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  • Writer's pictureAllister Nelson

Godmother Death


Once, my father Frederick went into the woods. It was a cold night in Leipzig when I, Sieglinde, was born. I was the twelfth child of a woodcarver and washerwoman. We lived in a shanty by the opera house, and I grew up hearing the sound of music. Great arias poured out into the gutter that I collected in my memory like spilled coins.

“One by God, two by the Devil, three by Death,” papa always said. In the alehouse late at night, papa spoke of how he walked miles and miles, begging for mercy for a good godparent for me.

I was born an ill omen, on All Soul’s Eve, in a caul. It snowed the day I was a newborn suckling infant on mama’s teat, and my elder sisters Johanna and Ilke and the rest of my brothers crowded around my swaddled, nursing form. There was not enough food or money to last the winter.

To win fortune’s favor and full larders, father meant to bargain with God.

But God plays favorites, papa said. So, he turned Him away. God could not be my godfather.

Next came old Samiel, the Black Huntsman. He is wicked, and made a terrible offer, papa thought, so into the barrel of papa’s rifle Samiel’s soul went.

Papa was always good at trapping things. Once, papa fit the moon into a thimble and blotted out the night for a whole week. The crops in Leipzig didn’t grow, and Mme. Friegler’s voice went to shards the whole time. When a cow was born with two black heads, papa put the moon back to ward off God’s wrath.

So thereupon sauntered my bold father Frederick, drunk off cheap ale, and into the darkest part of the forest he went, where sunlight never touches, and winter always freezes.

He found a graveyard of souls.

Death was there, tending frozen roses. And Samiel was still trapped in papa’s gun.

“Will you be my dear Sieglinde’s godmother, Frau Todd? I have a handsome demon in exchange,” papa boasted.

Death smiled. Frau Todd is just, after all, and always takes pity on souls. “You know, Frederick, Heaven and Hell talk often about your penchant for stealing things with sweetened words. Just last year, you bribed a sparrow to give you two weeks off the back of summer so that you had more time to complete the legs of a chair.”

“Though silver-tongued, Frau Todd, I am also an honest man. Is there any punishment for bargaining?”

Frau Todd laughed. “No, dear Frederick, all is right in my eyes. I see you have a good heart, and that Sieglinde will grow to be a great woman. So yes, you shall free my husband the Black Huntsman and set Samiel back upon his Wild Hunt as Erl King, and I shall be dear Sieglinde’s godmother. She cannot fail with me by her side. I will make Linde rich, but moreover, kind.”

 

And so, my godmother was the talk of Leipzig. At Peterskirche, a flock of black crows attended my baptism, complete with their Lady in black lace. I grew up under Frau Todd’s wing, and inherited father’s tricksome tongue.

I was sixteen. Frau Todd had a cabin in the forest, where she taught me women’s crafts: weaving souls. Dousing with spring-green twigs. How to bake the best bread for my future husband.

Frau Todd herself was married to Samiel the Black Huntsman. But she lived alone, and only visited him when the moon was full, or to deliver a month’s worth of dinner in an enchanted silver pail. Samiel ate souls that were too weak to pass on into Heaven or Hell. As for what Frau Todd ate – anything hearty, bloody, and half-alive.

“Mama Todd, what would you trade for the jewel on your throat?” I asked Frau Todd the day autumn came.

Frau Todd smiled. “Only a fresh beating heart, Linde.”

So, I baked a blackbird’s heart into a veal pie. The bird’s heart was alive by my magic, bloody and thrumming, when Frau Todd bit in.

“I see you are becoming quite the thief of life, just like your father Frederick,” Frau Todd smiled, her blonde hair and winsome blue eyes beaming. She wiped the blood on a pearly napkin, then devoured the rest of the pie.

Into my hands Frau Todd placed the jewel. It was a large ruby that glimmered with black stars.

“What are the virtues of this stone, Mama Todd?” I inquired, fascinated.

Frau Todd was skinny as a spindle, dainty and precise, and always wore white, with a red ribbon in her hair. Almost skeletal, but not unpleasant, with long honey-colored hair and eyes that burned like the sky. I felt she was always watching me. “That is the Jewel of Nocht. It can set to sleep anyone who you direct it at.”

 

I had much fun, setting my schoolmarms to sleep. Frau Todd had made us rich, and I and Johanna and Ilke all attended a girl’s Catholic finishing school. Ilke was even learning opera from Mme. Friegler. I was a stickler for poetry. But the nuns did not like me slipping away to kiss cute choir boys and woo schoolgirls with their curling, sweet-smelling hair. So, I enchanted the nuns into snoring.

“Linde, it is dangerous what you do!” Johanna giggled, embroidering a rose and thistle. She loved sewing. Mama was now a fine lady, but her hands would always be cracked from her time with lye and river rocks as a washerwoman. Mama did not want her daughters to know pain. And her sons had all made papa’s woodcarving business a booming industry. They each carved different parts of tables and shipped them out of Rostock to international waters. “You’re too much like papa, Linde,” my sister continued. “One day, it will do you in.”

“Say Johanna?” I mused, clacking my nails on my chalk tablet. “How much is the smell of a thistle worth?”

“Do thistles smell?”

“To birds.”

“Then I’d say… they’re worth laughter. Laughter can’t be sold, and often, laughter is a lie,” Johanna chuckled, used to my joking. “Shall I trade this thistle and rose?”

“Only their smell, dear Johanna.” I tickled her. She burst out laughing in tears as I hit her sweet spot.

Thistles smelled like rain, I learned.

 

That night, at Frau Todd’s house, I used the smell of roses and thistles, perfected in

Johanna’s virginal mind, to sweeten Frau Todd’s stew.

Frau Todd’s face was electric. “This stew has life in it!” she beamed. “Linde, you are so clever with your magic.”

Frau Todd gulped it down, but it never seemed to cling to her thin, thin shape. Death is always hungry, it seems.

“I have the best teacher, Mama Todd,” I demurred.

We finished the soup in companionable silence as the fire crackled.

“Sieglinde, it is time,” Frau Todd said, her hair from her blond chignon falling a bit to her shoulders. “You are sixteen now. I will teach you my secrets.”

It was the moment I had been angling for, caressing Frau Todd’s tongue with delicious concoctions. Though I loved her like a godmother, I wanted more power.

“Are you sure, Frau Todd?” I said innocently.

“Do not act the sheep when you are a wolf, Linde. You are as wily as me.” Frau Todd smiled. “You are a clever girl, my Linde. Come see my final secret.”

She took me deep into the heart of the forest.

A patch of heart-shaped purple leafed herbs bloomed with fiery orange flowers.

“These are my precious deathsflower, goddaughter” Frau Todd sighed sweetly, inhaling their overripe scent. “Crush and make a powder medicine of this for any patient you have. If I appear by the head of their bed, they will survive, and you may cure them. But if I appear at the dying man or woman’s feet, my Linde, I mean to drag them to either God or my husband Samiel. There is no stopping me then.”

“Thank you, Frau Todd,” I said, tears in my eyes, and hugged her, hard, feeling I had just lost my last bit of innocence.

 

I set up shop in Berlin in the Old City by the orangerie. The deathsflower grew wherever I went, in secret gardens and groves, appearing only for me. I made my way as a physician, in a time when Europe was being electrified and Prussia was bending to welcome women into the arts and sciences.

Some thought me a quack, but I cured when I could cure, and put to sleep with my Jewel of Nocht those bound for brighter shores, Frau Todd a vigil keeper at their toes. The families always felt overwhelming peace under my care, and godmother often took tea with me in my little flat by the opera. I still fancied the arias and had just seen Così fan tutte for the first time. It could not beat The Magic Flute, but it had its charms.

“Where do you take them, Mama Todd, truly?” I asked her over tea one day. I was so dark in comparison to her, a night girl, black hair, almond-brown eyes, tan skin, freckles and moles. I was beautiful in a way Death was not, thrumming with life and humor, and she was glorious in a way I could never be. Where Frau Todd was youthful, I would always be mortal, and where my magick worked in little tricksy ways like papa had taught me, hers was vast. Little slices of time and place I could carve up, bottle, and trap were mine.

But all the stars were my godmother’s. Great gaseous balls. With angel’s hearts. Beating, bloody, winged hearts that only Death could eat.

Frau Todd smiled dreamily. “And what if God has as much appetite as I, or Samiel?” she teased. Only, I could not tell if she was serious or not.

“So, a Heaven’s Gate is the same as a Hellmouth? God eats His chosen souls?”

I shivered. Night set over my heart.

Death’s lips thinned.

“Everything is hungry, goddaughter. From the worms to God Himself. A grave is a grave, my Linde. We all rot, in the end.”

I winced, hard.

Frau Todd smiled in afterthought: “Yes, everyone perishes. Except for me, of course.”

 

The King of Prussia was marked for death. Some say he had crossed a witch on his campaign in France. Most thought it was the Hapsburg curse. All I knew was, there was land and a title and limitless purse for any lass or man that could cure him.

I hauled my belongings to court, my cart and best oxen and phials of medicine, and my precious deathsflower, and I went deep into his palace. Finally, it was my turn.

The Jewel of Nocht gleamed like a rose on my chest. Frau Todd was at his head and nodded serenely. Smiling, I cured the king.

There was a ball held in my honor. I was named Lady Sieglinde, First of Her Name. The royal coffers were mine. So was a palace back in dear old Leipzig – the King had done his research.

I charmed the corsets off many lasses for a tussle in silken sheets, then sang the britches off several noblemen. With Frau Todd’s help, I distributed birth control made especially by my cultivated strains of sacred herbs throughout the palace, and I grew even more popular.

But most on my mind was Princess Hilda. She was beautiful – curvy, shining brown ringlets, always dressed in green like Lady Greensleeves. I set to courting Hilda in secret, sang her the eponymous song meant originally for Anne Boleyn, even wrote her some of my poems.

As we lay in my palace’s bed – Hilda was there to “study mathematics with the King’s savior” – Hilda asked: “My dearly beloved Linde, what is that jewel?”

“What is the truth worth to you, my Hilda?”

She had eyes like a doe. I realized then, all like a crashing train, that I was deeply in love.

“A rose.” Hilda beamed.

“And a thistle?” I said, shaking.

Hilda giggled, staring at the silver astrolabe over my room and study. “Whatever you say, snake charmer.”

I went home, and bought the rose and thistle embroidery from Johanna, and I gave it to Hilda…wrapped with a promise ring with a chip from the Jewel of Nocht.

 

We met back in Berlin.

“Let’s run away to America, Sieglinde, together,” Hilda beamed, ravishing me with kisses. Heat grew in my legs. She made love to me to claim me.

“I cannot do that Princess Hilda. My medical license, my land and holdings, my livelihood, are all here.”

Hilda soured. “Am I worth anything to you but my title?”

“Hilda, you are the blackbird heart in my pie.”

The comely princess forgave me, kissing me through our tears. “You say the funniest things, strange Sieglinde.”

The next day, Hilda accepted a marriage offer from the Duke of England.

Her promise ring came to me by post.

I was bereft. I wanted to bargain, but for once

I had nothing

to give.

 


Death is always hungry. And never hungrier than when it comes to Maidens. Death and the Maiden, entwined.

Hilda fell sick with her father’s illness in a week. The King of Prussia said: “Anyone who can cure Hilda gets to become King. The engagement to the Duke of England is annulled. I will hand over my crown to whosoever saves my daughter.”

I disguised myself as a man and cast a glamour of forgetting over myself, to blend in. Court had forgotten Sieglinde the King’s Savior, secure as I was in my bastion in Leipzig, but I had not forgotten the riches of the palace.

The riches all paled in comparison to my beloved. I cursed myself every day for not sailing away to America with Hilda and starting over.

I sheared my hair, donned men’s britches, and rode in through a storm on my palomino gelding, death like a decaying rose in my shadow.

There Frau Todd stood, at Hilda’s feet.

Hilda was comatose.

“Mama Todd, you cannot take her, I love her!” I pleaded, on my knees. It was only us alone in the room.

Frau Todd grew steely. “My Linde, this time, I win.”

I grabbed the Jewel of Nocht, and with its ruby beam, I put Death to sleep. My godmother collapsed in a pile. I moved Hilda’s bed so that her face was by Frau Todd’s breast and her feet were by the wall.

I leaned in to administer deathsflower tincture. The purple and orange swirls brought life back to Hilda’s lips.

“Sieglinde, my beloved, is that you?” Hilda asked, sleepy-eyed, reeling.

But Death dragged me away, away from Hilda’s embrace.

“Why, Mama Todd? Give me this one thing!”

“A heart is worth a heart, my Sieglinde.” Frau Todd was oddly happy. “I get to show you my favorite part of the forest. My beautiful Cave of Souls.”

 

I awoke, scared shitless, in a cavern.

Candles, candles everywhere on dank lime scale walls, blinding me. Tall tallows for children, half-burnt for the married, stubs for the old and ill.

“Where is mine, godmother?” I asked.

“Putting me to sleep was a neat trick. Just like Samiel did to rape me. When I was simply a girl. The first woman born in God’s shadow. That is why I had to marry him, you see. It was the beginning of time, when a woman’s first blood meant something, my little linden tree. I was born from that tree, just like your namesake, Sieglinde. In fact, I was once called Eve,” Frau Todd mused. She held a sharp knife.

“Where is it! My soul?”

“What is a soul worth, my Linde?” Death’s blue eyes shone like stars.

“A mother’s love,” I pleaded. “Spare me, Mama Todd.”

“I never loved you, Sieglinde. Death cannot love. Fond of you, yes. But the only thing I love is hearts.” She showed me a pool of wax, candle flicker. “This is you. You will feed me.”

“No– Uglugh!”

Eve reached deep into my chest and carved out my heart with her paring knife.

 

Swallowed, now

I see

all.

Death is just. Death is not merciful. Death is not kind. And now I live in the first woman’s chest, a caged blackbird, trilling my mournful tune. She feeds me with tears over her unfaithful, ruinous husband. She cries over dead newborns. Comforts war-grizzled veterans who take their lives. She heals the souls of them all.

We walk together through the ages, my cage Frau Todd and I.

Now, we are never

alone.


 

Allister Nelson is a queer, neurodivergent Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and author whose work has appeared in Apex Magazine, The Showbear Family Circus, Eternal Haunted Summer, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, SENTIDOS: Revistas Amazonicas (for which she headlined COVID's first Amazonian poetry festival), Black Sheep: Unique Tales of Terror and Wonder, The Kaidankai Ghost Podcast, The Greyhound Journal, Bewildering Stories, Wicked Shadow Press's Halloweenthology, FunDead Publications' Gothic Anthology, POWER Magazine, Renewable Energy World, the National Science Foundation, and many other venues. She is a member of the Horror Writer's Association.


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