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
for the chance to become
by being the first couple
“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…