New Decameron Twenty-Nine: Laurie J. Marks

Apr 13, 2020


Cunning Men (selection)

By Laurie J. Marks

When I was a boy, my father took me to watch the king of sorcerers ride past.  He was not really a king at all, my father had said, and I was young enough to be puzzled by this statement.  Why did they call him king, I wondered, if he was not one?  (I had not yet learned that words referred to the ideas of things and not to the things themselves.)  Also, I was relieved that the man was not a king, for I had learned in the Free Grammar School that the shires of England ruled themselves, and only backwards countries like Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Isle of Man still had monarchies.   

I stood quietly with my father, in my new trousers and cap, happy that I looked no different from any of the other boys crowded on the Manchester street, who foolishly bounced, fidgeted, shouted, complained, picked fights, looked about for things to steal, kicked each other in the ankles, and in myriad manners exhibited the restlessness to which boys are prone.  I stood quietly, however, not because I was peaceful, but because my apprenticeship in the art of concealment had long since commenced. If I, Dr. Vasily Sokolov, had seen that quiet boy, I would have thought he might be ill. I certainly would have suspected that the boy’s equally still father concealed within his rigid frame a rage his son had every cause to fear.

We waited with every appearance of natural calm, my father and I, until some horsemen rode down the street, shouting, “Make way!  Make way!” The horses compressed us like knees into a featherbed, and many of the boys were hoisted onto their father’s shoulders so they could see.  But I wormed my way to the front of the crowd, where I peered between the legs of a fat man so I could glimpse the archaic spectacle: horsemen flying the pennants of the dozen temples, knights in two-hundred-year-old armor, a unicorn with half its horn removed, a pinioned hippogriff, and a blinded basilisk guided by poles its herders knocked against its gigantic chicken feet.  

Finally, in an open carriage, sat a bored-looking man in a blue cloak.  Except for the cloak, he seemed rather ordinary to me, and instead it was his bodyguard that frightened me.  The sorcerer’s guard conceal their features with black veils, and it seemed that not only children believe those guardsmen can kill with a glance, for everyone who had been pushing forward began backing away, so that I felt in danger of being left alone in the street. I pushed into the crowd in a panic and found my father, who cuffed me for stepping on his foot.

That was the first and only time I set eyes on the King of Sorcerers, an indifferent figurehead escorted by archaic knights and by maimed and chained creatures of legend. He certainly did not notice me, nor care that I was present.  But if he were in fact endowed with the ability to know the future, as many people believe, he would have been searching the crowd for me, an insignificant, soft-faced Russian boy in a new cap and trousers. And when he spotted me, he would have set his veiled men upon me, and killed me.


 My tailor, Mr. Japhet, always displays to me a bolt or two of Manchester woolen, though he certainly knows I do not aspire to wear such fine stuff. Yet, as I am a Manchester man, I feel an absurd yet troubled pride in the glowing fabric that flows through the arms, softly brushes the face, and whispers its message of wealth.  Although Englishmen retain only an absurd semblance of nobility, the wearing of Manchester woolen is still treated as a mark of high status. Among my kind—if I have a kind—those medical men who wear Manchester wool sit at their own table, quaffing fine spirits, chuckling in response to comments muttered by their friends that no one else can hear.  The fine fabric of their coats and trousers forms a shimmering obstacle between them and the rest, ordinary men in our dull and practical coats and trousers that can be worn daily for years without showing any wear, and then can be cut down to make new outfits for sons or servants. 

Mr. Japhet, is extraordinarily circumspect.  Even his shop sign is so discreet it could be carried in a pocket and used as a calling card, pointing towards a shop that is tied up in a tangled knot of roadways and concealed behind a busy mercer’s.  Within, it is filled to bursting with cutters, seamsters, and apprentices. One venerable gentleman, whose pince nez causes my own nose to ache with sympathy, sits all day on a stool, making buttons.  A boy sharpens scissors of all sizes, and though his fingertips are ground smooth, and his thumbs are bleeding from testing the sharpness of the edges, still his basket is always filled with dulled scissors, and people are perpetually shouting at him because their shears or thread clipper has not yet been sharpened.  Japhet serenely presides over all: a gray and white man, impenetrable and impeccable, who only ever speaks in a murmur.

Every October, for more than twenty years, I have visited Japhet’s for one new coat and two pairs of trousers.  Although I go afoot in all weather, Mr. Japhet would be scandalized if I carried my precious, paper-wrapped clothing down the mucky streets, tucked under my arm. To spare his feelings, I hire a coach on this one day a year, and stand in the street like a gentleman while the shop boy installs the precious garments safely inside and Mr. Japhet judges him severely.

I stood on the clean-swept cobbles—for another boy takes a broom and shovel to the passage and street several times a day—and observed that the shop boy’s growth had recently exceeded the length of his trousers, exposing a cold-reddened ankle of which Japhet silently disapproved.  

