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Authors: Graham Joyce

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FIVE

Three
days later Sam was still running around with a sore eye.
He also had a dirty brown
stain near the bridge of his nose where Maggie applied her homemade herbal
remedy. Alex had quizzed her about it.

"Ointment," she'd said. He'd sniffed and let the matter drop.

Alex didn't seem to notice that Sam wore a
sachet of herbs on a string round his neck. The herbs were sewn into a light
blue cloth, and Sam carried it cheerfully, calling it his treasure.

Unfortunately it just wasn't working.

Maggie had been conscientious. She'd
dragged Sam around the shops to pick up every herb mentioned in the list.
There'd been no difficulty in collecting them from general health food stores,
except for the one called eyebright. The assistants all looked blank at that
one, and when pressed on where she might try, they shook their heads
pathetically. Then another customer, overhearing, suggested she might try a
shop in the Gilded Arcade.

The Gilded Arcade was an original
four-story Victorian shopping precinct. It was unfashionable and off the main
drag; consequently the many tiny stores operating from it were special
interest or frankly eccentric. Rents were low and businesses had a habit of
changing hands rapidly. The hollow echo of the arcade, its fitful little
flights of business, and the peeling gold-leaf railings of its catwalks gave it
the impression of a giant aviary. Colourfully dressed young people with
startling hair and ironmongery in their ears and noses looked over the railings
for hours, like exotic birds perched at different levels. Maggie approved of
the unorthodoxy of the place, and of its dilapidated grandeur.

The shop she was looking for was
called Omega. She passed kiosk-sized shops peddling memorabilia and second-hand
period clothes; tattooists and body-piercing studios; comic-marts and specialist
bookshops; eventually finding Omega on the uppermost level. Pulling Sam by the
hand, she opened the door and a tiny bell tinkled. A man sat behind the
counter, engrossed in a book. He glanced up from the book, but didn't speak.

The shop seemed chiefly devoted to
herbs and spices and to books about alternative medicine; that is to say, its
shelves contained rows and rows of jars with handwritten labels, and where
there were no jars there were books and pamphlets.

Maggie turned her back on the man
at the counter, pretending to study a selection of pestles and mortars, but she
felt his eyes tracking her. She picked up one set made of stone but quickly
replaced it on the shelf. When she turned back to him, he raised his eyebrows
in a jocular fashion. Sam just stared at the man.

"Eyebright.
I want
a
herb called eyebright. Do you know what it
is?"

"Of
course."
It was said in a lethargic manner. The man was in his
mid-forties, with thinning shoulder-length hair and a wispy beard. His
weathered face and heavy build seemed at odds with his thin, reedy voice.
"
Euphrasia
officinalis
if you want to get technical.
Euphrosyne
by any other name.
Red eyebright to me
and thee.
What
d'you
want
it for?"

She resented the question. "I only need a small amount."

"Please
yourself
,"
he said, getting up and crossing to a shelf on the far side of the shop. He
reached for a jar.
"Only trying to be helpful."

He weighed some of the herb on a beautiful
set of brass scales. "Gender, Male.
Planet, Sun.
Element, Air.
Ask for
Euphrosyne
another time,
because that's what most people call it."

"Do you know a lot about herbs?"

The man opened his eyes wide and looked at
her as if the question was as stupid as it gets.

"Anything else?"

She shook her head and paid for the
herb. Her fingers trembled in her purse. As she was bustling Sam out of the
door, the man said, "Next time come to me for the other things as well. I do
it half the price you paid in those health shops." She turned to look at
him, but he already had his head back in his book.

After that she drove out of town to
Osier's Wood. It wasn't necessary to drive so far to collect a few stalks of
fern, but the place had pleasant associations. She and Alex used to walk there.
They'd even made love there one hot summer afternoon; but only once. Alex was
put off after claiming to have seen an adder weaving through the fern stalks.
She had an idea Sam had been conceived that time in the woods.

"Know what, Sam? You were made in these woods."

"No," said Sam.

"No? I'll give you no!" She waved a freshly cut fern at him.

"Yes!" said Sam, running away.
They played hide-and-seek in among the trees before going back to the car.

