The bell on the door to Arell’s shop jingled as I entered, and she looked up from her needlework. ‘Polgara!’ she exclaimed, leaping to her feet and sweeping me up in a motherly embrace. ‘You’re looking well,’ she said.
‘So are you, Arell.’
‘Do you need a new dress? Is that why you came?’
‘No. Actually I’d like some information about Beldaran’s condition.’
‘She’s pregnant. I’m sure you noticed that.’
‘Very funny, Arell. What’s involved in giving birth?’
‘It’s painful, it’s messy, and it’s exhausting. You don’t want all the details, do you?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact I do.’
‘Are you thinking of setting up in business as midwife?’
‘Probably not. My interest is a little more general. Things happen to people – things that need to be fixed. I want to learn how to fix them.’
‘Women don’t become physicians, Pol. The men-folk don’t approve.’
‘That’s too bad, isn’t it? You can’t possibly imagine just how indifferent I am about the approval or disapproval of men.’
‘you’ll get yourself in trouble,’ she warned. ‘All we’re supposed to do is cook, clean house, and have babies.’
‘I already know about all that. I think I’d like to expand my knowledge just a bit’
Arell pursed her lips. ‘You’re serious about this, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I think I am.’
‘I can teach you what you’ll need to know about childbirth, but–’ she broke off. ‘Can you keep a secret?’
‘Lots of secrets, Arell. I know about things my father hasn’t even dreamed of yet, and I’ve been keeping them from him for years now.’
“There’s a herbalist here in Riva. He’s grouchy, and he doesn’t smell very nice, but he knows which herbs to use to cure certain ailments. And then there’s a bone-setter over on the other side of town as well. He’s got hands the size of hams, but he’s got the right touch. He can twist and wrench a broken bone back into place with no trouble at all. Did you want to learn surgery as well?’
‘Cutting people open so that you can fix their insides. I’m fairly good at that myself, though I don’t talk about it too often. There’s a surgeon here on the Isle as well as the herbalist and the bone-setter. He’s sort of fond of me because I taught him how to sew.’
‘What’s sewing got to do with cutting people open?’
She rolled her eyes upward and sighed. ‘Oh, dear,’ she said. ‘What do you do with a tunic after your father’s ripped it?’
‘Sew it up, of course.’
‘Exactly. You do the same thing to people, Pol. If you don’t, their insides are likely to fall out.’
I choked on that a little bit.
‘Let’s start out with childbirth,’ Arell suggested. ‘If that doesn’t make you sick to your stomach, we can move on to other specialties.’
I learned about ‘labor pains’, the ‘breaking of water’, and ‘afterbirth’. I also learned that there’s bleeding involved, but that it’s nothing to be alarmed about.
Then Arell took me around to introduce me to her three colleagues, passing me off as her pupil. Argak the herbalist had a tiny shop filled to the rafters with shelf after shelf of glass jars that contained his wares. The place was none too clean, but then neither was Argak. He reminded me a great deal of uncle Beldin in that regard. He was at least as grumpy and bad-smelling as Arell had told me he was, but I was there to learn from him, not to enjoy his company. A bit of flattery was about all it took to unlock his secrets, and I learned a great deal about alleviating pain and suffering and how to control disease with various leaves, roots, and dried berries.
Salheim the bone-setter was actually a blacksmith, huge, bearded and very blunt. He was not above re-breaking an arm that had set wrong – usually by laying it across the anvil in front of his glowing forge and rapping it smartly with his hammer. Salheim fixed things that were broken – chairs, people’s legs and arms, wheels, and farm implements. Usually he didn’t even bother to take off his burn-spotted leather apron when he set a bone. He was, like all smiths, enormously strong. I once saw him literally pull a broken leg back into its proper position by bracing his foot against his anvil, taking hold of the offending limb and hauling on it. ‘Tie that board to his leg to hold it in place, Pol,’ he told me, straining to keep the twisted leg of his screaming patient in place.
‘You’re hurting him,’ I protested.
‘Not as much as having that broken bone jabbing up into his leg muscles will,’ he replied. “They always scream when I set a bone. It’s not important. Learn to ignore it.’
Balten the surgeon was actually a barber, and he had slim, delicate hands and a slightly furtive look on his face. Cutting people open – except for fun – was illegal in most Alorn societies in those days, so Balten had to practice his art in secret – usually on the cutting-board in his wife’s kitchen. Since he needed to know where things were located inside the human body, he also needed to open a fair number of the recently deceased so that he could make maps for reference purposes. I think he used a shovel in the local graveyard almost as often as he used his surgical knives in the kitchen. His anatomical studies were usually a bit hurried, since he had to return his subjects to their graves before the sun came up. As his student, I was frequently invited to participate in his ghoulish entertainment.
I’ll admit that I didn’t care much for that part of my medical studies. I rather like gardening, but the crops Balten and I dug up on those midnight excursions weren’t very appealing, if you want to know the truth.
There’s another of my ‘talents’, father. Did you know that your daughter’s quite a proficient grave-robber? Next time you come by, I’ll dig somebody up for you, just to show you how it’s done.
‘It’s best to get them drunk before you start cutting them open, Pol,’ Balten told me one evening as he filled a tankard with strong ale for our latest patient.
‘Is that to avoid the pain?’ I asked.
‘No. It’s to keep them from flopping around while you’re slicing them open, and when you get your knife into a man’s entrails, you want him to stay perfectly still. Otherwise, you’ll cut things you shouldn’t be cutting.’ He took hold of my wrist rather firmly as I reached out for one of his curved knives. ‘Be careful, Pol!’ he warned. “Those knives are very sharp. A sharp knife is the key to good surgery. Dull ones always make a mess of things.’