Desperate Remedies (Medium)


empty street between buildings during night time

Maribel’s bare feet slapped against the packed dirt as she ran into the city. The only faces she saw were of those still closing up their shops. No one looked twice at her and most averted their gazes to not even look once. But she paid them no mind, her own eyes on her feet so she wouldn’t trip. There wasn’t time to spare for stumbling and possible injury. 

Once she passed through the city square, she slowed to a walk to pay closer attention to the street signs. She’d memorized the directions long ago in hope that she’d be able to find her way if ever given the chance. But she hadn’t realized how long it would be before she’d have the opportunity to follow the path she’d only walked along once before. Back when her mother was still well and could walk and dance and sing. 

But those days were far in the past. And with the memory, Maribel picked up her pace again as she rounded a corner. 

There were fewer lamps lit along this path and Maribel whispered a curse as she was forced to slow again to be sure she took the right turns and didn’t catch her toe on a brick. Back on the Main Street, if she’d fallen, she would be right back up and on her way. But down here, if she tripped, she might not find her way back to the light. 

“Where is it…” She muttered and looked back and forth at the house numbers. But it jumped from eleven to fifteen with no space between for a number thirteen. “What…” 

She was sure the house had been number thirteen when she’d been here before. She was absolutely positive, because her mother had even said it three times to drive it into her memory and added in how unlucky of a number it was. 

But there was no number thirteen. 

Maribel spun to the other side of the street, but those numbers were even; ten, twelve, fourteen… No thirteen there either. 

“Ahem.” 

The sound made her jump and Maribel clutched her chest when she saw a hunched woman standing behind her. She took in the tattered robe covering the woman’s body and most of her face, dragging the ground and tops of her own bare feet. And behind the woman, a house that was definitely not there a moment ago, with a rusty number thirteen on the doorframe. 

“Are you looking for me?” The woman said, a sly half-grin visible under the robe.

“I – um – yes, I think so. Are you the w- are you Esmerelda?” 

“I am, child. Come in and we’ll talk in my kitchen.” 

Maribel only hesitated for a second before following the woman into her house. As she stepped into the entryway, she chanced one look over her shoulder and thought she saw the street shrinking away from view before the door snapped shut. 

“This way, dear.” Esmerelda shed her robe, straightened up, and tossed her glossy hair over her shoulder. 

Maribel tried not to gape at the beautiful woman before her and kept a few feet back as they passed through a cluttered hallway into an even more claustrophobic kitchen. Not a single countertop was free from bottles, or books, or random jars of unknown items. Maribel was sure she saw a bone floating in a green goo in one jar, but dropped her eyes to the floor before she could be sure. She didn’t want Esmerelda to think she was too curious. 

“Have a seat.” Esmerelda waved a hand and one of the chairs slid away from the small round table. 

Maribel’s jaw dropped open and her legs shook as she inched closer to sit in the offered chair. She didn’t want to offend… 

“Now, what can I help you with, child?” Esmerelda’s back was to Maribel as she put a kettle on a hook and swung it over the fire in the hearth. 

“My parents… they’re ill.” 

Esmerelda nodded. “Yes. And?” 

“Well… I … my mother told me about you… she brought me here when I was very young…”

“I remember.” Esmerelda turned and sank into the seat across from Maribel. “But what is it that you are here for, dear?” 

Maribel’s words dried up in her throat when she met the woman’s eyes for the first time. She knew that face. She knew it as well as she knew her own. Because it was the same face as her mother’s The same green speckled eyes and the same dainty nose and the way her lips pointed up at the ends as though she was always smiling or laughing at her own jokes… 

“You…” 

Esmerelda put one hand over Maribel’s and her shakes subsided. 

“Dearest child, what are your parents ill with? What are their symptoms?” 

Maribel’s chin quivered, but then she began to list everything. How it had begun as weakness and sensitivity to the light. How her mother was ill first and took to her bed earlier and earlier each day. And then how she stopped eating and drinking and would barely open her eyes. And after a week or two of trying to get her to eat and the doctor coming to see her and not knowing what to do… her father had become ill. The same symptoms. And then he was in bed, not responding. And now Maribel was so alone and how no idea what she could do to help them. If it wasn’t for the steady rise and fall of their chests, she would have thought they’d past. But somehow, some way, they were still alive. 

“And Father wouldn’t let me come to you when my mother was ill. I… she told me you were a healer and I begged him to let me come and just… ask. But he said I wasn’t allowed to come to the city alone and he wouldn’t leave Mama. But now… I didn’t have any other choice. And I just hope you can help…” 

Esmerelda listened and nodded, her eyes giving nothing away of what she thought. And then she stood and took the kettle off the fire to pour over two cups of crushed herbs. She stirred a lump of sugar into one and set it in front of Maribel. 

She ignored the cup and stared imploringly at the woman. “Can you? Can you help?” 

“Perhaps. But it will come at a steep price.” 

Maribel’s face fell and she stared at her hands in her lap. “I don’t have much. I brought the money from Father’s jar.” She dug it out of her dress pocket and dropped it onto the table. Only a few scraps of paper money and a handful of coins. 

“I don’t take money, child.” 

Maribel’s eyes darted up in confusion, but then quickly looked away. “I… I don’t understand.” 

The room was quiet for several long moments before Esmerelda sighed and took a sip from her own cup. 

“Your mother came to me when you were very young and asked me to do something for her. She asked me to give her a way out. Her marriage was not happy. I’m sure you’ve seen the evidence of that. And judging from the way you flinch at every sound, I don’t doubt you’ve had your fair share of unhappiness at your father’s hand.”

“But… but you didn’t give her one?” 

Esmerelda shook her head. “I did. But it’s not something that can happen all at once. What has happened to your parents… that is her way out.” 

“So she’s going to die!” 

Esmerelda took Maribel’s hand again and shushed her. 

“No, she’s not going to die. I’m going to give you a potion and you will return home and put a drop on her tongue every hour for the next twenty-four hours. She will wake from her slumber and she will recover.”

“But… not father.” 

Esmerelda shook her head again. “No. Not your father.” 

Maribel thought she understood. “But… what about payment?” 

Her lips curved into that sly smile again. “Well, child, your mother already paid for her out when you were young. The payment for this potion is simple. I need an assistant in my shop. At least twice a week. We can probably arrange for more once you’re a little older and your mother is on her feet again.”

Maribel frowned. “An assistant? You want me to be your assistant?” 

“Yes, child. I think it’s about time I got to know my niece, don’t you?”