The Physician | Nathan Harris | Granta

The Physician

Nathan Harris

The physician and the vicar take tea at midday. They speak of the boy who wandered aimlessly through the burgh some months ago, pleading for help, pointing fitfully at the ball of pus weeping beneath his arm. He sought treatment from the physician – for which there was none – and that same evening asked the vicar for the prayers that might heal him. Now, the physician calmly pours the vicar more tea, elaborating on the boy’s stench, how it struck him upon examination as the smell of death itself, a manifestation of all that humanity has wrought upon the world, a punishment for a sin so great they might never tease its meaning from the affliction that has now overrun their quiet sliver of a once-great kingdom. The boy is long dead, of course. Buried outside of town in a pile with the rest of the bodies.

The vicar, beside the physician, shifts in his chair, uneasy with the direction of their conversation. ‘It is a sorry thing. For relief to be so far beyond our capacities. I did keep him in my prayers. That I did. As I continue to do with the others . . .’ The vicar wears gentle colors, a shapeless green habit that belies his station, and his face, wizened and aged, takes on a rustic depiction that matches his clothing (the physician has always appreciated the vicar’s features: his drooped eyes, the arched lines that span from his nose to his chin, all of it sloping towards his beard which cuts to a sharp point. His beauty rippling southward like a wave). The vicar goes on. ‘These are curious thoughts from someone who has . . . struggled with his faith. It strikes me that they might be born from your loss, Thomas. Is that the case? And you’ll excuse me if I speak out of turn. Bringing her up as I have.’

‘Rose did not suffer the pestilence,’ Thomas tells him bluntly. He does not take offense at the vicar’s reach. The man is like an older brother to him, their friendship sparked years ago when the vicar came to his practice in secret, asking for help after sleeping with an unclean woman. They met often after that. Intimate affairs like this one, and although no topic was forbidden, it was not looked down upon to abstain from giving an answer.

‘Perhaps we should speak of better things,’ the vicar says.

The fireplace sparks with life and spits kindled cedar at the vicar’s feet. He makes no mention of it, only smiles, nodding as Thomas sips from his cup.

‘How about of Gabriel?’ the vicar asks. ‘How does he get on?’

‘He has only gotten better with patients,’ Thomas tells him. ‘They are no longer weary of his youth. Of his countenance.’

‘One cannot help but appreciate the joy he takes to his work.’

‘Not just his joy,’ Thomas says, quite suddenly finding himself sitting forward on his haunches. ‘It is his passion for inquiry. To address not just the pain but to find the source. To truly heal. It is what will make him not just a good physician, but a fine one. Better than myself.’

The windowpane shudders, and as if he had been summoned, Gabriel appears in the doorway, pulling the mask from his face, wiping his hands upon his blouse and letting his cane lean against the side of the door.

He greets them as he walks through the parlor. He then enters the storeroom, the same room where Thomas used to meet his patients. It now houses Gabriel’s instruments; collects dust. When Gabriel reemerges, undressed from his costume, Thomas asks after the patient he has treated.

‘The blacksmith’s son touched a horseshoe before it had cooled,’ Gabriel says. ‘I believe the father was more upset with his son’s lack of knowledge in the family trade than with the injury. A blacksmith apparently does not allow oneself to be burnt. News to the boy.’

Gabriel stands before them, still grinning. His eyes are heavily lidded, as though he is perennially on the verge of sleep. His hair is a messy sweep of black. They have never discussed where it is he hails from. Not the burgh. The people here consider him part mongrel, if only for his looks, and an outsider of such remarkable appearance must operate under the supervision of a man more trustworthy. A man like Thomas. A man, it might be noted, with half of Gabriel’s goodwill.

‘What did you advise?’ Thomas asks.

Balsam, Gabriel tells them. If the pain worsens a dabble of salt, a cake of clay to keep it covered. ‘You know better than anyone that time is more often the solution than anything else.’

The vicar jolts at this, slapping his thigh in delight. ‘It says something that my parishioners and your patients often require the same cure,’ he says. ‘Time heals, yes. And is the Lord not the most compassionate physician of them all?’

Gabriel nods in vigorous agreement, as though seated in a church pew, taking in a sermon. Thomas watches the vicar entertain the boy before the old man slouches back into his chair, apparently fatigued – perhaps growing tired of the costume he’s put on for the common folk; ready to return to his debonair quarters, his hot-spiced wine, his fur-lined gown that will keep him warm as the sun sets. The whore he will beckon when he longs for company in the dark.

The fire is dying.

‘Take your portion and leave the rest on the mantle,’ Thomas tells Gabriel.

Gabriel does as he is told and the vicar stands.

‘I’ll follow the boy out,’ the vicar says. ‘Vespers in less than an hour.’

The vicar puts down his tea as Gabriel meddles with his hair, taking longer than usual to depart. Thomas turns in his chair to face him, sensing the boy’s unease.

‘The woman of the house is with child,’ Gabriel says. ‘They know you are the best at what you do. She seeks your assistance. If you might help her when the time comes.’

The room falls silent. The vicar looks down at the points of his shoes and Thomas recognizes, strangely, a bitter taste, that of the cedar, having quickened its way through his nostrils, settling in the back of his throat.

‘And you told them rightly that I no longer perform such operations,’ Thomas says.

‘I did, sir.’

‘That there are many midwives who are competent.’

‘I told her this as well.’

‘Very good.’

‘Well!’ The vicar looks up. ‘Might I offer you my blessing, Thomas? Perhaps you are ready for that, at least.’

Thomas does not respond. The silence is a sour note on which the meeting ends, but the vicar does not flinch from it. He is used to such rejection.

‘Then another time,’ the vicar says.

‘Yes, Father,’ Thomas says, that last word awkward on his tongue. ‘Another time.’

Thomas sleeps little, which is a bitter irony, for it was the deprivation of sleep that brought Rose to him in the first place. She had come to his door midday many months before, and he had hardly heard the knock beneath the bleating of a sheep being sheared behind his property (an annoyance so great he had locked himself upstairs in his study to find some peace with his tea). When he finally ventured down the stairs he came upon a woman no more than twenty. Her face was thin, her nose aquiline, and he could not make sense of the shade of her hair – red, or brown – for the sun struck it with the quality of an illusion, and with each angle in which she turned the color settled on a different shade. What he knew was that it was a beautiful brush of tangle upon her head, unwieldy in a manner he’d think beneath even a common woman, yet so unique against the typical fashion that it took on the appearance of the taboo. He wished, oddly enough, and against his judgment, to run his hand through it. Instead he invited her in.

‘They say you are the best at what you do,’ she said.

‘No. The best tend to the king. But it is a task I plan to take up when called.’

‘Such confidence.’

‘It is only faith. The faith to believe that I might do God’s work. To heal others.’

The woman was no longer listening, had taken to peering about as though her eyes could not accommodate the sights before her.

‘You’re blessed to live in such a home,’ she said. ‘And to live among those of us who have so little.’

His home was not as respectable as she made it out to be. The roof was sodden wood, liable to drip at the slightest hint of rain, instilling a dampness that kept him coughing through most seasons. Two stories, yes, but his bed was in his study, and the stairs to reach it creaked so loudly he thought it might wake the township. His garden, well, the garden was beautiful, bountiful with the herbs that filled his medicine, but she had no way of knowing this from where she stood now.

‘It’s wise to be amongst the people you treat,’ Thomas told her.

‘You do not treat those like me,’ the woman told him, quite boldly. ‘Only those with money to spare or wine to trade. Or else you’d have a line out the door.’

‘Should I not charge for my time? It’s how it must be.’

She said nothing to this.

‘I must ask the same of you,’ he said. ‘To show me you have the means . . .’

There was a great hesitation that overtook her, as though forced into an indecent act, and yet she then slipped a hand into the lining of her shoe, rising up once more with coins fanned out between her fingers. Satisfied, he took her to the storeroom, which had a stool for his patients to sit, a chair where he might sit beside them. His instruments hung in a line like a butcher’s tools, a bucket beneath, although he rarely had a reason to use anything more than a lance and a needle. Bloodletting was his chief operation. But he knew other remedies when necessary.

He took her temperature. She told him her name.

‘Rose. Tell me what ails you.’

She spoke quickly, as though she had been waiting for this opportunity for some time. ‘I cannot sleep. It is as though my mind acts without the consent of my body. It speaks to me endlessly, at all hours.’

‘That is all?’ Thomas asked her.

‘What might that mean? I am expected to look after my father’s home and yet I am so restless I can hardly stand. I wish for nothing more than a deep slumber, a few hours of rest, and yet it never finds me. If that is nothing to you, then you do not know the torture of the malady.’

A rat scurried by them, and although Thomas turned at the patter, Rose did not.

‘My father was a fisherman,’ Thomas told her. ‘He woke at an hour when God Himself was at rest and took to the waters. I worried over him endlessly. Unreasonable worries. That his boat would sink. That a whale would eat him. I never fell back to sleep. I know exactly what you speak of.’

