The Height of Absurdity: Aberdeen 7.9
6 June, 2017 by katelaity
Mither Wishart smiled and bad me bring her the little thing. I plucked the item from the shelf with some trepidation for it had the look of an old and mysterious bit of witchery. It was lighter than it looked, which surprised me. I felt certain it had some danger associated with it.
‘That’s what we call Airne Moire.’
Tansy squinted at her. ‘Mary’s…sloe?’
‘Indeed or usually Mary’s kidney or sometimes nut. Often it depends on the shape what people call it. See what it says underneath?’ She held the odd little object up for me to see.
The dark nut was wrapped in a sort of silver cage with a ring at the top obviously to be worn on a chain or a string. But there was some writing at the bottom. ‘Latin I guess. Vincere..aut..mori?’ I struggled to remember my schoolboy lessons. ‘Conquer or die?’
‘Indeed! You remember more than I would have thought,’ Tansy said with a chuckle. ‘Is it a curse of some kind?’
‘Actually no,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘it’s for protection. The motto is that of the MacNeils of Barra.’
‘Barra? In the outer Hebrides? Those MacNeils?’ Tansy looked thoughtful.
‘Indeed. You’ll notice some thing strange about the nut—or rather to be accurate, seed.’
‘Seed!’ Tansy took the object in hand and looked at it closely. ‘My guess is that it is not native to Scotland, not even the Hebrides. And not a blackthorn bush either.’
‘You are a sharp one, sir.’ Mither Wishart smiled approvingly. Tansy was always top of the class wherever we were. ‘They come up on the drift, especially in the wake of a storm. My cousin is a sort of naturalist on the islands and he told me about the nature of these seeds—which I understand to be a West Indian plant not unlike our morning glories.’
‘So these drift up to the islands and are picked up by folk there. And is the tradition of them for charms longstanding?’
‘Aye, it is. This one is over a hundred years old. You can see how it was used to hang from a string about the neck.’
‘What were they meant to be good for?’ I couldn’t help asking.
‘Women used them to ease childbirth. And often they were hung about the neck of children when their teeth were coming in, to ease the pain. They were said to change colour when their effectiveness was gone.’
‘Do you believe these tales?’ I could not stop from asking the woman though I knew that Tansy would not approve. ‘I mean, such odd things as this seed floating across the ocean.’
‘And yet that would seem like an extraordinary accomplishment for a little seed,’ Tansy remarked, always ready to be the grit in my oyster.
‘Oh, there are much stranger things,’ Mither Wishart said with a chuckle, rising to hunt around her shelves for examples. ‘Such as this,’ she said, throwing a wizened little object to me.
‘A calf’s heart.’ I threw it back. ‘Why is it stuck with so many pins?’
‘Someone wished ill of another. It was found beneath the floor boards of a house in Dalkeith. There’s also this,’ she said, thankfully handing the wispy object to Tansy this time.
‘Good lord!’ My friend was surprised into intemperate speech. ‘Is that a snake skin?’
‘Indeed but it’s nae bad thing. You could wrap it around your middle to charm away the sciatica. It was said to be quite effective. Now if you want something a little more scandalous—’
‘Do we?’ I said helplessly, knowing that Tansy’s curiosity was ever ready to explore.
Mither Wishart held out her hand. In the palm something bright winked in the morning light.