Oh good, you’re here. Right on time. Come, sit. I’ll pour us some tea and we’ll get started. I hope you understand, this is hard for me. I’ve spent my entire life hiding in the shadows. There was a time when I would have been burned at the stake just for existing. Now it seems everyone wants to be immortal. Trust me. You don’t.
So, let’s see. Where should I start? Well, as I told you before, I left Hekate’s lair shortly after my final transformation. It was a horrible time in Germany. Every time you turned around, there was another witch hunt going on. Thousands of people were killed simply because they didn’t believe what the church was telling them.
I wandered around for some time before landing a job cleaning for the lawyer, Tobias Hess. He was kind of an odd duck, but I had to agree with some of his views. He never knew it, but he was my gateway into the world I’d come to call my own.
Herr Hess was a self-professed Rosicrucian and a practicing Paracelsus physician. In layman’s terms, he didn’t buy all the crap the church was preaching and believed in the power of natural medicines.
I’d only been working there for a few weeks when he came to me with a strange question. He asked me if female hysteria was a real thing. I just sat there, staring at him. “Excuse me?” was all I could think to say.
“Come, Fraulein, read this report.” He motioned for me to join him, but I still just sat there stunned. He looked back at me, sadness in his eyes. “You can read, yes?”
“Yes,” I sputtered, coming out of my daze. “I can read, Herr Hess. In fact, I’m fluent in six different languages.”
“And where did you attend school?” he asked with an almost suspicious tone to his voice.
“My education began in Greece,” I said, trying to come up with something quick, “but was able to study abroad for a time. My grandmother provided me with private tutors from around the world.”
This time, Herr Hess had that shocked look on his face. “Then why are you a cleaning woman?” he was finally able to mutter. “You should be out there making a name for yourself.”
“I agree, but you were the only person who would hire me for anything when I came to town. No one wants to hire a woman to take a man’s job.” As I spoke, a slight smile crossed his face.
“Well,” he quipped, “seems that makes me the smartest man in town.”
Herr Hess was trying to make a case that many of the women who’d been charged with witchcraft were simply dealing with an ailment known as “female hysteria”. He had a real problem with the number of women who were being burned alive and wanted to put an end to it.
In his report, Der Fall für Weibliche Hysterie (The Case for Female Hysteria), he claimed that many of the women charged were older and therefore dealing with internal frustrations. Their children were grown and gone, their husbands had passed away or taken up with younger women, and their frail bodies made it hard to work their lands. It was the biggest load of bullshit I’d ever read but for that day and age, it was groundbreaking.
“Do you believe in witches, Herr Hess?” I could see my question caught him off guard.
“Of course,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s a scientific fact that witches exist. However, I do not believe that there are as many as the church would have us believe. Do you, Fraulein, believe in witches.”
I knew I’d have to be very careful about how I answered his question. It’s not like I could come right out and tell him that I’d been raised by the queen of witches. “Yes,” I said as meekly as possible, “I believe they exist, but I’ve never met one. Anyway, I don’t believe I have.”
“I have,” he said with a chuckle in his voice. “When I was a child, I had a medical condition that made it impossible for me to eat cheese. My parents had taken me to a few of the local doctors, but none of them had an answer. So, my mother took me to a village deep in the forest. One of the older women listened to my story, then made me a concoction from various herbs and spices. She told my mother how to apply it to my diet and gave her the recipe so as to make it herself. I still have that recipe and use it to this day.”
I sat in stunned silence. I knew he had to have been talking about the women of my village. Could the woman he was talking about be one of my relatives? I wasn’t sure but loved the idea that she had been. Perhaps she was my real grandmother.
“So, Fraulein,” he asked with a tilt of his head, “what do you think?”
I quickly reread his report, then decided to be fully honest with him. “I think it’s a good start, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. What about the number of men who’ve been branded a witch? You can’t very well chalk that up to a female issue, can you?”
Herr Hess thought for a moment. “Perhaps it’s contagious?”
I wanted to laugh in his face but knew that wouldn’t be advisable. “No, sir, I don’t think so. However, I do think we are facing a type of hysteria. One that affects both men and women alike.”
A strange look crossed his face. He looked almost euphoric. “You mean, like the plague?”
“Yes,” I said, “but not one that attacks the body. I think this is something that attacks the mind.”
Herr Hess jumped up, grabbing a stack of papers. “Come, Fraulein. We have work to do.”
He ran to a door at the back of the room. When I caught up with him, he turned to me in the most serious demeanor. “Fraulein Rhodes, what I am about to show you beyond this door is to remain a much-guarded secret. Can I trust you?”
I couldn’t explain it at the time, but I didn’t fear what I was about to encounter. I swore my loyalty to my employer and vowed to keep his secret. He opened the door and lit the lamp just inside. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Herr Hess had built an apothecary nearly as impressive as Grandmother Hekate’s.
We spent the next ten years working side by side. Our goal was to create a natural medicine that would put an end to the hysteria but it never came to pass. In November of 1614, Herr Hess died in his sleep.
In his will, he named me as the sole beneficiary. All of his journals, manuscripts, and the apothecary itself, became mine. What I discovered in his documents sent me on an adventure that has lasted more than 400 years.
Sorry, kid, but our time is up. I’ve got some papers I need to get filed before the end of the day. Come back again and I’ll tell you about some of the things I found in Herr Hess’s papers. You’ll be amazed at what’s been lurking in the darkness all these years.