Jacques is telling it…
Five long years pass by. Five years, living as an outcast; five years, trudging the muddy furrows; five years, cowering under Guillot’s rod; five years, waiting for a miracle. My deformity grows worse with each full moon. I seek refuge in the stronghold of the Antichrist. A perverse paradox that my safest place is the nave, away from prying eyes and mocking tongues. But despite His promises, I look worse than ever: I have become a boy of twelve.
My cankers have grown apace, and by some perverse operation of Nature, have the semblance of goat’s horns, curling from my head down the sides of my face. Twice I tried to excise them. First, I cut them with an axe; but they grew back three weeks later, slender as oaten straws. Then one night they broke off in bed. I thought my curse was lifted. But they reappeared soon after, even thicker than before. Next, I burnt them at the root with a red-hot poker; yet I was overcome with such pain and effusion of blood that I fainted on the spot.
I wish I’d never spied Margot and the monk. For a great rift has opened between us, wider than the gorge itself. I’m not the perfect babe she cut from the womb. I’ve changed into a ghoul and my flesh repulses her. Satan tempts me to flee with her gold. Oft’ I have dug up the hovel but always in vain. She is crafty and her moods change like a cat. She warns me to stop digging and threatens to turf me out. My childish curiosity annoys her no end. If I mention the amphora she denies its very existence. Yet in the dead of night, when we are tangled in bed, she purrs:
‘You will be lord of all you survey…’
But we are chained to the sods like worms. And I curse her for keeping us poor. We live off broad beans and turnips – a rabbit if we’re lucky, or nuts and mushrooms when in season. And snails. Snails with everything. How I hate snails. They make me wretch. But Margot loves them. She devours them like a harpy, prizing the flesh from its shell with her long finger-nails. Then she grinds up the shells for cures, or pours them back in the pottage. Ugh! She even smells of snails. We rarely eat cheese or drink milk. Daisy our cow is old and her teats have dried up. But Margot won’t kill her for meat. What misery we endure. Her gold would buy our freedom. But when I mention it, she flies into a blind rage and screams:
‘You know nothing of the world!’
The world has come between us. And the only gold I see is the mistletoe hanging in orbs from the blasted oak.
Little things I do annoy her. Like leaving the poker on the wrong side of the hearth:
‘Why must you put the poker on the left of the trivet? The poker belongs on the right of the trivet. It has always rested there, now you come along and start putting it on the left. ’Tis never where I expect it to be. Pah!’
She broods and casts hateful glances. We go whole days without speaking. But her cures are balm for every discord. I’d be lost without them. Each night she anoints my back by the fire, rubbing soothing oil into my sores:
‘What’s in it moma?’
‘Oh, so we are talking again are we?’
‘I want to know.’
‘You treat me like muck all day. You tread on my heart like a worm. And now you feel guilty because only Margot can soothe your pains. “What’s in it?” They all ask me that. And nine times out of ten, ’tis best they never know.’
‘But moma, you must teach me how to prepare it.’
‘Why? Are you planning to get rid of me?’
‘No moma! But this one smells different. And it tingles.’
‘That’s the nettles, to stop you from itching and scratching in your sleep.’
‘It stinks too.’
‘Figwort. The poor man’s salve, and loved by wasps. I use the whole herb, boiled in oil. Or you can use the soaked leaves as a poultice. So now you’ve learnt something. Turn round, let me do your chest…’
I oblige. She smiles.
‘I will show you how to make it, Jacques.’
‘Thank you, moma. But how do you know which plants to pick?’
‘I follow the signs.’
‘The plants reveal their inner natures.’
‘Very well,’ she says, wiping her hands, ‘I’ll tell you my method and how to use it. My mother knew the best signs, but I only know half of them. And what I know, I wouldn’t like to be talking about, except with you. Now some signs are easy to spot: like the Birthwort – a greenish yellow flower, in the likeness of a womb, used to ease delivery or hasten afterbirth. See?’
She goes to the cupboard and shows me a jar:
‘This is the green oil of charity, made from the Adder’s Tongue – a little fern with oval leaves, used for bites and stings. Follow the signs… Now, there’s a very good cure for yellow jaundice, which is the yellow dandelion. I offered it to a man once, but he was so taken up with pride, that he would have naught but a Pater Noster. He died soon after…’
‘That sounds easy.’
She puts the jar back and asks:
‘So what do you think the Lungwort cures? It has spotted leaves…’
‘A spotty face?’
‘Heavens! Don’t you know what Lungwort looks like? It looks like mottled lungs. What’s the meaning of such a leaf? Why, ’tis the cure for rheumy chests. Signs. Now some plants don’t have signs but are plain, modest and quiet. But they will speak if you address them politely. There’s a plantain I know with long flat leaves, and I use it to treat fingers and toes; but it has a little blue flower, used for running sores. Well the flower told me that, because I asked it kindly. Now there’s a charm to be said when you’re picking it, in the name of the Virgin, who always wears blue. But some charms must only be whispered in the ears of the sick. And if an animal is sick or behaving strange, follow them and watch what they eat, for they always lead to a cure. I can’t do all cures, but there’s a great many I can do. My great grandmother I never knew, but she could bring back the dead with the same plants our Lord was brought back to life with – the plantain and dandelion. But what charm she uttered I was never told. There’s one cure I can’t do: I can’t cure a soul that’s been touched by the faeries, for their stroke is deadly, and will carry you off. They steal the soul, but the body lives on; so you lie there like a turnip. I knew a man who was away for twenty years before he came back. But where he went was a mystery, even to him. Some plants will kill you as soon as cure you, and the dosage is difficult. But I won’t speak of them now. The signs tell you: the outward visible things speak of the inward invisible things. All things born of Nature are fashioned to show their inner qualities.(i) The Lord himself planted this world for healing.’
‘But He didn’t use herbs. He used His hands.’
‘Ah, there are some with that gift. My mother had it and could cure sprains by laying on of hands. But that was all. Yes, the Lord’s miracles exceed even the magic mistletoe…’
‘What does that cure?’
‘Mistletoe is the salve for all kinds of evil and misfortune. Mistletoe drives out demons, opens locks and protects thatch from fire. A potion of mistletoe will help conceive a child. And cattle too. Mistletoe will cure Daisy of her barren womb.’
‘But moma, who needs mistletoe when we have enough gold to buy a whole herd?’
She snaps and strikes the cauldron with her staff:
‘Enough of gold! I’ll hear no more of it! We were talking about cures! I can’t leave home for five minutes without you digging up the floor, left, right and centre. You won’t find it Jacques, so you can stop looking. The gold isn’t buried here. You can search the whole wood but you’ll never find it. Not even Reynard the fox could find my gold. I’ve hidden it too well. You know me: I don’t do things by halves. A herd of cattle? I’ve never heard such foolery. That gold is for your future. And you won’t get it without my blessing…’
‘Think. How can we buy cattle without people asking: “How did they come by their money?” And how can we buy our freedom, without the Janus knowing who you are? You don’t think, Jacques. That’s your trouble… That gold must must be spent many leagues from here…’
She stares into the flames, muttering curses and chomping on her tongue. After a while she says:
‘Besides, what use is earthly gold, when you can have the gold of heaven? Have you seen the mistletoe, shining in the dark? It will cure your cankers, if you fetch it down.’
‘But moma, the mistletoe grows too high. I could never climb up there. That must be a hundred feet high!’
‘Pah! ’Tis no more than fifty. What are you so worried about? If you fall, you’ll land in the pond…’
The next day I sit on the banks, watching the mirrored sky, my soul suspended ’twixt heaven and earth, high in the golden bough. And I wonder if Margot is right. But to retain its powers, mistletoe must be gathered on La Lunade, [Midsummer Eve], (ii) and it must never be cut with iron, but gold. And if it cannot be cut with gold, it must shaken loose and caught before touching the ground.
Margot says: “No mistletoe, no luck.” And on the sixth day of the moon she orders me up the blasted oak. This ancient tree has a girth of twenty feet and stands on a mound at the back of the hovel. But both hovel and tree are so overrun with creepers ’tis hard to tell them apart. The majestic roots arch high, clasping a mossy boulder, then plunge to earth, writhing like serpents. Amid them is a crumbling warren with a dozen holes, and if you lie with your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear thumping. Margot watches as I grab a rope of creepers and swing onto the boulder. But the lowest branch is still out of reach. She chuckles:
‘Oh, you’ll never climb it like that.’
‘Then how moma?’
‘This tree can only be climbed from the inside… Follow me and I’ll show you a secret…’
She leads me into the hovel and goes to the cupboard. Opening the door, she reaches inside and removes the back panel. A mouldy wind wafts from an ominous hole. She leers, her tongue flicking round her gums:
‘You must go into the heartwood…’
‘What’s in there moma?’
‘Enter and see…’
So I duck inside and crawl through the hatch. I find myself in a gloomy hollow with enough room to dine six people. The earthen floor is covered with Fairies’ Bonnets and Sulphur Tufts. Above is jagged fissure that twists to the sky. Bracket fungi, thick as planks, run up the walls like steps. Margot grins through the cupboard-back which frames her grisly face: the icon of a Virgin Crone.
‘Do you like it Jacques? I used to climb it when I was a girl. That was when my mother asked me to fetch the mistletoe. Now it’s your turn. Just follow the thunderbolt…’
So I climb the cleft riven by the lightening. The dead heartwood feels warm and smooth, but I find good footholds and soon emerge at a tattered ivy crown. Peeking over, I see Margot chuckling by the pond:
‘He he! There you are! I wondered where you’d got to.’
And in that moment I grasp her transitory state. She is the hag of the umbrageous wood, whose abode is oak and whose mirror is the glassy pond; who knows the sorrow of hedgerows, and the pain of the anchorite thorn; who creeps at dawn for the hairy hemlock that grows by the babbling stream; who slips between shadows with the leaping hare, and wanders in ditches and glades; who weeps with willow, and howls with wolf; who tracks the musk of weasel and stoat; and who reeks of cider and marl; whose soul is pure as summer dew but whose curse is blacker than the Devil’s horn; whose vengeance is wormwood, and whose tongue is sharper than the adder’s tooth; who tickles trout, and conjures blue mists that roll on the dawn; who bridles the monk like an ass, and summons the storm on a hell-bent broom; she who is consort of eagle and fellow of bear; and whose healing hands possess the power of earth and sky…
Dusk bleeds through her smock and I glimpse her shrunken tits, her veiled hips and the gap between her thighs. How fragile she looks. Soon she will die and crumble to dust; the pond will dry up, and the woods vanish from the face of the earth. Gnats dance in her halo as she smiles up at me. I remember this image so clearly: Mother Margot, immortal maid that flowered from the roots of a sacred grove, but was cursed to wither and twist like the oak. My eyes are smarting:
‘I love you moma!’
‘Keep going, show me how agile you are…’
The tree is riddled with holes and gaping wounds, but the healing bark folds round in swollen vulvae; they offer good purchase and I scale to the heights.
‘I can see the abbey from here.’
She waves her staff:
‘Never mind the abbey! Get to the thunder blossom, quick! Before it gets dark!’
The oak is smitten with galls, just like my cankers. I pass two amputated boughs, cut long ago for the hovel crucks, then I weave through the branches, up towards a sparse canopy of fluttering leaves.
‘That’s it Jacques! You’re nearly there! He, he!’
She looks like a shrieking mandrake.
‘I’m scared moma.’
‘Nonsense. Just keep calm. You can do it.’
I creep out along the golden bough, high above the pond. Margot is so excited that she hops about, shaking her staff, chomping and frothing at the mouth:
‘Good boy! Reach! Go on, shake it! Be brave!’
But the branch wobbles and groans under my weight.
‘I’m going to fall.’
‘No, you’re not. You’re quite safe. Don’t look down. I know you can do it! Have courage! Just a few more feet… Think of Daisy. Think of your ulcers!’
But to venture further along the creaking branch would be certain death. And no matter how hard I shake the bough, the mistletoe holds fast to its noble host. Suddenly the branch begins to splinter. Margot cries:
I shunt back toward the trunk, trembling with fear.
‘Oh! I can’t reach it moma!’
Defeated, I descend in tears, covered in grazes. When I climb back through the cupboard she clouts me round the ear and scolds:
And later on, when serving up the pottage, she scowls and mutters:
And when she spots my tears she snaps:
‘Don’t be so soft!’
The following morn I collect sticks and hurl them at the mistletoe. I persist all day but the golden orb hangs defiant. Margot despairs whenever she sees it, shaking her head and throwing her hands in the air. And the longer the mistletoe evades her, the more cantankerous she becomes.
The summer is long and hot with not enough rain to swell the grain. Margot blames the drought on me:
‘Fool. If we had mistletoe, the rains would come.’
Her senility stinks. Sometimes she wets the bed and forgets to wash. She blows hot and cold. If the fire goes out, she starts to panic. So I fetch kindling and strike it anew. Then she is calm, loving and kind.
The leaves are turning again. But Margot is still obsessed with mistletoe. She puts more faith in that golden bough than all her miserly horde. I must admit, ’tis a marvellous thing to see, hanging high above the pond, glowing in the twilight gloom, as if shining of its own accord, like a marsh light or dryad’s lamp.
The days grow short and the frosts sharpen. Margot mutters “mistletoe” night and day. She talks with the tree in her sleep, sighing, groaning and chuckling. I too have fallen under mistletoe’s spell. Sprites with oak-leaf-faces glimmer in the dark, leaping round the cupboard. I dream of Lucifer and crowns of spangled gold. And high on Golgotha, in the midst of a terrible storm, I see a thunderbolt strike Christ crucified, cleaving his flesh in two. Penalty of refusal to come down from His rood.
Margot is changed. The embodiment of Jupiter, god of sky and thunder, has struck her with His bolt. Her face has gone lopsided and I fear she’s going mad. She wants me to climb the tree again but I’ve sprained my ankle ploughing. I follow all her instructions to the letter but she scolds me for disobedience. Does she forget what she asks, or is she just being cruel? Let me give you an example. After grinding some seeds, she tells me to clear the table and burn the headed poppies. So I wipe the table clean and throw the poppies on the fire. But when she sees the burning stems she flies into a rage:
‘Why have you burnt my medicine?’
‘Why have you thrown my poppies into the fire?’
‘You told me to.’
She stamps her foot:
‘No I didn’t!’
‘But moma, you did!’
She grabs my wrist and shakes me by the arm:
‘No, I told you to wash your hands.’
‘No moma, you said, put the poppies on the fire!’
‘Liar! I said, wash your hands!’
‘You didn’t moma.’
She thwacks the back of my legs with her staff. I end up so distraught and confused, I can no longer argue my case. Then she screams and spits and makes me cry. At these times I hate her with a venom. So I hurl my only weapon:
‘You’re not my real mother!’
My words are arrows in her heart. She goes to the pond and stands with head bowed, sobbing into the water. I apologise profusely. But she wails and calls me a spiteful devil. So I pour salt in her wounds, and remind her of the part she played in my mother’s demise. Then I curse her for letting me live.
After an hour or so, we make up. Yet she’s convinced I’ve done her wrong, and says:
‘You’re lucky to have such a patient and loving mother. You can’t lie to me Jacques. I always know when you’re telling fibs. Now, what do you say?’
I dare not point out the error of her ways. All I want is peace. And I crave her love. So I bleat:
‘I’m sorry moma.’
‘I’m sorry for throwing your poppies in the fire.’
‘That’s better. Very well. We shall forget all about it. We are friends again. Now go and get two apples from the bowl…’
So we munch on the apples and count the minnows in the pond. During the good times we are happy as hares. We play dice, sing songs, and stay up late by the fire. And every night she whispers before falling asleep:
‘I love you Jacques.’
I love her too. But today I let the fire go out. So she hit me with her staff and cried:
‘Get out! I wish you’d never been born!’
And once again, I run out the door wanting never to return…
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2004
ii. Pliny speaks of culling mistletoe on the sixth day of the moon. The method of counting by nights or by the moon survive locally in France, and the usage is found in Irish and Welsh literature. The Druids gather it on the sixth day of the moon, the ancient Italians on the first. In modern times, some prefer the full moon of March and others the waning moon of winter when the sun is in Sagittarius. But the favourite time is Midsummer Eve.
Mistletoe image credit: kasiaczernik (Katarzyna.Niemcy) Pixabay. Free for commercial use; no attribution required.