James Penha


How did Jenner approach the little boy, the son of his poorly-paid gardener:

Hey, Jimmy Phipps, would you like to make a penny?

“I’d like it fine, sir. I’d like it fine. The old man’s busted from the drink,

and mum, she needs some flour. What do you want doing today?”

“Something special for which I need a brave little boy. Are you brave, Jimmy Phipps?’

“You know I am, sir. Didn’t I crawl beneath your house to destroy those nests of rats?

And pour many nights the bubbling brews from these beakers here into the river?”

“You did. How old are you again?” / “Me mum says I’ll be nine sometime this year.”

“Come closer, Jimmy Phipps. Will you remove your blouse and stand here where I sit?”

“Yes, sir, but I’ll ask you not to laugh at me.” / “Why should I laugh, Jimmy Phipps?”

“I’m skinny as a skink, Sir. That’s what me pals say when we go swimmin’ in the river.”

“I’m not laughing, Jimmy Phipps. And I want to make a deal:

I’ll give you one whole shilling—

“A shilling? Brave as I am, I’m afraid to know what you want me to do: Is it sinful, Sir?”

“Not at all, Jimmy Phipps.” / “Will it hurt, Sir?”

“I’ll be honest: yes, a bit. I shall use my scalpel here to cut your arm, but just a bit.”

“Why, Sir, would you want to do such a thing?”

“In the cut, Jimmy Phipps, I’ll apply a substance that will make everyone healthy.

And in your pocket I’ll apply a shilling. No, now two!”

“Have it, Sir,” said Jimmy Phipps, and he stretched out his arm. Jenner incised the boy

and treated the wound with the pus of a cowpox sore he found on Sarah Nelmes,

a homely milkmaid in nearby Berkeley Parish.

“That’s it, then.” / “That’s it, then, Sir? It wasn’t much, Sir,

but two shillings in my palm, that’s much, Sir, thank you.”

“Stop by tomorrow, Jimmy Phipps, for another penny.”

When Jimmy Phipps dragged himself to Jenner’s the following morning,

he was wan, wet with sweat,

and grimacing as he knocked feebly on the door.

Jenner himself paled

as he ushered the boy quickly inside.

“Your father, has he seen you this morning, Jimmy Phipps?”

“No, Sir. He’s already at your garden. I came for the penny, but everything hurts, Sir.”

“Climb to the attic, Jimmy Phipps. Lie down and sleep on the mattress there.

I’ll tell your father you’ll be staying to do some chores. But

I’ll pay you tuppence a day just to rest upstairs in the attic.”

The boy rallied after several days, and Jenner offered

him another shilling for another cut and another treatment.

“Without that balm with which I anointed you, Jimmy Phipps,

you would have died from the consumption that struck so hard.

This time, I shall apply a potion even stronger.”

This time,

Jenner dosed the wound in the arm of Jimmy Phipps with matter

from the pustule of a smallpox victim. He ordered the boy back

to the attic but Jimmy Phipps was bored in bed and clambered

down the next morning to ask for the shillings he had amassed.

“Go, Jimmy Phipps, share them with your mum and dad,

and when they ask what you’ve been doing all this time,

just tell them you and Jenner have been making history.”

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work has lately appeared in several anthologies: Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart, Pages Penned in Pandemic, The Impossible Beast: Queer Erotic Poems, The View From Olympia, Queers Who Don’t Quit, What We Talk About It When We Talk About It, Headcase, Lovejets, and What Remains. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha