Mara wasn’t a hermit, as some people called her, nor a witch, a word sometimes whispered behind her back whenever she found herself in town, but she did harbor a secret. One she kept close.
The only person who had ever uncovered it was her ex-husband. He had used this astounding bit of knowledge to steal Mara away from her old life and hold her hostage in a loveless marriage – until the day he simply up and left her. And when he left, he took something with him. Something precious. A thing intimately tied to her secret. His refusal to return it was the last lingering cruelty in a long succession of cruelties stemming from the moment he had first laid eyes on her.
That had always been a problem for Mara – men laying eyes on her. When they did, they were drawn to her; to her dark eyes, deep as an ocean; to her waves of black hair; to her lithe body. Mara had always known that this attraction was a danger, and yet she had been careless when she was younger, and she had been caught. Caught in a cold marriage far from the life she had known.
Mara now preferred to live in solitude, away from scrutiny. Her children, since grown, had helped her purchase a small cottage on a very large parcel of land on the edge of a small, New England town in western Connecticut called Starmont. Here, at the town’s very edge, the landscape transitioned gradually from bucolic to at last utterly wild.
There had been a small alimony included in the laughable divorce settlement, but she had yet to receive even one payment. And her ex-husband was right in thinking that she would never report him as the deadbeat he was, in the hope that someday he would give her the one thing, the only thing, she wanted from him. Just as he also knew that what he held from her would ensure him the use of her body whenever he showed up on her remote doorstep.
Mara was able to make a small living mixing ‘potions’ as the people of Starmont called them, hence the title of witch. She called them herbal remedies and skin care and sold them online, at craft fairs, and at various farmers markets. She walked the many forested acres of her property harvesting medicinal plants from the wild, and grew what else she needed in her small greenhouse and considerable garden.
While foraging for plants, sometimes she needed to cross several small creeks that burbled through her property. The slight wooden bridge over the largest, not far from her cottage, had become rotten and treacherous. It was still early spring, but the snows had melted and water flowed freely once again in the creek, so she had found someone to come and see about constructing a new bridge. She hoped this man would be able to do the job. She was considering replacing the wooden bridge with stone, and he had been recommended by an elderly acquaintance from the local farmers market as someone who had helped to expertly re-build his stone fireplace and chimney.
Mara rarely had visitors; even so, she never dressed up for them. Especially if they happened to be men. Today she wore her usual outfit of jeans and T-shirt, with a sweatshirt thrown on for warmth; and her long, black hair had been hastily pulled back into a ponytail.
She sat in her cozy front room on an overstuffed sofa matching packing labels with orders for her herbal products that had come in overnight. A round, green and beige throw-rug rested on the wood floor beneath a small cherry coffee table piled high with boxed-up orders. Two comfy companion chairs flanked the table, and a small fire in the fireplace, opposite, gave off a cheery morning warmth.
She kept an eye on the front window for the arrival of the ‘stone man’ as she had begun to think of him. At last, a faded blue pickup with splats of dried mud along its sides pulled up the long gravel drive leading through the trees from the road below.
The truck stopped and a man emerged from the cab, one work-booted foot followed by the rest of him. He wore jeans and a light-weight, dark blue jacket over a tan, open-collared, button-down shirt. He looked to be lean and trim and forty-something with a head-full of wavy brown curls. As he approached the house, Mara saw that he had a strong, handsome face.
The good looking ones always flirted with her. Apparently good looks nurtured the kind of bravado which made men confident of few refusals. She got up, snugged a ball cap onto her head and with a sigh waited for the ring of the doorbell.
When she opened the door, the stone man was looking at the bridge in the distance. He immediately turned to greet her.
“Hello, Ms. Duplain?” His voice was deep. He offered his hand, “Jonathan Perry, here about your bridge.” He pointed with the hand that wasn’t busy shaking hers, “Is that it over there?”
“Yes, that’s it,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you Mr. Perry. My friend, Al Shreveton, gave you a glowing recommendation after your work on his chimney.”
“Well that’s nice to know,” he said, with a handsome smile. “That chimney was a heck of a job. Al knew exactly what he wanted. It’s nice to know that he was so pleased with the end result.” He stood aside and motioned toward the creek. “Shall we go take a look at your bridge?”
She had to admire his down-to-business attitude. No winks and, ‘You can call me John, honey.’ She stepped out of the house. “Yes, let’s.”
