The Herb Gatherer's Disciple, p.1Barry Rachin
The Herb Gatherer’s Disciple
* * * * *
The Herb Gatherer’s Disciple
Copyright © 2016 by Barry Rachin
These short stories represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
The Herb Gatherer's Disciple
Ruth Savage, the school psychologist, leaned back in her chair and studied the shrimpy girl with the lantern jaw and unruly mop of dark hair on the far side of the desk. "Your grandmother died."
Laurel Evers dark eyes focused on the moss-colored tendrils of a spider plant which reached almost to the floor. The teen, whose lips were frozen in a muted smile, affected an outmoded, hippy look with baggy, mannish corduroys and a plaid, flannel shirt. "She wasn't the easiest person to get along with."
Out in the hallway the bell clattered shrilly and a flurry of students scurried off to class. "You weren't nearly so tactful, when your history teacher, Mr. Peterson, offered his condolences," the school psychologist noted.
The seventeen year-old didn't seem the least bit contrite. Rather, she sat with a vinegary expression staring at her raggedy fingernails. “I told him that granny was a scuzzy, two-bit drunk and the world would be a better place without her." The words carried no rancor. Laurel was simply stating facts. Her paternal grandmother died. The woman wasn't particularly honorable and nobody mourned.
My granny was a scuzzy, two-bit drunk... The crudeness of the remark was compounded by the fact that Laurel blurted it in front of the entire class, setting off a stink bomb of hoots, jeers and bawdy encouragement. "Granny Evers had four husbands and cheated on all of them. She'd been arrested for shoplifting, driving an unregistered car, check and welfare fraud. Three of her four sons committed crimes and went to prison." Before Doctor Savage could cobble together a response, a guttural sound resembling a vulgar epithet welled up in her throat. "At least once a week, my father called her a scuzzy, two-bit drunk front of in the whole, goddamn family."
Ruth blanched. "And what did your grandmother do?"
Laurel leered at the psychologist then averted her eyes. "Laughed like a freakin' hyena." There was no hint of animosity in the girl's voice. That's just the way it was. The Evers clan was like something out of the sub-cultural backwoods of Appalachia where family kept their own counsel and the filth-encrusted laundry was piled high as the treetops.
"Mr. Peterson’s demanding a formal apology."
"I only told him the hard, cold truth."
"What if he calls your parents in for a conference?"
"Then I sure hope he's got medical coverage," The girl sniggered mirthlessly. "My dad's a vicious brute. He’s been arrested more times than you've got fingers and toes. Most recently he did a six-month stint at the ACI lockup for manhandling my mother." Laurel cracked her knuckles and raised her eyes. "I ain’t hanging around here any longer than I have to. I read a book this winter and it gave me ideas."
Again, Ruth was struck by the girl's blasé tone. "What book?"
"This one." She pulled a thin paperback from the backpack resting at her feet and handed it to the psychologist. The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett - Ruth lay the book aside on the desk. "It’s about a bunch of hayseeds from Maine," Laurel clarified.
"It's real nice up there. None of this," she waved her thin hands desperately trying to conjure up the mot juste, "fucking crap." Laurel pulled her chair closer and leaned forward over the desk. "The locals live off the land… hunt, fish, pick wild berries through the summer. It's so much nicer... like some modern-day Garden of Eden!"
"You see, I got this plan." Again, the girl reached down into her backpack and withdrew a motorist's map of Maine, which she unfurled across the psychologist's desk. "My folks are dead broke, and I got no interest in college. This spring, I'll sneak down to the bus station in Providence and buy a one-way ticket to Bangor… scrounge around for temporary lodging and look for work." Laurel ran her forefinger deftly over the surface of the map. "If nothing materialized, I'll head further north to Millinocket, maybe cut across to Sugarloaf or Moosehead Lake." The young girl even talked of traveling further north to the chilly Allagash Wilderness sandwiched between New Brunswick and Quebec. It was a grand adventure – Louis and Clark without the benefit of Sakakawea. Ten minutes later, despite the psychologist's best efforts, there was no talking Laurel Evers out of her great escape. Once school was finished, the five-foot, black eyed pixie was heading north, every logical, coherent, reasonable and prudent argument to the contrary be damned!
Only now did Ruth crack open the glossy book cover and glance at the title page. "This novel's over a hundred years old," the psychologist protested. "The rustic way of life you described is all but gone now."
Laurel thought a moment. "Maybe it's more a state of mind than a clump of wild pennyroyal or scraggily firs."
Realizing that they had drifted off-topic, Dr. Savage threw the book aside. "If you don't apologize to Mr. Peterson," she repeated, "he'll call home and make a royal stink."
Laurel screwed her face up in disgust. "And my father's liable to crack his ugly skull." A morbidly-obese, freckle-faced girl stuck her head in the door with a note. Dr. Savage scribbled a message and sent the girl on her way. "Okay, I'll apologize, but just this once." Laurel folded her map with meticulous care and retreated to the threshold. "So what's my diagnosis?"
"I don't follow you," Dr. Savage replied.
"Adjustment counselors pick people's brains for a living. What's your verdict?"
Rut Savage possessed a bad habit, bordering on fatal flaw: feeling threatened or out of her element, the psychologist fell back on sardonic humor. The caustic tendency had cost her more than one friendship and alienated several teachers, who misconstrued her irreverent wit.
"Helene Deutsch 'as if' personality." Ruth blurted with clinical detachment.
The petite girl's eyebrows danced skyward and she jutted her lips in a questioning way. "A famous, Freudian psychiatrist," Ruth clarified, "Helene Deutsch, once treated a woman who assumed the mindset of people she only recently met or heard about." For the first time since arriving in the psychologist's office, a look of vulnerability overspread the girl's limpid, brown eyes. "Needless-to-say, I'm pulling your leg," Dr. Savage continued affecting a gentler tone. "You’re a sweet kid going through a rough stint at home. I'm just trying to dissuade you from acting on an impulse and making a bad situation worse."
"But there really was such a person?"
"Yes, it became a landmark case," Ruth replied. "Pseudo-neurotic schizophrenia - it's just another way of saying that someone, who appears relatively normal, is nuttier than a fruitcake."
* * * * *
After third period the same grotesquely overweight girl reappeared with another note from Mr. Peterson, the history teacher. Problem resolved. Thanks loads! Still later in the day, Laurel Evers materialized in the psychologist's open doorway. “About that whatchamacallit, weirdo condition you described earlier... were you pulling my leg?”
Dr. Savage, who was writing up a report, was broadsided by a wave of self-loathing. "The psychiatric condition is real enough, but there's nothing 'as if' about you." Ruth came out from behind the desk and grabbed the girl by both wrists. "Helene Deutsch… it was a regrettable, dim-witted joke meant to drive home a point and nothing more."
Psueudo-neurotic schizophrenia. What Ruth neglected to mention, as Laurel vanished down the empty hallway, was a prevalent theory
* * * * *
The Country of the Pointed Firs chronicled the adventures of a backwoods matriarch, who concocted herbal remedies and let out rooms to earn enough money to support her rural, subsistence-level existence. The old lady tramped about the rocky, Maine wilderness collecting wildflowers, stems and roots. She took a boat trip to visit with a reclusive, agoraphobic brother. It was a hardscrabble existence in which people meandered about in horse-drawn wagons, fished, grew their own potato crops and made throat lozenges from locally-grown spearmint boiled in metal cauldrons over the stove. Women braided floor mats from swamp-grown rushes, and even fashioned sandals from those very same pliable plants. The Civil War was a recent memory not some moldy, historical trivia and neighbors were more 'civil' or at least it seemed that way.
Laurel Evers had a yen to go exploring - backwards to the tail end of the previous century not forward into a mechanistic future. Reading a book by some quaint, nineteenth-century writer, the vulnerable girl went haywire, seizing upon the author's credo as a personal message of salvation. When Laurel handed Ruth the dogeared paperback, she did so with both hands cupped together, the way devout Catholics accepted the host during Holy Communion. Again, as she smoothed the map of Maine across the psychologist's desk, it was with the veneration one accorded a sacred talisman.
Through the spring Ruth kept an eye out for Laurel Evers. She looked for her in the school cafeteria during lunchtime, at holiday assemblies and in the bustling corridors. One day in late May, she caught sight of a stumpy, dark-haired girl sitting in the bleachers over by the track field. "I thought that was you." Ruth climbed to the topmost row and sat down. Far below on the field, a sprinter knelt down in set position in the starting block. "No more problems with Mr. Peterson?"
Laurel shrugged and cracked a tepid smile. "He's a horse's ass."
"Still planning your great escape?"
"Second week in July… already bought my ticket."
Ruth felt a dusky misery descend on her heart. "Why so soon?"
Laurel leaned back on her elbows raising her pale face to the stingy, spring warmth. "Around the holidays, my father beat up some rummy in a Central Falls barroom. He was on parole for a previous offense, so the judge revoked bail and sent him back to prison. I want to be long gone before that jerk leaves lockup."
"I keep forgetting to give you this." Ruth handed the girl the Sarah Orne Jewett book. "If you have trouble finding work in Bangor, there's a huge tourist industry along the coast. I'm sure you could find a job in Old Orchard Beach or Booth Bay Harbor."
On the track, the runner darted out of the starting block at lightning speed but pulled up after thirty feet and went back to try again. Further up the field, a black youth was leaping hurdles. Laurel flipped The Country of the Pointed Firs over in her hands and studied the cover absently. "How did you like it?"
"At first," Ruth said, "I found the book a bit dry, but after a while the characters sort of got under my skin."
“Think there are any Elmira Todds still poking around in the backcountry?”
The fictitious Elmira Todd wandered about the remote countryside collecting medicinal herbs – both wild and tame - that she boiled, chopped, grounded with a mortar and pestle for poultices, teas and medicinal salves. The bulky, rheumatic woman favored yarrow, sweet-brier, balm, sage and borage. There was mint, wormwood and wild thyme that, when accidentally trod upon, made its fragrant presence known.
Think there are any Elmira Todds still poking around in the backcountry? Ruth considered the question. The imaginary Elmira Todd was long dead, just like the author who created her. But a few of her progeny were sure to be wandering the back woods of Maine in search of the rare lobelia and elecampane for soothing syrups and elixirs.
"You're sure to rub shoulders with one or another of her great grandchildren," Ruth observed.
"I don't need much to be happy… just calm and quiet, that's all." A dogged wistfulness overspread the black eyes; a gritty obstinacy played out about the supple corners of the stunted girl's lips. "I'll send a postcard once I'm settled."
"Yes, I'd appreciate that."
Laurel Evers had been gone from the bleachers a good five minutes before Dr. Savage noticed the wetness on her cheeks and raised her glistening eyes to a perfectly sunny, spring day. Back on the field the sprinter was rearranging his limbs in the starting block. The weight of his body resting on arched fingertips, the arms hung almost vertical, buttocks angled a good six inches above the nape of the neck. It was a sublime balancing act.
The Herb Gatherer's Disciple by Barry Rachin / History & Fiction have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes