Cradles the Brain: A Book of Short Tales

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Vitality Episode 3 (Pt. 1)

“Yeah, yeah, it’s me.” Clint’s mouth curls into a smile. “Call me William.”

Melanie’s head throbs, adrenaline surging through it. “You’re Clint.”

William scoffs. “No, I’m not. We’ve already been over this.” He slides off of the table, landing next to Melanie. “I’m William,” he whispers into her ear.

A shiver tumbles down her spine. She grimaces, glaring at him from the corner of her eye. “Why are you here?”

“I’m unsure,” he looks away, eyeing the dead body on the table. “Hey,” he moves to it, “why didn’t you bring this fellow back to life?” He lifts the sheet covering the body’s lower half. He smirks. “Looks like a good candidate for your purposes.” William smirks at Melanie.

She shakes her head and rushes over. “Don’t touch him.” She smacks the sheet out of his hand. “Tristan is undergoing treatment.”

“Treatment? Well, it doesn’t appear to be going well.” He laughs.

Melanie rolls her eyes. “He was donated to my practices so long as I mummified him for his family.” She huffs. “I can’t believe I’m talking about preserving cadavers to a cadaver.” Tears glaze her eyes as she looks away from William.

William sighs, his mouth falling into a frown. “I’ve heard about cases like this.” Melanie looks at him, eyebrows raised. “People bring back their deceased loved ones only to find they are not who they once were.” He shakes his head. “I’m sorry I’m not Clint. I just,” he sighs again, “saw an opening out of the world I was in and decided it was my time to leave.”

Melanie stares in silence. The room moves about them in the candlelight. Her face creases as she thinks. “What you’re saying is, not only is there a definite afterlife, but, it is a terrible existence. One so bad that you were willing to take any exit?”

William nods. “Yes, that’s right.” He touches her shoulder lightly. “Maybe one day I’ll tell you about it.”

To her surprise, Melanie does not pull away from his touch. She smiles. He smiles back, and they look at each other in silence. “This is quite awkward.” A serious look overtakes her. “You’re not going to hurt me, correct?”

William softens, his whole body slumping. “No. I’m quite sorry about that. You couldn’t even fathom the things I was seeing.” His eyes fall into a blank stare across the room.

Melanie yawns. “You do realize it is late, and I must attend to my patients in the morn, right?”

He nods. “I’m sorry. I um,” he stops.

“What? Why are you here?” She narrows her eyes at him.

“I don’t have anyone else. I don’t know what to do here, now that I’m back. Technically you’re a necromancer, so, so I thought you’d know what to do.”

“Oh.” Melanie chews on her pale lip. “Perhaps I could make room in the parlor for you to stay. I’m terribly sorry I don’t have a guest room. I was lucky enough to find a building with a basement, and that had been priority at the time.” She turns on her heel. “Follow me.”

Winding through tables and bookcases in the dim light, Melanie extinguishes all the candles save for one. She carries this one as William follows close behind. Melanie scans the lab over once.

Looking to William , she says, “I’ve never shown anyone this before.” She bends down, moving a latch aside. With a shove, the bookshelf to her side rolls away, exposing a staircase. “You first.”

William ascends a few stairs and waits for Melanie. She pulls the bookshelf closed and squeezes past him. After ascending the stairs, they stop at a large wooden door. Melanie pulls free a key from her coat pocket.

“Sorry, it is a bit of a mess.” Cringing, she opens the door.

William looks into the darkness around Melanie’s shoulder. Anticipation builds in him, a feeling he hadn’t experienced since being alive.

Being inside the home of the one who roused me from the dead. I can’t even bare a thought as to what it must look like.

The circle of orange light illuminates part of Melanie’s parlor. She rushes out, leaving William in the dark. A few seconds pass and the room is lit with five candles.

Just as in her laboratory, the parlor is lined with bookshelves teeming with leather bounds and loose papers. She has no sofa, but rather a short table with one cushion in front of it. Herbs bundled in twine cover the table.

“I had been wrapping my incense, sorry for the mess.” She picks up bowls full of leaves and dried flowers and scuttles into the next room.

William hears her clanking around and decides to follow. He gasps. The room is grey with light from the moon, the clouds having cleared away. Bouquets of colorful flowers hang from the ceiling. Leaves dangle from the walls. The heavy perfume of nature fills William’s borrowed lungs. “What is all this?”

Melanie turns around, a small smile on her lips. She stands before a large wooden table scattered with bowls and plants, potted and alive as well as dried. “It’s my drying room. The basement is much too humid for drying plants. Plus, I wouldn’t want to taint my herbs with the concoctions I am forced to use at times. Mummifying a body can be quite acrid.” She scrunches her nose and looks down at the bowl in front of her. “I use these herbs for everything.”

“Where do you get them all? Last I recall herbs and spices aren’t exactly easy to come across.” His eyes wander about the room.

“People owe me favors.” She shrugs. “I refuse to be paid with money. Herbs and food are my only currency. Ah, as well as crystals and books.” She laughs. With a softened voice, she says, “This all seems like a strange dream.”

William looks back to her, having been staring at all of the flowers. She gazes at him.

“My skills as a doctor were not enough to save Clint, and,” she pauses, her hands falling to her sides, “my skills as a necromancer were not enough to bring him back.” She sighs.

“Who was Clint?” William asks, approaching Melanie.

“Ah, just a patient of mine. I grew much too fond of him. Up until recently I thought he was fond of me, too.” A tear slips down her cheek. “But, alas he had an eye for another woman.” She sniffles. “No matter now, he’s gone.” She picks back up where she left off, organizing bowls onto her table.

“I give my condolences.” William yawns. “I’m sorry to be so abrupt, but do you happen to have anywhere I can rest? I am surprisingly drained for someone having just been risen.”

Melanie nods. She leads him out of the drying room, through the parlor, and into a bedroom. “Here, you can sleep here tonight.” Melanie goes to the bed and adjusts the blankets and pillow. “I hope it is comfortable enough.” She smiles and tries to walk past him.

“But,” he stops her with a hand on her shoulder, “I thought you said you didn’t have a spare room?”

“I don’t. This is my room. I must finish with my herbs. Please, get some rest.” She nods and leaves the room, shutting the door gently.

William stares at the door blankly. Tears slowly seep from his white eyes. With a smile, he crawls into Melanie’s bed. He rubs the blanket between his forefinger and thumb. Embracing the pillow against his face, he sighs. He closes his eyes and hugs a blanket tightly to his chest.

Melanie enters the drying room, the scent lost to her experienced nose. She sighs, exhaustion making her body heavy. Taking a few bowls back into the parlor, she sits on her cushion, curling her legs under herself. She quietly wraps herbs into tight sticks as the moon passes over her town.

Morning comes and William awakes in the yellow light. The clouds have receded for the time being. He smiles and uncovers himself. Slipping off of the bed, William hurries to the door. He opens it and gasps.

Melanie lay slumped over the table, an incense stick in her grasp. She faces away from William, keeping her face hidden. William rushes to her side and shakes her.

Melanie. Melanie. Are you alright?” He moves to the other side and lifts her face gently in his hands.

She opens her eyes with a flutter. Her eyes meet his, and she screams, pulling herself away from him. Tumbling backwards, she lands harshly on her back. William freezes, staring at her with wide eyes.

After a few seconds of staring, Melanie calms down. She sits up and apologizes. “I am not accustomed to having guests.” With rough hands, she rubs her tired face. “I must’ve dozed off while working last night.” She perks up and whispers, “Working.” Standing, she says, “Oh, Lord. I must be off. I hope I am not late.”

“Late? Late for what?”

“My patients. I must see them today. I have a pregnant woman who is ready for labor any day now.” She sighs heavily. “And a young boy who is hopefully still breathing. He fell off of a roof, and I’m not quite sure if his body can recover from such a thing.”

Rushing into her drying room, Melanie collects a handful of herbs into a cloth and ties it up. She stuffs this into her pocket, having slept in her coat. Running, she makes it to her bathroom. She grunts with her appearance in the mirror. “No matter, I wear a mask for a reason.” She takes her hair down and quickly puts it back up in a cleaner fashion.

“What will I do while you are gone? May I come with?” William asks as Melanie opens the front door.

“No, you may stay here and read, eat, do something, but do not, and I mean do not touch any of my herbs.” She nods affirmatively and closes the door behind herself. It clicks as she locks it and William feels the heart in this stranger’s chest sink.

