Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Witch! - A Short Story


(This is a story I wrote a while back, exploring the history and backstory of the Starforce Saga universe. In a world (You thought that in a deep voice, didn't you.) where exohumans have been around as long as humans, history would have played out in subtly different ways. This one explores the milieu of the Salem Witch Trials. Set in Colonial Massachusetts, it gave me an opportunity to explore a different style of voice, inspired and guided by the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
 

Witch!

By Richard L. Wright


   As I drifted in that not-quite-awake state, I knew I’d had the dream again. It had become a recurring theme in recent months - the one where I soar through the air, conversing with the owls and nighthawks that hunt by the pale moon. Again, they’d chastised me, calling me clumsy and slow. “Wingless girl-child! Graceless groundling! Stay where you belong!” The mockingbirds were particularly cruel.
   A chill ran through me, cold air seeping through my thin nightshift. I pinched my eyes shut, unwilling to acknowledge being awake. Wakefulness would start the day, and I did not enjoy my days much of late. I reached down to pull up the blanket I must have thrown off. I groped blindly for it, but it did not come to hand. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes.
   Imagine my surprise to find I was not in my bed, nor had I rolled off onto the floor. No, I was decidedly not in my bedchamber at all. I was, in fact, in a tree. My puzzlement quickly turned to panic, and I wrapped my arms and legs around the broad oak branch where I found myself.
   “My stars!” I cried.
   I lay there, trembling with cold and fright, wondering what foolishness I had committed now. Once assured that I was not about to plummet earthward, my heart desisted its attempts to escape my breast. I looked around and recognized my location. I was only a scant number of yards from the open window of my room, the grubby curtains billowing out into the predawn. Had my dreams of flying caused me to exit the safety of my bed, climb down the trellis, and clamber up this tree like a squirrel - all in my sleep? It was madness, and although it beggared belief, I was bereft of any other explanation.
   I resolved to set aside speculation on the cause of my discomfiture, focusing instead on remedying it. By happenstance, I did have some experience with this particular tree. Mother Abigail had thrashed my eight-year-old backside soundly, but I estimated the worth of climbing the mighty oak had far outstripped the cost of my unladylike behavior. “Those boys said I couldn’t do it,” I’d proudly proclaimed to Mother Abigail. “But I showed them.”
   “Aye,” Mother had allowed, the hickory switch smacking her calloused hands, warming it for the work ahead. “And you showed them your nether region as well, you willful strumpet! Why do you think they goaded you to climb?”
   She had me at that. I had been known to chafe against the restrictions of my gender. It seemed always to me that boys had much more enjoyable pastimes, while we of the distaff were allotted only work, pain and shame. I was not demur in my protestations then, and even now, a full woman of fifteen years, I bristled at the long list of things not allowed me. Those boys had known I would rise to the bait and, in that rise, afford them a peek, but my view from that lofty perch was superior to whatever they sought to glimpse.
   So my wayward childhood had left me with certain elicit skills, tree-climbing among them. I worked my way down the trunk, careful not to rip my shift - that would earn me a whipping for sure. As my feet touched ground, I smiled to myself. Now all I had to do was get back inside before Mother Abigail discovered me missing.
   It was then that I realized I was not alone. I do not believe I heard any growl that alerted me to his presence, nor any of my other senses save a pricking of skin on my neck. I turned, slowly, terror near seizing me.
   Never had I seen a wolf so large, nor one as rangy and rawboned as this one. Granted, I had only seen one of the beasts before, and that had been shot dead by the hunter proudly displaying it. He’d held forth about how rare it was to see one of the creatures in the Massachusetts Colony these days, and never so close to townships. I recall softly stroking its pelt, sad that the beast had died.
   This one, though quite alive, looked starved. Patchy fur stretched tight across his boney frame, and eyes were yellowed from deprivation. I knew I must look like a well-needed meal to him. My mouth went dry and my eyes forgot how to blink, so great was my fear.
