Alone in the garret, Alvin looked about for a place to store his poke while he lived in
this place. There wasn't much in the way of hiding places there. The floorboards didn't fit
tight together, so there was a chance someone might catch a glimpse of something if he hid the
golden plow in the floor.
So he had no choice but to go to the chimney and pull out a few loose bricks. Not that
they were loose to start with. He sort of helped them to achieve looseness until he had a gap
big enough to push the plow through.
He pulled the plow from the sack. In his hand it was warm, and he felt a faint kind of
motion inside it, as if some thin golden fluid swirled within.
"I wonder what you're good for," Alvin whispered to the plow. "I been carrying you
asleep in my poke for lo these many years, and I still ain't found a use for you."
The plow didn't answer. It might be alive, in some fashion, but that didn't give it the
power to speak.
Alvin pushed it through the opening into the sooty coolness of the chimney. There
being no convenient shelf to set it on, and Alvin not being disposed to let it drop three-and-a-half stories to the hearth on the main floor, he had no choice but to wedge it into a corner.
He had to let his doodlebug into the bricks to soften them up like cork while he pushed the
plow in, then harden them up around the plow to hold it firmly in place. Then he closed the
hole and bound bricks to mortar once again. There was no sign that this corner of the
chimney had been changed in any way. It was as good a hiding place as he was likely to find.
Depending on who was doing the looking.
Now his poke contained nothing but a change of clothes and his writing materials. He
could leave it lying on his bed without a second thought.
Downstairs, he found Arthur Stuart just washing up after using the privy. Two three-year-old girls were watching him like they'd never seen handwashing before.
When he was done, instead of reaching for a towel -- and there was a cloth not one
step away, hanging from a hook -- Arthur Stuart just held his hands over the basin. Alvin
watched as the water evaporated so rapidly that Arthur Stuart suddenly screeched and rubbed
his hands on his pants. To warm them up.
"Sometimes," said Alvin, "even a maker lets things happen naturally."
Arthur Stuart turned around, embarrassed. "I didn't know it would get so cold."
"You can get frostbite doing it so fast," said Alvin.
"Now you tell me."
"How was I supposed to know you were too lazy to reach for a towel?"
Arthur Stuart sniffed. "I got to practice, you know."
"In front of witnesses, no less." He looked at the two girls.
"They don't know what I done," said Arthur Stuart.
"Which makes it all the more pathetic that you were showing off for them."
"Someday I'll get sick of you bossing and judging me all the time," said Arthur Stuart.
"Maybe then you won't come along on journeys I told you not to come on."
"That would be obeying," said Arthur Stuart. "I got no particular interest in doing
much of that."
"Well then set your butt down and wait here and don't help me one bit while I go haul
water from the public fountain."
"I'm not that easily fooled," said Arthur Stuart. "I'll obey you when you tell me to do
what I already want."
"And I thought all you were was pretty."
This being water day, and the neighborhood having no shortage of people who could
use some water beyond what their rain barrels held, Alvin didn't need to ask directions. Each
of them held a couple of empty water jars. Alvin wasn't sure Arthur could carry them both
full -- but it would be better to have two half-full jars and balance the load on his shoulders
than to have just one full one that he'd have to carry in front.
Alvin wasn't much impressed when they got to the fountain. It was pretty enough, in
a simple kind of way: a watering trough for animals around the base, and two spigots to let
down water from the main basin. But the water in the trough was greenish, and swarms of
skeeters hovered around the main fountain.
Alvin examined the water closer, and as he expected, it was all aswarm with tiny
animals and plants and the eggs of skeeters and other kinds of insects. He knew from
experience that water like this was likely to make folks sick, if they didn't boil it first to kill
these things. But since they were invisible to most folks, who couldn't see so small, they
wouldn't feel much urgency to do it.
He reckoned that Mama Squirrel's law against killing animals didn't apply this far
from her house, and besides, what she didn't know wouldn't offend her. So he spent a few
minutes working on the water, breaking down all the tiny creatures into bits so small they
couldn't do no harm. Not that he broke them one by one -- that would have taken half his
life. He just talked to them, silently, showing them in his mind what he wanted them to do.
Break themselves apart. Spill their inner parts into the water. He explained it was to keep
folks from coming to harm by drinking. He wasn't sure just what these tiny creatures
actually understood. What mattered was that they did Alvin's will. Even the skeeter eggs.
As if the skeeters understood that he'd just wiped out their progeny, they made him
pay in blood for having cleaned the water. Well, he'd live with that, itch welts and all. He
didn't use his knack to make himself comfy.
"I know you're doing something," said Arthur Stuart. "But I can't tell what."
"I'm fetching water for Mama Squirrel," said Alvin.
"You're standing there looking at the fountain like you was seeing a vision. Either
that or trying real hard not to break wind."
"Hard to tell those things apart," said Alvin. "It gives visionaries a bad name."
"Get bad enough gas, though, and you can start a church," said Arthur Stuart.
They filled the jugs, taking their turns along with the other folks, some of whom
looked at them curiously, the rest just minding their own business. One of the lookers, a
young woman not much older than Arthur Stuart, bumped into Alvin as she reached to fill a
jar. Then, her jar full, she walked up to Arthur with a bit of a swagger and, in a French
accent, said, "Person rich enough to own a slave got no right to draw from this fountain.
There is cisterns uptown for them with the money."
"We're not drawing for ourselves," said Arthur Stuart, mildly enough. "We're hauling
this for Mama Squirrel's house."
The girl spat in the dust. "Hexy house."
An older woman joined in. "You pretty bad trained, boy," she said. "You talk to a
white girl and never say ma'am."
"Sorry ma'am," said Arthur Stuart.
"Where we come from," said Alvin, "polite folks talk to the master."
The woman glared at him and moved away.
The teenage girl, though, was still curious. "That Mama Squirrel, is it true she has
babies of all colors?"
"I don't know about that," said Alvin. "Seems she has some children that tan real dark
in the sun, and some that just freckle."
"Personne know where they get the money to live," said the girl. "Some folks say they
teach them kids to steal, send them into the city at night. Dark faces, you can't see them so
"Nothing like that," said Arthur Stuart. "See, they own the patent on stupid, and
every time somebody in the city says something dumb, they get three cents."
The girl looked at him with squinty eyes. "They be the richest people in town, then,
so I think you lie."
"I reckon you owe a dollar a day to whoever has the patent on no-sense-of-humor."
"You are not a slave," said the girl.
"I'm a slave to fortune," said Arthur Stuart. "I'm in bondage to the universe, and my
only manumission will be death."
"You gone to school, you."
"I only learned whatever my sister taught me," said Arthur Stuart truthfully.
"I have a knack," said the girl.
"Good for you," said Arthur Stuart.
"This was sick water," she said, "and now is healthy. Your master healed it."
Alvin realized that this conversation had taken far too dangerous a turn. To Arthur he
said, "If you're done offending everybody in the neighborhood by talking face to face with a
white girl, and not looking down and saying ma'am, it's time to haul this water back."
"I was not offended," said the girl. "But if you heal the water, maybe you come home
with me and heal my mama."
"I'm no healer," said Alvin.
"I think what she got," said the girl, "is the yellow fever."
If anybody had thought nobody was paying attention to this conversation, they'd have
got their wake-up when she said that. It was like every nose on every face was tied to a string
that got pulled when she said "yellow fever."
"Did you say yellow fever?" asked an old woman.
The girl looked at her blankly.
"She did," said another woman. "Marie la Morte a dit."
"Dead Mary says her ma's got yellow fever!" called someone.
And now the strings were pulled in the opposite direction. Every head turned to face
away from the girl -- Dead Mary was her name, apparently -- and then all the feet set to
pumping and in a few minutes, Alvin, Arthur, and Dead Mary were the only humans near the
fountain. Some folks quit the place so fast their jugs was left behind.
"I reckon nobody's going to steal these jars if we don't leave them here too long," said
Alvin. "Let's go see your mother."
"They will be stole for sure," said Dead Mary.
"I'll stay and watch them," said Arthur Stuart.
"Sir and ma'am," said Alvin. "And never look a white person in the eye."
"When there's nobody around, can I just set here and pretend to be human?"
"Please yourself," said Alvin.
It took a while to get to Dead Mary's house. Down streets until they ran out of
streets, and then along paths between shacks, and finally into swampy land till they came to a
little shack on stilts. Skeeters were thick as smoke in some spots.
"How can you live with all these skeeters?" asked Alvin.
"I breathe them in and cough them out," said Dead Mary.
"How come they call you that?" asked Alvin. "Dead Mary, I mean."
"Marie la Morte? Cause I know when someone is sick before he know himself. And I
know how the sickness will end."
"Am I sick?"
"Not yet, no," said the girl.
"What makes you think I can heal your mother?"
"She will die if somebody does not help, and the yellow fever, personne who live here
knows how to cure it."
It took Alvin a moment to decide that the French word she said must mean nobody. "I
don't know a thing about yellow fever."
"It's a terrible thing," said the girl. "Quick hot fever. Then freezing cold. My
mother's eyes turn yellow. She screams with pain in her neck and shoulders and back. And
then when she's not screaming, she looks sad."
"Yellow and fevery," said Alvin. "I reckon the name kind of says it all." Alvin knew
better than to ask what caused the disease. The two leading theories about the cause of disease
were punishment for sin and a curse from somebody you offended. Course, if either one was
right, it was out of Alvin's league.
Alvin was a healer, of a sort -- that was just natural for a maker, being sort of included
in the knack. But what he was good at healing was broken bones and failing organs. A man
tore a muscle or chopped his foot, and Alvin could heal him up good. Or if gangrene set in,
Alvin could clean it out, make the good flesh get shut of the bad. With gangrene, too, he
knew the pus was full of all kinds of little animals, and he knew which ones didn't belong in
the body. But he couldn't do like he did with the water and just tell everything alive to break
apart -- that would kill the person right along with the sickness.
Diseases that made your nose or bowels run were hard to track down, and Alvin never
knew whether they were serious or something that would just get better if you left it alone or
slept a lot. The stuff that went on inside a living body was just too complicated, and most of
the important things was way too small for Alvin to understand what all was going on.
If he was a real healer, he could have saved his newborn baby when it was born too
young and couldn't breathe. But he just didn't understand what was going on inside the
lungs. The baby was dead before he figured out a single thing.
"I'm not going to be able to do much good," said Alvin. "Healing sick folks is hard."
"I touch her lying on her bed, and I see nothing but she dead of yellow fever," said
Dead Mary. "But I touch you by the fountain, I see my mother living."
"When did you touch me?" said Alvin. "You didn't touch me."
"I bump you when I draw water," she said. "I have to be sneaky. Personne lets me
touch him now, if he sees me."
That was no surprise. Though Alvin figured it was better to know you're sick and
dying in time to say good-bye to your loved ones. But folks always seemed to think that as
long as they didn't know about something bad, it wasn't happening, so whoever told them
actually caused it to be true.
Illness or adultery, Alvin figured ignorance worked about as well in both cases. Not
knowing just meant it was going to get worse.
There was a plank leading from a hummock of dry land to the minuscule porch of the
house, and Dead Mary fair to danced along it. Alvin couldn't quite manage that, as he looked
down at the thick sucking mud under the plank. But the board didn't wobble much, and he
made it into the house all right.
It stank inside, but not much worse than the swamp outside. The odor of decay was
natural here. Still, it was worse around the woman's bed. Old woman, Alvin thought at first,
the saddest looking woman he had ever seen. Then realized that she wasn't very old at all.
She was ravaged by worse things than age.
"I'm glad she's sleeping," said Dead Mary. "Most times the pain does not let her sleep."
Alvin got his doodlebug inside her and found that her liver was half rotted away. Not
to mention that blood was seeping everywhere inside her, pooling and rotting under the skin.
She was close to death -- could have died already, if she'd been willing to let go. Whatever she
was holding on for, Alvin couldn't guess. Maybe love for this girl here. Maybe just a
stubborn determination to fight till the last possible moment.
The cause of all this ruin was impossible for Alvin to find. Too small, or of a nature
he didn't know how to recognize. But that didn't mean there was nothing he could do. The
seeping blood -- he could repair the blood vessels, clear away the pooling fluids. This sort of
work, reconstructing injured bodies, he'd done that before and he knew how. He worked
quickly, moved on, moved on. And soon he knew that he was well ahead of the disease,
rebuilding faster than it could tear down.
Until at last he could get to work on the liver. Livers were mysterious things and all
he could do was try to get the sick parts to look more like the healthy parts. And maybe that
was enough, because soon enough the woman coughed -- with strength now, not feebly --
and then sat up. "J'ai soif," she said.
"She's thirsty," said the girl.
"Marie," the woman said, and then reached for her with a sob. "Ma Marie d'Espoir!"
Alvin had no idea what she was saying, but the embrace was plain enough, and so were
He walked to the doorway, leaving them their privacy. From the position of the sun,
he'd been there an hour. A long time to leave Arthur Stuart alone by the well.
And these skeeters were bound to suck all the blood out of him and turn him into one
big itch iffen he didn't get out of this place.
He was nearly to the end of the plank when he felt it tremble with someone else's feet.
And then something hit him from behind and he was on the damp grassy mound with Dead
Mary lying on top of him covering him with kisses.
"Vous avez sauvé ma mere!" she cried. "You saved her, you saved her, vous êtes un
ange, vous êtes un dieu!"
"Here now, let up, get off me, I'm a married man," said Alvin.
The girl got up. "I'm sorry, but I'm so full of joy."
"Well I'm not sure I did anything," said Alvin. "Your mother may feel better but I
didn't cure whatever caused the fever. She's still sick, and she still needs to rest and let her
body work on whatever's wrong."
Alvin was on his feet now, and he looked back to see the mother standing in the
doorway, tears still running down her cheeks.
"I mean it," said Alvin. "Send her back to bed. She keeps standing there, the
skeeters'll eat her alive."
"I love you," said the girl. "I love you forever, you good man!"
Back in the plaza, Arthur Stuart was sitting on top of the four water jars -- which he
had moved some twenty yards away from the fountain. Which was a good thing, because
there must have been a hundred people or more jostling around it now.
Alvin didn't worry about the crowd -- he was mostly just relieved that they weren't
jostling around some uppity young black man.
"Took you long enough," Arthur Stuart whispered.
"Her mother was real sick," said Alvin.
"Yeah, well, word got out that this was the sweetest-tasting water ever served up in
Barcy, and now folks are saying it can heal the sick or Jesus turned the water into wine or it's
a sign of the second coming or the devil was cast out of it and I had to tell five different people
that our water came from the fountain before it got all hexed or healed or whatever they
happen to believe. I was about to throw dirt into it just to make it convincing."
"So stop talking and pick up your jars."
Arthur Stuart stood up and reached for a jar, but then stopped and puzzled over it.
"How do I pick up the second one, while I got the first one on my shoulder?"
Alvin solved the problem by picking up both the half-filled jars by the lip and putting
them on Arthur's shoulders. Then Alvin picked up the two full ones and hoisted them onto
his own shoulders.
"Well, don't you make it look easy," said Arthur Stuart.
"I can't help it that I've got the grip and the heft of a blacksmith," said Alvin. "I
earned them the hard way -- you could do it too, if you wanted."
"I haven't heard you offering to make me no apprentice blacksmith."
"Because you're an apprentice maker, and not doing too bad at it."
"Did you heal the woman?"
"Not really. But I healed some of the damage the disease did."
"Meaning she can run a mile without panting, right?"
"Where she lives, it's more like splash a couple of dozen yards. That mud looked like
it could swallow up whole armies and spit them back out as skeeters."
"Well, you done what you could, and we're done with it," said Arthur Stuart.
They got back to the house of Squirrel and Moose and poured the water into the
cistern. Mixed in with what they already had, the cleaned water improved the quality only a
little, but that was fine with Alvin. People kept overreacting. He was just a fellow using his
Back at the house of Dead Mary -- or Marie d'Espoir -- nobody was following Alvin's
advice. The woman he had saved was outside checking crawfish traps, getting bitten by
skeeter after skeeter. She didn't mind anymore -- in a swamp full of gators and
cottonmouths, what was a little itching and a few dozen welts?
Meanwhile, the skeeters, engorged with her blood, spread out over the swamp. Some
of them ended up in the city, and each person they bit ended up with a virulent dose of yellow
fever growing in their blood.
Copyright © 2003 Orson Scott Card