The wind howled and whipped the saplings near horizontal. The treetops swayed and bent to the rage of the wind whistling past his ears, making them ache from the cold they forced within. Biting iciness soaked through his coat to his skin, and his tricorn hat served only to divide the rainwater into three spouts at the edge of the curved felt.
It was hard to see past the sting of the icy sleet, but it did not deter him in the least. He trusted his steed’s sure footedness with his life.
He thought of the note he had been handed only minutes ago as he got off the train. He suddenly realized he still had the parchment clenched tightly in his hands. It relayed to him the woman he loved more than life itself had suddenly taken ill. He’d only been away for a few days to submit a paper to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. What could have befallen her so quickly?
Nothing mattered but getting to her, for once there, he could assess the illness himself. Maybe he’d be able to halt any further deterioration. After all, she was diagnosed by a midwife, not a practicing doctor schooled by the most reputable medical school in the United States, such as himself. For what would all his efforts have been for, if not to save his wife.
A lamp lit the great door of the grand house he called home. He felt it was pretentious to have such a large house for newlyweds, but Catherine insisted and he couldn’t help but indulge her every desire.
The manor grew larger as he neared. The path made a long arching turn displaying it in all its glory. The hooves of the horse threw globs of mud at his legs as they dug into the saturated soil for any kind of traction they could find. It was a miracle he hadn’t slipped, but he‚Äôd always been a sure-footed steed and tonight was no different.
Before the horse came to a complete stop Benjamin was already off, medical bag in hand and running for the door. He beat upon it impatiently when a middle-aged woman unlatched it. He pushed it wide, spreading a wide angle of golden light into the pitch black of the storm and barged in, nearly knocking the woman down.
The house was sparsely furnished as they’d only recently moved in. He took the stairs two at a time and burst into the bedroom two familiar woman occupied. One stood on the left side of the bed and the other was his beautiful wife in a tangle of pastel colored quilts piled upon her. Her strawberry blond locks poured over the pillow in golden waves.
“Catherine,” he called as he advanced to the foot of the bed, but there was no reply, instead she shivered in a sweat as a response to the woman laying a freshly wrung cloth of water on her forehead. Her white cotton nightgown clung to the dampness of her skin accentuating her curves. Her lips moved as if trying to speak and Benjamin listened closely, but it was nonsensical babble she murmured over and over like a chant.
Similar in beauty, but not as striking as his love, was her sister Charlotte, attending her. The lantern light showed tracks on her face where her tears had left and lingered before falling to her bosom. The woman who opened the door, trailed behind him out of breath, he could only assume she was the midwife.
“You made good time from the train station, Dr. Adams,” Charlotte said.
Acknowledging his honorific title, he quickly moved to Catherine’s side. His hand stroked her cheek, feeling the heat pouring off of her. He pulled a small hard leather case from his bag, extracting a glass thermometer from within. He placed it in Catherine’s mouth. The midwife gasped at such gadgetry. He scoffed at her ignorance noting his pocket watch for the time. He also pulled out a strange looking item made of metal and tubing with bell like objects at the ends. He inserted one end into his ears and placed the bells on Catherine’s chest.
The midwife had all she could stand of such nonsense and quickly grabbed her coat and things fleeing into the relentless rain that angrily beat on the roof and windows in defiance of entry.
When he was finished listening to her heart and lungs, he turned his attention to Charlotte. “Ms. Owens, can you tell me what your sister was doing or express to me what you think caused such a quick onset of symptoms.”
“I can, dear sir, but you’ll think me quite insane.”
“Despite your fears, please do go on.”
Charlotte hesitated, looked to her sister, then began to speak. “I dare say my sister has kept some secrets from you. Our family, or I should say the women of our family, are known in these parts for their… well… she said, looking to Benjamin’s face, then ashamedly tore her gaze away and continued. “Healers.”
“Healers, Ms. Owens?” he questioned. “Healers of what? Midwives?”
“No, not quite. We attended to the more… magical areas and properties,” she said wincing with a peculiar smile.
“You’re telling that my Catherine is a witch? Poppycock. What a ridiculous accusation. You should be ashamed for your slander.”
“I am and I do not speak of this lightly. My life and hers,” she said waving a hand to Catherine, “weigh in your hands. One word, and you could send us to burn at the stake,” she said as more tears fell. “You know not how reluctant I am to divulge such things, but it’s a necessary evil.”
“I don’t understand. Are you saying her ailment was brought on by magic?”
“I am. A clumsy mistake, if you will.”
“Ms. Owens, you‚Äôre testing my patience, despite my fondness for you.”
“Yes. I do apologize. It weighs heavily on me.”
“I’m sorry for your discomfort, but you must explain what’s happened so I may counteract her decline.”
“Of course. She has ingested a potion meant for another. A terrible potion. A potion that would leave its victim… dare say, incapacitated.”
“What pray tell, is in this supposed potion you speak of?”
“The list of ingredients are in the book in the nightstand.” He went to the drawer to find an ancient well-read book with symbols etched on leather he had never seen before.
“It’s bookmarked at the appropriate page,” Charlotte added. He opened the book to the tagged page. He did not like the name of the brew or its blend of herbs‚ “Poppet for the Taking.”
“The amounts of these ingredients would render a horse incapacitated let alone a petite woman and quite likely kill both.”
“Yes,” she admitted.
“How did she happen to ingest this?”
“She asked me to fetch her tonic. The one for her headaches.”
“I know of it – A tonic she makes from the bark of white willow, peppermint, and valerian brewed into honey.”
“The very one. It was not in the cabinet it frequented so I rummaged in her handbag and coat finding a similar bottle. I prepared her tea and brought it to her like I’ve done a thousand times before.
“A strange look came over her face and she asked me where I had found her tonic. When I responded she started screaming at me. She explained I’d put a potion, not the tonic, in her tea. I had thought we had stopped our practices when we came to live with you, but evidently I was wrong.”
He gave her olive oil to induce vomiting, but to no avail. He attached leeches to each forearm and tried to speak to Catherine, but she only trembled from the fever and whispered undetectable words.
“I’ve tried most everything I could think of to rouse Catherine from her affliction. Her vitals are weakening, and I know not what else can be done.”
“There is nothing.”
“There must be. You say you are a witch. If you are such, then do what you must to save her.”
“I cannot. Her magic is dark, and I do not delve within that book.” She motioned toward the book he‚Äôd set at the foot of the bed in what Benjamin could only construe as disgust.
“What do you mean?”
“Each witch is taught to bring no harm whilst the magic ought turn upon her three-fold. If she pursues a path of wickedness, there is no going back.”
“You’re saying this book is evil?” he said, waving it around mocking her. She winced at his gesture.
“It is. We are taught by our ancestors from a book of shadows we all contribute to throughout our lifetimes. Some witches have their own personal book, the book you hold is our aunt Cora’s. She sought a life of power and greed and the items she entered into that book are heinously wicked. I have white magic, pure and natural, like the earth itself.”
“I don’t care about good and bad, the evil and the wicked. I only want my wife back. You could bring her back from this abyss. You can undo whatever she did.”
“It’s not that simple. Without knowing her exact words and her intention, the spell cannot be reversed. I could only transform it into something maybe less vicious.”
“Then do that.”
“You know not what you ask. There‚Äôs no guarantee of saving her.”
“You have to do it. She’s your sister. I must insist.”