Biddy Doro, heading out this fine summer day, dressed in britches of burlap sacking broadly stitched every which way and belted by a length of bittersweet creeper, and cloaked in a weave of rag strips and honeysuckle with big patch pockets of every color at her breasts. Currently her hat is fashioned from plaited ivy, though this varies with the foliage of the season—in winter she wears a twist of juniper or hemlock fir around her head. Her shoes are woven spruce-root, softly lined with cattail down and strapped to her feet with willow. At her hip rides her purse of peeled birch attached to a braided birchy strap slung over her shoulder. She emerges from her hut. Shuts the door and latch but does not throw the bolt. She stops to give a sniff to the botanicals she has hung to dry across Dingmans Alley—lavender and lemon balm more fragrant with desiccation, nightshade and catmint more potent.
Other citizens of old New York are out and about along these narrow thoroughfares crowded by commerce. Foot traffic moving in fits and starts is seen from the rooftops and the windows above the street as a flow of porkpies and hombergs, skullcaps and shtraimlech; passage slowed by the comings and goings from intersecting alleyways, by pauses at shop windows, exchanges at pushcarts, arguments and bargaining—there a clot of bonnets gathered at the fruitsellers, there a cluster of bowlers and top hats at the door of the bank. Wagons. Horses. Pickpockets. Hawkers. Merchants. Mendicants. Altercations. Arrests. Excuse me sir. So sorry Mam. Out of the way boy. Step aside, please. Move yer ass. Watch it now. Fuck off then. That was my foot, sir. But Biddy Doro goes easily through the throng, keeping to her steady pace, her passage unobstructed as the crowd gives way before her. A man tips her his hat. Another just touches the brim. A woman nods hello. Another pauses to half-curtsy, causing a series of pedestrian collisions and a momentary disruption of crowd flow. Some citizens see her coming and cross the street. Some who come upon her too late to change course turn up their collars and hunch past. To one of that foolish number she murmurs: That’s right Harvey Rafferty—You’d better be looking away—and Mr. Rafferty inexplicably loses his footing and goes tumbling to the gutter into a pile of newly deposited dung. She goes on.
Stopping now for a woman with a little boy in tow. The stream of passersby widens around them. Good day Miss Biddy, the mother says. The boy breaks free of his mother’s hand and hugs Miss Biddy around her legs. Oooh Biddy Biddy Biddy, he says into the burlap.
Unhand me lad, says Miss Biddy, and digs into her birch purse bringing forth a sweet sucker loosely wrapped in a leaf.
Oooh, says the boy and he snatches it straightaway.
Now Charles, what do you say to Miss Biddy? the mother says.
Snakey, says the boy. Snakey Snakey Snakey please, he says.
No Charles, says the mother. No Snakey today. Let’s let Miss Biddy get on her way.
All right, says Biddy Doro, but just a peek. She unbuttons the breast-pocket flap on her raggedy cloak and makes a show of squinting and looking there and then whispering to whatever lurks deep within: So slither ye forth and show yourself, she says. The black smooth head emerges, the sleek serpentine body follows, curved, extended, slightly wavering. The flicker of its red two-pronged tongue. The boy Charles squeals. The mother has gone pale. Back you go, Biddy Doro tells her pet and it withdraws into her pocket with its nose tip and tongue protruding just a bit. She gives it a slight tap. All the way, she says. There you go. She rebuttons the flap.
Again! says the boy. Again, again!
Get away with you now you foul little creature, Biddy Doro tells the boy.
And she proceeds to the bank.
Just inside, she passes by a watchman dozing in his chair beside a potted palm. Conversations become whispers then trail off in silence, but the ticking of the wall clock seems to grow louder. Citizens already at a teller’s windows quickly conclude their business and slink towards the doors. Those at the hightables decide that their transactions might best be done some other day and set down their pens. Two of the three tellers peering out from behind their grills spot her early. One lowers her shade slowly hoping to subdue the squeak of the roller. The other quietly sets out her Next Window Please placard, sinks down below counter level in her swivel chair, and in reverse rolls away on its casters into a back office. The third teller—likely newly hired—has been filing her nails and when she finally looks up there stands Biddy Doro. Good day, says Biddy Doro as she unflaps her birch-bark purse. She removes a packet of papers tied up in vine and sets it on the ledge, then upturns the purse over the counter trough, spilling the contents out: an assortment of coins mixed with bits of tree bark and seeds both prickly and smooth, a clawed and shriveled animal paw, a number of small clean teeth and fleshless bones. She slides the coins one by one under the grate. For deposit, says Miss Biddy Doro.
Miss Biddy Doro, continuing along now to the district that bounds Turtle Bay, knowing by her calculations of the moon and the swell of blood within her, that the river this day, this hour, is low to its banks. Knowing the flora and fauna that lives in these precincts of marsh and meadow and places touched and untouched by the estuary tides. Knowing what persists in the shade of the undercliff and between the rocks. She unfolds the packet of notes and scraps, and thereby consults the correspondence from an assortment of citizens of old New York:
Dear Mistress Doro.
I catched the two of them at it again.
This time give me something stronger.
Something to finish them both straight off.
Brigit McGaffigan, The Five Points.
What reliable remedy have you for the quinsy?
Dwight Donner, Major 5th New York, Retired
Biddy you damn old shit witch.
You ungodly demented turd.
Pizzle eater. Poon dripper.
I know it was you. I know it.
You don’t scare me none.
Some folks sure, but not me.
To B. Doro.
I seen you going overhead last night before the moon set.
Ask me and I don’t care but let that priest see
you flying on a Sunday and he’ll be coming after you he will.
Callie says tell you her foot is better with the poke-leaf poultice.
Abigale Methue, Gouverneur Slip
Zeke beat me and our doggie Ennis last night for the last time,
the poor creature. I feed Zeke your snail pie. He sniffs I am
thinking he suspects but he eats the whole of it and goes bug-
eye and howling and throws hisself into Kips Bay. So thank you
and much appreciated.
Tillary St., Brooklyn
I need to bleed another baby out.
Mrs. Jane Cyrus, West Street
Biddy Doro folds the packet of papers back into her purse. A salty breeze is blowing in off the river. Gulls sail over. Meadow rue sways around her. A ruffle of petals—the filigree of hemlock flowers. Daisy fleabane’s little fringe-petal faces. Stalks of arrow weed. The pale inflorescence of wild licorice. She toes over a rock where the water seeps. There sits a newt, his tiny lidded eyes blinking in the sudden light. She always has need for newt, though this one she deems too young, not big enough. Oh but looky there: a snail at her foot. Two. She places them on her palm for closer examination—shells of pearly brown, plump spotted bodies. Their eyestalks wave and search. Ah, a perfect pair—one shell spirals right and one spirals left. Yes, they will do nicely, though these she will not prepare by her usual recipe: mashed raw into a rabbit and potato pie to be fed to the unsuspecting, thereby inducing the triad of pain, polydipsia, and proptosis. No, these two she will simply dry and pulverize—one powder to make babies come and one to make babies go—for there are those women who regularly seek such remedies. She plucks the snails from her palm. They cling for an instant, then come away with the faint sound of puckering suction and strings of slime. Come lads, she says. In you go. And she opens her birch-bark purse.
Upriver where the water eddies black and glassy, cormorants perch and preen on a lime-spattered snag of sycamore, their wings unfolded and feathers displayed fanwise for drying in the midsummer sun. They turn their heads to watch her as she makes her way along the bank, her spruce-root shoes muddied with a misstep into the muck. They do not gather their wings back to their sleek wet bodies to drop and dive when she passes by. They do not lift into the air when she stops beside them and bends to fetch up some small thing she needs, and goes on again, stepping stone to stone to stone, until the sun has set. Deepening dusk. She must get home. Overhead a nighthawk goes swift as any crossbow bolt but wondrously fletched as if by wizardry, sent straight and true on a single wingstroke then banking, turning without hesitation or variation in velocity and crying its sharp high cry for one last tilt and turning away and away in silhouette against a sky of grotto blue but fading fast to indigo.
January 10, 1873
Dear Miss Biddy Doro,
I hope you receive this letter.
It is coming from so far away in the Territory of New Mexico.
You might be remembering me and my Mister McCarty
and the baby we named Billy when we lived in Irishtown New York.
I am re-married to Mr. Antrim who took me here to the desert to cure my
coughing but I never knowed such winter cold.
I am coughing still.
There are no cures here, none like what you have.
Please send your licorice root and arrow-weed
if you still be in the business of bodily cures and elixirs.
Here is money. Please Miss Doro.
Very truly yours,
Catherine McCarty Antrim
Log House on White Hog Lane
Silver City, Territory of New Mexico.
But Biddy Doro does not reply. Perhaps it is by some stroke of luck Miss Biddy actually receives a letter that travels across seven states, and she holds it in her hands and reads but has no recollection of a woman named Catherine McCarty Antrim nor her changeling baby. Perhaps she receives the letter but alas the money Catherine McCarty Antrim had so carefully placed inside wrapped in several papers has been stolen somewhere en route. Or perhaps she does not receive the letter at all, it being lost as letters sometimes or often are, spilled from the canvas mailsack that was tossed from stagecoach to stagecoach, then carried along in two trains and four carts and perhaps during one of these transfers, during any one of these loadings and unloadings, the mail sack containing her letter and other letters bound east and bearing news of everyday doings, losses, delinquencies, sufferings, apologies, requests, deaths, births, and heartbreaks came undone when the rope used to fasten the sack (improperly knotted, not secured according to postal service regulations) slid through the grommets unnoticed and the very mechanism of careless flinging onto the next means of transport released the letters to the landscape, some of which were hastily retrieved and some of which fell into the muddied ruts of the road and were promptly trampled by the hoofs of a ridden horse or a mule team of twenty or were blown away into the neighboring fields or up into the trees or the sky when a rogue wind arrived forthwith and postal service onlookers assumed that the escaping correspondence would fly to the intended addressees in the manner of homing pigeons. Perhaps that. Or perhaps the letter had not gone astray in the mud or the trees or the sky, but found its way to the New York residence of Miss Biddy Doro in Dingmans Alley, but on a day that Miss Doro just happened not to be at home in her hut to receive her letter, but instead she reclined unclaimed in the city morgue, having been removed from her hut by municipal workers alerted to a terrible smell in the environs of her alley several weeks after the stink became more than the citizenry could ignore, the delay in investigation likely due to the curious odors that emanated from her hut on a regular basis when she brewed her tinctures and elixirs, and then finding the unopened letter with a New Mexico address which had been delivered and placed by the postal service into the letter basket she kept hung on a hasp at her door, the basket brimming with other unopened notes and letters written by citizens seeking relief from their ailments and requesting her remedies, the municipal workers tightly tied rags over their mouths and noses and employing a pole to open the unhasped door to her hut, they pushed past the racks and rows of herbs hanging by their stems as the stench guided them through the gloom to the mound of oddly cloaked rot that once was Biddy Doro who had unintentionally poisoned herself some weeks prior by sampling her own elixirs for potency and efficacy—a practice she employed with regularity to minimize the possibility of inadvertently killing those seeking cures. What she had ingested—the seeds and pods and botanical buds—had already begun to sprout and leaf in the slough and wet of her disintegration, thereby giving her laid-bare belly and ruptured gut the look of an untended garden. The cloud of flies that buzzed around her were waved away and the maggots occupying the remains of her nose and ears were doused to death in oil of camphor, and she was lifted sheet and all up from her bed stained with flyspeck and the fluids of decomposition, placed in a two-poled canvas carrier and carried out the unhasped door whereupon curious bystanders and interested onlookers said her name (There goes Miss Biddy and Poor Miss Biddy as well as Roast in hell Biddy Doro you stinking old shit-witch) and she was transported by a rattling wagon over the cobbled streets of Irishtown to the city morgue where she was placed upon the zinc tray on a squeaky-wheeled table and rolled away into the dark cavern of the waiting cabinet, pending unlikely retrieval by kin, but with no one forthcoming to claim her after what is deemed a reasonable and respectable interval, she was situated inside the city-issued coffin (new boards of yellow pine) by a kindly and aged former slave turned morgue attendant who retained her sullied bedsheet as a shroud and arranged her as naturally as was humanly possible, given the degree of decay and the fragility of limbs, and the lid was set and the nails were driven, and upon the lid was chiseled
the box then loaded on a designated short-boat that went steaming upstream through the rising mists of the East River, past the tumble-down tenements of Irishtown, past the water-swept snags where the cormorants perch in postures of charnel house guardians, and past the outcropping of rock, while her ghost stood on the deck to gaze upon the banks of Turtle Bay she once knew so well, having gathered there all manner of medicinal flora in bud and bloom (licorice root, nightshade, arrow weed) and fauna of the smallest forms (newts, snails, centipedes) until the shore was lost in the river smoke where the water went wide and white-capped on the western edge of the estuary and the rocky beach of Blackwell’s Island came into view, and there the designated short-boat sputtered and docked at that port of the dead. And finally, it was by handcart that the coffin containing the declension of her flesh from blighted bones was wheeled a ways to the Potter’s Field and her hole was dug and she was interred by a crew of convicted felons from The House of Detention (dubbed The Tombs by its residents) who had been assigned to such a coveted task (a day out of shackles, a day in the open air)—and in that soil she would for eternity enjoy the companionship of fauna of the smallest forms (carrion worms, grave beetles, coffin flies) though all manner of flora in bud or bloom would be lacking, for upon that mound there were no flowers placed.
Pamela Ryder is the author of the short story collection, A Tendency to Be Gone (Dzanc Press) and two novels-in-stories, Correction of Drift about the Lindbergh baby kidnap case and Paradise Field, depicting the last years of a dying father, his relationship with his daughter as both child and adult, and his drift into infirmity and death (Fiction Collective 2). Her work has been published in many literary journals. “Elixirs, Medicinals, and Reliable Remedies for the Mother of Billy the Kid” is from a novel-in-progress: The Lists of Billy the Kid.