Five Finger Medicine

five finger medicineExcerpt from MAGGHIE (Book Two)

Stories & Art by B. Salvatore

With winter came more lessons. Time spent in the kitchen with Maye and the herbs and medicines. Magghie watched and listened, and the plants lent their voices. They sunk in, because Maye had a way of making remembering easy.

“Today Magghie dear, we will count with our fingers, and each one will be a lesson worth remembering. Five Finger Medicine is within everyone’s grasp, but it’s not everyone who will hold it tight. Not just anyone who will know it… But by the end of this day you will have it at the tips of your fingers!”

She held up her thumb “Number One!”

She reached into a pouch and took out a pinch of dried plantain seeds and leaves. She chewed on these and spit the resulting sticky mass into the palm of her hand.

“First…is Spit or water. If you have nothing else – you chew the medicine and dissolve it in your own mouth or make a spittle pack to press onto a wound or insect bite. Spit.”

She lifted Magghie’s hem and exposed her recently scraped knee, pressing the spittle poultice onto the raw skin. Magghie flinched and squirmed at the initial sting, but smiled when she felt the burn fade as the plant worked its way in.

Maye stood and turned to the warm stove. “Water – you boil or simmer the medicine in water. This can be done by the heat of the fire or sun, or the cool light of the moon. Infusions, teas, juices…all made with Water.”

While Maye spoke, she crumbled a handful of peppermint leaves into a simmering pot and covered it tight. Nonetheless the room was fi lled with the sharp scent, and Magghie inhaled peppermint before following her mother out to the stone porch. Out under the bright night sky, Maye set a glass bowl full of cool spring water with floating rose petals, telling Magghie,

“The full moon will pull out the delicate scent and make a magic mist for us to use in the mornings. Our skin will be rose petal soft and perfumed, just like the Old-World princesses!”

“When will it be ready, Momma?” Magghie asked, impatient.

“We will rise with the sun and use the dawn’s rosewater,” her mother promised, whisking Magghie back in before the mint tea boiled over.

As she took the pot off the flame, she held up Two fingers. “Second is Sweetness. Sugar. Honey. Syrup. Children, such as yourself, like this best, and will take their medicine this way, when you cannot force them to take it any other.”

Magghie smiled in agreement as her tongue remembered honey coughing medicines, maple candies, sugared violets.

“Sugar will break down a plant, so it slips right into your tongue. You love the sugared flowers we dip in the spring! And where would we be without honey hives and Syrup?”

Magghie reached for the crockery where her mother stored the dry fruits that she used for cough medicines. Wild grapes were shriveled and darkened, but their sweet, musky smell was still pungent. Wild cherries dried black and hard and whole. She ground them, seeds and all, in the stone mortar, as her mother bent to the cool low shelf that held the honey jars. Together they mixed the wild grapes, tart cherries, and thick clover honey in a wide jar.

Then Maye added a spoonful of brandy, a spoonful of vinegar, four cloves of chopped garlic and a pinch of sugar.

“This will cure anything from a tickle to a cough – stop it short in your throat before it gets heavy in your chest … coughing Syrup!”

“And yes, Vinegar is Third.” She pushed a gallon jug of apple cider vinegar closer to Magghie. “Vinegar, is a ‘Fermenter’, draws the medicine out, especially the invisibles (vitamins and minerals.) Vinegars, used on raw foods or cooked, or added with a bone to soup, will draw its marrow strength out, into the broth. Vinegars help clean wounds, stop bleeding, stop stinging, help with digesting. Vinegar.”

Maye pulled off the wax stopper and Magghie pinched her nose shut against the sour odor. Maye added a pinch of dill, a sprig of lovage, a smidge of mint, a spoon of salt, a dash of chopped celery, and one powdered strawberry. As she stirred in the magic ingredients, their scents mingled and she proclaimed, “This vinegar will be a culinary specialty!”

Maye wiped her brow and then emphatically stretched out Four fingers, “Which leads us to the Fourth… Spirits! Used to make the strongest, most intensive concentration of the plant. Fermented ales and beers, brews and ciders. Brandies and cognacs, corn whiskey, rice wine, and of course the clear, pure vodka. A plant tincture or simple is made with Alcohol.”

Together they chopped the curled comfrey, the hard burdock, and the waxy dandelion roots Maye dug the day before when she smelled snow coming. Magghie labored over the hard, tough roots, and Maye helped her by pummeling them with a wooden hammer. “The softer and smaller we can make them, the better the alcohol will distill them. The more of the inner core we can uncover, the stronger the brew will be when it’s done steeping. Just a teaspoon full of tincture, will usually halt what ails you. Nip it in the bud!”

They scraped the chopped and pounded roots into brown bottles, covered them with clear vodka, and stirred them under. Maye capped and corked and shook them hard before setting them on the shelf with all the others.

“Five!” she shouted. “Oil!”

On the stove a cast iron pot warmed, and when Maye poured in the golden oil, the room filled with the scent of dinner starting. Maye kept the savory olive oil in large vats she yearly imported to the Apothecary, special packages sent all the way from Sicily. Maye always doled it out with careful measure, using it to season food as well as to make medicines.

She went about the task of crushing open globes of garlic cloves. Smushing each clove with her thumb into the cutting board, forcing the skins to peel away. Magghie’s little fingers picked away the papery sheaves while Maye chopped and pressed the garlic into a stinking paste. When she scraped the mashed garlic into the cast iron pan, the oil simmered with delight at the perfect union. Soon it was caramel brown and Maye removed it from the flames.

“We’ll let this cool overnight and soak deep throughout the oil. Tomorrow we will strain and bottle it for later use.”

“For what use momma?” Magghie asked, right on cue.

“Oh my,” Maye took in a deep breath. “Where do I begin? A tablespoon of this added to any soup or meat, mixed in with any vegetables or greens, will fl avor it well and keep us strong. Guard us from illness and weakness. Clear our breathing … If it ever gets so far as an ache in the ear, we’ll pour a drop of this garlic oil right in it! And the earache will quickly subside! … And you must remember times I dabbed the oil on cuts and insect bites? It helps to heal and stop infection, helps to kill the sting of venom….

When you were a baby, I would rub it on your fat little feet on cold winter nights, then put double socks on and let your stuffed toes warm in front of the fire. You never so much as sneezed that first winter… It kept all sickness away… It kept you safe….”

Maye’s voice trailed off , and she cleared her throat of its sudden lump. Cast her eyes away so Magghie did not see tears come. Set herself to pouring the tea and spooning out extra honey, mirroring Magghie’s quick smile, delighting in her pleasure.

When they sat down to their cups of honeyed peppermint tea, they both grinned with pride to see all that they had made in one night with Five Fingers.
Barbara Salvatore © 2022

Original Stories and Illustrations by Barbara Salvatore © 2021
(unless Limited Rights given and Printed with Permission)


Barbara Salvatore, from Verdigre, Nebraska, is the author and illustrator of the Big Horse Woman series including Big Horse Woman, and MAGGHIE.

Big Horse Woman & Maggie, books by Barbara Salvatore
Big Horse Woman & Maggie, books by Barbara Salvatore

Big Horse Woman, first in a series of four epic novels, was a Finalist in the Leapfrog Press Literary Fiction Contest, and Winner of Chanticleer International Book Award – Prairie/First Nations, Laramie Prize for Western Fiction. Big Horse Woman, born in a dream, sparked Barbara’s interest in Ponca Language, because she wanted to Name the Plants the way Big Horse Woman would. This led to her becoming a lifetime student of the Ponca Language*.

*The Ponca are a Midwestern Native American tribe of the Dhegihan branch of the Siouan language group. There are two federally recognized Ponca tribes: the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma.