LOOKING FOR THE WITCHES (Part 11 of 11)

DOGMILK

“It was the 17th Century,” I say, scrambling up out of the mud-pit after Cunning Murrell, “there wasn’t much on TV.”

He neither understands nor cares to hear my attempt at wit, he’s dazzled by the 2:30am streetlights: “What Prometheus had to suffer for these flames?”

We stand facing each other, the skeleton-man and me. “What really does my head in is the children, your children, all dying like that. You couldn’t have known: in 1818 this guy named Ignaz Semmelweis was born, he died five years after you, in disgrace in a mental-asylum. His madness: he’d suggested obstetricians and midwives wash their hands before work. The idea that there might be tiny invisible things in the air was absurd and blasphemous.”

“1818…” The dead man is remembering, the prime of his life, a young wizard about town, anything to get himself a bit of a reputation: he carries an umbrella in any and all weathers! Yes, there are downpours too subtle for most of us to feel but James is always protected, he seeks solitude in long dusk lanes, sometimes going where there are ghosts, the forest at night! Sometimes the dawn sees him conversing with his Thames, telling it what it needs to know today. When he passes people he seldom acknowledges them, not in a rude way, he’s absorbed in the incantations he’s quietly chanting, his hushed invocations of sublime and gibberish gods. On the rare occasions he find himself in the pub he gets his round in; his door is always open.

Here’s a customer now at that door, at the cottage on the corner: he enters and is awed as he should be by the haze of scents, the herbs and grimoires on every surface, charts and diagrams on the walls: astronomy, astrology, angels… One of Cunning Murrell’s daughters leads the seeker into the study, they find the soul-doctor staring through the eye of a telescope, it’s pointing at awall! “Oh!” Murrell exclaims, straightening up, “You’re early?”

“The, the telescope,” the visitor points at the telescope.

“Mm? Oh this can see through mere matter; I invented it myself.”

“May I…”

“Now then: what seems to be the problem?” Cunning Murrell takes the scenic route around his room, he points out the mirror – “It’s as much a door as it is a mirror.” – and what does the querent think of James’s new bracelet? – “It alerts me to dishonesty.”

There is an awkward silence. Awkward for some. “I, it’s… It’s a very good bracelet.”

“To business! Have a seat.”

Seems like something has been done to this man’s daughter and, for a number of good reasons, this man doesn’t want to go through the proper channels. “Not, I mean, not that you’re not proper, James. It’s just, I don’t want a public scene of it.”

“Very wise of you. You’ve come to the right place.” The cunning-man dobs inkblobs onto water in a bowl: the two men sit staring at that spreading blackness, they see shapes. “Don’t blink… Don’t dare blink…”

“I can see… I can see! It’s them.”

“The perpetrators?”

A grim nod: “Thomas Fairhead and Henry Gilliot: I knew it was them.”

“I knew too. I’ll make up a witch-bottle: you and your daughter will be avenged and no-one will ever know.”

Thank you,” and cash.

And at that very moment they’re talking about him elsewhere, in “The Castle” over drinks: “He can heal animals and exorcise demons, he can tell the future what to do!”

“Old Hankinson’s girl wouldn’t stop barking, like a dog! The vicar tried to cast out the dog-demon, blind bit of good that did! No, it was all woof-woof-woof!” Laughter. “So then Murrell, what does he do? He puts her on a leash and takes her for a walk! ‘Sit! Fetch!’ They played like that for a while then she was back to normal, he’d walked the dog-demon out of her!”

We stand facing each other, me and the skeleton-man: “You know your problem, James? You always wanted the overview, you needed to know a bit about everyone and everything, then a bit more, then it’s not enough to know, you’re the Chessmaster, facing down Evil with your stratagems and ruses: and as long as no-one ends up dead, which they so rarely do, you can take the credit: things played out, they played out as well as they possibly could have done, and in retrospect doesn’t it all seem so divinely ordered? And, if it didn’t perhaps go quite to plan then, well, our plans always have a certain wobble built into them. And we’re all alive and that’s the main thing!”

“I know where I am: I lived there. This is Southchurch Road! But…”

“It’s called ‘London Road’ now: our horizons have widened. London is nothing.”

Those bones and a century-and-a-half’s worth of caking mud step towards the church-gates, crumbling-falling bits of him trail as he goes. Cars: I thought they’d do our cunning-man’s head in but he lived to see trains, he can extrapolate. It’s the registration-plates that get him: “T! 5! 9! 2! N! S! U! D! N! 5! 8! M! H! A!” London-bound on the London Road, late-shifters work-zooming or nightlifers chasing the thrillbuzz in their rear-view-mirror, to or from the latest limp get-together: I flashback suddenly to being sixteen, remember there was a time you could remember every time you’d got drunk and every time was an adventure. And here’s the cunning-man: “V! U! 0! 7! F! L! E!”

“It doesn’t,” I calm him down, “it doesn’t mean anything.”

He turns to me: the absurd-awful gape of his eye-sockets and nose. He looks away again, left, down the road, against the traffic, he sees spectral reds and oranges and greens hovering. “The world is warmer,” he mutters.

“The world is nothing.” A sweep of my arm indicates the shops surrounding our church-island, at the far-distant shores of the ocean-road there are Ladbrokes and Shoe Zone, Stead & Simpson, Entertainers.com, Welcome To Your Fresh Market, Tipplers, Tickled Pink, Alpha Signs, Balloons From Me To You, there are bus-shelters, here’s one, bus-stop plus “Clear Channel” ad-space: “You’re not getting trolley rage, you’re relaxing in a roof top bar watching the breathtaking sunset. Another fresh fantasy brought to you by CAFFÈ LATTE.” There are banks. Essex Bedszz. Devine Nails. Domino’s. Offices To Let. No late-night takeaways, no kebab-shops: the tone is snoozy-bourgeois, no fights or sick on these streets. On the metal grille over the windows of the closed-down Costcutter is aerosoled the greater part of Hadleigh’s graffiti, two words in black: “BACK TRIPS.” There are public-toilets, locked by 6pm. There’s Your Local Boots, then the Salvation Army store, every one of its exterior surfaces has been spiked against burglars and doves, a sign in its upper window reads: “Aerial & Satellite Technology, ASTEC.” There are supermarkets, there are mini-markets. Drunk-sot women in Ye Old “Castle” Inn will grope your balls but only once. Across the road from us a couple walking at this late hour past Hairport and the McDonalds Drive-thru notice our shadowydistant figures, they pretend not to be arguing as they pass. “We are the joyless, the effortlessly stupid. We take our pleasure where we’re told to take it. Give us a world and we’ll complain.”

