THE SEXUAL REMEDIES
When Ma washed my hair on Thursday with the foul-smelling shampoo she bought from the chemist just for me, she told me that she and Da and the rest of our parish, even Father O’Grady, were going to march at sunset the very next day. She had fumed about the British before, indeed she did it on a daily basis, twice if there was a potato on our dinner plates, but this time her words rattled through me as a premonition and a dreadful wailing began from beyond the front doorsteps. “What is that sound?” I cried. Ma said she could not hear a thing. She told me to be still and resumed her vitriolic scrubbing. The sharp edge of the kitchen sink bit my neck. As soon as she was finished, I ran to see who was singing such a terrible tune but there was no one there. The wailing continued all day long, heard by my ears alone, and so terrible it seemed to mock the very notion of infinity. I begged Ma not to march. I knew something untoward would happen. She said they would be protected; held in the light of God’s Will Be Done. “O daughter of little faith,” she mocked.
It was true, even at that young age of twelve, I had little faith. On Friday, while the faithful were haloed in the light, I hid in the darkness beneath my eiderdown quilt.
There was still some hope in the dusk half-light when they returned not thirty minutes later carrying Ma in their arms, but by the time the night settled upon us, the outcome was as bad as I’d expected. It was the worst it could be. Ma had been martyred by British troops on Irish soil.
I was in a fright of grief and guilt as they placed Ma on the makeshift bier altar in the back room. “Tis my fault; I didn’t make her listen,” I tried to tell Da but he paid me no mind. He was too busy trying to shoo the doctor and Father O’Grady and the others out of our house.
“Please, please, there’s no need for you to stay,” he said. “The undertaker will be coming in a few minutes. Go, please, please go, I insist. Father, you must tend to the rest of your flock and I must be alone to say the rosary and pray with my daughter. It is what my dearly beloved wife would have wanted.”
They left in a flurry of prayerful condolences and assurances of Ma’s joyous reunion with our Savior in heaven, As soon as they were out of sight, Da ran to the back door and opened it to a bent and crooked old woman who hobbled into the house. Her cane scratched Ma’s spotless pinewood floors.
Speaking in a soft hushed tone, the old woman told me she was a keener come to praise the dead. She warned me not to speak of this keening to anyone for it was frowned upon by the church. The candles Father O’Grady had lit in pious reflection and prayer just moments before flickered in a most ghostly hew. “It’s what she would have wanted,” Da lied, as if to counter the shivering candles. He must have realized his lie for he added, “I admit it’s what I want. A keening is not for the dead, tis for the mourning—you and me, Cari. We will give your mother and the church their due tomorrow.”
The woman stopped the clocks and covered the single mirror in the house. She dressed Ma in a white frock and scattered flowers around her head and feet. As she worked, she took possession of the same terrible lament I’d heard just the day before.
“I heard this very woman singing outside our door yesterday, Da,” I said. “How did she know Ma was going to die?”
It was Da’s turn to be astonished. “You must have the gift, Cari,” he said. The keener rattled something in agreement before continuing her dreadful song.
“What does that mean, Da?”
“Yes, yes,” he replied as if I’d just answered a question instead of asking one. He squeezed my hand to show me how greatly I’d pleased him.
Hours later, when the keener was satisfied that we had cried all our tears for Ma, Da sent me to bed. Sleep brought an angry, bitter Ma who was not satisfied by our tears and could not enter heaven because of the scratches on her floor. I awoke from this nightmare to find another—the old keener staring down at me with beetroot eyes and whiskey breath. I tried to hide but her hands, dried and weathered like a dead branch they were, drew me out from under my quilt.
“You must use your gift,” she told me.
“You take after your grandmother, lass. I know her well.”
“My dear sainted grandmother whom my mother has joined in heaven?” I asked.
The woman drew her shawl across her face but not quickly enough to hide her gap-toothed smile. “No, the other one,” she said. “The one who still breathes. You will be a great healer like your Granny, lass. Perhaps that is why you already have the white crone hair.”
Ma had told me all sorts of ghastly tales about the other granny. Ma said even though St. Patrick had driven the snakes from Ireland, there were still snakes living around Granny’s cottage. Granny would eat them whole with her thick and greedy lips and the snakes would squirm and writhe inside her until they died. Sometimes on a full moon when Granny lay dead drunk on the floor of her house, the snakes would slither out of her long nose and escape. But even worse than the snakes were Granny’s evil red hair and changing blue-green eyes, for they were the mark of a witch.
Three days later, after the church and Ma got their due with the wake and the funeral and the gathering late into the night with songs of sorrow and revenge flamed by whiskey, Da and I huddled around a pot of tea in his bookshop trying to see into our future without Ma.
Da told me how his belief in the Roman Catholic Church had been carried by the enormity of Ma’s faith but he was never truly Catholic. His upbringing was pagan. “We belong to a special sect, Cari. I loved your Ma and so I tried to hide from my upbringing, but at stony times like this, our pagan faith is easier to wear. It speaks of resting in peace, not of sin or reward or heaven or hell.”
“No heaven? But Father says Ma is looking after me from heaven.”
He shook his head. “Tis not our belief. Your Ma is resting in peace. I promised her you would be raised Catholic but that was before I knew you had the gift of hearing the banshee song when someone you love is going to die.”
“That is a gift? It feels to be more a curse, Da.”
“It is just one part of the gift. You will be a great healer one day. You must leave Belfast and go and live with your Granny in Tullylish on the River Bann and learn everything you can from her.”
Go and live with her? I shuddered at the very thought. “Ma would not want me to go and live with her.”
“Your mother will know nothing of it.”
“I don’t want to go to and live with the other granny, Da. I want to stay here with you.”
It was no use; Da had slipped back into his heritage like a knot. He remained Catholic politically if not religiously, however, because though he now hated the Roman Catholic Church for failing to save Ma, he continued to hate the British and the Planter Protestants even more. I understood his sentiments perfectly, for I hated them too.
Within the next two weeks, our house and the bookshop were sold and I was sent to live with Granny in Tullylish while Da went to avenge Ma’s death by joining the newly formed Irish Republican Army. I wished I could join the Irish Republican Army myself instead of going to live in a house where snakes slithered out my evil granny’s nose.
It was a jittery journey taken alone by train and cart to Granny’s house in the south of County Down. By the time I arrived I was in a state of terror to be seeing her. Before I could even knock on the door, it had opened and Granny stood before me. I saw at once that I resembled her in more ways than Ma’s terrible description had suggested. Indeed, Granny and I had the same full lips, the same long nose, and the same changing green-blue eyes. I knew about the eyes already, of course, they were the reason I always looked at the world half-ways through my lashes. But Ma was wrong about Granny’s hair—it was not red. Granny’s hair was thin and white and flyaway—just like mine.
“Aye, Cari,” said Granny, hugging me close. “You’re a young pea in me old pod, me girl. But why do you have the crone hair? Tis a puzzle to be sure.”
When I showed Granny the shampoo Ma had used to wash my hair, she tightened her lips. “Come,” she said, “we will start your training at once.”
I followed Granny out of the house toward the little herbal shop next door. This must be where she keeps the snakes, I thought. “Must I come in with you, Granny? Can I not wait outside the shop?”
Granny looked at me askance. “You can come into the front room of the shop. Tis the back room you must have heard about.”
“Is that where you keep the snakes?”
Granny laughed. “In a manner of speaking, it is true.” She opened the door to the front room and the scent of three-hundred-and-sixty-five herbs and lilac and four leaf clovers and grasses rose around us like the first breath of spring after a long winter.
“It’s wonderful,” I said, peering into the shop, “but can the snakes escape from the back room?”
She assured me they couldn’t. “They are not that kind of snake, me girl. Come in, come in. I hear you have the gift. This is where you will learn how to use it.”
Granny went behind the counter and selected a bottle from one of the shelves. “Milk-thistle and marshmallow. This should do it. Use this once a week instead of the other.”
A few weeks later my hair was thick and strong, and a bright witch red.
“This is how your maiden hair should look,” said Granny, holding up the hand mirror as if it were a wand. “Tis like looking back sixty years and seeing me own face.”
I took the mirror from Granny. By then the memory of Ma had already faded to a ghostly vision of a skinny, angry, prayerful shrew who had tried to scrub me away, and so I opened my blue-green eyes wide to my own vision and I liked what I saw.
It is true that Granny liked to drink a bit but there were no snakes in her cottage and she was not a witch, although she had great respect for witches and didn’t mind that everyone thought she was one. Granny was a healer who specialized in the art of regeneration in the way of the ancient Airmid, the Celtic goddess of healing, of the Tuatha de Danann. Like Airmid of old, Granny and my great-ancestors used herbs and songs to heal. Unlike Airmid, however, Granny and my great-ancestors were croi healers, from the Gaelic word meaning heart, who specialized in the light and dark arts of the affairs of the heart and the lust of the body. Granny said the croi were the most important of all the healing remedies for they turned boys into men, maidens into mothers, and old men and crones into flirtatious young lovers.
The use of my rigorous training was to grow the omniscient eye of the great healer: the ability to read from behind the eyes of a patient and see not only their lives but the lives of their ancestors too. As Granny’s apprentice, my lessons were as complex as any seminary in the world, for I had to study the practical aspects of my craft: gardening, apothecary alchemy, music, ritual, and dance, as well as understand by heart and head the deeper knowledge found in the ancient and modern lessons of the healer, the bard, the warrior, and the mystics. Granny said a healer who fails to learn, fails to heal. The only knowledge forbidden to me was that related to the croi, for Granny said the sexual knowledge can make a maiden—especially a maiden with the gift—too powerful for her own good. Compared to treating an asthmatic child with a sharp slap of icy water to shock and the garlic and honey potion to soothe, or rubbing an old crone’s corns with the pumice stone and milkweed, or making a crystal elixir to help an old man’s digestion, or even the solemn keening death rituals and the arduous but joyful tasks of midwifery I learned after I turned eighteen, the croi potions for love and lust were as tempting to me as the apple to Eve. If Granny wasn’t going to give me the knowledge freely, I was determined to steal it. I read every book in Granny’s healing shop and dissected and examined the Clitoria ternatea, the butterfly pea herb that seemed so important to Granny’s women patients’ understanding of the croi, but I soon realized that the croi remedies had been passed down in the oral tradition and neither booze nor guile could unlock Granny’s tongue. So my efforts came to naught and Granny’s croi healing room at the back of the shop remained shrouded in darkness.
As often happens with the old and the young—like tea poured from the pot into a cup—my mind was filled with the ancient and modern wisdom while Granny’s mind emptied out. Granny’s first slip came as a dread: she misplaced our broom and thought the boy-shepherd from across the way had stolen it. She marched across to the boy’s house and confronted him. When the boy said he’d never steal a witch’s broom, she knocked him aside, walked into their tiny kitchen, and took his mother’s broom.
When Granny came home to find me sweeping the kitchen floor with the very same broom she thought the boy had stolen, she tried to cover her mistake. “Oh, I see you have already bought a new one. It was not necessary, Cari, I got ours back from that bold lad across the way.” By then the boy’s father, himself a regular receiver of Granny’s croi remedies, was politely knocking on our door, begging his excuses, and asking did Granny perhaps take his wife’s broom in error.
After we returned the broom, Granny sat at the kitchen table and admitted she was running out of time. “Tis a sign that I am passing into my ancient sen stage like my granny and her granny and grannies before her. Those of us in our family with the healing gift were cursed by the Fomorians to be senile in our late years.”
I knew all about the dreaded Fomorians. They were the mortal enemies of our ancestors. During the second battle of Mag Tuirid they discovered our magical herbal healing well at Loch Luibe and filled it with stones, thereby preventing Airmid from healing our injured warriors.
“We have only a short time left together before my mind is hardened like the stones in Loch Luibe and I become senile,” said Granny.
Her words came with the frisson of foreshadowing, for both Granny and me. “You say it is a curse upon all those who have the gift, Granny?”
“Yes, it will happen to you one day too, if you live long enough. Tis not a soft way to end a life, me girl, but I have seen many worse fates. Even though they didn’t realize it, the Fomori have strengthened us. Learning to accept that death is a shiver for only the living is one of the greatest lessons to be conferred upon a healer. That will be our final lesson, but there is much joy to be shared before then. You must fall in love and get married so that I can teach you the croi remedies while I still remember them. This village with her old goatherds and her young boy-shepherds cannot teach you about love. We must leave here as soon as we can.”
“But where will we go?”
“We’ll drink a cup o kindness and listen for the answer in the morning.”
Although we’d heard nothing from Da for nine long years, we knew he was still alive because the banshee had not come to sing at our door. The morning after Granny and I drank the kindness whiskey, Granny found a triskele—triple spiral—in her tea leaves and we realized there was going to be a new baby in the family. Granny knew I was still a maiden, a fact I confirmed with indignation, and it had to be that Da had married or had lifted a girl upon the flue without marriage. “This is our chance,” she said. “We must go to him.”
“I don’t want to go to him. Nine years and not a word, Granny? He is no father to me. And how can we go to him if we don’t know where he is?”
“He will have had good reason not to write, lass,” said Granny falling into our common liturgy as predictable as the salt she sprinkled on our egg cups each morning. “This will be your chance to forgive him.”
“Forgive him? I’d sooner forgive the British for killing Ma.”
“And you would be lighter at that. Would you hate your own right hand?”
“I have no British in my right hand, but if I had, I would cut it off and cast it from me,” I said. I chopped my left hand upon my right wrist as if an ax.
Granny caught my hand and kissed it. “You’ve replaced the sign of the cross with the sign of the crossed but what good is the left hand without the right? Our way is to entwine and blend, to heal and mend. All breath comes from a common source.”
“The British murdered my mother,” I said in righteous piety. “And my other granny and grandpa and uncles and aunts during the famine—exporting our food to fatten their pockets while our people starved from the blight—and without justice served. They do not deserve our forgiveness.”
“Beware that inner ancestral bitterness, me girl; it will fell you sure as an oak wedge topples the oak tree.” Granny kissed my hand once more. “Come now, we must prepare for our journey. We will hear from your Da soon. He wants us to come. I know my son.”
We were already packed and waiting a fortnight later when the letter arrived from Da. He said he’d fled Ireland after the 1916 Easter Rising and was living in South Africa. He had married again, he told us, and his wife was expecting.
“Expecting as expected,” said Granny.
“But he does not say who she is,” I grumbled from high upon a horse. “What if he’s fallen prey to Protestants? I will not be present in that company.”
“Och, me girl, you are not fooling me one little bit,” said Granny with a laugh, and I laughed too, for she was right. I was right giddy to be going.
Our sunny neighbor and his wife, old dogs both, agreed to care for our home and gardens in exchange for the winking promise of new croi tricks once we returned. Granny hung the closed sign on the front door of the shop, and we were on our way. Neither of us looked back at that dull little house with nary a surprise left inside it. Holding each other and our healing bags close, we danced our feet upon the pavement of uncommon fate.