Daddy didn’t move. “That your hand Annie Carmody found in her wolf trap?”
The man nodded, though it was at first hard to tell that apart from his quaking. “It’s bad infected,” he said. But his voice sounded far away.
Daddy looked over my head to Ona, and she looked back at him steadily. Finally Daddy nodded and moved out of the way to let the man in. And that was how I knew Ona told the man to come here. It was how I knew she told Daddy what really happened with Ruby. It scared me, because Ona’s the closest thing I’ve got to a Mam, since the fever took my own mother, and her Ruby is the only sister I’ll ever have.
Nobody trusts the wolves. My Mam used to say “Shoot a wolf in the back before it bites you in the front.” It was a big risk for Ona to tell Daddy that she was one of them, even if they had been married since I was a mite and Ruby newborn. Telling him that she turned into her other self so she could swim the flooded river when Ruby fell in could have gone all wrong. And until this moment, I thought she never would tell. I saw it happen, or maybe I wouldn’t know either. They tried not to tell me things that they thought I didn’t need to know.
I suddenly wondered if Ruby was a wolf, too, if her first Daddy was a wolf before the fever took him like it took my Mam. But there was no way to ask in this room with a dying man coming in the door.
“Birdie, Ruby, go fill my big cauldron and drag it up from the well,” Daddy said. He was the village wizard. People did what he said. Even his own daughters. He and Ona were going to have a conversation, though, and I wanted to know what they would say. Ruby and I walked out together, but instead of taking her to the well with me, I pushed her back towards the house. She grinned and trotted up under the window. I can fill the cauldron alone, and I only need help dragging it when I head up the hill towards the house.
Ruby joined me exactly at the spot where I needed more hands. She whispered, “They have to cut off his arm.”
Together, we heaved the cauldron up over the threshold and indoors. Ona had already tied the man’s arm off just above the elbow using rags. He lay in the floor, a piece of stout wood clutched between his teeth and tied around his head. I would have thought he looked funny if I hadn’t known it was to keep him from biting his tongue.
Daddy said to Ruby and I, “Now go for Mrs. Carmody. Both of you.”
Ruby darted out the door at once, but my feet wouldn’t carry me back outside. I turned around to stare first at Ona, then Daddy. The man was lying on his stomach now, with Ona straddling his back. Like the chock in his mouth, I would have thought it funny if I hadn’t known the purpose. Ona looked away. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. But Daddy held my gaze. “She’ll come, Birdie,” he told me. “She can’t abide suffering any more than I can. For all she knows, I’ve only taken pity on the man who lost his paw in her trap. She won’t know any more than that if you don’t tell her. Now go on. And hurry.” But I felt the worry in his voice. Healing this man, getting help from Mrs. Carmody, it was dangerous.
I looked back to the house as I ran to catch up with Ruby and saw Daddy going to his shed. That would be for the meat saw, the one he used to break through bones in the venison he brought in. I ran a little faster then, and when I passed her, Ruby also sped up to follow. Even so, we heard the terrible screaming begin when we were halfway to Mrs. Carmody’s. I wouldn’t have imagined a sound could carry so far. I wondered how much Ruby remembered about the day she fell in the river. I wondered again if she was a wolf.
The noise stopped when we were halfway back with Mrs. Carmody, and I thought maybe he was dead. But he was still in the big middle room jerking and groaning when we walked in.
It felt like we had been gone a very long time, but it had really only been a little while. The cutting was over, but blood covered the floor. I realized only after we walked through the door how bad the wound smelled, and I wanted to throw up. Daddy was pushing our stone table back where it belonged, and I saw bloody rags hanging down from the legs. They tied him down then, though Ona sat on his back again now.
Behind me, I heard a gurgling noise, and I turned around just in time to catch Ruby’s vomit in my skirt. It startled me so much I pushed by and ran straight out the door, her right behind me. “I’m sorry, Birdie!” she said. I ran for the well and a cold drink, but only made it halfway before I spewed my own breakfast.
None of the grown folks followed us, and as grateful as I was for that, I wanted to know what they were saying. So I took off my dress and Ruby’s, too, and we both scooted back up to the house. I said loudly, “No, you wait here, and I’ll get us fresh things and climb out the window to you.” Then I ran straight through the middle room. The grown people froze when I came inside in just my drawers, and their voices stopped completely, all but the groaning man.
In the bedroom, I made a great noise like I was having trouble getting down my other dress or Ruby’s. And instead of going out the window, I pulled Ruby in it. Then, we were both very quiet, as if I’d gone out the window like I said. They started talking again, and we crept on our hands and knees to hear their voices.
“We’ve all known him for years,” said Mrs. Carmody. “Why didn’t Birdie tell me?”
“I doubt she recognized him,” said Ona, low. “You have to admit he doesn’t look much like the herb man.” And that’s how I knew his muddy hair was really yellow. Because the herb man who came and traded Mrs. Carmody and Ona’s cuttings and roots for more exotic ones had shaggy yellow hair.
“I knew he was late,” Mrs. Carmody went on. “But I thought it was the water. I never imagined the wolves had got him.” I heard a hitch in her voice that meant she was crying. “I never saw someone that’s been bit before.”
“He wasn’t bit,” said Ona. Her voice was ragged, like holding down the man had maybe been noisy work for her, as well.
Daddy said, “Hush!”
But Ona went on, “I’ve known him all my life, and he’s always been a wolf.” Mrs. Carmody expelled a long whistle. “The wolves are everywhere, Annie,” Ona continued. Such a risk for our family! Ona said more than Daddy feared I might speak. Beside me, Ruby whimpered.
Mrs. Carmody said, “I wouldn’t think I’d hear such from a wizard’s wife!”
A grinding rumble sounded, and I peered around the corner. On the man’s back I saw a wolf draped in Ona’s clothing, its snout daring Mrs. Carmody to argue.
Ruby squalled, “Mam,” and she burst out from beside me. Only before she’d got halfway there, she fell down and rolled over twice. And then she wasn’t Ruby anymore, she was a wobbly-legged wolf pup yelping in pain
In an instant, Ona shifted back into the skin I knew best, crying out as her body came back into itself. She left the twitching man and ran to Ruby. And then Mrs. Carmody went to them both, her angry voice replaced by a healer’s concern for the little girl we all loved so much. “What does she need?”
“Easy, easy, easy,” Ona said, wrapping her arms around my sister’s now furry chest.
“Can she have a willow bark tea?” Mrs. Carmody prompted.
“Yes, when she’s changed back,” said Ona. Without turning my way, she said, “Birdie, put your clothes on. Get me Ruby’s dress.”
I ran back to our room to get what I’d claimed to be coming for in the first place. As I returned to the middle room, a crack like snapping wood announced Ruby’s return to herself. She lay sobbing in Ona’s arms and didn’t protest when the dress was pulled on to protect what passed for dignity in girls of five summers. Mrs. Carmody was carrying a cup over from the fire, where Ona and Daddy had already brewed the willow bark tea for the man in the floor. I knew it hurt. I heard Ona cry out, and when they fished Ruby out of the river, I heard the pain in the blacksmith’s nephew when he changed, but I don’t think the man who lost his arm was in half so much pain as poor Ruby just then.
Mrs. Carmody handed the tea to Ona, then bent over the herb man like she’d never been afraid he might bite her. He groaned, but picked up his head at Mrs. Carmody’s sharp command. “Here, help me out,” she said to Daddy. “He needs to be on his back, now that the worst is over.”
They rolled him, and Mrs. Carmody examined the stump. Daddy had wrapped a dressing on it, and Mrs. Carmody seemed reluctant to remove it, or to disturb the arm very much. “I’ve got teasel. Birdie, bring my bag over.” she commanded. Then, she asked, “Did he have his pack with him?” Daddy pointed over to a corner by the hearth, where the mud crusted shirt and cloak lay. “Birdie, bring it to me.” Again to my father, “Did you cut at the joint?”
I brought the things she had asked for, and she carefully unwrapped the herb man’s bundle. He said suddenly, “Drynaria leaves near the bottom.” It was the first sensible thing I’d heard from him since he told Daddy about the infection.
“Were you using them before?” Mrs. Carmody asked. But the man was gone again, lost in his pain. “Well, it’s something,” she said. “And if you live, this will be what saved your life.”
It was hours later before Ruby could be tucked into her bed. By then, Mrs. Carmody had soaked the man’s arm stump in more of the willow bark tea and made him drink a tincture of drynaria leaves and teasel roots. She went out back, and I followed her down to the river.
She tugged a leather thong off over her head and threw it into the stream with a harsh cry. “What was that?” I asked.
She jumped a little, and I realized she hadn’t known I was behind her. “Birdie, they named you aright, child,” she said. “You flit around behind us and listen when we least think you’re paying attention.”
“What was it?”
“Foolish superstition,” she finally said. “When he was courting me, my husband gave me a rabbit’s foot, and I’ve kept it around my neck all these years. But after seeing that man in there and knowing what part I played in laying a good friend low, I can’t keep it any longer. It reminds me of something your Mam used to say.”
Suddenly, my mother’s phrase came back to me as if I could hear her voice speaking. I said, “Do not rely on a rabbit’s foot for luck. After all, it didn’t work out too well for the rabbit.”
“Yes, Birdie,” said Mrs. Carmody. “That’s exactly what she used to say.” And she took my hand and led me back inside for the night.
This piece stands alone, but it follows this one.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Tara Roberts challenged me with “Do not rely on a rabbit’s foot for luck. After all, it didn’t work out too well for the rabbit.” and I challenged Joelyn with “And spring and spring and spring burst out finally in my soul.”
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.
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