Thou Art a Witch
By Alexia Sloane (aged 13)
1644. A deep midnight. The moon is full and the sky is painted a beautiful black, dark, calming and strange. The landscape above me is dotted with thousands upon thousands of stars, each one appearing from where I kneel to be no bigger than the pupil of a child perfectly carved in silver and gold. They watch me; protect me? What from?
Most of the human world lies asleep, dreaming. But the wood is alive, awake, aware. I hear the call of owls from above me as they fly through the night air, the whispering whistle of the wind in the willow trees and the everlasting splashing and lapping of the stream as it murmurs to itself. Such is the music of the night. Such is my dream. Yet I know that there is more life around me than at present. For sometimes I see mice, rabbits, sometimes even a deer skimming lightly past me. They are not afraid of me. Some even stop and allow me to touch them with the tips of my fingers. They know that I will not hurt them.
I have made a silent fire and am quietly singing my ritual songs alone, for I like to practice at other times than Sabbaths. I am solitary by nature and prefer this to large gatherings.
I love it here at this time, when I am completely alone but for the animals, the trees and the night. It reminds me of a time I have never and perhaps will never experience. A day before time began; a shadow of the past; a memory of tomorrow; an echo of the future. Here time is meaningless, irrelevant. I like that.
It is at times like these that I begin to forget that I must, at all costs, be careful; that if I am found here…. And it is as I am thinking these very words that I hear the breaking of twigs, the snapping of branches and the scuttle of terrified animals running to hide. Now, he is in front of me.
“Maya!” he says urgently.
“Shhh!” I hiss. “What art thou doing here? Be silent! If we are found”
“Thou hast been betrayed, Maya,” he replies. “Thou must either run for safety or gather together all thy powers in defence!”
“How dost thou know?” I breathe.
“The village is being searched by Matthew Hopkins and his men. They are asking every member of every household for thee.”
“Thou hast kept thy promise?”
“Dost thou know who could have betrayed me?”
“No. But at present, that does not matter. I mean to say, of course it matters, but Maya, thou must not think about these things now! Think rather of fleeing! I can come, if thou preferrest. So as not to be separated and also for the sake of safety.”
For a moment, I remain motionless, thinking fast. If we try and escape, we will be found in the end. Matthew Hopkins will allow none of us to survive unless I do something. “No,” I reply at last. “I will let them have me.”
“Thou canst not do such a thing! It would be suicide!”
“Lyonell,” I say patiently. “Dost thou not know me better by now? I do not mean I will allow them to kill me! Thou wilt see.”
“But thou wilt be executed at first light tomorrow! As soon as the lark has risen with the sun, Hopkins says you will die!”
“No,” I reply simply.
“Besides, I have not been watched as I have a right to be. Or, for that matter, searched for the devil’s mark.”
“People have reported seeing thee in the woods; seeing thy fire, hearing thy songs. Hopkins considers that to be enough.”
“But every person accused of witchcraft has a right to be searched and watched! Why should I be the exception?”
“I know, Maya. But that is what he has said.”
“They will not have me,” I say firmly.
“Dost thou promise?”
“Yes. Let us return to the village together.”
I put out my fire and rise. We walk back, side by side. I see the worry, the sadness, the desperation in his eyes.
“Prithee,” I say quietly. “Do not worry. I will not be harmed. Dost thou not trust my word?
My art?” Silently, he nods, yet that sombre expression still remains. Although he has had an
element of sadness about him since I met him for the first time, I have never seen him like this before.
We have known each other for about four years. He was new to the village, for his parents had come to live there for a reason I have never discovered. Every time I asked him, he would always wave away the question, or smile and change the subject of our conversation. What I do know about his family is that they are very rich, but why they live here instead of a city, I cannot guess.
I remember seeing him from the garden. He was standing in his own garden, watching me with an expression which I was not quite able to identify. Was it sadness? Thoughtfulness? Quiet interest? Or a mixture of them all? Well, he was watching me, that was all I knew for certain. From the moment our eyes met that first time, we were friends, even though it was not until a few weeks later that we spoke, whilst walking in the fields one evening.
