The Herbalist by Tristan Durst

“You should go see the herbalist,” Karen’s mother would intone any time a cough lingered more than a day, and off Karen would go. Three blocks north of her house Karen passed underneath the railroad trestle, whose dark corners were littered with empty beer cans and tied off condoms, years before Karen could name why these objects unsettled and intrigued her in equal parts.  Still north, past the Baptist church whose fenced playground seemed a jail to contain all the joy a child might ever want to feel. 

Two hundred and one feet from the edge of the church was a pool hall that served pitchers of lukewarm beer. Another two hundred feet away, across two lanes of blacktop, sat City Hall.  The road between Confederate Billiards and the Confederate memorial Karen had sold candy bars to fund was Main Street.  Main Street had remained bustling through several rounds of hard times and gentrification and re-gentrification. The side streets, however, had curled and died, like strands of human hair held to a match. 

Turn the corner at the bookstore, now more in the business of college sports memorabilia than literature, instead of walking straight ahead to Sullivan’s Office Supply, and you would pass three empty storefronts, the last of which still contained a mannequin dressed to the dated nines, though only one of her shoes remained.  Next door to the mannequin was the herbalist.  “My secretary didn’t tell me you had an appointment,” he would often joke, gesturing idly in the direction of the mannequin, whom he called Ida. The deserted windows of the empty storefronts remained transparent, yet the herbalist’s windows were dingy, freckled with motes of some unknown root or stem. 

The herbalist had not always set up shop in this location.  Karen’s mother remembered another shop, farther down Main Street where the train tracks re-emerged, seemingly for no other reason than to provide the requisite wrong side.  When he moved closer to the center of town, a string of businesses – florist, jeweler, bakery – opened and closed in the herbalist’s former storefront. None lasted more than a year. The final tenants, Christian booksellers, burned the store for the insurance money, and their ashes were paved over to become the parking lot of choice for first cigarettes and third dates.

Once upon a time the town had boasted a proper pharmacist, Roger: cantankerous, barking, and dismissive.  The town was wary of change, proud of being simple, down-home, good folks, and Roger might have survived were he more accommodating of his clientele.  Instead Roger harangued and bullied customers who considered the herbalist a valid second opinion, drove away most of his business, and was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time of his death. 

According to the doctor in the emergency room, Roger had choked to death on a fish bone at Sunday dinner.  Which he had, but ten days after the funeral Roger’s widow left town on the heels of gossip and pointed stares, for everyone heard from someone who had heard from the sheriff that, in death, Roger’s teeth and gums had turned black. 

Another ten days passed, and the herbalist had established himself in Roger’s storefront. None of the pharmacy’s original fittings or fixtures had been removed, and the walls were lined with wooden drawers, medicinal card catalogues. The countless tiny numbered compartments had tested the curiosity and self-control of Karen’s parents when they themselves were children. The shop did not smell good precisely, but it smelled interesting, and small children drew huge lungfuls of the stale, intriguing air, as though they could keep it for themselves.

The summer she turned eight, Karen often found herself staring at the endless stoppered bottles lining the herbalist’s shelves, perfectly healthy, but too restless to be confined to her own backyard. This day he was seated beside the counter, a finger holding his place in a book, his chin tilted to indicate he was merely humoring Karen.

“When did you come here?”

“I washed in with the waters,” he replied. “In the year of the flood.” His precisely arched eyebrow implied that she should have known better than to ask.

“And before that?” she pressed, willfully ignoring, the herbalist’s tone.

“And before that, the world was not a safe place for curious little girls.  Remarkable, isn’t it, how some things do not change.” Karen did not see his hand move, but felt his thumb pass under her right eye, as if wiping away a tear.  The herbalist pulled his hand back to reveal an inky eyelash in stark relief to the chalk of his skin, then casually moved his hand to the side and blew the eyelash away.

“You didn’t let me make a wish,” Karen complained.

“Only children make wishes. The rest of us make decisions.”

He rose then, as the tinkling of the door chime indicated a new customer. As he walked away, Karen startled at his full height, as she always did. Seated he gave the air of a small man. The herbalist was slender, and he unfurled like a scarf pulled from a magician’s hat.

No one in the town could conjure a memory that predated the unbowed man, ageless despite surely being older than everyone else. His icy eyes did not cloud, and his jet hair did not grey. A visit to the herbalist was like a scene in a well-rehearsed play, comforting because it never changed. The townspeople would explain their particular ailments, usually a seasonal variation on allergies, sometimes a virus brought to town by a visitor. The herbalist would remove his glasses and polish them, as he listened to the litany of symptoms. “Let’s see,” he hummed as he replaced the lens, then studied his client for one inhale-exhale. Often his costumers had the sensation of continuing scrutiny, like an insect bite on the sternum, even after the herbalist turned away, measuring powders and leaves into cheesecloth. 

Despite this itching not-quite-judgment, the makeshift teabags were steeped in hot water for the required number of minutes, drunk quickly with noses held, and ultimately judged to be just the thing that was needed.

“I knew,” the herbalist began on another day. Karen interrupted by coughing into her elbow, crouched low, her curiosity undimmed by the rapidly worsening illness sparking down her limbs.  Instead of describing the symptoms that had sent her on this errand, she knelt to peer at the shelves closest to the floor, underneath the more carefully labeled vials and drawers. At eye level Colic, Insomnia, Influenza made themselves known. Down here disorder ruled, the brown and blue and green glass bottles bore no markings, each a different secret to learn. 

After her coughing subsided, the herbalist continued. “I knew on that first day, when your mother brought you in, her hair uncombed and her eyes full of tears.  You sat on her hip, prepared to scream, such a defiant little baby, not even a year old.  I told her to put you on the floor,” and he gestured with a flick of the wrist to indicate that the Karen of today occupied the same space now that she had occupied then. “Nothing you could break, I said. That day I knew it would be you who came back here, over and over, never satisfied.”

Karen rose, and faced him, blaming the dizziness and thrumming whiteness in her ears on the illness that had sent her here. In her hand was a stoppered blue bottle, no bigger than her palm, a layer of ashy sediment sunk to the bottom of its cloudy contents. “I have a cough,” Karen replied, the last word trailing out on a sickly wheeze.

“We are all ambidextrous,” he counseled softly, taking the unmarked vial from Karen’s hand, “and the one hand does what the other will not.” He studied her intently, measuring the effect of his words. “When you understand my meaning, you can have this back. Not before.” He held the vial aloft before her eyes, then disappeared it with a flick of his wrist. He removed his glasses to polish them, adopting his listening stance. “A cough, you say?”

On the walk home Karen tried to remember the threads of the conversation, but the cough traveled from her throat to her lungs, her body sunk into a fever, and she was forced to devote the whole of her thinking to putting one foot ahead of the next. By the time she entered the front door, the brown paper bag of herbs and tea in her hand was crushed, completely dampened by sweat. Her teeth ached in her jaw and she saw double. 

Karen was in bed for three days, every extra blanket in the house holding her tight against her mattress as she sweat and shivered in turns. On the third morning she finally emerged from her bedroom. To her mother’s question she answered “Much, much better,” but to herself she thought: Reborn. Though it was not the last illness of her childhood, Karen would not see the herbalist again for almost ten years.

Her second year of university, Karen rented a house with three other chemistry majors in a neighborhood near the campus, almost every house full of undergraduates. Over Labor Day the whole street became a welcome back party, front doors thrown open and more than one ratty sofa drug onto unmoved front lawns. At 3am, watched over by a broken streetlight, the lawn a sea of shattered beer bottles that Karen had no desire to walk across in the dark, she met a boy.  He was 23.  He was going to graduate in May. He was going to be a lawyer.

Karen’s mother heard the laughter in her voice when she called Monday evening and asked, “Did you meet a boy?”

“I met the boy,” Karen replied, confident as she spoke the words that she possessed will be enough to make this story true.

The boy was almost thoughtful in a way that was endearing right up until it wasn’t. He brought soup when Karen was sick, but not the kind Karen had requested. He insisted on making her drinks, but never put enough ice in them.  When he was quiet, though, Karen reveled in his blue eyes and dark hair and reminded herself how kind he was to waiters.

The next year, home for the long weekend, Karen stood at the sink, peeling potatoes.  The sink was directly beneath a window, and Karen savored the warm light on her forearms as she worked, the way the light occasionally caught her diamond. It was his mother’s, and bigger than he could have paid for on his own.  Without preamble, she turned to cough into the crook of her arm.

“Just like that time,” Mother said, fitting as many green beans as she could into the Ball jar of pickling liquid.

“Yes, of course, because I was only sick the once,” Karen replied, sarcastic but fond. 

“You were standing right there, with potatoes, even, and I told you to go see the herbalist. I remember because it didn’t work.” Mother turned to Karen expectantly, seeking confirmation of the memory.

Karen shook her head. She couldn’t recall an unsuccessful trip to the herbalist, couldn’t recall the last time she’d thought of the herbalist.

“Twice. We made the tea twice, and you threw it up both times. Didn’t even make it to the bathroom the second time. You finished the tea, gave me back the mug, and just threw up down the front of yourself, all over the floor. Right there,” she pointed.

Karen looked at the cracked white linoleum floor, saw herself standing on the shaggy brown throw rug that had been rolled up and placed with the rest of the garbage on the curb after, saw herself crying, the front of her nightgown dripping with the regurgitated tea. Tea which had gone down clear and come up black.

“It burned,” Karen said, her words directed downwards, to long-gone rug.  “The tea was still hot, and it burned when I threw it up.”

“The damnedest thing. Never saw anything like it,” Mother agreed.  “Next time you were sick I went myself and told him what happened. Swore he didn’t know how it coulda been, would never happen again. Didn’t matter, you only took pills from the store after. Couldn’t trick you into anything else.”

Karen turned back to her potatoes, though now the sun hurt her eyes, and she squinted as she felt a headache coming on. She hated to be told of things she’d forgotten. The joy receded from Karen’s day, like chalk drawings washed away in the rain. She was upset that she should forget something both interesting and ominous. 

The headache had begun as a rubber band across her temples, but suddenly the elastic was pulled back and snapped across her right eyebrow. Karen hitched forward, momentarily blind.

“You eat anything today?” her mother asked.  “Girls get a diamond on their finger and suddenly think they gotta lose twenty pounds.”

“I just need to lie down,” Karen replied. The next morning she left her mother before church, under the pretext of a forgotten paper and avoided traffic.

The herbalist looked up and smiled as Karen pushed the door open.  “My darling, angry girl,” he said fondly. He rose and set his hands on Karen’s shoulders, still at least half a foot taller than she.

“You told me something once….” Karen let the sentence trail off, waiting for the herbalist to supply an answer.

He cocked his head to the side and regarded her.  “Not yet, my dear. You’re too early.” His eyes were sharp like ice, no creases or lines to hint at his age. Though his expression was not unkind, no one would ever mistake his eyes for warm. “Come back to see me after he ruins everything.” 

“Who ruins everything?”

“Are you going to marry that boy? The one who thinks he’ll be a lawyer?”

Karen blinked rapidly, but said nothing.

“You will,” he continued, raising his hand and holding her chin between his thumb and forefinger so she couldn’t look away. “You’ll marry him and your life will become nothing more than a placeholder for anyone else in the same story. You’ll be common,” and that word carried more judgment than a pastor saying whore.

The herbalist dropped a kiss on her forehead, right at her hairline, then lowered his hand, turned his back on Karen, and returned to his chair. He picked up a nameless book.  It was as if she were no longer there, as if she were the last lamp lit at bedtime, casually turned off so the house could sleep.

Karen opened her mouth to speak, but it felt wrong, off-balance, interrupting the silence of the shop, even to assert that she was here, real.  Ridiculous, she thought, as she turned out of the store and walked back to her car, resolving to forget her dealings with the herbalist. Like a spell, a charm, she did forget, entirely, all the way back to Tennessee, memories left behind at each mile marker. 

As a child, Karen could sit on the front porch and have a clear line of sight to the trains rumbling by, the yellow lights flashing to stop cars from passing underneath. “I used to dream of jumping on a train,” she said, “going to Iowa or Idaho, or whatever that huge I on the side of the boxcars stood for.” This was a favorite memory to share: Karen found her younger self wistful and adventurous. 

“We’re not moving to Idaho because you had goddamn trains instead of friends,” he said when Karen told him this story. Though the words were bruising and sour, they ruined nothing, and Karen continued to forget.

She remembered nothing for another two years, until she stood screaming in a Memphis apartment, just-rented to be shared with the man who had put off applying to law school for a third autumn in a row. A man who still intended, it would seem, to marry her, despite a recently-discovered, poorly-concealed indiscretion with a woman who, most offensive to Karen, had paid for the hotel rooms herself. 

“This is an over-reaction. This is unnecessary!” he bellowed, his never-to-be-used courtroom voice punctuated by fists pounding on the kitchen counter-cum-jury box. 

Karen, unaffected by his promises, apologies, and excuses, continued to systematically shatter the monogrammed plates his mother had ordered for their wedding gift, delivered just last week.

You ruined everything!” Karen shrieked with a voice she did not recognize, and, like a punch, she recollected. She blinked, four times, shook her head gently, making sure the memories were true. Once she was certain, Karen placed the lone remaining plate on the counter. She took off his mother’s ring, laid it in the center of the plate, and picked up her car keys.  It was a six-hour drive to her hometown, five if traffic was on her side. She wouldn’t arrive before 3am, but she knew the herbalist would be waiting.

“You ruined everything,” she repeated, the words feeling like ice in her mouth, before turning and walking away.

The stoplights cycled through the colors, though there was no traffic to heed their commands. Even the streetlights were dimmed, because who would wander Main Street at such an hour? The herbalist’s lights were on, though, casting a wide enough arc to illuminate Ida’s shoeless foot. Karen pushed the door open to find the herbalist out of his chair, already raised to his full height. He tskked with genuine sorrow, and opened his arms. “My poor, angry girl,” he whispered like a secret, as Karen laid her head against his chest. 

“He ruined everything,” Karen said, so furious her voice had gone flat.

The herbalist had not aged, and his hands did not tremble or shake as he smoothed back her hair.  “He should have known better, shouldn’t he?”

Karen took a steadying breath and stepped backwards, the herbalist’s hands falling from her head to rest on her shoulders.  “He ruined everything,” she said again, and this time when she blinked tears slid down her cheeks.

The man smiled like pulling back the curtain on a crime scene, and with a flick of his wrist a cloudy, blue vial appeared in his hand, identical to the one he’d taken from her years ago. To her questioning look, the herbalist nodded. “I’ve had it up my sleeve this whole time.”

She reached up to take the vial, though not with her right hand. “The one hand does what the other will not,” and as she said the words she felt as calm and as treacherous as the eye of a storm, the long-ago hurricane that brought the flood, the flood that brought the waters, the waters that washed the herbalist into town.

# # #

Tristan Durst is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Butler University, where she served as the fiction editor for Booth. She once ran an entire 10k to only the song “This is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan. It was a personal best.

Photo: Michael Treu

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