a steady heart, no pain or fever, organs fully palpable.

  Frank had watched more than enough of these procedures all day to have gotten the gist of this extreme form of acupuncture, but the act felt like a violation of his Hippocratic Oath. His hand hovered, shaking, the spike dripping its aromatic tincture into the young man’s navel. The medic, exasperated, tapped the skewer at the score mark indicating the depth that he wanted the patient impaled. Then, for the third time, he poked roughly at the place he wanted the skewer to enter: the convergence of an arc with a straight line below the young man’s navel.

  Fortified by the threat of being sent back to the vile holding pen, he held his breath and pushed the skewer into the young man’s skin. The blunt tip created a dimple but failed to penetrate. He tried twirling it. A drop of blood beaded, bulged and darted like a shooting star down his torso and onto the table. The patient grimaced. The skewer caught on the musculature of his stomach. The medic stomped over, seized the spike from him and with a single jiggling thrust, slipped it in to the desired depth.

  Two more skewers waited to be plunged, but Frank backed off and waved his hands. He’d had enough practice for one day. He shuddered to think of how they might treat headaches and heart palpitations. And despite the flaming, he was certain that such an invasive practice generated a vigorous follow up business in secondary infections.

  For two mornings now, as a result of Tezhay’s arrangements with the Eldest Brother, a guard had escorted him to the head medic, who worked and slept in an apothecary hut encircled by wooden benches and an array of platforms covered by awnings. Frank watched him prepare for the day’s work by donning an apron and chaps of black oilskin while he assessed and triaged the cases that had trickled in overnight.

  The patients seemed like humble young men, who whittled or studied simple prayer books as they waited. Not a single woman seemed to grace the camp; a striking contrast from the troops defending Ubabaor.

  Their complaints mostly comprised basic infectious diseases: colds, fevers and mild stomach ailments, though a collection of silver saws and steel blades, not to mention the numerous amputees that prevailed in the camp’s sculleries and stables, hinted that this infirmary had seen its share of battlefield trauma as well.

  Between patients, who seemed to trickle in all day, the medic would dutifully, if reluctantly, proceed to show Frank everything he knew about Venep’o medicine, of which, Frank absorbed next to nothing.

  The apothecary, however, intrigued him. The medic seemed most proud of his collection of skewers, showing off his entire inventory, handing him spikes of metal, spikes of wood, of diverse thickness and length from slender hair-like needles to dowels as thick as a reed stem. The larger ones had grooves to help tinctures adhere.

  Green glass jars and earthen crocks crowded the shelves and cubbies of every wall. Each contained alcoholic and resinous extracts still bearing the substances used to create them: snake fangs, bits of amphibian skin, tree bark and withered berries.

  Frank paid close attention to anything that looked brown and viscous enough to be bolovo, pulling stoppers and sniffing. He discovered plenty of bad smells, but nothing that matched the distinctive meaty and fruity putrefaction of bolovo. The word bolovo itself prompted the same blank stare he received when he commented in English.

  When the third spike had gone into the patient, the medic walked away from the table and stripped off his oilskins. His assistant remained with the patient, removing the spikes and daubing the punctures with a dark paste. No more patients waited on the benches, only gawkers. With the sun dipping low, a guard soon arrived to escort him back to the hut.

  Wood smoke and roasting meat pervaded the regimental tent compounds that lay between the infirmary and the central temple. Their quarters stood at the end of a row of similar mud-brick structures that provided quarters for the priest’s domestic servants. Tezhay, who had been spending his days in the company of the Eldest Brother, sat just outside the door on his mat of bark, etching something into a scrap of wood that he tucked away discretely when he saw the guard approach. He looked up and smiled.

  “And how did you do today, doctor? Are you a good student?”

  Frank shook his head. “Don’t think I’m cut out to be a healer in this place, if what they do actually heals people.”

  “No worry,” said Tezhay. “I think Eldest Brother is happy for other service we bring.”

  “Oh? What service is that?”

  “You will see,” said Tezhay, eyebrows arching. “The Eldest say we have visitor. So tonight we eat better food. Stay out of hut longer.”

  That sounded great to Frank. The previous night, they had been allowed to have their meal outside and use the latrine, but were then locked for the night into the utter darkness of their low-ceilinged, windowless hut. For hours, he lay sleepless, staring into nothingness, as Tezhay hummed his atonal melodies.

  “The one called Eghazi is here,” said Tezhay, his eyes glittering, smile cryptic. “And he has brought with him another stone.”