The air had been sucked out of the corridor. A cold spike ran from the seat of Rob’s trousers to the crown of his head.
“Did you see that?” Rob whispered to his dad, fingernails biting into the faux leather of the camera. Richard nodded.
“Hello, whose there?” called Richard. His voice had lost its trademark confidence. There was no answer. Richard gave a hollow “Ha!” to himself. “Quite a performance.”
“Seems the landlord is putting on a show for us. Shall we go meet our Mary Hooper around the corner?” ‘Thank, God,’ Rob thought to himself, and the floorboards creaked underfoot on their way to expose the ruse.
“The game’s u…” Richard shut up, turning the corner.
A dead end: just a bricked up window and one closed door.
Richard walked up to the door. It read “Store,” on a brass name-plate. He gripped the Formica handle. It was locked, rattling in the frame as he tried it.
“You wait here,” Richard told his son.
“She’ll be hiding in the cupboard. Make sure she doesn’t get away. I’ll get the key from the landlord,” and with that he left, walking briskly around the corner.
Rob was alone. He looked back down the short corridor and then at the locked door. He felt trapped. Every sinew of his body wanted to run but he had to be brave. He wanted to live up to his dad the great journalist. Instinctively, he backed into the corner by the bricked up window, staring at the store cupboard door.
‘Did that count as seeing her? Where is he? Where is he,’ thought Rob, his breath quickening into shallow breaths. Nowhere felt safe; he was exposed, hunted. The rhyme from the playground game his dad had been educating him about for the last week rang in his ears:
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…
“It’s not bloody funny, I tell you. Scared the bloody life out of Rob,” Richard’s voice interrupted the fear.
“I told you, there’s no guests up here at the moment and the cleaners don’t come until tomorrow,” protested the landlord. “I’m not playing any tricks on you,” the landlord was fumbling with a bunch of keys.
“Rob, did you see anyone come out?” Rob shook his head.
“Looks like you’ve seen a ghost,” the landlord joked to Rob, noting his white complexion.
“Not funny,” said Richard.
“I was only trying to reassure the boy.”
“Just open the door and end this farce,” snipped Richard.
The landlord slid the key into the deadlock and opened the door.
Rob’s heart pounded and he wanted to leave even more. He had to go. ‘Please dad, please, let’s go,’ he thought but he could not speak. His mouth was dry, he thought of children dying of thirst, and fear kept his mouth shut tight.
Richard pulled on the light, urgently looking around the cupboard. It didn’t take long. Packed full of toilet rolls, stacks of soap and folded bed linen, it was barely wider than the door and only six feet deep. There was no place to hide.
Richard nocked the walls and inspected the floor. He looked up, checking for a hatch to the attic above. There was nothing.
“Satisfied?” asked the landlord curtly. “Maybe you’ve got a bit of a mystery to write about after all? You wouldn’t be the first to see things up here.” He still wanted his story.
“Yeah, maybe,” Richard said more to himself.
“I think you’d better take the boy home,” the landlord said. There was kindness in his voice.
“Don’t presume…” Richard turned back to the corridor annoyed and saw his son, shaking in the corner, a dark wet patch spreading across the crotch of his jeans and down one leg.
27th May, 1820:
Giles Brennan the blacksmith hadn’t spoken to her for more than twenty years and now he held her by the hips once more. The last time had been so private and clandestine, as it always is with young courting couples. She would push him back and straddle him, making him her man with each undulation, her black hair wild around her shoulders, her dark eyes holding his pale grey gaze until he tensed and bucked. She would fall into his kiss and taste him deeply. But all she could see now was her own blood dripping from her nose, mouth and the cuts around her swollen eyes, pooling on the flagstones of the town square in which her face rubbed. And all she could now taste was copper and the sharpness of the teeth she had swallowed.
Breathing was laboured. She must have broken many ribs when they dragged her behind the horse from the gaol house. The skin from her knees, palms, elbows, her left shoulder and the back of her head was gone, scraped to the bone. Pain was a churning tumult, a tempest squalling through her body, so that small things such as someone stamping on her fingers, shattering all but three bones in her right hand, felt little more than a bee stink, which she would have treated with a dock leaf and willow bark. Though a dock leaf would do little for these injuries.
Giles grunted, “Confess, confess,” from behind her, and at first she didn’t know whether he was talking about her or him. Then she remembered their beautiful little boy, William she had called him, and she remembered all her children, the ones they threw away to die in gutters and freeze in hedgerows, and the other ones dead and dying in the foundling house who still needed her, their mother. And because she knew all their secrets: who had covered up their belly; or who asked for a mandrake tincture but never drank it; or those wanted something for a rash, or a swelling or for the burning when they made water; or those who had called on her in the middle of the night to come to some barn or backroom, to drag life screaming from between their legs. She had kept secrets involving all the men that now assaulted her, tortured her, defiled. Their faces swam thanklessly in and out of her consciousness on great eddies of pain so that her mind was consumed, confused, lost. Mary had given herself up to the pain. It was a storm she could not resist.
Her blood, on that old town square that was built upon something older still, dripped through the cracks and into the earth beneath, an offering to the old god. The worms and beetles, the dirt and the stones, the weeds and the trees hadn’t forgotten their priestess, the keeper of their knowledge, the one who served all thanklessly, the one who remembered them and was about to come back to them. For taking her there must be a price, a great price three times three for the last priestess. The offering had been made; the town would pay if only the priestess could remember her part.
“Confess,” Giles panted, hitting Mary in the ribs so that another eddy of pain brought her to. And she remembered herself. She remembered she was the keeper of the old knowledge, of the remedies, of sacred places and of the incantations. It became clear in the midst of that tempest of pain that the knowledge was about to be lost, there was no one for her to pass it on to, and that all but one part of that knowledge would be useless to her now. But one thing would be enough.
Blood filled her throat so that her first word sounded more like a toad belching from the bottom of a rotting stump.
“Shh,” hissed the Reverend Mosely. “She wishes to confess,” and he pulled her head back by blood soaked hair.
Mary’s nose was broken and her front four teeth missing so that the words came out as a nasal lisp, rasping and wet, as if spoken from another world.
“By Jack in the Green, by the water and land, by the moon and the stars, by your own evil hand, by mine eye may a fate you share with your children as well, that we poison you with water in the old Southern well.”
The reverend recoiled, snarling, “Witch! As if we needed any further confirmation.”
“String her up. String her up. String her up,” cried Giles in an ecstasy of rage.
Tune in tomorrow for Witchopper – Part IV
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: