Read Healer Online

Authors: Peter Dickinson






The Healer

Peter Dickinson

Part One


In a corner of the Hall of Harmony a woman was playing the harp. She sat on a raised platform so that everybody could see her as well as hear her.

The watchers were all sick, all waiting, all hoping. In the next hour something marvellous might happen and they would be sick no longer. They listened in silence to the gentle notes of the harp.

One of them was different from the others. All the rest had come to the Foundation because they were sick and were hoping to be healed. But one young man had made himself sick in order to come here. He too was waiting and hoping, but for something else.

He was sixteen years old, and his name was Barry Evans. In the secrecy of his own mind he often thought of himself not as Barry but as Bear. Indeed, sometimes he felt as though there were two personalities inhabiting his body, with those two different names, though usually the idea of Bear was little more than a comforting private fantasy, left over from childhood. At the moment he was very aware of Bear, because the migraine seemed to have stirred him up. It was worse than he'd intended, a dry sickness in his throat and stomach and a beam of pain in his head, running from temple to temple. He felt hardly able to stand, hardly able to go through with what he'd come for.

He watched the harpist through the haze of pain. From time to time his hand strayed to his hip pocket and touched a folded piece of paper he kept there. It was the receipt for the fee he'd paid to be here this morning, four hundred pounds, a really classy piece of paper, thick, white, crackling like frosted snowfall. Though the four hundred pounds hadn't been Barry's own money, touching the receipt helped keep him going by reminding him why he was here.

Watching the harpist helped, too. She played that way, as though being seen was just as important as being heard. All harpists make a bit of a show of themselves, long, bare arms and beaky profiles, and leaning to listen to the twangle of the wires as if it were something holy. But this woman, well, it wouldn't have mattered if half the audience had been deaf. When she began to play, Barry had heard a slight ripple of paper around the room, like the noise of theatre programs suddenly being looked at when a new actor comes on. There were whispers, too, between neighbour and neighbour as people showed each other the photograph in the Foundation brochure, a pair of hands as crooked as the claws of a parrot on its perch. And now those same hands were supple, their long fingers reaching to and fro across the harp frame to pluck at the chosen wires. They had been rigid claws, and then the Healer had touched them, and they had become hands again.

Says the brochure, grumbled Bear. And why can't she walk then?

Because you mustn't expect miracles, the brochure said. The Foundation wasn't a church; it was a scientific establishment; the purpose was to investigate the phenomenon of Non-medical Healing by means of Harmonic Energy.

Oh, sure, snarled Bear. So why are all these suckers saying their prayers?

It was true. There were white arum lilies on stands by the doors, and the woman might have been playing in a cathedral, and the whispers were hushed with awe. But more than that. The people were not just longing and hoping. They were praying.
Oh, God, if you're there, make my pain be taken away, my eyes see the way they used to, my son walk again, my daughter not die
. It was a church like churches must have been in the days when people really believed in that sort of thing—except that all the people in
church had paid four hundred pounds, minimum, as their entrance fee. The ones who were doing the three-day residence had been stung for two thousand. And all of them were sick or bringing a sick child. Some were dying.

Barry had forgotten how vile a bad migraine could be. He hadn't had one since the new doctor had found out about his chocolate allergy. Three Chic-a-choc bars washed down with a glass of Moroccan brandy yesterday morning had done the trick, and a bit over. The Chic-a-choc he'd had this morning to top up had been a mistake. Now he could barely walk the wincing tightrope over the pain, was just able to move and talk and think through the violent shudders and sweats. He'd seen his face in a mirror, the colour of roadside snow. He looked a good bit sicker than most of the sick people in the room, and probably felt it, too. The difference was that he knew his own pain would go tomorrow or perhaps the day after. Some of theirs would never go.

Despite the pain and sickness, Barry felt content as he watched the harpist lean from her chair to make her hands waver across the wires, like tropical fish in a tank. He was right to be here. It was worth the migraine, worth Mr. Stott's money. Why, even old Bear agreed. Bear had always loathed migraines, had seemed most real, most like a separate person, while they were on, snarling and sulking, furious with the pain. He was angry now, but for a different reason. It was this place, these people, that stirred him up.

The harpist ended with the usual rising twangle and laid her hands across the wires to stop their humming. Everybody seemed to take the same deep breath. The twin doors at the side of the room swung slowly open. A procession came in.

The audience, or congregation, or whatever you called it, was arranged in a horseshoe, four ranks deep. There was a row of wheelchairs in front, then two rows of metal chairs with canvas seats and backs, and then a waist-high rail, and then a row of people standing behind the rail. Barry was in this back row, slantwise across from the doors, about a third of the way around the curve. It was a good place to watch the procession.

At first he could only see heads moving behind the back rank opposite, but then they began to emerge at the open end of the horseshoe. They all wore white uniforms, dazzlingly clean. The only mark on the whiteness was the badge of the Foundation, a purple circle with a gold line like a stretched S running down it, worn on the left breast. The uniform made the women look more like nurses than nuns, but for some reason it was the other way around with the men. They were priests, not doctors.

First came two men pushing a gleaming cart with huge rubber wheels; then, two women carrying a couple of leather cases about the size of shoeboxes. Next came four men and two women, empty-handed. One of the men was Dr. Geare, who had interviewed Barry briefly an hour ago. Then there was a gap, and two more people appeared side by side, a man with a gold beard and a child.

The man was enormous, at least six inches taller than anyone else in the room, broad but not fat. The child was a plain, dark-haired girl, just over ten years old. She was small for her age and so looked younger, but Barry knew exactly. The last time he'd seen her he'd been the only guest at her eighth birthday party.

He stared at her. For a while he couldn't see anything else in the room. It didn't matter. Nobody would notice him staring like that because all the others were doing the same. They were eating her with their eyes. She was the centre of their hopes, the channel of their prayers, the reason why they had paid their fees and made their journey. They were staring at the Healer.

Barry, though, was staring at Pinkie Proudfoot.

Why'd they taken away her glasses? She could barely see eighteen inches without them. Didn't look especially happy or sad, but she wouldn't. Grown a bit. Got a bit thinner? No. She was the same. Still walked the same dreamy, drifting way, still held herself somehow more together than other kids. She hadn't changed at all.

Stupid, crazy kid, mumbled Bear, pleased for once.

The cart stopped dead centre in the opening of the horseshoe. The white-robed crew came and unpacked gear from it, working with silent efficiency. One woman went around the front of the horseshoe, carrying a bundle of short white cables with a crocodile clip at either end and using them to link each wheelchair to its neighbour. Another came around behind and whispered to the people standing there to grip the rail in front of them with both hands. Barry noticed that the chairs in the middle two rows were already connected by a metal bar at floor level, and he could feel that the carpet beneath his feet was rubber-backed. The women with the purple boxes had placed them on the shiny black pedestals which stood at the opposite points of the horseshoe; now they opened the lids and took out cable-ends, which they plugged in at the back of the pedestals. More cables linked the pedestals to the three rows of chairs and the rail. Finally Dr. Geare and a short, bald man took a couple of gadgets like hand-held directional aerials from the cart and socketed their coiled extending cables into the back of the purple boxes. Everything went smoothly, went right, without a word spoken.

The harpist plinked quietly on her platform, not showing off at all now.

The big man took Pinkie to a chair at the end of the room and settled her there, then strolled around, checking the work of the crew. You'd have known he was boss even without that. His beard made him look like Moses. It was very gold, too gold, bright as real metal, and he had strange gold eyes like a leopard's. Barry watched him as he stood and worked at the cart, moving knobs on a control panel in a way which made it obvious that he was now balancing the circuits which had been set up. He hadn't finished this by the time everyone else seemed ready, but he went on for some minutes, unconcerned. At last he looked up and nodded affably to the audience. It was a signal for the harpist to stop playing.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” said the Moses-man. “All groups of our clients differ because all people differ, and we have to make fresh allowances each time. I'm sure you understand that.”

He had a soft, deep, soothing voice. Could've made a packet doing the voice-over for TV ads, Barry thought. But he grabbed your attention all right. No one was looking at Pinkie now.

