The Knight of the Golden Rose
Just like the day before, Bathsheba arose at a decidedly lazy hour to gather her barks and her leaves in the tufts of forest just outside the village fence. When she came back to deposit her bounty, she again set the fireplace flickering and the water boiling while she ate her berries and drank her beer.
A knock came. Bathsheba welcomed the new visitor with a chirp, a reaction so unbefitting of her exhausted face, which looked more like a plant that had its sap drained.
This time, the man coughed and held out a bandaged arm. "This wound has not healed in the past month. I have been suffering from fever, and I cannot provide for my family in this condition. Please, Bathsheba, help me!"
The witch gave a confident twirl of her hands and grabbed a flask of bark-water. As she opened the cabinet drawer, I stared intently at her face when she reached into her collection, hoping to catch a glimpse of surprise or shock or anything that suggested she knew those plants were worthless.
There was no difference from yesterday; it was as if her choice was completely random and she didn't care what ingredients actually went in the healing potion. I gasped then quickly covered my mouth.
The rest of the day proceeded just as it had the day before and likely the days and weeks before that (with the exception of my meddlesome presence), down to the same illnesses and the same worried mothers. Bathsheba betrayed no hint of guilt that her methods were fraudulent and her promises empty.
Rage burned in my stomach. How could this woman who made such a mockery of magecraft tell me that I had no potential? She was no better than the common thief! I imagined Anselm striking her down where she stood.
But then again, perhaps she was simply trying to protect herself, hoping that no one would ever discover her lies and stone her to death. Who was I to judge without knowing her motivations? My anger ebbed and flowed like the waves.
This time, Bathsheba ended her practice early while the sun was still up and glowing and, taking a couple of coins, left the house. She returned an hour later with a fresh loaf of bread, a couple of blocks of cheese, and arms wrapped in sausage links. My eyes watered, and I tried to quiet my stomach's rumbling.
As she bit into the soft bread, years melted off her face. Her rough movements slowed to an elegant lilt, and her gaze became kinder. Seeing the gentle new woman emerge, my fury fell away, leaving only confusion in its wake.
After she finished eating, I stepped out of my hiding place in the corner. She gave a startled yelp but quickly regained her composure.
"Why do you lie?" I asked, finally making my presence known.
Pretending that the sudden appearance of a phantom half-starved child was the most natural thing in the world, she said, "I don't know what you mean."
"I've been here all day. I've seen your books. They're either a Bible or blank pages. And I changed your herb cabinet with a common weed, but you kept using it anyway."
To prove my point, I picked up the book closest to me and pointed to the passage on the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel. My heartbeat quickened in anticipation of her response.
Bathsheba was deathly silent. Then she gave a slight shrug and chuckled as if she were simply caught gossiping about the local lord's affairs.
"Ah, you've found me out! Guess I underestimated your grit," she said. "It's true, the plants in that cabinet don't do anything. In fact, I think you just replaced common weeds with common weeds! And the Bibles, oh, we always have so many Bibles in these monasteries all over the land. I really ought to just sell them one day instead of keeping them around here just to look pretty.
"Since most folks can't read, they think that these books have all sorts of magic spells hidden inside when in reality, it's just stuff they probably already heard a hundred times from their priests."
She walked over to the heavy black book on the main table and patted it, saying, "And this one I just took from some old monastery whose fool of a monk left the writing room wide open. I figured it looked intimidating enough for people to believe that I could read their futures in it."
She let the unmarked pages pass through her fingers. "They were probably just going to copy the Bible again anyway."
All my fear fell away when I realized she was an ordinary woman after all, unable to turn annoying children into frogs or curse the harvests. A small beat of satisfaction over downfall coursed through me.
"You've answered the how, but you still haven't explained the why," I said.
"Trying to get my entire life story, aren't you?" She smiled. "Don't you remember the test? I asked you to tell me about myself."
"Yes, and I did not know."
"Well, I didn't really expect you to," she said and took a deep breath. "Years ago, I was married to a wonderful man. We were happy and planned to have lots of children. But he died shortly after the wedding, and then I was alone.
"It was a real shame. Not just because of his death but because I was a widow and no one wanted me anymore. I was about to starve until I remembered an old saying my mother taught me about the juice of a willow tree healing fever, so I began to offer my services as a medicine woman.
"For some reason, my potions became popular even though I just gave everyone willow bark tea. The townspeople spread rumors that I was a witch and that I could heal any illness. They said my brews contained some stupid magic ingredients. So in order to keep up with expectations, I started adding a touch of ground up weed to the tea in front of my customers. It was like that extra showmanship made them heal faster.
