by San­di Leibowitz

I knew she’d be dif­fi­cult, that one. Even before I made her out up close. I knew it by the way she pushed all nim­sy mim­sy through the branch­es on the path to my cot­tage, half hang­ing back. Not out of fear but uncer­tain­ty. The ones afeared, they cow­er and quake and look to sky­wards as if I’ll come whoosh­ing out at them offen a pine bough. She didn’t look up but behind and some­times down, like she wished the ground held answers.

She got clos­er and I made out bil­lowy sleeves of purest white, a black vel­vet waist­coat with pearl but­tons and oh such a shiny red silk col­lar, and a green skirt made out of some cloth fin­er than wool. This was no ser­vant girl offer­ing me pen­nies for a for­tune. I looked up from my sil­ver bowl and wait­ed for her knock.

If I hadn’t been wait­ing for it, I’d nev­er a heard it. She didn’t ball her hand into a fist but kept it loose. She bare­ly rapped at all, just sent out a spider’s crawl of fingers. 

“Come in,” says I, in my granni­est voice. “Come right on in.”

She opened the door slow, inch by inch. Almost ran back off the way she’d come. 

I gave her a smile for encour­age­ment, but not too wide. My teeth ain’t the pret­ti­est at my age and some­times the timidest ones scut­tle away, afeared I’ll bite.

She stood in the door­way try­ing to send a smile my way. 

“It is Mar­gri­ete van Dorn, Mis­tress Anne,” she says. “How do you fare?” I remem­bered me of her and her hus­band both, and of their fam­i­lies. Years ago his moth­er had come to me for a brew to quick­en her womb. If not for me, Mis­tress Mar­gri­ete might still be a spinster. 

“I can­not com­plain, mis­tress. And how be you?”

I swal­lowed back a sigh. Most of my vis­i­tors spend their days bind­ing their feel­ings with cords of silence; this mean­ing­less mouth­ful of a ques­tion often bursts the cords. It’d be eas­i­er if all I had to do was learn what job they came for and set myself to it, instead of hav­ing to lis­ten to the windy howl­ings of their guilts and fears, their lusts and hates, the whole dirty tanglement.

Her lips went all trem­bly and those wide brown eyes filled with tears. But she didn’t mewl. She shook her head, not want­i­ng to gush out her botheration.

Same as her moth­er-in-law, I fig­ured. Mis­tress Mar­gri­ete had been mar­ried for two years, after start­ing off lat­er than most, and still had no babes.

“Here now, Mis­tress Mar­gri­ete. You can unbur­den your­self to me.” I held out my open palms. The young things in the most trou­ble will grasp them at this point. Some even kneel before me, cling­ing to my hands like they was ropes for res­cu­ing the drown­ing. And some­times they are.

But she didn’t take my hands. Her eyes slid to the floor. Try­ing to take back that she was here, try­ing to take back everything.

She sat down heav­i­ly beside me.

That’s when I noticed. She wasn’t com­ing to me for no quick­en­ing, nor no love potion nei­ther. Oth­ers mightn’t notice. But these old eyes are prac­ticed and made out the slight swell of bel­ly and breasts. 

She was a smart one, and right away took notice of my notic­ing. She col­ored. So pret­ty. With those full lips and that clear skin all fresh as white ros­es and pink, there’s many a man would want her for his own—or at least for a tum­ble now and again.

She looked down onto her lap, twin­ing and twin­ing those soft white hands, with the mar­riage ring shin­ing on her fin­ger gold and bright. She seed it, too. That’s when she burst into tears. 

“It should nev­er have happened,” she said when she found a voice. “I nev­er mean­t… It was only a few times. I was lone­ly and he…”

She stared ahead at my fire, see­ing the pic­tures there of all that had hap­pened to her. Some of her remem­ber­ings weren’t sad at all, no, not sad. This cou­pling had brought her joy. The sil­ver bowl showed me a young man with lank brown hair, her hands rov­ing over his body as his over hers, and her cry­ing “Jan, Jan.” I forced my gaze back to the woman beside me. 

“My hus­band trav­els fre­quent­ly, you see,” she con­tin­ued, her head bowed almost to her lap. Mas­ter Pieter was a mer­chant in the cloth trade, so pros­per­ous he might soon be vot­ed onto the town coun­cil. He left his pret­ty wife alone at home more often than he need­ed to, chas­ing after yet more pen­nies for his purse. 

“What’s the trou­ble, then, child?” I says. I lays a friend­ly hand on her shoul­der. The vel­vet feels soft­er than a cat’s chin to my fin­gers. “He needn’t know who the father is. He’ll accept the babe as his own.”

