“School children from the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell are wont to sing the following song in accompaniment to a popular playground game of eponymous nomenclature: Witchopper.
If you see the Witchopper
Then you’ll come a cropper
Never mind how hard you try
If you look in her cold black eyes
When it’s time to go to bed
You’ll be sure to wake up dead.”
(From R.S. Stewarton, 1921, Victorian Folktales, Fables and Folklore: Volume II, page 139.)
1st June 1989, Southwell, England:
The thirst in Rob’s throat was the least of his worries. His eyes had sunk in noticeably. His cheeks were drawn and his lips were beginning to crack. The resulting lethargy was indistinguishable from his grief and that other thing that preceded, or perhaps precipitated, these two: the fear, squatting deeply like a toad at the bottom of a rotting stump. Worst still, the toad would pass unnoticed by the outside world, burying itself deeper still inside the boy, the boy at his father’s graveside. The last of Rob’s tears fell in synchronicity with his father’s coffin, as it was lowered along with his half of their secret into the grave, never to return.
English summer rain accompanied the graveside liturgy. Rob heard the words but not their meaning. They had never been a church going family, even in this Minster town but his father, Richard Peters, had been a pillar of the community and they were in the middle of England and its countryside, where gentle traditions only whisper of the fervent piety of the past.
Doing the thing that was expected was the thing they were doing. However, Rob could feel through the mug of his grief and fear that even with close family and friends, sprinkled with a few colleagues and community figures, this wasn’t private enough. Questions peered uncomfortably over mourner’s shoulders and half-answers hid under the coattails of social niceties.
His mother’s hand gripped his so tightly it hurt but Rob said nothing. She was holding on to him as though he were a wet root protruding from a freshly cut grave wall and the only thing preventing her from falling into the grave as well. Not for the first time, Rob was an anchor point around which adults buffeted, thrown away and then pulled back around him, in behaviour that seemed to him as inexplicable as the weather, one moment clement the next squalling tempests. And so it was a surprise when his mother’s grip released his hand but she did not follow his father into the cold, wet ground. Instead, she swore right in front of the vicar, the town mayor, the staff of The Newark Advertiser, Rob’s headmistress and his form tutor from school, just as the coffin came to rest.
“That bitch,” she said. At first it was in a conversational volume of surprise tainted with something darker and more bitter – no, not bitter, acrid – like a piece of festering meat placed in the mouth only to spat out into a napkin at a dinner party. There was an awkward pause in the liturgy during which glances sought to confirm if this was just a minor, understandable slip of a grieving widow or something that would develop into an altogether more socially awkward event, such as full hysterics. What they got was a little something to feed those questions loitering over their shoulders.
“That bitch,” repeated Rob’s mother, this time in a voice intended to cast beyond the assembled mourners, acridity now fully developed, chewed on and vomited forth without care for fellow diners. She was staring over the mourners on the other side of the grave and Rob noticed that his headmistress thought at first she was the object of his mother’s ire, a face mixed with surprise and mild panic.
“That fucking bitch,” she now shouted. Still holding her black umbrella Rob’s mother was on the move. She broke rank, stepping back and around Rob, leaving him in the rain. She was off, striding on mushy ground between granite gravestones, in a comic march that wobbled her at the knees each time a three-inch heel of her smart black shoes impaled the sodden grass. The mourners first looked at each other with wan horror, then at the wobbling spectacle spitting fury and brandishing a fully opened umbrella, before following the direction of the widow Peters to find at its end another woman. This other woman was quite similar in appearance to Mrs Peters but not similar enough to be a sister. She was formally dressed but not all in black, as if she wanted to show her respects but pass unnoticed as a relative visiting another grave, and she was at least ten years younger than Rob’s mother.
The shock of Mrs Peters’ outburst had put the mourners on their heels. It wasn’t until Tim the sub-editor from the paper, who’d been the late Richard Peters’ right-hand man, said, “I think we should do something,” that they made a move. By which time it was altogether too late. Mrs Peters’ shoes had since been lost to the English summer mud and now unhobbled she closed in on her target with a liberating fury. Every possible Anglo-Saxon expletive emanated from her mouth as a Boadicean war cry. The other woman held up her hands and was saying something in an apologetic tone that couldn’t be heard above fricative explosions and guttural consonants.
They were face to face now. The umbrella pitched above Mrs Peters’ right shoulder and then swung down into the side of the younger woman, bouncing off and braking two of the spokes but not the other woman. Mrs Peters swung again and again, backing her nemesis against the trunk of a sycamore. Each swing becoming more powerful but still negligible as the spokes broke to create a flail of nylon and metal.
The mourners were now at a run to intervene. The other woman lost her footing on a slippery root and fell to her behind. Mrs Peters showed no mercy and lashed the umbrella across the younger woman’s face, lightly cutting her cheek and bruising her ear. Cowering on the ground in a foetal position, arms shielding her pretty face, the younger woman cried out, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Mrs Peters whipped her and whipped her and whipped her but it wasn’t enough. In the hail of expletives, Mrs Peters, frustrated by the lack of damage her flail had inflicted, reassessed its application. The mourners were only ten yards from the women now. The flail was turned on its end to become a pike, now bent and warped, to be thrust down like an ill placed coup de grace into the pretty blonde’s hip. She yelped and yelped again when the umbrella point punched into her floating rib and again as it struck her shoulder. The next one was sure to hit its mark, right in her ear or throat or better yet her eye ball, to pop out one of those pretty green eyes, to be not so pretty anymore. Then on all fours she would grope for it around the cemetery floor snivelling with her face all tears and snot and blood and optic nerve, her slutty behind in the air while Mrs Peters could finish off the little home wrecking Jessabelle. But Tim tackled the shoeless Mrs Jane Peters and brought the assault to an end before any real damage could be done.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the younger woman cried again.
Jane Peters had stopped swearing. Tim had broken the spell of her rage and held her now on the ground muddy and weeping with an uncontrollable tide of grief. “He’s mine, he’s mine,” was all she could repeat. But of course, he wasn’t, not anymore. Richard Peters, Editor in Chief of The Newark Advertiser, formerly of the Fleet Street Daily Telegraph, pillar of the community, father, husband, adulterer, was dead and half buried along with a secret only he and his son, Rob, knew and which no one would believe.
Through all this Rob looked on, a bystander. His form tutor had put an arm around his shoulders. It did not hurt, nor did it comfort. Rob felt nothing toward it. What did any of it matter? He knew what would happen, how slow and painful it would be, how unbelievable yet inevitable it all was. He couldn’t cry about it. He was too dehydrated for tears. All he had left was his grief, a terrible thirst and that fear, squatting deeply like a toad at the bottom of a rotting stump.
23rd May 1820, Southwell, England:
Her burden was heavy but the child was only light, swaddled like a new born at her bosom. She carried a shovel as well, wrapped in hessian.
Mary had cleaned him so gently in the warm bath in front of the fire – half an old barrel filled with water from the kettle. Little Harry couldn’t feel the heat of course. Mary knew this was the right thing to do, to clean up the little soul, wash away the dirt and filth of this life, none of which had been the boy’s fault. And she would carry him like Saint Christopher had carried Christ. She would bear his burden and that of all the other little souls whom God had chosen to take, but whom the Church would not recognise, but she would.
It had been her lot to care for the foundlings in life and now in death. A sickness had ravaged them, coming like a pestilence, sucking them dry. No food and no water could the little poppets keep down. Not that Mary had much to give them: a thin nettle broth at best, occasionally with a scrap of stale bread. They were wasting away even before the pestilence. The stipend from the town council was never enough and Mary made up the difference helping the poorer folk of the town, those that like her couldn’t afford the doctor. She had the way with plants, the old knowledge her grandmother had passed down, of poultice and tincture, balm and ashes; she knew the incantations; and she knew the sacred places, the old ones the Churches ignored. As such, many secrets she kept for many people, many dark secrets, and she kept them as the women of her family had always done.