He looks at his new hands, rubbing his thumbs across the pads of his fingers. Curiosity peaks him, taking his attention from the new body. He turns around, eyeing the room.

Cold, concrete walls surround a space he finds warm. The pillow is worn in the center, almost exposing the filling. Herbs litter the dark tabletop. He approaches a bookshelf, one of five in the room. Tracing a finger down a half melted candle, he sighs.

In the corner of his eye, something flickers. William raises an eyebrow, looking across the room. He walks to the bookshelf, staring at the spines.

He scans over a few titles, stopping on Communication between the Realm of the Living and the Realm of Spirits.

His yellow fingernail catches the top of the spine, sliding it free from the shelf.

With a huff, he sits on Melanie’s cushion, the heavy book on his lap.

I’m curious how the living perceive communication with us.

Although,

Am I dead anymore?

He looks down at the clothing on his body.

Well, I certainly wouldn’t have worn this.

Setting aside the book, he stands and walks to Melanie’s washroom. He gazes upon his reflection: his skin a ghastly white, the vibrant veins entangling just under the surface. The irises of his eyes almost glow in their sockets. He bares his teeth, discovering them to be a sickly yellow.

With a snarl, he leaves the washroom, sure that reading will fancy him better than staring at the corpse he now resides in.

The book is weighty in his hands, the leather thick and soft. He sniffs it, finding it musty and familiar.

Yet again, he determines the ascertainment of anticipation within him. His fingers almost tremble as he reveals the first page to himself.

Just the handwriting elicits a smile from him. Flowing scroll dances across each line, giving each word its own personality.

Knock! Knock! Knock!

Melanie heaves, leaning against the wall. Her mask fogs with each heavy breath, obscuring her vision. The newly changed herbs sent heavy perfume into her nostrils, laying a thick taste on her tongue.

The door swings open. ”Where have you been? You are late!” A hand reaches out of the door and yanks Melanie inside.

“Ulga, you must forgive me. The past—”

“I don’t care about your past! My Henry is ill!” The large woman drags Melanie through the flat, weaving around piles of rubble and dirty laundry. They bust through a door, entering into a feverishly hot room.

A young boy with dark, tousled hair and even darker eyebrows lies with his eyes closed in a bed. The broken window next to him lets in a cool draft. Despite this, Melanie feels the heat creep through her coat.

Sweat beads shimmer on the boy’s forehead. Melanie rushes to his side. Taking off her glove, she feels his forehead with the back of her hand. She gasps, not loud enough for Ulga to hear.

“How is he?” Ulga asks, her hands clasped in front of her chest.

Melanie faces Ulga abruptly. “I need time with him. Alone.”

Ulga’s face softens, her eyebrows creasing her forehead. “Uh.” Tears well in her eyes. “Yes, Doctor.”

Melanie looks back to the boy, hearing the door close. Ulga cries out, startling Melanie.

Melanie releases a pent up breath, a heavy weight on her chest. Stuffing her glove in her pocket, Melanie takes up the boy’s wrist.

No pulse.

Melanie gently sets his wrist down. She leans over his body and whispers, “I will pray for you.” Gently, she casts the blanket over his head.

She wonders where his soul will wander; where little boys’ souls go.

Leaving the room, she quietly closes the door.

“Ms. Ulm,” Melanie lightly calls.

She finds the woman softly crying into her hands in front of the stove. A pot of boiling water sits steaming in front of her. Ulga looks to Melanie, wiping her wet palms on her tattered dress.

“I give my condolences. Henry has passed.”

Ulga’s face contorts into a mask of sorrow, violently shifting her features downwards. With a shudder, she wails, “My little Henry!” She throws her face into her hands and falls to her knees.

Melanie chokes back her sob, needing to remain professional. “Ms. Ulm, I must attend to other patients. Would you like me to contact the church?”

Ulga looks up to her between her pale fingers. “Yes, yes, please.”

Melanie leaves Ulga crying on the floor, pleased to be free from the apartment. She walks quickly, fending off a sudden chill. The church quickly comes into view, only being a block away from Ms. Ulm’s flat.

Entering the large arched doorway, Melanie clears her mind, hoping no one will sense her fear. She approaches the pulpit, walking past empty pews.

