The Healer’s Curse by Helen Pryke

 

1

March

In the early morning haze that hung above the Grove at the bottom of the garden, I could almost imagine the ghost-like forms of healers from the past drifting towards me through the mists of time. I blinked, and they were gone. All I could see were the plants and fruit trees of the Grove once more. I pulled my cardigan tighter around me and returned indoors.

It had taken me a while to get used to life up here in the mountains, but with the help of my warm-hearted, lively Italian family, and local handyman Francesco, I was more at home here than I’d felt anywhere before. I had overcome alcoholism, begun a new life as a healer with my cousin Agnese, and found love after so much heartache and loss. There was only one thing left for me to do, and I was determined to succeed this time.

Later that afternoon I stood back, satisfied, and looked at the blazing fire inside the wood stove. Orange flames leapt around the oven, devouring the wood I’d carefully prepared earlier, determined to get a fire going this time. I glanced at Agnese, who’d watched over my amateur attempts with interest.

‘I think I’ve done it!’

‘Well done, it’s only taken you all winter. It’s a pity it’s spring now and we won’t need to use it anymore,’ she replied dryly.

My shoulders drooped. ‘I never could get the hang of that bloody thing. I’ll probably have forgotten by the time we use it again.’

‘Don’t worry, it’s like riding a bike. You never forget.’

‘Forget what?’ Francesco barged through the back door carrying a large bag of tools in his arms. Bella, our adopted dog, jumped up and weaved excitedly around his legs, almost tripping him up. He dumped the bag on the floor and stood up with a groan.

‘All right, Bella. Yes, I missed you too.’ He ruffled her fur and gave her a treat from his pocket. ‘Signora Cappellini insisted I mend the hinges on her shutters, then she wanted me to fix her leaky taps, and take out some warped wooden beams and replace them. I had to take the whole tool bag as I didn’t know what she’d ask me to do next.’ He strode over to me and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. ‘Everything okay here?’

I smiled and stood back so he could see the results of my handiwork. He looked at me, a bemused expression on his face.

‘Ta-daa,’ I cried, gesturing towards the stove.

The penny dropped. ‘Oh wow, you did it.’ He picked up the long metal hook and lifted out the middle iron ring on top of the stove. The flames flickered hungrily, the blazing fire inside spilling heat into the room.

‘We never gave up hope, did we?’ Agnese said, her eyes sparkling with suppressed mirth.

‘Nope, never,’ Francesco agreed. ‘We knew you’d get there eventually, it was only a question of perseverance.’

I threw a nearby dishcloth at him. My inability to get the wood stove to work was a standing joke by now, and I’d despaired of ever learning. My attempt today had been make-or-break time; either I succeeded, or I’d never try again. I’d set everything up, even though I was convinced the flames would fizzle out like a damp squib, as usual. Instead, the paper had caught immediately and the small twigs I’d placed underneath had started to burn as well. Hardly daring to breathe, I’d added some larger sticks, one at a time, waiting until each one started burning before adding the next, until the wood was glowing red and crackling in the heat of the flames. Only then did I finally close the door without fear of the fire fading as quickly as it had sprung to life.

‘I guess the stars and planets were aligned today,’ I said, only half-joking.

‘Whatever it was, we’re very proud of you.’ He gave me a hug and handed me back the dishcloth. ‘You’re now a fully fledged member of the Innocenti family… healer, apothecary and wood stove lighter extraordinaire!’

I punched his arm, but couldn’t help laughing. Francesco and I were on the same wavelength, and often made fun of each other. It was a fundamental part of our relationship that kept our love growing every day.

He officially moved in the day after Malva was born, even though he’d been practically living with us for some months while he carried out repairs on the cottage. I imagined the gossips in town were having a field day – a man living with two women, one divorced, the other a single mother! But we were happy with the arrangement. Francesco was busy all week long; his reputation of being able to fix anything meant he was in demand throughout the area, and he worked long hours. This meant Agnese and I could dedicate our days to our new lives as healers.

During the weekends, Francesco had turned the old, dilapidated garage into a modern laboratory where we could prepare everything in a clean, sterile environment that had been approved by the council. This meant that indoors there were no longer saucepans of boiling water on the kitchen stove, but the cottage still retained a faint perfume of herbs, as if it had permeated the walls over the centuries.

While Agnese had been recovering from Malva’s birth, I hadn’t been idle over the winter. Even though there was nothing for me to do in the Grove, I’d collected enough plant cuttings to keep me busy, testing new recipes, perfecting the ones I already knew, until there was a wide variety of products to offer our customers. Several local shops sold our body lotions and creams, with regular orders coming in every week, and people came to us for homeopathic cures, just as they used to go to my great-grandmother Luisa.

With spring finally here, we could spend our days working in the Grove, Bella never far away, doing her own thing, or in the laboratory, where she waited outside the door, whining. We tended the plants, picked what we needed for our cures, prepared the various concoctions, then stored them in glass jars and bottles in the pantry. Malva would sleep most of the time in her pram, and we’d take turns entertaining her when she was awake.

