While by no means rich, Cissy and I were just a little better-off than most of our neighbors, although we did our best to conceal this difference. Over the years, we had acquired certain skills which were unknown to most others, perhaps even unimaginable to the ignorant and small-minded; again a fact we took pains to hide from the gossips and nosey-parkers.
For many a year, Cissy and I had walked the hedgerows and hillsides, baskets on our arms, looking for certain plants and fungi - often rather rare in these parts - while on other days, we would tend herbs and medicinal plants in the sheltered garden which surrounds our cottage and its outbuildings. We had been well taught by Mother, who had acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the use of herbs over the years, and we would occasionally be able to expand, or at least confirm, our knowledge by cautious conversations with the occasional itinerant gypsy or traveling peddler.
Day after day, Cissy and I would work side-by-side at a long bench in an outbuilding which had once been a dairy. But instead of working with milk and butter and cheese, the wooden tables and shelves were laden with flasks and flagons, with retorts and alembics bubbling and boiling, with one or another of us wielding a knife or a pestle and mortar. Our efforts and equipment were employed to brew and separate and distill extracts from the plants to form the ingredients for potions and elixirs. Less commonly, we would catch fish, or toads, or even insects in order to extract some useful compound or vital tincture.
With care and skill, we would combine these extracts into remedies for common ailments and conditions, which we bottled and labeled, to be sold to those which money to buy and sufficient wisdom to treat them with the respect they deserve. Some of these ingredients are poisonous if used injudiciously, and it is always important to follow the instructions on dosage.
Originally, we had used the scullery and the kitchen for this work, but we had found that over the years, as the range of potions had expanded and the complexity of the processes had increased, we needed more space. One summer, Mother had employed a couple of itinerant workmen to repair and refurbish the old outbuilding, so that it was now as stout and weatherproof as it had ever been. And, given that the contents of the old dairy was the subject of continued speculation by several of the more notorious gossips, I was very glad that Mother had thought to require the installation of strong shutters and stout locks.
Twice a week, we would lock up the cottage and the old dairy, and load up our baskets and handcart with a selection of our phials and bottles. We would walk the four miles or so to the market town and take up our accustomed position in a quiet corner of the old cobbled square where peddlers and traders would gather daily to hawk their wares. We did not tout our products loudly, as the greengrocers and fishwives were wont to do; our advertising was by quiet word of mouth alone. Many men and more women would approach us to seek relief from this embarrassing ailment or that awkward itch, or to mitigate the effects of hard work and childbirth on aging bodies. Invariably, our baskets were much lighter and our purses much heavier when the time came to make our way home.