PodCastle 691: The Healer of Branford
The Healer of Branford
by C. A. Barrett
After twenty years, Maud decided that it was safe to return to her hometown. She had never personally known a cat to live to the age of twenty, and even if someone had taken one inside and cosseted it into old age it would be too feeble to recognize her now. So Maud tied a scarf over her aching face and found a straight walking-stick. She went up to Branford by the old cobbled road. Her path rose alongside ample hills of heath spangled with flowers, bright purple and yellow reminders of the magic flowing underneath the soil. She saw a distant flock of birds wheeling in the air, and felt just as light. Branford, City of Magic-on-the-Moor, would be home again. Branford would take away her pain.
She was almost at the city gate when a small orange tabby-cat sprang up from his napping. He leaped to the top of a hitching-post and stared at her, blinked twice, then cried out “Maud Coffand! Maud Coffand, the cats know what you did!”
“I am not Maud Coffand,” she said, passing him. Maud pulled her scarf a little tighter around her face.
“Then take off that scarf and show me your mouth,” said the cat. When Maud did not reply he hopped down and darted ahead of her. As they walked through the gate, the cat wove through the crowd’s feet, prancing with his tail straight and tall. “Maud Coffand! Maud Coffand has returned!” he called. Small cat-faces appeared in the corners of windows and from underneath stairs. By the time Maud entered Branford’s walls their eyes tracked her from every direction, glittering in the shadows like the vermin they were.
“Leave me alone,” she said to the cat.
“Did you think we’d forgotten? Did you think you could sneak in?” the tabby replied, slowing and nearly tripping them both as he turned his head. “We’ve told every kitten born here about you, Maud Coffand.”
Maud looked around to make sure that no one was paying attention to the cat’s meowing, then leaned over him. “Leave me alone for today, and then I’ll go away again.”
“You’ve come for just today? Oh, oh! You’ve come to see the Healer!” The cat relished this information, scrunching his nose as if swallowing a morsel.
“Go!” Maud swung her walking-stick at the cat violently.
It sprang away, out of reach. “Maud Coffand wants to see the Healer! Do you really think the Healer will heal you, Maud Coffand?”
Maud stopped and lifted her foot. She grabbed her shoe by the heel, pulled it off, and threw it at the cat as hard as she could.
She missed, but the cat still ran away, calling out “Maud Coffand!” as he went.
Maud had to hobble forward and stoop to retrieve her shoe, leaning on her walking-stick. Some of the cat faces pulled back into their nooks, but she still felt their eyes on her, joined by the gazes of curious humans as the flow of travelers broke around her. She awkwardly pulled on her shoe. Maud put the walking-stick under her arm and clutched the scarf to her face, fingers tracing hard ridges under the cloth. She dare not let it slip. There were no birds when she looked up, but she did see two cats on windowsills, sitting like loaves with their feet and legs tucked under. The cats watched her but made no move to stand as she rejoined the foot-traffic down the street.
Branford was more crowded than Maud had ever known, but she had left long before the Healer of Branford began seeing patients. She had heard that the woman opened the doors of her house just once a week, and took only one person inside. The streets were thick with people, and Maud saw competition for the coveted spot: here a knot of children gathered protectively around a slow-walking man with crutches, and there two parents shepherded a girl in bandages stinking of pestilence. But most of the crowd in Branford, City of Magic-on-the-Moor, were here for other business or other pleasures and moved down the street without the grim determination of the ill. The crowd was compressed in a narrowed path because a carnival of fake fortune-tellers and cheap trinket-sellers were out to prey on it. Colored scarves and banners hung over the cobblestones, and striped awnings covered stalls on both sides.
Maud slipped in close to a stall stacked with familiar goods: toy-sized wooden pails, each paired with a red knit ball, small clay cups with glazed red beads stuck to them, and scarves embroidered with brown rectangles and red dots. Red berries in a bucket, everywhere she turned. These trinkets had no power but sold steadily because every family that knew the legends of Branford made plans to bring their daughters to its Wishing Well, and bought her a promise. Maud could pick out the families here for the Well today. She saw several young girls at the cusp of adulthood surrounded by a cloud of relatives, all of them dressed in finery. It was customary to wear a new yellow dress and put flowers in your hair when you visited the Well because of a popular but cloying poem that Maud despised. It certainly added pageantry to what was otherwise an ugly neighborhood water cistern. The maidens would smile at their parents as they lifted the round wooden lid and lowered the oak-wood bucket. The poem and the older legends said that if a girl was deemed worthy of magic gifts, then a bright red berry would be bobbing in the water when the bucket was drawn up. Name your heart’s desire before you ate it, and it would be granted, but choose carefully, because no one had ever been given more than a single berry. The out-of-town girls who clustered around the well every day called out for good husbands and rosy cheeks while still pulling on the rope. They laughed when the bucket held only water, then went to celebrate their maturity by eating roast duck and shopping for silk before going home.
Branford’s native daughters came to the well in quiet twilight moments, without any of that nonsense. Twenty years before, Maud had dipped the bucket and drawn it up. And when Maud bit into her berry, she wished for the power to kill cats.
Looking over the trinkets, Maud touched the scarf on her face, rubbed the painful lumps under it, and checked its knot again.
“Maud Coffand!” the orange tabby-cat cried. He appeared from behind the stall, hopping up onto it and landing between the buckets and toys.
“Stop following me,” she said.
“We know what you did, Maud Coffand!”
“Then you know that I can do it again, you nasty little killer,” she said, leaning forward and pulling down her scarf to reveal the gleaming tips of her teeth to the cat alone. The lower ones were so long that they touched her nostrils now. Maud’s teeth had become sharp and pointed as soon as the berry burst between them, and at first she was delighted with her power. Never again would a songbird in Branford die without being avenged. She stalked the shadows and pounced on every cat crouched over a small still body. Their meat tasted sweet to her. She hunted the cats who had not yet hurt birds, but would if left to grow. She watered the grave of every sparrow with the blood of cats, and her teeth grew a tiny bit longer with every bite.
The cats of Branford, twenty years ago, had lost their ears and tails and limbs and lives, and Maud’s teeth gained three rows and distended her lips and jaw as they lengthened. She frequently bit her own tongue and drooled blood, but she was never clumsy when landing the killing bite on a cat, and she was drawing closer to the orange tabby now. “Speak again. I can clean this town of cats before I go.”
“I do not want to ask about cats, Maud Coffand.” The tabby’s ears were flat behind his striped head and his black pupils had widened so they filled his eyes. His tail was puffed and lashing, but it did not knock over a single toy, and he did not back away. “I want to hear about the child.”
Maud swung her walking stick over her head and brought it down where the cat was sitting, breaking the little stall in two. The fabric awning was caught by the end of the stick and tore as buckets toppled to the ground, spilling their cloth berries into the mud. The cat dodged and jumped free, unscathed. The man selling toys shouted and lunged for Maud. He seized the end of her stick and she abandoned it, running into the crowd with both her hands over her scarf.
She hated the child even more than she hated the cats. The child chose to pull at that kitten in her teeth when Maud was out biting. The child put herself in Maud’s mouth. And the child made Maud a fugitive. Whenever she thought about that night, Maud could feel her teeth scraping against a small human skull. She could feel the red hairs stuck between her teeth after, even though she spat the mouthful of scalp to the ground before running, just like this, through the streets.
As on that long-ago night, Maud knew Branford well enough to twist between the short roads and escape pursuit. She stopped on a dead-end street not far from the Well and leaned against a brick wall. There she ducked her head down and checked her scarf. She took large breaths until her lungs stopped burning, but the sharp pain awoken in her jaw did not subside. It was the child’s blood that had made her molars grow until her jaw was nearly unhinged and she could barely eat or sleep. Sometimes she thought the mere memory of that night made them grow a little more.
Maud lifted her head and studied the crowd, noting the direction people walked. The sick supplicants were going this way, in their slow groups. She could move faster because she was alone. She would follow them to the healer’s house, slip between them to get close to the door, and jump through it when it opened. She had been carrying her pain longer than any of them and deserved to be healed more. And when her teeth no longer hurt, she would leave Branford forever. Resolved, Maud started to walk.
The Healer’s house was one of a modest row belonging to merchants and craftsmen, all tight as books on a shelf. The crowd thickened around its yellow door, only holding back from stepping on the door-mat itself. There were murmurs of “noon” in the happy chatter and many shaded eyes looked up at the sun, which was not quite overhead. Maud squeezed forward, pushing on elbows and backs. She felt something brush against her ankle, but when she looked down she saw only paving stones.
Maud stepped right onto the door-mat and knocked forcefully.
The crowd went silent. Maud knocked again, and she turned around to glare over her scarf at anyone who had shifted on their feet with thoughts of stepping forward to correct her. She raised her fist to knock a third time, but the door had already begun to open.
The man who stepped out was thin and tall. He faced the crowd and lifted his arm high, then pulled back his sleeve to show a sallow healing burn with the peeling layers freshly scrubbed away. From the cheers Maud surmised that it looked better than it had last week. The man moved into the crowd, and a woman with a small boy on her hip ran forward to embrace him with her free arm.
When Maud turned back to the doorway a woman stood in it, her braid of red hair thrown over one shoulder and near enough for Maud to touch. She was wearing a thick white canvas apron over her dress. The crowd spotted her and called out begging, all shouting their stories in a cacophony. The woman looked over them and as she turned her head Maud saw the scar: the far side of this younger woman’s face was a raw, pale quarry where muscle had been scraped away from cheek to the pit where an ear should be. The braid was one-sided because her red hair only began at the top of the scar: the scalp was missing from half her head. The taunt skin pulled down a watering eye that now met Maud’s, gazes that had last joined as they struggled over the body of a small gray kitten.
In that frozen moment, the orange tabby landed on Maud’s shoulder heavily, claws finding their mark through clothing and into flesh to secure his perch. The cat ripped Maud’s scarf away and then launched himself off, leaving fresh claw pains above her breast. He ran away with her covering.
The Healer of Branford raised her arm and pointed at Maud Coffand.
Maud reared back, knocking down the woman standing behind her, and then shoved the mother’s child down on top of her. She pushed away a grabbing hand and when a finger pointed at her mouth, she bit it. She sprinted away from the screams as her cursed teeth drank in blood and swelled again, pressing so tightly that they twisted together, locking her jaw.
The Healer was not Maud’s only plan in Branford. Maud ran toward the Wishing Well. When she got to its street Maud ran through the frivolous girls, scattering them from their perches on benches and stairs like a predator landing among pigeons, and snatched the bucket from its holder. She threw the bucket down the Well and it vanished from sight long before Maud heard a splash.
She pulled up the long rope handfuls at a time. The shouting was getting closer, as were the girls’ fathers, who unlike the mothers would not limit themselves to exclaiming aloud about her rudeness. Maud knew that she was about to be seized, but she reached the bucket first. She nearly toppled into the well grabbing it, flinging out an arm out to brace herself on the opposite side of the cistern.
The bucket held only clear water. No berry.
Maud scrambled over the rim of the well. The berries had to come from somewhere. She jumped, the fall ripping her skirts out of hands that tried to save her.
She fell for long enough to regret jumping and fear the landing.
When Maud hit water it provided no cushion. She fell through the water onto stone and landed on one leg. It snapped and twisted beneath her. Maud’s gasp filled her lungs with fluid before the current pulled her down and she went under the water on her side, into darkness. Her face hit hard rocks, teeth shattering in her cheek. Maud clawed at the walls, fighting the current’s flow. She felt the brickwork give way to rougher walls and hooked her raw fingers into the ledge where bricks ended. Pulling herself up, she found a pocket of air.
Maud gasped and coughed deeply, forcing water through her broken teeth. She shook water from her eyes without taking her hands from their holds. In the darkness she reached up and felt the wooden twist of some root. She gripped it and heaved her body from the lapping water. There was room to crawl here, though she could not see, and Maud followed the growth. Where she pulled on it, dirt cracked above and tiny beams of light broke through the ceiling of earth. This was not a root, but a vine, and in the distance Maud saw dangling berries. She scrambled eagerly, dragging her leg behind her. The berries did not look bright and red here in the dark. They were only dim brown shadows.
Maud wished for her teeth to be gone, and she reached out a hand.
The berry broke into dust at her touch. She grabbed another, but it was also a husk, as was the next. One by one she crushed the empty shells. Then she doubled over and cried, sobbing through rows of teeth she could not open. Maud was alone and without a single plan in her head left for company. She had been forced out of Branford a second time by the same person, and she lay there hating the girl. She imagined the red hair wrapping around her teeth again as she tore flesh with her mouth until the skull was clean and bare. Maud felt her own blood running down her chin and the sharp pulse of pain in her leg.
Soil fell onto her head. Above her the vine-tangled ground burst and a paw reached between the roots. It patted the empty air and withdrew, leaving a shaft of light that was immediately shadowed by frenzied digging. The orange tabby-cat squeezed through his new hole and dropped down beside Maud. She raised a hand to push him away, and the cat ignored it.
