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.
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.
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