Zoë discovered the secret attic, the beating heart of her little bungalow, on the morning after she settled in. She had long contemplated buying the house that had been built in the midst of a lattice of old irrigation canals on former farmland, a place that was neither land nor water, even though its owner was dismissive of her intentions from the start. He believed that, at best, she was acting on behalf of someone else, a lover perhaps; but on the day of the sale, he was, in truth, no less surprised than were the Jacobins upon receiving the verdict of virgo intacta in the aftermath of Marat’s assassination. Zoë appeared completely alone, completely self-composed and eager, on foot and with papers in hand at the title notary’s on the last day of the month.
It was an early spring dusk as cool as autumn when she took possession of the modest dwelling. The hazy white sun in a sapphire mist sank low at the tree-garlanded horizon. A slight breeze whistled. The somber, empty windows looked like black ice. She set down the load of boxes and quilts she had carried up the road on an old wooden bench, and tied back her long, dark hair with a cotton scarf. The eaves of the porch became old rakes with tired arms outstretched in anger—histrionic, insouciant, giving stern, witless warnings to foolish young dissolutes not to follow in their path. She didn’t care for them at all, and with great severity stipulated that they were never, ever, to cross her threshold. She turned her key and went inside.
The electricity had not been connected, so Zoë spent the rest of the evening dusting and swabbing by candlelight. The solitude and quiet were broken only by the cry of an owl, once the buff, brackish moon began burning in the transom. And the whispered flutter of white moths at the window, careless as children. It was delightful to curl up alone on the floor in a bright scrap quilt at the end of the evening and pretend to be a pretty white cat, one that ate cakes soaked in wine in lieu of bright eaglets. She would have roommates eventually, and in the morning would begin setting up her shop and the garden. She laughed as she thought of a story she had read the day before about a traffic camera that acquired sentience and began snapping drivers for moral peccadilloes—rudeness, road rage, obscene gestures, and the like. Zoë was delighted by life’s little moments, and she drifted off to sleep pleased with the world and herself.
In the morning the garden was warm and humid, with flowers of varieties both wild and tame, whorls of pastels and mounds of champagne foam, azaleas and spireas and hydrangeas, tall serrated grasses, lilies with tongues and stripes and hanging stamens, grapevines with supple, new-sprung leaves that clung to stone walls by tendrils of lace. The free air was filled with bees and dragonflies going about their business, and Zoë sat like a queen among them, her green eyes filled with rivers, lands and continents in the soothing arbor light beneath funeral cypresses and great oak trees. Under a long, alpaca shawl she wore an immaculate white blouse with carved wooden buttons, and an immaculate red-and-black patchwork skirt that smelled of the cloying soap berries she used for washing. Her fingers were sticky from a plum batter-cake she had eaten for breakfast, and she rinsed them in a rusty fishpond that held water but no fish. She watered the strawberry and lemon balm plants that had burst through the earth from fragile runners only days before, and watched the bright morning sunlight glitter as it met the dormer windows of her very own attic.
She had given the house a good once-over before her decision to purchase, but had not seen the attic or found its access. The former owner had led her to believe it was only an empty garret, but he, himself, knew the house little better than she did, as it had belonged to an aunt he seldom visited. She went through the kitchen door to check on the bread she was baking, still thinking about the attic. But the smell of bread almost drove it from her thoughts entirely. The concealed chamber had to compete with the image of golden, crunchy toast smothered in honey, with a tiny slip of orange peel, Zoë’s favorite bite. She unpacked a willow basket filled with small jars of herbs: lungwort, woolly cat’s-foot flowers, madder root, star anise, and powdered skullcap, which she placed on rows of shallow white shelves inside the pantry. Opening a jar of love-in-a-mist seeds, and inhaling the scent of onion and pepper, she decided to mix them into a batch of pumpkin seed butter she was planning to make for herself. She worked for a bit keep the male and female herbs separate, sliding little bright jars back and forth on the shelves. As she hummed a tune to herself and pushed her hair back, she examined the pantry carefully, and caught sight of a trap in the ceiling. She opened the trap and unfolded a ladder, finding her tallness more hindrance than help in the closeness. Using her wildest and most wanton shimmy, she made it past the pantry shelves and up through the trap. In the silver-gold light of the west-facing windows, she discovered a low sitting room under two sloping walls, as cozy as a swallow’s nest beneath a shielding spur.
A friendly chair upholstered in green, Zoë’s favorite color, sat next to a bookshelf with books and a few other what-nots: old pink ballet shoes, finger cymbals from Tibet, an assay kit in a small pine box, a collection of fused glass beads in an amber wine glass, and, a bit apart, on a carved sheshem table the color of a lion’s tongue, a fish bowl with a live goldfish in it! No ghost tended the minute water calico, who seemed most content, but a very slow drip from a pipe that ran along the spine of the roof. An island of duckweed, its own modest fare of sunlight and air allotted by the generous windows, was breakfast and dinner for the indifferent ichthyic palate. The house had been empty for months, but at its living center—for this attic chamber was surely its heart—a small, fragile occupant held watch through the hours.
Zoë fell to her knees and worshipped the little creature for a moment, and laughing until her belly hurt, threw herself onto the chair. Taking up a heavy volume bound in red Levant morocco with the scent of sandalwood from one of the shelves, she opened its gilded covers and read:
A Desert Father of Scetis wrote these words of wisdom, “Silence and enclosure along with a dry and even diet will soon bring one to the harbor of invincibility.” The holy diet consists of these four elements: almonds, pistachios, dates and raisins. Along with a little bread and fruit, these will suffice for a long and recollected life.
In another book she found this passage:
The bad father is like a wild dog that cannot live within the walls of a city without being tamed or destroyed. The wise mother must be law and defender, and there is no greater defense than the power of her own milk. The nourishing of a child at the breast must be uninterrupted, except by serious illness, for the duration of infancy, so that fertility returns only when the child is strong. During a child’s first two years that child is the sun, and the father a distant star.
And from the same book, The Annals of Wisdom:
The coarse pomelo bestows upon its votary a variety of gifts: peace for the spirit, savor for the palate, and life-strengthening medicine for the body. Once the flesh is extracted, it may be eaten raw or cooked. It is an offering worthy of the altar, and its juice is healthful for bathing the limbs or as a tonic.
If you wish to become the wisest of Wise Women, and the healer and protector of mothers and children, you must marry the milk-cap who lives in the garden. Although he only appears after the rains, you must be faithful to him always. First darken your lips and your eyelids with henna, as his sight is very bad, and then give him your promise at the hour of moonrise.
Upon reading these words, Zoë couldn’t help but leap for joy. She was already a priestess of herbalism and weaving and dyeing and dance. Hurrying from the attic to the dew-drenched garden—pausing only to smear her lips with a little henna-and-lemon paste from Rajasthan that she carried in her charm pouch—she quickly reached the wet, shady spot where the milk-cap awaited her. He seemed both kindly and reserved. She knelt to kiss her future husband, who was dressed in the colors of carrot and cream, and found him more than ready to give her a milky kiss on the mouth in return. Using her shawl to cover her head, she gave promise to return for the evening moonrise.
About noontime, Zoë’s circle-sister Claire, an apprentice midwife and apprentice Wise Woman, arrived with a truck she had borrowed from her brother that was loaded with Zoë’s belongings. Most of the things Zoë owned were handmade little articles she had fashioned herself. She had been gathering them together for some time, and was planning to open a shop in her new house where she could sell her work.
As Claire helped her unpack and fill the bookshelves in the living room, Zoë told her about her discovery of the attic. Claire showed little interest in the story at first, but she was unusually bright and had a grand sense of smell, and quickly noticed that Zoë’s mouth was stained with henna and smelled of milk. She began asking uncomfortable questions that had nothing to do with Zoë’s account of the attic, which completely left out the part about peeking into books she had found there.
“Have you been to a wedding lately?”
“No, but I have been weeding in the garden. Why do you ask?”
“Because you have henna on your lips and your fingertips.”
“It’s just mud from the garden.”
“More like a muddle. Did you have milk in your tea today?”
“No, I drank my tea with honey. But the bees like to visit the milkweed.”
“Why didn’t you wash your mouth and your hands when you left off gardening?”
Claire was getting a little bossy. She happened to be in the midst of trying to give up cigarettes for about the millionth, or billionth time.
“Because, I…” and Zoë could think of no more excuses.
“I think you’re planning to marry a toadstool. A milk-cap, no less. If you do that, you’ll never have a girl of your own for me to catch. We’ll never be placenta sisters.”
Zoë stared at Claire for a long time, anger growing in her clear green eyes.
“Why would you say something like that?
Claire pretended to be studying a pencil cup covered in sparkling glass tiles she had just unpacked.
“From one aspiring Wise Woman to another, anybody who discovers a secret attic has obviously discovered a secret in that attic, and the kind of secret that you would hide from a sister obviously has to do with an offer of powers not due to you through some kind of tryst with a nature spirit, and it’s clear that you’ve been locking lips with a milk-cap, and milk-caps are never satisfied with just a kiss but want to bind little goddesses like yourself to them with all sorts of tricks. You’re a bad apprentice and a bad sister, it pains me to say. You need to go and confess what you’ve done to the mistress of our circle, who also happens to be your Godmother, and your cord mother besides, because she was there when you left your mother’s house of life.”
Zoë couldn’t understand why everyone was so fond of calling her “little.” She was, in point of fact, just two inches short of six-feet tall. Perhaps when people said it, they meant it as a polite synonym for “least.” She took the pencil cup from Claire in an irritable way and plunked it down on a shelf sitting next to her head a bit too abruptly.
“I no longer need a mistress. After I marry the milk-cap, you and she and the rest of our circle will want to be my apprentices!”
“Why don’t you just slow down and think about what you’re saying, Zoë?”
“I think you’re jealous.”
Claire let a tall stack of hemp and cotton bags tumble onto the floor.
“I’m leaving.” Planting her striped kullu cap with its glossy embroidery on her close-cropped head, and putting her phone in her pocket, she made ready to depart in a huff.
“I’m sorry,” Zoë said sincerely.
“Okay,” Claire answered her, slipping off her cap. “If you’re really sorry, I’ll finish helping you unpack. But now I would like a little cedar—you know, to help cleanse away all the hard words we said to each other.”
“I don’t have any.”
“Salt cedar will do fine. I passed a muddy little marsh just down the road.”
“I’m already on my way.”
“Please think about what you said, and what I said—and about what being a Wise Woman really means.”
“I know I’ll understand everything soon. You’ll see.”
“I think you will.”
Zoë left the house in search of salt cedar, carrying only the suspicion that her circle-sister was trying to find an opportunity to sneak a smoke without an onlooker. Claire went straight to the pantry to look for alum. She found a tin of powdered alum next to a jar of Dead Sea mud and a large ball of beeswax, and swiftly slipped into the garden, where she sprinkled the shimmering powder on a tall, rather stiff, saffron-and-white mushroom that stood all alone, whispering a few words of power she composed on the spot.
At moonrise there were no nuptials in Zoë’s garden. Seven women sat quietly with Zoë in a circle on the floor of her living room. A lotus candle had been lit, and shadows gathered as the cold crept in. The house was filled with cedar smoke. It was raining, and the rain made noises on the window like fingers striking a guitar chord. At regular intervals, an owl screeched. The stains on Zoë’s pretty lips and clever fingers remained like a curse, but her heart had been released by her confession. The women passed a bowl of thyme and rosemary tea from hand to hand, taking little sips and pouring out from a Chinese teapot when the cup was empty. Every time Zoë took a sip, she prayed that it wouldn’t taste like milk. For a long time the candle flickered in the gathering dark, and no sound was heard but the owl and the rain.
At last Zoë’s mistress spoke.
“We wish to learn good things. That is wisdom. But it is not enough to want to learn; we must also seek after knowledge in a manner that is timely. We don’t expect a baby to read, nor an infant to describe sacred diagrams. Or a little apprentice to know all things. Untimely knowledge leads to confusion and pride.”
At the turn of the hour, and beginning with the mistress, each of the sisters rose and kissed Zoë, who remained seated on the floor with her face turned down. When she finally stood in the presence of her cord mother and her sisters, it was only to place the volume of The Annals of Wisdom in the wise, elderly hands that had already blessed her. Outside the circle, silver tears of the moon continued to fall in sheets. And in a wild, neglected corner of the garden, under a starless firmament, the bright, astringent alum streamed away like milky ash.