“Holly is one of the most fickle of plants.” It’s my mother who is telling me this as she strokes my hair, on nights when I was young and had trouble sleeping. “It can be powerful protection, but then sometimes, it betrays you. Emily, never forget this.” I would nod sleepily, eyes closed and not really paying attention, halfway into dreams.
In the years since they took her, I would come to berate myself endlessly for this. For not having made the effort to pay attention during those nights together, when she sat with her attention focused entirely on me. Despite my best efforts, my mother remains, stubbornly, a mostly misty figure in back my consciousness. Her details, the idiosyncrasies of her personality remain stubbornly out of reach for me. But on late nights sometimes as I lie awake in bed, feeling my own daughter twist inside of me, I think I hear her speaking to me, and she is always telling me of growing things.
I live-have always lived-in a small rural village far off of any map that you’ve ever seen. The fact of our insularity brings with it all of the rewards and the miseries that you might imagine. It’s a close knit community, filled with hard working, virtuous people who go to church, till their land, and take care of their own. But what is strong can also become inflexible, suspicious of change, and hostile to outsiders.
My mother had two strikes against her from the beginning, as she was the town midwife, and that rarest of creatures, a foreigner to our village. She showed up romantically one Sunday afternoon as the crowd was letting out from church, a bedraggled, beautiful teenager who was just then wild eyed with hunger and fever. As I heard it, the first person to make his way from the midst of the stunned crowd and help the sick girl was the local doctor, an earnest young man who was just then setting up his own practice. Carefully, and ignoring the mutters of disapproval that were coming from all sides, he escorted the shivering young woman back to his office and preceded with the work of nursing her back to health. Of course they fell in love. Who wouldn’t have done the same in their shoes?
No one knows if she told the doctor where she came from, and why she had left. If she had, neither of them told anyone else. All the other villagers knew was that one day, my mother was there, and she had become such an important fixture in the doctor’s life that no one, least of all the doctor, could imagine that it ever been any other way.
The two of them quickly became inseparable. The villagers had always known the doctor to be a shy, awkward young man who could barely say two sentences in public, and who seemed to be terrified by the idea of actually interacting with his patients. Now, he was always glowing and bubbling over with charm, whether giggling with my mother in the marketplace over the price of melons, or suavely comforting the fears of a wounded child. My mother began accompanying him on visits to patients, first silently observing, and then slowly, starting to take on a more active role. For example, she might make a subtle suggestion to him about a different blend of herbs he might try for this patient, as she had heard somewhere that it could do wonders for whooping cough. Or perhaps a heated poultice might be just thing to remove that grandfather’s gout. He laughed off her suggestions at first. But the first time he encountered a patient that was sick enough that he became desperate, he tried one of her ideas. It worked. The patient was back on his feet in a week, and the doctor began to take my mother’s medical advice more seriously.
Of course no one in the village quite trusted my mother, but they all saw how the doctor’s cure rate has skyrocketed when she came to town, so they let it be. What was more, the villagers loved the doctor, who had been an over-serious boy since his parents had died in boating accident several years past, and it was good to see him smiling so much.
But then the two of them tried to get married, and this was going a little bit too far for the comfort of the town. The church elders called the doctor in for a private meeting and told the boy he was endangering his immortal soul and also bringing shame upon the town by proposing to knit himself to a foreign woman of questionable character. If he still chose to go forward with this union, he would most certainly not be doing it with the church’s blessing. So, they went to the Mayor instead, and got married in his sitting room.
The newlyweds consummated their act of rebellion by buying a house and a plot of land a little ways outside of town, along the banks of a river. Their plan was that my mother would grow herbs and vegetables, while the doctor would continue ministering to the sick. But word of my mother’s expertise spread quickly, and for the really difficult medical cases, the ones where there was no hope left, men and women began to show up at my parents’ door asking for my mother’s help. She was developing a name for herself, quite apart from him.
And then suddenly, the doctor died. He had been called upon to attend to young boy with a spring cold, a common enough occurrence, but the boy’s mother was an anxious sort. He chatted with her for awhile at her son’s bedside in order to reassure her, prescribed plenty of bed rest and hot tea, ruffled the boy’s hair, and went home to an early dinner with his young wife.
He woke up the next morning chilled to his bones with a pounding headache. His fever climbed steadily, even as my mother tried frantically to minister to him. For once, none of her ideas seemed to work. She sat with him for four days, while he became sicker and sicker. She didn’t answer the door to the mother of the young boy, who had come to fetch back the doctor to see her son, who had also gotten much sicker. She refused to answer any of the other townspeople who came to see her, begging her to attend to their own family members who had gotten sick from this strange plague that had come to the town. She simply sat with her husband, holding his hand when she had nothing else left to try, and waiting for him to die.
On the fifth day, she awoke in the chair by his bedside and realized two things. He had died in the night and she was pregnant with me.
My father had left her, but my mother had a new family now, and she decided to raise me in the place of my father’s birth. Despite this tragedy, my early years, what I remember of it, were happy. I ran with the other village children during the days. There was Sarah and Jane, the baker’s daughters. Together, with Henry, the son of a locksmith, and Elias, the pastor’s oldest son, we formed a little tribe and ran wild about town and through the surrounding fields. However, on rainy days, or when my mother was called to attend to sick child, or to the side of a laboring woman, I never hesitated to leave my friends behind so that I could come with her to visit patients. My mother allowed me to come with her, provided I would sit quietly and do as I was told. I never questioned these dictums and eagerly soaked up all the information I could from watching her attend her patients, thrilling on those rare occasions when she allowed me to mix up a cup of tansy tea for a crying woman, or bandage the leg of a suffering farmhand.
She was tolerated by the townspeople because with the loss of their doctor, she fulfilled the role of healer and preformed services that were desperately needed by the town. I will give our village this credit, I never grew up thinking we were outsiders. The villagers accepted me fully as my father’s daughter, and thus treated me as one of their own. It was only as I grew a little older that I understood that these same courtesies were never quite extended to my mother. When we went to the marketplace, the smiles’ of the women in the stalls, genuine enough for me, would freeze and crack once they saw my mother. No, she was never loved, even if they recognized they needed her skills as a healer.
They came for her on my thirteenth birthday. I only realized by degrees what was happening. It was a clear spring morning and I was sitting with Sarah and Jane on the bank of the creek which ran at the edge of town, contemplating a nest of baby robins which we had discovered balancing precariously in the hollow of an old holly tree. The babies were squawking piteously for food, and Jane was having to restrain me from digging up some worms to offer to them, by letting me know that if I did that, all I would ensure was that the mother bird would never come back to her young. I was near tears at the perversity of this, but was trying to restrain myself and act grown up, because I was a proper adult now and because there was a chance that Elias might come by, and he had recently gotten much taller and broader about the shoulders and began to wear his hair in a style that accentuated his very blue eyes.
However, it was Henry who found us first. He had come flying around the bend in the path at a dead run, startling all three of us, and temporarily shocking the birds into silence. He took a few moments to catch his breath before he managed to gasp out,
“Emily, it’s your mother. They’ve taken her.” I didn’t understand at first, and simply stared at him.
“The sweating sickness, the one that killed your father? They think its back. Elias’s little brother died this morning and the pastor has been telling everyone who’d listen that your mother cast a spell on her, because he hadn’t been nearly as sick before she visited him.” I knew this. I had gone with my mother just last evening to visit little John. I had mostly sat in the corner, bored and hoping to catch a glimpse of Elias while my mother made tea for the boy and spoke in hushed tones with his mother. It didn’t make sense. I said so. My mother wasn’t a witch. And why would she hurt John?
Sarah stepped forward, she had always been the sensible, level headed one of the group. Mother used to joke to me that Sarah would make an excellent midwife’s apprentice, and that if I didn’t behave, she would ask her the baker to switch daughters with her. She squeezed my hand.
“Emily, I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding. Let’s go into town and clear it up, and you’ll feel much better. “ I squeezed back gratefully, determined to be reassured. But we all rushed back towards town anyway.
What we encountered in town was a scene which I won’t share in detail. To describe a mob to describe an obscenity, and I refuse to dignify the crowd from that day by highlighting more detail than is necessary to tell the story.
Suffice it to say that by the time we got to the market place, it was a town transformed. It seemed like everyone was there, crowding around the steps of town hall. The people around me were people who I had known all my life, who had fed me supper and shushed me in church. But I knew them no longer, they were transfigured, swallowed up into the living, hating, many-headed organism which was the crowd. My mother at the front of the crowd, standing next to Elias’s father and looking determinedly straight in front of her. He was shouting at her, shouting at the crowd, this beast he had helped to unleash. I was told later that in the end, he tried to protect her from the mob. Sure he had accused her of witchcraft, of murdering his son, and of setting loose a plague on this village, but he had meant for her to be tried by the Church elders, and to be punished in due course according to the precepts of religious teaching. It was too late now. In a small town, nothing brought on fear more quickly than the possibility of contagion, and here this woman, this stranger, had brought it twice now to their town. The first time, she had been allowed to get away with it, for the sake of her baby daughter, and for the memory of the beloved young doctor. But twice was too much for anyone to bear. The crowd surged forward and overwhelmed him, grabbing her.
I screamed along with the mob, desperate to get to her, hitting, kicking and biting the hands of any friends who tried to restrain me. Eventually, Sarah later admitted to me, she was the one who knocked me unconscious with the help of a conveniently placed pot taken from one of the stalls. For years I have maintained that I could never forgive her for this, but secretly, in my cowardly inner heart, I am glad that I have no memory of what transpired next. I am glad I never saw the faces of the townspeople who I knew and loved, as they hustled my mother out of the market place and back along the path which we had just come from. They hung her from the very same holly tree under which we three had so recently been sitting.
I remained senseless while this was taking place, I only learned all this much later, after I had woken up in Jane’s bed. Both girls were solicitous when necessary and sensible enough to give me the space I needed to process what had transpired. I spent the days mostly numb, refusing to leave the bed for anything but the most basic physical necessities. The prospect of leaving that house, of meeting other people could wait, possibly forever. I would pass the time alternately dozing, or staring defiantly at the wall as Jane tried to brush my hair, or as Sarah tried to engage me in conversation.
Slowly though, enough of my wits returned to me that I began to recognize how much of a burden I was placing on the girls’ family, simply by staying there. The baker’s family had never been prosperous, and with Sarah, Jane, and four more younger sisters and brothers to feed, an addition to their family could not be easily maintained for long. Of course no one had the ill grace to tell me this directly, but I heard enough snatches of whispered conversations on the other side of the wall that I began to understand. So, finally several weeks after I had come, when my fear of what lay outside could no longer contain my guilt, I began to make preparations to return to whatever had been left of my home.
I crept out at dawn. I didn’t have the heart to wake anyone in the house, but I hoped the girls at least, would guess where I had gone. To my very intense relief, I met with no one on the streets and so, was able to make my way home without incident. But going inside was another thing entirely, and so I hesitated for a while on the grass outside, staring up at the shuttered farmhouse that I had called home for 13 years, and wondering what I was going to find inside. At last, when it became clear that no great revelation was going to come to me while standing there, I screwed up my courage, and went inside.
The farmhouse in which my mother and I had lived was simple, but solid and well suited to the two of us. The entrance opened onto one central room in with a fireplace and a great oak table that had served us as at varying times as a dinner table, a work bench, a desk for study, and a medical examination table. On the far side was the door to the little back room where my mother and I share-had shared-a bed and where my mother had kept her books. Best of all were the bunches of dried herbs that my mother collected and hung from our rafters. When I was little I used to spend hours fingering the leaves, breathing deep and trying to guess what each plant was. Somewhat mechanically, I reached for the nearest bunch and broke off a sprig to crush it between my fingers. I glanced down at my hand and saw what it was I had collected.
I gagged, threw the leaves away hard, and raced back outside, desperate for some air.
I was sitting perched on the steps, with my head in my skirt, alternately sobbing and heaving when a hand fell heavily on my shoulder. I looked up and into Elias’s very blue eyes.
I hit him. He stared at me, immobilized. So, I launched myself at him, no longer crying, but hitting and kicking him with everything I was worth. Together, we rolled painfully off the steps and into the wet dewy grass. I continued to try to hurt him, while he simply lay there, absorbing the damage as best he could. Finally, when I showed no signs of tiring, he rolled out from under me, jumped up and grabbed me hard my wrists. I was infuriated by this, but I did finally still.
“Emily…” he started to say, but blood from the split lip I had just given him dribbled into his mouth, and he sputtered and coughed.
“Emily, I am so sorry,” he tried again.
“Stop it,” I said, pleased with the steady tone of my voice. “Don’t talk to me. I don’t wish to have anything to do with your family ever again.”
“Please don’t.” I took another breath, felt myself growing calmer with every heartbeat. “This was my mother’s house. So it is my house now. And I’ll thank you to leave it. I have duties to attend to and I don’t wish to see your face.”
His jaw worked for a moment, as if he wished to say something to me and then thought better of it. Then his shoulders slumped and he turned to leave, defeated.
He turned round. I was feeling wild and recklessness, my mother’s daughter.
“Please inform your father that I will no longer be attending church anymore. You may consider me…”
I searched my memory for the right word, until I remembered one which I had read in one of my mother’s books. It was a silky word, it sounded dangerous on my tongue
“...consider me an apostate.”
His eyes grew very round. I walked up the steps and shut the door hard.
Thus began the years of my final transition into adulthood. It was a harder time for me than it is for many, from what I understand, though not so bad in the final reckoning. In fits and starts, I learned the skills of self-reliance: how to manage a house, and how to grow food from the land. Although the house was located only a short distance from the town, I chose to isolated myself from the company of humans, preferring to imagine that I was the last woman alive, living alone in an abandoned ghost town rather than face my neighbors.
In the beginning, my friends tried many times to visit me to bring me back into the world. First, the week after I had come home, Sarah, Jane, and Henry all trooped out one Sunday after church. It was beautiful sunny day. They had brought along ginger cookies and lemonade and had hoped to entice me to take a walk with them to see the new foals in the pastures. I politely explained that I was in the process of repairing my front step, a task which could not be interrupted. After much protest on their part, they finally went away, leaving me the ginger cookies and to my great relief, not commenting on the current state of the steps, which looked ready to collapse.
The next night however, Sarah came again with a hammer and tools, and in her no nonsense manner, instructed me on what I was doing wrong. She left when she finished, but I understood the message, and was grateful in spite of myself. No matter how I tried, I wouldn’t be allowed to completely abandon the living. My friends wouldn’t push me, but they would be there waiting when I needed them.
Mostly I was content, or at least I was busy enough tending the garden and taking care of the house, that I barely had time to think about what had been taken from me. During the few moments of rest I had at night, I poured over my mother’s old books of plant lore that she had kept in our bedroom. These were great crackling volumes with old leather covers and yellowing, faded illustrations of plants and their properties.
Late one night in early fall, I was sitting with one of these books when I heard a rapping at the door. It was Henry. He stood there awkwardly, dark curls flopping into his eyes. I invited him in, showing him what I had just been reading. He was greatly intrigued. Henry’s father didn’t approve of his son reading, so he had grown up with very few books in the household. We sat together at the great table, leafing through the diagrams and teasing out the various properties of tansy and chamomile, lavender and lemon balm. Henry eventually admitted he had come here looking for relief from his father, who raged around the house, yelling at him and his mother for everything. So, he had thought of me, felt jealous of my solitude, and decided to come seek me out. I was stunned by the notion that anyone would envy me for anything at that moment. But it had felt nice, sitting there with him pouring over my mother’s book. I was surprised to realized that I had missed that feeling of having a friend, and I told him, shyly.
So he came over more often after that. Never too much. Just once a week or so, and he would help me with chores, or we would study my mother’s books together. Or we would simply sit in silence together, each of us thinking our own thoughts. He’d bring me things from town, relieving me of a growing worry that I was soon going to have no choice but to go into town, to stock up on certain supplies that I couldn’t create for myself. Henry had a special knack however, for knowing what I was missing without me having to tell him, whether it was pins and needles, or feed for the one lone dairy cow that lived out back.
We fell into a routine together. He was my link to humanity, as Sarah and Jane began to visit less and less over the years. The girls didn’t mean to trail off, but their lives began to go into a different direction from mine, and I watched as it slowly turned into a chore for them to come to me. Bit by bit, they were growing into their lives as young women and these were no longer lives which included me. They had suitors, and new female friends, and they were each working hard at the bakery, trying to sustain their family. The weeks between visits drifted into months, and then eventually, ceased all together. I never doubted that they would be there if I ever truly needed them, but they were creating new lives for themselves, and they no longer had room for me.
Henry stayed constant however. Like clockwork he showed up every week, bringing with him treats and supplies from town. He seemed to know instinctively how long he could stay before he would wear out his welcome, and he always left before that would happen. But he would always come back. I think that I represented a much needed escape for him from the pressures of his family life. We were quiet together, and we never argued. And in this way, the years passed and we eventually grew older.
When he finally kissed me one day, I responded, mostly out of a sense of obligation rather than anything else. If there was no real excitement in it for me, at least by then he tasted like comfort, so I didn’t mind very much. We were 23 at that time, and it had been a very long time coming. I took him to bed with me, since it seemed like the thing to do at the time, and experienced a slow, melting pleasure as he devotedly explored my body. I reflected that with time, I might be able to grow to love him.
He proposed to me soon after, and I found myself accepting, even though I couldn’t help but wonder whether he wouldn’t rather prefer someone who wasn’t a damaged recluse.
The question of how to hold the ceremony was difficult for us to puzzle out. By this point, it had been 10 years since I had even left the boundaries of my property, and it had been almost as long since I had interacted with anyone but Henry. In addition, a wedding sanctified by the church was completely out of the question, since I had ejected myself from religion 10 years earlier. Nor would I consider returning to town for a civil ceremony.
We were at an impasse until early one morning, Henry showed up, smiling his little half smile, with Sarah and Jane trailing diffidently after him. The girls and I embraced. Sometime in the intervening years, we had all grown up.
Henry took one of my mother’s very oldest volumes off the shelf and paged gently through it, until he showed me something he had found there the night before. It was a description of pagan hand fasting ceremony, a very old rite which was used to bind men and women together, long before the church. I read with increasing interest.
So, that was how Henry and I were married, locking hands in front of our hearth, with the late morning sunlight beating down on our heads and flames warming our faces. Sarah and Jane officiated for us, singing an ancient hymn with a clarity and confidence that surprised me, since they had only learned the words moments before.
Afterwards, we all went outside and sprawled on the grass, luxuriating in our reunion as friends as much as celebrating what had just taken place between me and Henry.
Eventually, resting comfortably, with my head pillowed on Henry’s lap, I asked Sarah and Jane to fill me in on what had been happening in their lives since they had stopped coming to visit me.
It turned out that shortly after the girls had stopped coming to visit me, they had left town altogether. I was stunned, I had known nothing of this. I rounded on Henry, who held up his hand, defensively.
“We asked him not to tell you,” Sarah explained. “We knew we would be back one day, and well, it seemed like it would be too much to worry you with.”
“I would never have lied, had you asked me directly about their whereabouts, but you never did,” Henry said.
I had simply no words. All this time, I had just thought they had moved on from me, the way one does sometimes with childhood friends.
Jane continued the story. “It was our mother and father who requested the trip. things have been hard for our family, and they’ve gotten harder each year. The bakery’s been doing poorly and my parents have struggled to feed us all. So they decided to send us away for a time, so they would have fewer mouths to feed. My mother sent us to her sister’s home, which is two week journey from here, in a little village on the coast.
Emily you would have loved it! We traveled for days on horseback. There is so much land out there, you can’t imagine it. And the ocean! When we finally got to the ocean, it’s indescribable. Sarah and I would spend hours just sitting on the rocks, staring at the waves.”
“It turned out,” Sarah put in, breaking into her sister’s reverie, “that our aunt had even less of an idea of what do with us than our mother. She had no trade to speak of us, she was a mother engaged in bossing around her young children while her husband worked in the field.”
But eventually she did lend them out to the village midwife, who agreed to take both girls under her tutelage and teach them herb lore and the healing arts. The midwife was a tiny old woman with wispy grey hair and a severe manner. She drove the two girls hard, drilling them for hours on the names and properties of plants. They learned which plants could be mixed together to ease the pain of childbirth, and which could be used to break a fever. They learned how to take note of the position of the stars when a child is born, and how to use that knowledge to determine the most auspicious timing for weddings, births and surgeries. They learned how to wield a knife to slice through flesh cleanly, and how to bind up the wound afterwards.
And after more than a year of studying, the midwife brought the girls into her library, a room they never been allowed to enter previously. Here were more books than either of them had ever seen before. There were volumes upon volumes of dusty leather bound tomes lining the walls, or stacked carefully in the corners. The girls gawked. And then the midwife told them that their next task would be to read all of the books and learn all of the knowledge which was contained within. They would not be allowed to come out until they had done so. And with that she promptly locked them inside.
What followed was another year of work, even more excruciating than the last. The girls read until their eyes burned and long after. They slept in their chairs, passed out over extended passages of text, their cheeks resting on pages. The day’s food always appeared mysteriously while they slept. They relieved themselves in a tiny chamber pot, which was always scrubbed and emptied by the next morning. When they dreamt, they no longer dreamed of people, they just saw words, marching out to towards the horizon.
The knowledge which the books contained was nothing less than the foundations of the world. There were texts which spoke of the history of human beings, how they had come to populate the world, the gods which they believed in, who they loved, and how they fought. Other texts talked about the mechanics of the universe, the forces which bound the world together, which made the sun rise and the plants green. Still other texts talked about the more secret forces of the universe, those forces which some people have called magic. These forces are not otherworldly or ungodly at all, the girls learned, but very much a part of the natural order of things. They are the unseen energies of the world, which may be marshaled with time and proper training, in order to bring healing and growth into the world. One cannot hope to harness these invisible forces without a clear understanding of the order things, and without a deep love for the natural world and all its inhabitants. Therefore, it is actually very difficult to use magic for harm and destruction, despite what many people fear. Harm and destruction is the true province of men.
Sarah and Jane emerged from that year as different people. When the door finally clicked open, the midwife entered and faced them, observing the two girls with her usual severe affect. Then without warning, she took a book from the table and pitched it hard at Jane’s face. Sarah’s hand moved without thought and she whispered a word she seen in her dreams. The book fell open in midair, its fluttering pages turning into hummingbird wings. The little bird, shocked to find that it had been abruptly willed into existence in midflight, promptly shifted course and headed out the door.
