Pamela Ryder ~ Elixirs, Medicinals, and Reliable Remedies for the Mother of Billy the Kid 

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.

Missy Biddy:
What reli­able rem­e­dy have you for the quin­sy?
Dwight Donner, Major 5th New York, Retired
East B’way.

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.
(Unsigned)  

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  

Missy Biddy,
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.
Trixie Berryworth,
Tillary St., Brooklyn 

Miss Doro.
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

B Doro
d.1873

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.