The room was windowless, and even without illumination he still managed to see her eyes beside his own, the disappointment vanishing from them. In her excitement she pinched her gown at the thigh, the wool catching, rising as she leaned forward, awaiting his instruction. The pale of her skin was light in the dark. This he remembers well.

‘It will most likely pass on its own. If you wish to pay for it, I can present you a brew. A bit of bile, henbane, ground lettuce . . . there are other ingredients. You’ll need to be watched as you take to rest. And then watched as you sleep to reverse any unmeant effects.’

‘All night?’ she asked him.

‘I told you, it will most likely pass on its own. But this is an option.’

She stood up before he could. Her hand took his own, brittle as coarse cloth, and deposited the coin into his hand. The following night, she told him. She would come and be put to sleep.

But that was some time ago.

He now wakens to noises he once loved, noises that have come to haunt him – the rustling beside his pillow, the creak of the bed, the sound of readying breath against his ear. And then it is all gone, extinguished like a flame. He turns to face the absence beside him. The cock crows, then another, for there are more than one, and each must have their say. He dresses, and before long the front door rattles; the house groans in response.


‘A moment, Gabriel.’

Thomas dresses. Gabriel appears each morning just like this, often waking him, always arriving at the same early hour, his voice full of life and prepared to take on whatever the day might demand. The routine gives Thomas comfort. He comes down to greet him, and there is, for the first time in recent memory, an unordinary sight. Gabriel has a package tucked in the fold of his arm.

The young man’s face is alight. His eyes are unsheathed and wide with anticipation. ‘I’ve brought something for you.’

Thomas pauses at the bottom of the stairwell, struggling, with great effort, to weather the boy’s zeal. After a bit of wine, perhaps. But now, upon waking . . .

‘Sit,’ Thomas tells him. ‘Let me at least start a fire.’

‘The weather is quite nice today. I’m sure it will reach us soon.’

‘It’s in the ritual, Gabriel. The comfort is in the ritual.’

For a moment, Thomas looks out the window, wondering where the boy gets his good cheer. A slurry of shit and piss rambles down the street from some place up the ways. The burgh, once lively with carts and beggars, merchants hawking their wares, town criers offering their declarations, now rests in total silence. The pestilence continues to claim more bodies than the warden’s office can count. All but those like Gabriel and the vicar – those with a higher calling Thomas can make no sense of – hide inside their homes. Praying, he imagines, for death not to knock.

He sets the wood to burn and they both sit before the heat, the itch of the flame a tingle on Thomas’s heels.

‘How did you rest?’ Gabriel asks.

‘There is no easy answer to that question.’

Nor is there an easy response, it would appear, and so Gabriel simply puts the gift upon Thomas’s lap, and Thomas looks upon the object as though it is a small animal on offer for examination – something he’d rather be rid of.

‘Go on,’ Gabriel says.

‘I do not need any gifts,’ Thomas says. ‘A job well done is the only gift I ask for, and you deliver it daily.’

‘It’s my pleasure to bring this to you.’

‘You know I do not accept such things, Gabriel. It’s not personal. Not in the least. A good physician must be restrained from emotion. In our trade it is of the utmost importance.’

‘But, sir –’

‘Do not be foolish. Disease has taken half the town to the grave. Those beloved hens you keep might perish. Your wife and child might fall ill. Keep your money. Keep what is yours. I am fine. I want for nothing.’

Gabriel stares at him. The light has vanished from his eyes yet he does not quit looking at Thomas, searching for something, perhaps a sign of affection, and it is as he stares that he begins to open the package himself, the paper crackling, tearing away, revealing a wooden tea set – two saucers, two cups, a kettle with an etching on its side, the rod of Asclepius, the god of healing.

‘My son made this for you,’ Gabriel says. ‘It cost no money. It is nothing more than a show of gratitude. For all you have done for the people here. For my family. I know your set is finer, that you would not even deign to drink from such a cup as this one, but I could not stop him from carving it.’

A tremor overtakes Gabriel’s hand, waiting for Thomas to claim his gift, and Thomas thinks only of the day the boy first showed up at his door, trembling from the cold, mud upon his feet, rags for clothes, pledging to be his faithful servant, if only he would teach him his trade. To grant his wish was perhaps the last good deed he’d ever managed, the last deed attached to no financial gain, to no desire of his own – and now, to have such goodwill thrust before him, in the face of his true wickedness, is almost too much to bear. But he does it for Gabriel. He takes the tea set and stands.

‘I will put the set in the kitchen,’ Thomas says. ‘Tell your son it is well made.’

He pauses once he reaches the kitchen, staring ahead at the washbasin, the small glimmer of light that strikes it from the window above. There is a knock at the door. A patient, perhaps. Gabriel stands, eager, and Thomas only nods.

‘Costume on,’ he says. ‘See to what they need.’

That night, as with the one before, time resolves itself in familiar patterns: the warden’s jangling keys note midnight, prayers at matins, the sordid moans of the miller’s wife before the rooster sings its song. Thomas is awake for all of it, thinking once more of Rose.

She’d taken the brew and sat upon his bed speaking endlessly of her upbringing, her father’s obsession with his farm, a rather unsuccessful plot of land that he tended to so closely that he still slept in the fields for many nights at a time, worried that another man might come to steal his crop – blind to the daughter he had at home. Her mother had died from the pox. Thomas sat in a chair at the foot of the bed, noting the time, waiting breathlessly for a pause that might note her fatigue, a droop at the shoulder, the whine of a yawn. When it did not happen, by midnight, he gave the instruction to at least lie back – to give sleep the chance to take possession over her.

She asked of his own childhood, and he spoke of his father’s wish for him to be a fisherman – how he could hardly remove the hook from a cod without cringing at the animal’s suffering.

‘And yet you become a physician?

‘To heal is quite a different matter altogether. One could call it redemptive, even. To witness the body’s failing. To see its recovery. Blessings bestowed by God.’

‘I hear the pride in your voice.’

Thomas could only raise his shoulders in resignation. ‘Perhaps pride is my vice. We all must have one, no?’

In the dark, leaning in, he believes he can see her lips turn up, the start of a smile.

Their voices carried through the night, a parrying of thought, of opinion; at two they ate through a bowl of figs, so lost in discussion, in their hunger, that they did not notice the first strike of sunlight creeping through the window hours later, and it was decided, right then, that she would return again. A different treatment. He would see to it that this one worked better than the brew.

‘And if it does not?’ she’d asked, rising up from bed, flattening her gown at the chest, at the legs.

‘Then we will at least have good conversation.’

‘The distraction is not the worst remedy.’

On this point, they agreed.

Thomas slept long into the following day, and when he rose, prepared a different brew, a mixture of lavender which he had in his cupboard, and valerian which he had fetched from the market. For other patients, he had no time. He’d never found love, more out of duty to his profession than any particular reason, and he had come to view the idea as just that, something for others, to be thought of, and sung of, and yet now this woman had claimed him in the matter of an evening, stirred the cauldron that was his heart, and he saw no reason to devote time to any human but this one. It did not matter, the whispers he heard: those of fever, ghastly buboes, great suffering, inching its way toward the burgh from neighboring villages. Prepare, the vicar had told him one visit, as God was inflicting another pestilence upon His people. And yet only gladness found him when the door sounded that night and signaled Rose’s return. And when she came, he was prepared with fresh linens upon his bed, the brew on the nightstand, his chair seated bedside, closer than he’d placed it upon her previous visit.

‘You should get comfortable,’ Thomas told her.

And this time Rose stripped to her gown, the soft mounds of her breasts, the slopes of her thighs, so mesmerizing as to be like starlight in the sky, brilliant enough to pierce through the shadows of the dark and capture Thomas in a reverie so deep he could hardly breathe.

‘Sit and drink,’ he said.

When they spoke, Rose’s voice struck Thomas from the bed like velvet on his skin. She spoke on the monotony of threading, and how it subsumed her every hour, and how the clothes she made hardly sold at market; how those she mended rarely left the customer satisfied; spoke then of her quarrels with her father, how he wished her to marry only to have her offspring serve his fields.

‘Do you wish to marry?’ Thomas asked.

‘If the time has not passed me by, yes.’

‘What would you look for?’

‘A woman should not deign to be so choosy.’

‘But if made to?’

She readied an answer and Thomas could hear his heart grow restless, the beating so loud he feared Rose might take note.

‘A man with cause,’ she said. ‘A man of bravery, and passion, not unlike the one before me.’

Who is to say which hand found the other’s first; how the bodies grew tangled, how their moans coalesced and rose up from the bed like smoke from a chimney, a signal of their bodies becoming one in the span of a single evening. The only clear thing, to Thomas, was that he had failed his duty, for Rose did not sleep for a moment, nor did he, and yet, for perhaps the first time, his failure felt like a success, for he knew then that he had found something greater than a cure to an ailment, and that if this did not help him find peace, and help Rose find tranquility, than there was little hope for either of them.

By the time they spoke of marriage, Rose’s father had succumbed to the pestilence himself.

Nathan Harris

Nathan Harris is the author of The Sweetness of Water, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In 2021, he was chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35.

Photograph © Laurel Sager

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