"Alta vocamus radices," Serena led the chant, her large, grey eyes rolled to the heavens, and felt the susurrus in the air as the coven repeated her words, "lato loquimur Olympo," she raised her hands as if reaching for some unknown gift, "Deorum summas spectamus montibus altos."
As their voices died down and the hiss and crackle of the fire filled the silence, she began again, this time in English,
"We call on the deep roots," she whispered and lowered her hands, stepping forward, "we speak to the wide sky," she raised her voice and reached out, felt the woman on each side of her take her hands, "we look to the Gods atop the mountains high."
The fire spat and hissed,
"Bless our sister Alice with health," she murmured, "take away her pain. Restore her, mighty Gods, and protect her as she bears this child." From her place by the fire, in the centre of that wide circle, Alice smiled, the thick clay on her cheeks cracking. The coven knelt as one, waiting for her to make the first offering.
"I offer you my hair," she said, voice clear as a bell, and took a sharp dagger from beside the fire. With a steady hand she gripped the thick, black curls in their tight braid, drawing the dagger through them smoothly, "it is a part of me, valued and loved; I give it willingly to you."
It disappeared into the fire without ceremony. Serena stood,
"I offer you my memories," she said and pulled her wedding album from the bag by the fire, "they are treasured and happy. I give them willingly to you."
One by one the women stood. They offered blood, hair, memory... anything of value. Theresa was the last to stand,
"I offer you my voice," she said, lifting her hand to silence Alice when she gasped, "it is my livelihood and joy. Take it with my blessing, mighty Gods, and spare my wife and child pain."
A voice could not be given to the fire, of course, and so she bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood, severing a sliver of flesh with a small yelp before spitting it into the fire.
Serena blinked at the fire, as if waiting for a mighty hand to come down and caress Alice. As if the colour should return to her face. As if weight should appear on her bones. Would they even know if her kidneys were healing now? If the Gods heard their pleas, they did not answer. The coven waited, and then, when the sun began to rise, they cleared the circle and helped Alice into a wheelchair, leaving nothing but blackened stones and charred logs to show that they had been in the forest.
Alice touched her short hair, frowning in the mirror at the way it jutted from her head in uneven clumps. She was no barber,
"I'll make you a hair appointment," Theresa said and slipped up behind her, reaching around to hold the swell of her belly. Alice sighed; relief was so rare these days. She stared in the mirror at Theresa's bright yellow hair, watched the way it spilled down over her shoulders. She looked sick, too, though it was stress not illness. Her pale face was bloodless, almost marbled. Alice frowned and looked at her own reflection; her dark skin was no longer smooth. The pain had taken its toll; the skin under her eyes was ashen, deep lines were carved between her brows and at the side of her mouth.
"Ok," she whispered, "I'm sorry..."
"It's not your fault," Theresa murmured and kissed the skin of her neck,
"I should have let you carry her... I knew that there were risks," she swallowed the lump in her throat. Pride was a sin, her Grandma had often said that, but it wasn't pride that had driven her; she didn't know what it had been. She needed to carry this baby, their daughter. It had been as primal and uncontrollable as the waves.
Each of them had counselled her to reconsider. Serena had given her medical advice, Dana and Misha had tried to speak reason, Alannah had simply held her and told her that the child would still be hers if she didn't carry it. Only Theresa had stayed silent. In the gloom of the night before the procedure she had rolled over and simply asked if she was sure.
"I am," she had said, and Theresa held her,
"Then we'll make it work," she had whispered, her voice heavy and grim. And they had. They had made it work, the check-ups, the bed rest, the dialysis... until it had stopped working. Complications on complications, treatments and side effects, then treatments for the side effects. With two months to go they were faced with the unthinkable; the mother or the baby.
And so they met in the night with clay and ash and fragrant herbs. They begged for some kind of intervention under the shadow of a ticking clock. Alice closed her eyes and felt her body, felt every aching inch and wondered if it had worked; did she feel less nauseous? Less fatigued? Did her heart beat more steadily?
The child, tentatively named Joy, kicked and wriggled.
"It's time," Theresa whispered and let her belly go slowly. It was time. Alice could smell the hospital already, she was sure she would for the rest of her life.
Every part of Serena ached; fourteen hours on duty was bad enough, but the exertions of the before night had drained her beyond her limits. It was like being filled with lead. Weighed down by the demands of living,
"Where did I leave my keys?" She muttered, raking through her bag for the fifth time. "Where the hell are they!" The last word was a shout; she threw the gutted handbag across the locker room. Dana blinked, smoothing her scrubs,
"What's wrong?" She asked,
"I... nothing," Serena sighed, "sorry... we, we lost a little girl today and its been a long shift. I can't remember where I put my car keys."
"They're in your pocket," Dana said with a sad smile, "I saw you put them in... sorry, by the way, about the patient. It's awful every time."
"Yeah," she said, relief flooding her body as her fingers found her keys, "every fucking time. Can't wait to get home."
"Take it easy," Dana said with the kind of calm, indefatigable compassion that seemed to make a home in all good nurses, "and call us if you want company. Misha isn't on call tonight."
"I will," she said and tugged her jacket on, "thank you. Have a good shift."
Keys in hand, she wandered the car park for too long looking for the sleek shape of her Mercedes, by the time its engine rumbled to life she was ready to weep. Instead she let the hum soothe her and followed the long road out of Glasgow towards the Campsies. By the time the car crunched to a stop her head was pounding; Serena hurried inside and threw herself down onto the L-shaped couch with a sigh.
Daryl's face smiled down from above the fireplace. He looked handsome in his suit, of course, but she often thought it didn't really look like him. He had been most himself in cargo shorts, halfway up some hill or other. Those photos were too painful to look at. Had it been four years already? The house gathered around her like a noose,
"It was a shit day, darling," Serena said, breaking the silence with a sigh, "we lost that little girl I told you about, Lola... just three weeks old. Its so brutal..." she shook her head, "and Alice, oh... you wouldn't recognize her now. She looks like a wraith." Serena heaved her body up and placed her elbows on her knees. "I told her this would happen," she said, "and I hate myself for thinking like that."
Silence, of course, was the only reply that she got; all the magic she had seen in this world, but the veil remained a wall. Or maybe Daryl simply wasn't here anymore. Perhaps no one was. She slipped into sleep without ceremony.
"Theresa!" Alices voice sliced through the air like a blade, cracking open the peace, letting fear spill through, "Theresa!"
She ran, sprinting through the house in her underwear,
"Alice?" The bedroom was empty, "Alice, where are you?"
"In here," her voice was thick and frightened, bouncing off of the tiles in the en-suite. As Theresa skidded into the room, she held out her fist. It took a moment to register what she was seeing; it looked like a great spider or some kind of creature. The shapes were strange and haphazard. All of a sudden, it made sense; it was a clump of Alice's hair, held in her shaking fist. Curls sprang from between her fingers, spilled out into the air.
"What... I don't understand," Theresa said dumbly,
"It's falling out," she sobbed, "I don't know why."
"Come on," Theresa said and stopped to grip her under the armpits, pulling her up to her feet, "we're going to the hospital."
The hospital loomed in the early morning light, its countless eyes seemed to track their progress. Alice touched he head as they wheeled a chair out for her, sobbed when more hair slipped away from her scalp,
"Call Dr Holt," Theresa's voice was almost a scream; it bounced off of the hospitals impassive face.
It swallowed them whole, and that was precisely how it felt to Theresa, like they had been eaten by a huge, hungry beast. Perhaps losing hair wasn't an emergency in most cases, but the nurses and doctors rushed them through the waiting room without stopping,
"Doctor Holt has been paged," a tall nurse said, his brow eyes full of worried kindness, "Dr Asani is on his way."
In the hushed examination room, Alice held Theresa's hand so tightly that it ached,
"Is this bad?" She asked, wringing her thin hands in her lap,
"It's unusual," the nurse said, " and given your condition we want to investigate."
"So it could be," she said, pursing her full lips as she started to rock slightly, one hand on her swollen belly,
"And it could be a result of the treatments, right?" Theresa said and squeezed her hand, "there's no guarantee that its bad."
"It could be many things," the nurse said soothingly, "for example, it could be stress induced. Please, I know its hard but stay as calm as you can. You're both in the best place."
Easy to say, hard to believe. Theresa nodded and took a seat beside Alice's wheelchair, stroking her arm gently.
"Can you find Serena, please," Theresa said, "Dr Holt, I mean. She's... a good friend."
"Of course," the nurse nodded, "I'll fetch her... my name's David, by the way, if you need anything I'll be right here."
The chart was like gibberish - none of it made sense. Serena blinked at the numbers and abbreviations as if they would suddenly come together and sing out the answers,
"What?" She turned, frowning up at him. He was tall, his dark skin had traces of acne scarring, his eyes were kind but intense. She knew him. "David?"
"Oh, sorry, your friends are here, Dr Holt," he said, "Alice and Theresa Robertson?"
"Yes?" The world was uncertain, as if in waiting,
"Downstairs in acute observation."
"Oh, you mean they're here," she said, "not here looking for me?"
"Yes, sorry," he winced, "Mrs Robertson, Theresa, brought Mrs Robertson..." he chuckled at the way it sounded, the two names interchangeable because of the formality, "Alice, that is, in because she's started to experience hair severe loss. They asked for you. Dr Asani is on the way... I think they just want to see a friendly face."
"Of course," Serena said, "lead the way."
She followed him through the warren of the hospital to a generic examination room; Alice and Theresa threw their arms around her, holding her close,
"Tell Dana Patel to come down here when she has a minute, David," Serena said, "thank you."
"Sure thing." He backed out of the room graciously,
"Tell me what happened," Serena said, but in truth she could already see; there were smooth spot of scalp showing through Alices usually thick, glossy hair,
"I don't know," she sobbed, "it just started coming out in handfuls this morning."
"Ok, ok," Serena touched her shoulder lightly, "well, it could be stress, or... an unexpected side effect. There's no reason to think its anything terrible right now."
"Precisely," Dr Asani said gently, closing the door behind him, "now, Dr Holt, I understand you're here in a personal capacity?" Serena nodded. "Alright, I have some tests lined up so I'm going to ask you to leave," he spoke softly, giving her an apologetic smile, "I'll send for you when we know more."
"Right, yes," she said and looked at Theresa, "send for me if you need me."
"Of course," Theresa said as Serena stepped out. Her face, stricken, seemed to fill the world as well as it filled the gap between the closing door and its frame. In the cavernous hallway, she felt adrift,
"Are you okay, Dr Holt?" David looked up from the nurses station,
"I can't remember where I'm supposed to go next," she murmured and when he smiled and shrugged, she returned it despite growing panic,
"Happens to the best of us," he said with chuckle.
Days passed with no news, every test was negative or inconclusive; Alice's hair fell away like leaves from a dying tree. Her scalp shone under the harsh strip lighting,
"It seems," Dr Asani said, "it's stress induced alopecia... which is not so hard to believe given what's happening right now." He gave her a sad smile, "I'm sorry, I know it was a terrible fright. However, this is good news. There's no reason to think this is something that worsens your current condition, and there's a good chance your hair will regrow in the future."
"It's just hair," Alice said but her voice was subdued, "I'll be fine." Theresa gripped her shoulder, eyes burning with fatigue, body aching,
"Can we," her voice crackled and died. She coughed, "can we go home?" The words rasped, grated her throat on the way out,
"Goodness, you don't sound well," Dr Asani said and peered over his glasses, "not quite yet. I think we should go through the usual tests to assess Alice's condition, as well as the health of the baby." He smiled. "And while we're here, we'll check that throat of yours."
