Preacher Abraham Fell stared down at Thessaly Cross, breathing like he’d run for a good long stretch. He leaned over, bending at the knees to lay another slab of fieldstone upon her chest.
“We beat you with hickory and we beat you with iron,” he said, “and you withstood every blow.”
He stooped down and picked up another rock, never taking his eyes off her, as if she were some kind of dangerous viper who might strike at any moment.
He set the next rock on top of her, directly beside the others.
“We shot you and the musket balls swerved in midair like they were afraid of sinking into the taint of your flesh.”
He scooped up another rock, grunting as he scooped. He just wasn’t as young a man as he used to be – and no wonder…
Sights like this one aged you faster than years ought to run.
“We hung you in a noose woven from a widow’s gray hair, a noose soaked in children’s tears and you kicked and cackled like a hell-kite in the wind.”
He laid the next rock down, sank to his knees and scooped up another stone. He was building a kind of rhythm that made the labor just a little easier.
“We burned you but even fired failed us.”
It was true. She had witched a storm from a cloudless sky and drowned the blaze cold. Seth Hamilton, the town smith who had been the only man to dare kindle her pyre had been cindered black.
“Let the stones crush you and the dirt eat you,” Fell said, laying another rock – which made thirteen stones in all. These were all good-sized stones, hand-picked, at least the weight of child’s corpse. She ought to have been crushed by the weight upon her, yet she carried the load as if it were nothing but sticks and straw.
“Where did you hide the broom, witch?” Fell asked.
“Maybe it’s up your bunghole,” Thessaly taunted.
The broom was her power and Fell feared it – although he knew that he shouldn’t have. It was just a thing of woven willow. His grand-nanny swept the pine boards of her cabin daily with just such a broom and she certainly wasn’t a witch.
He bent for another stone.
Thessaly spat in his face. “Bury that, God kisser.”
He dropped the fourteenth stone upon her. It made a hard sound, like she had stared too long at the Gorgon. He grunted at the effort and she laughed at his strain – which stung his pride hard.
“You must pay for your crimes against God and this community,” Fell said.
Thessaly snorted. It wasn’t any kind of human sound. Her snort sounded like a boar in rut.
“What I pay for is refusing to give you my land,” she pointed out, as the wind rattled the grass. “What I pay for is witching your field in return for your greed. I pay for your cattle that ate the gray grass. Happiest of all, I pay for your daughter, Fell.”
Fell could still taste the smell of the dead meat festering in the back of his sinuses. He’d put down the last tainted beast this morning. He’d beat it square in the skull with his best chopping axe. The metal of the blade had chewed into the bone and stuck hard. He’d had to put his left boot against the cow’s forehead and lean back to work the axe loose. The unholy cattle hadn’t moved, not one of them, even after he’d cut the first two down. They just stood there in his field, the wind making slow soft harp sounds blowing through their gray rattled guts.
He had put his daughter Eliza down before he had started with the cattle. Then he burned what was left of her and buried her ashes in the field.
The husk that he had burned and buried wouldn’t have nourished a worm.
“Was the milk tasty, Fell?” Thessaly taunted him. “Did young Eliza find it sweet?”
“Witch!” Fell hissed.
He snatched up a skull-sized rock, scraping his hand against the rough granite and marking it with his own blood. He would match his stone and his blood against hers, he fiercely swore.
But first he had to know.
“Where did you hide the broom?”
“Closer than you imagine.”
She spat again. The phlegm spattered the grass. The wind blew a little harder as Fell flung the stone. The granite chipped and sparked upon her flesh.
The farmer in Fell’s soul feared a run of wildfire. A spark could easily rise up in dry times like this and tear through an entire countryside.
“I’ll curse you, Fell. I’ll curse you and all those who stand with you.” The old woman began to chant. “Merry through the prickle bush, the gore bush, the hump; careful round the holly fall, she’ll catch your shadow hold…”
The onlookers stiffened like a pack of wintered-over scarecrows. Fear, or something darker, rooted their feet to the earth. Fell stumbled back from the pit. The wind stiffened and gusted as Thessaly laughed all the harder.
“Our father,” Fell began to pray. “Protect us from this harridan’s evil spells.”
Thessaly continued to laugh.
“It is no spell, you fool. It is nothing more than a children’s rhyme, Fell. It was only a nursery rhyme. Maybe I wasn’t witching your field. Maybe I was merely waving my broom at a thieving crow.”
Did she speak the truth?
Fell smothered his doubt.
Thessaly Cross had killed Eliza and Abraham Fell would not rest until he saw the witch finally dead.
He knelt down and caught hold of the next stone.
Only she wouldn’t stay quiet.
“Witches don’t curse, Fell. Only men curse,” Thessaly ranted. “They curse themselves and their pitiful lot.”
“You lie,” Fell said, working the stone free
“Truth! I tell truth. Witches dance in easy circles. We follow the rhythms of time and tide and the wind that washes the earth’s bones dry.”
The wind howled. A tangled snare of root rammed through the dirt. Fell stepped back too late. The root twisted like a snake. It snared Fell’s wrists and held him fast.
“Witches plant what men water with tears,” Thessaly shrieked. “Witches sow the sorrow men must reap. Know this, Fell. When you harm a witch, you plant a grudge as old as regret.”
Fell tugged against the root. From the corner of his eye he saw the rest of the townsfolk, snared like screaming rabbits.
“I have you, Fell. I have you all. Now you will see what a witched field really is.”
Thessaly set the field to work.
She stirred dead grass into unholy life. The strands and stalks whirred like a wind of teeth, slicing through men and women who tried too late to run away.
The first man died in mid-scream, as a gust of grass harrowed the meat from his bones. A root, flung like a dirty javelin, impaled a second man. A third went down beneath an airborne avalanche of fieldstone.
The wind grew gray with dust, straw and flesh. The earth opened in great cratered, swallowing mouths. The townsfolk all died screaming.
Only Fell remained.
He stared at the carnage, as helpless as a snared rabbit.
“Witches sow, Fell. Witches sow and men must reap.”
She raised her hands.
He saw gray dirt imbedded beneath her fingernails.
“Shall I tell you where I have hid my broom, Fell? Have you guessed? Do you really want to know? I buried it in your very own field.”
The broom rose straight up from the earth’s dirty womb, not more than an arm’s reach from Fell.
“I and my broom will wait for you, Fell. We will wait for you like a seed waits for rain. Live with this. I have taken everyone you know, but I let you live to breed. I let you live with the knowledge that one day I will return to visit your descendants.”
Fell braced his feet in the dirt. He prayed for the strength of Samson. He fought against the root.
“Now I will show you how to bury a witch,” she crowed.
She hugged herself as if hugging an unseen lover. The earth moved in reply as a thousand rocks flew from the flesh of the field and hovered above her homemade grave. Fell tore his wrists from the shackle of root.
He felt the skin rip from his bones.
“No descendants! No curse! Today we die together,” he howled.
He uprooted the broom with his freshly skinned hands. He threw himself upon her. His momentum drove the broom handle straight through her heart. A gout of stinking blood splashed his face.
The willow-twig head of the broom stood out in all directions like an angry star. Fell saw the flash of tiny unimaginable teeth grinning from the end of each writhing twig.
Then the broom took him.
It ate at his face like his skin was nothing more than apple rind. He felt the white-hot twig-worms gnaw his features. He felt them tear and burn through the bowl of his skull. They crawled into the jelly of his brain and nibbled at his thoughts.
He had time for one last scream.
The broom ate that as well. It swallowed each morsel of Abraham Fell’s pain and terror as it dragged him deeper down into the hole with the witch. The rocks poised above them like a pair of hands, ready to applaud. Thessaly pushed him from her. She nearly pushed him from the grave.
“Live, Fell. Let the meat grow back upon your opened skull. Crawl back from the brink of death. My curse shall stand. This earth grows too cold for me. I will wait for you and your descendants in the belly of hell.”
“No!” Fell pushed back down upon her. “The curse ends here.”
He shoved forward. He felt the broom slide and suck through the cage of his ribs. He pushed himself closer, impaling himself on the broom handle. The willow wood splintered inside him. It nailed him to Thessaly’s twisting frame. He felt her bones wiggling beneath her meat like worms in the dirt.
She nearly slipped free.
He bit her lip, tearing grayish meat. The pain racked her concentration. She let her spell and the rocks above them drop. The grave, the broom, the witch and Fell were sealed inside completely.
For a long time, nothing moved.
The moon rose like a slow ghost, lanterning down upon the butcher field.
A small gray form pushed from the rocky grave. The gray hairless skin glistened beneath the cool wash of moonlight, like the hide of a stillborn rat.
It crawled away into the darkness that surrounded the field.
A lone owl hooted remorselessly
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You can call me Ray, you can call me Ray-Jay, you can even call me Raymond…
yours in storytelling,