Short Fiction by Katie Young
Mary had watched her mother brew lavender tea on Midsummer’s Eve every year since she was a little girl. Before that, her mother had watched her grandmother and so on. Every generation of women in Mary’s family had learnt the ritual, steeping lavender in a cauldron of hot water, with mugwort, chamomile, and some rose petals, filling their little cottage with a heady, fragrant steam. Mary remembered how lovely her mother had looked, her skin dewy and flushed from stirring the tea, the firelight burnishing the sweat on her brow and damp strands of dark hair framing her face.
“Take care not to stand with your skirts too close to the stove,” Mary’s mother used to tell her. “That’s how sooterkins are born!”
“What’s a sooterkin?” Mary would ask, but her mother would just laugh and tug at Mary’s pigtails.
The brewing and drinking of lavender tea had brought prosperity to the women of the village for hundreds of years. As the solstice approached, Mary’s mother always made sure to cut back the newly-green tangle of vines and shrubs, hacking a path from the main road to the clearing where their little house sat in the cool shade of ancient trees, candles lighting the way to the wise woman’s dwelling. As the golden hour approached, a stream of unbetrothed and newlywed girls would wend their way to the front door, hoping for a cup of tea on this, the night when the veil between worlds was gossamer thin, and the gods and the ghosts and the fae were waiting just beyond it.
The infusion would reveal the faces of true love to those who were yet to find it and would make those who drank of it more alluring to the objects of their affection. For those who were married, or about to be, partaking would make their young men more amorous and their comely bodies ripe and ready to bring forth new life. The herbs would ward off malevolent spirits and enable communion with the creatures who lived just out of sight, so that the villagers might beg favour of them. Please don’t spoil the milk. Please don’t blight the harvest. Please don’t leave changelings in our cribs.
After the tea, the villagers would gather in a fallow field as dusk bruised the sky, and bats flitted after moths. The great bonfire would be built, ale and mead swigged, and there would be dancing. As the night wore on, the woods around Mary’s cottage would echo with lowing and gasps, stifled giggles, and the gentle smacks of skin on fevered skin. Mary was never allowed to join in with the celebrations. She would lie awake, staring up at the thatch, rustling with spiders and other scurrying things, a squirmy feeling in the pit of her stomach, trying to imagine welcoming the sweaty pawing of the butcher boy, or the blacksmith’s apprentice, or any of the other lads she’d heard so many of the village girls whispering about. Mary knew you had to let a boy under your skirts to get with child. She supposed her mother had done it, and her grandmother, and her great grandmother, but Mary never knew her father, or her grandfather, and it seemed to Mary that the cottage was all the more peaceful for the absence of men.
It was Mary’s cottage now. She’d been alone for over a year, and this would be her second solstice as wise woman. It was her duty to brew the lavender tea, and it was time to gather the herbs she needed. Mary banked the ashes in the hearth and built the fire before setting out with her mother’s basket. The sun hung high in endless turquoise, casting dappled shadows through the canopy. Mary listened for birdsong or the scuttling of voles and mice in the leaf litter, but everything was quiet. The world seemed to hold its breath as the sun paused. The Oak King and the Holly King would be waiting in the space between its waxing and waning, poised and ready to resume their perpetual dance.
Mary wandered further into the woods, stooping to pick and pluck as she went, until she came to the ancient yew, its branches bare despite the season, gnarled and twisted into an arthritic claw. Sweat trickled down Mary’s back, icy cold, and she shuddered. She tried to keep her gaze trained on the soft earth, but a breeze through the dule tree seemed to moan her name. She looked up to the place where the bark of the sturdiest branch was worn away, and a tangle of twine still hung from it.
Mary closed her eyes against the memory of her mother’s face, bludgeoned and mottled, no longer pretty, the way her tongue bulged from between her lips. Lips the purple of lavender. Her boots were scuffed from kicking against the trunk, and her dress torn and filthy. She’d swung like a poppet, a broken thing. Mary had to climb to cut the rope, letting her mother drop to the mulch like a sack of grain. Mary swayed and pitched forward, putting her hand out to steady herself against the hanging tree. Lavender had always been one of her favourite smells, but now it was too close to the sweet, cloying scent of dead things.
After that, no one came to the cottage for a while, but as the months trundled by, Mary had found herself making poultices and tonics, remedies and restoratives. But never charms. Never witch bottles. Not anymore. The trouble with knowledge, Mary understood now, was that it made you powerful. And a powerful woman was a thing to be feared.
This time last year, alone in the cottage, Mary sat listlessly in her rocking chair, as she had done most days since her mother passed, and wept. It had been a hard winter, and she could feel the bones of her arse too close to the skin, grinding against the wooden seat. Then, because death had eluded her for another night, she’d swept the floor and checked the traps, and had just made a fire to start a meagre stew when there’d been a knock at the door.
“Mary?” A young woman’s voice seeped through the gaps in the wood. “It’s Alice. Alice Greenall.”
Alice was the baker’s daughter, a fair-haired girl with a pleasant countenance. Mary walked over to the door and pulled it ajar. Alice looked thinner than she remembered, new lines etched into her pale face. Mary stared at her, waiting for her to speak.
“I…I came to see how you are, Mary. It’s Midsummer’s Eve.”
“Yes. I wondered if you might be brewing lavender tea and coming to the feast?”
Mary blinked owlishly and her belly growled. She’d been living on roots and berries, with only the odd coney or squirrel for the pot, and the thought of roast meat was enough to flood her mouth with saliva.
“I thought I might take a cup. William Dunn is going to jump the fire. I want to know if he’ll be my sweetheart.”
Mary twisted her skirt in her clammy hands.
“I hadn’t thought to…I don’t know if I have the ingredients.”
“We can gather them together. What do you need?”
Mary and Alice went out into the garden behind the cottage and picked lavender and mugwort. They went into the woods beyond to find wild roses and chamomile flowers, then they returned to the cottage and stoked the fire. Mary had watched her mother do this countless times, but she worried the herbs had not been dried for long enough, or that she’d forgotten some vital ingredient. She missed her mother like a limb, and she hoped Alice would put her streaming eyes down to the smoke.
The girls worked in companionable silence, and Mary tried not to dwell on the knowledge that Alice’s father had likely been one of the hooded figures in the lynch mob just a few months previously. It felt good to have another living soul in the house. Mary was tired of talking to birds and ghosts.
The hours passed and, as twilight fell, there came the sound of voices approaching the little cottage.
“That’ll be the others,” Alice said brightly, as if Mary had been complicit in their merrymaking plans all along. Alice answered the door as though it were her own abode, and in bustled a gaggle of young women, some of whom Mary recognised from the village. A few of the older ones had been to the house before, but many of the faces were unfamiliar. They chatted and laughed while Mary moved around them, fetching cups and ladling the bitter drink to share among them. It seemed a lifetime ago since there had been mirth within the crooked walls, and Mary found herself swept up in the excitement.
When the time came for the night’s festivities to begin, and the girls left for the place where the great bonfire stood, Mary left the cups unwashed, wrapping herself in a shawl, and following them out to the fields beyond the village. She hoped her mother would forgive her this transgression, wherever she was.
The sky darkened from pink through mauve to indigo as the sun sank below the horizon, and a crowd gathered, many of them adorned with flowers and ribbons, some in masks, some carrying jugs and flagons and great platters of fruit and cheese. Stars began to peep through the drape of night. A band of musicians struck up a raucous song, and someone pushed a goblet of wine into Mary’s hand. She drank it greedily, and went in search of some bread and cheese, which she wolfed down, heedless of the pain in her shrunken belly.
By the time the great bonfire raged, Mary was giddy. She had food in her stomach, the smell of a fat young lamb roasting on a spit in her nostrils, the air greasy with it, and wine in her blood, softening the edges of the world. Young couples chased each other around the blazing pyre, and as the flames died down, the boys and men of the village took turns to try and jump over it. A few of them singed their hair and set light to their trouser legs. The smell of burning hair and cloth mingled with the crackling fat and wood smoke.
Tiny embers whirled through the air, and Mary watched them until she could no longer focus on the glowing motes. Little wonder folk believed the other realm was within reach on nights like this, when there was magic in even the most mundane of things. She smiled as she saw Alice and William Dunn walking off towards the woods, hand in hand, and all around her strangers lay strewn on the grass, entwined in one another’s arms. A group of lads in animal masks danced with abandon, and more and more people were drifting away from the dying orange light, slipping off into the gloomy anonymity of the shadows. Mary took another draft of wine and trudged unsteadily after them.
