Nightmares. Bloody hell. I’m losing more sleep now than I ever did when I was young.
Carefully, I sat up against the pillow. I’m covered in sweat. Beads of perspiration glisten over my neck and collarbone. I can feel drops of it trickle down between my breasts. My nightgown is nearly transparent.
My head is pounding. I reach up to rub my temples, dark hair flying about my head like a halo. It must have been a restless sleep, too.
Swinging my legs over the edge of my bed, I threw off the covers and planted both feet on the cold floor. The smell of morning frost crept in through the shutters, much like the chill that accompanies it. Soon it will be winter.
I stretch my arms above me as my toes claw at the floor. Once I feel my joints loosen, I rise from bed and make my way into the kitchen.
Coffee. I need coffee.
The fire still has embers in it, and I catch it quickly with the kindling, setting up a couple of logs in the fireplace for warmth. I rub my hands together vigorously before starting to the iron stove, piling enough kindling around a dried log to get it started. After filling the coffee filter with grounds, I slide it into the pot to let the water boil.
A crow caws outside my front door and I pause. Lifting my head, I stare, waiting. The more the crow caws, the stronger the chill gets. Goosebumps rise along both arms and I feel my spine stiffening. In a matter of seconds I’m shaking.
Shaking it off, I rush over to the door, throw open the latch, and push it open.
There is the flutter of wings, and I notice the crow settle with a cluster of others in the trees surrounding the cottage. Their small black bodies rest against the backdrop of the sunrise, heads turning quietly to face me.
I let go of the breath I was holding, hating myself for feeling relieved. I can see the sun starting to peak. Shafts of light move over each other through the trees, casting a shadow over the lawn. A fog accompanied the frost, lifting somewhat from the warmth of new light.
Another new day.
Closing the door, I move around the cottage to open every window. The fires have stoked, now, and I feel a nice balance between morning cold and cottage warmth. There was only so much time for breakfast before I went to work.
I didn’t bother returning to the front door, knowing she would burst in at any moment, whether I was awake or not. “I’m dressing!” I called from the bedroom, fixing my stays tightly.
Sure enough, the front door opened and closed and I hear the rustle of skirts accompany a familiar voice. “Zelda, I thought you’d be read by now! You said you’d accompany me to market!”
“I am. I am.” I slipped into a brown wool dress, doing the buttons up the front. “I slept in a little, that’s all.”
Pause. Then, “Nightmares again?”
I didn’t answer. There’s no need if she already knows.
“What about that new tonic? The one from Asia?”
“I ran out.” And Sesbania sesban is hard to come by. “My source hasn’t gotten back to me, yet. I sold the last bottle I had to a little girl suffering from the same ailment. Nightmares.”
“Heart of gold, you are.” Her boots clomp around outside my bedroom. I hear her stoke the fire, then remove the coffeepot from its place on the stove. The smell of it is wonderful.
After brushing a comb through my hair, I step out of my bedroom and smile. “Good morning, Fresca.”
She turned to face me, giving a semi-crooked smile. Her auburn hair was pulled back tightly into a long braid that draped over her right shoulder. She had on a going-to-town frock, yellow with blue cornflower print. Small ruffles of lace protruded from either end of semi-low sleeve at each elbow, along with a bit of lace curving out from her scooped collar. She had even stained her lips, the autumn having already blessed her with rosy cheeks beneath a scattering of freckles. One canine protruded longer than the other, a small overbite when she smiled that made all the boys in town drool when they weren’t eyeing her figure.
And more of a reason for the girls in town to hold her in contempt.
“Good morning, Zelda.” She held out a mug of black coffee for me which I took with great pride. Breathing in the vapors briefly, I raised the cup to my lips with eyes closed.
Ah...what I’ve waited for all night.
“You should try something for those nightmares.” She moved around the table toward the sink- a pump I had installed last summer that connected to the well outside. “They’ll cost you in more ways than one.”
“I’m fine so long as I have this.” I took another sip of coffee.
Fresca started washing the basket of eggs I had collected. After which she pulled out an iron skillet which she carried to the stove. “What was it about? Or will you not tell me again.”
“I’m growing tired of secrets.” I rubbed my temples. The throbbing had only ceased a little.
