Story — From the June 2014 issue

The Second Doctor Service

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Sirs — Having read with interest Dr. Pritchard’s recent report of the young woman with paroxysmal amnesia and transformation of personality, as well as Dr. Slayer’s study “On the So-called Cumberland Were-wolf,” I have spent the past months in deliberation over whether to share my own case with your readers. If I have hesitated, it is less out of concern for privacy than the simple fact that, though bearing the title of physician, I am but a country doctor, whose medical expertise extends little beyond those afflictions befalling the farmers and milkmaids of K— County. Indeed, I likely never would have opened your learned Journal were it not for the very strange events of the past year. Most of the members of your Society, I am aware, publish with that noble aim of advancing medicine; I write with the hope that one of them has encountered a case like my own, and so might save me before it is too late.

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

Unlike with most illnesses, Sirs, which arise within us so insidiously, creeping through vein and fiber, unsettling our slumber, awakening within us that ineffable, horrific sense of dis-ease, it is possible to state the very instant, indeed the very longitude and latitude, of my affliction, being four strokes after noon, on August 24, 1882, on the cusp of Mersey’s Ridge, outside S—. I was returning from a sick-call; the patient was a parson’s son who had fallen ill with a tertian fever. I had attended to him for three days and nights with the constant application of Beedham’s Ointment and, upon restoring him to health, had saddled my horse and begun my journey home. It was a warm summer day, one of those particularly golden morrows when the air is thick with motes of pollen, and the scent of wet grass rises from the fields, and everywhere life appears to swirl in such a miasma that I have since wondered if I did not inhale some invisible animalcule as I galloped up the hill, and that it is perhaps this beastie upon whom I should lay the blame for all that followed. Down in the valley, the noon bells had tolled twice when there arose a very strong odor of chestnuts, overwhelming the sweet of the grass and the sharp bloom of all the goldenrod stirred up by my horse’s feet. This was impossible, of course: chestnuts would not be in season until November, and this thought, delivered whole and instantaneously between the second and the third tolling of the bells, seemed to carry on its wings the conviction that something odd and terrible was to occur. It was then, just as I crested the hill, expecting the spectacular vision of the forests below, that I found myself not before that view but somehow five miles farther, thundering over the bridge at Wilson’s Mill.

We are all accustomed, I believe, to the experience of traveling and drifting into distraction, only to arrive safely at our destination as if directed by some unseen hand. My first suspicion was that this was what had happened, and yet I also knew it wasn’t so: I had passed along this road a thousand times, and not once had I failed to stop on its descent into that ancient forest of beech and linden, where the soft light filters down through the whispering leaves, and the air is filled with the tintinnabulation of the chickadees, and the odor of the mushrooms and mosses awakens in me a profound nostalgia for my childhood adventures amid the cathedrals of fallen boughs. Nor, I knew, could I have been asleep, for the road is too perilous, with hanging limbs that have nearly beheaded even the most alert traveler. Such is my reasoning in retrospect; at the time it was a particular sensation that told me something was different, a feeling, unlike any other I had experienced, of complete nothingness, as if an ellipsis had occurred between the fields of goldenrod on Mersey’s Ridge and the linden depths of the Mill, as if time and distance had somehow folded upon themselves, or — to put it differently — as if I had simply ceased to be.

There is little more to be said about this incident, save that it was the first. Shaken, I continued my ride. I stopped at H— to dine, finding myself in the company of an old friend. I made no mention of the event, ate heartily, and, having steadied my nerves, continued home.

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is the author of The Piano Tuner (Knopf, 2002) and A Far Country (Knopf, 2007). His most recent story for Harper’s Magazine, “The Miraculous Discovery of Psammetichus I,” was published in the March 2011 issue.

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