The Winter Sisters
A stuffy big-city doctor. Three rural folk healers. An unexpected partnership could put lives on the line…
Georgia, 1822. Dr. Aubrey Waycross puts his faith in science, not superstition. So when he moves to a remote mountain town, he’s dismayed to see the townsfolk reject his scientific blood-letting methods in favor of potions and witchcraft. And with a rabid panther stalking the area, he’s running out of time to convince the citizens of the error of their ways.
Confronting the trio of spell-peddling sisters, he’s stunned to find their herbal remedies may contain the missing ingredient he needs for a cure. But with the local pastor hellbent on driving them out and the youngest sister unwilling to share her mysterious abilities, he worries he could lose the sick to madness and death.
Can Dr. Waycross discover the right combination of science and sorcery to save the townspeople?
The Winter Sisters is a spellbinding frontier-America historical fantasy. If you like unique twists on history, complex characters, and a touch of enchantment, then you’ll love Tim Westover’s richly woven tale.
— scroll down to read book sample —
2020 Pencraft Award Book of the Year Winner
2020 IPPY’s Bronze Medal – Best Southeast Regional Fiction
2019 BookLife Prize Winner
2019 Publishers Weekly & BookLife U.S. Selfies Book Awards Winner
2019 Forward Reviews INDIES Gold Winner – Fantasy
2019 Forward Reviews INDIES Finalist – Historical Fiction
2019 Author’s Circle Fiction Book of the Year Winner
2019 OMZA Book Awards Winner – Fantasy Fiction
2019 Southern Literary Review November Read of the Month
“Historical fiction fans will be riveted by this immersive portrait of medicine and superstition in 19th-century rural Georgia.” —BookLife Prize
“an absorbing, well-researched and beautifully written novel” —U.S. Selfies Awards
“This is a brilliantly realized depiction of the conflict between new scientific theories and traditional herbal remedies, set in a small 19th-century community under threat of rabies. Will the superstitious townsfolk trust to the new doctor or the three sisters—witches to some, healers to others—to cure them?” —Jo Henry, Managing Director, BookBrunch
“The Winter Sisters makes an admirable contribution to the wealth of Southern literature.” —Cevin Bryerman, Executive VP/Publisher, Publishers Weekly
“The Winter Sisters is an entertaining historical fantasy in which lives change and minds open.” —Foreword Reviews
“Solid writing and strong characters buoy this examination of a captivating moment in American history when old beliefs encountered the new. An enthralling, cozy tale set in an era when folklore reigned over science.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The Winter Sisters is a spellbinding frontier-America historical fantasy that showcases author Tim Westover’s genuine flair for originality and a distinctively engaging narrative storytelling style. With its unique twists on history and deftly crafted characters, The Winter Sisters will prove to be an immediate and enduringly popular addition to community library General Fiction collections.” —Midwest Book Review
"…this novel is a balm for the soul, or perhaps a mirror, reminding us that what truly matters is not who ends up being wrong or right, but rather how we treat one another along the way.” —The Independent Review of Books
“The Winter Sisters is a deftly crafted historical novel with an added layer of magical realism that’s handled with a delicate touch. That air of mystery seeps into the novel from beginning to end, and the story is better for it…A spellbinding blend of historical fiction and magic realism, The Winter Sisters mixes science with superstition in this enchanting, lush novel.” —IndieReader
“The narration switches between Dr. Waycross’s first person and Sarah Winter’s third person. They’re interesting and distinct voices. The time period and setting are quite vibrant. Medical practices and thought processes are delightfully detailed…Westover’s writing style is humorous, quirky, and thoughtful.” —Historical Novel Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Westover is an adopted Southerner who writes novels about ancient spirits, humble ghosts, singing trees, medicine-show men, haunted pianos, and miraculous sisters in the 19th century. He takes inspiration from tall tales, Southern myths and legends, small towns, folklore, fantasy, magic, and the real-life history of the South’s backroads and byways.
Westover currently lives in North Georgia and is a graduate of Davidson College and the University of Georgia. In addition to writing, Westover enjoys programming, playing the clawhammer banjo, and raising his daughter to be a modern American eccentric. Westover is donating the profits from his books to the child life department at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. His prior books are Old Weird South, editor (QW Publisher, 2012), an anthology of short stories by various authors; and Auraria (QW Publisher, 2012), a magical realism historical novel also set in North Georgia.
SAMPLE FROM THE WINTER SISTERS
The fat orange moon, reflected in the silver bowl, seems so small. Effie, the youngest of the three sisters, cups her hands to lift the moon out, but the water slips through her fingers. The ripples break the moon's reflection into streaks of light.
The sisters work on the bare granite of a clearing, a bald on the mountainside, under a sky rich with stars. People of a superstitious persuasion say the devil once trod on the balds. They say that’s why nothing will grow there and any remnants of trees look lightning blasted and scorched. But the balds have plenty of life. They’re slick with moss and lichens, and the tenacious stems of asafetida and yellow lady’s slipper and jack-in-the-pulpit have taken root in crevices.
“Leave it alone, little one,” says Rebecca, the eldest. “The water has to be still.”
Rebecca’s face is yellow from the light of the candle she holds in front of her, and her brown hair falls straight past her shoulders. The bowl is their mother’s, etched with an Old World design none of the sisters understand. Effie had fetched the water from the river, venturing into the rushing current up to her hips. The candle comes from their mother’s trousseau. Rebecca found it hidden in a linen shroud, wrapped together with an ebony-bladed knife and a length of copper wire. They hadn’t opened the trousseau until their mother had been gone for three years. Three is a powerful number. Three years, three sisters. They haven’t found a use for the knife or the wire, but their mother taught them how to pour molten wax into cold water and tell their fortunes from the shapes.
“It’s only a game,” says Sarah, the middle sister. “Why does it matter if she touches the water? It’s not going to hurt her, is it?”
“It has to be pure,” says Rebecca.
“Mother never troubled with the full moon or with river water.”
“And that’s why she only saw pigeons and salmon and silly things.”
“I liked the silly things,” says Effie.
“Are you going to marry a fish?” Rebecca’s voice betrays her impatience. Effie is ten years younger than Rebecca. She is too immature to understand the importance of ceremony.
Rebecca empties her hand into the water. Crushed sassafras leaves and calendula petals float toward the edges of the bowl. All this is in Mother’s books. Rebecca can’t read the Latin or the Old German, but she recognizes the drawings of the herbs, and she remembers enough of Mother’s craft to serve in her absence.
Sarah scratches her nose. “You sure this is how you make moonshine?”
“We’re not making moonshine,” says Rebecca. She wants a solemn mood, appropriate to the ritual. The candle flame flickers in the draughts of her breath.
“Be better if we were. We could sell it at the crossroads. Maybe buy a gun,” says Sarah.
“Mother didn’t need a gun,” says Rebecca.
“Bullets, too. Sell moonshine for lead shot.”
Effie crouches in front of the chestnut stump in which the bowl is cradled and looks at her reflection in the water. The moon sits atop her head like a jewel in a crown. She reaches out a finger, and her face disappears at its touch.
“Effie, stop it.” Rebecca’s voice rasps. “Just sit there and do nothing.”
Effie withdraws, wrapping her arms around her knees. Her plain white dress gathers moss stains.
Wax drips from the candle onto Rebecca’s finger. She hisses, but the pain fades quickly. The next drop, falling onto the same piece of skin, rolls away.
Sarah makes a show of cleaning dirt from her fingernails with a kitchen knife as Rebecca tips the candle. The wax touches the water and sputters.
“Why is the candle red?” asks Sarah. “Is it made from blood?”
“Don’t be silly,” says Rebecca. “Be quiet and watch.”
The globules of wax have already finished their work and have congealed at the bottom of the bowl.
“Looks like a passel of nothing,” says Sarah. “Waste of time.”
“It isn’t nothing.” Rebecca reaches into the water and takes out the largest piece. “What do you see?”
“A damn piece of wax.”
“Hush your mouth.” Rebecca studies the thin piece of wax between her fingers. One side is jagged, the other straight. “Looks like a saw. Think they’re going to build a sawmill down at the crossroads once other people move up here?”
“There’s plenty of trees,” says Sarah. “Of course they’re going to build a sawmill. The air will fill up with sawdust so thick you can’t breathe. Doesn’t take a prophecy to tell us that.”
“Could be a kind of knife,” says Rebecca. “Any kind of blade.”
“A man of blood,” says Effie, trying to take it.
“Don’t touch it,” says Rebecca, frustrated.
“She’s not going to hurt herself on a piece of wax,” says Sarah. “I’d watch out for real knives.” She ruffles Effie’s hair.
“So I’m going to marry a man with a blade,” says Rebecca. “A man of blood, says Effie.”
“Why are you so fixed on marrying?” asks Sarah. “Hasn’t done anyone I know a bit of good.”
“Who do you know that’s married? A Cherokee?” says Rebecca. “Now, are you going to choose a piece of wax or not?”
“Hell no. Waste of time.”
“Where did you learn such a filthy mouth?”
“Effie taught me,” says Sarah.
Effie looks up at the mention of her name but says nothing.
“Are you going to get a piece?” Rebecca asks Effie.
Effie puts her fingertips into the water. A piece of wax floats into her grasp. She pulls it out. It has an improbable shape—a flat disk, formed when the wax settled at the bottom, has joined to a long, thin piece.
“A banjo,” she says, turning it over in her palm. “Nothing else it could be.”
Chapter 1: Hot Damn and Pass the Pepper Sauce
The coachman hadn’t wanted to make the journey to Lawrenceville in the first place. It had taken all my money to persuade him. Perhaps from nervousness, he hadn’t hushed his mouth for the entire journey through the forest, babbling about all the dangers.
Bandits, of course, although not many because there were not many travelers foolish enough to come all this way. Animals: skunk bears, mountain lions, polecats, and a plat-eye, whatever that was. Hunters with guns and hair triggers. Slippery creeks to ford, where a hapless traveler was likely to fall and break his leg. Weird groves with oranges and lemons in the middle of winter. How these latter were really dangerous escaped me, but I found that asking any questions only provoked another garrulous rant.
The people of Lawrenceville were no better, said the coachman. They’ve got witches—used to have them living right on the town square in a little house. Ghosts too, a few of them, and now this panther terrorizing the forest might be a ghost, too. It certainly seemed to be everywhere at once. Every townsperson had seen it or heard it or smelled it.
He wouldn’t tell me anything about Mayor Richardson or the pastor, and most infuriatingly, he knew nothing about the mad dogs.
“Maybe it’s got to do with that panther,” he said.
“I don’t even know what that is, Doctor.”
“It means rabies. Fear of water is a symptom, so we sometimes call the disease hydrophobia.”
“A city-folk word. Is that why you got your doctor’s diploma, so you could say ‘hydrophobia’ instead of ‘mad dog?’”
We crossed a little rise, and suddenly I could see the town of Lawrenceville emerge from the wild forest pressing on it from all sides. In two minutes, we were in the town square.
“Well, here we are, Doctor. Safe and sound.”
I climbed down from the coach, every joint protesting the vigor of the rough travel. I would have to bleed myself later to restore my shaken humors to their right places. The coachman unloaded my boxes and crates, which immediately began sinking into the mud. I thanked him for the safe passage, in which we’d encountered not a single one of the dangers he’d predicted, and told him I had no more money to give. He touched his hat crisply and mounted up his coach again.
“You just be careful, Doctor,” he said. The clattering wagon disappeared in a splatter of grime.
Lawrenceville was empty. I was alone in the town square, save for the hogs. A great herd of them rooted around the muddy field, pushing their snouts against the walls of a clapboard courthouse. Having lived all my life in Savannah, I had hoped for a life in a place more civilized than this. If I traveled any farther north, I’d enter the wild mountains of Cherokee territory. That, perhaps, would have been a forest worth fearing, filled with savages and wild animals rather than rumors and bad dreams.
My journey had been long and harrowing. Passenger coaches carried me over worn routes from Savannah to Louisville, the old state capital. Pine trees separated fields of rice and corn and cotton. Slaves and freemen, all under the same overseers, worked the land. I rode another scheduled service to Milledgeville, the lately appointed capital, where well-dressed people hurried from restaurants to factories and supervised the sales of corn and cotton. The voyage onward was more difficult. No regular coach service proceeded farther north. I persuaded the mail carrier, on the strength of my charitable profession, to take me as far as Eatonton.
The next morning, my luck held out. An attachment of Georgia’s militia was heading to the new state of Alabama, which the Federals had recently created. Their clean uniforms and stiff boots told me it was their first campaign. The captain permitted me to join them as far as Jug Tavern, a town just a day away from Lawrenceville. I balanced my baggage on top of the ammunition wagon and trudged along with the infantry for three days, sharing their goober peas. When I reached Jug Tavern, I’d been two weeks on the road and was anxious to complete my travels, but there my good fortune finally expired. I’d missed the mail wagon, and no traders were heading through anytime soon. My sole option was to engage a private coach from the only fellow brave enough to make the trip, which depleted the bulk of my funds. I could not have walked the last twenty-five miles, given all the equipment I was bringing, and I had no need for money upon arrival, embraced by a grateful town.
I wondered why the coachman was so fearful. The town was an unremarkable frontier outpost. Now that I was in Lawrenceville, all I could see—besides the swine—were shoddy rows of stores forming the west and south sides of the square. To the north were a few houses that looked more respectable. A church slumped in the northeast corner. All stood empty of human life. I was befuddled. Perhaps the farmers in Lawrenceville stayed home and sent their hogs to town for shopping and gossip.
Then I heard a shout accompanied by strained chords of music and applause. “Glory, hallelujah!” Ah, the welcoming committee. But when the noise persisted with no sign of greeters, I took the risk of leaving my baggage and followed the sound to its source.
I found myself in a narrow space enclosed on one side by muck-filled stalls and on the other by the back walls of Lawrenceville’s shops. A riotous crowd encircled a stage made of a few boards thrown on top of a mule-drawn wagon. A canvas backdrop was meant to evoke a doctor’s study. The painting showed shelves of leather-bound books, anatomical samples floating in jars, a leering skull, and a bust of Hippocrates. The canvas was wrinkled and spotted with rot.
I turned to the fellow nearest me. “What is this place called?”
“Honest Alley,” he replied.
I could not hear anything else he said because the denizens of Lawrenceville were applauding a wiry huckster on the stage.
“Glory, hallelujah! Hot damn and pass the pepper sauce!”
Boys climbed atop each other for the best view. Daughters begged for seats on their fathers’ shoulders. Sun-crisped farmers clambered up the clapboard stores to get above their neighbors, and a pair of Negroes, along with a Cherokee trader dressed in a white man’s clothes, struggled for a place from which they could see. I noticed a woman with a kerchief drawn across most of her face. What physical ailment was she hiding beneath that red cloth? Consumption? Warts? An infected sore? She saw me looking at her and moved her kerchief, which concealed nothing unusual, so that she could stick out her tongue at me. Affronted and disconcerted, I turned my face back to the presentation.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” The entertainer crashed his right hand down on the strings so hard that his banjo contorted into the loudest chord I’d ever heard. “You don’t want a remedy that only promises a single cure, not when there are so many troubles in the world. Well, for all that’s got you hot and bothered, there’s Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic!”
I snorted, but no one marked me.
“Take a spoonful, morning, noon, and night, to ward off dyspepsia, lumbago, scrofula, catarrh, flatulence, worms, and brain congestion. For starters!” At the mention of each disease, he jabbed his finger toward a different member of the crowd, diagnosing us all in one swoop.
I should have expected no better from rustics on the frontier. Such quacks knew nothing of suffering, only of entertainment and easy cures. For the best years of my life, all through my official training as a doctor, I’d suffered for knowledge and for science. I paid my tuition by working as an apothecary’s apprentice, learning the mixtures that purged, blistered, and flushed away our infirmities. After I bought the volumes of Hippocrates and Galen and acquired the necessary chemical apparatus and assorted lancets, I rarely had much money left for food. I did not mind the deprivations, for they left me lean and hungry for my true purpose. I disassembled hogs to study their viscera. I apprenticed with the bone saw and the cauterizing iron, practicing on spoiled poultry. I memorized the contents of the doctor’s pharmacy—mercury, calomel, sugar of lead, blistering oils—and distilled my own supply according to the proven recipes.
This medicine showman, though, with no such experience to his name, sang out to his credulous crowd:
“Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic will add years to your life, and Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic will make those years worth living.”
He lifted his fingers from the banjo strings and gestured to the crowd. “Good sirs, are you worn and wearied and plain tuckered out?”
“Yes!” the men replied.
“Can’t shovel it, chop it, or reap it like you used to?”
“Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic!”
The quack played a series of major chords. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I threaded my way through the rapturous crowd, aiming for the stage. The woman with the red kerchief stepped into my path, and I had to move her aside with my hand so that I could continue forward.
“Good ladies, are your fingers worked down to raw bone?”
“Yes!” the ladies shouted, right on cue.
“Soap burned your skin, ironing singed your eyebrows, broom straw caught ’tween your toes? Are you beat like your laundry, whipped like your eggs, flat like your bread?”
“Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic!” The entertainer tossed a bottle up, giving it a twirl so that it flew end over end, higher than the rooftops. He spun around and caught it behind his back, and in the same motion, he turned back to the crowd and beamed. He’d meant for the trick to seem effortless, but I was nearly to the stage by then and noticed that his pinky finger was rigid, arthritic.
“Good husbands, can’t do your manly duty? Zip gone out of the tip? Zing gone from the thing? Power faded from your tower? Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic!”
Some people blushed, but others roared with laughter, emboldened by the scandalous turn.
“What’s the cure? Say it with me!”
“GROVE’S TASTELESS CHILL TONIC!” roared the crowd in harmony.
I hauled myself onstage. “Now, see here! I mean—”
The crowd murmured at the intrusion, and my righteous indignation sputtered. I am no orator. I can bleed people, rinse their bowels, and restore their health and life and joy—but I cannot win their affections. I stammered, and I stumbled. Words would not come to me. The longer I wavered, the quieter the crowd became, and the entertainer seemed content to let me fail in front of the hundreds of eyes of my new charges.
“Just say it!” said the woman with the red kerchief. “Say whatever it is you want to say, and then get the hell off the stage!”
Her curse was enough to shake me from my stupor. I puffed myself up as best I could. “What’s your name, sir?” I asked, jamming my hands into my waistcoat pockets as I’d seen important men do. “Not Grove, is it?”
“No, sir, not Grove,” said the entertainer. “If only I were! Grove is seven feet tall, with shoulders as broad as a steamer chest.”
The crowd oohed.
“He’s eighty-four years old and doesn’t look a day over thirty.”
The crowd cheered.
“No, sir, I’m not Grove. What’s my name? You don’t know it, but they surely do.”
“Salmon Thumb!” roared the crowd.
“Why, that’s right, it’s Salmon Thumb! How can you forget a name like that? But that’s the one I got in my cradle, and that’s the one I’ll take to the grave.” Then he lit into a little melody, and the crowded applauded.
I raised my voice above the song and noise. “Well, Mr. Thumb—”
“Dr. Salmon Thumb, if you please, sir.”
“Clobber that blowhard, Dr. Thumb!” chimed a voice from the alley.
“Mister Thumb. I am no blowhard. I am a real doctor, Dr. Aubrey Waycross, and I blow with the wind of truth.” This raised a chuckle from the audience. “I accuse you, sir, of falsehood. Of hollow promises and easy cures. I accuse you of misleading the good folk of Lawrenceville and distracting them from healers who can benefit them.”
“Hear, hear!” said a man from the crowd. “Go up to Hope Hollow if you’ve got the rheumatism! The Winter sisters set me right!”
“Witches! Haints and devilry!” someone countered with derision.
Then another farmer in the crowd held up a small, sweat-stained bag. “Naw, good medicine! I’ve carried this bag of fennel, what the Winter sisters gave me, for three days, and I haven’t sneezed since.”
“Wait,” I said, turning to the crowd and holding up my hands. “That’s not what I meant. I meant a real doctor, a physician—”
“Right, the Winter sisters! Preacher ran 'em out of town a while back, but they’re the best doctors the world’s ever seen.” The fennel-carrying farmer turned from the stage and addressed what was now his audience. “Are you gonna forget about them because of a medicine show?”
“What are they gonna do about the panther, hmm? What are they gonna do about the rabies?”
Rabies! My ears perked at the very word that had brought me from Savannah to Lawrenceville, from the bright center of Georgia life to its darkest corner. Before I could interject, though, the shouts of the crowd took over.
“What’s a medicine show gonna do about the rabies?”
“Medicine show ain’t no harm,” said someone else in the crowd.
“I need that tonic to sleep!”
“I need it to wake up again in the morning!”
“Ain’t nothing for the rabies except praying!”
“Ain’t nothing 'cept for a bullet!”
“Come on, Dr. Thumb, give us some more banjo!”
Thumb started another tune:
A cheer of jubilation erupted, and buyers surged forward. Coins flew. Bottles of the tonic sailed back. The rabies and the Winter sisters were forgotten in the exploding of popping corks. Old and young believed they were drinking to their health, but I knew they were ruining it.
“Want some, Doctor?” Thumb beamed at me, showing perfect white teeth—a radiant smile for a haggard backwoods huckster, which made me wonder how he kept them so pearly. “For you, it’s free.”
“Not a sip,” I said. “Not even if you paid me a thousand dollars.”
“It’s good for what ails you.” Thumb pulled the cork from a bottle of Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic and took a short pull. “It’s no hard feelings, Dr. Waycross.” Thumb held out his handas though he meant for me to shake it. “Really, Doc, it’s no hard feelings.”
“Still, Mr. Thumb, I won’t shake your hand.”
Sweat had collected on his hatband. His skin looked oily. I turned my back on him and walked toward the rear of the stage.
“I’m not a bad fellow, Doc,” he called after me.
“I think, sir, that you are.”
The crowd paid no attention as I slunk to the edges of Honest Alley. I walked past the muzzles of horses, who let their nature fall onto the muddy streets. Mules and donkeys brayed at me. Dirty urchins and rheumy-eyed matrons jostled me. The malodorous breathing of man and beast made me sneeze. I hastened to vacate the noxious street, but a hand landed on my shoulder.
“A moment, Doctor!”
The man was both too young and too fat to be respectable. Given his wide straw hat and tattered trousers, I took him for a farmer.
“Can I help you, sir?” I said, exhaustion filling my voice.
“No, I’m quite healthy. A little whiskey fixes most troubles, and a great deal of whiskey fixes the rest.” He patted his rotund belly.
“Then, if you’ve no urgent business, I will ask your leave.” I was weary from the road and weary from the foolish display in which I’d become embroiled. “Unless you can take me to the mayor. You wouldn’t happen to know the man, would you?”
“That’s me,” said the fat youngster, doffing his hat, and he was barefoot.
Imagine, no shoes in a place with drifts of manure three inches deep!
“I mean, the mayor himself. Mayor Richardson.”
“Yep, that’s me. Elected executive officer of the incorporated town of Lawrenceville, Georgia.” Mayor Richardson stuck out his hand.
“I beg your pardon,” I said, astounded. I shook his hand although goodness knows what pestilence clung to it. “You’re not what I expected.”
Mayor Richardson laughed. “Well, Doctor, one’s got to be a real fool to get elected mayor. Doesn’t pay anything. You don’t even get a pair of shoes! But a town’s got to have one, like a town’s got to have a doctor and a body’s got to have an asshole.”
I hid my chagrin at my mistake by straightening my collar. “Again, I beg your pardon, sir. I’m sure you have the health of your constituents in mind. You called for a trained physician to look after them, and here I am. You said it was hydrophobia. Rabies.”
The place, a town at the edge of civilization, was not tempting. But any hesitation had vanished with one word: hydrophobia. I’d seen one life claimed by it, a life very dear to me, and if I could spare another mother, another little brother from seeing the horrors of that disease, if I could cast out the false hopes peddled by hucksters and replace them with the honesty of real medicine, then I would count my life useful.
The mayor put a meaty arm round my shoulder. He spoke kindly though his grin faded. “See, the truth is… I had to find a doctor. I wrote several with the honest truth, and no one wanted the job way out here, what with what’s out in the woods. So I said to the pastor, ‘What should I write?’ and he said, ‘Write to this Waycross fellow and say rabies.’”
“Your pastor knew my name? He meant for you to summon me especially?” I did not make a habit of associating with pastors. I couldn’t imagine any that would have recognized me.
“He saw your letter and said that you’d come straightaway if I said rabies. Ain’t nobody got it. But folks are scared, real scared.”
“How many infected? How many dead?”
“Well, not a one, yet. But that’s just a matter of time, ain’t it? Pastor says creatures out in the woods are sick with it. A few dogs have shown the signs. We shot them. Had to do it, sad as it was. But what’s worse, there’s this panther…”
“Do you mean you summoned me across this vast state, at the cost of all my money, and there is no hydrophobia? Just some foamy-at-the-mouth mountain lion.”
“Ain’t no mountain lion. Folks wouldn’t be afraid of a mountain lion.”
“I take it you’ve seen the creature?”
“Naw, but why do you have to see it to believe it?”
“Because that’s science, sir!” I placed my foot down, and the mud and ichor of the alley splattered all over my trouser legs. There was no chance a panther was in the woods of northern Georgia. The climate, the geography, and the fauna were all wrong. I would have been less surprised to see an albino kangaroo, but I shouldn’t have been rankled by mistakes in zoology. It was the mayor’s lie that should have bothered me—his false pretenses to snare a respectable doctor in his hog-cursed, mud-soaked, huckster-plagued little hamlet.
“Pastor Boatwright says we’ll have sick people soon. But that’s ’tween you and him. And the panther.”
I fumed in disappointment that I was not arriving in the midst of an epidemic. That would have afforded ample opportunity for study and good works, for me to offer consolation and succor, but then remorse took me. I felt guilty that I had wished rabies on anyone. No one should suffer for my edification or absolution.
“The plague of hucksters is more deadly, I think, than this rumor of a panther.”
“It’s the legislature that needs a doctor,” continued Richardson. “The muck-mucks in Milledgeville want any town aiming to be the county seat to have a respectable physician. But I don’t expect that you’ll find many takers for your bleeding and puking, Doctor. Lopping off arms and calling that a cure… If anybody will come to see you, it’s because they’re too afraid of the panther in the woods to go up to see the Winter sisters.”
I moved my mouth, but no sound came out. Richardson gave me a squeeze, and I found myself squashed against his flesh.
“Now, Doc, don’t look so glum. We’ll get a huntsman, not a doctor, who’ll kill this panther, and folks can go back to their regular healings. Meantime, the farmers might let you take a look at the livestock. Mules with cracked hooves, cows with sore teats. You can bleed a dog same as a person, right? Snell’s got a place out back where you can set up a little office in case anybody does come by. There’s a hayloft, too, where you can sleep.”
I had a mind to shake the dust of this cursed place off my feet and catch the next stagecoach for somewhere—anywhere—else, but I’d spent the last of my money to get myself to Lawrenceville. I didn’t have a nickel for supper, and if I had the money to leave, where would I go? No other town had called for me. Lawrenceville would have to suffice until I could make other plans.
“Where’s this hayloft?” I asked.
Mayor Richardson pointed toward a store at the northwest corner of the square. As I tromped through the mud of the alley, staining my boots and trouser cuffs, I thought: A hayloft will be drier than sleeping under the stars.
I gathered my possessions from the square. The hogs had left well enough alone, and Salmon Thumb’s show had distracted any thieves. I made my way to a storefront with a hand-lettered sign that read Snell’s Merchandise.
The shopkeeper was waiting on a female customer, measuring out bolts of calico cloth to her exacting specifications. She wore an old-style bonnet, which conveyed modesty and virtue and made her look perfectly ridiculous, like a portrait of a Puritan.
As I waited, I studied the shelves. They were stacked with burlap sacks, paper cartons, glass vials, sugar, coffee, beans, ink, tooth soap, tobacco, cigars, mirrors, lead shot, almonds, coconuts, and vinegar. Advertising lithographs smiled from several places around the store. Each plump-cheeked beauty with shining curls had eyes glimmering with desire for the product named in red capitals above her hair: Silverwhite Shoe Polish, True Brass Candlewax, Edgar’s Own Argentine Soap, and Pharaoh’s Flour. There were no advertisements for Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, but I saw a long row of bottles placed at eye level.
“Anything else, Miss Samples?” said the shopkeeper, unable to hide his exasperation.“No, Mr. Snell,” she snapped. “I suppose that will do. Though you really should order better stock. For a Sunday dress, it isn’t very suitable.”
Miss Samples collected her purchases despite her objections, and when she turned toward the door, she noticed me for the first time.
“What do you mean, sneaking up on a woman like that?” she barked.
“Nothing, ma’am,” I sputtered. “I was only waiting for my turn.”
“You’re not from here, are you?” The scent of her suspicion was as thick as that of onions on her breath. “Come in for Thumb’s song and dance?”
“No, ma’am, just arrived. I’m the doctor, or I was supposed to be—”
Snell clapped his hands. “Ah, the doctor! Yes, the doctor. Well, you’ve been expected. Welcome, welcome.”
I was glad of the kind words, the first I’d gotten in town, and he read the relief in my face.
Miss Samples did not seem mollified by Snell’s welcome. “The Great Physician is all that we need,” she said.
As if I did not have enough rivals in Salmon Thumb and the Winter sisters, I was apparently also in competition against the Lord.
Miss Samples curtsied perfunctorily as she left, and Snell came over to shake my hand. “I took the liberty,” he said, “of ordering some ingredients that would be of use to you.” He pulled out a trunk, which contained glass bottles. Each had its own label: witch hazel, willow, foxglove, and sassafras.
“What are these, sir? I am a doctor, not a gardener.”
Snell frowned. “I only thought it would be things you’d need. How about turpentine? Lots of turpentine.”
“I have no need of it.”
“Well, you are a queer sort of doctor.” I began to have suspicions. “Are these the sorts of ingredients you sell to the Winter sisters?”
“They usually fetch up their own, but I wasn’t sure about you. No sassafras and no turpentine. What do you do, then?”
“Real medicine,” I said. “If you’ll wait a moment, I will show you a diploma.”
Snell held up his hand. “Naw, I believe you, Doctor. Real city medicine, I guess.”
“The body of a city man is no different from that of a country man.”
“Here, let me show you where you’ll be sleeping, City Doctor.” Snell opened a door no bigger than a pantry’s, revealing a room that, while spacious enough, was not unoccupied. The south wall of the room was slid open like a barn door, and a brace of hogs was roaming the threshold. Sacks of corn ringed the chamber, and hams hung from the ceiling rafters. A ladder in the corner led up to a hayloft. The tongues of barnyard animals had polished the pine floor to a smooth shine. The chinking had fallen out between the boards, admitting both light and pestilent miasmas.
“It is, Mr. Snell, more… rustic… than I had wished.”
“Were you expecting a marble mansion?”
In my embarrassment, I said nothing. Snell took this for haughtiness.
“If you can’t make the best of it, Dr. Waycross, we’ll let the hogs take it back. They’re not so choosy as doctors.”
Sarah Winter hadn’t come into town for the medicine show, and she certainly hadn’t come to see the spectacle of a new doctor making a fool of himself on stage, humorous though it had been. She’d come to Lawrenceville because the sisters needed a few things from Snell’s store.
Rebecca still wasn’t much for coming to town—even after six months, there were too many hard memories—and Sarah would always rather Effie stay safely tucked away at Hope Hollow. So she made the journey alone, hiding her face behind a red kerchief. It would not really stop the curiosity of anyone, but it would mark that she didn’t want to be seen. People would leave her alone, and that suited her all right.
Sarah saw the doctor—Waycross, wasn’t it?—go ahead of her into Snell’s store. If he introduced himself to her, the poor fellow would find himself arguing his principles against an even more mischievous opponent than Thumb, and it would draw attention that Sarah didn’t want. She was only there for coffee, after all, and what few things they couldn’t make or grow up in Hope Hollow.
Sarah kept an eye on the general store, walking past every few minutes to see if Waycross had finished his business there so she could do hers. While she waited, she saw that not much in Lawrenceville had changed since her last visit, nor since they’d lived here, before the fire and the pastor. Sarah saw all the same faces that had been there the night Boatwright had fanned the terror of the mill fire into a hot and angry mob. One face she didn’t see, of course: Everett’s. He was in the graveyard, cooling with the clay.
Still, the same sad little shops and church were there, as worn and weather-beaten as the farmers and sawyers and other settlers despite not being as old. The spring was still crowded with more hogs than people, and the little house Everett had built for Rebecca was still a pile of black cinders.
The spindly willow tree in the yard had survived the mob and the fire. Three poppets hung from its branches—three sisters, made from twigs and twine. No one had cut down those effigies in the months since, not even Snell or Richardson or any other person who came up to Hope Hollow for a cure, and it made Sarah burn with anger. The sisters were not friendless in Lawrenceville, but no one had the courage to cut the effigies down.
Sarah, her mother, and her sisters had been in Hope Hollow longer than the town of Lawrenceville had existed. Before the militia pacified the Cherokees, old Indians—men and women, their faces hewn as if from rock—had come calling regularly. Taciturn natives wanted to trade ginseng, willow bark, and sassafras for half-pint bottles of turpentine, and desperate ones fell at the Winters’ door, pleading in a foreign tongue for foreign cures. Sometimes Sarah’s mother gave them hyssop tea, or she covered their open wounds in honey, or she wrapped their fevered foreheads with cold rags. That was straight medicine, and Rebecca, being older, attended at her mother’s side and fetched the herbs and kept the tea on the boil. Sarah was left to look after Effie.
Each new year, though, brought a new crop of chimneys and a new crop of white farmers who pushed the Indians northward. Sarah’s mother did not like the white settlers. When there was a rap at the front door, Sarah’s mother would look out through the chinking between the logs to see who it was, and if it was a white woman huddled beneath a bonnet or a hard-scrabble sawyer with a mangled hand, she’d let Rebecca see to their needs instead.
“Where’s your mother?” they’d ask, and Rebecca would say, “Sick.”
Perhaps she was sick, rotten with an illness inside that even she couldn’t cure, but that was probably a lie, for how could there be a sickness that couldn’t be cured?
Then one night—the moon a crescent, cicadas crying—a circle of Cherokees drew up around the Winters’ house, and they made sounds that were not quite singing. Sarah’s mother brought her girls out, and the Cherokees surrounded them. They drew a circle on the ground with charcoal that circumscribed the girls. They braided lavender and sage and dove feathers into the girls’ hair. As long as the three sisters stayed together, their protection would never be broken.
Sarah’s mother was not in the circle, but she drank from a wooden cup, and she vomited onto the earth, and the women turned over the soil so that the sick was buried, and the fresh ends of earthworms glimmered in the moonlight. Sarah had never seen a more delightful or ridiculous or powerful thing. There was no magic: no enemy would be afraid to step over a charcoal line, and no bandit would be frightened away by the smell of lavender, but force and grace were writ on the faces of everyone assembled. Everyone there believed in the charm.
The most fervent believer was her own mother. After the ceremony, she’d be gone for weeks at a time, and the oppressive authority that Rebecca adopted in their mother’s absence made the time seem even longer. Effie was still little. When their mother would come in from the woods, her skin browned, her cheeks hollow, her eyes yellowed, Sarah came to understand that she wanted to die alone. She didn’t want her children to bury her.
“Sarah, Sarah—remember that you’re bound with your sisters. If you keep together, you’ll be protected. Your enemies will fear what three of you can do, more than what any one of you can do alone. Your talents and your faults will remedy each other.”
And it had worked, hadn’t it? She and Rebecca and Effie hadn’t been hanged, except in effigy. They hadn’t been burned—only Everett had. And they hadn’t been harmed, save for the harm they did to each other.
Sarah left the straw effigies to hang. Would it be another six months or a year before someone cut them down? Or would Nature have to rot away the string?
Finally, Sarah passed by the barn behind Snell’s store and saw Waycross busying himself inside. That meant she could get to the store without mixing up in conversation, and she could buy her coffee and be done with that place for another few weeks, until they needed coffee again.
A tinkling bell announced her entrance.
Snell at once looked up. “Miss Sarah, I need your help. It’s my arm.”
Sarah Winter dropped the red kerchief from in front of her face. “My disguise isn’t fooling anyone, is it?” “Boatwright and Lizbeth Samples and Mrs. Maltbie and their friends won’t see you. They don’t want to see you. Those of us that need you, though, we’ll see you fine.” Sarah considered that for a moment, and then she folded the kerchief and put it into her pocket. “Let me do my shopping first, Mr. Snell, and then you tell me about your arm.”
Snell nodded. “What can I get for you?”
“I’d been aiming for coffee and some blue silk thread. Rebecca can’t make her coffee tree bloom, no matter how much pigeon shit she heaps on it, and the silk—well, silk comes from bugs, and none of us fancy bugs that much. But after that display in Honest Alley, I’m thinking that a bottle of Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic would do me more good than any coffee you could scrounge up here.”
Snell reached up toward the shelf where he’d placed a few bottles of the tonic that he’d bought from Thumb. He winced as he reached.
“Did you try Grove’s for your arm?” said Sarah.
“It’s sprained real bad.” Snell rubbed the muscle below his shoulder. “I was lifting a ham. Grove’s isn’t going to do that a bit of good.”
“And you didn’t want to ask the doctor that was just here? The one you put out into the barn by your hams?”
Snell grunted. “Doesn’t seem like much of a doctor. Didn’t even want any turpentine.”
“It was a hell of a sight to see him try to out-talk Thumb,” continued Sarah. She plucked down a brilliant-blue jar labeled Hamilton’s Great Fastener, the Nev-R-Un-Stick Glue, and tossed it from hand to hand. “Like seeing a mule and a chicken get into a kicking contest.”
“He’s just back there in the barn. He’ll hear you.”
“I don’t give a right damn if he hears me.” Sarah put the jar of glue on the counter next to where Snell had measured out a little sack full of coffee. “And he sure doesn’t care who hears him. More the better, he’d suppose. Why not ask him if he’d fix your arm?”
Snell leaned forward over the counter, his voice dropping low. “Because those kind of doctors—any ache or pain, they want to cut you open. Bleed you if you’re lucky, make you puke if you’re not, and anything that can’t be made to come out the vein or out the top or the bottom, they’ll just lop off with the bone saw.”
Sarah laughed. “You’re more afraid of a doctor than you’re afraid of a witch!”
“Because I’ve heard all about doctors. Sawbones and leeches!”
“That’s why I’m gettin’ the glue,” said Sarah. “Anybody’s arm gets cut off, you just send them up to Hope Hollow, and I’ll glue it back on. ‘Great Fastener, Nev-R-Un-Stick.’ With a promise like that, how could you doubt?”
“I’ll give it to you free of charge,” said Snell, “and you can have the coffee, too, if you tell me what to do about the pain in my arm.”
Sarah clicked her tongue. “You’re not much of a shopkeeper, Mr. Snell. What’s the missus going to think if you’re giving away all your stock? You sure you wouldn’t rather have Rebecca mix up a dram for you? I think she’d put willow bark and honey into a tea for the pain, and then she’d make a poultice of green leaf of something-or-other mixed with turpentine and goose grease and, I don’t know, liver and onions.”
“Still sounds much better than having my bowels rinsed out by a Hippocratic,” said Snell. “But Rebecca’s up in Hope Hollow, isn’t she? And I’m not giving out free coffee if I have to go all the way up there. You’re standing in my store right now.”
“Convenience has always been my greatest talent,” said Sarah. “Here, you take this red kerchief.” She took it out of her pocket and wound it around Snell’s upper arm, tucking it in and tying it off above Snell’s elbow, visible on top of his shirtsleeve. As she tied, she pressed her finger on the knot so it would be tighter. The whole of the soreness was under pressure from the kerchief.
“Does it have to be so tight?” said Snell, rubbing the muscle again with his free arm.
“It does if I say it does,” said Sarah. “Tighter the better. You leave it there all day, even after you go to sleep.”
“And that’s going to help?”
“Not enough,” said Sarah. She put her elbows onto the counter, unloading her purchases. “You’ve got to wake up at midnight.”
“That’ll wake the missus.”
“Tell her it’s nothing, it’s just your sore arm. You put on your boots and you go down to the spring. Take off the kerchief and soak it in the spring water. The midnight spring water. And you wrap up your arm again, tight as you can, in that midnight spring water.”
“The midnight spring water…”
Sarah knew that’s when the water would be coldest, and the night air would add to the cooling effect. “Three nights you do that, and on the third night, you won’t feel the slightest soreness.”
In three nights, thought Sarah, a little sprain would probably be gone all on its own, but if it was worse than a little sprain, the cold compress would help speed the recovery. Mostly, though, the patient would feel the power of the midnight spring water. That would always be better than ice, if there were any ice, because midnight had a mystery that ice never would.
“Now, do I get my coffee?” said Sarah.
Snell pushed the glue bottle and the coffee toward her. “Midnight spring water is a hell of a lot better than having Doctor Waycross amputate.”
Sarah scooped up her prizes and turned to go. She didn’t see the door open, nor did she see Ouida Bell walking in with a box wrapped in a pretty red ribbon, distracted by looking at the lithographs of the advertising beauties.
Only by an inch did they miss colliding with each other, but the jar of Hamilton’s Great Fastener, the Nev-R-Un-Stick Glue, did not stay where Sarah had balanced it. It crashed to the floor, and Ouida Bell slipped on the white mess. She came down hard on her rump, and the box she was carrying popped open. Molasses balls rolled through the glue and to all corners of the store.
“Oh hell,” said Ouida Bell, and then she put her hands to her mouth in modesty at her accidental oath. Glue from her fingers spread onto her lips, her cheek. “Oh gosh, oh gosh, oh hell. Just, oh hell. Those were meant to be for Mrs. Snell, those molasses balls. I can’t think why she’s mad at me, but she is, and those were meant to be for her, so maybe she wouldn’t be so mad. I baked them up special, and now they’re all ruined.”
Sarah knelt down beside Ouida Bell. She no longer had her kerchief to wipe away the glue from the poor girl’s face, so she used the sleeve of her dress. “Why, Ouida Bell, the boys are going to be stuck on you worse than ever.”
Ouida Bell smiled through her distress, and Sarah thought it was an honest smile. It suited her well. Neither her ruined dress, her ruined shoes, nor her ruined present for Mrs. Snell could dampen Ouida Bell’s good humor.
It was past nightfall before I’d finished inspecting and arranging my equipment. My glasses and vials had survived the journey. The copper tubing, alembics, flames, condensers, and crucibles were serviceable, too. I stood them all on a wooden plank balanced across two sacks of cornmeal. For a bookshelf, I had three fruit crates stacked atop each other. The surgery was a chair by the window. Starlight leaked through the drafty walls.
I’d purchased a poor supper of crackers and cheese from Snell, on credit. I found my pens and paper from among my supplies, and I drafted a letter.
A letter would take at least two weeks to travel back to Savannah, and the response just as long. I was captured for a month, doctoring to hams and hogs.
I settled into the pile of straw that was my humble bed and struggled for a half hour before I was able to tamp down the prickly ends, but the bad memories only grew sharper. I hadn’t faced the thought of so many charlatans since… since Eva’s sickness. No doubt we would have tried Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic and then called in the Winter sisters for their cobweb cures. Each time I pulled up my blanket to try to sleep, I saw poor Eva’s sweat-soaked brow, her knotted hair, the intelligence fading from her gray eyes. Damn all the hucksters for their false cures and false hopes. The disquiet of my situation wouldn’t cease. My brain was too unsettled by the incurable past.
In Savannah, I’d had a little garret apartment. Young, vigorous people lived in the rooms below me. They played whist and ombre, drank liquors, and sang under the influence of ether. These ether frolics were all the fashion. The host would provide silken cloths soaked in the chemical, and guests would fall into good-natured hysterics. While still at my studies, with an eye to my dwindling funds, I’d provided my downstairs neighbors or their acquaintances with the ether they needed for their guests.
I disdained their card games and liquors, but I approved of their ether frolics—or the ether, at least. Frail humanity is consumed by the need to find amusement, happiness, laughter, and repose. Ether is a hygienic and efficient enjoyment, without the maudlin moods of drunkenness or the hours needed to read a novel or knit the complicated web of social relations or learn the rules of ombre. I am not a religious ascetic or mirthless curmudgeon, but my conscience does not allow the frittering away of time. Medicine is long, and life is short.
I sprinkled several drops onto a clean cloth, placed it against my nose, and inhaled. The medicine showman, the slippery mayor, the rabid panther, the ignorant townsfolk…
Ether’s sweet smell lingers long in the nose. It tickles the brain just at the front, above the eyes. The holes in the roof revealed small spots of stars, the lamp of the heavens shining down upon me. The straw was fresh. A breeze curled through the worm-riddled walls. Outside, hogs in good company murmured among themselves, and I fancied I could hear their jokes. The voice of an owl echoed, and the hogs and I found this a first-rate delight. I cuddled farther into the straw. Why, a man is just a hog with shoes on. I knocked off my boots. They fell down from the hayloft and rang out like fireworks upon the floor below. The stars exploded in reds and greens and yellows. Then, wonder of wonders, the window and roof fell away, and the whole sky spread out like a pasture before my eyes. In the center was the moon, the great hog-nosed moon! The hogs made worshipful oinks, and I joined in their chorus.