Marianne felt the eyes of the townsfolk upon her; hatred intermingled with fear. Although they’d never know it, the people of Maydale had played a role in their own demise.
As she walked the muddy path, feeling the wet splatters caking her shins, she met their gaze. If they were to call upon her to save them, the least they could do was acknowledge her. She would not shy away from them. Many of the peasants dropped their stare or made the sign of the cross with their fingers. The latter would have made her laugh, had the circumstances not been so grave. What were they hoping to ward off? Her magic? Wasn’t that why they had sent for her in the first place?
The elders were huddled in a group in the square. Marianne knew which ones had voted to request her help, and which ones had not. Gerald met her as she arrived. “Praise the Gods,” he crooned, raising his hands to the sky. “I knew you’d come.”
“It’s not the gods you need to thank, Gerald,” she responded. Her words might have sounded cold, but she offered the man a warm smile. As the oldest person in Maydale, Gerald deserved a hefty dose of respect; from her, and from the village’s citizens.
“Marianne!” tutted Gerald with a grin. They knew each other well, and whilst not agreeing on everything – particularly on the importance of gods and on the darkness of alchemy – they shared a mutual admiration for one another. After all, Gerald had been one of the few to argue against her exile.
“How are you keeping, Gerald?” Marianne asked, but she already had a good idea. She had eyed the pained shadow on his face as he walked, and the awkward, stilted motions of his movements. His eyes looked whiter and cloudier, too. She wondered what else was ailing him, that was not immediately visible.
“Me? Oh, fine! I’m fine,” he said, giving her that winning grin. The smile lit up his entire face, and despite the many wrinkles that bordered his eyes and lips, the expression made him look twenty years younger. “And you, my dear?”
Thoughts of her solitary home, deep in the shadowy recesses of the woods, flashed before her eyes. The concoctions she bubbled in kettles and cauldrons. The specimens she kept on her shelves. The creatures that resided nearby. The things that visited her in the night. “Can’t complain,” she said, returning Gerald’s smile with a lopsided smirk of her own.
“I trust you haven’t been up to any… wrongdoings, have you, my dear?” said the elder, raising his eyebrows. He sounded serious, but his blue-grey eyes sparkled playfully.
“No…” she toyed, knowing full well that Gerald would not approve of some her activities. She was about to make a joke, when someone huffed and tutted behind him.
Marianne looked over Gerald’s shoulder. The other three elders were hanging back a little. Vivienne and Dag were giving her suspicious looks, whilst Martha was smiling shyly at her. Martha was a kind-hearted woman, but she wasn’t the brightest; she was, in fact, slightly scared of Marianne. The other two, on the other hand…
“Has the witch girl got everything she needs?” Dag said, words like knives. His arms were folded across his slender frame, and one of his pointed shoes was tapping the floor impatiently. “Only we haven’t got all day. People are dying.”
Vivienne nodded along with Dag, and echoed his words: “People are dying, Marianne. If that matters at all to you.”
“If that matters at—” Marianne took a deep breath. Of course it mattered to her. Even after years of isolation, Marianne still considered these to be her people. But she would not be drawn into a disagreement. There had been enough arguing.
Gerald gave her a sympathetic look, but did not chastise his fellow elders. “Shall we…?” he asked, gesturing towards the building on the furthest side of the square. That was, after all, the reason she had been summoned.
“Yes,” she said, and straightened up. She held a basket in one hand, and a satchel over her shoulder. Each was incredibly heavy, and her arms and back ached with the strain, but she would show no weakness to those who had discarded her. Marianne could have requested aid in carrying her implements, but she’d have nobody else touch her equipment. She also doubted that any of Maydale’s men would come to her house voluntarily – they were scared witless of the dense woods, and perhaps rightly so.
Marianne followed the elders to the steps of the village hospital. To call it a hospital was a bit of an overstatement, but it was the closest thing that Maydale had to such a place. Gerald strode up the steps and into the ramshackle building, with Martha waddling in tow. There was a lot to critique about Martha, but none could fault her loyalty.
Vivienne and Dag stopped out front, and opened up a bag that Dag had been carrying. They each pulled out a strange pointed object, that to Marianne looked like a drinking horn with string attached. A perfume of lavender wafted up out of the bag. Dag placed the beak over his mouth and nose, securing it with the string that ran over his ears and around the back of his head. The man looked like the oddest bird Marianne had ever seen, and she’d seen some pretty strange things. Vivienne followed suite, and Dag helped her secure the mask around the back.
Marianne stared at them, finally realising what they were doing – they were trying to protect themselves. They thought it was airborne. She gaped at them, and they stared right on back, as if the way they were dressed were the most natural thing in the world. Dag gestured towards the hospital. “After you… witch girl.” His voice sounded tinny and faraway, adding an even more eerie attitude to his intonations.
She didn’t need to be told twice. Given the choice of being inside with the sick, or outside with these two, Marianne knew which one she’d rather. She made her way inside, gently pushing on the rickety wooden door. Fastened to the front was a sprig of mint.
The first thing that hit Marianne was the heat. Outside, the weather had been comfortable – a normal September evening. The last of the summer heat slowly ebbing, and the first signs of a cool autumn wind beginning to weave its way through the trees. Inside the hospital it was like a sauna. The air felt hot and thick – full of moisture. Perfect breeding grounds for bacteria.
The next two things she noticed at the same time; the darkness, and the smell. It had been barely 11 o’clock in the morning when Marianne had arrived in Maydale, and, although far from a sunny day, it had been bright. Somehow, none of the daylight filtered into the hospital, despite the many cracks in the boards that made up the walls and ceilings.
The smell was of death and sickness. The smell was of decay and rot. The smell was of good things turned bad. Marianne had steeled herself for the aroma of the ill, but had been unprepared for this. The reek singed her nostrils and stung the back of her throat. She could taste the utter wrongness of the place on her tongue. Right away she knew, this was no ordinary disease. Smallpox, the plague, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria… all these things she had been prepared for. The common folk didn’t understand bacteria and infection, but Marianne did. She had been ready to heal and cure, to vaccinate and prevent further spread, but the stench that hit her as she entered Maydale hospital told her that such measures were futile.
Marianne had a sinking feeling in her stomach. She thought she might know what this was.
As she walked the hall of the pre-deceased, she noted that each patient had a shoot of a plant – mint, lavender, echinacea, witch hazel, St. John’s wort. Some clung to the flowers with a white-knuckle grip. Others were too far gone, and the plants lay on their chests. Some of the buds rose and fell with the laboured breathing of the unwell. Others did not.
Marianne found Gerald doing the rounds, talking to the sick and the dying, reassuring them that all would be fine. Behind him hung Martha, wobbling from foot to foot, clearly unsure of what she should be doing. But she was here, and that was all that mattered. Martha carried a small basket filled with an assortment of flowers. As Gerald finished with one person, he held his hand out and Martha reverently placed a plant in his frail palm. The old man then gently gave the bud to the patient or laid it to rest on their blanket. Gerald then methodically moved on to the next – whether they were conscious or not.
“How are you doing, Guinevere?”
There was no response.
“Well, you’re looking marvellous!”
The woman did not stir. Marianne had a sneaking suspicion that the woman had died in the past hour.
“We’ll have you up and fighting in no time, my darling, just you see!”
No breath escaped her parched lips.
“Well, I must be going! Lots of people to see, you know!” Gerald held his hand out, and Martha passed him a twig of witch hazel. Gerald placed the plant on Guinevere’s lifeless body. “See you soon, my dear,” said Gerald, sadly. Marianne thought she saw the twinkle of a tear roll its way down the old man’s deeply wrinkled cheek. And then he spotted her.
“Ah, Marianne! So glad you’re here. We could…” His voice trailed off. Martha gave him a gentle nudge. Gerald cleared his throat. “Ahem. We could use your help.” He gestured at all of the dead and dying in the hospital. “We—we’re having a bit of a crisis.”
Marianne was aware that Vivienne and Dag had crept up behind her, wearing those godawful bird masks. She didn’t turn around. She couldn’t bear to see them in their getups, in a place such as this. “Gerald…” she began, but she didn’t know how to finish that sentence. She was aware that the sick ones who hadn’t succumbed were watching her closely.
They expected her to heal them. To cure it. To fix it. We’re in trouble, so let’s send for the evil little witch girl we exiled years ago… she’ll be able to fix it, with her black magic and wicked ways! Well, she couldn’t. How could she tell them that? That they were all going to die? And worse…
“Yes, my dear?” prodded Gerald, smiling slightly.
“What is it, witch girl?” hissed Vivienne behind her, voice distorted by the mask. “Is the moon not full enough for your liking?” Dag chuckled humourlessly at that, the laugh sounding alien and monstrous in the beak.
“Gerald, could we speak outside for a moment? Please?”
“Of course, my sweetheart. Let me just finish the rounds here, and I’ll—”
“No, we need to speak now, Gerald. It’s urgent.”
“Let him finish his rounds,” said Dag, sharply. “Have you no respect for your elders?”
“Of course she doesn’t!” responded Vivienne. “Isn’t that why we sent her away? She cares not for our ways. Evil little witch girl.”
“Now, now,” said Gerald. “She’s the expert here. We shouldn’t be rude…”
“Vivienne,” said Vivienne.
“Right, right… We shouldn’t be rude, Vivienne.” Gerald returned his milky eyes to Marianne, and suddenly she saw. She saw it all. The realisation was a cold bucket of water. “Lead the way, m’dear,” he said, smiling. The act was almost perfect.
“Actually, Gerald,” Marianne said, forcing her smile, “why don’t you stay and finish your rounds? I’ll just pop outside with Dag and Viv…” Marianne stumbled over her words. “To get some more flowers!” she lied.
“But I’ve got plenty ‘ere,” said Martha, raising her basket slowly, a confused expression on her lovely face.
“And they’re wonderful!” said Marianne, “I just need to get some special herbs, okay?”
Martha nodded slowly, and gently dropped her basket to her side. “Wonderful,” said Gerald. “I won’t be a moment.” And then he moved on to the next bed. Marianne watched him closely, heart hammering, stomach churning, soul aching.
She turned to Vivienne and Dag. They looked just as ridiculous as she had feared. Their appearance somehow made her angry, despite everything. But now wasn’t the time for that.
“Herbs?” asked Vivienne, clearly startled that Marianne had asked for her help.
“Why can’t you get ‘em yourself?” asked Dag, cautiously.
“Just come on,” she said, grabbing the two by their elbows and escorting them out of the house of the dead. They protested but came willingly. Marianne guessed they were too startled to realise they had a choice.
Once outside, Marianne gulped a breath of the fresh air. Dag slid the beak off his face, letting it dangle from his neck. “Mind telling me just what this is about? Fresh herbs,” he mocked, “what nonsense. Martha harvested half of the gardens just this morning… the simpleton.”
Marianne turned to face him. She ignored the slight against Martha. “You’re right. It is nonsense. I needed you two away from…” her voice trailed off. How would she convince them? They hated her. They’d never believe her. “I needed you two away from there.”
“Well, whatever it is you want, I’m just glad to be out of that place,” said Vivienne, who’d also taken off her mask.
“So,” asked Dag, his beady eyes probing her, “what is it?”
“Yeah,” sneered Vivienne, wrinkling her nose at Marianne, “what is it, witch girl?”
Marianne took a deep breath. “It’s Gerald. He’s dead.”
“Dead?” asked Dag. “Dead? He can’t be. We were just talking to him not two minutes ago. Have you lost your brain, girl?”
“Probably all those fumes from the cauldron,” said Vivienne with a smile.
“Would you two shut up and listen?”
“To your gibberish about Gerald being dead even though he’s not?” jabbed Dag.
“You two didn’t smell it – probably haven’t at all, because of those bloody things,” she said, gesturing at the masks. “But the stench… Gerald’s been dead a long time. And his body has been possessed ever since.”
“Possessed?” Dag raised an eyebrow.
“This sounds like black magic to me,” said Vivienne, eying her darkly.
“Sounds like rubbish to me,” added Dag, spitting on the floor.
“It is black magic!”
“So why should we trust you? You’re the master of the black ways, here, not Gerald.”
“How many are sick? How quickly have they fallen ill? This,” she said, gesturing frantically at the hospital, “this is not normal! Didn’t you see his eyes?”
“Well, he is getting on a bit,” said Vivienne with a shrug.
“As we all are,” added Dag. “My joints…” he said, stretching and wincing.
“How many were just under the weather? How many were mostly okay, but came here to be safe? How many have since died? It’s this place! It’s what’s inside Gerald! It’s the flowers!”
Vivienne started laughing. “It’s Gerald! It’s this place! It’s the flowers!” she mocked.
“Gerald? Possessed? You come ‘ere, after all this time, and…” Dag closed his eyes and exhaled. “He stuck ‘is neck out for you, and this is how you repay ‘im? With more witching nonsense?”
Marianne knew she wasn’t getting through to them. “He never lets Martha give them a plant directly. He poisons it first, then hands it to—
“I don’t care,” said Dag. “I don’t care about what fabrications you’ve made up. Get out. Get out of our town. Get out now.”
She was tripping over her own words now, knowing they were falling on deaf ears. “It’s not just that… He’s possessing them. Only, it’s not Gerald that’s doing it. It’s whatever’s inside Gerald. And—listen… they’ll be coming back—”
“Get out and stay out!” jeered Vivienne.
“Yes,” said Gerald. “Get. Out.”
Marianne hadn’t noticed him slip out of the hospital. But there he stood, atop the steps. “After all I’ve done for you?” His milky eyes swam. There was a faint smile touching the corners of his lips.
Oh, you bastard. What are you? What have you done to him?
Vivienne and Dag were grinning. This is what they’d always wanted; for Gerald to side with them against her.
“Don’t you see—” she began, but that was when the common folk started throwing rotten vegetables at her.
As the purple moon rose over the village of Maydale, Marianne watched from a hill. For a while, nothing stirred, and she thought that maybe she’d been wrong.
Then Gerald appeared from nowhere, like a breath of wind. The kind, old man who’d fought for her right to a normal life. He stood and sniffed the air, animalistically. He looked at her. He couldn’t have, because she was hidden and too far away… and yet he did. And did Marianne spy a smirk upon his wizened countenance?
After a stuttering heartbeat, the old man was joined by his army of the dead. Joints stiff, movements unnatural, eyes glazed over. They each carried a flower before them, gripped in one hand. They spilled out the hospital, like pus bursting from a wound; out into the moonlit streets. And from there, they began infiltrating the houses of Maydale.
And so, she watched from the hilltop, as friends, family and loved ones spread across the town like rats, seeking the untainted. Poisoning, corrupting, ruining.
There were screams. Some fought in vain. But eventually they succumbed – all of them. And thus, they would all return.
Yes, she could have prevented it. Especially if she’d not been exiled; the curse wouldn’t have dared to spread beneath the watchful eyes of a witch. But as it was…
Under the purple moon, the village of Maydale was pilfered from the living and handed over to the dead.
3rd October 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest