These leeches are not small cats with eager eyes and curious whiskers who beg for bony tidbits. They are not ample-mouthed horses who wetly nudge for oats. They are not terriers who snap food in the air, breaking a rodent’s neck as easily as I snap green beans. They are not doves or chicks who bob and peck.
My leeches must have blood, and it must be fresh. My old ones ate insects and worms, but these soft eyeless ones with their sucking mouths need blood, their three jaws working, working, cutting until they reach the vein. Once each month, when the moon goes dark, they must eat. They drink from patients with fevered minds, turgid with black dreams. Or those hot with inflammatory quinsy. Or those whose hearts grow soft, whose pulses weaken from sorrow. The leeches drink madness and pain and fear from their veins.
When no one is sick, I am the food. I put candles beside the watery nest. I put my hand in the circle of light. They rise and wave themselves in the air, then lie still as rocks. They bite and hold fast. They drink, relax, retreat to darkness. And the moon grows fat again, and I sleep, and no dreams come.
Does aconite work best in tincture or decoction? Which artemisia serves best for banishing? Which part of tansy holds the power? I know such things. But how much cayenne burns the skin most slowly and deliberately? When is foxglove ripe to stop a poisoned heart? Such wisdom is beyond me.
Mother was mistress of the grain, the drop, the perfect portion. She could banish madness with leeches, rue, valerian; she could kill a horse with ground apple seeds. Everything heals, she used to say. Measurement is all. Even poisons are medicine, taken charily. Even beauties poison, taken greedily. Comfrey and daffodil and carnation can bring death. Lily of the valley kills. Beauty can come deadly.
Belladonna, broom, henbane, hemlock, mandrake, nightshade. I tend: her poisons, healers. I gather what can never kill. The others flourish. Caster beans burst from the earth, red, rampant. Wormwood nods silver seedy heads over stone pathways. Cowbane lures with white umbels. I learned the plants; I did not learn the measures. She took their secrets when she died.
Between moonlight and sun, from a shadowed hill beneath snake-comforting caves, came this yarrow. Buds and leaves only, no stalks or blown blooms. Stripped and snipped and sorted. Then a month in rum, turned hourly to leach out medicine. When finished, it does not recall water cascading down a shadowed hill at dawn but a dark snake-haunted pond. Drink, and it binds up all brokenness inside.
Once a year the sailor comes. One night a year, mother gave her bed for sweet rum from hot islands. When I took her place, he was old and only wanted simples for his pain. He sails no more but brings me what I need from other men along the coast.
Even my cures cannot forever hold off the death snaking through his spine. Someday I will need another sailor. For now, I give him what I can.
I cannot cure without knowing the root. Is yours a sleeplessness of painful bones? Of not trusting that the world will be there when you wake? Of fretfulness over wrongs done others? Of wild fancies and extravagances? Of meticulous plots? Of sad longings and sadder expectations?
For the first, nettle. The second, grief-relieving borage. For guilt, St. John’s wort; for mania, Greek fruit; for compulsions, sweet valerian.
As for sadness: I know this well, though not the remedy. So unlike grief’s passion, sorrow’s slow suffocation. My mother’s heart’s-ease mixture went to the grave with her. As I stand in the garden or the field, I close my eyes and breathe. Sometimes a fragrance reminds me. Someday I may reclaim the secret.
But you say, priest, it is fear that keeps sweet sleep at bay? That you wake in terror, a scream caught in your throat? That the devil may be after you? Ah, then. Ah, then.
As I stood by Mother, so this one stands by me. Picking heal-all, I feel her eyes harvest my wisdom. Was I ever so innocent? Tender of poisons since girlhood, I wear black to hide the dyes that garden and forest leach onto me. What if I wore white? What patterns would those leaves and flowers make, what colors would they leave? I know them as medicine, not as color or scent or texture. What have I missed, what have I lost?
She is in love. The boy is handsome, with a drifting eye. She twines a charm for him from lobelia. She does not try to hide it from me. She thinks I see everything, past and future. Just the past, I tell her, just the past. I see heartbreak when men are so handsome, with such drifting eyes.
Tonight she bathes in lavender and twines her hair with small mauve blossoms. She goes dancing. I sit beside the fire, stirring the cauldron.
I was certain that the priest was dead. I had seen him so clearly, black tongue reaching like a snake, eyes starting wide, fingers clutching the stone. It was a dream, but I know false dreams from true, and this had the texture of truth. I started from my bed, full of premonitory zeal. It was snowing, the wind bitter as wormwood. I had to reach him before someone else found the piece of amber he held, amber shaped into a skull, a spider in the eye socket. There was no hope for the priest, but if I reached the body in time, our secrets would be safe.