I debated, peering at her over my fingers. “Oh, alright.”
She set everything down, quickly pulled up a chair, and scooted closer to me. I’ve seen youngsters exhibit less enthusiasm for a story. “Well, don’t rush me now.”
“C’mon.” Fresca looked eager. Determined. “Let’s get to the root of it.”
“I...think it was about Mom.” Now the back of my neck hurts, near the base of my skull. A crown of throbbing encircles my head and I roll it around in effort for release. “I think she’s haunting me.”
“In my dreams. She’s always there. There’s always something, a tree. A river. A bird.” Frowning, I contemplated the desperation of my dreams. “She’s always taunting me or blaming me. I’m always drowning in something, be it water or ensnared by trees or being buried alive.”
“Well, this is pretty cut and dry,” Fresca murmured. “You’re simply living with too much guilt.”
“Thanks for the obvious assumption.” But it did feel better to get off my chest.
“You blame yourself for what happened because you can’t reconcile the fact that your mother was wrong.” Fresca straightened, giving me a wide-eyed look. “So very VERY wrong. And you did something at a very young age that most adults would look the other way. Most grown ups would be too scared to come forward, let alone expose their own family.”
I didn’t want to talk much about Mom. Shifting uncomfortably in my chair, I whispered, “I just wish I could forget it.”
“We all have things we wish we could forget.” She shuddered. “I’d like to forget how my uncle acted when I was 6. But it seems whenever a boy asks me out I can’t get those feelings out of my head. I’ll become a spinster before I marry, thanks to him.”
“You can help me run the shop.” I smiled.
“Who needs men when you have sisters?” Fresca beamed, leaning over to wrap her arms about my neck for a hug.
The pain only intensified. “Easy.”
“I’ve a splitting headache.”
“Oh, dear. Did you try any almond extract?”
“It doesn’t work.” It’s pointless. The only way to deal with the headache is to let it run its course.
“Maybe you’re just hungry.” She stood to start on the eggs. I sat watching while I drank my coffee. The pain went from a throbbing to a dull gnawing as I eyed the morning through the kitchen window.
I hear the crows caw again outside and look to the door. “I need to do something about those birds.”
“Hm?” Fresca pinched her lips briefly before turning away from the skillet. “What about birds?”
“Did you see all the crows gathering in the trees outside?” I couldn’t help but shudder.
Fresca walked over to the window to peer out. “Ah. I see what you mean.”
“They’re like rats.”
“Given the number of them, I’d say their just migrating.”
I looked at her blankly. “Crows don’t migrate.”
“They’ll still move south.”
Not in clusters like that. It seemed unnatural.
“Here.” She shoved a plate of eggs and burnt bread in front of me. “Pumpkinfest is this weekend. You’ll need your strength.”
“As if I needed the reminder.” But I ate up. People from all around the province came up for pumpkinfest. Pumpkin pies. Pumpkin bread. Muffins. Pumpkin coffee. “If anything were to make me hate a pumpkin patch more it would be fall festivals.”
“Don’t say that! Pumpkins have plenty of medicinal properties to promote. Especially if you ask Merald to testify.”
I gave a wry smile. “He would indeed.”
“I think so!”
Merald blushed every time he entered the shop to receive a package of pumpkin seeds to relieve certain symptoms of a...delicate matter. “I don’t think I could ask him to do that.”
“Well. Either way, the festival brings up plenty of people. You’ll make enough sales to last you through the winter.”
Only if those same people could put aside their superstitions. Bad enough that I run Mom’s shop, a well-known witch, but since her hanging people believe her powers had been transferred to me. I had to fight to keep hold of her shop, and every month presented a new problem. Not enough customers, or someone started a protest or petition to close everything down. I tried to create my own reputation, but it feels like Mom’s ghost is lingering. Tides of glass threaten to sweep everything in my present in future into the past, dragging me with it.
“Hey.” Fresca pulled up the chair next to me, placing a hand over mine. Her lips turned up in a smile, eyes sparkling warmly. “It’ll be fine. You’ll make it work. You always do.”
“I hope you’re right.” I smiled back, pushing back my empty plate. “Let’s get going.”