Saturday Short: Devil’s Club

photograph of the leaves and stalk of Devil's Club plant

Every year, after the first spring rains, the ground recalls that it is more than dirt. And the seeds, hidden deep within the dried cracks split open under the summer sun, learn that there is more to life than sleeping. All manner of plant life sprouts as one being from the ground, thirst for the cool breeze and air and sunshine. The earth sings, not with the sound of birds or rushing waterfalls, but with the pale new green of seedlings who don’t know yet but they will soon erupt in a riot of colors not seen since the last rainbow faded over the autumnal harvest.

And this terrestrial spring swelling is when the children learn the respect that the plants are due. The healer, whose grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother, taught her how to recognize the true uses of each plants takes the groups of children into the woods. There, they help her collect the first buds of the season, for her back was not what it once was. And they learn how to identify each plant, in every stage. Later, when the sun is no longer a warm friend, but a hot-tempered intruder, the children will be rewarded with wild strawberries that will paint their faces red.

The first plant any of them learn is the Devil’s Club. A misnomer, perhaps, for those with the knowledge to harness it, who know that rough exteriors often belie soft, giving interiors. But it’s not a kind teacher. The children give it respect and do not shove each other towards it like they do with the giant webs, daring each other to go closer to the jewel-toned spider dangling above. The Devil’s Club’s bite is less kind, festering for days. The healer demonstrates how to handle it, with thick gloves and care. How to clean the thorns from its side and strip out the inner remains, to boil and to cure that which ails some in the village.

She has no takers when she asks for volunteers to try their hand at harvesting it. She is not surprised.

Two of the children, twins, are the most studious of the group. They have the makings of healers and she is glad.

A week later, the twins are in the woods, lounging by a creek, waiting for the fish to bite when a stranger stoops down and reaches out his hand to a plant by the side of the path. The leaves are stretched out, collecting the sun, and look soft. But looks can be deceiving.

“I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you,” the girl calls to him as her brother nods his head in agreement.

The man hesitates, but then touches a leaf anyway, drawing his hand back with a start as the underside bites him.

“I told him,” the girls says under her breath. Her brother agrees silently.

The stranger walks on, but will stop at the house of the healer that afternoon, his hand blistering and swollen. And the healer will hide her smile when he tells her that he should have listened to the warning of two children who knew better than him.