|Disharee Bose was born and raised in India where she graduated with a BA in English Literature. She worked with a Tech company for a few years, and now lives and works in Dublin. She is currently pursuing an MA in Creative Writing from UCD.|
By Disharee Bose
Brom didn’t know why they called his master Medicine Man. For the fifteen days that Brom had lived in the house, he hadn’t once seen him mixing powders or healing the sick. Brom wondered if he had assumed the name of Medicine Man locally, he should, at least, have cured his own chesty night cough by now. Regardless, he was given a roof over his head, even if it was in the kitchen which always smelt of Pottage but never of Ale. One clean blanket for the night had been handed to him even though the stone floor was cold. Moreover, his only real chores had been to scrub the floors, wash the linen and to empty master’s chamber pot once a day.
Their cottage was small and in it his master loomed big. It is an honour to have been picked by such a respectable man! Mrs. Chyncharm had praised him in front of the other boys at the workhouse. Medicine Man stood silently by her, his arms crossed across a vast chest, pointed moustache curling slightly at the edges and a black cane hooked and hanging from the pocket of his coat. In fact, Brom had heard very little of his master’s voice even after they arrived at the cottage. Except for the occasional Come here boy! which he thundered from his bedroom on mornings if Brom wasn’t awake in time to hand him his coat and hat, his master said very little else to him.
It was on the day that Maria’s mewling child was born that Brom noticed Medicine Man at the workhouse for the first time. They had all crowded around the baby in a circle, his wails bouncing off the high ceiling while some of the younger boys dared to touch him and quickly drew their fingers away as if burnt. They had never seen anything like it before, the baby’s head was shaped like the large white onions Brom had to peel on Wednesday afternoons, his eyes bulged like bubbles in boiling stew.
Brom noticed Medicine Man when he walked into the room with Mrs. Chyncharm. She was speaking animatedly with her arms flailing. The man walking with her past the rows of low beds was silent, nodding the few times Mrs. Chyncharm stopped for breath, to assure her he was paying attention. A shiny black cane was tucked under his left armpit while he walked with his arms behind his back, a velvet lining the colour of red Myrtle peeping out from inside his coat. They paused from their walk in front of weeping Maria. While she sat curled on the corner of her bed Mrs. Chyncharm stood above her, complaining to Medicine Man loudly. He stood by unperturbed, now only pulling a tin and pipe out from his coat pocket. He caught Brom’s gaze then, with the distance of at least a dozen beds between them he stuck the pipe between his lips and quickly filled its bowl with tobacco. Two days later Mrs. Chyncharm kicked Brom’s legs in the middle of the night, The Medicine Man has asked for you, you little rat.
It was one of his master’s pipes that Brom was cleaning this night. The cottage was cold but he knew he shouldn’t light the fire till his master returned. He sat alone on the floor by the kitchen table, a large bowl of steaming pottage ready and waiting. On all previous nights, by this time when the birds grew silent and the wind grew loud his master would return home. Brom never knew where he would return from, but he was certain it must be from somewhere important. He would eat his pottage slowly at the table, sometimes looking over with sleepy eyes at Brom sitting on the floor near the kitchen door.
Brom thought he heard the door to the house open and then close. He quickly put down the pipe and stood up but before he could reach the kitchen door, his master had entered the room. He still had his coat and hat on and a bundle of clothes cradled in his arms, his eyes were darting wildly around. Brom could sense an anxiety, something was different this night. Before he could reach for the bundle of clothes to take from his master’s arms they heard a shriek. Brom stumbled back, shocked by the sound, his hands flying to cover his mouth.
His master mumbled under his breath and gently laid the bundle on the kitchen table while the shrieking continued. Go fetch your blanket boy. Brom couldn’t move, he stood transfixed by the sight that was unfolding before him. The small head of a baby stuck out from the folds of the clothes that were wrapped around him. He could now see a tiny red face, screwed up and sputtering small bubbles from his angry mouth. Go fetch your blanket and light the fire, his master said again.
Brom ran and hurried back with the blanket. Is this child sick? Has master brought him home to cure him of an illness? The baby was still on the table, his cries had now turned to softer whimpers, his face still red but more orange now against the light of the fire. Warm some milk was his master’s next command as he wrapped the blanket around the child, still mumbling under his breath.
Brom lay awake on the cold stone floor that night while the child slept on the kitchen table wrapped in the blanket.
Feed him some milk if he wakes up, was all his master had said to him the next morning as he left the cottage at the break of dawn. Brom had seen babies before at the workhouse, but none quite as beautiful as this one. Clear blue eyes and a fuzz of blonde hair, his soft velvet cheeks were like balls of dough. Although he’d cried himself to sleep, this morning he slept soundly, waking up a few times to giggle to himself. Brom fed him warm milk from a small wooden spoon and washed the rags that were tied around the baby’s groin. Waving one of his master’s pipes over the child’s face, he watched as it reached out small fingers towards the new toy.
That evening his master returned home sooner than usual and sat smoking his pipe in the kitchen by the fire. The baby lay on the floor beside him, sleeping. Brom was still stirring the pottage when they heard a sharp knock on the door. Go to my room with the child and stay there. Don’t let him make a sound.
Brom bundled up the baby and hurried to his master’s room. The room was clean and his chamber pot was empty. There was not much else other than the bed he slept on and a low wooden cupboard in the tight corner. He lay the baby on the bed, tightening the blanket around him hoping that would muffle any of his cries if he happened to wake. He heard a woman’s voice inside the house.
The Domin family
They ask for you Medicine Man
The child started crying the moment his master entered the bedroom. Shut it up, we’re going out, he said while he opened the cupboard to extract a wooden box. Brom cradled the baby in his arms, rocking it gently in the hopes that he could lull it back to sleep. On the bed, his master opened the box with its many compartments. Brom was certain he was witnessing the greatness of his master at work. With the baby swinging in his arms, he watched as his master held up a glass vial shaped like a horn. It was filled with a murky orange liquid that his master shook to turn into a rich brown, the colour of winning horses. From another compartment he brought out a circular tin, opening it to feel the texture of a white powder which Brom could have sworn was salt. There were some more glass bottles filled with liquids in colours that Brom couldn’t identity, except one which was red like his own bloodshot eyes.
Within minutes, they were outside the cottage in the rain. His master had wrapped the bundle of clothes around the baby again, covering it further in Brom’s blanket. He had not stopped crying still, no matter how hard Brom tried to calm him. His master tut-tutted standing outside the cottage door as they heard the child’s cries being carried by the wind. He took the baby from Brom’s arms and uncovered his head from the bundle of clothes. Brom saw the glint of a glass bottle in his master’s hands. He shook the bottle once, twice and uncorked it with a pop Brom couldn’t hear in the rain. He stood transfixed in wonder, or perhaps horror as his master dabbed the cloth around the baby’s face in the liquid from the bottle and within seconds the child was fast asleep, his cries fading quickly as if the wind had finally carried them away over the tree tops.
His master hadn’t said a word when he handed the child back to Brom, covering it up with the blanket and clothes again. Neither did he tell Brom where they were going as they walked in the dark. The light from a lantern guided them through the rain that dribbled down the soaking back of Brom’s shirt and the wind that carries the cries of children.
Brom couldn’t be certain how long they had been walking, it could have been hours or perhaps the whole night. The darkness had cleared to a faint golden light as he trudged behind his master, the wetness on his back had dried to the damp of morning dew. They hadn’t stopped once since they
left the cottage till now when they reached a village. Here they were stopped by a woman his master seemed to know. There was no time but Brom didn’t need to be instructed, the child was sleeping safely wrapped within the folds of the blanket that he held under his arm like a parcel and he was careful to stand behind his master as they spoke.
As it had been with Mrs. Chyncharm, the woman spoke while his master listened.
The poor mother is lying sick in bed now. She had been so careful with the child but one of the other children must have left the window open at night and the fairies switched her child for this Changeling.
His master nodded
You should see the child oh Medicine Man! Its eyes bulge and it has scales on its back like the devil himself. Mrs. Lizbo saw it and nearly fainted.
His master tut-tutted and Brom could see the back of his head shaking in response
We haven’t had a Changeling appear since you rescued the Anson’s child, we are all afraid Medicine Man, I haven’t opened the windows since. Oh please save the child, please!
The woman lunged forward and clasped his arms and it appeared as though she was trying to shake him. He remained still and simply patted her hands, embarrassing her into withdrawing them quickly.
I will try my best, he said as he grabbed Brom’s collar and pulled him along.
The Domin house looked ordinary from the outside. A cottage not larger than his master’s, it stood solitary in the middle of a field, a few kilometres away from the village they had just passed through. It had its own well, a cow grazing by the cottage walls and the screams of a child cutting through the fog of the morning air. His master slowed down when they heard the wails.
See where the cow stands near the window?
Brom nodded, the baby in his arms still sleeping soundly, nothing seemed to have disturbed him from his surreal slumber.
Sit down under that window and wait till you hear from me. When I tell you, run past the back of the house till you reach the woods. I will meet you there.
Brom’s breathing was hard now. He was shivering from the cold of his damp clothes and the excitement of his own confusion.
Do exactly as you’re told and be sure nobody sees you
With that, his master gave him a gentle push towards the side of the cottage where the cow stood grazing. In the barely-there light of the morning sun, Brom walked softly towards the closed window and crouched under it, his back against the wall and the baby in his arms. He couldn’t see but heard his master knock on the front door and being greeted by a group of people, all of whom were clearly relieved to see him.
For sometime Brom heard nothing but the wails of the other child from inside the house, he was certain the child was in the room of the window he was crouching under. The baby in his arms had not made a sound yet. Brom drew the folds of the blanket away from its face to place his little finger under its nose, faint bursts of warm humid air assured him that it was still alive.
He heard his master’s voice boom out from inside the room
Please, Mrs. Domin, I need to be alone with the child now. If you come in you might break the spell.
Brom twisted his head towards the slightly higher window above him, not daring to stand up. The child inside was screaming still until Brom heard the faint plop of a glass bottle being uncorked. There was finally silence and Brom heard a loud wail from a woman in another part of the house.
He wanted to stand, to have a peep through the window and watch his master cure a Changeling. Just as he was about to do so, the window above him rattled softly and then opened. He saw one hand of his master extend through the opening and then his voice,
Get up and hand me the child
Brom steadied his calves and stood up slowly, the baby still in his arms. Even while he stood he had to crane his neck up towards the window, and could only see the head and torso of the Medicine Man. He had the sleeping Changeling in his arms. This Changeling had the same large head shaped like onions and bulging eyes that reminded him of bubbling stew. He had seen this child before, in the dim light of the workhouse when Maria turned away from it.
His eyes travelled from the child to his master’s eyes, while he stood clutching the baby in his own arms. His limbs were frozen in the cold perhaps or did his master cast a spell on him? The eyes he met were unwavering, the hint of a grin under the pointy moustache that curled slightly at the edges.
Hand me the child, boy
This time, he said it even more softly, a request; as though he was taking a toy away from a pampered boy. Brom barely caught a glimpse of the face of the child he had been carrying around in a blanket all night. His master took the child from his arms and passed a different sleeping one back into his.