T he next day, Aster coaxes Papa out to the apothecary, a gentile man who lives outside the Call. They pass the town center and pause to stare at the olive tree that grows in the center of the square. Papa holds on to her arm as they watch the sun dance on the silvery bark. It was planted when the Christians reconquered the island from the Moors, and is now over 100 years old.

She knows, without asking, what Papa is thinking: the tides of history. And how land, forest, mountain — even tree — survive while those of the flesh pass from the world.

She knows Papa. Some people reach conclusions through writing, others by thinking. Papa does well when he talks things out. And if she can get them to engage in discussion, then perhaps Papa might find a way to heal the stranger.

A little bell tinkles as they open the door and step over the threshold. Inside, it is blessedly cool; the thick stone walls shield against the sun. Aster looks around. It seems as if no one is present.

“Pedro!” Papa shouts. “Pedro!”

Suddenly, there’s a rush of birdsong, twitters and cheeps and click click click. An ancient man enters, his back so twisted that he’s bent almost double. Perched on his back is a sparrow, a thrush, and two doves. The man jerks his face up to see them.

How old he is, Aster thinks when she sees him. But she stops and looks, and sees that the man’s blue eyes hold the sharpness of youth. As he walks forward, the birds hop off his back, beating their wings as they hover. When he stands, they return to their perches on his shoulders and back.

“Sit,” the man says. He lifts his stick, and hooks the handle over a small stool, dragging it across the stone floor. Papa sits. Aster moves behind him.

“A man,” Papa begins without prelude. “With periodic twitches and spasms. He feels hot and cold and then falls to the floor, claiming that he has been possessed by the devil.”

The older man sniffs. “His humors?”

“At present, there’s an imbalance that’s causing a weakness. But nothing that indicates a deeper illness. He has no recollection of which phase the moon was in when his illness first struck.”

The man is still, thinking. “Acute illness is affected by the position of the moon, but chronic illness must be traced back to the position of the sun and the planets. Where was the sun?”

“It was late autumn. Ten years ago or so.”

“Have you checked the conjunctions?”

“I have.”

Aster watched him last night, poring over the charts and taking out his astrolabe, better to map out the heavens at the time when the stranger first became sick.

“Mercury was on the descendant, Jupiter was present, the sun was in Scorpio.”

The man taps his stick on the ground. “Mercury…”

Papa continues, “With its association with the brain.”

The man looks up again, fixes his eyes on Papa. “It is a chronic brain fever. One that keeps returning. You will have to observe him carefully, note the positions of the moon and the planets when he has these fits.”

“And a cure?”

The man stops, thinks. “Make me a chart. Then we will discuss what to administer, how and when.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 580)