Prompt 38 Fire-starters: Write about building a fire.
I confess. There is not very much about building a fire in what follows.
|Just an average witch trial.|
I remember his eyes more than anything. That piercing stare, sharp enough to flay flesh from bone. A dishonest fire, burning away all reality to leave behind a shell of lies. When he looked at me I almost believed the charges were true. It was as if he saw through my innocence into a guilt. When he stared at me I was burned into trusting his version of events. That I was a witch. That I'd lost the privilege of being called woman by consorting with the Father of Lies himself, bringing sacrilege to the Host and a sickness on my neighbours.
I knew it wasn't true. Not even a curse has passed my lips and the Lord knows I would only bow down and adore his holy flesh, never trample him into the mud. Innocent. But when his eyes met mine I doubted myself and my fear intensified. When he held my gaze I knew his verdict was fore-ordained, that I would stand just as little chance as the women who had been tried before me.
He had seemed perfectly ordinary when he entered the court. A bold swagger, a confident walk bordering on arrogance. Yet there was nothing to mark him out as special. Average height. Average build. Just a normal man. He was dressed mostly in black, in scholar's garb, as if he were an unbiased expert, a believer in justice and the fruits of knowledge. Of course I knew that wasn't the truth. Everyone knew. The Witch Pricker's reputation was well known even this far south. He was ruthless, without compassion or pity, a lover of mead and money and pretty women too. He promised a fair trial, that his tools would reveal the truth. Perhaps everyone knew he was a liar, a prince of charlatans. Perhaps nobody cared or they just trusted that things would be worse without him.
The magistrate read the charges against me closing his speech by saying, "We know the truth already. I saw with my own eyes the results of your foul witchcraft, the sickness that befell the Perkins family and how it led to the unfortunate death of Anthony and two of the children. The rest of them are too scared to be here. You were seen there, contaminating them with your evil potions. Two witnesses attest. Your guilt is certain. We know too how you stole the sacred Host from the Chapel of Saint Oswald on July seventeenth. The priest, an honourable man, tells how you spat out the Host he placed on your tongue and carried it away. While no man saw you offering it to your master from Hell we know it to be the truth. The marks found on your arm when you were examined prove everything. And yet, this is a court of mercy and I am a man of decency. You may speak your case and throw yourself upon our mercy."
"Please sir," I began, my voice trembling and quiet, "If it please you and the court, I am not a witch."
The men and women watching the trial booed loudly at me. I looked around. These people had been my friends, my neighbours. I had known some of them my entire life with hardly an ill word passed. How could they have come to believe such things about me?
"I'm just an innocent woman and I don't know how it happened but your witnesses are mistaken. Father Innocent is a good man but I promise you and he that I love the church, I love Jesus, I love the Bible we listen to each week, and I would never wilfully bring harm to Christ."
I knew that Innocent was far from being a Saint. He had tried to seduce me three times in the confessional. Each time I had refused him of course. Perhaps if I had accepted his advances and completed the disgusting sexual penances he ordered me to undertake he would not have added his voice to my trial. I believe he was making up the whole thing intentionally. No mistake. But what could I say? Nobody would believe me.
Shouts of "Lies, lies, burn her, burn her."
"Enough!" the magistrate shouted. "Three witnesses to your crimes and three deaths. I should condemn you now witch. Father Innocent has testified as to the punishment. With your own ears you have heard him quote from the Bible you claim to love. You shall not suffer a witch to live. You will die. You must. Unless," and he laughed to the people gathered, "We are all mistaken. And so, because the law is merciful, you will be given a chance to prove your innocence. Call the Witch Pricker."
I'd met him before of course, the previous night. He had visited me in my cell. I heard him tell the guard that he needed some quiet with me to perform some preliminary tests in readiness for the trial. The guard left us alone. He talked about the hopelessness of my case in the face of the evidence. Then he offered me a way out.
"Well, well, you've been blessed with a fair face, you witch. A fair face and a shapely body. I'd bet that the shape continues underneath those clothes you wear. Perhaps there's hope for you yet. We're all alone and nobody would know if you took those clothes off right now and stood before me naked. Nobody would know if you took my clothes off too. Just you and me. Our secret. Lie with me witch and make it good. If you do that little thing I might be able to change the views of the court and save your life. I might."
I was a fool. Why did I have to be so pure? What really is adultery and sinful behaviour compared to saving my own life? When the Witch Pricker walked in and looked at me so sternly I regretted everything. I had said no. My virtue was too important to me to commit some mortal sin. When he stood before me in the trial I wished I'd been more humble, less focused on purity. I knew the law would not be merciful to me, that the chance I'd been given was no chance at all.
The Witch Pricker's tool was simple. He drew from his belt a special blade and held it up high so everyone could see it shine. He claimed it was the very same blade that Peter had drawn in the Garden of Gethsemane and that when Jesus told Peter to put it away he had blessed it for a higher purpose, one that it had served through many centuries. The blessed blade, touched by Christ, could reveal the difference between the holy and the infidel, between the sacred and profane, between a child of God and a child of the Devil, between a true woman and a witch. Perhaps people truly believed the story, that the blade really was the one in the Bible. Perhaps I would have believed too had I not been the one accused. I'd always believed in the holy relics held in honour in the Chapel of Saint Oswald and I knew the great cathedral of Durham contained the head of Oswald himself and had heard of a vault containing part of the cross on which Jesus had died together with one of the nails that had been hammered into his hands and feet.
Would I have stood a chance if one of the other Prickers had attended my trial? This man was unique in having a blade like this. Any other Witch Pricker would have me stripped naked and shaved and would then prick me with a pin repeatedly across my body in search of the Devil's mark. No, I think I'd have had no hope with them either and the experience leading to my final condemnation would have been much worse. They would have found the mark, just as my Pricker did.
"My blade is powerful," he claimed. "Just one cut is all it takes. I will press the holy weapon into the witch's chest. If she bleeds her heart is pure. But if there is no blood she will be taken from here and executed as she deserves. Let her be stripped bare."
Three men roughly pulled my clothes from me leaving me exposed before the crowd. They laughed and cheered and some of them shouted more false charges. "She killed my mother." "She poisoned my field." "She pissed on the altar." "Kill her. Kill her!"
The Witch Pricker drew close and whispered in my ear. "I got to see your flesh anyway and I get to touch it too."
"Please," I whispered back, "I'll do anything. Whatever you ask. You can have me."
"It's too late now witch."
He backed away and walked round me, pointed to a mole on my back and shouted, "The mark of Satan!" Returning to stand in front of me he touched the point of his dagger between my breasts. With his free had he took hold of one of them and squeezed it hard, horribly painfully and pulled it to one side. I screamed in pain and he looked to the heavens and said, "The witch screams because she feels your judgement Lord."
And he pressed the dagger into me. Hard. Right to the handle.
There was some pain but nothing so bad as the pain in my breast. It was like a child had punched me. As he slowly withdrew the blade I looked down. There was no blood. None at all. And no wonder. I could see and watch as the blade reappeared from the handle. No wonder he had been so confident about my condemnation. About his payment too.
He showed the blade to the crowd. Still shining. Unmarked. Then, after putting it back in his belt he stood behind me, took hold of both my breasts and pulled them forcefully sidewards. I could feel him, his erect penis pressing into me. "You really are a beautiful witch," he whispered.
"The witch's mark is there. You all see it. The judgement of the court is sound and this thing must die before the setting of the sun."
He finally let go of my breasts and threw me to the ground. I lay there, too much in shock to cry.
The magistrate spoke. "Mary of Heddon, in the full justice of this court you are hereby sentenced to be burned for the crimes of witchcraft, desecration and murder, sentence to be carried out today. May God, in his wisdom, have mercy on your soul."
I was half picked up and dragged across the village square where I was tied to a post still naked. I am there now, watching as men build the fire on which I will die. I am beyond terror and only hope that my suffering will not last long. Villagers pass me calling me names. Some spit on me. Others kick me. These men and women I had known for so long now hate me and look forward to watching me die. Would I have been the same as them had some other woman been falsely accused? Would I have spat on my best friend had the situation been reversed? Yes. Without a doubt. I would.
And if you were in their place you would have done it too.