I loved her, this fire woman.
Not at first, you see. Fallen women had only themselves to blame then.
But yes, I loved her as much as I loved myself; can I dare say so now?
I loved this combustible lass with the horrific challenges she lay at my door that dawn when I came to know at last the root of sol/luna union beyond the intellectual gaps in my impoverished⎯deficient was the better word my father had always used⎯female brain. A brain too small, too damp, and wet with sentiment and mawkishness to understand⎯comprehend was the word my father had always used⎯to logically calculate the remedies needed for her healing.
Yet, had not she healed me in the process? Do I not bear witness to you as the reader now to share the secrets my father swore me to vow as holy only for men, and not the men of labored hands, but only holy men, such as he? Or my father, my husband, son.
Worse, I was woman, thus ill-equipped to act as a chymist, and most certainly unable to serve as God’s clerical vehicle; unlike the devout and gifted maleness of my renowned father, or my eldest son, both legacy chymist-clerics of our time. My father more so, of course, but my son laid a path just as worthy not too far from me and the fragments of my father’s library I begged to retain. Clutched them full thumb down on the corners against forefinger when my son took on a parish far from me to save his own reputation⎯or to save his own soul and salvage his children’s souls from my grasp he spouted⎯so I was not to impart this knowledge on his daughters, my granddaughters could not be soiled with my morose thoughts or a grandmother who looked and acted a bit witchy.
Wasn’t that how he had put it? Get us far from an elder who might cast shadow or worse, doubt on unsoiled young female souls; not out of a total abhorrence of me exactly, but out of a real need to save his own. It was the law⎯his spittle immersed in the words of Malachi, chapter 3, that midday even though he well knew it rang true of the ancients.
But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap…
He, mother; not she. We are the refiners, not your womankind. Fulfill your duties. Do your work, not ours, he had struck me with words, as I looked out to see his daughters peak through the blinds for one last glimpse of me. It was the last I had seen them.
Then so very many years after midlife this fire woman arrived one dawn and brought the perplexities of life to my door and a mercy burst forth as if directly out of my chest off-center where my heart resided and it speared these men’s words so engraved on my soul⎯or was it my
heart⎯but mostly my head, my thoughts, my mind had recited them so often as I carried their voices, these arguments, even my own son who sounded so like my husband, I saw them as one.
It was the trauma of the secret keeper: these manuscripts archived as memory as if slates engraved my father’s transcriptions of Hermes and Zosimos, craving most the excerpts attributed to Maria the prophetess, constructing my own bain-marie. This halfwit woman-brain had fixed so many broken limbs of village men who needed to till to thatch a roof, feed families, and I had delivered these men’s children while they watched their wives suffer beyond any limb trauma, tinctured their wounds stayed infection, witnessed childbirth more painful than their broken hand or gashed foot, a bleeding such as they had never seen from calf or goat emergence, and yet I saved their wives and children without thanks. Only expected, just long as it did not go too far with it all, as one had reprimanded after handing over his new baby girl.
For the fire woman, the merciful choice of life over death, a choice that mattered little when both involved such intense pain; yet, here I was with a choice that was mine to make. I could have let her die that morning on my hearth, which was as far as I could half-drag, she half-crawl, as the smoldering skin had fallen tenderly off her bones and called out her death through my village authority as the only chymist trusted within the miles when crises were too far to the city.
Women like her were disposable and many a villager⎯well most⎯would have left her dead with her burns, the molten skin still bubbling, a detestable life infamous only to this village of nothing who thought it world-central. I still see that moment and sometimes wonder what other traveled path had I decided there was nothing to be done for her. Of course, it was then that my heart had burst out louder than my head, like it had never done when my father was alive, nor in my husband’s lifetime, when all the men in my village had looked at me, or never wasted a glance or thought at me, as servant to them. Incapable of more than domestic needs.
In that heart-burst moment I heard a deep call, a guttural cry for life from under my feet as if it came from within and demanding as any infant girl I had pulled knowingly into this world of disparity. So, it was I, the penitent healer myself, who decided to answer the call that morning with the wholeness of my knowledge and save us both.
Who therefore knows the salt and its solution knows the hidden secret of the wise men of old. Therefore turn your mind upon the salt and think not of other things; for in it alone [i.e., the mind] is the science concealed and the most excellent and most hidden secret of all the ancient philosophers. ~The Rosarium Philosophorum
A fight. A battle. A crusade for life. Salt it would be then.
Salt water heals everything. ~The Reverend Gershom Bulkeley
Dorothy safely assumed her father’s direction as she knew the body should be considered only a surrogate casing in times of such burn where much of the skin has been lost and with bone and ligature so duly exposed. She scoured her mind for her father’s reply as in some odd way, her
mind seemed still well aligned with his. The prominent cleric-physician gone now some four years was more quietly, in the confines of his great library, an adept.
A disembodied life hovered above this creature, arrived on her stoop at dawn, Dorothy sensed it, likely too painful for her soul to reside within these singed limbs and burnt-out lungs. If this soul had not yet fully departed, it was her responsibility to reunite it, to re-embody this soul with her shell into one she may not desire to live within and at this stage, had little choice in the matter. Dorothy’s role was healer and a healer does not question the rules. There was no one else to do it or more so, would care to do it.
Hairsuit! Saved her vitals! Yes, a body size cilice. Dorothy had whispered this fierce truth to Father as she did in her childhood days of learning in the great library. Secrets, her father would say. These secrets are between us, he would warn Dorothy.
Reason is woman: protect wisdom as a delicate damsel and she will show you the path to the powers of nature, Father had said. The healer is nature, not the physician, as if he read aloud from the pages of Paracelsus in her youth.
