This short is based on the song “The Poison Woman” by The Dear Hunter
Whenever she had been sick, her father had always told her “trust the medicine more than the man”. Medicine, he had reasoned, is documented, regulated. Smooth oils will soothe a sore throat, alkaline will calm a turbulent stomach. Medicine is impartial, clinical. It gets the job done. Man can’t be trusted to solve his problems, her father had said. He’s an emotional creature, impulsive and brash. Put your faith in medicine, he had told her, and you will never be disappointed.
The boy coughed, breaking her free from her thoughts. She was bent double over the table, pestle in hand. Somewhere miles away, through the tangled roots and trees of the forest, the silent heartbeat of artillery thumped rhythmically. Many had stumbled from those rancid battlefields, bloody and wild-eyed, more animal than man, into her homestead. Few had returned. You can trust the medicine more than the man, her father had said. You can trust it to kill, as well as save. She turned to look upon the boy, laid across her quilted bed as if in state. His hands clasped at something across his neck, gripping tight in the throes of some shock-bred dream.
She had seen many soldiers breathe their last in such dreams. At first she had tried to help them, hands bloody and soul filled with grief and empathy. Others came, though, demanding treatment, shelter and more unsavoury favours. Those she had dealt with in her own way. Years in the forest had taught her well – taught her how to use certain roots, certain flowers, to deadly effect. Poison, she had discovered, was just as trustworthy as medicine. Her father would be proud.
The grinding of her mortar and pestle accompanied the rumble of war. A crushed bulb here, some leaf oil there. Her hands worked without instruction, so many times had the concoction been made. One drop was almost always more than enough, but she liked to be sure. She laughed silently. A million men had reached their end in the war that surrounded her little sanctuary. Trust the medicine, not the man. Trust the poison.
She would bury him with the rest, with reverence but without emotion. None of it was her fault, she reasoned: incompetence was his killer. Dwelling on things like empathy and sympathy were not her way. Vials, concoctions, boiling pots and sweet, sickly smells were her everyday, not mud and blood and war. War was a man’s folly, and you never trust the man.
She had heard the rumours, the names and the myths that had cropped up around her and the her woodland home. “Don’t stray too deep among the oak and ash,” men would say, “for there a foul creature resides. She’ll offer you something savoury, a smooth intoxication, then watch you breathe your last. La femme posion.”
At last the boy stirred. He was a handsome young man, though his face, like all those shipped to the fields of modern war, had aged beyond his years. He had not been wounded badly, his dark green uniform was spattered with blood but it was not his own. No matter, though, he would meet the same fate. She crossed to him, gently, as was her way. The vial felt warm pressed between her fingers. The boy sat up, confused, wincing at the pain in his chest and legs. He hands loosened their grip on the thing clutched to his chest: an armband, sewn with a tree.
She started. She had seen one of its like before, on another soldier. One of the few to cross her home’s threshold and live. On impulse she stepped forward, grabbing the young man’s face. In the dim light she finally saw – he was the image of that same soldier. She let go, allowing the boy to fall back onto the bed. In frustration she squeezed the vial in her palm, feeling its edges dig painfully into her skin. Trust the medicine not the man. The young soldier coughed once more, his hands were shaking, his body still the throes of shock. He reached out, grabbed the hem of her dress. He smiled.
Her father had been a wise man, but he had also been a man. He, like so many others, had left, uniform bright and hope undimmed. She had trusted him, and he had left her alone in a world of roots, potions and herbs. As she watched the soldier disappear through scrub, trunks and brambles, she smiled for the first time in a long while. Sometimes it felt as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders, passing on one sin made no difference.
She would need a new vial, though.