“Thy name?” He asked. I could tell that he was not simply being polite. Genuine interest was in his eyes.
“Maya Piper,” I replied. “What is thine?”
“Lyonell Scrivener,” he replied. Then, he said something that truly frightened me at the time: “I heard thy song.” Quickly, he paused to glance around, supposedly checking to see that no one else was around who could hear us. “Thou art a witch.”
Thou art a witch, I thought. What would I have done if I had known that I would hear that later from someone who wanted me dead? “Thou must promise me to tell no one,” I gasped. “How couldst thou know? I was in the woods at night, where nobody goes!”
“I promise,” he said, looking deep into my eyes. “But I know it for I was walking,” he said.
“In the woods?”
“Indeed. I love the quiet of the place at that time. I heard thy song and followed the sound. So that thou wouldst not see me looking, I hid myself behind a tree a little way off. I saw thy fire. I admire thy voice.”
“I thank thee,” I said.
“Was the melody your own?”
I hesitated. “Yes.”
He said nothing for a moment. Then, he smiled. “Wouldst thou show me further supplements of thy arts?”
Once more, I hesitated, this time for much longer. A near stranger asking to see my arts? But I had seen how earnest his eyes were when he had promised to tell no one. “Very well,” I said.
“Dost thou go every night?”
“Most nights. Thou canst come and watch at any time as long as thou art alone.” I do not know why, but I then let out a rush of words that no young witch-girl should ever have done: “I will show thee how fire can spring from my fingers and form letters, characters and symbols of my language. I will teach thee my language, if thou desirest, so that not a soul but my friends, my fellow witches, will understand us; I will also teach thee the names of the stars and the phases of the moon, if thou dost not know them yet. No more will the shadows be dark and secret to thee, for I will unveil them and make them clear in thy eyes. I cannot give you witchcraft but I can put some of my knowledge into your heart.” I paused to take a breath. “Wouldst thou like that? I am sorry, for I worship the moon, not God. Thou art a Christian, surely?”
He smiled. “No,” he said simply. “I am not. In no way do I disapprove of thy practices. In truth, I am fascinated.”
It was from there that Lyonell Scrivener became one of my few close friends. I have shown him everything that I promised, and he has kept his promise to keep it all a secret in return.
Now, we are back at the village. Lyonell glances at me once more.
“Lyonell,” I say patiently, “he will not harm me.”
“Very well,” he sighs. “But I am still reluctant to…”
“It will be safer for thee if we go our separate ways now,” I say. “If thou art caught trying to protect me…” He sighs again.
“Very well,” he says once more. “Take this.” He hands me a rose the colour of fire, which he takes from the wild bush beside him. The colour of fire, the colour of blood; the colour of the sky before a storm; the colour of fury. Our eyes meet again. I do not have to thank him. He sees it on my face.
I expected the village to be in tumult, but in truth, everyone appears to have gone back to their beds. When I arrive at my cottage, however, I find Matthew Hopkins and his men inside waiting for me. He is tall, thin and wearing a cloak so that I cannot see his face. His men are also in cloaks. My presence must make them feel cold, for it is quite warm outside.
“Miss Piper,” says Mr Hopkins. “As I am sure thou knowest, I am working for king and country: I am trying to rid us of witchcraft. Unfortunately, various accusations have been brought to my attention, all of them by different people, not all of whom are acquainted with one another. Thou hast been seen in the woods at night with fire, singing songs that do not appear Christian in any way. Come to that, thou hast never been seen at church.” He pauses. “Thou art a witch, Miss Piper. Thou wilt be executed tomorrow at first light.”
“Wilt thou not watch me?” I ask, feigning not to know the answer.
“No. These accusations are enough.”
“Sir,” I say, “pardon me for my insolence, but allow me to ask you a question: I believe you have a daughter, do you not? Is her name not Elizabeth?” I knew this because it so happened that he actually had his home in the next village even though he was notorious among women all over East Anglia. And everyone knew that he was worried about his daughter and that was why he had returned home now.
“Well then, sir: what wouldst thou do if she were accused of witchcraft?”
“Elizabeth is not a witch!” he exclaimed, completely shocked.
“No, no, sir. Of course not. But what wouldst thou do if she were accused of being one?” Under his breath he muttered, “Have her accusers hanged.” But I do not believe he intended me to hear, for he said it as if to himself.
“Is she ill? I have not seen her recently.”
“Prithee, give her my best wishes.”
“Miss Piper,” Hopkins said coldly, “art thou happy that thou wilt soon be dead? For, from the way you are speaking that is the way it appears.” I shook my head. “Then, be silent and repentant till tomorrow.” With that, he and his men turned and walked away from the cottage.
My mother bursts forward, having been sitting watching this interchange in understandable desperation. “Maya!” she cried. “What did I tell thee? That going to the woods is dangerous! That thou wouldst be found there one day, accused of witchcraft and executed.”
“But I will not be executed,” I said.
“Thou wilt! Didst thou not hear them?”
“I heard them, mother. But I have decided what I am going to do.” And I tell her everything that I have planned.
“It is a risk,” she cries when I have finished. “A great risk. You risk your life and mine. I am very fortunate that I am currently not in danger, for no one has accused me of anything.”
“Mother,” I say earnestly, “I promise it will work. When I have done that, they will not dare to touch either of us.”
It is the following morning. In fact, not morning yet, for the sun has not yet risen. Crowds have gathered to watch my supposed death; the whole village appears to be here. I see Lyonell standing amongst them, yet slightly apart from the rest. I catch his eye; he still seems distraught, more so even than yesterday. Mother is also there, of course, but I do not believe she notices me looking at Lyonell. He is a secret, as I am to his family: Mother would not let me speak to boys; she would worry that I would do exactly what I have done: show them my arts, which would, of course, have drastic consequences. And he has not mentioned me to anyone because of his promise.
The stones. I am laden with them: impossibly heavy, for I can barely walk to the river, though, of course, they are dragging me. Harsher than the ice as it bites into the soul in winter. Blacker and more evil than the crime of which I am accused. Is it not ironic? Should THEY not be drowned for murder? But no. For they are working for “king and country”. They should be rewarded! King and country indeed! I happen to know that before Matthew Hopkins’ daughter, Elizabeth, fell ill a few months ago, he was never this harsh. He would, at the very least, have followed the LAW! But when she developed the fever – he blamed it on the poor old lady who was his neighbour. I have not the faintest notion why. But since then, he has believed that any woman who is either solitary, does not go to church or is “intelligent” is evil. Again, what connection that has with the old lady and Lizzy’s fever, I do not know. All I know is that I can, through the use of these criteria, be categorised as “evil”. For I have been caught reading. And writing. And that, for a woman, not to mention a girl, is impossible, is it not? Since I have mentioned this, it may be an appropriate time to tell you how it is that I am able to read and write:
At a young age, I developed a fascination for music. I therefore began to compose it although, of course, I could not write it down. But when I met Lyonell, he taught me to read and write not only music, but words also.
I am at the river bank. Now, I must concentrate. I must think with the greatest of care about the task ahead of me and smooth out any creases, any lingering justifiable shadows of suspicion, that anyone may take from what I am about to do. I have thought all night, but this is the crucial point at which my plan will either prosper or fail. I block out the chatter of the crowd, the weight and coarseness of the stones, the iron grip on my wrists. Finally, just as I decide that all will be well, the signal is given. As the sun rises above the horizon, it paints the sky a multitude of shades of pinks, purples, reds and gold as dawn spreads over the upper world and the lark begins to sing. Then I am lifted off my feet by merciless hands and thrown down – down – down…. I make a show of waving my arms, my legs and when I finally hit the water, I make myself go under, carefully making it seem as uncontrollable as possible. For a moment, the dark, ice cold mouth of the river opens to greet me and closes over my head. After a few seconds though, I rise, having got rid of the stones. First up to the surface. I stand on it, readying myself. The crowd gasp. Then my feet leave the water and I am flying. Like a Phoenix, a fire bird, I move above the clouds and look down on the earth, already reduced to the size of a pin head. I fly lower, passing just above the heads of the crowd as they gaze at me in wonderment. Once more, I see Lyonell, a look of total delight on his face; Mother watches me too and she also looks relieved; Matthew Hopkins, on the other hand, is very pale; in fact, his face is completely white; is it with fear of me or embarrassment at my slipping through his fingers in front of the whole village? Well, if that does not change to gratitude by this evening, I will either have failed or the Witch Finder General is incapable of love.
“Get her down!” I hear the shouts of men from the ground. “Someone shoot her!” But no one dares and I am soon coming to the house of Matthew Hopkins.
As I expected, the window of Elizabeth’s room is open. I slip through and drop silently just beside her bed. She is asleep, her back turned to me. Her breathing is weak and wheezing. “Elizabeth? Lizzy?” I whisper. She opens her eyes and turns towards me, first in confusion, then in fear.
“What art thou doing here, Maya?” she asks with difficulty, her voice high and quavering. “Thou should be dead after thy trial!”
“My arts are not those of darkness,” I reply. “I escaped. I am here to help you.”
“To help me? But the doctors do not know what to do! They say I will be dead before the month is out.”
“The doctors do not know the secrets of healing herbs,” I say, taking a small glass bottle from my gown.
“Thou art here to poison me!”
“Lizzy, I told thee. I am here to cure thee. Prithee, trust me. This bottle contains lavender to help you rest, camomile to calm the fever, rosemary to….”
“Very well,” she sighs. “I do not suppose it truly matters if thou killest me now.”
“It will not kill thee! I promise it will cure thee! Listen. I will take a drop now to prove to thee that there is no trace of poison here.” I remove the lid and take a small drop, for this mixture is not dangerous. When I have swallowed, she nods. I pour seven drops into her dry mouth. “There. Now sleep. When thou wakest, the fever will be gone.” She turns over again and almost instantly, her eyes close once more.
I stand and watch her for a few moments, thinking how I may just have earned myself a new friend; how Lizzy could save me from her father. Then, I turn back towards the window and return home.
“Well, Maya,” Mother says as I come in, “thou hast earned the whole village’s admiration.
Many of them have congratulated me on account of thy talents. So, how was thy exchange with Elizabeth Hopkins?”
“Successful, I believe,” I reply. “I believe we are safe now.”
Now, it is night time. I am in the woods, sitting on the ground of the clearing in the centre, just as I was last night. Last night. It seems like forever ago!
The wind is rustling the leaves again; eerie calm hangs in the air like the celestial beings that rest upon it. It is similar to the feeling one experiences before a storm, yet nothing shows any signs of preparing to unveil anger. The sun is gently dipping in a majestic curve; the moon rises gracefully to meet it; for a moment, they are perfectly in line with each other: a circle of power wearing a halo of fire. And it is at that precise moment that Lyonell walks into the clearing and sits beside me.
“That was wonderful.”
“I thank thee.”
“I thought thy flight was beautiful.”
“Yes.” Silence falls between us. Then, he says, “I never truly believed it until today.”
“What didst thou not truly believe till today?”
“I simply thought that thou wert different. I never truly believed…”
“That thou art a witch.”
“But thou wast the one who said I was a witch that night in the fields.”
“But I was being childish. I did not mean it.”
“Dost thou not like that?”
“I do not mind in the slightest. Before I met thee, I would never have known…” He stopped.
He looked uncomfortable for a short while. Then, shaking his head, he began to chant in a strange language, one that I could not recognise, much less understand. He stopped. He waited. Then, the fire I had made began to churn and move round and round in spirals, the flames leapt high into the air and in a flurry of fiery feathers, a bird emerged from them and began to fly above us. It was a Phoenix. It began to sing a magical song. It was then that I realised:
“Lyonell,” I said quietly. He smiled sadly, yet there were hints of mischief there. “Thou art a witch too.”