When I last wrote, I was saying salutations to the Waka Leaf Women. I left their village much in need of space for my own private thoughts. I needed time to consider the strange behaviors of these women, to write in my journal and to bathe by myself, and to see my own skin on my hands day after day after day. I was determined not to leave previous myself behind me in that village. I could never be one of them. After looking at my maps (mostly blank), I decided to head towards a river I had heard of to the South. To get there, I would need to cut through a forest that surrounded the Waka Leaf village on two sides. After gathering supplies that the women were kind enough to gift to me, it was in that direction that I left them behind.
I traveled for 3 weeks through this forest, I think. It’s hard to be entirely sure. The forest floor was so dark and thick. I never could see the sky. For awhile, I tried to monitor the days progression by the relative darkness or lightness around me, but this proved an inefficient method. Without the significance of the sun, the moon, the people winding down for the day, or the regular gathering for a meal, the changes in light meant little to me and I forgot to take note of it. I believe nights here are not as dark as nights elsewhere. They make little more than a grey cover over everything. It’s a bit disconcerting.
A couple days into my journey, I was bit by something while I was sleeping. I assume it was a spider, as it left two small, inflamed holes on my hand near my thumb. But as the days went by, the holes began to fill with a strange substance that made them look like two small eyes staring back at me. I could swear I saw them moving to look towards my face. I wrapped my hand in a rag I ripped from an old shirt and continued on.
But after having traveled for a long time, I came to a clearing in the forest. In the center of this clearing was a woman skipping stones along the ground. She was skipping stones the way you or I might skip them upon a still pond. From this great distance, I could see nothing of her face. From this great distance, she looked as if she was nothing but a wild head of grey hair and a dress.
I will admit, reader, I was afraid of this stranger. Under normal circumstances, I would not have dared to approach her so forthright. But extreme exhaustion and my waning resources curbed my anxiety. I went to her.
I learned her name was Agie and she had been living in this spot for 47 years and a half. She offered a stone for me to skip along the dry earth. Out of politeness, I accepted. To my surprise, I performed this perfectly and it skipped effortlessly three times. She shook my hand and invited me in for tea.
Her home was at the back of the clearing, a longhouse made of a mishmash of materials—here a felled tree, there a wall of garden herbs, along the front an old canoe. But on the inside, which was just tall enough for the two of us (I now noticed we stood at equal heights), the walls were covered with mirrors of all shapes and sizes. Agie later told me these mirrors were pilfered from all corners of the world in her early career as a traveling saleswoman. She asked me not to ask questions about her mirrors. They each contained their secrets.
We sat down for tea, an ochre liquid that smelled of juniper and peppercorn in terracotta cups. She told me that she was an alchemist. I noticed that despite being wizened, soot covered, and sharp-featured, she was rather beautiful. I told her I was an explorer cataloging the people of the region and she begged me to write politely of her. I told her not to worry because stories only ever reveal half-truths, and this seemed to comfort her a bit. She said she wasn’t used to company and looked to me with big eyes.
She showed me around her home, which doubled as her laboratory. She showed me half-concocted potions and failed experiments. She showed me a ball of nails and waxed red thread that would infect one person somewhere in the world, unknown to the holder, with a rare skin disorder known as cutis laxa, if you whispered a prayer to it. She showed me a scarecrow in her yard constructed entirely of wooden kitchen spoons. Its purpose was to ward away visiting spirits by by debating with them the likelihood that all the universe is moving backwards, rather than forwards in time.
She had concocted remedies for many ailments. She compiled these remedies in a book she wrote by hand called “The Compendium of Cures.” She showed me a page on which she wrote that "one could cure insomnia by carrying on one's person a journal crafted from the skin of mountain goats and by writing one’s darkest thoughts in the goat's blood at the moment they occurred". If one did this for six weeks religiously, one could again rest peacefully for a full seven-hour night. I asked her for a cure to the spider eyes. For this cure, she rubbed my body with a paste made of sage and she asked me to make love to myself in front of one of the mirrors for no less than half an hour. I did it and it worked. The eyes closed and the next day were gone. I threw the rag away.
I stayed with Agie for some time and learned many remedies from her. I found my body repairing itself from the weeks of deprevation in the forest. My body filled out in the natural way and the rash behind my ears faded to blisters. I was health. But unhappy.
At night, I heard Agie talking to herself, in a voice unlike the one I heard during the day. It scared me in a way I will never forget. She said horrible things to herself in the voice of the multitudes. She pretended to be the world talking back to her and I understood why she was out here. I understood that she was a kind of captive. I understood this as I watched her watching herself in the mirrors. I understood this as I watched her watching a thread of drool fall from her mouth to the floor. And every morning, she went out into the clearing to skip her stones along that dry, dry earth.
I left Agie and the clearing. I left the spoon scarerow and the mirrors. I left the cutis laxa ball and the Compendium of Cures. I left because the Compendium of Cures, though valiant, was an absurd task. The compendium itself could be summed up in one cure: isolation. This was the cure that Agie used in everything.
Or perhaps it was her disease.