The Thirty Five Timely & Untimely Deaths Of Cumberland County

By Mason Ball

1934: a doctor struggles with belief, mortality and murder; a novel inspired by real events

The old woman rests on the muddy bank, breathing hard. She blinks wildly, a wide rictus, almost a smile, grasping desperately at each inhalation. For a moment it seems as if she may collapse, pass out, perhaps even suffer a heart attack. She doesn’t.

Her head falls forward, rocking with each breath. Through her thinning hair beads of lake water weave and roll forward, collecting, before racing in rivulets over the sharp ridges of her eyebrows and down her face.

She’ll be alright in a minute, she’ll be alright in a minute.

The knots of her fingers flutter lightly in the air about her knees, wrinkled and aquiver in the warm midday air. Wisps of thin white hair hang down her cheeks in ropes, deep lines crisscross her taut chin and wrinkled, hanging neck. Rags of wet clothes cling to her rawboned arms and legs, blister with moisture and stick to her shriveled, soft gut, her fallen chest.

She’s been old for as long as she can remember.

Even through exhaustion, features poke their way through. A strong jaw line, speaking of past stoicisms, of gristle and strength; rheumy eyes, a sadness hiding in pale blue irises, a hard-heartedness, perhaps even cruelty, hiding behind that. Large putty-colored ears, swollen and doughy with age, a twist to the pitted nose betraying a break, never properly set; a corrugation of forehead, ploughed by lifetimes of concern, of hard and thankless work.

Her breath is returning, as it always does, the feathery weakness in her limbs congealing into something approaching strength enough to stand, to move on.

Nearby on the bank sit her shoes, scuffed and patient; men’s shoes. The cool Sebago licks playfully at her gnarled and naked toes as they sink into the mud, something of an echo of the invisible animal of cold and drowning that the old woman knows only too well lies hungry and blind along the lake bed.

Submerged, she’s oftentimes heard the lake whisper in its raw bass tones, the torn, empty kettle sound of bubbles, a silt-edged whisper that to crawl up and sleep down there was just about the best idea you ever had. She knows the voice well, intimately, like sweet nothings, a tryst of more years standing than she cares to recall. Sometimes it sounds like her own voice.

She wonders distantly how many of the folks that lived around those parts had heard it too, how many of them had heard it and made it back to the surface. But then she knows the answer to that question.

Gingerly she maneuvers onto all fours and taking one final deep breath, pushes herself into a crooked standing position. There are places to be, things to get done, and no other way to get there than shanks’ mare. Gaining uneasy balance from an obliging tree, she steps first into her shoes and finally back into the woods from whence she came.

Doctor John Bischoffberger sat reading in his small backroom office, full of a late if meager lunch and as stilled as he was able. Turning a page, he exhaled the morning.

Oxygen and carbon dioxide be damned. Schooling had taught him the biology of breathing, the mechanics, yet still he held on to a fragment of something he’d thought as a child; that breathing in drew things into you, sometimes bad things, whereas breathing out was somehow ridding you of these things. A childish but instinctive piece of foolishness. Somehow in his young mind inhaling had become of less value than exhaling; memories of the fear of swallowing bad smells, of holding his breath. In this way he exhaled Mrs. Abbott’s boils and Myron Walker’s rattling lungs, the Winant boy’s swollen tonsils; a stubbed toe, automobile trouble threatening a return to Higgins Garage, the beggar he passed on Lambs Mill Road, the shoeless child on Quaker Ridge. He read on, emptying himself.

His neglected paperwork glared reproachfully at his back; paperless, his typewriter petulantly bared its teeth.

Organon of the Healing Art by S. Hahnemann seemed to John a book both fascinating and fascinatingly absurd. Published in 1810, Hahnemann’s ‘law of similars’ stated that any effective medicine would produce symptoms in a healthy patient which mirror those it might be used to treat in an ailing one. An idea apparently perverse and backward; a corruption of Shakespeare’s sweets to the sweet thought John, perhaps bane to the blighted. The genesis of Homeopathy.

As John read, his hand toyed with the contents of his desk, as if let loose to play on its own, picking up his fountain pen, thumbing through a neat stack of records, shifting his inkwell to and fro across the blotter. Ros called him The Careful Fidget. When in thought his fingers would unconsciously and carefully explore his surroundings; desk, letter opener, medical bag, shirt buttons etc., as if in search of something, or perhaps seeking to ensure that all was as it should be, all as he’d left it, before he then left on his ideation, which he did often.

To avoid any serious ill effects, Hahnemann proposed that substances used homeopathically be given only in “extreme dilutions”, a step which made much of the medical profession suggest that while such tiny amounts of substances were unlikely to do any great harm, due to their weakness, it was equally unlikely that they could do any real good either. As such, many dismissed Homeopathy’s claimed successes as mere placebo. John was inclined to agree.

Ros always told him that when they met he “looked like a man chasin somethin,” to which he always wryly replied “and I found that somethin when I found you, my dear.” Much as John knew that their courtship had been true and their marriage as sound as any and sounder than most, in truth he doubted somehow that this search of his was over, whatever it was for; something about the medical mindset, the eternal unconscious hunt for the magical panacea. A small but perennial disquiet.

When prescribing a placebo John knew you had to wrap it up quick in something strong and convincing, lest it spoil; something off the cuff. Dwell too long and the patient might see the lie in it. It was worth remembering that doctors were gods to some but no more than snake oil charlatans to others. Quick and strong was the rule.

But then perhaps all Herr Hahnemann had done was to have found another way. Dressed it up maybe. Ostentation and rigmarole. Slow and fancy. Maybe that’s all Homeopathy was. The question was, if it worked, did it matter?

Aside from inappropriate use to treat, say, a life threatening illness, if it were to preclude actual treatment to the detriment of the patient; apart from such an eventuality he thought the practice perhaps none too far away from harmless.

The innately ‘folksy’ nature of so many of Homeopathy’s remedies might well appeal greatly to many of his patients, he thought, particularly those with a keen skepticism of this Pennsylvanian doctor ‘from away’ with his pills and his ointments, his city tinctures and tonics. Maybe he’d look into it, give it a try. Maybe.

The phone rang.

The room was heavy with warmth, thick with the smell of the thin dinner to come; the overworked remains of last week’s ham. Dusk was slowly staining the view from the windows, John pulled the curtains on them. Sitting at the dining table he took up his book, read the same sentence three times.

Rosamond entered carrying bowls of piping soup; that smile she wore on one side of her mouth. Her hair was up, as were her sleeves. She looked harried but pretty he thought, and counted himself lucky.

“Bisch will you stop reading for five minutes and fetch the bread? I believe there’s a nubbin in the box yonder.”

John put down Organon of the Healing Art and fetched the bread. She kissed him gently on the cheek. “And just what book is it you think fit for the dinner table? The Good Book perhaps? William Shakespeare?” He smiled and shifted the book away from his bowl, shook his head.

“An engaging nonsense.”

Ros sat and let out a slow breath, before bowing her head and closing her eyes; her fingers laced themselves together in the rising steam of her soup.

“Lord, bless us and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive, we give thanks for Thy bounty through Christ our Lord, amen.”

John sat silently and watched her, his hands stilled beside his bowl.

“Amen,” he said quietly; she opened her eyes and they ate.

“Ma wrote again concerning Wilson.”

“He still suffering with his head?”

“Somethin awful Ma says. Hardly surprising, what with the bank fit to move on him. And him without a bean.”

“He’s in good company. Is he taking the pills I prescribed?”

“She didn’t say. She asks could you go see him.”


“She asked that I ask.”

“Wilson Chaplin is the biggest hypochondriac in all of Maine, maybe the country. And your mother knows it.” Ros smiled. John shook his head ruefully, secretly pleased that cousin Wilson might be an ideal test for Herr Hahnemann’s concoctions. “Ecce Homeopathica” he said to himself. Husband and wife swapped glances that said I’ll go see him and Thank you respectively. The soft clink and drag of spoon on china.

“Did you speak with Elmer dear? He called earlier, I wrote it down.”

“Yes, Deputy Stuart and I spoke,” he said, “it was nothing important.”

“That young man needs a wife, a man shouldn’t only be married to his uniform. I shall have a think.”

“Matchmaker now? That poor boy. And him all of twenty five.” In lieu of children of their own, Ros’ displaced maternal instinct was cause for much gentle ribbing between them, an acknowledgement of, and resignation to, the loss it represented.

"Hey there Bisch," Elmer had said, "just to let you know I informed the Hussode family down there in Brooklyn that their David had drowned in our lake. Gave em our condolences. Arrangements are being made." John had asked to be told. He’d thanked the deputy and hung up.

The soup was good, peppery and surprisingly hearty, extinguishing a chill he hadn’t known he’d been holding on to.

The pale hand grew out of the dark sandy earth like some rarefied tulip, incongruous and impossible, filthy fingers reaching upwards for something, sunlight maybe; fresh air. John rested on his haunches where the lawn met the mud and looked over at it, his own fingers wandering along the seams of his blazer, perhaps counting stitches. A hand. A tulip, he thought, or an orchid stripped of its terrarium.

Some foot or so away from the hand a pillowcase covered a small rise in the ground, leeching the wet mud into its whiteness, looking for all the world like a dropped handkerchief; a warm breeze tugged at it, briefly describing the face hidden beneath, an eye socket, the bridge of a nose.

The hand had a relaxed quality, a nonchalance that didn’t belong. John recalled picture books he’d seen as a child, Adam’s hand on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: Adam impassive, aloof almost; in contrast God’s reaching, almost greedily, at creation. Despite Michelangelo’s artistry, young John had always been drawn to the space between them. He’d marveled at the idea that God could create man without even touching him. Abracadabra. Man touches to create, his mother had replied, God don’t need to more than think and it’s done. Alacazam. Still the reaching had troubled the boy.

A sudden silhouette threw the hand in shade.

“Sorry you was called, Bisch.” Deputy Lewellyn Welch hooked his thumbs into his pants, winced into the sun. “Ol Deihlan’s off with Dean to scare up some shovels. Take them an me a long hour to dig Walter out. You don’t mind waitin, sure Cora won’t mind you doin so in the house.”

The doctor stood on crunching knees, smiling away the inference that he was in the way of things.

Some Mainers still held him at a cordial arm’s length, an innate suspicion and dislike of all things outside; and him having been there coming on eight and a half years. They were far and away from impolite or unfriendly, there being a genuine warmth just as intrinsic to their collective nature, often spilling over into friendship of the truest kind; yet still a distance existed, though Rosamond would tell him it was all in his head. Perhaps it was. Sometimes townsfolk even used the phrase ‘from away’ within his earshot, a candor which he flattered himself might speak of some kind of progress toward integration, or as near to it as he was ever likely to get.

“She still make that pound cake Lew?”

“I believe I smell the oven from here. We’ll come call you when we get the fella out.” They nodded at one another, threw glances at the road, the trees beyond, and back up at the house. John stroked at his moustache, stalling for time so as not to feel like a child doing as he was told; he thought the deputy knew it too. Lewellyn nodded again, as if deciding the doctor needed further persuasion, “We don’t get him out of there before noon the sun’ll be up higher and bake him like he’s in a clay oven, that happens I don’t know what.”

John had treated Walter last spring but couldn’t recall what for. Ulcer maybe. Big eyes, dark rings, turkey’s wattle and thinning hair streaked flat to the scalp with pomade. Had a son all grown up, moved over Casco way. He tried to join the hand poking out of the mud with the man but struggled. The hand was its own thing now, its own creation, un-needful of a man to carry it around, to employ it with the business of the doing of human things.

He recoiled a little at the thought of Walter’s last moments, of drowning in dirt, the weight and grip of it, the panic. He replaced the feeling with a sadness and duty.

“You’ll worry the handle right off that bag ayours Doc.” Perhaps a note of insistence, of patience being lost. John stilled his thumb on the thick leather seam, took a fresh hold.

“You come call me,” he said. Flickering a smile, he headed for the house, stealing one last look as he did so, the pillowcase now fringed in brown, the blossoming hand pale and reaching.

Cora Gottam met him at the door, fingers clasped bloodless, graying hair escaping the hastily pinned ‘pug’ on her head.

“It’s terrible doctor. Poor Mr. Sylvester. His poor wife. They’ve struggled so. He’s gone to his glory now. His father, his baby sister. Did you know the family, doctor? The earth here is so loose they say. Sandy. Do you think it was the earth doctor? I feel so terrible. I only asked that he- He’d done the same for a friend of mine over in Harrison. We needed a well. I knew he and Mr. Deihlan needed money. Do you think it was the Raymond earth?” John had no answer that didn’t make him feel fraudulent in some way, but spoke nonetheless.

He told her he’d known Walter, he told her he didn’t know about Raymond earth, that it was just a terrible accident and that was that. He settled for The earth does what it wants Mrs. Gottam, adding, we all have to drink water. They sat in the kitchen over coffee and Cora caught her breath. The kitchen felt empty, the house cold; vacant shelves and an unlit stove. No pound cake and no ingredients to make it. Cora asked after Ros, said there was a recipe she meant to pass on, her hands calming against the warm cup. She apologized for what she called her hysteria, told him she’d say a prayer for Walter come Sunday in church. He told her he’d see her there and she looked at him with an unreadable sadness, as if perhaps she doubted it.

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