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Short Story: Ruined Wisdom

Initially published in Grim & Gilded Literary Journal, Issue 5 2022


She knew they would come for her.

She never told me but she must have learned it the same way I did, unwound, terrified, frozen, and huddling in the corner by the fire as they dragged her own mother out the front door, beyond the fence, and up over the southern hill.

This has been the fate of all our daughters.

Still, it did not prepare me. She was more than I am, she was fearless. Or maybe she was not. She hid her dear well, then. Well enough to fool a child and the memory of a woman.

I can feel it now. That threat, a viper twisted through the strands of my hair, its mouth so close to my neck and so steady.

She was strong and she was kind but there were many things I did not know.

They ruined her.


We had luck. That was the word she most often used for it. And as a girl I marveled at how the earth would bend for her.

Lucky, yes.

She could catch an apple as it fell from the branch. Her stitches never slipped. No matter how hard or dry the year, the soil of her garden was always rich and wet. She was learned, yes. She could name the herbs that grew in the valley and knew their uses. She made sweet smelling salves, distilled bright, clear tinctures. Truthfully, this was nothing more than any other healer might know and do.

But our luck took it further. Healing the wider wound, quieting the ringing head. It walked the line between wonderful and unnatural.

And she gave it to them. The fruit of her working, her hands. She gave it to them.

Why did they take so much?

-

For the most part she was a kind and quiet woman. She accepted their disdain with grace.

In the whole of my life, I saw her slip only once.

We were walking through town to the tailor. We had just run out of sinew for thread. She was halfway through sewing my new smock and thought to buy some to make quick work of it. I held the last scrap between my fingers, pulling it tight. I could feel their eyes on us, but my mother took no mind. She marched, head high, my hand viced in hers.

My little eyes and mind were focused on only the thread. Pale yellow, tough. It is a strange thing to recall and yet I can remember it. I wrapped it around my finger and pulled until the tip grew red and darkened, then quickly wrenched it off half in fear. I didn’t even realize we’d stopped walking. I looked up and followed her eye.

Gray, slumped against the side of a building, flies making fuzz of his features, a body. I knew him. Or mother did. I couldn’t recall his name.

Judging by the soup that steeped the ground around him, he’d been there for some time.

My mother’s grip tightened. I let go of the thread. She turned and took off towards our cottage, dragging me behind.

The afternoon was silent. I was scared. I did not know this woman, she was impossible to speak to, the muscles of her jaw bulging and pulling. We had yet to make dinner, so I went out to the coop, fetched some eggs, and returned. When I set them on the counter, she exploded.

“Unforgivable!”

I shuddered. She wasn’t looking at me.

“Mindless. Foolish. I told her. Kolla. That empty-headed git! ‘He sweats at night’ she says, ‘his skin is damp and he shivers. His tongue has gone white.’ PAH!” She snorted. “As soon as she could bring him here. I nearly begged!” Her breath came out as one long stream and she stood there, staring at the wall.

“Momma-”

“Thrashing Sickness has always been curable,” she whispered. “Always. If I had just-why are they so blind?”

“Do you mean the man-”

“Yes. And his stupid family. The lot of them. Too afraid for healing. Or thinking themselves too strong to need it. You know his father died the same way?” she said. “His mother left the valley but I might guess she died of it too. And his child will if Kolla doesn’t learn. Why are they all like this?

“If it were one family- But it isn’t. Its the whole valley. They’ cower in their old ways and curse the smallest change. I know I am their last resort and they think I make them filthy. No sense! And it is part of everything they do. The trading wagons still leave the heading east when we know that the new port is growing well just beyond the bluffs. And their superstitions. They hang those dried livers on their door at Winter’s Turn thinking it affords them anything. Their children will think the same and waste the time they had to learn. And will theirs. And we are weary.”

She looked, finally, to me.

“We are so weary, my girl. You will come to know it.” She knelt, bringing her kind face just inches from mine. Her fine black hair scattered across her features like rain. She said it as a secret “Life was cast in seasons turning, circles closing, a wheel running rampant down a hill that never ends. The world has order. There is birth in the spring, and growth in the summer and then the sun is highest above you so it must then begin to set. The withering is part of the living. Spring always follows winter, and the cycle turns again. This is wisdom; that the tree grows higher every year, that the river shifts and steadies in its bed. That the sparrow learns to fly a better path.

“But people never learn. That was our purpose as it was set out so long ago. Their whole lives from the cradle to the cane and grave, are only as rich as one passing of the seasons. Time turns and turns and they remain. Unchanged.”

She stood and crossed our cottage to the chest looming closed in the corner. From it, she withdrew a book. Wrinkled and sprawling. “You deserve more than what they will do to us,” she said. And she threw it in the fire.

I know the words, but I cannot hear them now. Her voice remains lost to me.

-

I found myself surprised how that bitterness took hold in me even without her. The loss was enough, but deep though it was, any cut can scab over and ache less in time. I couldn’t bring myself to be like her. As she’d been before and ever after. I had no light or grace within me. No one laughed when I laughed. No one cried when I cried. I was alone and yet an audience to all of them. That was the thorn I harbored at my center and the pain was sweet to me.

For a time, I was content in living through the people of the village. Their worries were mine to fix. My luck played no small part. My tonics never turned the stomach. And my tinctures took as quick as air. I wore her cloak and walked like her.

But she was right, I was weary. I saved the marriages of lecherous men. I cured a plague among cattle that were sold that year for three times their normal price. I could nurture this valley. But it was damp with mold.

And that burning loss within me smoldered.

Backs turned when I crossed the street. Heads shook and whispered. People kept their distance for fear of catching something from me. And yet they came, hat in hand, to my door, and begged my help. And I gave it to them.

Years.

Questions stuck like nettles to my precious little truths. These people took my mother. What did I owe them? Why did she serve them knowing what I know? I should like to believe that I thought often on this. But I forgot my mother’s words for months sometimes. It was easier, forgetting and continuing. So I robbed myself of anger.

Or perhaps they took that from me too.

-

They came for her in the morning. Pried the door open as if the latch was made of paper. They ignored me. Left me, huddled by the fire. Cheered. That mangy cat was in my arms and I squeezed it with all the might of my small muscles. It did not want to stay. I could not let it leave. But it scratched and hissed and yowled without end until I felt my muscles going slack and out it slipped. From my arms. From the door. From the path.

And over the southern hill.

-

I have never seen that cat again.

And yet. It returned.

One morning, as I carried water from the spring to the coop, I saw it as a red-brown blur darting off into the trees. The following week I found it in the shade on the path to the beehives.

A hare.

Lithe, quick, and imperious. Its wide eye followed me, knowing. And I couldn’t tell you why I thought it. No, why I knew it to be true. But that hare was the cat returned. And it took to me. Quickly. Barely a year passed and in the morning I would wake to find it sitting on my work table, waiting for me to begin.

It was my joy, this friend.

Soon it was always at my side. It followed me into town. But each trip brought only bad news from beyond the valley- desperation and ruin in the lands I had only heard about. We had a king, I never learned his name, he was distant and I did not care. The people said he won his crown by chivalry. And in winning it lost himself. Drinking, whoring, corrupting. Lands were bought and sold by people who had never seen them. His demise came slowly and heralded the sickness of man.

Towns gone to thieves. Rape and conquest at the borders. Illnesses spreading like fire. The world, it seemed, was crumbling.

Those things did not strike our town as I expected. We were secluded. We provided for ourselves. But the ideas proved infectious enough, and the bad became worse and the good lost their way. And I felt my day growing closer as sure as a viper tightening around my neck. I had done so little. I had no daughter to train and no future to give her. My mother would have wanted it. And yet, though the girl called Shyla from the town showed great interest in my comings and goings, and asked many questions, I couldn’t bear to take her on. What I had should have contented me. But more and more I was distracted by my memories. Her hands. The wild cat she loved so much. Her smile and her herbs and her warmth.

Her voice was gone.

This valley had forgotten its worst crime. The murder of a healer, the girl’s life they tore to shreds.

The world rots and we rot too.

Why stand between them and their suffering when I knew that one day they would drag me over that southern hill and I would never return. Let them be rid of their miracles forever. Let them regret their fear. Let it fust in them until they are over-ripe and sour.

Let it kill them.

-

I didn’t understand what the first one was when I saw it. It moved, soundless, a shadow, and in the night it was easy to explain away. A bat swooping down to catch an insect.

A stray cat.

The next week Artur Morges spoke of a strange stillborn goat found in his field. A twisted thing that was reedy and covered in slime. It looked nothing like a kid. But one of his nanny goats was dead not far from the thing so she must have been carrying without him knowing. Picked apart by carrion eaters, it seemed. Most of them, I hope, were only seen by me. Often at sunset but in time they came in the morning too. Crawling up over the southern hill. They stood. And then they stalked off into the trees or up to the mountainside.

Silhouettes, whining.

The shape of them always bent or hobbled but the animal beneath was plain enough. And I ignored them as best I could. But they just kept coming. And they wanted something. In the spring, a mountain lion with legs twice their given length came down the hill and into my garden. It had no interest in me or my hare, huffing and snorting, but soon to kill three chickens before it ambled away. I just watched it.

For the most part they kept their distance.

For the most part.

-

It became apparent to me, slowly, that thing my mother hid and burned, the birthplace of our luck. She wanted to spare me from it, but no one can cast off their roots. I wish she had left something to explain it. The thing that stood like a shadow behind us. Our ancestors, our power, our guidance, I don’t rightly know what to call it. But I saw it for what it was. A branch that flowed with memory like the body flows with blood. This was the knowledge that came to me silently when I mixed a cure or sewed a dress. It was the luck. It showed me things my mother never had, almost memories, written on the bone.

But I never did stop hating the people of the village and it knew.

-

Nela Wintner came looking for a Quick-tea. She’d slept with the young weaver and feared she was full with child. She was to wed Dan Mulnuk the next week.

I mixed as my hands had done many times before.

Crushing the seeds and grinding them to powder. Squeezing the oil from the leaves. I reached, without looking, to the shelf above for the Red Thyme.

A thump. The hare’s foot on the table beside me.

She sat, leaning against the dusty jar of Red Thyme looking so unknowing but so observant. I had reached for Widow’s Lace which is exactly what it sounds to be. It would have killed her by itself but, mixed with the rest, the death would be slow as her insides bled and emptied.

The hare’s foot thumped again.

The Thyme would give her what she wanted. A husband and, in a short time, a rightful child to raise and grow. I could give that to her.

The thing they’d stolen from me.

So why should I let her have it?

I mixed the tea with Widow’s Lace and sent her on her way.

It took three days, I am told. By the time they realized that her bleeding was not just the death of her womb she was beyond even my help. Not that they would have sought it. I do not think many of them realized. As it is, there are many ways to rid the belly of a child, these things are known well enough among wives and barmaids. It could have been an honest complication. To die in birth is not so rare a thing.

The weaver’s son knew. I could feel his eyes on me whenever I passed. But what was he to do? Admit his sinning? No. Nothing.

I could have been more careful.

The things still came over the hill. I saw them less and less. The whispers reached me all the same. Field dogs went out in the evening and never came back. The corpse of a fawn was found by the side of the road, picked to mush.

They did their work.

I did mine as well.

And they blamed me, somehow. I suspect only because it was something unanswered and I was the only one among them who knew of things unknown. No one would say it out loud but they scowled a bit harder, whispered a bit more. And it grew my resentment. For I could see, in my own hands, the hands of my mother who could do no harm. Still, they came when they were desperate. Where else could they go?

Hegeson knocked on my door and complained of impotence. All he needed, he said, was a good night with the right lass and he’d be well and fine again. Didn’t understand why he struggled. He asked that I make him something that could stoke his dying fire and make the women want him. I mixed him a powder that sapped away at his manhood and his strength, quelling the desire altogether.

The shepard’s wife wanted a tincture to sleep. She was awake nearly four days more before she stopped taking what I gave her. She claimed to see some tortured animals stalking the tree lines to the south. One day she went out to find them and didn’t return.

The lawkeeper lost his hair. And the skin of his head came off in bloody rags, exposing yellow bone. His face was half rotten when he died.

All the lambs in the north field were gone.

The mayor’s wife birthed a boy who looked nothing like his father, nothing like man or woman at all. The child died. The wife died. The mayor killed himself.

Finally, they stopped coming to my door.

How did they plan it, I wonder, without revealing their filthy secrets to one another?

I hope they understood. I knew what was coming, I knew that I couldn’t stop it from coming. Why not lay a few fires on the way?

-

I should have screamed. I should have bit at them and kicked them and made them see me as a woman to know that what they would do was murder. To make them see that I had done my work in return of their own. But I remembered my mother and the calm on her face that morning. So I went easily.

There was no child to hold my precious hare back so she followed us.

Up the path.

Past the Hawthorn.

And over the southern hill.

I had spent many sleepless nights trying to imagine that place. What child wouldn’t? In my nightmares, it was red and barren. I would have found it disappointing. A rocky little valley, with hardly more than a crack in the dry earth and an old wide willow growing from it.

They were silent as they pulled me by the arms. No words or eyes meeting eyes. Only breathing and the slop of their movements.

The valley was riddled with gray-white stones and dusted with gravel. Moss grew in tall mounds. Weeds flourished in the dirt. The nearer we drew, the more stones there were. Less gray. More yellow-white. Strange in their shapes. Smooth and round. Broken lines like sticks.

They drug me slowly towards what I would soon know to be a cave. A darker split in the rock directly beneath the tree. It was there I realized.

Hung, bannerlike, from a thick twist of root was a hart’s skull. The rib cage trapped entwined beneath it.

They were bones.

Femurs half-buried in the dirt. Claws. Pelvis. Skulls. And there were women here. Sleeping in the weeds and twigs, their graceful bodies whittled dry by the earth, shattered.

And I, pulled further among them.

And the hare, plodding swiftly behind.

How long, I wondered, had this tree and this valley grown on honest women with kind hands and a little more luck than others? Where was my anger? Why did I let them pull me down into that cave?

Stone was lit by torches and smeared with the unseeing faces of my generations. The villager’s feet trampled them, their breath unbound the silence, and their sweat sickened the air. They should have been reverent. If they had begged us, maybe, it would have been different.

As we drew deeper, there were patches of disturbed dirt. Broken roots. It was a narrow cave and it twisted down and down and down within the earth, cradled away by those roots.

We slowed and stopped at a bare section of cave wall. If my mother laid there, I did not see her. But the fragile skull of a small cat bared broken teeth to us as they worked.

My hands and feet were bound and with thick iron nails, the ropes were pounded into the walls. My hare did not run or skitter, she sat. Her wide eyes saw all, and the hands that grabbed her stroked her fur as they tied all four of her feet together.

“Do you have words yet to speak?” His voice was shaken but sure. Poul Debredies, the Weaver’s son.

I shook my head and bared my teeth as he bowed his, and from his belt produced a shining silver knife.

“Then let it be done,” he said.

I had been foolish. I could have given them much worse. I let them take me here. I had let them decide to be rid of me as they had with all these women. Without even drawing blood. But it was over. No more girls would be ruined in the mire of this town again. I suffered and I gave them suffering. However they wanted to do it, let it be over. Let it be done.

He drew his knife across my hare’s tawny throat and it smiled in opening and flowered red.

I gasped as all the air in my lungs evaporated and I felt that knife, hot and dull, that ripped her skin. My eyes watered and poured as they killed my faithful friend and watched her blood color the floor. That stung me. It froze my blood and stoked my anger but I would not scream. I would not let them think they had broken me of my strength. Or any of us. Instead, I breathed as best I could and I looked the Weaver’s son in his eyes as he approached me.

His knife bore not a speck of blood and his hands were unsteady as he drew them up. The edge came to my neck and for a moment I was thankful.

First, for my mother who sheltered me.

Second, for that small joy that I had found, the one written into everything that draws breath.

And last, that I had ended it.

The instant stretched. I could feel the knife on my skin as my eyes unfocused and I saw some space beyond the cave and the bones. Distance unraveled like air before a spear, a thread that was unstoppable. And I saw her.

She was looking at her reflection on the surface of the water in a rain barrel. Shyla. Still a young girl, emaciated, cheeks dirty and dress all wrinkled about her. Her eyes were desperate, wild.

She saw me too. As her reflection, I must imagine. The recognition was plain as she saw what I felt. The knife. The fear. The dark.

In a crack as bright and quick as lightning, it had her. The chain that bound me to this valley, that sought good, failed, and made poison. It did not matter that she was not mine. It did not matter that I had done everything within me to spoil this earth and rot the valley until it fell. She was connected. The luck would find her, it would need her, and steal her. If not here, then anywhere she walked. No love. No family. Pitiful little joy, worthless luck, and an early death at the hands of those she helped.

I screamed, finally. I screamed for the mother I mourned with each sunrise and yearned for at each sunset. I screamed for the life they had made me steal from myself, for the love that was woven and rotten within me, for the ruthless truth that contaminated the roots of this world so surely that it could never be made better.

And I screamed that by chance or fate or by the choice of some guiding hand, we had been chosen to suffer this way, to strive for an unwinnable change and be eaten by it. The missing place inside of me was engulfed in that screaming. It grew to something too large for my body to contain and so I reached with it.

It flew from me.

It sought the bloody hole in the hare’s neck. It was joining, entwining. Reconciling the sharp hare’s eyes with my own. We pushed through strands of muscle, past tangled veins and into the marrow. Into root. Illuminating, in one streak, these women, myself, reflections of the same want, of the impossible connection between us and between the earth. I felt them within me, I knew the breadth and depth of their sorrow. And I stoked it simply to wrath. They rattled in the walls around us. Those little cats, toads, harts, dogs.

And they were spat from the roots. Twisted, feral, and very much alive.

At least I knew the satisfaction of hearing them scream too. I hope that some of them made it out. I hope they ran.

At my back, the stone burst apart. The roots gave way. Chunks of rock imploded on my skin, breaking my bones and theirs. A wall of water rushing past me. It was clean. Sharp, buffeting us all. It lifted me and held the burden of my weight. It picked up the body of my friend the hare, it ripped the knife from the boy Poul’s hand and guided us deeper into the unlit cave.

The water crashed into my lungs in its final answer. Nothing could have fought against that torrent.

It pushed, it pulled, it devoured us.

I hope our bones will float.


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I had this idea almost a year ago, but I quickly realized that it's not a story I can tell yet. It needs more time to grow solid enough that I can grab it, even if just by a strand, and pull it out. I