There once was a traditional herbalist, O children, with a shop in the tiny back room of a strip-mall spa and nail salon in a small Arkansas town. She had painted a small sign that hung in the window of the nail salon, offering her services: traditional herbal health treatments, aromatherapy, prayer candles, country incense, homeopathy. She had a steady trickle of customers, to whom she sold a lot of prayer candles and incense, and in this way she was able to keep the lights on in her small house, and keep her refrigerator stocked. She was disappointed that she wasn't often asked to perform her traditional herbalist medicine. She had been taught in the ways of country remedies by her mother, who had been taught by her mother, and so on up the family tree as far as her heirloom Bible went.
In her backyard, she maintained the family garden: sumac, whole cloves, cubeb, prickly ash, a patch of ginger; an orange tree; angelica, peppermint, caraway; coneflower, foxglove, black-eyed susan. She used these infrequently in her shop, but often for personal use, and it was important to her to continue the family tradition.
One night during a full moon, when the plants were at their most potent, she harvested ribwort and hazel and lavender, and other things. As she did so, she heard a muffled high-pitched whine, like a small child screaming into a pillow. She stopped picking and listened, and followed the sound to its origin beneath a bough of her rowan tree. Carefully and slowly, she reached into the soil with her fingertips, and pulled out a screaming mandrake root. "How curious," she thought, as the mandrake shrieked into her face. "I have never planted mandrake." She placed her thumb over its wee little mouth, so as not to bother the neighbors, and took her harvest indoors, where she began preparing the plants.
Some went into an infusion, some were ground in a mortar and pestle, and some were laid out to dry. As she worked, the mandrake root sometimes coughed. As she broke up rowan bark, it started to loudly clear its throat, and as she zested oranges into a small jar, the mandrake spoke to her. "Tomorrow, a woman will come in to the shop. She will have rheumatoid arthritis." Then it rattled off a list of instructions and ingredients. The woman quickly gathered the materials, and put the mixture into a jar to soak overnight.
The next day, a woman came in for arthritis. "I knew you were coming," said the herbalist, and handed her the jar with a small label stating what it was for. "Tonight, heat up a cast-iron skillet on your stove. Put a towel over your head, and pour this into the cast-iron skillet. Put your head over the skillet, and breathe the smoke and vapor for thirty, forty-five seconds, or until it starts to really burn. Then stop. That'll be forty dollars."
That night, the mandrake root said, "Tomorrow, a man will come in with a broken heart. Here is what he will need." The mandrake listed ingredients and instructions, and asked the woman to cut off a chunk of its own mandrake root body, to include in the mixture. The woman did as she was told, and the next day she sold it to the man and gave him instructions for inhalation with his cast-iron skillet. The man thanked her the next day, telling her that he'd never felt better.
This went on for weeks. The mandrake told the herbalist about customers who would coming in with specific needs, and told her what to give for them, always mixtures to be burned, steamed, and inhaled. For certain customers, the mandrake demanded that she cut off parts of it to be included and breathed in by her customers. The woman became much more successful, and had to order many more prayer candles and much more incense. Also, the herbalist started getting repeat customers.
The broken-hearted man came back in, for an inflamed liver. "I can feel it pulsating inside me," he said, "like a great black prune, a hungry prune." She gave him more mandrake infusion.
An insomniac woman came back because she now had terrible dreams. "A combine chases me through a field of wheat under bright moonlight," she said, "and I can feel that my feet are broken, but I must keep running, as the machine chases me and chases me." She gave the woman more mandrake infusion.
A man haunted by his father came back because he missed the presence of the ghost. "It was bad, hearing him moan and drip blood onto the floor while I lay in the dark, but it is much worse to not hear him moan and drip blood onto the floor, while I lay alone, in the dark, in the middle of this galaxy." She gave him more mandrake infusion.
The business kept coming. The woman's savings account grew plump. The body of the mandrake root dwindled until all that was left was its head.
One night, the mandrake root said, "This is the end. Two days from now, an old man will come into the shop. He will not speak, but his breath will smell of honey, and shit, and saffron. You must muddle an herbal concoction to exact specifications." The mandrake root gave her a very specific list of ingredients, with multiple steps for muddling, infusing, powdering. "Now, you must place my head in your mortar, and use your pestle to grind me into mush. I will go into the jar last. Bury the jar beneath your rowan tree and leave it there overnight."
The herbalist did as she was told.
She thought she was prepared, but when the man arrived, she was shocked. His skin was all white, and his beard and hair too. He wore a suit made from the brightest white cloth she had ever seen, including a white leather tie and hat. His eyes were bright pink and rapidly moved back and forth as he looked at her. When he opened his mouth, all she could see was a deep ruby red, and the shop filled with the deep sweet permeating stench of honey and saffron and shit. Silently, with shaking hands, she handed him the soil-caked jar. The man reached into his inside vest pocket and brought out six small grains of gold, the size and shape of rice, and dropped them, tinkling, onto her counter.
