The Fieldstone Review

That Cunning Woman, Cutty Sark*

by Kate Rogers

"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.