Healer

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I find her cabin an hour’s walk from the village. She has always stayed away from us, always, as if our stink made her gag. She hates us, I think, although no one really knows why.

They’ve always been too afraid to ask.

I’m carrying him strapped to my chest, and I can feel the heat of his fever through the wrappings. His tiny face is flushed, his skin red and angry. He’s getting worse, my baby, my treasure. The only person I have left in this world.

I wouldn’t have come here for anyone else.

She’s awake when I push open the door to her cabin. I should have knocked, but I was too afraid she’d send me away. Her hair is knotted, black with soot and gray with feathers, and when I look at her she bares her teeth at me. “Get out.”

My voice is shaking. “I can pay you.”

She hesitates, looking at me as though I’m the strange one, as though she’s trying to understand me. “What kind of payment?” She looks interested, at least. No one has ever offered to pay her before. No one has dared.

I take a deep breath, the words sticking in my throat. “A soul. My soul.”

She laughs at me, and comes to take the child out of my arms. “A life for a life. Good bargain, stupid assumption. What would I do with your soul?”

She takes him over to her table, lays him down and strips away the blankets, his little tunic, the cloth diaper. Everything is soaked in sweat, some of it in pus. I look away, gagging on my own breath. “Please—”

“Be quiet, woman,” she tells me. “I’ve never let a baby die yet. Hand me that vial.”

I offer it to her. She’s cleaning him now, rubbing something sharp smelling into his skin and touching his lips, his throat. An owl is perched on the back of her chair, a raven on the stove. Everything is wrong here, everything is backward and warped, but I don’t question it. Whatever she’s doing might help, and that’s all that matters.

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