Bitterwood Bible: St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls

John Singer Sargent, The Misses Vickers

John Singer Sargent, The Misses Vickers

And so, after finishing the paper-based edits of Hallowmass on Monday, I’ve given my brain a break and gone back to working on The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings.

Below is a first draft of the beginning of “St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls”, which starts far too slowly and will need to be edited to within an inch of its life, but which is gradually coming to life.


St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls

Alder’s Well is small and neat, perhaps thirty houses of varied size, pomp, and prosperity, yet none is a hovel. It seems life for even the lowest on the social rung is not mean. There is a pretty wooden church with gravestones dotting the lawn on three sides, and all surrounded by a low stone wall; a smithy where smoke still floats against the late afternoon sky; a small market with stalls for fruit and vegetables and meats; an ostlery, which seems to bustle; a tiny school house bereft of children at this hour. There are other things I am sure, but this is all I can see as our carriage hurries through the hamlet.

I’m about to lean back against the uncomfortable leather seat when I catch sight of a well – the well for which the place is named – and a tree beside it. I should think more on the alder’s well, but I am districted: I think I see a man. He stands, cruciform, against the trunk, arms stretched along branches, held in place with vines, which may in fact be mistletoe. Green barbs and braces and ropes, not just holding him upright, but breaching his flesh, moving through his skin, making merry with his limbs, melding with muscles and veins. His head is cocked to one side, eyes closed, then open, then closed again. I blink and all is gone, there is just the tree alone, strangled by devil’s fuge.

My companions have taken no notice of our surrounds, but continue to chatter amongst themselves; it’s been thus way since the beginning of our journey. Adia and Serafine worry at the pintucks of their grey blouses, rearrange the folds of their long charcoal skirts, check that their buttoned black boots are polished to a high shine. Sweet-faced Veronica turns to me and reties the thin forest green ribbon encircling my collar, trying to make it sit flat, trying to make it neat and perfect. But, with our acquaintance so short, she cannot yet know that I defy tidiness; a freshly pressed shirt, skirt or dress coming near me will develop wrinkles in the blink of an eye; a clean apron will attract smudges and stains as soon as it is tied about my waist; a shoe, having barely touched my foot, will scuff itself and a beribboned sandal will snap its straps as soon as look at me. My hair is a mass of – well, not even curls, but waves, awkward, thick, choppy, rebellious waves of deepest fox-red locks that will consent to brushing once a week and no more, lest it turn into a halo of frizz. I suspect it never really recovered from being shaved off to form part of Mother’s shroud; I seem to recall before then it was quite tame, quite straight. Despite my best efforts, beneath my nails can still be seen the half-moons of indigo ink I mixed for the marginalia Mater Friðuswith needed done before I left. It will fade, but slowly.


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