The village had no doctors when I came.
I wasn’t surprised; these places never do. At most, an old priest will dispense medicines of dubious quality, gleaned from old Red Cross boxes or missionary groups passing through. Then he will tell them to pray. Doctors never gain a foothold here. The priests are too jealous of their power.
I am not a doctor, or a missionary. I come to these villages alone and on foot, as I have always done. And I find my place, a hut near the edge as is proper for newcomers, and I grow my garden. The priests do not trouble me; it is women’s business, what I do. Nor am I bothered by rumors of animal familiars and moonlit rituals. I have no time for those things these days, although once I might have kept a small pet, a monkey or a cat, to complete the image.
So I grow my plants, my flowers. My arnica and monbretia, aloe and barberry. And the women come and sip herbal tea with me, and take away for themselves packets of dried herbs, more tea, only tea and not medicine to frighten the old men with. And when they trust me, the women with their women’s business, I show them perhaps the other flowers in my garden. Stoneseed and pennyroyal, wild yams. Blue cohosh grows here, and evening primrose. Tansy and angelica.
When the young couple built their home next door to me, I took an interest. How could I not? She was lovely, he was in love. Their parents had cast them out for oathbreaking, code phrase for ignoring an arranged marriage. I was the only one who would speak to her, and she had a voice for stories. So when she became ill in the mornings, I knew. They could not afford a pregnancy, he could not afford to lose her in childbirth.
Over the fence, I explained to her what I might do, how I might help. Carefully, as one does. Between words. In the middle of sentences. But she sickened too early, was taken away to her father’s hut and watched too closely. The priest sat with her in prayer for days.
Perhaps she thought to tell her husband. Surely that is what drove him to it. “Plants from the witch’s garden” she might have said to him, in front of their families. A strong craving, as pregnant women will have. Women’s business, and not for men, but had he come to me in the daytime, spoken the words she had given him to tell me, I would have made him a tisane to share with her.
But when I found him in my garden after midnight, I did not know it was him, and I raised the alarm. He stood there in the sudden light of the priest’s torch, holding a handful of rampion. Nothing but wild turnips, but theft is theft and in a community so small all theft must be taken seriously. The young man was exiled.
His wife did not survive the birth, as I had predicted. The priest and family kept me away. I might not have been able to help in any case, but at least I know how to prevent tearing, how to deal with the placenta, which herbs stop the bleeding. They knew nothing but prayer.
When I came for the baby they were glad enough to let her go. Cursed, they said she was. Ignorant fools.
But that village had become too small for me, the words too loud. I left the tending of my garden to the women and brought my daughter to the quiet spaces here in the deep forest. I named her for the theft that killed her father, to remind her that the act of possession is deadly. As I brush her hair I tell her again that no man owns her, no man will rule her.