   Some rude and nonsensical part of me railed in my mind at the unfairness of it all, piqued that my careful climbing had been for naught. That portion of me wanted to stamp its feet and scream, in the manner of children. But the Church teaches that only by cleaving strictly to divine law in every aspect will His salvation be our reward. Climbing a tree in my night shift was hardly righteous obedience, so it was reasonable that the carnivore before me bore much greater resemblance to fire and brimstone than heavenly reward. I dropped to my knees and bowed my head in prayer.
   “Heavenly Father, I thank Thee for Thy wisdom and Thy love, for all the acts of discipline to which I am subject. Strengthen me by Thy Spirit for Your purpose. My body and soul, talents and work, my present, my future, my end. Take them, they are Thine, and I am thine, now and forever. Amen”
   Rather, that is what I should have prayed. It certainly had been drilled into me by countless repetitions since early childhood. However, the fact is that all I managed to get out was a string of repeated mumblings of “please don’t kill me.”
   To my astonishment, the wolf sat down, tilting his head to stare at me - hardly the deportment one expects from a ravening beast. His brow creased, whether in worry or concern I could not say. A whine escaped his throat and I found myself feeling sorry for the poor thing. In an instant, his countenance had transformed from predatory to pitiable.
   I began to dare hope that this was no wolf after all, but simply a large dog. I had always been fond of animals - dogs and cats especially - so I might befriend this one. But that hope evaporated when his mouth opened, exposing teeth that no domesticated canine possessed.
   Again, that selfish and petulant voice in my head complained.
   If only he’d come from the direction of Old Jack’s hen house, just over the hill. Then he’d be full of bird and I could be safe in my bed.
   The wolf looked in the direction of the hill, then back to me. Could it possibly have understood my thoughts? He stood, coming closer. I braced myself for the attack that must surely come next. His head lifted, hot breath stirring my hair. At least if he bit my head clean off, it would be a quick death. He sniffed my face, his jaundiced eyes locked on mine before I closed them in a final prayer. I heard a snort, and his presence retreated. I opened my eyes to find him gone, vanished. I looked around, but he was not to be seen.
   I’m not ashamed to admit that I broke out in a fit of shivers. The whole affair - the dream, the tree, the wolf - was strange and unsettling. Finally, I recovered my wits and made my way to the trellis, intent on making the safety of my bed before something even more curious befell me. More careful climbing saw me safely through my window. I quietly lowered the sash and then collapsed onto the bed in exhaustion.
#
   “Charity Kincaid, you worthless girl, look to your work!”
   My thoughts had wandered, dwelling on the prior night’s doings. Mother Abigail’s admonishment brought me from my reveries, and I looked upon the hash I had made of my spinning. The bobbin was a rat’s nest of woolen clumps and spindly threads. Mother slapped the carded roving from my right hand and waved for me to rise from the wheel.
   “What devil has gotten into you, child?” Mother chided. “Go tend to the youngers while I sort out this calamity. Take them out to gather berries, and see to it they don’t gorge themselves.”
   I ducked my head and retreated without, glad to have avoided worse treatment. Mother bore little patience for slovenly work, and spared not the rod for poor labors. To not only escape a whipping, but be allowed to frolic with the younger fosterlings was more reward than punishment.
   “Fetch me a basket of eggs from Old Jack while you’re about,” Mother called before I latched the door.
   I’ll own that put a damper on my spirits. If, as I suspected, Old Jack’s hens had met with my hungry canine friend from this morning, he would be in worse distemper than usual. Still, a morning spent outside was worth a few moments dealing with a curmudgeon. My mood began to rise once again, only to have Mother shout one final admonition from the window.
   “And steer you clear of that witch!”
   One must understand that there are two kinds of witches. The first sort worships Satan, dances naked in the moonlight and casts curses on the devout. Those are an abomination, creatures of blasphemous intent. The Church deals with those witches most severely when they appear, usually with a judicious application of rope or fire. Two score years ago a midwife had been hanged over in Boston, and since then the Church had executed another thirteen women and two men for acts of vile devil magic. It was not a charge taken lightly.
   But Mother wasn’t truly accusing Mistress Bellgrave of sorcery, but rather expressing a deep-seated distaste for her. Most of the women of our village shared that view. They judged her improper and wicked, for reasons I had yet to fathom.  She was a quiet and handsome woman, with an odd manner of speaking and what Reverend Thompkins considered to be insufficient piety. She was quick of wit, and did not suffer fools gladly. It wasn’t helpful to her cause that she was the lone Baptist in our Puritan community. Adults of our township mostly avoided her, and she responded in kind. She was tenderhearted to children, however. Some mothers, like Abigail, saw her as a threat, and cautioned their young to stay away else they be lured into a stew pot.
   For myself, I had no cause for trouble with the woman. On the occasions I had encountered her, she had always been kind to me and the other children. There was no talk of devils or stews, and she was quick to offer sweet branch water for our parched throats or a rapid remedy for whatever scrapes and stings we might have accumulated in our travels. So it should come as no surprise that we three orphans did, in our harvestings, wander into that forbidden realm where Mistress Bellgrave lived.
   We came upon her gathering honey from the hollowed-out crevice in a large maple. She looked up as we approached, sunlight through the brilliant red leaves painting her in crimson flame.
   “Good day to you, Mistress Charity. Best you and the children keep your distance. I have an arrangement with these bees - they don’t sting me and I only take a small portion of their wares - but I doubt they’ll extend that bargain to you three.”
   “Oh dear,” little Emma said, stiffening her five-year-old frame at the mere idea of nasty, stingy bees. Bertram, having reached a venerable and manly age of seven, was completely fixated on the sticky sweetness being collected, and the price to be paid for it had not yet graduated into his consciousness. I grabbed his hand before he could bolt, earning me a stink-eyed stare.
   “Best indeed, Mistress,” I replied from across the clearing. “Although I’m eager to learn this bee negotiation skill you have learnt, we’ll await you at the safety of your door. Mayhaps we can barter a portion of our berries for a bit of that gold you’re mining?”
   “Mayhaps, mayhaps,” she smiled. “Although I’ll wager Mother Abigail would be less than pleased to learn I had anything to do with it. But, yes, go. Await me at my cottage. There’s a pitcher of water on the porch; help yourselves.”
   Then we were off, Emma in the lead and Bertram dragged behind. Mistress Bellgrave’s abode was not far, barely a quarter-league. Once out of sight of the honey tree, Bertram’s thoughts wandered to other temptations and I was able to release his hand. The day was cool and the sun shone dappled through the leaves. Aye, it was far more pleasant than spinning, knitting and salting beans for the winter.
   As we moved through the wood, something prickled at the back of my neck. The sensation brought to mind how I had sensed the wolf after descending from the oak that morning. Could he still be about? Perhaps he had found Old Jack’s hens less than satisfying, and now sought meatier fare. I shook my head, seeking to dislodge my fanciful worries. The oddness of my morning had left me uneasy, and it would serve me ill to dwell on it further. The roar of the bear brought me up short and drove all thoughts of the wolf from my head.
   The creature was monstrous in size, visage and mien. Five foot tall at the shoulder, it looked. Its jowls drew back, exposing teeth the size of a man’s fingers. Unlike the wolf, this animal was muscled and healthy.
   Emma attempted to hide herself in my skirts, but Bertram had been scouting ahead, swinging his stick-sword at imagined scoundrels and red savages. The wooden weapon dropped from nerveless hands as he faced the beast, much closer than any of us could have wished. In a display of wisdom rare in one so young, Bertram froze in place.
   I looked about and found a cypress tree to my left, its many branches forming a ladder that even Emma could climb. Lifting her up, I whispered in her ear, “Climb, as far as you can. And don’t make a sound. Stay up there until I call for you.”
   She skittered up and I turned my attention back to the boy and the bear. Moving slowly toward Bertram, I began to speak to the beast in calm, soft tones.
   “Good day to you, gentle sir. Or madam. I wonder if I might borrow this boney excuse for a meal for a moment. You see, there’s a young girl up yonder tree in need of her brother’s hand to hold. I shan’t be but the shake of a lamb’s tail but I can treat with you directly.”
   Reaching forward, I slipped my arm around Bertram’s quivering shoulders and drew him to me. Then, with a steady, slow pace we backed ourselves to the cypress. He needed no encouragement or instruction to make the climb. Then it was but myself and the bear.
   I had already ascertained that the cypress would not support our combined weight, and no other trees suitable to my needs existed nearby. My doom stared at me with slathering jaws. The bear took a trio of steps toward me, a low growl underscoring its approach. I sidestepped, backing against a different tree, hoping in vain that it would forget seeing two tender morsels retreat up the cypress. As with the wolf, I could only hope the end would come quickly. I took consolation that my sacrifice might spare the children.
  The bear stood. My stars, I had no appreciation of how huge the animal was until it reared before me. It might have been ten feet tall, twenty! It eclipsed everything and all I could think to do was cross my arms before my face and scream, “No!”
   And it stopped.
   I cowered before the massive thing, awaiting the fate that comes when man comes face to face with the wild nature they fought to leave behind. I stood there, arms covering me, quite prepared to die. But it didn’t occur.
   The bear whimpered, dropping to all fours. I lowered my arms and felt its hot breath on my face, the sensation now familiar. The bear stared into my eyes, a baleful look that spoke to me of anger and loss. It sniffed my face, as had the wolf. I recall wondering if it was trying to remember me, and whether that remembrance would bring me weal or woe. Then it backed away, ponderously, to stand in the center of the path. It was at that moment that Bertram dropped from the cypress.
   “You stay away, you bad thing!”
   Whatever sympathy or understanding the bear and I had shared, the beast did not include this interloper in it. It spun and reared up, drawing back a paw to strike him.
   “Stop!” I cried, with all the ferocity in my heart for Bertram. “You shan’t have him!”
   I’ll tell you, I was prepared to fling myself betwixt the child and the beast, so desperate was my cause. But as I rushed to do just that, the animal halted and turned once more to stare into my eyes. Surely even whatever strange forces had been at work up ‘til then could not now save me. Then the thing bowed before me.
   I cannot explain what came over me then. Nothing made sense and I feared it was all about to end horribly. But I placed my hand on the bear’s head, as if in benediction, and it moaned softly. The great head raised to look once more into my eyes, and I suddenly knew the source of her rage and pain. She was a mother, or had been until this day. Hunters had killed her babes that very morning while she foraged. I saw their still bodies through her eyes, tasted their blood in my nostrils, and felt her anguish. Her world had died with those bairns, and she knew nothing now but loss and furor. I wrapped my arms around her immense neck and wept.
   I know not how long we two remained in that embrace. When my senses returned, I felt a change in the beast. Sadness still resided there in her grand breast, but the fury had subsided. I released her from my arms and took a step back. She looked upon me one final time, then turned and shambled away. Watching her broken soul return to the wood, I feared I would never know what became of her.
   My mind returned to my young charges. Bertram stood frozen, his eyes locked on me, paralyzed with terror. He looked unharmed, so I turned my attention to Emma, high up in the cypress tree.
   “You can climb down now, Emma. The beast is gone and we are saved.”
   The poor child clung tightly to the trunk, shivering. I called, cajoled and coaxed, but to no avail. With a sigh of resignation, I hiked up my skirt and began to climb. The tree, as I had suspected, did not tolerate well my weight, swaying with my every move. Taking care to only grasp the sturdiest of limbs, I finally made my way to where Emma had rooted herself.
   “It’s safe now, sweet girl,” I whispered. “Won’t you come down with me?”
   “No!” she cried, lashing out a foot at me. “You put a spell on the beast. I saw it!”
   The force of her accusation took me aback, and her kick also. My grip on the tree slipped as the branch under my feet snapped. I fell.
   I didn’t fall far. My body floated there, in thin air. My arms flailed but there was nothing to grasp, no limbs within reach. I looked down and saw young Bertram clasp his hands to his mouth, his eyes wide. I heard a scrabbling sound and looked to see Emma climbing down at a break-neck pace. When she reached the ground, she tugged at Bertram, urging him to run. Bertie’s hands fell from his face as he finally spurred himself into action.
   “Witch!” he cried, then turned to follow Emma at a flat run. “God’s grace, Charity’s a witch!”
   I hung there, helpless in the air, not knowing how it had happened nor how to undo it. Witch? How had this befallen me? Had my rebellious ways invited the Devil himself into my heart? Was my soul damned for all eternity? I could see in my mind the Reverend shaking his head ruefully as he set torch to kindling piled at my feet, the proper punishment for sorcery. I wrapped my arms tight about and began to weep again, this time for myself and what I had become.
   I felt a touch on my arm. Wiping away my tears, I looked up.
   Wafting before me, her long raven hair loose in a breeze that I did not feel, was Mistress Bellgrave. Her eyes were sad and a little smile graced her face. She reached out to take me in her arms.
   “You have questions, I’ll warrant,” she said, her soft voice near at my ear. “Come. We’ll talk.”
#
   The bouquet of drying garlic and onion bit at my nostrils. So many scents assailed me in Mistress Bellgrave’s cot: cod drying on a rack, bundles of lavender and oleander hung from the rafters, a variety of herbs growing in small containers. There was a pot hanging in the fireplace, but it seemed far too small to stew even the smallest of children. From its spot by the hearth, the housecat regarded me briefly before returning to its nap.
   Mistress Bellgrave pressed an earthenware mug into my hands. Fragrant, sweet steam supplanted the pungent sting of root vegetables.
   “Drink, child,” she said, sitting herself on a small bench in front of me. “It will calm your nerves somewhat.”
   I smelt it deeply, wondering if the pleasing aroma was meant to disguise a foul taste. Why must remedies universally assault the tongue so? Mother says that it is to remind us that God’s benefice is not meant to please our bodies, but to ransom our souls. Mother says many such things.
   “Is this why you’ve brought me here, Mistress? Am I meant to learn the brewing of such potions?”
   She gave forth a quick laugh, shaking her head with a smile.
   “If you wish. It is but tea made from chamomile, with a bit of mint and honey. No majiks nor necromancy are required in its making, I assure you.”
   I took a small, tentative sip. It was divine. Even as I drew in a more substantial portion, I wondered if I had forfeited any right to partake of things related to divinity. I had strayed from God’s path, however accidentally.
   “I thank you, Mistress Bellgrave,” I said, my words catching in my throat. “Would that this honeyed infusion might save me from damnation eternal. But I am surely beyond redemption now.”
   She cocked her head to one side, regarding me with a quizzical gaze. “Whatever could make you say such wretched things of yourself, Charity? You are a good and caring young woman, devout and Godly in all ways I have ever seen. Yours is as pure a soul as I have ever known. Our merciful God would not condemn a heart so cherished as yours.”
   The tears came unbidden to my eyes, tumbling down my cheeks. My head bowed, eyes diving deep into the mug. “My soul is tainted, Mistress. My actions have betrayed my true heart, and there is deviltry there. Like you, I am laid bare a witch.”
   She reached out to lift my chin as her eyes sought mine, her gentle smile soothing more than any tea ever could. “Have you made a pact with Satan, Charity? Have you danced naked around a midnight bonfire with evil spirits? Have you rejected the sacrament and seen the Devil's Mark appear on your skin?”
   “N.. No.” I sputtered. “I don’t think so.”
   “Then I say with certainty, Charity Kincaid - you are no witch. Nor am I.”
   “But… I flew! Up in the air, floating like a feather. We both did!”
   Mistress Bellgrave sighed, and her smile turned sad. “It is true that you and I are alike, but what you have become is nothing of the devil, nor witchcraft of any sort.”
   “If not witchery, then what are these strange happenings? This morning, I awoke in the bough of an oak. Then I convinced a hungry wolf not to devour me. Before you arrived, I communed with a bear and sent it away also. Are these not things unnatural and unseemly for a good and Godly person?”
   “Unnatural, yes,” she admitted. “But far from unseemly. Was it unseemly for you to save the children? Did not God send his angels to close the jaws of the lions, saving Daniel in their den?”
   I was forced to admit that her point was well crafted. Had God acted through me?
   “We are different from others, that much is true. It is not a work of Lucifer, nor a fall from His grace, but simply something that happens, like a caterpillar becoming a moth.”
She leaned back, looking to the sideboard where a companion to my mug sat steaming. She lifted a hand and the mug arose and drifted across the room to meet her outstretched hand. I stared at it, mouth agape.
   “Like you,” she said, “I have been gifted. I can move things with my thoughts. I struck no bargain with spirits to receive this boon. I believe it was a gift from God. From your recounting, it seems the good Lord has bestowed upon you a kind of mastery over beasts. I suspect you actually draw them to you without realizing.”
   “But, why?” I cried. “What possible reason could God have for anointing a wretch such as me with such power?”
   “It is not for us to question God’s wisdom, nor to try and divine His purpose. All we can do is endeavor to use these gifts in ways that will please Him, in performance of good works.”
   My eyes were still cemented to the mug in her hands as I attempted to digest her words. I found my thoughts veering into trivial questions, details that distracted from the larger tapestry.
   “How… How long have you had your gifts?”
   “Mmm,” she smiled around a sip of tea. “I was a bit older, twenty-three years of age when the Emergence came about. That’s what we call it - Emergence. I fell off a dock into a river and there being no one else about, I was sure to drown. As I bobbed in the water, I spied a rope, coiled on the wharf, but it was well out of my reach. I stretched out my arm, praying for a miracle, and then it happened. The end of the coil lifted and moved toward me. At that same moment, I felt myself buoyed up in the water, no longer fighting to keep my head above the surface. By God’s Grace, I was saved.”
   “How frightful,” I murmured, recalling my encounters with the wolf and the bear. It seemed that miracles in times of danger was something else we shared.
   “As a child, my old nanny used to tell tales of people granted wondrous powers by God. After my near-death, I began to suspect that there was truth in those fanciful stories. I set about learning whatever I could about myself and what I had become. In my travels, I’ve met several others like us, and learned much. Yes, there are others of our kind - not many, but some. We do not congregate, and most of us hide what we can do.”
   “What are we?” I asked. “Is there even a name for what this ‘Emergence’ makes of us?”
   “Those like us don’t usually speak of it, fearful of what unenlightened ears should make of such talk. But in London, around the time of the Great Fire, I found men of the new science, men who seek to understand what we are. They spoke of a new race of man, something they postulate that man is slowly becoming. They have a new word for mankind - human. And there is a Greek word I heard them use - exo. It means ‘outside’ or ‘beyond.’ They combine those two words to describe us: ‘exo-human’ - beyond man.”
   Rapt with attention to her tale, something nonetheless prodded at my thoughts.
   “Mistress, you mentioned the Great Fire. But I have read of that tragedy. It occurred in 1666, a quarter of a century past. If you were a maid of twenty-three then, that would make your current age…”
   “I was actually over forty by the time of the fire. I am now sixty-seven years of age.”
   I gaped anew, this time at her smooth skin and lustrous dark hair. By her appearance, anyone would have marked her as no older than her middling twenties.
   “We have a tendency to long lives and slow aging, we exo-humans. It varies, but I have heard of one who lived almost two hundred years.”
   “My stars…” I looked away, trying to arrange my thoughts as to how I fit into this strange new world I now occupied.
   “One thing I learned quite quickly is that there is danger for us. Because we are different, people often fear and revile us. This is often the way with the unfamiliar. Just as you initially associated your gifts with the Devil, so do many others that lack the ability to understand. The church gives power to those that fear, so that it becomes the sword of their ignorance.”
   My thoughts were a whirl, but one realization came to the forefront. “I cannot go back home.”
   Mistress Bellgrave nodded, the sad smile I had seen floating in the trees returned to her face. “The children saw,” she said flatly. “Even as we sit, they have told Mother Abigail what transpired. She will fly to Reverend Thompkins. He will raise the constabulary. They will come for us.”
   “We must flee!” I shot to my feet, looking about for something to do, some item that must needs packing for our flight. Mistress Bellgrave took my hand, urging me to sit.
   “Yes,” she said with a calmness I found admirable. “We will go. While I could not have anticipated your sudden involvement, I have plans in place for just such an event as this. Friends and sanctuary await us in the Virginia Colony. My bags are packed, with all the things we will need for our journey. We can leave as soon as you finish your tea.”
   Would that she spoke true, for no sooner had I raised the mug to my lips but there came a clamorous beating upon her door.
   “Mistress Bellgrave! Come out at once.”
   The voice was immediately recognizable as that of Reverend Thompkins. I once again leapt to my feet, the contents of my mug flying up out of it. Mistress Bellgrave flicked a finger and the liquid returned to its vessel. She then raised that finger to her lips, urging me to quiet. Her eyes indicated a coat-cubby beside the door, and I moved swiftly to hide myself there. Only then did Mistress Bellgrave deign to rise, smoothing her skirt before moving to open the door.
   “Reverend Thompkins! Whatever brings you to visit such a commotion upon my door? I was just sitting down to some tea when you knocked so rudely. And why are you in company with such a mob?”
   “We are seeking the girl,” he demanded. “Charity Kincaid.”
   Me! They had come for me forthwith. My heart pounded, and a hand flew to cover my lips lest I give voice to my distress. Accusations of witchcraft, especially against children, made for quick arrests in these times. I would be long interrogated by magistrates, examined most intimately by doctors. Awaiting trial, I would lie in a damp cell, alone and despised. And to think, just that morning my greatest concern had been a beating for ripping my night shift.
   “Then why seek you here?” Bellgrave demanded. “That old fishwife, Mother Abigail, surely has the poor girl slaving at some menial task, as is her wont with all her charges.”
   “She is not there,” Thompkins said. “And we have reason to warrant she is here, in your abode. We have no quarrel with you, Mistress. Best you surrender her than abet her crimes.”
   “My kettle is near the boil, sir,” Belgrave said with a huff. “May I at least remove it from the fire before dealing with your foolishness?”
   Without awaiting the reverend’s reply, she closed the door in his face. She turned to me, her lips compressed tight. “I will deal with these,” she whispered. “But… Remember the animals. They can likely sense your fear, even at a distance. They come to you, and they do your bidding. Remember that.” Then she opened the door and pulled it shut behind.
   I moved to a nearby window, taking care to remain in sufficient shadow. I could see Mistress Bellgrave, standing quite still with a pleasant smile on her face, as “the good reverend” shouted and gesticulated in front of her. The words were indistinct, but the tone was not. Arrayed behind Thompkins were over half a dozen men, armed with weapons ranging from simple clubs to knives and a lone sword. They were led by Constable Hutchinson, whose prized flintlock pistol had been wedged under the wide belt that encompassed his prodigious girth. The men grumbled amongst themselves, eager to get on with their righteous defense of Almighty God against a fifteen-year-old girl.
   Mistress Bellgrave stood her ground, politely and firmly. Reverend Thompkins, by contrast, was livid. Every measured and temperate word she spoke was but kindling to his sanctimonious fire. Then he struck her, a vicious backhand that seemed to shock even the mob at his back. I gasped, barely restraining my urge to rush to her side. She fell, stunned at the sudden assault. I saw perplexity in her eyes. Her fingers touched the corner of her lips, then withdrew as she stared at the blood staining them. As she focused on the scarlet smear, Thompkins stood over her, spittle and curses spewing from his lips as he brandished a cross like a shield against the slender form prone beneath him.
   Mistress Bellgrave’s eyes hardened. Then she began to rise, not by a leveraging of arms and legs against the ground, but as a feather upon the breeze. Wind whipped around her, billowing her skirt and lifting her raven hair to writhe like a living thing. The men backed away in terror, some dropping their weapons. The same word formed on all their lips: witch. Two of their number fled. Thompkins sprang back with such haste that he fell over his own feet, dropping the cross. I ran to the door and flung it open.
    “If it is me you seek, then here I am. I will submit myself against Mistress Bellgrave’s safe conduct from this territory.” I know not what steeled me to such boldness, for my insides were filled with fear and panic.
   Reverend Thompkins pointed to me, a gesture made difficult by his simultaneous efforts to rise and scrabble away from the floating woman before him. “Witches, both of them! Bind them and gag their mouths before they unleash unholy curses upon us. Quickly, men!”
   Emboldened by their pastor’s words, the group surged forward. Mistress Bellgrave spread her arms, fingers splayed, then thrust her open palms toward the gang. They fell back, toppled as if by a great wind. Thompkins flew like a cartwheel, and when he landed again, showed us his heels, fleeing with a high-pitched scream more appropriate to little Emma than a grown man. Most of the mob followed suit. Mistress Bellgrave turned to me and called out.
   “Fetch the travelling case by the door. It is time for us to take our leave.”
   Behind her, the constable sat up. Benefiting from his great weight, he had been moved hardly at all, and had now pulled the pistol from his belt, cocking back the hammer as he drew down on an unaware Mistress Bellgrave. I shouted, with all the force of my soul. Then the thunder of powder filled my ears.
   Mistress Bellgrave had started to turn back, one hand raised in warding. Now that hand clutched at her breast and the spreading red stain there as she settled to the earth. I ran to her side, tears already misting my vision. She looked up to me, fighting the pain with gritted teeth.
   “You must go, little one. Take my bag and flee. Everything you need can be found within. Go.”
   “I will not leave you, mistress,” I cried. “I need you to guide me in this new life.”
   She grimaced, a hand clutching at her wound. “You will do well. Remember what I have said, and take care with fools such as these. May the Lord watch over you and keep you safe.”
Then she was gone. I flung myself over her, bawling. I have no thoughts as to how long I remained there until the tip of a sword dug into my back.
   “On your feet, witch.”
   Towering over me, the constable swayed. Sweat dripped from his corpulent face, whether from exertion or fear I knew not, nor did I care. I glared at him and he took a step back.
   “You killed her,” I said through clenched teeth. “For that, you will pay.”
   As he lifted the sword, a great paw tipped with knife-like claws swatted him to the ground. I looked away from his screams as the bear finished him.
   My sole focus was Mistress Bellgrave. The grip of her agony had slipped away, and her face was now soft and serene. Would that my fearful thoughts had summoned the beast sooner, she might have lived.
   “Though we knew each other but a short time, I’ll miss you all my days, Mistress.”
   The bear’s breath at my shoulder lifted my head, not in fear this time. She snuffled, and let out a mournful sound. The great beast shared my sadness and loss as I had shared the grief for her lost cubs. I hugged her neck and cried for a spell.
   By the time the cowardly reverend returned with more men, Mistress Bellgrave’s cabin was her pyre, and we both were gone.

END

Copyright © 2019 - Richard L. Wright

1 comment:

  1. I love it. You may have just had a yarn in mind, but had I lived in those days I would have been subject to the same treatment for being gay. It resonated with me.

    ReplyDelete