‘If this was a fairytale, it would begin with once upon a time or in a kingdom long ago, but this story begins and ends with Enede.
There wasn’t a family in Hamelin who didn’t owe Enede a debt. Whether she had set a broken bone, brought a new life wailing into the world, or painlessly ushered an old one out, the villagers of Hamelin had all begged for her aid. Enede was always quick to give it. She never asked for payment, though she accepted the gifts of fresh-baked bread or a cluster of chickens when they appeared at her doorstep. She had once found a tiny brown calf tethered to her front gate. She named her Yenna and was grateful for the fresh milk now that Yenna was grown. Enede was a natural healer, and happy to help any who called on her.
When she walked through town, men removed their hats as a sign of respect. Women bowed. Many a child had offered her fresh-picked wildflowers. Their gratitude and love made her labors worth it.
When she was just a child herself, Enede’s mother, Agathe, had served Hamelin as its healer, as had generations of women in Enede’s family. As soon as her chubby toddler fingers could hold a pestle, Enede had crushed herbs for her mother. Agathe would name each one and recite its uses as she dropped it into the mortar.
“This is willow bark,” her mother said, holding it up for Enede to see. “See its furrowed surface and grayish brown color? It will relieve pain.” Enede nodded her head to show her mother she understood.
“This is fennel. It will quiet the cramps in one’s stomach and relieve bloating when brewed into tea.”
Agathe filled each day with these lessons as she prepared cures for the people of Hamelin. Enede learned to tell which plants harbor cures, and which cause harm. She learned that moss could staunch a bleeding wound. That ginger root could bring on a woman’s monthly blood. That licorice root and red clover could help a woman conceive a child. Enede also learned to cultivate her own herbs. Which berries and mushrooms could be gathered from the forest and eaten—and which were poisonous. She learned that a knock at the door is always answered, even if it’s the middle of the night. That chamomile tea can help calm a worried mother when her child is ill. The hardest lesson Enede learned is that, sometimes, there is no cure.
When Agathe herself took ill, Enede didn’t worry at first. She brewed a strong tea of yarrow, willow bark, and lemon balm to help draw out the fever. She soaked a cloth in lavender water to help cool her mother’s brow. And yet, Agathe’s fever raged. She began to thrash in her sleep. She mumbled nonsense and cried out, sometimes needing to be restrained so she wouldn’t fall out of bed. None of Enede’s remedies had any effect. In less than a week, her mother was gone, taken and buried in the churchyard beneath the willow whose bark was unable to save her. Enede had briefly considered abandoning the healer’s call after that. Stewing in her own failure, it seemed impossible that she would ever be able to help anyone.
But then there was a knock at the door and the anguished face of a mother whose child was in bed with the same fever. Enede grabbed her mother’s healing bag and followed the distraught woman home. Her teas and tinctures saved the child and many others in the town that winter—though not all. There were a number of fresh graves beside her mothers by the time the illness finally left Hamelin.
That was nearly five years ago, and Enede had seen her fair share of births and deaths since then, though she succeeded far more than she failed. She was every bit as skilled as her mother had been, and the village of Hamelin was grateful.
The spring brought a fresh crop of babies, both human and livestock, and Enede was busy birthing them. The warm weather also brought traveling merchants and fresh stories in the local tavern. While passing through town on her way home after a particularly difficult birth, a man called out to her.
“I have a powder that will lift the blood right out of your skirt,” he said. Enede knew with only a long soak in vinegar and a bath of cold water, her clothes would be back to themselves, but she was intrigued by what the man might be peddling.
“Is that so,” she asked. “And how much would that miracle powder cost?” She was startled to discover that the merchant was young, a few years her senior at the most, and he was handsome. He watched her with a lop-sided grin, no doubt convinced this would be an easy sale.
“I have a special offer, just for you,” he said. Enede scoffed. She was sure his special offer was extended to anyone fool enough to converse with him. She had heard enough. She turned away from him to head home, where she could use the items on hand to clean her soiled clothes. Who even knew what was in that miracle powder? Probably a bunch of old soot.
She heard hurried footfalls on the road behind her and sighed. The merchant had left his perch on the tavern steps to follow her.
“Don’t you even want to hear what the offer is?” he asked from behind her.
“And here I thought walking away was a clear indication that I wasn’t interested,” she replied. Her words were clipped and laced with irritation.
“How’d a fine lady like yourself find her clothes in such a state? Are you injured?” he asked, though his tone was light and teasing.
“Killed a man who offered me a special deal,” she said without slowing her pace. The merchant laughed. It was deep and relaxed and Enede found she liked the sound of it. “Do you mean to follow me home, then?” she asked. “I don’t take in strays.”
The merchant put a hand to his chest as if she had wounded him. “You’ve left me with no choice but to buy you dinner. Honor demands it to prove I’m no beggar.”
“I have plenty of food at home, merchant.”
“That’s very kind of you. Offer accepted,” he said with a smile. Enede groaned. She had walked herself into a trap. She hadn’t meant to offer an invitation, but he had twisted it into one. She had to admit, a part of her was glad for the unexpected company. The house had been a bit lonely since her mother had passed. Villagers called readily enough if they needed her help, but no one ever paid a call just to be social.
She made him wait outside while she removed her bloodied skirts and blouse. Once she had them soaking and was in her spare set of clothes, she allowed him into the house. He chattered amiably while she pulled out some jam, hard cheese, and a loaf of bread someone had dropped off that morning. He could have paid for a heartier meal at the tavern, but he made no complaints about the simple fare she served.
