People sometimes wonder where the idea came from to dress our children up as monsters, only to send them off to terrorize the neighborhood for candy…
Wisps of smoke tumbled and danced from side to side as they left the stone chimneys into the thin breeze that rustled the ends of the thatched roofs of the village. The smoke clung in the misty rain that was falling over the small hamlet, turning the rutted roads into mud between the small cottages and shops. The ring of an anvil filled the air, and the sounds of chickens and sheep filled the gaps between hammer blows with clucks and bleats.
Two men dressed in rough-spun wool and worn leather leaned on the time-smoothed stone wall of the community well and watched the group of royal guards stomping up the street that ran through the center of town. Their bleached white tabards picked up a little more grime with each squishing stomp even as their shining steel armor clanked beneath it. In the center of the group was a tall figure all in black, his head hooded and holding a wooden staff with a tarnished and dented brass cross at the top. Every few steps, one of the guards would glance at the man dressed in black and, at a nod, would peel off from the group to pound on the door of a thatched cottage or shop.
The two men glanced at each other and shook their heads. “Looks like the king sent us another Witch-smeller,” said the thinner one to his companion.
“The mayor isn’t going to think much of that,” said the other, his jowly face jiggling in rhythm as he shook his head. “I don’t know what the king is thinking these days.”
“It’s the new Bishop,” said the thin one, running his hand through his hair, which rose at odd angles from his head, “He’s all about the letter of the law, and apparently he found some reason in the Good Book to think that Witches are only good for firewood.”
“Well,” the larger one said, pushing back from the wall and motioning his companion to follow, “I can’t possibly see anything good coming from it. Come on Shawn, we’d best be getting out of their way. Otherwise they might decide to talk to us.”
Suma Nonstriga was feeling every one of the seventy years she’d lived in the small village. Overall it had been a fulfilling life, even though she’d never had children of her own. Most of the village had been born in her hands, as had their parents, and their grandparents had received tender ministrations from her at the other end of their lives. No, she had no children, but she had a whole village that called her “Mother”.
She carried the thin porcelain teacup she’d had for over fifty years, the blue curls on it almost worn away from decades of use. It had come from the Orient and was still considered one of the prized possessions of the village. Every morning she drank her tea from it and then carefully cleaned it to put it back onto the shelf. It was the only teacup she had.
Glancing down into the cup as she reached the kitchen sink, she found herself suddenly catching her breath. In the bottom of the cup, the tea leaves had formed a pattern.
“Oh no,” she breathed in a whisper. She looked up through the wavy glass of the kitchen window to see the troop of guards turn into the street in front of her house, the man in black pointing down the street with his cross-topped staff. Sighing, she quickly rinsed the cup in the water in the sink and set it carefully aside to dry before scrubbing her wet hands on her thick black wool skirt.
She grabbed her best hat as she headed for the back door of the house, “Nyssa will need to know. Fool girl. And then I’ll have to go to…” The sound trailed off as the door closed behind her.
When the soldier pushed open the front door, there was no one in the house.
The mayor was less than pleased when the soldiers burst through his door. In the middle of eating lunch, he spit a mouthful of wine across the table.
“What’s the bloody meaning of this!” he screamed at the soldiers as they filed into the room. “Do you know who I am?”
The black figure of the Witch-smeller glided into the room, the bottom of the staff thunking loudly on the wooden floor. He reached up and ripped back his hood, revealing a face that was a mass of tattoos, all of which were phrases in stylized Latin. His hair was a tangle of dreadlocks hanging below his shoulders, and his eyes were piercing blue. All of his teeth were filed to points. When he spoke, there was a hissing undertone, as if he spoke in a full-volume whisper.
“Oh, I know you, Mayor — you are the one who allows the consorts of Satan to cavort in your village. Take care with your words lest I think you consort with them as well.” His eyes flashed to the fine meal on the table, a leg of roasted lamb and wine. “You stuff yourself when you should be unable to choke down a meal for fear of the Harlots of Beelzebub who sup in the village as we speak.”
The mayor paled a bit, but answered, “There are no witches here in Bent Fork, good sir. So I’ll save you some time and tell you now you can go on to Red Water, but you’ll find no witches there either.”
The Witch-smeller hissed at him, “I’ve just come from Red Water. We found no less than half a dozen witches there, and I made the town live up to its name when I was finished. I washed the blood of Satan out of the filthy streets in that town.”
