We invited Rockette Fox, a Korean-American storyteller and performer, to create a tale inspired by our sacred protection mist FORCEFIELD. The story behind our custom blend of ingredients dates back to the Dark Ages and the Black Plague. Dim the lights, sit back, and enjoy this February Full Moon special produced by Random Ritual.
written by Fox Smith for Random Ritual
It was dark that night, but then again it was always dark in those days. The sky hung heavy with the drops of unspoken rain, as if a torrent could wash away the stench of decay that hung like a taut noose on the stale air.
I sat at my loom, the shuttle weaving bak, and forth absently as long shadows danced opposite the restless flicker of my candle. It was silent save the rhythmic tap, tapping of my work against the slight crackle of the wick. The candle was getting low, but I had another beside me. I always liked to be prepared.
In the roughly cobbled streets beyond my front door, I heard the unmistakable slow and heavy wooden roll of a cart’s wheels unevenly ch-chunking accompanied by the slow shuffle of a man with a limp.
My breath caught in my throat as it rolled ever-so-steadily past. I realized I had been holding my breath. I had stopped weaving. I forced a shaky gulp of air when I heard the cart roll to an abrupt stop just past my home.
I squinted my eyes, as if my lessened sight would move the displaced sense to my ears. At first, nothing. Then, I heard my neighbors’ rough wooden door swing open as if blown by a gust of sudden wind.
Quiet voices conferred in tones too low to discern, then a pause. SIlence. Then shuffles, movement, then the sick thud of dead weight being thrown unceremoniously onto the full cart, it’s worn beams creaking loudly in protest. The wooden shuttle almost slipped from my grasp as I listened. The cart of the dead had reached max capacity. Silence. Then the ch-chunk, shuffle, ch-chunk, shuffle, ch-chunk continued until my hearing could pick it out no more.
I tried to go back to my work, but my mind spun, dozens of thin-legged spiders echoing the work of my hands in my brain. I set the shuttle and the course thread down, turning to face the interior of my modest sitting room.
There, across from the stool upon which I sat, the smoothly worn chair my father once sat in. I could recall the rumble of his deep snore as he would lean back after a day of work in the fields. And the large copper pot that rested where my mother would cook the stew day after day, its savory and fragrant smell filling every crevice of the room with warmth.
Of course, that was before the Death came.
We were no strangers to taking ill once in a while, a cough here and a watering eye at the end the day. But when it spread, when everyone began to fall ill without any signs of recovery. That’s when we knew something was wrong. And when the weakness turned to death…
I closed my eyes and turned back to my weaving. Idle hands and all, they say, but keeping busy would keep my mind preoccupied.
But then a sharp and sudden rap at the door shook me from my thoughts.
Shooting a quick glance toward the night’s sky that peered through the unlatched window just beneath my thatched roof, I knew it was too late for any regular visitor.
The knock came again, like the sound of bone against wood, and my hair stood on end.
Who in their right mind would be out at a time like this unless… unless… what if it were an emergency of some kind?
“Please, won’t you open the door for a poor old woman?” came a reedy voice from just beyond my door.
I came to my feet and drifted toward the sound of her voice. Obviously no bandit, surely she must need my help to come at this hour.
Cracking the door and peeking out, I spoke, “Y-yes?”
Her arm, poised as if to knock once more, receded. The old woman stood a head shorter than me, thin and frail as if held up by sheer will. The coarse fabric of her cloak hung from her frame, her ashen face partially hidden beneath a wide hood. I briefly caught a glimpse of something long and thin wrapped in a cloth at her side, but my eyes fell onto her face when she raised her head slowly and brought her gaze to mine, cracking a painfully thin smile.
“May I come in?”
“I-” I began, but on seeing her move toward the door, an odd haze settled over my heavy mind. I couldn’t seem to place what she might be doing there, and my obligation as the last remaining lady of the house took hold. I swallowed my protest and stepped aside.
She moved past me with a speed and finesse that belied someone of her stature and glancing nervously into the full moonlit sky, I slid the door shut behind her.
I stood watching as she made her way around the room with a familiarity that did nothing to quell my unease.
“Yes… here. Your sister, was it not?” she spoke, pausing at the darkened doorway leading to the room where one by one I watched each member of my family fade.
I remained silent.
Her sunken blue eyes almost gleamed from beneath her hood as she snickered, “I took them all, but she was the last.”
I could feel my body trembling. As she continued to slowly circle the edge of the room, I began to move opposite her.
“Pesta…” I breathed.
As soon as I uttered her name, the odd spell was broken. She threw back her head and cackled. The cloak slid from her form, melting into the shadows. A mess of wild white hair piled atop her head, and her blood red skirt seemed to vanish and reappear with every step she took. “You know me. And yet you let me in all the same.”
Pesta… the old woman who was the Black Death itself. Her skirt, they said, was stained with the deep crimson from the blood of those she killed. Her hollow cheeks emblazoned with the lines and edges of her sharp smile. And at her side always a broom or a rake: a
rake would spare some in the community, their lives slipping between the jagged prongs, a broom meant everyone would be swept away. My eyes fell to the long cloth-bound parcel in her hands.
I had never seen her myself, but I had heard the tales.
“First, I came for your father,” she took a step, and I backed away.
When the Death first came, I wanted to be prepared. I sought the wisest in the village, but they were no help. Then they were gone. When I was the only one left of my family, I sought the woman in the woods. Malevolent or not, she would certainly know about such things, and I had nothing else to lose.
“Then, I came for your mother…” The old woman took another step.
I sat at the woman in the woods’ table for three days while she prepared a concoction. In a pot blacker than any metal I’d ever seen, water bubbled and simmered as she pulled from strangely colored jars bits of spice and plant: clove, cinnamon, rosemary, thyme, myrrh, a strange fragrant leaf I’d never seen. Beneath a heavy round stone, the ingredients crackled and ground to a fine powder before she carefully scraped it all into her pot beside a lemon, whispering something I couldn’t hear.
“Next, I came for your sister…” Pesta coiled as if a snake, ready to strike.
The woman in the woods boiled the ingredients for the entirety of the three days, adding in small bits of ground powder and whispering, until only the essence remained. She pulled a vial from a basket and plunged it into the pot filling the vessel to the brim before firmly corking it, advising I keep it on my person at all times.
“Now, I have come… for you!” In a single motion, the old woman pulled the cloth from the package at her side revealing a black, cracked broom - bristles drenched in decay, and she launched across the room with a screech.
My hands fell into my pockets, retrieving the vial - my protection. Fumbling, I pulled it close to my chest then loosened and pulled the cork free with a pop.
Shaking, I cried out, “By shield of night and full moon’s light, please protect me from my plight!” and I flung the contents at Pesta as she flew toward me.
Sputtering and coughing, the old woman crashed to the ground in a heap. Roaring, she glared up at me, coming to her feet and raising the broom over her head when suddenly she stopped.
The tips of the bristles flaked and cracked, tiny debris falling to the floor. As she struggled to hold its handle tighter, more began crumbling away like ash after a fire burned itself out.
“What have you done?!” she shrieked at me, her eyes alight.
I didn’t answer, bracing myself. She snarled but stayed at a distance.
“You…” She tore toward the door that threw itself open before she spun to face me once more, the smallest bits of her broom still slipping through her fingers. “You will pay for this.” And she was gone as my door slammed itself shut once more.
I stood in place for what seemed like an eternity, before I willed myself to breathe once more. My eyes scanned the room in a daze, black scorches across my floor, piles of dust and grit scattered across the floor.
After an eternity more, I moved absently back to my loom. I would clean another time. Consider what had occurred another time. But not now. Now I would preoccupy myself. I sat by the soft flickering orange glow, taking the shuttle and course string into my hands when my candle went out.
Thank you Fox for working with us on such a masterfully crafted piece and being a part of our collective.
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