Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
As the flames crept up her dress and engulfed her bound body, Abigail gazed out into the crowd. So many familiar faces who had once relied on her and her craft now looked upon her with derision and fear. The bishop stood in front of the raised platform, chanting in an ancient language she could not comprehend. Abigail gasped as smoked filled her lungs. She was determined not to let the mob see her wince in pain as the fire rose higher, scorching her skin.
A crow circled above the mob, drawing Abigail’s attention to one face in particular amongst the sea of betrayers. Abigail’s dear friend Mary was there with the others. The words “burn witch!” stained Mary’s lips in an echo of the mob that surrounded the fire. A crow called out as Abigail closed her eyes and let the flames overtake her body. Only weeks ago, this village had regarded her as they would a saint.
“Now, just keep the linens on for a few days, then you’ll be as good as new.” Abigail finished winding a linen bandage around Mary’s hand. “The salve should help you heal up in no time. My own secret recipe!”
“Thank you, I don’t know what I would do without you!”
“Just be more careful. Spindles can be dangerous you know.” Abigail stood from the shaky wooden chair and returned the jar of salve to the old medicine cabinet that stood against the wall of the main room of the small cottage. A gust of wind howled through the cottage from the single drafty window adjacent to the door. A small flame within the stone fireplace flickered and danced in the breeze, burning faintly against the cold.
“I know. I just get distracted sometimes. Thank you so much for your help. I probably would have died many times over by now without your knowledge. It’s nice to have healers in the village. I owe you my life. You and Sarah both.”
“We do what we can. Take care of yourself now. Let your wound heal before you remove the linen. I want you to take a break from your spinning until it heals, you hear? It should only take a day or two. Please get some rest before returning to your work.”
“I will. I planned to take a break from my spinning today anyway. Have you heard of the bishop who just arrived in the village? He’ll be speaking in the village center this afternoon. Thought I should see what that’s all about. My cousin in the city sent word that we should listen carefully to his message. Would you and Sarah like to come along.”
“I’m afraid we have too much work to do here this afternoon, but perhaps next time. Try not to put too much trust into what a stranger to our village has to say.” Abigail had heard rumors that strangers had begun arriving in cities throughout Europe, bringing with them potentially dangerous new religious ideas. Her intuition told her to remain apprehensive of their messages.
The door of the small two room cottage creaked open. Sarah appeared in the doorway, struggling with two baskets filled with freshly picked herbs. Abigail rushed to greet her lover in the threshold. “My, that is quite the haul. I didn’t expect this harvest to be so bountiful. Please, let me help.”
“No need. I can manage myself. I may have gone a bit overboard, but I thought we should stock up on ingredients for the coming winter. The population of the village has increased since last year, and we must be prepared for illnesses brought on by the cold.” Sarah noticed Mary still sitting at the table in the center of the room. “Why, hello Mary. I didn’t expect you to be here today. Are you alright?”
“I am now, thanks to Abigail.” Mary lifted her hand to show Sarah Abigail’s handiwork. “I should really be going now. I don’t want to be late. Goodbye Abigail. Goodbye Sarah. See you both later.” Mary stood, buttoned her cloak, and hurried out of the cottage into the cold.
Several weeks later in the middle of a cool autumn night, Abigail awoke to the sound of voices outside the cottage. They sounded angry, though she couldn’t make out what they were saying. Abigail sat up in the bed to listen. The voices were getting closer. She could hear them resonating from the bedroom window. An ominous orange glow illuminated the horizon, fading into the light reflected from the full moon above.
“Wake up, Sarah. I think someone is coming for us.” Abigail nudged Sarah, who was still fast asleep in their shared bed. “Wake up. Something isn’t right.
“What’s going on?” the younger woman replied sleepily.
“I don’t know, but I hear something outside.” Sarah sat up in the bed next to her lover. “I think someone is out there.”
The voices became louder with each passing second. There were so many of them. Chants of “get the witches! Burn them to ashes!” could be heard echoing through the trees surrounding the secluded cottage. Abigail suddenly understood what they were after.
“Sarah! Get out of here now! They are coming for us. You have to escape!”
“I’m not leaving without you.”
“You have to go. I’ll stay and keep them back. It should give you enough time to escape without their notice.” Abigail took Sarah in her arms and kissed her one final time before letting her go.
A loud bang preceded the grizzled voice of a man on the other side of the windowless wooden door. “Open up. We know you witches are in there. The devil can’t save you now.”
“Hurry, fly away my little bird. By the will of the gods, get yourself to safety!” The door burst open, revealing a mob of angry men, torches, and pitchforks. Abigail glanced behind her as the man who had busted down the door grabbed her by the arm and neck. Sarah was gone.
“Where is the other one?” The man holding onto Abigail turned to the man on his right. “Check the bedroom for the other witch.” He tightened his grip around Abigail’s neck and whispered into her ear. “I know you have a woman companion here. Or did the devil retrieve her already?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, there’s no one here but me.” Abigail couldn’t risk the mob finding Sarah. She prayed to the gods that Sarah had gotten far enough away that the mob wouldn’t find her. “I swear to you, I live alone!”
“If witchcraft wasn’t sin enough… Sharing your home and bed with another woman. Disgusting.” This voice came from a man who was still standing in the doorway. He was dressed in strange black clothing. He held a book close to his body with one hand and a wooden cross in the other. “May God have the grace to forgive your sins, and bring you to the light, my child.”
The other man emerged from the bedroom. “The bedroom’s clear, and there’s no other way out of here that I can see. Perhaps the girl was mistaken about a second one.”
Abigail looked back at her home for what would likely be the last time. The cottage was dark, except for the faint beam of moonlight that shone in from the uncovered window. The fireplace sat still, save for a small amount of ash that drifted down the flue and settled over the last remaining ember.
The crowd – people whom Abigail had counted amongst her friends and family – screamed obscenities as flames overtook the wooden stake. A lone crow cried out from the sky above, its calls unnoticed by the screaming mob. It had been mere weeks since the bishop had arrived in the village, and a fire had already been ignited in the hearts and minds of the villagers, spreading uncontrollably.
Flames burned higher and higher into the sky, obscuring the burning body completely. The stench of burning flesh filled the air and the villagers screamed on, watching the fire climb toward the heavens. Two crows circled the flames, crying out to one another as the fire burned late into the night, leaving no remains of the witch’s charred body behind.
© 2017 Jennifer Wilber