It was high summer in our little village, and the weather had been hot and dry for weeks, it seemed. The crops of cereals and vegetables grew and ripened in the sunshine. The summer solstice had come and gone, yet it was not time for the harvest and the festival to celebrate the fruits of the fields being safely gathered in. It was that lazy and contented time of year, where the world seems to be at peace, where man and beast alike appeared drowsy and contented.
Cissy and I had remained in residence in my Mother's house. Like Cissy, I really had no other option, other than that of a homeless vagabond or, perhaps worse still, a public wanton, a common tart. The tiny cottage that I had occupied with my husband before his death I was required to vacate, the steward of the local landowner politely but firmly making it clear that I was not longer able to remain in the property, as it was tied to the farm laborer’s position he no longer occupied.
Still, Mother's house was large enough that there was space enough for us all, more or less. Upstairs, we had but two rooms, so I shared a bedroom with Cissy and, more often than not, shared a bed with her too. Downstairs, there was more space, with a kitchen, a scullery and a larder as well as the parlor. Outside there were several sheds and outhouses for the storage of tools and feedstuffs, and a run for the chickens we kept for fresh eggs and for the table.
All three of us still wore our widow's weeds when out of doors. We attended the Church on Sunday and the market on week-days dutifully enough to avoid undue comment from the villages, or a personal visit from the parson or the curate. But, behind the closed shutters we reveled in our nakedness, enjoying the warmth of the summer and the touch of each others bodies in the night.
When I first moved back in with Mother, I was concerned that we would become impoverished, unable to survive. I had some little savings, a few coins in silver and copper my husband and I had scrimped from his laborer's income and through frugal housekeeping. The money would not last long, and I began to think that I would have to go away, become a maidservant myself in some grand house.
I had cautiously expressed my worries to Mother shortly after I moved in, the day after the wake. She smiled at my evident concern and held me warmly in her arms for reassurance. There was no rent to pay, she explained, since she owned this house through some obscure covenant, the full details of which I did not really understand. The household's income was from the sale of potions and medicines at the local markets, and to occasional visitors who came to the door. The money would cover our needs, she continued, and she would be delighted if I would assist her in the preparations and distillations. I agreed at once, tears in my eyes from relief and gratitude that I would be able to stay.
Most days, Cissy and I assisted Mother in the cutting and curing, the brewing and boiling, the grinding and pressing. The old wooden table in the scullery was frequently covered with boards and mortars, and the kitchen range clanged with boiling pans and alembics. It was hard work, but we talked or sang as we labored in our pinafore aprons, or just sat in companionable silence with the shutters open, and the birdsong and the cluck of the chickens in our ears.
The recipes for many of the simpler preparations - rosehip syrup and lavender tea and elderflower wine - I already knew well enough. I was taught as a young girl, as I am sure many daughters are taught. It was just another of the household lessons I absorbed without conscious thought as I was growing up, and I am sure nobody ever forgets the things they learned at Mother's knee.
One task I had practiced regularly in my own cottage, and one which I took over almost immediately, was the brewing of beer. This was mainly for consumption by the laboring men who worked our smallholding and orchard and vegetable patch at irregular intervals. With their assistance, we grew potatoes and cabbages, onions and beans, apples and pears, and remained self-sufficient in many ways. Indeed the wages of the laboring men were paid partially from the surplus from the gardens but mainly from the market-days sales of the fruits of our labors in the scullery.
It seemed that Mother had a reputation as a vendor of reliable decoctions and puissant elixirs in the local markets, and the little bottles and earthenware jars changed hands for copper or silver coin readily enough. The customers always seemed satisfied, some returning again and again to buy the draughts that gave them relief from their aches or stiffness in their manhood.
The market was also the source for necessities that we could not produce ourselves: bacon and flour, oats and tea, and the occasional exotic spices or tropical seedpods that could not be found locally. For the most part, however, we were self-sufficient in the ingredients for the potions we manufactured. Mother grew a great many herbs, some rare and hard to tend, in a little walled garden that bordered the house on the south side. The worn bricks kept off the worst of the frost in the winter and deflected the gales at the equinoxes. The pocket garden was delightfully warm in the summer, although it meant much fetching and carrying of watering cans from the well in the driest months.
I soon discovered that Mother's knowledge of herbals and of the lore of plants was much greater than I had realized and, under her gentle tutelage, I found I was learning more than I ever imagined possible. She instructed me in the use of Belladonna and blue cornflowers for painkillers and poisons, for brightening tired eyes and glossing wan complexions, and all the myriad combinations of effects - beneficial or morbid - that the world's glowing things had on the bodies of men.
Some plants and fungi we could not grow in our gardens, or Mother chose not to attempt it. Instead, our needs had to be found in wild places, sometimes secret places. During that summer, we resumed our practice of long walks in the woods and upon the moors. These walks I remembered as a child as strolls in the sun, skipping along the trails and pathways, and erratically attending Mother when she pointed out some rare flower or hidden shrub. We would always return home by nightfall, tired and burdened with our gleanings, and I would be sent early to bed after supper while Mother sorted through the trove.
So it was, when the weather was clement, Cissy and I would accompany Mother on foraging expeditions seeking rare plants and mushrooms, or hard to obtain minerals mined from obscure outcrops that so often emerged from the undergrowth like ghosts. These treks soon gave us a working knowledge of the deep forest and the moors that few others would have. The woods were reputed to be the haunt of bears and wolves, dangerous animals said to be likely to attack without warning, as well as other, more elemental creatures mentioned in fable and myth. In truth, the dangers were over-wrought: neither bears nor wolves had been sighted in this area for many a long year, and none of us gave the slightest credence to old wives tales about elves and fairies.
On this particular summer evening, the house was stuffy, over-warm in the still evening air. The day had been hot and, even quite naked, I myself found it close and stultifying in the parlor.
"It is warm, this evening, is it not?" Mother said.
"It is indeed, Mistress," Cissy answered at once, looking up from her task of brushing my hair.
"Stifling," I agreed, "I, for one, would relish the feeling of a cool breeze on my skin this evening."
Cissy's eyes opened wide.
"But we cannot unbar the shutters, young Mistress," she objected, "For fear of our neighbors observing us?"
Mother nodded sagely, looking elegantly naked in her favorite armchair.
"That is true," she said, "But the might be a way to get a little cool air. Let us wash ourselves as usual, and then Cissy will fetch our cloaks"
And so it was that, twenty minutes later, we three women were dressed in our heavy black cloaks, the cloaks that we would normally have reserved for winter use, with the hoods raised to hide our unbound locks, and striding out on the path towards the woods. Under the cloaks, we wore stout shoes suitable for the rough paths we would tread, but we all three were otherwise naked.
Finding our way easily, the sky being still light well into the evening, we followed ways known to few men and fewer women, into the hill-side forest. Once away from the well-traveled roads, we led our cloaks flow freely, already enjoying the cooler air on our breasts and our thighs.
Finally, we arrived at a rocky outcrop that overlooked the path we had just followed. Here, we lay our cloaks upon the ground, and sat upon the rocks still warm from the setting sun. Now entirely sky-clad, we enjoyed the intimacies of one another's bodies, relished the familiar touch and taste of each others lips in that most unfamiliar of settings, and through our climaxes embraced the sensation of unbridled freedom under the boundless sky.