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Wise Woman

Ever since I was a child I’d been to Mildred for anything you can name—drops for toothache, herbs to ward off hoof-and-mouth (you fasten them on the off hind leg with a special knot), and readings, of course. A couple of years ago, she told me I’d have a child before the next spring, and it happened, alright. Only one of the eight cousins to give birth so far, and I’m the youngest. My mother and aunts had just about given up hope of a baby in the family. It’s the way of things now, since the war and all the problems with the air and water.

Maybe Mildred helped it along—threw in a little something extra, since she knew I wanted a child. If anyone could do it, it was Mildred. She’d been practicing for over seventy years. It’s forbidden, of course. The Council decided the wise women can foretell birth, but they can’t bring it about by spells. That was their one and only attempt to assert control. And the penalty for defying the Council’s order is death.

But Mildred wasn’t one for following rules she thought were silly, especially if it stood in the way of her helping someone. She was just like that.

There’s a saying in town, you find your wise woman and only then will you find your true love. But Mildred and I go back long before I had any thoughts of love at all. She put a special charm on my first bicycle. And I never had an accident with it after that. My cousin Sylvia, now, she went to Agnes for spells, and her bicycle frame was warped in four months. That was two months longer than her marriage lasted. I had better luck with Mildred, who pointed out Tom and said he’d be a good match for me. She was right. So I’ve stuck with Mildred.

I was on my way to her house when I heard about the whole business. I had James in the stroller—ten months old, I think he was—and we were enjoying the early autumn breeze, walking out to the edge of town, beyond the old power station, where Mildred’s cottage was set way back from the road.

We were in the part of town where the officers’ housing left over from the war had been remade for families when I heard someone call me. It was my cousin Sylvia, and she was waving to me from her porch, the one Tom fixed up for her after her mother died. When I looked up at her, she waved frantically for me to come closer.

“We’re on the way to Mildred’s,” I told her as I wheeled the stroller up the flagstone path.

Sylvia rushed down the steps at that. “I know, Charlotte,” she said. “That’s why I called you.” She lifted the front end of the stroller. “Come on in, I’ve got something to tell you.”

“Can’t we sit on the porch?” To tell the truth, I never much liked the inside of my aunt’s house. She’d kept it dark and cluttered it with her many incomplete projects—piles of quilt squares and rolls of material for dresses that never quite got done.

Sylvia shook her head. “It’s private.”

I looked around at the empty street, the quiet houses.  “Who’ll hear us?”

She sat down, but drew my chair very close, so our knees were almost touching.

“It’s about Mildred,” she whispered.

“What is?”

Sylvia pressed her lips together and took a deep breath before speaking. “It’s—she’s been accused.”

“Of what?”

“Of casting a birth spell. For—” she pointed to James, who was dozing in the stroller. “They’re not supposed to do that, you know.”

I sat up straighter. “I know the rules, Sylvia, and so does Mildred. What’s their proof?”

“Oh, there’s no proof. Not yet. She’s just been accused.”

“And how did this happen?” I could feel the warm blood rushing to my face.

“Well, I shouldn’t say . . . ”

I waited. When Sylvia said that it meant she couldn’t wait to spill the tea.

Sure enough, she leaned closer to me. “My Agnes made the complaint to the Council. Unfair competition, she called it.”

I snorted. “So professional jealousy now constitutes proof of wrongdoing?”

“It’s just an accusation,” Sylvia insisted. “But that’s enough, don’t you think? To keep away from Mildred, just in case?”

I flinched at that. “Is it contagious?”

“Well, in a way.” She shrugged. “You don’t want trouble.” Her eyes were on James in the stroller. “If they think it was you who asked for the spell . . .  Or if you tell Mildred she’s accused.” She seized my arm. “You shouldn’t tell. The accusation hearing is secret. If you tell, they’ll—” She looked directly at James. “Well, you don’t want to lose something—you know, that may be mixed up with Mildred.”

I was on my feet. “Thanks for the information, Sylvia,” I said as calmly as I could. Then I directed the stroller towards the steps and bumped it down by myself.

“Don’t get involved, Charlotte!” she shouted after me.

I kept moving on the path and pushed the stroller down the street to Mildred’s.

***

Mildred’s cottage was small, made of stones her family had gathered for who knows how long ago. The garden had been tended by four generations of Mildred’s family, and still produced the best vegetables in the area. They’d been the first family to build solar panels, even when the rest of the town had oil and gas to burn. “Just makes sense,” they’d replied to those who’d laughed at their eccentricities. It was something Mildred herself often said.

Mildred saw Charlotte pushing James in the stroller through the trees towards her door that morning and turned to put on the kettle for tea. Out in the garden, she picked peppermint leaves and waited for her young friends.

Charlotte smiled as she approached. “Don’t tell me you already know why I’m here.”

Mildred laughed at that. “No, dear, I can’t say I do. These leaves are for tea. But is it something in the garden you’ve come for? Tummy trouble? Teething?”

Charlotte kneeled beside the stroller. “He’s doing well now. But the teeth coming in have been bothering him.”

“Oh, yes. There must be a better way to grow teeth. Some chamomile, then.” She reached over a hedge and picked some more leaves. “I’ll prepare a tincture you can rub on the gums.”

Once they were inside the cottage, Mildred placed the peppermint in a teapot and the chamomile in a small jar. She took the whistling teakettle off the stove and poured the water carefully into both.

“It should cool a bit. Before you leave, I’ll show you how to apply it, dear. It really does help the poor little ones. Will you have some tea first?”

“Yes, please.”

While Charlotte sat at the wooden table in the kitchen, Mildred gathered the cups. They were serviceable, but, it must be said, a bit lopsided. Still, Mildred loved them and used them proudly. She hid a grin and began her usual talk about them. “Do you know, these cups were made by a little girl who was just learning—”

“—just learning pottery,” Charlotte chimed in. “I do, Mildred. It was me. And thank you.”

“I treasure them. What a very serious little girl you were. Just ten, weren’t you?” She poured the peppermint tea into the cups.

“I was, and you took me on as your student, although I think you had your doubts.”

“Never.” Mildred shook her head. She watched as Charlotte sipped her tea. She noticed that, although James was playing with his hands and making happy sounds, Charlotte was watching him with what looked like concern.

“Is there something else you need, dear?” Mildred asked.

Charlotte started at that, and put down her cup carefully. “Well, yes, I guess so.”

“You seem just a bit distracted.”

Charlotte bit her lip. “Could I have a reading?”

“Certainly, dear.” Mildred put her cup aside and fished a deck of cards from the pocket of her apron. “Always have them at hand, just in case.”

“Well, you’re the best in town.”

Mildred noted Charlotte’s forced smile and began shuffling the deck. “And just what is the question? Or do you have one?”

“I do.” Charlotte nodded.

“Full spread, or one card?”

“How about three cards?”

“Past, present, future.” She placed the deck on the table. “And the question?”

“It’s about a friend who may be in trouble,” said Charlotte. “Can you tell me about it? What will happen?”

Mildred frowned. “I can tell you what might happen. No guarantees.”

“But you told me I’d have a baby before the next spring, and you were right about that.”

“Well, that was different. This may be more complicated. And,” she looked right at Charlotte, “you’re not giving me much information.”

“No, I know,” admitted Charlotte. “But can you still give me a reading?”

“Yes, of course.” She placed a hand gently on Charlotte’s forehead. “Just think about the person.”

Charlotte drew back. “Why are you doing that?”

“It helps me, dear. Just think about the person, and we’ll see about the danger.”

Charlotte breathed out slowly as she closed her eyes. Mildred looked at her intently and kept a hand on her forehead. Then Mildred closed her eyes.

An old woman, stooped in her garden. She rises and greets a young girl who’s crying, pulling an old bicycle. She’d fallen, badly gashed her knee, and come to the first house on the road. The old woman washes the knee carefully, offers the girl apple cider made from the trees out back. Before the girl leaves, the old woman sings a chant over the bicycle, wishes of safety and happiness.

“There.” Mildred took her hand from Charlotte’s forehead. “I’m ready now.”

Mildred took up the deck and placed three cards on the table before her.

The Empress. The Emperor. The Tower.

“All Major Arcana,” Mildred mused. “We’re seeing some powerful possibilities here.”

“Does that mean . . . ”

“Well, let’s see. The past is The Empress, power of nature and power to do. Present is The Emperor. That’s more power over, and it tends to be a social, political power. And the future—”

Charlotte looked at the picture and gasped. The broken tower, struck by lightning, two terrified people falling to certain death.

“That’s horrible,” she whispered. “I wish now I hadn’t asked.”

“Well, not necessarily,” Mildred told her. “It’s an end, that’s for sure. But nothing stays the same forever. All this means is there may be a sudden change.”

“For my friend, you mean?”

“Possibly. Another way of looking at it in context would be that the past was ruled by a gentle, creative force. That was replaced by a sterner power, people wanting to dominate rather than create.”

“Sounds like the Council.”

“But the future may be destruction of the present order—the downfall of the dominators.” She swept the cards back into the deck.

“Do you really think so?”

“That’s my reading. Someone else may interpret the cards differently.”

“But you’re the best.”

Mildred smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

“You did tell me I’d have a baby, and that happened.” She frowned. “What cards told you that? I don’t remember.”

“That’s because I did the reading while you were out in the garden, picking elderflower for your cold. You didn’t ask about it when you were here, but I could tell you were wondering. So I did the reading myself.”

“And what were the cards?”

Mildred looked through the deck and drew out three cards. “The Ace of Wands first,” she said, “and that’s an indication of a new venture.” She placed the card before Charlotte, so she could see the image of the hand in a cloud, grasping a wand with blossoms on it.

“And then the Ten of Cups, domestic happiness.” Charlotte saw the young couple, arms around each other under a rainbow of cups, their children dancing beside them.

“And last—and this is the most important, for me, at least—The Sun. That’s the baby card, my dear. Birth before the next year. Always.”

Charlotte smiled at the naked cherub riding the horse in the foreground, images of flowers under a beaming sun behind it.

“Look at them carefully, Charlotte. I’m serious, now. Really look at them.”

As Charlotte looked at the cards, Mildred leaned over to James in the stroller. She picked him up and placed him gently on her lap.

“Sweet boy,” she whispered. “Now I’ll show your mama how to stop that bad, bad pain.”

***

“The meeting will come to order.”

The room fell silent, and the men on the dais looked down at their notes. The Council Chair, a balding man in his sixties, coughed and then spoke again.

“We convene this Extraordinary Meeting of the Council this evening to address a matter of some importance. “

A younger man to his right on the dais spoke up. “Point of order—”

“Yes?” the chair snapped.

“In characterizing the subject we’re addressing this evening as ‘a matter of some importance,’ are we not implicitly saying that our usual discussion is not a matter of some importance?”

“No, we are not. Now let’s get started before—”

“Shouldn’t we then correct the record, sir? Rephrase the characterization? For the purpose of instructing future Council members, I really do think—”

“Let’s just deal with this evening’s business, sir. There’s quite enough to do. Now, there’s been a serious charge against one Mildred Cosgrove, who is accused of casting a birth spell. And I take it her accuser is here, but not the accused?” He lifted his glasses to check the hall.

“Mildred Cosgrove?” the Chair called out. “Please come forward.”

No one responded.

“Let the record show, then, that the accused is not present,” the Chair announced. “We may proceed. Now to the accuser. Agnes Reynaud? Please come forward.”

Agnes stood and walked to the front of the room, before the assembled Council.

“Are you Agnes Reynaud?”

“I am, sir.”

“And you accuse Mildred Cosgrove of casting a birth spell?”

“I do, sir.”

The Chair folded his hands. “You realize this is a serious matter.”

“I do, sir.”

“You realize the penalty is death?”

Agnes nodded silently.

“You must speak, ma’am, so we can make your response part of the record,” the younger man said.

The Chair turned with a withering glance to his right. Then he looked back to Agnes and nodded.

“I do realize the penalty is death, sir.”

“Then state your case, ma’am.”

Agnes turned so that the Council could see her. “About two years ago, Mildred Cosgrove met with Charlotte. It was on herbal business.”

“Could you explain that?”

“Charlotte wanted some herbs to cure a cold. But while she was there, she also had a reading. A reading of her future, to ask if she’d have a baby any time soon.”

“And there’s nothing wrong with that?”

“No, sir. Nothing wrong with foretelling the birth of a child. But—”

“But what? Speak up.”

“Mildred cast a spell for Charlotte so a child would be born to her. It wasn’t just a reading at all. It was a spell.”

“And how do you know that, ma’am?”

Agnes cocked her head in annoyance at the question. “Well, the birth followed very quickly. She was suddenly with child practically that very month. And that’s not the way of things now, is it?”

“It is suspicious, yes,” the Chair conceded with a nod. “But couldn’t it just be luck?”

Agnes drew herself up to her full height. “We in the craft know our business, sir. It’s more than suspicious. It was deliberate.”

“Was there a witness to this spell? Someone who could testify?”

She looked around the hall. “Only Charlotte, since Mildred’s not here.”

“Thank you, Agnes. You may step down now.”

“But I haven’t—”

“Thank you, ma’am. Charlotte Bellamy, are you present?”

Charlotte rose, handing James to her husband. She walked towards the front of the assembly, her legs trembling.

“Charlotte Bellamy,” the Chair began, “you are called to witness in the case of Mildred Cosgrove, who is charged with casting a birth spell for you.”

Charlotte threw a nervous glance back at Tom and James. “Yes, sir.”

The younger man broke in. “In saying ‘yes,’ are you admitting she did indeed cast—”

“Sir, I will question the witness. Charlotte, calm yourself now. Did you ask Mildred to cast a birth spell for you?”

“No, sir, I didn’t.”

“But Mildred told you that you’d have a baby soon?”

“Yes, sir. Before the next spring,” she said.

“And this was—when?”

“It was then spring, sir.”

“So the prediction was correct? And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course.”

Agnes rose. “If I may, I should like to ask how Mildred predicted the birth.”

The younger man turned to her with a frown. “Ma’am, you’re out of order.”

The Chair raised his hand. He nodded to Charlotte. “You may answer the question.”

Charlotte grasped her hands to keep them from trembling. “It was a tarot reading.”

Agnes smirked. “And what exactly were the cards?”

“Is this absolutely necessary?” the younger man asked, appearing exasperated. “I mean this kind of minutiae, should we concern ourselves with it?”

“What were the cards?” Agnes repeated.

Charlotte took a breath. “Ace of Wands, Ten of Cups, The Sun.”

“Let me search her,” Agnes said. She approached Charlotte and put a hand to her forehead.

An old woman at a table with a young woman, showing her the cards. The Ace of Wands, that’s an indication of a new venture. The image of the hand in a cloud, grasping a wand with blossoms on it.

And the Ten of Cups, domestic happiness. A young couple, arms around each other under a rainbow of cups, their children dancing beside them.

And this is the most important, for me, at least—The Sun.

That’s the baby card, my dear. Birth before the next year. Always.

Agnes drew back her hand. She lowered her head. “It’s true. It’s a true reading. I was wrong.”

“Would you repeat that for the Council, Agnes?” said the Chair.

Agnes paused. “I withdraw my accusation.”

“To be clear, ma’am . . . ”

Agnes spoke loudly and deliberately. “I accused Mildred Cosgrove of casting a birth spell. I now withdraw that accusation.”

“And the reason for your change of mind?”

“This is a true reading. If I had drawn these cards, I would have made the same prediction. Charlotte’s memory convinced me. Mildred is innocent.”

Charlotte looked to Tom and James in relief. She nodded and wiped tears from her cheeks.

Agnes turned to the Council. “I’m sorry to have brought the charge. I was foolish.” She looked to Charlotte, “I should have asked you what cards were drawn long ago.”

Charlotte shook her head.

“Well, I’m sorry all around. I’m glad Mildred never found out.” She turned to leave, then she suddenly shot Charlotte a hard look. “Charlotte, Sylvia told me you visited Mildred just yesterday. Did you warn her?”

Charlotte took James from Tom and held him close. “I went to her for herbs. I said nothing of the accusation against her.”

“Are you certain?” asked Agnes.

Charlotte looked right at her. “Do you want to search me again?”

“No,” Agnes whispered, lowering her head. “No need.”

***

At home, Mildred sat at her table. She spread the tarot deck face down before her. She asked, “Outcome?” and chose a card.

It was The Magician—a figure standing confident and sure, wielding the arcane symbols of the tarot.

The skillful accomplishment of a goal.

Mildred laughed softly. Good enough, she thought. For today at least.

She poured peppermint tea into her lopsided cup and drank it.

A bit about the author:

Regina Higgins has written stories published at Everyday Fiction and Rainbow Rumpus. She's also the author of Magic Kingdoms, a book about classic children's literature, published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and is writing a novel. Visit author page