had trekked nearly twenty miles that day to a village in an isolated region of our province. I am a doctor by profession; I had received a call from a family in the village of Tamborini. I had never heard of it, nor had my wife, though that was not unusual: our province is populated with small communities which are here one minute and gone the next. The caller had been an older woman, probably the victim's mother, and though I had never seen her before, I imagined her vividly as she stood before the phone: the receiver held tightly to her mouth, her left hand frantically brushing back her ash-blond hair, her lips tightly drawn, her skirt astray. In a frightened voice she told me that her daughter was sick: feverish and pale. She refused food and would not speak, but only stared at the ceiling, her eyes swollen and red. Might I come at once--this she implored me--before what they feared might happen happened and she was lost to them forever? I have always prided myself on doing whatever was called for to help another, and even though I had other patients to attend to that day, including one whose life at that moment hung in the balance, I tossed a few medical items into my knapsack, fueled my lantern, and set out at once, pronto, without even kissing my wife good-bye.
I must have been so eager to see my new patient that I paid no attention to the path before me, reflecting instead on the examination which awaited me, the sinuous twists and turns of the country roads making no impression on my mind. In short, I quickly became lost and wandered about the countryside, nearly in a panic, futilely searching for the village of Tamborini. But it was not my day: the passersby whom I accosted had never heard of the place, except for one elderly gentleman who said the name sounded familiar, and might it be the headquarters of that traveling circus? It was beginning to look as though I'd been duped, as my wife had feared from the beginning. I never think anything through, she said, look at the way I was rushing about, throwing things into my knapsack, almost leaving without my lantern--and I certainly would have done so, if she had not stopped me!--and I was at the point of admitting defeat, and had even turned around to head back home, when, as if by magic, the village of Tamborini opened before me.
In the village square young girls and boys were playing and they gathered around me and stared. Impertinent youngsters! Hadn't they seen a doctor before? But then I realized that I hardly looked like a doctor: my clothes were tattered, my boots were muddied and--dear me!--I'd lost my knapsack; I remembered taking it off when I'd stopped to rest and I must have forgotten to put it back on when I resumed my journey. I've always needed to be constantly watched, as my wife is so fond of reminding me, and yet now my absentmindedness was reaching alarming proportions! I asked the children where the family lived, and after a moment's hesitation, one of them pointed the place out to me. It stood near the outskirts of the village, near the banks of a wide river which flowed serenely by. I thanked them and started towards it, their snickers still resounding in my ears.
I'd imagined my patient's house to be like an imperial palace--don't ask me why, I'm prone to flights of fancy--but when I reached it, I saw that it was simply constructed, no more elaborate than an adobe hut actually, and also much smaller than I'd imagined. When I mounted the steps and let fall the wooden knocker, an elderly woman answered and ushered me inside. There on a couch next to a rickety wood stove I saw the daughter: dark brown hair, hazel eyes, shapely, demure, an aurora borealis of fragile beauty. The family was gathered around her in a half circle, nearly on tiptoes, their arms interlocked. The girl was no more than seventeen and I knew at once what her problem was.
I opened my mouth to speak, intending first to console her, but she placed a finger to her lips, immobilizing me with a glance. "Say nothing," she whispered. "They will hear you."
"I am here to help you," I said, bringing my face close to hers, my lips to her cheek. She looked at me with innocent eyes, with longing, almost with love. She was quite pale, her eyes adrift, but she had no disease the medical establishment could cure.
"Please, keep silent," she repeated, "they must never know."
Know what, my child? I thought. I know the general nature of your illness, that is true, but as to particulars, I have no idea. I told her to speak plainly; no use trying to fool a doctor. The truth is always revealed in the end. She looked at me pleadingly, her eyes overflowing with the emotion of her youth. What I wanted was to take her in my arms, then and there, not out of love but a kind of compassion I felt for her. I could not do that, what with her family hovering about, but neither could I keep silent. I am a doctor. When a life is threatened, I will keep no secrets.
"Your daughter is in love," I said as the assembled gasped in disbelief. "It happens everyday, but it is nothing to be afraid of. Do you know the boy?"
