Twosday evening, before I went in to curl up on the floor in front of the fireplace, I checked on the weather from the shelter of the front porch. There was a ring around the moon -- not unusual in spring before the weather warms. At the time I thought that the skies would be drizzling by morning or midday; not particularly pleasant weather, but not so bad for traveling, either. A brisk walk would get me back to the hostel at Grey Mountain by early evening, and if the weather cleared, I could reach my village the next day in time for a late lunch or early supper. I'd spent the last two weeks and some dosing the victims of the Winter Ill in the village to the east called Elspeth, and I was more than ready to return home.
Some I was able to help; the children responded well to rose hip soup and garlic paste on bread (buttering and toasting it elevates the remedy to a delicious treat) and their youthful energy helped them bounce right back. Some I just sat beside as they endured the disease, when no herbal concoction seemed to help, talking to them, reading to them if they wanted. Being sick is worse if you're alone, and those who were well were few: the village of Elspeth was so remote that only a few of the grandmothers could remember the last visit of the Winter Ill.
The Ill begins with aches and shivering; then the body starts to flux with runny noses and sweats, and the lungs of the body try to cleanse themselves with great coughs, and the whole body tries to purge itself of the disease by burning it to ashes with a high fever. I administered goldenseal for the lung infections, nettles for the early sneezes, and willow tea for the fevers. I was loaded like a pack mule with sacks of herbs and garlic when I arrived at Elspeth, and most of the load was gone. Fortunately, most of the Ill was gone, too. A couple of the older folk would have to be careful until warm weather returned, but most everyone was on the mend.
"Aser Shaman, you're back late tonight," George Elspeth Houser said, as I re-entered the house and put the bar across the door. "Did you see my sister Vera Elspeth today? How is she faring?"
"Vera Elspeth is getting well. She still has a bit of a cough, but she'll be fine. She was sitting in her rocking chair making antimacassars for the summer market in Crosspasses." I sat down in front of the fire and wrapped my blanket around me by way of hinting that I was preparing for sleep.
"Her and them antimacassars! I remember when she first learned to make them from our Grannie, she'd just learned the simple star pattern and was so proud of herself that she made them for every piece of furniture in the house. They was so knotty and ugly that even the cat wouldn't play with the loose strings, but we were none of us allowed to say so. Our eldest brother Lars Elspeth told her they looked like an old woman's hairnet caught in a tornado, and Grannie beat him with her cane till he was black and blue." George Elspeth put his candle-lantern on the table and eased his nightgown-clad body into a chair. "'You can tell a woman that she's stupid, and risk her becoming stupid because she fears trying to learn, and you can tell a woman she's ugly, and risk her running off with a scissors-salesman who thinks she's got nice legs,' Grannie yelled at Lars Elspeth, 'but you never, ever criticize the work of her hands, ya senseless cruel boy!' None of us did say a word about Vera Elspeth's tatting after that."
"Sounds wise," I replied, turning to face the fire.
"Aye, it's a shame that Lars Elspeth never lived to see how popular Vera Elspeth's antimacassars and doilies turned out once she got her skill down. Shaman, I'll bet you gold coin that there's not a house in this village that doesn't hold one of Vera Elspeth's tats!"
"I've seen them in every house."
"You know it, Shaman, Lars Elspeth would have eaten his words with no salt and lots of green persimmon-squeezin's had he not trod on that viper up where the blueberries grow on the mountain. You know, our Mum, rest her goodly soul, told him over and over again to wear the good boots bought for him by the sweat of his father's brow when he went out scouring the mountainside, but he always avowed that he could grip the rocks better with his toes and climb better than anyone else. Guess he shouldn't have taken such a grip on that snake. He might of been a bit slower picking the berries, but had he worn his good boots like she told him, he wouldn't have ended up swelled up like a stack of tree trunks and all dead." George Elspeth wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, as he had the last five times he'd told me this tale. "And our dear Mum, she always blamed herself for not convincing Lars Elspeth how dangerous going barefoot is -- oh, meaning no offense, Shaman -- it's different for you, don't they say that you shamans can walk on the backs of snakes and they'll just take you where you want to go?"
"No," I said, thinking that if I heard the word 'Elspeth' one more time today I would go mad and climb trees, frothing at the mouth.
"Well, you must have some magic over the beasts of the earth to keep from getting snake-bit, is all I can say. Did your Mum go barefoot, too? Must have, otherwise you wouldn't even have thought of it. Now my Mum, on the other hand, wore her boots and carried a long stick with leaves when she went up the mountain, and she'd smack the ground with the stick every step to scare the serpents away, for as we all know, the serpent fears the rod and slithers away to hide, thinking it's the Giant Ymir and his cane, come to destroy the Children of the Midgard Serpent."
My space in front of the fire was secured by my service to the community, by the fact that George Elspeth had the biggest house in the village, and by my willingness to keep the fire going throughout the night, so that George Elspeth, his wife Debbie Elspeth, his mother-in-law Sophia Elspeth, or any of his children to whose name was also appended "Elspeth" did not have to sleep in the drafty downstairs and tuck logs onto the fire at intervals. I didn't mind the floor, or tending the fire, or having the family hound plaster himself against me and try to hog my blankets. But I would have gladly accepted another offer of shelter, even a couch in an unheated common room, or in a kitchen under a table, or a barn -- almost anywhere else, for George Elspeth Houser was one of those individuals who can not shut up.
I know you've met at least one of them, somewhere, perhaps at a party, where your solitude draws them like a candle draws a moth, or perhaps a better simile would be like a pastry draws a hairy, striped fly. They start with simple chatting, but in a matter of minutes you're nailed to the wall by their fervent outpouring of stories and commentaries and opinions and confessions and far-too-personal histories. Maybe you've encountered them at a family gathering, where "Hi, haven't seen you for years" transforms into a repetitious performance of the faults and the failings (with incidents that support the transgressions by date) of selected clan members. Or you've seen an unsuspecting victim fall prey like poor old Amos Cooper over in Reedsville. That pitiable man rented the spare room of the widow Oaklogger, and by the time he was there six months, he had no responsive capabilities at all, and they said that it was because Ms. Oaklogger just never shut up if she was in the presence of another person. Amos was unprepared and had no hobbies to take him outside the house, and so was doomed.
Nothing I've ever read or heard gives me a clue as to why people who talk incessantly can't understand that their constant demanding chatter isn't welcome. Chatterers tend to be nice enough people; you can't call in the local militia to silence them, much as you'd like to. They just switch on, and then go on, and on, and on ...
George Elspeth Houser finally went to bed when his wife screamed down the stairs, "George Elspeth, you get to bed this instant or I swear you'll not get breakfast until Summer Solstice!"
When he climbed to the upper storey, the hound crept out from under the cupboard against the wall and humbly curled himself against my back. I'd miss the warmth of the dog, but looked forward to leaving in the morning.
When morning dawned, the light was glowing and strange. George Elspeth was already peering out the whitened windows when I sat up. "Why, who'd have thought it at this season?" he cried. "Look at this, Shaman!"
I went to the window and recoiled in amazement and disgust. Nearly four feet of snow had drifted against the front of the house.
"Oh, isn't it strange how such bad weather can turn to such good fortune?" George Elspeth cried. "Now you don't have to make that long walk to Grey Mountain. We'll be so honored to have you with us for another week, at least! You know, Shaman, this is exactly how the Elspeths came to settle here. There was this fellow Jacob Elspeth and his wife Mara Elspeth and they were traveling in the mountains on their way to someplace out on the coast when they got snowed in and had to stay. By the time the snow was gone that spring, Mara Elspeth was too big with her daughter Tansy Elspeth, so they made a little homestead and raised ten fine children, who found themselves husbands and wives and they called this town Elspeth after them. Now there wasn't another snow season like that for about fifty years, or so they say, and by that time the folks all carried the name Elspeth because you see, they were all born here and the earliest name of their ancestors was that very same Jacob Elspeth that got snowed in -- and I don't believe that bosh about Mara Elspeth being his cousin, just in case you heard the wrong version of the story. It was like Elspeth was just meant to be. We don't get snow like this but maybe every other generation, Shaman, so it has to be some kind of sign, don't you think?"
I think old Mum Elspeth might have been right. Some good boots would certainly have come in handy. And a good heavy coat, and good mittens, and good woolen britches. And while we're at it, let's throw in a good sled and good dog team, please, as quickly as we can.