The Old Woman lived on the hill, near the cava tree, and rarely ventured from her home. Her quaint, gray house smelled of mulberry tea and cinnamon and had a simple roof made of wooden shingles. The windows of the house were framed in purple, and the glass was old and stretched with bubbles. The house was ancient, just like the Old Woman, and the two creaked and moaned together when the wind blew a little too strongly from the northern mountains.
The Old Woman knew that the villagers gossiped about her; she saw them whispering to each other as they walked along the trail at the base of the hill. Their whispers floated up the inclines of the clover-covered knoll her house sat on, creeping through its halls until they found her ears. “Evil Witch,” they whispered.
Sometimes she peered through the bubbles in her glass windows down at them, making her own whispers. She whispered to the birds that would dive down at them, pecking at the crests of their heads. Other times she whispered to the trees, which then used their roots to trip the villagers, turning their whispers into silent curses as they hurried on their way to complain about the Old Woman to the Mayor.
Every day was filled with complaints about the Old Woman, and the Mayor had to listen to them. Come rain or shine, the Mayor heard about the Old Woman during town meetings, after dinner with council members, or when he was trying to get away from it all during walks in the village park. The villagers loved to gossip and complain about the Old Woman.
Of course, the Mayor did nothing about the Old Woman. He knew the villagers for what they were: small-minded and bitter busybodies. And he had more pressing matters to attend to, like the backed-up village sewer systems and the accompanying stench that now permeated everything. But the prattling and whining interfered with his work, and between the heat of summer and the stench, the Mayor often felt angry and anxious.
On the days the Mayor felt particularly anxious, he liked to look at the tall grandfather clock that stood proudly in the corner of his office. The clock had been his mother’s and was the only thing that still connected him to her. It was made of oak, and it stood illuminated when the afternoon light came through the office window. It comforted him, and, after long, endless days filled with complaints and exploding sewer lines, he would sit in his office, listen to the tick-tock of the clock, and remember better times.
The Old Woman had been able to do things since she was little. She could heal people, talk to birds, mix the correct herbs to help a woman have a child, and even leave her body for brief periods to travel the night skies of the village. To the Old Woman, it was as easy as breathing and she had used her powers to help the villagers until fairly recently.
As a young woman, she had been the village midwife and delivered most of the villagers who now wanted her to leave. She had mixed potions, healed the sick, and counseled the lost and troubled. She’d been respected at one time, valued and treated with reverence even. Folks would bring her offerings of spices, herbs, and dark plum wine or golden yam whiskey. Every day there had been baskets of fruit, nuts, and dried meat on her doorstep. Now, her porch steps were empty, and the villagers gave birth in sterile white rooms full of men dressed in light blue cloth. No one came to ask for potions or advice on love anymore.
It was strange not being needed. It was in the Old Woman’s nature to be useful, to help others. Not being able to use her abilities made her feel tired and useless. It made her feel wretched and stretched thin. So, she stayed hidden away in her ancient house; it was her only companion now. She missed the days of her youth when sweet potato bread was her favorite, and the street wasn’t quite as wide as it was now.
The Old Woman knew that there had been a time when there were many people like her. Healers, tree talkers, water conjurers, and night flyers. When she was a child, there were people in the village who visited during the darkness of night. They worked their powers to fix and mend folks, and, just as they later did for her, the villagers left them fruits, vegetables, anything they had as payment. The Old Woman’s mother was one of these special folks. But unlike the Old Woman, her mother had not been a healer. No, she had used her hands to make plants grow and barren earth yield fruit. She was one of the Owusu.
The Owusu came to the village the morning after a fall moon and emerged one by one from the mist-filled woods to the east of the village. The Old Woman’s mother was amongst them. They were all tall, willowy figures with onyx-hued skin, smooth as opal, and rich as obsidian. Their hair floated above their shoulders as silvery gray poufs, voluminous and naturally shaped like cumulus clouds, always trailing behind them like halos of thunder. Their faces were small, and their elegant arms tapered off into exquisitely long fingers. They were mysterious, beautiful, magnificent, otherworldly, and her mother was no exception.
