The Cold Spring
S. Baer Lederman
One is coming, her mother said. Greet him like a lady.
The girl stabbed her trowel into the ground and rose from the row of overgrown beans she was weeding. She brushed off her apron and began making her way to the front of the cabin.
The garden had gotten away from her as the summer wore on and there was still much that had to be done before the cold months arrived. The last thing she needed was another hapless villager distracting her with his problems, but she didn’t complain. She never complained. Even when her mind turned dark and resentful, she said nothing. Her mother had always been able to care for the villagers and her vegetables and the girl was determined to do the same.
In front of the cabin, she stood on the single stone step with her heels together and her hands clasped like her mother had taught her. A few seconds later the man appeared out of the cedars, huffing from the effort of the climb. He had a bushy red beard and in his arms he carried a basket loaded with loaves of bread and cakes.
The girl recognized him–she recognized all the villagers–but since his daughter had become ill, this man had taken to calling on her more frequently than the others. Even so, the girl was never able to determine if he had come the night it happened.
She thought about this as he approached the cabin. Many winters had passed since that night, but she knew it wasn’t time that had marred her memory. It was the way the villager’s faces had looked somehow distorted and undone in the flickering of their torches.
“Oh!” the man exclaimed as he looked up and found the girl waiting for him. He smiled and said, “You always seem to know when I’m coming.”
“She knows,” the girl corrected, “She tells me.”
His smile fell away and he cleared his throat. “The consumption is back.”
The girl held out her hand and he placed a lock of fine blonde hair in it.
“Wait here,” she instructed.
She made her way around the cabin and onto the path that led to the cold spring. She’d known the way since she was a child. In fact, she couldn’t think of a time when she didn’t know the trail’s curves and contours by heart. They had always lived up here where the mountains met and the spring’s crystal water bubbled from the earth. And the villagers had always come seeking her mother’s remedies.
She had encouraged their visits even though the villagers’ narrowed eyes would follow them whenever they went into town. It hadn’t bothered her mother, though. She believed they had an understanding. She believed that if she helped the villagers they would be tolerated. And she believed the longer they were tolerated, the more they would be accepted. So, she’d taught her daughter to be kind and to greet the villagers’ mistrust with patience. And even though the girl hated their hard looks and tightly drawn mouths, she had always obeyed her mother – even now, seven winters after they’d murdered her.
The path ended in a small clearing that encircled the spring. Over the eons, water had carved narrow cliffs out of the limestone that braced the pool’s far side. The girl had always liked it here. It was isolated and beautiful, but more importantly, it was silent – save for the rustle of leaves overhead. Even the stream that ran out of the pool and down to the village seemed to flow in hushed reverence.
The girl walked to the pool’s shore and peered into it. Slick black salamanders squirmed away from her shadow as it rippled over the water. She watched them settle under fist-sized stones before turning her attention to the old dead oak. As a girl, she used to climb its branches and dive into the frigid pool, but now only its rotted stump remained, standing as the solitary marker of her mother’s grave.
Give it to us, her mother said.
The girl gently lifted the oak’s moldering roots, revealing the white, threadlike filaments growing beneath.
Hurry, we do not like the light.
She placed the lock of hair in the mycelial nest next to the hankies, rags, and toys brought to them by the villagers. Then she carefully lowered the stump and stepped back.
Ah, yes, her mother said, we feel her fever. It is very bad. We will draw out what we can, but you must prepare her a strong tincture. Come, we will tell you where to look.
The girl took her time collecting the ingredients she’d need as she walked back to the cabin.
You must stake the tomatoes tonight, her mother said as the girl approached a patch of feverfews, I feel many of them beginning to rot.
“I won’t have time,” the girl curtly replied.
You must find time. This is important, my child.
“Why?” the girl asked as she bent down to pick the flower’s small buds.
You know why, her mother said. It is late in the season. If you do not bring the plot to heel soon, all your vegetables will spoil and you’ll have nothing to last through the cold months.
“No, I mean why is this important?” The girl tugged lightly on the feverfew’s stalks so her mother would understand what she meant.
You know the answer to that as well.
The girl said nothing and after a few moments of silence, her mother’s tired sigh rode past her on the cool breeze.
You still cannot forgive them, can you? she asked.
“No, it’s not that–I just don’t trust them,” the girl replied.
Then you haven’t forgiven them. My child, they fear what they do not understand and it caused them to make a mistake. But if you do not learn forgiveness–if you hold on to injustice–it will poison your heart. You will become poison.
The girl picked the last of the feverfew buds in silence. When she arrived back at the cabin, she found the man sitting where she had left him, smoking a pipe and stroking his wooly beard. He rose and began tapping the pipe against his heel.
She could see his face was lined with impatient worry but before he had a chance to rebuke her she said, “I must make your daughter a tincture to break her fever.”
He looked up in surprise. “You know she has a fever?”
“She knows,” the girl replied and brushed past him into the cabin.