Father?” she whispers.

“Yes, dear child?” a tall man says, coming from a room next to the pulpit.

Melanie approaches him. “Good morning to you, Father Emerson.”

“Blessed morning to you, Doctor Poe. How may I be of service to you this day?”

Melanie sighs. “I’m afraid you will have to be of service to Ms. Ulga Ulm. Her poor boy, Henry, has passed on.” Melanie clasps her hands in front of herself, wanting to fidget with her gloves.

“Ah, thank you for giving notice. We will mention him in this week’s service, and make sure he is given a proper burial. I will also send a counselor over to aid Ms. Ulm in her grieving process.” Father Emerson places a hand on Melanie’s shoulder. “You did your very best, but God has decided. Thank you, Doctor.” He faintly smiles and turns away.

Melanie starts towards the exit when Father Emerson clears his throat.

“Doctor Poe?”

Melanie spins around to find Father Emerson almost on top of her. Wide-eyed, she looks up to him through her mask, “Yes, Father?”

“What is troubling you? You seem nervous.”

Melanie shakes her head. “Nothing, Father. Only,” she pauses, gazing past him, “the loss of this boy weighs heavy on my heart.” She looks back to his grey eyes. “He was so young and full of potential. We must warn parents to heed their offspring. Children are delicate.”

“I understand. We are here for you in your times of need, Doctor. It has been some time since I have seen you at a service.” He smiles, flashing brown teeth.

“Yes, I know it’s been quite a while since I’ve been in, but duty calls. I must be off to see a pregnant woman. You may just have another member of the church here in a few days.” She turns to leave. “I bid thee good day, Father Emerson!” she calls.

“Ah, well may the child take the void you have left within the church. Good day, Ms. Poe.”

Melanie huffs as she swings open the large door. She lets it slam behind her.

Ms.? I am a doctor, no simple Ms.

She shakes her head.

A few more blocks, and she knocks on a wooden door. “Anna! It is me! Please let me in, the cold is about to freeze my nose off!”

The door swings open, an unfamiliar face presents itself with a scowl.

“Are ye Doct’r Poe?” the woman asks.

Melanie takes a step back. “Yes, I am, and who might you be?”

The woman’s frown deepens. “I be Ivy.”

“Well, thank you, but I mean what is your purpose here? Who are you to Mrs. Bell?” Melanie steps towards the door, trying to get a glimpse inside.

The woman blocks her entry. “I be the midwife.”

“Where’s Duck?”

“Duck be ill. May be the plague.” Ivy sighs heavily. “I must—”

Plague?” Melanie interrupts.

“Mmhmm. New to the ar’a.”

Even in her confusion, Melanie focuses on the woman’s thick accent.

“I must be gettin’ back to Anna. She goin’ to pop an’ minute now.”

Melanie’s eyes widen. “What?” She shoves past the beefy woman, startling her.

Anna lay sprawled out on the floor, a sheen of sweat covering her. Her strained, red face clenches, her eyes squeezing closed. Melanie plops down beside her, taking up her hand. Anna’s eyes open.

“Melanie! Oh, I’m so glad you’re here!” She smiles, brightening the room.

Melanie smiles and takes off her mask. “I wouldn’t miss the birth of your child for the world.”

“You must take notes for when you bear a child.” Anna laughs, interrupted by a pain like a knife slicing through her abdomen. She cringes, squeezing Melanie’s hand.

Melanie laughs with her. “Ah, that requires a man, dear. And I’ve never been very serious with a man.” She looks about as if she is telling a secret and whispers, “They don’t appear to be very fond of me.”

She and Anna laugh as Ivy brings in a boiling pot of water. She places it on the floor a few feet from Anna and dumps in a few towels.

“Midwife Ivy?” Melanie says.

“Hmm?” Ivy grunts, pulling a jar of oil from her satchel.

“What will you be doing to prepare Anna?” Melanie realizes how this comes across. “I’ve never actually been present during a birth, I’ve only taken care of pregnant women, sending them into the arms of Duck for the birth.”

The woman glares at Melanie. “I’ll be using olive oil. It’ll help her birth the child faster and hopefully with less pain.”