“No, no,” she sobs. “Pieter’s jour­ney took him away for four months. The child can­not be his. He’ll know. Every­one will know.”

I rose and fetched a bit of cloth for her to wipe her tears with. It wasn’t near soft as what she was used to, but it was clean. 

I almost start­ed to set out the syrups of mug­wort and fig­wort, the waters of moth­er­wort and pen­ny­roy­al, now I knew what she want­ed. But the women who come for such help need the telling and the for­giv­ing as much as the herbs. I gave her my full attention.

“No mat­ter how des­per­ate­ly I desire a child,” she says, “I can­not have this one. I need your help, Mis­tress Anne.” The last came almost a whim­per, it were that hard for her to ask it.

Since she did not take my hands, I took hers. Grasped ‘em strong in my old claws.

“No wor­ry, love, no worry,” I said soft. “You’re hard­ly the first has come to me for that. Give me a moment to brew up your tisane. It won’t take long. Then a quick drink and in a day or two the babe will be gone. I won’t lie and tell you it won’t hurt, but many a birthing’s far worse. Your hus­band will nev­er know. The maids will only think you’ve been took sick.”

She nod­ded. But she kept a‑weeping.

“Ah, no!” She sprang up. She clutched her bel­ly. “No, no! How can I?”

I said not a word, nor stirred to touch pes­tle or pow­der. This was not my choice to make, but hers alone.

“And yet I must,” she said again. My heart hurt to watch her strug­gle. “Yes, Mis­tress Anne, I must.”

I nod­ded and went about my work, not look­ing at her, giv­ing the poor thing time to col­lect her courage.

“Sit qui­et by the fire, Mis­tress Margriete,” I says. “You will have oth­er babes to take away the pain of los­ing this one. Be you sure of that.”

She were only qui­et a moment or two. The weep­ing began anew, stronger, like a storm whip­ping itself up to root up trees and crash down houses.

“If only, if only—I did not have to do this! If only I had nev­er… It is not just the shame. You do not under­stand, Mis­tress Anne. I love my husband!”

I won­dered to hear her say so. He were a few years old­er than she, not so many that he weren’t trim and hand­some enough, but I found him a solemn fel­low too full of busi­ness and not a lit­tle full of him­self. Not a ten­der man, though he did love his bride, proud of her indus­try and good looks. The appren­tice Jan were more a man to stir up pas­sions and, maybe even bet­ter, hold a woman’s hand and stroke her hair beside the fire, not just before but after. But the waters in my sil­ver bowl said Mar­gri­ete did indeed love her man. The both of them. 

Oh, the tan­gle­ments of human hearts and human lives! Had I greater pow­ers, how I’d unknot the knots! And yet such unknottings—imagine the cost.

“’Tis hard, I know, Mis­tress Margriete,” says I. 

“How the secret will gnaw and gnaw at me! Poi­son maybe the babes to come.” She clutched her bel­ly again.

“No, nev­er that!” I says. “Never that! Rest you assured.”

“How will I ever look at Pieter again? He may nev­er know but I, I will always know what I did, and that know­ing will taint my life! If only this child could wait! Oh, God, no, no,” she groaned. “If only I had nev­er erred, nev­er giv­en in to my temp­ta­tion! Oh, God, if only this would nev­er have hap­pened at all! If only Time would stay its hand and take it back!”

She fell to the floor, sob­bing. She clutched my skirts. ‘Twas then she looked up into my face, ask­ing with­out words for the impos­si­ble, the unthinkable. 

Up she sits on her haunch­es, the cry­ing stopped. Those large brown eyes so hard to look away from.

“Could you do that, Mis­tress Anne? Instead of the oth­er? Have you such a pow­er? Oh, have you such a pow­er to make that be? Make it all un-be?”

She put it that plain to me. 

Of all the things that peo­ple come to ask me for, it’s the unquick­en­ings I hate the worst. Women such as me don’t do what we do to take life away, but to make it come. We are in love with life, with all green, quick and love­ly things. Like the life before me, that of Mis­tress Mar­gri­ete, who loved two men and an unborn babe she could not bring to term with­out caus­ing her own ruination. 

So it were a temp­ta­tion to me, to do this thing I’d only ever done but a hand­ful of times. I knew enough how hard it was, keep­ing straight the remem­ber­ings of all the dif­fer­ent weav­ings of time done and undone, pat­terns stitched and unstitched.
Had I looked into the sil­ver bowl, I would have seen how I would answer her. But I took the time to weigh and con­sid­er and fret.

“I have such a pow­er, Mis­tress Mar­gri­ete. But I’m afraid the cost is high.”

