Samhain – 1631
Hepzibah Kemp proved to be quite the miracle child that Clem declared her to be. Joan, a natural healer and herbalist, learnt the skills of her trade over many years from her own mother. She mixes medicines with care and expertise that stretches back centuries. The resin of the larch can be used as an ointment for wounds and cuts. Hemlock, although poisonous in large doses, will cure skin infections is used in small doses.
Hep, as she becomes known, scampers after Joan every day; learning the names of herbs, the best to gather, and how to use them to treat burns, infections, and inflammations.
The girl is a quick learner, able to read and write with little tuition by the age of five.
Her ability to grasp the information within books means her knowledge soon surpasses that of even Joan. One day, when she is nine, the parson comes calling, complaining of the gout. Nothing Joan tries seems to cure it, but Hep has some thoughts.
‘What you need, Parson, is an anti-inflammatory,’ she suggests. ‘It will not be cheap, because it comes from the East Indies, but I would suggest the Turmeric plant. You can use the root in cooking. It has a warm, bitter taste, like black pepper.’
The parson is astounded. ‘How do you know of such things?’
‘Marco Polo described the spice and its medicinal use,’ replies Hep, ‘so I asked some of the sailors on the trading ships that dock if they would obtain some for me to experiment with. It seems quite efficacious.’
The remedy works, and the parson, so grateful, decides to give her the run of his library.
By twelve, she can read as well as any educated man.
On the day of her thirteenth birthday, Joan and Clem prepare a special feast for Hep: pasties followed by saffron buns. As they work, they discuss the marvel of the girl they have been blessed with.
‘She in the parson’s library again?’ asks Clem.
‘Aye,’ replies Joan. ‘He says she has a “voracious appetite” for learning. He’s mightily impressed. He says she has the measure of Greek and Latin already.’
‘Greek and Latin, is it? With only a few year’s learning? Her head’s always in books now, ain’t it?’
‘And look how well it serves her, Clem. She’s that bright, she knows that much more than me already. I don’t know where it comes from, for it’s not us. Perhaps it’s her real family, whoever they were. Maybe she was highborn, or from faerie folk.’
‘Should we tell her? That we found her? That she’s not our flesh and blood? Not our daughter?’
‘No, she dotes on us. ’T’would cause her grief to think she were abandoned.’
‘Aye, maybe it’s for best,’ Clem sighs. ‘Her life is difficult enough, trying to fit in around these parts with her strange ways. ’Tis beyond me, these ideas of hers.’
Joan nods, and looks concerned. ‘’Tis beyond us all, that’s what worries me. It may be more of a curse than a blessing. What will happen to her when we’re gone? When we’re no longer here to protect her?
She talks of meaningless things. Ecktrickery? Magneticals? Some strange forces I have never head of. All manner of subjects I know the villagers believe to be the providence of God alone.’
For many years Joan and Clem have been careful in their own dealings with the villagers. Accusations of witchcraft abound across the land. People turn against anything they do not understand. That’s why they’ve always made sure to be regular visitors to church. Made sure to be seen to bless God for Joan’s healing hands, to avoid accusations of performing the devil’s work.
‘You fear that they might turn against her?’ asks Clem. ‘She is a clever child. I’m sure she will know not to arouse suspicion.’
‘Clever, true, but is she wise? There is something unworldly about her. She holds no mortal fears for how her ways might be seen.’
They exchange a look and fall silent as Hep runs into the cottage.
‘Mama, Papa, is this all for me?’ she cries.
‘Aye, a special treat for Samhain,’ replies Joan, ‘and your birthday.’
‘May I write in the Grimoire first?’
‘If you must.’
‘I need to do it now, whilst I remember the thoughts I had on the way home.’
Hep takes a huge book from its special shelf. A collection of herbal remedies and magical lore passed down over the years from mother to child. She scribbles on a blank page, after the many recipes.
‘What are those strange marks you make?’ asks Clem.
‘Euclidean geometry,’ Hep replies.
Baffled, Clem looks quizzically at Joan.
‘Don’t ask me what that be,’ she says, ‘for I have no idea.’
‘It’s an axiomatic system,’ says Hep, ‘in which all theorems are derived from a small number of simple axioms.’
‘Listen, my dear,’ murmurs Joan. ‘You’re only thirteen years old! You don’t realise that there’s plenty out there who would harm you, for the things you say. The healing I do, the spells, the necromancy, are all in the service of good. But the church, seeing the old rites as heresy, frowns upon them. They think the same of the magic you talk of, the earth revolving around the sun and invisible particles in motion. They consider it blasphemy.’
Although she has grown up surrounded by superstition, Hep believes in rational thought.
‘Magic? The church?’ she scoffs. ‘I have read of a new device, invented by Galileo. It’s called a microscope. Through it you can see the smallest objects. If you want to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, that is where you should look for the answer. Not by praying, or chanting incantations.’
‘You must understand the simple matter of if it,’ sighs Joan. ‘Most of the villagers will be fearful of a girl who uses strange words.’
‘Well, they are silly and ignorant, then. And I am no longer a girl. Today I bled and so am a woman, and I intend to make my mark on this world.’