Witch weather

by Jenny

Balm for inflammation of the skin - twelve pennies

Compress for rheumatic joints - ten pennies and a skein of yarn

Tincture to cleanse wounds - one loaf of bread

They don’t look at her in the market or acknowledge they have met, though she can pick out their individual faces in the crowd, faces that had only ever looked at her by firelight. I cured your rheumatism, she thinks staring into the face of a woman who won’t meet her eyes. I saved your marriage, her glance conveys to a red faced man who looks aside from her stare.

They always come in the darkest part of the night, creeping through the back alleys to be certain that no-one sees. Smoke curls seductively from the chimney to beckon them to her, filling the air with woodsmoke and hellbrew.

The creak of the old wooden gate as it swings open, penetrating the heavy silence. The furtive footsteps. Then hurried tapping on the door, looks cast over shoulders, quickening breath and pounding hearts.

The resonating click of the door as the latch swings closed behind them.

Rickety shelves groan with the weight of jars and bottles plastered with peeling, yellowing labels in a spidery hand: Dragons Liver and Bat wing and Ox Sac, some in a mysterious, illegible script from far off lands that they can’t read.

She watches their eyes flit around the tiny room, taking in her stove and her books, her bottles and workbench, her coloured inks and dried herbs. The gutted hare dangling from the rafters and the kettle of something dark bubbling over the fire. She watches them take it in and steel their resolve.

It all would spill out there, among the potted herbs and jarred entrails, their wishes, their secrets, their pains, their desires. She lets them speak, lets them bare all and she would listen in silence until their speech fails and, finally, they ask her for help. For many, this is the hardest part.

She feels the heat of their fear as they speak, senses their desperation in seeking her out. The restless shifting of eyes that settle anywhere but on her face in the glow of the fire.

She is always astonished that more of them don’t run into each other on the way - on a very dark night she is certain of several visitors, maybe more if there is a storm. She supposed they thought it was witch weather, though it makes no difference if they come on a light summer evening or a wretched wintery one.

More often than not, all she had to do was listen. Sometimes she takes a compound of crushed herbs from a Dragon’s Liver jar, or a floral tincture from a bottle labelled Toad Warts and instructs them to take two with a glass of beer at the next full moon. They thank her, maybe slip her a coin or a loaf of bread and hurry away again, into the night.

Then the door swings open and they leave. In that instant her home changes from a terrifying witch's hovel, to a cosy, firelit cottage with a pretty garden and a well-stocked library.

And when they come for her in fire and fury, hypocrisy is an ailment her Dragon’s Liver can’t cure.