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Cassilago's Wife
a short story by Sarah Singleton

Foreword

Cassilago's Wife was my first Interzone story, published in 1998. It subsequently received an Honourable Mention in Datlow & Windling's Year's Best anthology. Partly, the story was triggered off by the study of Mrs M Grieve's Modern Herbal, a great tome published in 1931 and containing a thousand fabulous stories about plantlore and legend. Cassilago and Bryony are the names of poisonous plants, gleaned from this particular work. I am also intrigued by the extent to which our perceptions of a situation influence unfolding events - how the cadence of a familar narrative can carry us along with it. How far did Will set himself up for his calamity, playing the part of lonely traveller? In an alternative version in my head he found the mobile phone in a drawer and discovered he was suffering only a nasty hangover.

Cassilago's Wife

Tendrils slide through his belly. Root-tips, sharp as quills, burrow in muscle and viscera.

In the slow tide of the day, the half-light rises and recedes. The cave holds a breath stale with stone and soil.

His fingers trace rivulets of moisture creeping across the rock, and he presses his hand to his mouth, his tongue like a dry sponge, sucking the water away. He can not close his lips. The fierce growth pries him open. Succulent blue-green leaves, semi-opaque in the twilight, erupt from the pit of his throat. Deep in his stomach a black root nestles, drawing sustenance, shaped by the contours of his mutable, elastic tissue. A network of filaments spreads between skull and skin, and fibrils press into eye sockets. Sight is fading, and slowly the flesh surrenders. He feels no pain. He thinks of insects, caterpillars, playing host to larvae, the slow consumption, the breaking down of one life into another. Transformation.

Bryony lifted a bucket from the well and watered the beds of herbs. The house blushed momentarily, as the last red spears of sunlight pierced the trees and stained the grey walls. Inside, a window flared white, and gold, as Cassilago lit a lamp in his study and continued his work. The air was still. From the dusky trees a solitary robin began to sing, and Bryony stopped to listen, leaning upon the well, warm and absent, lost in a dream of rose and mauve.

Then - sharp footsteps and a rattle at the gate. Bryony came to herself in a cold shock.

"Hello?" A brisk, young voice. A man.

Bryony didn't move. She turned her head. She said nothing.

"Hello?" The stupid repetition. Bryony stepped forwards, onto the garden path. The young man was standing on the threshold of the garden, the gate now open. She stared at him. He was tall and blonde, his hair hanging across his forehead. His face was tanned and his body exuded an aura of health, though he looked tired. He shrugged a heavy backpack from his shoulders. His shirt was stained with sweat. He clutched a map in his hand.

"Hello," he said again. "Sorry to bother you. I'm on a walk you see. I wanted to set up camp. Is it alright to put my tent up here?" He gestured to the meadow in front of the chestnut trees. Bryony didn't reply. She shook her head, as though the words made no sense. She stared at the young man, not knowing how she should answer. He shuffled uneasily in the silence, wiping his face with his hand. Then Cassilago came hurrying out of the house. He stood beside Bryony.

"What does he want?" he said. Bryony frowned.

"To stay in the meadow. To put up his tent." She spoke softly.

Cassilago scrutinised the young man. Then he smiled.

"Of course," he said. "Of course. Put up your tent. Then you can eat with us."

The newcomer stepped into the garden. He held out his hand.

"Thank you very much," he said. "I don't want to put you to any trouble. My name's Will. Will Ambroise."

Bryony looked into his face. Will Ambroise had blue eyes. The lilac blue of a hyacinth. As he leaned forward, she caught his scent. Despite the sweat upon his face and shirt he smelt clean, and young.

"It's no trouble," Cassilago said cordially, shaking his hand. "We lead a quiet life, and I like to have visitors."

Will chose a level site in the field. He discarded his pack, and dropped into the long grass, flat on his back, relieved to be resting. The light was fading. He lay for a moment or two, letting his body cool, then he erected the little tent and pegged it to the ground. He climbed inside. He heard crickets in the trees. The bluey darkness settled like a net above the house, the meadows and the forest, where the last light flamed carmine beyond the trees. But a hot yellow light emerged from the house, disembodied. It bobbed towards the tent. Cassilago, with a lantern, called out:

"Come to the house. Bryony's heated some water for you."

Will found a clean tee-shirt and a bright stripey jumper, and followed Cassilago. The house was warm and welcoming. Flagstones covered the floor. Pretty plates and dried flowers decked a deal dresser in the kitchen, and a large fire burned in a range. A lamp hanging from the ceiling burned with a soft honey light. The girl, Bryony turned and smiled, not meeting his eyes, and she tipped a pot full of hot water into a large basin. She placed it behind a wooden screen, with a white towel, and left Will to wash himself.

He watched her leave. She was tall, very slim, and curiously unfinished - her attitude uneasy, even gawky. Was she Cassilago's daughter? Grand-daughter? She could be fifteen. Maybe a backward twenty. But she drew his eyes, with her hair in a long plait, buttery gold, and the bare skin of her arms white as cream, perfectly smooth.

The house puzzled him. No electricity. And a well in the garden, though he noticed a single tap above the huge kitchen sink. Were they religious people, craving simplicity, spurning modern comforts? Like characters from a painting, a Victorian rural idyll - Cassilago, the old man, in his long black coat, and Bryony in her full blue skirts. Eccentrics perhaps, or foreigners. But he liked the house, and the quavering light, the plain white walls. He splashed himself with water, and washed his face. The towel was warm, scented with lavender.

Bryony carried in a roast chicken on a blue oval dish. The bird was stuffed with breadcrumbs, thyme, and dried apricots. She dished up potatoes, baked in garlic and rosemary, and mountains of shining brocolli, plump white leeks, and a rich gravy, steaming in the candlelight. She glanced quickly at Will, sitting at the far end of the table. She watched him devour the dinner, and then eat a second helping with equal relish. Then he leaned back in his chair, sleek, like a young animal, flushed with bodily content.

"That was amazing," he said. "The best food I've eaten in weeks. Thanks."

Bryony looked down at the table, with a quick nod. Cassilago picked at his meal, fastidious and lacking appetite. He refused the apple pie, flavoured with cinnamon and fresh cream, but he gestured to Will, who consumed a generous portion and then went on to a plate of stilton and oatmeal biscuits. She observed him cautiously, his hunger, and the pleasure he took in its satisfaction. His eyelashes glinted gold, and the fine hair on his forearms. Cassilago had removed his coat, revealing a velvet waistcoat. Will wore a thin shirt with the words 'Dead Kennedys' emblazoned across his chest. And whereas Cassilago's narrow, bony frame was disguised by his apparel, the young man's clothes clung to his body, displaying the strong curve of his shoulders and back, the ripple of muscle and sinew.

"Bring us some coffee," Cassilago said. His cold, quick voice broke into Bryony's dreams. She stood up quickly, cleared up the plates. Will rose to his feet and clumsily began to help her.

"Don't worry," she said, "I'll do it."

"No no," Will persisted. "Least I can do. Let me wash up. You sit down." He grabbed a plate, and his long, tawny hand brushed against her arm.

"Leave it, Will," Cassilago ordered. His nostrils flared. "You're my guest. You sit down."

Chastened, like a schoolboy, Will dropped into his seat. Bryony headed into the kitchen. She placed the pile of plates on the table. Then she sat down, her head in her hands. She felt a curious tightness in her throat. She was shaking.

Will stood up, preparing to leave, but Cassilago poured a musky blue liquor into two tiny glasses. He suggested they retire to his study. Will protested his weariness, his plans for an early start the next morning, but Cassilago insisted. He led them to a dark room, overlooking the garden, and turned up the large, brass lamp burning dully on a desk by the window.

"So Will, where are you from?" The waistcoat, poppy-red, winked golden buttons. Cassilago sat in a leather chair. Will stood, shifting uneasily, looking round the room, at shelves of leather bound books, piles of paper, bundles of herbs poking from pots and hanging from a little wooden rack on the desk.

"Uh...Leicestershire," he said, vaguely. "A village." He stepped across the room to a fat glass jar perched on the window ledge. Inside, suspended in a clear liquid, sepia membranes swirled around a tiny floating figure.

"What's this?" He picked up the jar, and the creature bobbed, brown and shrivelled like a dried fig. Cassilago smiled.

"A fairy," he said. He dipped his face, deep shadow filling the sockets of his eyes, and the lines across his forehead. The lamplight picked out threads of white in his black hair, brushed from his face, hanging limp to his shoulders.

"I found it in the Black Hellebore last winter, lying in the flowers. Already dead - probably killed by the cold. The peasants call the hellebore the Christmas Rose. They think it protects their cattle from evil spells, and they dig it up with mystic rights. It's poisonous - but the species in the garden I sell to the homeopaths."

Will peered at the jar. He didn't know how to react. He returned the vessel to the windowsill.

"I've seen this kind of thing before," he said. "Fairy Folk in a Jar. I bought one for my sister. Cuter than this one." He turned from the window, and drew up a chair. He sat down, stretching out his long legs. He lifted the cold blue liquor to his lips. The drink stung his mouth, burning sweet on his tongue, leaving behind a bitter flowery taste.

"You don't like it?" Cassilago said. "It's one of my own."

Will took another, softer sip.

"This is what you do then," he said, gesturing the room. "You're a botanist."

Cassilago nodded.

"I'm very lucky," he said. "I have this place, and a couple of small fields growing lavender. I cultivate and collect herbs. I sell plants to herbalists and homeopaths, and seeds to the growers and the catalogue people. Bryony makes her homemade herbal soaps and papers, mostly for mail order customers."

Will couldn't help but smile. So modern commerce underpinned the retro lifestyle after all. Perhaps a mobile phone was stowed in an oak drawer, or behind an embroidered screen he would find an Apple Mac bulging with accounts and mailing lists. He relaxed. He breathed easily, getting to grips with the situation, feeling he had the measure of these people after all. He chanced the question that had danced in his mind all evening. Still he couched it carefully.

"And Bryony? She's your assistant?"

"She's my wife." Cassilago took another sip.

"The disparity in age is not as great as you might imagine," he said, perceiving Will's embarrassment. "We were drawn together by a shared interest - a mutual passion. She was a customer. We began a correspondence. Two years later we were married."

Cassilago topped up Will's glass. Will felt a vague sense of disappointment. Mechanically he responded to Cassilago's questions, concerning his walk, his route, his destination. But the drink was clouding his thoughts, and he was very weary. When the glass was empty, he rose to his feet, thanking his host profusely. He said he had to sleep.

Cassilago led him to the front door, to a garden glistening silver in the darkness. Will put his hand to his eyes. His head ached. The moon seemed to burn his brain. He made his way down the path and stumbled heavily into his tent.

Bryony tipped cup after cup of cool amber water over her hair. The water was infused with Golden Rod, and in a mindless ritual she mused upon its properties - solitary stout stem and stalkless sulphur yellow flowers on a long spike. Called Hag's Taper, and Great Mullein. Sedative. Narcotic. Good for bleeding lungs and bowels - in homeopathy, for migraine. And to dye hair yellow... Someone entered the room. She stopped rinsing and stood up. She was naked, except for a towel which she wound about her wet hair. Cassilago stared without expression, lost in thought.

"Have you filled the tub?" he said at last. Bryony nodded. Cassilago disappeared for a few moments, returning with a blue glass bottle, a small wooden box and a handful of dried lavender. The little bath steamed by the range. He crunched the lavender and scattered it over the water. He tipped in soapy, viscous drops from the blue bottle, and sprinkled the fine ashy contents of the box. Bryony could smell mould, and marigolds. She took Cassilago's hand, and stepped daintily into the water.

As she soaked, Cassilago stripped off his own clothes and began to wash at the sink. His body was gaunt and grey. A pot belly protruded below his thin chest, and fat blue veins laced around his legs. When he had finished, he turned to his wife.

"Are you ready?" he asked, strangely tender. Bryony looked away, rubbing her hands together compulsively.

"I know you want to," he said. "I could smell it on you. And him. You want it."

Bryony shook her head.

"I want you," she said. She kissed him. She reached out her hand and grasped his cock, small and shrinking, slippery in her wet hand, a soft, putty-coloured morsel. She stroked it gently, willing a response.

"Don't torment me," Cassilago said, drawing away, "you know what we have to do."

Bryony dried herself, and Cassilago pulled on a pair of surgical rubber gloves. He lifted a tiny china pot from the top shelf. Bryony shivered.

"Are you afraid?" he asked. She took a deep breath.

"Of the ointment? No."

"Of the act, then?"

"He's a young man. Do we have the right?"

"Have you changed your mind?"

Bryony didn't reply, so Cassilago opened the pot. His careful, patient fingers, annointed her, head to foot, covering every inch of her skin. Hands and breasts, belly and thighs, the crease of her elbows, the hollows of her feet, smoothing her face, and pressing into her intimate parts. Bryony stood perfectly still. She cleared her mind, as the new skin dried upon her, sinking into the pores.

"You are very pale," Cassilago said, peeling off the gloves. "Death the Bride, yes? Are you cold?"

Bryony nodded. Her body was stiff and numb.

"Not long. Wait a few minutes more." The clock ticked. Cassilago tidied up the kitchen. He tipped the water away. Then he gestured Bryony to the front door. She ached when she moved. She felt bruised.

"He'll be waiting," he said. Bryony stepped over the threshold, but hesitated. She looked at her husband, seeing him frail, and wounded. She reached out, but she couldn't touch him.

Slowly she walked away, feeling the rough path beneath her feet. When she looked back, Cassilago was a dark shadow in the doorway.

Will lay heavy as a stone, but his dreams were quick and volatile. His thoughts flickered in a blue haze, sweet upon his senses. Then brightness, and Bryony moving towards him, a shy, thin smile upon her curious face. Could it happen? Then he was kissing her, and her lips tasted of vanilla, burning his skin, and she turned away from him, offering the smooth, white curves of her bottom, with the soft, raspberry cleft, and he was pushing in, pushing in... But he woke with a jolt, alone, in the dark confines of his tent, aching with regret. His cock pressed hot against his jeans, and quickly he pulled off his clothes and slipped into the sleeping bag, searching for sleep. But lust still prickled, and he turned and twitched, finding no relief. Was it possible? No, no, she was lying with her husband, the old man, and maybe they were doing it right now, just yards away. So Will reached for his torch and dug 'The Acid House' from his rucksack. He tried to read, but the words slid away, and inevitably his thoughts returned to Bryony. He climbed from the tent, his feet wet by the dew on the grass, and he stared at the house, where a light burned still. Then - a whisper beside him. A shock - a moment of alarm.

"Will. It's me."

Will caught his breath. Perspiration broke out on his body.

"Bryony," he said. His voice was choked. "Where are you?"

She stepped closer, and he smelt soap and summer flowers. She grasped his arm with an icy hand.

"Hold me," she said. "I'm cold." She embraced him, pressing her face against his shoulder, and Will felt her bare body leaning on his own, the smooth, impossible thrill of her uncovered flesh close to his. Would he wake again? How long could he sleep, and dream?

She pulled him down to lie in the soft grass, a dim shape in the darkness. Will touched her face with his fingers, recreating her image in his mind. He searched out the contours of her body with his lips, and her skin tasted bitter. When he lay between her thighs, her body resisted him briefly. Then he slipped in, enclosed and swallowed up, and the fluids of her sex, corrosive like acid, stung the delicate membranes of his cock as he moved.

When he woke, the sky was grey and pale. Bryony lay next to him, curled like child. Will regarded her face, the thin lines around her eyes, at the edges of her mouth. He remembered Cassilago's words, understanding that Bryony was older than he thought. She woke, as he watched her, and she stood up, not meeting his eyes, already retreating.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Thank you. I'm sorry." She hurried away, to the house. Will returned to the tent and huddled in his sleeping bag. His skin was red, and hot.

Bryony closed the front door. In the kitchen, a fresh bath had been prepared. The water was cool, and cloudy. She washed the film of blood and semen from her thighs. She soaked for an hour or more, till the water was quite cold, and she cleansed herself, every inch, every pore.

Afterwards, she slept alone in her husband's great wooden bed. Cassilago was absent. Perhaps he had spent the night walking. Perhaps he was preparing the cave.

Will woke a few hours later. His body itched and ached. He sat up. Countless scarlet lesions patterned his skin. He crawled from his tent in a fever. When he rose to his feet the earth seemed to fall away from him. The sunlight scalded his eyes. He pulled on his jeans, and struggled to the house. He hammered on the front door. Nobody came. He pushed his way inside, found Cassilago's study, and searched through the drawers. The mobile phone - here, somewhere. What had they done to him, the unwary traveller? A mutual passion, yes - Bryony, the witch, with her false youth, her seduction. And Cassilago, the sorcerer... had they corrupted his body with their potions and poisons? No, no. He was sick and delirious - conjuring fantasies. If only he could find the phone... The room reeled. He reached out for the desk, but his strength seeped away. He curled on the floor, in a daze.

Later, Cassilago loomed over him, talking, though Will couldn't hear what he said. Then Bryony appeared. They lifted him from the floor. Cassilago wore gloves. In a distant dream, Will was carried to a locked barn at the back of the house, and dropped in the back of a cherry red Fiat Punto.

From the ruins of his flesh, below his ribs, a coarse, fibrous stalk has risen. At its summit, a single bud swells, glaucous, slick with mucous. The moments of consciousness are few, and fleeting. Bryony touches his brow, murmuring quietly, and he takes comfort. Primed on cells scraped from her skin, from her mouth, the spores disregard her. She is immune. The seed is sown. He watches her, with longing.

The bud twitches. The petals unfurl, purple and glistening. Cassilago - herbalist, mage - awaits the harvest. Then he will grind and pulverise, extracting a potent essence. Renewal. Consummation.


© Sarah Singleton 1998, 2001.
This story first appeared in Interzone in 1998.

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