I told you it started with the nub on my right hand that became my sixth finger. I’d wanted to be a baker like my aunt before she passed on but that nub got longer, sprouted two joints and a fingernail, and everything went to shit after that. I’d been an apprentice for some months at the bakery where my aunt had worked, but when the sixth finger came along folks said, “You’re the new cure woman. We need one since Essie is getting old.”
It was better for people to assume benefits to the sixth finger–in some places they would run you out of town as a witch if you were lucky and ready the pyre if you weren’t–but fortunate or not, I went to pieces. Back then I couldn’t have told you mint from pennyroyal. Pathetic. I enjoyed the heat from bakery ovens and the sprinkle of flour on my apron, but I couldn’t stand the smoky wood-burning stove that my aunt and I used to boil water for tea in our cottage. I hated the grit that found its way under my fingernails when she dragged me out to forage for this or that herb. The knowledge my aunt tried to pass on had sifted out of my head, but I hadn’t stopped to think whether she might have been directing me away from a baker’s path. I was keen on my own intentions even after that sixth finger, but folks in town had other ideas.
Essie lived down the road, had been a schoolmate of my aunt’s, and was kind enough to share her books and notes with young and impatient me. I flipped through quick-like, thinking if I did a bad job they’d let me back into the bakery. But when my little girl cousin came to me with a stomachache, I knew to get rosemary and lavender.
After she drank the tea and bounced home feeling better, I cursed myself for this wretched way of knowing. Not long after, Essie stopped by for tea and a chat as she’d done when my aunt was alive, and gave me an extra mortar and pestle. The bowl was black, smooth as onyx, and smelled of rosemary, but I could only grimace and ponder how much I missed the polished wood bowls and rolling pins of my beloved bakery. The mortar and pestle were far smaller, but triple the weight. Essie wasn’t the sort to lecture, so she nodded at my dour expression, patted my hand with her own six digits, and left me to pout.
I ignored the mortar and pestle as long as I could, but the smoky fire of my little stove refused to bake bread and every loaf ended up hard as rock. I gave them to the twittering squirrels outside and tromped through the forest collecting herbs that seemed promising—don’t ask how that came to me—but I hung them from rafters to dry and told myself they made the place smell good. I missed the perfume of yeast that wafted through the bakery, though my rolls were better fit to hammer nails than grace a table. When the harpy showed up one day, sitting nice as you please on the fence post and nibbling one of my discarded loaves, I knew for certain my previous dreams were postponed.
“You think you’re so smart,” I muttered to the harpy as she preened her feathers and smirked. I brought out tea for both of us since it was only polite to share with guests. I had to admit the harpy had a delicate way of handling china cups with her claws.
Next thing I knew I was getting visits from the dead almost every evening, their filmy forms sheer as lace. I didn’t mean for those rejected buns in the yard to be a call for communion and conversation–that’s why people took offerings to the graveyard for goodness sake–but apparently the door of a cure woman was open to the dearly departed even when it was closed. You remember Harriet, the lady who worked at the dry goods store, and Lizzie, the former church organist. Nice ladies, just not ones I thought might show up in a haze with bits of unfinished business. I invited them in for tea as well, and I don’t want to say I advised them on haunting methods, but I might have made a few suggestions.
I grew into the profession because I had to, but I never asked for this to happen.
The harpy didn’t try to scare people off, she just sat on the fence post, ruffled her black feathers, and knitted her eyebrows when folks came to call. Her talons were the most fearsome bit about her, dark as worn iron and sharp as a new pitchfork. She didn’t scratch my fence post, but the way light glinted off those claws hinted at the damage they could cause to wood or flesh. I don’t recall Essie having such a creature, but she and the harpy gave each other a nod of recognition on the increasingly rare times she tottered to my cottage.
