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Taking Over

My contribution to the deadlinesforwriters short story challenge February 2024. The prompt was “Murmur” and the required word count was 1250. Cover photo by Harald Arlander on Unsplash.

This was just typical: On the one day Lillian was going to do absolutely nothing, Etta had decided to die.

It had not been necessary for the other healers to inform Lillian, the entire forest buzzing with the news. Still, Ruby had almost managed to knock on the cottage door, if it had not been for Lillian opening the door first, fully dressed in all black.

Together they went on their way for the send off. An outside observer would not have guessed that they were the same age and had finished their apprenticeships together. Ruby was uncharacteristically pale and quiet. Lillian strode forth almost too fast for her friend to keep up.

At last curiosity getting the better of her, Ruby spoke up.

“What do you think she is going to say?”

Lillian’s brows furrowed but she did not slow down.

“No point in speculating. You know her, she enjoys surprising us.”

Ruby nodded, jogging for a bit.

“I for one don’t want to take over her cottage. It give me the creeps the way all her things seem to be alive.”

“Someone will have to, otherwise it’s going to revert. Then again, maybe that would be best for all concerned.”

“You have been her favourite since even before our exam, Lillian. She might just choose you. You know, as her heir.”

“I am not keen on taking over either. Also, if I had had any choice, you bet I would’ve preferred to not attract so much of her attention.”

“Yeah, I know. Not like I ever wanted to be in your shoes, really.”

After a shared glance, they walked the rest of the way in silence.

Etta’s home was covered in moss and lichen. The thatched roof was not far from disintegration as it was but the steel-grey stones looked as if they had another couple of millenia in them. The trees surrounding it were even more gnarly than the ones Lillian had arranged around and trained for her own cottage.

The oaken door was ajar and in the main room all of the other healers were already assembled. Etta’s bed had been moved into the center with the younger women lined up around her. Most of them tried to lean against the whitewashed wall as unconspicuously as possible.

Etta wore her best outfit underneath the colourful granny square cover Ruby had crocheted for her shortly before exam day last year.

“How good of you two to come,” Etta quipped. “That means we are complete.”

She looked neither old nor in any way close to death. However, if there was one thing Lillian had learned form her teacher, it was how to project whatever impression you wanted to leave on others.

“Someone should put some more wood on the fire,” Etta said to nobody in particular, in spite of everyone around her having to wipe sweat from their faces.

For a long while, the only sound in the room was the less than comforting ticking of the clock. Eventually Ruby went outside. The rest of the women focussed on keeping their facial expressions neutral, yet some could not help rolling their eyes at Ruby’s grumbling outside, followed by wood chopping noises. Only two persons looked genuinely unfazed, one of them Etta.

She chirped “Right, who wants to read?”

Lillian shook her head at the general lack of enthusiam and said: “I’ll do it.”

She walked deeper inside the room toward the hearth and took the old leatherbound book from the rickety shelf on the wall. She sat down at the foot of Etta’s bed, opened the book and started chanting the ancient words that would accompany her teacher on her journey to the other side. The other women joined in, humming in harmony.

The solemnity was only interrupted when Ruby came back, her arms full of impeccable logs, her eyes wide. For a second the women stopped singing and Etta chuckled. Lillian took a deep breath before she went back to chanting. Even Ruby found her spot in the ritual in the end so that finally Etta sank back into her pillows and closed her eyes. At first, she only seemed to have fallen asleep. But soon her chest stopped moving and the face she had been presenting relaxed into that of a human woman showing her age.

The humming softened and their voices came together in one last pure note. It took them a minute to realise what was missing: The pendulum underneath the old clock next to the incongruously ornate mirror. It had stopped moving..

This was what they had been trained for: Watching over a recently abandoned body. Still, today was different. Etta had been there on most of their first days on earth. From today on, things would be different.

There were only a few half-hearted complaints as Ruby placed her logs on the fire. The crackling was a welcome addition to the silence that fell over the hours that followed.

When the first light of morning touched the windows, the first of the group excused themselves. Not unexpectedly, there were a lot of patients to look after and many pantries in urgent need of restocking.

At last, only Ruby and Lillian were left.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I really have to-”

“It’s alright Ruby. I can tidy up. But don’t believe I am going to take over this place. None of the others wanted it. She did not say anything. I am fine with this cottage reverting.”

“Right. Yeah. So, if you don’t need me . . .?”

“Go ahead. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Lillian stood up and replaced the book on the shelf. She took a last look into Etta’s pantry. It was empty and had been swiped clean. Lillian shook her head grinning.

As she swiped non-existant dust from the window, a quiet voice behind her asked:

“You didn’t think you would get rid of me so easily, did you? Can you believe how busy everybody was? What a pity. What with me at the ready to pass on my heritage and no volunteers!”

Lillian stared at the body. If anything, it looked even wrinklier and smaller now than last night. But something moved in the corner of her eye.

There she was, in the mirror, a familiar face. Maybe even more vibrant than before.

“Now I regret throwing out my herbal supplies, come to think of it. You I could always count on to know your way around them and appreciate them. Hopefully my books will make up for it. I bet we are going to get along famously, you and I.”

“No Etta, I am not going to move in here. I love my own cottage and my own life far too much to-”

“To what? Turn into me? Trust me: The chances are slim.”

“Goodbye, Etta.”

The face in the mirror turned white for a split second.

“Wait! I am not ready to truly crumble! You could stay for a week, see how you like it?”

“Goodbye Etta. And thank you.”

Lilian locked the door from the outside and hid the key under the doormat. The way home turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to practice projecting.

Late at night, Etta’s cottage door opened again. A dark figure went inside, plucked the mirror from the already decomposing wall and rushed home with it.

Lillian adjusted the mirror next to her own clock, wiped the smooth surface clean and whispered:

“Don’t make me regret this.”

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