At the Hartstongue Inn
Inspired by the hartstongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), a plant of woodland banks and old walls.
The rotting thatch contained more moss and fern than reed. In places it had begun to detach itself and was heading earthwards, stealthily, as if the straw might sprout legs and run away back to the marsh the moment it touched the ground. The Hartstongue Inn lay all alone, deep in the forest on an old road that was seldom used nowadays. Inside, the bartender was pretty mossy too, as if the escaping thatch had infected him from the top down. Even his hair was green – or was it merely a trick of the light? Maybe; the pale ferns shaded the gaps in the roof and swathed everything within in a green filter. Even the increasingly rare customers took on a verdant look while they were inside – a look they carried with them for a while when they left. It wasn’t hard to imagine the regulars having greened over on the settle and putting down roots, becoming permanent grown-in fixtures. Would the draped, dry hop-bines, there as a decoration, not come back to life and grow all over again? Would the oaken counter, not polished for many years, sprout buds? Perhaps, and perhaps the Hartstongue Inn, one day, would be all alive, returned to the forest whose clearing it had once so boldly stolen. Thus does nature reclaim her own, all in good time.
But this is all by-the-by, because something was happening at the Hartstongue Inn. If the barman had been paying attention, that spring, which he wasn’t, he might have observed the wise woman tucking a little scroll of birch bark into a cranny in the inn wall. Had he retrieved it and unrolled it, which he didn’t, he would have found its underside covered in mysterious symbols. These would have meant nothing to him. But for the fortunate few, including you, dear reader, they would have transmitted a message. ‘Come to the Hartstongue Inn, or hereabouts,’ they said. ‘St John’s Day, or thereabouts.’ The bark scroll fell to pieces unmolested, and its magical message was delivered into the hearts of those who needed to hear it. And that was how the spell was cast to summon the Herbarium.
The Wise Woman’s Grand-daughter: May has her Say
Inspired by the hawthorn, or may blossom, (Crataegus monogyna).
Some of the people here say cruel things about my grandmother Leonura. They don’t say them to her face, but she knows. They say she didn’t like her husband – hated him – magicked him into a toad and crushed him under her heel. And got away with it. That is a very vicious thing to say about anybody. A serious charge. But I don’t believe it. Others say her husband wasn’t my grandfather at all – that there was another man, that he abetted the crime and that he was my real grandfather. I think it’s just cruel gossip. My mother won’t talk about it, closes up like a clam. My grandmother says they were mistaken. No more than that.
Perhaps the truth is that she simply married the wrong man and couldn’t regret it when he ran off. But people can’t let such things alone, can they? They have to see witchcraft. They love to embroider a story, adding scarlet stitches and gold thread and outrageous images to what is really a very plain tapestry.
Leonura the Wise Woman
Inspired by the motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca),grown for many medicinal uses, especially for women.
‘I remember when… when persons such as myself were respected in this village.’ She said this with eyes closed, concentration written on her face.
‘Oh, my dear! You were never respected – you were suspected.’ The neighbour who came in to help sweep the house couldn’t let this go unanswered.
Leonura opened an eye, skewered the woman with an enquiring look, and then closed up again. ‘A tiny distinction,’ she said, airily. ‘They may have suspected things – they were quite wrong of course – but they respected me, too. Respected my skills. They needed me. I was their healer.’
This was only partially true, the neighbour thought. Had Leonura truly forgotten the accusations that had echoed round the village – round the whole forest? Could she have forgotten being held by the heels, head first down the well? If she’d said the wrong thing they would surely have dropped her. Could anyone choose to forget that? They had called her a murderous witch. It was serious. She was lucky to have survived it. People still whispered.
‘They respected me, I say,’ said Leonura, eyes still closed.
There was nothing so very respectful about being held head first down a well. But this new past Leonura had created in her active mind was full of respectful people. The neighbour sighed. ‘I’m sure they did.’ Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to argue with someone who had been tried for witchcraft.
The Sun Stands Still
Inspired by the St John’s Wort (Hypericum maculatum), a plant said to begin flowering on St John’s Day (24 June).
It wasn’t much of a summer solstice. Sunrise took place by stealth that day, lurking behind a curtain of murky yellow cloud. All sign of rosy pink was lost in that particular dawn, and daylight crept out unannounced. One minute it was dark, the next it was grey daylight. People going about their business in the village in the forest that morning, feeding hens, raking over vegetable patches, were distinctly grumpy. They felt short-changed, as if the summer had broken its solemn promise to mark the midpoint of the year with something a little more spectacular, and then cancelled it at the last minute.
‘It’s a bad sign. Omen. Can’t be right. Shouldn’t be allowed.’ Everyone felt entitled to a sense of grievance, the right to be offended by an ill-judged weather pattern occurring at just the wrong time.
‘Strange things will be coming. You mark my words!’ As always, if it were said enough – and everyone said it – it became accepted as a prophetic truth. The accident of a gloomy summer solstice became a sure-fire prophecy of unwelcome change. So no-one was the least bit surprised when, soon afterwards, the strangers began to arrive.
Look out for part 2 of The Herbarium, in which you can meet the slightly weird Dr Buckler, Mistress Honesty and Ursula Borage.