No one had heard Bianca as she’d moved on her stocking feet through her aunts’ palace to the sick room where her mother was dying. She’d practiced walking like a cat, softly, so no one could hear. Cats had a good sense of smell, too, and of chemical changes in the air, maybe even of disease. And the woody, sweet fragrance of the artemisia root she’d been simmering for hours told her what the broth she’d created could do.
Yesterday, for the third night in a row, they’d forced Bianca out of the room before she could give her mother more of the steeping cure. But tonight, the sleeping aunts hadn’t heard Bianca in 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 placing the copper pot on the iron ring over the fire more quietly than a cat’s step. Bianca had crept upstairs and turned the corner into the dark hallway, finding her way by pressing a palm against the cold frescoed walls. Her aunts mustn’t see the light of her 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. That priest was poking his nose in here again. If he sees you and your “cures…”
They’d never believe that steaming in the metal pot in Bianca’s hand was the cure for malaria. Shaving her head will save her, the aunties said. Then, when that didn’t work, Here’s another poultice. Never mind that it burns her skin. But Bianca did mind, especially when the cures hadn’t work. Especially when she knew what would.
Her mother would have known, too, if she could have spoken. You know what to do. She had taught Bianca how plants worked by observing their autograph, the curl of the leaves, how they opened and closed. 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. Her aunts would never understand. Mama had shown the aunties, too, but they didn’t believe her, or they didn’t care.
But tonight would be different, she’d be quieter. Pausing at her mother’s door, she just barely cracked it open, wide enough for a large mouse or maybe a cat to slip through. Bianca knew how to touch the door so the hinges wouldn’t creak as she entered. She knew where to step so she’d reach her mother’s bedside without making a sound.
Her mother slept, unmoving, her breathing ragged, the wheezing softer and more even. Almost all the thick dark hair was gone from her head. Shadows made caves of her closed eyes. Bianca took a cup from the table and crossed the room to the hearth, where the tea kettle she’d been forced to abandon last night lay in a few coals. Pellegrina strained to say her daughter’s name, but just groaned as Bianca lifted the bitter broth to her swollen lips. The shoulder under her mother’s cotton nightdress burned hot. Bianca barely breathed. Her mother’s eyelids flickered.
The door behind Bianca slammed open.