“There you are, Maud Coffand!” said the tabby-cat. He sounded enormously pleased with himself. As she rolled over onto her back the cat climbed onto her chest and stood with his feet pressing hard on her collarbone. He leaned forward and put his nose to the corner of her lips, sniffing loudly, exhaling stinking breath in her face. Maud tried to nip him, but her broken teeth shifted with the motion and stabbed her own exposed nerves. The cat’s cold nose forced itself into Maud’s lips, and he grabbed a long piece of tooth and pulled it out. She shoved him off, but could hear him beside her in the darkness, tonguing his prize clean. He returned and pulled out another fragment, and when she did not push him again he settled himself on her chest, breastbone to breastbone, purring as he chewed it. She could feel the vibrations in her heart. A second cat, and then a third, arrived from somewhere beyond Maud’s sight. She felt one at her arm and one at her hip, each taking up the purr. The tabby-cat threw them down pieces of tooth, and the cats all lapped at the red flesh on the white shards.
Maud moved her tongue through its new sharp-edged landscape and spoke, her voice muffled and careful but not gentle. “Why are you following me?”
“Let us trade answers,” said the tabby-cat. “Why do you hate us?”
“I do not hate you. I love songbirds.” Maud said.
“You have not kept yourself busy with songbirds, Maud Coffand.”
“Yes, I have,” said Maud. In her fervor she forgot her pain and forced the words out. “Birds are only safe when cats are dead. You terrible beasts cannot control yourselves. As soon as you see a bird move, you pounce on it and rip it up to pieces.”
The tribunal of cats purred uninterrupted. There were now at least five, all arriving from dark tunnels: only the tabby-cat had climbed down through the soil. He sat up now and lifted his hind leg, chewing on the hair between his dirty toes.
“You owe me an answer,” said Maud. “Why are you still following me?”
“We want to hear the stories of your bites,” said the tabby-cat.
“No,” she said, and moaned as one of the cats stepped on her leg. The pain was sharp.
“We recognize another Biter. We punish seed-thieving birds, who ruin our springtime joys by eating unborn flowers. After righteous pouncing we gather to tell about our best bites. We gather to congratulate each other and share the glory of the hunter. Tell us about your greatest bite, Maud Coffand. Tell us about biting the child.”
“I did not bite the child. She got in my mouth,” Maud began, and her teeth throbbed. She could feel the small fat fingers pulling at her lip. She reached to touch her own cheek. No, there were no fingers, but each breath was a wave of pain: inhalation past her pitted jaw, and exhalation down her burning leg to her toes. “I only meant to bite the cat,” she said.
“Then tell us about biting the cat,” the tabby-cat said. His tail was writhing on Maud’s belly, and his black pupils filled his eyes. She could feel the tips of his claws prick her with uncontrolled eagerness.
Maud tried to picture that night. She thought about cats’ guilt every day. She never thought about cats. She remembered sneaking up on the dove-gray kitten. It was no larger than a bird and it was just as lively in its play. She had planned to swallow it in one gulp so that she did not see its broken body, and run before she heard the screams of the child who loved it. Her jaw was open wide as a set trap when she tossed the kitten in and her jaw was already closing when she felt the small hand on her face. Then the kitten’s ribs snapped in her mouth like a green pea pod, and the child’s head slid free of its caught scalp like an escaping pea forced out.
“Tell us,” the cat repeated.
She had not looked back at the child that night. Now, having seen the wound healed, she could picture it bleeding. She could picture all of the cats’ blood that had, invisible to her, soaked into and fed her teeth. Hot tears slipped from Maud’s eyes. She lifted her hand to touch the tabby-cat’s head across his stripes. The skull she felt beneath his fur was so small, and his bones were so light. She felt like clinging to him because he was whole.
“Well,” he said to her silence, “We are still Biters, all of us! We will gather again after we bite again. Tonight, let’s go be fed together!” He stood and hopped down.
Maud rolled over, cold and stiff. She hesitated. Biting again was inevitable, as the cat said, but now she did not want to do it. Drawing blood would only add pain to her burdens. But tiny heads butted her on all sides, and Maud got onto her knees. If she were a Biter, then she would live the rest of her days as a cat, the worst thing she could imagine being. Maud ripped her skirts so that she could crawl on all fours, dragging her bad leg.
The cats stayed near during her slow journey along their hidden path, encouraging her with small noises and bumps from their curved backs. It was twilight when they all came out the side of a hill and climbed up into a house’s back garden. The darkness hid Maud from any families looking out their windows, and she followed the cats through yards behind the rowhouses until they reached a door that seemed to have some meaning, because the cats all gathered and meowed at it.
