Good Doctor Barleycorn

Good Doctor Barleycorn

As evening light gathers itself in the stirring chill of an autumn breeze a murder of crows shadowy and black appears in the graying skies. I watch as they gather themselves among the thistles and thorns or tangled briars which have long since taken over the family plot.

It happens in the fall of every year as the days grow shorter and the nights long. The winged fiends appear black as the darkness from which they come and to which they return.

I watch through the aging panes and each year, a year older, I swim into my memories, until my sadness turns to anger and my anger to hate.

I was seven years old when my mother sent me through the woods, dark and scary, all alone to call on the good doctor Barleycorn. Sick with fever and delirious my father writhing did not hear me say goodbye. With eyes fearful he only stared at some imaginary point in space closer to heaven than earth.

I hurried as my mother told me, stumbling and staggering, afraid in every direction, as I followed the dancing light of the lantern. It was the lantern my father followed each morning into the fields or into the mines, into the darkness.

“Be quick about it,” my mother’s voice hissed inside my fearful ears,  growing more desperate with each beat of my heart which hammered in my chest. “Tell good doctor Barleycorn, it’s your father and he’s,” she said in a whisper, careful to not finish her plea.

We were poor people, not by choice, but by lot. Only so much good can come from hardscrabble dirt, and hardscrabble dirt was all my father’s calloused hands were ever able to purchase.

“We will manage to pay the good doctor somehow,” my mother promised my father before the fever began to wring his soul, and pay we would, eternally.

On cold nights, I am reminded of the little home of my childhood, where the chill winter whispered between the floorboards as night winds gathered and frost gathered in the window panes. It’s still there, that old place, likely all fallen down, after so much time, likely taken over by thorns and thistles this time of year and sweet jasmine and honeysuckle in the spring.

Nothing sweet grows here, not even in the spring, only thorns and thistles like those that have taken over the family plot.

My feet, in boots worn through, hurried through the valleys and over the ridges which lay between our home place and the house of the good doctor. It seemed so very far and the way so very dark, eyes staring back and knotty roots clawing out for my soul.

Though the days that passed since that night have become decades I remember the warm glow which reached out for me through the panes in the windows of tall dark house of good doctor Barleycorn. Almost as if he had been waiting for me he opened the heavy door with his shiny brass handle. I remember his smile, serpentine, and how it crept upwards at its corners in a silent satisfaction.

“It’s much too late,” he sighed with feigned sadness as he glanced into the shadows which spilled behind me as we stood beneath his porch lamp, my lantern fading.

“Sunup we’ll go straightaway and we will be quick about it.”

The old door he closed behind us, as I shook off the cold and shadows, still reminds me of that night when its hinges moan like those on a coffin, this time of year when the cold settles in for a long stay.

After he fed me a stew of lamb and potatoes and I warmed myself by the fire, the urgency with which I traipsed the night melted away like a dream. Soft music spilled from his bedroom chamber in the upstairs as I with opened eyes I studied walls papered in ancient designs from my place on the parlor sofa.

The parlor was as dark and shadowy then as it is now when I wake to the light of dying embers in a forgotten fire.

It was warm and I was fed and sleep came quickly but not before I saw the eyes of my mother, staring down from above the good doctor’s, mantle.

My mother was the most beautiful woman in three counties, I had heard whispered voices claim when my ears were close by.

In the morning when I woke it was gone, the painting of my mother, with her broach pearl and eyes aflame. It was gone the painting of my mother, a vase of fresh cut roses had taken its place, just as a new pair of boots had take the place of those which had brought me to the good doctor’s house.

True to his word the good doctor and I departed as the morning sun began to crack against the cold sky of that frosty winter morning, the morning of the saddest day of my life.

He insisted we take the long way, the good doctor did, assuring he knew better the way than I. Lost in my new shoes and now a new coat I followed. I followed and when he insisted we stop and rest, I stopped, though my heart raced on ahead toward the memory of my father, and the terror in his eyes.

“If only we had been sooner,” he said in feigned sadness, the good doctor did, as we watched the ghost of my father flee his body.  “If only we had been sooner,” he repeated his hand gripping my shoulder as we both looked on, my mother with us faced turned away. “Poor fellow,” he whispered for only himself to hear.

And that was it, he was gone my father, into eternity.

Even before the flowers I planted on my father’s grave, honeysuckle and jasmine bloomed the next spring, good doctor Barleycorn took my mother as his bride and the old home place had become only a memory.

In time I would come to understand as memories brewed and thousand sleepless nights and I woke to see my mother’s portrait which hung for years over the good doctor’s mantle. It’s gone now, that painting and my mother’s eyes a fiery as the flames through which she stared back at  me that final time.

“Be quick about it,” her voice echoes across seasons of sadness. Sometimes I hear it in the chatter of the crows perched and watching as if they know the old shotgun behind the door is not for them.

Gone are the graves to which they once made their pilgrimage humps of clay melted away.

Across the stubbled field long since harvested I watch them gather. Through the panes in the windows of the good doctor’s house I hear them. I hear other things too, like old Scratch, who comes calling on the darkest nights, when there is no moon to light his way. Sometimes I hear the voice which once belonged to me, the voice that said goodbye to my father, in that long ago and it whispers.

“If the wicked soul of good doctor Barleycorn has not yet gone to hell
I pray his cold dry bones rattle when I tell this tale.”


– This is a work of fiction. Edward Reed 2020