A suspicious tickle of the nose woke me up, an inkling of humours awry. I rarely felt imbalanced except when it rained. I poked my head out the window. No rain yet.
“My lady, I will let some onions boil. Do ye want any hot onion water?”
Isolde raised her eyebrows at me.
“Where did ye hear of such a cure for when you’re ailing?”
“I found it myself,” I said.
The air still dry, I gathered a few onions, sliced them, and placed them in a pot to boil. Tears welled in my eyes as they rolled and turned. I kept the cottage door open and watched the rain begin to fall from the gray firmament and murky clouds drift in straight lines.
After boiling the bulbs several minutes, I poured a cup of onion broth as hot as I could stand it. My tears spilled onto the floor.
The clouds, at close gaze, looked like petals, the blooms an “abri” (shelter) in the sky without foundation. But here below, the rain weighed the rose blossoms, torn feathers floating down. A breeze kicked up, some kind of promise, carrying in a clean waft of earthworms who plodded up through the soil to the air and rivulets of rain.
I sat in my garden, resting on my feet, knees bent, to ponder effective combinations of herbs. What better place than amidst a patch of lavender? There were no sweeter scent and color to savour. A gentle spring coursed in me–a goodly theme–and I felt it in my elbows.
“What are ye doing, Brangien? Did ye eat raw savoury?” Isolde said to me, standing to one side.
Savoury was said to be an ingredient for a happy mind.
“Nay, Isolde. I feel content in my silent loquaciousness. Maybe the rumor was true. I am not related to ye. I came from some thoughtful soul and was sold by pirates to your mother.”
Isolde shook her head, laughed and joined me, squatting in the garden.
“Let me see why ye like doing this,” she said, then became quiet.
And we both sat still and hushed, breathing the lavender air and feeling the warm sun on our heads.
When Isolde looked over her shoulder, the king’s barons took note of where she gazed. If Isolde walked the castle grounds, the barons shadowed from a distance. And while they kept an eye on Isolde, I kept them in view. And while I watched the barons and listened for the gossip of everyone I passed, they saw me and heard me, too. I tired of being eyed–as Isolde’s companion, lady-in-waiting, foreigner, and healer. (There were worse names for the latter.)
One day after Tristan and Isolde met in their “verger” (orchard), I slipped in for a moment and laid down. Here, the green sky flowed, then pooled around bunches of fruit and scented flowers–red, violet, orange, and yellow, and the birds chirped and sang to each other. I became part of an ethereal choir’s song, almost disappearing within it. Judgment, like an ill humour, eased off my scalp, and my heart lightened. I had heard Isolde tell Tristan she thought maybe the verger was “merveilleux” (marvelous, supernatural), as though it might vanish like Tintagel (once in winter and once in summer). But I think the marvel was that for a moment I could become one with the beauty surrounding me and let go of things I heard around the castle and could not forget. Then I sighed, stood up, inhaled a delicious breath of honeysuckle and turned back.
“My lady, it is time,” I told Isolde. We walked to the garden cottage with candles on this eve of St. John’s Day and lit the yarrow we had gathered, placing it in a small pit I had made.
“St. John, guide us to the Light, to release us from what binds us, so we can turn to Him, and find in our faith a new hold. Amen.”
The scent of burnt yarrow drifted on the summer breeze.
The white dust had not truly disappeared from the hazel leaves, and the worry was getting to me. Where did it come from? How could I get rid of it?
In the great hall, I half listened to Sir Thomas of Dartmouth, a lackluster cousin of the noble squire Perinis, recount his pilgrimage tale. He had only just returned and spoke of his success expelling Moors from Portugal before arriving in the Holy Land.
The light played hide and seek on his face, and in the rays of light I could almost see a fine mist of white, which reminded me of the coat on the hazel tree. An odd connection, I reflected. Where had this white dust come from? I wrung my hands.
The next morning I awoke early to visit the tree. I fetched a vessel of water to douse it, knowing I would not change anything but feeling frustrated. I left my earthenware container to retrieve something in the cottage, and wandered back out to the vessel. But as I poured the water onto the tree, I noticed small bubbles. Why would there be bubbles? And I stopped pouring; my heart jumped. There was lye in this water! I saw Cecily the scullery maid from a distance, walking away. She knew the hazel tree and its honeysuckle were special to me, and she had switched my vessel for hers. I sat down and cried. I did not know how much she had used and what it might do.
Over days, I watched and waited. The white dust disappeared. In fact the lye appeared to have rid whatever ailed the tree. Cecily had led me to a discovery, albeit unknown to her. Lye could protect plants from the white powder.
Before daybreak, I walked swiftly to the kitchen and stood watching for Marie the cook to turn and see me as I placed a bowl of salve for her calloused feet on the table. As long as she received the remedy, her tongue would not wag about Isolde, and in turn the other servants would not gossip for the moment. Cecily the scullery maid glowered at me as Marie accepted the bowl, placing it in a safe spot. She would have to come up with a slight against Isolde of her own. Most rumors did not bother Isolde, but I kept an eye on the rumblings. When I returned to Isolde’s chamber I reported how Cecily had looked at me when she saw that she would not get any juicy morsels from the cook to spread. Isolde smiled. I helped her dress and coiffed her hair while we reminisced about past adventures, like when her younger cousin Flann used to chase us in the fields so he could propose to Isolde, until her mother found out and admonished him.
Queen Isolde informed me yesterday that she did not care for my yellow-gold embroidery on her blue chemise after I completed the work, so I sat in the garden, pulling out each thread and making a hairy mess.
I looked up. Isolde was walking towards me at a diagonal, trying not to stumble. She tended to do that during one of her bitter head aches. I set down my embroidery and guided her to a seat then sought herbs in the cottage to make a remedy. Isolde appreciated my herbs, even though she could have healed herself. But after the mishap with the love potion, I sensed she had lost all interest in preparing them.
To balance the queen’s humors, I first made a tea. On the table, I gathered dried lavender and rose flowers, vervain, and bishopwort from my stores, because they could ease an aching head and uplift the spirit. I added a small amount of celandine, which wards off many ills in addition to offering (digestive) protection.
The dried, crushed ingredients flew into the pot of water, and once they be well boiled, I let the herbs sit for a few minutes. I then strained out the flowers and other remnants present in the tea.
I also made a poultice, which required a handful of bishopwort, vervain, and lavender. I added them to a pot of water, let them be well boiled, and took them up into a folded cloth to lay on my lady’s head.
We have been in Cornwall for fourteen nights, and I have discovered an herb garden growing near the castle, gangly in its growth. Rosemary, which is meant to be a promise of faithful love and wisdom, is present amongst other friends. I sniff a couple sprigs of rosemary every time I visit—they lift me up. Today I placed the sprigs between two flat rocks so I can study them more easily when I embellish my lady’s pillows. Queen Isolde loves the freshness of the fields, and it would console her to have rosemary embroidered near her cheek. If she thought of Tristan in the night, her tears could roll down the green lines.
While the sea breeze lifted my hair and brushed past my face, I felt my heart adrift, heading into to a new life where Isolde would be the only familiar person.
I turned to the left.
The young valet had given the love potion to my queen-to-be and the handsome knight.
“Oh no, ye fool,” I thought. I flung the rest away, knowing the essence of the herbal flowers was already racing through Tristan and Isolde’s blood.
But something pulled at the back of my thoughts, not yet articulated. I had noted that the King of Ireland had placed his daughter’s hand in Tristan’s to pledge a future marriage, with nephew to represent uncle. Perhaps God was using His love to build a deeper union than that of an Irish princess married to a certain English king. In truth, which pair had He been blessing?
I watched Isolde’s mother, Queen of Ireland, prepare the philter, as I stood next to Isolde who vented about Tristan, her blonde waves enunciating her words. The queen placed several herbs, flowers, and roots she had collected, some already dried, on the table. I noted rose petals, mandrake,which mimicked the shape of the human form, and the presence of henbane in particular, the latter known to bind a couple together in love and ensure that it lasts. The queen worked efficiently, her deft fingers grinding less than a scruple of dried henbane, and a grain (length) of each of two mandrakes, fastening them together with thread. She placed all of the ingredients in boiling water until they be like gruel and lay it in wine in an earthen pot. She raised her hands, beseeching God to bless this drink to bring Isolde and her husband-to-be much happiness, then covered the vessel to stand for three days and three nights. It stunk like the mud pies Isolde used to make as a child.