Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

Gaethine cautiously laid his book aside.

Gaethine cautiously laid his book aside and pulled up a corner of the blanket to hide it. If he didn’t look occupied, Yusuf might stay and talk a while.

“Word must be spreading about my remarkable talents,” Yusuf was saying as he tied back the curtains to let in the evening light. “People are coming from across the bay to be healed. I’ll have new friends among the innkeepers if they start coming from so far away that they must stay the night.”

'I'll have new friends among the innkeepers.'

“Is it like this wherever you go?” Gaethine asked.

“Will you be offended if I say it’s only like this when I go among barbarians?”

Gaethine smiled. Yusuf worked off a certain amount of frustration at his captivity by complaining about the lack of civilization.

“Not I,” Gaethine said. “I am proud to be a barbarian.”

“I didn’t mean you. Though you could learn a few things about sunlight and fresh air.”

Gaethine kept smiling.

“The worst of it,” Yusuf complained as he stomped out of the alcove, “is the lack of cleanliness. It isn’t that I can’t stand the Scotsman’s stench, but filth can be fatal in an open wound. I saw a woman today who hadn’t changed the dressing on her foot in three days. Do you know why?”

'Do you know why?'

Gaethine lifted his brow in a question, and Yusuf rolled his eyes.

“Because she didn’t want to wash the bandages. She only changes her clothing on Sundays because she doesn’t want to do more laundry. There are times when I wish my Gaelic were better! I longed to tell her she’ll be pleased to know she’ll have half as many socks to launder if I have to amputate her foot!”

Gaethine laughed aloud—as much at Yusuf’s ruffled feathers as at the story. Yusuf remembered himself and looked sheepish.

Gaethine laughed.

“Perhaps it’s best I can’t speak Gaelic, after all,” he admitted. “I got into enough trouble with ‘Cock off, cunt face.’”

Gaethine laughed again, and this time Yusuf joined him with a wicked grin.

Gaethine loved Yusuf’s sense of humor. He loved his gentleness and compassion, too, but with that alone he would have been unapproachable, unknowable: a living saint. His jokes, his wry commentary, and his flinging himself around the room complaining about barbarians made him human.

“So how are you?” Yusuf asked, conclusively changing the subject. He dragged a stool up to the bed with his foot.

Gaethine rustled the mattress, struggling to get his weight onto his elbows, but Yusuf said, “Don’t get up. I’ll just check your pulse. But how are you feeling?”

'Don't get up.'


“Good! The coltsfoot is working for you, then?”

Yusuf made to sit on the stool, but he hesitated halfway down and fumbled with his belt.

“I keep sitting on this,” he explained.

Gaethine watched as he untied a patterned ribbon of woven yarn that had been dangling from his belt.

“My fee,” he said dryly, holding it up for Gaethine to admire. “Unless Lord Aed intends to confiscate whatever I am paid? It is unclear to me whether I am a slave or merely a prisoner.”

He sat on the stool and stooped to stuff the ribbon into the bag at his feet.

Gaethine frowned. He wasn’t speaking to Aed, but there were a few things he would have liked to say to him nevertheless.

Yusuf sat up again, holding a chicken egg between finger and thumb, and his mouth quirked into an ironic smile. “Look! He could make a fortune with me!”

“You ask to be paid in eggs and ribbons?”

'You ask to be paid in eggs and ribbons?'

Yusuf’s smile faded. “I ask to be paid whatever my patients can afford. In fact, I don’t often ask. They offer. Sometimes, they can only offer their supper.” He held up the egg again, and this time his face was grave. “But I take it. I’ve already seen them at their least dignified. It would be cruel to ask them to accept charity, too.”

He bent to put the egg back into his bag, giving Gaethine time to ponder his words. Was not charity the highest form of love? Giving, and taking nothing in return? There was so much he could learn from this man…

Not that it mattered, he reminded himself. He would be dead within weeks.

“Surely,” Gaethine said, “there are men so miserly they would rather take charity.”

'Surely there are men so miserly they would rather take charity.'

Yusuf smiled. “Ah! Not as many as you might think. All men are equal when their pants are around their ankles and a strange man has been examining their orifices. They’re glad to give me a half dozen eggs or a bit of ribbon to put me back in my place and get rid of me.”

'All men are equal when their pants are around their ankles.'

Gaethine smiled, but Yusuf wasn’t done.

“Reminds me of what my old teacher used to say—an old Egyptian. Frightful fellow, but the smartest man I ever knew. He used to say…” Yusuf twisted his face into a toothless scowl and rasped, “Being a doctor is no different from being a whore, Joseph! They don’t pay us to fuck them, they pay us to leave!

Gaethine laughed so suddenly he made himself cough. Yusuf chuckled and busied himself with his bag, giving Gaethine time to recover. Yusuf never appeared helpless or awkward when a man coughed, nor did he ever apologize for starting him off. It was such a relief.

When the coughing had quieted enough for Gaethine to listen, but before any uncomfortable silence could grow, Yusuf continued, “There are a few men, though, who are just that miserly. But if I like them, I don’t ask to be paid. Do you know why?”

'Do you know why?'

Gaethine shook his head.

“Because they think they outsmarted the foolish Saracen doctor, and that has just the same effect. They get their dignity back.”

While he spoke, he gently lifted Gaethine’s arm down onto the blanket and wrapped his fingers around the wrist.

Gaethine scarcely breathed, fearful he would start coughing again and cause Yusuf to withdraw his hand. The precious seconds ticked away beneath the doctor’s fingertips.

“Next time,” Yusuf said in his faraway, heart-​listening voice, “I will take your pulse before I start telling jokes. Try to relax.”

'Try to relax.'

Gaethine wondered whether Yusuf would ever notice his heart beat faster when they touched. Probably he would forever believe Gaethine had a heart that never dropped below a canter.

“A little rapid,” Yusuf said to himself.

He half-​stood and rested his hand against Gaethine’s cheek so he could pull down his eyelid with his thumb. Panicked and flustered by the touch, by the face leaning so close to his, and by the movement that looked like preparation to leave, Gaethine stammered out, “And if I offered to pay you with my supper?”

Yusuf stood back and frowned. “You,” he said, “are going to eat your own supper. And if the orders of a Saracen slave are followed in Lord Aed’s kitchen, there will be chicken soup involved. That remains to be seen.”

“And if I offered you half?”

All.” He examined Gaethine’s other eye.

“And if I asked you to join me to eat your supper?”

Yusuf stood again and sighed impatiently.

Gaethine asked, “You would rather dine in the hall with the barbarians?”

“I don’t dine with the barbarians. I dine alone in my room.”

“So do I. We might dine alone… together.”

'We might dine alone... together.'

Yusuf gave him a wry smile. Gaethine was elated.

“If we do,” Yusuf said, “you will be obliged to clean your plate. I’ll be watching.”


Yusuf sighed a second time and glanced towards the windows. The sun was already disappearing behind the hills across the bay, and the alcove was growing dim. There was more candlelight than twilight on the heights and angles of Yusuf’s face.

“Very well,” he said. “But first I must go upstairs to pray, and then, God willing, I’ll go see whether they’ve made that soup I ordered.” He started towards the alcove, stooping forward to see the horizon. “How do I say ‘chicken soup’?”

Gaethine ignored the question and blurted, “You could pray here.”

Yusuf stopped and turned back. He appeared dumbfounded, so Gaethine hastened to add, “You could pray by the window.” He pulled back the blanket to reveal his book. “We will not disturb one another. I shall read.”

Yusuf looked ever more uncomfortable, and Gaethine cursed himself. He had gone too far. He was lucky he’d come to his senses before he’d blathered on and invited Yusuf into bed with him.

Yusuf looked ever more uncomfortable.

“I am sorry,” Gaethine said. “Of course, you wish to be alone when you pray. How stupid of me.”

Yusuf recovered in a heartbeat, though his voice remained unusually soft. “Forgive me, I was surprised. I am accustomed to… to hiding myself when I pray. Many people do not like to be reminded what I am.”

Gaethine looked away and ran a finger up the corded spine of his book: bump-​bump-​bump like his protruding ribs. He wanted to say he didn’t mind what Yusuf was, but perhaps that would be sacrilege. And forgetting to be outraged by a Saracen’s prayers was the least of his failings as a Christian.

“I would prefer to be alone, however,” Yusuf added gently. He sat again, balanced on the edge of the stool. “It is nothing against you. It is important to me, because that is when I feel least alone. Do you know why?”

Gaethine barely glanced at him.

Gaethine barely glanced at him. He shook his head no, even though he was certain Yusuf would say he felt closest to God at such times. But Yusuf surprised him again.

“I haven’t met one of my people in nearly a year. I may be the only Muslim who has ever come this far north. But when the sun is setting, all my people, all over the world, are praying together. At dawn, at sunset, and at last light, I can join my people in prayer. Then I do not feel so alone.”

Gaethine swallowed. He understood. There was a loneliness God could not fill, and it had racked his soul for so long that it was permanently warped. He understood, and he sympathized. But his sympathy was tinged with disappointment, knowing that his presence would make Yusuf feel more alone, and not less.

Finally Gaethine turned his head. Yusuf was staring at him. Not waiting for a reply, just looking, with his blue eyes bright and wet as melting ice. Gaethine forced himself to stare back, wondering what two such unguarded stares would lead to. For an instant he even had the mad idea that Yusuf was about to lean in and kiss him.

He even had the mad idea that Yusuf was about to lean in and kiss him.

Instead Yusuf stooped to open his bag again, and Gaethine went limp upon his pillows, sweating and shaken.

“But I will show you my holy book, if you would like to see?” Yusuf offered.

Gaethine blinked his eyes and tried to appear alert. He would look at anything the doctor might pull out of his bag, be it book or egg or amputated foot, if only it would make him stay a few minutes longer.

Gaethine blinked his eyes and tried t appear alert.

Yusuf stood and slipped a book out of its linen case. He leaned his hip against the bed so they could both see it from the same angle, but Gaethine mustered all his strength and scooted over onto the next pillow to make room.

Immediately he felt like a fool, but Yusuf surprised him again. He climbed up onto the bed, pulled his leg up after him, and leaned back against the wall.

If Yusuf had checked Gaethine’s pulse at that moment, he would have been alarmed. But he simply held out the book.

“Here. You may hold it. It won’t burn you.”

Gaethine took it and stared blankly at the cover. He was fearful of touching something, but it wasn’t the book.

Gaethine took it.

“It is called the Koran. And you’re holding it wrong.”

Gaethine started. “What?”

“That’s the back.” Yusuf reached across Gaethine’s chest to grasp the edge of the book and turn it the other way. “Our writing is read from right to left. So, you start at what appears to be the end.”

Gaethine grunted and opened the back cover. After turning aside a blank leaf of vellum, he beheld the first written page. It was so unlike the cramped, carefully-​lettered manuscripts he knew that he wasn’t sure it was not mere decoration after all. The strokes were thick and luscious, the rows widely spaced to make room for exuberant swoops and curls. Hair-​thin strokes of red ink scintillated around the lines like sparks.

'Is this writing?'

“Is this writing?” he asked.

Yusuf smiled. He reached out to move his pointing finger along the lines as he read: “Bismillahi r-​rahmani r-​rahim. Al-​hamdu li-​llahi rabbi l-’alamin. ‘In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of all that exists.’ This is the Fatiha, the Opening, and I recite it every time I pray. They say the entire Koran is in the Fatiha, and the entire Fatiha is in the first line. Bismillahi r-​rahmani r-​rahim.

His language too was thick and luscious, all tongue and throat. Gaethine wanted to learn it. He wanted to roll it around in his mouth, as he had not wanted food in some time.

“It is very beautiful,” he said, mumbling out of shyness.

“The Fatiha?” Yusuf asked, smiling softly. “Or the book?”

Everything, Gaethine answered in his head. The book. Your voice. Your face. Your way.

“The book.” Gaethine traced a curling stroke in the air above the page.

'The book.'

“Ah, you should see my father’s. Gold on every page. It is a masterpiece. This…” Yusuf snorted in derision, but his wistful voice betrayed his true sentiment. “I bought this in Toledo, when I was living there. It is a plain book, but even so it was more than I could afford. I bought it cheaply because the man who had ordered it died. Not one of my patients,” he added dryly.

Gaethine bit his lips together and smiled.

“Still, it was all the money I had,” Yusuf continued. “In those days, I was happy to earn an egg, because that was my supper. In Toledo I was only one Saracen doctor among dozens, you know. There weren’t any barbarians for me to treat. I was young, and I had no clients. It was a lonely, hungry time.”

He reached out to rub an imaginary spot of dust from the margin of the page. His arm brushed Gaethine’s arm. Gaethine lay still with the book open to the first page, basking in Yusuf’s warmth and closeness; his scent, like incense; his soft voice; and his confidences. Outside the sun was slipping beneath the hills.

“It’s strange how much I miss that city, after all,” Yusuf said. “I was so unhappy there. Unhappy, but young. An empty purse, an empty belly, a head full of learning, and a heart full of dreams. Better that than fat, rich, stupid, and hopeless, no?”

Gaethine smiled.

“It was a beautiful city. I shudder to think of what has become of it. The Christians captured it last year, you know.”

'I shudder to think of what has become of it.'

Gaethine did not know. He had never heard of Toledo and had no idea where it was. But he wished he had walked its streets when Yusuf was young and hungry and lonely there.

Yusuf roused himself suddenly and leaned closer to flip the pages of the book. He seemed to know just what he was seeking. Gaethine lay back and rode out the twitches and rustles Yusuf’s moving body made on the mattress.

Yusuf stopped as abruptly as he started and pointed at a loopy squiggle. “Look. There’s my name. Yusuf. Yu-​suf. Yusufu, ayyuha alssiddiqu,” he began reading, but he lay back and continued from memory. “Aftina fi sab’i baqaratin simanin ya’kuluhunna sab’un ’ijafun. ‘O Joseph! O man of truth! Explain for us the dream of seven fat kine whom seven lean ones devour.’”

Gaethine blinked at him, the warm nearness of his body momentarily forgotten. “You know the story of Joseph?”

Yusuf looked delighted by his shock. “Of course I do. I was named for him, was I not? I saw his granaries when I was in Egypt, and a statue beside them, so tall that its nose is bigger than a man, but it is buried up to its neck in the sand.”

Yusuf looked delighted by his shock.

“You have been to Egypt?”

“Yes, when I was a young student. And I know the story of Musa—Moses—peace be upon him, who was saved from the Nile by Pharaoh’s wife.”

He started to leaf through the book, but he let the pages fall and hurried on with his excited speech.

“And Ibrahim—Abraham—and Isaac, and Jacob, and Job, and Solomon. They are all in here. And David, of course, who wrote the Psalms. And someone else you know.” He flipped back through the pages until he found the passage he sought. “Ya Maryamu, ’inna Allaha yubashshiruki bikalimatin minhu: asmuhu al-​masihu ’Isa ibna Maryama. ‘O Mary, God gives you glad tidings of a Word from him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary.’”

Gaethine was stunned. Did the Lord send angels to earth in the guise of Saracens?

Gaethine was stunned.

“You know of Jesus Christ?” he whispered.

“We call him Isa, son of Maryam, upon him be peace. Do you see now? There is no your God and my God. There is only God. But no one asks me about it. No one wants to hear.”

The plaintive note to his voice hinted at another sort of loneliness. Gaethine shivered with excitement. It was no sin to enjoy the company of this man—so long as he could keep his lust in check. But they could be friends.

“I’m not a pagan,” Yusuf muttered. “I don’t worship idols, God forbid. The one God sent Jesus to be a prophet to your people, and Mohammed—sall Allahu ’alayhi wasallam—to be a prophet to mine. Who are we to say He did wrong?”

'Who are we to say He did wrong?'

Gaethine said, “I did not know this. I thought…”

“You thought I was a pagan who worshipped idols.” Yusuf gave him a brief, wry smile. “But you asked me about it once. You were curious about me, and you listened. I have not forgotten that.”

Gaethine stared at the book. It scarcely would have surprised him to see the vellum glow, reflecting the light of his face. Yusuf remembered their first meeting! He had done and said the right things!

“The Jews, the Christians, the Muslims,” Yusuf said, “are all the People of the Book. This book you are holding.”

Yusuf clasped the top edge of the book, and for a moment, they were both holding it. Something must have flowed between them: Gaethine’s arms felt strong and steady as they had not in weeks. He scarcely dared breathe, certain something was about to happen. Yusuf would turn his head, Gaethine would feel his breath on his neck…

But Yusuf simply let his arm fall limp and flop onto the mattress between them.

“We are even permitted to take wives from among all the People,” he sighed. “As my sister keeps reminding me.”

Gaethine instantly disliked Yusuf's sister.

Gaethine instantly disliked Yusuf’s sister. “Your sister wants you to take a wife?”

“She’s relentless,” Yusuf complained. “She saves every last thing I bring her—the eggs and the ribbons, and also the chickens, the goats, the cloth, whatever people give me. She says, this is Yusuf’s flock of chickens, this is Yusuf’s goat, this is Yusuf’s cheese. She sells what she can at market, and says, these are Yusuf’s coins. She keeps account of everything, so that when I say I am too poor to marry, she may tell me how rich I am. If I told her I could not be married except in a robe woven from the hair of wild horses, she would set up her loom and run for a rope and halter. She has an answer to everything.

Gaethine would have found his whining quite endearing if not for the dangerous subject matter.

“Why do you not tell her you do not wish to marry?”

“Because I do! Alhamdulillah! I do. But there is one barrier even my sister cannot remove. The woman I love is my patient.”

A chill sank into Gaethine’s feverish blood. So there was a woman. Of course there was.

So there was a woman.  Of course there was.

“It is the greatest danger of being a doctor,” Yusuf continued, failing to notice his audience’s sudden change of mood. “Worse than falling ill. Worse even than being kidnapped by barbarians. Falling in love with a patient. And letting a patient fall in love with oneself. It is so easy, you see. There is such intimacy… and it is so pleasant, when one feels lonely and unloved, to have someone ask about one’s pains and troubles. So we doctors must beware. If we let our patients love us, we are worse than whores. We are seducers.”

“Does your… patient love you?”

“I don’t know,” Yusuf said miserably. “My sister says she does.”

His sister again! Gaethine glared at the open book.

“And do you love many of your patients?”

“Of course not! Only her.”

Yusuf concluded with a faint lift to his voice, and then he waited. Gaethine realized he was hoping for advice, and his blood began to seethe.

“And she is not married? And you are not?”


“Is she a child? Is she a leper?”

“No… but it’s the principle…”

'No... but it's the principle...'

Gaethine turned a hot stare on him, full of all the savagery of generations of barbarian ancestors, back to the time of the pagans.

“I am surprised at you, doctor. Lamenting yourself, because a simple principle prevents you from marrying the one you love, before a man who will never marry! Who will never have children!”

Yusuf blanched. Gaethine ran out of breath and began to cough, but he charged on, choking out the rest.

“Talking about Egypt, and about—about that other city—before a man who will never leave this bed! I am dying, doctor! Do not complain to me—that you dare not live!”