“Fine weather for October,” said Japhet to me, as he said every year.

 “Yes indeed.”

“You haven’t requested an overcoat for several years, Mr. Sokolov.” (While the Russian millworkers call me “doktor,” the English, who cannot imagine a Russian attending university, call me “Mr.”) 

“I haven’t needed one. My housekeeper maintains my overcoat in good repair.” 

A skeptical expression briefly disturbed his serenity, then disappeared, like an insect touching the surface of a pond.  “You know best, Mr. Sokolov.”  

 Mr. Japhet murmured to the boy that the arrangement of my new clothing would not do, he must make certain that the clothing would not be shaken to the floor, even though the floor was covered with clean straw, and the fabric protected by paper.  In the same modulated tones he said to me, “By your leave, I have a private matter to mention to you, Mr. Sokolov.”

“Yes, Mr. Japhet,” I said, though I was taken aback by this violation of the routine of our ritualized exchange. Could Japhet have accepted a sordid invitation and now was suffering the consequences?  I have become something of an expert in these shameful diseases, but I could not imagine that he had been so indiscreet. 

“It is a matter of the greatest delicacy,” said he.  “A gentleman with a gunshot wound to the hand has asked my assistance in finding a discreet surgeon.”

My skill with surgery of the hands, due to my attendance on the frequent mishaps in the mills, had gained a modest renown by then, even though, too often, the millworkers’ injured hands could not be made whole.  “I will endeavor to assist him, Mr. Japhet.” I did not ask about the circumstances. Both criminals and duelists are singularly honorable about payment, and I am willing to treat them. I said, “If the gentleman comes to the back door, through the ash yard, no one will notice him.”

“That will do,” said Mr. Japhet to the boy, who backed out of the carriage, red-faced.  

I entered the carriage and rode away in state, my new coat and trousers riding in one seat and I jouncing along on the other. We crossed Manchester, I felt shaken to bits, yet the package remained steadfastly in its seat.


 I was seventeen years old, in the second year of my studies at Liverpool University, when both my parents died of typhus.  I had not loved my father, but untangling his affairs and paying his debts caused me to hate him bitterly. He had arrived in Manchester empty-handed, and by an instinct that some called genius, had turned a lucky game of cards into an empire of cheap lodging.  But he died owing nearly as much as he owned. After settling his debts, all that remained was a little house, crowded by ugly tenements, with a patch of earth in front that refused to grow anything; an ash yard in the back that the prostitutes use as a drawing room when the weather is fine; and, at the top of a narrow staircase, an eccentric secret conservatory where one would expect to find a decent and predictable attic.  The house was let out during the years I was completing my education, and the small income it earned was just enough to cover the cost of my shared chambers in Liverpool, and two meals a day in the cookshop downstairs, if I brought my own bowl and didn’t ask for a second serving. The Russkoye Obsch estvo Manchester paid my university fees, but nothing else.  I survived, during those years, on potatoes. It was fortunate, I suppose, that I was of small stature and therefore of reduced appetite compared to my overgrown fellow scholars, but I was hungry nearly all the time, and I was forced to eat a loaf of bread before I sat down to study, so my empty, growling stomach would not distract me. 

Now, I lived in that little house, squeezed between the tenements like a spinster among stevedores.  The house was so small that Klara Valerinskaya, my housekeeper, and her son Thomas, lived down the street. I saw patients and conducted surgeries in two parlors on the ground floor, kept my bedroom and a small library on the floor above, and spent every spare moment in the attic conservatory.  In winter, we kept a fire burning in the conservatory night and day, not just to warm the orchids, but also to melt the snow so it would not break the glass with its weight. Tons of coal we have hauled up those stairs, Thomas and I.

Blessings on the madman who put a glass roof on that house!  For the conservatory turned me into an orchidist, and I in turn taught Thomas all I knew, and now he also is an orchidist.  (Even aboard this ship, though my one shelf is crammed with medical books, I have a book of orchid species, now warped by wet and smeared by dirt, but still readable.  Perhaps I have lost nearly everything I value, but I have gained the ability to distinguish among the species of orchidaceae Cymbidieae, and there are few people in the world of whom this is true.)

 I arrived at my little house with my new clothing, and there followed an evening too ordinary to recollect.  I assume that, as usual, after Klara and Thomas departed for the night, I admitted my back door patients so they could sit in the front parlor by the fire.  I diagnosed and treated the diseases of their profession, as well as ulcers, lesions, and pregnancy. I do these things every night but Sunday, and I have never suffered from a lack of patients.

At a late hour, when the city lay in exhausted silence, my last patient, Miss Heatherwight, departed through the kitchen door.  I was reaching for the supper that Klara had left for me when Miss Heatherwight knocked on the door. “There’s a dead man in the ash yard,” she said. 


Holding the edge of my sleeve, Miss Heatherwight guided me across the muddy yard.  “But where is he?” she said. 

Blinded by rain and darkness

, I could only see the large, dark rectangle that was the ashyard wall, and an occasional streak or glimmer of light where the falling rain or a trickle of water happened to reflect a distant ray from a window or streetlamp.  My guide and I stumbled here and there through the yard, she pulling me by the arm and I pulling her, tripping on the cobblestones, stepping into puddles, and banging into the ash cans.

“Miss Heatherwight, this is absurd.  Return home to your children, and I will bring out a light and make a thorough search for him.”

“You’ll need my help to bring him inside,” said Miss Heatherwight.  

“No, for clearly he is alive, and is able to move himself.”

Convinced by the weather, she took her leave, and I started up the steps, to fetch the lamp from the kitchen.  

“Dr. Sokolov,” said a faint voice behind the ash cans.  

I moved the ash cans and found him sitting against the wall of the house.  “I gather you are the gentleman Mr. Japhet was good enough to send to me. Can you stand, sir?” 

“Perhaps I ought not to try.”

“Did you faint earlier?  Well, it is likely you’ll faint again, but I must get you up the steps somehow.  Can you crawl?”

“I suppose I must, though the idea offends me.”

He crawled to the steps one-handed, with his empty overcoat sleeve dragging through the water.  His injured hand appeared to be bound to his chest inside his coat, which might be for good or ill. Whoever had aided him by tying it there may have done further harm by smearing it with some concoction, or by manipulating the bones and ligaments out of position.  “Wait a moment,” I said, when he had reached the steps. “I’m going to take your coat so it doesn’t impede you.”

When a person is injured, nothing can be done easily.  Usually, my injured patients are surrounded by family, friends, and fellow millworkers who interfere as much as they assist.  I would have welcomed the aid of such an anxious crowd now.  But the gentleman had no lack of will, and heaved himself up the steps backwards, then I took him under the arms and dragged him into the kitchen.  

I saw a healthy man, neither thin nor corpulent, with the shoulders of a horseman and a face that spent a good deal of time out of doors.  He might be healthy enough to recover from any misadventure, given proper care. “When were you injured?”

“Two days ago.  I was shot through the hand, and it hurts like the dickens.”

“Sir, I must tell you that if I can save your hand, it will be a grueling surgery.  Do you know what ether is?”

To my surprise, he did know, even though the use of ether on surgical patients had only been mentioned in obscure journals.  I had developed my own method for administering it from a flask. Ether is dangerous stuff—quite explosive, especially in the distillation process but also in the presence of flame—therefore I stored it in the cellar in a locked cabinet.  I had not heard of any other surgeon who used ether, for it was difficult to render a patient insensible without causing him to cease breathing. I explained these facts to my patient, who said, “If I die, let there be no funeral. Your fee is in my coat pocket, and payment for the coffin and grave diggers also.”

“Sir,” I said, rather shocked.

“Death is preferable to life with only one hand,” he said.

I am not accustomed to such fortitude.  My patients, be they millworkers or prostitutes, were rarely calm.  My most stoical patients often were children.  I said, “If you die, whom shall I contact?” 

“There will be no one,” he said.  

It was oddly enough stated that I still remembered it years later, when I finally understood what he meant.

“Do you smoke tobacco often?” I asked.

While he answered my questions, I hung his overcoat by the fireplace to dry.  He wore no waistcoat. His hand had been bandaged properly, and was strapped high on his chest to prevent swelling. “You have already been to a surgeon?”

“Yes, but he told me that no one could save my hand.”

“Well, I have returned many a millworker to the mill, and perhaps I can return you to your profession also.  First, I must get you onto the table in my consulting room.” 

For the barest moment, my patient seemed to disappear. It was a strange thing, how his face became slack and his gaze became blank as though he had momentarily lost consciousness.  Then he returned to himself and said, “Open the door, if you please, and call out for Mr. Brown.”

I complied, and in a moment, a large shape appeared in the rain.  By a strange trick of rain and darkness, the shape at first seemed quite low to the ground, then seemed to grow rapidly in stature as it walked towards me, until it was revealed to be a large man, bearded and long-haired, oddly dressed in a coat of shaggy fur, like a wild man walking through a forest.  

“You are Mr. Brown?” I said, perplexed and rather startled. 

Behind me, my patient said, “Mr. Brown can’t speak, but he hears and understands.  He is neither subtle nor dextrous, but he is quite strong. Show him the way and he will carry me.”  

My consulting room, originally a dining room, was located by the kitchen.  I showed the way. I asked no questions, as it is my habit to quell idle curiosity and focus my attention on the injury.  At one occasion I conducted surgery in a kitchen and never noticed a brawl in the hallway until a man was brought in with a knife wound for me to stitch closed.  

In the consulting room I turned, and saw my patient borne in the large man’s arms like a child.  I said, “Put the gentleman on the table, if you please, Mr. Brown.” 

I went to the cellar to fetch the ether, and returned to find the wild man already asleep by the fire. My patient lay on the table with his head upon a pillow.  “Do you know who I am, Doctor Sokolov?” 

“Mr. Japhet didn’t tell me, and I don’t need to know.”

“I am Tobin Goodwin.”

 “Mr. Goodwin, I will put the mouthpiece of this bottle in your mouth, and will tie it on around your head so it doesn’t drop.  You need to breathe through the mouthpiece, so the vapors enter your lungs. Soon, you’ll fall asleep. When you awaken, the surgery will be finished, and you may have nausea or a headache.  I’ll make a bed for you in the front parlor. If you are doing well enough tomorrow, you may take a carriage where you choose.”

I unwrapped his hand and lay it where the light from the overhead lamp, which I have surrounded with mirrors, could shine upon it.  

I have observed numerous hands that have been crushed or mauled by iron-driven machinery.  His injury, though gruesome, was not terrible. The pistol ball had pierced through his hand at a slight angle, cauterizing the wound with its heat.  The wound where the ball had entered the palm was neat enough, and the wound in the back of his hand was large and ragged. Two of the metacarpal bones were broken, which was not surprising, but the man’s fortune was such that the projectile had torn a path between those bones, snapping them by the force of its passage, but leaving them and the tendons otherwise intact. The cauterizing effect, though it had prevented bleeding and suppuration, also would prevent the wound from closing, and it was necessary to expose new tissue before it could heal.  At the same time, I would smooth the ragged edges and clean it thoroughly with a solution of carbolic acid to prevent sepsis. I explained the procedures to Mr. Goodwin, who accepted the knowledge calmly. “If we can avoid sepsis,” I said, “The wound probably will heal. Your hand will be held immobile until the bones set, which will require a month or longer. Then your hand will be stiff and weak, but I can teach you and your man how to stretch and exercise it, and in a few months you will only have a scar.”

“Sepsis,” he gasped, for he was panting from pain. 


“The other surgeon said it was inevitable.”

“A deep wound like this is in great danger of gangrene, but I hope it will be avoided.”

“You will not amputate my hand?”

“No, sir, I believe your hand can be saved.”

“Then please proceed, Doctor Sokolov.”

My patient seemed intelligent, educated, and plain-spoken, qualities I rarely encounter in combination.  Also, as you may have realized, he was a notorious highwayman. Perhaps he was testing my trustworthiness by telling me his name. Or perhaps he had already assessed my character, for without a gift for insight he could not have survived so long in his dangerous occupation.

I put the mouthpiece in his mouth, washed my hands and dipped them in carbolic acid, and commenced the surgery.  His man slept in the armchair, snoring quietly on occasion, and once uttering a muffled, rhythmic sound, as though he was trying to shout poetry in his dreams.  The ether did not kill my patient, nor did the fumes explode, and by the time I awakened Mr. Brown and asked him to carry Mr. Goodwin into the front parlor, the hall clock was striking the hour of five, and the millworkers of Manchester would soon be pouring out of the tenements and filling the dark streets.  


When Mr. Goodwin awakened, I was talking to Mr. Brown about orchids. The man listened attentively but gave no indication of understanding, except when I offered him some tea and bread, at which he jumped eagerly to his feet.  Still in his coat of fur, he had come with me to the kitchen and set about slicing and buttering the loaf of bread. I didn’t want to leave Mr. Goodwin too long unattended, and we ate in the front parlor while I explained orchid morphology.  I realized my patient had awakened when he began laughing at my absurd lecture.

Then he groaned.

“Mr. Goodwin, I’ll give you some opium as soon as I dare.”  I felt his pulse and listened to his lungs. He seemed no worse than before, except for the expected congestion of the lungs.  I encouraged him to breathe deeply and to cough frequently.

“Have you summoned a constable?” he asked. 

“No, of course not. I don’t concern myself with the professions of my clients. If I did I would soon be bankrupt.”


When Klara Valerinskaya awakened me later that day, I found Thomas sitting with the highwayman, reading the newspaper to him.  “I am trying to divert him from hunger,” he said.

“Thank you, Thomas.  Would you ask your mother for some beef tea?”   

Thomas left to fetch the broth, and I examined my patient’s hand.  It was no more inflamed than I expected, and his forehead felt cool.  As I rebandaged his hand, he said, “Your son is most impressive.”

“Thomas is doing very well.  I have been his Latin tutor for many years, and I have taught him everything I know about natural philosophy.  But he is my housekeeper’s son, not mine. Have you met Mrs. Valerinskaya?” 

“That frightening woman?  I imagine the tradesmen are terrified of her.”

“Indeed they are.”  

I began to suggest that I visit him daily for the next week, but he interrupted. “I will come to you, doctor.  Do you normally keep late hours?”

“Yes.  Many of my patients prefer to go about after dark.”

“I prefer the same.”

“Very well.  I see no reason for concern about your hand.  If the broth doesn’t lead to vomiting, we’ll try some bread, and if that succeeds, and you have no fever, then you can return home this evening.  Where is your servant?”

“He has left and will return after nightfall with a carriage.”

“Come see me tomorrow, and I’ll check your progress and change your bandages.  You’ll have to remain in the city for a month or two.”

He would stay with a friend, he said.  I had assumed he would be like me: a man with no place in society, with no common ground to form the basis of a friendship, but perhaps there is a secret society of thieves.  

If the Russians of Manchester occupy one island and the medical men of Manchester occupy another, I inhabit an abandoned shoreline, straining towards both islands, but stranded, and boatless.

I know you don’t think of me thus.  I have long been a master of concealment. 

Mr. Goodwin visited my surgery regularly under cover of darkness, and made himself popular with my other night-time patients.  The women who needed my services practiced various customs to protect each other from the law. Even though my marginal practice and unimportant patients were below the notice of the authorities, I participated in this protection by referring to my patients in my written notes by numbers rather than by names, and writing those notes in Russian and Latin.  Mr. Goodwin was not my first patient with a price on his head.

Autumn turned its fading face into winter, and Christmas lay in the past.  Mr. Goodwin’s hand healed, and Mr. Brown had proven himself competent at the stretching and bending exercises. 

“Well, doctor, are we finished with each other?” asked Mr. Goodwin.

I admitted that we were finished, and did not say how sorry I was.  Our relationship ended in the conventional manner, with me urging my patient to avoid future injury, and him assuring me that the experience of being shot had been disagreeable, and he would devote all his energies to avoiding it in the future.  He departed, and once again I felt my solitude.

At around this time, I had attended several lectures on microscopy, and with a portion of Mr. Goodwin’s generous payment had purchase a share of time with a microscope that was kept at the loftily-named Euripides House, where I was permitted to show my face because I the Manchester Medical Society, much though they disapproved of me, continued to accept my membership fees.  For half an hour per week, I peered at fluids collected from my patients, trying to determine whether anything in that minuscule world might be different for the sick by comparison to the well.  

One afternoon, an unexpected crate was delivered to my door, without source or explanation.  Within, padded by straw and secured in a second, fitted box, was a very fine microscope.  


Although Klara Valerinskaya has requested more than once that I install a bell on the front door bell, because she fears she will miss the sound of knocking when she is working in the kitchen, I have never done so.  The ringing of a bell conveys a paucity of information, while a knock is richly communicative. A rapid pounding on the door indicates a man under pressure of fear for family or friend. A rapid percussion indicates a child suffused with anxiety.  However, a tradesman, or a boy motivated only by the prospect of a penny in payment for running an errand, makes a lazy thump. Depending upon the sound, I may already be sliding my arm into the coat sleeve, while reaching for the bag that stands ready on the hall table.  

“Where am I needed?” I ask the boy, probably a dull and hungry child who would be affronted by the prospect of a bath.  If he has been sent to conduct me to one of the mills, I pay him to carry a bag of surgical instruments, for I engage in surgery with my patient lying on a factory table.  On the other hand, if he is conducting me to a tenement, I already know the disease. It is the same disease that threatens me, though not so imminently as I gain some protection from it in my clean little house.  Poverty: whether gradually or suddenly, all my patients die from it.

I was summoned to a tenement in Ancoats. The tenement door stood open, as is usually the case, so daylight could brighten the otherwise lightless and windowless stairway within.  I am always climbing these stairways in darkness, for even a penny candle is too costly for the people who live in such places. It being late morning, the building lay quiet except for the piping voices of children on the first floor, where lived the child-minder Kristina Miloslova, and the faint, rhythmic sound of Beatriks Yevgeniervna, home from the marketing, chopping vegetables for the cauldron of soup that would provide the evening meal for most of the building’s residents.  The stair hall stank of boiled cabbage and molding wood. The steps creaked and groaned as I climbed into shadows, feeling each step upward with my toe, as a blind man feels the way with a cane.  The heat increased with every step, and at the fifth landing I used a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from my face. In winter, these rooms are bitterly cold, and in summer the heat is intolerable.  One door stood open for ventilation. I knocked on the door frame, calling, “Plaksina Larionovna, it is Dr. Sokolov.”

“Enter, Doktor.”

She was sitting in the sweltering sitting room, doing up her gown after suckling her infant.  She herself was a child, not seventeen years old, whose equally young husband had consented to marry her when her condition became unmistakable and the priest threatened them both with damnation.  It had been a wedding of little ceremony, and now the three of them lived with six family members in three rooms. She was keeping house for the family until her child could be left with the minders, but she would join them in the mills soon enough.  They were Russian, of course, like everyone in the building and in the adjacent buildings, whose parents or grandparents had migrated to Manchester 50 years earlier, from the region of Yaroslavl’, primarily from a village called Velikoe, known for its linen fabrics.  Though it seemed unlikely that so many serfs from the same region at around the same time had been able to buy their freedom, the old people claim that the landholder, being in financial difficulties and unable to find a buyer for the land and its serfs, offered freedom to his serfs at a price they could afford.  Extended families pooled their resources to buy freedom and ship’s passage for a single young person. My parents, who had known each other in Velikoe, had traveled on the same ship, and married soon after their arrival in Manchester.

They had always refused to discuss their life in Velikoe. How desperately poor their families must have been, for the life of a Manchester millworker to seem an improvement.

Plaksina Larionovna’s infant had been christened, but I did not know its name.  The mother said, “On ne voz’met grud.”

The child hung limp in his mother’s arms.  I took it from her. Its skin was dry, its eyes sunken, its lips cracked and its tongue sticky.  I said, “On chistil?  U nego byal diareya?”

Da, chasto.”

Eto belyy?”


I asked to see a soiled diaper, but I already knew it was cholera.  The illness had broken out intermittently over the course of several years, primarily in Ancoats.  The members of the Medical Society were baffled by this previously unknown disease, which occurred almost entirely in the homes of the poor.

But what did this broken-hearted mother care for learned men’s bewilderment?  I returned the child to her, and began giving it water, a few drops at a time, watching its throat for the action of swallowing, lest I drown the poor thing.  The mother and I sat side-by-side for an hour or more. The dim light of afternoon brightened the stuffy sitting room, so I could see the pallets and bedding rolled up and resting against the yellow-stained walls.  The threadbare chair cushions were neatly darned. The wood of the greasy floor was splintering with age. A fly buzzed in the window. A cat slipped in the open door, silently paced the perimeter of the room, and slipped out again.  The infant died so quietly that for a long time its mother didn’t realize it had happened.

Some fifty souls shared this staircase; some 500 lived on this one block in Ancoats, which my father had once owned.  In the most recent epidemic of cholera two years ago, 52 had expired, while in tenements no less crowded and noisome, no one had died at all.  Although a Board of Health had forced the landlords to replace the privies and haul away the filth, the outbreak had continued for several weeks before it abruptly ended.  Since that time, new filth had accumulated, the new privies became as foul as the old, and now it was as awful as it ever had been.

I had observed that infants too young for solid food did not fall ill of cholera, not even when their mothers were ill. Plaksina Lariovna dully told me that she had fed her son a thin gruel that morning.  He had died some eight hours later. “I haven’t done the marketing,” she said. Her eyes were red and dry.  

I felt her pulse and said, “Plaksina Larionovna, I believe you are ill also.”

I took the body of her child from her and lay it in the cradle with a rag over its face—even handkerchiefs are luxuries to people like these.  I lit the kitchen fire and hung a kettle over it, then went down the stairs, knocking at every door. Only the two women on the first floor answered.  Beatriks Yevgeniervna said she would visit Plaksina Lavionovna from time to time, until her family returned from the mill, but she could not sit with her.  Kristina Miloslova, suggested I ask a woman in the next building, Karina Ivanova, who also was at home with a nursing baby. She took umbrage when I urged her to make certain the children’s meals were thoroughly cooked.  In the next building, Karina Ivanova’s hot apartment was closed tight against the miasma from the privy, which lay a few steps from her window. Her husband, Ivan Ivanovich, and a child, had both died of cholera two years ago, and she had come to live with her father, also widowed by the cholera, and bore her daughter a few months later.

“It is so hot, doktor,” she said, as she admitted me.  “But if the smell is unhealthy, as you say, I dare not open a window. I pray every day that God protect my little one from those foul emanations.  She is so little!”

Although disease is caused by miasma, it also seems to be conveyed by proximity.  I could not risk the life of this grief-weary young widow and her only child.  I said, “An infant in the adjacent building has died of cholera. You are still suckling your child, yes? To protect her, you must only give her the milk from your breasts. No other food or drink—nothing.”

“Oh, is it Autosha who has died?  Pity the poor mother!” She went immediately to the ikon by the door, and left me standing awkwardly while she prayed and fervently blessed herself and her daughter, who was asleep on a cot in the kitchen.

When she turned to me, I said, “I fear that Plaksina Larionovna is ill as well.  Someone must sit with her until her family returns from the mills. But, Karina Ivanova, you must not go there at all.  Do not even go into the building. I have come to ask if you know of a medestra who could be sent for?”

The stricken woman’s family would be angry if I indebted them to a medestra, but  Karina Ivanova knew of a Russian woman who would accept services instead of payment.  She took the errand upon herself, leaving me to mind the dozing child. I took out pen and ink to write a death certificate for the infant who had died, then copied it into a pocket book for my own register: Location of death, age and name of child, names of parents and their occupations, case of death, physical circumstances.  I dutifully noted conditions that other doctors might never encounter: crowdedness; odorous privy, decaying garbage in the street.

“Plaksina Larionovna has a medestra,” said Karina Ivanova when she returned.  

The ink had dried quickly, and I folded my papers into a pocketbook.  The woman’s family would inform the church and arrange a funeral for the infant, but it was my duty to submit a certificate of death to the Registrar.   A Board of Health probably would be convened, and, even though the sufferers were my patients, I would not be asked to sit on the Board, and instead would be treated as a servant of its will.  Nikolai Pyotrvich, the landlord, would be required to clean the street and the privy and to whitewash the apartments, and I would be required to send stricken patients to the poorhouse hospital rather than permit them to be nursed by medestras, or family members.  Yet with all this activity to discourage illness, death would tread through the tenements, swinging its scythe.

“Some tea, doktor?” offered Karina Ivanova.

She could see I was in low spirits, and had responded generously, for in poor households tea is a luxury.  She was not old enough to remember my own history with the tenements, but perhaps her elders had explained to her that at one time the Russkoye Obsch estvo Manchester had pooled their resources, one penny at a time, so that I could finish my university studies, in exchange for ten years of free medical care.  Now ten more years had passed, and I remained the only Russian-speaking doctor in Manchester.

I said, “Thank you for your kindness, but I must speak with Nikolai Pyotrvich about cleaning the privies.  Promise to send for me, Karina Ivanova, if your daughter falls ill. And remember, give her mother’s milk only.”

After my father’s death, this block of buildings had become the property of Nikolai Pyotrvich. Pyotrvich and my father had long hated each other, and for many years they had endeavored to ruin each other by gambling.  Both were brilliant darak players, with an infamous gambling rivalry.  The goal of a darak game is not to win, but to force the other players to lose.  Both men had lived as though life were a darak game, and, as it happened, my father had died in his debt, and Pyotrvich had finally won their long contest.   

Since then, Pyotrvich had become preeminent among the Russians of Manchester, who accorded him a wary deference that perhaps was similar to how their peasant ancestors had deferred to their overseers.  Pyotrvich lived on a street occupied by others like him, who borrowed and stole to maintain households they could not afford. I suppose all of them were stingy out of desperation.

An Irish housemaid admitted me to his muffled hall.  “Mr. Peterson is not at home.”

Pyotrvich was never at home when I came calling, and no doubt wished I did not even know where he lived.  On one of my calling cards—turning yellow with age, so rarely did I need them—with a silver pencil given me by a patient who probably had stolen it, I wrote in English, “Cholera.  Clean privy immediately.”  

As I began the long return walk to the tenements, I hoped the maid was at that moment delivering my card to him, and that he was outraged by my plain writing, which the housemaid could read, for I knew from experience that an appeal to his common sense and fellow-feeling would have no effect at all.  I do not know how such people come into existence, those who care nothing for the cruel effects of their behavior, and can only be incited to action by anger.


The summer heat had brought forth the effluvia of the city, and as I toiled back to Ancoats, unpleasant odors increasingly assailed me: the muck from the horses, the decaying flesh of dead animals, the waste from thousands of chamber pots and privy middens, and decaying food that even dogs declined to eat.  The English are an inventive people: Englishmen invented water turbines and all the machinery that those turbines operate: carders, spinners, and looms. Unsatisfied by these marvels, they discovered how to derive gas from coal, so by the light of gas lamps, those machines could operate day and night. Yet no one has invented a way for our cities to be sweet-smelling, though in summer the stink drives everyone who can afford it into the countryside.

I was idly dreaming of a fantastical city that washed itself clean every night, when an idea struck me.  If illness is caused by miasma, then no one at all should be able to survive a city in the summertime. Although I was subjected every day to smells so foul that my eyes burned and my belly churned, I rarely fell ill, and had never suffered from the diseases of the poor.  Certainly, the areas of the city that were the most disease-prone also were the dirtiest. And though there seemed no doubt that disease was most common in places with noxious odors, perhaps odors did not cause disease, and instead both miasma and disease were caused by conditions that happened to simultaneously be present. Perhaps men of medicine did not understand illness at all.

I returned to Ancoats to discover that Pyotrvich had passed me in a cab while I toiled on foot down the filthy road, and was standing in Beatriks Yevgenievna’s doorway, attempting to upbraid her while she, never one to hear accusations mildly, bellowed back at him in curse-riddled Russian.  “Yob tvoyce mat, dolboyob!  Zavak! Svolotch!”

He screamed, “Past’zabroi, Wed’ma!  Baba! Beloruchka!”

Derisive laughter alerted me to the presence of several people gathered on the stairs to watch the spectacle.  “For pity’s sake,” I said in Russian. “Plaksina Lavionovna’s son has died, and now she lies ill herself. If you must conduct yourselves like undisciplined children, do so in the street, so she won’t be disturbed.”

