Better than the blogs your mother used to make.

The Doctor

It was all just bloody superstitions, is what my dad used to say.
You’d go into this rickety little village, barely mud and hopefulness, and you’d see it. Everyone would flock around the elders – which was good, my dad used to say, but not the right kind of good. They knew things, but not the right kind of things. Whatever the elders said was the truth. Because they were the elders. They were around when the truth was first spoken, so they must know it with more certainty than young Umboda’s kid, who was always making stuff up about baboons sneaking into the storage hut when no one was looking and making off with the condensed milk. Umboda’s kid was a good storyteller, and slightly fatter than the other kids.
Point is, my dad used to say, they seemed to find it easier to believe knobbly hands over fresh and plump ones, even if some of those knobbles where made through youthful adventures into other peoples’ pantries.
It was all backwards, my dad used to say. Everything. A man would head off into the veld for the day and be carried back by his friends, his leg swollen and eyes rolling back, to be put in a low hut filled with smoke and herbs and strangely carved sticks. Something pummelled and sticky would be wrapped around the puncture marks and a wrinkled, crackling voice would mumble something incoherent from behind a handful of smouldering grasses. Sometimes the friends would be sent out to hunt for the nasty little bugger itself. Maybe reptilian remorse made a good anti-venom.
And after all of this, they went away happy. Well, not happy – the poor man would still be writhing and sweating and making sounds that would presumably be distinctly un-Christian if any of us could understand them – but content, at least, that everything that could be done, had been. And sometimes it worked. Sometimes he’d pep up after a day or two and go about his business with only a mild limp and a few more rest breaks than normal. But sometimes he wouldn’t, and his veins would turn black, and a strong man would be reduced to a whimpering infant.
And then my dad would be called in, with his little brown case and, sometimes, a saw.
It was because of the stick, he used to say. Knobbly hands by themselves might be great at dispensing wisdom, but the stick made them incontrovertible. It had a rattle in it. A child would be brought in with a fever and – shake, shake, mumble, smoulder – he would leave again. A woman would come in with six daughters and a look of deep embarrassment and – shake, shake, sprinkle, chant – go back to her husband, beaming with an unidentifiable certainty.
And bugger me if it worked! Ok, so my dad didn’t used to say that, but sometimes his face forgot how holy the rest of him was supposed to be. The thing is, it wasn’t so surprising that it worked – it was bound to, every now and then. What was surprising was how often...
There was a kind of magic that poured through a stick with a rattle in it. It was an all-purpose disinfectant, anti-fungal, -bacterial, -biotic, it was a hormone-replacement, iron supplement and multi-vitamin. They trusted the stick, because it worked. And when the knobbly hands closed around the grass kilt and waved back and forth in a dance that oozed mysticism, trust was forged into cold, unshakeable faith.
But faith couldn’t heal anything, my dad used to say – at least not faith in a bit of wood and a meerkat skull. That was savage faith. They didn’t even take rest on Sundays, which was proof enough, apparently.
My dad took rest on Sundays. He wore white linen suits. But that faith healed the spirit, he used to say. For the body, he believed in chemistry. He believed in penicillin and needles and long Latin names. No doubt the Father could handle anything He wanted to, but when all of existence was under your purview, it made sense to delegate the heat-stroke and malaria and fevers to a willing and able servant. And that was what my dad was. He was a tool, he used to say, cutting out the ailments, drowning them in chemicals, and stitching the good bits back together again. Because that was what was needed. People were like machines that needed their parts taken care of and, if irreparably damaged, removed.
And yet somehow these folks did without it. They didn’t rest, white linen didn’t stay that way for long, and needles were a waddling, ill-tempered environmental hazard. Surgery was a foreign word, and was imported along with all of the other shiny, useless things. They didn’t cut here. They crushed and burned and waved and sang and smoked and chewed and danced. And they believed. My dad brought some of their crushed stuff home once. We could identify a few common herbs and what seemed to be a very fine bone-meal, but nothing that would help break a fever. It was delicious, but ultimately unmiraculous.
And every time my dad came home from one of his calls, he would tell us of at least a dozen cases that would prove fatal within the week, but who looked up at him fresh-faced and healthy the next time he visited. Beaming with an unwavering knowledge of the power of a bit of wood and meerkat skull. He couldn’t understand it, he used to say.
I think I can. It’s not a look specific to the village. I see it every so often in the waiting room back home, when dad walks past in his white coat and stethoscope. It rattles a bit too.

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