I would have expected them to be overjoyed, a girl--their child--was becoming a woman, but instead they seemed oppressed as if by a profound sadness.
"No, she is quite ill," her mother insisted. "At night she walks in her sleep and she moans."
"I do not doubt you," I replied. "Probably she is dreaming of her beloved."
"That cannot be," the mother continued, her voice growing weaker (for she herself did not really believe her words), "she is so young."
I never doubt the--often intense--feelings of a parent for a child, but in this case they were mistaken: the girl was seventeen and she was in heat. I assumed she had denied a suitor her love, now regretted having done so; or perhaps it was she who had loved, but in secret, being too shy to reveal her desires. Again I drew close to the daughter and again I examined her. And again I reached the same conclusions. Yes, she did have a touch of fever, but it was nothing out of the ordinary, especially considering her lovesick condition. I wiped the perspiration from her forehead and bent over to give her a kiss, soft, unnoticed.
I rose and shook my head sadly. There was nothing they could do, I said, time alone would cure her.
The father protested--but feebly. "You must be mistaken. Perhaps, a second opinion..."
If they wished, but the diagnosis would be the same. A simple ailment requires a simple cure--and I could detect a pretty face as quickly as any man! All were silent, on hearing my words, and they gazed uncomprehendingly about. And then, without warning, another member of the family--was it a sister? or an aunt?--spoke up angrily and she arched her back in a gesture of supreme defiance:
"What kind of a fool doctor are you? Didn't you notice those red blotches on her cheeks and arms? And her fever--it's high enough to set the house on fire, but you didn't bother to check it. No, you noticed nothing. Too busy trying to peak inside her blouse. Dirty dog!"
The woman's accusations, completely unfounded, only aroused my ire. Imagine me, a respected doctor, my professionalism attacked! "Dear lady," I said, "I have no interest in the child, as lovely as she is, other than as a doctor's patient. Moreover, and I bristle even to have to say this, I am a happily married man; at my age the body of a young woman means little; the girl's flesh, though most succulent I am sure, does not arouse me."
The woman, overcome by the strength of my reply (had she expected me to break down and confess?), stared at the floor and said nothing further.
"Angelica," said the father after a long pause, "tell the doctor what truly ails you. Do not be afraid."
The girl said nothing, but began to sob quietly into the pillow.
I sighed. "It happens to us all," I said. I knelt back down beside the girl, beside Angelica, and I brought my lips to her ear, so that only she could hear my words, "Good luck!" I whispered, and she broke into a radiant smile--she is so beautiful when she smiles--and picking up my lantern, which I'd left beside the door, I made my exit.
The journey home seemed to take forever, so muddled was my mind with thoughts of Angelica. No matter how much I might have wished otherwise, her prognosis did not look good. She was a doomed woman, of that I was certain, for her family would never admit her passions. It was clearly evident in their eyes--in their cold and icy stares, their belligerent voices--never would any of them admit to wrongdoing. The illusions we hold are often admirable, yet no more so than the lives ruined because of them. The love we feel but cannot convey is a stark reminder of our own limitations.
When I came out of my reverie and looked at the scenery about me, I realized I must have taken yet another wrong turn, for I hadn't the faintest idea where I was! And like Angelica I, too, felt betrayed. Betrayed by a family that had no respect for the medical establishment. Betrayed by country roads that didn't have the decency to take a weary traveler straight home to bed.
I sighed, pulled my overcoat tight, and pressed doggedly ahead. No doubt I was hundreds of miles from home by now, in some other province, some other land. You've really done it to yourself this time, I thought. Your wife will never forgive you for this. It's sad but it's true: one false step in this world and the Fates descend. And with that as my final thought I disappeared into the brooding darkness of the night.
Brian Biswas lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife and two children. His most recent publications are in Dream International/Quarterly and Penny Dreadful, and he has work forthcoming in Songs of Innocence. He is listed in Who's Who in America and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. "A Betrayal" originally appeared in Penny Dreadful (Issue #11, 1999).
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