“That appears to be a sound idea,” Melanie says, cringing at the pressure crushing her hand. “Ms. Ivy—”

“No Ms. Just Ivy,” the woman mumbles, dipping towels into the hot water.

“Well, Ivy, how did you get to be a midwife?”

Ivy glares at Melanie, her dark eyes piercing Melanie’s soul.

“Mother was midwife. Now I am midwife.”

“Ah, that’s wonderful.”

Anna screams, startling Melanie.

“What is wrong with her?” Melanie feels Anna’s forehead with the back of her hand.

“Nothing.”

“She is screaming! Shouldn’t we have someone of the clergy here?”

Ivy makes eye contact with Melanie. “And why?”

“Well, that’s what I’ve heard. To ward off evil.”

“There be no evil here. Only nature. You see no one of the church holdin’ a crucifix as sheep birth lamb.”

Melanie nods, agreeing with her. She bursts out, “I think the church is wrong about many things.”

Ivy’s face softens. “You ah not wrong. Child from womb has no natural sin. It be innocent, just as pebble have no sin, babe have no sin.” She dips her thumb in the jar of oil. “Anna, olive oil may feel funny, but trust me, deah, it works.”

Melanie watches as the woman lifts Anna’s dress and puts her hand under. She tries to think what it could be for when it clicks. “How did you ever think to use olive oil like that?”

“Mother taught me all tricks.” Her demeanor seems calmer, less temperamental.

Anna squeezes Melanie’s hand and screams. Sweat pours over her body. Ivy rushes to the kitchen, returning with a bowl of water. She dips in a cloth and hands it to Melanie. “Keep her cool.”

Melanie dabs at Anna’s forehead, whispering pleasant things about her newborn. Anna clenches up and moans.

“Babe be almost here!” Ivy hikes up Anna’s dress to the young girl’s dismay. Ivy makes full eye contact with her. “No fret. Deah, your body is not shameful. You are bringing life into the world. Be proud and joyous. We will not judge.” She smiles. Melanie looks at Ivy in awe, having never heard a woman speak so powerfully.

Ivy throws hot towels onto Anna’s belly and the girl sighs. She places some on the cold, brick floor below Anna and she shrieks. Quickly, Ivy spreads Anna’s legs apart. “Push! Push with all you can!” she yells, taking up Anna’s hand. She pushes and screams. Ivy lets go of her hand and positions herself in front of her. “The child’s head! It is here!”

Melanie gasps and looks for herself. Her stomach drops. There’s so much blood. She leans over and whispers to Ivy, “What of all the blood?”

Ivy answers, “It is natural, part of birth.” Looking to Anna, she calmly says, “You must push, Anna. You have it in you.” Ivy positions herself as if she’s catching a fish at the market.

Anna leans forward and pushes. Her red face contorts as Melanie pats her with the wet towel.

“Everything will be fine, dear. You’ve been preparing for months. You’ll be fine,” Melanie says.

Anna nods, tears mixing with her sweat.

“Ah, I see its face!” Ivy cradles the child’s head in her hands. “Push, woman!” she yells. Anna cries out, using every muscle in her body to push.

Melanie wipes down Anna’s neck and chest, keeping one hand clasped with hers. “You are doing wonderful. The baby is almost here! You almost have a child!”

“Shoulders and chest! Anna you’re almost done! One good shove!” Ivy grasps the child by the shoulders and gently pulls. She hesitates when she realizes: the baby isn’t crying. “Push!” Too frightened to shake up the mother, Ivy checks the baby’s pulse. It is there. With a sigh, she pulls the baby free. “It is a boy!” Ivy yells, holding up the child like a sacrifice

Anna relaxes back, breathing heavily. She asks in a whisper, “Why does he not cry?”

Ivy shakes her head, staring at the bloody child. “Am not sure. Never seen such calm in a babe before.” Picking up a pair of shears, Ivy softly cuts the umbilical cord. She gently wipes him down with a wet cloth and wraps him in a clean towel as Anna relaxes. “One more ting.” Ivy looks at Anna somberly. “You must pass the placenta.”

Anna and Melanie look to each other, confused.

“The what?” Melanie asks.

“Placenta. It’s where the babe sits. Sort of like a cushion.”

“More pushing?” Anna asks, her voice wavering.