"I'm fine," she rasped,
"Of course," he said, "probably a bug, but we should make sure its not contagious." His eyes slid to Alice. He was right, of course. Any infection or virus could be serious. She nodded. "Good," he said, "I'll have an orderly take you for some basic tests, probably you'll get some antibiotics, and since you'll be here with Alice anyway, I'll have a cot brought into her room. That way we can keep an eye on you both."
In a sparse patch of woodland in the Campsies, burnt rocks surrounding the corpse of a bonfire started to crack. The birds and squirrels froze and scattered moments before they started to blow apart, one by one, with almost underwhelming pops.
Alannah, alone in her studio flat for the first time in months, still covered in the dirt of her travels, stopped as a sudden chill passed over her. As if on cue, her mobile screeched, making her jump,
"Shit," she muttered, hurrying to pick it up, "Dana?"
"Where the fuck have you been?" Dana hissed,
"Skye. I was hiking... no signal," Alannah said, drowning in oily dread, "what's happened?"
"Shit," Dana sighed, "sorry, we've been calling your house for days. Look, Alice is in the hospital again."
"No." Alannah froze, tears welling,
"She's fine," Dana said, "her hair all fell out but she's fine."
"Oh God that's the last thing she needs-"
"No, Alannah, listen to me," Dana said carefully, "she's fine do you understand. She's well. She's healthy."
"What?" Alannah said,
"You heard me," Dana said, "her hair fell out... and now she's healthy. You need to call Serena and bring her to the hospital. Misha and I are on our way to the hospital now."
"I can, sure, but I'm..." Alannah faltered, "I'll have to pass the hospital to get her... is there - look I'm happy to do it, I just. Why can't Theresa call her, why can't she drive herself? That's what I'm asking, you know I'm happy to-"
"I know, I know, look-" Dana took a shaky breath, "Theresa's in the hospital too, she... she lost her voice." The silence was deafening. "They're trying to find out why. Misha called Serena before we left, but she didn't pick up."
"I'll find her," she whispered, "I'll find her and I'll be right there."
Her Toyota hugged the winding, wet roads as its tiny engine screeched. Every turn felt precarious; the very air was charged with something she couldn't place.
I offer you hair-
... I offer you blood.
"I offer you my service," she whispered, her tongue numb as she remembered the promise. Service. It had seemed so simple, so straightforward; all she had to offer as a woman who lived out of a backpack with no deep roots, a woman with no love for her hair or her body, a woman too squeamish to draw blood. An empty promise.
Serenas house was ablaze; every light was turned on. She hurried to the front door, finding it open,
"Serena!" She called, panic rising thick and oily in her throat, "Serena where are you, we have to go to the hospital. Alice is..." she trailed off. Serena stood in the living room in her nightdress, staring up at her wedding picture. Her eyes were glassy,
"What?" She asked after a long, pregnant silence. Relief washed through her,
"We have to go, Alice is better. It worked," she babbled, "the ritual worked, and she's healthy but-"
"Who is that?" Serena asked and pointed one slim finger to the picture,
"What?" Alannah asked,
"That man," Serena said, "who is he? He's handsome."
"That's Daryl," Alannah said softly, "your... your husband, Rena." Her body was cold and heavy,
"Oh..." Serena blinked, "who are you?"
"Alta vocamus radices," Alannah led the chant and most of the coven repeated her words, "lato loquimur Olympo," she raised her hands and looked at them, Alice with flowers tattooed on her head, Misha with a scarf, "Deorum summas spectamus montibus altos." Theresa nodded and raised her hands, mouthing the words. Serena frowned as if she couldn't quite figure out why she was here. As if everything was new to her... and in a way it was.
Their voices died down and the hiss and crackle of the fire filled the silence; she began again, this time in English,
"We call on the deep roots," she whispered and lowered her hands, stepping forward, remembering how it had been before, "we speak to the wide sky," she raised her voice and reached out, felt the woman on each side of her take her hands, "we look to the Gods atop the mountains high."
The wind whipped around them,
"Gods of the land and air... We thank you for the birth of Joy," she said, "and the health of Alice, and ask for nothing but your guidance."
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions