* * *
“Dear husband,” I reply, “do not linger, but bring us a pitcher of fresh water and a bit of bread.” He is terrified of the plague we call the sweat and does not approach. I listen to the shallow raspy breathing of my two-year old Mary who lies next to me. Her little chest rises and falls with great difficulty. I hold her hand in mine. On my other side, is ten-year old Charles, the golden boy, the son on whom my husband has built all his dreams for a better life. I place my hand on his sweaty palm. He is delirious with fever.
“Will he live?” my husband asks. He does not care about me or Mary.
“Tell cook to bring a chicken broth with a pinch of my herbs.”
“Do you never tire of playing the witch?”
“If a witch could save your son’s life, I wager you would pay any price she asked.”
He turns to leave.
I pull the covers up under the chin of my shivering girl and stroke her blond tresses. I tug the covers loose from Charles and place a cool damp cloth on his forehead. There are few things in this world that I count as my own. This bed is one of them. I brought it as part of my dowry. It is sturdy and over-sized and made soft with pallets stuffed with wool and goose down. I birthed my children here and now we will lie together and die. It has been a hard life.
The fever burns through me like too much aqua vitae. I have had only two things to love in this life, Mary and Charles. Oh, and that beautiful black stallion that my husband claims as his. All things belong to him. He cannot bear that the things he owns love me. I dream of mounting that stallion (whom I have secretly named Magic) and tugging my children up next to me: Mary in front, Charles in back with his hands tight on my waist. We will ride off, free at last.
I let my head fall back on my pillow. I may be weak but a fire burns within me. I squeeze Mary’s hand and tell her that soon she will feel better. She does not hear me. I look at my son and wonder if he will be lucky enough to survive the sweat. And if he does, can he survive without me?
Deep within the pocket of my dress, my fingers find the paper that holds my secret herbs. My husband calls me witch, and he is right. I know the things that grown on this earth and how to use them.
There is a knock on the door. Slowly the door opens and cook stands there with a tray of bread, water, and hot broth. She looks anxious.
“Just set them on the table next to my bed and leave.”
She does as I bid, glancing furtively at death before she scurries out of the room.
It takes all my energy to leave my bed. My heart beats wildly as I steady myself against the table. I reach into my pocket and remove my packet of herbs to empty them into the broth. I stir the broth and ladle some into a cup. I press the cup to Mary’s lips and force a sip or two into her mouth. She chokes but swallows. I make sure she has enough before I go to my son.
The door opens. It’s my husband again. “Who will take your place if you become too weak? Who will take care of my son?”
“Don’t worry. I will manage.”
“I will never forgive you if you lose my son.”
“And if I save him?” I put the cup of broth to my son’s lips but he does not want to drink. “You must take the broth.”
He shakes his head in feverish defiance.
“Do as your mother bids,” my husband’s voice booms. He cannot decide which he fears most—the loss of his son’s life or his own. I think he would like to put his hands around my neck until I am dead, but that would be to risk his own life.
“Drink and then you can come with me on Magic,” I whisper in my son’s ear. He swallows once, twice, thrice. “More,” I say.
“He will be fine.” I give my husband a goodbye smile, pour myself a cup of broth and drink it all down.
"See to it." He slams the door shut.
With the last of my energy, I wash my face and brush and plait my hair. I think to change my clothes, but I can barely stand now.
I lay down on my soft bed between my two cherubs. “Magic is here. Mary up front and Charles behind.” I hold their hands and off we go.