Ian has won Angelique - but at what cost?
The path into the dark forest was almost hidden, yet obviously there, and he hesitated. They said she was a witch, a sea hag who lived with a slave kept forever young by her enchantments. Children who crept up to the house on dares told lurid tales of wild ranting in languages never spoken in this earthly realm. The doctor said Angelique needed a miracle. Well, Ian would take one from the devil himself if it would spare his life another day of misery. So he turned into the forest and began walking that path.
The sale of his boat that morning still churned his gut like sea sickness. Duncan — with money from Geoff, no doubt! — had graciously given him more than anyone else bid, yet still far less than the craft was worth. Then, fresh from that humiliation, Ian was forced to go begging at nearly every house for another nurse. Now the evening shadows lengthened before him, and he had been rejected by every home in the village. One hut was left, and his feet now took him there.
It was not yet full twilight, but three feet into the woods the sun completely vanished. Brambles reached from the deep shadows like dwarves lying in ambush to pluck at his tunic. Shivering, both from the chill of the shadows and the imaginations playing in his mind, Ian pushed through the overgrowth.
The path emptied into a clearing. In the center stood a small stone cottage. The roof was complete, but showing signs of disrepair. Small patches of damage from the last storm had been mended incompletely with boughs from the trees. Off to the side was a large garden, separated into at least five sections that Ian could see. A well with the crank handle broken maintained a lonely vigil by the edge of the watercress. Ian noted, though, that an enterprising soul had constructed a trough to sluice water directly from the well to furrows in the garden. A small plank-sided shed stood canted at odd angles beside the garden’s other edge, as though trying desperately not to collapse.
A twig snapped loud behind him, and he froze. “A bit old to play double-dare-you, aren’t you?” asked a quavering voice.
Slowly, Ian turned around. She was bent low, a lump in the middle of her back. Her black sack dress, well-worn but neat and spotless, hung loose on her spare frame. A simple rope belt gathered it at the waist, tied in the middle with an intricately designed knot. A large staff, looking sturdy enough to lay a man low — aye, and she looked every bit willing to do it! — helped her stay upright. Though her appearance was like a dry leaf or a withered flower, there was a strength and fire in her piercing eyes that Ian had scarce ever seen before.
“Well, boy, speak up! What did you come here for? Why do you disturb an old woman’s peace?” She fixed him with a fierce glare. “And take off your hat! Have you no manners?”
Quickly Ian crushed his bongrace in his hands, his anxieties twisting the sift fabric cap into knots. “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am,” he said meekly. “But I could think of nowhere else to turn for help.”
“Help?” she scoffed. “From the sea hag?” She shook the staff at him. “I am too old for games of witches and spells and all the other fables, boy! I’ve long since grown tired of people offering me money to cast a spell on their neighbor’s fish net.” She faced the house and began to shuffle towards the door. “Why don’t you just leave a poor old woman alone?”
Ian stood and watched her make her slow and painful way to her house. At the porch, she stopped and turned. “Well?” she demanded.
His shoulders dropped, and so did his heart. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll not bother you again.” He turned to go.
“Wait.” Her voice was softer, and Ian turned back. “Now I’ve forgotten my manners. As long as you’re here, why don’t you come in for some tea? No sense coming all this way for nothing.” Ian hesitated, and she taunted him with a toothless grin. “You’re not afraid of the sea hag, are you?”
Catching a deep breath, he squared his shoulders and resolutely marched towards the house. After all, this was his mission — to secure whatever potion or spell a witch might have that could revive Angelique. If he must enter the very lair of the hag to obtain it, then so be it!
Two paces from the door, Ian froze, his foot in mid-air. Hardly daring to breathe, he lowered his foot, every muscle ready to turn and run. His eye, though, remained glued to the man-sized mound of fresh-turned earth. A grave, of that there was no doubt. But whose? And how had he died? In the cool, still air of the gathering nightfall, Ian began to sweat.
Her voice quiet and broken, dropping in between syllables to a hoarse whisper, she said, “He was my son. He stayed here for 23 years to care for me. Four days ago, a tree he cut fell on him. I found him the next day.”
Ian turned his head and saw her as though for the first time. Tears welled up in eyes sunken with age and pained with fresh grief, overflowing to find familiar lines to follow down the ancient face. She gazed at the grave but did not see it, her mother’s face softened in a faraway expression. Ian could almost see memories dancing in her large black pupils. Suddenly she winced, and the mood was broken. She dabbed her worn and weathered cheeks with a gnarled hand, then trudged through the door of the cottage, her walking stick thudding dully on the hard dirt floor.
Ian numbly followed her. Inside, the cottage was freshly swept, a spray of wildflowers in a bowl on the table. She led him to the sitting room, bidding him to sit while she got two cups from the sideboard. The tea kettle, nestled in the coals at the front of the hearth, was a well-used and somewhat battered copper vessel, but bright and shiny from constant care. She set the kettle on a metal trivet on a small table in front of Ian. The fragrance of the warm herbal tea filled the small room as she poured two cups, handing one to Ian.
