The Witch Doctor’s Wife

Insistent knocking awakens me. I gaze outside the bedroom window. The moon is full, mist-covered, and hazy. Nothing good can come with that knock. Barnard is snoring beside me. I jab him in the ribs. “Someone’s at the door.” He rolls over and continues sleeping. “Typical,” I grunt. I grab a jumper from my bureau, cover myself, and slowly make my way downstairs. I press my hand against the wall for steadiness as I descend. My balance isn’t what it used to be.

The woman-child at the door is tear-streaked and shaking—her face swollen and freshly bruised. Her long, dark hair looks like it hasn’t seen a brush in weeks. Around her neck are more bruises, greenish-yellow and shaped like ovals. She crosses and uncrosses her arms nervously, wrapping herself in the oversized coat that covers her shabby smock.

“Please, I must see the witch doctor. He lives here? It’s a matter of urgency.” She is tugging at a band affixed to her left ring finger. “I need to be unbound,” she sobs.

I step back and allow her to enter. “I’m Sabine, the witch doctor’s wife,” I say as I lead her toward the back of the house. “And you?”

“Mia.” Her eyes dart upward and away as she speaks.


In Barnard’s office I clear a pile of jars and vials from a chair. I add all but one vial to the clutter on his shelves. This one I slip into the pocket of my jumper. “Righteous mess in here,” I mutter. “Make yourself comfortable. It might take a minute to rouse Barnard—the doctor. And for the love of Odin, don’t touch anything!” I leave the door open as I retreat. Shaking my head in dismay, I sigh. There will be no more sleep tonight.

* * *

I’m stoking the fire in the stove when Barnard shuffles into the kitchen. He attempts to smooth down what little hair is left on his head. “Tea?”

“The fire is slow going today, dear.”

Huffing, he pulls powder from the pocket of his robe and throws it at the coals. The fire flashes bright and roars to life. “Nothing a little magic can’t fix. Put the kettle on, then come help.”

“Yes, dear.” I fake a smile. Gunpowder is not magic. As he walks away, I snip a small piece off the ginger root on my counter and place it between my lips. Sucking on it to calm myself, I mutter, “Odin, give me strength…”

I stand in the doorway of Barnard’s office as Mia pleads her case. “Doctor, he’s horrid—twice my age and quick to anger. I cannot make him happy. Please remove this ring so I can be free.”

Barnard rubs a hand across his chin, scratching at his mostly nonexistent beard. “We’ll have to ask the runes,” he says. He crosses over to his shelves, brushing jars and vials aside until he finds his leather pouch. “Ah, yes.” He turns back toward the girl, shaking the pouch as he shuffles back in her direction.

“Odin. We ask you for guidance.” Barnard raises the pouch high and shakes it again. The bones inside rattle their response.

“Please let me leave him,” the girl begs.

“Shhhhh! My connection to Odin must stay intact.” Barnard pulls the bones from the pouch—a different rune carved into each. He rolls them across the floor. The bones with runes facing up, he keeps. The others he places back into the pouch.

The girl tugs at my jumper sleeve and whispers, “What’s going on?”

I brush her away and scowl. “Patience,” I whisper. “We must not anger the gods.” Or Barnard.

Barnard continues rolling the bones, removing face-down runes and keeping those landing face up until only two remain. These last two runes are face up and seal the girl’s fate.

“Quite the quandary,” says Barnard. “Odin has joined you to your husband. The runes indicate you are bound to him until death.”

“No,” the girl whispers.

“Shhh. Listen! If Odin objects to the dissolution of your union, the ring cannot be removed and you must remain bound—”

“Look at what he does to me. I will surely die at his hand!” She points to her bruised face and neck and covers her mouth with a hand to stifle her sobs.

“Hush, child. There are a few options that may win Odin’s favor, but they come at a price.”

Mia pulls a small sack from her pocket. “It’s not much but it’s all I have. Please?” She places it in Barnard’s outstretched hand. He glances at the tiny sack and her broken, dirty fingernails and cringes. But then Barnard nods and pockets the satchel.

     Barnard studies the runes again. He grabs jars and potions from his shelves. “Stickwort…‌angelica…chicory…if these don’t work, nothing will,” he murmurs.

The teakettle whistles. I hurry off to make my husband’s tea. Into the mug I deposit the contents of the vial hidden in my pocket. I leave the tea to steep.

When I return to Barnard’s office, a jar is empty on the floor. Mia’s eyes are welled with tears. Washing her hands with stickwort didn’t work. The ring won’t budge.

     Not surprising.

“Angelica has been known to break curses,” says Barnard. “Drink up. Tastes like old socks. Not pleasant. But if Odin agrees your marriage is cursed, it should work.”

Mia drinks the potion in one gulp, grimacing as she swallows. The ring remains.

     As expected.

Barnard frowns. “Our last and perhaps best chance—chicory root. It holds the power to remove obstacles. Let’s see if Odin agrees to remove what binds you to your husband.”

Barnard unscrews the lid. “Here now. Cup your hand. I’m going to pour a bit of chicory juice and rub it around the ring.”

     The ring does not come off.


     Barnard looks at me. “Wife. Do you have any blueberry pie?”

“I believe so.”

“Fetch me a slice? And my tea.”

I raise my right eyebrow at Barnard, but the look he returns tells me not to question. “Yes, husband,” I say.

Moments later I’m back with pie and tea. “Tea first,” says Barnard. He downs most of the mug in one long swallow, then sets it amongst the clutter. “Ahhhh. Now pie.”

I extend the plate. “Not me. Her.” He points to Mia.

“Pie?” Mia asks.

“Yes. Blueberries are a great source of protection. Eat up. It should protect you from your husband’s anger. Odin has spoken. You must return to him. There’s nothing more I can do.”

“No!” Mia screams and flings the plate at the wall above Barnard’s head. It shatters, the pie leaving a splat of blueberry on the wall. “I will not go back. There must be another way,” she wails, throwing herself at his feet.

“Child, I can do no more. These spells…they’ve sapped my energy. I must rest. Wife, please see our guest out.” Barnard stumbles toward the stairs.

     Mugwort tea does wonders.

The stairs creak. “Quickly, child. To the kitchen, no time to waste.” Insistently I pull her along. “Shhhh. Stop crying. Hope is not lost. Give me your hand.”

Mia’s eyes widen. “What is wrong with the doctor? What are you doing?”

“Quiet. Hand me that crock. Hurry…good girl.” I pull up a stool and make her sit. “I slipped some mugwort in the doctor’s tea. It makes him very tired. When he wakes he will tell me about a magical vision he’s had and the girl he saved. You will be but a dream.” I shake my head and let out a little huff. “What a silly man.”

I remove the cover from the crock and dip my fingers inside. “Butter,” I say, smearing it around the ring. It slips easily off her finger.

“But…how…” she stammers.

“Magic cannot solve everything. Sometimes life takes common sense.” I set the butter down and grab a parcel from the back of my cupboard. “Staying married is not Odin’s mandate. That’s what old men tell us. Some are more kind than others, but men are all the same—shortsighted. And maybe a bit selfish.”

“You’ve saved my life. How can I repay you?”

I place my hand on her cheek and look her in the eyes. “With your real name, child,” I say.

She smiles. “It’s Lill.”

“Lill, you must leave this land. Never return. You don’t want to end up old and trapped, like me.” I thrust the parcel in her hand. “Aconite seed in lizard skin; it will help you disappear.”

The moon still high, I watch as Lill dissolves into the mist. I grab a crock hidden in the cupboard, and I place her ring with the others.




About the Author

Brooke Dilling received a BA in communication from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and an MA in higher education from the University of Denver. She has attended the Breakthrough Writing Retreat and Story Quest. She is the manager of cultural programs for the city and county of Denver, Colorado. Brooke is a single mom to two boys, one untrainable dog, and a murderous rabbit. She loves to make ice cream and has never met a cookie she didn’t like.