Tears and Smoke

Hilary Ayshford

June 2nd 2023


They took her on a Wednesday. She was resting in the shade of the willow, lulled by the gentle music of the brook, when the blackbird’s song changed to a harsh alarm. Clumsy feet trampled her basket, crushing her collection of roots, seeds and berries, and rough hands seized her, binding her wrists and shoving her back along the path to the waiting cart.

Alice was not surprised; they had been watching her, waiting to catch her doing something that would confirm their suspicions. Ever since her sisters had come into her dreams, whispering words of warning, she had tried to be careful. Careful not to speak sharply to the children who threw stones at her in the street; careful not to shake her fist at those who gave her short measure in the market; careful to smile politely when the goodwives tending the graves in the churchyard muttered and pointed; careful to keep her eyes on the ground in case a look could be misconstrued as ill-wishing.

When little Mary Horner took sick with a fever, Alice brewed her a concoction of catswort, yarrow and white willow bark, but the next day the child had swellings in her armpits and groin. She consulted with her sisters, but all agreed there was nothing more to be done.

She begged Mary’s mother to keep everyone confined to the house and allow no strangers to enter, but her advice was not heeded. Two days later, three more children in the village were ailing, and little Mary was dead.

It was a small step from wise woman to witch. One short sermon was enough to turn the minds of the entire congregation. God visited pestilence upon the village as a punishment, said the priest. If their prayers went unanswered it was because evil dwelt in their midst and must be rooted out and destroyed.

They didn’t look far. They didn’t need to. A farmer suddenly remembered the time when Alice paid his wife a visit and the next day one of his cows was found dead in the byre; a young lad said he had seen her dancing naked in the meadow under the full moon, although it was clearly no more than a lustful fantasy; and a man whose wife died in childbirth blamed the herbal infusion Alice had given her to help with the pain of labour. Before long, everyone had stories of misfortune they could lay at her door, even though all were no more than coincidence, bad luck or ill management.

It wasn’t the humiliation of men poring over every inch of her flesh in search of the devil’s mark, nor the painful jabbing of the long needle that the inquisitor declared she didn’t feel, despite her screams. It wasn’t the ducking stool, which left her whooping and gasping, coughing up mud and weed, slimy snot trickling from her nostrils. It wasn’t even the crushing pain of the pilnie-winks and the burning agony of the iron caspie-claws that broke her. With her sisters surrounding her, grasping her hands and soothing her brow, she could bear all these torments.

The worst torture was the cell: the festering straw; the foetid air that stank of corruption and decay; the water that ran continuously down the stone walls leaving trails of green algae; the perpetual darkness, relieved only by the pale slivers of light from the torches in the passage beyond the heavy wooden door. The knowledge that her sisters had been here before her, had endured the same filth and stench and blackness, was no comfort. Even their visitations in the darkest hours could not lift her mood or stop her wishing the inevitable end would come quickly.

To be shut away from the light of the sun and the song of the birds, never again to feel the grass under her feet or to sit in the shade of the willow and dabble her fingers in brook was intolerable. Better to go out in a blaze of defiance than rot slowly in here for the rest of her days. She knew they would never release her. She told them what they wanted to hear.

On her last day on earth, she walked slowly but deliberately towards the pyre, savouring the crisp freshness of the air after so many months of dank dungeon darkness. The inquisitor offered her a cup of water. She took it, but instead of swallowing, she spat it into his face. He lit the bundles of wood at her feet; the flames shivered and danced, reflecting red and gold in the gilded metal cross hanging round his neck. Her sisters hovered above the inferno, waiting to receive her soul. They told her what she must do, what she must say, the words that would heap coals of fire on the head of her tormentor.

Through the heat-shimmering air she smiled at her torturer and mouthed the words ‘I forgive you’. She dared to hope the tears in his eyes were caused by remorse, but knew in her heart it was just the smoke.

Hilary Ayshford is a former science journalist and editor, living in rural Kent in the UK. She writes mainly micro and flash fiction and short stories, with a penchant for the darker side of human nature. She is working, on and off, on her first novella-in-flash.

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