Only people who were serious about cures would walk past the harpy to my door. I invited them in and put on the kettle–they deserved that much for getting past the harpy—though I couldn’t always grant them what they wanted. Sometimes I was a doctor of the body, though there were apothecaries in town who people frequented for headaches and gout. More often folks came to me for delicate things, matters of the head and heart, though everyone knew I didn’t play favorites or dabble in love potions. That got complicated, and I couldn’t have anyone blaming their ill-fated marriage on me.
The most difficult part was figuring out what people actually needed, which usually wasn’t what they asked for. Sometimes it wasn’t something they could express in words, like the lady who said she didn’t want children, and she wanted to be happy with that choice.
“I’m not sure what would do the trick,” she said. “A contentment brew?”
I sipped my tea. It was good to have a cup in hand because it gave me something to do. I’d made potions for folks who wanted a child—again, don’t blame me for the results—but this was new. I settled on a charm to help her ignore gossips. Some folks had a gift for sloughing off whispers but that was a rare trait. After I was struck with the role of cure woman, my friends from the bakery became insufferable with their questions about the mechanisms of my job, things I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t trust what they might be saying about me while tending the ovens, and I envied their ability to leave the daily cares of work beside the sacks of flour. Increasingly I kept to myself, sewing clothes and tending my garden and going on foraging walks, muttering reminders of how I was weary of village life where words were slung like arrows. When I made my weekly trip to the store, I saved only enough time for a how-dee-do and a peppermint stick while the grocer weighed my coffee and sugar and flour, then I was off again.
I didn’t kid myself. Even if plants suggested themselves to me in the forest, I wasn’t a natural. I looked for answers in books more than I figured most cure folks did. And sometimes I got questions like yours.
I don’t know if you saw the harpy the first time you came to my cottage, because you were so distraught. I offered mint tea then asked your name, knew you needed to calm down before we could try conversation.
“I don’t want to turn into an owl at night,” you said after the first few sips.
“What’s wrong with owls?” I said. Forgive my insensitivity, but I was in a mood and could only think about comparative misery. You had to pick a few mouse bones out of your teeth, but weren’t plagued by a dead organist banging on your door at three in the morning, angry that her grandson was going off to war. The dead were the only people who could be reasonable about death. It wasn’t that the organist thought death was bad in and of itself, but she didn’t want her daughter to grieve needlessly.
Given that lack of sleep, please understand I was a bit cross when you explained how difficult it was for you to catch voles all night then repair watches during the day.
“I nod off at the workbench,” you said, brushing hair back from your eyes. “And the job is monotonous. I need to become something else entirely. I don’t care what.”
“But you must have some preference,” I said. “Being a snail is much different than a tree or beagle or bookkeeper.”
“Just not a watch repair person or an owl,” you said before you started crying into your tea. You weren’t the first person to weep in my cottage, which is why I made extra tea. The mint was soothing, and I added a hint of lavender to clear the mind. As you sipped I couldn’t help but admire your trousers. They appeared loose and comfortable, far better than the skirts I had for hiking through the forest, though your white blouse was already speckled with dirt. After composing yourself you admitted that you were good with your hands and fiddly little gears but you hated being trapped in the shop all day, glasses pushed up your nose and shoulders bent over your worktable. You earned a pretty penny, and your father had been proud, but you were at your wits’ end. I couldn’t tell if your voice was scratchy from crying or disuse, but we both spent time working in solitude and perhaps words felt as strange on your tongue as they did on mine.
When I asked if you could return the next day and continue talking, part of me assumed I’d never see you again. Often people were irritated when I couldn’t produce a cure on command, but you came back again, and again.
“I like the tea,” you said, and I enjoyed our chats. It was one of the few things about my job I relished. We had many entertaining evenings when you told me about your customers, folks who came in with their watches quite dinged up, only they’d never tell you how it happened.
“I’m worried about mothers who are bringing in old watches for me to repair,” you said. You knew they were tokens for sons who’d signed up for the military. We were agitated over that fuss, but your voice couldn’t be heard over uniformed men with gold badges who came to town for recruits, and I could do little to change the mind of anyone who visited my cottage already set in their desires. What mother could stop a young son from seeking glory? They could only hope those heirlooms and charms could be talismans to bring soldiers home.