Ivy nods, cradling the wrapped boy to her chest. Anna pushes, easily passing the placenta.

“What be his name?” Ivy asks, gently handing the boy to smiling Anna.

“His name is Gideon, after my uncle whom recently passed.”

Ivy lightly smiles, exposing dimples. “He be beautiful.”

“Melanie, would you like to hold him?” Anna asks, holding Gideon out to her.

Melanie had never seen, let alone held, a fresh baby. She always found herself on the other end of the spectrum. “Yes, please.” She gently takes the baby in her arms, pulling him close. Tears spring to her eyes. He stares back at her, his blue eyes shining from within his red face. Melanie whispers. “You are a treasure. May you always know that.”

William stops on a particular spell, having been scanning through the book.

Raising Infant Souls

A pang in his chest catches him off guard.

Susanna, Lord. I nearly forgot about you.

A tear slides down his pale cheek. He quickly wipes it away. He reads over the spell. His eyebrows lift and knit together. The spell makes no sense. He reads aloud:

Infant, we call you from your rest,

God’s judgement know not best,

Come away from the light,

Weighing down your soul once alight,

Present your soul,

Bring us your presence whole.

He chuckles. “Oh, whole, not hole.” He rolls his eyes.

A book falls off the shelf beside him. William feels the heart in his chest bound into his throat. He holds his breath, listening.

A child’s laugh comes from the drying room. Wide-eyed, William glares at the doorway. It slowly grows louder, from a faint chuckle to a screaming cackle in his ears. First, the windows start to vibrate then the walls shake. William trembles as the laughter pounds against his chest. A bright light fills the parlor, blinding him. He screams.

It stops. William is left screaming and covering his face in silence. He snaps his mouth shut and peers over his hands.

An infant stares at him as it crawls toward him. William screams again, throwing his arms up in defense. He looks at the baby and says, “What are you?!” The child giggles, its bright blue eyes shining. William scrambles to his feet and skirts around the baby. His hands reach into his hair, pulling at the white strands. “How? How did I do this?” he whispers.

Giggling, the baby turns around, crawling on its hand and knees.

"No,” William growls.

The baby’s giggling grows louder. Books fall off of shelves around him, scattering loose pages. The paper dives around him like bats, swirling about him, tearing and nicking at his skin. The laughter only grows louder. William’s headache from the last bout is ever present, only deepening. He grasps his own head in his hands and squeezes, squishing his eyes closed. A book falls off of the shelf above him, landing on his head. He grunts and opens his eyes, finding himself surrounded by babies, each identical to the last.

He shrieks, pulling his leg up.

The door behind him opens, ending the giggles. Papers flutter to the floor in the silence. A single infant sits on Melanie’s cushion, nibbling on its finger.

Melanie gawps. “William!” She grabs his shoulder and spins him to face her. “Who’s child is this?” she hisses.

Even being taller than her, William cowers in her fervent presence. “I don’t know,” he mumbles.

She nears his face, eyes narrowed. “Who’s. Child. Is. This?” The pressure on his shoulder tightens. He cringes as her nails dig into his skin.

I accidentally summoned it!” he blurts.

Melanie’s countenance slacks. “How does one erroneously eradicate an infant from nothing?”

“How does one awaken the dead through another’s cadaver?”

Melanie glares at William. Tossing a hand at him, she dismisses and steps around him. With a grimace, she approaches the smiling child. “It doesn’t appear to be evil.” She looks up. “William! What have you done to my apartment? Why, it’s a mess!” Her long coat flicks as she whips around to face him.

He pulls away from her, tempted to flee out to the basement, but what of the world beyond? Where would he go? “It occurred during the summoning!”

Melanie grunts. “Get to work cleaning it up! I must attend to the child. You’re lucky things went quickly this morning, else you’d be stuck here with a child you know nothing of.”

“You know nothing of the child!”

“Hmmph. I’m sure I know much more of infants than yee.”

William frowns. “It isn’t my fault! I had no knowledge that reading aloud the incantation would suffice as a summoning ritual!”

“You ought not recount your sacrilege. Yee better pray this child is worthy of life!” She turns back to the infant, crouching in front of it. “May I give ten thousand apologies for the discomposing of your soul,” she whispers, picking up the child.

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