Historical Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

[TW: body horror, death]

You crush fresh marjoram between your fingers and roll the piney, citrusy oils into your skin, before dropping the herbs into a mug. Another pinch goes into the simmering groats. You continue stirring, unbothered, even though you should be. There are no fat drippings to add. No mustard or mushrooms or meats. Marjoram is one of the only luxuries left that you have, because you grow it yourself. Or maybe, it’s the only thing you have left at all.

Your mother grew medicinal herbs in the kitchen window. She’d snip off sprigs and add them to a steaming cup to cure your aching throat and soothe your chapped nose. She gave it to the other sick kids who came over too– but she put extra honey in yours.

You reach to grab the whistling kettle and hold the handle for too long, allowing it to scald your palm. You breathe in deep, sharp. The hair on your arm curls.

A less calming smell. Burning hair. It reminds you of Narcyza and her body wrapped in flames. And her screaming. Oh God, the screaming.


Then, you still had a happy family. Your husband, Bazyli, and three-year-old Jan sitting around the table, eating bigos, rich with bacon and thickly spiced. But that was before anyone died. And back when you could still afford pork.

Bazyli wasn’t eating, his elbows on the table and his fists supporting his chin. He worked as a merchant and traveled to the next town over to sell jewelry and spices and oils and books. He used to return jovial, proud of his work to provide for you and Jan. Slowly, you learned to make do with less. It was hard to watch him struggle with lost purpose.

“They say things are going to get better,” he said, “they caught the woman who was causing the problems.”

“Only one woman?”

“I’m glad I’m not going back ‘til next week. They’re hanging her.”

“So, things should get better.” You knew they wouldn’t. You knew one woman wasn’t responsible for everything. But you wanted to calm Bazyli’s nerves. You’d never seen him like this.

“Hopefully,” he finally picked up his spoon, “Or we won’t be able to stay here much longer. I’ll be out of work.”

Times were a little tough—but weren’t they always? Still, you were a wife and a mother. Still, you had a home you could care for and cook in. You were safe.


Still, you had your work as a midwife. Unlicensed, as only men could be official doctors. The women in town trusted you all the same. You gained work solely through reputation, with patients recommended by name and directed to your doorstep.

You splinted broken bones and cleaned wounds with alcohol and witch hazel. You delivered babies and brewed herbal teas for stuffy children. For those feverish or consumptive, you used your mother’s amulet, inlaid with amethyst, inscribed with golden sigils—you placed the talisman on the patient’s forehead as you prayed over their pale, convulsing body. By that point, it was often too late. You saved who you could. The mothers were grateful and often came by to offer baked goods in stead of the payment you refused to take. 

Your profession was respected, and the church cut you a stipend. But the women knew, if asked, you could keep things off the books. This is how you came to have many young women submerging their belly in your bath while you filled them with drinks of asarum and wine until they bled.


This is also how Narcyza Asnyk turned up at your door. You only knew of her from church. Head bowed, hymns sung inaudibly. Pretty enough. A deft embroiderer who donated pieces to the church, including an altar cover with delicately stitched gold filigree. She would make a lovely wife, you thought. Until she disappeared. Mrs. Asnyk said Narcyza married and sent away to live with her husband. You were happy for her, but did not think much of it.

Now, she was in your doorway. Mrs. Asnyk stood behind her, cloak drawn up like a wing to guard Narcyza from the outside world. Narcyza held her large stomach like precious cargo, like if she let go, it would drop off her body and shatter across the floor. You ushered her into your treatment room, and rolled out a wool mattress across from the mahogany cupboard overstuffed with supplies.

You were used to the pained screams of childbirth, but it was odd to hear them come out of the voiceless young girl from church. Huff. Push. Scream.

You could tell as it crowned—it seemed like your own heart stopped beating—but you couldn’t tell her until she got what remained of it out. A flat head, brain tissue not covered by bone or skin, most of it missing. Narcyza continued pushing. Numb, you delivered the child. You wordlessly handed her the small, still body. For a moment, in the absence of crying, it was silent.


You bore responsibility of burying the infant.

“Take as much time as you need,” you told the mother holding her daughter. Both of them.

On your way out back, you checked to make sure Jan was still sat on his bed. You locked his door.

The pocked backyard sprawled to the edge of a forest. Small headstones marked the short patches of bare dirt, but you’d remember each name without them. You broke and dug into the soft earth.

Over its faint eyebrows, you smoothed oils of sage and eucalyptus to protect it from evil. The child had died before entering the world of sin. It was still pure. Safe. In heaven. These facts didn’t seem to comfort Narcyza.

You said a prayer over the body before and after burying it, and lit a candle to burn through the night.


Bazyli habitually steepled his fingers over the stew instead of eating, “Things are getting worse.” You began to habitually write off his concerns, but gazed at his hallowed cheeks and turned your eyes down. Silently, you fished a rubber mushroom and chewed.

First, you’d heard it in gossip— a neighbor lost his home and tethered himself to a landlord’s farm. After losing her husband to the war, a woman let her body rot away so she could keep her child plump. People could no longer afford merchants’ wares, and some cities made it illegal to sell outside goods.

You saw it with your own eyes— oozing children with chicken eggs stuck under their jaws threatening to burst through the skin. Stuffing your nostrils with lilac couldn’t mask the malodor. Powerless against it, you calmed their delirious minds as you delivered them unto death. You ran out of space. For patients. For graves. You had to start turning them away.

But you also heard of who was doing well – the Kaminski boy celebrated six years. Mrs. Asnyk whispered that Narcyza finally took solid food and rose from bed. The church still thrived, with open doors for you to pray and thank the Lord for what you’ve been given. You were grateful for what you had, and it was important to hold onto these stories.

Yet, Bazyli held a conspiratorial tone, “Towns on the edge of the Commonwealth are collapsing in on themselves. The ones that haven’t been destroyed, that is.” You nodded. “Best case, I’ll be out of work. We have to go.”

You couldn’t leave your home. Where would you go? How would you be able to afford that? And if things were truly so bad everywhere, as Bazyli was surely exaggerating, what would moving even help? You would do what you’ve always done and survive. Things got tougher, as they do, and you could handle it.

You kissed him on the cheek before sending him off on his next trip. An extra tight hug. It was your job to deal with mothers who watched their children die in your arms. You were not swayed by Bazyli’s simple furrowed brow.

Your husband left you and Jan. And he didn’t come back.


Though not a single death brought relief to the maladies of the town, the single women continued disappearing.

They stopped hanging them. In the neighboring town, they set fire to a group of girls—including the daughter of a priest. It was the first time the witches’ guilt had been questioned. One of them had visited you a few seasons back. She was a lovely girl. And barren.

Witches were everywhere, lurking in the shadows of everything plaguing the town. Maybe this would be the right one. Maybe once she was punished for all your grievances, for everything you’ve been through, maybe things would go back to normal. But deep down, you knew it wouldn’t. It was still nice to pretend. It was still nice to have someone to blame, if only for a moment.


Rumor around town spread, and worsened, the longer Bazyli was gone. Why did he leave you and your son? What was wrong with you? What did you do to scare him away? Perhaps he didn’t just leave. Perhaps you killed him. Perhaps with one of those herbs from your garden– someone heard you’d brewed concoctions that poisoned babies in the womb. Witch. Witch. Witch. You heard the thoughts as chanting voices punctuated with pitchforks punched to the sky, as a choir of whispers echoing off church walls.

But you weren’t worried. Though Bazyli was gone, you still performed your wifely duties, still tended to your sacred place in the home. Jan still needed you.

Perhaps that’s why they were gentler with the accusation. You held Jan before your shins like a shield as you ushered two armored members of the Guard into your kitchen, even though everything in you wanted to rip up the floorboards and stuff Jan beneath them.

They asked you the questions first chanted in your thoughts. You didn’t have an answer to satisfy them. Witch. Witch. Witch.

“Anything or anyone suspicious,” they pressed.

“Narcyza Asnyk,” you petted Jan’s hair. “She’s still in town, hidden by her parents.”

“You’re certain of this?”

“She delivered a stillborn into my arms, a curse into my home. Bazyli left shortly after.”

And with that, Narcyza was responsible.

After they tortured and burned those girls, including the priest’s daughter, the archbishop issued a decree that the sentences must be approved by the church or high court. They were required to hold a case this time, to prove themselves and the system as scrupulous. So, they actually listened to you. They actually let you go.


You discontinued your practice. Women came to you desperate and in need, and you cooly refused them. They clasped their hands, empty of offerings, and kneeled on your porch. There was nowhere else for them to go.

Before, with the bubonic children, you at least had the explanation that there was nothing you could do. But now, you couldn’t stop imagining bringing them in, dabbing their cuts with cotton balls, or holding freshly pink babies with their eyes squished shut—as you closed the door in their begging faces.

The worst was one with a bump in her stomach and blood running down her legs. Sent away to die in her own home. You couldn’t risk it.

Your days as a midwife were over. You looked to Jan and wondered how you’d afford to continue living. It seemed like everyone struggled with that same question.


The crowd bustled with more energy than at a usual hanging. You were all about to see something you’d never seen before. Jan ran around with the other children – they held hands and spun in a circle and sang.

There were banners sewn of colorful fabrics, and someone merrily bowed a złóbcoki. There were stands swirling with the scents of sausages and sweet mead– you’d forgotten the sensations of a full stomach and greasy lips. There were bundles of small twigs and brush piled on the ground, with a large post vertically protruding from it.

The crowd cheered and booed as the Guard marched out Narcyza Asnyk. Head kept bowed while chained to the post. People ripped hunks of their bread to hurl at her, the sticks from their sausages, a few shoes.

Were they already ignoring the decree? Afterward, you’d wondered if you were even accused. Surely, they didn’t follow their orders for only one night, only for you. Maybe there were reported sightings of Narcyza shuffling through the night, shrouded in secrecy. Maybe the Guard came to intimidate you into snitching. Maybe you didn’t have to.

But now, as the crowd settled, they asked Narcyza for her dying words. She gave none. She did not lift her head. This inflamed the crowd’s raucous boos.

They doused her in oil as if exercising a demon. And lit her feet. Quickly, the fire danced up her dress.

Obscured by flame, it was difficult to make out the exact details of her rapidly mutating body, seeming to swell and melt at once.

The screams were inhuman. Shrieking. You’d thought you heard the most pained screams a person could produce in your treatment room—the severe suffering you’d bore witness to—the starts and ends of life. You were wrong. This was worse.

The heat of the huge fire rippled over you.

The flame caught her hair and she was entirely engulfed. At once, her head dropped and her body’s weight fell against the chains. And it was silent. All she left you with was the smell of burned hair. But also something underneath. Coppery, like charred liver.

Children cheered. Men threw their hats in the air. The złóbcoki sang a mellifluous song of celebration.


You brush away the curling ends of your arm hairs, and pour boiling water into the mug of marjoram.

You sold out Narcyza to save yourself. You discontinued your practice and left women and children to die. You did all of it to survive.

And they are still coming for you.

You look down at your scalded palm. Just red. It was too hot to stand, though not enough to leave a burn. The skin will not even bubble or rise. Narcyza’s screams pierce your skull and your stomach turns over. Your chest heaves, your eyes water, until you are spitting into the sink.

There won’t be enough time for the groats to finish. You grab the last slice of last week’s loaf, its crumb staled from the exposure to air, but you savor it as it soaks the sour taste from your tongue.

You’ve shoved Jan into the cupboard and locked it. And locked the door. You don’t know if it will be enough—or too much, suffocating Jan, unable to escape. You pray one of the women you’ve helped will remember your child, and that the Guard forgets.

Clutching your mother’s amulet, your fingers trace the sigils inscribed in gold, and you pray.

You hear them outside.

They are coming for you.

October 06, 2023 13:51

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Shirley Medhurst
11:37 Oct 28, 2023

One teeny thing I did notice was in this sentence « Mrs. Asnyk said Narcyza married and sent away to live with her husband » I wasn’t sure if it should’ve been WENT away or else WAS SENT away????


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Shirley Medhurst
10:59 Oct 28, 2023

WOW! I’m bowled over by your style, D and so pleased to discover you on REEDSY This story, too, kept me on the edge of my seat. I’ll be back to read more very shortly😁


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