'I do not keep any medicines of value in here.'

“I do not keep any medicines of value in this room.”

The head turned slightly, revealing a profile thin and sharp as a crescent moon. “You do keep books.”

“I also keep a lock on this door.”

'I also keep a lock on this door.'

Yusuf spotted the heavy lock on the table just before the man covered it with his hand. He picked it up, deftly flipped it over to lie helpless as a turtle in his palm, and laid it down again on its keyhole. Yusuf almost expected to see it scuttle away.

“I am not a thief. Not even of a lock.”

'I am not a thief.'

Wrapped in his black robes and the wintry gloom, he was little more than a wan face, two white hands, and a silver crucifix reflecting the light of the high window. Yusuf went directly to the stove and lit a rush in the embers.

Yusuf went directly to the stove and lit a rush in the embers.

“What else would you be doing here in the dark?”

“I was curious about you. Is it true you are a Moor?”

Yusuf grunted and waved the burning tip of the rush beneath his chin as he went to the lamp, illuminating his dark skin and the domed profile of his nose.

“You worship Mahomet?”

'You worship Mahomet?'

“I worship God, and no other. Mohammed is His prophet.”

“What God?”

The lamp lit, Yusuf paused with the burning tip of the rush just below his lips. He had only meant to fetch a book; he did not intend to stay. But after such a day as he had spent, he did not think he could turn and face this intrusive religious man by the light of a sole wick and a distant sliver of darkening gray sky.

Instead he turned the other way and walked around the table to light a few candles nearer the window.

“Allah,” he called back. He stepped up onto the shaky stool, one boot after the other. Once he had both feet steady beneath him, he could not resist adding sourly, “The God of Abraham. I suppose you have heard of Him.”

The One God… he mouthed as he lit the candles. The Everlasting Refuge… who has not begotten… nor been begotten…

'Who has not begotten...'

He lifted the rush to his lips again and blew. The glowing tip went black and spurted a dark plume of smoke. In contemplating its ugliness it occurred to him that he had spoken the name of God uncharitably. It occurred to him also that he was faint from fatigue and fasting. He had not yet made his afternoon prayer, and the daylight was almost gone.

He closed his eyes and let the rush drop from his fingers onto the floor. He listened. He heard only the hissing of the four wicks around his head: a faint sound like that made by the cupped palms of an impish lady pressed lightly over his ears. He never heard it land.

“But I do not wish to argue my faith with you…” he sighed.

He looked down into the upturned face of the man and lurched at its unsuspected nearness. In the better light it was a portrait of illness, exquisite as a Byzantine icon: hungering, black-​rimmed eyes in a waxen face, a bloom of fever, a sheen of incense and dew.

He looked down into the upturned face of the man.

The man said, “I am not here to argue with you.”

Yusuf let his arm fall, and his center of gravity dropped perilously towards his feet. It seemed to him that there had been something majestic in the man’s reply, and after repeating it to himself he realized it had been made in Greek. Perhaps he had unwittingly slipped into Greek himself. He had been speaking little but that language for days.

“I see why you are here.”

He looked down at the dirty straw and swayed with dizziness. The stool had uneven feet; if he stepped down with the wrong foot it might topple out from under him. Was it the right or the left?

The man held out his open palm. Yusuf put his hand into it and simply stepped down.

“I apologize for opening your lock. I have been trying to see you for several days.”

“I have been…”

'I have been...'

Heedless. Selfish. Distracted. Lusting after a Christian woman in the holiest month of the Muslim year.

“…busy,” he whispered.

“I was told you would be here today.”

'I was told you would be here today.'

Yusuf dusted off the top of the stool with a rag.

“Please, will you sit?” he asked mechanically. Resuming the conversation, he said, “I had to ride out to Wintermere today to visit a patient. I amputated his leg last week.”

He could not resist adding sourly, “I was supposed to have gone on Sunday.” He did not believe he owed any charity to himself.

'I was supposed to have gone on Sunday.'

The man hitched up the hem of his robe and sat stiff-​backed upon the stool. “How was he?”

“Dead.” Yusuf snorted ironically. “I doubt not he would have died even had I gone, for he died Sunday evening. But all day long his family looked with hope for me, and I did not come.”

The man nodded once with his head and shoulders. “It was God’s will.”

You may tell his family that. I may not. ‘What God?’ they will say.” He laughed cruelly at himself. “What God?” he muttered. “Idolatry.”


The man bowed his head, but this time it stayed down. Yusuf realized he was speaking uncharitably again. With his self-​mockery he might have made the man believe he was mocking him—him, a patient, a sick man coming to be healed. And this was what the man would remember of the Mohammedans.

He patted the man’s arm, startling him into lifting his head.

