Saturday, June 09, 2007

Osha Root

I wrote this story in 1998. It is set in a pessimistic future occurring in 2007. The future dystopia described is only about half realized in the 2007 occuring now. Let’s hope we can stem the tide.

Osha Root




I measured out the pennyroyal tincture in an old graduated cylinder. It was chipped at the lip but luckily, it hadn’t cracked. The schools had all been looted 3 years ago and now you couldn’t even find these on the black market. Once I was satisfied with the amount, I added it to a dropper bottle and shook it. I handed the bottle and a bag of capsules to the damp teenaged girl sitting at my table.

“No work for at least a week, “ I cautioned her.

The girl sniffed and sort of half smiled at me. She was missing a few teeth, a byproduct of malnourishment.

“Why can’t she work, Marnie?” her pimp asked from the corner of the room.

I sighed at him. If she does she’ll have problems. She might get an infection, and her chances of getting pregnant again are greater during the initial recovery. Besides, she’ll be really sick for the next few days.” I hated pimps.

“How much is she costing me this time?” he asked me.

One hundred for the abortive mixture, and 50 for the pennyroyal capsules.. He grumbled but dug out the cash. I was one of the most reputable herbalists in the city and my prices were reasonable. I did abortions even though they were against the law. If they ever caught me, I would be tried as a serial killer. Although I had saved hundreds of women from back-alley butchers, the New Christian Judges wouldn’t be satisfied with sending me to the electric chair. They would probably want to see me burn at the steak. In the meantime, I deserve to make a living.

I let the girl and her pimp out, threw the deadbolts and barred the door. I checked to see if the city had turned the water back on. No such luck.

I searched the house for a book, but we only owned about a dozen and I was sick of reading all of them. Walter and I had managed to salvage these few during the book burnings of 2002. The Moral Majority had seized all government posts after a short and brutal military coup. That was five years ago, and since then, the powerful fascist state they created still prohibited “unseemly” literature. Unseemly included just about everything except the Bible and anything Tom Clancy ever wrote.

Walter had left the morning paper on the table. I glanced at the front page. A woman in Pennsylvania had been sentenced to die. She had been convicted of performing an abortion. I studied the grainy newsprint photo. She seemed young and her face looked placid. I shivered and stuffed the paper in the recycling bin.

I decided to make dinner. I had bought some jasmine rice at the street market when I was out getting herbs and Walter had caught some smelt that morning. I wasn’t too sure if the smelt in the lake was edible, but I really wanted some meat. I baked it in sage and added some osha root, hoping to counteract the toxins.


“This smelt tastes like shit,” Walter snapped over dinner.

I sighed, “It’s the osha root. I was afraid the smelt would be toxic.”

“I caught it in the lake, not the river. The lake is still good,” he protested.

“No, Walter, the lake and the river connect; and I read in the paper last week that anything in the lake might be contaminated.”

“They’re just trying to make people paranoid. The suburbs get their water from the lake and everyone with money and power lives there. You can bet they’ll make damn sure their water is safe.”

“Whatever, Walter.”

“You could have just smoked it, Marnie.”

“You could have smoked it, too.” I was getting really tired of Walter, but I had to put up with him. We had moved in together when Smith assumed the Presidency and women’s civil rights were revoked. Now I couldn’t sign a lease or have a bank account, and my professional license had been nullified. I didn’t feel like finding some other guy. Moving to my own place was out of the question. At least I was used to Walter.

I cleared the table and did the dishes while Walter got ready for work. He had been tending bar at one of the strip clubs downtown ever since the state shut down his art gallery. I knew he fooled around with some of the dancers. In the past, that would have bothered me but Walter and I had been moving apart for the last couple of years. It surprised me how relieved I was now that he no longer wanted to have sex.

I was sweeping the kitchen floor when someone knocked on the door. I crossed into the hallway and looked through the peephole at a mass of red curls. It was Laurie, my only girlfriend left in the city. I let her in the apartment.

“How are you, sweetie?” Laurie asked while she hugged me.

“I’m getting by. Where have you been?”

“Delivering babies. I think that almost every woman in the city has popped one out in the last month. I’m on my way to a birth right now and my assistant has the flu. Do you think you can help me?”

“Yeah. Just let me change.” I walked back to the bedroom while Laurie waited on the couch.


The trains hadn’t been running after dark all week, so we hailed a cab. Laurie gave the driver an address about four miles north of our neighborhood. Eventually, we pulled up in front of an elaborate twenty unit brownstone. There were about a dozen young men standing out front dressed in black and red. They were standing guard. I raised my eyebrows at Laurie.

She put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s all right. I delivered three babies here this week. They won’t harass us.”

I got out of the cab while Laurie paid the driver and then we marched purposefully up the walkway entrance. The young men nodded hello and moved aside. One of them caught my eye and smiled. He had nice teeth and soft brown eyes. I smiled back and hurried in the front door.

An older woman wearing an orange knit cap let us in. Inside the apartment, two more grandmother types were chatting on the couch. The place was clean and sparsely furnished. Elizabeth, the mother-to-be, was pacing the hallway in a bathrobe and leaning on a woman who must have been her sister.

“Ah, thank god” she said when she saw Laurie.

We went into the bedroom where Laurie examined Elizabeth.

“You’re completely dilated. I hope you’re ready to start pushing,” Laurie said when she finished.

“I’m not ready, Laurie, but I guess I don’t have much choice, “ Elizabeth answered.

Elizabeth had a difficult time. It took three hours of pushing and the skills and encouragement of all seven women to bring that baby out into the light. If she’d been in a hospital, she probably would have had a c-section, but hospitals wouldn’t serve unwed mothers. Elizabeth was only sixteen and the ordeal of such a long labor exhausted her. Finally, I propped her back up against my shoulder so Laurie and I could massage her muscles and help her push. Elizabeth scrunched up her face and gave one last push accompanied by a howl. Laurie pulled the baby out and sucked the mucous out of its nose and mouth so it could breathe. It was a girl.

I cleaned up the baby while Laurie cared for Elizabeth. She was so tiny and beautiful, with mocha-colored skin and the steel-grey eyes that brown-eyed people often have when they are born. I automatically counted her fingers and toes – they were all there. Holding her, I was submerged in physical desire. Every single one of my limbs ached with a primordial craving for a child of my own. She started to cry and the sound was like a machete thrust through my breast. I brought the baby to Elizabeth so she could nurse her.

I went to the kitchen and poured a cup of the coffee that had been left in an old percolator on the stove. I sat at the linoleum table and sipped it slowly, listening to the maternal clucking coming from the bedroom. I set the coffee mug aside and laid my head down on my arms. I cried for the first time since my mother died.

A warm hand on my shoulder brought me back to the kitchen. Laurie gave me a concerned look and sat down next to me. “What’s the matter, Marnie?”

I sighed, “What kind of life is that little girl going to have? She has no father, no money, no rights. In fourteen years she’ll be sitting at my kitchen table ‘cause some pervert minister knocked her up.”

“You are such an optimist, Mar.”

“And you’re so sarcastic. Maybe I sound dramatic, but look around you. Five years ago, you and I were licensed, competent professionals. We drove cars and you even owned a house. Now we’re outlaws for practicing our profession.”

“I don’t know. Maybe we are outlaws, but we’re right, Marnie. You are the only source of birth control on this side of town. I’m one of the few midwives left who’ll care for unwed mothers. We’re needed.”

“I’m tired of it. Laurie.”

“Me, too,” she whispered.


We walked through the crowded streets to catch the 5 a.m. train. When we arrived, the platform was full because the bars had just closed. Since the businesses had all relocated to the suburbs, the only revenue left for the city was vice. Clubs were open all night, drugs were available at every intersection, and prostitution enjoyed a boom it hadn’t known since the Victorian Era. The oddest thing about this was that the streets were empty during the afternoon, but noisy and full in the middle of the night.

When I arrived home, Walter was entertaining two strippers on the couch. There were empty beer bottles littering the coffee table and a full ashtray was overturned on the floor. The women were giggling and Walter was rolling a joint.

“Hiiiii…. You must be Marnie,” the tall blonde called. “Would you like to smoke with us?”

“No thanks, I think I need to go to sleep.” I hoped that I sounded nonchalant.
Walter followed me into the bedroom. “Hey, Marnie, I’m sorry. We wanted to party and I figured you be gone all night with Laurie.”

“Yeah, I know. Just don’t catch anything.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” He yelled this defensively.

“Nothing. I’m going to sleep.”


I didn’t sleep much. When I did, I had complicated nightmares about masked snipers. I had to herd groups of children and strippers to safety, but they wouldn’t listen to me. I found the keys ti a school bus that wouldn’t start. Then Walter walked up and arrested me.

The bedside clock read eight-thirty, so I got out of bed and went to the bathroom. The city had turned on the water. This was a good omen, so I celebrated by taking a bath.

I threw on a pair of blue jeans and my grandmother’s old cashmere sweater. I grabbed my canvas backpack and went to the kitchen to take inventory. I was nearly out of osha root, which is a cleanser and immune booster. I needed to get some more because I had an appointment with Janice, my client who had AIDS at noon. I decided to go to the market. On my way out the door, I noticed Walter and the strippers passed out around the front room. There was an acrylic nail plastered to his face.

It was drizzling when I got to the market. Business was slow and I headed to the stand of the little bald man I bought my herbs from. His prices were a little higher than some of the other vendors, but he always had had whatever I needed. His herbs were fresh and potent, and he special-ordered things for me. The bald man wasn’t there and his stand was closed. I walked around the market looking for another herb vendor. There weren’t many people out selling. Finally, I found a stand that had bins of herbs crowded between boxes of vegetables and fruits.

“Hey, it’s nice to see you again, Baby Lady. Did Elizabeth have a boy or a girl?”

It was the smiling man with the soft brown eyes who had been in front of Elizabeth’s building. He wasn’t as tall as he seemed last night.

“Don’t you speak?” he asked me.

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I’m just surprised to see you here. How do you know Elizabeth?”

“She’s my cousin. I had to drive my friend to the suburbs, it was a quarter to twelve when we got there. They definitely would have stopped me for curfew violation in this old green pick-up.” He waved a hand at the truck backed against his stand.

“Oh,” I said. “She had a beautiful little girl. We left before Elizabeth named her.”

“Wonderful! Elizabeth was the last girl born in our family. It’s a good day, Baby Lady.”

“I’m not a midwife. I was just helping my friend out.” I looked around, but we were out of anyone else’s earshot. “I’m an herbalist.”

“I don’t meet many women who claim that title these days. My grandmother was a healer down South. And my mother was a nurse before…,” he trailed off.

I smiled at him again. “Do you have any osha root?”

He shook his head. “There’s been forest fires through the Sierras and I had a friend scout out the Appalacihians, but he didn’t find anything worth picking. You know it only grows on mountains?”

“Yeah, I studied herblore for six years. What about the Rockies?”

“There isn’t anything there anymore except ski slopes and fancy houses. Until you get to New Mexico. New Mexico is pretty much up for grabs politically. I hear that a lot of women have been hiding out there in the mountains. Some men who’d rather not live under the New Christian Order as well. I’ve decided to ride out there and have a look.”

“It sounds divine,” I told him.
“New Mexico is about as far from religion as you can get.” He smiled as he said it.

“That’s exactly why it sounds divine,” I told him.

“Why don’t you come with me? I could use some help with the herbs. My granny taught me a few things, but I’m no expert.”

I looked at him. He had such pretty eyes. I wanted to believe he was kind. I wanted to climb into his dented pick-up truck and drive far away from this lunacy that had somehow become my reality. But I knew that even if he was the kindest man in the world, he was a danger to me. Out on the road I would be entirely dependent on him. Walter owned everything in theory, but he was too busy getting wasted to mess with me.

The smiling man cocked his head to the left. “We can come back as soon as you say so.”

“Ummmm, I don’t know,” I stuttered anxiously.

“I’ll be right here at the market ‘til four. I’m leaving town later tonight.”

“Okay. I’ll think about it.”

“You do that, Baby Lady. Hey, what’s your name?”

“I’m Marnie.” I held out my hand.

“I’m Issach, Marnie.” We shook on it.


On the walk to Janice’s I kept telling myself that going to New Mexico was unrealistic. Of course, that was the allure of running away with strange men to strange places. It was a mile from the market to Janice’s condo and by the time I was halfway there, I had talked myself out of escaping to New Mexico. As I rounded the corner of her block, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and found myself looking into the drawn face of a very young woman – probably just a teenager. Her sandy, shoulder length hair was dirty and last night’s make-up was melted under her eyes. She looked tired and desperate. I felt my muscles tense in self-defense.

She spoke first. “Are you Marnie?”

“That depends.” I raised an eyebrow at her. It was an expression I inherited from my father. “Who are you?”

“I’m Joy,” she said. “I work and I heard that you help working girls. You do abortions.”

I was stunned. This kid was either an undercover detective for the Morality Force or incredibly na├»ve. You don’t just walk up to somebody on the street and ask if they perform abortions. I shook my head and ran the rest of the way down the block. My heart was hammering against my sternum and my palms were sweaty. I turned to see if she had followed me. She stood staring blankly in the same spot where I had left her. I stared back until she turned and started off in the opposite direction.

“Real cool, Marnie,” I muttered under my breath as I climbed the front steps of Janice’s building. If the girl was a cop, my behavior would be considered suspicious. If she was just a scared, ignorant kid, she would probably be too afraid to ask anyone else for help.

I rang Janice’s buzzer and huddled in the entryway. It always took her some time to answer the door. Her illness was pretty advanced, although she could still get around the house. I had been working with her for three years and we had grown close. I still felt like a healer with her.

“Hello?” A strange young woman answered the door.

“Hi. I’m Marnie. I have an appointment with Janice.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Aunt Janice died the day before yesterday.”

I leaned against the doorframe to keep myself from falling over. What was wrong with me? I should have seen this coming. Damn me. I should have checked in on Janice over the weekend. I looked up at the woman who called herself Janice’s niece. “She died? Why didn’t anyone contact me? I’m the only one who’s been treating her for the past few years.”

“Well, yeah. I’m sorry about that. It’s just that the city got a call from one of the neighbors about her passing away. They have those registration and quarantine laws now with AIDS. They just took her away and told me to wait here until I could be tested by an official.”

I felt my face get hot with anger. “What a ridiculous way to handle this! You didn’t give them your name, did you?”

She grinned. “Of course not. I told them I was just the cleaning lady and that I didn’t want to be mixed up in anything unchristian. They left me alone. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but this has kind of worked out well for me. I’m staying here now. The house is still in Gerald’s name. She never reported his death.”

Gerald had been Janice’s husband. He had died of pneumonia shortly before I began treating her. She paid a Rabbi to give a memorial and have her husband buried without reporting it so she could stay in her home. “I understand,” I told the niece and added, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Well, thank you. I’m sorry, too.”

“Goodbye.” I walked out to the street in a daze. I felt myself disintegrating in the autumn drizzle. Tears were rolling down my cheeks and I was ashamed of myself. I wasn’t grieving for my friend – I was grieving for myself. The last remnant of who I had been before was now buried with Janice. I decided to splurge on a cab.

“Where to, ma’am?” The driver was looking at me in the rearview mirror.

I had socked away about ten thousand dollars behind a tile in the kitchen. I still had some of my old camping gear from when I was in school. My business had been doing so well that strangers on the street were soliciting me. Laurie would take over a couple of my most trustworthy clients. If I didn’t lay low for a while, I was going to get busted. The death penalty was not a pretty option.

“Ma’am?” The driver sounded impatient.

Walter kept a gun in his dresser. If I had that, I could protect myself on the road. I could pack up in a couple of hours and leave him a note. I doubt he would miss me very much. It seemed strange to leave one man just to go off with another, but I hadn’t been left with options. If Isaach wasn’t as kind as he seemed, I would find a way home. I needed to at least pretend I was free for a few days. I just had to tell Issach to wait for me.

“Take me to the market.”

The cab splashed around a corner and the streetlight made amber puddles against the windows. I felt sparkling and light as a raindrop.






3 comments:

Pelmo said...

Just for your information: Smelt are just to be lightly covered with salt and pepper and fried in real butter, no other herbs and spices need to be added. No wonder Walt complained.
Check out what Walt was doing during the morning hours he claims to have caught those smelt, since they are caught between sunset and midnight.

La Sirena said...

Thanks for the fact-checking. I should have asked you back then.

TundraChile said...

I like the story. It had direction and force. It also had a couple of typos.... like "burned at the steak" = stake.... there's one more in there somewhere.
I want to know more about what happened -- did she ever reconnect with the girl who approached her on the street? did she make it to New Mexico? did the man with the kind eyes and the nice smile turn out to be all that or was he an a-hole in the end. keep writing!