The Lost Apothecary – Sarah Penner

She would come at daybreak—the woman whose letter I held in my hands, the woman whose name I did not yet know. I knew neither her age nor where she lived. I did not know her rank in society nor the dark things of which she dreamed when night fell. She could be a victim or a transgressor. A new wife or a vengeful widow. A nursemaid or a courtesan. But despite all that I did not know, I understood this: the woman knew exactly who she wanted dead. I lifted the blush-colored paper, illuminated by the dying flame of a single rush wick candle. I ran my fingers over the ink of her words, imagining what despair brought the woman to seek out someone like me. Not just an apothecary, but a murderer. A master of disguise. Her request was simple and straightforward. For my mistress’s husband, with his breakfast. Daybreak, 4 Feb. At once, I drew to mind a middle-aged housemaid, called to do the bidding of her mistress.

And with an instinct perfected over the last two decades, I knew immediately the remedy most suited to this request: a chicken egg laced with nux vomica. The preparation would take mere minutes; the poison was within reach. But for a reason yet unknown to me, something about the letter left me unsettled. It was not the subtle, woodsy odor of the parchment or the way the lower left corner curled forward slightly, as though once damp with tears. Instead, the disquiet brewed inside of me. An intuitive understanding that something must be avoided. But what unwritten warning could reside on a single sheet of parchment, shrouded beneath pen strokes? None at all, I assured myself; this letter was no omen. My troubling thoughts were merely the result of my fatigue—the hour was late—and the persistent discomfort in my joints. I drew my attention to my calfskin register on the table in front of me. My precious register was a record of life and death; an inventory of the many women who sought potions from here, the darkest of apothecary shops.

In the front pages of my register, the ink was soft, written with a lighter hand, void of grief and resistance. These faded, worn entries belonged to my mother. This apothecary shop for women’s maladies, situated at 3 Back Alley, was hers long before it was mine. On occasion I read her entries—23 Mar 1767, Mrs. R. Ranford, Yarrow Milfoil 15 dr. 3x—and the words evoked memories of her: the way her hair fell against the back of her neck as she ground the yarrow stem with the pestle, or the taut, papery skin of her hand as she plucked seeds from the flower’s head. But my mother had not disguised her shop behind a false wall, and she had not slipped her remedies into vessels of dark red wine. She’d had no need to hide. The tinctures she dispensed were meant only for good: soothing the raw, tender parts of a new mother, or bringing menses upon a barren wife.

Thus, she filled her register pages with the most benign of herbal remedies. They would raise no suspicion. On my register pages, I wrote things such as nettle and hyssop and amaranth, yes, but also remedies more sinister: nightshade and hellebore and arsenic. Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish…and dark secrets. Secrets about the vigorous young man who suffered an ailing heart on the eve of his wedding, or how it came to pass that a healthy new father fell victim to a sudden fever. My register laid it all bare: these were not weak hearts and fevers at all, but thorn apple juice and nightshade slipped into wines and pies by cunning women whose names now stained my register. Oh, but if only the register told my own secret, the truth about how this all began. For I had documented every victim in these pages, all but one: Frederick. The sharp, black lines of his name defaced only my sullen heart, my scarred womb. I gently closed the register, for I had no use of it tonight, and returned my attention to the letter.

What worried me so? The edge of the parchment continued to catch my eye, as though something crawled beneath it. And the longer I remained at my table, the more my belly ached and my fingers trembled. In the distance, beyond the walls of the shop, the bells on a carriage sounded frighteningly similar to the chains on a constable’s belt. But I assured myself that the bailiffs would not come tonight, just as they had not come for the last two decades. My shop, like my poisons, was too cleverly disguised. No man would find this place; it was buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London. I drew my eyes to the soot-stained wall that I had not the heart, nor the strength, to scrub clean. An empty bottle on a shelf caught my reflection. My eyes, once bright green like my mother’s, now held little life within them. My cheeks, too, once flushed with vitality, were sallow and sunken.

I had the appearance of a ghost, much older than my forty-one years of age. Tenderly, I began to rub the round bone in my left wrist, swollen with heat like a stone left in the fire and forgotten. The discomfort in my joints had crawled through my body for years; it had grown so severe, I lived not a waking hour without pain. Every poison I dispensed brought a new wave of it upon me; some evenings, my fingers were so distended and stiff, I felt sure the skin would split open and expose what lay underneath. Killing and secret-keeping had done this to me. It had begun to rot me from the inside out, and something inside meant to tear me open. At once, the air grew stagnant, and smoke began to curl into the low stone ceiling of my hidden room. The candle was nearly spent, and soon the laudanum drops would wrap me in their heavy warmth. Night had long ago fallen, and she would arrive in just a few hours: the woman whose name I would add to my register and whose mystery I would begin to unravel, no matter the unease it brewed inside of me. 2 Caroline Present day, Monday I wasn’t supposed to be in London alone.

Celebratory anniversary trips are meant for two, not one, yet as I stepped out of the hotel into the bright light of a summer afternoon in London, the empty space next to me said otherwise. Today—our tenth wedding anniversary—James and I should have been together, making our way to the London Eye, the observation wheel overlooking the River Thames. We’d booked a nighttime ride in a VIP capsule, replete with a bottle of sparkling wine and a private host. For weeks, I’d imagined the dimly lit capsule swaying under the starry sky, our laughter punctuated only by the clinking of our champagne glasses and the touching of our lips. But James was an ocean away. And I was in London alone, grieving and furious and jet-lagged, with a life-changing decision to make. Instead of turning south toward the London Eye and the river, I headed in the opposite direction toward St. Paul’s and Ludgate Hill. Keeping my eyes open for the nearest pub, I felt every bit a tourist in my gray sneakers and crossbody tote bag. My notebook rested inside, the pages covered in blue ink and doodled hearts with an outline of our ten-day itinerary.

I’d only just arrived, and yet I couldn’t bear to read through our made-for-two agenda and the playful notes we’d written to one another. Southwark, couples’ garden tour, I’d written on one of the pages. Practice making baby behind a tree, James had scribbled next to it. I’d planned to wear a dress, just in case. Now I no longer needed the notebook, and I’d discarded every plan within. The back of my throat began to burn, tears approaching, as I wondered what else may soon be discarded. Our marriage? James was my college sweetheart; I didn’t know life without him. I didn’t know myself without him. Would I lose, too, my hopes for a baby? The idea of it made my stomach ache with want of more than just a decent meal. I longed to be a mother—to kiss those tiny, perfect toes and blow raspberries on the round belly of my baby.

I’d walked only a block when I spotted the entrance of a pub, The Old Fleet Tavern. But before I could venture inside, a rugged-looking fellow with a clipboard and stained khakis waved me down as I passed him on the sidewalk. With a wide grin on his face, the fiftysomething-year-old said, “Fancy joining us for mudlarking?” Mudlarking? I thought. Is that some kind of dirt-nesting bird? I forced a smile and shook my head. “No, thank you.” He wasn’t so easily deterred. “Ever read any Victorian authors?” he asked, his voice barely audible over the screech of a red tour bus. At this, I stopped in my tracks. A decade ago, in college, I’d graduated with a degree in British history. I’d passed my coursework with decent grades, but I’d always been most interested in what lay outside the textbooks.

The dry, formulaic chapters simply didn’t interest me as much as the musty, antiquated albums stored in the archives of old buildings, or the digitized images of faded ephemera —playbills, census records, passenger manifest lists—I found online. I could lose myself for hours in these seemingly meaningless documents, while my classmates met at coffee shops to study. I couldn’t attribute my unconventional interests to anything specific, I only knew that classroom debates about civil revolution and power-hungry world leaders left me yawning. To me, the allure of history lay in the minutiae of life long ago, the untold secrets of ordinary people. “I have read a bit, yes,” I said. Of course, I loved many of the classic British novels and read voraciously through school. At times, I had wished I’d pursued a degree in literature, as it seemed better suited to my interests. What I didn’t tell him was that I hadn’t read any Victorian literature—or any of my old British favorites, for that matter—in years. If this conversation resulted in a pop quiz, I’d fail miserably. “Well, they wrote all about the mudlarkers—those countless souls scrounging about in the river for something old, something valuable.

Might get your shoes a bit wet, but there’s no better way to immerse yourself in the past. Tide comes in, tide goes out, overturning something new each time. You’re welcome to join us on the tour, if you’re up for the adventure. First time is always free. We’ll be just on the other side of those brick buildings you see there…” He pointed. “Look for the stairs going to the river. Group’s meeting at half two, as the tide’s going out.” I smiled at him. Despite his unkempt appearance, his hazel eyes radiated warmth. Behind him, the wooden plaque reading The Old Fleet Tavern swung on a squeaky hinge, tempting me inside.

“Thank you,” I said, “but I’m headed to a…another appointment.” Truth was, I needed a drink. He nodded slowly. “Very well, but if you change your mind, we’ll be exploring until half five or so.” “Enjoy,” I mumbled, transferring my bag to the other shoulder, expecting to never see the man again. I stepped inside the darkened, damp taproom and nestled into a tall leather chair at the bar. Leaning forward to look at the beers on tap, I cringed as my arms landed in something wet—whatever sweat and ale had been left before me. I ordered a Boddingtons and waited impatiently for the creamcolored foam to rise to the surface and settle. At last, I took a deep drink, too worn-out to care that I had the beginning of a headache, the ale was lukewarm and a cramp had begun to tug on the left side of my abdomen. The Victorians.

I thought again about Charles Dickens, the author’s name echoing in my ears like that of an ex-boyfriend, fondly forgotten; an interesting guy, but not promising enough for the long haul. I’d read many of his works—Oliver Twist had been a favorite, followed closely by Great Expectations—but I felt a subtle flash of embarrassment. According to the man I’d met outside, the Victorians wrote “all about” this thing called mudlarking, and yet I didn’t even know what the word meant. If James were here next to me, he’d most certainly tease me over the gaffe. He’d always joked that I “book-clubbed” my way through college reading gothic fairy tales late into the night when, according to him, I should have spent more time analyzing academic journals and developing my own theses about historical and political unrest. Such research, he’d said, was the only way a history degree could benefit anyone, because then I could pursue academia, a doctorate degree, a professorship.

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