Chronic Symptoms

by Sean MacKendrick


The cold wet mud sucked at Mary’s feet as she trudged towards the doors of the Dog’s Head. Effluvia seeped into the holes of her shoes and squelched between her toes. The hem of her skirt was gathered in a bunch in a failing attempt to keep it out of the sewage. Fever burned in her lungs in sharp contrast to the cold mud.

Leaning against the outside wall, Mary removed her left shoe and began scooping out the mud and filth with her fingers. A young man was watching her from across the street. He shifted his weight from foot to foot and made a move as if to start her way, only to stop and shift again. Mary did her best to smile at him as she cleaned the inside of her shoe. The mud stank of cold urine this close to the tavern. The shoe slipped from her numbing fingers, falling with a soft plop back into the muck. The man watched her, not meeting her eyes, looking ready to take a step. She wouldn’t be able to approach him, he would come to her on his own or not at all. Mary sighed and bent down to pick up her shoe. By the time she put it back on and straightened, he was gone. Just another back running away from her. Mary sighed again, wiping the filth off her hands against the wall.

Evening clouds were already soaking up the last of the daylight when she entered the tavern, dusky and thick with the mixed smells of old ale and human rot. Mary fixed her smile into place and approached the nearest table.

“Enjoying this fine day, gentlemen?” The room suddenly tilted and Mary grabbed the edge of the table for support.

“Yes, fine,” said the older man at the opposite end of the table. The other two men stared into their drinks. “Thank you.”

Mary tried to laugh and choked on a dry cough. “A fine day like this, you’ll want a fine day to…” She swallowed, careful not to wince, and tried again. “You’ll want a fine way to end it, surely?” The man glanced at her hands clutching the table edge, saying nothing.

“Thank you,” he answered finally. “I believe we shall be leaving for home.” His two companions stood without a word and headed towards the door.

“And where is home, love?” Mary smiled more broadly. “Not as close as a short walk upstairs, I wager.”

“No,” said the man. Mary couldn’t understand what he was saying, exactly. Was he interested? Saying, no, he wasn’t going home? No, he was already hurrying away to catch up with his companions. She sat in one of the newly vacant chairs for a moment, trying to catch her breath, feeling the swollen lumps under her arm with one hand, the tenderness under her jaw with the other. When she realized a young man at a nearby table was staring at her, she dropped her hands and jerked up out of the chair. The room tilted again, and Mary found herself steadied by the massive arms of the owner of the Dog’s Head.

“Mary,” Bruce rumbled, shaking his head. She smiled at the broad face frowning down at her, this time the smile coming easily. “I did ask you not to come in tonight.”

“Bruce, my Bruce.” Mary regained her footing and patted his shoulder. “All I needed was a rest. Now, I’d go for another laying down, if there’s any a man would care to join me…” She tried to find the face that had just been watching her, but everyone was carefully looking elsewhere and she couldn’t seem to remember where the man had been sitting, or what his features had been.

Bruce swept her hair aside and glared at her neck, releasing her and stepping away. “By god, Mary, look at yourself.” Mary ran her fingers along her jaw line and chuckled. “I’d rather be looking at the beautiful young man you do have in here this evening.” She spoke loudly. “Young men, I mean.” Still no one else would meet her eyes. Bruce grabbed a polished mug and shoved it into her hands.

“Look at yourself,” he repeated. In the milky reflection she could see the darkness of the lumps even in the dim candlelight. He hissed, “You need to leave immediately or they’ll paint a red cross on my door and shut us all in. You included.”

Mary dropped the mug. “Just a bruise,” she muttered. “Some of the younger ones get a bit rough. I don’t mind.” As Bruce bent to pick up the mug, her legs gave out and Mary fell to her knees. Bruce grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. Her head lolled from front to back.

“Boy!” Mary brought her head upright and placed her hand over Bruce’s. “Find a doctor, boy!” Bruce’s youngest dashed out the door. Mary couldn’t find the strength to thank him. Everything swirled into blackness.

* * * * *

The room she awoke to was little more than a small box with no furnishings beyond the simple pallet she found herself on, a small bench in the corner, and a curtain covering the entrance. In a bowl by the pallet, Mary was grateful to discover water. She tried to sit up and quickly fell back as the bile rose in her throat. She dipped a hand into the bowl and dribbled most of it on herself as she sucked at the moisture on her fingers. It did little to abate the dry fire smoldering in her mouth, but her senses were returning all the same.

As her head cleared a little, she began to remember, and realized she was in one of the rooms above the tavern hall where she so often worked before the Pest returned and scared so many customers away. She scooped another palm’s worth of water into her mouth, managing to get most of it to her mouth this time, and rested a damp hand on her face.

There were thudding footsteps in the corridor. Mary sat up, trying to ignore the sickly way the water sloshed in her stomach and how the room wobbled around her. Bruce swept the curtain aside and stared in, wordless. The forced casual expression on Mary’s face began to falter as he stared, until she realized his eyes must still be adjusting to the darkness.

“You’re awake.” Bruce sounded surprised.

Mary laughed and waved a dismissive gesture. “It was only a nap I needed.” It was impossible to read his expression with the light behind him. “My big strong Bruce, always saving me.”

Bruce mumbled something to the floor and cleared his throat. “I sent the boy to find the doctor. He said one would be by and tend to you today.”

“If you insist.” Mary flopped back on the pallet, trying not to grimace as the sudden motion sent her stomach into a spin. “I do suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a man look me over.” It didn’t sound quite as lewd as she had hoped. It sounded pathetic.

Bruce stepped back into the hall. “I do. Insist, that is. The doctor will be by soon. Rest until then.” He left Mary to her darkness.

Although sleep came back almost immediately, it was fitful. The sounds of people shouting in the streets gave way to thundering rain, drumming on the roof and gurgling over the eaves to the alley below. Somewhere in the dark room a trickle of rainwater was dripping onto the floor. Mary was startled awake several times by a crash of thunder, unsure how long she had been asleep each time. Had she been here for more than a day? Was there a half-eaten trencher with a scrap of meat waiting beside the bowl of water at one point, or had she only imagined that? Was that hunger in her belly or fever twisting her insides?

And then she awoke to find that the rain had stopped. Mary tried to feel the time of day, wondering if it was in the early hours or very late. No weather or conversation was reaching her any more. She decided it was late. That’s when all the customers would be gone. Bruce would probably be waiting for her to come keep him company as he cleaned.

Yet even in the quiet, she did not hear the slight man enter the room. He was waiting for her when she sat up, watching her from just inside the door.

“You give me quite a start, sir,” Mary said. Her throat was not quite as raw as it had been before sleeping for… however long it had been.

The man was still, and silent except for the sound of his breathing. “Are you Mary?” Even his voice was slight, not much above a whisper.

“Indeed I am.” Mary stood, deciding at the last minute not to try a curtsey, rested or no. “Are you the doctor, then?”

The man nodded after a moment. “Yes,” he said, his voice louder now. “Yes, I’m the doctor. I’m here to make you better.” His accent was curiously flat and carefully enunciated. Mary had never heard one like it before.

“Well then, let’s let you have a look at me, yes?”

The man nodded again. He removed a bag slung over his shoulder and opened it with a loud tearing sound. “You are having fever and swelling, correct?”

“Aye. Nothing a bit of a bleeding wouldn’t fix, I’d wager.”

“No!” The man looked up from his bag and stepped closer to Mary. He smelled warm and clean. “No, bleeding is not a solution.”

“But,” Mary said, “I was bled not a year ago when I had similar fevers and was cured in a moment.”

The man sighed. “Look, I need you to trust me on this. Please sit down and I’ll… Do you mind if we have some light in here?”

“I believe Bruce has some candles downstairs he wouldn’t mind letting us use. I’ll go ask him.”

“No need, I have one here. Please, do sit down.” The man pulled something out of his bag and put it on the bench in the corner. It burned with impossible brightness.

“Do you not have a mask, doctor?” Mary blinked in the sudden light. The doctor was olive skinned, with a head of tight black curls. He was grinning. His teeth were as white as a child’s.

He took her hand and sat next to her. “My name is Michael, Mary. You can call me Michael. And no, I don’t have a mask. It’s OK, I’ve been… I have taken precautions against the… the Pest.”

Mary couldn’t understand how he could stay warm in such odd, thin clothing. The gray fabric shimmered in the bright light, thin enough that she could see the shape of his arms. His hand was warm, and soft, and dry. She let it go reluctantly as he dug into his bag, also made of some odd thin material.

“I know the current thinking is that blood makes you warm and too warm means too much blood, but it’s actually a lot—a lot—more complicated than that.” He pulled two small vials out of the bag. “First we need to get you eating right. Have you eaten lately?”

Mary’s stomach churned at the thought. “There might have been some food not long ago, I can’t remember for certain. I am sure I can vomit if need be.”

The doctor popped covers off the vials and shook a few white granules out of each. “Emetics? Are the doctors making you vomit? Of course they are,” he continued without waiting for her to answer. “No, that’s not what you want to do. Here, swallow these.” He dumped three of the small white pieces into her hand and gestured to the water bowl. “Please.”

They tasted bitter when she washed them down with a long drink of water. Michael dug through his bag again as she swallowed. “Now, you should get some more rest. Your stomach should settle soon enough.”

“Please, no more rest for now,” protested Mary. “I’ve been resting for more than long enough now.”

Two shiny bars came out of the bag, crinkling in his grip. “It’s only for a little while longer, I promise.” The doctor unwrapped one of the bars and bit into it. He held out the other and nodded to it. “When you wake up again you’ll be hungry, and you can eat this. Trust me, you’ll quite enjoy it. What I gave you will help you sleep and not feel nauseated any longer. Nauseous? No, nauseated,” he muttered to himself. “Always get those mixed up.”

“Are you sure you don’t wish to bleed me, doctor?”

“It’s Michael. Just Michael. Please. Lay back and I’ll keep you company.”

Mary did. She closed her eyes. “When Father kept me company, he would tell me stories until I slept. Will you do the same?”

Michael was looking at something attached to his wrist. “What? I don’t know any stories.”

“It was only a tease, doctor. Men do sometimes tell me stories when I’m in bed with them, though.”

It was quiet for long enough that Mary wondered if she was alone. Her eyes were heavy though, and it felt so good to have them closed, she couldn’t bring herself to open them and see if he was still with her.

“I’ve got a story,” Michael said suddenly. His voice was quiet again.

“Oh, good,” slurred Mary. “What is this story?”

“It’s a story about…” There was a creak as he shifted in the bench and scooted it closer. “It’s a story about how medicine will work one day. See, there are very, very tiny little things that we will soon know about. As small to a flea as a flea is to a dog, or rat. Actually, that brings me to a particular point about fleas. It’s about how you got sick, and how the sickness got here. After a while, people are going to be blaming the rats, but that’s not it, not exactly. You see…”

Mary found the strength to open her eyes and saw that he was staring at her. “Yes, doctor? I see what?” Her face felt numb and distant.

“Can I tell you a different story, Mary?” His grin was gone now.

“You can do anything to me you wish,” she said, not at all feeling the ease she was pretending. After all the dangerous men in her life, why did this small man make her feel so nervous?

Michael stood and paced the room. He rubbed his palms together in small, rapid circles. “Do you ever dream about things that could have been? Things that might have happened? No, I see that’s a confusing question. What I mean is this.” He sat back down on the pallet suddenly and leaned towards Mary, breathing audibly through his nose. His eyes were wide.

“Imagine if you could see how things would have turned out if you had done something differently. Turned left on the street and run into a stranger you become friends with, instead of turned right and not run into anyone?”

There was no sound other than his breathing. “Why would I want to see that, sir?”

“Because if you could do it on a big enough scale, just imagine how useful that would be! Politics, or economics.” He held out his left hand, palm up. “Either you try giving money to rich people, expecting them to spend the money,” Michael continued, holding out his other hand, “or you give money to the poor, expecting them to invest it. Which one is better? Which one results in a better system?” He clapped both hands together. “Why not see how both would turn out? Or, oh, a better example, whether to plant a particular crop or different one?”

“That’s a fun dream, to be sure.”

Michael took another bite of his food bar and chewed noisily. “See, there are certain places where choices have different possible outcomes. Each one of those creates different possibilities.”

Mary closed her eyes again. Surprisingly, sleep was tugging at her mind once more. “That would be many possibilities.”

“Exactly!” Michael laughed. “It would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to check them all out. You would need a lot of people to dig through all those points and sort out the data. Now imagine you are one of those people, and you could travel to all those different possibilities for that research. If you found something in one of them, something outside of the parameters you were sent there for, what would you do?”

She started to murmur a reply, but Michael didn’t seem to be looking for an answer.

“Imagine you saw the person you’d run into by turning whichever direction I said, and you knew you could make that happen, you’d sure do that, wouldn’t you? I mean, if it was someone you’d like to meet. Mary, pretend I found that person! She only exists in one of the three hundred possibilities I went to, and I found her in the last one. And it took a hell of a long time but I tracked back that possibility to an ancestor way back here, one particular version who didn’t get treated by a doctor and lived long enough to give birth some ten months after the fact. I could track down that point in the possibility matrix if I tried hard enough.”

There was a rustle and a shift in weight. Mary could feel Michael sitting again, watching her. “In this dream you’re imagining,” she said, “you can change the choice?”

“Look, you need to not see any other doctors for a while. You are one of the rare cases that would fully recover on your own. Can you do that?”

Mary glanced at Michael’s wrist. “You are glowing.”

He jerked his sleeve back from his wrist. A metallic cuff was blinking red. Michael jumped up.

“No way could they find me already. Damn it. Wait. OK. OK, look.” He tripped over his bag and grabbed it wildly. “It’s very important you don’t see another doctor, please?”

Mary didn’t know what to say. Her head was swimming. Everything felt heavy.

Michael pulled a needle out of his bag, attached to a clear vial, and a tiny jar of faint yellow liquid. He stuck the needle through the top of the jar and began drawing out some of the liquid. “OK, this will help ward off infection but isn’t for sure. You don’t need to be bled. A doctor will come in and want to cut your buboes, where you’re swelling. Do not let him! There are germs all over—”

The air crackled and opened to disgorge another man into the room, much larger and landing in a crouch.

The two men froze. Michael with the needle in his hand, the second man tensed and looking ready to pounce. Michael nodded towards Mary, his eyes locked on the new arrival. “Please, don’t stop me. I love her.”

“Jesus, Mikhail,” the second man said.

“No, no, listen.”

“There are absolutely no alterations allowed this far back! Are you trying to collapse the entire freaking matrix?”

“All she needs is ten months. The Great Fire is going to take care of things after that.”

“You know it doesn’t matter if she dies then, it matters if she dies now. No offspring. You are way out of bounds on this one.”

“Mary?” Michael spoke without shifting his eyes to her. “Take this syringe.” He slowly reached towards her.

The larger man lunged forward and knocked the object out of Michael’s hand. He grabbed Michael by the wrist and threw him to the floor, twisting his wrist behind his back.

“No! Mary, grab it and stick it into your shoulder and press down on the plunger.” Mary watched as the larger man smashed the vial under his foot and Michael screamed.

“She’s my wife when she exists! Don’t you understand?”

The larger man pulled a blinking disk from a hip pocket and slapped it on Michael’s back. Michael turned enough under the man’s grip to look at Mary. “Don’t let the doctor bleed you!” he said. “Stay away from doctors for a year! The knife is dirty, don’t let the knife—” Michael popped out of existence with a crackling thump.

The man stood and faced Mary for the first time. As he touched a device on his wrist similar to the one Michael had worn, he looked her in the eye. He whispered something that could have been, “I’m sorry.”

As soon as he was gone, sound slammed back into the room. Rain thundered down over Mary’s head.

* * * * *

“Are you awake?” Bruce and a doctor wearing a bird mask were at her bedside. Mary nodded. The rain had subsided again, with the last remaining water still draining down the gutters outside.

There were candles in the room, flickering over the walls. The light was very dim. “There were two men here, trying to save me. Or, one of them was.” She couldn’t quite find the spot on the floor where the vial had broken. If there was a stain or a shard left behind it was invisible in the dim light.

“There were no men.” Dark shadows bruised the areas under Bruce’s eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in days. “I’ve been outside the room the entire time.”

Hunger gnawed at Mary’s insides. She realized her fever was gone, or at least substantially lessened. Where was that shiny food he had offered her?

The doctor took off his mask and held a strongly perfumed handkerchief to his nose. “You may be suffering from your fever, and imagining your dreams to be real,” he said. He set his heavy cloak aside and rummaged through the folds.

“It wasn’t a dream, I’m sure of it.” Her stomach growled. “Do you have anything to eat? The man said I should eat something when I woke.”

The doctor pulled a long dagger from his cloak. “Eating is the last thing you need right now, my dear. We want to drain the troublesome heat from your body and heal you.”

“I’m sure that he said I should eat. I’m so hungry,” Mary said. “Is that knife to bleed me?”

The doctor picked up the empty water bowl and sat next to Mary. “Yes, we’ll remove the excess and have you up and about.”

Mary stared at the dagger glinting in the candlelight. “Can you make sure the knife is clean? I’m sure that was important to the man. He said diseases are on it, I think…”

Bruce sighed. The doctor smiled and wiped the knife with his handkerchief. “I assure you, no disease has ever been carried on a blade.” He positioned the bowl under her neck and held the blade against her throat. It was ice cold. “Shall we begin?”