The old chairs creaked and groaned as they settled into them, Ian politely waiting for the woman, lest her ever-present staff find his skull! He had already decided it was best to nod and smile in appreciation of the tea, no matter how it tasted. The first sip, though, told him no deception was needed. Especially compared to his own weak brew, it was sweet and smooth, almost tasting of the sunshine and summer rains that grew the bush. He opened his mouth to say his thanks, then realized he did not know her name. The red crept up his neck as he next realized he had not introduced himself, either. He had, in fact, been quite the boor with this woman, impolite and suspicious. A fine way to ask someone for help, he chided himself.
He put down his cup and bobbed his head. “My apologies, ma’am. My name is Ian Innis. Thank you for inviting me into your home. The tea is quite delicious.”
“You are very welcome, Ian. I am Maggie Douglas, and I have lived here for 65 years.” She gazed around at the small house. “My husband made this with his own hands. I was married in this room, birthed my children in that room,” she pointed to a curtain hung over a doorway, “and cooked for many a gathering in my tiny kitchen.” She sighed, then raised her face to Ian. “You are the first, though, aside from the village brats, to visit me in several years.”
She took another sip of tea, then looked directly at him. “You said you needed my help, Ian. What can an old woman do for you?”
Ian inspected the inside of his cup closely, unsure of how to broach his topic. After a few false starts, he finally lifted his eyes and squirmed uncomfortably. “I must care for a girl, and do not know how.”
Maggie’s brow furrowed. “Care for a girl? What girl? Why you? What’s wrong with her?”
Stumbling over his words, Ian blurted out the story of the contest, Angelique falling from the cliff, the decisions of MacGwire and Geoff, and finally the pronouncements of the doctor. Finished, he dropped his gaze back to his cup, his knuckles white around it. He knew the red was all the way to the top of his forehead, and his ears burned with the flush.
“What about the women of the village? Wouldn’t they help her?”
“They would help her, all right. But they won’t help me!” Ian blurted. All his bitterness came boiling to the surface. “As far as they are concerned, Angelique is as good as dead, and they would prefer me that way, too!”
The silence hung thick as the night air for an uncomfortable moment. “If you have lived with them for years the way you came here tonight, Ian, I wonder only why you’ve lived this long.”
Ian’s head raised sharply and he began to bluster, but Maggie silenced him with an outstretched hand. “No, hear me out! You swagger and cajole, thinking of no one but yourself. Your whole story was not for me to feel for a poor girl laying in a bed, but for me to have pity on you! To hear you tell it, she did this just to hurt you, and she’s enjoying this.” She bent forward and gently took his hand. “Ian, lad, if I picked that up in minutes, imagine what you have been communicating to these people for all these years.”
It was not the hot flush of embarrassment but the cold shock of realization that washed over Ian. He was not sorry for who or what he was. He had changed his manners earlier only to get something from the woman, as he had done to manipulate others all his life.
He really had been a cad, he decided, and no one would think him worth helping. Even an old woman who had never lain eyes on him before today thought ill of him. It was hopeless. His best bet was to slink away in the dark of night, getting as far away as possible before dawn.
No sooner had Ian decided this than Maggie suddenly dropped his hand. “No, you don’t, Mister Innis!” she scolded, shaking a bony finger in his face. “You’ve taken on the charge of this girl, and you’ll not run out on her!”
Ian’s blood ran cold. Had the witch the power to divine his every thought? Would he even be allowed to leave her house alive, now that he had seen her power? And had she spoken true about the dead man under her front yard? Never mind a spell for Angelique; Ian wanted to live himself!
The woman got up from the table, walked to a side table, and pulled open a drawer. From within, she retrieved a book, large and thick, its black cover cracked and peeling as though older than the seas. “The answer you seek, Ian,” she crooned softly, “is in this book.” Maggie held it gently, lovingly, possessively. “On these pages are the keys to power beyond this Earth, the only power that can help you and your girl.” She sat down in a sitting room chair, and motioned towards the chair next to her. When Ian gingerly sat down, on the edge to be sure, she laid the book open on her lap and began to slowly turn the pages. The writing was none that Ian had ever seen.
The rustling of the old and faded pages reminded Ian of a dry chilly winter’s wind as it plucked the last dead leaves from the trees. He shivered. She ran gnarled fingers over the split brown pages. Ian could see where some letters had actually been worn away, and favorite sections had been bracketed and notes written in the margins.
She stopped, and smiled a wide gap-toothed grin at him. “I’ve found just what she needs.” She turned the book to him. Words penned above the bracketed type jumped out at Ian: “The Power of His Blood.”
Ian jumped up, the chair overturning and his tea spilling on the floor. “Never!” he cried. “I said I loved her, but you’ll not take my blood for your spells!”
“What are you babbling about, young man?” Maggie demanded.