They talked until the daylight faded and Enede had to pull out a candle. She enjoyed the merchant’s company, charmed by his stories of other villages and the world outside of Hamelin, which Enede had never seen. She surprised them both by asking him to stay for the night. When he agreed, she snuffed the candle, and led him to bed.
He was gone when she woke the next morning. She was disappointed, but not surprised to find that he had left town. Her only regret was that they had only had the one night. She would have given him more, if he’d offered to stay.
Her monthly course was late, but Enede wasn’t too concerned. It always turned up eventually. When the smell of frying eggs sent her rushing out the door to be sick in the grass, she knew her course wasn’t coming. Not for another nine months at any rate. The merchant had left her with a special offer after all. Enede’s life continued much as it always had for the first few months. She tended the sick. She birthed more babies. She fed the one growing within her own belly. It wasn’t until the baby ripened past the point of concealment that things began to change.
The women in town no longer bowed when she passed them in the street. They only glanced at her out of the corners of their eyes or whispered behind their hands as she walked by. The men no longer tipped their hats. Instead, they eyed her with contempt. One had even spat at her feet when she had asked after his pregnant wife. Children no longer approached her with flowers, or at all. Their mothers pressed them behind their skirts as if Enede might burn them with a touch. The knocks at her door came less frequently, and only for dire emergencies. It was rare that anyone approached her house unless under the cover of darkness; those who ventured out ashamed that they needed her services.
Enede endured it as best she could, though bitterness began to creep into her heart. After all of her years of service to the people of Hamelin, how could one rounded belly make them forsake her so thoroughly?
When the time for her own baby’s birth came, no one offered to assist her. Enede boiled her own blankets as she hissed through contractions. She drew her own fresh water to have on hand as she labored. Her screams shook the walls of the homes nearest hers as her labor peaked, but still, none of the women from town came to check in on her or to offer her aid. Her contractions quickened, but she spent a sleepless night with no baby to show for her efforts. She labored late into the second day, chewing on willow bark and shouting curses through her open window. The baby was taking too long. She feared the baby hadn’t turned, but she had no one to help ease it into the right position. She squatted over her bed and pushed, praying to any god who would listen that the baby would find its own way out. And she did finally slide down into the sheets, but she was blue and too quiet. Enede picked her up and held her close to her chest, massaging the baby’s arms and legs and back with a clean blanket, trying to rub life into her. When the baby finally let out a wail, Enede thought it was the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard. She clutched the baby even closer, whispering nonsense into her wispy black hair.
She named her daughter Agathe, after her mother. She fashioned a sling so she could keep Agathe close as she tended her herb garden. The bitterness that had taken root in Enede’s heart as she labored grew. As she pulled weeds, she mulled over how Hamelin had chosen to repay her for years of healing. She had guided every child under the age of five into this world, and some of the older ones as well when she had joined her mother in the birthing room. She clenched her fist so tightly around the weed she held that her fingernails dug into her palm. She looked down at her hand and the strangled weed. Wild asparagus root. Useful to induce sleep and help cure night terrors. She was about to toss it over her fence, when she reconsidered and placed it in her basket instead. The people of Hamelin had forsaken her in her time of greatest need, and she had nearly lost her daughter as a result. Enede would have her revenge, and this wild root was the key.
For the next few days, Enede spent her time hunting down as much of the wild asparagus root as she could find. She also hunted down mugwort. She piled the plants on her table, plucking the leaves from the mugwort so that they would dry faster. She ground the wild asparagus root into a paste, cooing at Agathe as she worked. She scooped all of the ground root into a large pot and boiled it with water and peppermint leaves to make tea. The mugwort leaves she wove into sage sticks, binding them loosely with twine. When she was convinced, she had enough tea prepared, she loaded her pot into a wheelbarrow and pushed it into town.
She stopped at every house. She pasted a smile on her face and held false cheer on her tongue.
“I’ve brought some tea for your children,” she said to each mother. “To celebrate Agathe’s birth.” She kissed her sleeping daughter on the top of her soft head. No mother could refuse a toast to a healthy child. They let Enede pour their children tea and offered their hollow congratulations to the new mother.
When she had visited every home in Hamelin, Enede pushed the wheelbarrow back to her house. She waited until the sun hung low on the horizon, and then gathered her sage sticks. As mothers tucked their children into bed, Enede wandered the streets of Hamelin, burning her sticks of sage and mugwort. The smoke found its way to the sleeping children and circled their heads. As the moon rose, and the quiet of Hamelin deepened, Enede walked the streets, the sage and mugwort still burning. She sang softly at the door of each house as she passed, calling to the sleeping children. The wild asparagus tea and mugwort smoke kept them lulled and they walked, still sleeping, out of their homes. They followed Enede as she sang until they reached the edge of town. Enede turned to look at the sleeping town of Hamelin, at the dark houses and streets she knew so well. She looked at her entranced flock of children, heavy lidded and thick with sleep. She pressed a kiss to Agathe’s head and lit another sage stick and led her parade of puppets into the forest. Neither Enede nor the children were ever seen again, but it’s said that the cries of the mothers of Hamelin could be heard for miles and their misery still echoes in the wind at the forest’s edge.
Gabby Gilliam is a writer, an aspiring teacher, and a mom. She lives in the DC metro area with her husband and son. Her poetry has appeared in One Art, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Ekphrastic Review, Vermillion, Deep Overstock, Spank the Carp, and others. Her fiction has appeared in Grim & Gilded and multiple anthologies. You can find her online at gabbygilliam.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/GabbyGilliamAuthor.