Voices woke Theo from his sleep. He did not know from where they came, but they left him awake, glaring at the darkness in his tent.
He went outside at once. Sand and dunes filled the night. There was no one in it. The Bedouins lived away from him, on the other side of the high dunes called Tilal Cid. None of them stayed in these parts save the tribe’s leader, Abdulla, the leper. The wooden louvers of his rammed-earth shack were shut. A padlock sealed his door, and only Theo and Abdulla’s son, Ahmad, had the key.
He heard it again, a weak calling. The one from his sleep. He took a turn around his tent only to see two camels with no one riding them. They stood for a moment in the white glow of the full moon, uttering another baleful sound before departing once again.
Theo put a flame in his lantern and headed out to where the camels went.
On the other side of Tilal Cid, an intimate cluster of tents formed the Bin e’Shdoods’s households. Cattle babbled in wooden enclosures open to the sky. All seemed normal. No one seemed aware of the straying camels Theo followed.
The two could not be lost. To the people of this desert, wandering camels were as valuable as boulders of gold; they would fight over their ownership to no end. The Bin e’Shdood were ferocious camel breeders, feeding them, surviving on them, and living with the animals with a strange familial bond that tinged every aspect of their lives from love to death.
The walk over cold, fine sand demanded a considerable effort. A confusion of footprints appeared. The depressions of goats’ hooves mixed with camels’ and men’s. They went in the direction of the largest and most enduring acacia tree Theo had ever seen. Its unwavering silhouette fooled the eye for a monstrous creature with tens of rising hands, chiming with the hisses of a passing gust.
A putrid, sickening smell intensified with every step Theo took. It stuck in his nostrils and throat, moving his thoughts in ways he did not like. He watched the camels give a loud cry and bolt in fright.
Bodies of goat kids, one corpse over another, lay deflated on the sand. Every pair of hind legs was tied with a coir rope and deprived of its hooves. The skin remained intact, flesh and ribs untaken.
Dead beasts were not a new sight for Theo, but the death he saw before him made no sense. The manner of this killing put a shudder through his spine. Minute holes dotted the bellies and throats and backs of the animals, stabs from a small blade that must have accelerated the loss of blood. Theo located the animal’s skulls, chopped off and tossed aside like scraps, in a mass of leaves. Empty eye sockets breathed out the darkness from the hollow skulls, jaws without teeth or tongues—
These missing parts, they were ingredients! A whirl of doubt left Theo at a loss.
“Who is there!” shouted a man in Arabic.
That recognizable, old voice, came from behind. Sheikh Saeed held his lantern up to his face, and with the other hand, a dagger.
“You?” he said.
Golden lights sparked in the background. More shadows with lights, more individuals, were headed in the tree’s direction. Through the lands that stood behind Tilal Cid, shouts broke out.
The sheikh stepped into the scene. His stare searched for some clarity in what he saw. God’s name, words from the Quran, curses to slay the devil all went out from him.
In the silence, flies that seemed to not have existed before in this desert suddenly infested the lanterns and carcasses. Ants and other insects joined in from the ground, a march of creatures wanting a piece of the dead. The spray of blood became a thick dark mud.
More men showed up, and Ahmad was among them. “What happened here?” he said with the bearing of a leader.
“Ask him,” the sheikh said.
“It was like this when I came. Camels—they woke me up. They must have caught the scent and . . . I heard their calls.”
Ahmad looked into the darkness. One of the tribe’s men confirmed the loss of two beasts from the herd.
“They took off,” Theo told him. “They headed west. You’ll need to send a rider after them before someone claims them as johamas.”
Ahmad gave orders to mount the horses and chase after the camels. He put the present case in the hands of another group, who he told to patrol the place and bury the bodies before the scent carried worse beasts to them.
“Can’t you see?” started the sheikh. “He’s the one. Him! This outsider. He is fooling you! He’s fooling all of us! He did this.”
Ahmad told the sheikh that this was not the time or place for any quarrel.
“Nonsense,” the sheikh said. “Ahmad, this so-called doctor is fake. First, it was your father, and now our beasts. These are the things he uses in his practice. This man made this. You all must have lost your minds if you let this case be—”
“And why would I butcher them?” Theo said. “Ahmad gets my supplies from the city whenever I need. Something else happened here.”
“God knows I am telling the truth, and he is a liar!” spat the sheikh. “Look how miserable and wasted he is; all the evidence on his face and hands. You promised to get help from your people to heal Abdulla. So, where are they? You don’t work by Avicenna’s practice, nor by those of Celsus or Galen, nor anyone. You use our riders to send your letters and get your supplies, you use our money and homes and food for your witchery. That’s why you are here.”
“Enough!” Ahmad raised a hand. “The doctor has tried his best, and I see signs of recovery in my father. We’ll deal with this after dawn. I’ll take up the matter myself.”
The sheikh was the first to turn away. Ahmad did not have any other words to add, but his eyes held questions and skepticism.
Still, no matter how much hatred the sheikh expressed, he could not have done this. Whatever happened here had been done by those who knew what they were after. But why?
A brisk wind assailed the tent upon Theo’s entry. It sent the work papers on his table into flight. Motes of dust whirled in midair, and Theo watched them, exhausted.
Sleep would never come. All calm had gone from his head. The words he’d heard still pestered his brain. This quest to kill Abdulla’s disease would weary the most committed physician.
Soon there would be no more patience in him to meet others with. They all wanted results, instant results.
Yesterday’s treatment session had left a layer of oil cemented on his hand. He’d failed to remove it. Today he must continue what he couldn’t finish the day before. He had exhausted all his means to save Abdulla. All he could do was to numb him and ease his passing, to make it bearable.
He came closer to his papers. All the writings and the reading he had done, all the research, all the findings . . . No, he could not submit to tragedy or failure, not yet. Today was a new day, he told himself. This ridiculous despair must end. He needed new material from Basel, powerful medicines. Something might have been discovered back at home that could eradicate this disease.
He had turned his colleagues in Basel against him. They were worse than Saeed. But still he must seek their help.
Crouching down and fumbling through the mess on the ground for clean paper to write a letter on, Theo came across a page that froze him. Its corner crumpled in his hand.
It was a folded letter with unexpected handwriting on it. Its distinctive swirling letters bore the name Capito.
Theo did not have any memory of receiving it. Maybe one of the riders left it in his tent while Theo was away. But it was a pleasant surprise. Finally, his old friend had replied to Theo’s letters. He was sure that their relationship could not have grown so cold only with time and distance.
He spread the page open, meeting the shaky handwriting of Capito with hungry eyes.
When you read this letter, I will be locked in Abdulla’s chamber. He is not the man you think you know. He feels everything. He knows everything. He is not a human, but a demon. I cannot linger outside otherwise he will know. Seek me out the moment you read my words. Be cautious when you enter his place. Be alert. And please, oh please, keep the light low.
Theo examined the letter in every way possible. He found no evidence of how long it had been there, where it came from, nothing. Capito’s voice was in these words, but to accept what he read would be nothing but maddening.
Chills went down his frame. A hundred thoughts rushed inside his skull, none of which he could grasp. After that scene by the tree and this letter, nothing could explain the matter. Ahmad had a copy of the key to Abdulla’s room, but why would he do this? Could Abdulla have had a hand in it? But how could a man so beaten by sickness devise such a scheme? Nothing made sense.
“A demon . . . not a human?” Theo mumbled. He could not let another second pass. He fumbled for the key and left the tent, readying the lantern in his hand.
At Abdulla’s own request, his chamber lay isolated, many meters away from any others.
Peering through a thin fissure in the wall and then through cracks between the shut louvers, Theo saw nothing save a room starved for light. Only the scent of drugs oozed out with an intense pungency like a mixture of pepper and glue.
He turned the key in the lock, lifted the latch, and stepped in. The lantern’s light touched only part of Abdulla’s body. The rest of the man remained in the shadow. His inhales and exhales sounded laborious. He lay on a wooden examination table with a long piece of goat’s hide underneath him, sleeping in the gray woolen robe worn by the tribesmen.
Dank musty air, thick with medicine, attacked Theo. His eyes stung with every blink.
He found the fabric Abdulla wore stuck to his skin—that was due to yesterday’s oil treatment. Dire sores had covered Abdulla’s nose and threatened to spread to his eyelids if left unattended. The face, empty of hair, wrinkled and jagged, bruised as if bitten by wasps, told of a man that could not lead any kind of physical venture.
The clay jar next to him had liquid in it. It was thick, but had a fine powdery touch to it. Theo put a drop of it on his tongue, and a bitter taste exploded in his mouth . . . blood!
This is not my treatment!
He rummaged for a piece of cotton from the nearby table as the smell intensified. The lantern’s light brushed the shadows away and gave view of the primitive tools littered on the table: mixing bowls, a sharp chisel, a rusted knife, wooden spoons, copper plates, rocks of sulfur, a slab of sea salt, a pot with quicksilver, plucked leaves, coir sheets. He saw a leather diary; it had a marker made of a dried Lantana Camara plant in its full bloom, its pointed end smeared with ink as if it were a quill. He opened the book flat. Drawings of constellations, of the moon and the sun, measurements narrowed down into symbols hinting at chemical elements and alchemical practices. Venomous creatures were nailed to dry on the wall. Dried snakeskins were rolled in a clump, fangs in a jar, scorpion legs broken. Goat hooves, teeth, eyeballs.
Theo glared in the dark, blinking, stealing glances, feeling the presence of death. He moved the lantern a little toward a gloom on the far side of the room.
There, a voice burst out.
“Capito, is that you?” Theo said.
Movement. Something rustled. Whispers, the nervous sounds of someone breathing to himself, raving with pleas. After one step forward from Theo, the blinking phantom dashed out of the corner. “Take it away!” The fierce voice said.
But Theo stepped forward, for the sake of his sanity he did not hold back. He saw, by the wall, bare feet rubbing against each other. Fingernails scratching dark skin. A nervous creature trying to carve his fear into his flesh. The figure of a naked man drenched in sweat, a weakling, emerged in the lantern’s glow. He gleamed like a sculpture of bronze and opened his mouth, shouting, “Keep it away! I beg you.”
His fingers covered his face, shielding it. A watchful dark eye glared right into Theo’s soul from between them, sparkling with horror.
Nothing could explain what Theo was seeing; the sight defied reality. “Do not panic,” He said. He closed the lamp’s shutters a bit, and placed it on a niche inside the wall.
The man stood up straight, now better shrouded by darkness. That fear which had swallowed him disappeared with the light. Part of his body remained tucked in the shadows, but Theo could imagine him as the healthy Capito he knew.
“I . . . read your letter,” Theo said. “What happened to you?”
The figure walked out of the dark. His breath was like a whisper in the ear. He picked the lantern and stepped closer. In full view, standing broad, his smile was the first thing to become clear.
Those wild haunting eyes, this pudgy face, the entire figure, the scar on his chest! Horror sent him aback. This was an exact reincarnation of Theo himself.
“You,” the man said. “You brought me here, Theo. Don’t you remember? You asked me to come, to be here; to be with you.”
The heart in Theo’s chest almost stopped.
“Have you seen a ghost?” the man said. “You don’t look like someone pleased to meet his old friend.”
“Who . . . are you?”
“How is it that you don’t know.” The man hissed from behind Theo’s shoulder. “You know well. You just have a bad memory, dear Theo. It will come to you, it will, just like it does every day and every night, just like it has for many months now.”
“You . . . you sent me that . . . that letter?” Theo said. “Capito? You made all this madness? All this—”
“I did!” he said. “And I shall do it again and again if need be. But today, I created a great game for you and the entire tribe, didn’t you enjoy it?”
“This is madness!”
“You never disappoint me; a failure of the highest rank.”
The night before, walking away from Abdulla’s shack . . . Tilal Cid . . . towing goats from the barn . . . freeing the camels. The knife, the cries, the blood, the tent . . . wild hysterical laughs followed by infinite darkness! Grasping at his dark memories felt like visiting crypts full of dead bodies.
“You think that you can give birth to me and then shut me inside your fears?” the man said. “You—Theophrastus Phillipus von Hohenheim, one who is bringing greatness into medicine—dare to be ashamed of me!”
Theo covered his ears with his hands. He exhaled in the thick air. This is not real. It cannot be. I am not mad. This is not real!
But words flowed into Theo’s head, whispers that said: Don’t be a fool. I know your thoughts as you speak them.
Theo glared at the floor. Was this foul air causing all of this? Was this treatment poison!
Do not speak like them! What we’ve created here is the ultimate cure. Poison, Theo, poison is in the dosage and nothing else. There is nothing like it! It kills the life in everything, and breathes a new one back into it. It is the new philosophy that shatters all that has preceded it.
Every intake of air drew Theo deeper into this voice, into some delirious world he could not pull himself out of. He could hear the faint wind as it brushed the wooden louvers.
The man went and stood by Abdulla’s side. He unwrapped the cloth around Abdulla’s hand. Brittle fingers, arched and stiffened, looked as if they’d been smashed between two rocks, and yet despite the fragility, they were spotted with the soft pinkish color of recovery.
The man dipped the cloth into a clay bowl full of that mixture of blood Theo had tasted. He squeezed it into the thin cracks on Abdulla’s shins and wrists, which were like a thousand dried papercuts.
A burst of feelings ambushed Theo, he buried his forehead in his hands as if to split it open. His fingers scratched his beard against his will. He gazed at them. Dark greasy marks grew underneath his fingernails. They gleamed from the touch of oil. Sweat covered his forehead, his back, and the soles of his feet. Every part of him seemed to be changing. “What do you want from me!” Theo cried.
“Everything. I want everything. Don’t you see? I am the very thought that speaks in your head. You cannot hide. Where will you go? I am the one everyone disapproves of, the one calling for what’s new. They hate my voice, they hate my thoughts, my purpose; I am a threat to fame and legacy. But I am there, and I shall endure, for I am the greatest man of medicine of all time. I am beyond Avicenna, beyond Galen that so-called medic, beyond Celsus himself. I am . . . Para-Celsus!”
No. Theo looked around him. I cannot allow this. He took the lantern and spread its shutters wide. A strong light shined out of it. He rose, dashing forward with the chisel he grabbed from the table in hand.
Paracelsus swung a hand and slammed Theo against the wall. “Stop it,” He shook Theo. He put his fingers on Theo’s neck and pushed. “You make me sick. I am tired of your pathetic self.” His fingernails pinched into Theo’s throat. “I am tired of you. You want approval of your practices in spite of their success. You want a place among a league of scholars. The shame you get out of it. The guilt, the triumph. They are torturing me. I am not in the business of pleasing anyone.” Parcelsus’s thumbs pushed deep, squeezing into Theo’s throat.
Fighting, gasping, trying to free himself . . . but deeper and deeper went Paracelsus’ fingers. He hunched over Theo as his body slid down to the floor. “Shhhh, now,” he said. “You have to let me out. You have to go so that I can excel. Rest. Rest, my friend,” he said. “Go. Take that final leap, go to sleep.”
Theo’s hand clutched onto Paracelsus’s face, clamping his eyes and mouth. His outcry for help stuck in his mind, and slowly, he lost his impetus. The body he felt was no more his. All he saw was the lantern light dim in his vision and Paracelsus’s face disappear in darkness. Silence reigned.
Paracelsus opened his eyes. Something had changed inside him, but he did not wait to recollect what it might be, nor did he allow his mind to take him one moment back into the past. It was a dead dream.
He rolled up his sleeves. His throat felt sore and in need of a touch of water, which he gave it. He rubbed his stinging eyes. The level of drugs in the air had gone below the threshold needed for the patient; he could gauge it by smell now. He opened the diary on the table and continued from where he had left off yesterday, quiet, transfixed, finding solace and meditation in his work.
Minutes passed. Many more of them went into deep calculations. He concocted a new mixture by mashing, grinding, and squeezing the various dead creatures and plants with oils. With care, he waxed the sole of Abdulla’s foot with this potion and covered the man’s feet with a thin linen warp. This should be enough for now.
He sat a few feet away and rested the lantern next to him. Faces came in the dark, peoples he’d met, visions of lands he’d crossed, the ideas he’d learned. He’d had a moment of self-doubt with all of them. The elixir of life . . . the philosophers stone . . . the quest to turn material into gold.
When formulating a medicine, a dangerous desire to experiment sometimes visited him. Terrible thoughts drove him to acts like wasting the lives of the goat kids last night. It frightened him how calm he was about his entire venture. But then again, when hunger struck, no animal survived a human’s craze for survival. What a life they all led. A visit of guilt made him want to clean himself of what he’d done yesterday. He felt he had to say something about it, to confess to someone. He tore a page out from his diary and wrote:
“To my dear Capito,
I have imagined some of what science could be, and it is grand. Heaven knows that I see the stars far brighter than ever.
Dear friend, hear me when I say that you shall not find anything trifling in nature if you reflect on it; you shall only find limitations in the teachings of the past. I am not going to apologize to any member of the medicine committee, those noisemakers! I daresay that our moral obligation is to stop the practices of the ancients. Burn their books! We have bungled enough through their words! The old ways have to die for us to go on. They add nothing. They prove nothing. Today’s diseases are new—don’t be fooled by how similar they look, for even though water is water, it is still different in every fountain.
You shall hear my words before my voice, and I shall hear yours when my journey ends and brings me back to your doorstep for that fine drink we always have together.
His name seemed a thing of the past. He fed the quill with some ink and wrote Theophrastus Phillipus von Hohenheim Paracelsus. The letter seemed complete now.
He was returning the quill back to the ink when a voice called for him. It took a moment—a quick fleeting moment—to grasp that that voice spoke in Arabic.
“Doctor?” Abdulla was awake, still on his bed. His deep voice was like that of Ahmad, only more mature and potent. He coughed and called again.
The Arabic language resurfaced in Paracelsus’s mind. “Yes,” he said. He saw Abdulla lift the weight of his body with a struggle, so he helped the man. “How are you feeling today?” he said, searching Abdulla’s eyes for any sign of blood saturation.
“Thanks to God, I feel better, much better.”
“That is good news.” Paracelsus gave Abdulla a cup of water and watched him drink it. Abdulla’s dark eyes belonged to one with years of hard work behind him. A man in his early fifties, he had more wisdom than many in their seventies. His Arabic came like poetry and consisted of short sentences, measured and well articulated.
“Night fell upon me while I slept?” Abdulla said now. “Now how does the day go by without me noticing it, doctor? Your medicine puts me in a deep sleep; I have little time for research.”
“Abdulla, stop burdening yourself with work when you need rest.”
“Rest, you say!” he gave a feeble laugh. “When was the last time you had one?”
Paracelsus smiled at him.
“So,” Abdulla went on, turning in his seat. “How about we continue our conversation where we left off yesterday. I want to talk about the earth and the universe and the science that you know and hate. It is how you came to hate it that I am interested in. I am not interested in why you hate it. You keep telling me why, and I have little interest in that. But we shall have that talk after I finish my prayer. I do not intend to have a predicament with God.”
“Abdulla, God knows how sick you are. Rest. You need it.”
“And now you talk about what God knows? Dear me, I shall not be saved,” Abdulla chuckled. He folded the lapels of his robe to cover his bare chest and expended some energy in readying himself to stand.
Paracelsus handed the man his cane, and saw him attempt to rise. He helped Abdulla slide his feet into his sandals with immense care. The stuffed cotton made a cushiony bed for his fragile left foot, and when his toes rested inside, Abdulla uttered something that struck Paracelsus with total astonishment—a feeble groan.
Impossible! Paracelsus rose to Abdulla. They stared into each other’s eyes, bewildered.
Pain, the lack of which made lepers feel inhuman, had returned to Abdulla after months. It found a voice in him.
Paracelsus pressed his thumb hard on the strap of the sandal and said: “Do you feel this?” he pressed in another spot, and another one, harder in every try.
Abdulla’s eyes searched the room, as if wanting to comprehend what had just happened. He faced the roof, raised both hands and said: “Almighty God, up there in the seventh sky, I am in your great debt for the gift of life.” He bowed his head and looked to Paracelsus with glazed eyes. “Yes, doctor. I can feel it. The pain touches me like my heartbeat throbs in my chest. But, good doctor, please, oh please, release that hold you have on my foot for, I am glad to say, I cannot bear it any longer.”
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
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These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.
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