Beads of sweat rolled down the bared back of a young woman trembling in the yellow light of blessed candles. A shudder overtook her, sending the two women that watched over her into action. They moved in unison, silent, as the girl rocked along with the beat hidden inside of her soul, some secret knowledge she never realized she possessed. The old woman nodded and hastened to her side to provide guidance that only experience had shown her. The young midwife's assistant slipped from the bedroom as the newborn child was brought to his mother's breast. In the small kitchen, a large leather carrying case was unfolded. Strewn across it were various pouches, bottles, and poultice jars. Each was labelled with its ingredients and purpose in a meticulous spiky script, though the woman knew every one by touch, smell, or sight. She picked up a small bundle that contained two compresses, a homemade tea bag, a small silver pin, and a razorblade.
"Maria!" The hushed call broke the still air and the young assistant hurried back to the darkened bedroom. The midwife, her grandmother, finished scrubbing her arms down with the salt and rosemary water from the big bowl on the nightstand and took one of the compresses from her. Maria poured a cup of hot water for the tea, a blend of herbs that would dull the pain and bring the new mother's milk to her faster. Grandmother Amelia used this time to apply the compress, also made with plants to slow bleeding and a handful of sugar to help the pain. Then she turned the blade against her fingertip, drew a drop of blood, and smeared it onto the silver pin she fastened to the infant's diaper. She took a twist of red thread and tied around it the child's wrist with a quick and oft-practiced flutter of her hands.
The woman snug with her newborn son was oblivious to the pair's exit. In the living room, the new grandmother greeted them with tears of joy. She embraced Amelia, her tongue overflowing with gratitude before rushing into the other room to meet her grandson. The two hedge witches left the small apartment in silence.
Back at their own home, Maria's bedroom comforted her. She was warmly enveloped in its rich colors and calming golden light. An antique lamp sat on a large antique writing desk that had been transformed into a workbench. Amber shaded glass jars covered the top and every shelf, stacked and lined in neat rows over all but a square foot of worn wooden surface that was closest to her as she curled up in the cushioned dining chair that lay before it. She unpacked her leather satchel, tucking the herb bags and poultices into carefully organized drawers. As her hands moved in a memorized pattern, Maria allowed her mind to wander back to the birth, mostly the woman's ambivalence toward her. It irked her to feel unneeded. After all, had she not been helping her grandmother in her profession for over 12 years now? A hollow she rarely acknowledged yawned in her chest as she reviewed her abilities. She knew every use for every herb, every protection against evil spirits, every cure for common ailments and even a good many uncommon ones. Her fingers were just as steady, her mind as knowledgeable, and her tongue as quick in ritual. She tried to lift herself from these thoughts while tying off new cheesecloth bags to replace the ones that had been used. The wafting smoke of homecrafted incense wove around her as she worked: amber, sandalwood, cinnamon, and sage making a spicy bite to the air that clung to her loose casual clothes and riotous black curls. Her frame was petite but wiry, giving her an appearance of graceful strength even when she wasn't in motion.
As the darkness outside grew stronger, Maria rubbed at her eyes with oil-stained fingertips. The night had taken its toll and her body ached with sleep as she turned off all but her dimmest bedside lamp and stumbled into the thick pile of quilts that covered her bed and drifted into an unsettled sleep.