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The Subtle Hydropathist

by Charles C. Cole

When I was a freshman at college, our editor at the paper, Cam Wexler, had a ritual of testing new staff by sending us out on quirky, off-campus assignments. He said we’d get a better feel for our future profession this way. One novel piece a friend wrote was called “Adding a Shine to the Finish,” about the creative work done by funeral-home makeup artists.

My task: interview a hands-on healer about two hours away in Wisconsin. The unassuming hydropathist had “performed” on a friend of Cam’s mother.

Cam drove us to his mother’s place, where he enjoyed homemade lasagna while I was directed up a hill and through a large apple orchard to the home of the healer. The interviewee, Gregor Chastain, had no phone; I couldn’t call ahead and politely ask for a convenient time to “meet the press.”

Wearing loose jeans and flip-flops, Chastain was watering a small pumpkin patch when I arrived. I introduced myself. He was late 50s to early 60s. His skin was shiny but not sweaty, noticeably pale. He had no hair on his head, not even eyebrows. He reminded me of health guru Andrew Weil but without the beard, maybe because of his bearlike size and the glint of kindness in his eyes as he smiled. I turned on my Dictaphone.

“I don’t mind doing this,” he said first-thing, “but can you wait until I’m dead before you publish it?”

“You write something to that effect,” I said, “and I’ll co-sign it. But I can’t promise anything. I can probably talk my editor into letting me change your name, though, and that of your town.”

“I can work with that.”

“Can you talk about what you do?”

“I don’t know exactly, to be honest.”

“Why do people come to you?” I asked.

“It’s not like I make the lame walk or bring the dead back to life. My specialty is skin diseases. People come to me, word of mouth only, with problems that have plagued them for years. You know, bad acne or a scar, maybe even a stubborn wound that won’t heal. Anyway, we talk about when the symptoms started, what they were going through in their life at the time, and what they’ve tried so far, and what the disease represents to them, what it is they could maybe let go emotionally.

“I’m not saying they did it to themselves consciously but that maybe they attracted it and that we should take advantage of this opportunity to get rid of some negative energy.”

“And then?” I asked.

“We break bread together, usually in silence. Finally, I wash my hands in front of them, partly as a sacred ritual and partly to comfort them, to let them know that cleanliness is important to my process, even if we aren’t in a traditional medical clinic.

“Then, while my hands are still wet, I gently press over the problem area. We close our eyes, my hands get really warm, and we let the water work its magic. If they’re Christian, I recite the Lord’s Prayer. If they lean toward Eastern philosophy, I use a basic om chant. For New Agers, silence works wonders.

“The process doesn’t always work to their complete satisfaction. I don’t know why, whether it’s me or them, but they get their money’s worth no matter what, because I’m completely free. The donations are voluntary, just to keep us going, but not required. I’m not greedy; I just figure if I worked a real job in an office, then I wouldn’t be here when someone needs me.”

“Respectfully, did you ever ask why you have this gift?”

“Who would I ask?” he said.

“Point taken,” I said. “Do you ever perform without the water?”

“That’s part of my routine,” he said. “I’m kind of like the baseball player who doesn’t change socks while his team’s on a winning streak.”

“Is there a sizzle? I mean, does the scab or the skin bubble up?”

“Not that I’ve noticed. It’s not very exciting.”

“You don’t happen to have anyone stopping by later today, do you? I have to get back to campus.”

“You picked the quietest weekend I’ve had in a while,” he said. “Besides, a photograph doesn’t really do it justice. Have you got any scars?”

“Just a wart on my index finger that’s bothered me since junior high. Doesn’t hurt, just an embarrassing blemish. When I first started dating, it was a handy excuse for this one girl to break up with me.”

“Shall we?” He gestured to a couple of deck chairs around a small glass patio table.

“Why not?” I said. “No pressure.”

“None taken.” He stepped inside and returned with a steel bowl of water.

“Dishwashing soap?” I quipped.

“Just water.” We performed his ritual. I went with the silent option.

He dipped his hands and cupped them. “Put your hand between mine,” he said. Though hesitant, I did.

He closed his eyes and squeezed gently. The water became very warm very quickly. After a few minutes, I became antsy. “You can go,” he said. He tossed me a dish towel and went back inside. I figured that was “the signal” and left.

I used my 35-mm film canister to scoop up a little of the well water. Back at school, a science-major pal tested the sample. Turned out, Chastain wasn’t the healer; it was an obscure, delicate flesh-eating bacterium in the water that was good at its job but also immediately died when dry. By the end of the week, my wart had scabbed and fallen off.

Cam, grossed out by the bare truth, insisted I “walk away,” thinking the article would somehow offend his mother. “Forget it,” he said. “This is not a subject for investigative journalism. I’ll find you something else.” But within weeks, I was more interested in drinking and girls than journalism.

As for Chastain, long deceased per an Internet search, his subtle healing continued for years, and nobody knew.

Copyright © 2017 by Charles C. Cole

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