Children of the Moon
The abandoned hostel was perfect. She needed somewhere isolated, to work unobserved; somewhere that was safe for the girls. Since the eruption, few travellers passed this close to the foot of the volcano and certainly none who did would wish to stay the night. The villagers, who in their desperation had sought Ilithyia’s help, knew to keep away. None but her would dare venture into the darkness of the surrounding forest, among the trees that had somehow escaped the fire.
She took the girls at each new moon, going from hut to hut, watched by the entire village, asking each mother whether her daughter was now ready. The mothers knew what to reply; the moon herself would have told them since her last visit. The girls packed a few belongings and some food; it was a day’s walk to the hostel. The men watched them leave, their eyes filled with a different, futile, hunger.
In the dormitory, two dozen beds, built with wood cut from the forest, were laid out in pairs, head to head. Beside each was an earthenware pot filled with grey soil.
At the far end, in her blending room, Ilithyia worked in silence. A jug of clear water, taken from the warm spring that bubbled among the trees just beyond the garden, juniper berries, lavender, coriander seeds, orange peel and, finally, petals from a flower that grew in a part of the forest that only she knew. The water warmed gently on the hob as she pounded her ingredients in a stone bowl. The seeds and berries gave up their fertility in a thick oil; the leaves and peel turned to paste. She stirred the mix into the warming water and left it over the flame until the first wisps of steam began to rise.
The girls were weary from their walk, but still she came through the dormitory, just before lights out, gently swinging an earthenware censer, infusing the air around the beds with a light, calming scent.
‘This will help you rest,’ she said.
That night, the girls lapsed into dreamless sleep, as deep as the forest’s roots. She watched over them, dozing only for a few minutes at a time, from an armchair in the corner. Some she had helped to bring into the world, soothing their passage with betany, blue cohosh and pasque flower. Now here they were on the edge of womanhood and needing her conduct again.
She smiled at the irony. When she had been driven from the village, sixty moons earlier, just before the eruption, it was to screams of ‘baby taker’ and ‘witch’ from the men. The women could not protect her, even though they had so often sought her help for the elixir of cottonroot bark, evening primrose and tansy that could remedy the consequences of an illicit or, more often, uninvited liaison.
No woman living beneath the volcano had needed that remedy for forty moons or more and now the men had no choice but to watch, impotent, as the mothers begged Ilithyia for their daughters to be spared the curse that had blighted the village since the eruption. She had made her compact. She would help the women achieve fulfilment; the men would pay with their pride.
Life at the hostel followed a simple routine. In the mornings, she set the girls to work - cleaning, cooking or tending the herb garden. In the afternoon, she would instruct them in basic techniques - picking, crushing, blending – and simple remedies, to prepare them for caring for their children. After dark, she would recount the ancient stories her mother had passed to her from her own mother and generations before, as they lay in their beds, before hushing them to sleep.
Two phases passed. Then, on the night of the full moon, she led them from the hostel at dusk into the forest. Illuminated by silver light splicing through the trees, they took a narrow path, which gradually became steeper as the woods gave way to barren, lava-coated rock. Another hour brought them to the summit, the rim of the volcano, ringed by waist-high raven black-leaved shrubs, of a kind they had never seen below.
The girls, whispering nervously to each other, stood at the edge, gazing into the blackness and the brooding water below. Their mistress hung above them like a ripe, fertile egg, surrounded by her millions of sparkling suitors. As her reflection first appeared at the edge of the silent water, an expectant quiet fell. When it had completely filled the void, each girl, as Ilithyia had instructed, bent, carefully cut a handful of the black leaves, and slipped them beneath her clothes, against her cool skin. Once the inner volcano was dark again, they turned and began the long walk down, into the dawn and their welcoming beds, where they slept for a day and a night, their leaves still safely cocooned.
When they awoke, they found the leaves had turned to white. Ilithyia showed them how to crush them into a richly scented, creamy paste and then, with bare fingers, knead it into the grey soil of their bedside pots. Over the coming days, they nurtured their pots solicitously, blending pomegranate seeds, primrose oil and extracts of gingko to drizzle over the soil and, when they appeared, brushing the budding parakeet-green shoots with grapeseed oil. By the time the moon had almost vanished once again, the plants were well-established, the shoots strong and confident.
Ilithyia led her charges home, each tenderly carrying her plant. The men watched the return in silence, each proud leaf a thrusting, mocking reminder of the vengeful redundancy to which she had condemned them.
As the season turned, and then turned again, the plants grew tall and wide, until they seemed ready to burst from their pots. The men remained at their distance but, inside the huts, the mothers rubbed lavender and mandarin oil into their daughters’ growing bellies and counted down the moons.
Winner of the TL;DR 1,000 Word Herd Flash Fiction Challenge, July 2020 and published in the Anthology, ‘Endless Pictures’. The prompts (to write a 1,000 word story in 7 days) were 'hostel' and 'herbologist'.
Image by Anna Waldl on Pixabay