I was a medicine woman, like my mother before me, and her mother before her. From the time I was old enough to walk, I foraged with the older women in the woods and the fields, by the streams and rivers, for roots and bark and leaves and berries with which to make remedies, salves, syrups, and potions. I soon knew both the proper and their common names of them all. I knew which very similar-looking green berries were good for settling the stomach and which would cause even greater upset. I learned the best times and places to harvest green shoots; how to know when their medicine was strongest. Even out at play or on an errand, I got into the habit of filling my pockets with leaves and flowers that soothed and calmed.
At my mother and grandmother’s side, I learned how prepare each cure, and the proper dose for each ailment.
There were books, too. Some had been passed down from many mothers before us. Some were written by my mother and grandmother. Most other women did not know how to read, but this was a skill essential to our field, and so the knowledge of it was passed down with the other teaching. Our skill was rudimentary — we needed just enough to be able to read or write a recipe or describe (and perhaps draw) a plant or flower and where to find it.
This was knowledge that needed to be taught from a young age. There was too much to learn to start as an adult.
We three women, along with my father, shared a small cottage with a garden for growing that which could be cultivated.
When I was twelve, my father and grandmother were killed in an accident with the cart, on a steep hill in the rain, on their way home from market in another town. It was difficult to live without them, for they were both wise and loved by us. Having no choice, my mother and I carried on. We were fortunate in that my mother’s skill and calling provided us with enough money to survive in some comfort. We never went hungry, had candles and oil enough for light, and were warm in the winter.
Also in our large town, was a midwife and her daughter who was several years older than me. The town was small enough that I knew of them but not so small that we knew each other well. Our mothers sometimes consulted on women’s matters, but because of our age difference, we girls did not much associate with each other.
As I got older, I devoted myself to my calling. My mother passed on when I was in my late 20s. I did not marry. I should have. But I never was much interested in the company of men, and since I was capable of surviving on my own without one, I didn’t see much point. I had no mother to urge me to the altar. I was content, alone in the cottage; just me and my few animals whose company gave me more comfort than most people.
Over the years, as with our mothers, it became necessary for me to consult with the midwife’s daughter, who, when her mother died, took on her mantle, as I had taken on my own mother’s. She had married young, had no children, and by then was a widow.
After the first consultation, we began to find excuses for others. We enjoyed sitting and discussing the various aspects of our callings. We compared notes and tried to understand why certain cures or techniques worked sometimes, but not always. Sometimes we experimented together. For example, I suggested a numbing, healing leaf poultice to ease the tearing and after-pain of childbirth. She knew a mild sedative that soothed colicky babies..
Our age difference was less important now, and we completely enjoyed each other’s company. She was truly the first and only friend I ever had in my life.
Several years into our friendship, there was a large fire in her corner of town, and her house was damaged and uninhabitable. Several people had been killed, and she felt lucky to have gotten away with her life and her bag of tools.
There was not even a question that she would move in with me.
The fire turned out to be a blessing for both of us, for as we got older, we found it lovely and comforting to have company in the evenings. If one or the other of us had to go out in the night to attend to a labor or illness, we could often be accompanied by the other – for company, as protection, as an extra set of eyes and hands to work. After a many years like that, we could spell each other if the other was not available or not well enough to travel, and as long as the case was not too complicated.
After only a couple of years together, we delivered a beautiful baby girl to a mother who died two days after childbirth, despite our best efforts to save her. The girl’s father was a drunkard and ne’er-do-well. He had no interest in the child; he saw her only as a burden. There was no other family.
And so, with her father’s blessing, we took the girl and raised her as our own. We both taught her our trades. She was smart as a fox, that one, and learned so fast. By the time we, her mothers, had passed over, she was more than capable of fulfilling both our positions for the townsfolk.
She eventually passed her knowledge on to her daughter, and that daughter to her daughter. And so this valuable information, these skills and knowledge which kept the human race alive generation after generation, became the dominion of women. And thus it went for centuries. Until the men called it Science and took it away from them.
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