“Before we begin,” he went on, “I will give you a small demonstration to help you understand what we hope is going to happen during the Harmony Session. It will be a very simple demonstration because the work we are doing here is, I suspect, very simple when you get to the heart of it. Nobody understands it yet, and some people dismiss it as hocus-pocus. But remember, nobody understood electricity a hundred years ago, and when great scientists produced their ideas about it, other scientists dismissed them as hocus-pocus. I am going to show you a commonplace experiment in electromagnetism. All I ask you, in fact, I beg you, is to remember that the force we are dealing with is not electromagnetism. It may be like it in some ways, but not others. There was a great Healer once who talked to his patients in what he called parables—stories to help them grasp ideas which they could not yet understand. The film you will now see is just such a parable. Lights, please.”

Barry heard no switches click, but blinds slid down the windows, and the hail darkened. A square of fierce white burst into being on the far wall. The film began. The camera showed a desk top, a square of paper, a glass jar, and a big horseshoe magnet. A hand reached into the picture, picked up the magnet, showed it, took it out of sight. Two hands came and opened the jar. There was a ring on one finger, a round purple stone with a stretched S across it. The right hand shook dark powder from the jar onto the paper, sprinkling it around at random, put the jar down, tapped the paper to spread the powder, vanished. The camera closed in and roamed over the mottled surface, lingering on an odd blob or empty patch. It retreated, showing the whole surface. After half a minute of nothing happening the hand came back with the magnet and laid it on the desk, then lifted the paper and placed it over the magnet.

Barry knew perfectly well what was going to happen, but still his interest twitched with the shock of movement as the iron filings on the paper shot into dark, strong curves that mapped the invisible magnetic field. He felt, too, how the other watchers in the room experienced the self-same twitch, as if they were all responding to forces like those around the magnet. Obviously that was the idea. It was how they were supposed to react, to twitch at the impulse, to feel themselves doing so, like a lot of intelligent little filings. Not that intelligent—they were supposed to be feeling, not thinking…watch it Bear, remember you're one of them, feeling foul, feeling hopeful, feeling excited, hardly thinking at all …

Barry deliberately allowed his migraine to wash over him like a wave, probing into all his crevices. When the wave withdrew, he saw that the hand with the ring was now holding a pointer and tracing out the curving lines of the force field between the poles of the magnet. The film ended. The blinds slid up. His brain gave a yelp of pain as the sunlight came streaming in. This time he treated it the way he had learned to when he was still quite small, pushing it back and to one side by an effort of will and cramming it into a sort of compartment he kept there. It didn't go away. It was still there, still a foul sick ache, but provided you kept one foot against the door, you got on with other things, a bit—such as watching what was going on now.

Two men fetched a chair from under the harpist's platform. It was made entirely of stainless steel. Even the seat and back were shining steel springs. The Moses-man fetched Pinkie and sat her in this chair, while the two other men connected thick cables from it to the two pedestals. Everyone was looking at Pinkie again now, sitting in front of the cart between the two ends of the horseshoe. She sat bolt upright and gazed calmly out in front of her, though from the way the Moses-man led her about, Barry could tell that the room must be little more than a bright blur to her. He'd thought they might have given her contact lenses, but they hadn't.

“Now,” said the Moses-man, “we are all in the presence of the great forces of nature. At this very moment they are streaming through this room, apparently at random. Through our very bodies. Electromagnetism, gravity, time flow, and other forces we are only just beginning to guess at, flooding through us now. We are in the presence of mighty powers.

“For our purposes, at this moment, the most important of these forces is the one I have named Harmonic Energy. This is a force whose existence has only recently begun to be suspected, so I will say a few words about it. Many of my fellow scientists have long been aware that there is a contradiction at the heart of orthodox physics. The second law of thermodynamics tells us, in effect, that the matter of the universe is gradually but inevitably working toward a state of greater and greater disorder and will end in billions of years in a vast, cold, random stillness. But at the same time we can see that the part of the universe with which we are best acquainted is working toward a state of greater and greater order and complexity. Molecules of ordinary salt join to make the perfect cubes of the salt crystal. Single-cell organisms join to compose organisms of immense cooperative complexity, from the jellyfish to you and me. Many scientists are beginning to believe that some force outside the knowledge of orthodox physics is at work, at work against the second law of thermodynamics, moving matter from chaos to order, from random simplicity to patterned complexity, from discord to harmony.

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