The following day Maggie had to return to the Gilded
Arcade. When she went into the shop, the man was seated in exactly the same
position, reading the same book, as if he hadn't shifted a millimetre since
she'd left the premises the previous day. Almost without looking up, he pointed
to the selection of pestles and mortars. "They're all over there."

She had indeed returned to buy a
pestle-and-mortar set, having decided the previous evening that, if she was
going to make an ointment out of her ingredients, they'd need to be pounded
first.

"Are you a mind-reader as well as
a
herbalist?"

The man looked up, pleased with himself. "Where's the little
boy?"

"With his
childminder.
I get two hours' relief a week. I'm glad to see there's
something you don't know."

"I can always spot a
first-timer. They come here to ask for the more obscure stuff. Then they get it
home and realize they need some way of preparing it. Then they remember seeing
all these."

"How did you know I'd been to the health food store first?"

"That was more difficult. You had a
carrier bag spelling out their name in big letters."

Maggie smiled to herself and turned
to finger the implements lined up in the window. She liked the man now that she
realized his offhand manner was nothing other than gamesome. She picked up a
brass pestle. "What do you recommend?"

"The ceramic ones chip if
you're not careful; the wooden ones splinter and don't take to anything hot;
and I don't like to think of the metal ones leaving some of
themselves
in your mix."

"Stone, then?"

"Every time."

"Not cheap, are they?"

"Please yourself- Take the brass."

"No, I'll take the stone."

"And I wasn't being nosy
yesterday. I was genuinely trying to be helpful."

"Then you must know the eyebright is for eye infections."

"The little chap.
I noticed his eye was
sore."

"Isn't that how it got its name?"

"Eyebright?
No. Applied to the eyelids it
aids clairvoyance."

"Are you serious?"

He looked at her hard, but his
eyes were swimming with suppressed mirth. "I never joke. Tell me what
you're making."

She told him. He nodded
thoughtfully. "Not my first choice. But it's an interesting one, and it
won't do him any harm. Where did you get it from?"

So she told him, too, about the
diary and the lists of remedies. "And there were the words '
wax.m
.' Does that mean anything to you?"

He regarded her steadily. "As
for the sachet, that's a bit of indirect
herbalism
,
if you follow me."

"Should I ignore that part?"

"Oh no.
And it'll give you something to do with your time." There wasn't a flicker
from him to indicate irony. Then he gave her some useful advice for preparing
Sam's eye ointment. As she turned to leave the shop, he said, "This diary.
I'd really like to have a look at it some time."

"I might show it you," she said, "and then again I might
not."

And the tiny bell tinkled as she went out.

Three days later, all Sam had to
show for his mother's incursion into the world of
herbalism
was a dirty face; that and the gay little sachet round his neck. Maggie
inspected the remains of the sticky paste she'd concocted and judged it time to
revert to orthodox pharmacy.

For some reason she'd hidden from
Alex her new collection of herbs and her stone pestle and mortar. She wasn't
sure why exactly she'd made a secret of the thing. Perhaps she was placing it
beyond his ridicule, because nothing was more certain than his scepticism for
anything unscientific.

Unscientific.

No, it was more than that.
Much more.
Alex's was like many people's scepticism: it was
almost rabid, it was desperate. He used scepticism to seal himself off from
whatever he was afraid lay out there. Like the yards of draught proofing he
bought for the house, or his damp proofing, or his endless leak treatments.
Worse, she knew that in his darkest heart he nursed some kind of suspicion
about her. Something they'd never discussed, and never would, but which lay
between them, like a sword hidden beneath the sheets.

She knew what Alex feared was her
power. Powers he didn't possess.
The power to be surprised,
to be delighted, to exult, to be mystified by events.
The
power to be afraid without fear of showing it.
The
power to resist the stolid pull of the ground.
There was something in
her he recognized as a deep flirtatiousness, not necessarily with other men,
but with the world itself, with the unknown, and he was afraid that one day it
would carry her away from him.

Beyond all that, she wanted this
to be something exclusively her own. That's why she'd hidden the herbs. She
wanted the opportunity to experiment freely. Somehow that gave her a feeling
of another kind of power; power not just over Alex, but over the preparations
she made with her herbs.

So she hid everything in a
lockable trunk in the spare room. It was full of old photographs and
memorabilia neither she nor Alex could bear to dispose of but at which they
never looked from one year to another. She bundled everything in a black scarf
and buried it at the bottom of the trunk.

 

Sam came out of the garden and
into the kitchen waving a stick. Maggie held his face to the light and looked
doubtfully into the corner of his eye. "It was worth a try, Sam. But we'll
have to stop using that
stuff,
it's not doing any
good."

"No!" said Sam.

"For God's sake stop saying
no every time I speak to you."

"The lady said."

"What?"

"The lady
in the garden."

"What lady?" Maggie felt
a shiver run through her.

"In the
garden.
She said use it tonight. She did. She told me."

Maggie looked out of the window at
the walled garden with the dwarf birch in the comer. There was no one there.
She knelt on the floor beside Sam. "Tell me about this lady."

"You can't see her. She's
gone. And she's only this big." He stretched out his thumb and first
finger. Then he changed his mind and made her a bit smaller.
"No,
this big.
She rides on a rat."

"What did she say about the
ointment?"

"She said you have to put it
on me tonight. Yes she did."

"That boy," said Alex
angrily. Maggie was startled. He was
towering
in the
kitchen doorway, gazing down at them. He must have been watching them for some
time. He looked huge and frightening, his eyebrows knitted, his brow full of
thunder. "We're

going
to have to do something about this constant lie
telling. He needs a good shaking."

Alex stormed past them and clumped heavily upstairs. He'd had another
bad day at work. Maggie collected Sam to her and hugged him.

 

 

 

S  I
  X

Maggie
applied her herbal ointment to Sam's eye that night
,
and the next morning
there was a distinct improvement. By the following morning, his conjunctivitis
had cleared up completely. Now all they had to worry about, said Alex, was
Sam's deep-rooted habit of telling lies.

"He's just a child. He makes up
stories. So what? That's what children are supposed to do. He'll grow out of
it."

Alex wasn't having any of it. "It's
not stories.
It's
lies.
Lies.
Every single word that comes out of his mouth is a lie. Ask him what his name
is and he says anything other than Sam. Ask him where he lives and he talks
rubbish. He-tells people his mother is the lady at the sweet shop. If he says
yes, we all have to pretend he means no."

"He's
only three years old, for Christ's sake!" "He's nearly four and
there's something wrong!" "It's just a phase he's going through,
Alex. Your mother told me you were still wetting the bed when you were
nine."

Alex didn't like to he reminded of
such things. Maggie could tell that the remark had angered him, because unlike
most people, Alex spoke more quietly when he was angry, pausing occasionally
for big breaths. "It is not a phase. It is a steady condition."

"I mean all children do it.
Have pretend playmates and the like. That's what I meant to say."

"Amy certainly never did it. Not on
this scale. And neither did any of our friends' children. He needs to see a
child psychiatrist."

"At three years of age! You're the one who's crazy, Alex!"

"You think it'll help him if we wait
until he's thirty?
Now's the time to do it, so he can be
straightened out."

"Straightened out? I don't want him
straightened out. I'm not putting Sam at the mercy of a shrink."

"What's a shrink?" Amy wanted to know.

"It's a special doctor," said
Alex, "who looks after little children."

"No it's not," said Sam.

It seemed easier to communicate through pointless
argument than by any other means; at least that's all Maggie and Alex seemed to
be doing. The matter went unresolved; they turned their backs on each other.

Meanwhile Maggie returned to the diary, flushed with
the success of her first efforts. She found the page listing the remedy she had
used and underneath it made an entry herself. She wrote the dates, the quantity
she had used, and the words
Sam's conjunctivitis cleared up.
If only
the diary had
a
herbal for banishing fibs and tall
stories.

