Lisbet Nypan

Kathryn Nuernberger


-for Lyn Cooper (1951-2013)

The settlement of Lisbet Nypan's estate was assessed at eighty-five silver coins—quite a comfortable living for a wife and a tenant farmer. Their wealth came from Lisbet's practice of healing muscle aches and rheumatism by conducting rituals of salt.

When questioned, she was only too glad to explain her methods. This, after all, was her business and had been for over forty successful years.

She would lay salts over the body of the afflicted and smooth them with massaging hands as she prayed: 

Jesus rode over the moors, he stood forth
and made the leg, Lord in flesh, skin, bones
ever since as before. God's word. Amen.

Then she brushed all that salt onto a plate and either she ate the salt or the patient did. One woman testified that Lisbet cured her pains and agony by giving her a potion of soil, water, and salt. She said this not with malice but gratitude. And confusion. Had Lisbet sinned? Had she? It had never occurred to her that this could be wrong.

Lisbet's husband was prideful and short-tempered, also, he was an idiot. In disputes with neighbors he would raise his gnarled, seventy-year-old finger and scold, "You forget who my wife is." I like him for the way he seems to have thought of himself as belonging to her as much as she belonged to him. For the way he was proud of her. He must have been very sorry about all that foolish pride, though, when he had to watch her die before they cut off his head.

During the trial, he followed Lisbet's lead and refused to confess to witchcraft or to admit wrongdoing in any way. Perhaps their three children, grown, with children of their own, wished their parents would say what the prosecutors wanted to hear. But to Lisbet these inquisitors were nothing more than boys, that eager generation of sons the people sent south to university so they would have an "educated" clergy. The boys came home from Belgium and Germany and environs as young men now and obsessed with the spectral evidence and inquisition that were so popular in the churches of the lowlands. She would never plead to such as these, and certainly she would never apologize for herself. 

I too have known some very good and steadfast women. You could not make them say words they did not want to say. Nor could you make them sorry.

But they didn't start that way either. They are the first to tell you many of us start out meek, as beautiful virtuous apologies of ourselves until, if we let them, the passing years make some more meaningful purpose of our lives. 

One of these women Lisbet Nypan reminds me of is Lyn Cooper, who was sometimes like an aunt to me, sometimes like a friend. She'd been a nun and she'd been an ex-nun, in the closet and out of it, so she knew a little bit of almost anything a person might feel. If you visited her house, she'd put you to work, drinking and stuffing envelopes for the next fundraiser. If you had AIDS in those terrible early years and your family wouldn't know you, even if you were dying, if doctors were afraid to touch you, even if you were dying, you went to Lyn, who built one hospice in our city after another. If you were being abused or your children were, you went to Lyn's partner Maggie, who built one safe house after another. If you were thinking about giving up on some difficult thing you had set out to do, you went to Lyn and she told you to get it together and you believed her that you would. 

Once on a business trip to a very nice golf course with developers and financers, she slipped her favorite most cheerful of blowhards a pot brownie. He didn't notice the difference, but talked longer and faster about urban development until she was so bored driving the highway of his visions that she told him he was stoned and to shut up already. 

To pull such a prank and be loved even more for it, you would have to be some kind of witch. When another one of these blowhards flew into one of his characteristic rages, throwing his putter across the green and storming off to kick at the sand trap, she asked him over a beer later why he was really so angry. Chewing a cigar on the balcony of her wake, he would say the simplicity of that question opened up the rest of his life. He was not the same person he had once been.

This is a very old world. You could spend your whole century just trying to count its revolutions. Elijah threw salt in the water at Jericho. David struck down 18,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt. In the first century of Christianity the converted savored the blessed salts as well as the dunk of baptismal waters. St. Augustine of Hippo called savoring the salts one of the visible forms of grace. St. John the Deacon explained the use of salt in this way: "So the mind, drenched and weakened by the waves of this world, is held steady." 

When Jesus ached, his own mother treated him with the ritual of reading over the salts. Lisbet Nypan told this to the court, not as a confession—she would never give them a "right" confession—but as an explanation for those who seemed to know so little about where pain comes from and where it might go.

As Christ walked to Church with a book in his hand, the Virgin Mary appeared and inquired about his health. "I am seriously afflicted with rheumatism, my blessed mother." To this she replied, "Incantations against rheumatism I will read for you:

"from joint and bone, to shore and stone,
in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

And thus she healed him, Libset Nypan explained. Thus she gave him comfort.

This was what Lisbet Nypan tried to do with her life, she said, under pain of torture and threat of death. To give comfort. We all should be so lucky to have known someone like her.