She headed there to one of the old places now, under cover of mist and darkness, beyond the town and through the fields and spinneys and along the stream, as she had many times in the last few weeks. There was a place, the original place, where she had gone as a girl many years since to have her own poppet, the bastard son of the apprentice blacksmith Giles Brennan. She hadn’t known he was already engaged. He was happy to play with her and to take what he wanted but Giles soon turned cold and forsook her and her belly when she told him. Mary screamed alone in the dell. It wasn’t the first or the last bastard she’d birthed into this world, but it was the first and last of her own body. He had been so beautiful just like Harry, and he never cried. She buried him there in the old sacred place, under the weeping willow, where Jack in the Green would look over him, take him back into the earth with the worms and beetles, to be part of the world again.
Harry was five and died in the morning as the sun rose, a bag of bones, rank with his own excrement and vomit in the foundling house. Mary had given him comfrey and dandelion for diarrhoea, and elderberry and wild garlic for his fever but it wasn’t enough. She cleaned him and washed his hair, singing as she did to all the children alive or dead, until all trace of the sickness accept for his skinny bones was washed away. She rubbed his skin with lavender oil, dried and brushed his hair. He would always complain when the brush tugged at the knots, but not now. He was a good boy. Finally, she dressed him in clean clothes and put a pomander of sage in his pocket, tied up like a little toy man.
When a pall of darkness drew over the town, she lifted Harry to her breast and swaddled him there to another song:
Lavenders green, dilly, dilly
If I love you, dilly, dilly
You’ll love me too
Under the weeping willow, she lay him gently by the mossy trunk of the tree. Around the edge of the canopy where it brushed the ground, Mary dug Harry a hole to join his five other friends and a new sixth friend, that of her own son. They would all lie there together with Jack in the Green, in this old place of magic that didn’t forsake its own because they were of the land and it was the land.
It was as she patted down the last clod on top of its little hillock that Mary heard the voices, men’s voices not far off. The night’s mist had muffled their jeers and cloaked their torches. Now too close to run away, anger grunted from the mob, and Mary shook as a trapped animal shakes when caught in a snare and hears the dogs approaching.
30th May, 1820: Final entry from the diary of Reverend Gordon Mosely, vicar in the diocese of Southwell.
Great sins have been perpetrated in this town of late. Sins that have snaked and entwined into one another to become a thicket of hate. It is a brier of our own making and our immortal souls will bear the scars of our entanglement with it for eternity, as God is my witness. For now, I fear that none of us shall ever look upon his heavenly face. We shall writhe with the worms and dark things of the ground, for they know our anger, our cruelty, our gilt.
We dragged the wretched woman from the Burgage gaol and meted her unspeakable crimes with yet more unspeakable crimes, until bloody, beaten and defiled she hung from the new lamppost by the neck in front of her foundling house.
It is three days since and the town is quiet. People dare not look one another in the eye and all pass quickly about their business. Each and every face looks as tired as mine, for if my fellow man is like myself, the vision of that woman has denied them any reprieve from their sins in slumber.
At the end, she uttered something, an old superstition, like one of Cromwell’s witches and at first it meant nothing, nonsense from a bride of Satan. Yet last night I could not sleep. I rose finally with the sun and opened the Minster. My thoughts crowding in on me, I sort refuge in the chapter house. It has always been a place to think. But there, on every wall he stared back at me, branches and leaves creeping from his mouth and ears. He was everywhere, in the ground of every street and the stone and the wood and the brick of every building, and the grass and trees and plants of all else. That old god, and she had invoked his name. Laying his hex upon us.
I think too much and I am so awfully tired and, strangely, despite that I drink, so terribly, unquenchably thirsty.
Tune in tomorrow for Witchopper – Part II
Once Dan was an academic but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s home town, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. He tries write the kind of stories he wants to read and aims for readers to want to turn the page.Dan’s work has featured in The Incubator, Storgy and the horror magazine Devolution Z.
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Check out Daniel Soule‘s previously published fiction below:
Keep it up Kid
Little Man o’ War
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