Chapter 13: Home Remedies

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Inside the cottage, which was decorated with bug-filled bottles, boiling cauldrons, and gingerbread trim, Maggie's mother pulled Rob close to her rheumy-red eyes.

"Little mouse, let me look at you," she said in a dry, crackling voice. Her face was deeply lined, and the old woman's salt-and-pepper hair flew out from beneath her pointy hat like it was trying to escape. She wore a woolen shawl over a dark, tattered gown that trailed behind her on the dirt floor, hiding her feet entirely. 

And although she might once have been as tall as Maggie, now the old woman stooped so severely that she had to crane her neck just to look straight ahead. Rob guessed multiple compression fractures of the spine caused by adult-onset osteoporosis, but he worried that taking a medical history might lead to discussions of heredity, which might lead to a discussion of grandchildren, which Maggie had warned him against in no uncertain terms, so he held his tongue.

Plus, he couldn't trust himself not to ask her about being a witch.

"Daughter," Maggie's mother said, still holding Rob close. She twitched her nose a few times, almost as if she were sniffing him. "This man you've brought home. A foreigner, if I'm not mistaken. What religion might he be?"

"Mother!" Maggie said. "He's the new doctor in town I told you about. I'm helping him on his medical rounds."

"Pah!" Releasing Rob, she fumbled backwards and plunked down on a stool next to a cavernous stone oven whose metal door had been torn off its hinges. "I understand. You're his muscle. That's hardly work for a lady, daughter mine. No way to win a man's heart."

"I'm not trying win anybody's heart."

"You're succeeding very nicely, then. Little mouse, what do you think of my daughter? Is she too old for marriage? Perhaps she could land a widower in his dotage with a little spark left in his stick."

"Moth-er!"

"Can you blame an old woman for wanting grandchildren? Married twice, I was, to wonderful men, yet I'll never hold a grandchild to my drooping bosom."

"Forget about grandchildren for a moment," Maggie said. "The reason we're here—"

"The reason you're here is less important than why my only daughter never visits me. Can't you come more often?"

"I was here a week ago, mother."

"Pah!" her mother said. "I could be dead in a week. This maybe will be our last conversation, how would you like that?"

Maggie tensed her broad shoulders, then lowered them again. "Robert," she said through clenched teeth. "Could you give us a moment, please?"

The last thing Rob heard upon exiting the cottage was Maggie saying, "We're not staying for dinner," and then he was back outside. A pair of goats looked up at him expectantly, as if he might have some food scraps to share, but they soon went back to munching grass.

Rob wandered to the edge of the clearing, hiked up the front of his tunic, and enjoyed a good, long piss. Rob smiled at how comfortable he'd become doing various business in the out-of-doors. Previously, his idea of roughing it was spending the weekend at a Holiday Inn Express.

That was okay; medical school didn't leave much time for non-medical activities, and a surgical residency left even fewer. Still, it was good to be reminded how much he liked the forest's earthy smell, the panoramic vistas of blue-sky days, and the sensation of fresh air bumping up against one's private parts.

The cottage door banged open, breaking Rob's reverie. Quickly tucking himself back into his pants, Rob turned to find Maggie stomping toward him with resignation dripping from her face.

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