“My best hope is that a watch could block a bullet,” you said, but no one was safe as long as military folks kept telling young men they wanted to be soldiers. Telling towns that war was the right thing to do. Folks started to believe it after a while. Repetition was its own kind of magic.
If I hadn’t enjoyed my job before, I despised it when even more mothers came asking for good-luck charms. Perhaps they felt a timepiece wasn’t enough and they wanted some bauble or sachet or other lucky piece in every pocket that wasn’t already protruding. Charms were meant to counter the heavier weight of fear, and I should have told them an easy and foolproof solution was to keep the boy home, but those mothers were caught in a tizzy of glory. That, or they went along with the fervor of their sons and husbands because they didn’t have a choice, cloaking worry with a thin veil of pride. I fashioned protective pouches to be worn around necks or tied to belt loops or carried beside bags of gunpowder, and handed them to mothers with the warning that a charm was not immunity from bullets. They nodded and didn’t believe me.
Even with the tea we shared after the dinner hour, I wasn’t supposed to enjoy your company so much. But you were the only person in town I told that I didn’t care for my job.
“Too many folks get annoyed when I say I don’t have all the answers,” I said.
“You’re my best hope at not being an owl,” you said. “And the tea makes me feel better.”
We read Essie’s books for some sort of conjuring trick that might work, but even though I learned new ways to treat gout and melancholy and quell the urge to overindulge in spirits, we couldn’t find the right combination of words and potions to stop your nightly transformation.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s not your fault,” you said, but your tone suggested you wanted to know whose fault it was.
“Perhaps we can try again tomorrow?” I asked. You nodded at your empty cup.
“I have so many books,” I said. “One of them must have the answer.”
“One must,” you agreed, allowing me to pat your hand across the table. Would you hate me if I said I was secretly pleased, since the delay meant you’d continue to visit?
I spent so much time alone, though the harpy was good company. She seemed interested when I discussed cures, tilting her head thoughtfully and pursing her gray lips. I needed to bandy around ideas with someone after my clients left. Often I was jealous of the harpy, who didn’t seem to mind being a harpy and therefore a harbinger of doom. When I remarked on that, the harpy lifted her cup with a delicate iron claw, sipped her tea, and looked at me thoughtfully, as if to ask why she would ever mind being a harpy. A fair question, but I envied her certainty.
I worried I could only disappoint you, but you wanted to keep paging through Essie’s old library. I thought it was three-quarters hogwash, but we had a fine time exploring spells. Maybe it was flirting when you dared me to try a metamorphosis chant.
“I want to see what I could become,” you said.
“I can’t manage a magpie,” I said. “Maybe an apple pie.”
You rolled your eyes and turned the page, jostling me with your elbow, but you were smiling. I shouldn’t have been so thrilled by those tiny excuses to touch your wrist or knee when we sat side by side. Ours was a laughter that could have turned into crying too easily. Sometimes you were so exhausted when you stopped by.
“My shoulders ache, my head is throbbing, my eyes hurt, I’m going to spend the night chasing voles and I only have the workbench to look forward to tomorrow,” you said.
I made tea, aching because I wanted you to be happy. Perhaps ours wasn’t a romantic love, but a love between people who felt much the same way, caught between trying to do our best and wanting to escape. I wished I could master those fairy spells that were supposed to make the evening last forever, make the clock turn backward so you didn’t have to become your feathered self after the moon rose.
My heart twisted when you started yawning, frowning.
“I suppose I should leave soon,” you said.
“Not another cup?” I asked.
“I’m on the clock,” you said with a sad smile. All your smiles were sad. I didn’t know how to be in love with someone who was so despondent.
The world felt cheerless, and the town made us angry with its war and refusal to question. I had just as many people as before coming to my door for cures, but they needed herbs to quell their nerves and upset stomachs. They claimed the bitter powders sold by the remaining apothecary in town did little for their maladies, but in passing they asked me what I saw of their future in the tea leaves.
