Monday, November 29, 2010

Chapter Eight, CASTENATA: Renata's Diary, Dr. Astorga Swears By Mercury to Cure Antonie

Renata’s Diary
July 25, 1883

Dr. Astorga swears by mercury. The silvery liquid has helped more of his patients in the late stages of syphilis than any other cure. Or so he claims. For medical reference, he relies, oddly enough, almost exclusively on the writings of two 15th century Spanish physicians. “Is there nothing more...modern?”

I posed that question to Dr. Astorga in the first moments after Señora and I arrived at his elegant Nob Hill office, struggling to hold Antonie upright. All three of us wore the same yellow crust, road dust fixed into our skin, our clothes, and even, our teeth.
I asked my question politely. Or at least, I thought I did. But considering the physician’s reaction, clearly he heard my query as a direct assault on all of his knowledge and competency.

“So you seem to know a thing or two about syphilis, then?” Immediately, I reddened. His lips thinned and then froze in a sneer.

“Oh no, sir, I do not,” I mumbled, dropping my eyes to the polished surface of his desk. “I know nothing at all of this illness.”

Astorga sat behind his grandiose oak desk. He held two fingers together beneath his chin. In everything about him there is an affected air; even his softly drooping eyelids strike me as…dare I say…haughty, and even worse, deceitful. Forgive me Lord, but I did not like this man, not from the very start. But as I sat there, wanting to disappear from the room, I thought to myself, what choice have we got but to stay, no matter what? This doctor was certainly Antonie’s only hope.

I glanced to my cousin, who rested against Señora’s shoulder, the two of them sharing a bench off in one corner. Antonie was tightly bound in Señora’s flowered shawl, but it seemed to make no difference at all. He shook so badly that I could hear his teeth chatter.

Incredibly, Astorga took no notice of that. Instead, he proceeded to give us a long-winded story explaining how one Ruy Diaz de Isla happened to treat the syphilitic sailors of Christopher Columbus’ famed crew in 1493.

“It all began you see, with a rather grimy mistake. Columbus’ sailors, it is believed, chose very unwisely to wash their vermin-infested drawers in a pond of water at Palos, the port from which Columbus sailed, and that water later irrigated the vegetables. The cabbages, it is said, erupted in syphilitic lesions that were frightening to behold.”

Astorga paused, his lips curled in what his authoritative smile, a grin I already considered hateful to behold. I nodded, and it took all my internal force to ignore Antonie’s groaning. The doctor’s face at that moment was abhorrent to me: I still see his large square jaw, the neatly clipped mustache, and all those giant yellow teeth, one of which was capped in gold. The doctor’s black hair was perfectly coifed, but so bizarre: he wore a fairly top heavy pompadour, and on the sides, each oiled wave was pressed close to his skull.

At that moment, Antonie fell into coughing, and I jumped to his side. I thought for sure that Astorga would begin his physical examination of my cousin. But the doctor was ignoring Antonie, choosing instead to continue with his lecture on syphilis. I caught Senora’s eyes, which flared. There was that question: will you say something to him? But I knew I didn’t dare challenge the physician with a question once again.

Leaning back in his grand arm chair, fashioned of rich burgundy leather, and hammered with silver studs, Astorga pointed to his wall. “That tract hanging there is the actual frontispiece taken from Ruy Diaz de Isla’s famous book, Tractado Contra el Mal Serpentino.”

I stared at the yellowing page, framed ornately, the paper decorated in slithering black serpentine figures. The lettering was impossible to read. But Astorga proceeded coolly to explain and all I could do was stare at Antonie and Señora and wring my hands together as the doctor spoke.

“The tract was written in 1539, and still has not been translated into English. Of course I was able to read it in its original Castilian,” Astorga boasted, punctuating his statement with a hatefully patrician gleam. “Without question, Diaz de Isla’s scholarly work provides us proof that the scourge originated in the American equatorial island of Hispaniola.”

I shifted in my chair and thought, Dear God, keep me from tearing at this man’s hair. Antonie had stopped shaking, but he was further collapsed into Senora, his head now resting in her lap, his legs extended well off the chair.

At that moment, Astorga rose, and so did my hopes, thinking yes, yes, he will attend to Antonie now. But instead, Astorga crossed to the other side of the office and reached for a large book on the top shelf of his bookcase. “There is of course a second and quite notable 15th century scholar, poet, philosopher and physician in this field. Francisco Lopez de Villalobos, and he was among the very first to recognize and treat the disease.”

He carried the book around to the front of his desk and sat on one corner, where his leg was only inches from me. “As a young medical student, I traveled in 1862 from Barcelona to London, to the British Museum, where I sat in the stacks and read from cover to cover one of the four remaining copies of Villalobos’ book, this very book you are looking at right now. Remarkably, Villalobos’ work is still in use three centuries later. He was the first, we believe, to introduce the use of mercury and that treatment remains our best defense in the battle against this pernicious disease.
Villalobos wrote his book shortly after the arrival of Columbus, and it contained a lovely poem that I have framed in ebony in the other room…”

While Astorga mused over poetry, Antonie’s breathing was becoming more labored. I shifted uneasily in my chair. Was there nothing I could do to hasten this doctor to perform the business of curing? Did he know nothing but what was between the pages of his dusty old books? In one corner of my eye, I could see Senora struggling desperately to hold onto Antonie as he thrashed to the left and the right. But to Astorga, Antonie might have been invisible.

Astorga flipped through the flimsy pages of the book.

“You know, dear Sister, that both of these fine Spanish doctors of the fifteenth century were of strong religious faith?” He paused and I shook my head slightly.

“I had no idea,” I replied.

“Yes, both doctors were most decidedly religious men,” he continued, examining his well-manicured nails. I watched his lips, and thought for a moment, is that indeed a look of lechery forming there?

“Like all good religious men,” he went on, “both of these fine doctors believed that las bubas, the Spanish name for syphilis, was a scourge delivered on men specifically because of their…” and here he paused, and his voice dropped, and his face came forward toward mine, so that I could see the very pores of his skin, “…because of their carnality, the vile nature of their sins.”
My face colored again, and I was about to reprimand him, for how dare he speak so freely with me about the connection between Antonie’s illness and sexual excess and sin?

My mouth opened, and I heard a scream, and for a fraction of a moment, I thought perhaps it might be my own.

But no. It was Señora. Antonie had rolled from her lap onto the floor. He landed with a loud thump. My cousin’s hat had fallen aside and his long hair was splayed like a dark wedding train. I jumped from my chair and was there at his side in an instant. Without any hesitation, I eyed the doctor, who was still sitting astride the desk.

“My God, will you please come here immediately, my cousin needs you, desperately,” I screamed. And then, perhaps because it had been so many days since I had slept, I seemed to lose all touch with reality. I screamed louder.

“Can’t you see that he has fallen because he is near death? Are you a doctor at all or are you some kind of a librarian? Have we come all this way for nothing, just to listen to you lecture there from that book?”

Thankfully, Señora took hold of my arm, and held me back. I sank, wilted, to the floor.

The doctor rose and his eyes widened and froze as he crossed the room in two large strides. He reached toward me and I thought for sure he would strike me, but I didn’t care. I’d already decided, I was ready for whatever transpired.

Instead, though, Astorga grabbed his black leather bag and kneeled on the floor beside Antonie, who was on his back, his face more grey and sweaty than I’d ever seen before.

“Move aside,” Astorga commanded me. So I settled beside Señora, who was kneeling there, murmuring prayers in Spanish.

The doctor laid the stethoscope on Antonie’s chest, and took my cousin’s pulse. “He is indeed quite ill,” Astorga muttered, and I had all I could do not to strike the doctor with a fist.

At his direction, the three of us -- Astorga, Señora and me -- proceeded to lift my cousin and drag him to an adjacent room, where we hoisted him onto a clean bed. “I will be ready to begin shortly,” Astorga said, and then he left the room for a moment, evidently to prepare the mercury.

And so Señora and I sat with Antonie between us, each of us cushiong his shoulders and head. Almost immediately, I noticed over my cousin’s head, a large ebony frame. And in it, a poem, evidently the one that Astorga described.

As Señora prayed, I read the poem. Curiously, it brought me tender thoughts of the convent. And my heart was squeezed as I realized anew how far I was from home:

“Hatred, strife and combat make man forget his God.
Passion clothed in filth lifts up its noisome head.
Thus is man and mother church trodden in the sod,
And honest men forget their nuptial word
And seek in darkest night the harlot’s golden bed.”

Castenata is the inner "layer" of an on-line book called Sister Mysteries, part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project, which features seven writers who are committed to completing their books by the end of the year. Castenata -- a book that author Claudia Ricci wrote in 1995 -- is a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries, all of which can be found on the Castenata site.

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