Yet, Dorothy still wobbled and yearned for Father’s virile sensibilities as she had never fully grounded them into her own wobbly stance. Too feminine, he had once ordered. After he departed, she felt the balancing masculinities had left with him and as she faced each person come into her care, she yearned for his knowledge, his care of text, the readings. King and Governor had held him so close and now in this early morning hour, she wanted him just as close, too.
Answers are all around you. They line the shelves of this room. They lie in the garden, along the river bank, the sea edge. Simply reach for them. Better, let them come to you. Chase them, they will elude you. Seek them delicately, and they will reach out to you. Guide you. Let them come to you. They will come.
Salt. Dorothy said it so abruptly that it cracked wide open her helpless mood. It begins with Salt. She was no empiricist of the great minerals; Dorothy better worked her wiles in the plant realm, a realm better kept to women, only when necessary to venture beyond to the titrated tinctures and salves. Yet, when this near-death woman arrived, her choices were tainted. Dorothy knew only to reach for healing when all else falls away, which meant any means at her disposal—any and all⎯even the formulaic she had only tested when her father was alive, but she was not all alone then to save lungs, limbs and souls. Now she was alone. More alone than ever.
Dorothy had witnessed too many resurrected births and deathbed confessionals to consider life as a linearity. To view this journey as a literal timeline had never sufficed her deep curious nature. The fire woman had appeared at Dorothy’s door as if washed up from the sea itself, but Glastonbury was a long way from Mystic and it was only when she reached for an arm that she recognized muscle and bone and very little else. It had appeared simply lacerated at first, as if it could be stitched up, and then Dorothy began to see that it was worse than any imagining. This burned woman would not last the night and there was no salve, no tonic, tincture or known remedy to replace skin melted from a fire lit to engulf this soul.
Burned through. No protection. It was then that Dorothy looked out into the night, out her back door that faced west toward Glastonbury center and there she saw smoke rising above the homes on Taunton Lane and searched out the burned woman’s floating unconscious eyes.
No need to speak such an evidentiary truth of the worst possible self-deprecation. A scene interpreted for many days to come and a life force that may or may not emit from this woman who had wrested herself from a horrid inferno and dragged this body here at her door. Spirit enough to drag herself here.
Salt, mercury, sulfur.
Body, spirit, soul.
Dorothy began the familiar recitation as the only means to knowledge in crisis. Access to records was easier this way, she recalled Father now: Recite the rules to guide you. Her salt had been made from the cleanest Atlantic at mid-depth. At least 100 feet. Unlike the cape saltworks that reached for any murky water in easy reach. Pure.
When the burned woman awoke that morning of the seventh day, remembering none of the irrigation Dorothy had subjected her body, she peered through ragged muslin slits that covered her face and she saw an old woman dancing. Mad, she must be. She must be mad.
Now, the burned woman was trapped in an afterworld with a madwoman. Likely, she deserved worse, much worse, even though she had kept some selfish small hope of entrance at heaven’s gate. Due her, she was a penitent.
As pain wracked every limb, she watched the dancing mad woman as this was their pain now.
It was in the delicate ornately letter-pressed leaves of van Helmont, one rare print not necessary to hand scribe before Father rerouted bid a King’s favor from Dover to Connecticut albeit late to greet Dorothy’s birth, eight years before Father guided her through the nature of fire.
Fire. The combustible material for salt and sulfur to be distilled⎯curated by the already adept she would become⎯as alkalized salt formation. The pearl ash was a useful balm for the arthritic, the infected. She would practice these concoctions freely among the village afflicted, years later when the stricken cared less about man or woman, just healer.
While it was never legal nor proper for Father to cue Dorothy to the spiritual bondage between salt and sulfur, he taught the literal capture, the volatile balance to harvest medicinals, and was adamant to ensure understanding. Beyond that, these mysteries were meant only for men; women had no capacity for such complex truths.
Yet, it was when Father said my wise one, Dorothy’s mind opened porous as a north Atlantic sponge, especially this day when the lesson involved substances consumed or transformed by fire. An essential lesson, so Father restrained from his didactic tone taken with novitiates, son, grandsons: such male heirs privileged to the greater work.
When the wood is rotten, the sulfur will be soiled; yet, when the wood is of sound substance, the resulting alkali is of pure use. A sublimation compelled Dorothy to memorize⎯a cyclical rote/regurgitate⎯till Father nodded, pleased at her facility.
Father never shared the numinous proportions of these lessons, only the material. Nor would she find them, only the medicinal, the practical, and always only the manifest. It was here, sadly, where his belief in Dorothy ended. It was here Father never ventured beyond to glimpse the depths among women’s unwieldy lower nature, no intention of ever guiding her through esoterica, fearing to unleash the dragon of her ill-equipped soul, as much as denial at the gates for his own salvation, facing an eternal atonement for inaugurating a female child of God to the sacred arts of men.
Yet, after Father was laid rest in Wethersfield, Dorothy converted fearless with no watchful male guardian to sentry her absorption through private inquiries. It was then she recognized he had marked each of the tomes with the ouroboros in the same upper left corner, works she would later convince her son were valueless when he assumed his grandfather’s great library for his own chymical use. Left to her, these texts were not recipes for tinctures, balms or metallurgical assays, but a lifelong naivete on lesser work.
Father took his deliberate sin stalwart, stance ready, faced his eternal penalty for a lost daughter, born female by no fault of her own. This final lesson was found same line, same page of nature’s transformation from fire where mystical was the material. Where sulfur was not sulfur at all. An understanding Dorothy earned when she read deeply: on her own.
Robin Throne is a writer and researcher inspired by movingwater, especially rivers, oceans, and tears. Her recent work has appeared inGender and Women’s Studies, Gold Coast Almanac, and Mystic Blue Review, and TheCotton Breath is set for release in January from Anaphora Literary Press. VisitRobinThrone.com