Heathen (18+)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Featured Review on this writing by AdamCarlton

‘I know not where she is!’ (18+)

A few years ago I stayed at a coaching inn which was once frequented by Matthew Hopkins, the notorious Witchfinder General of Essex. On the outside wall of the inn I found a sign, explaining that under Hopkins personal supervision, more than 300 innocent women were persecuted, not allowed to sleep, marked with the sign of the witch, tried by ducking stool, hung or burned at the stake. All of the disturbing methods described are true, according to my research they actually happened. Thankfully, women's rights have moved on since those terrible three years 1644 to 1647. In memory of the innocents. - HJ Furl


That I can live my life with you, is all that I can pray.

That I can learn to love you more, every passing day,

That you will find fulfilment, in all the things we do,

That we enjoy the happiness, which lives in love so true,

That when you go to heaven, I’m waiting there for you.

Wednesday 7th December 1644: daybreak.

The peasant uttered an ear-piercing howl, like a wounded animal, and slumped on the wooden seat. His bloodied mouth kissed his bare chest. Both wrists were securely tied to the arms of a chair, palms down. Wright let go of the finger on the right hand, which stood proud: broken at the knuckle, pointing up at the thatched roof. The young man raised his head and cried,

‘I know not where she is!’

Rogers stepped forward and embraced him, holding his wailing head against his chest, stroking his wet hair until he calmed. He held the bleeding chin, forcing back his head.

The farmhouse was a timber-frame barn without windows. A fire burned in its hearth, keeping out the winter chill. There was a sturdy oak table, a few chairs, an unmade bed in the corner, raggedy bedding strewn on the floor: where the young girl slept.

‘Where is she, lad?’

There was no answer. Rogers glanced at Wilding who was standing at the open door surveying the yard. The heathen eked out a meagre life. A few hens and geese ran free in the toft, a small drove of pigs grazed the muddy croft at the rear. They owned a horse which lived on a strip of grass beyond the toft. There was a dovecote, and a stable with a haybarn which opened out onto the yard. From where Wilding perched, it was impossible for the girl to escape without her being seen. It would take the men minutes to find her, but his bloodthirsty accomplices had to have their evil way. He sighed, then nodded.

Rogers grasped the scruff of the peasant’s hair and tugged at his head, baring his face to Wright, who landed a haymaker punch on the lad’s nose, shattering the bones in the bridge in an instant, sending thick plumes of blood gushing out of both nostrils. He convulsed and fitted with pain.

The young girl hiding under the bed trembled, shuddered, and wept with fear, covering her tiny mouth to stifle her cries, horrified at the boy’s torment.

Wright took a finger and prised it upwards, enjoying the crack of knuckle, his deafening wail,

‘I know not where she is!’

Soon, he ran out of patience, ‘Damn you, boy! Shall I break all the bones in your body?’

Wilding stepped in, seeing him falter, dragged Wright off the brat, pushed Rogers aside, held the lad’s hysterical face in his hands,

‘In the name of God! Where is she?’

‘She is hiding, in our barn…’ 

*****

The heathen was dragged kicking and screaming from the haybarn, her teeth chattering with cold.

Rogers seized her crudely from behind and clamped his large, hairy hand over her small mouth,

‘Be quiet, child, or I’ll cut out your tongue.’

He felt her wriggles subside, felt her calm, save for her shivering. She quivered as, holding her tightly, he ran his hand down her thigh, drew up her skirt, and felt her soft, bare skin. He saw her blue feet. The girl was barefoot. On such a cold and drizzly day. Rogers felt for her,

‘Take you to a warm inn, eh?’

She nodded. He removed his hand. His fingertips were wet. She was crying. It started to rain.

‘Best we be going, eh, girl?’ Wilding smiled.

They forced her arms behind her back and bound her wrists with twine. Rain washed over her, drenching her, matting her hair, trickling down her face, her neck. She stared into the cloudy heavens, and prayed to herself: 

That I can live my life with you, is all that I can pray.

The men slipped a hand under her armholes, appreciating her warmth, and walked her across the puddled yard. She cocked her head. No sound came from the farmhouse. They hoisted her onto the back of a cart, like a sack of swede, then sat by her side. Wright untethered his shire horse, took the reins, and they made off down the muddy rutted track. The heathen took a last longing look at her home, pined for the boy and prayed for the girl, bowing her sad head, fearful for her life. 

They reached the outskirts of Alting. It was market day, but the filthy, puddled, pot-holed road was empty. She felt the villagers’ eyes studying her from behind their gloomy panes. Felt their intense hatred of her. Wright pulled sharply on the reins, and the cart drew up in front of the Red Lion Inn, a timber-beamed haunt with double-width leaded windows either side of a wide black door. There was a square transom window over the door.  

Rogers and Wilding manhandled the bedraggled girl off her seat, dragged her through a sludge of stinking human excrement that constituted the gutter, and hauled her to the doorway. One of them clamped his hand over her mouth,

‘Not a sound, child, do you hear?’

She nodded. Wilding lifted a wrought iron latch, shoved the heavy oak door open, and stepped inside. Being over six-feet tall he bowed his head to avoid the duck and grouse beam, inscribed with the year 1539, on the way in. Rogers followed with her. Both men took it in turn to stamp their boots and shake the rain off their capes. Majestically, they swept off their broad-brimmed hats.

The common room was a mishmash of boards to sit at and forms (benches, three-legged stools) to sit upon. At the centre of the room was a roaring hearth. By the fireside was a high-backed settle. Sitting on the settle, nursing his frothy mug of ale while wolfing down chunks of bread and cheese, was the sternest, most imposing character the girl had ever seen. A florid bear of a man with long greasy black hair (his own, not a wig), plain black coat, waistcoat, short trousers, stockings, and square-toed court shoes with dumpy heels. He watched Rogers and Wilding lead the heathen past him, the closed door to the kitchen, the stone steps leading to the beer cellar, then disappear up a narrow, winding staircase. Other than the Puritan, the place was empty.

By now the girl was petrified. The short stairs led to a cramped landing with an uneven wooden floor. There were three doors, each of a different shape and size. Rogers pushed at the smallest door and pulled her inside. The room had a low, slanting ceiling. Wilding stooped. The heathen recognized the small, leaded transom window. There was a neatly-made bed, a welcome fire burning in the hearth. Rogers kindly untied her wrists so that she could kneel by the flames and warm herself. She felt the heat on her rosy cheeks, smelled the smoke, loved the crackling sound of the little fire, felt herself relax. Exhausted, Julia Pettitt slumped on the bare wood floor and drifted off to sleep.

*****

Alice, a pretty little thing with frizzy red hair, freckles, and a hole pierced in her tongue, left it until she was sure the rogues had departed before she slid out from underneath the bed. He was sliding off the wooden chair, slumped, unconscious, his head resting on his bloodied chest. The girl let out a tiny scream when she saw his bent fingers,

‘Oh Seth, what have they done to you?’

There was no immediate reply. She smiled and spoke to herself. Alice always spoke to herself, and her make-believe friends, her gods, whenever she played strange, pagan games in the toft,

‘Soon be right as rain!’

She giggled and skipped outside to the yard, fetched a pail of water from the wishing well, walked up to the wretched boy, and threw the lot over his head. He stirred with a jump and a start. The girl laughed, her mischievous eyes filled with play and merriment, sweet childish innocence,

‘There! I woke you, didn’t I!’

The lad lifted his broken head, drawing gasps from Alice when she saw his misshapen nose. He went to speak. She pressed her soft little fingers to his lips. Then, very gently, the girl placed her hands over his face, making him wince with pain, and held them there. Alice stared at the ceiling and started to chant,

I bless this boy with all my heart,

Bless him till the clouds do part,

Sun shine on you through the rain,

Heal your wounds and end your pain.

She lifted her hand and spread her arms upwards. Rays of sunlight poured through the open window, warming, healing the boy, soothing his tortured soul. At first, he was frightened. But what happened next was beyond his comprehension. He felt the shattered bones in his nose form a new bridge without pain. Felt his knuckles mend. His upturned fingers bent, bowed and stretched. Alice ran out to the well and returned with more ice-cold water, some dirty rag. She rubbed him clean: his face, bloodied chest and stomach; and dried him with her cloth. He closed his eyes and fell into a deep slumber. Seth found peace at last, for now. Not her… she went and sat on the bed, covered her face with her hands, and wept for Julia. 

I don’t like it here. Something evil, terrible, will happen to her here, near the dark forest, in his alehouse, in the pond, at the old oak tree...

*****

‘Wake up, girl!’

‘Wake up, child!’

When they woke her at sunset, Julia saw her captors had been joined by the squat, muscly man who had driven the horse and cart, and the Puritan. The huge man announced himself grandly as Gareth Hopkins, and introduced his three assistants, Callum Rogers, Royston Wilding and Matthew Wright. When he informed Julia that she was to be investigated and discovered, her heart sank into her belly, and she began to cry. All hope was surely lost.

As the sun set, she heard the sound of commotion in the common room beneath her feet: mobs of rowdy, beer-swigging men, shrieks from barmaids granting favours. Her stomach rumbled. She was famished, thirsty, hadn’t eaten or drunken water since daybreak. There was an empty bucket beside the bed, filthy rags to rub herself with. She squatted over the bucket, lifted up her skirt, and used the toilet, as the men watched. The rain strummed against the glass panes.  

Hopkins left shortly afterwards, leaving the men in black to sit with her. They subjected Julia to sleep deprivation that night, prodding, nudging, cajoling her as she lay fully-dressed on the bed, in the hope that they might extract a confession from her lips,

‘Confess to us, girl!’

Julia could not confess. She was starving hungry, her throat was parched, but she could not ask for food and water.

*****

Hopkins returned at sunrise. Exhausted, Julia perched on the edge of the bed while Rogers cut her left arm with a blunt knife. She did not bleed. Rogers pulled her off the bed and forced her to stand in front of Hopkins.

‘You won’t bleed. Confess to me, child,’ he pleaded.

Her mind was filled with dread at the thought of the ordeal which lay ahead of her. She longed to lie in Seth’s strong arms, to play strange games in the toft with Alice. She stared Hopkins in the eye, defiantly.

‘Take off your clothes, girl.’

She shook her head.

‘Do what he says!’ Wilding hissed. 

‘Take off your clothes, child,’ Hopkins repeated, pointing at Rogers, ‘Or he will.’

She turned her head and saw the dirty leer spread over his face. She recalled how he had held her. How he had run his hand down her thigh, drawn up her skirt, and felt her soft, bare skin. She felt sick inside her gut, her belly. Julia quivered, trembled, shook, and shuddered with fear.

The heathen was wearing a thick, warm, dull red linen bodice and skirt that she made herself. Slowly, she untied the spiral-bound laces holding her bodice together, pulled the garment open, slipped it off her shoulders, tugged her arms out of the sleeves, and dropped it on the floor. The fire blazed and crackled in the hearth, but Julia felt no warmth, only shame. She was wearing a shift, a light linen slip, like a nightie, under her bodice. Her eyes met her captor’s. She looked into his icy stare imploringly. Calm, unsmiling, obsessed by his quest for purity and goodness.

Julia untucked the shift from under her skirt, then pulled the garment off over her head, baring her ample breasts. Her nipples protruded like shiny bronzed buttons, stiffened hard by her fear.

‘Now there is a pretty sight,’ Wright observed wryly.

‘Quiet!’ Hopkins moved close to her, so close she could smell the ale and cheese on his breath,

‘I have to discover your mark.’

The mark which all witches were said to possess, a mark that was said to be dead to all feeling: a mole, a birthmark, an extra nipple. Julia cupped her breasts, showing him her nipples, the soft undersides, then she held them apart, so that he could feel her crease. He traced an index finger down her chest. Rogers and Wright moved intimately close to watch him examine her. But her skin was free of moles, spots, and pimples. Her nipples were perfectly formed, evenly coloured,

She looked at the four men hopefully.

‘I have to find your mark,’ Hopkins insisted, without the slightest trace of emotion.

Julia sighed sadly.

Today was going to be a beautiful winter’s day, on the outside. Harsh sunlight streamed through the glass casting shards of light, of unseasonal radiant warmth, on Julia’s skin. Her interrogators made her stand in the sunbeam so that the witchfinder could appreciate her beautiful body.

He made her bow her head. She rested her chin on her chest. Then he inspected her scalp. Hopkins parted her fine, blonde hair inch-by-inch, meticulously searching her pale scalp for a sign: 666, to no avail. Julia felt his fingers: smooth, soft and warm, feel behind her ears, brush the hair out of her eyes. She had lice. Her ears were full of dirt. He wasn’t disgusted. The Heathen were notorious for their lice, fleas, intestinal worms, their pestilence,

‘Put your hands on your head.’

Julia obeyed him, clasping her hands behind her head, staring at him, straight in the eye, as he lifted her chin with one finger and inspected her black-dark nostrils. Her eyes were clear, red, sore from lack of sleep, but clear. She opened her mouth for him, parting her dry, cracked lips in order that he could inspect her gums. He told her to stick out her tongue, she did: her perfectly normal tongue.

He fluffed up the hair at the nape of her neck. There was not a boil, bite, or pimple to be found. Her chest and breasts were perfect with no lesions or sores. Her armholes were flush with bushy fair hair, and stunk to high heaven. The soft skin on her stomach, her midriff, and belly were free of blemishes. He inspected her navel: she hid not so much as a freckle. She turned to face the window while he felt her shoulders, back, small of her back, backs of her arms, her hands. Julia had a perfect complexion. There was no sign of the mark. The witchfinder eyed Wilding who shrugged his shoulders. Rogers leered at the girl. Wright looked embarrassed. He gazed at her, admiring her beauty, her resilience. She had not confessed, not yet. But she soon would. They all did in the end. She bathed in the warm sunlight, watching Hopkins smile, hoping above all hope that she might be set free.

‘Take off your skirt and lie on the bed,’ he ordered.

Her hopes dashed, she undid her skirt and let it fall to the floor. She was naked, with no panties. Her feet were daubed in dried filth and excrement. Her slender calves were spattered with mud. Wright handed her some rags so she could rub herself clean. His face bore a strange expression, the look of pity. Julia regarded him with a sense of renewed hope. Perhaps, he would make the others see reason. Tell them that she was not a witch. Her spirits sank when he shook his head, and turned away.

The men pinned her arms and legs to the bed while Hopkins examined her unmentionables for the mark. Tears of humiliation streaked down her cheeks when she felt his fingers inside her. He ordered his witch-pricker, Wilding, to shave Julia’s body of all her hair. She squirmed as he plucked the hairs out of her armholes. He made her hurt, like the dickens. Rogers and Wright held her legs apart while he shaved her hairy crotch with his razor-sharp knife, pinching each tuft of pubic hair between his thumb and forefinger, drawing her hairs taut, then cutting them short with a sawing motion. Hopkins examined her shaven pudenda, the cleft between her firm buttocks, her slender thighs, calves, feet, toes. But Julia’s complexion was unblemished. The witchfinder had failed to find her Devil’s mark.

Shortly after sunset, Wilding discovered the third nipple in the crease between her breasts, by cutting a circular wound in her flesh with the tip of his knife. As she lay bleeding, they subjected her to further sleep deprivation, in the hope that they might extract a confession from her. Julia knew she was innocent. She was so terrified that she couldn’t speak. Her dumb pleas for mercy.

Friday 9th December 1644: mid-morning

The embers in the fire’s hearth glowed then faded, like Julia’s hopes of survival. She stared out of the square window, and saw that it was sleeting. Her mouth was parched. She was starving. Cold, weak, and mindless. She had no mind left of her own. No will. The two men dressed her in her bodice and skirt, but not the shift. They led her outside onto the muddy road, now known as Simmel Street, strapped her to the seat of Wright’s cart, then paraded her through Alting.

The sleet turned to snow. Freezing cold, feverish, and shivery, Julia clasped her hands together, closed her eyes, and prayed. Even as she was subjected to the baying mob who lined the road in their warm winter cloaks, coats, dresses, hats and boots, who defiled and mocked her, crying,

She is the Witch! Kill her! Kill her! Kill the Witch! Kill the evil Witch!’

Julia prayed, silently, to herself, to her gods – the sun, the moon, the sky, the soil, and the rain.

‘She is the Witch! She is the horrid Witch! Kill her! Kill the Witch! Kill the evil Witch!’

She was carried as far as the village pond, followed by the cruel, merciless, crowd. There she was unbound, then dragged, kicking and screaming, up to the ducking stool: a chair fastened to the end of a pole, which the witchfinder used to plunge ‘offenders’ into the ice-cold pond as punishment. Hopkins waited by the stool. He crouched down beside her as Rogers tied her to the chair, shaking and trembling in the bitter north-east wind, blinking the snow from her eyes.

And said, ‘Confess to me, girl.’ 

She shook her head.

Hopkins turned to face the angry mob and lied to them, ‘She did not bleed. She will not confess. She has not bled. What say all you good people?’

‘Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!’ came their reply.

The Witchfinder General nodded at Wilding, Rogers and Wright, who were busy clinging to the other end of the pole, bearing the heathen’s full weight. They slowly edged the ducking stool forward, until she was suspended, trembling with trepidation, in mid-air above the murky pond, and waited.

‘Confess to me, child!’ Hopkins thundered.

The young woman shook her head.

‘Then go down!’

They lowered her into the icy cold water until she was fully submerged, ducking her for twenty seconds. Then Hopkins commanded that the heathen be ducked for periods of fifty, even sixty, seconds at a time until she either confessed or was drowned.

The crowd thrilled to the spectacle, jeering at Julia, ‘Ah, see the poor, little blue girl, dying?’

Each time she emerged from the pond, choking, wheezing, coughing stagnant water, Julia took a deep breath and gazed at the white vellum sky, as if pleading her innocence. After she had been ducked six times, to the astonishment of the men in black, she suddenly found her voice,

‘Father!’ she gasped, flailing her white arms, kicking her dripping, wet legs, to gain attention.

Hopkins stared at her wide-eyed, in disbelief, ‘What is it, child?’

‘Bless you, Father!’ she wailed, hysterical, ‘For you have sinned!’

A murmur of dismay rippled through the crowd, ‘Sinned? He sinned? With her? With a Witch?’

‘He sinned with me!’ she croaked, ‘The Sins of the Flesh! My flesh!’

Hopkins recovered, quickly, ‘Damn you, lying woman!’

She was dunked again, for her sins, and left to drown. A fading froth of bubbles appeared on the surface of the pond as her lungs filled with water. