Sharp Compassion

by Finnigan Geist


Nathan presses two bloody fingers against the boy’s neck under his jaw, searching for a pulse. His own heart stutters when he feels nothing. It isn’t a surprise; Max was half dead when Nathan arrived and the damage too great to entertain a hope of survival, but he can’t help the weight of disappointment falling over him. Just to be sure, he shifts the position of his fingers and then tries the other side of the neck. The skin is still warm, but nothing moves beneath it.

It takes more effort than it should, at this point in Nathan’s life and experience, to look up into the eyes of Max Braun’s family. They are huddled together in the corner of the room, even the youngest brother completely still. They don’t need his confirmation to know it’s over. Mrs. Braun lets out a thick, strangled sound somewhere between a sob and a scream.

I’m sorry is on his lips, but he can’t form the words around the thick ball that has formed high in his chest. Instead, he stares down at his hand, which is tacky with drying blood. He pulls a rag from his belt and slowly cleans it, forgetting for the time the bowl of water on the table beside him, already tinged pink. The room smells thickly of blood, sweat and heat; the air dries out his lungs when he breathes.

Max’s face is pale and waxy in the spare light, mouth slightly open, spots of red-brown speckling his lips. Patchy facial growth trails across his slack jaw. He was so young, Nathan thinks, as if it matters anymore. The boy’s age or what he was like or that he injured himself doing something wild and reckless doesn’t make any difference in the world now he’s dead. If none of those things matter, then maybe it also doesn’t matter that he died under Nathan’s hands.

The family has turned inward with Max’s mother in the middle, supported by the strong hands of her husband and two remaining sons. Mr. Braun lifts his head and looks at Nathan. Nathan flinches almost instinctively, expecting recrimination or hatred, a reaction he’s used to. What he sees instead is simply grim acceptance. Mr. Braun shifts his gaze down to the body of his son, where it lingers.

Realization hits him deep in his stomach: they’ve all looked prepared for death since Nathan arrived, and have no accusations for failing their son because they knew it was inevitable. Like him, they had surmised that the wounds were too deep, too dire. They never expected it to be within Nathan’s power to save Max’s life. They were right.

His hand feels raw, and he looks down to see he's still rubbing it in an effort to get clean. Forcing himself to stop is a struggle, but his body doesn’t feel like it quite belongs to him. Traces of blood are still stuck in the creases of his palm, and the sight sends one sharp jolt of nausea through him. He takes a deep breath to force down swelling emotion and glances up out the window, where pale streaks of sunlight cast long shadows across the yard.


He pulls the curtains a little closer and watches dust spin in the sunlight he can’t fully block out, trying to focus on something other than the raspy wheezes behind him. It’s a pointless endeavor, the curtains, because there’s no way to keep the sun completely out of the room, and a little daylight isn’t going to disturb the sleep of the man in his bed. His father is leaving and has always been leaving, all his life.

Nathan turns to look at Obadiah, his shrunken, weak body splayed across white sheets but barely substantial. The small, hitching up-and-down motions of his chest and the thin rattle of his breathing indicate he still lives, but there’s nothing to offer hope. He isn’t often awake for long these days, and if he gets up at all he rarely makes it farther than the chair across the room. In the time Nathan’s been caring for his father, they’ve spoken a lot, but there have also been periods of quiet. He regrets it now, every time he was with his father and said nothing. Nathan knew, they both knew, that Obadiah was going to leave again. I had time, but it wasn’t enough, he thinks, and sits cautiously on the chair beside the bed, as if a wrong move will somehow give away that this is a death vigil.

He feels now that he doesn’t know his father and never did. Logic dictates that Obadiah never was the giant he saw as a little boy, strong, distant, and resilient as rock. He also knows this shell of a man who came to him fatalistic and dying is not his father, and that the real man is somewhere in between, but he’ll never know exactly where. All he has is those extremes of impression: impenetrable strength, paper-light fragility, and, in between them, only absence.

Nathan gently scoops his father’s hand into his own, just barely holding it, and isn’t surprised how rough the skin is. It creates a strange friction with the calluses on his own palm, no matter that it feels like they are hardly touching. It does surprise him, though, how light the hand is, how small it feels, how feeble under the toughness. Nathan presses one thumb firmly into his father’s palm and moves it against the skin in a harsh caress, silently willing him to stay, just for a little, instead of leaving and leaving and leaving.


Pulling out a splinter is delicate work, Nathan thinks with amusement. Especially when the splinter is thin and embedded deep, and when looking at the woman he’s trying to extract it from makes his fingers shake. He’s bent over her hand, where the determined sliver of wood is wedged in her palm, and he has adopted, at least, the appearance of being absorbed in his work. Actually, he’s focused so intently on her palm because if he backs up to look at her, the logical part of his brain will shut down. He needs it right now, because it stores useful information like How To Remove Splinters and How To Form Words.

Not that he can keep his attention narrowed to his task anyway. Her hair, for example, is brushing against his forehead. He wants to push it away because the itching tickle of it against his skin is distracting, but then he doesn’t think he’d be able to keep from burying his fingers in the coarse, dense curls close to her scalp. He wonders what her hair would look like spread out over the ground in the moonlight.

He’s close enough that he can smell her, feel her warmth, and it reminds him of thick summer air, of sweaty limbs pressing urgently, of the sting of hay on his thighs, of gasping in air that tastes like heat. The memories rush through his veins, washing over him, pooling in the pit of his stomach, and it’s difficult to breathe.

Nathan coughs and shifts a little, squinting at the splinter as though that will make him focus. A small, irregular burst of air hits the top of his head and she might be laughing at him, but he can’t quite care. He finally works the splinter free, holding her small hand firmly in his, and studies the bit of wood for a moment before giving in and raising his head. He’s ready to say something stupid like That was a tough one, Miss Rain, but the words get lost somewhere along the way.

He meets her eye and the world gives a little hiccup, a tiny stutter, because she is looking at him, and not from under her eyelashes in the way of the girls who smile slowly and arch their backs for your money. She’s open, her emotions undisguised in the curve of her long cheeks and the line of her mouth. She is looking at him with wide eyes and a little expectation, and Nathan feels he’s supposed to know what comes next, but he can’t think of what it might be. The heat that has gathered in his chest and belly rumbles upward and bursts across his face in a grin that has to be too big and too foolish. She is looking at him and she smiles like the sun rising, like a flower opening, like a promise.


The medication he’s brought and left on the kitchen table won’t be touched, he knows, but he leaves it in plain sight and easy reach anyway, with a note reminding how frequently to take it. It won’t be taken because Martin Gable doesn’t care to save his own life and nobody else does much, either. He’s a withered, bitter man whose near sixty years of drinking, whoring and neglecting himself are finally beginning to take their toll on his body. He has no family, loves no one and is loved by none, and Nathan is half-convinced the old man’s tenacious hold on life up until now has been born of pure contrariness.

Nathan walks casually to the porch, where Gable sits in a weathered wooden chair and clutches the arms with gnarled old hands that used to be able to deftly wield both shotgun and ax.

“I’m going, Mr. Gable,” Nathan says after a few moments of being ignored. “Your medication is on the table. I’ll be back next week, same time, but you send word if you need me for anything before then.”

He waits a few more beats of silence, not quite uncomfortable, before Gable turns his head to regard him. Gable squints, but he's always squinting, and it’s hard to see the pale brown gleam under heavy brows and drooping wrinkled flesh. His eyes sweep Nathan up and down once, dismissively, before connecting with Nathan’s gaze for a moment. Nathan hates coming here. Gable has eyes that remind him of his childhood, of belt straps and of keeping his head down and saying, “Yessuh” and “Naw, suh.”

Almost as if he can feel Nathan’s emotions, Gable’s mouth turns up in an imitation of a smile. “You can be sure that I will,” he rasps, his low voice interrupted by pockets of air, forming the words in a way that serves to assure Nathan only that he will not hear from Martin Gable, no matter what the situation. Then Gable gives a phlegmy cough and works his mouth as if Nathan’s presence is something he can spit out, a bad taste. He turns his head away and shifts his attention back to a dusty path and small, bent trees.

Nathan barely manages to say goodbye before turning and striding away from the oppressive little house, only just in better shape than its owner. He hates making this trip and he hates Martin Gable more than he likes to admit to himself. Gable doesn’t ask him to come and Nathan asks for no money for his services, but he continues to show up every week to check on him and leave medicine that piles up, unused, on a rubbish heap in the back. Someday, Nathan knows, he’ll show up and Martin Gable will be dead, a corpse of a day, an hour, a week, perhaps still sitting in his chair, and Nathan will be the only one who knows that a life has ended.

He works hard to do all he can for Martin Gable even though he is not wanted, but not out of good intentions for the patient, or because it is his duty as a healer, or even some egotistical drive to pit his talents against death to see how he fares. Nathan battles relentlessly against Gable’s mortality because he hates the man so intensely it makes him almost physically ill; he fights to prolong the worthless life of this worthless man because deep down in a small but fierce part of his soul, Nathan wants Martin Gable to die.


The screams have ended, but in the thrumming air are the lingering echoes of each one. Hollow quietness is given rhythm by deep, ragged breaths and the murmuring of Nathan’s efficient moves. A sudden sharp whack! of flesh breaks the tension and opens one moment of true silence before the cries of a baby fill the air. Nathan straightens, adjusting his hold on the child before announcing softly, “Jenny, you have a son.”

She lifts her head minutely, clumps of dirty blonde hair stuck to her face with sweat. Her expression borders on shock as she eyes the squalling bundle in his arms, as if she didn’t realize exactly what the end product of this whole ordeal would be. Nathan moves cautiously around the bed, gentle with both the baby and his mother, unsure how Jenny will react. She grunts as she releases the sheets, her fingers white and stiff from gripping too hard, and awkwardly pushes herself up to see her child.

The baby’s face is splotchily red from screaming, body long and narrow, and his face and chest still bear residue of mucus and blood. Nevertheless, when Jenny whispers, “He’s beautiful,” Nathan has to agree. They settle the baby into her arms and Jenny looks up at Nathan with such gratitude it’s as if he’s responsible for the creation of her son. She cries, and these tears aren’t like the ones she shed over the past few months, venting hatred at the child’s father for refusing to marry her, at the world for not living up to her expectations, at the baby for its conception. Her sobs are almost laughter, wild and helpless and joyful.

Gasping and hiccupping, Jenny reaches up for Nathan’s face. She grabs his ear and pulls him down level with her, then places a sticky kiss on his cheek. Her hold falters but she keeps contact with him, running her hand down his neck to his shoulder where she grips both shirt and skin. Nathan kneels beside them, mother and child, and gently covers Jenny’s hand with his own.

vi. 1845

Nathan is running through the yard, his thin, long limbs wheeling in an uncoordinated blur of energy, but somehow he doesn’t fall, and he moves with remarkable speed for a skinny six-year-old boy.

He’s not sure what he’s looking for, but there is an indefinable weight of importance heavy in his chest that moves him forward towards something, and he thinks vaguely that he might fly apart if he doesn’t find it.

Dr. Krieg bends down to him, the shy little boy who skitters like a colt whenever he approaches, even though they have spoken several times. Dr. Krieg likes the boy because he listens; he does not understand, but he listens. Something in those huge, fascinated brown eyes makes it impossible to look at them and not want to tell Nathan everything about being a doctor, even though the boy has no hope of ever being one himself.

In the crazed whirl of his emotions, Nathan spots his mother, and he has a direction. Altering his trajectory so suddenly nearly topples him over, but he rights himself easily enough and is hurtling toward her. She moves with a swift, powerful stride that lacks grace but works just fine for hauling laundry back to the house. His movement distracts her and she slows, turns a little, but does not make up her mind to stop for him just yet.

Dr. Krieg takes Nathan’s hand and turns it so he is looking at his own palm and then presses it against the boy’s small chest. There is that insistent little throb under his skin, he’s felt it before. He looks up to the doctor expectantly, waiting to know What Is Significant about it.

“Do you feel that?” he asks in a clipped voice. Nathan nods. “That is your heart, Nathan. It pumps your blood all through your body, to your head and down all the way to your toes. You feel that. It’s a good, solid heartbeat. That means you’re alive."

Nathan almost bowls her over, but she stops, seeing the determination on his face. He looks up, still uncertain what he wants to do, and grabs the laundry basket out of her hands. She’s so surprised she doesn’t fight him for it, and its size and his enthusiasm nearly send him backwards. He manages to put the basket down without upsetting the clothes and ruining his mother’s hard work.

“What is it, Nathan?” she asks, bending down, and he pulls her close. He knows what he’s looking for now and presses a hand to her chest.

Nathan stares down at his hand. That means you’re alive.

He looks up at Dr. Krieg, shocked at the connection forming in his mind. The doctor has told him before about the parts of his body and what they do, but it never made much sense. This beatbeat beatbeat you feel means you’re alive. It’s so simple, but almost too much. Heat rushes to his face and he can hear it, too; it throbs in his head. Dr. Krieg smiles at him benevolently and Nathan jerks away, runs out the door, off the porch, across the yard.

His frenzied run through the grounds coupled with his excitement have made his heartbeat so strong now that it thuds in his ears and his entire body hums in response. If his mother finds something particularly strange in his actions, she doesn’t say anything, but curiously watches her son press his hands to her chest.

He stops suddenly, his fingers digging into the soft flesh at the top of her left breast. Entire body still, he just breathes and feels for a moment before sliding his palm across the steady rhythm of her heart. He casts one baffled, joyous look at his mother and laughs. With a little sigh, Nathan rests his head on her collarbone, ear pressed against her chest.

He feels their heartbeats, his mother’s soft and slow compared to the bone-vibrating impact of his own. He’s felt them both before, but they never meant this much, never meant anything.

“It’s beating,” Nathan breathes, and laughs giddily. It’s beating, and you’re alive and so am I because I can feel it and it’s beating it’s beating.

Their pulses don’t match up, but every few beats Nathan’s throbs at the same time as his mother’s. She cups his head with a worn hand and holds him to her, and Nathan repeats the words over and over to himself like a prayer, it’s beating.

The End