Read an Excerpt
1. Early March 1659
I am Mary.
I am a witch. Or so some would call me. "Spawn of the Devil," "Witch child," they hiss in the street, although I know neither father nor mother. I know only my grandmother, Eliza Nuttall; Mother Nuttall to her neighbors. She brought me up from a baby. If she knew who my parents are, she never told me.
"Daughter of the Erl King and the Elfen Queen, that's who you are."
We live in a small cottage on the very edge of the forest; Grandmother, me, and her cat and my rabbit.
Lived. Live there no more.
Men came and dragged her away. Men in black coats and hats as tall as steeples. They skewered the cat on a pike; they smashed the rabbit's skull by hitting him against the wall. They said that these were not God's creatures but familiars, the Devil himself in disguise. They threw the mess of fur and flesh on to the midden and threatened to do the same to me, to her, if she did not confess her sins to them.
They took her away then.
She was locked in the keep for more than a week. First they "walked" her, marching her up and down, up and down between them for a day and a night until she could no longer hobble, her feet all bloody and swollen. She would not confess. So they set about to prove she was a witch. They called in a woman, a Witch Pricker, who stabbed my grandmother all over with long pins, probing for the spot that was numb, where no blood ran, the place where the familiars fed. The men watched as the woman did this, and my grand-mother was forced to stand before their gloating eyes, a naked old lady, deprived of modesty and dignity, the blood streaming down her withered body, and still she would not confess.
They decided to "float" her. They had plenty of evidence against her, you see. Plenty. All week folk had been coming to them with accusations. How she had overlooked them, bringing sickness to their livestock and families; how she had used magic, sticking pins in wax figures to bring on affliction; how she had transformed herself and roamed the country for miles around as a great hare and how she did this by the use of ointment made from melted corpse fat. They questioned me, demanding, "Is this so?"
She slept in the bed next to me every night, but how do I know where she went when sleep took her?
It was all lies. Nonsense and lies.
These people accusing her, they were our friends, our neighbors. They had gone to her, pleading with her for help with beasts and children, sick or injured, a wife nearing her time. Birth or death, my grand-mother was asked to be there to assist in the passage from one world to the next, for she had the skill - in herbs, potions, in her hands - but the power came from inside her, not from the Devil. The people trusted her, or they had until now; they had wanted her presence.
They were all there for the swimming, standing both sides of the river, lining the bridge, staring down at the place, a wide pool where the water showed black and deep. The men in tall hats dragged my grandmother from the stinking hole where they had been keeping her. They cross-bound her, tying her right toe to her left thumb and vice versa, making sure the cords were thin and taut. Then they threw her in. The crowd watched in silence, the only sound the shuffle of many feet edging forward to see what she would do.
The chant started with just one person remarking, in a quiet voice almost of wonder, then it spread from one to another until all were shouting, like some monstrous howling thing. To float was a sure proof of guilt. They hooked her, pulling her back to shore like a bundle of old washing. They did not want her drowning, because that would deprive them of a hanging.
It is a cold day, even for the early spring. White
frost on the ground and green barely touching the trees, but folk come from far and near for the hanging. They crowd the market square worse than for a fair.
It is dangerous for me to be there. I see them glancing and whispering, "That's her, the granddaughter," "Daughter of the Devil, more like." Then they turn away, sniggering, hands covering their mouths, faces turning red at the lewd images they conjure in their own mind's eye. The evil is in themselves.
I should flee, get away. They will turn on me next unless I go. But where to? What am I to do? Lose myself. Die in the forest. I look around. Eyes, hard with hatred, slide from mine. Mouths twitch between leering and sneering. I will not run away into the forest, because that is what they want me to do.
I keep my eyes forward now, staring at the gallows. They have hammered away for a night and a day putting it up. You can smell the fresh-cut wood, even from where I stand at the back of the crowd.
What powers do they think we have, my grand-mother and I? If she had real power, would she not be able to undo the locks to their stinking dungeon and fly through the air to safety? Would she not call up her master, Satan, to blast and shrivel them to dust and powder? And if I had any powers, any at all, I would destroy all these people, right here and now. I would turn them into a mass of fornicating toads. I would turn them into leprous blind newts and set them to eating themselves. I would cover their bodies with suppurating sores. I would curse them from generation to generation, down through the ages, so their children and their children's children bore gaggling half-wits. I would addle their heads, curdling, corrupting the insides of their skulls until their brains dripped from their noses, like bloody mucus. . . .
I was so lost in my curses that only the sudden silence of the crowd brought me back to what was about to happen. Black figures stood on the pale boards, silhouetted against the white of the sky: Witchfinder..