Dr. Scarlet’s Medicine Show

John C. Mannone

The magic man wagons into town and starts proclaiming his wares, his wand pointing to his billboard signage painted on the side of his carriage. Soon a harried hag stops, complains of her headache.

He pulls a rusted tin from his leather bag stashed behind the wagon seat; mumbles the bywords, “This will cure what ails you.”

The old woman wrapped in a tattered shawl stares at the man, then shifts her eyes focusing on the strange words stamped into the metal—Hirudinea Celestia. Ornate calligraphy hides the canned secrets.

He orders, “Place two of these, no more, no less, on the back of your neck before you go to bed. In the morning, your headache will be gone. Just seventy-five cents, Ma’am.” She rummages through her ragged purse; hands him her last two coins. “This is all I have, Mister.”

He strokes his beard, while looking at the woman, eyes the bend in the road where the saloon and the sherrif’s office are. “Okay” he says, “Merry Christmas.”

She stuffs the tin can into her purse, then runs straightaway to her shanty leaving frantic footsteps in the snow. The woodstove stuffed with scant wood barely stays the chill.

But her migraine only worsens and her head pounds as if hooved by horses. She grasps her dirty white hair, pulling it, while moaning. The pain would not stop. The scarlet moon, now high above the bare oaks, seem to gloat through the window. She doesn’t pray to it any more. She fingers the metal can, pops the lid with a knife and lets all the slimy, leech-like critters crawl all over her head.

They find her on the pine-knotted floor, with a pale blank look, blood still trickling from her ears and nose, and from the hole in the nape of her neck.


Author’s Note: Leech (Class Hirudinea): a freshwater worm that sucks blood or eats flesh.

John C. Mannone has poems accepted in North Dakota Quarterly, the 2020 Antarctic Poetry Exhibition, Foreign Literary Review, Le Menteur, Blue Fifth Review, Poetry South, Baltimore Review, and others. He won the Impressions of Appalachia Creative Arts Contest in poetry (2020) and the Carol Oen Memorial Fiction Prize (2020). He was awarded a Jean Ritchie Fellowship (2017) in Appalachian literature and served as celebrity judge for the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (2018). He edits poetry for Abyss & Apex and other journals. A retired physics professor, Mannone lives near Knoxville, Tennessee.

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