The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 22, No. 2

Black Corfu

by Karen Russell

Žrnovo, 1620

The doctor sleeps naked, which is not widespread practice on the island of Korčula, not even in summer. As if to atone for his bared skin, his wife sleeps in cake-like tiers of bedclothes. Only she is privy to the doctor’s secret shamelessness; in public company, he is the model of propriety. Once upon a time, she found this and his other bedroom vagaries irresistibly appealing. Tonight he startles awake from his nightmare to find her surfacing from yards and yards of white linen. She rises like a woman clawing out of snow.
     I have never lost a patient.
     He studies the tiny, halved heart of his wife’s earlobe. Their room pulses with the moon. He can almost hear the purr of the rumor, yawning awake within her, stretching and extending itself. Does she believe it? Is she beginning to believe it? The naked doctor shudders. He imagines a man who resembles him exactly. That man is moving inside his wife.
     What tool can he use, to extract their rumor from her body?
     The doctor’s costume is hanging on a hook. It is not nearly so frightening as the hooded uniform donned by physicians during the Great Plague of 1529, the beaky invention of Charles de l’Orme. He wears a simple black smock, black waxed-leather gloves, and his face, when he operates, is bare.
     “It is not true,” he says in a clear, sober voice.
     His wife’s face is planked white and blue with moonlight. The one eye that he can see in profile is streaming water. She is like a stony bust granted a single attitude by her sculptor. Silently, the doctor begs her: Look my way.
     “You must promise me that you will put it out of your mind.” His voice is still his own. “You betray me by imagining me as that man.”
     His wife parts her dark hair with the flats of her palms. Does this again and again, like a woman bathing under the river falls. Outside, the moon shines on with its eerie impartiality, illuminating this room, illuminating also the surrounding woods, where the doctor knows a dozen men are fanning out, hunting for his patient.
     “Please. Please. I performed my duty perfectly. I could never make such a mistake.”
     “I am not even thinking about you. I am listening for the girls.”
     She says this without turning from the door. Now the doctor hears what must have awoken her. Not his nightmare but their middle daughter’s sobbing. Ashamed, he reaches for his robe. “Let me go to her.”
     The girl sits tall in the bed, with white, round eyes that seemed to pull in opposite directions, like panicked oxen. Her sleeping sisters bracket her, their faces slack and spit-dewed. The doctor has long suspected that his middle child is his most intelligent.
     “Papa, will they punish you? Will you go to prison?”
     “Who told you such a thing?”
     In fact, the punishment will be far worse than that, if it comes.
     “Nobody,” his daughter says sadly. “But I listen to what they tell one another.”
     So the rumor has penetrated the walls of his home, the mind of his child. He grows so upset that he forgets to console her, flees her side. In two hours, the dawn bells will begin to ring. Bodies will congregate at the harbor. What if the miasma of the rumor is already changing? Becoming even more poisonous, contagious—
     I will have to keep the girls indoors from now on, to prevent their further contamination.
     What will happen to him, if he cannot stop the rumor from spreading, transforming? He might be sent to the Venetian garrison. He might be strung up in the dark Aleppo pines before anything so official as a trial. Yet unofficially, of course, his punishment is well underway. A second death would be only a formality.

He had once dreamed of being the sort of doctor who helps children walk again; instead, he found himself hobbling them. Children of all ages were carried to him on stretchers, with blue lips and seamed eyelids. A twisted plot, without a single author to blame. As a younger man, he’d ventilated the pain through laughter. Sometimes the circumstances of his life struck him as so unbearably absurd that he’d soar up to a blind height, laughing and laughing until his red eyes shut and spittle flecked his chin. (“Open your eyes,” his wife would beg. “My love, you are frightening us—”) But it has been many years now since such an episode. Only behind the roped bedroom drapery does the doctor indulge such wildness today.
     His wife is very proud of the doctor’s accomplishments. Because he loves her, he never shares the black joke. Not once does he voice an objection to the injustice of his fate, or rail against what the island has made of his ambition. Aboveground, the chirurgo practices medicine in his warm salon—performing salubrious bloodlettings, facilitating lactation for the pretty young noblewomen. Whereas this doctor must descend into the Neolithic caves, under the cold applause of stars.

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