How had he found it? I had seen it that day, a decade hence, as we buried it beneath mother’s coffin. How did it come into his clutching hands?
Darkness filled the lane. In blowing snow, I doubted my eyes. He loomed before me, black cape swirling. He did not speak. He did not look at me. Erased by snow, I passed him in the dawn. His right hand was deep in his pocket, clutching something large.
Dark of the moon. True Love comes into bloom, the Herb of Paris, its fetid fragrance seeping through my window.
I pick up my small brass sickle. Mother banished pain with poison. I have been across the river to her friend Jane, twice this year, to learn such things. In spring she taught me Rose-a-Rubie, its red blossom strongest where it blooms in shade. Dip the plant in steaming water once, and it revives feeble blood. Dip twice, it starts a failing heart. Three times and the body purges wildly. More? Only if death is kinder than life.
And sometimes death is kinder than life.
Stars move slowly towards the west, following the sun to her nightly bed. I am a shadow in shadows. This plant cures lung-fever and makes old men young again. Its white flower brings wild death. I have not seen it, but Jane tells me a grain too much brings on delirium, then spasm, then gaping eyes and frothing mouth, then death.
A star falls. I cut. Flowers drop to earth.
Sometime past midnight, a sudden flood. Rain wakes me, pounding on door and windows. Cascades down terraces, ponds in paths, sheen of dark water. Rain falling in looming darkness.
She has not returned. I do not worry. She is with him often now, my Lily. She should be here soon, hair soft, face softer. They are like the deer that ran into my path today, the buck reckless with desire, the doe bounding higher than my shoulder as she led him on.
Instead, the priest. He surprises me: He has not come of late. I eased his sleeplessness, then pains in his legs, with simples and salves. Then his visits stopped. In church or in the street, he looks away, face stern and flushed.
He shouts across the garden. I cannot see his face, but his voice is red with anger. Something about fire. Something about whoredom. Wind drowns his words, rain sweeps them away. Where is the girl?
I cannot wait for her. In the forests, mushrooms bloom, flowers of the underground that rest in silent darkness. After such floods, rare fleshy flowers make silent delicate arrivals.
I seek death’s cap, angel of destruction. I rarely bother with its common cousins, since that time a man grew violent when I gave him flycap to make him sleep. For poisoning, the ghostly angel rules. Years ago I had some, kept in wine and used on rats. Enough can kill a man. Enough: a single button. They do not tarnish silver spoons; they kill without warning. There can be some use to this.
Perhaps I will find baneberry. Since mother died, her bottles full of wild white poisons have grown powerless with age. Jane has taught me some of what I want to know. Time to refill the jars and bottles.
Rain has washed away the paths and strewn gravel in old washes. I know an ancient oak whose heartwood has rotted out. Animals nest in gnarled openings. Nurselogs ring the tree, old branches fallen to earth and rotting into life. That is where I seek my deadly friends.
Sounds are welcome, never fearful. Clitter of falling acorns. Squeal of squirrel. Rasp of raven.
Silence. Birch eyes turn towards me, wide and warning. Something is stalking me.
The rain is a silent deadly mist that washes footprints from the path. But here, in the shadow of a rock, a single print. Large, larger than a dog, but with a dog’s shape. And a spot of blood. I taste it: fresh, and a doe’s.
A breeze of warm breath.
She returns, wrapped in blood and tears. Her doe eyes, pools of violation.
Bruises like dark roses on her lily thighs. Someone must pay for this. Someone will pay.
There is an ancient yew, gnarled like a serpent’s egg, strong branches twining about each other while small red berries form amid soft needles. Silver winks in its creviced bark. I place my offering near the heaving roots, digging into heavy clay. Two hundred years ago, a seed fell here and germinated. Other seeds died or, sprouting, lived but briefly. This is the tree where lasting magic is made.
I have scried the truth. I have seen the face of guilt. But no one will call him to account. Who will believe a girl against a priest?
But there are powers I can call that he cannot. It was too much for me, orphaned as a girl, that power. Jane took the amber skull before anyone could find it. I saw her slip it into the mud at mother’s rainy burial. Dreams haunt me: the skull floating out to sea, the skull lodged in a tree, the skull hidden under altar linens. I make this offering that the dreams do not come true.
Plants have begun to speak to me. Mushrooms sing in a strange dull moan.
It is the time of year when vermin enter: rats, mice, beetles, flies that crawl upon each other in a writhing mass. A good time to practice poisoning. What is poison for, if not to rid us of foul things? Cockroaches and flies would poison me, so I poison them. Basil leaves are good to keep them out, but once they breach the walls, I kill them easily: one small dried fly agaric, dissolved in milk, draws them to their instant death.
Rats would eat my grain, mice leave foul droppings in my bed. The cat stalks the mice. Traps deal with the rats. I leave them in the cage and feed them cheese soaked in water hemlock. I am no torturer: death comes easy from that tree, just paralysis and ceaseless sleep, no wild thrashing or bloody discharges.
I am no torturer, I say. But my Lily grows sallow and listless. Raspberry tea has no effect. She will not bear a rapist’s child. The angelica root sits on the table in a bottle of the purest oil. It brings on blood; she feels no pain. As for the other: it is fall, when vermin must be expelled or die.
Wolfbane tempts me, after what I have seen.
Mushrooms whisper that they are willing to do my work: ergot slipped into rye flour, to cause his limbs to rot while he grew mad, before he dies in agony; or that sly poisoner, the death cap, that pretends to be a simple puffball; or the black brain mushroom that is tasty once and deadly the second time.
But wolfbane tempts me, after what I have seen: a tree, an amber skull set in its branches, a man howling with anger. The moon stood at the horizon as the sun sat. His arms thickened, his hair spread across his back, his teeth lengthened into fangs, his fingers shortened into claws.
He did not see me, hidden in my black cloak behind a huge beech tree. He did not hear me as I crept away, then ran, breath searing like fire. I knew the prints he would leave as he followed my trail home.
Wolfbane tempts me, after what I have seen.
I rarely go to church, but Jane tells me I must not be so remote and strange. And now that I have reason to attend, I seem pious and devout. Each Sunday I am there, studying the man. I have sent Lily home, across the hills. But I see how he stares at another doe-eyed girl. I know he will track her, grab her wrist in his sharp teeth, pen her in his den until the moon begins to wane, biting her for pleasure, drinking her blood. Then he will shed his wolfskin and becomes the priest who finds her and brings her to the safety of a nearby hut. But her torment will not be done. There is a chain in that barn, attached to the wall, where she will be trapped until he tires of her.
I take to wandering the church grounds, beads between my fingers, silent, eyes downcast. I visit mother’s grave daily; it is undisturbed. But then I see it: at the edge of the stream that runs beside the church, a small hole into which an otter swims. The stream is agitated at that point: underground water flowing in. That is how the skull found its way into the priest’s foul hands. That is how he gained his power.
The moon is already at the half. I have much to do.
Sunset blazes the sky. Beside the giant beech, I crouch and wait.
I hear hard breath before I see him. Hot with lust, he howls as darkness grows and his body changes. This time, I will not flee.
When it is fully dark, he lies before the skull’s tree altar, exhausted from the change. I step forward, dropping my cloak. My skirt is brilliant white in moonlight. He stirs, he sniffs, he springs up. He growls. My heart freezes, but I do not move.
Is he man enough to know me? Is he wolf enough not to know me?
He moves in close, head down, fangs bared. I move back, stepping slowly away towards my cloak. It is but four steps, but I fear I will not make it before he springs.
One more step and I am safe. The cloak, bundled on the ground, lies between the wolf and me. He lunges. He has caught the reek of blood. He tears my cloak to find the source. In the open basket is a pig’s heart, huge and red. He is wolf enough to put that hunger first. As I watch, his fangs pierce the heart.
I bend and bow before the altar. Jane is right: better not to draw attention. Mother would have disagreed, but I must find my way alone. The priest was found, naked and dead before a pagan tree. No other has come as yet, so we women gather to pray together to the virgin. Lily has returned, her eyes clear again and warm. As for her boy, he is never mentioned as she gathers flowers for perfumes and oils. I hope she does not grow old alone, like me, but I am grateful for her help and loving eyes.
The castor beans are huge and red this year. Their poison is certain though not fast. I had to use horse chestnut and bog rosemary, rubbed into the pig’s heart, to paralyze him until he died. He was awake, trapped in his wolfish body, watching me remove the skull from the tree, watching me add ribbons and bones to its branches, watching me pack the cloak and basket so that no hint of my presence would remain.
He had the strength to growl just once. I am no torturer. He suffered but was not in pain. I am teaching this to Lily now. The plants, the measures, everything. She is a quick study: one night as we put our hands upon the amber skull, she turned into a deer and oh, how she fast she ran under the moon.