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Teaser Tuesday: It’s not a proper job unless you say charms

Tuesday, May 14, 2019 - 07:22

No teaser last week because it was a topsy turvy day: no morning coffee shop session because I took the train in to work so I could go straight to the airport (motel) from work to catch an early morning flight to Kalamazoo. Also because all my spare writing time was being spent polishing a 40-minute first draft of my paper down to a 20-minute presentation. As my regular readers may be aware, writing short is not one of my strong points! But now we're back to the weekly teasers!

In the Alpennia series so far, most of the focus has been on "high magic" -- on the formal mysteries, or on learned magics such as alchemy. I've made passing references to "market charms" and other everyday practices that have an ambiguous status: Not "approved" religious mysteries, but mostly sufficiently embedded in orthodox religious practice to be considered innocuous. (I rather liked how two of the papers in this Kalamazoo session addressed this aspect of how to "domesticate" suspect folk-magic practices.) In Daughter of Mystery, when Margerit is dealing with Barbara's head wound, she laments, “for the first time wished she knew all the little charms and rhymes that every dairymaid and scullery girl seemed to learn. Against burns, against the scab, against bleeding, against the wet cough, against the cramp. She’d always considered them little better than fortunetelling, but what good were grand cathedral mysteries when what you needed was to close the cut of a knife?”

Floodtide is all about those "little charms and rhymes," but that doesn't mean that the characters have a unified understanding of them. Roz has learned little bits of ritual that accompany her everyday work. Something along the line of "trade secrets" imparted by her Aunt Gaita along with the more practical skills of a laundress. Celeste aspires to be a charm-wife, someone with enough store of those little charms and rhymes to be considered a "go to" expert when you needed magical help. Even so, they have very different approaches to what magic means and how it works, as shown in this interaction early in Roz's apprenticeship. (It's also the interaction that sparks the beginning of their friendship, because nothing thaw's Celeste's standoffishness faster than a puzzle to poke at.)

* * *

When I started rubbing up the linen with salt and vinegar before setting it to soak, like I’d learned from Aunt Gaita, [Celeste] watched me close like she did sometimes when we were sewing together.

“What’s that for?” Celeste asked later when I’d soaped it up and hung it by the fire.

“You have to set the soap in with heat so it’ll rinse clean,” I said.

“No. What you’re singing.”

I stared at her for a moment. “Just washing charms.” It wasn’t singing really, but Aunt Gaita always put a bit of lilt in them that felt like music and made them easier to remember.

“No.” Celeste spoke carefully like I’d said something foolish. When she did that, it always felt like she was measuring you with the tape and didn’t like the result. “I mean, what’s it for. What does it do?”

Now she was the one being foolish. “It makes the washing take. You think my aunt would send me out to work without knowing all her secrets?” Everyone had little bits like that. Not real charms like the charmwives sell, but tricks of the trade. All the girls in service were greedy to learn each other’s house-charms. No one at Tiporsel House was friendly enough to share with me yet, so I’d kept Aunt Gaita’s to myself so far.

Celeste came closer and poked at the cloth. “Do they work?”

I shrugged. “It’s not a proper job unless you say charms.” I tried to think if I’d ever heard Mefro Dominique use house-charms. Maybe Celeste never had anyone to share them with her.

“Have you tried washing one thing using the charm and another without it?”

I laughed. “Why would I do that? That would be as silly as washing without soap!”

“So you don’t know.” She sounded disappointed.

It was like she didn’t believe in charms, but I knew that wasn’t so because she’d charmed my hurt leg that first day. “How did you know how to make my bruise go away?” I rubbed my hand over where it had been. I’d almost forgotten it.

Celeste bit her lip and stared at me measuring-like again.

Major category: 
historical