Some readers forget entirely about the poison that makes an appearance in the prologue of David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, others never lose track of it. What is the nature of the poison? When the man and the old herbalist argue in the prologue, who did you think was right?
The prologue to David Wrolewski’s novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is filled with a sense of foreboding. An unnamed man walks into an alley, gazes around, and knocks on a door. An elderly gentleman answers, and Wrolewski’s story is set on a path of deceit and murder that will draw in his main protagonist, the mute boy of the title. The conversion between the two men begins in a sort of code, with the intentions understood but the language veiled. The initial exchange between the two indicates that some kind of deal or quid pro quo has been arranged, with the conveyance of medicine part of the arrangement. The visitor speaks elliptically, referring to his desire to kill “rats.” One can easily, however, ascertain the true motives of this man: murder. The herbalist who greets him, and inquires regarding medicine, is under no illusions regarding the nature of this arrangement. As it becomes clear, the herbalist is seeking the medicine he needs to help his grandson, who is ill. The herbalist understands, though, that the visitor’s motivations are considerably less benign. It is in this context that the herbalist suggests that the visitor’s intentions lead him down a path best left to the Almighty:
“The old man shock his head. ‘Many have wished for this. But what you ask — if such thing exist — then whoever possess this second only to God.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘God grant life and death, yes? Who calls another to God in an instant has half his power.’
‘No. We all have that power. Only the method is different.’
‘When method looks like true call of God, then is something else,’ the herbalist said. ‘More than method. Such things should be brutal and obvious. It is why we live together in peace.’”
With this exchange, the herbalist concedes his knowledge of the visitor’s intentions, but rationalizes his role in the coming murder through the necessity of helping his grandson. It is with that recognition in mind that he reassures the visitor that the poison he has traded for penicillin will do the job: “It will work. I do not believe so much in chance. I think here we trade one life for another.”
The herbalist is a spiritual man, but also a pragmatist who understands that evil exists and that he can’t stop it, and that some good will come out of the bad to which he is playing a part. The exact type of poison he provides his visitor is uncertain, as Wroblewski clearly describes only “a glass bottle” inside of which is a liquid, “clear as rainwater but slick and oily.” The setting for this scene — an apparently decrepit old apothecary of some sort located in the wrong part of town — and the spiritual nature of the herbalist allow for speculation regarding the nature of the poison, which the herbalist uses to kill an old mangy crippled dog to demonstrate the substance’s potency. In this context, it is difficult to suggest that one individual was "right.” The old herbalist makes a deal with devil to help his sick grandson, but cavalierly poisons the dog. The visitor objects to the killing of the dog, but is acquiring the poison with the intent to commit murder. If forced to choose sides, this educator will go with the herbalist, as his motives are more pure even if he does kill the dog without remorse. Saving his grandson is a motive for which many would commit acts they wouldn’t ordinarily undertake. Placing the welfare of the dog above that of his intended human victim — who, it turns out, will be his own brother — is not a particularly meritorious act. All things considered, I’ll go with the herbalist.