"After a while, I figured I might as well embrace my new image since it was good for business. I got some more books and tried to look extra scary at night. I took up fortune-telling. I stopped scraping the moss off my walls.
"Then Edith came. She was like me, husbandless in less than two years, so I took pity on her. She came in with her own folk remedies and taught me some things. We lived well together. I don't know why they say I've had many apprentices when I've only had Edith.
"To be honest, I don't know why she sent you to me. She must have known that you would either get your feelings hurt or your illusions shattered. Stupid girl, I could never tell what she was thinking, especially when she left..."
By this point, Bathsheba had finished her bowl of bread and cheese and put the remainder of the food in her cabinet. She licked the meaty oil off her fingers and turned back to me.
"There you have it. I'm a pathetic woman. Just pretend I never said those things about you not having any prophecy powers or anything. I made it up on the spot to scare you away."
After hours of suppression, my stomach finally made itself heard with a loud growl. The former witch laughed and tossed me a piece of bread, which I devoured in one bite.
"I still don't understand. Surely they will find out your lies once they drink your potion and they are not healed."
"Aha! That is easy to explain!" she said triumphantly. "Then they simply don't have enough faith! Besides, in my years of work, I have found that humans are quite curious creatures. Sometimes belief is all it takes for a miracle to happen."
I stared at her face, her lips, her manner of dress. In a different world, I could be the one sitting there, justifying my existence to an ungrateful child. How old was she now? How old would she be when she was finally freed from this job? Maybe if I had asked these questions in our initial meeting, I would have passed her test.
With trembling lips, I forced myself to form the words I didn't want to say. "Does this mean magic doesn't exist after all?"
Bathsheba bowed her head in thought. "Hmm... I guess it depends what you mean. I know I said differently earlier, but I think the juice of a willow tree really is magic. Most of the time, it does bring the fever down. And isn't it magic that the sun returns every day without fail? Or that babies are born every summer?"
"But something that mundane can't be magic! Real magic is something bigger," I said with increasing uncertainty.
"I'd say the sun is as big as it gets." She closed her eyes in laughter. "You know, I think the more we know about something, the less magical it becomes. You think it's boring that the sun comes up and babies are born, but that's because you know it's going to happen and you've seen it happen a hundred times before."
She leaned back and exhaled.
"Plus, it makes us feel special, doesn't it? If we're the only ones who can cast a spell or heal a sick person. Hey, if only a couple of women in the entire world could give birth, I'd bet you babies would become a lot more mystical. Plus, I've seen those books of yours. Doesn't it feel good being the only person in an entire village who can read them? Like you're in on some big secret, and you're just too cool for everyone else."
Then she opened her eyes and frowned, as if suddenly remembering an unpleasant meal.
"See, that's what I don't like about those natural scientists I've been hearing about. They keep trying to explain things that I don't want explained!"
I stayed quiet, letting my mind absorb Bathsheba's words, knowing that she was right. She was always right, just like my mother had always been right, and I was the fool who plugged her ears and covered her eyes, preferring instead to live in a fantasy. I remembered all the moments disappointment visited my doorstep, and I simply refused to check its content while burying my head deeper in my books. When Lawrence said that people didn't believe anymore, maybe he was wrong and the problem wasn't the lack of belief, but too much of it.
I took a silver coin that I had been saving for an alchemy spell out of my pocket and handed it to Bathsheba. Her eyes widened in shock.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Thank you for your time. I've learned a lot." I bowed my head and retreated.
When I went back outside, the village suddenly appeared so beautiful, like a painting frozen in time. Flowing tree branches draped from the roofs, caressing each house's delicate frame. The water was still and gentle and reflected a shimmering crescent moon whose light descended on the swamp like an angel. My breath lingered slightly in the chilly air, the first signs of an incoming winter.
That night, I did not run nor skip nor sprint over the uneven roads and drooling pools of water of the swamp village. A crisp breeze played with my hair. Cool water sloshed around my ankles. Slowly, one foot in front of the other, I pushed through the waving bulrush, walked back to the shepherd's tent, and buried my head in Anselm's heavy chest.
The tears that did not come after the failure of the test suddenly came rushing forth like a waterfall. My eyes were red and his clothes soaked. The emotions that had left earlier flooded back inside. Emptiness no longer existed within me, and in its place stood an indescribable sadness that colored every thought I had.
I wept for the loss of magic and the death of a dream that had never matured.