Of Monks & Marigolds & Murder: A Nature Walk with Brother Cadfael

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! The Summer Solstice has come and gone, leaving Wisconsin with a collection of thunderheads eager to crack our air with lightning and thunder and blanket our countryside with rain (and sometimes hail). Had I knowledge of seeds and soil, such weather would be fit for a plot of sprouts (well, not the hail, but you get me). But alas, my neglected garden remains…neglected. Well, save for the one onion I threw into the mud for a lark. That’s actually sprouting! Now to make sure I don’t mow it down by accident…

In a few days’ time, a group of fellow educators and I are getting together to celebrate nature in literature. Some are eager to discuss the beauty of nature in poetry, others the power of nature’s presence in nonfiction.

And then there’s me, eager to talk about how nature can be used to kill us.

Don’t worry, I’m not digging into any eco-terror-type tales. No, I went to my beloved mystery series, for of course I had to. I gathered a batch of Sherlock Holmes stories where the rural isolation played a role in the crime, and a batch of Brother Cadfael mysteries where flowers played a role in the whodunit with the Rare Benedictine. If you’d like to explore the Holmesian Countryside with me another time, let me know! In the meantime, let’s take a stroll among the flowers that will never ever grow under my care (though considering the poisonous nature of some, that’s probably for the best).

~*~

I’ve only written about Brother Cadfael once or twice previously, so here’s a brief refresher:

The Cadfael series is a mystery series set in 12th century England featuring a Benedictine monk who had served in the Crusades before taking Orders. His time in the world not only taught him a wide variety of herbal remedies and apothecary skills, but also the depth and breadth of human nature.

Cadfael’s peace, though, is always to be found in the garden.

He doubted if there was a finer Benedictine garden in the whole kingdom, or one better supplied with herbs both good for spicing meats, and also invaluable as medicine. The main orchards and lands of the Shrewsbury abbey of Stain Peter and Saint Paul lay on the northern side of the road, outside the monastic enclave, but here, in the enclosed garden within the walls, close to the abbot’s fish-ponds and the brook that worked the abbey mill, Brother Cadfael ruled unchallenged. The herbarium in particular was his kingdom, for he had built it up gradually through fifteen years of labour, and added to it many exotic plants of his own careful raising, collected in a roving youth that had taken him as far afield as Venice, and Cyprus and the Holy Land. For Brother Cadfael had come late to the monastic life, like a battered ship settling at last for a quiet harbour…He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude. Spiced, to be truthful, with more than a little mischief when he could get it, as he liked his victuals well-flavoured, but quietude all the same…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

Don’t we all, Brother. Indeed, don’t we all.

First, a visit to The Rose Rent.

We are not quite in Brother Cadfael’s herb garden within the cloister’s walls, but we are now on abbey grounds. This home, you see, was willed by a widow named Judith. She gifts it to Shrewsbury Abbey with the request of being given a single rose from her late husband’s rose bush as a form of rent. The rose bush itself is quite impressive, as our flora-loving monk will tell you.

A snow of white, half-open buds sprinkled it richly. The blooms were never very large, but of the purest white and very fragrant.

Many men seek the attention of the pure, beautiful Judith, but she refuses all. Even the young monk charged with caring for the rose bush falls in love with the widow, but he is soon found dead alongside the plant. The authorities assume the rose bush was simply wrecked in the attack, but Brother Cadfael thinks otherwise.

“What was done to the rose-bush,” said Cadfael firmly, “was not done with that knife. Could not be! A man would have to saw away for half an hour or more, even with a sharp knife, at such a thick bole. That was done with a heavier weapon, meant for such work…”

Why is the rose bush as brutalized as the boy? THAT is a crucial piece of the mystery, for someone wants the Rose Rent as broken as Judith’s ties to the past. But who could it be?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Come, let us visit Brother Cadfael’s workshop now. I hear he keeps cherry wine here as well as many balms and salves. Just take care with the Monk’s-Hood!

Monk’s Hood

While many plants served their purpose in healing mixtures, some could be powerful healers as well as killers. Monk’s-Hood is one such plant. Named for the cowl-like shape of its petals, this lovely flower plays a critical role in attending the aged in the abbey’s infirmary. The risks of using it, however, cannot be understated.

“But keep it carefully, Edmund, never let it near your lips. Wash your hands well after using it, and make sure nay other who handles it does the same. It’s good for a man’s outside, but bad indeed for his inside. … [the oil is] the ground root of monk’s-hood, chiefly, in mustard oil and oil from flax seeds. It’s powerfully poisonous if swallowed, a very small draught of this could kill…”

When a hard-headed landowner is found poisoned not only by food from the abbey but with the Monk’s-Hood salve Cadfael makes for the infirmary, the Benedictine must act quickly to clear the abbey and reveal the killer.

“If you can make medicines from this plant,” said Prior Robert, with chill dislike, “so, surely, may others, and this may have come from some very different source, and not from any store of ours.”

“That I doubt,” said Cadfael sturdily, “since I know the odour of my own specific so well, and can detect here mustard and houseleek as well as monk’s hood. I have seen its effects, once taken, I know them again.”

Cadfael uses his knowledge of the oil’s smell and stain to bring the killer to justice, for few realize just how poisonous such a potion can be. The sheriff certainly didn’t until Cadfael tested the main suspect by asking him to drink the monk’s hood to calm his nerves–and he would have if not for Cadfael’s intervention.

But why was the landowner killed? For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Plants can not only help heal, but they can also help provide place. We can visit a nearby shepherd’s hut so you can see and smell for yourself.

One Corpse too Many

The clover’s quite heady isn’t it? Clover was often used as a perfume for altar lamps in this time period, but it was also grown by farmers to feed livestock. Goose-grass, too, was quite handy for feeding farm animals, but even Brother Cadfael could put such a clingy plant to use in making salves for wounds.

It’s this particular combination of clover and goose-grass that helped Cadfael uncover a murdered man’s body among King Stephen’s executed prisoners. Only the murdered man had the smell of clover and the burrs of goose-grass (as well as different strangulation marks, but that’s nothing to do with the plants), so by finding the barn with both plants, Cadfael was able to uncover the murder weapon and other clues to the killer.

The dry grass was well laced with small herbs now rustling and dead but still fragrant, and there was a liberal admixture of hooky, clinging goose-grass in it. That reminded [Cadfael] not only of the shred of stem dragged deep into Nick Faintree’s throat by the ligature that killed him, but also of Torold [Blund]’s ugly shoulder wound.

With war among the monarchs, everyone, even those cloistered, are caught up in the bloodshed, the betrayals, and the espionage. Cadfael must show the king that this singular corpse could crack his credibility beneath the crown…hopefully without losing his own life in the process. Does he succeed?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

One last stop, I think. The hawthorn hedge is beautiful this time of year, its white petals falling as gently as snowflakes upon the ground. Did you know those of this time period believed the crown of thorns placed upon Christ’s head came from a hawthorn plant? Such a connection with the divine should be revered…and put to good use…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

One of the young monks under Brother Cadfael’s supervision frequently experiences visions and extreme spams, so Cadfael must often give the monk poppy juice to help still the boy’s body and mind. When some other ambitious monks “interpret” the boy’s visions as a plea from a Welsh saint to dig up her bones and bring them to Shrewsbury, Cadfael (being Welsh) has no choice but to accompany this band of Brothers into Wales to exhume the saint.

Not surprisingly, this venture leads to conflict between cloister and Welsh, and one morning soon after their arrival, the leader of the Welsh village is found dead. Cadfael is not wanting for suspects, but once he discovers his poppy juice supply has been drained, he quickly works out the identity of the killer.

To cease the conflict in the village and protect the saint whose bones his abbey so desperate wants, Cadfael chooses to put that reverence for hawthorn to use in a display of “divine” intervention.

Over altar and reliquary a snowdrift of white petals lay, as though a miraculous wind had carried them in its arms across two fields from the hawthorn hedge, without spilling one flower on the way, and breathed them in here through the altar window.

Why the ruse? For that, you’ll have to read the mystery.

~*~

Is it any wonder that Cadfael inspired my character Arlen? Both men of nature and healing, of principle and justice. Both called in dire days to summon past skills. Both fiercely loyal, giving, and kind.

We could use more Cadfaels in this world right now. But perhaps they are already among us–in the streets. In the battles.

Or, perhaps, in the gardens.

This season, do take a moment to explore a beloved park, forest, or other sanctuary of nature. Such places of color and quiet can be a balm to soothe the tired soul.

~STAY TUNED!~

If you’d like to meander through the Holmesian countryside, do let me know! Otherwise, I’ve finally seen Kenny B’s adaptation of Death on the Nile, and I have thoughts–not just about his take, but on how big or small a cast should be. Considering how the cast size of Death on the Nile changes over the course of a novel and three different film adaptations, it’s worth asking ourselves as writers just how many characters and subplots one needs in a tale to keep it clipping along.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WritingLife: The Neglected Garden

Gardening is really an extended form of reading, of history and philosophy. The garden itself has become like writing a book. I walk around and walk around. Apparently people often see me standing there and they wave to me and I don’t see them because I am reading the landscape.

Jamaica Kincaid

My love of nature is great, though my show of it is meager. The shadow of expectation, I suspect–my mother is an avid gardener with a number of bird feeders for the cardinals, orioles, woodpeckers, chickadees, and various other breeds flittering among Wisconsin’s trees. Those feeders are always stationed outside a window near the kitchen table, where no matter the season, my mother can enjoy her meal with the company of the nature she tends so lovingly.

My mom had a setup similar to this when we lived in the country. Noooo idea how she pulled this off.

Meanwhile, the bushes around my home have withered and died. Hostas–I think they’re hostas–have grown so wild and tangled in the back that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rats of NIMH had made a second home beneath their roots. Our single shade tree’s losing its bark and many of its branches refuse to bud. Even the small potted cactus my mother had given me years ago for some sort of greenery in the house has long since died.

Years ago, I would simply blame all this botanical death on motherhood. I couldn’t focus on a garden with Biff and Bash running rampant. I couldn’t afford to garden when the basement flooded and we had to replace things like the furnace and air conditioner. I couldn’t afford to garden when the kids were in school because I was only working part-time and money’s needed elsewhere. I can’t afford to garden because I’m working full-time and time is always needed on the computer, not outside.

Yet my mother worked full-time all my life, and her gardens surrounding any home always thrived. Why?

The love was there. The passion. Just as she loved the beauty in growing things, I love the beauty of stories, of helping them grow. What has one to do with the other?

When I’m writing, I think about the garden, and when I’m in the garden I think about writing. I do a lot of writing by putting something in the ground.

Jamaica kincaid
This book is the inspiration for this post. 🙂

We do our damndest to bring nature to us through artificial means–ambiance videos of forest sounds, for instance. Pretty desktop pictures of gardens.

Yet no matter what pretty picture or sound we acquire on our screens, we’re drawn to our windows, to our doors, our porches. We want to feel the breeze that lifts the dandelion seeds to the air. We want to smell the fresh earth tilled by farmers beyond our borders. We want to see those first bright shoots of green reach for sunlight. We want to reach for that sunlight. We want our senses to revel in Nature because we want our readers to feel the worlds we create for them to explore.

We must break through that thick dark that buries us, and reach. We must break through, and grow.

The gardener just has to accept that gardening is not a set-it-and-forget-it activity…A gardener must know his plot. He must think about what he wants it to look like. Then it is the daily cultivation that leads to beauty, in a landscape and a life, too.

Laura Vanderkam

No small feat, this.

The soil and all its mysteries, the shadow of my own mother’s accomplishments–I find myself taking small steps into tending nature. Caring for birds felt a safer, easier place to start. After all, it’s just a matter of supplying birdseed, yes? Plenty of wild birdseed to be had. But then there’s all those specialized suets and seeds for special birds, special feeders for different breeds. Damn, there’s a lot to work out. I begin with a general birdfeeder and a suet holder for the woodpeckers.

I need this birdfeeder!

