“After all,” He would say, “Don’t we all have our own brass serpents? Things that seem so easy, but we don’t. But if we did we could be healed? We fear being healed, Rieka. We fear that if we are healed, we will cause other people pain. We fear that if we let someone else see our pain, then they will hurt us more. We fear we don’t deserve to be healed, or we fear to get our hopes up. So we push our faith aside and fear it.”
When I was eight my mother died of fever. My father put up a valiant fight, but the fever took him as well. Aunt Lucille stayed for a while, but didn’t want children and hated every minute of it. When she was gone, it was just my brother and me. Bram was seventeen, but he acted so much older. It was like life had stolen his childhood away at the same time as my parents.
Bram was a harder worker than anyone I knew. He’d take any job that was offered to keep food on the table, and then he’d lend his help to anyone who needed it. By the time I was eleven he was the town physician and handyman. His smile could melt a heart of stone. He took every hardship in a stride and kept moving.
When I was sixteen, the disease spread to our town. We had heard tales of it spreading in the north, but I had never imagined it would come to us. It destroyed cities, killed thousands. Homes were left desolate, crops were destroyed, and those who weren’t widowed were orphaned.
The disease that turned men into wolves.
We were woken around 11 o'clock one night by a banging at our door. On the other side we found Mrs. Early and her three year old daughter. Mrs. Early was a no nonsense Irish woman with a twinkle in her eyes, a tight bun of dark red hair, and a wooden spoon in her hand at all times. It was as if she was perpetually threatening you to have a good time and enjoy any food she brought you. Tonight however, her face was set in stone.
Thank heavens you answered,” she said crisply, “It’s Jay, he came home acting strange and I think he’s been bitten! I’ll stay here until tomorrow night and then we’ll decide what to do.”
My brother stared at her, “Bitten by what? Mae you have to be more specific.”
At that moment I knew; the look on her face gave it away. Before I could ask however, she responded with a somber expression. “A wolf,” she stated, “Bram, he’s been bitten by a wolf.”
Bram’s eyes widened and he ushered her inside, “You stay here. I’ll go check on him.”
"Don't be foolish boy!" Mrs. Early frowned, "Wait for now."
"I'm going," Bram set his jaw and began walking; too determined for his own good.
I almost argued, but when I saw the determined look on his face I knew I couldn’t argue. Leading Mrs. Early to the kitchen and putting a kettle on the stove, I looked him dead in the eyes as he walked out the door.
We waited for almost three hours. No one came. Mrs. Early was busy taking care of her little girl, but I have nothing to do but watch. Watch and worry. When the sun rose, I accepted the inevitable.
My brother wasn’t coming back.
Mrs. Early made us breakfast. “No use starving ourselves and worrying as well,” she said with squared shoulders.
That night we saw an entire pack of wolves circling our house. Most of them had reddish eyes and dark, matted fur. Their snarls were feral and deadly. They had traveled a long way. There were three others that seemed different than the rest. One with pale, blonde fur that could only belong to Mr. Briant. One with a scar on his cheek; the same scar that Jay Early had after the riding accident two years before. Another had bright blue eyes; just like Bram’s. I bit back a sob when I saw them.
“There dear,” Mrs. Early said calmly, “Let’s keep our heads. We’ll come up with something.”
I stared at her in shock, “Are you not surprised at all? Or worried? That’s your husband and my brother turned into wolves. We have lost them!”
I almost expected some sort of breakdown, but Mae Early proved me wrong.
Looking me dead in the eyes, she growled, “Look here girl. Nothing is lost until we have given up finding it. You take this book,” She shoved the tome into my hands, “And we are going to find out how to fix this.”
Glancing down, I stared at the book in surprise, “Mrs. Cleary! This is- this is-”
“A Grimoire, dear,” she smirked a little, “It’s been passed down in my family for generations and when I am gone, my little one will get it. But I haven’t had the time to read it all and I’m sure that the answer will be in there.”
My gaze shot between her and her daughter as I fingered the book gingerly. Unsure of how to continue, I stammered out, “You- you’re a witch?”
“A healer,” She said, raising an eyebrow at me, “A white witch if you must, but a healer nonetheless.”
I nodded hesitantly, then opened the book. If she could save my brother, I didn’t care what kind of witch she was.
As it turned out, the Grimoire was comprised of ten different volumes. She had given me the first one in English as she scoured the ones in Irish. We searched for almost a week, looking for some sort of reference to the disease.
Finally, I heard an exclamation from the other side of the room, “Ah, here it is dear!”
Mrs. Cleary waved the book excitedly, “I knew it must be in here somewhere! And I’ve found
it,” picking up her daughter in one hand and the book in the other, she tottered over to me and set the tome down with a thump. She pointed at a passage and read outloud in English, “The Curse of Gwri. Those bitten perform penance for the nursemaids of Rhiannon, the goddess of horses and moons. When the moon waynes, they may return to mortal form, but until it is new they must share their minds with monsters. The only way to save them from their plight is to call to them by name and reach out your hand. If you allow them to come close enough, trusting the monsters with your life, they will be healed.”
There was a moment of silence, “That’s it?”
“What?” Mrs. Cleary looked at me incredulously, “Did you want some crazy scheme with a silver shaft and a magic potion? An exorcism perhaps?”
“No!” I exclaimed, “No that’s not it, it’s just-”
“Just what child?”
“It seems to easy?” I tried, “And we could get killed by letting one close enough. We don’t have all of their names.”
“But we have three of them,” Came the stubborn reply, “And if we can save three, then we can find the names of the others somewhere.”
I shook my head, slightly exasperated, “But what if it doesn’t work?”
Taking my hand in hers, Mrs. Cleary spoke with painful, cutting logic, “But what if it does? I cannot lose my husband, and you cannot lose your brother. Mrs. Briant will be forever happier to have her husband home. We could end this now, or we’ll become wolves ourselves. It’s as simple as that.”
Her voice rang with sincerity and my heart began to pound. I nodded, “Okay.”
Hand in hand with Mrs. Cleary, her daughter safe in her arms, we walked into the woods, calling out the names of our loved ones.
And that’s the thing about brass serpents isn’t it? Whether they be poison or a curse of unwarranted penance. We fear what will happen if we aren’t healed, and we fear what will happen if we are. Fate is so fickle; life, so delicate. Sometimes, we just need to put our faith in that fact that it might work. And that faith, that hope, is everything that our fear can never be.