The midwife regarded them both, and for the first since either girl and met her, cracked into a small smile.
Later that night, as all three were sitting comfortably around the fire, sated with food and drink, the midwife told them the story of her own two daughters.
She had loved a man herself once, many years ago by the standards of the two girls and far away from here. At that time, she was not yet a midwife, but just a poor farmer’s widow, with few prospects. Her husband was a much older man who had died shortly after her marriage, leaving her alone and childless at a very young age. Out of loneliness, she eventually took a lover. Her lover was town doctor. He was a married man, and he kept their liaison hidden from his wife and from the rest of village, preferring to meet her at night in the fields. It was a dangerous game they played together but they were both young, so it was thrilling. It was she who had come up with the symbol they used when either wanted to meet with each other: a tiny sprig of holly dropped casually on the others doorstop, almost unnoticeable to anyone who wasn’t looking for it.
It was inevitable that she would eventually become pregnant, just as it was clear that the man would beg her not to keep the baby. He threatened to ruin her if she didn’t submit. He was a man of status in the town, and he would make certain she was driven out.
All of the threats only brought out her stubborn side, and she became increasingly determined to keep the baby. His anger grew, and she finally understood a few things about him that she had refused to see before. She was not his great love, the way he had told her, many times when the affair was just beginning. She was only one in a long line of dalliances he had, with poor farm widows like herself, or other low status women who he could abandon when he became bored.
She decided to run away, and create a new life for herself, somewhere far away from that man and that village.
So she started walking. She walked for days, until she had reached the ocean. It was a good thing that there was nowhere left for her to walk, because by then, her belly had grown very large and her ankles had become very swollen. Whether, it was by luck or by some more powerful force, she stumbled upon a tiny house close to the water, with its door cracked open invitingly. It looked very warm inside, and she was exhausted enough, that she had no qualms about entering and warming herself by the small fire which was crackling in the hearth. She fell asleep sitting there, and awoke sore and stiff, but just as alone before.
She went exploring and found that the house looked comfortable and well stocked with food and other provisions, but beyond this, there were nothing else which suggested the presence of another person. Then she found the library. This was a godsend to a poor girl from a small town, half literate, but desperate to learn. She was enchanted. She sat there for days, painstakingly teased out meanings from the pages, forgetting in the process, her pregnancy, her lover, and her loneliness. When she finally awoke to the outside world, it was because she was at last going into labor.
The labor was painful, but brief, and when it was over, she was holding twin girls in her arms. She decided to called them Holly and May in commemoration of their father and of the month in which she had left him for good, respectively.
No one ever came back to claim the house, so the three of them settled in there. She introduced herself to her neighbors as a midwife from another village, and proceeded to comb her books for any knowledge which would help her in her new trade. Gradually she acquired a loyal following of patients who marveled at her deft touch and her seemingly magical ability to ease life painlessly into the world. She would try to question one or two of them subtly about the origins of her house, but everyone denied that there had ever been such house on the particular stretch of land.
Holly and May grew into tall and rangy girls with sharp tongues and wild streaks. Their mother would disappear into her library for longer and longer stretches of time, emerging dazed and distracted, which meant that the girls were frequently left to fend for themselves. Holly was by far the more practical of the two, always making sure that there was food on the table, and making excuses for her mother when patients came to the door while her mother was in the library. May was the dreamer, who was fascinated by her mother’s studies, and desperate to be let in on her secrets.
Their mother was firm however, that it was not yet time to teach her daughters what she was learning. She made sure that whenever she was not using it, the door to the library was always locked, and she always carried the key on a chain around her neck.
“There will be time enough later on,” she told her daughters. “Enjoy your childhoods first.”
Holly grew angrier as the years passed. She resented her mother’s library, and the fact that her mother’s priorities always seemed to place her books and her patients before her daughter. She resented the years she had spent taking care of the house and her sister. She had no interest in learning from her mother, she only wanted to go.
And so, one day she did. At eleven, she left a note for her mother and sister, letting them know that she was walking back in the direction from which her mother came, and that she was going to try to find her father. She didn’t want either of them to come looking for her.
May mourned her sister deeply, and with such fervency that it actually jolted her mother into taking action. With great solemnity she ushered her daughter into the library.
“It’s time,” she told her daughter. “But be warned. These books will consume you, you can’t read them with half your heart.” Her daughter nodded, but didn’t truly understand. Then she began to read.
It was growing dark inside our little farmhouse, and Sarah paused as Henry got up to stoke the fire.
I was captivated by all of it.
“What happened to the girls?” I couldn’t help myself from asking.
“Did May leave her mother too?”
“Well,” Jane told me gently, “she eventually did. But not until she had spent several years learning all she could from her mother. Then she too decided to leave a note, telling her mother that she had gone to seek her sister. And that was the last time that the midwife heard from either daughter.”
I was deflated. “And she never knew what happened to them?”
“Actually,” Jane said, “we think we do…Emily, we think May was your mother.”
Sarah put a hand on my arm to quell my reaction before I had a chance to have one. “Think about it, Emily,” she told me. “It fits. You never knew where she came from, but it fits everything you know about her. How she just showed up here one day, and how she knew so much about healing people.”
“No it doesn’t!” I told her furiously. “it doesn’t fit at all! If she had been May, then why would she have just stopped here? If she had left the only home she had known, and had come all this way to find her sister, then she wouldn’t have given up until she had found her. So, if she was May, then who was Holly?”
“We don’t know,” Sarah told me. “But that’s what we’ve come back here to find out. The midwife is dying, Emily, and she wants to know what’s happened to her children before she goes. So we came back here to see what we can find out.”
