When Dr. Loralee Altman arrives on the island of Norn, she isn’t sure what to expect but certainly not what she finds. Norn is one of those places people move away from, most eager to leave the dilapidated village.
But beggars can’t be choosers, not in this job market, so when Loralee receives word of an opening for the island’s physician, she can’t turn it down.
Loralee carries one suitcase, fit to burst with her meager belongings, and as the ferry’s horn blares behind her, signaling the last day’s departure, she shivers and pulls her coat tight around her, warding off the November cold.
Walking toward the farm she will soon call home, she can’t help but take in the crumbling main street that borders her on either side. Most stores stand boarded, their owners long ago escaping the ruin of Norn, not caring that the rest of the world faces the same trouble that has plagued Norn for centuries.
Plagued. Poor choice of words.
It takes Loralee an hour to reach the far end of Norn where a two-story farmhouse sits on a large plot of land. Loralee can only imagine the bounty the farm once grew, but now, only death greets her at the front gate. No one knows exactly what made the earth turn on the island of Norn so many years ago, but that is not of Loralee’s concern. She has one job here, to heal.
She walks up the large staircase centering the home and raises the rusted horseshoe acting as an ornamental door knocker. It drops with a thud, and she gasps as the door swings wide and a large, older gentleman’s frame looms in the doorway.
“What do you want?” he says with a sneer as the blood drains from Loralee’s face. She stands her ground, straightening her spine.
“I’m Dr. Loralee Altman, Norn’s new resident physician. The mayor hired me, sir.” Her words are steady, strong, surprising herself. “You must be Dr. Carlyle Buchanan.”
His eyes rove up and down her body before he snorts in disapproval, sending him into a fit of violent coughs. His body hunches forward as he pulls out a dirty handkerchief and wipes his mouth. When he manages to right himself, a simmer of shame hides behind his gaze, and Loralee gives him as warm a smile as she can muster.
“May I come in, sir?”
The silence stretches between them, and Loralee forces herself to remain still, ignoring the cramp in her hand from carrying her heavy bag. Dr. Buchanan’s shoulders finally droop, and he steps aside, sweeping his arm to welcome her inside.
Later, the two doctors stroll through the barren garden, Loralee pushing Dr. Buchanan in a wheelchair. When he’d gruffly offered to show her the grounds after dinner, she’d accepted on the condition that he take the chair, as it was clear from his unsteady gait that his body’s energy tank was running dangerously low. His eyes narrowed, and he seemed likely to refuse, but he soon acquiesced, perhaps accepting his fate, and allowed her to roll him down the long ramp bordering the house.
It wasn’t the pox that ailed him, that much was sure. The sickness that wiped out much of humanity a couple of centuries prior was easy to spot by the quick onset and even quicker death as your body’s blood turned against you. No, this wasn’t that. Cancer, most likely, and by the look of Dr. Buchanan, he didn’t have long for this world.
The grounds of the farmhouse cover at least a quarter of Norn. Before the pox, Carlyle says with pride, it supplied the entire island with everything they could possibly need. Now, it is a wasteland, and they must rely on the mainland, an added burden to an already hard existence.
They reach the edge of the property where a tall, wooden fence squares off a portion of the land.
“What’s this?” Loralee asks. Though more cordial, their conversations have been short, the awkward silences long. Death calls for Dr. Buchanan, and Loralee’s arrival is a stark reminder of that fact. With no heirs, she is his replacement, pure and simple.
“The property well,” Carlyle responds. “Long dry. But don’t worry, there are others in town. They’ll make sure you have what you need.”
Loralee remains silent.
“Something on your mind?” Carlyle asks.
“Just something my grandmother used to say about wells,” Loralee says. “That before the pox, there were those who were strengthened by them, that they held some sort of power or magic.”
Loralee looks down to find Carlyle staring up at her, one eyebrow raised.
“You believe in that sort of voodoo, Dr. Altman?” There is a new menace behind his eyes, one of suspicion and scorn. Loralee waves her hand at him.
“She also suffered from severe dementia, Dr. Buchanan,” Loralee says, an awkward laugh escaping her at Carlyle’s clear unease. His mouth tugs up in an almost-smile as she turns him around to head back toward home, but the heightened wariness remains in his gaze, and Loralee curses under her breath for the misstep.
When her eyes pop open, Loralee forgets where she is, momentary panic setting in at the unknown surroundings. But soon the bare walls of her bedroom come into focus, and she lets out a breath as she attempts to figure out what woke her.
She pushes back the comforter, an immediate chill settling over her as goosebumps prickle her flesh. She rises from the bed and grabs her thick robe, throwing it around her shoulders as she steps up to the window overlooking the property grounds.
The night sky is clear, filled to the brim with a tapestry of stars, but her gaze is pulled to the property’s edge. Tonight, the long-dry well is far from dead, and Loralee gasps at the dull, violet light pulsing through the cracks of the tall fence, wisps of something curling up over the edge of the planks.
“What the…” Her voice trails off, and before she can think to stop herself, she pulls on her boots and tiptoes into the hallway, down the stairs, and out the front door.
Loralee’s sharp, scientific brain tells her to tread carefully, to approach the well with caution, but something in her heart pushes her forward at a gallop. The anomaly grows as she approaches, a purple haze reaching toward the sky with every step she takes. A tendril of light seeps through the boards as she closes in, and she reaches out a hand.
The light interweaves her fingers as if in welcome. A calm settles within Loralee, and she sucks in a deep breath as more tendrils make their way toward her, wrapping around her body. They begin to bear weight, tightening around Loralee. She tries to step back, but it holds her steady, and soon the weight crushes as Loralee struggles to breathe against it. She opens her mouth to scream, and the light takes advantage, a tendril shooting down her throat. She’s lifted off the ground, arms spread wide, but soon the fear recedes, replaced by a warmth that erases the chill in the air. Within moments, the light recedes, setting Loralee gently upon the ground before returning to the well.
Loralee heaves in a breath, patting herself down. She’s uninjured. Stepping up to the fence, she peeks between the boards and finds the light hovering just over the lip of the well. Not wanting to become entrapped once more, Loralee runs back to the house, taking the front steps two at a time before disappearing into the safety of the farmhouse.
As she slams the door, she fails to notice the lush grass and long-lost blooms erupting from the garden’s ground where her sprinting feet just touched.
The next morning, Loralee awakens to the shouts of Dr. Buchanan, and she leaps out of bed at the sound. Outside, she hovers on the stairs, staring in amazement at what Carlyle has discovered. He sits on the ground, his nose pressed into a rose bloom, the vibrant red stark against the dead garden behind it.
Carlyle catches her staring down at him and waves her over.
“Quick! Come see, Dr. Altman. It’s a miracle!”
A smile she wasn’t certain he was capable of just yesterday spreads wide across his face. But she finds herself taking a step back up the stairs as her eyesight follows the path of the now-lush grass and blooms that carry through the garden, all the way to the edge of the property and the well that now sits as dead and colorless as when she first saw it.
“I, umm…” She stammers. “I have patients this morning. I should prepare.” She hurries back inside, pressing her back against the cool door.
“There must be a reasonable explanation, right?” she asks the empty hallway, but there is no time to ponder the question. Her first patient will arrive shortly.
The day is busy enough to take Loralee’s mind off the mystery of the garden and the implications of what happened the night before. At first, each patient is wary of the newcomer, accustomed to Dr. Buchanan’s straightforward and cool bedside manner. But Loralee takes her time with each islander, learning their history, each ache and pain, and by the end, the villagers warm to her, welcoming her to their humble home, and leave feeling seemingly better than when they arrived.
But when the last patient of the day departs, Loralee realizes she hasn’t seen Dr. Buchanan for hours and comes to find him in the garden as the sun begins its descent, still enamored with the mystery of the blooms.
“Dr. Buchanan, please come inside,” Loralee says. “Have you eaten today?” She worries for him but watching him bounce on his feet from one bloom to the next, she must admit he looks healthier than yesterday. She cautiously leaves the front steps as he approaches, and she urges him up the stairs. Before she enters the home, she turns back, her eyes widening at the sight of where her feet just stood. A lone, white lily sprouts up from the ground. Loralee ushers Dr. Buchanan inside before he can see for himself.
The next day is even busier, and it keeps Loralee’s mind off the prior evening. In the middle of the night, Loralee awoke again, the mystery of the well and the ghostly purple haze calling her to the garden. She let it engulf her once more, no fear consuming her like the first time, only warmth. After, she walked through half of the grounds, watching as life erupted with each step. When she returned to the front stoop, she stood astonished at the striking contrast between the two halves.
Word spreads fast through Norn, and by mid-day, it seems the entire village has come to the farm, wandering aimlessly through the vibrant half of the garden, their eyes wide at the miracle before them. Dr. Buchanan is among them, though Loralee doesn’t miss his eyes flitting toward her, suspicion behind every darting glance.
Toward the end of her second day, an old woman comes to visit, her body stooped over a cane, her face so wrinkled, you can barely glimpse her eyes between them.
“How are you feeling today, Mrs…?”
“Ms., child. Ms. Ravenhorst, but you can call me Sybil.” She smiles toward Loralee who motions to the waiting examination table where Ms. Ravenhorst pulls herself up with such ease, Loralee can’t hide her shock. Sybil chuckles.
“I’ve still got a few surprises in these old bones, my dear.”
“What can I help you with today, Sybil?” Loralee asks, pulling up a chair.
“Me? Oh nothing. I’m fit as a fiddle. I came here to help you. Figured it was the least I could do since I hired you.”
“Wait,” Loralee says, sitting up a tad straighter. “You’re the mayor?” Loralee tries not to act surprised. She recognized the surname at once but rudely assumed it was a daughter or younger sister who bears the title.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Ravenhorst. Let’s start over. What exactly are you here to help me with?”
“Rumors are swirling, Dr. Altman,” Sybil says. “This land hasn’t been fertile for centuries since the pox first ravaged the world. So, you can imagine our surprise when a young, mysterious doctor arrives on our shores just as the garden begins to grow once more.”