When all the ingredients were arranged and prepared, the girl added them to a pot and set them over the fire.
You must not let it become too hot, her mother cautioned.
The girl knew this, of course, but she said nothing. She merely turned the crank and lifted the pot away from the embers.
Good, her mother said. Yes, this is very good.
When the tincture had reduced by half, the girl strained it into a jar and carried it out to the man.
“Your daughter must drink it all at once,” she instructed, “Do not spare a drop.”
The man thanked her profusely as he slipped the medicine into his satchel. His face had turned bright with hope and the girl found she couldn’t help but feel a tinge of joy at his relief.
“I hope she feels better,” she called as he made his way to the edge of the clearing. He waved at her over his shoulder.
You reap what you sow, her mother said as he disappeared into the trees. Kindness is the seed of love.
Again, the girl said nothing. She returned to the garden and once more knelt like a votary before her row of beans. There was always much to do, but it was the weeds that bothered her most. It seemed that for every one she pulled two more grew in its place.
As she began plucking patches of crabgrass from the black soil, she thought of the man, of his worry and of his relief, and she couldn’t help but smile.
Do not forget to stake the tomatoes, her mother said, interrupting her thoughts.
The girl sat back on her heels and surveyed the plot. She still needed to prune the acorn squash and it was time to harvest the beets – and indeed, the tomato vines had tipped under the burden of their fruit. Several of the red orbs lay broken and oozing on the ground.
As she collected the tools she would need, she thought about what her mother had said, that kindness is the seed of love.
Perhaps she is right, the girl considered, but then why doesn’t the kindness we plant with the townspeople ever seem to sprout? And then she thought, Perhaps I am the problem. Perhaps like this garden, I cannot cultivate their love by myself.
The notion upset her and she pushed it from her mind as she began driving stakes for the tomato vines. After she finished, she continued weeding until the sun began to set behind the mountains. Then she cooked a meal of stewed rabbit and ate it with some of the bread the man had brought. By the time the sky was thick with stars, she was full and warm and ready for sleep.
The girl’s eyes opened in a flash, immediately alert to the approaching danger, the many feet trampling towards her.
They are coming, her mother said. They are angry and afraid. You must–
But the girl was out of bed and into the night before her mother could finish.
From the tree line, she watched the villagers approach the cabin. They carried farm tools that glistened in the light cast by their torches. She held her breath, waiting to see what they would do next. For several moments only the sizzle of molten tar disturbed the calm air. Then, before the girl’s eyes, their faces suddenly began to blur in the flames’ ire. First just a little, but soon their ears and noses melted away until all that remained were teeth and shadows.
It is just a trick of the firelight, the girl assured herself, yet as she waited for the illusion to fade, cold familiarity blanketed her mind. The villagers looked the way she had seen them countless times before in her nightmares and darkest memories: featureless and more ravenous than winter wolves.
Someone pushed to the front of the group, shattering the dreadful image.
“Come out!” he demanded, “Face me, corruptor!” Tears fell from his wild, reddened eyes and caught in the fur of his beard. “You killed her,” he shouted, “I know you did. She was only a child!” He waited for her to emerge, to respond, to challenge him, but she did not.
You must tell him, her mother insisted, you must explain that it was not your fault.
The girl said nothing. She would not step forward and explain to him that children succumbed to consumption all the time. She would not remind him that he had come to her asking for help. She would not grovel before him swearing that she’d done everything she could – that in fact, she had given him more time with his daughter than perhaps even God had intended. No, there was no point in such humiliation – and no end. They would only grow angrier and angrier. She knew it, she’d seen it.
She remembered all too well the night the mob came seven winters ago. She’d been a child then – truly just a girl. Her mother had pushed her out the backdoor and told her to hide in the trees. Then she went to the front and tried to reason with them.
They accused her of cursing the town with illness. She tried to tell them she’d done nothing and swore that she could heal them if they let her, but they wouldn’t hear it. They just kept hurling their threats and accusations until one of them finally hurled a stone.
The girl remembered the wet, hollow thud the rock made when it struck. She remembered running out of the trees and cradling her mother’s bloodied head in her lap. She remembered begging her to wake up but knowing that it was already too late.
And so, remembering that terrible night, the girl stayed hidden and said nothing.
Tell him, her mother urged, bringing her back to the present. You must defend yourself.
“I am,” she whispered.
If you do not speak up, the agreement will crumble.
“There never was an agreement,” the girl hissed, “You were the only one that believed in it. But I will not repeat your mistakes. I will not be a martyr or a scapegoat to their love-blind sense of justice–or injustice–or whatever it is that we have suffered at the hands of these people.”
Have we taught you nothing? her mother asked, taken aback.
“You taught me to live.”
After a tense minute where only the sounds of the villagers’ sputtering torches filled the night, the man began pounding on the cabin’s front door. “Come out!” he shouted, “Come out, damn you!” but the door would not budge.
He stepped back and began to bark with cruel laughter. “What am I saying?” he asked the night, “You’re not a girl and neither was your mother – good riddance. You’re cowardly whores of the devil, witches!” He turned, grabbed the torch burning nearest him, and flung it through one of the cabin’s windows. “Now you’ll burn like a witch!”
A few moments later, the entire cabin was ablaze. The mob began to back away as the fence surrounding the garden caught. And when the flames crawled up the low hanging branches of the trees above them, they started to run, shrieking in fear as they blindly tumbled down the path back to the village.
And the girl ran too. But as she ran and the fire tugged at the hem of her nightgown, she realized she wasn’t afraid. The feeling was too familiar for her to be scared.
Her mother had raised her to be patient and kind and forgiving. Even when the girl had wanted nothing more than revenge, her mother had insisted she embrace forgiveness, and the girl had always obeyed.
But despite keeping her promise to her mother, despite her countless acts of kindness, despite the years she’d spent mending their ills, the fire born of their fear and their hate still raged after her. It still hungered for her flesh. It always had and, she now understood, it always would.
The girl looked up, suddenly aware that she didn’t know where she was, only to discover that her feet had found the path to the cold spring on their own. The clearing was visible ahead in the fire’s orange glow. Without a second thought, she ran straight to the pool’s edge and dove into the frigid water.
She swam to the far side and hid beneath the limestone’s cantilevered shelf. The inferno frenzied all around her and hot ash fell from the sky, but she was safe in the pool. It could not have her. So it turned to her mother instead.
The flames licked the oak’s rotted wood, liked what it tasted, and licked it again. Then a third time. Steam began to rise out of the loose bark.
Goodbye, my child, her mother called over the roar.
“Mother!” she wailed as the fire jumped from the branches above and sank its fangs deep into the dead oak’s sodden remains.
In dawn’s early light, the girl emerged from the pool shivering, blue-lipped and half-dead with cold.
“M-mother?” she called, but her mother was no more. For the second time in her life, she fell to her knees in front of the old oak and wept.
The first time grief had crippled her in this place was the day after the mob killed her mother. Some of the villagers had returned to help bury her and with them came the town elders.
They explained that earlier in the morning, a hunter had stumbled upon a dead deer rotting in the stream. Then they told the girl what she already knew: that witchcraft had not caused the sickness, that her mother had been innocent after all.
The girl had remained respectful and calm like her mother had taught her, but when she asked them if they found the person who had lobbed the killing stone, they became surly and dismissive. They told her she ought not seek vengeance. When she insisted that she only wanted justice for her mother, they claimed that they had already granted it: they’d found her innocent. The girl fell to her knees beneath the old oak and they had left her there to mourn.
The tree died that winter. The girl had believed it died in protest, or from the poison of the sin that marked her mother’s body. But then in the spring, her mother’s voice returned to her. It came from the earth, from beneath the stump. The tree had died, she realized, so that her mother could come back.
And now it was gone again and so was her mother’s voice. But something else had emerged in their place.
Through tear-blurred eyes, the girl saw dozens of perfectly formed, perfectly white mushrooms growing along the charred base of the stump. She plucked one of the fire-forged caps and held it away from her face. She recognized it immediately, of course. It was the first mushroom her mother had ever made her memorize for it was the deadliest in the forest: Amanita Ocreata. The destroying angel.
The girl stared at the mushroom in disbelief.
“How can this be your legacy?” she wondered aloud.
Her mother was always willing to compromise, always willing to meet the villagers’ fear with patience. She had always pardoned their transgressions and met their greed with generosity because she believed that you reaped what you sowed. That if you planted kindness you would harvest love.
Throughout the girl’s entire life, they had only ever sown kindness – yet, they had only ever reaped fear and hate. Now, as she marveled at the bell-shaped node of death resting in her palm, she finally understood their mistake. They had been planting their seeds in tainted soil where nothing decent would ever grow.
The girl was neither sad nor angry, she was thankful. For too long, her mother had been a sponge absorbing the villagers’ vileness, but the time had finally come to return it to them.
A smile creased her lips as she began to collect the mushrooms. She felt a kinship with them. They were not her mother, but her mother’s children–her siblings–and she made sure to gather every last one of them onto her blackly smeared nightgown.
When she finished, she stood and carried them over to the stream that flowed from of the cold spring’s crystal pool. It was the same stream that flowed through the village where the people stared and whispered and called her a witch. The same stream where they had found the dead deer too late to spare her mother’s life. It was the stream that filled their wells and brought life to the village and now it would bring their penance.
She began crumbling the mushrooms into the water. First, one by one, then by the handful. When she finished, she washed her hands in the current. And as the girl watched the fleshy white bits bob merrily away, she smiled but said nothing.
S. Baer Lederman hails from Rhode Island but considers himself a Midwesterner at heart. His fiction has appeared in Entropy, Chicago Literati, and Nebo among others. Baer recently completed his MFA at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and Doberman Pinscher, Archie.