Ugly Fruit

Eward Sullivan was dying.

“Isn’t there an herb?” asked Inga, his wife. “I’ve still got the silver chalice from my dowry. Money won’t be a problem.”

“No,” the grim faced valley physician told her over Eward’s head, as though he weren’t right there listening. “His heart’s just bad.”

“Nothing bad about my Eward’s heart,” she said rolling up her sleeves over her robust arms and rising haughtily. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got a real healer to see.”

She grabbed the handles of Eward’s wheelbarrow. Eward shrugged apology at the physician who shrugged in return as Inga pulled him out of the physician’s cottage, muttering.

Eward knew his wife could be a little much to take at times. She was not reserved, as a valley woman ought to be. But Eward was not like a valley man ought to be either. Not handsome. Not strong anymore. Not even whole.

Inga broke into an immediate sweat in the muggy valley air. On their little farm up the hill it was windier and Inga often went without the traditional cloak and head kerchief. But here in the valley town, she could not dress so immodestly. Fortunately, the valley Healer’s cottage was only a few homes down the dirt lane from the physician’s cottage.

“Inga, my love, there may be nothing to be done,” Eward called ahead to his wife.

“I’ll not lose you now. We’re barely in our forties!”

“We’re forty eight.”

Barely forty eight.”

“Inga…”

“We’ll see what the healer says. I’ve always found the magic in runes to be more powerful than the most potent herb. Physicians are only good for a cold. Healers are the ones who can handle the tough stuff. I’ll get you the best incantations. We can afford it. Besides. Healer Leya’s a friend of my family’s.”

She pulled Eward in his wheelbarrow through the arch of primroses and up the flagstone path leading to the healer’s cottage. Inga paused at the door and eyed the offertory plate on the sconce beside the healer’s door post. On it was a single apple. The Daily Apple. Just like on every house in town. Just like Eward and Inga had beside their own door post.

“Inga, don’t even think about that. We’re here at Leya’s and we can hear what she has to say.”

Inga smiled over her shoulder and knocked on the healer’s polished oak door. It was covered in elegant carved runes.

The door creaked open and a thin woman about Inga’s age with hair in a kerchief and a nice set of brown robes opened the door.

“Why Inga, come in!” the woman said warmly. Inga’s family was well connected to the local church and all the clergy like Healers knew her.

Leya didn’t look down at Eward, but Inga pulled his wheelbarrow across her threshold anyway. It bumped over the raised stone of the stoop. Eward frowned. Apparently the Healer didn’t make entrance easy for patients who couldn’t walk.

Inside, wind chimes with brightly colored glass charms hung from the arched ceiling. Gleaming copper bowls and pestles filled the dark oak cabinet. Heady, sweet incense cones burned in ceramic dishes around the kitchen.

“My healing room is upstairs,” said the woman, gesturing to the staircase at the back of the welcoming little cottage.

“I’ll never get him up there,” said Inga. “Even without any legs, Eward’s heavy as a moose.”

The healer’s gaze drifted down to Eward in his wheelbarrow.

“Oh, the healing’s for Eward?” The woman sounded disappointed.

“Well, who’d you think it was for? You think I’d cart him all the way here for an appointment for me?”

“Even the strongest runes cannot restore a lost limb. Only…The Doctors…could do that. God help you.”

“Nothing’s worth calling those foul creatures for,” said Eward. “Certainly not a couple of stumps. Leya, you know our apple’s stayed up these 10 years since the war. It’s my heart we’re here for.”

“Your heart?” The healer bent to listen to Eward’s chest. “It’s bad. But I’ll see what the Magic wills to do.  But first, Inga, are you certain you want him saved?”

“What?” said Inga.

“It may simply be Eward’s time. The will of God. As his wife, the right to choose is yours of course. But it isn’t proper for a man to live maimed, and I know you have heard the town talk about your eccentric decisions. This could be your chance to let him go naturally in God’s time. Move on with your life.”

Eward watched his wife’s face turn the color he lovingly called ‘pre-explosion purple.’

“Just do the chant,” Inga wheezed, breathing out almost palpable rage. The healer shrugged.

“It is your money. So be it. Tell, me Eward, why did you marry such a strange woman?”

“I’m clairvoyant,” Eward said brightly. “I knew I’d lose my legs in the war and would need someone with the arm strength to pull me all about.”

Healer Leya chuckled and walked up the stairs to her healing room.

“Wow,” said Eward once she was out of earshot, “You don’t often stifle an eruption. You must really want to stay on her good side.”

“Once she fixes your heart, I’ll give her a piece of my mind.”

“Oh I doubt any amount of runes could fix your mind.

Inga glared at Eward, who grinned. The Healer returned with a box of incense cones and a square of pale blue silk with the rune for heart embroidered on it in silver thread. She lit the incense, pressed the silk to Eward’s chest, and chanted in the lost tongue of the North. Leya’s eyes rolled back and she trembled. Suddenly, she dropped the silk and looked dismayed. She put her ear to Eward’s chest and shook her head.

“Nothing happened. No healing was granted. Eward will be dead within a fortnight, I’m afraid. The failed incantation did take the same amount of energy that a successful one would have, so I’ll still require the full payment.”

Inga exploded.

“Of course nothing happened, you two-bit hack! You want him dead anyway. Said so yourself. I’ll take it up with the clergy, mark my words. You’ll not practice healing in our town again, you vile woman!”

The Healer drew herself to her feet and pointed at the door.

“Leave my home.”

“Wouldn’t stay here another minute!”

Inga grabbed Eward’s wheelbarrow handles and jerked his little cart out the door, bumping and jostling over the stoop. She huffed down the avenue so fast she was nearly running, banging the wheels over old ruts and grooves in the dirt road. Eward grabbed hold of the panic handle he’d installed inside the wheelbarrow for just such Inga moods.

“And you!” she called accusingly over her shoulder. “It’s as though you don’t even care that you’re dying.”

“I’m old, for a soldier, Inga.”

She stopped short.

“You’re not a soldier anymore. You’re going to leave me alone and you’re content?”

Eward sighed.

“It’s been a gift, these ten years with you. My time should have ended with that explosion, but instead I got a decade with my strange wife to enjoy. I haven’t taken a day for granted. I won’t hurry my exit from this life, but I’ll not cling to it as if it were my own anymore.”

Inga looked as if she might cry. Eward couldn’t have that. It had never happened before.

“My dear,” he said, “how do you love me so? I’m such an ugly old man.”

“You were an ugly young man, too.”

“Exactly. Men are supposed to be handsome and strong. I’ve never been either.”

“Oh. I love you because you’re ugly. Not in spite. It means I get to say you’re handsome and have all the well-churched ladies in town gawk at me like I’m crazy.”

“I thought I was getting in good with the church when I married you, but the old High Priest’s daughter turned out to be such a rebel.”

Eward smiled at her. She smiled back. Then he saw her smile freeze and her eyes look past him. He turned. As luck would have it, she’d stopped his wheelbarrow right outside the Thatchers’ cottage. It looked like all the other cottages, except the primroses were dry, the vegetable gardens were thick with weeds, and heavy curtains were drawn over the windows.

Only the bronze offertory sconce on the doorpost was well kept up. It gleamed with bright polish and the apple that the Thatchers had left on the plate as offering to The Doctors was fat, perfect and shining. Eward shuddered, but Inga stared, fascinated.

“Inga, no! You’ll not take our apple down. It was different for the Thatchers, Inga. It was their child who needed The Doctors’ healing. Not some broken old man.”

“You’re dying. And you’re all the light in my life.”

“I’ll not live with bits of The Doctor’s ‘truths’ in my head. Or yours. I don’t want my body whole at the expense of my mind.”

Inga kept staring. A woman of Inga’s church connections ought to be a living example. She ought to give the Thatchers’ home a wide berth. The isolation of their excommunication ought to continue and the daughter of a High Priest ought not to taint herself with the company of those who’d sought outside God’s will to find healing.

Inga marched straight to the cottage door, dragging a protesting Eward behind her in the wheelbarrow. She knocked with the tarnished bronze door knocker—noticeably less well kept up than the gleaming offertory plate.

A corner of the heavy curtain flicked up for a moment. Then the door creaked open a few inches. A pale gray colored woman opened the door. Annha Thatcher. Inga was shocked.

“I thought it was Piter the curse had come upon,” she said.

“Have you come to gawk at the gray Thatchers, then?”

“I’ve come to ask a question.”

“Ask.”

“Eward back there,” Inga thrust a thumb over her shoulder at Eward, “He’s dying. I need to know what it’s like. I need to know if it’s worth it.”

“Of course it’s not!” Eward bellowed from his wheelbarrow. “I’m old! Fool woman!”

Annha eyed Inga, a mix of wariness and longing in her eyes.

“I’ll answer you. But only after you answer my question.”

Inga knew what the question would be. She also knew that to answer a question asked by the excommunicated was a grievous sin and could get her dragged before a council of elders to be assigned some odious penance or other.

“I can’t answer your question, it being against teachings and all,” Inga said. “But I will randomly tell you that your children are well and healthy. Sister Margary has them under her care. They cry for you and Piter often, but they lack for nothing and are beloved by the town.”

Annha closed her eyes and tears slid out of the corners.

“Thank God it’s Sister Margary. Thank God for all of that.”

The excommunicated cannot of course be trusted with the rearing of children. Even children they lost their souls to save. Eward was suddenly glad to have stopped here and brought the Thatchers this news, the first they’d heard of their children since Church officials had confiscated Corrinne and Jesha.

“And my question?” Inga asked.

Annha nodded.

“When they pass by every night to see they’ve been offered the Apple, they’re invisible. Makes it hard to believe they really exist. But not when you take the apple down. When they pass your house in the night and see the apple down, they come in.

“We saw them. But Piter and I have mostly forgotten what they looked like. I almost remember, but it slips away when I try to fix it in my mind. And the cost of healing is terrible. They claim to serve the Knowldege of Good and Evil, and the Knowledge they leave behind in your soul digs in like a burr. It drains your joy and, try as you might, you cannot get free of it. Color leaves your heart, your mind, and your skin.”

“What is the Knowledge, exactly?” Inga asked. Eward thought she looked a little eager. This was a branch of theology that all but the High Priests were forbidden to even read about.

“It’s different for different people. I saw the faces of every woman in town that Piter thinks are prettier than me. Or better mothers. Piter only saw a passing thought of mine. I thought it only once. Just a vague wish that he made more money and were strong enough to stand up to the clients who underpaid him. A single, silly thought. But he can’t even look at me now he knows I thought it. He’s too angry and ashamed.

“But it’s just as well. I can’t stand to look at him, knowing how he feels about me compared to so many other women. So we sit here alone in our house, not talking to each other except to wonder about Corrinne and Jesha.”

“Could it have been a passing thought for Piter too? All those women?”

“No. Don’t try to make it smaller than it is. It burns me up inside to know. After the children, it’s all I can think about.”

Inga drew in a breath and slowly let it out.

“So then, the other part of my question. Was it worth it?”

“Yes,” said Annha without hesitation. “Our children are alive. We knew Corrine was dying of the pox, but When The Doctors visited, they told us that Jesha’s heart had a fatal defect lurking, waiting to claim him. So both of us paid for healing by receiving Knowledge. We are now cursed and gray. But both our children live. I would make the same bargain again even now.”

“Thank you. It’s what I needed to hear.”

“But…why not let him go?” Annha motioned at Eward. “It was our children. But a husband? Even if he were whole…”

“Thank you,” said Inga, and, rather than pausing to turn him around, she turned on her heel and pushed Eward’s wheelbarrow out the front gate.

When they were a little ways up the lane heading back toward their farm on the hill, Eward broke the silence.

“You can’t take down the apple.”

“You can’t stop me.”

“Excommunication looking good to you, is it?”

“I’d rather have you than all of this rotten town. It’s like they can’t wait to be rid of you.”

“But you won’t like me much. Have you thought about that? What the Doctors’ Knowledge is going to do to your mind? You heard Annha. People turn gray, inside and out. The Knowledge poisons you. It’s not just like knowing something. It’s like tucking it into your soul.”

“I don’t care if you’ve looked at other women. I already know everything about you. It’s already tucked into my soul.”

“You don’t know everything. The war wasn’t pretty, Inga.”

“I know that.”

I wasn’t pretty at war, Inga.”

Inga was silent.

“Please. Let me go while you still can love me.”

“But do I really love you if I don’t know all there is to know about you?”

“That’s a poor reason to throw your mind away.”

Inga didn’t say another word the whole rest of the way up the hill to their farm. Their limestone cottage came into sight as she crested the hill. White chickens ran in the front yard by the primrose bushes. Inga wheeled Eward inside and started a fire in their hearth. Then she hung the kettle over the flames and filled their tea strainers with an herb for calm.

Once she had brought two earthenware plates of bread and cheese to the fireside table, she settled onto the chair by Eward’s wheelbarrow. They shared their meal in silence. Eward began to think Inga might be reconsidering calling the Doctors. But when she finished the last of her bread crust, she rose and opened the door to the outside, reached around the frame, and retrieved their apple. Then she bit into it.

“Inga!”

She said nothing, but settled back beside the fire, munching the apple.

“I’ll put it back myself!”

“Good luck, stumpy.”

Eward cursed himself for never installing an offertory down low on the door frame where he could easily reach it. He pushed himself up from the wheelbarrow and hopped down. He walked on his hands in a practiced motion over to the table where Inga had placed the apple between bites. She arched an eyebrow at him.

He grabbed the apple and put it in his teeth. He prayed that a gnawed-on Daily Apple would still ward the Doctors from their door. Then he hand-walked to the kitchen table and grabbed a stool. He dragged it with him to the door. It took a while as he shifted his weight from one hand to the other, pulling the stool along only a foot or two with each hand step. Inga watched him, one corner of her mouth quirked up. After a long few minutes he reached the door, panting.

He climbed on top of the stool, took the apple from his mouth and stretched for the sconce. Even with the stool, he was a bit too short to replace the gnawed apple, so he launched himself from the stool at the sconce and gripped the handle with one hand, holding himself aloft just long enough to place the apple back on the dish before the bronze bent under his weight. Then he let go and fell on his back with a thump.

