Nursing is women’s work, so it comes as no surprise when they hang me for it. You should’ve stuck to weaving, Gwen, Mother tells me before they pull the trap.
There are many ways to heal.
For a cut, mix lye soap and sugar. Rub it in the wound, bind the wound with cloth, and in a day, check that the remedy has pushed dirt from the flesh. If the edges of the cut become red or hot, if there is puss or fever, grind calendula and lavender and pack the wound again.
For boils, prepare a poultice of crushed garlic. For boils on a man who beats his wife, prepare a poultice of crushed garlic and sheep urine. The sheep urine will not make the poultice ineffective, but it will increase both his sensory discomfort and your personal satisfaction. Do not tell the wife what you have done. She does not need the burden. Do not tell Mother, either. She already looks at you like you are a dangling thread she thought she had snipped.
When Mother’s back aches from being bent over her loom, she will tell you to be quiet. Sometimes she will hit you. Sometimes she will let you put ground mint against her temples and if she closes her eyes, she will tell you a story.
I am five when Mother first tells me the story of the afanc.
In a deep lake beside a small village, lived a creature part beaver, part crocodile, as big as a fat pony.
Take me to the lake! I cry.
That’s not really how this works, Mother says.
I am eight when a neighboring family gives Mother a lamb in exchange for her weaving. The lamb is clumsy and grows quickly into a clumsy sheep. Get that sheep out of that ditch, Gwen. But everyone knows that sheep love ditches and, even more than ditches or grass or sweets, they love being difficult, staying put when they should go, running when they should stay. My sheep and I stay at the bottom of the ditch and watch the weather blow by. That sheep is not a pet, Gwen. But what is a pet except an animal you lay your hands on?
The afanc caused horrible flooding. With a sweep of its beaver tail, it broke down dams and ruined fields. But when villagers came to kill it, it snapped its crocodile jaws and sank quickly away.
One day, the town decided that a virgin could lure the afanc from the waters.
Why? I asked.
Magical creatures cannot resist virgins.
Why? I asked.
Because, Mother says, and sits me back down to my mending. Her hands fly across her loom.
Because virgins smell like summer even in the cold. Because when they walk, they forget where they are for minutes at a time. Because when they wake, they are pleased to greet the morning. Because when they look at something ugly, they see the something and forgive the ugly.
Already I am making the story my own.
I am twelve when Father returns home for the last time. He sails the coast for seasons at a time, staying home only for the worst of winter. When he leaves every spring, he gives me a wooden carving and Mother a baby.
All my sisters die before they can be born.
For a swollen, milk-full breast, apply cow dung. Or the large leaves of the foxglove. Or let a puppy suckle. Get that dog away from my tits, Gwen. It is a relief when fall comes and Father does not. If I could be a sailor, I would never return either. I would get the tattoo of a mermaid on my upper breast and stand on deck until my cheeks were brown and my hands rough with rope burn.
Without sisters, I weave daisy crowns and lay them on my sheep’s indifferent ears.
So what happens to the virgin? I ask, but mother is too exhausted for distraction. I do most of the weaving now. Her hands ache when she eats and when she sleeps. When her courses come, she bleeds too much for too long. She dreams of ice.
You tell me, she says.
There are many ways to heal.
For a small scrape, tell a story about a journey. For a wasting disease, tell a long story, a story in which good triumphs, to pass the time. When you spin a story out, read your listener’s face. She will tell you when to press, when to relieve the pressure.
But Mother never likes the way I tell stories.
Once the villagers agreed that they needed a virgin, they chose a girl who was pretty but not the prettiest. They did not want to waste their best virgin. Virgin, they said, go down to the water tomorrow at sunrise and sing to the afanc. Once you’ve lured it from the water, we will swoop in and kill it. The virgin was afraid. She tried to find a man who would have sex with her. Please, she said. This hymen is doing me no good at all.
The first man the virgin approached said no, and ran away, afraid of the other villagers. The second man said no, and ran away, ashamed of himself. The third man said yes, and took her to his home, and locked her inside. He was sick of his fields flooding, he was hungry, and the virgin was not his type anyway. Before the sun rose, the third man led the virgin to the water’s edge, and then ran back behind the trees with the others. The virgin sang a little, but her voice was thin and she was very afraid. Instead she whispered to the afanc. Please, Mr. Afanc, she said, please stay in the water. They’re going to try to kill you.
At this, the water bubbled with the afanc’s laughter. He raised his crocodile face above the surface and said, They cannot hurt me with their spears.
I thought not, said the virgin. If you just stay put, I’m sure they’ll give up soon and then you won’t need to eat me.
The afanc preferred to eat fish, but he sometimes ate a villager’s hand, just for show. Flooding the village was so easy he’d grown bored. He was also lonely.
I will stay in the water, said the afanc, but you must promise me that you’ll return at midnight every night for a week, to talk with me. And when she nodded, he turned his head away and disappeared back out into the lake.
The virgin was also bored and lonely. The village was not a very fun place because everyone was starving or dying in childbirth. Every night for the next week, she went down to the edge of the water and spoke with the afanc, and every night, the third man followed and watched her speak, though he could not hear her. He hadn’t been that attracted to her before, but once she put the idea in his head, it began to grow. On the sixth day, he spoke to her father and got her hand in marriage. On the sixth night, the afanc noticed she was sad.
This is the last time we will ever talk, she said. Tomorrow I have to get married, and then I’ll no longer be a virgin.
Why do I care if you’re a virgin? asked the afanc. You people are obsessed with hymens. What matters to me is that you’re blond.
The virgin realized that this was a joke and it made her cry. She did not want to get married. The third man was not funny and had locked her in his house. The afanc said, Come with me, then. I will drown you in the lake, pull you through the hole in the bottom of the world, and when you wake, we will both be afanc. We will live in a much better lake than this one. Your lake, frankly, is the pits.
The virgin thought about the afanc’s offer and about her wedding and the many babies she would have to bear. She thought about her father, who was looking forward to getting a goat in exchange for her, and though she hated to disappoint him, she stood and walked out into the lake. The third man ran from behind the tree, begging her not to sacrifice herself, but she did not listen. Her white nightdress ballooned in the water and glowed in the moonlight. The afanc wrapped her blond hair in his snout and pulled her under, never to return.
The third man told the villagers about the virgin’s sacrifice. They gave her father three goats and congratulated themselves on a job well done. Hymens were, as they’d suspected, terrifically important. The third man mourned for a short while and then married a different girl, who died the next winter with a son in her arms.
Do you think the afanc was telling truth? my sheep asks.
Why bother killing her if he didn’t love her? I say.
There are many ways to heal, and some do use magic.
Pick the tufts of wool that a sheep you love leaves on thorns. Sew the tufts into a pouch and keep it in your pocket.
Scrape the salt from your father’s coat as it dries by the fire. Take some of the salt, and sprinkle it on a fresh cooked fish. The fish will taste delicious and you will remember the location of something you’ve lost. Take the rest of the salt, and sew it into a pouch and wear the pouch around your neck.
Do not leave a crown of daisies to wilt on the ground. Keep the daisies and sew them into the hems of your skirts. The daisies will whisper when someone wishes you harm.
I am seventeen when the sheep of the village start dying. They are found on their sides, with bloated tongues and bloated bellies.
The villagers do not like that I put sheep urine in their poultices. They do not like the looks I give their handsome sons. They do not like the stories I tell their children. They do not like that my sheep is fat and healthy. When the villagers arrive at my house, they do not ask me to tame a magical creature. Instead, they take my sheep. They slaughter her and gather her blood in a deep bowl. With the blood, they paint their lintels and their palms. With the body, they make tough roasts. I promise them they will regret it.
A farmer’s son cuts himself on a rock. I pack his cut with lye soap and sugar. The next day, the skin is hot and red. I pack the cut with calendula and lavender. Pus seeps from the cut. I tell the child the story of the red dragon of Dinas Emrys. How the dragon loved his mountain and how he loved a boy who would someday be a great wizard.
When the child dies, the farmer swears I cursed him. Gwen Ferch Ellis, he whispers. Or yells. Or feels in his nails. I am not present for the moment the father finds the words for his grief.
As the door drops out from under me, I ask the wool and salt and daisies to speak to the air on my behalf. The air whispers to the earth and the earth refuses to pull me to it. The men watch with mouths open, the women with eyes open. I have always been full of things to say. I tell them, There is a plant that grows in ponds. Bogbean. Its stalk is thick as a thumb, its flowers white and furred as the ears of a dog, and at the top its buds are flushed pink with life. Pluck the plant from the water and thank the pond. One side of a bogbean leaf draws pus from a wound. The other side heals the cleansed flesh. Do you imagine, after all this, I’ll tell you which side is which?
I lift the noose from my neck, step onto the hard wood, feel the boards with my bare feet, know that soon I will walk the deck of a ship and sail away.
Do not worry, Mother says to the crowd. I will stay. I will tell you.
In Mother’s version of the story, the virgin sings and the afanc is so mesmerized, he crawls from the water and lays his head down in the virgin’s lap to sleep, trustful as a child. When the villagers emerge to bind the afanc, the afanc’s struggles crush the virgin. In the end, the afanc is taken to a new and better lake. The villagers have their village back. Only the virgin dies.
A witch is the daughter of a crone, a slut the daughter of a whore, and I am the drop that races along the threads until the whole bolt is ruined.
When they hang Mother, I am long gone. The air does not hold her up, though it embraces her all the same.
Gwen E. Kirby’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Guernica, Mississippi Review, New Ohio Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She won the 2017 DISQUIET Literary Prize for Fiction and is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.