Sometimes she plucks weeds, one by one, and lays them on the ground in patterns only she can understand. At other times she puts her fingers in, wrestles with the grubs and worms, feels the earth cup in her palms. Tonight she tunnels until a mound of moist soil builds up beside her, digging for the child who had wilted and died like the leaves on the autumn trees. His grave, like all the others, is marked by a single, round stone.
In summer, the house in which she lives is hidden behind a wall of flowers. Once she would have appreciated the profusion of color breaking the monotony of bark and leaf, but that was long ago. In winter white snow lies upon her roof and a tendril of grey smoke rises from her chimney, and there is always a platter of seed by her doorstep for the birds that stay behind. They are her only guests.
She had been burnt out once, twice, three times. In each case she had dusted the ash from her skin and moved on, saving her own child, forced to leave the others in the flames.
She was young, beautiful, kind: all of those things a husband would desire, though she was the girl none thought would ever marry. Steeped, she was, in her bed of herbs, good earth beneath her fingernails, slicing and stewing up a remedy for all that ailed the folk; she was the girl who loved better the things in her garden than any man alive. But it happened, at last, and the marriage was a celebration of the richest sort. Family, friends, and all those attending wished the couple well in the warmest ways, with gifts and song and long exclamations of a future full of happiness and joy. And children, many children, though she had but one.
For years she tended her husband as easily as she tended her plants and the folk kept coming, one by one or two by two, for the healing that she had. Most time she spent alone; while her man went out to sea to fish the waters, she kept company with all that grew among the deep, black earth. Weeks went by without a trace of him while she eased all the pains that came her way with remedies and cures. In a cold month he returned, a day or three of company, and then he went again as always. As he left she smiled, for she knew his seed had taken in her. In spring she thickened with her garden, growing lush and large until at last she bore a son.
Where once she’d spent long hours alone, tending to her herbs, now a boy hung at her breast, a weight but not a burden, and all the love she’d once felt for the growing things she gave to him, this tiny seedling sprouted from her womb. When he weakened late one morning, waving his small, futile fist against her face in pain, she tried with every cure she knew and some at which she only guessed to bring him back to health. Days and nights she spent blindly singing, stewing, straining all the healing medicines she knew, and when none worked her panic grew until she did the only thing she could. She sat and held him in her arms and rocked him by the moon; she watched the stars wink out and the dawn seep in and rocked him ever on.
He slipped away as she held him. When she bent her head to place her lips on his cheek and saw his chest unmoving, something in her shifted, like a tincture gone quite cloudy, or a sweet herb gone bitter with flower. When they came to take the body to its final rest, she lay a poppet in the coffin in his place.
When her husband returned with the tide, he chose to bear the news of loss in a calm and stoic manner, for he was ever a silent man and felt it best to hide his pain. But when he found that she’d kept him, their rotting, stinking son, it was he who lit the fire that caught at her dress and singed the hair on her head. That was the first burning. She ran only to save her son from the flames.
She now remembers nothing of those days but hunger and the bitter taste of apples stolen from a farmer’s trees.
She settled in an ancient cottage, thatched roof and stone walls in disrepair, near to a village where they had never heard her name. She tilled up a new garden and in it planted all the healing herbs she knew. She cradled her son in among them, promising as she covered him that she would never let him come to any harm.
The people in the village were good to her; they brought gifts in exchange for healing, or potions made for love. They came for curses, too, but she turned those gifts away. Yet, in time they noticed that all was not well in her garden.
Hilda’s daughter went first. She’d gone to pick flowers and was never seen again. Brome’s son was second, gone to hunt for rabbit and never returned. So it went for several years until a natural suspicion oozed under the doors and up from the flagstones and caught the village folk as they slept. In groups they paid her visits, sniffing, searching, following suspicion home until at last, they found what they were seeking.
They did not know her reasoning and suspected she had none. The girls and boys had come for a treat, for a flower, for a walk in her thick woods. She knew how easily a child could be lost, so she’d planted them in the garden in between the herb beds.
She’d seen flames before. She knew their heat. She heard the villagers coming; their shouts and all the cursing marked their intent. She gathered up her son and hid in the trees where she watched the old cottage blaze and scorch the earth around it. She wept for the children she could not protect as she cradled her dead son.
She thinks of those fires now as her fingernails break on rock and root, digging ever deeper into the pliant earth. She recalls the smoke, the choking voices calling out with gladness that they’d seen the last of her, or with anger for the children they would never see again. If they could trade her life for that of all those young ones gone, they would. And so would she.
It was the same in the third place. Had she any sense she might have chosen a teeming city where loss was commonplace, but she was not so easy around people and so she found another village, surrounded by field and forest.
That time it was Malma’s sons to grace her door with curling hair and cheerful eyes and a little pup that followed close behind them. A dim-remembered sadness tugged her sleeves; as she looked upon their golden heads she saw how fragile were the bones beneath their skin. She stewed the puppy up when all was done and had a tasty meal, then planted his small masters in the garden. She had learned caution by then and kept the children slowly, one by one or sometimes two, though rarely, whenever she’d a chance.
In among the brush and flowering bushes she made them each a bed. She marked each one with a single stone, white and round and placed just so, and she watered them during them dry spells. She had to leave them all when the fires rose again, when once more the village folk found her out and came at her with vengeance. They burnt up everything she had but him, all but the first who she carried through the flames, and then she began again.
She’s very old and tired now. She found another cabin in another wood, near another village, and for years she has lived in peace. Her garden is not so grand as it may have been, for she has learned through flame to avoid detection. There are seven of them: seven white stones, seven children sleeping beneath the rosemary. Her own is safely tucked in between them.
She feels the flames approaching; she knows it will soon crash down around her in an avalanche of burning coals. She feels the heat sear off the flesh she’s worn so long and the arms she’s wrapped around the children fall away to ash. Her only thought is for them; she knows she can not save them all from the fires. Her son must come up before the others, for he had been her first.
She kneels barefoot on the cold ground, pulling the roots and vines from the stones and running her fingers lovingly over their smooth surfaces. Her fingers curl in the dirt until she feels the rotted fabric that she’s kept wrapped about his bones. Under the moon they are the color of the earth that has held him in its embrace and they come up in her hands in fragments.
Her need pulls her onward until, as the sun begins to rise, his body is risen to the surface in a pile of bones. She cradles his skull tenderly, strokes the tiny forehead and smooths back his hair. She lays him gently down and digs on until, in a quiet display, the bones of all the children are spread out on the ground.
She sees her son reach up to wrap his stick arms around her neck. She breathes deeply the scent of leaf-wrapped hair. She carries him into the cabin while the others follow, unsteady on their brittle legs, bones rattling. She smooths her dress and warms the milk. They are hungry. She uses her sharpest kitchen knife to slice a bit of bread and dips it in the white cream. She holds out the dripping mash and watches as they eat.
She smooths her dress again and takes up her flint and lights a fire in the hearth. She adds some wood from time to time and watches the flames rise. In their dance she sees the townsfolk coming. She’d only ever meant to keep them safe, but each time when the fires came, they burned again.
She uses that same sharp knife to cut the rushes from her mattress and spreads their dry husks across the floor. She sets them alight. She gathers all the children around her and sings a lullaby. The fire sweeps along her hem, catching the fabric of her skirt in its greedy hunger. Her arms outstretched, she throws back her head and calls to him, the son she could not save, as the flames crawl up the walls and to the roof.
Let the townsfolk come. Let them come with their torches. She is already gone.
[A Remedy for Sorrow was first published in Not One Of Us, #36, Spring 2006.]
[Header photo: Deux-Sèvres, France.]