Even here the fester could be smelt, clinging to the breeze like loved ones to their deceased. But the wind did not keen as they did, not this day. Not in high summer, which was usually so rejoiced and welcome. But the grass though, that swayed, easy as ever, and the shadow of the Mulberry tree offered relief, as it always did.
She could see in roots her own small hands; one wandering for fallen fruit, ripe or unripe, even shed leaves to eat; one anchored to her mother’s skirt, clutching the way she’d seen the village children do, though their mothers’ were not as hers was.
Her hair had still moved around her face, catching red strands on her lips as they paled. It was a strangeness to see, amongst the stillness of the rest of her, as if her hair set itself with the insects that crawled in and the flies, the flies. It had always been wild- her hair. That much she remembered still. And the cold. How long she was left there she did not know, but the cold, the cold she knew well. Her hands had ached with it until they reached out for anything that might warm them.
She shook her head, and the memory flew off, irritated, and set herself to rest against the very same trunk. With her back to the village left behind, she could see only relentless blue skies on the horizon. It would come ceaselessly over the rolling hills, hot for weeks, she could see it. But this side of the tree threw shade at least.
Reaching back behind the trunk she took the same hand she found there, that first frigid night when she was just a child, in her own. It was as cool and soothing now, in the summer heat, as it had been hot and comforting in the sharpness of autumn.
‘The sickness is spreading. Leah’s sweet boy succumbed last night and she too turns her eyes on me with a suspicion so seeded it is as if I’ve been struck. I know her babe fevers. But I’ve picked the lemon balm to wilted stems and the garlic too. What more I could do?’
The hand lay heavy in hers, slack and smooth. She shuddered, as if all the leaves were shed at once. It left a nakedness in her that was a mantel shrugged and a shield fallen both. It slipped a heavy sigh from lips as she tilted back her head against the bark.
‘All my life you have taught me, till they looked upon my learnedness and strange ways with mistrust and malice, though it saved them a many times over. And now it is as if the sickness has taken you too.’
She ran her thumb over the ridges of the lifeless knuckles, so familiar, and wished she could thank it somehow. For raising her when there was none else that would. For the years of comfort and solace it had given her.
‘They fear me when I cure them and blame me when I can’t. All the while the despisery in them spins like the spider’s yarn.’ The hand slid from hers, slowly at first, then rushing with gathering purpose, drawing away. She waited to hear the finality of it meeting the earth but it never came. Somewhere between, that way was lost to her.
It was desperation that drove her out again. And again and again and again and again, sweating equally as those who lay sick. Not the smell of the dead. Not the infant’s cries, so pallid and paltry. Not the wrenched face of her dearest friend, too far gone now to be suspicious, as she tried in despair to feed her last dying child of her breast. Desperation drove her and it was cruel.
She ripped open her only clothes, her skin, even the soles of her hardy feet in pursuit of what she needed. When she finally found the plants for which she looked, the backs of her hands had burnt raw under the sun. And then she ran.
The wooden door banged too violently for the weather and use it had suffered. She rushed in like an unwelcome wind blowing through. You can imagine her as she stood: unruly, sunburnt and torn, clutching wreaths of herbs and her chest as it heaved from exertion. She was quite magnificent. And too late. If she had walked as women should she would have heard the silence, felt the stillness in which wisps of fine baby hair trembled under the ragged sobs of its mother. But she hadn’t.
The herbs fell from her hands to the trodden floor, faster just than the first tear that followed. The scene of grief before her slipped and swayed through the welling up of it. She started forward to Leah, offering comfort but men dragged her back, as only men could. They pulled her out to the baking sunshine and the birdsong that was quickly lost beneath the shouts of anger. Can you blame them that they needed someone to blame?
She didn’t struggle as they dragged her still further, ripping her heels through the dirt, furrowing earth into her flesh. She found she did not have the will to fight for them anymore. She let them take her, passed the lumped soil, malshapen in its disturbance and telling of what was beneath. The smell of those still waiting was worse- it followed.
She’d left strands of her hair in the bracken, she noticed, when she had rushed this way before, calling on the very force of the tide in her urgence. It hung serene, in glittering drifts. It had not seen the scene she had. It had not trespassed so, holding hope too late to sow, so it would not suffer the fate she would. It was its own master now. Yet still it reached for her as she was drawn past.
