HÄXAN

A Short Story

By Scott Aaron Tait

Bess let him die. She owed death a favour, and she always settled her debts. Her heeled boots clacked at cobblestones as she wandered the desolate streets. The only resident a single black cat rubbing itself against her legs. 
    “Leviathan,” she said, petting him, “I wondered where you’d gotten yourself off to.” 
Purring in response, he slinked away up the street, turning back for a moment to ensure his mistress was following. He had something she needed to see. Following close behind, Bess sensed something untoward as the smell of decay lingered in her nostrils. Walking between slouched buildings, she skulked into the town square where Reverend Samuel Ashby presided over his congregation with a disdainful scowl. With his moustache impeccably well-groomed, his shoes polished, and his garments neatly pressed he looked as much a statesman as he was a clergyman. 

“Our town is bewitched by devils! It is they who bring this sickness down upon us. 

Even now, as we speak, they freely roam our streets,” his words echoed across the square as he scanned the faces of his flock.

“How did this happen, Reverend?” shrieked a woman holding her crying child close.

“Who did this to us?” demanded another bystander.

“It was the malevolent witch Elizabeth Hargrove who brought about this sickness. She rides around at night with her vile familiar at her side. Laughing and mocking as the devil’s dark magic destroys our beloved community.” 

The crowd turned to one another amidst a ripple of whispers. No one noticed the small child look up at a toothless old woman standing by her side. Bess smiled, exposing the ravines of age that covered her weathered skin. Pulling faces back and forth the girl giggled mischievously as she tugged at her father’s sleeve. Turning to face his daughter the man’s face drained of colour as he hurriedly snatched her up into his arms and stepped back. 

“It’s her… it’s the witch!” he yelled, his hand shaking as he pointed at Bess.

“She is amongst us!” screeched another bystander, making the sign of the cross. 

“You are not bewitched,” said Bess to the hysterical crowd, “this is a sickness like all others, what you require is medicine.” 

“Heresy!” yelled Samuel, sending droplets of spittle across the crowd as he began a prayer, “the Lord is our shepherd and our salvation, please guide us and deliver us from this evil in our midst.” 

Bess knew the truth even if no one would listen. It was not her that they should fear but another. A spectre known by all as death. He waited in the corners, whispering within the shadows, biding his time until he could claim another life. Shaking her head Bess marched back the way she’d come with Leviathan chasing after her heels. 

Near the edge of town, she turned to see a flicker of light from one of the dwellings. 

Knocking loudly, she hoped that someone inside was still alive. A key turned in the lock, and slowly it creaked open. A young girl stood in the doorway holding her fingers to her mouth to stifle a scream.

“You need not fear me, child. Do you know who I am?”

“You are Elizabeth Hargrove, the witch! Reverend Ashby said you fly at night and you offer blood sacrifices to the devil.”

“He is wrong. I am a healer.”

“What do you want from me?” 

“Why were you not in the town square with the others?” 

“It’s my little sister, she has the sickness, she awoke this morning with the fever and I stayed to tend to her,” she sobbed.

“What’s your name child?” 

“Mary Winslow, my sister is Tabitha.”

“And your mother and father?”

“They’re dead.”

“I’m sorry,” replied Bess lowering her eyes, “may I see your sister? I can heal her.” 

“With witchcraft?”

“With medicine.” 

Hesitantly Mary stood aside and allowed the witch to enter. The room was filled with the warmth of an open fire by which lay a child on a straw mattress. Tabitha’s face was gaunt and drained of colour, except for the red circles surrounding her shrunken eyes. Resting a hand on her clammy head, Bess felt the heat burning through her.  

“Can you save her?”

“I believe so. I will return by nightfall once the remedy is prepared.”

“Will she live that long?” 

“Have faith, Mary. Make sure she drinks plenty of water and keep her warm until I return,” said Bess hurrying out the door. 

Thunder echoed over the distant hills as a flash of light danced across the charcoal skies. Gathering herbs and tools Bess began her ritual. Steeping hibiscus in water she added coltsfoot and elderberries, leaving them to boil over the roaring fire before snapping liquorice root into the cauldron and stirring it three times. Standing up, she carefully lifted the pot off the fire and set it aside to cool into a thick syrup. Bess was not yet done. She knew that the remedy would only be as good as the spell she had yet to cast. Opening the door, she stepped outside. Falling to her knees, she held her hands at her side, palms facing upward and prayed to the mother goddess. With her words spoken, her spell was cast. Returning to her home, she decanted the remedies and set off for town at a brisk pace. The night remained silent as she slinked through the winding streets. Her heart thudded in her chest as she approached the humble dwelling. She hoped it was not too late. Raising her hand, she tapped gently listening as the lock turn, and the door inched open. Mary’s tired eyes peered out from the gloom with red rings around them and droplets of sweat laminating her brow. 

“Elizabeth, you should not be here,” she coughed, keeping the door only slightly ajar, “if Samuel catches you, we will both hang.” 

“I have brought the medicine as promised,” explained Bess stepping toward the doorway. 

“You cannot enter, not this time.”

“Why the heavens not?”

Mary looked up at the doorframe above her head, reaching out a starved finger to touch the mark scratched into the wood. From the church to the town hall, and every dwelling in between, marks had been carved into doorframes and on the front of doors. Hexafoils to protect against witchcraft. It was borrowed magic, misunderstood and misused. 

“Mary, I beg you please let me administer my remedies.” 

“But the witch mark? You cannot enter?”

“I can if you wish me to.” 

Stepping aside, Mary let the witch into her home in the desperate hope that they might live. Bess sat on a stool by the fire and taking a spoon she brought the syrup to Tabitha’s lips. The sweet substance trickled down her throat, leaving a tickling feeling behind. 

“When will we know if it has worked?” 

“By morning the fever will have passed. Take this and make sure you both take a spoonful every hour.” 

“What is it?” Mary asked, turning the jar over in her hands. The viscous mixture moved slowly like treacle. 

“Let’s just say it’s… magic.” 

“Thank you, Bess, I don’t know how we will ever repay you.”

“When Tabitha is well enough to walk come and visit me at my cottage beyond the meadow.”

“Why?” 

“I fear that before the dawns first light, you will be the only souls left in this place.”

Parting ways Bess exited the house leaving Mary clutching the witch’s remedy firmly in her hands. Walking the quiet streets in contemplation Bess passed one home after another scowling at a hexafoil engraved over doors. Knocking at one home after the next, she searched for life, but fear is like a sickness in itself. Burying itself deep inside the soul where it sets down its roots. The Reverend had instilled such fear throughout his congregation that none would grant Bess entry. As the night drew on, there was only one home left to call upon. The vicarage. The door opened slowly revealing an unrecognisable skeleton of a man. His once tidy appearance now dishevelled over his tinted grey skin.

“Samuel, you have the sickness?” 

“That I have, my family too. It spread quickly.” 

“And your prayers have not helped?” 

He laughed, “did you come to chastise me in my dying hour?” 

“I did not.”

“Then help me, Elizabeth, if your medicine can heal, please spare my life.” 

“I cannot help you.”

“But you must!” 

Bess starred into his cold eyes for a moment, “you blamed me for the floods, the droughts and this sickness. You marched me to the town square to hang, but when the gallows collapsed, you tried to burn me, yet I survived. When all your attempts failed, you cast me out. I have been on the outside for so long I dare not step a foot further than this.” 

“We will die if you do not help us.”  

Bess raised a scrawny finger and pointed to the hexafoil scratched into the wooden doorframe. “You know a witch cannot cross a threshold that bears the mark.”

“For god’s sake woman show some mercy,” he begged

“Mercy?” she mumbled as if the word was new to her, “I have none to give.” 

Samuel fell to his knees and prayed, “Oh! Heavenly Father…”

“You’ll need more than prayers Reverend,” said Bess feeling the frosty fingers of death caress her neck, “I feel it on the wind, Samuel. Death is coming for you.” 

Bess raised her shawl over her head, leaving Samuel snivelling on his doorstep. Crossing the town as quickly as her frail legs would carry her, she arrived at her cottage and closed the door. Starting a fire, she settled into her chair when a small hand rattled against the wood. Lifting the latch, she pulled the door open and smiled at her visitors. 

“You told me to visit when Tabitha was well enough. Well, not long after you left, her fever vanished. I want to know how?”

“As I said Mary, it’s just a little magic.”

“You truly are a witch, aren’t you?” asked Tabitha in awe. Her deep green eyes wide with wonder as she scurried past Bess into the cottage. Leviathan jumped into her arms with a purr of approval as Tabitha studied the many jars of concoctions which resided on the shelves. 

“You had best come inside, Mary. It seems your sister is eager to learn.”

“I am,” said Tabitha, gleefully pulling open a heavy bound book with its wrinkled spine to reveal the secrets within. 

“We are not witches,” replied Mary apprehensively stepping into the cottage. 

Closing the door, Bess turned to face them, “but you are my child. All free-thinking women are witches, that is our blessing and every man’s curse.”