Plague Child’s Doctor
by Joshua Heston
“Fourteen-year-old Cyrus Thatcher already knows he’s a freak and his father hates him. But when his beloved baby sister disappears and the townspeople won’t help, Cyrus must choose to take matters into his own self-doubting hands. Set in rural Missouri of 1924, The Plague Child’s Doctor is a fanciful plunge into fantasy, horror, and Americana in which nothing is as it seems.”
A rain crow called in the humid, hazy afternoon distance and I awoke. The sky through the west window was orange. Wide mulberry leaves brushed the glass. I was naked beneath a worn quilt. Despite the season, a fire blazed in the massive, soot-stained fireplace. Partially rising to one side, pain sliced through me. The events of last night flooded in. Tears returned. There was a soft, heavy sound. I looked down into the eyes of the huge dog, unchained, curled next to the bed. He stared up at me, strange look of adoration in his eyes. One eye was brown; the other white-blue. His massive tail thumped against the stone floor.
“Hound’s waited for ye all day,” came a voice. “Never left your side. I think he’s taking a likin’ to ye.” There was a wry note in the man’s words. Angus rose from a heavy wooden chair near the window, wood creaking. He moved lightly for such a big man.
“Ye have questions, laddie. I know. But first we’ll need to be healin’ ye.”
A huge wash tub was padded with old blankets, then filled with water. Copious amounts of dried leaves were crumbled into the tub. Angus must have been heating the water all day. Steam rolled and he moved toward me. Unconsciously I shied away.
“There’s no need for that, laddie.” His accent was strange but his voice husky, soft beneath the roughness. He picked me up easily and gently lowered me into the water. “While ye are here, ye are safe.” The water stung my skin but not as bad as I’d figured. “We’re not done yet, laddie,” the big blacksmith said, walking to the door. He turned for a moment and winked. For the first time, I saw him smile. Strangely, I felt I could trust this uncommon man completely.
Returning with a bundle of cedar branches, he threw them into the fireplace. Tiny needles crackled and sparked. Sweet piney smoke wafted through the room. More dried leaves were added to the water. Lastly, Angus picked up a half-burnt stick from the fire, walked to the tub, and began scratching its charcoaled end against the stones. I peeked over the edge. Odd designs were written all around me in black. I recognized them from my vision in the barn! My eyes must have widened.
“Sigils,” he said simply. “They’ll protect ye from what ye cannot see. And now, ye have questions. Your eyes say so.”
He dragged his chair to the foot of the tub, careful not to disturb the markings, and turned the chair so its back was facing me. Then, gingerly seating himself, he leaned in, solid forearms resting on the wood, bearded chin on hands. Blue eyes bored into me.
Silence. I could hear my heart beating. The soft scratching of mulberry leaves on glass. I took a deep breath and smelled the cedar. For the first time in my whole life, I felt safe.
Steam rose and my story poured out. My soul bared in the withering light and before the unflinching gaze of the man before me. Everything I had seen — good and bad. All the strange visions. My confusion. Even Althea — beautiful, good Althea whom I believed could see the same things as I — was not someone I could talk to. She was too young and somehow mother had intimated to me my strange thoughts were not to be shared.
Mother! Father! The shock of last night rippled through me again, despite my cedar smoke daze. And then came the shame: I was different. I was strange. I must never talk of these things to anyone. My fear must have shown. Angus looked down at me and shifted his weight again.
“Yer a seer, laddie. I knew it the first moment I laid eyes on ye.”
“I’m a what?”
“A seer. It takes one to know one, ye know.” The mulberry leaves continued to brush the orange glass and this strange man began to speak.
“Some small part of ye is not of this world, Cyrus, and deep down ye know it. Ye can hear it. Sometimes see it. There are things great and powerful and terrible beyond the world and it’s calling to ye. What ye see doesn’t make a lot of sense yet, but ye are young and ye shall learn. But ye haven’t much time, I fear. I’ve a few days to heal ye and I can do that much. But then, if ye are to save your sister, well, the road is going to be hard. An’ I don’t envy the task before ye.”