Chickadees, sparrows, cardinals galore! The children especially love to spot the pairs of cardinals and guess where their nests could possibly be. Mornings are filled with birdsong outside our front window. I can stand with coffee in hand to watch the sun rise above houses and farmland, the sky awash in orange and pink behind those early risers perched upon the feeder. It’s a daily joy to see so many birds make themselves at home on my porch. The morning doves have even taken to hanging out upon the roof. Of course, this also leads to hawks occasionally stopping by for breakfast and leaving their leftovers in our yard, but that just creates a fresh science lesson for the kids.

No woodpeckers, though.

Not a one.

And still, I leave the suet in hope one comes.

Bo kisses my head as I once again stare at the suet holder. He shakes his head. “That suet’s getting moldy out there,” he says, and hooks a plastic bag on my fingers. He’s right, of course. Only a few small steps into nature, and I’m already stumbling.

But is that not the way with writing, too? Even the safest, smallest of steps into story-worlds isn’t without some risk of falling. We’ve all the unfinished prose and poetry that pain us to think on. Does the pain prevent us from writing?

Perhaps for a while. But never forever. We find new words, new worlds. We peer into the gifts from loved ones and find new seeds, a new feeder.

New life.

New hope.

~STAY TUNED!~

Since Death on the Nile is coming to video in early April, I’m just going to save my next Christie post for when I can rent the film and watch it. I refuse to be foiled by a lack of a babysitter! More indie author interviews are also on the way, and Blondie’s just about done with the third chapter of her Elementals story.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Celebrate the #fantasy of #WyrdandWonder with #freefiction, #roads, and #rivers to impassable #mountains

“Mommy, I’m Bandit!” Biff hops toward me with his bear held high. “And this is Snowman! We gotta go to Texarkana County for cookies!” He runs in place, revving noises loud and strong, and then bolts down the hallway to my room, where there is no trace of cookies or Texas.

Bo sits at the table with his latest P.J. O’Rourke book, tea in hand. He’s trying to look innocent, but it’s not MY doing that the soundtrack for Smokey and the Bandit has been on for HOURS. Biff didn’t find that CD downstairs on his own, oh no. That little bugger had help.

“At least he’s not talking about bootleg beer,” Bo says.

“EW, beer is GROSS!” Biff hollers from my cookie-free room. “I’m on the run for bootleg cookies, not Coors!”

Bo hides behind his book.

“Eastbound and Down” starts up for the 3,511th time.

Must. Go. Outside.

Blondie and Bash are in a fit of camaraderie, which I’ll take over the previous fit of racing and grabbing at each other’s hoods and yanking each other to the ground. The two are blowing bubbles and talking up a storm over their new Comfie Club, choosing with of their stuffed animals will be in charge and whether or not Biff will even be invited.

The last bit, I admit, hurt. Biff’s the middle kid, just like me, and I was often left out of my brothers’ games when we were kids.

“Watch out, Snowman, here comes Smokey!” Biff tears by the window, “horn” blaring as his bear shakes frantically above his head. “We gotta jump the bridge, look out! Aaaaaaaah!”

I watch that boy and his bear leap from couch to chair and back as the banjo strums on. He’s reveling in an adventure all his own. Who am I to force him out of his imagination and into another’s?

We all need our passage out of reality once in a while. Thankfully, Wyrd and Wonder provides the perfect opportunity to escape the humdrum for something new.

Perhaps, like Biff, you wish to escape via the roads. Weeeeell they ain’t exactly paved in Fantasyland.

ROADS in Fantasyland are not good. Tourists have frequent cause to complain. There are several types of Road, each with its characteristic inconvenience.

  1. Ancient magical ways, normally engineered from some black rocklike substance impervious to wear. These are so old that only short stretches remain. The rest has been torn up or buried in some ancient CATACLYSM. This can be exasperating. You are just beginning to make some decent mileage on this tarmaclike surface when it stops, and you are back to a snail’s pace again.
  2. ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS. These are wider than an eight-lane highway, dead straight, and made of cobbles that preternaturally show no sign of aging. Though hardly ever used today—they are characterized by windswept emptiness—they were clearly built to allow a traffic of horse-drawn carts, four lanes in each direction, travelling at seventy miles per hour.
  3. Old trade routes. These are long-disused and normally serve to do little more than point you in the right direction. If you try to follow them you are quite likely to get lost when the route peters out into pathless moorland or even MARSHES. If the route is obvious, you will find no shelter along it, and no WATER.
  4. Unpaved roads. These are the norm. They are always muddy and full of deep ruts from the passage of MERCHANTS and previous Tours. They lead through dangerous WOODS and abound in rocky defiles ideal for AMBUSH. Nobody ever maintains these, despite frequent representations to the Management, and you have to use them because they are the only way to get about. Some Tourists lose patience and ride across country, but this is not recommended because it is the surest way to get attacked by APELIKE CANNIBALS.

Hmmm. Maybe roads aren’t the best way to go with those cannibals and ambushing bandits hiding all over. What about the mountains?

MOUNTAINS are always high and mostly snow-capped. There seems to have been no ice age in Fantasyland, so the Mountains rise tens of thousands of feet into pointed, jagged peaks, which have evidently never suffered erosion. They are full of rocky defiles and paths so steep you have to dismount and lead the HORSES. Almost certainly there will be at some stage a ledge along a cliff that is only a few feet wide with an immense drop the other side. This will be covered with ice. Snow will be xweeping across it. The Rule is that you always in a hurry at this stage.

MOUNTAIN PASS, BLOCKED. The Rule is that any time you need to get from one side of the MOUNTAINS to the other, the pass across is blocked. The pass will be a narrow rift high in the Mountains, and by the time you have climbed up there, either with the forces of the DARK LORD hard behind you, or knowing you have only so long to get to the other side before the forces of Darkness get there first, you will find the pass…impassable. Usually the Management applies this Rule by prudently sending you off in winter, so that the pass is snowbound; on occasion, though, the blockage can be a landslide or a fall of rocks. In some cases, you can go down and round the long way, but mostly you just have to bash on through. Somehow. See also HARDSHIP and HYPOTHERMIA.

Oh yeah, hypothermia…never mind! Well I do like my rivers. My town’s on a river, my state’s on a river. Heck, did you know that Wisconsin is home to 26,767 miles of streams and rivers? That’s enough to circle around the entire globe and THEN some! (I learned that while digging up facts about Wisconsin for the kids to copy for handwriting. Ain’t that neat?) So, let’s try a river.

RIVERS  in Fantasyland are often very peculiar. Some even flow uphill. Setting aside normal features such as the fact that neither WITCHES nor the forces of the Dark are able to cross RIVERS, , we are left with the unaccountable way that each bank of a given RIVER is liable to be different, and even more unaccountable way the local inhabitants ignore this oddity. The reason seems to be that the left bank of a River (face downstream) is often Highly Magical and full of Hidden Dangers, so that the dwellers are unable to see that side of the River at all. Heaven knows what they think they see instead, or the reason for the difference between the two banks.

BRIDGES. The inhabitants of Fantasyland seem to have a distrust of Bridges, maybe because they provide an easy way for an invading ARMY to cross to a VILLAGE on the other side of the RIVER. This is a great inconvenience to the Tourist. The Rule is that, when being pursued by the forces of the Dark, you are going to need to cross a Bridge, and there will be no Bridge. While the Tour is waiting to find a way across, the forces of the Dark have time to catch up. Even if there is supposed to be a Bridge on the route, you are likely to arrive to find it broken–whereupon the forces of the Dark gain steadily again. The only Bridges sure to be still in place are ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, and they will be huge, with, as soon as you get to the middle, a tendency to develop a small but impassable gap right at the apex.

Well, how on earth can we get anywhere when the mountains are blocked, the roads are awful, and the bridges on the verge of collapse? I guess we’ll have to stop at a river’s town and socialize with the townsfolk therein…tomorrow. x

Until then, you can still catch my novella for FREE! Enjoy a little history of railway bridges over the timeless Mississippi as bounty hunters race to catch a saboteur determined to destroy a mysterious train…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!