Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 19, Agnes Naismith

Agnes Naismith laid a dying woman’s curse on the town of Paisley and who can blame her, given how she was scapegoated, along with six other people, after that spoiled brat of a laird’s daughter, Christian Shaw, fell into fits. Or at least that’s one way to tell the story.

Christian Shaw was eleven when she saw her servant Catherine steal a drink of milk. She told her mother what the maid had done, and Catherine, pissed off at the stinginess of the whole household, cursed the girl, saying she wished the devil would “haul her soul through Hell.” Not long after, Christian encountered old, trembling, much-whispered about Agnes Naismith on the road. Soon the girl was having fits and seizures, feelings of flying through the air, and coughing up bits of hair, charcoal, chicken feathers, and straw. The usual symptoms.

It is possible Christian Shaw was a murderous, conniving psychopath. Others have suggested we might attribute cases like hers to what the DSM-V calls Functional Neurological Symptom Disorder. There are experts who say it is worth considering the possibility that witchcraft is real, especially to those who believe in it. So far as we know, the girl herself never wondered whether the story of her life was a delusion or a sin or a convenient occasion for landed gentry to demonstrate their power. She was after all the daughter of the Laird of Barragan, and the daughters of lairds seldom have to contemplate, must less justify, the reasons for or the consequences of their actions.

When Christian Shaw grew up she travelled widely across Europe with her mother who was also her business partner. After finding such fine thread being spun in Holland, they smuggled pieces of that new invention, the spinning jenny, back home in their skirts. And then founded Bargarrem Threads, which would become the industrial backbone of Paisley’s mill-town economy for the next four hundred years. Whether Christian felt like a survivor of something terrible or a murderer of the innocent or just never thought of anyone but herself at all is impossible to say for certain.

But Paisley, now an old mill town of mostly shuttered factories, still trembles a little to remember Agnes Naismith’s accusing finger. After dumping the burned remains of the Paisley witches in their mass grave at a crossroads, authorities sealed it with a horseshoe. If it ever comes loose, the city sends out a crew to repair the seal. That horseshoe now sits in the center of a traffic circle, cars whizzing around. Though it seems to me most likely that horseshoe has only locked the evil things — the mobbing, the fear, the accusations, the unrepentant violence — out here in this world of ceaseless making and doing, so much unrelenting industry.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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