Death and the Doctor

Reading Time: 5 minutes
(Image created by Anais Aguilera using Firefly.)

I cut into the girl on the table before me, exposing her living viscera to air as biology never intended. I am committing a trespass of integument in order to heal, a perversion of the natural order in order to preserve what is natural.

An apparition stands in the corner, watching with interest.

Death says: “Your work continues to fascinate, Doctor.”

I flick a brass-rimmed lens down to cover the socket of my plague mask, bringing the incision on my patient’s abdomen into sharper magnification.The headpiece serves multiple purposes. It is a badge of office, the blackened leather and avian features being instantly recognizable in many lands where I speak the language poorly or not all. It is practical too, both for the optical enhancements and for the dried herbs—ambergris, camphor, and myrrh—stuffed into the beak to ward me from ill miasmas.

It also affords me some measure of privacy when I pray to my god.

“You have seen me perform an appendectomy before.” I speak softly, knowing Death can hear every word. The girl’s parents huddle in chairs against the wall. They have asked to observe the procedure despite my warnings of how it may disturb them. Though they cannot see my lips move behind my mask, I do not wish them to overhear my mutterings and think they have entrusted their daughter’s life to a madman.

Death says: “Not on one so young. I find myself glad to be a student of variety. Explain to me once more how this child is dying.”

So I peel apart the peritoneum and push aside the intestines to indicate with a blunted tool, pointing out where the tissue around the appendix has become swollen and inflamed. With a careful incision, I remove the offending organ, then cut into it and draw forth the offending blockage—miniscule, unidentifiable—that aggravated the tissue to dangerous infection. I describe unflinchingly how, if I had not intervened, it would have burst and released the sickness to spread throughout the girl’s innards. I continue, admitting to the dangers that still remain, how infection might still claim her life, introduced to her body by the vector of my own tools.

Death says: “I see.”

And I know that I have satisfied It.

I reach for the steel needle and gut, carefully sterilized and gleaming. As I begin to stitch the girl shut, I pray, a supplication each time the needle pierces her flesh and a breathless orison each time it emerges. Each suture closes the wound, little by little, hiding away the nacreous crimson of the girl’s interior once more; each utterance beseeches the specter in the room to provide mercy, to take my knowledge and my labor as bargain for this girl’s life. My thread provides the warp to reknit the weft of her skin, my words the invocation to reseal her fate.

Death remains impassive, but I know It listens carefully to my every word.

When I finish, Death tells me: “You have done well, Doctor. Your prayers are answered. I will not take this soul today.”

I pull the final stitch tight, knot it, and cut the excess free, allowing a benedicite of thanks to tumble from my lips. In my relief, I speak too loudly and the parents look to me beseechingly. I rinse my hands of the girl’s fluids and turn to address them.

“My god has smiled on her this day. She will live.” I believe it would have been true even without Death’s blessing, but now I can deliver the verdict with certainty. “You did well to call on me so quickly.”

The mother cradles the girl’s head and the father thanks me with tears. I give them instructions for her care—rest, nourishment, and regular cleansing of the wound—and take my leave.

Death accompanies me, as It has since I took my oaths those many years ago. Most days It walks ahead of me, but today It follows one step behind.

Death asks: “And where do we wander next, my acolyte? What fascinations of the flesh will you next present for my edification?”

Even as It speaks, I notice Its face turning westward, toward the shadows cast by the rising sun. I realize that I have worked through the night. I respond, “I hear rumors of a plague that grips the occidental villages not far from here. I suspect there will be much need for my services.”

Death says: “I am already hard at work there, but it is of little interest. I have seen you treat many of the plague ridden before; that process holds no mystery from me any longer.”

I am disheartened. My patron is strangely fickle: Its interest is the sole avenue by which I may entreat It. Without Its blessing, my work among the sick will likely be long and thankless and my tools only the mundane medicines of the earth.

It may seem strange for a doctor to be a priest of Death, and to pray to that force which my purpose is to oppose. For though I have sworn oaths to thwart Death by whatever means I may, I find that it is within this contradiction that I can do the most good. I have come to realize that Death is ageless, but also curious. It has spent an eternity watching humans die, reaping their souls at their appointed times. Surely it is only natural, at some point across the millenia, to wonder: Why? For each soul It takes, what caused this one to expire? Why now? The mortal body is fragile in a myriad of ways, and often it is not obvious why it should fail when it does.

These are the answers I offer Death. Every patient I cure is a curriculum unto themselves, and each successful treatment is a treatise showing not only that people die, but how and why. I am a scholar of the flesh, a disciple of the human body. The stuttering hearts and fluttering lungs of my patients are the catechisms of my church. At the altar of my operating table, all are welcome to worship and hear my sermons of anatomy and pathology. Even Death Itself.

It pleases me to save a life. It pleases Death to understand why Its work must proceed. In this light, perhaps our improbable arrangement seems less so.

I reply: “Nevertheless, I must do what I can to help. Besides, not all plagues are alike. I hear the scholars speak of a theory by which a disease may mutate as it spreads among hosts. Perhaps in close quarters we shall learn more of that process.”

Death accepts this with a slight incline of the head. Allied once more, we turn, as one, to the west to continue our antithetical work.


Edited by a Fallon Clark and Sophie Gorjance.

J. Peri is a doctoral student in Astrophysics with a passion for imagining other worlds. In her research she studies what life might be like on far off planets, and in her writing she enjoys exploring the same question through the power of fiction. She is also the editor of the webcomic ForEach (