Inis Patraic, Isle of Man

Sessot tipped the steaming kettle over the cup.

Sessot tipped the scalding kettle over the brim. A puff, a rustle as the first drops pounded onto the powdery nest of herbs, then a rippling gurgle trilled up the sides of the cup, rising in pitch as the water rose, until Sessot judged it half-​full. Looking down from above, the surface was hidden by steam.

She set the kettle on the lace-​edged napkin and unwrapped the dishcloth from around the handle. Only then did the steam reach her nose, in a sweltering second florescence of dead blossoms.

Only then did the steam reach her nose.

Sessot moved the cup to the edge of the table nearest her chair. The plume of steam trailed slanting behind it until, after a few seconds had passed, the curling column rose straight from its new location.

Sessot sat before the cup to wait.

Sessot sat before the cup to wait.

It was Saturday night: the one night of the week when she could count on her father being out. In the morning—if he came back at all by then—he would be too hungover to notice what she was doing, so long as she kept quiet.

In the worst case, if she were already quite unwell by dawn, she would have put away the second dose of herbs with her other medicines, and she could ask her father to prepare the infusion. If she said it was a remedy for feminine cramps and bleeding, he would be too embarrassed to argue. He would never realize the herbs were meant to provoke those very things.

Sessot peered through the veil of steam to her father’s chair. Its withy spokes cast leaping, long-​legged shadows upon the wall, like a spider’s dance. All at once she wondered: if her father prepared the tea, even unknowing, would he be guilty too?

Sessot peered through the veil of steam to her father's chair.

Sessot’s life had never held so many moral questions. Her certainty that she was a good girl had always trumped temptation. She had never stolen, because she was a good girl, and good girls did not steal. She had never snuck around, never shirked her work, never sassed her elders.

No little lies, no pilfered pies, nothing had taught her by what subtle degrees virtue shaded into crime. She ruminated obsessively over the events, but she could not identify a moment at which she had ceased being good. Therefore she must still be good.

And yet here she was, her face bathed in medicinal steam, watching poison cool.

She did not know about such things.

A skin of dry, silvery dust sparkled on the surface of the water. Oddments of slender broken leaves were scattered over it like mismatched wings in a spider’s web. Should she stir them in? She did not know about such things.

She did not know: should she have gone for some other woman when Suki had refused to rise?

Should she have run when he burst through the curtain? Run when she had the chance?

Had it been wrong to tell him her English name? And once she had, had it been wrong to enter into a conversation with him? To sit and eat with him? To let him brush back her hair? To let him lay his hand lightly over hers?

And once she had, had it been wrong to go behind the curtain while he roused the fire? Had it been wrong to sit beside him on the rug while he fed it with sticks? To tell him about her mother? To let him put an arm over her shoulder?

Had she stopped being good when he had kissed her?

Had she stopped being good when he had kissed her, and she had not made a protest?

Had it been when he had laid her down, and she had not known how to right herself without accusing a Crown Prince of wanting something he had not demanded yet?

Had it been when she had reassured herself with the thought that his hands were still outside her dress? Or when he had slid her skirts up to her knees and she had been grateful for her stockings? What about her bare thighs? What about when he had kneeled between them? What could she have done by then, when her limbs were shaking and her heart beating so high in her chest that she could not breathe? When?


She had not meant to be bad. And yet here she was, staring into a mortal tincture of dead stems and seeds. With what heartless calculation had she procured it. How low she had sunk to enter into relations with the slut Suki. How coolly she had traded her mother’s amber beads for poison.

Now she knew how subtly virtue sank into vice. Each sin led to another, still more depraved, to hide the evidence of the first. By now only a breath of steam hung over the rim of the cup. The water was almost cool. If she drank, what crimes would she have to commit to hide the evidence of this?

Sessot slipped the little packet out of her purse. It was half the size it had been when Suki had tossed it carelessly across the table. Now she untied it and shook its crumbling contents into the cup. A puff of silvery dust rose like steam.

A puff of silvery dust rose like steam.

She picked up the kettle by its blood-​warm handle and tipped it over the rim. The gurgling rill of hot water drowned the floating clump of weeds. Hard, shrunken, button-​like flower-​heads plummeted to the bottom of the cup, and a countercurrent from the deeps lifted their bloated brethren to gasp a last time at the surface, slimy and pale.

Don’t take the whole thing at once or you’ll die for sure.

An instant later another burst of musty, medicinal steam billowed around Sessot’s face. She plunked down the kettle and coughed and choked. Her face was wet with tears.

She shoved back her chair and rose up to throw wide the shutters.

She rose up to throw wide the shutters.

The night wind gusted into the little house as if it had only been awaiting an invitation. Sweet as a mother, it kissed and cooled Sessot’s face, brushed back her hair, and whisked away the reek of herbs.

She opened her mouth and breathed. She tasted cold mud, frosty thatch, and fires. The brackish spray of the rocky straits infused the air, and the wind bore the saline tang of miles and miles of open sea. When she put out her tongue she could even taste the stars.

She could even taste the stars.

She turned into the house only long enough to pick up the cup, and she reached outside to empty it onto the earth far below. Its trail of foul steam was a wisp of nothing against the deep, crystalline coolness of the winter evening.

A dog woke and barked at the sound of the splatter. He would be the only witness. The paths and courts were empty.

The King of Man and the Isles drank and made merry with his sons and ship captains in his long, thatched hall. In the tavern behind the tower, a woman squealed, and men laughed, and they all danced to a frenetic melody played on a lyre and a drum.

Sessot pulled her head inside. Good girls went to bed early on Saturday night.

Sessot pulled her head inside.