It was a bloated thing, half hidden behind a rotting fallen tree in the woods behind her grandmother's house. Someone had tried to bury it there, but between the woodland animals and the natural processes of decay, it had surfaced, blue and swollen like a giant mushroom with a face on it.
She hadn't been frightened then, not at first. The the buzzing of the flies was what had caught her attention in the first place, the droning sound of a thousand alien voices talking at once, or perhaps singing.
It was hard to tell where it had once been a man or a woman. The skin had ballooned up and distorted the features of the thing's face like one of the Saturday morning cartoons where the coyote had inhaled a tank of helium, and the thought made her giggle.
She poked the body with a stick, and a thousand more flies buzzed angrily. A sound like a giant, wet fart came from the bloated thing, and a horrible stench wafted forth, hitting Jess full in the face, a smell like her grandpa had before he went away forever, but worse somehow, bigger. And then the body moved, its eyes opening.
Jess froze, her eyes wide. The body started to writhe, the face contorting, seeming to want to talk to her, tell her something important. The lips moved, and she heard her name:
The body exploded all over her, greasy, slime-covered bits covering her head to toe. She screamed then, and ran, tripping over tree roots, small whippets of young trees leaving red welts on her skin wherever they touched her.
Her mother was livid, and made Jess strip naked outside the back door before hosing her off, the icy water stinging her flesh and making the red welts on her skin turn to fire. Jess started to cry.
Once she had calmed down enough to tell her mother what she had seen, the men had come with questions, asking her to take them to the place where the body was. They set up yellow tape tied to the trees, had dogs and photographers and funny plastic things they put over their shoes "to keep from contaminating the scene" (the sweaty man had told her).
Her mother was very quiet at dinner that night. She had taken down an old wooden box from the hall closet, a big black iron clasp on its front with one of those keyholes like on the door to Stevie Williams' dad's shed, and had set it at the end of the table where Grampa used to sit, while they ate in silence.
After Jess had cleaned up the table and finished drying the dishes, her mother bade her to come sit at the dining room table. The old wooden box was now open, and some of the contents carefully laid out in some kind of pattern. There was a small silver bell, a fat yellow candle, a knife with a handle that looked like the antler from a youngling deer, some bundles of herbs and a few other things that she didn't recognize but looked like they may have been roots of some kind. It smelled old and musty and not at all unpleasant. She turned to ask her mother what was going on, but when she saw the look on her mother's face, decided against it.
Jess sat in the chair facing the table, and felt a stinging sensation as her mother plucked a hair from her head, using it to wrap some of the herbs into a bundle. Her mother started muttering words and phrases that she didn't understand, but sounded kind of like the weird stuff that Grampa used to say toward the end.
Her mother held one of the small bundles of herbs up to the candle where they caught fire. She blew out the flame and let the embers smolder, a pleasant spicy smell filling the room and making Jess feel kind of dizzy and sleepy. Her mother gently held her hand used the point of the knife to poke her finger, a small drop of blood painlessly welling up like a small dark red jewel on her finger. Jess watched, fascinated: she had felt the knife, had seen it cut her finger, but it didn't hurt at all.
Her mother dropped a few drops of blood into a small yellow bowl, muttering words that almost-but-not-quite made sense, mixing the blood with some of the ash from the bundle of herbs. Jess felt something in the air, heavy and powerful, but couldn't tell what it was because the sleepy, dizzy feeling was getting stronger. And just before she closed her eyes for the last time, she felt more than saw her mother smear something on her forehead, and mutter a single word that sounded like "Sazhita".
The dreams were vivid that night, running through the woods at top speed, smelling the freshly turned earth and moss and the sharp tang of cedar and pine, and feeling the pure joy that came with running, her nails digging in and giving purchase on the forest floor. And then a warm scent, a hungry scent, excitement and blood and something else, the sour tang of something else's fear. And they weren't even words, more like shapes or songs in her head, the smells and the sights blending together in a fury of sensation.
Then there was something in her mouth, warm and sweet and coppery, and a feeling of ecstasy that filled her to where she thought she would explode. And then, contentment, warmth, and sleep.
When she woke in the morning, she had had her first blood.
By the time she was fourteen, she was well into her womanhood: tall and lithe with long, flowing red hair. The local boys had noticed, and were doing stupid boy things to try and get her attention. Once she had even needed to bloody Stevie Williams' nose when he tried to grab her; she was faster and stronger than any of them, and more than capable of handling herself one-on-one. Her mother had been teaching her many things, the secrets from the old chest in the closet, the books written in the language that she was starting to understand, older than she had ever imagined.
She had learned the healing herbs first, how to gather moss on the first night of the new moon to stop bleeding, when to gather the fiddleheads to be the most potent, and how to quell the roots of the arrowhead-shaped plant on the edge of the lake to make a potent and bitter tasting tea that let you see in almost total darkness. There were other lessons, too: how to listen for things that weren't there, how to step quietly so that none would hear, how to weave the tendrils of ivy while they still lived on the vine into patterns so that when they were harvested they could be made into baskets that could carry many times their own weight.
And every month, on the night of the new moon, she would dream that same dream of joy, and chase, and blood.
The eve of her fifteenth birthday, she came home to find her mother sitting at the dining table, a letter in hand. The letter was on old yellowed paper, written in a delicate and precise hand, cramped with words in the old tongue; she recognized some of them, a question, or perhaps a plea.
"Jess," said her mother, "I need you to go to Babi Cheshka." Her knuckles were white from the grip she had on the letter. "She has become ill, and needs to be tended."
"Of course, mother, I will do what I can. You have taught me well."
Jess's mother looked into her eyes, tears starting to well up in the corners.
"I hope so, my dear. I truly do." Her mother hugged her then, tightly, small, breathy sobs escaping.
She prepped one of the woven ivy baskets with her mother, going through each package of herbs, tinctures, roots and seeds with great care, her mother quizzing her on each and every one, its dosage, uses, and interactions with others. Eventually, her mother grudgingly agreed that she was ready.
"One more thing before you go, my child," said her mother, and handed her a wrapped package, "This was your grandmothers, and her grandmother before that. Take care of it."
Jess pulled out a beautiful hand-dyed traveling cloak, made of fine wool. While it had faded some over the years, the scarlet color was still solid and beautiful to behold.
"I will wear it with pride," said Jess, and as she turned to leave, she pulled the hood up over her head to protect her from the oncoming storm.