They walked down the long, sloping lawn to where the wooden bridge spanned the creek.
“This one’s gone rickety?” the stone man asked, nodding toward the bridge.
“Yes,” Mara said, “I’m afraid it’s become a hazard.”
When they reached the bridge, the man busied himself inspecting the wood and assessing the creek and its banks. Mara noticed when he crouched down here and there for a better view, how his jeans strained at the thighs. He must be very fit, she thought, from working with stone. Everything about him, from his no-nonsense truck, the grip of his handshake, his deep voice, his business-like manner, to the sense of contained strength about him and her friend’s recommendation, instilled in her a confidence that he would build her a solid bridge.
He stood. “Your creek isn’t very wide, about ten feet at most. I could build you a wooden bridge for a lot less money.” He ran a hand through his wavy curls and then looked at her with dark, brown eyes, “Shoot, I could just lay a few stepping stones from the scraps in my truck and call it a done job right now.”
“I know,” Mara said, “It may be silly, but the permanence and solidity of stone over the water appeals to me. And it has to be a bridge because I’m often carrying baskets of things that I’ve collected in the meadow and woods beyond and I’d rather not have to hop from stone to stone.” She tried to hide a reflexive cringe at the thought of a misstep on stones across the stream landing her in the flowing water.
“Really?” the stone man raised his eyebrows. “What do you collect?”
Mara smiled. “Plants. Roots, flowers, leaves, and bark. I use them to make herbal preparations.”
The man grinned in sudden recognition. “Wait a minute,” he said, pointing at her, “You’re not the Witch of Starmont, are you?”
Mara closed her eyes, “Well, I’m not actually a wi—”
“I don’t mean any disrespect,” he interrupted with a chuckle. “My secretary is a big fan of yours – orders things from you all the time. In fact…” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, circular tin. Mara recognized it immediately. It was her calendula salve, “She gave me this to try. Said it would help with the little nicks and cuts I sometimes get working with sharp-edged stone.” He shoved the tin back in his pocket. “And I’m happy to report that it does. The cuts heal much quicker when I slap some of this on them.” He looked to the meadow and woods beyond the creek. “You collect the stuff that goes into it over there?”
“Well actually, I grow the calendula for that in my garden.”
He nodded. “Huh.”
Mara smiled politely.
The stone man grinned. “My secretary will be thrilled that I met you.”
Mara was beginning to feel charmed, despite having her ‘flirt guard’ up. “I’ll have to put a gift basket together for her.”
“I’m sure she’d love that.”
“And so … the bridge,” Mara said, guiding things back to business.
“The bridge,” the stone man repeated. “I can build you a solid, no frills bridge, or I can fancy it up. Depends on what you want to spend.”
“No frills would be fine by me.”
The stone man nodded. “No frills it is. I’ll take a few pictures, get some measurements, and then go back to the office to draw up some designs. I’ll email them to you with the estimates and let you decide which one suits your fancy.”
“Great, I’ll go get that basket for your secretary together while you finish up down here.”
Along with the house, an outsized garden shed, and the greenhouse, Mara had another building on the property, not far from her cottage-sized house. It was almost the same size as her cottage, but divided into three rooms.
One was the drying room. This temperature and humidity controlled room contained racks spanning the ceiling from which bundles of herbs hung to dry. Along the walls were movable carts which held rows of screens spread with drying roots, bark, and seeds.
Another room held cabinets full of ingredients and all of the equipment needed to turn her herbs into the lotions, creams, slaves, washes, and teas that made up the inventory of Starmont Herbals.
The third room was for storage of herbs, finished products, and packaging and shipping supplies.
Mara went to her ‘mixing shed’ as she called the building, to put the gift basket together. Each of the things that she chose for the basket sported labels bearing the Starmont Herbals logo – a woodcut depicting a large, eight-pointed star above the tidy rows of a hilltop garden. She was well aware that people in the area often referred to her as the Witch of Starmont. It only irked her when it was used in a pejorative manner. But that was extremely rare.
She paused as she filled the basket. She wondered what the reaction of those people would be if they found out what she really was. People knew what witches were, and some people even believed in them, but she doubted that anyone would believe her story if she told it. In fact, if the name for what she was were uttered, she wondered how many people would know what it meant.
She took a deep breath and resumed her basket-stuffing, picking just the right spot to place a bottle of Organic Elderberry Facial Wash.