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WHAT WITCHES KNOW
My grandmother, just before they burned her, said this to my mother: the only difference between them and us is they don’t know they have it. She gestured with her chin at the bonneted, jostling women, who far out numbered the men in the seething crowd around the stake. Her own unbound hair snapped in the wind as they lit her.
Afterwards my mother fled to this secret, wooded place that welcomes our kind. The curse they call a power spills like gentle sunlight upon the bears and other wild things that feed from our hands. The beasts of the forest are kin to us.
I had no father. She grew me, all on her own she liked to say. I never asked her for the truth. I knew he’d met the same terrible fate as all the others, the ones who came after.
We never knew how they found her here. They would just appear between the trees, squinting and searching, as if sucked from the great open spaces by a hungry wind. Raking her fingers through that thick, viney hair, she would sigh so deeply you could feel the cottage tremble. I trembled too. For them and for her. Go away, she would whisper. Not again, I would pray.
The gods did not answer. The men did not hear.
She tried to warn them. I’ll hurt you, she’d cry. Leave while you can. They never believed her. Princes and farmers, hunters and noblemen, even the friar thought he could save her. They never said from what.
Save yourself! she would shriek. They only chased her more.
She looked safe enough. Layers of violet gauze robes hung from a tall, fragile frame, concealing tiny breasts and skin so pale it seemed as if she might vanish at any moment. They must have thought they were chasing a fairy. How could they know what she was?
What they hunted, hell-bent, was their own annihilation. They would forget to eat and drink, or wash, or even sleep, and laugh in delight when she called it to their attention. See what you do to me, crooned the hunter to his prey. See what you do.
And each would whisper his dream of wholeness and nothingness, the dream we’ve been hearing since time began, the one that sends them from their churches and wives’ beds and into our damnation.
Did she love them? Almost, always almost, she once said. But as soon as I can smell the fear in them the feeling is replaced by something else, something I can’t name.
Sooner or later she would grow tired from the hunt. How long can you run from water when your throat is parched? But she never succumbed, not at once anyway. Breathless and laughing, she would toss the suitor her robes and the promise of tomorrow, disappearing into the cottage and bolting the door.
Witch! they would shout at her naked, fleeing form, angry yet smiling in a way I did not understand. Burn her! Burn her! the wives left behind cried out in their dreams.
In the morning, still naked, she would unbolt the door and open it wide, her dark hair coiling and writhing, lifting toward the sun. I could feel her heat from where I lay in my small bed. She would not close her eyes when she made what they called love . They liked that at first ( ah… spirit! ) arched triumphantly over her like bows and staring into the depths of what they fancied to be their souls. They always got to the point, of course, where they needed to close their eyes on what they saw. But by then it was too late.
We keep a little piece of them. Not because we are evil but because it is our nature. What we take are their shadows, their dark, howling secrets. If you’ve ever seen a squirrel skinned alive then you know what it is like.
They live through it. They go home to their wives, their hearths and their children. But a man without his shadow is never sure he’s really there. He looks at the ground and sees nothing beneath his feet.
The witch hunts come cyclically, just like the seasons. We know it is time long before we hear the pounding of hooves, the blood-thirsty cries.
The man who led the hunt for my mother was probably the most enamored of all her lovers. And the most tormented. He brought his wife, a small, plain woman with flat brown eyes. She’d known, of course. They always know. He’d offered her first torch when they found the witch.
There must have been forty men. You could smell the lust in the air when they stripped her. I sure would like a taste of this one before we cook her, one of them said as he grabbed at her breast.
Don’t touch her! I’ll kill the lot of you! screamed my mother’s lover, aiming his musket at all of them. The wife paled at his outburst. She swayed on her feet like a sapling in a winter wind. My mother reached out a hand to steady her.
A look passed between witch and wife that can hardly be described.. It flickered brighter than the torchlight in the air between them, a fusion of forces human shaped and witch radiant, so brilliant, so strong, that the men had to turn their faces from it.
She passed her torch to my mother, then gently wrapped her cloak around my mother’s bare shoulders. Piece by piece she flung the rest of her garments at the men, laughing and spinning herself into the frenzy that is older than time.
The men dared not say a word. The husband could not.
Embracing the stake like a lover, she wrapped her naked arms and legs around it as my mother lit the pyre. Not a hand was lifted to stop it.
Afterwards he carried my mother home, belly down on his horse. He married her and got his shadow back. It was said, for a time, that he’d never looked better. My mother, of course, died the death the wife had chosen for her. It was slow, and a terrible thing to see. First they bound her hair, then they put bonnets on her, and in time when he looked into her eyes he saw nothing. Nothing at all.
A witch without her magic is like a man without his shadow: useless both of them, and damned anyway.