Before they called me witch, they called me healer.
The elders find me in my garden at sunrise, three hale and healthy old men with bright fear burning in their eyes. The Inquisitor motions to his guards, but I wave them off. “I can walk,” I snap, taking a firm grip on my cane and shuffling past my slouching hut. My dignity, and stiff joints, require a stately pace. I will not endorse their plans for me with argument or struggle. Out on the road to the village, pride keeps me from looking back at the garden where a small congregation of sparrows still chatter over the seeds I’d just thrown them.
Over the years, desperate young mothers and fathers arrived at my door holding fevered infants too weak to cry. Breathless children were sent to fetch me, bouncing on the balls of their feet while I made a show of selecting herbs from the garden before following them to the house of an ailing relative. The road blurs and I blink the tears from my eyes. My garden. It was for show. A ruse. Of course, I can brew teas with an analgesic or soporific effect, make a poultice to draw out infection, but this is not my gift.
It is my touch.
When my fingers were tangled in the damp hair of a fevered woman’s head as I helped her drink some concoction, or by laying my hand on a child’s burning brow, this is the means by which I draw their affliction into me. For years I have done this and more. Village boys, returning from the Crusades as haunted soldiers, came to me tormented by memories of the unspeakable things they’d witnessed, or committed. I would lay my hands on them and take those memories.
After each visit, I would crawl into my bed thrashing in the damp sheets, bound by nightmares, battling all the maladies of their bodies and their souls. As soon as I was strong enough, I would limp out to my weedy garden, sit in the sun and smell the green aroma of the leaves, watch the insects’ busy industry – but most of all I would listen to the birds. The sparrows, the starlings and the hawks who, each in their own tongue, would give an accounting of the sky. I have come to prefer the company of these creatures who care not at all for pains and worries of those of us bound to the earth.
The road turns toward the center of the village, and there they all are gathering wood for my bonfire. I straighten up as much as my back will allow and try to swallow the hard feelings that sit like a stone my throat. The Inquisitor’s guards move to flank me.
I’ve claimed the suffering and bad memories they could not bear, carrying all of it with me like a pack animal. For what I take, I must keep. I was a beauty once, now I am a crone with pitted skin, a twisted back, and hairs sprouting from my wobbling chin. What do they see when they look at me? Shadows of the dark and frightening things that were once inside them. Did they realize they wanted me gone before the Inquisitor arrived? Or am I simply an expedient offering? A bribe so that the Inquisitor will leave this village in peace.
A cure that may not last, I’m afraid.
The village has prospered. There are so many of them, straight and strong and healthy. Beautiful, even now. They’ve flourished under my touch. They crowd in as I pass, hushed. None of them will look at me – except for one. Mary. The baker’s daughter, she would come to my door with her mortar and pestle and a thousand questions about how to use the herbs in my garden to heal people. I taught her what I knew, which wasn’t much. I cannot give her the touch. She will be able to provide only what relief the plants can offer. That will have to be enough. Her eyes are wide with grief and terror and locked on mine. I glare back at her. If the Inquisitor sees her cry, he might raise his price. Despite her fear, she reaches out under the cover of the jostling crowd and clasps my hand. A misguided gesture of solidarity? Of Love? Thanks? She is so very frightened.
Quick as a flash, I pull the terror from her, but I cannot hold all of my heartbreak in. She lets out a howl as I pass. The Inquisitor will think it is meant to shame me, but I know it is the articulation of my own betrayal. The other villagers join in, screaming abuse. I stumble then. The fear and despair I took from her bats around inside my rib cage like a trapped bird.
The guards drag me over the wood and lash me to the stake. Below me, the villagers busy themselves with flint and tinder. Smoke stings my eyes, but the fire is already burning away the miasma of disease and hopelessness that I’ve carried across these many years. The heat cauterizes my fear.
I look up as a flock of starlings soar across the clear blue sky.
By day, Rebecca Schwarz is a mild-mannered editorial assistant for a scientific journal, by night she writes science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Interzone, PodCastle, Bourbon Penn, and Daily Science Fiction. She is currently writing her first novel. You can read about her writing life at www.curiousworlds.blogspot.com.