“That’s not all,” it was Henry’s turn to speak now. “I’ve been so hesitant to tell you about this, because I know how you feel about the town, but there are big changes happening there right now and you need to know. The mayor has been approached by some men from out of town. They want to build a factory here for making cloth. And with so many families struggling lately to make ends meet, this could be a way to bring in jobs for so many. The church is backing the plan, as are many of the townspeople. The problem is that a factory will need land. It will need to be close to the water, but far enough from the town to not disturb the townspeople with smoke.” He paused and swallowed.
Sarah cut in. “Emily, they want your land. They’ve already decided that it’s the perfect place for them to build, and it’s only a matter of time until they come here, asking to buy it from you. And if you say no, they will find some other way to take it from you. Henry wrote to us, asking us to come back here, we so that could help you to protect your land. So, here we are. We came back for you.”
It was all so much information, to process, I didn’t know where to begin. I settled first on my rising sense of betrayal which was so acute, I could barely breathe.
“You wrote to them?” I asked Henry. Any letter making its way from our town to the coast would have taken weeks to arrive. And then allowing for the time it would have taken for Sarah and Jane to travel back, it meant that Henry had known about this for a month at least, but had kept it a secret from me. “You knew about all of this, all this time?...I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t you have told me?”
“I didn’t want you to worry, Emily.” Henry was looking me straight in the eyes, unashamed. “I know how much this town has hurt you before, and I wanted to spare you this. I hoped that when the girls came back, we would be able to come up with a solution and you would never have to know. And if something happened before they arrived, then I was there to protect you. But this morning, the three of us talked, and Sarah thought it would be best to tell you.”
“Did she?” I spat at him. “Why would it best to tell me? It’s not as if this is a matter which might concern me. Why should I have a right to know when my home is threatened?”
He tried to respond. I cut him off.
“Don’t,” I told him. “I’m not looking for you to make these choices for me, do you understand? I don’t need your protection, and I don’t want it. This is not what I married you for.”
His face had fallen and he stood looking at me, mute and miserable.
I suddenly, desperately needed some time alone from my friends and my new husband. “Please leave,” I asked the three of them. I left them sitting on the grass, and walked back into the house. There I crawled into bed, thinking bleakly that I might as well enjoy my house in the time I had left in it.
I was awoken later that afternoon by a pounding on the door. Groggily, I went to answer it. Standing in my door way, was the mayor, the pastor and Elias. I stared at them, blinking sleep out of my eyes. It had years since I had seen any of them. The mayor, who had been a genial older man when I knew him, had developed a paunch and lost most of his hair. The pastor looked much the same as ever, tall and elegantly thin in his dark frockcoat. And Elias, Elias was beautiful. I hated myself for thinking this, but it was undeniably true. In the past decade, I viciously cut him from my thoughts, nursing my hatred for him and his family until thoughts of his physical appearance no longer held any resonance for me. Now, he stood before me, fully grown, and all of those thoughts from my childhood came rushing back.
“Emily, how lovely you look,” said the mayor. “It’s been too long since we’ve seen you in town. Might we come in and visit?”
I smiled thinly. “I’m sorry gentlemen, but I am afraid today is not a good day for a visit. My home is not in any fit state to host men of your caliber.”
“Well then,” said the mayor, “we will keep our business brief. We’ve come to make you an offer for your property. This town has been offered a substantial economic opportunity. We have the chance to greatly improve the lives of some of our poorest residents. But we are going to need your help, Emily if we are to make this dream a reality. We are prepared to offer you a handsome amount for this property. It will be enough for you to go anywhere you want and live quite comfortably.”
I let his words hang there. It was delightful to watch the three of them squirm as they waited for a response. I made them wait as long as I possibly could.
“This was my mother’s house,” I told them finally. Satisfyingly, I saw Elias flinch at the mention of my mother. “It would be an insult to her memory if I were to give it up now, especially to men such as yourselves.” I started to slam the door on them, but the pastor stepped forward, wedging his foot in next to the frame.
“You’ve been granted unusual leeway for the erratic behavior which you’ve displayed over the past several years, due to the…unfortunate incident with your mother. But you should know Emily, that our forbearance is not unlimited. If you continue to provoke us, then The Church may be forced to discipline a self-professed apostate, living in our midst.” I heard a little gasp, it was Elias stepping forward to place a restraining hand on his father’s arm. His eyes met mine, and they were pleading, desperate for reassurance that I understood that he wasn’t like his father. I couldn’t give it to him just then.
“I need you to leave please,” I told them, ordering people off my property for the second time that day. I was trying to disguise just how truly shaken I was. They left me there, the mayor and the pastor strode off purposely, with Elias a few paces behind. He looked back at me, once. I averted my eyes.
I awoke once more. It was the middle of the night now, and at first I couldn’t tell what had awoken me. Then I realized I was smelling smoke. I jumped up and ran into the common room. It was an inferno in there. Above my head, the rafters were splintering in the heat. The dried herbs which still hung from the ceiling were all ablaze. There was fire everywhere I looked and the air seemed to awash in a thick grey haze of smoke.
I hesitated, momentarily unsure of which way to turn for safety.
As if from a distance, I heard someone shout my name. I turned and saw Henry across the room by the door, beckoning to me. I took a step in his direction. Then there was deafening crash as a piece of the ceiling fell in a curtain of fire behind me and landed in the spot I had just vacated.
I turned back to Henry and saw to my dismay that the flames were spreading. I could no longer see a way to get to him. I shouted at him to leave, save himself. He shook his head, shouted something back at me which I couldn’t understand, and continued doggedly to try to make his way through the flames towards me. The air was growing hotter and hotter around me, and I started to feel faint.
I didn’t remember passing out, but all of a sudden I found myself lying on my back on the grass outside. The rush of cold night air on my skin felt miraculous. I luxuriated in it the coolness watching the house and waiting to see Henry come running out. I. Then the house exploded in a ball of fire. I screamed.
