The place they took her to await her trial was cold and dank and dark. The dungeons had been cut out of the very stone the island sat upon, the rooms dug deep in the earth and smelling strongly of salt and seaweed. Night and day those stones dripped, causing mold to grow on the floors and walls and ceilings, filling the miserable dwelling with the pungent scent of rotting things. Moira was familiar with the smell, but not in such close quarters. It only added to the overwhelming presence of death, and gave her a feeling that crawled just beneath her skin. Every last drop of light, or happiness, or humanity, had been drained out long before she arrived. There was sorrow in that place.
When Moira was forced to pass water in the corner like some kind of animal, it was just another humiliation. If she could, she would have killed them all then, and gladly. Her freedom had been stolen because of perceived crimes against God and humanity, but it wasn’t until the mob had come to her door that she felt truly capable of the acts for which she was accused.
Mist from the morning hadn’t even burned off completely when they came for her. The house still smelled like bread baking, warm smells of rosemary and thyme mixed with peat and wood smoke. She had been daydreaming, her fingers busy shelling peas, but when the door to the cabin slammed open all that silence shattered. Terror had leapt onto her face then, and it dug with tiny claws down her throat and into her heart. “Garrett?”
His face, well-loved, had been almost unrecognizable through blood and bruising. When his eyes met hers, they said a million things. His mouth only said, “They’re here.”
“What’s the matter, witch?” her gaoler said, his face a constant leer as he peered at her through the sturdy bars. Even holding the only keys to her cell did not stop the mix of fascination, contempt and fear from crossing his face. Moira thought it would have been laughable, if it weren’t so abominably sad. “Finally feelin’ some remorse for them people what you did in?” He licked his lips habitually, rubbing a hand over his thrice-broken nose. “Ought to feed all your kind to the fire.”
She turned away, almost frightened of the rage she felt when she looked at him. Lights from their torches danced behind her closed eyelids, taunting her with screams and howls and threats. Moira could feel hands ripping at her clothes, people she had helped and healed thrown into a frenzy for her blood.
When she was brought a cup of stale water and a slab of moldy bread for dinner she did not touch them. She slept fitfully, and her dreams were all nightmares.
“You’re to come with us,” the man at the door said, the day the mob came. There was no recognition on the broad and craggy face, no sympathy in the stone set of his arms barring the exit; the arms of a simple farmer. Moira knew him, had even helped his wife to give birth, but the only acknowledgment she got was something ugly and frightening, like the smell that was reeking off the crowd around her house.
“What is this about,” she said, but she knew, of course she knew. Hadn’t she had always known? After all the rumors, the years of uncertainty and fear, the looming danger of their lives had finally dropped its sickle blade upon their heads.
Although she wanted her voice to be strong, it wavered traitorously. Garrett was so silent, too silent, already beaten into submission and held by four of their neighbors. Moira was afraid that he had been injured too badly, that his wounds were too severe. She wanted to beg them to let her tend to him, but there was no mercy there; no one to ask.
“Shut up, witch. I’ll have no spells cast on me. Now come!”
She didn’t resist, allowing two sets of hands to grab her roughly by the arms and drag her outside into the yard. The sound of cloth ripping filled her ears when she tried to stop and turn, to catch one last glimpse of the house. Someone set a torch to it while she watched. She could hear Garrett howl in anger at their loss, but there was nothing either of them could do. Worse things are waiting, she thought in despair.
The guards spit upon her as they dragged her along the path, something thick and yellow, and she felt bile rise in her throat. As the smoke thickened and people began to press in on her she cried out, but no one tried to help. She’d never felt so alone. Garrett disappeared in the mob, though she heard him yell her name beneath the curses and the sounds of their home becoming so much kindling and ash. She knew she wouldn’t see either of them again.
The gaoler became bolder the second night. When he arrived he had the guts, and the gall, to step right up to her door and flash his filthy teeth at her as he chewed tobacco from a rat-gut pouch at his ample waist. One tooth was gold, and it winked at her in the light of her solitary torch. It became evident that even his fear could not mask his lust, and his gaze was lewd as it lingered on her breasts.
“Your trial is going on up there,” he informed her, jabbing a fat finger at the dripping ceiling. “’Course there ain’t much to decide. You’ll burn, there’s no mistaking that.” He lowered a hand and grabbed himself through his breeches. “Might be you want me to throw in a good word for ya, maybe extend your sentencing?”
Moira’s spine was painfully erect where she had been sitting, her back to the corner, eyes drawn by the warming glow of yellow flame in the brazier across from her cell. She never stopped looking at it, even as her chin rose and her eyes hardened. “I would rather burn a thousand times than have your hands upon me,” Moira said in a flat tone. It was not a loud declaration, but said with such force of feeling that the man’s face fell.
“I am not guilty of the crime for which I am being accused, unless that crime is being what I am, which I will gladly admit to.” She looked at him then, and even though he flinched away she took no joy in it. “I am a good Christian. I loved a man, and we were very happy until you people dragged him from my arms. You may burn this shell, but believe you me; you shall take no pleasure on my account.”
“Your husbandwas a dirty witch as well,” he said, his hateful voice an octave higher than usual, “and even if he weren’t, he deserved what he got, for fucking a whore like you!”
“Am I accused of being a witch,” she asked quietly when he had gone, “Or of being a woman?”
She sat back on the stool and rubbed the remains of the poultice from her hands. The young girl thanked her quickly and then ran, her dread as palpable as a rabbit in a snare. Moira was glad that the broken bone in the girl’s arm would heal, but also saddened by her fearful reaction.
Garrett came to sit beside her. Her reserve must have showed on her face because he took her chin gently, the same he said was made of steel and flint, and kissed her. His eyes stayed on hers, two flecks of moss, and Moira’s tension drained. He was the calm of her raging storm, the rock of her emotions. “You shouldn’t let this get to you,” he said, his hot lips finally parted from hers. “Your talents are a gift, not a curse.”
It was easy enough for him to say, but much harder to be convinced of. She wanted so strongly to believe that her knowledge of medicines was something good, but it was hard sometimes–so very hard. Every stony look from a merchant, every conversation hushed when she walked by, every child who shied away from her in fear, and every tale told by firelight in darkened rooms told her a different story; one with an unhappy ending.
Feeling conflicted, Moira pushed his hands away. “I am not ashamed, Garrett. I am… weary. Am I so weak?” They both knew the rumors in the colonies, a disease that was bubbling beneath the surface and rippling out across the unchartered lands of their “New World.” Ever since the outbreak of sickness from the previous winter and a rash of unexplained disappearances, more than one finger had been pointed towards their small cottage, and the thought of it turned her heart to ice.
“Moira,” he said, “you are the strongest, most stubborn, and most pig-headed woman I have ever met.” Leaning forward, he kissed her eyelids, and then her nose, and then her mouth again. “I would rather spend these days with you, one by one, than live a thousand years in this world without you.” Touched almost beyond words, Moira ran her hands along his neck, and then clung to him in a fierce and possessive hug. She resolved to try to talk him into leaving again the next morning.
“As would I, love.”
She sat in the overwhelming chill and damp, alone but for the emotionless stones which threatened to surround her, smother her, and take her back into themselves. The thought alternately frightened and soothed Moira. How much she wanted that eternal life. How much she wanted her husband.
That night passed with a slowness she had never known in all her four-and-twenty years. She was visited by many thoughts: her youth, spent in a hut beside the shore with her mother, learning the abilities which would label her a witch. The difference between plants, the anatomy of living beings, birthing children, how to stop pain, how to predict the weather. Her mother’s passing, when Moira was only nine, left the girl bereft. “Moira,” she used to say, “The craft is stronger in you than any I have ever met. Promise me you will care for it, and learn, and use it to help others. Promise me.” Moira had never regretted that promise until they took Garrett; but that was a thought too close to pain, and she rejected it.
The weather had been grim, even for autumn. Clouds had gathered dark on the coast that morning, pregnant with ill omens, making Moira restless and unable to concentrate. She was incapable of finding solace in anything; food turned to ash on her tongue. When she tried to force something into her stomach she vomited it back up almost immediately. The horizon only darkened. Even Garret’s arrival home could not settle her, although she felt some of the tension ease the minute he walked in.
“What is it? What have you seen?” He asked when he saw her distress, but she only shook her head. Sinking to his knees beside her chair, he took hands that had turned to icicles and rubbed them between his own strong and callused ones.
“Nothing,” she admitted to him, “Just silly omens.” But Garret’s dark brows knit into a frown, and her blood became mercury in her veins; Moira went light-headed as she stared at his craggy and oh-so-familiar façade. “Why? What raven do you bring?”
Garrett took a deep breath, and she could feel the erratic beating of his heart through the temple of his wrist when she took his hand. She knew before he ever said the words. “The riots have started, and women are being called in for questioning.” His voice was hard, empty, and yet full of despair. ‘Questioning’ was just another word for interrogation and condemnation. “They’re doing it. They’re going after the witches.”
She awoke the third day, the day of her death, with a feeling of calm. Her gaoler had returned at some point during her interminable sleep to hunch beside her cell, an ugly gargoyle in boiled leather. When he heard her wake, the slight rustle of her torn gingham on stone, he turned to her and smiled a hard smile. His tiny oil-drop eyes gleamed with malice and jilted pride, but she felt only the smallest flutter of pity.
“Well now, the uppity cunt’s woken up, ‘as she? Yer trial’s finished, you’ll be happy to know. Guilty. Not that either of us is surprised by that, now is we?” He sniffed, wanting a response that he did not receive. “You know what comes next, aye? They’ll drag you out to the square and tie you to that stake yonder, right in the middle so’s everyone can see. Mayor’ll give some speech I bet, ‘bout ridding the world of Godless creatures.”
Something, a stone, struck her on the cheek and drew warm blood down her face. The gaoler’s face, she noticed, was still wary, especially when she did not flinch at the pain he had inflicted. She let the crimson coat her fingers, and then she held her hand out to him, watched his eyes grow big as moons while she muttered something useless and trivial under her breath. And, when he was satisfyingly terrified, she licked the blood off each finger and giggled. The sound echoed endlessly inside her tomb.
“Crazy bitch! You’ll pay fer what you done. You all will.” His hands shook as he unlocked the cell, the key rattling against the iron bars, but she had ceased to listen. Moira let her hands fold in her lap; her head was full of buzzing, and the brandy-warm sound of Garrett’s voice in her ear. She could smell something, the spicy and thick scent of a fire starting, and the smells reminded her of coming home.
Moira twined her fingers with his as they lay on the forest floor, the light shining in colorful prisms around them because of the dappled leaves above their heads. She inhaled deeply of the earthy, woodsy fragrance, one full of cedar pine and rich soil, running water and living things. Twigs snapped and rustled as Garrett rolled on top of her, one arm supporting his weight while the other held her hand above her head. “Tell me what you’re feeling,” he murmured, nuzzling her cheek, looking at her with a gaze that held no fear or scorn. She felt on top of the world; she felt invincible; she felt human.
“Everything,” she answered, alive, “I feel everything.”
This work is my own, and I don’t give permission for its use in whole or in part anywhere but this website. Please do not try to pass it off as yours. I’m just sharing it with those who visit my site for fun. 🙂
For more about my Short Stories, click the link.
This particular story was presented by myself at the 2012 Sigma Tau Delta Conference in New Orleans at a panel titled ‘The Dark Side’.
Questions and comments about To Burn a Witch can be posted here or e-mailed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope you enjoyed!