The villagers were mesmerized by them, some even offering their homes to the travelers. Some Owusu accepted the offer and stayed in the village with these welcoming families. However, many returned to the woods to the east of the village, where they would remain, only venturing out from the shade of large wise trees to share their gifts, visit with the Owusu that lived amongst the villagers, or trade their skills or barter wild mushrooms and nuts for items like tea and spun cotton.
Mother had been one of the Owusu who stayed in the village. She lived with an elderly couple that sold teas at the market and used her talents to help grow jasmine, urkla, and poplue in their tea garden. She met the Old Woman’s father when she wandered into his turnip fields one day, and the two instantly fell in love. Soon after, her sister was born, with the Old Woman coming a year later. She was born during the Fall new moon, birthed by Mother’s own hands.
The Old Woman could hardly remember Mother now, her memories relying mostly on stories told by Father. She did remember she was beautiful and would wander through the turnip fields at night, under the light of the moon, slipping her dark hands into the orange-hued soils to work her magic on the turnips. She remembered her voice, how it was musical and calming and fluid, like the stream out back behind their farmhouse. But it was the other things that the Old Woman could not remember, like the sound of her laugh, or the angle of her jaw, or whether she even liked turnips. She didn’t remember how she smelled, her favorite color, or if she yearned for her homeland, wherever that was. It was also the questions the Old Woman had, the questions that plagued her at night while she smoked a pipe of sweet herb and drank mulberry tea with wild honey.
The question that rose above all others for the Old Woman was who was she? Was she more her mother or father? Was she the child of spirits because the Owusu were otherworldly?
In her heart, she knew she was more of Mother, that she was Other. It didn’t matter that the Old Woman did not look like the Owusu. Yes, she had dark skin, smooth and beautiful like Mother, and hair that floated above her shoulders in an ebony cloud. That was where her similarities with the Owusu ended. The Old Woman was short and her shoulders were wide like Father’s. Her face was broad and flat, with features that were soft, round, and kind. Her hands were broad like her feet, with thumbs that were strong and good at mashing up herbs and birthing children. No, she did not resemble the Owusu, but she knew she was Owusu, down to her very soul.
To be Owusu was to be Other. This, the Old Woman understood. Yet, she still felt lost. Even though the village was all she had ever known, she always felt homesick. She wanted to know the comfort of being amongst her own people. She wanted to know them and love them and had so many questions she wanted to ask them. She knew she would never find answers in this life, that she would never truly know herself, and she mourned this fact early on when her mother had died so many years ago.
Father wouldn’t let them take Mother away after she died. When the villagers arrived making demands, insisting Mother be buried with her own kind, the Old Woman remembered the look on Father’s face as he put down the sweet oils and herbs he had been using to prepare for her burial. She remembered how his big strong hands had grabbed the ax off the kitchen wall and how he had stood silently in the doorway of their home. He never spoke a word, just stared at the small crowd with black fire in his eyes. The villagers left silently that day, understanding the language Father had spoken.
You take my wife, you die.
Father buried Mother deep in the earth and covered her in white smooth stone and layers of burnt umber-hued soil. The Old Woman remembered placing a single yellow Lursa flower on Mother’s white dress. She remembered the hot tears burning along the edges of her eyes as Father pushed a warm layer of soil over Mother’s veiled face. The blue veil was Mother’s and had been one of the few possessions she’d bought with her to the village. The Old Woman remembered how the silent earth had enveloped Mother while Father sang softly into the breeze.
No box for you, my love. No wooden cage to confine your spirit. No fire to burn your flesh, to eat your bone as you sleep. Just earth and clay and tears, my love. Just earth and clay and tears.
Death. Death was darkness, deep, long, and forever. Death was a shroud of unknowing that cursed the living. It was also beautiful and infinite and something that the Old Woman had learned not to fear for herself. But it hurt, oh did it hurt. It hurt down to her bones, down to her spirit. It hurt to be left alone.
It happened one night right after supper. Mother’s breath was taken from her in an instant. Her spirit snuffed out like a candle. Gone. Just like that. Without fuss, without reason. She was just gone. With all the others. All of them.
When Mother died, so did the rest of the Owusu in the village. All at once as the sun set on a warm summer’s eve. Some left their bodies while in their gardens, sleeping in their beds, or eating their suppers. Others, while strolling in the village park or fishing near the North River, their bodies scattered like sad flower petals throughout the village.
The Owusu that lived in the woods to the east disappeared the same night. Whether they had died was a mystery, as their bodies were never found. The villagers spent weeks scouring the woods looking for them or their remains, finding absolutely nothing. It was as if they had never existed. There were no cabins, camps, or even fire pits to be found. There were no wild gardens or middens of shell or bone on the forest floor, nothing indicating that the woods had been their home.
The villagers decided that the Owusu from the woods were responsible for the deaths of those in the village. Some argued they had returned to their homeland, leaving a curse on those that refused to leave with them. Thus, in order to avoid lingering bad omens, the dead were quickly buried in a mass grave along the south side of the village. Off-limits to all, the burial ground remained barren and scarred for years, and on the day of the Old Woman’s twenty-first birthday, it bloomed Lursa flowers. Every year on the Old Woman’s birthday, they bloomed, a sea of yellow.
Sometimes the Old Woman wished she had died with Mother, that her soul had rushed out from her body and entered the atmosphere like a phoenix. Her soul would dance around the moon, happy to be free, to work roots on that celestial plane. Even now, she wanted to die, but her spirit, tired as it was, clung to her flesh, resisting the idea. So, she kept her memories to herself in her little old house on the hill.
The mudfish were good this time of year. Their scaleless gray mottled skin slick as they writhed in the bottom of the canoe, the slapping of their bodies sounded like the dipping of the tide. An old man with impossibly white hair bent over them, a stern expression on his face as he flipped another mudfish into the boat.
“Will you stop with your singing?” he muttered as he prepared his line with bait to catch another fish. The fish seemed to stop writhing briefly, their large black eyes gazing up at him through liquid inky tears. This only made the old man more annoyed, and he paused for a moment, a thick bloody worm wriggling in between his fingers against the cold steel of the hook.
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your singing is. I have to eat. Just like you have to eat the crawdads at the bottom of the river, so stop it. I don’t feel the least bit guilty.”
The man returned to his bait, casting his line toward the riverbanks, near the bunches of yellow and gold tufts of fili grass. The fish in his boat began to writhe again, and the old man sighed.
“Elkar, it’s been too long. Too long with these things, this place… too long,” he muttered to himself. He abruptly looked to the left of him, to an empty spot in the canoe. “Don’t you think?” he asked as his eyes peered into the void of air. His head remained craned in the direction of the empty portion of the canoe, and after a time, he sighed and returned to his fishing. The canoe drifted slowly down the river as the sun dipped below the horizon, signaling the end of the day.
“Hey, Elkar, any fish today?”
A young woman walking along the banks waited for the old man to respond. He ignored her and paddled his canoe toward a berm that jutted out into the shallows of the river. Elkar grunted and leapt from his canoe to pull it onto the sandy bank leading up to the berm. He gathered up his catch and started the walk home.
Supper was simple: roasted mudfish and onion, yam whisky, and mustard greens. Content with his meal, Elkar sat on a stool in the herb garden behind his cottage. His cottage was made of stone and was round with a thatched roof. There had been no need to update it over the years to match the newer homes in the village with their metal roofs and glass pane windows. He had no time for such foolish things. The cottage served its purpose, and that was what mattered. Besides, this wasn’t really his home.
Home was, in truth, quite far away, and it had been so long since he had been there. Elkar wondered if he could find his way home if he wanted to. Deep down, he knew he could not. Thinking about it made him sad. At least he had them to show him the way when it was time to leave, and they promised him they remembered how to get there. At least he had that. If it weren’t for them, he would have to live alone forever in this strange village with its fickle inhabitants and its memory of death.
The death was why he had stayed so long. Its smell still lingered. It was deep and established, and he would find it even if it meant never going home.
The Old Woman’s sister had been beautiful, precocious, and self-righteous to the very definition of the word. She was tall, willowy, dark-haired, and smelled of fresh lilies and lilac and chamomile. So wholesome, she was called, and beautiful and so unlike the Old Woman who was short and robust in her youth. The Old Woman sadly remembered how Sister had hidden from her when she had healed a rabbit for the first time. Healing was such a beautiful thing, yet Sister viewed it as something unnatural and perverse. It was neither of these things. The Old Woman still remembered healing that rabbit as if it were yesterday. The feeling of restoring health was euphoric, the rush and flush to her cheeks and the warmth in her stomach – it was like dipping into the bright light of a distant star.
The Old Woman thought back on her joy and surprise when the sick rabbit suddenly perked up under the weight of her hands, thumped a back leg, and hopped away. She remembered how Sister had looked at her with distant eyes as she slowly backed out of the barn and ran to tell their father what transpired that dusty afternoon.
Father had been a tall man, an imposing figure with broad shoulders and skinny legs that jutted from beneath his pants like a swamp frog. He was a farmer of turnips and smelled of earth and clay. He liked to smoke a black pipe of tobacco and sipped whiskey once a month when the turnip crop looked especially promising. He didn’t talk much and typically had a book on hand when he wasn’t caring for the turnip fields. His eyes were blacker than a crow’s, and they devoured books like they were sustenance.
The Old Woman loved Father, but she was not his favorite. No, that title belonged to Sister, and so when Sister informed him of the Old Woman’s unnatural powers, he spared no time in punishing her appropriately. Father made her kneel in her room for four days without supper, and Sister brought her water to drink twice a day and accompanied her when she needed to use the outhouse. Naturally, she hated Sister for making Father do such cruel things.
When her punishment finally ended, Father had sat awkwardly in a small chair placed neatly near her bed. His knees curled up and almost poked him in his chin, and his broad shoulders threatened to snap the back of the chair. She lay on the bed, rubbing the ache of her knees, contemplating whether she should heal the swelling once he left.
They had sat in silence for what seemed to be an eternity, their house creaking as it cooled from the day’s heat while a rooster crowed in the distance. Then, finally, Father spoke to her. His voice was thick as morning oatmeal and immediately filled the room with its bellow.
“You can’t heal again,” he said as he reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out his black pipe. His pouch of smoking tobacco was rolled neatly in a cloth bag tied around the stem of the pipe. He untied it, opened the bag, and packed the pipe contemplatively. The tobacco permeated the room, and the Old Woman inhaled its molasses-like sweetness.
“Why not?” she asked.
Her father contemplated the question carefully before answering, “Because… because something could happen to you. Your mother used her gifts, and she and people like her died. They died, love. I don’t want the same to happen to you.” He then stood up slowly and left her to ponder this assertion by herself in the quiet of her room.
The Doctor had seen nothing like it before, which scared him. Twenty people had come into his office with the same symptoms, and no matter what he did, they kept getting sicker. Their sickness was no ordinary disease. They were starving, their bodies twisted and knobby because of fat loss, their stomachs distended, and their skin ashen and gray. They complained of deep, painful hunger and exclaimed that it could not be sated no matter what they ate. He tried everything, but they eventually died.
The Doctor was a man of science; he believed that the unexplained had an explanation. It just took time to find it. He liked facts and did not believe in any of the Gods that some villagers worshiped. His wife was one of these God worshippers, and he often watched her curiously as she kneeled before the deity Eushryph, offering prayers, incense, and fruit. He knew better than to tell her that her prayers fell on deaf ears. There were no gods, as far as he was concerned. Yet, this new disease had him wondering; perhaps it was time to ask Eushryph to have mercy on their souls.
People always feared what they did not understand, and the villagers did not understand the Old Woman. It hadn’t always been this way between the Old Woman and the villagers. There was a time when they respected her. But those who had cherished her abilities, that understood the old ways, were now gone, their bodies buried deep within the earth, nestled within coffins beneath the gnarled roots of trees. Their children remained, and they did not understand the old ways, much like Sister, who had rejected the ways of root workers, conjurers, and healers.
Sister. For a time, she and Sister had a truce between them. It was simple; the Old Woman made herself scarce when in Sister’s presence and didn’t use her powers in the open. After Father died, Sister even allowed her to stay on the turnip farm. They ate dinner in silence, with Sister’s husband seated squarely between the two. It wasn’t ideal, but the Old Woman was happy she wasn’t alone. In the evenings, she would walk out in the turnip fields like her mother used to. Sometimes she stared at the moon, losing herself in its light, only to return to her body to make the walk back to the farmhouse to fitfully fall asleep to the low moans of Sister and her husband making love.
Some years after Father’s death, Sister became pregnant. She was sick for the entirety of her pregnancy and could not keep food or water down. Once, the Old Woman made the mistake of offering to use her powers to help with Sister’s sickness, to which Sister hissed she wouldn’t have such filth near her or her unborn child. After that, Sister wouldn’t speak to the Old Woman, and as each month went by, her condition worsened.
The moon was high in the sky the night of the child’s birth. It was luminous and round and fertile, and the Old Woman felt drawn to its light. She walked out into the turnip field; the light filling her, bathing her, flowing within her like deliciously warm water. She stepped out of her sleeping gown and felt a pull at her soul, like sunlight over the skin. Her eyes glazed over, and suddenly she was blind.
At first, she was afraid, but then the fear passed right through her and was replaced with a sense of calm that she had never known before. Soon after this feeling, her sight returned, and to her surprise, she found herself hovering above the turnip fields, caught in the beams of the moon, free and fluid and swimming in the light like a fish in the North River. She saw her body standing still in the field, frozen and solid like a statue, yet she did not care. Instead, she turned to the moon, and it called to her, drawing her into its realm like a moth to a flame.
And just like that, she was in her body again, Sister’s husband shaking her and yelling her name to awaken her from her trance. The gasp of air she took was long and deep and startled him into removing his hands from her shoulders.
Sister had given birth, and it wasn’t good. She was unconscious, and the baby was weak. Sister’s husband, fearing for both her and the baby, begged the Old Woman to use her gift regardless of how his wife felt about it. They both ran back to the house, finding Sister still unconscious along with the baby boy. The room was completely silent except for the large oak grandfather clock that had been their father’s. The tick-tock was thunderous in the Old Woman’s ears as she rushed to lay hands on her sister and her nephew.
Her gift worked. The baby and Sister would recover. And while Sister’s husband was grateful to the Old Woman, Sister was horrified. When she regained her strength, she threw the Old Woman out of the house, forbidding her from ever returning.
The Old Woman never spoke to Sister again. When they saw each other during festivals in the village, Sister ignored her, as did her husband. It was during this time that the Old Woman healed villagers openly. She delivered babies, and she walked out into open fields and flew toward the light of the moon. She was a healer, and if Sister didn’t love her, she at least had the love of the villagers. At least for a time.
The Mayor hated catastrophes; he never worked terribly well under pressure. He learned this fact with his first wife on the night of their honeymoon. He sometimes wondered why he had taken the job as village Mayor and then reminded himself that it was because of his second wife.
His second wife was power-hungry, a characteristic that he admired at first. She was beautiful and lusty with large breasts, rouge-hued cheeks, and a sultry mouth, bright with red or scarlet-pink lipsticks. She loved everything in decadent amounts: food, sex, money, and clothing. Everything. She had approached him like a svelte cat, long and tactile when he first met her at a harvest festival. Her breath warm and sweet and sticky. Her whispers made him shiver, and they married within the week.
Their life started out simple, and the Mayor was content. This was before he was Mayor. This was when he spent the early evenings tending to his store while his wife donned fuchsia dresses and wore floral perfumes upon her breasts like protective armor, awaiting his return home to their marital bed.
Their nights were filled with her voracious appetites of the uncommon and unknown. He thought himself lucky. But life as the storekeeper’s wife soon grew dull, and his wife suggested he do something more with himself. It wasn’t long before he ran for mayoral office, and she finally was given the opportunity to dazzle guests with extravagant dinner parties and pretentious teas.
So here he was, the Mayor of the village, sitting behind a massive rosewood desk, thumbing through mountains of paperwork, drinking cups of coffee with many tablespoons of sugar, and wishing for the days when he could sweep the entrance of his store in the afternoon light. He missed reading books in his office or spending time gazing at the moon on his stroll home after closing up shop. He wished for the days of silence. He wished for days when he could think, and the villagers weren’t falling ill, weren’t boney and angry and yelling at him to solve their issues, this sickness, this plague.
But it was his problem, his crisis; he knew this now. This plague was in his house, and his wife had it. She ate food all day to stop the emaciation that had etched itself on her pretty face. She kept warning him they should leave, that perhaps they could run away from the disease or at least find someone better than the Doctor.
“You’re looking weak around the eyes. Are you sure you’re not feeling different? Do you feel the hunger?” she asked him daily.
The Wife sat in her favorite chair beneath the canopy of blue jade flowers that stretched over the wood trellis, like an indigo serpent. She was wearing a long white linen dress and in her hand was a bouquet of yellow flowers. She looked at the flowers and listened to her husband in the distance, arguing with one of the staff from his office who had come to their house. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she could hear the heavy footsteps of the Mayor’s shoes on the wood floor as he paced and shouted. Sometimes his shouting was followed by brief periods of silence. She knew that these brief silences were when the staff person was speaking.
It had to be about the sickness. It was spreading rapidly and was out of control. Quarantining had done nothing, with most of the village now exhibiting symptoms. Symptoms she was all too familiar with. The constant hunger burned like a fiery pit in her belly, and her mind wandered often. She couldn’t focus on daily tasks anymore, and the bones in her back had begun to show. And the worst part was the way her mouth was cursed with an insatiable thirst that could not be satisfied.
“What have we done to deserve such a fate?” she wondered as she looked down at the flowers in her hand. She wanted to smell the bouquet, to make every minute count for something. No, that was a lie. She wanted to eat the flowers; she needed something in her stomach to quiet this hunger, but she was too weak to even lift her hand.
Her husband had been kind to her since she had become ill. He made her tea and ordered the cooks to prepare her favorite meals. He read to her when the moon hung high in the sky. His sudden change in demeanor had been a shock. Before the sickness, he had been distant with her. She told herself it was because he was busy running the village. But she knew better. She knew he was tired of her, tired of her voice. He showed no interest in her life. Her gardening and her work with the elderly were inconsequential to him. He asked her no questions and listened with only half an ear. It made her sad. No, it made her regret having married him so quickly after meeting him that night at the Autumn Feast.
She had been drawn to him immediately. The bonfires were burning high into the night sky, and music floated on the cool evening breeze. The smell of baked bread, cinnamon, and roasted fowl permeated everything, and the golden yam whiskey was plentiful. It was a joyous night, and everyone was talking, laughing, feasting, dancing, and feeling content.
He was dancing by himself, rather poorly, his dark hair cut short and his green eyes reflecting the moonlight like two gems. He was beautiful. He was also a mystery to her. Every time she went to his shop to buy flour or butter or rouge, he would nod his hello, ring her up, and go back to reading his books. She knew he was a widower and that his first wife had died in the North River. She knew that the entire village mourned her death and that her husband grieved for years by himself. But that was all. And she wanted to know more, wanted him to open himself to her, to let her in.
He had been drinking when she danced up to him, and when he finally saw her, he had smiled a slow and confident smile. The smile had captured her, and that night was filled with passion and hushed breaths as their naked bodies drank in the moonlight. He knew things, how to touch her, how to make her skin feel like fire. She was intoxicated by him, by his words, his eyes, his voraciousness. Everything. They were married within the week.
For a while, they had been happy. He tended the store and read his books. She gardened, was involved with the village council, and spent her days perfecting the various lip tints and herbal lotions she sold to the villagers. She was happy, and she thought he was, too. But he wasn’t.
Her husband was unhappy that she was respected in the village. At first, she told herself that she imagined his jealousy. When he made snide remarks about the time she spent making her herbal lotions or how the lipsticks she created made women look tacky, she hid her hurt feelings and wrote off his behavior as the result of a bad day. But every day seemed to be a bad day.
When he returned home from the shop, he complained about the time she spent with her friends drinking tea, or he argued that the clothes she wore were too revealing or too tight. He complained that her perfume would attract other men, and so she stopped wearing it to appease him. She never argued or tried to defend herself. She just took it. Every marriage had its problems, she reasoned. And he did love her, after all.
When the old Mayor died, her husband told her he wanted the job, and like a good wife, she encouraged him to run. And he did, and he won. She thought that being mayor would make him happy. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so displeased with her role in the village. Unfortunately, his new position didn’t improve their relationship, and she was more alone than ever.
And then the sickness had come. It came abruptly and without warning. One by one, she watched as friends and fellow villagers became ill. She was afraid, but felt it was important to hide her fear and help where she could. She volunteered at The Doctor’s clinic and attempted to console patients as treatment after treatment failed. So many people became sick that the Doctor finally admitted there was nothing he could do, and as the hunger in patients progressed, they became more erratic, violent, and irrational. One day, a patient bit her on the arm while she was attempting to change their bedding. The young man looked older than his years from the emaciation, and as she yelped, pulling her arm from his mouth, revealing angry tooth marks, he looked at her with a combination of shame and hunger and something else, something she could not quite identify.
Some weeks later, she too became sick. It started as a slow burn in her stomach that built each day. She devoured food to try and satisfy her hunger to no avail. She had the sickness, and there was nothing anyone could do. The Mayor took care of her. He listened to her when she talked. He washed her body, fed her, and brought her out to sit in her garden, where she spent her days looking at flowers and wishing for death.
The Mayor met with his council at noon. The meeting room was hot, unbearably hot. His council babbled as usual as they ferociously looked through documents, but today a new hint of urgency had entered the room. It was because of the Doctor. The Doctor said that this new disease could not be cured, that it consumed its victims in a matter of weeks, that it was a painful death, a cruel death. It was impossible to determine the vector of the disease. The village was in chaos. Folks were terrified, and there was nothing more that he could do.
The silence after the Doctor’s admission of defeat was deafening. It was the first time the meetings had been silent and peaceful as if the idea of impending doom had finally placated the council. Then Elkar spoke.
“What of the Witch on the hill? Perhaps she can help?”
Elkar’s voice was deep, loud, and authoritative, a quality that did not match his unassuming appearance. Silence followed his question for what seemed to be an eternity until the Doctor finally spoke. “What can the Old Woman possibly do?”
The council members took this as a sign to get involved in the conversation and instantly argued about the Old Woman. Yes, what of the Old Woman? She was a witch, but she was not to be trusted. Perhaps it was her fault that this terrible plague had befallen their village. Others whined she was just a silly Old Woman, that her powers resulted from old-fashioned superstition. The Mayor listened to the chatter and felt a chill come over him as the discussion turned dark.
The Old Woman heard about the sickness from the birds. They told her one morning while she was gathering juniper roots. They chirped she should be careful, that darkness had befallen the village. She had seen terrible illness in her lifetime. She had seen babies die; she had cried in her sleep when she wasn’t allowed to help them because of those fearful of her skills. She learned during her youth that, just like her healing, death was an essential part of life. Some things were out of her control.
She first learned this one day, years ago, while she was crawfishing on the North River and came across a woman floating face down. The woman was dressed all in white, her black hair swirling around her like kelp beds. The Old Woman pulled her out of the water, and once she had wrestled her into her canoe, she found she had no breath. She quickly stripped the woman of her clothing, exposing her pale, cold naked body. It was the first time the Old Woman tried to heal someone so close to death.
After several attempts to heal the woman, she realized that her typical laying of hands would not suffice. It wasn’t until the Old Woman stripped herself of clothing and used her entire body as a healing conduit that she was able to resuscitate the river’s victim. Once resuscitated, the woman cried for days and days and eventually drowned herself again.
The first time the Old Woman saw the sickness was the day the villagers came for her. They came in the evening beneath the light of the moon. They came howling and shouting about evil and hunger. The Old Woman knew her time had come, and a gray sadness washed over her. She wrapped her hair in a silver cloth and washed her hands and feet with oil. She crushed the root of a gonder as they banged on her door and rubbed it on her forehead right before they grabbed her and dragged her into an angry snarl.
The Doctor saw the Old Woman in the village square. The sickened villagers were poking and jabbing at her, yelling curses and spitting in the dark. They begged her to heal them one moment, and then the next, they admonished her for being a witch. A huge voracious fire burned in a pit, and wood was tossed onto it, its flames flickering against the black of the sky as the scene played below.
The Old Woman did not cry out as they beat her. Instead, she looked serene, as if she was seeing and feeling something completely different. She looked up at the moon, a milky gaze filling her eyes and a serene smile suddenly coming over her face. She looked above, past their fists and their feet. She brought one hand to her face, pressing her index finger between the space between her eyes and then a whoosh of wind and silence.
While the villagers murmured amongst themselves, the Doctor looked to the sky, and up at the moon, a look of disbelief on his face as an opaque silhouette swam in the moonlight and disappeared amongst the stars.