Pyotrvich and Beatriks Yevgenievna stared at me—Pyotrvich red-faced and corpulent, with tiny eyes bundled up in folds of sagging skin; Beatriks Yevgenievna thin and hard as a broomstick dried out by its many years standing by the fire.  Abruptly, she cried, “You set this svolotch on me, you gaduka!” 

Pyotrvich shouted, “Sooka sin, what do you mean by your glupaya nota?”

I was hot and tired, and had eaten nothing since breakfast.  “We have cholera in your buildings again, and you’re preoccupied by what your maid thinks of you?”

From the observers on the stairs I heard a dismayed murmur: “Kholera!”

Then, Pyotrvich leapt upon me with a roar.

My father had been twice my size, and often, like Pyotrvich, reeked of vodka.  I went down under the man’s weight, but dodged his fist which smashed into a corner of the stair.  I exerted all my strength to escape, but when he managed to hit me in the shoulder with his other fist, I stuck my thumb firmly in his eye.  Then men had rushed down the stairs and yanked Pyotrvich off me.

The women helped me up and brushed the dirt from my coat, murmuring, “Doktor Sokolov, are you hurt?  Doktor Sokolov, don’t let that svolatch bully you.”

Pyotrvich, water flowing from his eye, hand beginning to swell—and I hoped he had broken it—had stopped fighting his captors except for rhythmic yanks against their grips whenever he stopped cursing to take a breath.  I had to shout to be heard. “Beatriks Yevgeniervna, does he think you are the nad motrshchik of the building?”

“I suppose he does.  Even if I am, does that make me the one who cleans the der’mo?”

The door opened, and the child-minder, Kristina Miloslova, put her head out.  Now I could hear children crying, though surely they were accustomed to people berating and beating each other in the stair hall.  

Doktor Sokolov, please, one of the children has vomited.”

Long after darkness had fallen, I walked home.  Now, three desperately ill patients were in the care of work-weary family members.  The men on the stairs had rousted out everyone they could find in the buildings that shared the yard, and they had shoveled garbage and waste into piles, so the carters that Pyotrvich swore would arrive in the morning could carry it away.


Plaksina Larionovna died, as did several of the children in Kristina Miloslova’s care, and a grandmother who had been the oldest living Russian in Manchester.  She was the keeper of recipes, who had taught every young woman how to cook the traditional dishes. She remembered Velikoe so vividly that she might have visited it yesterday, and even knew the name of the bankrupt prince from whom her family had purchased her freedom. Now the memories and recipes were gone, for no one had written them down. Every Russian in Manchester attended the funeral.  

Two weeks later, the epidemic abruptly ended.  The Board of Health submitted a report and disbanded, the poorhouse hospital discharged its last patients and closed its doors, and the privies began to stink again.  I had made so many trips between the hospital and the tenements that I had worn through the soles of my shoes, but the Russian cobbler who, under the complex economy of bartering, usually repaired my shoes at no cost, was a walking ghost after the death of his wife, and his shop door was locked shut.  I had not seen any paying patients in so long that I was forced to draw funds from the bank to pay for my shoes to be repaired.  

I gave the rest of the money to Klara Valerinsky, for coal.  Summer was turning to autumn, and before long we would have to light the stove for the orchids.  


"That was so good, but so harrowing," he says. "Are all her books like that?"

"Not like that, but they're all really good and they're not afraid to be real," Maya says. "The Elemental Logic books aren't like that at all, except that they are. This is the beginning of a novel, it has to be. I can't wait to read it all."

"Well, me too," he says. "And I'll go back and read her others, I don't know how I missed them but it was clearly a mistake. I'll have to tell S--" he stops. "Supper?" he offers.

Maya takes what he is holding out to her, a thick slab of of buttered bread and a cup of beef tea. They are both good, but not enough. "Is there more?" she asks. 

"I didn't like to steal too much from those poor people. They have so little." The cat takes one sniff at the empty cup and walks away. Maya stacks it neatly beside the half-coconut shells. "It's getting dark," he says. "Shall we go downstairs and read one more story before bedtime?"

Maya stands and stretches. "All right," she says. She takes the soup cup with her to fill with water in the bathroom, and he grabs the top book off the pile. "What is it?" Maya asks.

"The Prudent Traveller's Guide to Venice, 1872, by Lila Garrott," he reads.

"That doesn't sound much like a story," Maya says, suspiciously.

"Oh, I'm sure it will be," he says. They walk downstairs and Maya switches on the green shaded lamp at their table. It is routine now, the third evening, this is what they do, read all day, come down here in the evening and read by the lamp, then sleep, wake, and do it again. Outside the plague rages and people are dying, but here they are safe.

They take up the book and read.

By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 100 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 100 exclusive posts