Loralee fidgets, unsure of what to say. Ms. Ravenhorst notices her discomfort and leans over, patting her shoulder.
“Like I said, I’m here to help. You see, my great-great grandmother used to tell me stories from the past, of well magic and the power it bestowed upon healers. Healers such as yourself.
“The magic was plentiful, but you see, it was a feminine magic, and there were those who didn’t feel we were owed such power.”
Loralee cocks her head to the side but remains quiet, instead remembering the menacing look Dr. Buchanan gave her when she brought up her knowledge of well magic.
“When the pox came, it wiped out most of the healers who could wield well magic. But it seems the time has come for an awakening. We’re lucky to have you here, Dr. Altman.”
“Why now?” Loralee asks, her interest piqued. “Why me?”
“That I can’t say. All I can tell you is to be careful. Dr. Buchanan may seem happy at the garden’s revival, but don’t let his joviality fool you. There is suspicion behind his eyes, and it’s pointed squarely at you.”
Without another word, Ms. Ravenstone hops down from the table with a youngster’s grace and moves to exit.
“What do I do now?” Loralee asks, stopping Sybil in her tracks.
“Exactly what you’ve been doing, Loralee. But watch your back. We’ll be watching it too.”
Sybil leaves then, closing the front door before Loralee can ask who she means by we.
By the end of Loralee’s first week on Norn, she has fallen into a routine: treating patients by day, cultivating the garden by night. Now, the entire estate has awakened with thick, green grass and blooms as far as the eye can see, but the past bounty of fruits, herbs, and vegetables has yet to arise, frustrating Loralee.
The relationship between Carlyle and Loralee deteriorates with each passing day. He is clearly pleased at the rejuvenation of his farm, but there is a simmering rage behind his eyes whenever he and Loralee share a room, a sign he is not comfortable and quite suspicious with how this new life came to be.
And on Friday, as the sun dips below the horizon, plunging the grounds into near-complete darkness, Loralee’s last patient leaves the farm, passing a group of men entering the field.
There are five of them, with Carlyle leading the charge straight toward the front steps where Loralee stands. The torches they hold show faces contorted with hate, and she doesn’t miss the weapons they each carry on their hips.
“What is the meaning of this?” Loralee yells from the steps. Her gut tells her to flee inside, but the torches give her pause. Would they burn it down to get to her?
“You do not belong here, witch!” an unknown man yells at her, spittle flying from his mouth.
Loralee steadies her gaze on Carlyle.
“Dr. Buchanan?” she asks, wanting to hear it from his own lips.
His body is tense, sweat dripping from his face, but the eyes that meet hers are steady as he points the torch directly toward her.
“The Buchanan men have run this farm since before the pox. I will not allow some woman, some witch, to steal what is ours by right.”
Loralee can’t help the smirk that crosses her face, and she is about to speak when movement catches her eye to the left by the well.
The women of Norn emerge from the forest lining the property’s edge, draped in white cloaks, Mayor Ravenstone at the head. The men’s eyes flit between the newcomers and Loralee, unsure of what to do next. Sybil ignores them, instead raising her hands to the sky as she speaks to Loralee and Loralee alone.
“It is time, child. Let the well’s magic consume you. Let it protect you. It is the only way forward.”
It’s so natural at this point that Loralee doesn’t think twice. She merely raises her arm, reaching toward the purple light hovering above the well and whispers…
The light explodes from the well, streaming toward and around Loralee. The men scream, but Loralee ignores them as the power surrounds and engulfs her. It soaks into her bones, sends her skin tingling, and when it’s over, she need only look toward the men for fear to overtake them, and as they turn to run, her hands lash out, light pouring from them. Their torches snuff out as they collapse to the ground in a heap, their bodies writhing. A small part of her thinks back to her oath, but these men do not deserve her healing touch. She walks toward them, life emerging from the ground with each step.
Carlyle is the last to die as vines push through the dirt, dragging each of the men into the earth’s depths. Sybil and the other women join Loralee in the garden, and they can only watch in awe as the light of the well reveals the garden sprouting forth a bounty of food the likes the island hasn’t seen for centuries.
“Carlyle was right about one thing, dear,” Sybil says. “The Buchanans have run this farm for centuries. But not men. No. Before the pox, this farm was run by generations of Buchanan women. And now it’s your turn.”
Loralee’s face twists up in confusion. “But I’m not a Buchanan, Ms. Ravenstone.”
Sybil smiles, a knowing look behind her gaze.
“In the attic, you’ll find a book of Norn genealogy, including the Buchanans. I’d give it a read tonight, dear.”
She squeezes Loralee’s shoulder before turning away and heading toward the gate with the other women. Loralee walks to the nearest tree as she watches them leave. Plucking a bright, red apple from its branches, she can’t help but revel in the loud, satisfying crunch of the bite as she turns and walks toward her rightful home.
**Norn’s Revival was written for the Writer’s Playground contest in November 2021. Each writer had to utilize three provided prompts, of which I chose the following: doctor (character), farm (setting), and horseshoe (object).