The mayor swallowed nervously. “Look, I don’t know what you’ve heard about our fair city, but…”
“But what!?! I have heard enough from your neighbors. Surely there is some force of evil at work here in the town? Crops failing? Hail smashing crops? Even this cursed rain falling today? You must see it?!?” Spittle flew from his lips as he grew angrier.
Now the mayor leaned forward, “Well, that’s just it, then. We’ve had none of those things. Even the rain today is just what we’ve been needing to soak in the crops one last time before the harvest. We’ve no works of the Prince of Lies here.”
“Fool,” the man hissed. He slammed the cross down on the table, spilling the wine glass. “Can you not see! The witches keep you comfortable here, so that you do not cast them out. They hide among you and feed you on pleasantry and you think you are safe. Then they shall turn your children to evil. Oh, the Bishop was right to send me here. You live in the cave with the lions and think yourself blessed that they have not fed on you yet. I tell you now, mayor, I will find you three witches before the morning dawns! And if you stand against me, you shall find your own place before the Holy Court.”
With that, he swept his staff across the table, shattering the plates and scattering the food to the floor. Without another word, he swept out the door leaving chaos behind him.
The rain had stopped and the sun was burning the horizon with red when the Witch-smeller stood in the middle of the town square. He had made men place boards across the well so he could stand over it, looking down on the crowd around him. The guards had dragged all the people from their homes and businesses to stand in the muddy square. The king’s guards passed among them, shoving them forward until they pressed up against the walls of the well.
The Witch-smeller raised his staff and slammed it down on the board three times, the empty well beneath him lending a deep resonance to the thump, so that it carried out across the entire square. The people fell silent, while still shuffling nervously.
“Good people of Bent Fork,” he yelled out over the crowd, “I speak to you now. For there are those among you who are impure. I have seen the signs. Within this village is one who consorts with the devil,” his words rang across the square now. His eyes swept the crowd. He could see the gazes moving around now, tending towards a few individuals. Soon he would be ready. “Yes! Verily I says to you, one amongst you is a witch! This I know, and I shall smell her out. Never have I failed to find a witch. You who are good Christians must know the signs!”
He could see the discomfort now; he knew they would show him the way. “You know that witches are marked by the sign of Satan! They are born marked! You know they are strange in their ways, for who could lie with Lucifer and come away unchanged! They live alone, offering cures or medicines, that are truly potions of the Devil! And oftentimes, they care for those who are sick and deathly, for they take their power from DEATH ITSELF!”
Yes, he could see the eyes focusing now, there, in the very front row, an old woman, wrapped in a simple black wool skirt. Yes, this would be too easy. He raised his staff above his head, hurling back his hood to reveal his tattooed face in the red glow of sunset. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Oh Lord! Show me the Sinner among your flock! Make plain to me the Serpent that dwells in its bosom! Guide my hand that I may find the Witch!” Knowing where the woman was standing, he could point the staff even with his eyes closed. “Yes, my Lord! I feel your spirit moving within me! Here! Here is the Witch!” With that, he swung the staff down.
As soon as the man had closed his eyes, Summa had stepped, with some difficulty, up onto the platform across the well. She might be seventy, but it hadn’t been an easy seventy. She had hands like leather and a stout frame as well. She’d delivered calves from a cow that liked to kick. She was ready.
She caught the staff in her hand before it was halfway down, and leaned right into the Witch-smeller’s shocked face. In a voice pitched low, but that carried clearly across the square, she said, “There’s no call for pointing that thing at any of these good people. There’s no witches in this square, young man.”
He wrestled briefly with the staff, but her grip was like iron. “Foul temptress,” he shouted as he pulled away from her, “I will not succumb to your wiles. These people know you for what you are!”
“Oh, aye, that they do. Though sometimes when they get enough fear put in ‘em, they forget. I’m the one who eased the path that brought half of ‘em into this world, and I’ll be the one sitting at the other half’s deathbed, to help ease the path out of it. I ain’t never done it for glory, or for charity, but just because it needed to be done, and usually they show me kindness in return. There ain’t one of ‘em bad enough to warrant your attention though.”
“So you proclaim them all innocent!” the man shouted at her, “Innocent as lambs!”
“Oh, there’s not a one of them that’s totally innocent, because the Good Book says we’re all sinners, same as you.”
The man actually sputtered at her. She went on more quietly, “You know I’ve had my time and patience, and I’ve read the Good Book, Latin and Greek, and the Old Testament in Hebrew, I don’t recall any part of it calling for terrorizing villages. So I suggest you get yourself out of here before you cause any problems in our good town.”
His eyes turned to ice, and with a sudden strength, he wrenched the staff away from her hand. He stabbed it down at the boards and they boomed like thunder.
“I will not leave this town so long as the Witch lives,” he spat at her, quite literally, “And the King’s Guards will see that you burn with the rising sun!” Two guards had worked their way to the impromptu stage, and they jumped up beside her now, grabbing each arm roughly. She didn’t resist. “What have you to say now, witch!”
She sighed, “So be it. You were given fair warning. You wanted the Witch of the village, so you shall have her.” She glanced up at the man, “But you won’t be happy about it. Alyss?” The last word was in a different tone, as if she said it to the square. Immediately, everyone in the village shrank back from the well.
The Witch-smeller stared at her, as if she were some strange animal, then raised his staff and swung it to smash her in the face. The blow never fell.
Inches from her face, the brass cross struck… something… harder than stone. One whole arm of the cross bent askew, and the shaft cracked and splintered. All through the square the shadows gathered, swirling inward toward the stage until a great pillar of blackness stood swirling like a whirlwind between the Witch-smeller and Summa. The crowd was running now, pushing past the guards and scattering back to their houses and businesses, slamming doors and window shutters behind them.
With a crack like a board snapping, the shadows coalesced into a figure. Ramrod straight, dressed in a simple black dress from head to toe, thin with a bun of hair like fresh silver, a face like a hawk with blue-gray eyes with a piercing look that an eagle would envy. She stared at the Witch-smeller who took a step back, swallowing hard, before she turned to look at Summa. “Has he hurt anyone yet?” Her voice was cool, calm, yet with an undertone that demanded obedience.
“No, Alyss, I stepped in before he started the accusing,” she answered respectfully. “I was trying to stop it before it got started. I got little Nyssa out of town. You know her and her fairy stories. I tried to warn him what would happen.”
“I see. But he wouldn’t stop, would he?”
“No,” it was a simple answer.
Alyss glanced at the guards who had tried to rush the stage. They were pushing forward as if moving through treacle, fighting every step to get closer to the stage, yet failing. The two guards that had been holding Summa were both kneeling now, their arms numb and unresponsive.
Alyss turned back to the Witch-smeller. “So, you came to find a witch? I’d say you found one. The first one, I’d guess, or you’d know better.”
“I have burned dozens of witches, you demon harlot,” he had a lead jar in his hand, the lid pulled from the wax that sealed it, and desperately he hurled it at her. It stopped almost a foot from her and hung in the air.
“Holy water? For me?” Alyss smiled. Without hesitation, she reached out and grabbed the jar, brought it to her lips and drank it. “I was parched. And dozens of witches? Dozens of innocent old ladies and fool children more like.”
“Monster,” he spat at her, “thrice-cursed monster and killer of babies. You shall burn at the stake for this.”
“Monster?” She rolled the word around on her tongue, “Monster… yes. You say there is a monster in this town, and I agree. So I make this bargain with you, Witch-smeller. Tomorrow morning, should you stand in this square, I will present myself to be willingly burned at the stake. You need only survive until the cock crows at dawn.”
“A meaningless bargain, made by the bride of Beelzebub. You shall kill me in the night, or send your demon spawn to do it.”
“Oh no. I will not single you out. You have brought the fear of monsters to this town and planted its seed in all the people. That seed must be ripped out before it can germinate. So I will fight your monsters with other monsters. I mean to send them against the whole town. They will come to every door this night. The people need only face their fears and live by the words of the Good Book to survive. Just as you must.”
“Witch. Spawn of evil! I shall face your monsters and strike them down!”
Alyss only smiled. Her voice suddenly rang out. “People of Bent Fork. Remember what the Good Book has taught you and you shall see tomorrow. When the sun sets, the monsters shall come!” Her voice became quiet again, “There, little Witch-smeller,” she pointed, “there is the church. Go and hide inside it with your guards, and face your monsters. I will be here when the sun rises. Will you?”
The Witch-smeller hesitated a moment, then looked over her shoulder at the sun, barely above the horizon now, “So be it, Witch,” he hissed. He motioned to the guards who ran, unimpeded to the church. The Witch-smeller himself walked grandly to the doors, pausing only long enough to pick up the bent cross from the ground where it had fallen. Turning back, he pulled the oak double doors shut and the sound of the bar falling across the inside echoed through the empty square.
Alyss turned to help Summa up, only to find her already standing, looking at the setting sun. “The monsters, our monsters, they’ll be our own fears, right?”
Alyss gazed at her, her eyebrow raised in a sign of admiration, “I should have made you take the apprenticeship all those years ago.”
Summa smiled, “After what my mother named me? I could never have broken her heart the way you did.”
“My sister never did understand the path I chose.” Alyss shook her head sadly.
“Don’t you need to be off doing something to get this started?” Summa asked, watching the sun vanish behind the distant hills.
“I did that hours ago. I knew it would come to this. You should head home, that’s where they’ll find you.”
“Do you still have that harp? I might be needing it.” She said, starting to crawl off the stage.
Alyss smiled, “Ah, Summa, still full of surprises.” She held out her hand, twisted, and suddenly there was a small, golden harp in her hand. She handed it to Summa with a nod.
“Thank you, Alyss. I hope I see you at sunrise, and not on the stake.”
Alyss settled onto the stage. Mists were starting to rise from the ground, and in the distance, Summa thought she saw figures shambling along the road. “I’ll be here, Summa. I have my own monsters to face, after all.”
The church doors shuddered beneath the blows that had been raining down on it harder and harder for the last twenty minutes. The bar creaked, groaned, then splintered, the two halves clattering into the darkness. The few candles they had found gave little light. First through the door was a massive demon shape, its eyes aglow. It reached out a massive paw towards the nearest guard, he responded by swinging his sword at the paw, nearly severing the arm. The demon roared, and his giant maw grabbed the guard’s head to his shoulders, then dragged the still struggling man out of the doors and into the square. As soon as that creature disappeared, another came through the door. This one was a creature of wood, like some twisted tree, a face carved of knots and arms of branches. It came on roots spreading and slithering across the floor, it’s arm outstretched to the next guard, it’s fist clenching and opening as it came. The man screamed, hurling a dagger at its face, but it ignored the blow and wrapped its wooden arms around him, the metal squealing as the branches constricted, and the creature fled out the door with its prize.
In the nave, the Witch-smeller sat, his Bible in his lap, the Malleus Malificarum open at his right, and an oil filled lantern at his left. He was rifling through the pages of the Bible looking for every passage on monsters and creatures and trying to find wards or banishments. He was shouting Latin phrases whenever he found one, and saying the words of Mass over and over between phrases. He could hear the screams of the guards, and knew they were being carried from the very sanctuary as he struggled.
And then there was silence.
He looked up in the pale light. Before him were at least two dozen women of various ages, some noble, some peasants. He knew who they were. They were the women he had burned as witches.
A sudden breeze blew the pages of the Malleus Malificarum, the Hammer of the Witches to a particular passage that he dreaded. The signs of witches. “For they shall weep not at the tortures, and shall laugh as they are burned – thus shall you know the witch be true.”
And he knew these girls had wept, and they had screamed as they burned. Every one of them. Screamed until his soul echoed with the sounds — the sounds he only heard when his eyes closed at night.
All of them stood now, their hands outstretched towards him, as if pleading silently, and he realized he could see through them, for they were pale, translucent creatures. Ghosts. He held the Bible before him like a shield. “Eieci te spiritibus malignis, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,” he cried out. I banish thee, evil spirits, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
He held the bent cross before him, the splintered wood biting into his hand. “Begone!” he screamed, swinging the cross at the spectral figures. “Begone!”
But they came forward and surrounded him, while he fell to his knees weeping. And when they were all around him, on every side, they began to scream.
Summa was waiting at the door when the knock came. The golden harp sat to one side, the strings were playing themselves, a quiet happy tune; a fire flickered on the hearth, and the table was set for two with plain, well worn plates and cups — the teacup was secure in its cabinet. She smoothed her silk blouse with her hands, glancing down at the fancy velvet skirt she had planned to be buried in. She nodded her head once, and turned the knob.
“I thought it would be you,” she said to the figure at the door, “Come in.”
The cock crowed just at dawn, and the mists fell from the streets like a string had been cut. The few remaining monsters shimmered for a moment and vanished as if they had never been. People began to exit their houses and gathered in the square. On final count, not a single one was missing, except Summa.
Alyss was still sitting at the center of the stage, her legs crossed, her arms resting on them, her head tipped down as if in deep thought. The sun was well up when someone cleared their throat loudly and she looked up to survey the crowd.
Finally she nodded, “It makes me proud to see you all here. All of you know not just what the good book says, but what it means. When the monsters come to your door, what do you do? Do you fight them and hope to survive?”
There was a collective shaking of heads, and a brave voice called out, “No ma’am, the Bible says to turn no stranger from your door. That means we was to offer them sucker.”
“That’s succor,” said another man snickering.
“That’s right,” said Alyss, standing, “You cannot fight fear with violence, you fight it with love. You give compassion, and you give succor, and when the monster leaves, they are no longer a monster.”
“Ma’am, we checked the church, and there’s none of them left. Did they run off?”
Alyss sighed, “They were consumed by their own monsters. Ignorance can do that.”
A quiet voice said, “Ma’am, no one’s seen Mother Summa.”
“I suspect she’s sleeping in,” Alyss said wryly, “I’ll go and check on her before I leave. Now, it’s time for you to be about your day. It’s All Saint’s Day today, so go and give thanks.” With that, she stepped off the stage, and the crowd began to disperse. A few of the small children followed behind her. It was probably the first time they’d seen Alyss, as she rarely appeared in the village.
Suddenly she rounded on them, and they all froze in their tracks, “Why are you following me?” she asked, raising both her eyebrows.
“We want to see more magic,” they all shouted in unison.
Alyss shook her head, “Magic is not a plaything. Its power comes not from its use, but from having the sense not to use it.”
“But you made the monsters,” said one small girl.
“No, child, the monsters were already there, hiding in the dark places in our minds. Nothing out here is as frightening as what you can make in your own mind. Remember that. And if you can face the fears in your minds, you can face anything this world has to throw at you. Even evil Witch-smellers. Now go on back to your parents… or maybe I’ll show you magic by making you into monsters,” she said with a laugh.
The children scattered, and she made it to Summa’s house. She avoided the front door, witches never use front doors, and strode through the back door without knocking. Summa was sitting at the table, a far-away look on her face. Unwashed dishes sat in the sink, and the tea-kettle was whistling, yet Summa made no move towards it.
Alyss, tsked and the iron bar with the hook swung out of the fireplace, the tea kettle swinging below as the whistle slowed to a stop.
Alyss sat down across from Summa, who finally seemed to notice her over the cup. She blinked once, and then smiled broadly.
Alyss leaned across the table and softly put her hand on Summa’s, “He came to the door then?”
“Oh, yes,” Summa said, her eyes wandering to the harp now at a skewed angle on the side-board. “He was a perfect gentleman.”
“I suppose he was. He always has been to me. Fair-minded, if a bit stubborn.”
“Oh, I think he just misses company. We talked half the night.”
“And the other half?” Alyss asked.
“We danced,” she sighed. “I don’t know why I ever feared him any more.”
“He does come on a bit strong when most people meet him.”
Alyss shrugged, “Summa, I have to know, what does your name have to do with not becoming my apprentice?”
Summa’s eyes sharpened into focus and she turned to look at Alyss, “Oh, of course, you never did learn Latin, did you? Your sister, she did love reading. Sum Nonstriga — it’s Latin for I Am Not A Witch. Bit silly if you ask me.”
Alyss smiled. Her sister had always had a great sense of humor, even though she’d hated that Alyss had followed the Calling. “If it’s silly, then I could still teach you.”
“Oh, there won’t be time for that,” Summa said, her voice a little sad, “I’m afraid I’ve not long left in this life.”
“Nonsense,” Alyss said, “What on earth would make you say that?”
“Hmm,” Summa said absently, carefully putting the teacup back on the table, “Oh, simple,” she nodded her head towards the front door. “He left that behind. I can only assume he’ll be back for it soon.”
Leaning against the door frame, taller than the door itself, its wood black as night, and its blade shining like silver, was a simple, single-bladed scythe.