Burning Silk: Excerpt


Strawberry Full Moon, 1839

It was only much later, months after Lischen was born, that Catherine discovered how her sister and niece had spent the Strawberry Full Moon that came right after MidSummer. She found the recipe sitting at the bottom of the wooden box where all their recipes were stored. After the paper fluttered out to the floor and she bent to pick it up, she sat frozen in a crouch reading. As she slowly realized what had occurred, she marched straight in to Elisabeth and thrust the paper at her.

“Catherine,” Elisabeth said weakly, with nothing to add. Then: “Of course you know I was going to tell you. And it’s all for you anyways,” she said, working up to her usual vigor. “I simply didn’t want to risk your using them when you were pregnant. And you might have!” she insisted when her sister’s face clouded. “You were so restless!”

Elisabeth averted her eyes, then opened a small high drawer in her pantry, taking out a piece of mulberry paper, dyed green to indicate poison, and handed it to Catherine who took it without a word. “But now you have settled,” she said. “They might come in handy at some point I thought, when Marguerite offered to show us. She needed a virgin and asked Kristiana and Turtle Dawn…”

Catherine turned to leave the room, letting her sister know by her silence how she felt about the deception.

Elisabeth called after her. “Hide them carefully, Catherine. If one of the children were to find it…”

The recipe, which Catherine placed carefully back in the recipe box, before she placed the small green packet in a chink in her bed cupboard that Philip had fashioned for her few jewels, read:

Belladonna whisks

“When the belladonna flower is at its height, its white throat fully open to the cool night air, so that the potency of its pollen is fully seated on the five pistils arranged around the stamen like brushy wands, insert the thumb and forefinger as deeply into the throat as can be gained without tearing the single taut sleeve of the trumpet flower.

With a sacred chant in your heart, draw the pistils to one side, allowing the stamen to continue its production of fertile seed, and sever the five stems of the pistil at their base with your thumbnail against the forefinger.

Lifting them out, say a prayer of thanks to la bella donna and—bundling four of the pistils together in the classic broom shape, stems and heads aligned—use the supple stem of the fifth to tie a square knot around the bundle of four.

This forms the classic witches’ broom or one unit of dosage.”

Catherine opened the green packet before she drew the wooden block out of the bedcupboard wall. She stopped breathing; three perfect brooms lay side by side in the packet envelope, their heads golden with pollen. She vowed that she would not waste even one; she might well need all three, once she had gone en magnanerie. She couldn’t even imagine another state within which such medicine might be necessary.

She prayed that Kristiana and Turtle Dawn, young and untutored but eager to break into the cupboard of adult secrets, had not conspired to take a broomstick for their own use.