Read The Secret Healer Online

Authors: Ellin Carsta

The Secret Healer

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2015 Ellin Carsta
Translation copyright © 2016 Terry Laster
All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Previously published as
Die heimliche Heilerin
by Amazon Publishing in Germany in 2015. Translated from German by Terry Laster. First published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2016.

Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503953864
ISBN-10: 1503953866

Cover design by Rachel Adam


A scream tore through the night. “Hush now. Here.” The terrified Madlen, barely thirteen years old, grabbed a cloth and pressed it into the woman’s hand. “Use this when all else fails.”

The laboring mother writhed in pain, arching her back. It seemed as though the unborn child was fighting its mother, as her movements became increasingly erratic, every muscle taut.

“Pick up the candle and give me some light!” Clara ordered as she reached deep between the woman’s legs. “A little higher, please.”

Madlen held the candle over Clara’s head, in the hope that Clara would be able to see well enough to finally bring the baby into the world.

“Agnes,” Clara said to the laboring woman, as calmly as possible. “Please don’t push any more for the moment, do you hear me? The baby hasn’t turned yet, and I think its umbilical cord may be wrapped around its neck. If you keep on pushing, the baby will choke to death.”

“Please get it out!” groaned Agnes, completely exhausted. “I need to push; I just want to get it out.”

Clara threw Madlen a helpless look. It had been a long time, and they weren’t making any progress. Another contraction came, and again, Agnes arched her back to push the child from her womb.

“We’ve got to calm her down somehow,” Clara whispered anxiously. She tried to reach inside the woman’s womb again to turn the baby, but it was no use. Agnes was much too tense. Clara couldn’t penetrate the birth canal if Agnes kept fighting her. “She will die if we can’t calm her down, and the baby will, too.”

Agnes seemed to have heard Clara, as she began to cry and beg them not to let her die. Madlen gave her a sympathetic look as she held the candle high so that Clara could at least save one of their lives. Agnes settled down as the severity of the situation sunk in.

“The baby can’t turn. She’s too tense.” Clara shook her head in despair.

Agnes stared at the candle in Madlen’s hand, her eyelids fluttering and the corners of her mouth twitching from exhaustion. Madlen noticed that the dancing candlelight seemed to mesmerize her and slowly moved the candle back and forth behind Clara, who still squatted in front of Agnes’s legs, hoping for a miracle. Agnes’s eyes followed the light, right to left, then back again. Madlen knelt down and continued to move the candle ever so gently, back and forth.

“That’s good,” said Madlen, taking a deep breath. She thought about the calm voices of the priests at Sunday Mass and tried to imitate them. “The light is warm and peaceful; the monastery nuns made these candles and prayed to God that their flames would bring you light and give you peace. You are calm and your legs are relaxed. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” Her lips formed the words of the Mass, as if they’d taken on a life of their own. “Blessed art thou among women and blessed be the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” She paused for a second and saw Agnes’s eyelids continue to flutter. She turned to Clara and, with a nod, gestured for her to keep going. Madlen turned again to the woman and noticed that her eyelids now grew restless. “Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death. May Almighty God have mercy on us. He leads us away from temptation and to eternal life. The Almighty and merciful Lord grants us forgiveness for all our sins.”

Clara shoved her hand inside the woman’s womb and gave the baby a full turn. Madlen tried to concentrate, but it was if her mind had been swept clean of any more prayers or psalms. She swayed the candle to and fro and looked at Clara, who indicated that she should keep on praying. “But I trust you, Lord. You are my God. Our destiny lies in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies and persecutors! Let your light shine upon your servants, help us in our hour of need! Lord, I call on you to not let us fail, because failing would be
 . . .”

With a rapid, violent movement, Clara turned her arm and pulled the baby, slipping it out of the womb. Agnes arched her back and screamed in agony, as Madlen dropped the candle in fright. She hastily beat out the flames with her apron. Everything went quiet.

Madlen looked anxiously over Clara’s shoulders as she placed her hand over the infant’s nose and eyes and blew into its mouth with all her might. After a terrifying few moments, the child began to cry lustily. Agnes’s lips quivered. She was too exhausted to focus on her newborn. Elated, Clara shrouded the little boy in fresh sheets and pressed him close to her body. Then she got up and showed the child to Madlen with a thankful grin. “You saved this baby’s life with your calming voice and prayers. Now we must take care of Agnes so that we can lay the baby on her breast.”