“Now that I have impressed you with my skills as a doctor,” Yusuf said with wry gentleness, “what is your complaint?”

'What is your complaint?'

The man hesitated. Yusuf was near enough to hear his panting. It would be a sickness of the lungs.

“Do you understand my Greek?”

“Yes,” the man quickly replied. “A cough.”

Yusuf nudged the man’s cuff up his spindly wrist and slid his first two fingers down in search of the pulse. The man’s hand twitched in surprise, and his fingers twisted in the black cloth of his robe.

“I am called Joseph,” Yusuf said, giving his name in Greek: Ιωσηφος.

'I am called Joseph.'

The man’s fingers relaxed. They were thin and white and flared slightly at the tips, like drips of wax peeled from a candlestick. The flat nails were dimpled with shallow depressions, indicating a poor diet.

“I am called Gai.”

Yusuf heard Γη and did not bother translating from the phonetic Greek. The names in this country meant nothing to him. “Gai,” he repeated.

The man’s knuckles and fingers bore faint pink slashes, as Yusuf had often seen on men who combatted with knives, but on the back of his hand there was a round, crater-​like scar between the ridges of two of the metacarpals. Yusuf’s best guess was a burn. On a hunch, however, he flipped the hand over and saw a matching purple scar on the palm.

Gai asked warily, “What are you doing?”

'What are you doing?'

“I am feeling your heartbeat.”

“My heart is not in my hand.”

“One can feel the heartbeat in the wrist as easily as in the throat or in the breast. Here.”

Yusuf lifted Gai’s fingers to his own wrist and pressed them against the bone until he felt his blood throb against the constriction. Even the pale skin of his inner arm glowed bronze beneath the pallor of the sick man’s fingers and the purplish hue of his nails.

“Feel that?”

'Feel that?'

Gai nodded.

Yusuf rubbed the man’s cold hand between his own. “I want to know whether it is rapid or slow, strong or faint, steady or erratic. Yours is a little rapid, but steady and strong. You are often out of breath?”

Gai nodded again. By now his golden eyes followed Yusuf’s head everywhere it went, mistrustful as a child’s.

By now his golden eyes followed Yusuf's head everywhere it went.

Yusuf laid his wrist against the man’s forehead. It was slippery with sweat and alarmingly hot.

“You have a fever. I hope you came here directly from your bed,” he scolded gently, “and I hope you will immediately return.”

He laid a hand on Gai’s shoulder as he stepped behind him, as always maintaining a light contact with his patient while he worked out of sight.

“How long have you had this cough?”

“I have been ill for… years…”

'I have been ill for... years...'

Gai turned his head left and right, trying to see behind. Yusuf cupped his chin between his hands to straighten it, then slid his fingers up beneath the jawline and down the neck in search of abscesses. The scarf had made him suspicious, but he found none.

“Do you sometimes wake in a sweat?”

“Yes…” Gai wiped his long hands down his face, for he was sweating even then.

Yusuf patted his shoulder. “Now I am going to listen to your lungs. I want you to take deep breaths, and when I ask you, to cough.”

“No cough, no,” Gai pleaded.

“I need to hear. There are different sorts of cough…”

“No. If I start… I cannot stop,” Gai grimaced. “And it is… so difficult to not start…”

Yusuf laid his hand on the man’s far shoulder and draped his arm lightly over his back. “I know,” he murmured. “I understand. But if you cannot stop, I am here. I will help you through it, God willing.”

'I am here.'

Yusuf stared down at Gai’s hands, clenched into helpless fists in his lap. His entire body rocked with every wheezing breath. It was a habit of the gravely ill, this making the muscles of the back and belly do some of the work of pumping air through the exhausted lungs. The man did not have long. It was a wonder he was even able to get out of bed.

“Breathe, friend,” Yusuf murmured. “Cough if you need to. I shall make you do it by and by, if it does not come on its own. I need to hear.”

“Do you know my illness?” Gai whispered, shivering.

“I have seen its like.”

“How much time do I have?”

'How much time do I have?'

“I’m a doctor, Gai, not an oracle,” Yusuf said gently. “If you take care of yourself…”

“I cannot. How much time if I do not?”

Yusuf stood, startled. Few patients so boldly announced their intention to flout his advice. Gai stared defiantly up at him, his cheeks flushed purple atop their sallow gold.

“I must leave in a few days’ time. I must travel.”

'I must leave in a few days' time.'

“You are in no condition to travel! You are in no condition to be out of bed!”

“I must go with my friends. Will I live to see the summer?”

“God willing!” Yusuf spluttered. “But I cannot say! Where must you travel in the middle of winter?”

“To Islay.”

“Where is that? I cannot advise you to make any voyage at this time.”

“It is an island off the coast of Scotland. Will I survive a sea voyage?”

“Gai!” Yusuf pleaded. “Cannot you stay behind to rest?”

'Cannot you stay behind to rest?'


“Stay here, and I shall tend to you, and we shall try to make you strong enough to travel before long, God willing—”

“No. Will I survive a sea voyage?”

“Gai!” Yusuf shook with strained laughter. “You’re as stubborn as a Toledan tin-​merchant! And if I told you you would surely die?”

Gai stared up at him with a stiff-​backed stillness that snuffed Yusuf’s tittering and put his nervous gesticulations to shame.

“Then I shall know that you are lying,” Gai said after a moment’s reflection. “You believe in the will of God.”

'Then I shall know that you are lying.'

He blinked with such solemnity that it seemed a ritual he rarely performed. If not for the hissing in-​and-​out of his breath he might have been a statue pulled down from a wall. Jaundice tinted his skin and eyes with the yellow hue of ancient wood and ivory, and suffering had engraved its outline around every plane of his face. His irises gleamed like pure, polished gold. He even bore the marks of nails in his palms. He was a living icon of his own religion: a cult of martyrs paying homage to a crucified prophet with their pain.

Yusuf wanted to tell him about his own God.

Yusuf wanted to tell him about his own God, who was as loving as a mother with her children. Only then did it occur to him that Gai had been staring back at him all this time, and might even then have been studying his own face and making similar observations about him—a Moor, a Muslim—perhaps the only one he would ever meet. The thought petrified him.

The thought petrified him.

“If I stay,” Gai asked slowly, “can you help me?”

“God willing,” Yusuf blurted.

“Ach!” Gai sat back and smiled, as if Yusuf had proved his point.

Gai sat back and smiled.

“And if you follow my advice,” Yusuf gabbled. “And, regardless,” he added, blushing with pleasure at the fortuitous recollection, “you cannot go anywhere by sea at the present, and neither can your friends. There’s a war.”

“A… war?” Gai breathed. The stool creaked and thumped onto another leg as Gai sat forward.

“Between the Norsemen and the Scotsmen. I met a man in Wintermere who told me the news. It is a grand story—I cannot wait to tell my nephews and nieces.”

“Tell me while you wait.”

“Gladly! If you will cough for me?” Yusuf wheedled.

'If you will cough for me?'

Gai nodded and flicked his hand impatiently. Yusuf hurried around the stool behind him, glad to have an excuse to step out of the range of that unblinking gaze.

“It is Eirik Brass-​Dog, the Norseman—married to the cousin of the King here—who joined with one of the Scottish lords.”

He pressed his ear against the man’s back. He remembered the possibility of a hair shirt or similar impediment at the last instant, but the robe seemed to slide over bare skin. He could feel its heat in his cheek.

He pressed his ear against the man's back.

“They wanted to take an island fort, Ramsin—”

He heard an alarming whoosh as Gai sucked in his breath and gasped, “Ramsaa?”

“Ah… that must have been the name. Eirik’s ships could pass over the shallows into the harbor, but the Scottish ships could not. So they exchanged sails. The Scottish sails are black—they wear black all the time, even the ships. Take a deep breath, please.”

Gai made an attempt to comply, but he was panting like a man walking almost at a run.

Yusuf lifted his head. “Do you need to cough?” he asked gently.

“No. What happened?”

Yusuf listened at his back again. “Breathe slowly, now. So they exchanged sails, and in the fort they saw the two fleets, and thought the Scottish ships were at the harbor, and the Norse ships at sea. And in fact it was the opposite.”

His words reverberated in a windy, wheezing double chamber formed by the man’s lung and his own skull. It woke in him an odd feeling of lazy contentment, and called to mind childhood experiments he had made, speaking with one or both hands over his ears, with one or both nostrils plugged, with a hand around his throat, or underwater.

“Please breathe as deeply as you can. I need to hear deep in your lungs.”

“What happened?” Gai snapped.

Yusuf decided that story-​telling and doctoring could not be carried out at the same time without negative effects to both. He concluded his tale as quickly as he could.

Yusuf decided that story-telling and doctoring could not be carried out at the same time.

“The defenders of the fort sailed out to fight the Norsemen, but the true Norsemen sailed into the fort, and the true Scotsmen defeated their attackers, and now the Scottish lord has claimed the fort—”

Yusuf reeled and nearly fell over as the body against which he leaned suddenly lurched away. The stool flopped over onto its side. Gai was already halfway to the door. Yusuf had only seconds in which to make a protest.

“Where are you going? I had not finished!”

Gai said, “God be with you.”

Yusuf had only an instant in which to make a reply. “And you!”

'And you!'