Herb-Woman

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Rose hips grow by the wooden gate, red fruit already wrinkling in the late-summer sun. I pause with my hand on the latch, gathering a few and storing them away in my apron pockets before I go inside. They smell of hot wind and dust, but brewed into a syrup, they’ll cure cough and treat strep throat.

Inside the sandstone walls, the air is scorched and still. The grass beside the path has withered and turned gold, and the gravel paths are hot beneath my bare feet. The sisters sent for me two days since. They said the dry weather brought a plague with it, driven in the wind with the dust and the pollen of the ash trees.

Plague or not, the disease must be severe. They wouldn’t dare allow me to tread within their sacred walls otherwise.

Abbess Duval comes to meet me across the grounds. Two of the sisters are with her, their gray robes and white headdresses too heavy for such unbearable heat. Her voice is harsher than I remember, more grating, as if age is catching up with her. Or perhaps I’ve been away too long, and I’ve forgotten more than I thought. “Myla. You look well.”

The greeting is formal, painfully so, and I don’t respond to it. My eyes drift around the grounds of the convent, lingering among the trees of the orchard, the well-tended gardens, the bleached linen flapping on the lines. Beneath the rigid discipline of the convent is an air of unkempt neglect that would never have been allowed under normal circumstances.

“How many?”

The abbess’s lips pinch. She’s always hated my impudence. “What?”

I look at her, hearing the steel in my own voice as I say hoarsely, “How many did you bury before they convinced you to send for me?”

Her face whitens, her thin, bony frame taut with rage. She stares at me for a long moment, her nostrils flared and her black eyes scorching me, but it has been a long time since I feared her wrath. At last, she hisses quietly, “Sixteen.”

Her voice is terrible, the number worse. I bite my tongue, resisting the urge to hit her in the face, to slap her as hard as she does the novices that sweep the floors outside her chambers. Instead, I step past her, gathering my ragged skirts in one hand as I cross the lawns to the infirmary doors. “It’s a wonder the lot of you aren’t dead by now,” I say over my shoulder, and the words feel like a curse in my mouth. One of the sisters makes a quick sign to ward off evil, and I laugh.

That’s all I am to them. The witch. The healer they threw out of their home for daring to understand herb and root, seed and bark better than they did themselves. Among the villages to the south I am the herb-woman, in the valleys I am the bone-knitter, loved and sought after and respected.

Only here do I get no respect. Only here do they call me a witch and wipe my dust from the stone floors.

The air is cool inside, protected from the hot sun by the stone tiles on the roof. I lived in this house once. Even loved it. Now the floor is littered with pallets, the sick twisted in their damp sheets as they toss and turn, their faces shiny with sweat. Novices pad quietly from bed to bed, sponging brows, spooning broth into mouths, coaxing a disturbed patient to lie back again. Easing death. Their faces are pale. They are too young for this, and the knot in my breast loosens.

I will not punish children for one woman’s sins.

They draw away from me as I cross the room to the empty fireplace. I can see the fear in their eyes—the hope too—and it makes me smile. “I need fresh water,” I tell them. “Elmwood and as much birch bark as you can gather. Lavender, willow wythes, sweet bindweed, and whiteleaf oil. Mother Abbess will show you where it is.”

Three of the girls scurry off. They are like mice, like shy, timid little mice, and they watch as I build a fire in the hearth and hang an iron kettle over the new flames. The smell of death seeps from the rafters, from the cool floors, but the lavender will sweep it away, and no more will die now.

The witch has come, and hated or not, I bring healing.

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