Short Story

Letter In a Strange Hand

BUDAPEST: Archaeologists think they may have found the remains of a 15th-century witch in a grave at Csenger in Hungary. The skeleton, which showed an "extremely strange" shaped head, was found lying on its side. The burial is regarded as particularly unusual because an axe was found wedged into the lid of the coffin, presumably to prevent the witch from returning after death.  -  AFP

     

Reading the morning’s paper, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation feels doubly pleased. This is his doing, his find. Only yesterday he made arrangements for the site to be guarded from unauthorised persons, to prevent vandalism, while he waits for radio-carbon dating and DNA. He hopes these will confirm his theories.

It has been a coup for the department. Imagine the chances of finding a skeleton with that head? And the axe. Most graves tell little about the occupant, who they were. Sex and age are all you can hope for, usually, he thinks, smugly. Unless clothing or grave items give them away. But this coffin, so far from the nearest village, with the blade still in place. “It’s amazing,” he chuckles. “This will secure me the Chair, for sure.”

He is still whistling with satisfaction, when he locks up for the day and heads for the carpark.

Next morning, he is back early, hoping for a call from the lab. But on opening his door, he is surprised to find on his desk, a letter, in an unknown hand. As he sips his coffee he reads:

 

To the Archaeologist

           

So, you think yourself clever to have found me thus. Now you sit in judgement, claiming to know me.

            Yet, what can you know? The colour of my eyes? My hair?

            What is it you say of me? That I was a witch? So be it. The world must have its goats to sacrifice and witches to know their place.

            God knows I had enemies enough in the village, but there had been talk abroad of Dominicans, who would come scouring the land, seeking us out. Father Sprenger from Bâle and Father Krämer of Cologne.

            I lived in fear of the day they would swoop down on our village, like great, white birds of prey, in their flowing habits, their black, mantle wings, set to smother me.

            Do you know Father Sprenger? Father Krämer? It was their Hammer of the Witches that gave the code, the guide by which to hunt us. Travelling far and wide, they searched every town and village,

            For those who copulate with Devils.

            Those who can Sway the Minds of Men to Love or Hatred

Those who can Hebetate the Powers of Generation or Obstruct the Venereal Act.

            Yet these professed themselves men of God. As if the Great Spirit himself had told them to seek out and destroy,

            Those who could create a Prestidigitatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be entirely removed and separate from the Body.

            I speak truth when I say I knew none such.

So, tell me, who it was wielded the axe in a sign of power? Who it was wedged the blade into my coffin to ward off evil and prevent my return?

Ah! That you cannot tell.

            Little did they know, those fools in the village, Death came to me like a lover. Taking me in his arms till I rejoiced in him.

            Now, tell what conclusions you have drawn? That my teeth were bad? No worse than those of most in the village. The water we drank was bad, the food, oft-times worse.

Had I the ague, perhaps? A club foot? Bones stunted and crippled from years of pain?

            Yet you cannot guess the colour of my hair. Was it a copper sheen, flowing over my shoulders in the warm light of the candle? Or sleek and black, glossy as ravens’ wings?

            Nor could you know the mark upon my neck, placed by the Devil himself, they said. Nor the secret nipple hid beneath my arm? From this they claimed I fed my succubi, lizards and snakes I fondly kept in cages.

            And my head, why was it shaped thus? You could not know I came born before my time, ripped from my mother's womb in the moment of her death. Nor that my brows were low and heavy, my head inclined to flattish.

            The old women of the village told my father I would not live to see the dawn. I was a monster, deformed, proof the Lord of the Forest had coupled with my mother whore. Yet I survived.

They said I was brought into the world to do the Devil's mischief and bade my father take me to the darkest glade in the forest, to leave me there for wolves to devour.

            But he would have none of it, and sent them away.

            Then, as time passed, he wreaked his own revenge, calling me child of Satan, my mother's murderess, raining blows upon my head and body that left me scarred and full of bile.

            In the village they began to call me Devil's progeny and cursed and spat on me as they passed, while others made to sign the Cross. Few there were to recognize the marks upon my face as those of man. Those that did, kept their silence, as though from secrets shared.

            When I was full grown, there was none would take me willingly to wife, neither close at hand nor from villages across the mountains, so when my father died, I lived alone, inured to the taunts of those around me.

            Yet, some still sought me out. Women in need of help. A salve to soothe a wound, a balm for faces thick with bruising, bodies reddened with welts. Not openly, but when their men did work in the fields, or roam the forests seeking wood, and game. Never the old women, those who pointed fingers first.

And from then on, should a white cat be born, or crops fail, or a milch cow run dry, I would hear them whisper against me. Then on the morrow I would find my cottage daubed with black and hateful signs.

            I would know then it was time to bring in the chickens and the she goat and bar the door against them. Only in the dim light of the cottage would I be safe. There I would stay with my three-coloured cat, she with the double claws, my green-eyed lizards and smooth-skinned frogs. From their baskets I took coils of sleepy snakes to place within the beds of those infirm to bring about a cure.

            True, there were some that screamed and cried out when they woke to find their bedfellow, but I knew it to be the sound of sickness leaving their bodies. Some, indeed, parted with their senses, and the old women were quick to claim this proof of my powers, declaring then I was possessed of the evil eye.

Others swore by the scarlet flannel I wrapped around their loins to cure lumbago, or tight about their joints for rheumatism. I and my leeches knew the true colour of blood and its worth. As for those bleeding from the nose, was it not true a skein of scarlet silk tied about the neck and knotted in front nine times, would often staunch the flow?