Suddenly, Jane was by my side, pulling me back, trying to calm me. Sarah was there too, calling out words in a tongue I didn’t recognize. I watched uncomprehendingly as Jane joined her in her chant. I imagined feverishly that I could see the words taking shaping in the night sky, feeding power to the sisters as they worked to starve the flames. And indeed, the fire did seem gradually to be receding. I watched as the flames died down, taking with them the remains of the only home I had ever known. Finally I collapsed.
I recovered once again in Sarah and Jane’s old childhood bedroom, and it was if no time at all had passed since I was last there. Eventually, I grew strong enough for them to me what had happened.
After I had made the three of them leave that morning, they walked for a while, discussing how I had reacted. Eventually, Sarah and Jane decided to go home to visit with their relatives. They would try to come back and see me again in the evening. Henry remained concern about the possibility of sabotage; he thought it likely that if I refused to sell the property, there would be some attempt made to forcibly remove me from it. So, he decided to go to the mayor, a man who had always seemed friendly and fatherly to Henry. He would introduce himself as Emily’s new husband and he would insist that if one day they came to buy, and I chose to stay, then my decision would be respected.
He never got to speak with the mayor. Henry didn’t anticipate that they would have sent me an offer that very same day, but that was preciously what happened. He watched the mayor storm angrily back into his home and he eavesdropped at the window as the mayor spoke to a subordinate about the need to find another way to make me leave. The men were to try burning me out, that very night.
Henry raced to find Sarah and Jane and let them know what was happening. He pleaded with them to use their magic to make sure that I was safe. They told him they would do their best, but this kind of magic was perilous because to protect one life, nature usually demanded another in return. So, they couldn’t predict exactly what the consequences would be, but they loved me, every bit much as Henry loved me, so they were willing to try.
And that was how I came to be saved that night, and why my husband was not. I thought of Henry constantly. I missed him desperately, his comfortable solid presence at my side. But what hurt the most was the fact that I knew now for sure that I had never loved him, not in the same way he loved me. He had deserved to find someone who loved him back as much, but he never did. He just had me.
Just like the last time, I recovered slowly from my shock and loss, preferring to keep mostly to my room, rather than face the tumult of Sarah and Jane’s large family. One day, several weeks on, Jane came into the room, looking startled.
“You have a visitor in the common room” she told me. “Want to come down and meet with him?”
I came down, curious in spite of myself.
It turned out to be Elias, sitting there nervously. There was plenty of awkward silence before either of us found any words.
“ I came to tell you how sorry I am about Henry,” Elias finally said. “He was a good man, and we were once good friends, the two of us. And your house, too. I am so sorry for that as well, my father should never have said what he did.”
My lip curled, I couldn’t help myself. “You seem to be awfully good at apologizing on behalf your family, but I can’t help but notice that you don’t seem to be able to do stop them when they are engaged in taking something away from me.” I wanted the blow to land home, and it seemed to hit. He bit his lip hard, then came closer, lowering his voice.
Emily, I’m not proud of what I’ve done to you. You need to know though, it’s my fault your mother is dead. I was the one who told my father that she was a witch. I have had…much cause to regret this over the last 10 years. But you have to understand something, I did see her that night, and she was standing over my brother.”
“Of course you did!” I shot back at him. “I was there too, don’t you remember!”
He sighed, exasperated. “No, I’m talking about later that night! I woke up, it must have been close to dawn, and I heard noises in my brother’s room. I came over to check on him and I saw your mother standing over his bed. Emily, she was standing there, singing to him. It was eerie! I didn’t know what to think, so I think I convinced myself I was still dreaming, and went back to bed. And then in the morning he was dead. So I told my father what I had seen, and…you know the rest.”
I was perilously close to tears by now and I was angry yet again. “My mother was not a murderer!”
He closed his eyes, opened them, and looked at me sadly. “No, no she wasn’t. But she was a witch.”
“I don’t believe you!” I spat, even though by now, with everything I had seen I was fairly certain that I did.
Elias stood up. “Will you come with me?” he asked. “There is somebody else who you need to speak with.”
I hesitated, clearly conflicted.
“I promise you will want to hear what she has to say,” he told me.
He led me all the way to the outskirts of town, back to the riverbank where we all used to play as children. I’m not sure who exactly I expected to find there, but I never would have imagined that the woman waiting for me there would be Elias’s mother.
“Holly,” I breathed, in a sudden rush of understanding.
Elias’s mother was a plain-faced, doughy sort of woman who used to feed us tarts as children, but who had otherwise never made much of an impression on me. I would not in a million years have considered the possibility that she was my mother’s rebellious twin. Now, however, it was the only possible conclusion.
“Hello, Emily,” she smiled warmly at me and patted the ground next to her. “Come sit with me, please, I need to tell you some things. Elias, won’t you leave us for a little while.”
I sat, half grudgingly, uncertain after everything that I wanted to listen to what she had to say. Then again, this was family.
She began to talk.
“You’re friend Sarah found me, the night after the fire. She’s a smart girl, she put the pieces together and guessed correctly. But also, I think that magic somehow recognizes its own. I was magic adjacent for so many years after all, and that may be good enough…
I’m meandering. I have wanted to talk with you for years now, but I never quite found the courage. Let me start at the beginning of my story. You know of course, where I was born, and the circumstances of my childhood? It was all much worse than you could have imagined. My mother would disappear for weeks at a time in her library, abandoning her little girls. We would wander the town like feral children, desperate and starving, begging our neighbors for food, or trying to scavenge in the woods. When I got a little bigger, I learned to go down to the ocean during these times and catch rock crabs, which May and I ate raw until I learned how to split them open and cook them.