Madlen stood and pulled up Agnes’s seemingly lifeless body with one arm, the other wrapping around the back of her neck. She rearranged a stack of cushions before gently letting the new mother sink back against them. Weakened, Agnes could barely open her eyes as Madlen situated her.

Clara laid the baby boy on Agnes’s breast and held him tight until the newborn latched onto his mother’s nipple. Agnes slowly came to and smiled gratefully when she felt his tiny lips at her breast. She embraced her son for the first time as he suckled peacefully. The wondrous feeling of birth made the difficult labor and threat of death seem like a hundred years in the past. Deep happiness coursed through her body. Madlen could have remained there for hours, just to admire the peaceful image of mother and child, alive and well.

“You have a beautiful son. What will you call him?”

“Felix,” Agnes answered, after considering the question briefly.

“That means ‘happy,’ doesn’t it?” Madlen asked.

“Yes,” Agnes said. “It’s fitting. It’s a happy miracle that he and I survived. I’ll never forget you both, as long as I live.”

Clara smiled. Hundreds if not thousands of women had said the same, though they didn’t seem to remember when Clara struggled to survive the harsh winter months. She looked at Madlen, whose earnest expression suggested she believed Agnes’s words. Still, Clara wouldn’t say anything. It was Madlen’s first time assisting with a birth. Sooner or later, the thirteen-year-old would learn that women promised a lot in the afterglow of a successful childbirth. But they forgot those promises just as quickly. Life was like that.

Chapter One

Three years later. Heidelberg, in the year of our Lord, 1387


Madlen strolled around the market with her basket. She should have been dead tired since she’d barely slept a wink last night after helping Clara with yet another birth. Everything went off without a hitch. No wonder, as this was the woman’s eighth child. Finally, after seven boys, she’d been blessed with a little girl. Madlen had been thrilled with the outcome, assuming the mother must have ardently longed for a girl. But she didn’t seem to care whether it was a boy or a girl. Nevertheless, no matter how many times Madlen attended a birth, she always felt as though she had witnessed a miracle.

At this particular birth, it wasn’t even necessary for her to light a candle or speak softly as usual. Clara had warned Madlen many times that her work could be interpreted as some sort of witchcraft. She may very well be called to account for it. But Madlen remained firmly convinced that women appreciated the calming effect that she provided in the special hours of childbirth—these women would never dream of speaking ill of her. On the contrary, she’d already worked with many women who had several births behind them, and she’d expertly calmed them down during labor. This spared them undue pain and increased their chances of survival. But Clara had her doubts. She’d often experienced the women’s elation and gratitude, but those moments didn’t last long. Still, everything had gone pretty well so far. Even Clara was forced to admit that many difficult births only went well because of Madlen’s ability to deal calmly with the women, putting them into a kind of a reverie. Clara couldn’t say how her young friend did what she did. In some ways, she didn’t want to know, for the influence of the devil couldn’t be entirely ruled out.

It was now autumn. The farmers had begun to harvest their crops a few weeks back. Madlen loved this time of abundance, when fresh vegetables were available without having to pay a king’s ransom. Madlen bought cabbages, onions, beets, and leeks. She’d already baked bread early in the morning. As soon as she got home, she’d prepare soup before making her way to Clara’s place.


She turned and saw Leonard, the obese butcher, his bald head crimson red as he hurried toward her. His face looked puffy and swollen. He’d probably stayed at the tavern too late last night. Madlen rolled her eyes. She knew what he wanted. Just yesterday, her father had scolded him for ordering two more tables without paying for the previous delivery. Jerg wouldn’t give him one more piece of furniture if he didn’t settle the outstanding debt. By the time the bald man had reached her, he was already out of breath.

“Your father was supposed to bring me new tables two days ago,” he said angrily. “The old one broke under the weight of a pig and all the meat fell into the dirt where the dogs got ahold of it. Jerg needs to reimburse me for that loss.” He stood with his hands on his hips.

“I’ll tell my father. If he promised to bring the tables, then he’ll do it.” She hesitated before straightening her back and lifting her head. “Have you paid for the goods already delivered?”

The butcher’s head got even redder. “Who said I didn’t pay, huh?”

She shrugged. “Nobody. I only know that my father always delivers his contracts on time. That is, unless someone is very past due.”

Leonard chomped at the bit to reply, but Madlen continued. “However, if indeed you paid on time, as you imply, then the guilt must lie with my father. I’ll speak to him as soon as I get home.”

The butcher started to look uncomfortable. “You do that. And if there is an unpaid bill, tell him he’ll get his money as soon as he brings me the tables.”

“Indeed I will.” She nodded politely. “Good day to you, butcher.” With that, she turned and walked away quickly so that he couldn’t see the smile forming on her lips. She strolled farther but bought nothing; it was simply a pleasure to admire nature’s treasures during these autumn months. Soon the ships wouldn’t be able to sail, the ice too thick over the winter months. Everyone had to manage to get through the winter with what they had. Those who could afford it stocked up. This luxury wasn’t available to Madlen or her family. She lived with her father, Jerg, and her older brother by two years, Kilian, in a small cottage at the edge of the settlement. Her father and Kilian did carpentry work in the barn, where the family had once kept cows.

Madlen never knew her mother. She’d given up her life to give life to Madlen. Everyone said that Madlen looked exactly like her: light-blue eyes that Kilian also inherited, long dark hair, and delicately carved features. The only difference was a small mole above her lip, which made her beautiful face even more distinctive. To this day, Madlen was plagued with guilt about causing her mother’s death and taking her away from her brother and father. She often wondered if her mother could have been saved by an experienced birth assistant or even a midwife. She was sure that someone like Clara could have helped and had dreamed about it a hundred times.

In her dreams, Madlen saw Juliana, her mother, in Clara’s cottage, her pregnant belly sticking out, the birth imminent. Even though it was impossible, Madlen saw herself next to Juliana, holding a candle in her hand and letting it sway back and forth. She heard Clara say that it would be a difficult birth, that something was wrong. In the dream, Madlen saw sweat running down Clara’s face. She heard herself recite psalms in a comforting voice, one after another, as she calmly moved the candle and watched her own birth. Finally, the time came and she saw the light. Juliana lost all strength and wanted to give up, but Madlen continued to pray that her mother would not die. Miraculously, she opened her eyes and took the newborn tenderly in her arms. Madlen felt her mother’s warmth as she held her, just before waking up. It was all just a dream. Her mother died without ever taking her newborn daughter in her arms.

Despite the endless guilt, Madlen knew that whatever she did or thought, nothing would bring her mother back. So, she did her best to make up for it, cooking for her brother and father and keeping everything neat and tidy, always trying to imagine everything that her mother would have done if she’d lived. When she was nine or ten years old, she would sometimes get so tired that she would fall asleep while eating and her father would carry her to bed. It had gotten better as she grew older. She was stronger now and could do a lot more. She also earned a coin or two helping Clara and could contribute to her family’s overall earnings.

As she approached their small cottage, she could hear her father and Kilian arguing loudly in the woodshop.

“He’s a scoundrel,” her brother yelled. “Besides, who’s going to help us with the household when she’s gone?”

“We’ll just have to take care of everything by ourselves.”

Madlen paused before sneaking a bit closer to the workshop. Her heart pounded wildly. They were talking about her, of that she was sure. Who did her father want her to marry?

“Mother would never have allowed this,” said Kilian, his voice suddenly calm.

“Mother isn’t here!” her father shouted. “She is dead, dead, dead! I have to make sure both of you have a roof over your head and something to eat.”

“At least let me speak to her,” Kilian said so softly that Madlen could hardly hear him. She swallowed hard, not daring to breathe as she waited for her father to change his mind or for Kilian to say that they would find another solution. But they didn’t. She stood as if frozen in place. Kilian opened the door and walked out of the workshop. Their eyes met, and Madlen knew she’d been caught eavesdropping. Her brother took her by the arm; she stumbled as she walked beside him.

“So, you heard us talking?” he asked softly as they reached their cottage.

She nodded. “Who?”

“A spice merchant named Heinfried. He’s already had two wives, but neither could bear him children.”

Madlen could barely choke out a short sentence. “I’ve never heard of him. Does he live in Heidelberg?”

Kilian sighed. “No. He lives in Heilbronn and only passes through here on business. He wants to take you there with him.”


“In two weeks.”

“So soon?” Madlen said, her eyes wide. “Did he pay well?”

“Very well. I don’t think we can talk Father out of it.”

“How old is he?” Madlen’s voice broke as a chill ran through her body. Kilian looked at her sympathetically but dodged the question.

“I can’t remember.”

She imagined what her future husband looked like: a fat pig, probably older than her father. She shuddered. Kilian opened the door, and she followed him inside, then set down the basket. She immediately started to chop vegetables. Her hands cut mechanically through the cabbage; she could hardly see through the tears in her eyes.

When her father finally came in, the soup was ready. Without a word, she filled up the plates with food and placed them on the table. During the meal, nobody said anything. It was as if Madlen was already gone.

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