A Death and a Beginning (Excerpt)

Bianca moved on her stocking feet through her aunts’ palace to the sick room where her mother was dying. No one heard her. She’d practiced walking like a cat, softly. Bianca’s mother had told her cats had a good sense of smell, too, and that they could sense the chemical changes that meant sickness. Just like Bianca could tell from the woody, sweet fragrance of the artemisia root she’d been simmering for hours exactly what the broth could do. 

Yesterday her aunts forced Bianca out of the room before she could give her mother the steeping cure. Tonight she’d made herself wait until the clock struck two, then three, before slipping down to the basement workroom where the women in her family had made alchemic recipes for generations.  Bianca had removed her shoes, leaving the door ajar so it wouldn’t click, and placed the copper pot on the iron ring over the fire without making a sound.  Now, upstairs, Bianca crept around a corner into the dark hallway, finding her way by pressing a palm against the cold frescoed walls. Her other hand clutched the cup that held her brew. Her aunts mustn’t see the light of a tallow candle or smell its burning fat. If they caught her, they’d stop her. A sickroom is no place for a girl of ten. You’re underfoot, Bianca. A priest was poking his nose in here again. If he sees you and your ‘cures…’

Bianca was closer to being able to cure malaria than they’d ever been. Her mother had taught her to see the rhythm of plants, creating seeds, writing their autographs in the shape and curl of the leaves that opened and closed each day.  This artemisia, in the deep fall, just at the start of flowering, was the most expressive of all.  And it had gestured to her.  The bitter roots were the medicine her mother needed. 

Mama had shown the aunties, too, but they didn’t believe her, or they didn’t care. They would, though, once they saw what Bianca’s cure could do. Pausing outside her mother’s door, she cracked it open, wide enough for a cat to slip through.

The room smelled of acid vomit. Her mother lay in the bed, unmoving, her breathing ragged. Almost all the thick dark hair was gone from her head and shadows made caves of her closed eyes. Bianca set the brew on a small table by the bed so she could raise her mother up on her pillows. Her skin was hot to the touch. When Bianca lifted the bitter broth to her swollen lips, her mother groaned. Was she trying to say her daughter’s name? Bianca hardly breathed. Her mother’s eyelids flickered.

The door behind Bianca slammed open.

No time to hide, let alone run. Bianca’s eldest aunt burst into the room. She was tall, like Bianca’s mother, and with the same thick dark hair. But never had Bianca’s mother looked this furious. In two strides she reached Bianca, swiping the cup out of her hand. Warm liquid splashed onto the bed. “What are you doing, stupid girl?”

Bianca curled her hand into a fist around the root in her pocket, all that was left from her night of work. The woody plant bit into her skin. Good. Its strong oaky fragrance would help her focus. She tried to make her face hard, like her aunt’s, from all the fighting with each other for years. Was her mother the only kind one? Maybe they wanted her to die?

Her aunt spoke first.  “So, we’re playing with roots again? What damage have you done now?” 

Bianca shook her head. “I wasn’t hurting her.” Which was more than the aunties could say. Their treatments left Mama pale and shaking, purges and sulfur poultices that made her bald. But Bianca bit her tongue. “I just thought—” No, she knew. She knew what she was doing because her mama had shown her.

Your aunties are clever. Never doubt that. But they are only as clever as every woman who’s come before them. Mama was going to use artemisia to cure the heat disease. Anything they see as new is a threat. That’s why they won’t use artemisia. But you and I, Bianca, we’ve seen how powerful it is for sick people. Mama hadn’t cured it yet, but she said she was close, and close was better than the aunties’ treatments. If her aunties couldn’t see that, they weren’t clever at all.

“You thought?” Her aunt stiffened. “You’re ten, Bianca. Too young to think anything.” The slap hit her on the cheek and Bianca tumbled to the side, her forehead cracking against the wet flagstone floor. The cold stone numbed the pain until Bianca sat up. Then she whimpered and pressed her hands to her head. But it was no more than she deserved. She’d gotten caught again, without any hope of getting the tea to her mother. Dabbing the corner of her eye, Bianca blinked back a tear. Couldn’t her aunt hear her mother gasping, choking? Bianca got to her feet, swaying. Mama’s breathing was too fast. She had to go to her.

“This is not a game, Bianca.” Her aunt’s fingers gripped her elbow.  “You challenge us?”

“My mother would, if she wasn’t sick.” Bianca jerked her sleeve from her aunt’s bony grasp. She shot a glance at the few sticky black hairs matted together along the side of her mother’s head, and the many sores.  The aunts had given her more smelly, stinging poultices. “Mama was working on a cure. A cure that saves lives. She gave it to the gardener’s son, remember? And he got better…”

Her aunt followed her gaze, moving her eyes from her niece to her sick sister. “That boy was barely ill. And what about the man last month? She treated him and he died. Listen, Bianca, when your mother was still rational, she welcomed our treatments. She begged us—not some child—to save her.”

Bianca lifted her chin, “Auntie, no—”

Her aunt touched a cold finger to Bianca’s face. “There, there—golden hair, pale skin. I see why she loved you, but she spoiled you, too.” She brushed Bianca’s cheek with her palm. Bianca dipped her head, falling back a step. Her aunt nodded. “Hmmm. I assume that charmed artemisia, your spill on the ground, is going to reverse her disease?”

Her mother’s breaths were getting quicker. Bianca’s own chest grew tight.  “Yes. Artemisia will save her. I’ve brewed it as strong as I could. Even adding a tincture. It…” She swallowed. Her mouth had gone dry. “It has to be pure.”

“Pure?” Her aunt’s eyes narrowed. “Our work is alchemy. Ingredients that heal. Recipes that transform—passed down over generations. Over centuries.”

“There’s a different alchemy, Auntie. Mixing so many different teas the way you do weakens the medicine. Strong artemisia helps the body to heal itself.  And so—”

“Different?” Her aunt leaned in close, her voice a hiss. “Meaning ‘better?’ Better than what we here have studied since the name Cortese graced Venice’s streets?” They stood inches apart, her aunt’s moist breath warm on her face. “What you want to do sounds like men’s work, Bianca. All this talk of ‘purity.’ That’s a man’s alchemy of metals. Men separate. Women blend.” She stepped back, but spoke again before Bianca could draw a breath. “Listen to me: strong gets noticed.  When we make a little noise, we’re seen, then we’re vulnerable. You may be young but you can’t pretend you don’t know what people called her.” She tilted her head toward the woman in the bed. “I know you think Pellegrina had a cure for malaria, and you wanted to use it to save her. But Bianca, you know nothing. People were afraid of your mother and her ideas. If you use her spells to save her, they’ll say the devil brought her back. We must heal her in the ways we’ve used for centuries. If this disease takes her now, after all our treatments, at least she doesn’t burn at the stake. Have you thought of that? We don’t need the alchemy of men, their costly equipment, their fires and distilleries. We have our methods. We work in our own ways.” 

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