Able lifted Charlotte Simmer from the wagon bed. He stepped carefully to keep from jarring her, holding her close to his chest until he reached the small cabin just behind CHAEAH’s own where she kept patients who needed more than a tonic or salve. He walked through the open door into the surprise of a lush indoor garden where wooden boxes dripped ferns and vines. Trailing leaves pressed against the inside windows. Tall green grasses were rooted in deep pots. The air was moist with an outside smell.
Shelves crowded every wall with all manner of jars and pots and oddly shaped boxes. Able could see small shrunken animal bodies, their faces blackened, wrinkled, sodden in cloudy liquids. There were jars of what looked like flattened scorpions, others with layers of huge black cockroaches. A wide bottle held layers of what might have been moths, though they were now mostly dust. In the dim light, Able tried to get a closer look at a covered pan that leaked a low humming. The closer he got, the more he felt like it might hold something he was not prepared to meet, like a nest of hornets. He backed away only to brush against a table of very peculiar tools atop a crisply folded white cloth.
Through the thrown open back window, he could see CHAEAH dipping into a pot she had simmering on a fire. “Put her down,” she called, “I’ll be there shortly.”
He’d nearly forgotten he was holding the white lady in his arms. She had settled herself against his chest and lain quiet while he looked about the room. Able had been distracted enough for her to study him…the lines of his face, the shaping of his head. Her eyes traced a scar, situated just below his ear, that curved down and across the base of his neck. She was close enough to examine the soft bow of his upper lip and the fullness of the lower one. She watched a bead of sweat slide off the cleft in his chin into the hollow of his neck.
CHAEAH’s call had drawn his attention back to her, and when he saw the smile he returned it. She quickly apologized for being a burden while Able carried her toward the cots sitting side-by-side against the back wall. He placed her on the bed in the center and turned to see CHAEAH opening a jar she’d pulled from a cabinet.
Mrs. Simmer reached to pull up her skirts. When CHAEAH saw that she didn’t try to shield her bare legs from Able’s eyes. She murmured, “I’m sure the lady would like some privacy.”
“I’ll git water fo’ dat horse,” he said quickly. “We’ll be ready to g’won back soon as y’all gits done.”
CHAEAH waited for him to duck through the door before leaning over to touch Charlotte’s lips. When her mouth opened, CHAEAH jabbed a dab of red paste onto her tongue. The taste and scent of summer berries flooded her nose and throat. “What is that?” she swallowed. “What does it do?”
CHAEAH eyed her and waited a moment before saying, “Do you feel pain?”
A simpering smile had spread across Charlotte’s face. Her head fell back on her neck and she slumped onto the pillow. She tried and failed to shake her head, “Naw ‘mam, cain’t…feel nothin’…”
“That,” CHAEAH snapped, “is what it does.”
She pulled the stocking from Charlotte’s foot and surveyed her swollen toes. The large one jutted unnaturally to the right. CHAEAH saw, below the big joint, a small peak of bone threatening the thinned skin. Able had stepped down hard! She would need to straighten the bone before she could splint it. CHAEAH wrenched the toe to straighten it. Charlotte grinned and slung her head toward the wall.
CHAEAH closed her eyes and moved fingers up and down the toe. She pulled it slowly up and back and circled it over and around. The bones were where they should be. A small slat of wood and strips of clean white rag, made a neat cast before CHAEAH fetched a pot of heated, lumpy starch and began smoothing it onto the cloth.
“Charlotte! Come awake.”
The woman started, and turned toward CHAEAH with her sloppy smile.
“Charlotte, I need you to hear me and remember my words. Are you listening? I need you to understand.”
The woman nodded.
“That white man is looking to hurt somebody. Don’t let it be Able. You hear me?”
“I watch out fo’ ‘im Momma,” she said.
“Whatever you have to do,” CHAEAH said, “Whenever you have to do it, you stop Simmer, you hear me?”
Charlotte smiled “Yas’m, I do right. Not t’ worry.”
“Open your mouth.” She touched a finger full of white dust to Charlotte’s tongue and saw her come instantly awake.
“Well for goodness sake,” she said, “Am I fixed? You couldn’t be done already?”
“Ah,” CHAEAH smirked, “So we come to a time when you question me? Such an insult to my face child!”
Charlotte lowered her eyes, “Of course I’d never question you. I know better. What must I do for this foot?”
“Stay off it while the paste hardens,” she said brusquely. “Take this draught in the morning. I will see you again in a week.”
“Thank you very much. I’ll make sure to see that the Reverend sends payment.
CHAEAH called to Able and walked out behind the two of them to watched him load Mrs. Simmer into the wagon. Able saw her bend to pick up a handful of the dusty red dirt. She spat in it, mashed it between her fingers, and smeared it on the back running board. When Able leaned to take her hand she pulled him close.
“Be careful now,” her lips touched his ear. “The devil played today.” Her wide eyes turned to dark pools. They reflected the worry in her voice. She ran muddied fingers down his arm and held Able’s hand in both of her own. She closed her eyes and brought his hand to her head. Able closed his own eyes and, through her touch, could feel CHAEAH’s distress. He could also feel the strength of the charm she’d placed on his skin. It was familiar to him. He knew its purpose was to protect.
She handed him a vial.
“For your ribs, and to help you sleep,” she said, “and don’t worry about him.”
Able nodded and slapped the reins. Tahal lunged into a trot, and CHAEAH kept watch until the wagon moved into the shadows of the forest.
Slivers of late sunlight sliced across the wagon bed. CHAEAH frowned at the sight of Charlotte Simmer raising her hand in farewell.