I trust you enjoyed the first part of Robert Newman’s essay last week; with his permission, I am serializing it as a prelude to the publication of The Riverwoman’s Dragon (Owen Archer bk 13, published 26 August 2021 in hardcover in the UK; 1 October in ebook worldwide; 2 November in hardcover in the US). These are Bob’s thoughts, unedited by me. As you can see, that was a comfortable decision on my part–he’s a beautiful writer.
Note to the wary: You will notice that these sections quote primarily from the tenth book in the Owen Archer series, A Vigil of Spies. If you have not yet reached that point in the series, rest assured that although you will learn about Magda Digby’s friendship with Archbishop Thoresby in his last days you will not find spoilers about the crime investigation in the novel.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Happy reading!
Robert Newman grew up in Freeport, Long Island, where his ancestors arrived from England in the sixteen hundreds. After completing a Ph.D. in metallurgy he was a university professor, researcher, missionary, and computer programmer. Since retiring he spent time woodworking with hand tools, bread baking, listening to early jazz, and reading fiction. Magda Digby spoke to him in different ways during the last ten years and her wisdom guides him in his eighties as he struggles with difficult illness. He wrote this essay last winter. Bob lives in Smoke Rise, Georgia, with his wife Spomenka and their corgi Duga.
Wisdom in Believing
Owen noticed that Magda stood quietly, eyes closed, one gnarled hand clutching the opposite wrist. She did not pray, so she always said, and yet her stillness suggested a state, if not of devotion, then of concentration.[i]
After leaving Alisoun at the farm following the burial of her family, Owen and Magda head back to York in a boat, rowing down the River Ouse. She offers Owen a drink from a small bottle and the conversation turns to Church dogma.
“Was a time thou wouldst accept naught from Magda, Bird-eye.”
“Perhaps I was not so thirsty then.”
“Magda would give much to know what calls back the manqualm from time to time, Bird-eye. Thy priests say ‘tis the scourge of thy god, punishing thee for thy unholy ways. Mayhap ‘tis why Magda survives. She is invisible to thy god.”
Although Magda lives a saintly life, she is not a Christian and finds the Church’s teachings to be poor, superstitious excuses for common sense. Owen has grown to trust her as a friend and values her perspective that is free of fear imposed by Church dogma. Magda poses a question.
“But how do thy priests explain the death of infants, Bird-eye?”
“To my mind it is the parents who are punished by such a death, Magda, not the child. I have heard it said that such a child was too good to live; God chooses to take such children directly to heaven so that the world might not taint their souls.”
A snort. “So thy god leaves only the unworthy on earth? Bah!”
“We cannot always know the Lord’s purpose.”
Magda wagged her head. “Thou art not taken in by such nonsense.”[ii]
Owen feels uneasy about agreeing with Magda so he gives a simplistic, conventional answer. Having made her point about the weakness of his argument, Magda changes the subject.
Wisdom in Friendship
Magda’s conversations with Archbishop John Thoresby during the last few days before his death provide insight into her humanity. It was an unlikely friendship between a healer and an archbishop of the Church. Magda was a pagan as far as Thoresby could decipher, though she gave of herself and her services in a most Christian way. And yet he had decided he wanted none other than Magda caring for him at the end of his life. He had come to believe that her good works far outweighed those practices he felt he must disapprove of as a leader of the Church. He had come to trust her as a friend. Thoresby wants Magda to understand his status in the realm so he explains the role of the Church in the political machinations of England.
“You realize that the Church of Rome is more powerful than any individual kingdom?”
“Magda is aware that churchmen use fear of terrible suffering after death to control most of her countrymen. That has been sufficient understanding of thy power for Magda’s purpose.”
Thoresby explains how the Church affects not only Catholics but also controls immense wealth and influences the politics of the realm, but she is not impressed.
“This does not sound spiritual to Magda.”
“No. If the pope and his archbishops are carrying out their duties, they have little time for the spiritual life.”
Thoresby is embarrassed by this interchange but Magda is not. She chuckles at the disparity between the two of them.
He was embarrassed by this admission and it was then that he’d realized he had revealed his spiritual poverty and that he’d sought out Magda not just as a healer but also as a spiritual guide, sensing in her a depth of soul that he no longer found in himself.[iii]
These pages tell us there is much more about these two very different people than initially meets one’s eye. Each must make changes to their initial impression of the other.
Strange Old Crow, Magda thought, as she glanced at the finery in the chamber ⸺ and she in her gown of multi-colored rags in charge. She chuckled to herself. John Thoresby had proven to be an unexpectedly complex man of quiet wisdom, surprisingly inspiring love. She was honored that he trusted her to care for him ⸺ she had not expected to feel so. She would mourn his passing.[iv]
Magda is comfortable in the company of Archbishop Thoresby despite their belief differences, and he is comfortable with her presence in his last days because there is no malice in her, and she is therefore able to comfort him. There is trust and intimacy revealed in Thoresby’s responses to Magda.
“Magda is here.”
Thoresby tugged at the curtains of the bed. “I would have some light.” The small, elderly woman drew aside the curtain, standing on tiptoes to tug it wide. She helped him sit up. She smelled of smoke, spices and earth, a not unpleasant combination.
“Art thou thirsty? Fear dries the throat, eh?”
“How did you know?”
He reached for her hand and she, in turn, firmly grasped his, her warmth and strength flooding up his arm to his heart.
“God resides in you.”
“Thou hast strange ideas. Rest thine eyes whilst Magda mixes a soothing powder for thy wine.”
“I was imagining myself climbing the tree to die,” he admitted to her before he let go of her hand.”
She asks him, “Hast thou ever thought to take thine own life?”
Thoresby paused. He never answered her questions thoughtlessly. There was something about her that inspired him to search deep within for his answers. He believed that, in doing so, he learned much of value.
“No. I cannot recall a time when I despaired of finding a way out or grasped at death as an acceptable solution.”
“Magda thought not.”[v]
Magda opens up to Archbishop Thoresby in a way she has never revealed herself before, wise but imperfect. True Magda. Thoresby makes a request.
“I have opened my heart to you about my daughter. Now I would learn something of you. Why do you speak of yourself as Magda, not I? It is as if you are outside yourself. I don’t understand.”
“Magda Digby once forgot that her gift as a healer was for all folk, not only those she thought worthy folk. She forgot that her opinion must count as naught, that she must step aside from herself. I is not for a healer.”
“You neglected someone? Refused them healing?”
“Much to Magda’s shame.”
“I have conjured bad memories. Forgive me, my friend. I would say you have long since made reparation for your very human error. You are remarkable for holding to such an ideal.”
“Magda is not remarkable. She is merely a vessel for healing, and she had not surrendered her pride as completely as she should have.”
“Our duty is difficult to know, Dame Magda. I doubt that many of us ever fully understand our purpose, and, if we do, few of us have the courage to embrace it without occasional rebellions. Even Christ questioned God’s purpose in the suffering he was about to endure.”
“Magda is glad to hear that this man thou callest a redeemer was not cursed with perfection.”
In anyone else, such irreverence would make him uneasy. Perhaps it was that he sensed no malevolence in her.”[vi]
In his last moments, Thoresby lay back against the cushions and reaches for Magda’s hand.
“Have you thought of what I might leave to you, my friend?”
“The memory of thy friendship will be most precious to Magda.”
After a last shuddering breath, he was still. Magda gently closed his papery eyelids and offered her final words, “May thou rest in peace, Old Crow. May thy God embrace thee.”[vii]
[i] The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, © 1997, p 23
[ii] The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, © 1997, p 25-27
[iii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 3-6
[iv] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 7-8
[v] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 169-170
[vi] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 171-172
[vii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 279
Watch for part III next week!
The Riverwoman’s Dragon is available for preorder online and at your independent bookstores. Thank you for reading!