“Ah, the cost. I had not thought to ask,” she says, reach­ing for her purse. She were enough of Mas­ter Pieter’s wife to think all deal­ings come to hag­gling over coins.

“Nay, put your purse away,” says I. “I do my work with­out pay­ment. All I ask is that, from time to time, you will remem­ber me. Bring me a bolt of linen or wool, send a lad to cut my firewood.” I nod­ded to the pile, which was almost spent. “The cost, I’m afeared, is to myself.” I cackle. 

She shiv­ers at the sound.

“Girl, this is not a thing to be done light­ly. Are you sure it’s what you want?” I looked at her deep. “If I undo this deed, it will come unrav­el­ing, all of it. You will for­get him, your Jan, the sweet­ness of his kisses.”

She starts at my men­tion of the name she nev­er told me. 

“You will for­get how once you stepped high and singing up and down the stairs of your fine home, light as a girl, car­ry­ing the thought of his arms around you a bright ember in your heart.”

Imag­in­ing this loss shad­ows her face. But then she thinks of how this for­get­ting will remove her grief, blow it away like so many dry leaves in the autumn wind. She smiles at last. 

“Yes, yes! Oh, yes!” She breathes a good deep breath. 

I take one too.

“So it shall be,” I say.

I bus­tle about, prepar­ing my ingre­di­ents, the wil­low bark and chico­ry, green broom and bay leaves. From the high shelves I reach for the adder’s tongue, king­roots and snake­weed, such things I don’t keep close to hand. I takes my time, giv­ing her time to unsay it. She sits mum and watch­es my deft hands go about their busi­ness, curi­ous to see how it’s done. 

I have the herbs smok­ing, mak­ing a stink­ing haze. Mis­tress Mar­gri­ete coughs a lit­tle. Let her cough. That’s all the price she’ll be pay­ing, while I bear the brunt.

“Close your eyes,” I say. “Don’t open them, no mat­ter what.”

She will not notice when it hap­pens, and after­wards she’ll not remem­ber. But it feels right to me. This work should not be spied on, a dirt­i­er busi­ness in its way than the one she’d first come for.

I stare into my sil­ver bowl. It reflects up to me the rafters of my cot­tage, a bun­dle of yarrow hang­ing from the beam, a good-sized spi­der web I’d not noticed before, and my old face marked with its own webs. 

I stir the waters with a fin­ger gnarly as a gin­ger root. It is not so dif­fi­cult an oper­a­tion; I’m snip­ping off so small a por­tion of time after all. I chant:

“Churn, waters, churn,
Heed my rhyme.
Turn back, turn
The flow of time.”

I lift my fin­ger and the bowl’s waves keep a‑swirling. I take the sis­ter-fin­ger of my left hand and swirl the waters about the oth­er way.

“Spin, waters, spin,
These acts undo.
Flow again
In cours­es new.”

The room in the bowl grows sick and dizzy. I close my eyes.

I do not need to open them to know the deed’s accom­plished. I feel it in my bel­ly, like a ball of yarn the cat’s got at, all knots. I know Mis­tress Mar­gri­ete no longer sits beside me. For she nev­er came. There was no babe to unquick­en. Mas­ter Pieter’s wife has nev­er fum­ble-tum­bled in the dark with young Jan. 

I open my eyes. The room still spins. My head aches and soon I’ll be spew­ing into the cham­ber pot. I glance into the sil­ver bowl. The water spins slow­er and slow­er, set­tling down to ripples.

My hands ache. Tsk, tsk, I cluck, once­ing them over. More spot­ted than before and even more crooked. 

A sharp pain hits my gut. A chill fol­lows it. As I make for my bed, I glance at the stack of fire­wood. It’s piled high. I remem­ber now. Mis­tress Mar­gri­ete sends a boy each week to make sure I have enough. 

San­di Lei­bowitz writes fic­tion and poet­ry for adults and chil­dren, most­ly fan­ta­sy, often based on myths and fairy-tales. Her works have appeared or are forth­com­ing in Gob­lin Fruit, Myth­ic Delir­i­um, the Mag­a­zine of Spec­u­la­tive Poet­ry, Aoife’s Kiss, New York Quar­ter­ly, High­lights and Crick­et. When not writ­ing, she per­forms with New York Rev­els, the clas­si­cal vocal ensem­ble Cerd­do­ri­on and the ear­ly-music trio Chorau­los. A native New York­er, Ms. Lei­bowitz shares her aerie with two dog-ghosts and the occa­sion­al dragon. 

One Response to "Untimely"

  • Excel­lent lit­tle tale. Exact­ly the kind of lyri­cal sto­ry I expect (and look for­ward to) from Jabberwocky.

    1 Adam Smith said this (June 28, 2012 at 4:47 am)