Witch

By J.M. Dennis

 

I’m not born a witch. They made me one.

As a young girl, they jeered at me: "devil’s spawn" and "wee wickedness." Now they call me "hag" and "witch." Fewer syllables. Same idea.

Call me what you wish.

I answer to all names and none. Names don't own me. Nothing owns me. I possess them. All of them. And why not? If accused of something, just try to deny, and it will just stick all the more. Like mud, or the tar they cover us in before a burning. Possess it and you possess them. Scare the living life out of them before they have a chance to take yours.

The woman I called grandmother, if she was that, called me Cailín. That’s not a proper name. In Irish, it simply means girl. If I had a Christian name, one given to me by my mother, I never knew it. Grandmother said that I had been given to her as payment by the queen of the fairies.

“Payment for what?” I asked

She didn’t say. Together we lived until she died in the wild side of county Cork. She was called Cailleach Bán or White Witch. Until she wasn’t.

Until she was only "The Cailleach."

When I was eleven years of age, they came for her.

She screamed until she didn’t.

As far as I know, these goings on were not recorded. Why would they be? A nobody old woman and her foundling lived in a small cottage until they didn’t. No funny business. Nothing going on. Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along.

And they say witches are evil.

She was condemned for being old. Plain and simple. Sentenced for not talking to people anymore. She talked with me. Am I not a person? They distrusted her for talking with dogs, cats, chickens, and the fairies. Always the fairies. She didn’t really. She talked to herself is all.

Wild Ireland, in the late 1800’s, was not healthy. When the body’s not right, the mind takes flight. We were all dirt poor and hungry. Sickness flourished.

Scapegoats were blamed. Not like in the old days. Not out in the open. They, the men in black clothes and beards, they held their secret meetings and clandestine courts like Judas priests at black masses. It did not happen often. But it did happen. I saw it.

I was there until I wasn’t.

Now, maybe you are one of those who think, well, your grandmother must have done something, eh? We are all sinners, are we not? Why would the Lord permit punishment without intervening if she were not evil incarnate? Maybe it was God himself who sent Grandmother to her death, eh?

Listen to the charges. Judge for yourself.

 

It started with rumors. Things that were frightful and hurtful but nothing that would lead to a burning. They said that she would turn me. Transform me. That she would change me into some beast and then she would ride me through the night, over the hills and far away. Why she would do such a thing, they did not say.

They blamed her for many things. If someone was having trouble churning butter, “it simply wouldn’t stiffen,” it was because, they said, the witch was in the churn. If wee bairn did bad things, it was Grandmother who had bewitched the small beasts and told them, no, not told, forced them to do whatever nasty things their rotten children did. They even said that she could shrink to the size of a fly and spy on private goings on. What in the world for? I do not know.

But these were small nothings. Stupid people saying stupid things.

Until they weren’t.

Until things got ugly. Until Seamus saw his chance.

Seamus Clancy made Grandmother his mission. She was easy prey once her mind was shot. I’ll tell you why in a bit. Cross my heart and hope to die.

First, Seamus just added to the rumors but with a twist. One day, said he, while going to market by cart, a cat crossed his path. Seamus said he could see it was Grandmother. That the cat was my Granny. So, what does he do? He whips out his rabbit rifle, quick as a whip, and shoots at the cat only to wound it. He said that she, the cat, had crossed his path to ruin his sales. To meddle in his business. When Seamus and his sons confronted grandmother, she had a sore hip. That was proof enough for him and his boys. And even some of Seamus’ friends.

“See?” He shouted. “It’s like I said! I hit the witch’s hip!”

It may have been enough for some, maybe, but not enough to send my grandmother to the hereafter. Not yet. He had to build his case. He taught me that. How to make the untrue true. How to bend the minds of others. He was a sorcerer of minds.

He even said that, when his cow would not give milk, he saw that grandmother was inside the Bessy. He beat on the poor thing to get her out. When that didn’t work, he cut off the cow’s ears and tail and burned them. Of course, when he checked, Grandmother had burn marks on her body too. Grandmother was always burning herself. She was clumsy. She was old. The good people of the neighboring farms became infected by his talk. I really should be thankful for the lesson, but I’m not. Still, Lord knows, I use it all the time. He taught me that you can make people believe what is not.

I do hate them still. All of them. But I am old myself now and I’ve mellowed. I mean, carrying all that hate inside will kill you. And besides, who am I to judge? What would you yourself have said if more and more people started blaming someone for their misfortunes? Would you go against the mob? Would you? 

They all murdered her. They murdered her and stole my home. But none was as dedicated as Seamus Clancy. Himself and his clan. But why? You ask. Why did he do all this? What reason could a man have to hound a poor woman suffering dementia? A woman who had helped bring life into the community and helped people leave softly when their time had come? A woman who took in an orphan like me? A woman I loved. Why did Seamus do it?

Property. Our little cottage was just off his land. Seamus wanted it.

Now, maybe you are thinking, how could this be? How could this happen in modern times? Are we not in the new millennium? The 1900s? We are now, yes. But, let me tell you, laws change but people don’t. Look around you. There are people who still want someone to pin their misfortunes on. People who will lie and even kill for their own winning. Even in this shiny, new millennium. The only thing more laws make is sneakier thieves. They stole my Granny from me. But be honest. You know I am right, eh? A court of law will not sentence a witch to death on hearsay. Not today. A judge will not sentence a man to death for casting a spell. But accidents happen, don’t they? Maybe a lad falls drunkardly into the well and drowns? Maybe not. Maybe a gal slips of a cliff? Maybe not. An accident at the factory? A fall down the stairs? Where there’s a will there's a way.

Maybe my Grandmother got too close to the fire? Collective murder is what it was. Plain and simple. I heard her scream, until she didn’t.

They are all guilty. All of them. But I blame him, Seamus Clancy. His greed. Without him, my grandmother might have lived a bit longer and I could have carried on living in our cottage. Helping others as she had. Doing what she had taught me to do.

But no, Seamus Clancy wanted what was not his. I knew. And he knew that I knew. I saw that he was going to get me next. But I am getting ahead of myself. 

It is known in Irish as, Oiche an teine chanáimh. Saint John’s Eve or Midsummer is what you probably say. The neighbors had been preparing all week. Collecting tinder, slaughtering animals and making themselves ready. The fire was a communal gathering and all were expected to offer kindle. Children went around begging for fuel, and those who refused were tormented. In fun mostly. A kind of trick or treat.

A grand stew was made and shared by all. Give what you can but give something. On this night we shared everything. Like good neighbors. All the food stuff was mixed together in a great kettle and was eaten at midnight. Cooked for hours on the bonfire. Herbs, beets, potatoes, carrots and onions. Pig, beef, goat, lamb, sausages and game. It was all mixed together. Can you guess what I offered the community that year?

The blaze was set be at sunset. The sun goes down and the flames go up. After that, the community stew is paraded around the fire, three times, and then set to cook. The fire burns the whole night long. The kindle is placed in a circular shape. A ring of fire. Once lit, and the stew is on, court is held. Demons are exorcised and witches burned. Usually in effigy. Usually. Burned for a laugh. All the years I remember up till then, it was just great fun. Dancing, singing, music, laughter. Growing up, I had heard that the bones of Protestants were stolen from graves and thrown into the fires. Prayers were held, babies were made, there were fights, competitions and boys jumped through the flames. Much, much homemade poitín was consumed. And so it came to be on this night as well.

Afterward, she screamed, until she didn’t.

They collected Grandmother on St John’s Eve itself. The local men came into our home, threw me to one side and dragged her away. She barely fought back. I didn’t see her again until after the festivities had begun. Once the fire was going and the stew was on, it was time for the men dressed in black to hear any complaints and grievances between neighbors. At first, the men listened to small nothings. A dog kept digging up a flower bed, some smaller debts hadn’t been paid, someone’s fence needed mending, as their sheep kept blocking the road, and things such as that. And then, Grandmother was carried in. She was bound to a chair and they placed before the community judges. Seamus Clancy began his torrent of accusations. All the things I have told you so far were presented to the judges. The men listened and they asked Grandmother if she was in fact a witch.

When she did not respond. Seamus demanded that it be proven, once and for all.

The crowd agreed. The judges agreed. Consensus.

Seamus grabbed Grandmother’s arm, took a knife and cut her flabby old arms. They did not bleed. This was proof that she lacked blood because she had fed herself to the demons. The crowd, enjoying the show, egged Seamus on.

“Go on!” Shouted one. “Cut the witch!”

When asked again, Grandmother said nothing.

Before Seamus had a chance to cut her more, one of the judges asked, “Just how tight are those ropes?”

Seamus stared at the man.

Then we all stared at Grandma’s arm. The rope was tight. Her arms were white.

“More proof? Shall I give you more proof?” shouted Seamus.

He threw his knife haphazardly away and stomped towards the crowd. He pulled out his oldest boy, Michael. 

Then he pushed Michael out and in front of the crowd and to all he said, “You know this is my boy and that he is not right in the head, eh? You all know that she, this witch, was called to help with my boy’s birthing. Now, tell me. Why is Michael an eejit? When all of my other five children are normal? Why is Michael an eejit? I’ll tell you why.”

He pointed at Grandma, whose head was hanging so her dirty grey hair hid her face.

“Because of her! My other children are normal because she was not the earth mother at their births! She cursed my boy. She cursed Michael! She is a witch!”

The crowd joined in and Seamus nodded at the crowd. The judges talked amongst themselves, nodding their bearded heads. Nod, nod. Consensus is good. Nod, nod, nod.

A woman called out, “float her! See if she floats!” More called for the same, and so it came to be. The men in dark clothes assisted the locals in removing Grandmother from her chair and retightening the ropes around her frail body. They hadn’t needed to. She did not fight back. I watched and found myself walking out into the open.

When some women folk saw me they hissed, “That’s her! The wee witch! Grab her!”

What could I do? I dipped, dodged and ran. It did not take long for the women to lose interest in me, so I went around to the creek to witness the floating. Oh, yes, I knew it was not going to end well. I was terribly afraid. Both for Grandmother and myself. But I did not know how it all would end. Perhaps they knew what was planned. I mean, the crowd. I think some did, or at least hoped. But I did not. I still believed that Grandmother and I would go back to our cottage. That things would go back to normal. This is what I thought, until I didn’t.

When I got to the water, folk were standing on either side. The judges, and some of the Clancy clan, stood on the footbridge. All were silent and staring.

Seamus said it first, softly: “She floats.”

A murmur began.

“She floats!” Said Seamus. Loudly now. Grinning.

Others joined in the shouting, and the noise rose to a roar. I saw the bearded men pull Grandmother from the water and tie her back to her chair. Her head lolled. Had they drugged her? Had she drugged herself? I don’t know. The Clancys lifted her high above their heads and paraded her back to the fire that was burning heartily now. Hungry for more kindling.

When they sat her back down where the judging had begun, the community became one voice. One judge. No longer were the men in black needed.

Our neighbors shouted out things that my Grandmother had been blamed for. I had heard most of them before. But some of them were new. Probably made up for that night. It did not matter. I was witnessing a play. A Pilot exercise. All that was missing was the washing of hands.

“She made my livestock ill!”

“The witch used dolls and pins to hurt me!”

“The potatoes are rotting because of her!”

“I am barren after she cursed me!”

“I can’t find my other shoe!”

They began walking sunwise around her and the fire. Then the frenzy began. Like a pack of wild dogs, they slapped her, pulled her hair, spat on her and kicked at her. I could not see for my tears. But I watched. Oh, how I watched. And I felt every blow she took as if it were my own body being beaten. I prayed for it to stop. Prayed that this would end.

And then, like a wave of madness, the crowd lifted Grandmother. She floated above the mob. She was tossed up, caught, tossed up, caught. The chair was gone. It was just her limp naked body above the unified group. Then, as if on signal, she bobbed up once, twice, and then then they threw her into raging fire.

She screamed until she didn’t.

When she was silent, they threw more kindle and sickly animals on the pyre. The animals had been killed before being burned. A stench of burning flesh and fur sullied the night air.

And they laughed.

Why did I not do anything?

I was eleven years old. A thin, dirty girl. What could I do? If my granny had been a witch or if I were, what would a witch do? Do you think a witch would let herself be burned if she could stop it? Witches are not Jesus Christ. They do not turn the other cheek. If I had the power, I would have turned them all into horny toads and squashed each and every last one of them. Thrown them on the fire and listened to the pop and sizzle, pop and sizzle, pop and sizzle until they didn’t.

Hiding in the edge of the wood, I imagined this. I wished it. I witched it. A curse on all of them and their spawn. One is not born, but rather becomes, witch. 

Today, it would have been easy enough for me to kill them. Now, when I know things that I did not know then. I would simply poison their stew. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. And I don’t mean make some Halloween witch’s brew. Bah. Nonsense. Toads? Eye of newt? Poppycock! Hogwash! No proper spellcaster uses hair of rat nor tooth of wolf. Humbug!

All we, or anybody else needs, are basic natural ingredients.

Try it yourself!

Personally, I prefer preparing a mixture of hemlock root and a bunch of those cute, small red berries that grow readily on the yew bush. Get some cherry laurel too. And a splash of castor oil for good measure. Mix it up and there you go. Or, there they go.

Getting it in the person can be a nuisance. But, as we already know, where there’s a will there’s a way. And that lot would have eaten sole of shoe or shit of pig without blinking an eye. Drunken fools. And to think, I was learning healing potions from Grandmother when what I really needed was the killing kind. Live and learn.

When the night ended, I was gone. Or so they thought. At first, I just hid. The first few nights I was not all that far from my cottage. In fact, I slept there. Where was I to go? I would steal into the place in the night. Quiet as a mouse. Carefully stepping about the only home I ever knew. It was easy enough. Besides sleeping and eating, I gathered stuff. In the morning, before dawn, I scurried off into the wood and hid my stash. Normal things. I took some of my clothes, blankets and dry goods. I was very scared but felt safer at home. Lying in the wood was something I had to learn to enjoy. It took a long time.

Nothing beats a good bed. I laid down, missing the warmth and bulk of my Granny, and wept. Wept and cursed. Cursed the people who took her from me and pitifully cried myself to sleep. I was careful not to be seen and left before the dawn. The next night, I took Grandmother’s comb and a necklace she always wore. The necklace must’ve come off her body when they stole her from the cottage. Either that or somehow, even in her confused state, she knew. That is what I decided. That she left it behind for me to find. But I don’t understand how she got it off. You see, this type of necklace is called a torc. A large ring made out of bronze. I know not where she got it. Torc means "to twist," and it was of a twisted design. There is no opening, for they are designed to be worn for life. I’m guessing that her father had made it for her, and as she grew, her head became too large for her to take it off. It was not too large for my young skull. As I slipped it over my head and felt the coldness on my skin, I learned what I had to do. How did I learn? Grandmother told me.

“Leave this place, Cailín. Leave and never return. There is nothing for you here.”

“Where can I go?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter.”

 What should I do?” I asked.

“What can you do?” asked she, with a smiling voice.

“Only what you taught me, Grandmother.”

“Ah yes, good. Then you know what to do. And you will know where to do it. So, get on with yourself, child. Nothing here for the likes of us anymore.”

“Will you go with me?”

“Yes, child. I’ll be with you. Have a rest. I am right here.”

I squeezed her torc, our torc, and let myself fade towards sleep. Breathing in the scent of her that still lived in our bed.

“Grandmother?” I asked.

“Yes?”

“What curse should I use?”

“Why, choose one that goes on and on, from father to son and father to son. That seems best. I think. Don’t you?”

“Will you teach me?”

“I will, Cailín, I will. We can start your new lessons in the morning. Let’s start with something easier first. Sleep on it. Sweet dreams, child.”

“Ta’, Grandmother.”

 

For those of you who are not initiated, generational curses are not easy to perform. They take time to learn. Time, trial and error. It is much easier to bend someone’s mind or change yourself into a rat or a bat. I like being a bat now, but when I was younger I preferred changing to an eagle or a horse. But on the night Grandma came back, I could hardly toss a salad. I had so much to learn. But I was patient. Patient and motivated and had had the greatest teacher.

As sleep overcame me, I thought, I’ll start with the eejet Michael, and drifted off in a vengeful sleep.