Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts
Vita was sitting on the front stairs in a shaft of sunlight reading On Diseases Peculiar to Women when they carried the Boston man into her house. It was Tuesday, so her mother and sister had gone into town to visit Aunt Norbert. Vita was waiting for her father to emerge from his office, once a front parlor, which was directly across from the staircase. She knew he was in there although for the last thirty minutes—she squinted at the watch pinned upside down to the shoulder of her dress—she’d heard nothing, not even the shush of a newspaper page turning.
Her brother’s parakeet Sweetie was perched on her shoulder. “What does he do in there all day?” Vita asked her. Sweetie repositioned her claws and butted her pale feathery head against Vita’s ear—the triangular fossa. Triangular fossa, scapha, auricular lobule, Vita recited. Parts of the outer ear.
She was just about to give up her vigil when she heard the sound of carriage wheels on the gravel drive, and a man shouting:
“Dr. Tenney! Dr. Tenney!”
She stood up. The front door banged open, and two men came into the house carrying a third man by the armpits and ankles. Sweetie flew off Vita’s shoulder to the fixed safety of the newel post.
Maneuvering, the men knocked over the little oak table with its double-wick lamp. Now there was glass on the floor.
“Dar?” Vita called. Like her brother and sister, Vita called her father Dar and her mother Mitty—her older brother Freddy’s attempt at saying their names, Arthur and Marie, when he was a baby.
Her father opened his office door and stood in the doorway, unshaven and wearing the same gray waistcoat he’d been wearing for three weeks straight. For some reason he looked at Vita first.
Sherman Tillings, who owned the saddler and the public stable and had a wife named Thankful, was at the injured man’s head; Vita didn’t recognize the other man.
“We was just changing horses for the Boston coach,” Mr. Tillings explained. “He collapsed on the porch, didn’t say a word. Where can we set him?”
Her father directed them to the long sofa against the windows in his office, where the light was best.
“Not one word,” Mr. Tillings went on, lowering the man onto the green velvet upholstery. “A Boston man. You see where his forehead is swelling? Cracked the rail when he fell.”
The man’s face—closed eyes, open mouth—had a waxy tinge, like skin on hot milk. Was he breathing? Vita, who had seen many an injured man or woman brought into their house, watched his chest. She couldn’t see any movement.
“Shall I fetch a blanket?” she asked. It’s important to keep the extremities warm, her father always said. He was sitting on the stool next to the sofa, and he bent to put his ear against the Boston man’s mouth. Then he straightened up and lay two fingers against the man’s limp wrist.
He told Tillings to prop the fellow up as he opened a bottle of whiskey. Holding the bottle by the neck, he pushed back the man’s head and poured a glug down his throat. “To encourage the swallowing reflex.” But the man didn’t swallow. Two uneven streams ran down either side of his beard.
“Get a hot poker, set it against his head, that’ll shock him awake,” Tillings said.
“Or blow tobacco smoke into his mouth,” suggested the other man—the coach driver?—who was small and freckled with wiry red hair.
“Nonsense.” Her father began massaging the man’s chest. “But perhaps I can work up the heart.”
“Work it up?” Vita asked. The human heart, with its auricles and ventricles and valves, its precise oscillation, was, to her, a miracle of engineering. She had seen her father perform countless exceptional procedures —setting badly broken bones, draining pustulous head wounds, and once making an incision into a man’s bladder to extract a stone the size of a fig—but she had never seen him restart a stopped heart. Scientifically, it seemed impossible, but there was so much she didn’t know. She stepped closer.
“I thought you were getting a blanket,” her father said.
When she came back into the room they were pushing the man forward and back, bending him at the waist as though he were a lever. They stopped long enough for Vita to spread the dark green blanket over his legs. The man’s eyes were not altogether closed although he was clearly unseeing. He had a very round face with a cluster of white warts under one eye; whiskey drops glistened on his beard. She touched the top of his hand. It was still warm. Of course, she thought, it will take a while for the blood in the body to cool.
The three men began again to pull him up and shake him, set him down, pull him up. Meanwhile her father became angrier and angrier, as though the unlucky man was clinging to death just to vex him.
“Enough!” he said at last. “He’s clearly past saving.”
Mr. Tillings stepped back and took off his hat. By now the Boston man’s mouth was fully open, and his neck and shoulders were unnaturally still. There was no rise and fall to his chest. Nothing. For a moment, Vita could almost understand it: how the body, with its layered, exact systems and its rhythmic machinery, might, at any moment, halt absolutely. Here was proof. However the next moment the man, a stranger on her father’s green sofa, didn’t seem quite real.
“Rupture of the heart,” her father said with his usual authority. But how did he know?
After the men left—Vita could hear Mr. Tillings and the coach driver arguing about the Boston man’s belongings as they carried him back out of the house—she watched her father pour himself a shot of the whiskey, drink it, and pour a second shot.
He probably wanted her to leave, too, but this was her chance. He tipped back the whiskey. He had a long thin nose with wide nostrils, which widened further into little round caves of distaste when he was annoyed.
They widened now. “I’ll just get on with my work, then,” he said, seeing her standing there.
When she and her brother Freddy were children, they spent many rainy afternoons in this office, examining Dar’s collections of curiosities: ancient bleeding bowls, antique instruments for pulling teeth, and a set of mandibles he’d gotten as a prize while studying medicine at Yale—a seagull, a porcupine, and a snake. Framed pictures of iridescent beetles hung on the dark-paneled walls like soldiers awaiting inspection.
Once, when they were here alone, Freddy bet Vita a penny that she wouldn’t touch the two-tailed lizard displayed in a jar of liquid; she won the penny easily. Sometimes even without Freddy, if Dar was out, Vita pulled books from the bookshelves to read about the uses of quinine, or how to re-set a dislodged shoulder.
But no one besides her father had been in this room for weeks now—he wouldn’t even let Gemma in to clean it. Apart from this morning, he hadn’t seen a patient in weeks. Vita half expected to find something horrible or secretive here, something he didn’t want to be seen. However except for the stacks of yellowing newspapers piled up on the floor and under the windows, the room seemed much the same. What struck Vita most was the smell, which was heavy and densely male: sweat and stale tobacco smoke and wool clothes that needed airing. She looked down at his set of mandibles and picked up the snake, a bone rubbed smooth as glass.
“And take that blanket with you as you go. Best to have Mrs. Oakum wash it.”
She put the snake mandible back down on the painted tray with the others, turning it slightly so that it faced the door.
“Dar,” she said, picking up the blanket. She didn’t look at him. “I’ve discovered something. Well, I’ve known it for a long time. Which is that I want to be a doctor. Like you.”
Copyright 2020 by Martha Conway
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