The Old Woman swam. She swam in magnificent light. The moonbeams were warmer than she had ever felt, and they melted into her as she floated higher and higher into the atmosphere. She did not look back at her old life below. Instead, her heart was full with the light of a million stars, and she was sated. She was free. And then she saw them dancing in a mighty ring in the light, swathed in ivory, singing songs she had only dreamed of, the reflection of the stars in the onyx of their skin. She knew she was finally home.
It was time to leave. The sickness had run its course through the village, and it was finally silent after weeks of death, of suffering. It was time to move on, and the Mayor was packing his things. He packed his pipe, whiskey glasses, some of his most cherished tomes, and clothing. He paused by the window and watched the scene below. The streets were quiet. The trees were barren, and the wind was blowing. A full moon hung high in the sky.
The smell of death still lingered, and the aroma turned his stomach. He needed to leave this place. He looked at his thin wrists and grimaced to himself. They were boney, and his veins protruded through his skin like the roots of an alabaster tree. He paused and whispered the words that needed to be said. The words that no one knew were his. The words that he controlled but sometimes did not.
The words worked their way into his flesh, breaking the illusion of starvation, his hands and arms, and body regaining the appearance of health. He sighed in relief and swallowed the tar of the words, grateful that they had chosen to listen, to stop.
He put his sack near the door and got to the task of prying the floorboards up from their temporary resting place. The gentle pop of the boards as they loosened their hold on the floor comforted him. He carefully laid the wood panels to one side and reached into the darkness. Then his face filled with fear as he frantically felt around his hiding place.
“Looking for this?”
Elkar suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway. He was holding an ornately carved wood box calmly in his hands. The Mayor struggled to his feet, alarmed.
“Surprised, I see. The waste does nothing to me. Just as it does nothing to you and nothing to the Witch on the hill.” Elkar casually examined the exterior of the box almost nonchalantly.
The Mayor remained silent, his eyes trailing down to the box in Elkar’s hands. He could tell him, tell him how things had gotten out of control, how he hadn’t meant for any of this to happen. That his mother had warned him about saying the words that forced their way from his mouth, the words that did not always follow his commands and ran haywire like the wind. But he knew, he knew, somehow it wouldn’t matter. Nothing ever did, and so he eyed a large butcher knife out of the corner of his eye and contemplated whether he would need to use it against the old man if the words didn’t listen to him this time.
Elkar slowly opened the box. Inside was a tangle of braided roots, gnarled and ancient in design, twisted and wise beneath the pale moonlight offered by a nearby window.
The Mayor slowly edged his way to the counter where the knife lay and finally spoke as Elkar closed the box’s lid. The words that flowed from his mouth came out in a hiss. They stung the surrounding air. They were strong, twisted, vile, and without rhythm. These words were deadly, and the Mayor knew this. These were words that had been his mother’s, words that did not hesitate. They caused neither waste nor sickness, just death.
Elkar looked at him wearily and shook his head. “Be careful with those words. They aren’t meant for speaking.”
“You should be careful with that box. It was my mother’s,” the Mayor countered as he inched closer to the knife.
Elkar’s eyes flashed with understanding as if some great conundrum was solved. “Your mother… the turnip farm… the Witch’s sister?”
It was as much of a question as it was a statement. Elkar looked to the left of him, an empty space between himself and the frame of the door. He spoke as if someone were there, almost pleading. “So, this is how it ends? This is how I rest?”
He waited, his face relaxing, his body suddenly vibrating, his skin blurring and turning an onyx hue. His large ears shrank, and the wizen face became smooth, and a halo of cloud-like hair grew slowly from his scalp, unfolding like a great fan in the breeze. Elkar’s body stretched, and the old skin sloughed off and fell to the floor. Curiously, so did the bones of many, many mudfish. Elkar stood tall, all seven feet of him towering over the Mayor. He was naked and young and Owusu. His eyes were filled with thunder, and he turned them down at the Mayor.
No other words were spoken, and there was a last moment of confusion as the Mayor lunged for the knife. However, he did not make it, for there was a whirl of light that emanated from Elkar, and then there was nothing. No Elkar and no Mayor. All that was left was the smell of ozone and a remnant of root from the box that was charred and dead.
E.N. Dunn has a background in cultural resources, public outreach, and community health. Raised on Hawaii Island, Dunn uses the natural environment to inspire her writing. She currently resides in the small town of Hilo and spends her spare time gardening, writing, and tending to her three pet goats. .