I wanted more: in my imagination not just Murrell but all the others too return, every last grave is self-excavated, here comes yesterday to teach tomorrow a thing, here come the dead, the frustrated dead, the bored and senseless dead, the didn’t-have-their-cake-or-eat-it dead, the dead dead: alive! they take the town, they’re everywhere, uncremating ash-men tornado back into being with swept-up crisp-packets and cigarette-butts become a part of them, girls who lost their virginities to worms tear themselves free of the soil and walk into strangers’ houses, six-month-old babies who never got to see snow help themselves to all the sweets in supermarkets, mini-markets, the hour resounds with mingled screams of horror and orgasm, “Life is wasted on the living!” they cackle and howl spitting out mouthfuls of sod, they’re all along the seafront pissing in the seafront and they infest “Adventure Island” and snog on the rollercoasters, in “Top Shop” they put on as many clothes as they can plus all the make-up, they chase shadows, “We!” cry those who were damned as witches, “are free now to be everything you said we were,” they wake the sleeping and make them dance till their ankles break, they loot the off-licenses and make gutters run with wine and beer and fizz, they smear shit on ATMs and grin toothless at spiked-hissing cats, they give machine-guns to eight-year-olds, atom-bombs to teenagers, they steal policemen’s clothes and crash their cars, they make men shit footballs, they set the astral-dream-image of famous footballers to guard the gates of Orgasm, they lie in wait in bookies to rape horse-gamblers, they surge for Southend Airport and order a hundred planes to land at the same time same runway, they bake cakes as best they can, they catapult grannies and babies as high as treetops and someone catches them every time, they make the moon show her true colours, they blackplague the pompous with idiot visions of talking snakes, they award themselves dubious doctorates in medicine and at the hospital they transplant taste-buds into anuses. Zombies on our streets! Who knew!

But no. Just me and Cunning Murrell and Hadleigh High Street at night: “It’s this place that died, not you.” All roads lead away from here. I get my dirty hands dirtier, resting one gently on his back as we walk, away from St. James the Less, I leave my shovel and the dug-up grave and the toppled-over bench, some other fucker can deal with it. We walk, the traffic-lights:

“Green man…” He’s amazed: “Green man…”

“Yeah,” a bewildering siren calls him to the other side. My hand on his back.

He looks nervously along the street: “Did we make something that ate us? This, this is too much, I…”

“This is nothing.” Castle Lane: Murrell, small and even smaller with his skin off, although he has got that hat, and of course his umbrella in one hand as well, studies what was once his house: “PAUL NEWMAN INTERIORS.” The slogan on the shop’s windows: “And Your Bathroom Has A Name.” “What? That’s like something I would come up with: ‘And Your Bathroom Has A Name’!”

“Yes,” agrees Mr. Murrell. Also on the corner, opposite us, we are gratified with another bit of graffiti: some bold Joycean has sprayed “TuLip” under a sign saying: “PANASONIC… audio visual… PIONEER.” We walk, away from the church, down a slight slope: the jingle of a cat’s collar. The stern eye of the “Neighbourhood Watch” signs peering down kindly but firmly from poles, on them is a black-and-white picture in a yellow circle on a white rectangle, the picture shows a husband and wife and their daughter, with a good old British bobby smiling over their shoulders. Offshoot cul-de-sacs named after trees: down this road the houses get bigger and bigger until halfway down they stop, the road continues though, with fields at its sides now not houses, fields and farms. “The cunning-men and the wise-women were the ones who survived. It was easier by your time: people were smarter, they didn’t hang witches because witches had been mostly disproved by Science; the last of the Witchcraft Acts reclassified the offence as a category of Fraud.”

“I was never safe! I defied powerful people my entire life: maybe I didn’t risk my neck but a charge of Fraud would have been hardly less ruinous. I defied the powerful right to the very end.”

“True.” He’s remembering his death-bed: his surviving children attended him, he’d already given them certain instructions: “Whatever time I die, that was the time I prophesied I would die.” The wise-ones, the cunning-ones, know there’s a fine line between Fraud and Artistry.

But this man here doesn’t know anything about that: this man, the curate, has ingratiated himself into the household against the express wishes of the dying Murrell, this man has come to darken James’s last moments: “You have perhaps profaned your Religion but there is still time to…”

“I’m a very religious person!” coughs the cunning-man. “I can recite the Bible backwards!” He resists the urge to add: “And I sometimes do.”

The churchman has come to administer Last Rites but Murrell is more than capable: no spiritual authority outranks his, certainly not that of this pale dogcollared little prig, this smallminded secretary who seeks and deserves the company of sheep. “Repent! Admit before your offspring for their souls too are at stake; admit it was lies or games, confess that much! Lest God declines to rain favour upon your spells and magics; lest the Devil…”

“I!” roars the dying man, sitting himself up with half the effort he has left in him, fixing this stalebreadcrust representative of a hollow church with a well-practiced evil-eye, “I am the Devil’s master!” The nonentity flees from the house leaving James to die in the company of his children. His last words: “All… All my previous prophecies are overturned. I see now: there will be witches around these parts forever. How can there not be… now?” He dies.

“True,” I soothe his wounded pride, “you stood firm to the end. And they wanted to get you for worse than Fraud: there were several snide and unspecific allegations that you were performing abortions and…”

“For shame!” he cries. “That I would ever think of murdering a child! The most heinous crime of all!”

I snort amusement down my nostrils: “Things have changed a bit since your day.”

“Your day,” he echoes: the road has become a tractor-scarred mud-path. Now a metal gate, spiked; a sign on it says: “The public have permission from English Heritage to enter this land on foot for recreation but this permission may be withdrawn at any time.” I can’t resist, I stick one of my “DON’T READ THESE WORDS!” stickers over those words, then we enter the wind-blown grass grounds of the castle: “Yes, tell me about your day.” He tries his evil-eye, old bone and dirt and absence: “Child of comfort! What risks did you ever take? All your occult lore is merely a safe glamour to wrap around yourself.”

“Oh you think? I’ve got plants and powders in my bedroom that could get me stuck in a cage at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.”

Here: the castle at night, a Norman portrait of power and decline, used to be you’d sometimes see lights, highwaymen or smugglers or ghosts, but the lights now are further away and creepier, redprick hell-dots over the Kent shore. “What… What…”

“Power-stations. You should see it in the daytime: there are chimneys over there bigger than anything you’ve ever had in your head ever! Even the interiors of the public-toilets back that way would sci-fry your brain or the worms that have taken its place, James, James, what is my bathroom’s fucking name?”

He’s stuck on the sight of Canvey Island: “How can there be so many houses?” We walk round, against the loud wind, to the south-east tower: the castle, something familiar for him to cling to, cold stone against cold him. “I wish you hadn’t brought me back. Why did you bring me back?”

“To see if you had anything to teach us.” He’s leaning against the ruined tower, he wants to slump to his exposed kneecaps but I won’t let him, I turn him round and point, out and down, the dark Thames: to our left a line of lights suggests a heavenly road reaching halfway across the river here where it becomes sea: “The pier,” I explain. “Did you have that in your time?” He nods queasily. “What about the Crow Stone? That’s there somewhere.”

“The Crow Stone. I think it… Yes…”

“Our crow phallus canarywharfing out of the sand and water…” A grey obelisk seaweeded purple and green, it marks the limit of the City of London’s authority. “I like that, James: the Crown comes this far, but…” I gesture to my left, beyond the Crow Stone, the estuary, the brightlight roads and houses of Leigh, with Southend beyond it obscured by the shore’s twists, “Here is where authority ends! Home to freebooters and ronin, smugglers and dodgers, partyharders and autonomous zoners, gunrunning poets, the untaxed, the tribes, and of course the government-inspectors always trying to inspect us.” The swoop of my hand becomes a single finger pointing: “I grew up there, you can’t see it from here, the Kursaal, that big black shining tit dome, pride of Southend seafront! Inside the splendid insides of that pleasure-palace they had ‘The Wall Of Death,’ James, long before I was born, they had a vertical wall on which daredevils used to race and trick each other up and down and all around on motorbikes! George ‘Tornado’ Smith kept a lioness, she sat on the crossbar as he rode! Half these words mean nothing to you, do they.” He’s slumped on the floor, I’m not sure if he’s fainted. “James ‘Cunning’ Murrell: you did a great job. You lived. And so did George ‘Tornado’ Smith.”

So! To all the witches – and we’re all witches one way or another whether we care to admit it, we all fly off in the night and sometimes in the day too, we’re all glamourous in our own legends, we churn and desire as we calculate arcane arithmetics whose import we do not presume to pretend to understand – to all the witches: on behalf of a brighter millennium I say sorry for what you were forced to endure, I say thank-you for what you chose to endure, and I say goodbye; and if all the cunning-man’s Art amounts to one Wish then I wish future ages may have good cause to forget me same as I have so many better things to be doing than fretting over the imps and gargoyles and travesties of the silly past. Relativity! Queerpunk! £39.95 flights to Europe, inclusive of tax, Mr. Murrell, inclusive of bleeding tax! Cheap tryptamines bought off the Internet! Spirit guides! Pierced nipples! Debbie Does Dallas! Guy Fawkes masks in Tahir Square! Helicopters! Jetpacks! Sushi bars! Smart-ware! Magic bus! Butterfly-effects! Nudism! Kamaclipse! Indeterminacy! DIY gods! Transgender! It’s all art! Vote yourself in! Blue hair! Trampolines! Biologism! Sky-writing! Thelema! The high frontier! Live longerer! If aliens don’t exist we’ll invent them! Wikipedia! Water-bombs! Superman! Nanohack! Schoolkids on strike! Camp! Libraries! Fully immersive game-worlds! Genetic-Splicing kits for 12 Years And Under! Rollerskates! Bondage! Beat! World Records! Swimming-pools! Multiculture! Reverb! Eighty-eight cures for cancer! Power-shower! Be anyone! Furry handcuffs! Buildings that build themselves better! Cubismism! Rainbow-dyed skin! Play-hells! Sports in zero-gravity! Moving things with your mind! Intelligence über über! Sex on the moon! Cosmic immortality or die trying! Sex on the moon!

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LOOKING FOR THE WITCHES (Part 10 of 11)

THE LAST WORD

Ann Harvey, 1645: “FFFFFFUCK OFF.”

Her new house is one room, tiny stinking, windowless. The one way in or out is blocked by metal bars, the same type of metal as is tied around her ankles, iron: to combat her powers, her devilish and damnable arts. She hobbles up to those bars. She shouts as loud as she can: “Give me some food you fucking bastards.”

Nothing. She’s been here for… weeks? Months? They brought her in on Christmas Day, don’t know what it is now. They keep putting back her date: there’s hardly anyone around to do it or watch, they’re all off fighting each other. So she’s stuck here, no bail: no-one would’ve made bail for her anyway. All she’s ever had is John and that tightfisted evil old bastard never did a fucking thing for her.

It’s funny, John, the things you remember: the things you forget: take her wedding-day, not a fucking minute remains except for him joking a sneer at her in the evening, that she’d had the nerve to wear white! She made him pay for that, he made her pay for making him pay.

…She wakes up, she didn’t know she’d gone to sleep. She coughs. Days-weeks-months in this shithole with not another face around except when they remember to feed her which they occasionally do: here’s one now, the spotty ponce with the squeaky voice, I’ll drop his fucking balls for him he gives me half a chance, she thinks. He’s wearing his helmet, he thinks he’s a soldier! “Goodwife Hovey!” he exclaims genially: “And how are we this fine morning? With compliments from the chef,” he tips a bowl of gruelly-mash potatoes and things through the bars, it dribblyslops onto the coldsharp ground. Ann springs-falls across to spit at him but he’s gone, laughing. She’s too fucking hungry not to kneel. Little fucking bastard.

John: happier days, him handing her the broom after some screaming-throwing row, “Clean this fucking mess up why don’t you?” She mimes jamming the broom-handle up her fucking arse, throws it to the floor, tells him to go fuck himself.

Ann closes her eyes, makes herself go back to sleep, there’s nothing else to do.

She wakes up, coughs, she keeps coughing, it lasts for about half an hour: she wishes they’d get it fucking over with. But they’re hoping for a sizeable crowd, everyone wants to see them drop her: at her trial she pleaded Eat My Snot You Fucking Shit Bastards, she spat on the Judge! “Fucking bastards.”

John and Ann, the honeymoon that never started. He hit her sometimes, never hard enough that he broke any rules: never hard enough that he broke her permanently. Anyway she fucking hit him too.

Another interrogation: she doesn’t know why they’re still bothering, probably there’s fuck-all for them to do either. They want the names of her familiars; “‘Fuck’ and ‘Off.’”

“That’s two: what about the rest of them?”

“Fuck off.”

They call her things like “a lewd woman come seldom to church”; they don’t want her in their Heaven, why should she sing their fucking hymns? Anyway, what fucking Heaven: they’ve hardly given her a hint of a glimmer of a taste of it, not that she’s been waiting for them to give her anything.

But once a year, one day a year, she did, she knew what Heaven was like: on Christmas Day things were different, the pair of them would decorate a tree, sit, arms around each other, by the fire. Just the two of them. That useless bastard never gave her any children nor did any of the other useless bastards she’d ever been with.

And then he died. “Seems a bit of a shame,” her neighbours said, “that she should be stuck in that  nice big house all by herself.” Mrs. Littleberry wondered out loud how, exactly, this poor, deformed and ignorant woman would manage to support herself now he was gone?

In 1644 Ann celebrated Christmas for the first time alone. She lit a fire, she decorated, got drunk, sat rocking on a stool trying to remember her wedding-night, started crying. Then men kicked down her door: didn’t she know the Puritans had just outlawed Christmas? Of course she knew. She tried to explain to them: “You stupid fucking bastards, fuck off and leave me alone.”

At the trial it came out that she had previous, a longdistant charge of Fornication!

At the trial Mrs. Hugrave said: “She gave ear-aches to my children!”

Mrs. Cole said: “She gave me this rash!”

Mr Crayne said: “She wishes storms onto sailors.” He got his ugly face snarling into hers: “You killed my brother!”

Ann defended herself against these charges: “Fuck you and fuck your brother too.” They tried to shout her into silence, she shouted them into silence, fucking bastards, she spat and she spat.

She wakes up. Men are sitting outside her cell: she coughs, she shouts something like “Gyaa!” to get their attention, they ignore her:

“…on guard against our filthy affections, our naughty dispositions,” sternly squeaks the pimply soldier; the elder of the three men nods wearily at that.

“Fetch us some more water,” orders the amputee alongside them: the lapdog warrior dutifully rushes away to accomplish his mission. As soon as he’s gone his superior mutters: “Little prick.”

“Water,” laments the older man, “only fucking water to drink.”

“Gyaaaaaa you fucking fuck arseholes.”

They ignore her. “It should come to this! I thought we were fighting to make things better for us, that’s what I signed up for! But Cromwell’s just another king; this is mad.”

“A big gang of us got called out the other night, a big militia to fight the good fight, you know what they had us doing? Knocking the heads off bloody statues.”

“I’m as pure as the next man but this… I thought we were fighting for better conditions and freedom!”

“There’s no theatres and no fights to watch, you can’t drink, and as for… Hrr! Puritans.” They shake their heads: Ann’s been yelling all this time, they haven’t heard her once.

“Beheading statues of angels and smashing stained-glass-windows, torturing anyone suspected of singing a bloody song! And what about this crippled bitch, what great threat to our nation are we guarding here with our very lives? It’s all fucking shit.”

“Quiet or she’ll turn us to newts.”

“Long live the King!”

“You’d have to be a fucking idiot to believe any of this shit. He does,” with a jab of his thumb at the returning boy.

Triumphantly setting the jug down on their table: “What’s that?”

“We were just saying, Simon, we both feel very strongly that you are a great and good battler in the long war against Satan.”

“Oh I am!”

“A soul such as yours has never been tainted with music or the tits of a woman, has it.”

“Oh, no, never, I…”

Face up close, a hint of severity: “Has it?”

“N-No, Sir! Never! …They’re, they’re ready outside.”

“Now?”

“Water!” exclaims the old man, “That’s fucking delicious, that is! – excuse my language Simon, I am an old man and do sometimes err.”

“Here,” the man with half his limbs missing hands over a jangle-droop of keys: “I’ll stay behind if no-one objects: best keep watch lest any of her imps do remain.”

“A good idea.” The kid trooper opens her cell-door, walks bravely into that barrage of “Fuck” and “Gyuh!” and “Kcah!” and “Fucking shit!” and… He hits her with his stick, breaks her arm.

Doesn’t shut her up for a second: “Fuck fucking little fucker fuck fuck you fuck you little fuck…”

“Move,” the elder man stands to her side, grabbing her hurt arm; the younger is behind, Ann can’t walk as fast as they walk but he digs his stick into her back and makes her walk as fast as they walk.

Dazzlebright outside! A subdued crowd gets an earful of FUCK YOU FUCK OFF YOU, all these people! all around the old oak tree. John – not her John, a different one – gets today’s blessèd task: “Repent!” he tells her. No-one else says a word; a harsh moment, the noose is placed around her neck but not tight. “Go unto God with a clean conscience!”

She spits at him. Now he’s tightening the noose, she croaks words out, the last of her: “If I’m a witch I’ll make you lick me all over.”

“Is that right?”

“Tha’s right.”

Tighter.

“Is that right?”

“Ngkrk…” Tighter, these are her last choked coughs. Her rope is angled around a tree-branch above her: suddenly her feet are off the floor. She makes worse noises, the oak-tree branch hardly bends under her starved body’s spasms, her can’tquite gasps after life, “Guh fckuh! Gg, ff! Ffuh guhh…” with her withered hands clutching at the death around her throat her legs kicking forwards and backwards she twizzles on that string like a child’s toy, straining “Fggguh” her eyes going anyeveryway, piss and shit lolling down her legs: peristalses of suppressed amusement nourish the crowd, they know to look like they’re learning a sad but necessary lesson. “Ckkkk…” The blood can’t go where it needs to go. She can’t… Her arms by her sides, twitching. Her legs, not kicking. Piss and shit. Her sagged mouth. Her staring eyes.

The hangman swears a word in her face.

LOOKING FOR THE WITCHES (Part 9 of 11)

OMG

In the seventh of the eight facets of Cunning Murrell’s holy stone is Joan Rowle of Leigh, who in the first few weeks of 1645, so they said, “bewitched Rachel daughter of John North so that she was greatly wounded and consumed.” Of our eight witches, only Joan’s fate was recorded: she pleaded not guilty, she was found not guilty. On

On Monday she’s collecting herbs from Daws Heath, why wouldn’t she be? No-one suspects a thing.

On Tuesday she works, she cooks and cleans and tends to her brothers and sisters, milks the cows, kills a chicken: around her the world’s gone to war, it wasn’t enough to battle in foreign lands over distant seas, now we’re killing each other. Joan has to pretend she doesn’t understand any of it which is easy, certainly she couldn’t care less about any of it: let Charles and Cromwell sodomise each other until eternity, let the king’s men and the Puritans wipe each other out, let every last soldier and sympathiser die, if only they would!

She’s been told she’s a Puritan. That made her laugh but only on the inside; Joan knows exactly what she is.

Still she works, harder: she does all the jobs, even the ones she’s not been asked to do: everyone calls her Miss Goody-Goody but it’s not that, she just likes to do, she feels the pleasure in things more than anyone else.

And when those books went missing, no-one thought for one moment it could have been Miss Goody-Goody!

On Wednesday she runs errands, carries milk in jugs from one house to another: her load is heavy and the winter is bitter, the people are bitter too and thankless, Joan doesn’t mind, she loves being outside as much as she loves being inside and should she choose she could make it stop raining by singing, she can do that. She can do other things too: she can make animals come to her, she can make people go away. The trees tell her things.

Home: privacy is rare, Joan makes the most of it, savours every silence; she retrieves her books from their hiding-place. Joan Rowle taught herself to read! She’s known for years, she can’t remember not knowing. The hardest part is keeping quiet: no-one must know how much she knows. She wishes she could have a conversation but she never will.

But the books: Joan invents ghosts to haunt England forever, The Woman In Silence, The White Woman, The Blackest Man; she draws pictures too. Then puts the books back in their place; five minutes later her family returns to find her scrubbing floors.

On Thursday the matter of marriage comes up again. She uses the same delaying-tactics she always uses, she’ll not be able to put it off forever, one day she’ll be given to someone. She’s not that worried: she’s learnt how to make men do what she wants and to make them think they’ve made her do what they want. If the worst comes to the worst, Joan knows poisons.

Maybe the best will come to the best? One more man’s clothes to wear: sometimes when everyone is out and she’s sure she can get away with it she puts on her brother’s or her dad’s clothes, she can make a different magic when she’s in them, she can do more.

Late afternoon sees her nervous around the slowly decaying Hadleigh Castle: everyone always talks about how grand it had looked before she was born, back before men started stealing its stones for money. But she can’t believe it could ever have looked better than it does right now, brooding and broken as the sun sets. Brutalcold air against her skin against stone and damp grass, she comes here all year round, if there’s one thing she loves it’s weather.

It’s getting dark. She’s supposed to be helping round Mrs. Petts’s, she’d die if she were discovered here, here where she once buried a candle but no-one comes to the castle after dusk, they’re scared! Joan feels at home in the darkness; she wishes she were allowed to sleep all day and do what she likes through the night. There are tunnels under her feet, so she’s been told, secret tunnels for secret people, but she’s only ever found them in dreams.

And then it happens: the moment she’s simultaneously always and never known would happen, the moment when the stories lift themselves up off the page and all the magic words turn out to work: “LISTEN,” screams the spectre, a girl, plainestclothes uglygirl glow-white and hovering, her neck is twisted, her feet point one way but her eyes look a right-angle away, she’s facing off from Joan but her eyeballs are turned straining looking at her, “TO ME.”

Joan… screams. And runs, turns and runs hearing howling behind her, “LISTEN to me,” Joan trips,  picks herself up and keeps running, she’s halfway up Castle  Lane before she dares look back: it’s gone. It’s gone: Joan bursts into tears. She thought she was stronger than that. She thought she’d be better than that. She wonders: has she ruined all she’s got planned for Saturday?

On Friday she wakes up with the words “I’m sorry” on her lips: as soon as she gets the chance she draws in her book a picture, a pale and furious girl with twisted head, Joan calls her ghost “Wryneck Sally.” “I’m sorry.”

There are stranger days to come and she can’t afford another failure. “I’m feeling a bit sick,” she mentions to everyone, and the way she’d looked after getting back from Mrs. Petts’s last night they have no trouble believing that. It’s nothing serious, she assures them: she fine to work, she works.

On Saturday she’s not feeling fine at all: the doctor advises plenty of rest just like she knew he would. Eventually she’s alone, the house to herself, she’s terrified: what if she gets terrified again like at the castle, what if it’s worse than then, what if it doesn’t stop this time? What if she has to listen but she can’t bring herself to listen?

She has her herbs scattered around the room; she wishes she could burn some but she daren’t. Outside cats mewl and fuck; she was a cat once, she’s been a mouse too and a pear-tree and a crease in a bed, a shudder in a forest, she’s been all of life at once, she could see it was a serious business.

Somewhere fires. Joan’s got an angel inside her, she’s got fire and water and earth and air and angels inside her. “Adonay!” she cries as loud as she’s sure she can get away with. Then turns, anti-clockwise, “Elohim!” and keeps turning, she cardinalpoints at each of the quadrants, “Raphael! Tetra!” Then clockwise: “Trefoil! Vervain! John’s Wort! Dill!” She gives directions to the elements, numbers to the names, she says a word she’s never said, she’s been saving it for now:

“Goddess! Goddess! Goddess!”

It’s only happening in her head but her head’s as anywhere as anywhere else, it’s happening: Joan is the Princess of Disks, of Orbs, of Bubbles that are but one side of some bubblier bubble, Joan could burst, she does:

“Goddess! Goddess! Goddess!”

But before the door to death are the dogs. She’s not scared of their barks and threats, she tells herself: she’s not scared. She dogbarks back at them. (If anyone could hear her…!)

“Goddess! Goddess! Goddess!”

The door – she stands still, she stands straight – the door is guarded by a woman, Joan knows her: “Killer of babies, eater of babies, she shits babies…” Joan reaches up under her clothes holding a needle, she pricks blood out of her left breast and refuses to make a noise or movement. “Let me through, please.” The door opens.

She sees with a shock in her guts that she’ll one day be turned to stone, she’ll be the “DEVOTED WIFE OF…” on a headstone engraved above or below grey dates and a quote, someone else’s words, she’ll be allowed them when it’s too late.

The inevitability of a world without her in it: how is that possible?

Another door opens: Joan chooses to have the choice to enter, onwards with these words: “In everything anyone ever says or writes or thinks about me, make them make mistakes.”

The other side: she sees the spirit of the age and he is rich and he is sick. Spirit of the scythe and the scapegoat, he devours his sons that he might hurt less. The man-god, oldman, he owns all the roads Joan ever walked down: the angry cross, death-porn on every corner and dangling around throats. “The Dying God,” Joan just briefly sees exactly who and what she is and loves herself for being that: “Why don’t you just die?”

She’s in two places at once: she’s here in her room behind her eyes taking from a dead god his Time, his Justice, his Strength; and she’s outside, eyes wide open standing looking up at daytime Hadleigh Castle but it’s wrong, its greygrey walls, so few of them, where have all its walls gone? There’s just this one tower left and a few rock amputations stubbled around. She understands now that sadness in people’s voices when they talk about the past, her castle! Even the ruins are ruined. Joan thinks of Wryneck Sally and feels with a strange certainty that she’s gone: no-one ever listened and in the end her ghost died too. How can so little be left?

“Nice dress!” snaps her out of that, headspin she sees, someone, one of two girls walking past. In a village where everyone knows everyone here are two strangers passing. Joan’s slurred brain processes the compliment, reflexively returns a “Thank you” but Joan’s brain is busy hurting, almost overloaded by a fact that will barely fit in there, the fact of these new girls, their dresses: they’re not wearing any. They’re wearing trousers. Out in public in the daytime.

There are more, Joan looks around, people: sunbathers on the green outdoors that used to be a castle’s indoors, they’re wearing so much skin. A slow angel draws a chalk line across the sky.

Joan sees a girl who has the same nose as her talking into a shine-box, the box talks back.

Two people are kissing?!

Music is coming softly from nowhere just like in her best dreams.

And – here, it breaks her, with one of her hands cold on her strong brooding tower she starts to cry – here, a girl is reading, she’s just sitting there reading! Joan stares, stares: it’s something like a cross between a pamphlet and a rainbow, and when the girl’s done with it she stands and leaves leaving it behind! On the grass! As though it were nothing! Joan walks quickly over before anyone else can, picks up smoother paper than any she’s touched before and it’s so bright, it’s like a world, there are pictures of people except they’re not pictures they’re actual people, except they obviously are pictures. Thin pages, all these pages! Bright words! Bright words announcing: “2020, International Year Of The Orgy.”

2020! Joan turns pages. Here are pictures of a man named Richard surrounded by instances of the word “Virgin,” it makes her blush so much. The article informs of a hot new reality-TV show everyone is watching, it’s a competition to find the man and the woman who will

DARE EVERYTHING

they will

RISK EVERYTHING

for the chance to become

COSMIC IMMORTALS

by being the first couple

EVER

to have

SEX

on the

MOON.

“To fuck where no man and woman have fucked before!” – half the USA and most of the Communists despised the idea, Islam contributed a bomb-scare or two, Europe got itself stuck in the toilet at a crucial moment in the negotiations, Anonymous put in a bid, but, Mr. Branson, appreciating the irony, got the contract: here’s a photo of him, neatly trimmed and smiling! as he welcomes the winners onto the spaceship. The Bravest Couple! Joan can’t even…

BANG! and here she is in her house with her herbs and there’s banging on a door then a bang then feet banging through that door, feet banging up the stairs; she’s been through this a hundred times in her head. She allows herself a quick smile. She takes a deep breath…

LOOKING FOR THE WITCHES (Part 8 of 11)

STRANGE NEWS OUT OF ESSEX

Alice Soles, 1622: her friend is hungry. “It’ll soon be ready,” placates Alice as she potters around the kitchen; odd jobs that always need doing need doing. “Be with you in a minute.”

Her friend is talking: “I personally have had lizard epiphanies, I have lived in the sort of rooms most people only live in in dreams.”

“I expect you have!” agrees Alice, she doesn’t want to admit she hasn’t a clue what her friend is going on about! Wooden bowls and spoons, she gives them a good scrub then puts them where they belong. The warmth of baking bread permeates, smell of nice mornings, nice meals, childhood: Heaven, Alice is sure, will smell of baking rye-bread. She glances out of the window: a deadly shade of night.

“I have seen what it looks like when there’s nothing left to see.”

“Yes! …The bread’ll be ready.” With a rag wrapped around her hands she lifts it from the fire, lowers it onto the hungry table next to the grinning bowl of shloop butter next to the toothy knives, she sits on the stool next to her friend: “Let it cool for a bit then we’ll give it a try: it…”

“A try? We ate the whole loaf half an hour ago.”

“What?” Alice is still standing up, she doesn’t want to have heard that. “Ooh the bread’ll be burning!” She hurries over: a metal grille above a crackling fire, keeps her warm! and yet she’s cold, a pinprickling chill; with a rag wrapped around her hands she lifts the bread and carries it to the table, “Mmm! Best give it a couple of minutes before YA!!!!” She dropbumps the bread onto the table, she smacks at her legs then starts to laugh, she apologises, explains: “I thought there was a scorpion! Running up my leg!” Like dragons and China she’s never been quite sure if scorpions are really real, but just briefly there was one.

“Are you alright? No you’re half wrong: we ate the bread half an hour ago.”

Alice is aware that this isn’t the way things normally are. “Where is everyone?”

“They’ll be up soon. They’ll be down soon. They’ll be all around soon.”

Suddenly the realisation that: “…I’m here all alone, aren’t I.”

“You let somethink in.”

“I… don’t want to have to thing about that,” she puts the spoons in the jam where they belong, she tries to kick the cat. “Is that… Is that not what you do with cats?” Expecting an answer, she gets none. Funny, she was sure there was someone else here with her. The room is too dark but the fire is bright, she thinks about putting some of the fire onto the table but some deeper voice tells her not to do that. Outside also it’s dark but not too dark, which means it’s either getting darker or less dark, it has to be one or the other, she feels she ought to know which. How long has she been lying on the floor? How long has she been all alone? The bread must be baked by now.

For a moment she thinks her head is a castle, knights could charge out to war across her drawbridge tongue. And Alice she’s inside that castle, creeping across the floorboards of her bare brain, shh, she has to not let her know she’s there: she’s an intruder in herself. Voices promise to promise her things; whose voices? They don’t seem to come from any sort of direction. Is she not here either, then? Whose voices? What if she only realises too late? Realises what? and suddenly she’s falling through the rotted floor of her, crashing-tumbling through those boards, falling with all dust and debris from her broke brain past her eager heart and tangling-frenzied blood-roads, she lands awkwardly-brutally at her loins, she lays snapped, backbroken there she feels like half a fish up a hurting tree. She imagines everyone laughing at her, marooned between her own legs. She wants to cry; how is it possible she can be here and still here at the same different times?

Those legs lift her up. She’s alright. She’s alright. Swaying: is it light outside now or is that just the way it looks? She doesn’t forget to put pig’s dung in a bucket.

Sometimes we let something in and it’s good for us, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes we let something in and it does nothing at all: there’s coming nothing at all! all the everything runs out. It feels stupid and wrong that even this much should remain. Then not even this much remains: it blinks out into a blackness whiter than anything, this moment, this always only death, this gone: no redwine Hell, no bread Heaven: what’s left feels itself fading. All that is is a hand reaching out to open a door, a door set into whiteness, in the opening of that door so are it and the hand that opens it erased, whiteness blinds itself black, forever.

Alice opens her eyes, she hadn’t realised they’d been closed. She looks around jerkililily: all these pots and pans, these always pots and pans. No matter how many times she puts them in their place they always get out of line. What is the actual point?

“Urrrrr.”

They hate me for growing old. She realises. Sometimes we let something in and it changes us.

They hate me for being what I am. She realises. Of course: I have no friend.

There is nothing I can do that they won’t hate me. I do things for them! They will never stop hating.

This: vomit in her mouth then back down back inside her. That’s the stuff we’re made of.

Alice: visions of BLOOD! of BLOOD! and of FIRE! of FIRE! Has she been running in circles, has she been gnawing on rocks? All her teeth are in pieces?

And then not just everything but everything else too – breaks. She’s broken It. “No…!” Nothing can move or be without hurting.

Then all the broken world rushes into Alice, all of Creation and the Creator too they fit inside her they have no choice. What has she done? She’s all that’s left and there’s nowhere to go.

So she can’t hide.

From this. From the shit that is life, her life.

From the fact that things are fucked and shit and always have been, and therefore always will have been. Fucked, shit, sick. What have we done? and there is only pain and regret. She is dying the death that never stops dying and there is only pain and regret. There is only pain and regret.

We’re Failure: Satan drops us in his white-hot house and all that’s left is to be Failure forever.

“Nnn… No.” She, defiant, will stand up, up on her feet. “No… No… No…” By the time she’s stood she’s forgotten who or what she’s disagreeing with. It doesn’t matter, she’s strong, she knows she’s strong, she’s here, she’s not over. Here and her insides are creeping out at both ends: she rushes, some part of her knows that that’s what to do, convulsily she shits and vomits in what she hopes is the chamberpot. What are doors for? Everything in her eye seems more squarey and she can’t work out if things are going slower or faster. Alice… You just beat the Devil.

She tells herself, in the kitchen: you just beat the Devil. Because…

“Nnn… No.” She was on the floor and everything was broken wrong and unmendable, she remembers: “No… No… No…” The truth about things: everything’s shit, can only be and have been shit. Is this happening now or then?

Everything shit: Alice realised, then, she must have always known it but she realises, now, this moment does not stay present but becomes past: the decisions she is making constitute tomorrow’s memories, so: as things are she’ll remember this particular moment spent collapsed and fretting over shit and Devils, “Nnn…” but why would she want that? “No… No… Yes: this is my now,” she picks up a cup from where she keeps the cups, she laughs about something, she raises that cup, a cupful of bubbling oxygen, Alice toasts the everything, she makes a new noise like “G’ggurr.” She’s not sure if she just vomitted or not.

No really: what are doors for? She reflects on that for eighteen years but is interrupted by a piglet’s squee outside. Outside! Of course, how could she forget? There’s an outside too, there’s more!

She clumsies her way to the door, wondering what words actually mean, wondering what’s the word for a word that hasn’t been invented yet? A crystalling pot bangs over. A sudden sob out of Alice’s mouth, why (She feels her mouth being brought into existence by the necessity of that sob, she feels the rest of her being born out of her mouth just so it might be) don’t people say what they mean? Why don’t people always do what they want?

She thinks: more days should be like this.

The door; in her head she sees cartoonyface mushrooms spin-circling, the air waves and she waves back. She sees listed all the good things she’s done, all the bad things; she sees the feather, the happy judgement.

She opens the door: to world of strange resins and dubious brews, fungus mansions and fermenting insiders, trees no-one had to plant, insectybugs sexing the plantlife, dogs claiming trees. A sky-faced white-lipped world (Alice laughs to have thought that thought then laughs to have laughed, laughs to still be laughing), a world of winds that blow to force things to recreate themselves every instant, now here, now there. Door wide open, shining day. Colours turning in turning ways: oh it’s nice!

But then she remembers: but she doesn’t quite remember: are you supposed to have all your clothes off when you’re in the outside or all your clothes on? It’s definitely one or the other. She can’t quite… But she was wearing them indoors which suggests she shouldn’t wear them outdoors, that sounds like sense. She makes her decision, she’ll live with it.

And out! She heads in a direction, that’s the best way to walk. One way or another they’re all scenic routes!

Joy! Joy to be alive! She’ll tell them!

LOOKING FOR THE WITCHES (Part 7 of 11)

halfwits

“Some people are born to be a burden on the rest.”

– U.S. eugenics poster c.1926 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States)

Grace Browne, 1605: she sees things, she gets lost in herself, she talks to sprites and can’t think in a straight line. She might have made a half-decent nun but all the convents have been closed, there are no nuns. Grace with her visions and phantasies could be tolerated under Elizabeth but James brings a new mood: now there is God and His True Church on one side, devilry and deceit on the other; now all spirits are evil spirits. We will have to find ways to make this girl not have visions, not have phantasies.

“HA HA!” she says but they’re not amused: these are serious men, they’ve formed militias and fought in wars and may yet have to fight again, they’ve lost friends, they’ve lost lots; they don’t laugh.

One of them can read, he reads: “The Devil leaves marks upon their bodies, sometimes like a blue spot, or a red spot, like a flea-bite, which for a time may be taken away but will come again to its old form: and these the Devil’s marks are insensible and being pricked will not bleed; and be often in their secret parts, and therefore require diligent and careful search.”

Grace wishes she is book.

Grace tries to look as far from them as she can, she twists her head all the way to the left and when they wrench it back she turns all the way right, she wishes should could unlook these men away. Some animals can make their head go in their inside but Grace isn’t an animal except when they say she is. They let her sit down now for the first time in a couple of days: no sleep and no stay-still. She finds it funny in a notfunny sort of way that they kept making her feet go even though there’s nowhere to go! There’s only this room so she could just be here by just being here, they didn’t need to make her walk here!

Her feet hurt.

They said me I’m which?

Her her hurts. “I saw your imp,” says one of the soldiers. “I saw your imp in your house.”

“That’s a cat!”

“I saw it.”

Grace been sawn.

Gracebean notgrow.

They come forwardser: “I hate your imps.”

“I know their names. Your imps names are Suckin and Greedigut and Jarmara…”

“And Boneless and Sugarsack and Hob the Gobblin…”

“And Tom Thumber and Puckle and Kit with the canstick.”

Sometimes I wish I no.

“What?”

“Your imps come to visit you here in the shape of spiders and flies.”

“Your imps hang in a bag in your secret parts and some people saw it.”

“They come likewise invisible; keep your imps away from me you stinking whore,” someone says or said that to her, she doesn’t always know the difference.

You try me! I used to like.

Everyone saw it…”

“Noooo,” deepvoice, she turns and turns her head.

They’ve sinned the Holy Spirit, I think they actually have!

 But they yes her over and over: “You put a pig up a tree.”

“I didn’t!”

“You did. You injured a goose and made Mrs. Smythe fall in brambles.”

“Didn’t!”

“Did. You turned a daughter into an owl.”

“Didn’t!”

“You just said you did!”

Dead I?

“You made a man’s bed rock like a ship at sea. Confess it!”

“I, I, I…”

“I believe you. You did, didn’t you.”

“Confess!”

“You eat babies.”

“Confess!”

“You induce abortions, you cut off men’s members.”

“Confess!”

Her head is spinning in actual circles as she confesses: “Once on a Sunday I felt a thing come on my legs and go in my secret parts and nip me in my secret parts.”

“And?”

“Another time I felt things like butterflies in my secret parts with witchings and dancings and sucking and I felt them with my hands and rubbed them and killed them.”

“And?”

She hurls the words out of her mouth: “I had temptation by Satan to drown myself in a pond!”

“And?”

“I… I killed Mummy, I did. I wished she would die and one day she died.”

“And?”

“The Devil! The Devil in the shape of a man made me lay with him, he carried my body into a bush and afterwards he scratched my hand with the bush.”

If I am a wish I’m wish this not happen.

They’ve heard enough.

I watch faraway they take my clothes off.

They hold her down, they test her virginity and find it wanting.

They break my rules.

I’m their puppet.

cryme

HELP ME

They

used

usedtocallmenicenames.

They teach her filthy lessons.

It’s hurts me. I’m a ruins.

Kneescrape. They touch her in places she didn’t know she had.

Forgivens: I am good.

They say they want to red-hot-poke her.

I make me sick, I only sick now. “HA HA!”

Blood of little lamb: she thinks she understands now, allbout blood of little lamb that they told but didn’t tell her allbout. What is “conquest” mean? I’m their toilet.

They spin her round and round in circles, round and round.

One of them outs my tooth two times.

“But Jesus said it will all be all right!” she screamcries at him. She knows with notwords she never have babesies now.

The me shann’t inherit the earth.

In her it the earth. They cut off her hair and paint her black and stick things to her. They tie her up in strange ways, they bind her left foot to her right hand, her left hand to her right foot, they make her into shapes.

They say they will take me to Doom Pond and they will swim me there, says: “I have seen witches lay upon the surface of a body of water, striving to submerge lest they betray themselves; too late. Neither will water enter their accursed mouths: for they have blasphemed against their Baptism. These things I have seen with my own eyes.”

Candles in that dark room burn down to the stonecold ground and now it’s all dark, no room. They will do this to her. Grace knows God, God, God’s gone mad.

Muhhhhhhhhhh.

LOOKING FOR THE WITCHES (Part 6 of 11)

GODSBODY (Part II)

John Watson, 1599: “Yes!” he agrees with the Right Right Reverend, then “Yes!” he agrees with his wife, he tells her he’ll be back home soon, with good news, hopefully.

Anyway he’ll be home soon. He turns from her and the children, from the church, he heads up Essex Way, cottages on either side of him: then that row of houses ends but the sludgemud road continues, puddly and dirtying, and quiet: not a cart going by, not on the Sabbath-day. Above him a down-in-the-dumps sun radiates from behind a veil a despondent unheat; John hates this hill. The world, he reflects grimly, would be better flat. Up. The view to his right becomes fox-haunted dullgreen and brownbrown wide slopeland in the foreground, khaki expanses in the distance and the bleak estuary, the jagged horizon, sky the colour of nothing: he’s seen all this too many times to see it now.

Outside a farmhouse, by where the road turns northwards, his friends are attaching blades to roosters’ feet. “Watching, John?”

“Er, no. Mouths to feed!”

“…You trying up at the Welch home? No work there this week or next, I tried earlier.”

“Oh. Oh well I’ll, I think I’ll stroll that way anyway,” they’re his friends but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can trust them. So he strolls: Essex Way remains an uphill effort, his breathing’s a chore, his knees start telling him that they really shouldn’t be telling him this. The road turns: and grows narrower, no view now: on both sides, above miserable bushes, a deadparade of trees, their bare branches tangling like warriors. Suddenly John stops, hearing: it’s not a dog, he can tell straight away, it sounds like a person pretending to be a dog! It is: he sees, a girl down on all-fours, barking!

His first instinct was to stop walking, his second is to hurry forwards: “Grace? …Grace! What are you doing here? What are you doing?”

Her mouth is full of grass: “Mmf!” she spits it out in his direction. “I’m delighted!”

John looks around, sees there’s no-one around. He crouches, face-to-face: her thin white face and her huge red eyes; a paste of dried snot from her nostrils to her upper lip. She smells of sick and jam. “I think you better…”

“We are the Queen! We are! Queen of the day, Queen of the fair game! I’m evil! There’s a fire in my attic. You’re not another of the made-up-men are you?”

“What? Grace… Is this a game? It’s a game you’re playing, isn’t it. Where’s…”

She dogbarks two more times then whispers: “My clothes smell but they’ve not got a nose. Don’t tell anyone.” Her eyes won’t quite meet his nor will they stay still, nor will the rest of her, “Woof! Woof! There are four and a half doors and I can’t go through any of them.” She burps in John’s face, laughs at his reaction: “When it was now I used to cry. Queen Elizzybess didn’t have any so she’s the last of the Chewed-’er line: we are sad for her. It’s not nice to be the end of a line.”

“Grace…” He tries it a bit differently: “Grace.” On the inside he allows himself a FUCK! What’s wrong with her?

She looks in a thousand directions, she looks terrified; she confesses to him: “I’m not supposed to have but I’ve seen a thousand futures: and we’re not in any of them!”

“That’s enough, Grace.”

“Does the word ‘dog’ bark?”

“I mean it: stop being silly.”

“When God dyes us are we clothes? I learnt how to laugh today: ‘HA HA!’”

“GRACE!” – at that she bursts into tears. “I, I’m sorry…” She says at him a word that sounds somewhere between “hello” and “alone.” He thinks about resting a consoling hand on one of her shoulders but feels that he shouldn’t so he doesn’t. Crouching: his legs are aching. “Grace, is it… Are you alright?”

“All,” she’s stopped crying, “of some of us are right. But I’m left over.” She lunges at him, off-balance he’s toppled easily, ridiculous he blomps onto his back and she sits on his stomach for as long as she can sucking the crucifix around his neck, “I know where this has been!” she slywinks as he lifts her off him, he’s up on his feet, kneeling she tries to hold her arms around his waist, “I’m a whole woman!” he hears, “I’m a whole woman!”

John looks around him, behind him, there’s no-one there: he unclasps her grasp and pulls her notgently to her feet, he realises his shirt is damp with urine, he doesn’t know what to do.

And her eyes decide to meet his now: “You know! You know!”

“What do I…? Grace…”

“You know.” She yawns. “When does Mummy come back from dead?”

“I don’t… You’d better ask the Reverend.”

“Take me.”

Being told what to do resolves him: “Yes,” he begins walking back the way he came, with one hand on her back he ambles her alongside him, and when she stumbles he waits for her to steady herself, and when she chatters he smiles and nods. Pigeons eye them, fly away if they get too close. This road goes straight back to the church but John’s not taking her there: he’s remembered who’s nearer. Along that narrow road until it widens, see the sea again and the curvychaos greens and browns and the farmhouse, there: dancing to the tune of animals killing each other are two dozen bustled men, “Go on you beauty!” “Do it, fucking do it.” Some of them are winning money, some are losing. But sudden silence from all except the roosters: the crowd has seen John and Grace seeing them, Grace is moaning: “The moon… The moon… They’re doing it on the moon.”

One of the cock-watchers detaches from the others, approaches John and his ward. Who lowers her voice to say: “When times are hard it’s nice to have someone to hurt.” She giggles knowingly: “Time isn’t all that’s hard!” – and lunges again at John, tries to get her lips on his lips but he keeps her away and then Davey Browne’s standing behind Grace with his hands on her shoulders. She stays still now, still saying very very quietly: “The moon… They’re doing it on the moon!”

Davey Browne glares. John explains: “Ah, I found her, ah, just, just up there, that way! She was, she seemed to be…” Davey Browne’s eyes shoot from John down to Grace then back again. “And I, well I, I’m not really sure what’s the, what seems to be the… I’ll leave her with you now.” Davey Browne, very slowly, starts to walk, keeping his hands on the girl’s bony shoulders and staring backwards at John for as long as he possibly can, he disappears up the hill, and John nods briefly at his friends then continues down it, as behind him “Now what” one of those friends says, “do you suppose that was all about?”

Soon John’s walking through his door. After that he could really do with a drink. Or a smoke. Or a… “Anything?” asks his wife. He tries to tell her what happened: she knows that that means no, nothing; she stops listening. John sits down. What a day.

Soon he’s being hauled through some other door, he’s being sat down, and everything is cold and smells of cold. He’s done something to the Browne girl: there are witnesses who saw him consorting and cavorting with her, the state he’s put her in! “Why did you bewitch Grace Browne?”

“I didn’t!”

“She said you took her to the moon.”

“I…”

“Why did you do it? We know you did it.”

“I didn’t!”

“Why did you do it?”

“I didn’t do anything to her!” They say they have ways to learn the truth with absolute certainty so he knows he’s alright.

He doesn’t know that a couple of doors down his wife is being told: “We know you did it.”

“I didn’t!”

“We know you did. That poor girl.”

“I didn’t.”

“We know you did.”

“I… didn’t.”

“We know you did.”

Stop it. I haven’t done anything!”

“We know you have.”

A couple of doors down her children are being told: “You saw them doing it, didn’t you. You saw them.”

It’s just a matter of time.

LOOKING FOR THE WITCHES (Part 5 of 11)

GODSBODY (Part I)

The website http://www.witchtrials.co.uk collects what historical data has survived but in no case is there much: generally just the name and neighbourhood of the accused plus the year of their trial; occasionally the verdict is also known. In some cases there isn’t even a name: 1599, Goodwife Watson of South Benfleet. A married woman; they didn’t need the rest of her. Mrs. Watson, Something-or-other Watson. I think I’ll call you Margery

Margery wishes she were somewhere else. From behind his pulpit the minister tells her we’ll live forever, he tells her we must do Good, he tells her about the raise in taxes: she feels a slosh of protest in her stomach and the stomachs of everyone around her, times are hard! and getting harder! but no-one grumbles out-loud: this is a church.

And anyway – Margery senses it, a spread of not mere acceptance but actual appreciation warming that frigid hall – are there not fights in need of fighting? Who would dare be so base as to put greed above the nation, the war-effort; these endless consumptive struggles against the wrongGodly Spaniards and the barbarous, dirty, Irish.

From behind the pulpit he tells her about fire and Samaritans and bread and myrrh and Daniel and fishermen and Jericho and Eve, she pretends to listen same as she pretends to understand the difference between “Protestant” and “Catholic,” all she knows for sure is that the smartest thing is to keep her head down, let them love one another in their own special way. The Right Right Reverend tells them that certain lands that had been theirs are no longer theirs although he doesn’t phrase it quite that way. The Right Right Reverend tells them to beware the snares of Satan.

Margery’s somewhere else: she occupies the future, runs through jobs that need doing, a litany of today’s tasks, a dulling mantra until: The Right Right Reverend tells them they can go.

John plod-shuffling by her side, the children pushed in front of them, they aisle out of the gloomy building, past – Margery hates this bit – their minister standing at the stone-arched doorway, amiably he asks them questions, “Yes!” she answers. She wishes she didn’t have to spend her time here but under Elizabeth’s “Act Of Uniformity” church-attendance is something you don’t get to choose.

Out into the no-less-gloomy day: Margery wraps her clothes tight around her and tells the children to do the same, she tells them to stop mucking around, they shiver past the standing-howling astrologers and their imminent apocalypses: the plague they say is His vengeance. The merely homeless can be bundled off and locked away but those that rant could be inspired of God, no-one wants to risk that wrath. Margery tells the children not to look or listen. John mutters something about seeing a man about some work, she hardly hears him, hardly notices him go: if all the time he’d spent looking for ways to earn money he’d spent earning money they’d have made their fortune years ago. But everyone wants work. Margery quickens her step, shivers the children faster forwards: another winter, sharp as knives, it takes a little more out of her every year.

Home: today’s tasks, she threads a needle and makes holes disappear, she tells the children to shut up, she makes the dirty clean and laments the leathering of her hands, she chops up carrots and potatoes, boils water, haggles a price for the milk, scrubs sheets. John returns home: “Anything?”

“No but…”

She makes a move that says: “Typical.” She sniffs for telltale hints of alcohol but he’s clean.

“The, the Browne girl, Grace Browne…” Margery gives a curious look. “She had, she had some kind of, it was like she was possessed. I…” Margery doesn’t want to hear. “I’ve never seen anything like it! I had to…” Margery turns to the overboiling pot, she…

“RROOOWWLLLRRR!” she hears that, a screech outside, she clutches a hand to her chest with an affected “Oh! …Gave me a fright!”

“YRRROWWWWLL!” – “It’s just cats,” says one of the children.

She shakes her head: “It’s not right, them sounding like that. Devils, that’s what they sound like.” “RAOAORRRRWR!” – she marches outside carrying a big tub of cold water.

John collapses muttering into his chair: no work, no money for tobacco, no-one to talk to, mad girls and devils everywhere, what a day. What a life; it’s one thing then another thing. Margery storms back into the house and throws the empty tub at him, tells him to make himself useful. Six hours later men are shouting at her, harsh and righteous men are shouting over and over at Margery: “Why did you do it?”

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