What is an author to do if she wants to know what it’s like to be poisoned by hemlock? And she would rather not risk her life to do so.
The herb makes an appearance in both The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. In Cross and Dragon, it is forced on an unconscious warrior. In Ashes, a mortally wounded warrior drinks hemlock to cut short his suffering.
I am willing to do a lot for my fiction: read academic papers and translated letters and annals, dive into archaeological reports in French and German (the first I can read, the second I use Google Translate to get the gist of just a few sentences), and be antisocial and leave a stack of messages unanswered.
What I will not do: drink poison.
Fortunately, we have Enid Bloch’s 2001 article investigating whether Plato’s account of Socrates’s peaceful death was accurate, and the modern-day novelist need not sacrifice her health.
Even better (for us), 19th century lunatic, I mean, devoted researcher John Harley experimented on himself. Yes, he deliberately consumed hemlock – twice – and literally lived to tell the tale.
I used Harley’s and Plato’s descriptions in Ashes to depict the death of Leodwulf, the brother of my heroine Leova. Here is a sample from the current draft:
“The hemlock is a mercy,” the wise woman said, meeting the twins’ gaze. “Your father’s flesh is rotting from within; even the nine sacred herbs cannot save him. If the dose is strong enough, the hemlock will spare him weeks of agony and give him a painless death. Leodwulf, you will know it’s working if you cannot feel your arms or legs.”
Leodwulf closed his eyes. His face wore a look of peace.
As the light thickened into gray, the wise woman was called to tend to another wounded man. Leova watched Leodwulf breathe. No one in the family spoke. Leova wished Derwine were here to comfort her as he had when they had lost a toddler to smallpox. She could not believe her Derwine was gone, that she would never kiss him again or hear him say she was beautiful. In the Saxon camp, she heard more murmuring and crying and shouting. Leodwulf’s hand went limp, yet Leova clung to it. While sky darkened and the moon rose, Leodwulf stared ahead. His breathing slowed.
“May the gods keep you,” he murmured, his speech slurred.
He took one more breath and stopped, his mouth open, his eyes open and unseeing.
“Leodwulf?” Leova whispered.
“Husband?” Ealdgyth asked. She pressed her fingers to Leodwulf’s neck. “May you feast well in Mother Holle’s hall, Leodwulf, son of Leof.”
If you’d like to read more of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, check out drafts of an excerpt and the first chapter at kimrendfeld.com. If you would like to know when the novel is available, say so in a comment in the space below or e-mail me at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.
“Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?” Journal of the International Plato Society, Enid Bloch, 2001