by Gloria Holsinger
Sassyfras swiftly dug up the ginseng roots with well-practiced hands, then placed them in the burlap sack she always carried on such missions. All the while she kept her ears perked for unusual sounds in the forest. She pushed her wild, strawberry blonde hair away from her face as she concentrated on the task at hand.
Digging up the last root in that patch of ginseng, she glanced over to check on Buck. He was munching on shrubs a few feet away. Buck was exactly what his name suggested, a magnificent male deer with twelve-point antlers. She had found him long ago when he was perhaps a few weeks old and dying. She saved him with “The Touch” and he had been her sidekick ever since. She knew that Buck respected her and could feel the gratitude gleaming from his eyes as he glanced back at her.
She loved him. Not because she healed him, but because he didn’t think she was strange and he didn’t recoil when looking at her three-toed foot. She went barefoot unless it was winter, and it caused people to stare when they caught sight of her deformity. However, her lack of toes was how she got her name. Immediately after being born, her mama spied the three little toes all splayed out and named her after the sassafras tree (misspelled, of course, her mama wasn’t very educated). Her mama said the three-toed foot made her visualize the three-pronged leaf from the tree. This resulted in a tradition of naming children after trees. Her brother came along next and was blessed with the name Oak because he was a large, healthy baby. Her sister was graced with the name Maple.
Tossing the last root in her bag, she stood up and stretched the kinks from her petite frame. Sassyfras walked towards Buck and tied the bag loosely around his neck. He knew the drill and stood patiently for her to finish. She then washed the soil from her hands in the creek nearby. As she dried her hands on her red bib overalls, she heard the unmistakable sound of someone stepping on a branch. Simultaneously, she and Buck whipped their heads around to the direction of the intrusion. She held her breath looking for signs of someone nearby.
Her heart thudded wildly. Sassyfras scanned the forest quickly and saw a flash of a fabric-clad arm in the distance, weaving in and out between the trees. With the speed of an Olympian, she ran towards Buck, grabbed an antler and pulled herself on his back. He galloped away in the opposite direction of the intruder, carrying his beloved mistress to safety.
They heard a gunshot behind them and a male voice yell, “I’m gonna git you, Sassyfras Jones! Gonna teach you a lesson ’bout trespassin’!”
Sassyfras cackled with glee, knowing she was well on her way to a successful escape. Bobby McGraw could kiss her Appalachian ass. Everyone else in their small community let Sassyfras harvest plants on their properties. Seeing as how most of them couldn’t afford to pay her for her healing abilities, they allowed her to scavenge what plants she needed. Everyone except Bobby McGraw.
He was a miserable old man, crass, and acted like he was king of the mountain. He was unlikable and most folks avoided him, although Sassyfras did often wonder what made him the person he is now. Surely he wasn’t born cantankerous. But still, it could have been a bad day if he would’ve actually caught her. She wouldn’t dare step foot on his land if it weren’t the exceptional amount of ginseng that grew on it.
Ginseng was her bread and butter and the hunting season only lasted three months. With only a few weeks left before the season was over, Sassyfras was determined to find every root on this mountain. Her financial circumstances and medical supplies for the Appalachian folks depended on it.
Buck slowed to a walk and she knew they must be out of immediate danger. She patted the side of his neck, murmuring that he was a good boy and hopped off his back, bare feet landing on the soft moss below. They had traveled quite a distance. It always amazed her how quickly deer could move. She led the way out of the forest and into a clearing, past a pond, through another patch of forest, and finally arrived at her family’s cabin. She motioned towards the barn and Buck dipped inside, then came back out with an ear of corn in his mouth, smiling because he had found his treat.
She strode into her family’s large cabin where her mother stood at the wood stove, stirring a pot of stew. She turned, with a questioning expression, to her daughter. Sassyfras replied with two words. “Bobby McGraw.”
He mother (Jenny) grunted in understanding, then told her to check on her grandmother, that she had cut herself preparing the stew meat. Walking into her grandmother’s bedroom, she saw her sitting in a rocking chair with a bandage on her hand. She took her hand, unwrapped the bandage, and saw a deep cut. Putting her hand on the wound and closing her eyes, she concentrated. Sassyfras removed her hand from atop her elder and was satisfied with the healing. Only a thin scar remained. She knew her grandmother was amazed by her gift, but to her, it was as normal as breathing.
The gift ran in the family but hadn’t been gifted to anyone in several generations. Not until Sassyfras came along, when it was evident she was gifted in the first two weeks of her life. Her father, John, broke his leg during a logging incident. That very evening, as he held his newborn daughter, his leg mended almost instantly. They now guard her gift fiercely. The family isn’t sure where the gift comes from or how it works. The only thing they do know is that “The Touch” is at its strongest when the healer resides deep in the forest. They figure the healer draws their strength from nature that hasn’t been tampered with by humans, hence generations of her family living in the Appalachian Mountains. They let her patients believe her healing ability came from knowledge of herbs and medicine. But, that is true because Sassyfras uses plants to enhance the healing of her patients. The gift and plants go hand in hand.
During dinner, with everyone sitting around the table, she stared at her hand and dipped bread in her stew. Sassyfras could feel the worrisome emotions of her papa. Chewing on the stew-soaked bread, she let his thoughts enter her mind. She could feel exactly how worried he was when her mama told him about the Bobby episode today and that he feared the hateful old man would cause her serious harm one day. She knew he wished her to figure out a solution to the problem and that he believed she could solve it with her abilities.
She was a woman of few words, but the emotions she could feel vibrating off her family seemed too much at once. Looking her papa in the eyes, she gave him a curt nod and knew that he felt relief that she agreed to fix things with Bobby. She left the cabin so she could think and found herself wandering to the pond. Sassyfras plopped down and began skipping stones. She did her best thinking when she skipped stones. Something about the noise they made, skidding across the water, soothed her. Turning her head at the sound of a hoof scuffing across a rock, she spied Buck trotting up. He nuzzled her cheek, then dipped his head to drink from the pond. She thought back to a couple of years ago.
It was her birthday. She turned twenty that year and her family made the trip to town to celebrate with her. It was a good time until later that day when she overheard Bobby McGraw calling her siblings awful things. Oak and Maple had the misfortune to arrive at the post office at the same time as Bobby. Everyone in town was present to hear him belittle her family. He said horrible things and made even worse accusations. He had never singled out her family before and she didn’t know what his problem was, but she had never felt so humiliated. The Jones family had always been held in the highest regard and respect. That negative experience from Bobby felt alien to them. Things had gone downhill since that episode because Sassyfras refused to treat his animals when they had fallen ill.
The rumors in town had always been that Bobby had deep-seated issues with a mystery woman from his past – a woman that had scarred him and turned him into a bitter man. A woman from so long ago that nobody could recall who, seeing as how most of the older generation had died off. Sassyfras could heal him if she wanted. But did she want to? That was the question. Skipping another rock, she decided she would be the better person. Surely, she wasn’t that small minded, to let a few rude comments cause her problems. His animosity had to come from somewhere and it could end when she touched him. She called for Buck.
Buck snorted as he carried her to McGraw land. This time they took the road, a lesser chance of getting shot. She admired his antlers as they journeyed and she felt pride over saving such a magnificent creature. She rode Buck to Bobby’s front porch and mentally summoned him to come out. Within minutes, Bobby stepped out holding his rifle. She sat breathlessly atop Buck, waiting on a negative reaction to her appearance on his land.
She could see the hatred on his face. Very carefully she pulled out some white fabric from the pocket of her red bib overalls and waved it in the air as a sign she came in peace. She watched the look of hatred switch to one of puzzlement. Feeling the tension between them, she took a deep, steady breath and slid off Buck. Sassyfras walked up to the grizzled old man, took another steady breath, and offered him her hand. He stared at her in confusion and, after several tense seconds, he shook her hand.
Instantly, Sassyfras was besieged with his memories. She saw him young, happy, and in love with her great grandmother (Sara). This was a shock. She didn’t know before now. She sharpened her focus and saw how they were deliriously happy and planned to marry. How young and handsome he was in his happiness and how he had hoped to have many children with her. She saw how he got a nice paying job several hours away and he was excited to share his success with Sara. There was a sudden feeling of devastation. She was feeling his emotions when Sara refused to go with him and when he insisted, Sara broke off the engagement and refused to see him at all. He moved away without her and didn’t return until he had heard of her passing. He had been here with angry regret ever since. Sassyfras knew then that when he realized she and her family were descendants of Sara, he felt uncontrollable negative emotions. They should have been his family.
Sassyfras took a deep, steady breath as fifty years of hurt poured into her being. It hurt so much. All she could feel was an agonizing sorrow. She felt how he loved Sara something fierce and still did. She silently and slowly removed her hands. Stepping away from him, she could feel his eyes on her as she knelt to the earth, pressed her hands against it. She drew strength and knowledge from the ground. She then slowly rose up and moved towards him again. She pressed her warm pulsating hands against his head. He jerked away from her, but she looked directly into his eyes and used her abilities to immobilize him. Again, she touched his head and began to heal him.
He inhaled sharply as she transferred the knowledge. He saw and finally understood. He saw that Sara was like Sassyfras and couldn’t leave this place or everyone they took care of would suffer. He saw that Sara would have lost her abilities, that she needed the Appalachian Mountains to draw her strength from. He saw that she would have withered away without the powers of raw nature. He saw that leaving with him to a city would have killed her. He saw that not having him broke her heart, but she healed herself – just enough – to go on with life, whereas he let bitterness overtake him.
Releasing her hold on him, Sassyfras reached her hands towards the sky. Her eyes rolled back as she breathed deeply. Lowering her arms, she touched his head again and this time he saw Sara as if she were right in front of him. The spirit of Sara. She was smiling, telling him she loved him and that she was happy he finally understood. Then she washed through him with a whisper of goodbye and was gone. Sassyfras could see Bobby felt nothing but relief. It was as if the past fifty years didn’t happen as they did but instead had a different outcome. Completely speechless at the enormity of what Sassyfras did for him, he stared at her with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Sensing a healing victory, Buck jumped and galloped around the two of them playfully, almost like a giant puppy. He then trotted over to Bobby, licked his tears, snorted, and trotted back to Sassyfras’s side where he obediently waited for her next move.
There were no words to properly thank her, so Bobby stood staring after her and Buck with emotion shining brightly in his eyes. But Sassyfras didn’t need words anyway. Wanting to keep her secret sacred, she raised her fingers to her lips and made the zipping motion. She watched Bobby as her message sunk in and he placed a wrinkled hand over his own heart and then zipped his lips shut. Knowing her secret was safe with him, Sassyfras grinned, hopped on Buck, and galloped away. Her wild hair billowed behind her as she cackled with glee.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student