Phaedra was fairing worse than me, her age leaving her particularly sensitive to the heat of the high sun. Her grip on my arm had grown increasingly more heavy and she almost always had the water canteen in hand now; I grew increasingly worried and tried to distract her from the laborious trek by keeping the conversation flowing, simultaneously gaining information to where I had been transported to.
I compiled the information she supplied. Somehow, someway, for what ever reason I had found myself in ancient Greece. In the mountains of Delphi to be more concise. I silently cursed myself for so easily agreeing to help the mysterious being, without even asking for an explanation, the terms and conditions per say.
However, I was alive. And for that I was eternally thankful; because although I as contented with my life, I hadn't wanted to die just yet.
"Yer see it?" Phaedra perked up, "That's the temple, just round this bend." She grinned, her step taking more lift as we grew closer.
The buildings roof peeked above the rock, shinning a stunning alabaster white in contrast to the mottled greens, grays and browns of the surroundings.
"Yer'll see, they got plenty of places to sit down, beds a plenty too and baths to wash yer weary soul pure again."
We turned the corner and Phaedra froze, missing a step, demeanor turning icy as she gasped.
Before us was a mighty building, constructed partially within the mountainside with towering pillars of white marble solidly lifting its ornately carved roof. Gigantic in size and exuding an aura of importance the scene before me would have left me in awe, if not for the crowd of people sat at the temples feet.
There had to be hundreds of people, nearing on a thousand, strewn on the worn grass by the temple steps; some were lucky enough to lay on mats of woven grass others left without choice curled into themselves onthe cold, hard ground.
Everyone down there was in varying stages of ill health, the air here reeked of sickness and poor hygiene and a song of coughing and moans eclipsed the birds singing.
"Travelers! Do not bother coming further, the plague has a tight grip on the people here and the high priest will not allow us refuge in Asclepius' Temple." someone said from a ways away, they looked bedraggled, linens muddied and eyes blood shot as they lent on a wooden stick.
"We've been cursed, we'll never be over this blasted plague." Phaedra said grimly, words said so quietly under her breath that I almost didn'thear them.
Plague? This is the first I'd heard her speak of a plague.
My head shot over to the people on horses, their faces sheltered by over hanging cloaks, now that made sense. Wracking my brain, thinking back to the brief section in university I'd learned about the history of medicine – people would pilgrimage to holy sites, such as Asclepius Temples, and seek a kind of spiritual healing from the patron god of the site. Sometimes it worked, because of the environment the temples provided, the prayers, worship and miscellaneous potions used were questionable to the healing process however.
Which plague was this, bubonic, septicemic, pneumonic? How contagious?
Had I just escaped the hands of death to walk back into them?
Phaedra's hand felt like a lead weight. I scanned her head to toe; she looked pale, cheeks flushed but her eyes looked clear and although she was on the thin side, her fingertips where pink. Prognosis- promising.
"What are the symptoms of this plague Phaedra?" I asked, staying as calm as possible, she sucked her lips into a thin line.
"Took my son and all three daughters, it did... Gave them a fever hotter than the sun but they shivered like they were freezing, couldn't get any of them to eat or sleep and then..." her words died off and I felt guilt well up in my chest, I hadn't meant to reawaken foul memories. "My last son is there." she nodded towards the closest horse, I heard her choke on a cry and considered my next words carefully.
"May I look at him?"
Phaedra tore away from me, "Why?" she bit, frustrations welling up into anger.
"I might be able to help, I'm a doctor, healer." this time itwas my turn to speak slowly, tone as calming as I could muster.
She gave a bitter laugh, "Yer a woman, I ain't ever seen a woman healer."
"Where I come from its pretty normal." she looked at me skeptically, "I am a healer, Phaedra, a good healer at that." empathy, confidence, patience. Key in my line of work.
Phaedra broke, huffing and giving in with a tousle of her hand through her bound hair.
"Yer may see him, what harm will it do? We are damned either way." she muttered.
She walked over to her son, exchanged quick words with the man holding the horses reins – who in turn gave me a skeptical eyeing- before having him gently lower the pliant body to the ground. Phaedra motioned me over.
I took one of the loose rectangles of fabric that hung in layers over my chest and tore it, tying it around my nose and mouth like a crude surgeons mask, the protection it offered more psychological than physical. Phaedra pulled away the mossy green cloak covering her sons frail form as I kneeled beside her.
No buboes. That was a good sign. His skin was pasty white and slick with perspiration, lymph nodes swollen and pulse erratic. I gently prodded his abdomen, nothing was particularly out of place or swollen there.
"Any other symptoms, for example; vomiting, diarrhea?"
"Only the children." the deep voice of the man who'd help dismount the other said, he was watching me like a hawk, which was more than a little intimidating.
I nodded and had Phaedra's son be sat up. Wishing I had a stethoscope at hand, I put my ear to his chest – his heart sounded fine, his lungs on the other hand rattled as though he had someone shaking a can of nails in there.
Pneumonia? Not likely if only the children were vomiting and such.
He had no rashes or internal inflammation, I wish I could run some blood but that was obviously out of the question here.
"Headaches, muscle pains, sore throat and coughs?"
"Yes." the man finally made eye contact with me. "Have you seen this before?" I could almost here his heart beating in suspense.
Of course, in these times they would not have vaccinations to prevent it and if my knowledge of history serves me right these times weren't the most sanitary nor provided a particularly balanced diet. Such factors would them wide open to the full brunt of influenza. Although the symptoms could be attributed to many illnesses, I'd put my bet on the simplest one.
"I believe this is influenza- the flu."
Phaedra clutched onto my arm, "Does that mean you can cure it?" her eyes were wide and wild.
"Its a virus-"
"I knew it was a curse!" the man punched the ground and growled,cutting me off.
The movement had caused a stir, the man who had shouted at me to move aside approached, marching at me like a raging bull.
"No, no. Not a curse." I held my palms outwards in a calming motion,"Its like a... little bug that gets into the body." Phaedra looked exceedingly pale. "But, normally, the body kills the bug and heals itself – sometimes this requires outside help though. Which, you could say, can cure a person." I was walking on thin ice here,the hairs on the back of my neck constantly standing to attention.
"What are you doing?" He thundered, finally having arrived at the back of his herd, shadow dwarfing me.
"She knows how to cure the plague!" the man shouted, his baritone voice carrying.
It was the embodiment of a chain reaction – the domino effect.
In that moment I felt everyone's eyes turn on me; my heart stuttered. A pressure so intense it made my eyes water. I wondered if this is what a fawn felt like when faced in lonesome with a pack of hungry wolves, cornered as they draw in snapping and barking.
"She can cure us?"
"Who is she?"
"Please help us!"
I turned and looked over the ridge we had stopped at, a mob of people had accumulated underneath; each one screaming up at me, some on their knees begging and more gathering to join. It was like a kind of mass hysteria had enraptured them. And it was so loud that my ears were throbbing and brain struggled to think.
Everything went silent.
The words had not come from my own mouth, but from the man towering behind me.
Taking a firm hold of my arm he pulled me to my feet and hunched his back so his face but an inch from my own, so close that I could see the faint scar on his jaw just peaking from behind thick stubble. But more so,what kept my breath in my lungs, was the hopelessness in his wide eyes.
"You must help us..." his gaze briefly turned to another person hanging off a horse, this shape much more feminine, "We have nothing else to turn to." he whispered.
With new found determination, I nodded. Patting his shoulder in reassurance, I walked towards the overhanging ledge. Once there my eyes frittered around to all of the expectant faces, formulating a plan of action. I pulled the make shift mask from my chin.
"What ever supplies you have, gather them and at the center of this camp and light a large fire," I pointed out the most able looking people,"You, collect water from the stream by the path, get as much as you can carry." I though back to the small stream we had passed on the way up.
"But the food we have left is offerings to Asclepius." someone called out.
"The temple wont take you, why would they take your offerings – best to put them to use." I tried to put it gently, but it was the was a mumbled chatter as everyone agreed and assigned themselves roles and started to move.
"What about us?" not-so-raging-bull-anymore asked.
"Lay your ill ones down where the grass is green and then use your horses to help gather water." He nodded then lead his group down the slope towards the temple.
I stayed at the top, surveying the land and finalizing my plan. Luckily the area outside the temple was large, I could spread the masses into rows making it easier to see to them and keep things clean. Essentially I was trying to recreate a hospital format.
The water collected would be brought to the fire and boiled to sterilize it before being shared among the gathering – even better if there was food available, maybe dried meat and vegetables, it could be incorporated into a mildly nutritious stew to rebalance the sick's' electrolytes.
I pulled in a large breath of air before pulling the mask back over my face and continuing towards the temple.