Eventually my mother would emerge. She would come out of the room with a dreamy, distracted expression on her face. Always, she would be surrounded with little touches of magic. Once it was a flock of sparrows emerging from her sleeves. Another time, it was a cloud of starlight, hovering about her head. She would smile at us, but she never really looked at us. May was always enchanted, but as for myself I hated her. I vowed that I would have nothing to do with her or magic, and as soon as I grew old enough I ran away.
I walked for days. This was the first village I came to, and when I arrived, I threw myself on the mercy of the Church, pretending I was the child of missionaries and that I had lost my parents when we were attacked by brigands on the road. They believed me and gave me into the care of an older couple who were respected Church members. I loved life with them, it was routine, it was boring, safe. I worked very hard at normality, attending Church each week and eventually even teaching in the Sunday School. My goal was to make everyone forget that I had ever been a foreigner in this town, and for a time it seemed to work. As I grew older, I even had a beaux. This was Elias’s father. He was such a very correct young man, very popular with the Church elders, and from a promising family. I was thrilled by his attention.
Then May came, and I was very afraid that everything would be ruined. She was so much my mother’s daughter by then, and so clearly magical, I wondered how no one else could see it. She tried to see me many times, but I always rebuffed her, as I was terrified that someone would find out the connection between us. And then she fell in love with that boy, and I hoped that she would move on and forget about me. I was busy creating a new family of my own by then.
Benjamin was my youngest child. He was always very fragile and prone to sickness, but he was so very bright and always so sweet to me. Lord, I loved that child. When he fell ill that final time I didn’t think it was anything serious, but I had been listening to my neighbors who were all marveling over your mother’s healing touch, and I thought it might attract questions from them if I refused to call for her.
You’re mother came and brought you along with her, do you remember? You were so sweet and serious, sitting like a little lady by the fire while we talked.
Your mother recognized immediately that my Benjamin was suffering from the same illness that killed your father. I begged her for help, she told me there was nothing she could do. I continued to plead with her, I confess, I even threatened to expose her as a witch if she refused to do anything. She finally told me there was something she could try, but it would require a full moon, and she could not guarantee its success.
She came back that night, and she performed some sort of spell over his bed. I couldn’t watch her do it, I had sworn to have nothing to do with magic, and here I was, inviting it back into my life. When she came out of his room, her face was drawn and she shook her head. She couldn’t save him. I was heartbroken. I threw her out of the house and spent the rest of the night cradling my baby boy to my chest. Shortly before dawn, his fever spiked, and as the sun rose, he was gone. With all of her powers, she couldn’t save him. What use was she?
You know what happened next. When the house woke, I was a wreck, holding onto the body of my child. Elias told his father what he had seen during the night, misinterpreting its significance. One of my husband’s strengths has been his tendency towards decisive action. There was nothing he could do to save his son, but he could send me to arrest his killer. And I was too distraught, too cowardly, to do anything to stop him.”
We sat there together for a while more. It seemed like I had been so angry at so many people for so long. And here was the woman, who was more directly responsible for my mother’s death than any other person (save perhaps her husband), but I couldn’t find it in myself to truly hate her. If anything, I empathized with her. She had spent so much time being so afraid.
Dear Sarah and Jane,
I’m writing this late night, as you both sleep in the bed next to me. In the morning, I hope to be gone before you both wake. You have been such true friends to me, through it all, and I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me, but I have doing a lot of thinking, and I have realized some things.
First, I need to leave town myself. Not forever, but for a little while at least. I have spent too much of my life cut off from other people and from the outside of world, and this has made me passive. I have lately been learning that there is so much out there in the world that I have no conception of. I want to see the ocean, and I also want to see cities, and climb mountains. Maybe I’ll visit my grandmother for a time.
Second, you both along with Henry, have been better protectors of my land than I ever was. So, I’m giving it to you for now. Keep it safe for me, and rebuild and one day I may come back to live with you there. The soil is rich, and you should have no trouble growing enough food to help feed your siblings, as well as yourselves.
Third, when you move in there, you should take Elias with you. Perhaps, Jane you would be willing to marry him? Regardless, take him in and forgive him for the part placed in my mother’s death. Remember how he was when he was our friend, so many years ago. He is still that same boy, we just forgot it for a while. He needs to move out from under his father’s thumb. He will do well as a farmer, I think.
He will also be your protection from the town, for if his father gives the three of you is blessing, the mayor will not dare to raise a hand against you.
As the pastor would say, god bless you three, and god bless your little farm as you go forth in this. I'll see all of you again one day, I'm sure of it.
The Holly Tree
Lyrics by Dar Williams
When the robin builds in the holly tree
It's a sign of life, its gentle victory
Well, today as I set to go
I saw a nest in a tree hollow
Oh Emily, you're a brave girl
With your husband gone to the other world
Sing a hymn while I light the fire
We'll be joined by a heavenly choir
Here's the tansy and the chamomile tea for you to drink
As the pain increases, well you only have to think
About a baby. We'll save the baby
I placed a holly sprig by the doctor's door
He has done this well and many times before
He'll be careful which way he goes
But he's been kind to us farm widows
And this I heard just the other day
That they came to buy, and you chose to stay
Soon a child will help you reap and sow
May he cast a long shadow
But you say the trials are coming, you have felt the gathering forces
And the galloping you hear is of one too many horses
But rest your head my darling girl, there won't be any danger
Any Christian ever loved an infant in a manger
Saves the baby. They'll save the baby
Now the pastor comes, shakes the farmer's hand
Says, "The earth will bear like the promised land"
You have heard the stories down below
But God will bless this farm hollow?
Now the farmer's wife shudders, pulls the shawl up to her shoulder
Every time she nears the hearth she feels a little colder
Where's the baby? There was a baby