As she moved through the trees, Mary heard night creatures fleeing from the clumsy footsteps of drunken villagers. She was weightless and lead-heavy all at once. She knew she should be frightened of the dark and the unknown, but somehow the fear seemed very far away, so far that it hardly troubled her at all. A shriek from somewhere behind her stopped Mary in her tracks, and as she turned to see who was there, a great force knocked her off her feet, crushing the breath from her lungs in a great rush.
“Where are you off to, little witch?” said a voice, close in Mary’s ear.
She clenched her eyes shut and opened them again, trying to make out the jumble of features above her. A long, bone-white face, dark hollows where the eyes should be. Like a horse’s head with the flesh boiled off. Mary swallowed a scream as the cosy fug of wine lifted, and panic clawed its way up her gullet. The mummers! The mummers wore masks. It was a mask, nothing more.
“Who’s that? John Hawkins, is that you? Arthur? Rose Macready’s boy?” Mary tried to push the weight off her, but she was firmly pinned to the ground, voice raspy from the lack of air. “I know your sister! Let me up, at once!”
She felt the rumble of laughter against her own ribs before she heard it.
“I have no sister, little witch. I’m the sun and you are the earth. I’m the Oak King, and my blood is up.”
Tendrils of nausea coiled around Mary’s guts, and her vision swam. Cool air enveloped her legs as strong hands hitched up her skirts. Mary willed herself to sink into the dirt, or to float up and away, far above the trees, but her body remained stubbornly pinioned to the unyielding ground. Were there more coming? Was the horseman holding her down until the rest of the village arrived to string her up? She wasn’t a witch. She didn’t have a cat, or traffic with demons, or do the devil’s bidding. She just knew a little about plants from her mother. Her mother who’d only ever wanted to help people. Rough fingers shoved at Mary’s thighs, and all the thoughts were driven out of her by a long, dry, push and something tearing, a giving way, a making room inside. Mary’s mouth fell open, but only silence spooled out.
She didn’t remember how she’d gotten home, back to the warped little cottage which had once been a sanctuary, but Mary now knew had always just provided the illusion of safety. Another threshold to be crossed. One more space to be violated. She woke shivering, despite the sunlight streaming through the small window above her cot, and ran outside to purge the poison and bile from her aching body.
The weeks passed like a fever dream. Visitors called for tinctures and elixirs and Mary made them up from muscle memory in exchange for the coins she needed to buy bread, and milk, and wool, and provisions for the winter. She said little. She felt even less. Nothing except the nagging sense that she was no longer the only one inhabiting her body. A tiny, gnawing, queasy notion that some parasitic creature had burrowed deep inside her, and needed expelling.
When the blood didn’t come on the second moon, Mary stewed pennyroyal leaves in hot water and drank as much of the tea as her bladder would allow. A few hours later, as she was tending the herb garden, she was struck with terrible cramps. Mary went inside and squatted over a pail until finally something small and covered in greyish down slithered out of her. Mary watched the furry little creature for signs of life, but it was quite still. It was long and skinny, about the size of a mole. Its face was obscured with blood and slime, but Mary knew what it was.
“Sooterkin,” she whispered.
Mary wrapped the creature in one of her mother’s old nightgowns and buried it in the shade of the old yew tree. Her face was wet with tears by the time she’d finished. Mary stumbled to the brook which ran through the trees on the outskirts of the village and stripped off her clothes. She stood in the stream and let the frigid water sluice the blood and grave dirt from her skin until she was completely numb.
Mary wouldn’t go to the fire this year. She’d serve lavender tea to those who called, but she wouldn’t go to the fallow field. The trunk of the hanging tree was rough under her palm. Mary pictured the bones beneath her feet – her mother’s full-grown ones mingled with the tiny, barely-formed ones. Mary wondered if ghosts could follow you across great distances, or if they were anchored to the place where they died. At least if they couldn’t go with Mary, they would always have each other.
Mary checked her basket. Lavender, chamomile, rose petals, mugwort, wolfsbane, hemlock, belladonna. Mary wished she really were the kind of witch they thought she was, that she might turn into a hare or a crow and disappear into the wild. But she just knew about plants. She knew all about plants.
Illustration by Lou Reade
This piece came in the Top 5 in The Mechanics’ Summer Folk Tale Festival