She looked at the hands crushing at her arm- fingers heavily calloused and rimmed in field dust. Nicholas then. She’d set his son’s fingers just last month. He’d thanked her, sincere. Given her bread and cheese for the trouble, the promise of help to shore up the roof next it be mended.
Now his mouth spoke in crackles and hiss. Accusations that ever had followed her were spat aloud, spewed anew. The words, the words, acrid like the pyre smoke but she’d smelt them all before and could no more recognise them. They kindled no fear in her.
Her head cracked and bounced off the trunk as they threw her down against it. It rendered her a smile, though the blood creasing between her teeth made an unpleasant sight that only antagonised them still.
These people were her people. This past Spring, as she left the last malnourished tatters of her childhood behind, she thought they had finally begun an uneasy acceptance of her. Certainly the young men had noticed. Noticed enough to see past their parents’ prejudice. But these people, who had known her her whole life did not care to know or remember the which side of the Mulberry tree she sat. Or maybe they knew and remembered too well, where their sons had forgot.
From here she’d stare unto the village, through the woods, through dead eyes and hollow sockets until the next misfortune they saw fit to lay upon her. They’d fret themselves a curse as they fretted now to ‘tie her tight’ and ‘tie her quick’ and ‘tie her with rope that’s strong and thick.’
It chaffed, that rope, until it seared her raw skin, singing out in pain. The shade was mockingly close behind her, her finger tips could almost touch it: Just her side of the tree she could have sat in shadow and stared out across the hills and blue sky as she had just as few days before. She could have reached back behind her for the hand that she’d always found there, about where hers was now bound. The hand that had left her to suffer this alone. She laughed with a bitterness that flaked the dry blood from her mouth and sent it as dust into the air.
Breath tore in at a gasp as she startled from whatever sleep she’d stumble upon. Her welded mouth distracted her from her awakening, tongue wedged dry in the hoof of her jaw. She strained uselessly against the winding confines that held her to the Mulberry tree, too weak now to do whatever she may have done before. Her lashes ground down, shuttering eyes that had lost their shine.
Last she remembered was the heat prickling up through her scorched skin after the sun had set. She’d turned her head to watch it go. Then suppressed every shiver for the discord it caused against the rope, whilst her body’s warmth rolled out into the dark, calling. Now she’d woken to yesterday’s sweat crusted in a fine grit across her skin and it stung in heat of another hot day.
As she strained something small, soft and cold slid from the back of her hand, tipping away a relief she hadn’t realised was there. But it returned. Wandering from the shade behind her, pawing across until it found her hand again and this time it clung fast. It was wonderfully cold, soothing the blistering sunburnt skin. The frozen fingers curled beneath her thumb, finding their way into the warmth of her palm where they shivered and shook. It was so small, this hand, cold and trembling in her own. Too cold for this day.
It surged in her a fierce protectiveness. And with no other way to comfort it than to hold it, she sang a soothing lullaby that she’d heard somewhere long, long ago. The song tripped from her mouth like the splash of water as it’s drunk from a stream, letting her tongue live a little longer.
It came and went, like the days. Sometimes slowly sometimes quick but always it came and came back, reaching from her side of the Mulberry tree, seeking comfort and solace. And so she gave.
Slowly, the palm lost its soft pad of flesh and the fingers grew sure. It wasn’t long now, she could feel it, what little she had left would not last. But she’d had time to whispering every secret she knew, every answer she had, and had to hope it would be enough. It had taken her last days. But it had lasted a lifetime.
The hand felt strong as it took her own. The fingers were calloused and smelling of the verdant juices of crushed leaves that she knew readily. The voice sounded innocent though, naïve even. Had she really still been so?
‘Don’t let your hands burn in the sun this time, when you gather.’ The words rasped, she wondered if they could even be heard, recognised.
She felt the hand slipping and grasped it tightly, urgent. What more could she do?
‘When the time comes, don’t rush. It will be too late if you rush.’
Too late for the birth, no.
‘Too late for you.’
The hand pulled from hers and she let her fingers hang limp from the tight rope. Her head followed soon after, pulling her body into stillness. Her hair flickering in vibrant strands, was quite magnificent.
– This story was written by my talented wife, Ellie.