The Devil in the Wildwood
As the raven flies south from London a swathe of dense, green-gold forest rears up like a ship’s prow above a squally ocean. It is a patch of the ancient woodland that once cloaked the valley below. The wildwood.
The raven has nested here among the towering oaks and hornbeams all his life. He has ventured abroad recently to that dark labyrinth on the horizon, but the stench of the Thames kept him fastidiously pecking at his feathers. Today he flew up like one more wisp of smoke from the city, his nest a lodestone to his heart.
At last he soars on an updraft towards the wildwood. He floats for a moment above the canopy that has burst into leaf in his absence, the sun pooling like oil on his blue-black wings, then circles down to a ruined, soot-blackened wall deep in the trees. He surveys the woodland floor, then hops down, an elegant gentleman, hands tucked behind his back, dipping and bowing in obeisance to the sacred ground of his ancestral home. Dog violet and wood anemone fill the glades, the smell of snowy wild garlic the air, the early bluebells a shivering sea.
But something has changed.
A sign has been nailed up, puncturing the flank of a living tree. Scratched into it are black characters like raven claws:
HIGH LEVEL LINE WORKS, Metropolitan Railway Division. Trespassers will be prosecuted.
The raven cannot decipher the hieroglyphs, but the vibrations in the air speak of violence. The land has been blasted with infernal human magic, a trench carved through the floor of the wildwood. Not since the rupture, when trees were torn down to build The Great House — part of raven lore — has there been a sense of disturbance like this.
Suddenly, from deep within the scarred earth comes a long keening cry, redolent with human longing, reaching up to him on a wind that ruffles his feathers. He stamps his feet and snaps at the restless zephyr as it turns in the air, a tornado of invisible energy, carrying within it that vortex of grief and love that burst from below the ground.
The wind has a journey of its own to make. It slips past the raven and the Great House, southwards out of the forest, down through the hop fields and orchards of Kent toward the English Channel, where it bellows the oxblood sails of a clipper for a few hours, whipping the grey water into peaks. It arrows over the flatlands of northern France, whistles over the snow-capped peaks of the Midi, then coasts the warmer currents of the south, rippling through silver-green olives and nodding the heads of sunflowers. At last it dances in exultation over Le Vieux Port, the blue bite out of the heart of the city of Marseilles, thick with masts; it clatters the sails and rigging, and tickles the sweating brows that cluster around the quays. After a final ecstatic whirl over the peacock water it turns inland, holding its breath through the medieval maze of the market, thick with rotting fish heads until finally — finally — it creeps up the wall of La Vieille Charité and into a high chamber to tenderly lift a lock off the damp forehead of Nurse Agnes Hartsilver.
Agnes lies on her narrow lumpen bed, one arm flung out. She barely registers the bells tolling across the city calling the faithful to worship — in any case, she does not count herself among their number. She is reading and absentmindedly tapping out the music of the spheres on the bed frame with the handle of the scalpel bound to her wrist. It has been held there by a leather strap, safely sheathed, since her father’s death, although while she nurses it is covered by the long sleeves of her uniform. Her father taught her to dissect with it when she was still a child in India — much to the disgust of her mother — making use of the dead bull-frogs and scarlet sun birds the cats brought in to the army camp. It was very like her father, she often thought, to bequeath her his finest scalpel and cherished anatomy books, but not a penny to feed herself with.
In her other hand is the most up to date medical text she could find that morning in the second-hand bookshop at the Place des Moulins, where she spends most of her meagre monthly stipend.
Marseilles is currently in the grip of unseasonably hot weather, and a cholera outbreak to boot. There was a brawl at midnight between some newly docked sailors from the Argentine and the local fishermen. Agnes spent thankless hours stitching them up and setting broken bones. They were drunk, and leering at her — “Not a nun? Why not, can’t give up your love of this eh?” — as they grabbed at their urine-stained crotches. This leaves her rather more weary than afraid nowadays. Nonetheless, she occasionally finds herself reaching for the scalpel under her sleeve. She has not yet needed to use it for protection, but if necessary she knows how. She didn’t crawl into bed until the bells were striking four.
But Saturday is her only free day and she is reluctant to sleep and miss out on precious time for study. The squabbling of gulls is carried in on the wind that flutters at a clipping pinned to the crumbling plaster so it crackles like a fire. Agnes looks up. It is a fly-blown newspaper article, yellowed by time and salt air. “American Medical College Admits First Female.” She sighs, and turns back to the book.
A sentence is underlined.
“The weaker vessel must be kept from exercising their brains; the demands of light housekeeping duties and the bearing of children should not be exceeded.”
She stabs the paper with her pencil so hard that it leaves a hole, as she writes
It is plain whoever authored this has never borne a child if they can so easily yoke housekeeping and the bearing of a human from one’s own body in the same sentence. Her tongue feels for the chip on her front tooth, still sharp years after she bit down on the willow bark. She thinks of the cramps that wracked her as the tiny creature passed from her like a clot. She had fished it from her chamber pot, then limped down to the wharf in the darkness, the blood oozing warm down her legs beneath her skirts. She set the baby out to sea in a sail boat carefully crafted from newspaper with sheaves of wild rosemary —- that’s for remembrance. To a passing sailor it would have looked like offal scraps thrown out by a butcher.
Agnes feels her eyes start to burn and shakes her head free of the memory. She looks back down.
“In the case of neurasthenia women are more likely to suffer due to the wandering of their wombs. It is impossible to underestimate the effect of the matrix upon the minds of the fairer sex.”
“PAH!” she spits out. She has to lay the book aside. It is too hot to succumb to anger, or grief.