'Do not complain to me--that you dare not live!'

Gaethine laid the book open on his lap so he could cough into a towel, and Yusuf laid his face in his hand. Now it was Gaethine’s jerking body that rustled the mattress, and Yusuf who sat immobile, awkward, uncomfortable. And this time, when Gaethine’s coughing began to subside, Yusuf apologized.

“Forgive me,” he said without lifting his head.

Gaethine made a few more cautious coughs and wiped his mouth. “No need,” he muttered. “I do not want to marry. I do not want children. I do not want to go to Egypt or ever leave this bed. I do not even envy you for wanting those things. I want to die. Soon.”

Yusuf sat up and looked at him. His tawny face was still a little gray. Or perhaps it was only that the sun had set outside, and the light in the alcove was fading to violet.

“I hope it will not be very painful,” Gaethine said, “nor last very long. But I will accept it however it comes. There is nothing left in this world that interests me.”

He could not help but glance at Yusuf to see how he was taking this speech. He did not look as troubled as Gaethine would have liked. Perhaps he’d heard such speeches too many times. Gaethine felt as if he’d come up short, somehow, in this, too. To Yusuf he was just another patient. Just another peevish, crotchety, dying man.

Gaethine picked up the book again and stared at the page. The little red lines seemed to shiver.

Gaethine picked up the book again and stared at the page.

Finally Yusuf said, “I will do all I can to ease your pain. We live and we die according to God’s will. But you are going to eat your soup. I intend to hold you to your word.”

Gaethine choked, and tears came to his eyes. He hadn’t expected that. He thought he’d just ruined everything. He’d certainly tried.

“However,” Yusuf said, “I am sorry I spoke to you of my problems. That is why we are taught not to get too close to our patients.”

“I thought,” Gaethine said thickly, “it was so they did not fall in love with you.”

'I thought it was so they did not fall in love with you.'

“That also. But what is true for the patient is true for the doctor. When one is feeling lonely, it is too tempting to talk and to be listened to. I have been among strangers for ten days. Barbarians,” he added, trying and failing to smile. “Men who mock me, who mistrust me, who speak a strange language. You are the only man here who has treated me like a fellow man, and not some clever monkey.”

“I am sorry about this,” Gaethine said frankly, looking up from the book. “If I could make Aed do anything, I would make him send you back to Lothere.”

Yusuf smiled at him. “I doubt anyone can make Lord Aed do anything he doesn’t want to do. But you are not so easily moved yourself. You should talk to him.”

Gaethine rolled his head aside in disgust.

“It has been five days. If you could ignore him into sending me home, it would have worked by now. Gaeth, listen to me. The dying have a great responsibility. Anything you do now to a man will last for all time. Do you wish to punish him with your silence for the rest of his life?”

'Do you wish to punish him with your silence for the rest of his life?'

Gaethine turned a page, though he knew he wouldn’t fool anybody this time by pretending to read. Especially since he was reading backwards.

“If it is God’s will that you live,” Yusuf said, “you will have plenty of opportunities to get your revenge. Hire some Saracens to kidnap him and hold him prisoner for a few weeks, and see how he likes being the only barbarian.”

Gaethine was tempted to smile, but he managed to suppress it. The seconds ticked past. Yusuf waited for an answer. Finally he sighed.

“Stubborn as a Toledan tin merchant,” he muttered.

He heaved himself up from the bed, and Gaethine panicked behind his mask, fearful his silence had spoiled something that his savage outburst had not. Still he could not bring himself to turn his head and appear to care.

Still he could not bring himself to turn his head and appear to care.

But the Saracen doctor surprised him again.

“However,” Yusuf said, turning back at the door with his bag in his hand, “you promised to clean your plate if I ate with you. And beware, my barbarian friend, if you think you are going to refuse now. You’ve never seen the grandson of a desert trader haggle over tin.”

'You've never seen the grandson of a desert trader haggle over tin.'