The door opened, and the Healer of Branford stood there in her nightgown. She carried an oil lamp with a glass chimney and a wide bowl of cold stew. She stooped to place the food down for the cats, and loose hair fell back from her earless scar.
Maud tried to clamber away, but tumbled over her own dead leg and landed on her backside in the dirt. She raised her arms up to hide her face as the Healer lifted her lamp. Maud waited for the shouting and for punishment to come down on her.
“I’ve saved a place for you,” said the Healer.
Maud lowered her arms and looked at the person she had hurt most.
The Healer held the door open, but her jaw was set and her eyes were hard. The orange tabby-cat brushed against her legs and darted inside.
Maud no longer wanted to charge the door. A doctor’s house was a house of bloodletting and scalpels. With her teeth broken, she would not win a fight. But if pain was what made you entitled to justice, the Healer deserved justice more. Maud dragged herself over the threshold.
The Healer watched her struggle into a chair at the table, then turned her back and used a wide spoon to scrape the last of the stew into a small bowl. She set both spoon and bowl in front of Maud and sat down across from her, elbows on the table. One hand lifted to her scar and traced the ridges.
“I’ve been hoping you would come back to Branford,” she said. “I have thought about you every day, Maud Coffand. And I will admit, my thoughts have not been kind.”
Maud was cold as the untouched soup. She felt her shattered, bloody teeth shift as she bowed her head over the bowl. “I am yours to kill.”
There was a small noise, like a laugh had been caught and suffocated just as it tried to escape. “Maud, I am not going to kill you.”
“Then what do you want with me?”
“I want someone to share my secret,” said the Healer. “I was glad to see you come home to Branford, because I think you are the only one who’ll understand it. The berries give peculiar answers to wishes, don’t they?”
Maud looked up, to meet her eyes for the first time.
“I wished to take away pain,” the Healer continued. “But when I was old enough to visit the Well, my face didn’t hurt. Time had mended it as well as it ever will be mended. So it was not outer pain that the berry gave me power over.”
“I saw that man’s arm,” Maud protested.
“When he came here, he was pretending, especially to himself, that he was not angry at his toddling son for knocking a lamp onto him. He was holding every muscle in his arm tight as a fist with the effort. When his inner pain was gone, he could bear to have salve rubbed on the wound. But those herbs got no credit for his healing.” She lifted her hand away from her face, and wiggled her fingers.
Maud stared at the sudden movement like a cat.
“I have no power to heal burns with a touch, Maud,” she said, “and I have no power to break off those teeth. But I’ve learned to splint legs as well as any physician, and I can borrow pliers and a file from the stable if you want to eat.” The Healer of Branford extended her hand across the table, elbow planted firmly in the center. “Let us no longer be angry with one another, Maud, and begin the hard night’s work ahead of us.”
Maud reached out, and her hand was caught in a strong grip that knocked the dirt off her palms. In that grip she felt a love for cats as deep as her own love for birds. Her eyes suddenly watered and she thought of the gray kitten, with fond mourning as if it was a distant friend she had merely traveled away from for a while. She had bitten it, but that memory was shrunken and small beside the memory of wide joyful eyes and soft fur. Maud knew that the memory would stay small, if she let it.
The other woman’s face no longer appeared stern, but only serious, and her lips quivered. “Poor little songbirds,” she said, and released Maud’s hand. She stood. “I’m going to get that file. Stay here.”
As soon as she left the room, the orange tabby-cat leaped onto the table. His muddy paws left prints and he put his face down to Maud’s bowl of stew. Her tongue felt one sharp tooth left and, tired as she was, she had enough strength to snatch him. Instead she tightened her jaw closed and pushed the bowl toward him so that he could eat more easily. The cat looked up and licked the edges of his mouth clean with a darting tongue.
“Tell me stories about your biting, Maud Coffand,” he said.
Maud reached out and stroked his striped fur.
“None are worth telling,” she said to him.
About the Author
C. A. Barrett
C. A. Barrett lives in a busy home in Kentucky, and writes while her husband guards her from children, animals, and laundry piles so large that they’ve gained sentience. She blogs about writing at www.enchanted.horse.
About the Narrator
Kat is a queer Greek/Serbian SFF writer, film critic, and podcaster based in London, UK. Her novel-in-progress about a secret society of Swedish superheroes was shortlisted for the London Writers Awards in 2019, and she was a juror for the Best Non-Fiction category in the 2020 British Fantasy Awards. She organises Spectrum, the largest critique group for SFF writers in the UK, and is one of the podcast editors at Strange Horizons magazine. Her day job is in theatre.