Then he left.
The woman closed early, and went home, and looked at the grains of gold in her hand. That night, under the waning moon, she buried them beneath the rowan tree.
There once was a farmer with several acres of land. He sowed and tended and reaped, and in this manner he fed himself and his family. He grew wheat, and turnips, and potatoes. He grew strawberries, and asparagus, and carrots. He traded with the other farmers around him, giving his fruits and vegetables in return for meat, and milk, and other good things. He and his husband and their daughter were all very happy.
One day while picking strawberries, the farmer found a nose, half-buried in the dirt. "How curious," said the farmer, and picked the nose up. He brushed the black soil from the nostrils and thought, "I don't think I know anyone who would have lost a nose." As the last bits of black soil fell from it, the nostrils of the nose flared to life, sniffing and wheezing. The farmer was startled, and dropped the nose back to the ground, where it continued to breathe and sniff and huff and puff. The farmer moved on and picked strawberries on the other side of the nose, but at the end of the day, he returned, picked up the nose, and brought it back to the house.
"Look at what I found in the field today, when I was picking strawberries," said the farmer to his husband and daughter. None of them could think of anyone who could have lost a nose, and all three stared in wonder at how the nose appeared to be sniffing and flaring in such a lifelike manner. "Well, we had better keep it," said the farmer's husband, "in case we meet someone who has lost a nose, so that they can use it." He put the nose on the mantel, and there it sat, occasionally sniffing or sneezing.
The next day, the farmer went out to pick tomatoes, as they had just turned a beautiful deep shade of red. He spent all day picking the roundest tomatoes from the vines, gathering them in his wicker basket, and part of the afternoon besides. A few hours before sunset, he looked down and discovered to his dismay that he had almost stepped on a set of eyes, which quivered and stared upwards at his bootheel. The farmer quickly moved his foot to avoid the eyes and bent down to take a closer look. As he moved, the eyes followed; as he gawped, the eyes blinked.
That night, the eyes joined the nose on the mantel, and they rolled and followed the farmer and his husband and their daughter as they moved around the house, cooking and eating, singing songs and preparing for bedtime.
The next day, while harvesting apricots from his small grove, the farmer found two ears tucked amongst the flower blossoms; the day after that, he found two lean cheeks on a peach tree. After a week of this-- a shaggy brown scalp betwixt the peppers, a neck and chin buried with the sweet potatoes, and finally a chattering skull mixed in with the cantaloupes-- the farmer had assembled a near-complete head on his mantel. The eyes had gone in the sockets, the ears on the sides, and so on. That Saturday night, the head stared down at them, occasionally cocking to one side to hear them better, sniffing at the bread as it came out of the oven, and staring down with them as they ate, grinning its skeletal toothy grin.
"I am so curious," said the farmer's daughter. "What is it doing? What does it want?"
"I am also curious," said the farmer. "Who does this head belong to? Do they want it back? It seems to be personable enough, although I do wish it would stop showing us its teeth." When it heard this, the head looked down and tried to turn away.
"Oh, hush," said the farmer's husband. "It can't help that, dear. Now you've gone and made it worry. Don't worry, head, don't worry."
The next day was Sunday, and the farmer and his husband and their daughter went to church. When they returned, no sooner had they started preparing for lunch when they heard a moist slapping sound at the front door.
"Whatever could that be?" asked the farmer. When he opened the door, he discovered a mouth laying on the welcome mat. "Ah," he said, and quickly placed the mouth over the head's skully grin. Now the head was complete. The whole family gathered around the mantel expectantly.
"He's almost kind of handsome, in an odd way," said the farmer's daughter.
"Burton," said the head on the mantel. "Burton, burton, burton burton. Burton burton burton burton burton."
"What on earth does that mean?" asked the farmer.
"Burton burton burton," said the head, with eyes lowered.
"Maybe he doesn't speak English," said the farmer's husband.
"Burton burton?" asked the head.
"Perhaps it is dumb," said the farmer, and when the head's eyebrows raised in dismay, he quickly added, "Mute, I meant to say. Not stupid."
"Burton," said the head.
"Hush, dear," said the farmer's husband. "Burton is our guest. Daughter, please make sure to roast enough beets to feed Burton as well."
The head smiled down at them beatifically.
That night, as the farmer and his husband and their daughter prepared for bedtime, the head opened its mouth and sang a soft, low, wordless lullaby, a repeating melodic phrase, and everyone slept easily and deeply.