Now, come, admit you cannot tell all that from my bones. So what can you say of me?

            Some women called for me, whenever the silver crescent moon rose high and they were brought to bed. And I would place around their necks a sigil charm, a ram’s horn filled with fennel, or else a locket smooth of polished stone. I made certain that nothing be tied with knotted string, for if such be found, a child cannot be born aright.

Once, a woman came seeking relief from her belly. Sick she was, and afraid, this being her thirteenth, an uneasy number and she with nothing to put in its mouth thereafter. So I mixed wormwood and mouse-ear, mandrake and motherwort and gave it her, and she went away, relieved of it, and the child lost.

            Soon others heard and came seeking help, for the winter was proving long and hard, with many mouths to feed and little bread to fill them. Come the end of summer, with no babies born, the old women looked to me and cursed, as now you look upon my bones and speak.

            Others, too, came seeking remedies, strong enough to curb a husband’s lust. And true, I gave them powder, fine and white, made of the bitterest almonds, and told them to sprinkle it on the bread they served, but not to eat of it themselves, nor feed it to their children, but keep one loaf untouched and pure.

            Soon the men fell sick with it, their faces bloodless, eyes all wild and staring as they died in haste and the church bell tolled and would not leave off ringing.

            At last, the old women began to talk among themselves, no longer in whispers when I passed, till I was afraid to leave my cottage, but at night. Only when all the village was asleep, would I anoint myself with unguents, ointments of excrement, soot, cinqufoil and belladonna, aconite and water, hemlock and the pale, pale blood of poppies. Then I would fly, high above the village and look down on those my accusers sleeping soundly in their beds, neither straight, nor honest. Those that would attack a woman alone in the world, who then must fend for herself.

            I would fly to the top of the ash tree that grew on the edge of the village there to converse with spirits. The ash, the father of trees, has the guardian spirits locked within its bark that have the power to take sickness away. I asked that they take from the village the sickness infesting it, that I may be left in peace.

            Yet it was not to be. For when I returned to my cottage at daybreak, an owl, its eyes hooded from a night’s full hunting, awaited me. Then I knew I was not long for this world, for to see an owl from the faery world is to see a shadow of one's own death.

            At length, came a crowd of men with torches towards the cottage, bent to burn it down, but the spirits of the tree let me see them coming, and so I fled deep into the forest.

            Then came the tramp of boots, closer and closer, till I took from the placket deep within the folds of my skirt, one final draught, made of the harshest, bitterest of herbs. Monkshood and lavender, hemlock and meadow saffron. I lay down beside a stream with only the scarlet carp to watch me swallow.

            How it burned and tore my throat as it did its lethal work, and thus I escaped.

Yet you cannot know these things.

            Nor could you know that having found me, they carried me back to the village, laid me on the church steps for all to jeer at. And while some women laughed, there were others standing silent, heads bowed, their fearful children clinging to their skirts.

            Then the men did set about to shave my head, binding it fast with iron bands lest my spirit fly forth at night to roam abroad and cause more mischief.

            One whole day they left me there, and one whole night, while the storks in their nests on the church steeple looked down in pity on me. The rooks in the trees cried out in sorrow wails and a thin, grey wolf came out of the forest to howl.

            And on the third day the villagers ripped the metal bands from off my head and threw my body in a coffin, planed, of unmarked wood, and sealed it shut with many nails.

            You say you have unearthed me, true, but what have you gleaned from me? That I was a witch? Perhaps. But let me ask you this, who was it struck the blow? Who held the axe? The lowest in the village? He? Not so.

            Listen. For they carried me away from the village, far beyond the fields, up into the wildest part of the hills with only the wolves and eagles to bear me company. There, they said, my curse could not be felt.

            Then with the wind tugging at his robes, the priest took up the axe and struck a mighty blow in the coffin lid. A sacred blow, he claimed, as the blade wedged hard, the wood shattered and a thousand tiny splinters fell about my face.

            They said that be the end of me, but little did they know in death I still could laugh at them. For having laid me on my back, as the axe fell, I turned my head and thus escaped the blow.

            For did you not find me lying on my side?

            You claim to know me, yet you cannot guess the colour of my eyes. Were they black? Small and bright, that glowed red in the dim light of the cottage?

            Or pale, a tawny gold, like the topaz eyes of a goat, to whom our hornèd Lord gave his own eyes when God was left with none after creating the beasts of the field?

            It is not your place to presume, lest in doing so, you may presume too much.

           

The archaeologist sits back, and stares at the letter, finally pushing it away in disgust. “Some student prank obviously, and in poor taste. It can’t be someone from the department, surely? No one would want the Chair that badly?”

When the lab tests arrive confirming his dates, he finds little pleasure in them. He feels strangely flat, a little rattled, and tells his assistant he is off colour. That night, he heats up leftovers only to push the plate aside. His head aches, and his joints, he feels shivery. “I must be coming down with something. Flu, probably. I’ve been pushing myself too hard.”

He gives up trying to read, switches off the lamp, and lies staring at the ceiling. “Who would do such a thing? It’s as if someone is trying to destroy me.”

            Finally, in the cold, pale hour before dawn, his breathing grows heavier and slowly, he drifts into sleep, only to be suddenly, rigidly awake, as the thin, cold slither of a snake crosses his neck.

© Vashti Farrer

© Vashti Farrer 2017

Australian Author

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Sydney, Australia