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.

Ash and Smoke

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I buy the kerosene at the shop around the corner. The woman selling it smiles at me, and we talk about the fresh spring weather, the crocuses popping up in her flower beds, and the barges coming down the river from the cities inland. It’ll be a rich year, she tells me. A blessed year.

I laugh and agree with her. This is a blessed year. She doesn’t know how blessed.

I pay for the kerosene with his silver, and she asks me where I’m going. I tell her I’m going to the old mill, the one up by Silverstone stream. She clicks her tongue disapprovingly, as if a girl like me shouldn’t have anything to do with such a bad-tempered curmudgeon. But she doesn’t warn me away, only tells me—a little frostily—to say hello to the miller for her.

I smile and promise I will. The bell over the door rings pleasantly as I leave, and the jug of kerosene bumps against my legs as I cross the cobbled road and begin the long, long walk back to the mill. I can smell the sea from the here, hear the raucous squabbling of the gulls over the bay. I never realized what a busy little town this was, how the port was constantly bustling with sailors and merchants. He never let me come here, not even once. A woman should look after her home first, he said, not bustle about gossiping and poking her nose into the business of others.

Maybe when I’ve brought the kerosene home, I’ll come back and sit on the seawall. Just to watch the world go by, to smell the salt and hear the gulls. I’d like that.

It’s quieter when I leave the town behind me. I kick up dust on the lane, passing through the birch trees that line the road. The mill sits in the clearing, all alone, the old wheel creaking as the creek splashes over the paddles and into the pond. Moss carpets the path up the door, and the lilac bushes on either side are blooming. I pause and set the kerosene down, burying my face in the rich blossoms and breathing deeply. I want to remember that scent. Everything else, I intend to forget, but that fragrance is worth remembering.

The mill smells of death, and the floor is cold. The bedroom door is closed, and I leave it that way. I left his body on the bed, wrapped in the sheet, and it’s as good a burial as he deserves. If he’d really lived alone, as most people thought, his body would have rotted in that bed after the consumption took his soul. Instead, his darling wife—the one he locked away for so many years—will burn his body.

I uncork the jug of kerosene and pour a trail from the kitchen to the living room. I use the whole jug, and several cans of oil as well. And the last of the baking grease. When it’s all soaked into the wood, I light a match and leave it burning on the floor.

Outside, the birch trees are shivering in the wind, as if they know what’s happening. Maybe some of them will burn too. I wouldn’t mind that.

In less than ten minutes, fire is leaping from the roof. I lean against a big oak, listening to it burn. I can almost hear him screaming at me amid the roar of the flames, the way he did all those nights when the liquor was in his blood. He used to weep when the rage left him, telling me how sorry he was, and how I shouldn’t provoke him like that. I would lick the blood from my chin and say I forgave him, and he would go back to drinking.

I smile, watching it all go up in smoke and take my pain with it. The mill, his desk, our bedroom. Everything. All that was left of his stupid life and my imprisonment. I didn’t take anything with me, not even the clothes he liked me to wear. Only his silver, and the memory of the lilacs.

Everything else can burn.

On The Edge Of Living

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All men die, I tell them when they ask me why the world ends the way it does. And when they die, they come here.

We’re not dead. Not yet. They ask me why that is, but I don’t tell them the reason. I don’t tell them that we’re the forgotten people, the ones sent ahead to meet Death before she was sent for them. Some know already.

The ones that don’t are happier not knowing.

We live in the cliffs. Beneath Death’s falls, on the edge of the world. The seventh sea flows above us, spilling over the black rocks, tumbling into the abyss below us. The dead follow the current, and they fall. Straight to heaven’s doors, the tales say, or maybe straight through hell’s gates. I’ve stopped trying to guess which. Maybe it’s both at once. Maybe neither.

Either way, I don’t intend to find out. We live on the edge of the world, in the span of breath between living and dying, and I have no intention of joining either side.

Instead, I watch the sunrise from the black rocks, the cliffs and ledges. The light passes through the falling water, glinting like jewels, gleaming like veils of gossamer and pearls. Rainbows dance across the damp stones, and mist hangs in the air, smelling of wet earth and sea air. The dead pass us by, hardly more than a flicker of pale light, a solitary spirit caught up by the falling water and the ocean currents.

I’ve been watching them this morning, mostly before the sun came up. They’re easiest to see by moonlight, and I find that I think clearer when I’m behind the falls. I’ve lost count of how many souls have gone by, some of them so thin that they’re nearly transparent, but I have to go back now. The others will be waiting, and if I don’t come they’ll worry.

I rise, climbing down from the ledge I’ve been sitting on. The rocks are slick with mist and moss, but I’ve been climbing these cliffs for a millennia, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve slipped. I know these rocks too well.

The ledges below are flushed with green, with tangled vines and waving leaves. The gardens are being tended already, and more people are awake than I expected. Fires are being lit, coals fanned to life and kindled again with driftwood and dried grass. I kneel beside one, helping the woman to blow the embers to life again. She glances at me, at my soaked shirt and wet hair, and smiles. “Been at the falls?”

I shrug. “Keeping watch, that’s all.”

She nods. Someone is always watching the falls, not for the dead, but for the living. Those who were sent ahead, meant to meet Death on her way rather than waiting for her. People like Mazia, whose uncles put her on a boat in the seventh sea and towed her into the current. She spoke with the wind, they said, and her smile belonged to the devil.

Personally, I’ve always liked her smile.

Ewan, too, came to us from his own family. His legs are crippled, and they were finished with him. Most of the others have the same story. A child that no one wanted, a baby that was an inconvenience, a grandmother who was a burden. They come to use one by one, and we take them in. The lip of the falls catches them, the rocks that allow the dead through but hold back the living. I hear them, or someone does, and we bring them here. Here, where the sun shines like liquid gold through the curtain of falling water, where the moon rests on her flight across the sky, and the stars seek shelter from the burning rays of the sun. Death doesn’t come looking for us here, and the nights are cool and still, broken only by the rushing of the falls. They are broken when they come, but they heal. There is peace in growing things, in gathering a harvest, in building a colony. We live on the edge of the world, in the span of breath between living and dying, and we are content.

Almost Life

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He was dying when he told me, “I had an almost life.”

The nurses sent for me when he woke up. His face was gray in the moonlight, gray against his sheets, gray against the hospital walls. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the heart rate monitor blip softly in the background. Outside his room, the world was moving on. Shoes squeaked on the tiled floors, intercoms echoed in the halls, and someone was shouting.

I barely heard them.

I had an almost life. Whatever he’d meant by the words, they were caught in my brain for good now. An almost life. I held his hand, watching him breathe, wanting to pause the moment and live in it forever. An almost life.

“What does that mean, Papa?” I squeezed his hand gently, rubbing my thumb against his paper-thin skin. “An almost life?”

He wasn’t listening. His eyes were on the door, as if he were waiting for someone. The window was open, for the angels, he’d said, but he was waiting for someone else. His dead wife, maybe. He’d always said she would be the one to welcome him into heaven. “No one else,” he’d confided in me once with a wink, “would have the guts to tell me my time was up. It’ll be Jesus, or it’ll be your Meemaw.”

I used to laugh when he told me that. I believed him, though. He’d been a contractor while I was growing up, so tall that he had to duck to come inside, with a booming voice that shook the house. My father had his temper, but not his love, not his compassionate heart. I’d been afraid of my father before I’d come to live with Meemaw and Papa. I still was, although I wouldn’t admit it, but I’d never once been afraid of Papa.

Death would be, though. I was sure of that. Jesus would come, or Meemaw. He wouldn’t go with anyone else.

But I wasn’t ready for him to leave yet. Not with his words in my head. I bent over, kissed his cheek, and whispered, “Papa?” He looked at me, his eyes faded and far away, and I almost asked him what kind of angels he was seeing now. But his words would haunt me if he didn’t explain them, and I didn’t want to live the rest of my life wondering what he’d meant by almost. “What do you mean, ‘an almost life’?”

He took a long time to answer, and his eyes kept straying toward the door. He was waiting for Meemaw, and I held his hand and prayed she’d wait outside until he’d told me what he meant. I needed this, especially now.

“I almost made it through school,” he said, very, very softly. I winced. “Almost went to college. I was pretty sure I was destined to be famous.”

He laughed a bit, his eyes wandering around the room. A breeze flitted through the open window, carrying angels.

“I almost sold my business. We were going to sell the house too, travel a bit. Whole lot of almosts . . .” his voice petered out, and I tried to breathe. He hadn’t retired, not until they made him. He needed the work to raise his granddaughter when his son abandoned her. I still remember waiting by the door for him to come home at night. He’d never told me I was the reason for that ‘almost’.

Papa pulled his hand away, turned my face toward his and wiped my tears with his thumb. “I almost didn’t make it the day you were born. Did your Meemaw ever tell you that?”

I choked on a laugh and nodded. I’d heard that story more than once.

“I almost missed you.” He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “Thank God for almosts.”

I buried my face in his chest, crying into his shirt like I had after my first breakup. And after Meemaw had died. We’d both been crying then, but he’d still had strength enough to hold me. “You didn’t miss me, Papa.”

He nodded and looked past me at the empty room. A smile touched his face, the kind he used to have when Meemaw came in wearing a new dress, or when she bought new earrings and wanted him to notice. “I’m glad you weren’t an almost, Kaity,” he murmured. “I had all the right almosts. I was always glad of that.”

“Me too, Papa,” I whispered, watching his soul pull away. “Me too.”

Go To Sleep

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I come when the library closes.

The lights are out, except for the lamp Mrs. Wilfe leaves on just for me. The doors are locked, and the windows have been shuttered. Even most of the reading desks are cleared. No one is left.

Only me. Because I have to put the stories to sleep.

I start in the children’s section. I like it back there best, because I can still hear the murmur of little voices reading aloud, and the rustle of turning pages. It’s not so silent, not so lonely.

I switch on a desk lamp as I step inside, and pick up a book lying on the floor. The Biggest Bear. An old, old favorite. The pages are stained with fingerprints, and the cover is a little torn, but it’s happy. Its story has been told today, many times, actually. It’s a little out of breath, a little tired, and I set it back on the shelf where it belongs.

The books in this section are the rowdiest, but they go to sleep fairly easily. Their stories were told, and they’re worn out from being dragged from shelf to table, table to floor, and back again. I stroke their spines, set them back in order on the shelves, and they fall asleep when I turn the lights out and leave them. They don’t have trouble sleeping, not like some do. I’m never sorry to see them awake when I come.

The adult books are harder. I can hear them murmuring when I flick on the light, their voices rustling like burning paper. They sound angry tonight, and I wonder who has been woken this time. It’s hard to tell. The stories are being whispered from shelf to shelf, passed on, overlapping each other, desperate to be heard. Old forgotten voices, caught in the dust between the pages. I can’t tell one from the other, not when they’re all talking at once. Grief and love, war and hate, treachery, betrayal, reunions, mystery, and horror. They all have a story to tell, but for some of them, it’s been a long time since anyone bothered to listen.

I walk through the shelves, running my fingers along the weighty spines. Quite a few are awake today. Awake, stifled, and frustrated. Who woke them up, I wonder? Who yanked them off their shelves, pulling them so unceremoniously from whatever dreams they were having, to page through their chapters and silence them again?

I pick up a heavy volume from a reading desk. Nearly a thousand pages, and whoever woke it up read less than three of them. I pass my hand over the cover, blow some of the dust from the pages, and set it back on the shelf. Another day, I tell it, although I’m not sure if I’m lying. Some of them have only been woken like this, for a page or two and nothing else, for a long time.

Some of them have been silent for so long that I’ve forgotten what they sound like.

I switch the reading lamps off as I go, stroking spine after spine. Go to sleep, I tell them. Forget the stories you tried to tell, the people who woke you up. Rest.

For some of them, it isn’t so easy. They’re angry, and angry books are hard to settle. I spend a long time among these shelves, soothing them, quieting the arguments. I can’t listen to them all at once, and I certainly can’t be the one to read every book, although I try to give the loneliest a chance. They know when I’m humoring them, of course, but most are grateful anyway.

But I can’t read all night. They have to sleep, and so do I. They listen to me at last, and their whispers fade into silence. I flick off the last light and listen to them breathing. Someone will come to read them eventually. Every book has a story that someone needs to hear. Every book has a heart it needs to heal, a mind it needs to open. Someone will come.

Until then, I’ll do my best to coax them back to sleep.

Heartsmith

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They say the best shops are the easiest to find.

I don’t agree with that. I’ve known many good shops in my time, shops that were hidden away, that took me all day to find. Sometimes the hunt is half the fun. But these days, people prefer main streets and wide roads, and convenience is more important than quality.

To some people. Not to everyone.

My workshop is an example. It’s not so easy to find me. I work where I’ve always worked: a little corner shop in a back alley, with a sign on the door that says, quite simply, Heartsmith. Inquire within.

Really, unless you know just where to look, I’m very difficult to find. I like it better that way. Heartsmithing is a complicated kind of work, and it’s harder to have done than most people think. If someone is determined enough to find me, they’re usually patient enough to last through the process.

Most of the time, anyway.

The shop is empty when I come down in the morning, and the workbench is cluttered with the tools I was using last night. I don’t close my shop after six o’clock. I’m always open, even in the middle of the night. Actually, I get a good portion of my work after midnight. People get a little desperate when the world is at its quietest. Sometimes they’re braver then too, brave enough to bring their troubles to me.

I let them in, of course. I live upstairs, over my shop, and I always hear the bell. Sometimes I’m up late anyway, working on a tough project. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I never turn anyone away.

No one is here now. I sweep the floor, tossing wood shavings and coal dust into the stove, then open the shutters and let the morning in. The village is waking up now, and I can hear the sounds of shops opening, roosters crowing in back gardens, and the milkman making his rounds. It’s a lazy, peaceful kind of morning, and I leave the door open and set out a plate of scraps for the cats that like to wander through.

I’m upstairs when the bell rings. A woman is waiting in the workshop, crouched down and petting one of the cats. She stands up when I come in, trying to smile at me, and I know what the trouble is before she says a word. But I don’t tell her so. People need to talk about these things themselves.

So I sit her down on one of my stools and ask her what the trouble is. She’s nervous and fidgety, and I can tell she’d like to leave, but she doesn’t. She takes a small, battered heart from her bag and puts it on my workbench.

Can you fix it?

It’s the question they always ask. Every time, as if they really expect me to say no. They’ve tried to fix it themselves, that’s the trouble, and when they can’t—well. Too many people give up hope.

I look the heart over while she talks. Most of the hearts come to me with a single crack, a sharp blow that nearly broke them in half. A few have a half a dozen cracks, blows that have happened over a series of months or years. Those are harder to fix, but not impossible.

This one is different. It isn’t cracked, not the way hearts that have been broken usually are. It’s been worn down, dented several times in several places. The exterior is brittle, as if she’d tried to harden it herself to keep it from cracking under the strain, and it’s light in my hands. As if it were nearly hollow.

I listen while she tells me about herself, about everything the heart’s been through. About the husband who doesn’t meet her eyes, and the son who hasn’t called. About the empty life and the dreams she set aside and the hope she’s forgotten how to feel. She can’t remember a single blow or a moment that started the damage, but I can see that already. For a heart to dent and wear like this, it needs a subtle kind of pain, one that rubs and chafes but doesn’t crack. That kind of damage is harder to repair.

Unfortunately, it’s also easier to miss. I see it often enough when I go out walking or meet someone new on the beach, but it isn’t one I see in my shop very much. People ignore it. It’s not cracked, they say, not broken. So why fix it?

They don’t realize just how much damage has been done.

She’s waiting for me to tell her that it can’t be fixed. I can see that. Instead, I set the heart down on the table and ask her if she’s brought a case with her. Any clothes? She tells me she has a few things. I nod and tell her about a house that I own a few streets away. Next to the sea. It’s got a garden, and flowers growing in the windowsills, and a kitchen. The job will take a while, I tell her, and she’ll have to stay nearby. Is she willing?

Her yes is all the answer I need, and I set to work immediately.

She’ll like my house. I bought it for people like her, who need a bit of time to let me work. Heartsmithing is a complicated kind of business, and hearts aren’t fixed in a day.

I Knew

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The house had a basketball hoop in the driveway.

I remember that most of all. That day, the day we had a house, is too fragmented to remember perfectly. But I remember a few things. The real estate agent’s dusty car. The cracked pavement. The weeds. The peeling paint on the front door. And the basketball hoop.

I’ll get you a ball, you promised us, and I knew you would. You’d promised us a house too, and we had that now, although grandpa said we’d never keep it. You’ll be back begging at our doorstep in a week, he told you before we left, and I didn’t tell him goodbye.

I don’t think you did either.

The real estate agent had you sign some papers before he left. I remember how your hands were shaking. I was too small to read what they said, but whatever it was, it made you cry when he left. We all cried together, on the floor in that empty house. I think it was a happy kind of crying.

You made me a nest that night. I had a whole room to myself in that big, empty house, and I felt like a princess in my palace. You tucked my blanket and my sheet together on the floor and told me stories about the mice who made nests just like mine. I’ll get you a bed soon, you told me, and I knew you would. You tucked me in tight, and I used my teddy as a pillow.

We had a picnics in the kitchen. I remember that too. You spread out a sheet on the floor, and we had breakfast and lunch and dinner there. We used to pretend that we were eating breakfast at the beach, and lunch in the mountains. Cade used to complain that there were ants in his food, so we’d think the picnic was real. You always laughed when he said it.

The first thing you bought us was a basketball. I remember when you brought it home. We didn’t have a table, or beds in our rooms, or pictures for the walls, or even a couch to sit on, but we had a basketball. I remember you sitting on the front steps after dinner, watching Cade teach me how to play. I couldn’t reach the hoop, even when he lowered it all the way down, and he’d lift me up so I could score. You clapped for us. I don’t remember who won, but we played until the fireflies came out and the moon was peeping in to watch through that old oak in the front yard.

Don’t worry, you told me when we inside that night. You’ll grow into it.

I knew I would.

We didn’t go back to grandpa’s that week. Or the next one. You said we never would, and I knew you were right. We had a house now, and a picnic blanket, and a basketball.

We didn’t need anything else.

When school started, you made Cade and I go. You’d walk us to the bus stop every morning, and when we left, you’d walk to work. You said you didn’t need a car, that walking made you happy. I knew it did.

You were never home when school was over, but we played basketball every night until you came. You were right. I did grow into that hoop, and so did Cade. He grew into it so much that he could raise it right to the top and still score, and I had to learn to jump high enough to block him. I still don’t remember who won those games, just that we played them.

We all used to do our homework together. Cade and I used to laugh about Mama having homework too, and you’d just laugh with us and keep right on working. I think you got better grades than we did. I know you stayed up later than we did. I remember you shooing us to bed, but the light never switched off before I went to sleep in my nest.

You graduated the same day Cade did. You bought us a table, and Cade came home wearing a uniform that made him look ten feet tall. You cried, but it was a happy kind of cry, and you sat on the steps to watch us play basketball before he left.

I played basketball by myself after that, and rode the school bus alone. You brought work home with you, and we sat at our table while I did my homework and you graded papers. I didn’t tell you I was proud of you, but I thought it every night. I was proud of you for your new job, and for the homework you did after I fell asleep, and for the house you didn’t lose. I was proud you didn’t have to go begging to grandpa anymore, and that you had a car, even if you still liked walking.

You never told me how scared you were, but I remember that too. You never told me you were brave, but I knew you were.