This selection, chosen by guest editor Tierney Bailey, is from Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman, released by KERNPUNKT Press in 2023.
In the Blood
“For heaven’s sake, Dr. Rower,” Antoine’s prepubescent shrill rang out. “You picked a mighty day upon which to be late.” The wiggling worm of a farmer’s bastard tugged Dr. Leofric Rower down the hall toward a room filled with loud cries juxtaposed with whispers.
“On the contrary, boy,” Leofric said, consciously toeing the tear his splintered wooden shoe had gnawed through his linen hose. “Seems good a day as any to be late.” He eyed the hourglass on the hallway table. “Not that I’m late at all. It appears our patient is early.”
“A man doesn’t choose what time his cousin runs him through, sir.”
“Nor does a man choose the time his body fancies slumber.” Leofric fiddled with his demi-worsted kirtle and pulled his jacket over it, wishing for buttons that aligned enough to fasten. “His cousin, you say?”
“I do see.” He could ponder only briefly, when a meaty arm separated him from Antoine’s. He turned to the man at his heels who’d followed from the foyer. A twisty, hostile sot of a man with a mustache fresh from the carnival of commedia all’improvviso.
“I must request,” a meaty voice that matched the arm insisted, “that cause of death—”
“Has the fellow died, then?”
“Well, not yet,” the meaty man said. “But I pray it held discreet. For you see—”
“Yes, I do see,” Leofric said. “You are the cousin.”
“But he didn’t deserve the lady!”
“And I suppose she had no sword of her own?”
Leofric peeled the cousin’s fingers from around his arm and turned toward the hallway into the operating room. The whispers fell silent; the cries remained, though growing weaker. A woman scurried to the ewer, and two men took abrupt leave, Antoine turning with them. The meaty cousin followed Leofric into the room, but the doctor pushed the unwanted culprit back out and yanked Antoine back in.
“I wish only for my assistant,” Leofric said. “The rest of you, out. You, too, woman. Out.” All protests laid to waste, Leofric turned to the young, eager Antoine, then to the patient, now unconscious. “My, this fellow has lost a lot of blood.”
The doctor pursed his lips into a pucker, then twitched them from side to side, simultaneously twisting a jacket button in rhythm. A cluck of his tongue preceded a dash to the storage cupboard, where Leofric extracted two needles attached to the ends of metal tubes, rusted and pedestrian in construction, jointed together by the same clay cement that lined housing stones, and attached in the middle with an ineffectual tin cup and a pig bladder that was still crusted with the dried blood of previous patients.
“Antoine,” Leofric said, “that dog behind Mr. Snivel’s backhouse—have you seen it? Fetch that beast for me, will you?”
“The dog, yes, yes, the dog.” He wagged a finger at creased eyebrows. “Aht-aht, no buts.” Then he clapped his hands together twice. “The dog.”
Within minutes, the boy returned with the procured dog, sneaking in through the rear door, and depositing the yapping thing into the doctor’s arms. A wave of ether found the cur’s nose and knocked it unconscious. Antoine’s jaw fell.
“The man needs blood,” Leofric supplied in response. “Dogs are like humans in mannerism. Both run warm with blood, walk on land, and whimper when hungry. Both long for naps in the afternoon and chase with lolling tongues the tails of unaffected ladies. A man may have once walked on all-fours, but even if not, he certainly knows how to do it when begging. Their blood, therefore, must be similar enough.”
“Is that a medical fact, sir?”
“Of course. Write it down.” He pricked the dog’s hind end with one of the needles, stuck the other needle into the patient’s arm, and suctioned the tin cup over the latter needle hole. “So, let’s give the man some blood, shall we?” A hint of a smile played across the doctor’s lips when he squeezed the pig bladder, drawing forth blood from the beast and injecting it into the man, while Antoine worked to suture the sword wound at the man’s ribs.
In moments, the patient was convulsing. His heart beat rapidly, and red splotches broke out around the needle in his arm. He shook without gaining consciousness, his eyes rolling back in his head, his tongue sagging out of his mouth. Strange wet gurgles left his throat, and his blood-receiving arm clenched into a curl from fingertip to wrist to elbow to shoulder. Then, everything stopped. After a pause, Leofric leaned his ear to the man’s chest, but all was still.
“That was fascinating!” he said.
“Fascinating?” Antoine squeaked. “You killed him!”
“Oh, blather, I didn’t kill him; his cousin killed him.” The doctor waved his hand in dismissal. “I can’t be held responsible for every sorry praddlebum who swings a sword around and sticks his cousin in the belly fat. Besides, I hear tell he didn’t deserve the lady.”
On inconvenient cue, the coroner’s heels clicked down the hall. Leofric, annoyed but astute, plucked the needles from the dog’s butt and the dead man’s arm, and dragged the unconscious animal over to the storage closet, forcing the cur into a space entirely too small for its furry bulk. He had gotten the storage hasp mostly latched when the door to the room opened, and the coroner entered. Leofric stepped in front of his patient.
“Dead, I presume,” the coroner said without looking up. “The family alerted me. This is my third stop here this week, Dr. Rower.”
Leofric draped a corner of the bedding over the gaping sword wound at the patient’s side in the time it took the coroner to remove the parchment and charcoal nubbin from a well-fitted linsey-woolsey pocket.
The coroner asked, “And how did this one die?”
“The Dyspepsia,” Leofric replied. “Seems it took him early, the poor fellow. You know how it is this time of year.” A scratching and whimpering came from the storage closet, and Leofric coughed loudly, clearing his throat to cover the sound. The coroner looked at the storage closet, squinted, then added, “Best see you don’t come down with the Dyspepsia yourself, Doctor,” before he quit the room with a curt nod.
“Well, that was easy enough,” Leofric said, dusting his hands together.
“The Dyspepsia?” Antoine asked disbelievingly.
“Sure, why not?”
“Is that a medical fact, sir?”
“Of course. Write it down.”
“What if his family finds out?”
The doctor unlatched the storage closet, and the simpering cur leaped out, cowering in the corner and licking its rump. “I’m sure this poor chap’s meaty cousin would heartily agree that the Dyspepsia is a fast killer of fine men. Faster, on occasion, than murder.” The doctor looked at the dog.
“Take this down.” He waved a hand at Antoine until the boy lifted a feather and a parchment. “Dog blood not compatible. Next time, use a sheep. A lamb is calm. That might run in the blood to gentle a thrashing man.”
Leah Angstman is the author of the historical novel of 17th-century New England, Out Front the Following Sea (Regal House, 2022), which won the Colorado Independent Publishers Association Evvy Book Award for both Historical Fiction and Cover Design and the Herb Tabak CIPA Choice Award for Fiction. Her second novel, Falcon in the Dive (Regal House, forthcoming spring 2024), was a finalist for the Clue Book Award for Historical Suspense. Leah serves as executive editor for Alternating Current Press and The Coil online magazine, and her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Publishers Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Nashville Review.
Tierney Bailey is a Libra, a lover of science fiction and poetry, and is a dice-collecting gremlin. Currently, Tierney is Associate Poetry Editor with Sundress Publications, a copyeditor at Strange Horizons, Associate Editor with PodCastle, and a freelance graphic designer. She has earned a BA from the University of Indianapolis and a Masters Degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College.