The gleaner made a babushka’s silhouette on the hill as the sun rose, collecting yarrow in the first light when the oils were most potent, her hands busy plucking, bundling the feathery leaves into her apron. The feathers were best, but you wanted some flowers too, when in bloom, and roots, once they were two or three years old. The plant worked best when it was all parts working together: the sun-touched parts, the pollen-thick and delicate parts, the soil-dark and shadow parts. The gleaner never took more than half the material from a plant, whether it was leaf, flower or root. That’s what makes us different to the Romans, she thought. We don’t take every last thing and salt the earth to boot. We only take what we need. She’d leave enough to seed to run underground. She wanted yarrow-children to grow all over the hillside.
The gleaner picked over the bodies with her furrowed fingers, reaching through long white bones making hopeless brackets in the air, defending the place where hearts no longer beat, where lungs no longer breathed. Crows picked at the last morsels of rotten meat from the bones; they had a taste for aged flesh. The yarrow took care of the rest. Yarrow had been quick about its work here, after the battle tore open the ridge. Stitching up the places plowed by hooves and boots, re-greening the devastation. Roots knuckled the earth’s crust and pushed up like fingers, forcing air and oxygen into the soil, so that worms and grubs could tunnel again through soil crushed and compacted by wheels and cavalry. Plants grew up through the holes in the men, and that was where the gleaner concentrated her efforts. Yarrow that grew through the dead was especially potent for healing. When blood fell on the soil, the yarrow responded with new growth and vigour, as if it would heal death itself from the fallen, stitch together the bodies who had long made their commitment to soil.
The gleaner rambled over the hill, her bare feet remembering the way back. Her eyes were milky with age, but her feet were dark with earth, black-nailed and hairy toed, part of the landscape they walked on. She liked to feel the mud between her toes as she squelched into the stream, the fish slipping over the arch of her foot. She leaned down and let the river wash the yarrow, the fronds rippling like seaweed under her fingers. She did not mind when brambles and burrs stuck to her skirt as she parted the weedy riverbank. She went along, gathering what needed to hitch a ride on her skirts, distributing new plants like the Beltane goddesses of old. She did not believe in weeds. Nature knew better what belonged where than she did. It was a better life than trying to stamp out anything a little different, sorting everything into territories and conquests, like the Romans did.
The fire was still going inside the hut when the gleaner returned. More importantly, her patient was still alive. She shut the door gently, and the hare in the corner propped himself up on an elbow and a hip, his bound leg stretched out luxuriously over his straw bedding. Like a nymph posing for a painting, the gleaner thought, and smiled with a full set of teeth. Glossy eyes followed the gleaner about the room as she filled a pot with water, hung it over the fire flickering in the hearth, prepared the bandages. Roots and flowers tumbled from her apron onto the bench, still bristling with life. She took a handful of leaves, stuffed them in her mouth and chewed, working saliva into the fibres.
The brown hare did not start, or crawl away as the gleaner approached. She kept her hands steady and wound the existing bandage away. He quivered as she scraped back the browning poultice underneath and squeezed infection from the wound, chewing with her muscular jaw all the while. But when she pressed a warm cloth to the leg the hare went still, his breathing slowed and his eyes half-closed. The gleaner spat the yarrow into her palm and worked it into a poultice.
A triangle of light fell over them both as the door rocked open. The gleaner’s mirror image stood in the doorway, alike in face and form, although this version’s hair was darkened with beechwood ash and goat’s fat, her beard denuded with quicklime, and her lips reddened with madder. The gleaner huffed at the interruption, and put a hand to the hare’s ribs to calm him as he caught wind of the unfamiliar scent.
“You look like a Roman, Oda,” the gleaner said, and turned back to her patient.
“If you mean to insult me, sister, you missed the mark. The Romans are clean and expensively dressed.”
“Not the Romans I picked over this morning in the forest. Even the maggots are done with them.”
Oda shuddered. “Those soldiers should be given good Roman burials.”
“Those men might have been Roman, but they were not good. Now they reap what was sown.” The gleaner waddled back to the kettle. “Besides, only half of the soldiers remain. The rest we cooked up in pots until the flesh came away from their bones, and the bones were used in rituals for the gods. The gods had no complaints.”
Oda sat onto the heaped branches the gleaner used for a bed, and a cloud of heather seeds flew into the air. “Boiled bones. Why must you forest folk be so dramatic?”
“You are forest folk too, sister. Although you insist on forgetting it.” The gleaner poured hot water over a fistful of herbs to steep, river mint and violet and elderflower. I will put the forest back into her, somehow. In all the small ways, the old ways, the secret ways. By wild tea and brown earth, I will do it. The gleaner poured the tea into clay cups, and handed one to her sister.
Oda sipped the infusion and made a face. “My customers are impatient for your lotions and potions.” She jingled the rabbit skin purse that hung from her belt. “I have your asking price, and more if you can deliver today.”
“They’re not ready.” The gleaner glanced over the dark jars and earthenware on the shelf. “I need a day to fetch the final ingredient, and a night to prepare it.” She nodded at the hare, whose eyes and whiskers were fixed on the intruder. “I can’t leave him long. He needs his poultice changed every few hours.”
“A member of the Augustus family is expecting this delivery. If it pleases her, it will secure us favour in the capital, and you will have as many orders as you can fill. I can take care of the hare for a few hours.”
The gleaner scratched her beard and took a long sip of the tea. The life force of the flowers and leaves trickled down her throat, into her blood, prickled under her skin. Wood violets singing in their soft, bruised voices, the green compassion of elderflower. Mint, bright and sparkling as the river. The forest was dormant in her sister; but the forest could heal her, if given a chance. Perhaps an afternoon spent alone with a wild thing was the medicine her sister needed. She need not trust her sister, only trust the forest in her blood. Nature always prevailed. The violets nodded inside her, their heads grave and united.
It was nightfall before the gleaner returned to the hut, shuffling her body forward like she was made of rock. Her shoulders bent like a dying flower longing for the earth, and her spine felt as if it could tumble apart if she bent too far left or right. Oda was paring her nails on the doorstep with the gleaner’s knife, the steel reflecting the white of the Hunter’s moon.
As soon as the gleaner put her foot on the step, her nose went in the air, like a deer catching a scent. Her eyes shot to the empty corner of the room. The gleaner’s heart crept into her throat, and she swallowed it back down.
“The beast didn’t make it,” Oda said behind her, and put down the knife. “I buried him in the forest.”
The gleaner’s eyes glowered hotter than the flames in the hearth. She exhaled through her nose, like a stag.
“I smell bone broth, sister,” the gleaner said. Not my sister. I curse you, not-my-sister. I curse you with boils and bats, with maggots and worms.
Oda turned her mouth down like a fish. “There was no meat on him. Tough as old bones. Must have been on his last legs.”
“It has been some time since you skinned and prepared your own kill, sister.” Not my sister. “Hare need to be hung for days before cooking.”
Oda picked her teeth. “I’d forgotten. He was a bit tough. Did you get what you needed?” She jangled the rabbit skin pouch at her belt.
The gleaner did not reply, but went to the hearth and began to take the soft balls of tree-sap from her apron. She lay them before the fire to dry in a line, like gravestones.
“I need to dry them overnight,” she said, her voice rasping. “They will dissolve better.”
“Very well,” Oda said, as she stretched out on the gleaner’s heather bed. “Rather avoid the wolves and bears anyway. Feed my horse, will you? It’s been a long day.”
The gleaner glared at her sister. Everything about her was wrong, unnatural. Even the linen sleeves of her dress squeezed her arms from them as if they would be free of her, the heather prickled obstinately against her weight, the smoke from the fire made a little detour around her form. The gleaner’s gorge rose at the thought of her hare’s life in this woman’s bloodstream, this woman that all nature resisted. The hare’s goodness, the hare’s wildness, stuck inside Oda’s primped and perfumed skin. Let the spirit of that hare flow out of her, she prayed to all the old gods. Let it seep out like pus from a wound, let it free to return to forest. The hare’s eye rose in her mind, trusting and kind. You fucking bitch, Oda.
The gleaner did not sleep all night, but sat by the hearth, watching the spirits dance in the flames. They made the shapes of hares, and yarrow, and bones on a battlefield. Oda moaned and rolled over on the heather bed, twigs in her hair.
“Sister. I have a terrible belly-ache.”
The gleaner looked long and critically at her. “If you had a human heart, Oda, I would suggest that you might be feeling remorse. But I think your heart must be armoured as a Roman’s by now, and I dare say your dinner didn’t agree with you.”
Oda gave her sister a reproachful look. “Don’t you have something for digestion?”
“The meat is not the problem, but the poison in that rabbit’s blood that will now be crawling through your veins.” Quickly, efficiently, as the yarrow roots crawl over the hillside. Fitting, considering what is to come.
Her sister sat up quickly, and lay down again with a groan, curling her knees under her skirt. “Poison?”
“The wound was bad, Oda. Very bad. I was considering taking off the leg when you arrived.”
Oda’s face drained of blood. “What does that mean?”
The gleaner savoured the pause and the succession of panicked expressions in her sister’s face before replying.
“It was not a clean wound, when he was brought to me. This wound had festered. I removed what I could with maggots and leeches, but the infection had not yet cleared. By your speedy fever, I’d say you have a few days. But it will not be pleasant.” The gleaner got up from her chair, filled a pot with stand water and put it on the fire. “Luckily for you I am a good nurse, and have ushered hundreds of animals to the other side. I cannot see that treating a human would be any different, even a blood-relation. I have several herbs and tinctures to ease your passing. Sister.”
Oda’s brow broke out in a hundred dewdrops. She moved her lips, trying to find the right shapes to express her shock. The gleaner smiled. The ancient tales were full of these kinds of jokes. Oda may not have lived as forest folk, but with this end, in her sister’s hands, she would die as one. Perhaps they could reconcile into some kind of working relationship after all, after the Roman in her had died off, and only the forest was left. It was always the forest that was left, in the end.
The gleaner stroked the fur purse on her lap. The purse was several times heavier than she had been expecting. The money would last a long time, save more lives than it cost. The forest had a way of bringing things back into balance. The fur was fine and soft like her hare friend, as if the hare was letting her know that something good came out of the sacrifice.
The gleaner dragged her sister out to the forest, among the rib bones and pelvises picked over by crows. She let her sister’s shoulders slide out from under her elbows, and stretched like a cat. She did not feel the burden of the dead weight. Her hips and feet gave her no pain.
“I suppose there is some scope for us to work together now, Oda,” she said, as she arranged the feathered fronds to reach the sun around the corpse. She sewed her sister no shroud; nature would go faster that way. The earth would be her shroud and tomb. The gleaner pushed her knees into the dirt, drifting a hand over the tiny sprigs of yarrow rising. “Here, my children,” she said. “Do your magic. Help my sister find her roots.”
The House of Twigs Guest author.
Romy Tara Wenzel is a hedgewitch and writer on Melukerdee country, Tasmania, exploring mythology and ecology from an animist perspective. She writes about liminal states: becoming and unbecoming, wildness and refuge, inter-species communication and ecstatic transformation. Recent publications include stories in Dark Mountain, Hecate, Cunning Folk, and Folklore for Resistance.