“That ... that book of incantations!” he stammered, pointing a shaking hand at the large black volume in her lap. “The power of a man’s blood, is it? Blood for life, perhaps? And you with a fresh grave outside?” He began to edge towards the door. “We know how to deal with hags and witches. See if this house still stands by tomorrow noon!”
Ian knew not if he could outrun her spells or hide from her enchantments. He only knew he must try. He quickly turned to dart out the door, but tripped sprawling on the corner of a rug. Too late!, he thought, as he looked up to see her mouth open, surely some binding spell quick upon her lips.
Instead, Maggie laughed. Not the hoarse echoing cackle of children’s scary midnight stories, but light and airy, full of life and love. She could not speak, though she tried twice. Finally, she just held up the book for Ian to read the cover.
“A Bible?” he cried “Do you pervert the Holy Words for your blood magic?”
“Oh, Ian,” she wheezed, wiping tears of mirth from her cheeks. “Silly boy! If I were a witch, would I live in this hovel and dress like a peasant? No, it is not your blood that has any power to help poor Angelique. It is only the blood of Jesus.”
Maggie set the Bible down and picked up her walking stick. She approached Ian, who was desperately trying to shrink into the floor. “Here,” she said, offering him the stick. “Use this to get up if you need help. I’d give you my hand, but we would both be on the floor then.”
Ian struggled to his feet, gripping the stick tightly in case he needed a weapon. Though what good a mere stick, especially the witch’s own walking stick, could do against her spells, Ian did not know. He thought only of escape.
Only of escape, only of himself. Little enough he had thought of others all these years, and now, when he was needing help, there was no one. No one save a crazy old woman that might be a sea hag, a witch, who used the Bible itself for her unholy enchantments.
Or she might be someone with the wisdom of years written in the lines on her face and the calluses of her hands. She might be someone with an answer that he — aye, and MacGwire and Geoff and Dennis and the rest of the village, too! — had yet to discover. Hope tugged at Ian’s heart.
“Well, don’t just stand there!” Maggie chided. “If you’re going to leave, shut the door behind you. Otherwise, come sit down.”
Ian set the chair upright and sat down. True, he was ready to bolt, but he was sitting at this moment. “I apologize, ma’am, for my behavior. If you think what you know may help Angelique, please share it with me.”
She smiled. “It may help Angelique, Ian. But first, it needs to help you.” She opened the Bible. “You see, son, your sin has put you in a sinking boat, and you can neither bail nor row fast enough to survive. You need a miracle.”
“You are the third person to tell me that.”
Maggie nodded. “Then God must be trying very hard to reach you, Ian.”
“I think I understand about God, though I don’t know Him,” Ian ventured, hesitantly, “He is supposed to be love. But how does love fit with blood?”
“Ian,” said Maggie, “if you don’t understand about the blood, then you don’t understand God and His love. Let me show you.” She turned the Bible towards him. The worn script was difficult for Ian to make out at first, but a desire to know bloomed quickly within him.
Time flew by. The night was deep and the nocturnal chorus of the woods was constant as Ian’s dry and thirsty soul drank in all that Maggie showed him. He interrupted little, only a quick question or two. But he had no arguments against this revelation of God’s love, and the blood shed on the Cross that made it available to him. And when Maggie was done, he slipped to his knees, hat crushed between clenched hands. The anguish and bitterness of the years poured out with his tears, as boundless love and forgiveness poured into his heart.
Gradually, Ian became aware of time again. His poor floppy bongrace was so soaked from his weeping that he decided to just leave it on the floor. Maggie sat on the edge of her chair, her toothless smile straining the corners of her mouth. Ian tried to get up, but his legs tingled painfully, so he stayed on the floor, stretching his legs in front of him.
“How do you feel, Ian?”
“I’m not sure. Lighter, if that’s possible, and ... different, very different.”
“Perhaps ... clean?”
Ian considered this, then nodded. “Yes, I suppose that’s it.” He looked up. “Does this mean that all my problems are over?”
Maggie laughed. “Oh, no, son! In fact, most of your problems are still there, I imagine.” She chuckled again at Ian’s startled look. “Do not panic, Ian. Remember that most of your problems were caused by you, and you are now different. You problems may still be there for the moment, but now a new Ian can step in and, with God’s help, resolve them.”
Suddenly she yawned, large and noisy. “Oh, dear! I really must go to bed. You are welcome to sleep in here.” Her eyes twinkled. “I think I can trust you.”
Ian nodded, still lost in the wonder of the moment. “Would you mind if I read some more before I went to sleep?”
“Not at all, son.” She patted his head as she stood. “Read all you want.” She turned an shuffled her way past the curtain.
When she was gone, Ian picked himself up from the floor. He took the lamp and Bible into the kitchen, setting both on the table. Turning the lamp down low so as not to bother Maggie, he began to read all around the areas where she had shown him verses.
Maggie found him there the next morning, the lamp gone out, his head nestled in the Gospel of Saint John.