Search the Darkness
"Life's water flows from darkness.
Search the darkness don't run from it.
Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don't leave this companionship."
-"Search the Darkness", Rumi
Chapter 1: One Too Many Times
"For even he who is most greedy for knowledge can achieve no greater perfection than to be thoroughly aware of his own ignorance in his particular field. The more be known, the more aware he will be of his ignorance." -Nicholas of Cusa
"Hold the candle."
"I'm not a stranger," Lisa protested.
"You're not family: you hold the candle," Mirela insisted.
The corpse lay before them on the worn pallet. Tradition was tradition and the candle was placed in Lisa's hands. The only thing the tallow candle would successfully accomplish was smoke up the room, but she did not dare put it down. The doctor said nothing: it was the least she could do after everything.
"Ah, Tudor," Mirela lamented in a whisper, hanging a pair of fresh trousers for the eventual burial over the back of a chair. "You couldn't wait until harvest time ended."
Lisa stared at the dead man's weather-beaten face. Her hand had just brushed his eyelids over his glassy stare. She'd liked the farmer. He was one of the few who defended her in Lupu.
Ioana burst through the front door.
"Father Vasile is here."
Lisa examined the wiry girl: Ioana has been bursting through front doors quite a bit today— including earlier, when she'd fetched Lisa, begging her to trudge the three miles from her one-room cottage to the farm:
"Come! Come! He has been asking for you and we don't know what else to do!" In Ioana's statement, a veiled insult. The doctor had learned to rise above those and consider the more pressing desperation, instead.
"How bad is it?" Lisa pulled her worn cloak tightly around her.
"Very bad—two nights ago he started coughing up blood."
"Two nights!" Lisa scolded her. "Why did you wait so long?"
"Mother wanted to call Father Vasile today to administer the Last Rites." Ioana took galloping, hurried steps up the lane. "But I—I am not ready to give up yet!" The sharp glance she shot Lisa was enough: it revealed a tenacity and defiance she could appreciate. Both women fell into silent complicity and picked up their pace.
The expression of pious pity Father Vasile was wearing when he crossed the threshold soured upon finding Lisa there. Lisa suspected that in his eyes, at that moment, she embodied every poisonous accusation he'd ever conjured of her: she was disheveled, shabbily dressed, haggard, and wielding a candle while standing over a corpse. She couldn't have looked more in character than if she had actually been a witch. Of course, when his eyes landed on the water pail by the hearth and found it covered with a cloth ("the heavy mantle of superstition!" he liked to preach), as the custom to usher the dead dictated, he would undoubtedly blame her wicked influence and counsel.
If only he understood the irony of such an accusation against me, of all people. I suppose he doesn't bother wasting time in distinguishing among everything he dislikes. Lisa stood straighter, gripping the malodorous candle. Prig, she thought fiercely, fully meeting his disdainful gaze.
She remained still through the priest's administration of Extreme Unction, only raising her eyes slightly when he smeared a dab of oil on Tudor's forehead.
"Per istam sanctan unctionem et suam piissimam misericordiam, indulgeat tibi Dominus —"
Lisa tore her gaze away, stung by the realization that she knew the words by heart.
Our paths cross far too often. Her eyes trailed the hem of the priest's gown.
She had exhausted her small arsenal of remedies—an arsenal she struggled constantly to keep replenished, that she was often replacing or discarding according to observations, studies, and the too-rare exchanges with the occasional healer traveling through the region. She had optimistically believed Tudor could recover. Had it been belief? Or just hope? Earlier on in the evening he appeared to take a turn for the better: his waxen face regained color and he had even asked for something to eat. Had she been less experienced, she could've forgiven herself for failing to acknowledge the obvious: it was merely that curious phenomenon of lucidity so many of the dying experienced moments, sometimes even hours, before their bodies failed terminally.
And the end had been harrowing: Tudor had suffocated. He'd faded into unconsciousness gasping for air, his eyes bulging wide, terrified and pleading.
And what had she done as his body turned on him so viciously and he struggled to inhale lungfuls of air? The only thing she could think of: prop him up, circle his heaving chest with her arms, and violently thrust him upwards, as if there were anything to dislodge from the man's airways, as if she could expel illness through force and will alone. He did not fight her as she tried—he believed in her. Or perhaps he took comfort in her efforts—at least it was something concrete that didn't consist of murmured prayers that sought to appease a convulsing body.
She let her head hang with shame. When it had been needed the most, when it had mattered, her knowledge had been paltry. In the end, she shuddered, she'd been as useful as the priest.
Lisa was too tired and defeated to walk back home. The windows of the tavern at the inn on the outskirts of the village blazed brightly against the night sky, beckoning her to stop for a spell.
"Give me a cup of palincă."
"Are you paying in aspiri or something else?" The innkeeper barely looked up at her.
She fingered her meager coin pouch: she was always broke in any currency, but she would rather go hungry for a meal if it meant some consolation that evening. She slapped a silver coin down on the countertop.
Loud, raucous laughter erupted behind her.
Best to stay here and avoid trouble.
"Rough night?" he asked, setting down a generous cup of amber liquor before her.
"Mm." The cup reached her lips and her mouth and throat were aflame after a few sips. Ah, I do need this very much right now.
"Aren't you that healer woman?" He squinted at her.
She nodded once.
"What brings you this way?"
"You mean 'who'." She put the cup down. "I was tending to Tudor, the farmer."
"How is he?" The innkeeper folded his arms over the counter and leaned toward her just as one of the villagers traipsed closer to the bar, the handle of his empty tankard dangling from his hand.
"Good bashtard, that Tudor—'aven't sheen 'im in a while!" the man slurred loudly.
"He died just an hour or so ago." She cupped her drink between her hands. "I'm sorry," she added perfunctorily.
"Dead?" the drunk grumbled. "But how?…He was jusht 'ere! Jusht…a week ago?" He turned unsteadily toward the room and boomed out his announcement to the remaining patrons, "Tudor'shs dead."
The tavern fell silent at the news, card players placing their decks face down and turning their heads toward the bar.
"God rest his soul," someone declared.
Some hands flew up to cross themselves and the drunk swayed, growing visibly melancholy.
Lisa pressed her lips.
"Tell me something.' She turned around, addressing the men. "Those of you who had seen Tudor recently: try to remember. How was he?"
The men exchanged puzzled glances.
"I don't know…He was just…Tudor."
"Why do you ask?" one of the card players asked her more pointedly.
"I wonder what Mirela is goin' to do now. An' right durin' harvest time," the drunk bemoaned, plunking down his tankard. "Ah, Tudor, Tudor…"
"Did he look well? Was he coughing?" Lisa pressed on.
The men searched each other's faces as if trying to jar one another's memories.
"He was complaining about a having caught cold." A stout gambler pat his chest.
"Yes, yes: he was coughing. Remember? Whenever he laughed too hard."
A cold…a lingering cough. The infection lodged itself in Tudor's lungs. Why, Lisa? He was always outdoors—a robust old goat.
"It was the woods," the drunk confided, tapping his finger knowingly below his eye. "The woods are curshed."
The revelation hung heavily in the room despite the drunken drawl—the men turned away, unwilling to comment.
"What curse?" Lisa provoked.
"The fire-fallow," the drunkard began, "the Voivode…he shaid to clear the land. Nobody! None of us wanted to do it!" He teetered to the side, brushing against the bar, his eyes swimming, unfocused. "Tudor did it, though. He went—shtayed through it all until the shwidden was ready."
"They're old woods. Should've let them be." The innkeeper shook his head.
"Curshed," the drunkard mouthed. "To the grave."
Lisa thought she was beginning to understand what had happened. It was the smoke. Tudor probably inhaled too much and it irritated his lungs even more.
"It was not a curse." Why did she feel the need to provide those folk with an explanation? "It was the smoke from the fire-fallow—it made his sickness worse.
"It is a cursh," the drunk insisted.
Why did such statements feel like a call to arms? She did not want to be dragged into that argument anymore. Cursed woods and wishful thinking. How could people live like that? Satisfied with so much ignorance and easy credulity. She was not going to succeed in undoing centuries of ignorance in one night in a tavern full of men in various states of sobriety. And yet…she was determined to make her point.
"It was just smoke." She held her ground. The drunk blinked at her.
"Did the shmoke kill him?" He squinted.
"It certainly didn't help him."
"An' where did the shmoke come from?" he challenged her.
She grimaced, unsure of where that rambling would take them.
"From the trees—" she began.
"The trees!" The drunk nodded gravely. "The trees: the trees are curshed!" His eyes widened dramatically before he stabbed the counter with his index finger. "Another round."
Lisa took another swig of her drink, deep exhaustion overcoming her.
"Lisa!" one of the men called after her when she stepped out of the tavern and took to the road. A long walk waited ahead of her. Even with her dagger's pommel firmly pressed into her hand she was uneasy. But unlike her fellow villagers, she didn't worry about devils, strigoi, or other malevolent creatures lurking in the dark.
Her fear was of the living.
So, when the man called her and breached the distance between them, she stiffened, on alert, and wary of who'd be seeking her out at that hour.