The wind was knocked out of him and his heart hammered worryingly in his chest. But he lay gasping with a smile on his face.

“You know, Eward,” Inga said, “That’s the same apple we offered the Doctors yesterday. They need a new one after each day or they think you called them.”

“Blast it! You could have said before!

“But I want them to come.”

“I have a heart condition, woman. That was a lot of work!”  Inga looked a bit chastened.  “Where are our other apples? I’ll put one of them up.”

“On the very topmost shelf of the pantry.”

“Of course.”

“But the hogs are looking mighty hungry. Maybe they need an early apple lunch.”

“Inga, it’s wrong to heal me without my permission.”

“I…” Inga looked confused.

“A husband is his wife’s. I know this. But you are not the kind of wife who would disregard my wishes and assert your own. Please. Please get another apple and let me live out my days with you as I wish to.”

Inga got up from her chair and moved to help Eward up. But the fire went out. A translucent gray robe floated in. Where the face ought to have been was an oval of moving light and shadow.

“Oh Eward, I’m sorry,” said Inga.

“His legs?” asked the figure, bending over Eward. Its voice sounded like an echo from a canyon in the dark. Far away, hollow, yet vast.  “No. The heart.”

The creature made no motion. No shaking or incantations like Leya the Healer. But the persistent tightness in his chest released. His arm and neck no longer throbbed.

“No!” he said.

“And now, our fee. We would that you humans know the Truth of yourselves and of one another. You are all flawed and ugly. Even those you love most. We extend your lives that you may live and grow in this Knowledge. We serve only Truth.”

The Doctor turned toward Inga. She scrambled backward until her back hit the wall by the hearth. Eward saw her eyes bug out and then shut tight. She crumpled onto the floor. Then the mighty woman began to weep like a child and Eward knew what Knowledge it was they’d given her.

“I could heal his legs too,” said the Doctor, “for another piece of Knowledge.”

“No!” sobbed Inga. “Get out!”

“As the lady pleases.”

The Doctor floated out the door over Eward’s prone body. When it left, the fire roared back to life, as though nothing had happened. Eward pushed himself up and hand-walked to Inga. Walking was easier than it had been in years, now that his heart was better. Inga said nothing and did not look at him. He put his arms around her, feeling grateful that she did not shrink from his touch, knowing what she now knew about him. After a few hours, he felt her twitch asleep in his arms. He watched her breathe and watched her skin turn grayer every moment.

***

When the sun rose the next morning, Inga woke in Eward’s arms, but she still did not look at him. She uncurled and stood, hip and knee joints popping audibly. She walked straight to their pantry and fetched an apple from the top shelf. Eward watched her walk out the door to place it on the offertory. She didn’t come back inside after.

Eward waited the rest of the day inside, ruminating on the event that the Doctors surely placed in Inga’s mind. It was spiky enough as a real memory. But somehow the Doctors added more weight and pain to the pieces of Knowledge they ‘gave.’ He couldn’t imagine it feeling worse than it already did for him. Poor Inga.

It was evening when Inga returned, looking entirely gray.

“Where did you go?”

“Around. Thinking all day.” She closed the door and gave Eward a thin smile. “You didn’t light a fire.”

“Didn’t feel like it.”

Inga slowly placed logs in the hearth. She pulled the tinder box from the mantle and worked to light a fire.

“So you know, then. About the boys.”

“Why did you hide it from me?”

“What do you mean why? Why wouldn’t I hide that moment forever?”

“I understand, I think. It’s horrible. I saw it over and over in my head all last night and all day,” said Inga. “Your arrow pierces that little one’s neck. His eyes fly open in fear and pain and he drops the fire bomb among all his fellow child soldiers. And then…”

“It’s hard to say it, isn’t it?”

Inga nodded.

“All those children.” Inga said. “And it was just you and the remnants of your squad you were protecting. A few old men. That little one couldn’t have been more than nine.”

“I’ve wondered about him every day these past ten years,” said Eward. “What he would have been up to if I’d just let my time come. He’d be a young man by now. Maybe a father, even.”

Inga nodded. The fire roared in their hearth. Both of them watched the living flames dance and lick at the logs.

“So that’s why. Who could love someone who’d killed so many children to save his own skin? The heat of battle is a poor excuse.”

“It is.”

“It’s the only explanation I’ve come up with. Instinct. Horrible instinct.”

“Instinct is part of being a human. And I would know you, Eward. The worst of you too, or how can my love be real?”

“Do you love me still, seeing the reality of me?”

“You’ve got ugly in you, Eward. I don’t know how, but I love you because you’re ugly.”

The fire crackled as the couple sat then in silence. Eward looked at Inga. In the firelight her skin did not look so gray.

 

 

 

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