“I don’t practice that art,” I said, stuffing another packet or pouch into their waiting hands and bidding them good day. Why did I have to provide those charms that soothed the minds of mothers? What good would it do to stop snatches of destruction and save singular souls when my kind of magic couldn’t stop the war itself? That was another reason why I despised my job. I could not uproot the biggest problems, or call Essie’s ghost back long enough to tell me what to do. When I managed to conjure her a few times, she hemmed and hawed.
“Even the best cure person has to make things up as they go along,” she said, twisting her hands in her apron before she told me good night and walked into the hearth.
“You’re doing the best you can,” you said. “What people ask of you.”
I’m sorry I could only offer a paltry token, the amulet to help you say the things your customers wanted to hear: They had brought in a lovely piece of the best quality workmanship, a perfect heirloom to pass to the grandchildren that would keep time for years as long as it was properly wound. Did you wear the amulet for even half a day before you returned it to me, more disgusted with the job than before? You’d spent the day laboring over another cheap pocketwatch and told a mother that you were sure her son would return from the war in perfect health with medals galore.
“Silence is better than that,” you said.
“I did the best I could,” I said softly.
“You did.” You opened my palm and dropped the charm inside. “Thank you.”
I wanted you to be dramatic, kiss me or curse me, something more than close my fingers over the amulet. How long did we stand there until the harpy started muttering? Another person at the door, requesting a love potion that I refused.
“I don’t like smiling all the time,” you said.
I snorted. “You think I want to make a living off chants and dead frogs?”
You laughed—the first time in a while—and gave me that quick kiss on the cheek. By then you knew I was younger than I looked, that stress had rendered my hair gray before its time, but people only thought that made me look wise.
We weren’t doing anything special, just sitting on the bench with one of Essie’s books spread across our laps, when I put my arm around your shoulders and you let yourself lean into me. I felt the tremor in your body that I knew was a pair of wings trying to burst free. If only the soldiers could become owls and fly from the battlefield. Some people believed everyone became owls after they died. I was never certain about such transformations. I was never certain about magic at all. If you’re certain about magic, you have no business practicing it.
I visited your shop once. You were different there. Polite but cool.
“Thank you for stopping in,” you said, glancing at me from the bench. “It’s a busy day.”
“I brought a packet of tea for you,” I said.
“Please put it on the table,” you said, the loupe back in your eye as you bent over tiny gears, the metal guts of your latest patient.
“Of course,” I said. “Good day.”
“Thank you,” you said quietly before I closed the door.
You wore a mask at work. I understood as much as I didn’t like it. I appreciated the way you confided in me when we had tea at my cottage, saw it as an honor, though I suppose you couldn’t tell just anyone that you were an owl. Since your shop and residence were at the edge of town I assume it wasn’t difficult to maintain your secrecy, though I imagine you had to leave the window open in the loft so it was easy to exit and enter. It would have been lovely to see you take flight, launching yourself from the sill into my forest, but I knew too much of your pain to have said such things.
I was upset with myself for thinking about you too much. Wishing for those visits. Did we have much in common other than dissatisfaction with everyone else in town? Was that enough to sustain something meaningful? You can’t put two misfits together and expect things to work. But I tapped my fingers on the table waiting for you. I knew you’d leave someday, decide you didn’t need me, and I wouldn’t be able to protest that I needed you for some reason I couldn’t name.
Sometimes I thought you could stay with me since the harpy liked you, ruffled her feathers cordially when you came to call and listened almost as intently as I did to your work day tales, but you would have been bored as hell in my cottage. You wanted to be elsewhere, those larger towns and cities where you could lapse into anonymity and another self.
I still don’t believe in love potions. Or that any good will come of them.
What would I have meant if I said I loved you?
What would you have meant if you said it back to me?
You listened to my rants in those dark times after the war, when too many people who’d lost sons and brothers came to my door with hankies bunched in their hands, asking me to bring their beloved back from the land of the dead. I had the harpy, after all.
I told you about the anguish painted on their faces when all I could offer was tea.
“They say ‘What about my child? My nephew? My grandson?” I sat beside you on the bench. “What am I supposed to tell them?”
“You give them your condolences,” you said. “Like any other person would do.”
But I was not any other person, I was the cure woman with the harpy and now I was haunted by the bereaved, those same mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who had plied me for charms before the war. They moved heavily through the brush around my cottage. I could not see their faces through the veils, but I imagined they looked at my harpy with…longing?
Yet the harpy was a messenger, not a transport service, and I refused to delve into the dark magic that could only get complicated. I made my visits into town more brief than usual, in the early morning when no one else was at the dry goods store. I did not want to see hearses in the streets or have people give me the eye for “refusing” to help.
I could have called them idiots, but they were merely grief-stricken souls who didn’t want to believe my powers could be limited. Essie must have known that story. Her recipe for a tea for grieving mothers was stained with water spots. It was a complex brew, so many herbs to memorize, but she must have done it. So did I. She must have seen wars, how their repetition every fifty or sixty years was just enough time to forget horror and focus on glory.
She had a recipe for tea to calm those who worried over loved ones far away. That was one I memorized for my own use, the little good it did after you left. I don’t recall what I said, what you said, when you arrived with your box of tools and carpet bag packed for the train, traveling to a city where you claimed to have a cousin though you’d never mentioned family before. I appreciated your ruse, knew you meant it to be a balm for the stinging words. Did you kiss my cheek? I only remember a sensation like burning.
For days after that I stayed up late hoping your owl self would say hello. The scattered ghosts of sons visited instead, ranting around my cottage and trying unsuccessfully to upset shelves of glass jars, then collapsing into a ball of tears on a chair. What to tell them? I could deliver a message to their loved ones. Ask the harpy not to rip them to shreds when they left. And when they did leave, I dreamed of your new home in the city. I doubt you stopped turning into an owl, but I hoped you found parks with more owls and voles and better chatter than you could find around my cottage. I don’t think the problem was finding yourself, but finding yourself in a new space.
Yes, it’s been years, but now there are those familiar rumblings of war. Since you left they constructed an armory in town, a fortification to support the peace, but we know how those stories are twisted. I’ve held my post with the harpy and doled out cures, but yesterday one of the ladies in town, a five-time grandmother who comes to me for poultices that soothe her joints and nerves, asked if I still made protection charms. I said I wasn’t sure I remembered how. If I’ve learned anything it’s that ghosts don’t leave but continue to pester in small morning hours like the mice that used to haunt you. I can’t stay where people might think they need these services. My carpet bag is packed. I’m ready to find you again, in whatever form you may be.
Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. She is addicted to coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, and writes the occasional haiku. Read more of her work at http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/
Photo by Lisa Hobbs on Unsplash
Author of “Tea and Owls”
What inspired you to write this story?
It started with my pandemic grief over being distant from friends and loved ones, wanting to care for people who were far away, and feeling helpless to do so. The story was a place for me to express those complex emotions, as well as the idea of living in a politically divided country. It felt natural for my narrator to address someone who she missed dearly, someone who had been equally upset at the political state of affairs, then the harpy showed up and things went from there.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
I try not to have expectations along those lines, but I love to hear what readers find in my work.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
Couldn’t hazard a guess. Between four and two hundred.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I’m working on a philosophy, I suppose, since I’m a promoter of being playful in whatever form that may take. For me it means having little toys in my work space (I’m partial to small stuffed animals), making ornaments out of recycled lightbulbs, and singing/dancing/drumming to music I love on YouTube. My mom was an elementary school music teacher and we have been known to sing in grocery stores, so I inherited the ability to be unapologetically goofy from her. Sometimes it’s not easy to find spaces of joy, so it’s important to have places (physical and virtual) where one can be playful and weird and not give a(n) (insert expletive) what other people think.