Witchyness strikes at the oddest times. This afternoon I was making a batch of guacamole for our coven wisdom circle tonight. I got down my big mortar and pestle to grind the herbs and onions. I chopped and diced and peeled and begin adding everything into the mortar and grinding away. As I pressed and worked the pestle, I felt my muscles flex and the stone grow warm under my hand. Standing there at the kitchen counter, falling into the familiar rhythm I drifted back again, thinking of all those times at Darius’s table in his little apothecary off the back of the kitchen.
It was summer in Montana, and we were all on break until the fall semester. I had moved out of my tiny dorm and was staying with Darius and his wife out in their country home for the time being. I had been initiated into this coven earlier in the spring of this year. And now I was living the life of a full time apprentice. My lessons came fast and furious. When I was not working in the apothecary or cleaning ritual tools, I was pouring over books and manuscripts in the library.
But today was all about the herbs. When I first became a witch, this was the area I dreaded most. I had a notorious black thumb, and had trouble figuring out how to take aspirin some days. Natural healing, incenses and brews just didn’t seem up my alley. But under the careful guidance of my magister Darius, I was finding a love for the green.
I was in the apothecary, which was a converted pantry, just big enough for a little counter and two people. But the walls were filled, floor to ceiling with jars of ….. things. I would say herbs, but there were tinctures and incense blends, and wines, and meads, and several things I couldn’t identify.
Darius had pulled out an old stained recipe card from the box and had said we were making some incense today. As we went back into the apothecary, I had opened up my dog-eared spiral notebook to take notes. He let me copy down the recipe as he pulled down assorted jars and oil bottles full of the ingredients called for.
But then, just as I was ready to write furiously while he ‘measured’ the ingredients, he bid me to trade places with him.
“You’re doing the work today, little one. Gotta get your hands dirty.”
He called me little one as a joke. We were only a few years apart, but the nickname made me feel like part of the family. So, knowing hesitation would cost me a lecture in the Will of a witch, I stepped up to the plate. This particular plate being a mortar and pestle.
I started to open jars to figure out what was what and Darius began to explain the unwritten part of the recipe.
“An incense must be blended to be sticky and wet. You are making a sort of pasty clay. The wetness helps it smoke and not just burn. Balance your dry herbs with your fresh, and balance that against your resins, gums and oils.”
“But we don’t have any fresh herbs here.” I stammered out.
“No worries, little one. We have some roots to dig once we blend the resins and dry herbs.”
Nothing like some time in the dirt I thought, but I knew to keep my snarky comments to myself. I may have been quick then, but my tongue was no match for my teacher.
I found the dry roots first, and put them into the mortar. They were valerian, and smelled vaguely of feet.
“Always enliven the plant as you add it to the potion.” Darius instructed.
I scooped them back out and spoke softly to the roots in my hand, telling them their job to do in this incense. I held them close to my face so my warm, wet breath was upon them. I could feel them turn in my hand from dead stick like things to living little beings housed in these roots, almost being encapsulated. Darius nodded in approval.
I added them to the mortar again. Then I put in the pestle and begin to sort of bang about. I tried pounding the pestle up and down, and that resulted in a spray of roots all over the counter, the floor and myself. So I carefully picked them all back up again and returned them to the mortar. Then I tried just putting the pestle down in the middle and twisting it back and forth. This just moved the roots out to the side.
“Firm circles, grinding against the sides and bottom of the mortar. Use your biceps.” Darius offered.
This is why we have teachers. I could have been at the root spraying about the room method for a while. I followed his advice and after a few minutes I thought my arm was going to fall off. Who knew I should have been lifting weights to prepare to be a witch?
“Let me see how you are coming.”
I showed the mortar of admittedly finer crushed roots to him.
“Looks good, now for seeds and stems.”
“Stems?” I asked. “I thought we picked those out.”
“This particular recipe calls for 9 stems from the yarrow. It will add some fiber to the incense, and make it burn and smolder with a longer life. Besides, yarrow stems are great for divination.”
I added the yarrow stems, remembering this time to speak to them and breathe on them. Then I looked for the anise seed. I scooped up the tablespoon of them and tried to speak to them still in the spoon.
“Tut, tut” came the admonishment from Darius.
I raised my eyebrows in question at what I screwed up.
“No plastic” he said quite succinctly.
Oh! The measuring spoons were plastic. I dumped the seeds into the palm of my hand carefully so as not to spill them everywhere. Again I spoke to them, breathed on them. But this felt different. Nothing happened. They didn’t wake up in my hands.
Again I looked to my teacher. “They won’t wake up” I said. Almost like a little kid dismayed at a broken toy.
Darius smiled warmly and went into the kitchen. “Just a sec.”
He returned with a tumbler of warm water, and instructed me to put the seeds in. I put them in and stirred them about with my finger. And again spoke to them and breathed on them.
“Let them sit a bit” he said. So I went back to my grinding.
Again I felt the fire in my muscles. I was going to be so sore tomorrow. But I kept at it. Focusing on the work, letting my mind enter that soft trance state I knew so well from hard work. I let the power flow from my heart down through those sore, screaming muscles and into the pestle in my hand.
Just as I was about to give up the ghost, Darius handed me the water and seeds. I could feel them just starting to wake up now. I eagerly spoke to them, encouraged them to come alive for me. To awaken and help out. They did in short order.
Darius now took the glass from me again, and using his lips as a strainer, drank the water.
“Too much moisture if we just put that in” he explained. “Besides, we drink as the spirits do.”
I scooped out the wet seeds and into the mortar they went. And then more grinding. And more grinding, and more grinding. Well you get the idea.
Finally it was time for leaves. I added the dried leaves and switched arms. It was clumsy at first, but it sure didn’t hurt as bad. In short time the flower petals went in.
When everything seemed a good mash Darius said we could add the resins. I scooped out the heavenly smelling frankincense and again spoke the words, warm and wet over it. I was surprised at just how fast and how warmly the resin in my hand awakened. It was nearly on fire!
My teacher saw my surprise. “Resin is the blood of the tree. It is what heals over the cuts and wounds.”
Well awakened, I added the resin to the mortar. It crushed easily, but made a sticky mess on the pestle. I could grind for a bit, then I had to get out my knife and scrape it off and back into the bowl. I buried it under some of the drier leaf mix and had better results.
When I was done the mixture was still dry-ish, not wet as my magister had spoken of. But we still had oils and fresh roots to add. I scraped the pestle clean again, and we turned a plate upside down over the mortar and left it to set while we went out to the garden.
I looked down and realized I had been grinding away at the onions this whole time I was reminiscing. I ground in the salt, and scooped it into the avocado and tomato mix. I stirred it all up and tasted it. Fabulous of course! I popped it into the fridge until later. I still had to vacuum before everyone showed up!