Steam rose from the kettle hanging in the fireplace as I poured a dipperful of hot water over a mix of yarrow and peppermint in an earthenware mug. While it steeped, I raised the window sash a few inches. The crisp, winter air swirling into the room lifted tendrils of hair from my temples and made the pervasive odors of sweat and body waste more bearable.
Mary Kemper lay weak and listless, the rash and pustules clustered on her face, neck, and arms. I’d seen smallpox many times before, but this time it was my friend who suffered, and would bear the scars.
“Take a sip, Mary. This will ease your fever and make you feel better.” With one hand supporting her head, I guided the cup to her lips.
A dribble of tea ran down her chin and she sagged against the pillow, exhausted by the effort. “What of Catherine and the boys—”
Mindful of the blisters, I blotted her forehead with a cloth soaked in goldenseal-infused water. “They are well. Do you trust me to take measures to assure they do not fall ill?”
“Yes, please. I could not bear them to suffer."
I nodded as I smoothed damp strands of hair back from her forehead. “You rest now.”
When her eyelids fluttered closed, I took a small blade from my pocket, drew back the sheet, and pushed up her sleeve. The disease’s hold on her was weakening. It was the proper time to harvest what I needed.
Heavy footsteps on the stairs spurred me to hurry. What I was about to do was against the law, and woe to me if busybody Widow Jenkins witnessed my actions. Piercing the skin stretched over one of the angry-looking pustules on Mary’s arm, I used the edge of the blade to collect the escaping yellowish ooze on a scrap of paper.
“Anna Stone, sakes alive, what do you think you’re doing?”
In one motion, I pulled up the sheet and slipped the knife and folded paper into my pocket as I turned from the bed.
The Widow Jenkins clucked with disapproval as she seized control of the sickroom. “I wasn’t aware anyone sent for you. You’ve opened the window. Why is the bed so far from the hearth, and where are my red blankets? Step lively and stir up the fire immediately.”
Resolved not to let the old cow bully me into carrying out her treatments, which were mostly rooted in superstition, I stood my ground. “Mary’s fair burning up with fever. She should drink my tea and keep a cool cloth on her head.” I dipped the cloth back in the goldenseal water and continued to bathe her arms.
The pitted scars on the widow’s disapproving face marked her as a smallpox survivor, and her sharp glance at my smooth cheek insinuated that because I’d never contracted the disease myself, I was not knowledgeable. She brushed past me and attacked the smoldering logs with the poker until orange flames burst forth. “We must wrap her in red blankets and move the bed next to the fire until the fever’s gone, if we’re to rid her of the pox.”
Next, she crossed the room and closed the window with a huff. “Dear me, ’twould be better if we had red drapes for the window. She will not recover if you let the fire die and even a child knows fresh air does not belong in a sickroom.” Still I refused to move, so she gave the bed a shove toward the fireplace. “My blankets are here, on the floor! She must have kicked them off. Help me swaddle her.”
The old woman nudged me aside, panting with the effort as she tucked the blankets around Mary’s sweltering body. “Mark me, missus, this treatment kept me from succumbing to the pox forty-five years ago. I’ll sit with her now.”
My fingers brushed the scrap of paper and the knife in my pocket. I bowed with a deference I didn’t feel and gathered up the soiled linens and the chamber pot.
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