We come to the final installment of Robert Newman’s tribute to Magda Digby. With his permission, I’ve been serializing it as a prelude to the publication of The Riverwoman’s Dragon.
These are Bob’s thoughts, unedited by me. In this final section he collects some of the Magda moments I returned to as I wrote The Riverwoman’s Dragon. Happy reading!
About my guest: 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 Teaching
In The Nun’s Tale, Lucie Wilton approaches Magda for advice on how to treat Joanna Caverly, a nun who had escaped from the convent and had been involved with several people who had been murdered and was herself traumatized by the experience. Magda employs silences and asks questions not unlike a psychologist. What makes her wisdom unique is her ability to lead Lucie to her own conclusions about how to approach Joanna, rather than telling her what Magda already knows — that what she would personally do in this situation is not what Lucie should do, or can do, so she must work around this dilemma.
“Magda, you are the one who should speak with Joanna You would plot a course to coax more out of her than I shall ever hear.”
“Oh, thou’rt such a bungler, indeed. ‘Tis of course why the Old Crow and the Squirrel wish thee to speak to Joanna.”
Lucie paused. The Old Crow, she knew, was the archbishop. The Squirrel – ah! – Dame Isobel, with her chubby cheeks and fussy little hands. Lucie learns from Magda’s metaphor.
Magda asks Lucie, “What is the trouble with Joanna Caverly?”
“I had a dream last night…Joanna was a spider and I followed her as she wove a web. I would begin to see a pattern, try to guess where she would move next, and I was wrong most of the time.”
“Did she finish the web in thy dream? Was the web well-ordered? What dost thou think it means?”
Lucy groaned, exasperated. “I hoped that you would tell me!”
“Surely thou hast a thought or two, Master Apothecary?”
“I guess that Joanna knows what she is saying, that she deliberately confuses me.”
“A spider does not set out to weave an imperfect web. Is Joanna a spider or a woman? ‘Tis the trouble with dreams. They seduce the dreamer with their seeming wisdom.”
Disappointed, Lucie said, “I must return to the abbey.”
Magda wagged a finger. “Thou didst not come to Magda to talk of dreams.”
“What would you do with Joanna?”
“Thou art alert. Thou hearest Magda’s silences. Thou wouldst not take Magda’s advice.”
“Please, Magda, tell me.”
“Magda would leave the child in peace.”
“Ask her nothing?”
“And tell her nothing.”
When Lucie pleads for an answer instead of thinking for herself, Magda offers an allegory, not a direct answer; she knows tacitly that Lucie is ready to understand. Magda is skilled at knowing who is ready to understand her and who is not.
“When storms blow down the Dales to Magda’s house, these old hands ache as a warning that the river shall soon rise.”
“You have a feeling it would be best not to know what happened to her.”
“But thou wouldst not abide by Magda’s feeling. Nor shouldst thou. Thy task is to learn her secret. The Churchmen insist.”
Owen’s good friend Ned has escaped from York because he has been falsely accused of murder. Owen finds him on the moors in a confused state of mind. Magda again takes on the role of a psychologist, not answering his questions but skillfully leading him to think for himself.
“Dagger-thrower is not himself. It does not take a Magda to see that. Thy friend has chosen his own way. He is thy concern.”
“Magda, is Ned telling me the truth about how he came to be here?”
Magda said nothing…
“You have nothing to say?”
“Nay. ‘Tis not for Magda to tell thee whether or no thy friend can be trusted. Thou canst judge for thyself.”
The minstrel Ambrose, a friend of Pirate, has spent years in France and tells Owen that he has discovered that there are those in the English king’s household that are directed by the French court and are slowly poisoning the king’s son, Prince Edward, with small doses of mercury. Owen asks for Magda’s opinion.
“Would the symptoms the princess described support these claims?”
“Quicksilver is an inconstant healer. It is possible Minstrel is right. Trust him, Bird-eye. He has no cause to lie to thee. Nor would he come such a way to speak nonsense.”
Magda, as a rule, is consistent in encouraging Owen to trust his own gut feeling but this time she feels he will benefit from direct instruction. And she is clear in setting boundaries to her role ⸺ Owen is the detective, the seeker of answers, Magda is a healer.
“The Minstrel left much unspoken. Thou art the one who gathers the threads and weaves the tapestry. Not Magda. Open thine eyes, Bird-eye. Magda has told thee what she knows, but she is a healer, not the one to seek out the answers. That is for thee to discover.”
Magda Posits a Question About Tolerance
This next conversation with Owen caught me by surprise because it is not a subject on which I expected Magda to express an opinion. But it certainly does reveal the depth and breadth of her spiritual understanding and attitude, and her wisdom about the nature of people. But Magda does not presume that she has the answer, only that she has the question.
“Thou hast a difficult role, Bird-eye. Magda has ever sensed the weight of it on thy broad shoulders…Magda senses thou’rt sad about Michaelo as well.” Before he could speak, she held a finger to his mouth. “No, Magda understands. Thou dost fear that he is not the redeemed soul thou hast believed him to be. Hast thou ever thought that what Black Swan feels for men is simply his nature? Nothing to punish him for.”
“God condemned sodomy.”
“Men wrote thy bible. Men lead thy church. Men create unnatural laws that cripple their fellow men so that they might control those they do not understand. Thy church has made many such laws, and good men who serve thy church suffer for no good cause. How different might Black Swan’s life have been if he had been permitted his love for men, Magda does not know. The sin that brought him to Old Crow’s attention was about far more than carnal love. He had given his power to a man who was consumed by hate [Archdeacon Anselm]. Hast thou looked into thy heart and judged him so harshly? Or her, this woman thou didst once embrace? Or dost thou merely fear thou wilt not be happy when thou dost discover the murderer?”
As Magda speaks to Owen she speaks as a friend and as a teacher. She speaks gently while turning attention from Owen the spy to Owen the young man.
She placed a palm on his eye patch. “Thy wounding forced thee to look within. Magda has seen thy hand fly up to thy wounded eye as if it has suddenly spoken to thee with a pain that has no source that thou canst detect.”
“I do feel something. But what does that have to do with Brother Michaelo’s confession? Or Lady Eleanor’s possible guilt?”
“Didst thou sense a lie in their words? Gifts, skills, talents — they torment folks with riddles. Thou must learn through practice, as thou didst learn to be an archer. Thou’rt a good man, Bird-eye. Courageous, true, and gifted with inward sight. And if Magda had met thee when she was young, she would have done anything to share thy bed.”
Aha! We discover that Magda Digby is authentic in all she is, including her sexuality.
A Final Riddle
The one thing that stands proud from the first book to the current last book in the Owen Archer series is Magda’s wisdom to observe silently, listen patiently, and speak carefully. She does not believe her gift is supernatural, but how she knows what she knows remains clouded in mystery. Owen asks Magda how she knew about Hoban’s murder.
“Magda recognizes the signs, not how or why this or that is revealed to her. She has no answers for thee, Bird-eye. This is thy conspiracy of wolves. Thou hast the charge, Magda merely warned thee. Thy task. Open thine eye.” She tapped the place between his eyes, then pressed there.
“I don’t understand. Had I the Sight I would have known what was to come. I might have prevented Hoban’s murder.”
“Not fore-seeing, clear-seeing. A gift to all who count on thy protection, Bird-eye. Trust thyself. Thou seest far more clearly than most.”
“A conspiracy of wolves — what did you mean by that?”
“That is for thee to discover. And how thou must move forward.”
“You speak in riddles.”
“Thou’rt a riddle breaker.”
This is a riddle I have not been able to solve. I have considered the possibility that Magda has a suspicion of who is actually responsible for the killings. But I have learned that Magda is never quick to reveal what she knows. Perhaps I just have to take her at her own word here ⸻ “Magda recognizes the signs, not how or why this or that is revealed to her. She has no answers for thee, Bird-eye.” Like Owen, I am left with a riddle. Like Owen, I am being challenged to analyze, to seek answers. And, like Owen, I am left to think for myself. I suppose that I am apprenticed to Magda Digby, AKA Candace Robb.
These references are included for those who have read the books, kept a copy on the shelf, and may want to discover the context in which these wisdom statements were uttered by Magda Digby. I also found them to be necessary when I was composing this essay.
 The Nun’s Tale © 1995, p 170-173
 The King’s Bishop, © 1996, p 162-163
 The King’s Bishop, © 1996, pp 174
 A Choir of Crows, © 2020, p 63
 A Choir of Crows, © 2020, p 123
 A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 198-200
 A Conspiracy of Wolves, © 2019, p 165
In rereading Robert’s last paragraph, I cannot resist saying in my mind, No, Robert, not “analyze,” then thou’rt leading thyself by the intellect. How canst thou seest a new idea when using what thou hast learned from others? Set aside effort and allow the answer to arise in thee. And then I smile, because I feel that I, too, am apprenticed to Magda Digby.
I am incredibly grateful to Robert for the love and care he poured into pondering Magda Digby’s wisdom, and in writing this beautiful essay. Let’s give him a hearty round of applause!
The Riverwoman’s Dragon, Owen Archer #13, is published 26 August 2021 in hardcover in the UK; 1 October in ebook worldwide; 2 November in hardcover in the US. Pre-order it from your favorite independent bookstore!