Related collections and offers
About the Author
Karen Cushman's acclaimed historical novels include Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Midwife's Apprentice, which received the Newbery Medal. She lives on Vashon Island in Washington State. Visit her online at karencushman.com and on Twitter @cushmanbooks.
Read an Excerpt
The mist hung low in the valley between the forest and the town. It dangled from tree branches like stockings on a washing line and curled around Grayling’s head as she weeded and hoed and raked, readying the herb garden for its winter rest. When her basket was filled—angelica and agrimony, rosemary and the remains of the dill—she put her shoes on again, for she had been gathering the last of the summer herbs with her feet bare, as was proper. She stood still for a moment, letting mist settle on her shoulders like a damp cloak, and listened to the quiet.
Finally, picking up the basket, she headed home. The steeply roofed cottage of wattle and yellow-tinted daub sat in a bit of a clearing, shaded by an ancient apple tree. Its round-topped door of rowan wood was crisscrossed by iron bands against the evil designs of demons, ghosts, and ill-wishers of all sorts. Brass bells hung from the eaves, a swag of hazel rods and garlic festooned the little window, and smoke poured from the smoke hole in the roof. Grayling smiled to see it, as she always did. Despite her mother’s endless tasks, the cottage meant comfort, safety, seclusion.
The day was mild enough for them to have the window open. Grayling could hear her mother singing while she crushed dried wormwood and nettle for a healing ointment. Her mother, Hannah Strong, wise woman and healer, helped those she could in exchange for a ham or a wool coat or the mending of a pot. How much was magic, how much learning, and how much common sense, Hannah Strong never said, but most people left satisfied.
“I have settled the herb garden,” Grayling said.
“Have you gathered the herbs as I bid you?”
“Yes,” Grayling said, lifting up her basket.
“Did you pull out any bindweed or thistle?”
“By the roots? Nasty things, if you don’t.”
“Come in, then, and stir the marsh-mallow root bubbling in the kettle, and don’t be letting it burn while you laze. Young George Potter suffers from a clenching of the bowels and needs a tonic.”
Grayling nodded and entered the cottage.
“Thomas Middleton will be coming anon with his son Gabe, who suffers from boils. While I lance and clean them, you will watch over Thomas’s youngest, for his mother lies abed with melancholy.”
“Aye, I will.” Grayling clumped her way to the kettle hanging over the fire. “If you say I will, I will,” she muttered. “You know I will. Of course I will. I always do.” When Thomas and his boys arrived, Grayling, as she was accustomed, slipped into the corner, and the little boy dozed on her lap.
Grayling mostly avoided those who came for her mother’s remedies, charms, and tonics. Greeting folks meant speaking up, and Grayling thought her mother spoke enough for both of them. And the girl learned many things by listening when visitors forgot she was there. Margery Atwood wanted a love charm to woo the miller’s son away from Cecily Waterstone. Ralph Farquhar had a rash shaped like a turnip on his bum. Randall Pike’s pig found its way into Wellington Baker’s yard and cooking pot, so Randall Pike perched on Wellington’s doorstep and wouldn’t move until he was paid for the pig. Randall’s wife brought him bread and beer each day at noon, and he voided his bladder in a door-side gooseberry patch.
William Miller had a vision of soldiers marching on the road north of town, and Hannah Strong believed it likely a true sighting, portending conflict, for the land was in turmoil. “Warlords are forming their own armies,” she said with a frown. “The powerful want more power, the wealthy want more wealth, and heaven help those who get in their way.”
“Aye,” said Thomas Middleton. “Them what has, gets, and the rest of us make do with turnips.”
“Leastwise,” said Hannah Strong with a quick slice at a boil on Gabe’s shoulder, “you have turnips, and a home and bed, so you have no need to go to edge dwelling.”
“Aye,” repeated Thomas Middleton. “I seen them, bullies living rough and menacing them passing by. I say tae you, summat wicked be in the kingdom.”
Grayling’s skin prickled with unease. There were some things she would rather not have heard.
Next morning, mist again sheltered the valley. Grayling sat cross-legged on the edge of the pond, humming as she scoured the kettle. She thought about dinner. They still had parsnips and carrots in the ground, and perhaps there were enough apples left for an apple tart. With cream, if only they had cream. She licked her lips.
“Grayling, come. Attend me now!” Her mother’s voice. The calling mingled with the croaking of frogs in the pond and the ting-tang of dewdrops, and it sounded to Grayling like a sort of music.
“Grayling, come at once, or I shall turn you into a toad!” her mother shouted again, much louder. Belike she would if she could, Grayling thought. By borage and bryony, I can do but one thing at a time. Why can she not do whatever it is herself and leave me be? Hidden as she was in the mist in the herb garden, Grayling could think such things, even though she could not imagine saying them.
She clambered to her feet, left the kettle to soak in the pond, and filled a basket with the remaining watercress and mint that grew at the water’s edge. Finally, swinging her basket at her side, she turned for the cottage and her mother.