While flicking through the pages,
settling here and there on remedies, she made a discovery. Some of the pages
with ink entries contained further notes, but in pencil and so faintly written
that a cursory glance could easily miss them. These entries, too, were mainly
lists, written in the same perfectly penned copperplate hand, but they occasionally
included additional commentaries. Maggie was astonished she'd failed to notice
them before; but then the pencil marks were so weak, they were a strain to
read.

 

Rue is a mighty powerful one, a
mother of herbs. I heard her called
Ruta
,
Bashoush
and Herb of Grace and more. This is of Diana,
though it is hot and indeed it is of the element of Fire.

Now rue they used for that Great Plague, but it was
denied. It grows best if stolen, which I have. Gather in the fresh morning
because a poison to pick later. Some say the sight. I know that to eat leaves
will not talk\ in sleep, which is the tongue of angels and demons. The crushed
leaf when breathed back full will clear the brain of envious thought. And rue
water kills the flea.

Now I will use rue on A. she bothers me so. I know
this one for she taught it me: Nine drops of the rue oil added to a bath with
salt for the nine nights as follows the moon in her waning will breaks the
spell she has on me, for she wearies me. And I know other: Rue,
vervain
, St John's
wort
, dill
Hinder witches of their will

 

Maggie felt a strange thrill.  She set the diary
down and turned to check on Sam. He was playing happily behind her chair, swinging
an old biscuit tin loaded with toy soldiers. She picked the book up again and
reread the page. What she'd taken to be simple
herbalism
was obviously something more. She leafed through the pages, searching for more
pencil entries

 

Listening.
This I
dearly love above all things. And I can with or without I make a simple. On a
windy day, with the sun just up, or fast on the dusk which is my favourite to
lie down in a tall leafy bower or such and listen and wait on the wind. And I
wait and I wait and there he comes with such messages as are written on the
wind in the leaves some time I fear my heart will break. And should I infuse a
simple it is the
mugwort
and I make a tea and sweeten
with honey. Or that I make a pot then into the boil the bay laurel
mugwort
and cinquefoil and I breathe them. But for
listening I say I can without a simple or a pot.

Maggie read on:

Some words of the
mugwort
, also called
witch herb and old uncle
harry
and
artemesia
and felon herb. Why "uncle" I cannot
tell, for
mugwort
is a she-plant and another of Diana
whose
other name is Artemis. Her planet is Venus and
her element the Air.

Now she is very good for the sight; in a simple or
pot or the fresh leaves rubbed on mirror or the crystal. She also wards off
fatigue and I have walked long distances: and wild beasts stay away from it.
Now pluck before sunrise during the wax moon: A. says, and is insistent, that
it should be from a plant as leans northward. Also her powers are strongest
when picked at the Full.

A few pages on, Maggie stumbled across the name of the diarist.

P. B. come to me and was full of woe, I never seen so much woe, she
being barren. Bella, she says to me, three years and no child! I counselled her
and I had a bit of Patience Dock so I stitched her a sachet as we talked. I
didn't want to give her any of my Man, he being so rare these days so I put
bryony, which is good and she wasn't to know. I told her eat poppy and sunflower
seed in a cake, and sent her off to find some mistletoe. Well I hope for her
but I'm afraid I can't see it.

Now A. chid me for all this, for her saying is
"be silent as the sacred oak-" She says folk turn. But I say we must
help, and there's the end of it.

 

So now she had
the diarist's name. It was Bella.
Red-haired Bella.
And Bella was some kind of witch.

Maggie read on as if the diary
contained hard news. Some of the pencilled entries she didn't entirely
understand; others were merely the elaboration of uses of herbs. So absorbed in
the diary was she that she jumped when Sam gave a yelp from behind the chair.

"It bit me!" he bawled.
He held his hand up to her and she saw a thin stream of blood running between
his finger and thumb.

Maggie saw the culprit. The corner
of the biscuit tin had become twisted and a sliver of metal extruded from the
edge. It was razor-sharp. "Naughty tin!" she said. "We'll throw
you away for doing that!"

"It wasn't the tin," said Sam. "The tin didn't bite
me."

Maggie took Sam's little white hand
and put it to her mouth, sucking the crimson beads of blood. "Who did,
then?" she said soothingly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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