"What can I do for you?" she asked gruffly, despite the pounding in her chest.
"You don't remember me?"
She barely slowed down to make out his features. With a brisk shake of her head she resumed her quick step, acutely aware they were alone.
"It's Andrei— Andrei, Florin's son?" he insisted. "You healed me. A sword wound." He tried to keep up with her as she scuttled down the road. "It festered, remember? You healed me."
Of course she remembered. Andrei was one the young men in the village who'd been pressed into fighting during a border skirmish between boyars—he'd been stabbed during combat and someone had staunched the bleeding from his abdomen with a filthy saddle blanket. By the time she'd been called, the wound had grown infected. Only an ointment made of honey succeeded in staving off the infection and kept it from spreading and poisoning his blood. It had taken a while, but he'd made a complete recovery.
"I'm glad you are well," she told him more gently.
"I was the one who told Ioana to go get you."
She turned to look at him more carefully.
"I told her this, 'Ioana, your father is asking you and I am going to tell you now and you better believe me when I say: if it hadn't been for Lisa, I would have died.' I said it just like that, because, you see, she wouldn't have gone to get you: her mother thinks what the priest thinks."
Her heart sank a little. As grateful as she was for his trust, she had failed.
"That's very kind of you to say, but the truth is, I wasn't able to help Tudor."
"Ah, that: those two, they're two mules! They waited too long." He continued walking alongside her. "Of course, I didn't say that to Ioana," he admitted sheepishly.
She smiled sadly.
"I don't think that is the only problem. Sometimes there are illnesses I recognize but that I do not know how to cure." She yanked the strap of her satchel over her shoulder roughly. "I just don't know enough." At his silence, she added, "I wish I did. I wish I were of greater aid. I wish there was somewhere I could go to learn."
"Go to…Targoviste! Apprentice with a master."
"Ah, Andrei." She stared ahead. "It's not possible."
"What about the midwife?"
"I trained with her—but there are more people in addition to birthing women who need help. I want to be able to treat anyone in need: women, men, children, the elderly…"
"And fools with swords?" he asked playfully.
He was sweet. She smiled again.
"I'll just do my best, right?" That matter was her problem: she didn't have to burden the young man with it.
He continued walking by her side.
"Lisa," he began slowly. "And if there was a way for you to learn more…would you be interested?"
"I told you already: I can't—"
He spoke in a hushed voice even though they were alone.
"I know where you can go."
She inhaled deeply. It was a conversation she'd held often before. It was usually some version of the same well-intentioned but tired advice: go to one of the bigger cities, seek out a certain master or a specific school. She had grown weary of repeating how she was too old to be apprenticed to anyone, how she could not afford such an endeavor, or how most of those institutions did not accept women, and even if they did, she suspected, they weren't that advanced in their understanding of how the human body reacted to various illnesses and conditions. Even her cherished and prized copy of Hildegard von Bingen's Physica, a precious gift she had inherited from her mentor and teacher, was not something she followed blindly.
"It might not be easy, he began."
Lisa listened mostly out of a sense of gratitude: it wasn't often that people appreciated her efforts and services.
"In fact, it will probably be very risky."
"Really?" Lisa humored him.
"My grandfather used to tell us stories. They were about a great…I don't know if he was a warlord—but folk claimed he was powerful and immortal and knew all of life's secrets."
Her heart sank, but she wouldn't interrupt him.
"Where did this great lord live?"
"Oh, in a big castle. It was said to be filled with the world's greatest wonders."
The real wonder is how a grown man can believe in such fairytales…
"My grandfather was never certain where the castle was. Sometimes he thought it was somewhere near Brașov, but other times he claimed the castle's location…could shift; it would appear or disappear on a whim…"
"Is that so?" She smirked. "That could make visits difficult, no?"
"It's somewhere in the mountains. Further south, as far as Wallachia." He waved his hand across the air. "And my grandfather said it had hundreds and hundreds of rooms filled with rare books."
"Ah!" That sounds lovely. At least this is a pleasant legend.
"It was said the lord had a gold and silver…" Andrei paused, searching for the word. "Like a big…cannon. But it wasn't a cannon. You could peer into the sky through it and see the stars and the moon so close, you'd think you could just reach out and pluck them from the sky!"
"Like magic." She sighed.
"It was a clever thing—it was filled with special glass that made everything look bigger and came from as far away as Constantinople."
Her head snapped up.
"And he said the warlord could pull down a lever to create lightning that danced in an iron cage."
Lisa's brow furrowed. That was no ordinary magical fairytale. It had echoes of something far more interesting.
"Andrei, walk me home and tell me all you remember about this castle."