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On the Nature of Miracles

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"But why can't you?"

Berengela did not look up from the book she was reading. Essays on the Structure and Workings of the Human Body was a fascinating work only recently translated into Chalionese from the original Wealdean, and even on this her third re-reading of it, Berengela was still learning more. Or rather, she would, if Learned Mariz would leave her to her studies. "I do not do anything," she said, placidly. "Our Lady Mother works, when she wills, as she wills, through me. I am the vessel through which her healing graces may sometimes be poured out upon the world."

"Yes, yes, I know," Learned Mariz said testily. Berengela thought that if she were to look up, Mariz would be waving her hand dismissively. She did that a lot. She would probably also have a pinched look on her face, for she did not like to be ignored. Berengela was not ignoring her, but neither was she paying her the deference Mariz thought was her due as head of the Hospital of the Divine Mother's Grace.

It was petty, perhaps, but Berengela was not above using her status as the only healing saint in residence at the hospital—and one of the best in the country—to justify less deference than Mariz would prefer to demand.

"But why can't the Mother work through you?" Mariz continued. "You healed that peasant woman of her tumor! Surely you can heal a Provincara, too!"

"It was not I who healed Valeria the Shepherd," Berengela said. "It was the Mother who healed her." This being both true and pious, it was a correction that Mariz could not (officially) object to.

"And why would the Mother heal a shepherd and not a Provincara?" Mariz said suspiciously, as if she suspected Berengela of refusing to cure the Provincara out of spite, or for advantage in their ongoing skirmishes.

"To the Mother, all people are equal," Berengela said. She calmly placed a ribbon in the book and capped her inkwell, knowing her lack of reaction would infuriate the divine. The notes she had made were dry enough by now not to need blotting, she judged, and returned the book to the shelf. Penric kin Jurald's knowledge was illuminating, and his demon's perspective fascinating (and quite different from what the Mother's vision showed her). But it was obvious Mariz would not let her study more tonight, and it was almost time for dinner. "The shepherd is no less in the Mother's eyes than the Provincara."

"Which still should mean the Provincara should receive at least as much healing as the shepherd did!"

"She did," Berengela said, picking up her knitting. Her new shawl was almost finished, and it was something she could do with Mariz hanging over her. And it was soothing in its repetition, and given Mariz's direct attention she needed something soothing. "The two situations are not at all the same. Valeria's tumor was in her gut, and it was very slow-growing. That sort of tumor is caused by tissues that grow and grow when they should die, and in such growth out of season they are like weeds choking out the good growth. The Mother was able to remind some of the diseased tissues of their proper function and lifespan, and in time, the balance shifted. If the tumor were faster-growing, or more advanced, there would not have been time for such things to work. The Provincara's situation is entirely different. There is no tumor. There is only damage." She sighed.

It was quite a tragic case. The Provincara was renowned as a horsewoman, even now in her mid-fifties, and had taken a fall during a jump and bashed her head on some rocks. Her personality was now quite changed, her body withered, and her ability to comprehend what was going on around her was … limited. Berengela took her calling quite seriously, but she had long ago learned not to dwell on her limits or failures. In this tragic case, the Mother's miracles would be of no use. Head injuries were such delicate things, and the Provincara's injury was worse than any Berengela had seen that did not result in immediate death.

"Then why cannot the Mother's miracle tell these "tissues" in the Provincara's brain to grow?" Mariz demanded. The purse offered by the Provincar on his wife's healing must be enormous, for Mariz to be this persistent. Or perhaps she had promised help beyond what Berengela was capable of, and was afraid to be embarrassed. Old Learned Elsbetta would never have allowed hope for money or fear of failure to sway her. Berengela had never particularly liked the hospital's previous head, but at least she hadn't despised her.

"Because brain tissue don't grow," Berengela replied. "Or at least it doesn't grow much. The Mother's miracle is to encourage things to grow and proceed in their proper way. If she were still a child … things would be different. I have done what I can for her, and so has the Mother. There are other patients who need my help—those who can actually be helped."

"But they came all this way!" Mariz said. "They travelled across all of Chalion because you are known to be the best healer-saint in the Mother's service!"

"What of it?" Berengela asked. "Many others do the same. But the miracles of the gods do not follow our wishes, but rather the patterns laid out by the order of the universe. I can work within those patterns; so can the gods. But the gods did not create them, and so cannot break them. The Mother's healing works by encouraging the body to do what it should already be doing. No one can force it to go against its nature."

"Then perhaps a sorcerer?" Mariz asked. "Could we requisition a sorcerer to heal her?"

Berengela rolled her eyes. "Even if there were a Mother's sorcerer close enough to come, they couldn't help," she said. "They work by killing or destroying things that should not be in the body—worms, stones, some cancers." If she understood the implications of Penric kin Jurald's work, that was not (strictly speaking) true, but only a sorcerer of immense learning and skill could pull it off, and only with the greatest risk, and there were none that Berengela knew of who might even be close to capable. "The problem with the Provincara's brain is that her injuries have killed parts of it—killing more won't help. And, as I have already said, the Mother's gift of healing can only bring healthier growth to things already living, not to things that are dead. I am sorry for the Provincara, and wish I could help. But I cannot. There is nothing that anyone can do. Some things are too miraculous even for the gods."

Mariz spent another few minutes trying to browbeat Berengela into changing her tune—as if it were a matter of skill, or stubbornness, instead of the Mother's limitations. But at last she gave up and left, casting a suspicious glance behind her.

Berengela sighed in relief. Refusing to accept the realities and limitations of their trade—or worse, doing it selectively only for those notables who came for Berengela's reputation—would win Mariz no favors with anyone in the hospital. If she cared to play the political games, Berengela could probably use this incident to cause Mariz serious problems. But Berengela did not care for politics; she only wanted to heal people. She spent a few minutes in prayer to the Mother, lifting up and then releasing the aggravations Mariz's presence had brought, and then went down to the refectory for supper.

After the meal, she stopped by to see the Provincara one last time. She was asleep, and her husband was dozing in his chair by her side. "Mother Berengela!" he said. "Is there truly nothing you can do? If there is anything you can think of that might help—"

"I'm afraid not, my Lord Provincar," Berengela said. "There is nothing more that can be done for her save seeing to her comfort. You might as well take her home." She explained yet again the nature of the Mother's miracles, though with rather more compassion and patience than she had given Learned Mariz. She had told him all this before, but often in such cases patients and their families didn't truly understand or accept such bad news the first time around. The death of hope was more painful than death of the body, in so many cases. She stayed with him until he truly understood his wife's condition, and then handed him over to the friends and retainers who had accompanied him here.

Satisfied that she had done what she could, Berengela headed off to bed. There would be new patients on the morrow. There always were.