The cottage was big enough for us to have our own space when we needed it, or keep each other company when we felt like it. Agnese and Malva had Luisa’s old bedroom, as it was the biggest, and Francesco and I had the spare room on the other side of the corridor, which had a view over the garden and the Grove, with the mountains as a backdrop.

My life was finally getting back on track. I no longer craved alcohol; in fact, I never wanted to return to those dark days of oblivion ever again. I had a man I loved and who loved me, who somehow sensed when I was having a down day and encouraged me to talk about the babies I’d lost. I had my Italian family, who drove me crazy with their worrying and fussing, but made me feel so wanted and protected that I could put up with anything. I’d made my peace with Mum, and our relationship was better than it had ever been, even though she was back in England. Or maybe because of that. We spoke often on the phone, revealing parts of ourselves we’d never revealed before.

And I had Agnese and Malva. My cousin and I had connected right from the beginning, and we’d shared experiences that made our connection even deeper. I’d been delighted when she’d accepted to become a healer together with me, it was as if it was meant to be. When Malva had been born, I’d been there right alongside Agnese, holding her hand and encouraging her. I would never forget those hours in the nursery, cradling Malva in my arms, full of love for this tiny creature, realising that my future was about to begin, and excited to find out what it held in store for me.

Everything was perfect, except for the one thing that kept happening to me. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind, refusing to dwell on it.

‘You can put the coffee on, using the wood stove that I’ve finally got working,’ I said, smiling smugly at Francesco. ‘I’m going out to the Grove to pick some leaves for the oil we need. There’s a lot of coughs and colds going around, it’s better we stock up.’

‘After the day I’ve had, I need a shower,’ Francesco grumbled. ‘Signora Cappellini is a slave driver.’

‘I’ll put the coffee on while you have a shower and Jennifer gets the leaves,’ Agnese said. ‘You two sound like an old married couple already.’ She put Malva back in her pram, ignoring her daughter’s whimpers. ‘I know you want to stay in Mummy’s arms, but Aunty Jennifer and Uncle Francesco must have their coffee, otherwise the world will come to an end.’ She turned, her mouth twitching.

I poked my tongue out at her. ‘Thank you, cousin Agnese,’ I replied sweetly and made a small curtsey. ‘I’ll make sure I’m quick, so Malva doesn’t start crying.’ Chuckling, I made my way outside, Bella close at my heels, never one to turn down the chance to go out and explore.

The sun was about to sink below the mountains, and its rays shone directly in my eyes as I walked down to the Grove. The air was full of the sounds of new life, as the wildlife rejoiced in this new-found warmth after the long, cold winter. The gate to the Grove creaked as I swung it open, and I made a mental note to put some oil on it. I stood still and breathed in the unique aroma of the garden, each plant giving off its own scent as insects brushed over them or the wind rustled the leaves. I never tired of being here. Even during the winter I’d often come to stand and take in the calming atmosphere.

I took the secateurs out of my pocket and set to work, cutting the pieces I needed. The sun warmed the top of my head while a cool breeze blew around the rest of my body, chilling me. I moved over to the plant near the wall, my fingertips brushing its soft, silver-green leaves, the sweet scent drifting in the air. A dragonfly appeared, and hovered in front of my face. I stopped to watch, remembering the events of the year before, when it had guided me to the grave in the middle of the garden. The grave that had led me to discover my great-grandmother’s secret.

I’d been told the Grove had been full of dragonflies once, but these days only the one remained. My dragonfly, I thought hazily as my mind clouded over. I turned to follow it, my limbs stiff and heavy, and ended up standing in front of the grave. Everything around me faded away.

I was standing in the middle of a cabin, the floor swaying under my feet with the swell of the waves, my hand over the slight roundness of my belly. I pressed harder against my stomach, concentrating my mind on the tiny being inside me, feeling the energy flow from my fingertips through my skin and beyond. Movement fluttered underneath my hand, making me gasp. I delved deeper inside with my mind, searching, and was rewarded with a faint ripple of life flowing through my flesh. My heart skipped a beat; if only Ted could have been here to feel his daughter’s first kicks. Standing motionless, a blissful smile upon my face, I felt the connection between us become stronger as we reached out to each other. And then there was something else, something dark and menacing, that made me feel as though I was suffocating. I gasped, trying to draw air into my lungs, but the air was too dense. It filled my throat, clogging my airway. A figure appeared before me, its dark eyes hidden in shadows. There was only a glittering pinprick of light that got bigger and brighter as it got closer. Fear engulfed me and I tried to move away, but my feet were stuck to the floor. Terrified, I could only watch as the something approached, sucking all the air from the room.

A knock on the door made me jump, breaking the spell. Suddenly able to move again, I clasped my arms around my belly. No one will hurt my baby, Ted’s baby, I thought, determined. A voice called out…

‘Jennifer!’ The voice penetrated the darkness around me, disturbing my thoughts. I tried to ignore it. I wanted to stay where I was, feel the baby kick once more.

‘Jennifer.’ It was closer this time. A hand touched my shoulder lightly. I shuddered, dreading to see who was standing behind me. ‘Jen, open your eyes. It’s okay, you’re here in the Grove.’