Deborah J. Martin - A witch and a bitch with an herbal itch - and an overactive imagination.
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A Familiar’s Tale, Part I

July 21st, 2014

Fudge begins telling Amy his story. (Don’t know Fudge? The prologue is here.)

Image by Dave Scelfo. Used under Creative Commons license 2.0

I came into being in the year you currently number 252 BCE. This is the year I was born as a cat in what you call the country of Egypt. When I opened my eyes, my mother knew there was something different between me and my other siblings and pushed me out of her nest, as one would do the runt of the litter who was not expected to survive.

As the Universe had planned, a young man was nearby and took pity on my mewling. He took me home and hand-fed me until I was old enough to catch food on my own. Abou was a slave-assistant to a mage priest overseeing part of the Library of Alexandria.

Abou had been purchased a few years earlier. He did not know his exact age and his memories of his family are faint…they are overshadowed by a strong memory of hunger. About the only thing he remembered well is scrounging for food in the discards outside a tavern and being caught by a large man who turned him over to a slaver. It was a common enough occurrence in his town that no one came to look for him.

Familiars are born with the knowledge of our kind and the natural instincts of the species we occupy. Even as a newborn kitten, I knew what I was and what I was supposed to do. I must say, waiting for a corporeal body to grow to adulthood can be a frustrating experience.

Also frustrating, we cannot make ourselves known to our human until that person’s magic manifests – usually around puberty but, as you well know, may be much later. It is not until then that their conscious mind will accept our presence. Abou’s magic did not come in until two years after he found me. I spent those first two years being a simple cat. Once I had been weaned off the goat’s milk Abou fed me, I killed rats alongside the other library cats. They were my food but more importantly, by keeping my part of the Library rat-free, I helped preserve the papyri, scrolls and codices of knowledge.

When Abou reached puberty, his magic manifested and I was finally able to fulfill my destiny as his familiar. My first few efforts had him running to his master for a headache remedy until I learned gentleness. After a lot of odd behavior on my part (like nuzzling his face while he was practicing), Abou finally realized the pressure was me and that his magical efforts seemed stronger and more precise. My presence was accepted and we began our partnership. Telling him I wished for water in my dish was as easy as projecting a sense of thirst. Although I still killed rats when I found them in the library, I mostly left that chore to the mundane cats. Abou quickly learned I preferred to share his meal of fish and was not averse to the occasional treat of goat’s milk.

For some reason, he decided not to tell his master about me. Instead, I was perceived as a favored pet and something of a security blanket: Abou took me with him nearly everywhere he went. He even made a comfortable carrier for me when I let him know that the sandy streets were too hot for my delicate paws in the summer and I disliked the mud in the rainy winter months.

I presume you studied something of that time in your history? No? Your educational system is sorely lacking. Then I must give you a brief history lesson before continuing.

Egypt was already an old country when I was born. They worshipped many gods and magic was thought to be a gift of these gods. They did not know about the gene that transmits magical ability. It was a time when magic was a normal part of life, although the practice of it was limited to the priesthood. If a common person manifested magic, it was considered a sign that a male was destined for priesthood to a male god, a female as a priestess to a goddess and those children were brought to a temple of the parents’ choosing as an offering.

While Egypt was a country with many gods, there were some that were only worshipped locally and others who were considered state gods – or those whose worship was dictated by their ruler, or pharaoh. As with most civilizations, they tried to live peaceably with their neighbors but if that could not be achieved, they made war. Egypt was at war quite a bit in my time there.

When Abou’s magic manifested, his master took that as a sign from his god that Abou should follow in his footsteps as a mage-priest and began teaching Abou, rather than simply using him as an errand boy. When not helping visiting mages consult the ancient scrolls for a particular piece of knowledge, fulfilling his function as a priest to his god through ritual and creating spells for petitioners, he taught Abou the Craft. I may have been there only to boost his power but along with Abou, I learned the methods of human magic: how to manipulate energy, the herbcraft of the time and place, and their rituals to their gods. As an aside, camel grass, an ingredient in kyphi, one of their favorite incenses, makes me sneeze violently. Please do not ever use it.

 

To be continued…

The 7 Stages of Witchcraft

July 18th, 2014

Having been on a few fora dealing with witchcraft the last few years, I’ve noticed something of a trend. It has to do with your age (mostly but not always chronological) and how you view the idea of tools and other magical trappings.  Have you noticed the same? I mean, think about it:

Child: if I blow on this dandelion I found in the yard and wish real hard, my wish will come true.

Teen: I want stuff but can’t have a lot because money/parents/room/other

Young Adult: I have my own place, can do my own thing and, oooh! Shiny! Oh, shit. I have to pay the rent/buy groceries/put gas in the car. Sigh.

Thirty-something: I have some disposable income and I’m going to get everything that “calls” to me.

Forty-something: What the hell was I thinking? My house is overrun with stuff I don’t use. But I might need it some day so…

Fifty-something (usually an empty-nester): I don’t use and hate cleaning all this stuff. Garage/eBay sale time.

Post-garage-sale-fifty-something: If I blow on this dandelion I found in the yard and put my energy & intent out into the world, my spell will come to fruition.

I have very little in the way of magical stuff. One of my favorite quotes sums up why quite well. It comes from Henri Frederic Amiel: For purposes of action,  nothing is more useful than narrowness of thought combined with energy of will.F

 

In & Out, Round & About

June 25th, 2014

You may have noticed my absence from the Interwebs the last few weeks – or at least the “can’t think of anything to say except a primal scream” post on Twitter or Facebook. This is bad for an author – the “experts” say we’re supposed to be active on social media! While I’m not usually one to share a lot of personal crap, I thought I should let y’all know that while I’m still alive & kicking, there are things keeping me from having a lot to say:

I’ve been dealing with my mother’s illness (first Parkinson’s, then dementia, then bone cancer) for about five years. All those articles you read about the stress on caregivers? They’re true. I used to love being an only child and now I envy my husband & friends with siblings to share, if not actual care, concerns. While the nursing home she’s in is excellent and I have made peace with my decision to let her go (I signed the papers to put her under hospice care last week), it’s tough to watch her slowly fail. But I was handling it OK…

In April, a client who is a very loved member of my extended family (and by extension, his family, too) had a massive stroke. Having had some exposure to victims of stroke, logically I was prepared for seeing him when he came home but emotionally? No way. To see someone who I love and admire unable to communicate what he’s thinking is heartbreaking. Patience has never been one of my virtues and I’m definitely not a “rah-rah” kind of person but I’m learning. (And if you care, he’s fighting every step of the way & making unbelievably great progress with his rehab.) I’m also the shoulder the wife and youngest daughter lean on. I don’t mind – that’s what friends & family are for – but…

Four weeks ago, the man who has helped me in my business for almost 20 years (also a BFF) had an infection that sent him to the hospital and he’s had some setbacks. His partner keeps me up-to-date with what’s happening. Another extended family member I really need to be supportive of…

I usually handle stress pretty well. But having all this piled on me one-after-the-other took its toll. As an introvert, I just shut myself off from the human world for awhile – it’s how I handle the shitpile. It’s taken me this long to process all my emotions and get back on top of the heap. Sort of. There are still days I want to scream but it’s not quite as overwhelming.

So, I’m not baaaaccckk, but I’m around on occasion. Once some of the load lightens, I should be able to get back to writing, too. (I miss writing but logical-brain-only is required to handle all that’s needed of me.) Be patient with me, please?

A Familiar’s Tale, Prologue

May 29th, 2014

If you’ve been reading the Ogre’s Assistant series, you know that Amy is a witch with a familiar. Below is a recent conversation between them as recounted by Amy:

Fudge's current incarnation

“You tell me you’re older than Yoda. You must’ve seen some interesting stuff, huh?” I said.

My familiar, a chocolate-brown cat named Fudge, interrupted his never-ending bath and looked at me.

“It depends upon what you consider interesting. I have seen a lot in my time, yes.”

“I’m not doing anything at the moment. Care to tell me about it?”

“You want me to relate my life story? Why? Is not the fact that I have a lot of experience working with humans enough?”

[Fudge had spent enough time in my head to know that I always want to know about people. Not only am I a nosy person in general, I put people I meet in my stories. They’ve made my secret life as a paranormal romance author easy at times.]

“Why not? Your story might give me some insight into the way you think and maybe then, I’d understand a little more about your role in my life.”

[Did I forget to mention? I’m a thirty-something single woman who just found out she’s a witch. I’m what they call a late-bloomer. It’s inconvenient. And I just found out that the cat I thought was a pet is actually a familiar and that he’s been rootling around in my head since he came to live with me. He knew about me. Turnabout is fair play, wouldn’t you say?]

“You are not going to put me in one of your stories, are you?”

“I’ll be honest, I don’t know. Maybe. But no one would recognize you anyway so what are you worried about?”

My cat heaved a sigh. “I know you well enough to know you will not stop asking. Refill my water dish and I will tell you something of my life.”

I grinned. As I performed the duty asked of me, I said, “Start at the beginning. First, how old are you, anyway?”

“I am not as old as some familiars but quite a bit older than many. In the way you humans count years, I am two thousand, two hundred fifty-three years old and have been a familiar to eight magical beings before you.

“To understand my story, you need to have a basic understanding of familiars. Someone should have told you all this already but …

“We are essentially present to help boost our human’s power, although we also act as guardian and a repository for information. Familiar magic includes the ability to retain youthfulness in the body so we are able to stay with our human throughout their lifetime. There are exceptions, of course. A fatal blow such as a direct strike to the heart, lopping off the head, and the like will terminate the body. Should a witch or wizard allow that to happen, we do not return to them. They are charged with our safety, just as we are charged with theirs.

“When the witch or wizard dies, whether of natural causes or not, so does our corporeal body. Our spirit is then assigned to a different body by our ruling council. We always incarnate in a species appropriate as a companion for the magical person we are assigned to.”

“How is a familiar made?” I interjected.

“We have not yet discovered the answer to that question. The Universe, in its infinite wisdom, decides when a spirit will be a familiar and when it will not. The oldest of our kind and head of our council instinctively knows when a new spirit comes into being and adds it to the rolls kept by the Familiar Council.

“I will try to use terminology you are familiar with but stop me if you do not understand something. I would prefer not to repeat myself.”

“Before you continue, I have another question. I assume you didn’t always live in the United States, so how many languages do you speak?”

“Languages? Those are human terms. I know you think I am mind-speaking English but that is just how your brain interprets my thoughts. If a species is capable of mind-speech, we exchange thoughts. It is as simple as that. May I continue?”

I poured myself a glass of wine, curled up in my chair and gave Fudge my full attention.

“I was born in the country you call Egypt in your year 252 BCE. My human was male. We were together for approximately two hundred fifty of your years. I then was assigned…”

I interrupted. “You sound like my college marketing professor and he put me to sleep. I don’t want a five-minute rote recitation of your life. I want to know about your humans, what you experienced with them, maybe even what really happened during some momentous times. Tell me a story!”

My cat sighed. “Very well…”

 

To be continued…

 

On Bitchy Labels

May 19th, 2014

My dear friend, Kallan, posted a blog on labels this morning. Toward the end, she talks about the label “bitch”. I dislike labels and always have because I’m me and there’s no one else like me. (At least I hope not. One of me inflicted on the world is enough. :D ) However, as you can see here, on my Facebook page and on my Twitter header, I proudly own the “bitch” label. Do I consider it derogatory? In most cases, yes. But I chose and choose to make it a source of strength:

I came of age when the women’s lib movement was a toddler. Every boss I had from my first job until I started my own business was male. Most were a generation older than me. Without exception, they were all chauvinists. Because I was female, they attempted to pigeonhole me into the role of just a secretary or just a bookkeeper. Also without exception, every single one of those men wouldn’t advance me because at some point (they assumed), I would abandon my job to get married and have babies.

The problem arose when I ventured to voice an opinion on an operational procedure. Although my bosses knew how good I was at my job (if I hadn’t been, they would have found someone else), they refused to acknowledge that I might have a better idea on how to do something. Any man who persisted in pushing an idea would have been labeled a “bulldog” or at the very least, “go-getter” and patted on the back. Instead, I was labeled a “pushy bitch” and my ideas poo-poo’d as not having merit simply because a woman wouldn’t know these things. Because I knew I was right, I continued to push to have my ideas implemented. And I continued to be called a bitch.

Rather than backing down and forgetting about making things better so I wouldn’t be called something derogatory, I decided to turn that label into a positive. (After all, a female bulldog is a bitch, right?) When someone would call me a bitch, I’d answer, “Yes. But if you think about [idea], you know I’m right.”  I got my ideas implemented.

It may be an antiquated thought in today’s world but I’m a bitch because I’m not afraid to voice my opinions, refuse to be talked down to, and know my own worth. In other words, I’m a strong woman. Almost twenty years ago, I saw a snippet in the newspaper that took the word and made it into an acronym: Being In Total Charge [of] Herself. (I can’t find who coined it. I’ve wrongly attributed it to Hillary Clinton but I think she’d agree.) I’ve thrown that acronym in the faces of those who call me a bitch since then. Those who know me will stop, think, smile and agree. Those who don’t will at least stop and think.

So yes, I will tell you I’m a bitch and proud to be one. Besides, it rhymes with another label: witch… ;)

For the Newly-Independent Witch

May 8th, 2014

We all know times are tough, especially for someone just starting out on their own. I can remember how tight I had to pull my belt on more than one occasion. You want herbs for cooking, health and magic but can’t afford to buy one herb for one need. What’s a witch to do?

Toward that end, I’ve compiled a list of thirteen (!) herbs that will do triple-duty for you…they all can be used in cooking, for minor health issues and in magical workings.

TDSR Cover 1600x2400

This is a quick guide. It certainly doesn’t go in-depth on any one herb. But the best part is… it’s FREE and always will be! Download it in any electronic format you wish here. I’ve uploaded it to Amazon, too, but in order to get it into the lending program for Amazon Prime, I had to put a 99¢ price tag on it.  Hopefully, Amazon will price-match at some point.

Happy Herbing!

Polar Vortex Fallout

May 7th, 2014

In case you didn’t know, mountains have micro-climates. We’re on the southeast side of a mountain and the worst of wind and cold seem to go right over us. We’re generally a degree or two warmer than just 400 feet downslope. Although I cover the more sensitive plants, we’ve managed to dodge the bullet winter-wise…until this year.

While not the coldest on record (which is -16°F), 7th January saw the temperature here drop to 0.3°F and it never made it above freezing that day. The month continued with much colder-than-normal temperatures. I wouldn’t have worried except those frigid temperatures were accompanied by high winds, blowing covers off tender plants.

We lost shrubs that were winter-strong for ten years. The lovely Fragrant Tea Olives that delighted me with their light, liquoring scent as I walked up the front steps or just sat on the front porch in late fall are gone. Two screening shrubs (one was ten feet tall) didn’t make it, either. (Those I’m wonder how we’re going to dig out without destroying the shrubs to either side that did survive.)

The most devastating loss, though, was four of my six Rosemary plants, including two that were about three feet tall by three feet wide (and that’s after a bountiful harvest a couple of times during the year). The wind blew their “greenhouse” off them – twice -  and they were exposed for several hours before I could throw a coat over my bathrobe, get out there and once again recover them. Two children of one of the big plants survived but still aren’t very happy.

You probably know from my other writings that I have a special relationship with Rosemary and have had since long before I put the first plant into the ground at my old house. I was in tears when I uncovered them a month ago and discovered they had died. My garden just didn’t feel right. I knew I would replant but had a few other things to do, first.

Yesterday, I stopped off at a garden center (a real one, not one attached to a home improvement store) on my weekly trip to Atlanta. I hoped upon hope that they would have some Rosemary plants left. It’s past normal planting season in this neck of the woods and most stores are very low on stock by this time. I was – sort of – in luck. They had one left and one is better than none, right? As I checked out, the clerk asked the usual, “did you find what you were looking for?” and when I replied that I would have taken more if they’d had them, she offered to look at the inventory in other Atlanta-area stores to see if they had some. Not only did another store have three, they are doing an inter-store transfer so I don’t have to go farther to get them! (Atlanta area peeps – give Pike Nurseries a little love.)

New Rosemary

As I walked out to my car with my nose buried in one Rosemary plant (I’ll pick up the others on Saturday), my world was made right.

 

Upheaval! Cover Reveal!

April 30th, 2014

At long last, I have a cover! Whaddya think?

 

Upheaval! Cover

The book is already formatted so I’ll have it up on Kindle, B&N, & Smashwords within a couple of days. Happy Reading!

City Mouse Builds a Country Garden

April 21st, 2014

I was raised in the heart of the city. We lived in apartments (without even a balcony) until I was in my middle-teens. Mom hated to cook so our meals were pretty basic and apart from salt & pepper, the only herb in our house was the cinnamon sprinkled, along with sugar, on my morning toast. Gramma was a little more domestically-inclined: before they moved into an apartment when I was 8, she had fresh peppermint growing in the yard to garnish our iced tea. (I’m exaggerating. But not much.)

So, my exposure to gardens was rather limited. It didn’t bother me at all until I was well into my 30′s. After all, the spice aisle at the grocery store carried nearly every herb I could ever want. But then, the gift of hearing plants that I’d managed to ignore for a few decades really kicked in and I knew I had to play in the dirt. When we built our house in the boonies, the septic drain field was a perfect spot for a large herb garden.

Oh, I had grandiose ideas. I was going to raise enough herbs to dry and sell and I was going to make that my livelihood, retiring from the boring clickety-punch. Hubby built me a 42-foot diameter raised-bed garden. We used eco-friendly treated lumber so it didn’t have the toxic crap seeping into the soil and cypress-mulched the pathways. It was lovely.

Original Garden

But, logic had flown out the window. There were several things I knew but obviously ignored:

  1. Not all seeds germinate.
  2. It takes a lot of dried herb to make an ounce. In some cases, a lot a lot. My beds weren’t big enough to support a commercial enterprise.
  3. Taking care of a garden takes a lot of time. I discovered I’m lazier than I thought.
  4. Mulch decomposes. Fast. The paths had to be re-mulched. Every year. To the tune of $100+ each time.
  5. Mulch also washes away when rainwater gathers speed going downhill.

I also didn’t take into account that I was getting older and some parts of my body might take exception to the hours of squatting necessary to keep the beds weed-free. After only a couple of years, I could only weed for maybe 30 minutes before my hips started complaining. Loudly.

To sort of make up for this, I planted flowers in several of the outer beds, reasoning I wouldn’t need to pay quite as much attention to them as I would the herbs. I ended up with beds of flowers and grass.

Then, the shoulder problems hit. My garden has effectively been ignored for the last two years because first one, then the other shoulder refused to move my arms enough to pull a weed more than a foot away from my hand.

As I mentioned before, the eco-friendly treated boards we used to build the beds started rotting. (They also made nice homes for termites. Ick.) Since the garden had to be rebuilt anyways, I decided it was time to downsize to something I could handle. The inner beds have been slightly enlarged & the outer beds will go away completely. I’ve been in the process of moving dirt from the outer beds to the inner whenever I have time & energy.

Garden in process of rebuild

The other issue is the pathways. Living on the side of a mountain means everything is on a hillside.  Despite our attempts at diversion, there’s no way to completely stop the rain from running downhill & through the garden area. Something to do with gravity, I think?

Rocks

See all these rocks? They were taken from the dirt I moved from one outer bed. There are thousands like them on our property. The ones we’ve thrown into scattered piles to get them out of our way while mowing don’t move, they allow the water to flow through and over them. So, the paths are going to be made of rocks rather than mulch. It’ll be bumpy for a few years but eventually, they’ll settle down to something resembling a smooth(ish) walkway. Rocks I don’t have to buy and they decompose much more slowly than mulch.

The new beds will hold herbs I have a relationship with and use frequently. I felt bad having to discard some but hope I did a good job explaining why not all would be moved. One more bed will be built below the retaining wall to hold the rest of the dirt from the outer beds & I’ll put all the flowers there. I figure it’s going to take me another month before things will be the way I want them and a year before everything grows in & it actually looks like I hope it will.

The moral of Martin’s Fable: think before you plan. When it comes to gardening, everything takes more time and costs more than you hoped it would.

 

 

On Essential Oils

April 2nd, 2014

The Internet is a wonderful place to find information. It really is. But some of the time, the information is incorrect. And it pisses me off.

What prompted this post: a page I follow on Facebook shared this page about making “Rosemary Essential Oil”. It was shared numerous times before and even after another lady and I corrected it in the comments, thereby spreading the misinformation even further. The instructions tell how to make Rosemary-infused oil. While I have nothing against infused oils (I use them a lot), it’s totally different than Rosemary essential oil.

“Essential oil” (EO) is the volatile oil component of a plant. It’s what gives the plant its smell. For most plants, it is extracted by steam distillation*. There are some plants, though, where the oils are pressed out (as in citrus from the peel). Yet others don’t have enough oil to press out and the heat of distillation would evaporate any volatile oil so those are extracted by using a solvent.

Motivated by that post, I started perusing the Internet to see what was out there on making essential oils. There are a bunch of sites that tell you how to do it at home, some even giving instructions on how to build your own still. There’s a problem even with that: I found very little discussion of how much plant material you’re going to need to obtain a decent quantity of essential oil.

From Hammacher-Schlemmer

Copper Alembic from Hammacher-Schlemmer

Some plants have more oil than others. This is why, when you buy pure essential oils, the prices vary widely. If you’re looking at a shelf of EO bottles and Rose is the same price as Lavender, walk away. It takes approximately 60,000 Rose blossoms to yield just one ounce (by weight -a little less than an ounce by volume) of Rose essential oil. Conversely, only 220 pounds of Lavender flowers will produce about 7 pounds of oil. The more oil in the plant, the easier it is to get in quantity & the cheaper it’s going to be**.

One of the sites I saw suggested drying your herb before putting it into the still. That way you can get more material crammed in there. All well & fine if you’re using something like Lavender with a lot of volatile oil in it. But what about, say, Lemon Balm? That has so little volatile oil that nearly all of it evaporates in the drying process. You’d be lucky to get just a few drops of EO off a pound of dried leaves.

I make a lot of my own hydrosols (flower water) on top of my stove, using a method described in James Green’s book, The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. (Which, by the way, I highly recommend.) When I’m using strong-smelling plants, like Rosemary, I’ll get a few drops of essential oil floating on top of the hydrosol, which I draw off with a pipette. I’d probably get a little more if I actually used an alembic & distilled it. But even with my large Rosemary plants & a bountiful harvest, I still wouldn’t get enough oil to fill multiple bottles.

If you want to try distilling your own essential oils at home, by all means, do so. Just don’t expect to have 50 bottles of Rose essential oil to sell, unless you have a field of nothing but aromatic Rose bushes and a lot of time.

Please don’t believe everything you read on the ‘Net. It ain’t all correct.

* The process is very much like making moonshine and the equipment is nearly identical. When I mused about buying an alembic, hubby said OK if he could “borrow” it for his own use. I haven’t yet purchased one but if I do, I think I’ll have to guard it…

**The most expensive essential oil I’ve found thus far is Lotus Blossom. Last I saw, it was selling for £400 ($665) for five milliliters.