“Althea.” I felt as though I was falling in the darkness. “They took her. I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to fix this! It’s my fault. I should have protected her. I saw it was going to happen.” The water sloshed in the tub as I tried to rise, falling back against the pain.
“Shhh. You’ve a few days ye must rest, laddie.” I felt Angus rough hand warm against my forehead. The world went dark and bleak.
“Can you save her?” I asked.
“No, laddie. If it is to be done, only ye may do it.”
The water was now cold and I was lifted, dripping, from the tub and made to stand. Angus tenderly dried me, careful of my wounds. As he patted me down, gently, he continued to speak. “Ye are more powerful than I was at your age and ye must begin your journey soon. Know this: these dreams you have, they are true, but it may be the past. Or the future. Or a distant place. That part can be tricky.
I sat carefully at the old wooden table. I bowl of soup was before me. “The gypsies in the wagons,” I said, “I saw them from my porch. There was something wrong with them.”
“They’re not gypsies, laddie. But what you saw is as they truly are.”
“What are they, then?” I said between spoonfuls. The soup was heavy with chunks of beef. My head began to clear. I had not realized how hungry I had been.
“It’s hard to say, exactly, laddie. But I’ll tell ye, best as I can.”
I reached for a thick slice of bread and Angus ladled another helping of soup into my bowl. He cleared his throat and gazed out the window. His eyes took on a faraway quality.
“The caravan is cursed. They are outcasts from the Old Country, from the mountains of the south. Theirs is an old magic. Very dark. Very powerful. They’ve come this way before —”
“I heard the circus came last year,” I interrupted. “I was across the river. At my grandpa and grandma’s.”
“I was here,” said Angus quietly. “New to town. But I knew then what they were and they knew me. That is why your sister walked through my shop before she went to their camp.”
“She wouldn’t have gone by herself! I know her! She’s scared of the dark—”
Now it was Angus’ turn to interrupt.
“She was alone, Cyrus! Ye saw her footprints. I did as well. She walked in here alone whilst I was sleeping. Hound couldn’t say a word and it took some magic to get that done too. But alone or not, your sister did not leave under her own will. She was conjured.”
“Spelled. Cast. Bewitched. Call it what ye like. When she was in the circus the night ye all went, they saw her. And they saw you. And they want something very special. I think it’s you.”
“But they didn’t take me! They took her! Or bewitched her. Or whatever!”
“Because they know you’ll follow. You said she spoke to ye. What did she say?”
“The gypsy queen? She asked if I would come with her. Said I was a child of light. Said I’d not suffered enough.” I paused, trying to remember. “That was it.”
Angus helped me to the bed in the alcove and carefully tucked me beneath worn but clean sheets, drawing an old quilt up beneath my chin. He stood back, looking down, and folded his arms.
“And ye didn’t want to go with her?”
I shook my head fervently, remembering the sight of the terrifying woman in my vision.
Angus sighed. “She’s no queen, but any other man in this town would have gone with her in a heartbeat. But then you’d have been no use to her at all. I think they need ye to come to them on yer own, even if it means following to save yer sister.”
“What do I do, Angus?” I asked. The man had a faraway look to his gaze again.
“They knew I was the only one in town besides ye who could not be compelled. If yer sister walked through here, it would make me look like I had something to do with her being gone. And then there would be nothing I could do. If I leave town, that’s all your constable needs to say I’m guilty. But they didn’t count on ye coming to me, laddie. And that’s where this just may work.” He paused for a moment and winked again. “Ye are stronger than they figure. Now, rest.”
As if on command, I yawned. Strangely, the movement did not cause pain.
“I’ll be nearby, laddie. Tonight, ye are safe.” He patted my shoulder and in my weariness the world went quickly dark.
© 2018 Joshua Heston / StateoftheOzarks All Rights Reserved
Photo at top: “Cottonwood, Summer Sky”
— Joshua Heston, July 12, 2016, near Chillicothe, Illinois