"Nannie lap and flang, (A souple jade she was, and strang), And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch'd, And thought his very een enrich'd; Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain, ... Tam tint his reason 'thegither, And roars out, 'Weel done, Cutty-sark!' And in an instant all was dark"
— Robbie Burns, Tam O'Shanter
I The poet rested his mare under the mistletoe vine caping the crossroad oak. My wheel outside, I spun another hour. Kirk steeple pricked the low sun. Yolk leaked on our thatch. I spun sun-gilded like a garden spider, pulled silk threads off my lap, carded wool. Then (while still the poet waited) I fished with hairs plucked from a nag's tail. Hooked trout in the Doon. So, they called me Cunningi woman. Meaning witch. Again the poet. He knew Father badgered corn between Alloway and Mauchline. By the outhouse—silver buttons wink bold on his waistcoat. He doffed his cap—blue, green, black, thread of red. Praised my shapely calf. My nightdress slipped. What plump loaves, he grinned. Will ye dance wi me, Cutty Sark? The poet gently bent me o'er the wall, its cool moss pelt sponged my blood. That man's poker glowed. He tended his fire at dawn, at dusk. It's a wonder he didn't burn the village down. His staff strongest when he made me keen. Then he met barmaid Annaii. Their bairn broke her open. Did the poet mark her end with a song? His wife took little Betty. Fed her on her own lap. I bunched the goose down 'tween my legs. Nerves awake, I ached for him. Father found me crying—hair tangled. Neighbours showed Father my blood on the wall, whispered the poet's name. And Anna's. Father, his poor man's pride— kicked the cage round my heart. I crawled away to the copse: Hell-hag, slut. For three full moons in the garden I chewed cabbage leaves among gentle rabbits. I stroked their soft throats, slit them with kirk roof slate. Sipped their blood as they kicked. My knees, my elbows sharpened knives at dusk. II No sun melted dawn mist. A broad hand of warmth on my spine, but no hand there. Dew on my bare shins, my numb, blue toes. My cold hem in the breeze. Who saw me by the copse? Who sent that kind touch? Windows a dark skull stare. A hawk roosted in the tall beech over the kirk, stretched rust-coloured wings, shook out a feather duster. Combed the breeze. I blinked. Old woman perched on highest branch, talons knitting a nest from leaves, from stems. Mungo's mother hanged herself in jail. After Mother passed away from cauld, Mrs. Mungo showed me how to staunch my monthlies with petticoat rags. Villagers burned Mrs. Mungo before evening service. Said, She healed the baker's boy with spells. The blacksmith found a red hawk drowned in his trough. Neck broken. In the long grass at field edge I crushed lavender blooms, dreamt a scented waterfall pooling below my curls. When was the last time I washed my hair? Fog wrapped me in cashmere— Father found me on the bridge where I slipped on the cobbles. Not a witch. III The only stone with my name the walkway in this kirk yard— chiseled with the poet's verses. I did not jig here with sister hags, chase the poet home!iii Nannie Dee! Not my true name neither! Most days the dull blade of sun can't shear the fog-sheep round the Auld Kirk. I drift mist-cowled among tombs. Ramblers on the far side of Brig o'Doon. Voices fast water on gravel likening ladies' flushed cheeks to village garden blowsy roses. Fie! The poet brought me posies each time he took me. How dare they flirt? I weave raw grey wool of rain clouds. Splash sky black, steal flash from the blacksmith, a lightning bolt to bind my broken skull with golden band. I am the sea-cliff, hurl ice stones at wigs and bonnets, mangle every new lamb on noble lands. I dare ye walkers pass these gates! Gale, dash them now 'gainst granite! Read portents in my storm!
* The original Cutty Sark was not a sailing ship, but the character of a witch in the Robbie Burns poem, "Tam O' Shanter". (Cutty Sark means short skirt in Gaelic.)
i "Cunning" woman was a word for a healer. In 17th and 18th century Scotland, female healers were often mistrusted because of their powers.
ii Barmaid Anna refers to Ann Parks, a lover of Robbie Burns who got pregnant and disappeared. Burns' and his wife adopted her baby.
iii Alloway Auld Kirk is the site of the witches dance in Burn's poem, Tam O'Shanter.