Burn The Witch!
Crowds gathered as the old wooden cart bounced and jarred along the rutted mud track. They glowered at the exhausted old woman standing in the back, trying to keep her balance; her eyes glazed over. Her naked breasts hung down like empty bladders, dark red brands burned deep into them, wet with oozing pus.
Her mind wandered in and out of her memories. She longed for the time years ago when she was a carefree, pretty young girl skipping along on the lush green grass, with the sun warming her face, her sweetheart smiling as he waited for her with open arms.
Then she could hear voices she recognised, voices of her friends … "They're my friends, they'll save me, listen … they're shouting ... what are they shouting? I can't make it out."
"Witch ... witch ... burn the witch!"
"Why "… why would they shout that ...? I know those voices … they're neighbours I've known all their lives ... I brought some of them into this world … Why are they saying that … what have I done?"
In the town square, sticks poked over the side of the wagon and drew blood. Tears rolled down her bloodied face. A rotten egg broke against the side of her head, the pungent contents spilling down onto her shoulder and running down her bruised and burned breast.
The wagon came to a halt by the church steps. 'I was baptised here, I attended every Sabbath,' she remembered, 'I helped when the church burnt down and they had to build a new one, it was much too grand for so small a town. The Mayor said the town was growing and would soon be filling it.
'I was in church on the Sabbath, two weeks ago, when they announced this man was coming. I knew there would be trouble. I couldn't go to church last Sabbath … I was in the town gaol, and this man and his henchmen were doing things to me, things I don't want to remember.' She shuddered with the memory.
The shouting continued for a while, then a new voice boomed out somewhere over her head. "Good townsfolk, I am a miserable sinner!"
The shouting stopped; the crowd fell silent, not sure what was expected of them.
"Yes, I am a miserable sinner before the Almighty — we are all miserable sinners before Almighty God.
"We are all miserable sinners, but we do not consort with SATAAANNN!" the voice continued, rising to an almost hysterical scream.
The crowd started baying for blood again. "Witch! ... Witch! ... Burn the witch!"
The speaker was poised waiting for the hubbub to die down again. "Before us here we have a SINNER, but no ordinary SINNER, she is a self confessed BR-I-I-I-DE OF SATANNNN!"
The old woman sobbed and tried to sit down, to regain her strength But sharp sticks, pitchforks and knives prodded her upright again.
"Burn the witch" ... Burn her! ... Rid us of Satan!"
"By her own admission, she has given herself up to him, SHE has shared her bed with him, that is why you did not see her in church on the Sabbath."
"Burn her! … Burn her," not as loud now, some knew he was holding her in prison on the Sabbath. It made them wonder, but they dared not speak.
He raised his arms and the crowd fell quiet. "But we will not burn her! We are not worthy to judge her — we are ALL miserable sinners."
The voice took on a quiet, doom-laden tone as he confided: "Our Lord God Almighty will be her Judge, Jury and Executioner!"
"Praise be to God!" the crowd shouted.
"TO THE RIVER WITH HER!" he commanded.
The crowd clamoured round her, urging the wagon on, guiding it towards the water. Then hands grabbed at her, pulled and prodded her, touched her in places that only her late husband had touched her ... threw her to the ground.
She curled up like a newborn baby, glad to be off her feet, tired and wanting to sleep, but boots kicked her along in the mud, into the water.
Then hands dragged her to her feet. She was face to face with her tormentor.
Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General pushed forward, his face only inches from hers, "YOU HAVE BEEN CONSORTING WITH THE DEVIL!"
'He doesn't need to shout, I can hear him well enough.' she thought as she stared back at him.
"YOU AND YOUR FAMILIARS HAVE BEEN DOING THE DEVIL'S WORK. WHERE IS HE HIDING ... WHAT FORM HAS HE TAKEN NOW?"
'I'm going to die ... they are going to kill me ... why have they all turned against me? … Will no-one speak for me? … I might as well die, I do not want to live with them.'
"WHAT FORM HAS HE TAKEN NOW ... WITCH! … WHAT FORM HAS THE DEVIL TAKEN NOW ?"
She took a deep breath and choking thought, 'I can taste my blood. But I'll show him, I can shout too, look him square in the eye, that's the way.' — "MATTHEW HOPKINS, YOU ARE THE DEVIL'S FAMILIAR. WHEN THE DEVIL WENT OUT THE DOOR, YOU CAME IN. THE DEVIL'S FAMILIAR HAS TAKEN YOUR FORM!"
Mustering all her remaining strength, she spat blood at him. But she was weak, and only a few could hear her defiance; and only those closest could see the blood spreading over the clean white shirt and well-scrubbed face.
"INTO THE RIVER WITH HER! THE ALMIGHTY GOD WILL DECIDE — IF SHE IS A WITCH, SHE WILL FLOAT. THEN WE WILL BURN HER."
Images flashed through her confused mind, 'Hands touching, touching all over, lifting, swinging ... letting go, flying through the air. The water's cold, it stings.'
The Witchfinder turned away; he already knew what the result would be. No-one ever floated, and proof of her innocence was not long in coming. The tired and beaten old woman sank to the bottom of the river. At last no-one was poking, feeling or punching, no-one was hurting her.
She did not struggle; eyes open, she watched the bubbles as she sank. Beyond them, she could see the blue sky and a single solitary cloud, like a puff of smoke, drifting across her view. A relaxed calm came over her, she let her breath out slowly, and the cloud drifted on.
She could hear nothing but the sound of the bubbles rising through the water and the beating of her heart. A calmness seemed to settle over her as the solitary cloud descended into the water above her.
The townsfolk screamed and fell to their knees in prayer. Hopkins turned back to the scene and his jaw trembled as he started to shout, "There is your proof …. She was a witch …?"
But his ranting was cut short when a bright light starting at the centre of the cloud spread out and reached into the depths for the old woman.
* * *
The pretty young girl skipped along on the lush green grass, the sun warmed her face, her sweetheart smiling as he waited for her with open arms. She smiled as a voice in her head whispered to her and she knew, she knew that Matthew Hopkins and his associates would never join her there. They were bound for a much hotter place.
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