The mist was clearing elsewhere, but the cottage was still obscured. Grayling drew closer. Everything was the same, yet somehow different. There was the steeply roofed cottage of wattle and yellow-tinted daub. Brass bells still hung from the eaves, and a swag of hazel rods and garlic yet festooned the little window. Smoke poured from the smoke hole in the roof and . . . that was it. Not mist but smoke shrouded the cottage! Too much smoke! Suddenly the roof thatch exploded into flames.
What had happened? Where was Hannah Strong? “Mother!” Grayling screamed. The flames chewed at the little house, but she darted forward. The terrible roaring of the fire hurt her ears, and the heat forced her back. “Madam, my mother!” she screamed again. “Where be you? Answer me!”
“Cease your clamoring, Grayling,” Hannah Strong said. “I be right here.” The voice was low and hoarse, belike from the shouting and the smoke, but her mother’s voice nonetheless. Grayling turned. Her mother stood at the edge of the clearing.
Grayling stumbled over and grabbed her hand. “What has happened? Come, run, before the fire finds the trees and we are lost!” She tugged at her mother’s hand. The woman swayed like a sapling in a strong wind but neither followed Grayling nor toppled over. She stood straight and strong and still.
Still? Grayling’s mother was never still. She was all color, bustle, and fuss, wrapped in crimsons and blues and the gold of the mustard paste served with sausages at the Unicorn’s Horn. There came a quivering in Grayling’s chest as if a flock of the grayling butterflies for which she was named were imprisoned there, and her face grew cold with fear.
“Why do you stand here, Hannah Strong?” she asked, her voice atremble. “Why do you not move? Come away with me, do!”
“Witless child, open your eyes and look,” her mother said, pulling her hand away and gesturing toward her feet. They were rooted into the earth. What had been toes were now spreading roots, and what had been soft skin was as rough and brown as a tree trunk.
“Oh, monstrous!” Grayling said in a rough whisper. She dropped to the ground and clawed at the bark on her mother’s feet. “Who did this? And why?”
Hannah Strong put her hand on Grayling’s shoulder. “Enough, enough. ’Twill do no good.” She shook her head, and dark hair fell across her face. “I know not the who or the why. Destruction came as smoke and shadow, fired the house, and left me as you see me.”
“What are we to do?” Grayling cried over the pounding of her heart.
Her mother shook her head again.
Grayling stood and wiped her hands on her skirt. She could not move for terror and barely breathed as she watched the progress of the flames. Her mother did not know. Her mother—wise woman, hedge witch, purveyor of potions to heal and to cheer; who had charms and spells and power; who was the wisest and surest and strongest person Grayling could imagine—did not know. Grayling felt a clenching in her belly and in her heart, and her hands shook.
No sound reached her ears but for the roaring of the fire—no twittering of birds, no chatter of squirrels or hooting of owls, no singing of the frogs by the pond. The flames finally took the cottage and the apple tree beside but went no farther.
After a time, what remained had cooled enough for Grayling to draw closer. The roof was gone, she saw, and the walls, though standing in some places, were burned through in others. She took a hawthorn stick to protect against evil and poked in the char and the ashes. Her mother’s clay jars, pots, and crocks of salves and potions were buried in ash. Some were broken, their contents spilled. Others were whole, dingy with soot, and still warm to the touch. Cooking pots were blackened, candlesticks melted into pools of tin. The two chairs by the hearth were gone, as were the beams heavy with drying herbs and the spinning wheel in the corner.
“Fetch my grimoire from beneath the hearthstone,” Hannah Strong called. “Bring it to me. There may be answers within.”
Yes! The grimoire! Likely the book of chants and spells and rituals, passed from mother to daughter to daughter to daughter over generations—nay, over centuries—would reveal some way to undo the magic rooting her mother in the ground. Grayling could only hope it would. She had never seen inside the book. Her mother guarded it carefully.
Grayling picked her way through the debris to the fireplace. With some effort, she lifted the stone, then dropped it down again. There was no grimoire there, just a dank and dirty hole.
“Your pharmika is in shambles, lady,” Grayling said when she had stumbled back to her mother, “and the grimoire is gone.”
“Toads, rats, and dragons,” Grayling’s mother muttered. “Belike that is what it came for, the demon or force or whatever it was.”
Grayling gestured to the ruins of their home. “Why would someone who could do this need your book of spells?”
“I do not know, but we must discover the how and the how not afore I leaf out to my fingertips. Since I am at the moment confined to this place, you must go. Find the others, if it is not too late. Tell them what has happened here, seek their counsel, discover some way to release me. And find my grimoire.”
Grayling’s heart thumped. “I cannot. You know the world out there be strange and dangerous, and I have no magic and very little courage.” She pulled at her mother’s sleeve. “Bethink you on it. There must be something you can do. Folk who come to you for remedies and spells always leave contented.”
The wise woman frowned at her daughter. “I can do nothing, go nowhere, rooted to the ground as I am. You will have my philters and potions, my charms and my songs, the wisdom of the others, and your own wits.”
Grayling shook her head no and no again. “Your philters and potions are burned and scrambled, the charms and songs are yours and not mine, I do not know of any others, and my wits? You have often called them weak and fragile things.”
“Although it appears your tongue works exceedingly well. Now hush and let us tackle the impediments one by one.” Grayling’s mother sighed. “How I wish I could sit down. My knees pain me with the standing.” Her eyes filled with dark sadness, and Grayling’s heart grew sore with sorrow and fear. “Bring me the witch hazel and comfrey ointment.”
Grayling gestured toward the ruins of the cottage. “Everything is tumbled and broken, spilled and charred and ruined. I don’t know what is what or for which.”
“Go and fetch what jars survive. We can know the contents by their smell.”
Grayling went back into the remains of the cottage. With her hazel stick, she poked through the debris again and lifted the pots that were most whole. She wrapped them in her skirt, carried them back to her mother, and laid them at the woman’s feet . . . roots . . . feet. One by one, the girl lifted the vessels and took a deep sniff of the contents. Some burned her nose, some comforted it, some made her belly turn over in distress, but they all smelled alike to Grayling—“Like smoke and loss,” she told her mother.
The comfrey ointment could not be found, but Hannah Strong could identify the rest. “The one with a faint scent of roses and lovage is the binding potion to compel faithfulness,” she said, and, “Achoo! That is sneezewort to repel insects.” She named them all. Grayling ripped pieces from her shift, covered each pot with a scrap, and tied it on with twine. Then, at her mother’s instruction, she marked its name with a piece of charred wood, for Hannah Strong thought a wise woman’s daughter should know the way of words. The pots went into Grayling’s basket: potions and salves and oils for protection, for sleeping and healing, for binding, shape shifting, and truth telling.
“With these you will not be defenseless. Now go,” her mother said. “You needn’t fight any demons or dragons. Just find the others, if others there still be.”
“Who or what are these others?”
Hannah Strong waved a hand about. “Hedge witches, hags, charmers and spellbinders, conjurers, wizards, and soothsayers. You do not think I am the only cunning woman in the world? We be solitary folk, but they will come when you call.”
Grayling backed away, shaking her head. “Such a task calls for a brave and skillful person, someone bold, with cunning and magic. Call on one like that.”
“Daughter, you say enough no for a town full of faint hearts,” said Hannah Strong. She would have stamped her foot in irritation if foot she’d had. “Would I had a spell to compel you, but I must rely on your care for me.” Hannah leaned over and rubbed her right knee. She was bark to her shins.
Grayling felt the rush of a familiar combination of overwhelming love for her mother, annoyance at her demands, and fear of her temper, her power, her determination. She paused to think. Belike she could find one of these others, one with magic and skill, who might know what to do and do it, and she could come home. It might be that simple.
“How would I find these others?”
“Go to the market square of a town, as many towns as there be, and sing.”
“Sing? Sing what?”
“There is a gathering song I will teach you. Sing this, and the others, if others there still be, will find you.” Hannah Strong, her knees brown and rough as bark, sang.
By wax and wick,
By seed and root,
Through storms of trouble,
Strange matters appear:
Thunder and fog,
Dark and midnight hags,
Toads, beetles, bats
From town and country, hill and valley,
From mountain’s snowy crest,
From cellar, attic, church, and alley,
I call to you. I call to you.
Afore danger find us, shackles bind us,
And dreams go up in smoke.
Come to me, come to me,
All wise and cunning folk.
By wax and wick,
By seed and root,
Through storms of trouble,
Grayling brightened. “Have you now called them with the song? Will they come here and tell us what to do to free you?”
Hannah Strong shook her head. “It will be many miles and many singings before they will hear and respond. But they will, if any there be—there is power in the song. Now you sing.”
All unwilling, Grayling sang, stumbling over the unfamiliar words, again and again until she knew the song. Then her mother taught her a song to sing to the grimoire and how to listen for the grimoire singing back, provided that no water stood between them.
There were three kinds of songs, Grayling knew—a song with words and music, a song with melody and no words, and a song with no words and no melody that was instead a thrumming in the head and a throbbing in the heart. This last was what her mother taught her now, and Grayling heard it not with her ears but with her mind and her spirit. And she repeated it the same way.
“But do not sing to the grimoire until you find the others,” Hannah Strong said. “You will need their assistance and support.”
The sun was setting behind the trees, shafts of golden light piercing through the greenery, before the teaching was finished. Grayling took the basket of herbs, bottles, and pots and added the hawthorn stick against evil, a wool winter cap with earflaps, and half a loaf of bread toasted but not consumed by the fire. She slipped a piece of angelica root into her pocket for protection. Her mother, not one for hugging, patted her on her back.
“Mayhap,” Grayling said in a small, thin voice, “I should wait until morning and start fresh on the road.”
Hannah Strong said, in a voice as soft but strong as silk thread, “You are the wise woman’s daughter. ’Tis up to you to set this right. Go.”
Grayling pulled her cloak tight about her. She left her mother there in the valley and ventured forth on her own, reluctant and frightened, up the rise.