Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Curse Garden (Full Story)

The healer’s shelves were filled with rows of jars, each stuffed and carefully labeled with the sort of magic they contained. They were mostly simple magics; peony blossoms to sooth the itching pox, cedar twigs to quicken the healing of shallow wounds, red earth clods to strengthen a weak stomach. Kit inspected every one, but there was no magic for sale that would cure her of the sickness nestled inside her.

“What ails you, dear?” The healer asked, appearing at her elbow. She was a handsome woman shortened by age. One dark swath of hair cut through a fall of silver and her eyes were sharp green.

Kit found that she couldn’t reply except to pull her arms more tightly around herself and shake her head. She knew how easily kindness and concern folded into fear. The name of her illness had that power, and she had no desire to have that experience again.

“Ahh.” The healer’s smile became secretive and knowing.“Don’t be ashamed. You certainly aren’t the first young woman to find herself in such a predicament. I have just the thing.”

As the old woman ducked through the heavy blue curtain at the back of the shop, Kit grasped her meaning with horror.

She followed without thinking.  “Lady Healer, you’ve misunderstood me!”

Behind the curtain was a much smaller room, though it was equally filled with labeled jars. These, though, were for more serious ailments: broken bones, boils, and watery lungs. On the walls were maps of the surrounding countryside all annotated with what rare herb or flower grew where and when they were likely to bloom. Drying leaves and berries hung in bundles from the rafters and a ladder reached up between them where Kit could make out a loft.

“Here we are,” the old woman said, producing a jar filled with spiny white leaves. “These’ll do the trick. Boil them for five minutes, then drink the water. Don’t eat the leaves. Bury them and in two days, you’ll be clear as spring air.”

“I’m sorry, but this won’t help me. My problem – well, it isn’t so ordinary,” Kit said, hoping she hadn’t revealed too much. When the healer drew back, clutching the jar with rigid fingers, Kit feared she’d soon be chased from the shop and probably the village, but then the woman nodded.

“I see,” she said, turning her eyes to the little table shoved into one corner and beginning to sort through the many scrolls stacked on top. “Magical afflictions are certainly tricky. You’ll need something much more powerful than anything I have here, and I know of only one place to send you.”

Something like hope stirred in Kit and she watched the woman anxiously. The healer sorted through her scrolls for a moment, finally selecting one and returning to Kit.

“There is a place, not too far from here, where a garden of roses grows on the side of a steep hill. Plucking any of those roses will cure you of whatever it is that afflicts you. It isn’t hard to get to, but the price is a steep one.”

Kit found it impossible to imagine any price would dissuade her of finding this garden and plucking one of its roses.

“I’ll pay whatever you ask for that map,” she said, giddy with relief. “I’ll give you everything I have.”

But the old woman didn’t return her smile. “No price. I will give it to you, but before you take it, you must know that every person who has taken a rose has been cursed.”

“Cursed?” Kit withdrew the hand that was already reaching for the map. “In what way?”

“It’s different for everyone. Some have been so trivial as a change of hair color or a nose that runs every other day. But others have forgotten the names of their children or have become unable to bear even the slightest touch without pain. I can’t say what it will be for you, but I can say this garden is equally full of curses as it is of cures. You cannot have one without the other.”

Anything, thought Kit, would be better than the thing lurking inside her. A runny nose was nothing by comparison. She took the map and thanked the old healer profusely.

Outside the shop, the day was bright and busy. Kit dodged a stream of children chasing a ribbon someone had spelled to race like a snake above their reaching hands, then found a quiet alley behind a row of hawker stalls selling spiced meats and fresh vegetables. When she was sure she’d gone far enough that no one would disturb her, she spread the map out on the hard-packed dirt to study.

It looked simple enough. The path was clearly traced in blue ink, breaking away from the village and the main road immediately to cut through wheat fields, then diving into the Keening Wood. Instead of continuing through, however, the path cut into the thick of the forest and climbed a little unnamed rise. That was where it ended, the garden marked only by a drawing of a small flower.

Kit pressed her finger against the flower and her heart fell just a little. It might take her several days to travel this distance and she only had less than three to spare. She could feel the illness inside her, coiled and trembling, waiting for the moment it would stretch through her entire body and change her forever. Her time was running out. But Kit wasn’t ready to give up. Not now that there was hope.

When she was sure she had the path firmly in her mind, she rolled the map again and  slipped it into the pouch holding her meager belongings. She would need food to make the journey. The sparse collection of coins in her pocket wouldn’t buy much. Maybe a week’s worth of meals if she was prudent.

She made quick work of gathering supplies; bread and dried beef, a few apples and a block of hard cheese, and a small knife in case the rose stems were tough. With each item carefully packed in her pouch, Kit dropped her very last coins in the open hands of a young priest seated in the hot sun, then set out to find the garden of curses.


It had been three days since Kit had found her way to the hidden garden. A place she’d found surprisingly unremarkable given the magic that lay inside. While the roses themselves were glorious, the garden was like any other she might see in town. Well-tended, but utterly plain with its orderly rows of multi-colored roses. Even the scent, while heavenly, as all roses are, smelled like that of any other rose garden.

She’d reached the small patch of flowers at the last possible moment to save herself. The evil thing inside her had begun to stretch and take hold. It was with great effort that she forced a hand, no longer completely her own, to take a rose.

Still, in that moment, she had the presence of mind to remember the healer’s warning. She scanned the small rows of roses for the smallest, least beautiful, least colorful bud, and plucked it. She hoped that whatever magic the garden and its caretaker held, would appreciate her restraint. Perhaps the curse that came with the tired-looking burgundy bud would be a minor one.

Kit felt a certain kinship for the flower that even now stuck out of her pack as fresh as the day she picked it. She too was always overlooked among her more beautiful, more colorful sisters. It was her longing to step out of their shadows that had wrought the ailment for which she’d sought a cure.

All her life, Kit had heard the warnings. One must never do magic for selfish gain. One must never do magic to cause harm. And one must never, ever, do magic on themselves. She had only wanted to know what it was like to be the center of attention. To feel Galen’s eyes on her the way her sisters did, but barely noticed.

When she found the book of spells while out on her daily walk, it felt almost as if the book had found her. She’d been compelled to take a faint dirt path she’d never noticed before. As she followed it, she felt a sense of growing excitement. She was meant to take this path. Meant to find whatever lay at the end of it. When she reached the hollow tree and found the book hidden inside, she’d thought it a gift. If only she’d known the evil it would release.

Kit pushed the memory away and focused on keeping her feet on the path. She would be out of the Keening Wood by midday if she kept up her pace. So far she’d felt no trace of the garden’s curse, only the lightness of having her wicked illness removed. Buoyed by three days of freedom, she was beginning to believe that she’d made the right choice. That it was the brightest, most beautiful roses that carried the highest price. Kit felt most certain that she could happily return to being the least noticeable of her sisters if it meant she was forever safe from evil.

When she reached the small brook that traversed the path out of the wood, she stopped to drink and admire her plain reflection in the water. The water rushed and swirled around the rocks, and the tall trees blocked most of the sunlight, making it too dim and choppy to see herself properly. Kit made a promise to herself that as soon as she reached town, she would find a looking-glass and appreciate the face she’d long wished would be different.

As she burst from the woods and into the outskirts of town, Kit brimmed with a joy she hadn’t felt in years. It was good to be alive and to be herself, faults and all. She cheerfully greeted the few strangers she met on the road with a smile and a, “Good day!” but none responded in kind. No matter, thought Kit, rudeness could not spoil this good day.

It was only once she reached the town center that Kit began to sense that all was not well. She’d asked a merchant the price of an apple, but he ignored her repeated requests. She attempted to inquire about working in exchange for a room at the inn, but the innkeeper stared through her as though she weren’t there. She wondered if word had gotten out about her troubles. Had the healer warned the town against her?

Kit bit her lip to keep it from trembling. So this town would be like the last then. Afraid of her evil, unwilling to help. She was surprised to find she felt more anger than hurt this time. She was cured. She was certain of it. She choked back a frustrated sob and left the inn. She was hungry and tired and had nowhere to go.

“Are you alright, lady?” Came a gentle voice below her.

Kit looked around until she saw the young man sitting against the corner of the inn. It was the priest she’d given her last coins to before entering the wood. Kit sighed with relief. At least someone in the town still had some decency.

“No sir, I’m not,” she said honestly. The graveness of her circumstances hit her all at once. She was tired, hungry, penniless, and still an outcast despite being cured.

He tilted his kind face toward her and Kit realized he was blind. “Ah,” he nodded, knowingly. As though he could see all of her troubles without the use of his eyes. “Perhaps I can help.”

“Oh, thank you.” Relief rushed through Kit.

“Follow me,” he said, as he rose carefully to his feet.

She followed as he lead her slowly down the alley to a small doorway. “Rachel,” he called into the little wooden building barely bigger than a shack. “I’ve got a young lady in need.”

Kit braced herself for the moment when the cheerful woman approaching got a good look at her face and realized who she was. She took a deep trembling breath. If these two wouldn’t help her, she didn’t know what she’d do.

The priest sensed her unease and sought to reassure her. “Do not worry, young lady. Rachel is a good-hearted woman.”

Rachel frowned as she reached them, running a brief eye over Kit before turning to the priest. “Father Malcolm? Who are you speaking to?”

A cold, hard realization settled into the pit of Kit’s stomach. A just penance, she thought. She had wished to be noticed, to be beautiful and lively, and now she was nothing. A thin voice that only the blind could hear.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the priest as she stared at the confused expression on the woman’s face. “I have to go.” She turned and ran back toward the town square where she hoped to find the healer. The priest shouted after her, but this time she was glad to be unseen.


Kit stared in horror at the empty shop windows. Dust settled in the corners of the glass, spiders had made their homes beneath the door knob and the rusted sign dangled precariously from its hinges. The healer was gone, and the space she’d occupied just days before left no hint that she’d ever been there at all.

Kit twisted the knob, knocking the cobwebs free, and pushed open the door. Inside was just as abandoned and empty as the façade. No jars lined the cracked walls, and no smells drifted in the stale air. Kit made her way to the back of the shop, sweeping under the blue black curtain.

Sitting alone on the back wall sat a glass jar. Empty, it seemed, until Kit drew nearer. The jar was dusty, old, like everything else in the healer’s shop. Inside it laid a handful of dirt and a note on faded parchment. Kit twisted off the top and pulled out the paper.

Buried secrets in the garden lie
Like silent curses that were meant to hide
An evil growing deep within

The rest of the note had been eaten away by the dirt in the bottom of the jar. Frustration pricked her skin and made her face burn hot. Kit threw the jar and watched it shatter into pieces on the floor. She knew where she had to go, but with only half a cryptic note, Kit didn’t know what she’d find there.


Father Malcom thought Kit to be a lost soul, and it was close enough to the truth that she felt she ought not to correct him. He fed her, gave her a room for the night, and then packed her satchel with enough salt pork, bread, cheese, and apples to last nearly a week, before he sent her on her way. Two days swift travel, for now she knew the way, and Kit arrived at the garden.

Nothing seemed amiss; the same neat rows of flowers, and the same heavy scent of roses. Kit walked between the rows allowing her fingers to graze the petals of the largest blooms, careful not to prick her finger. She didn’t know exactly what she was looking for, but her feet shuffled along the path as if they knew the way.

Deeper into the garden she walked, until the rows of flowers gave way to open green bordered by stone gargoyles with menacing smiles. “Guardians.” Kit pinched her lip between her teeth. The word had slipped out without thought. She pulled her hands close to her sides and continued on past them, afraid to touch them for fear of what magic they held.

Kit neared the end of the garden, where a tall row of hedges carefully trimmed into the shapes of animals, like wolves and bears, made a barrier against the forest beyond. In the center of the hedge wall sat two gargoyle statues with a space big enough for a third in between them. This, Kit knew, was where she needed to go.

She knelt between the statues and pulled the rose bud from her satchel. She dug a small hole with the blade of her knife, and buried the rose.

Buried secrets in the garden lie

The air shifted and the scent of roses overpowered her, turning from heavenly sweet into something bitter and rotten.  The hedges began to move as if they might come alive and swallow her.

Inside her, Kit could feel it growing. The evil she’d tried to dispel was stirring, writhing like some great leviathan, coiling around her soul, ready to claim her.

One must never, ever do magic on themselves.

It started first in her toes, becoming solid, grounding her in the soil between the smiling gargoyles. It moved up her legs, forcing her into a crouch. Her skin hardened, grayed, like stone.

She’d wanted to be more, and in turn she was made less. This was righting the wrong that she had done. This was claiming her punishment for disobeying the laws of magic. This was her final penance. 


Photo by koalie via Flickr Creative Commons.

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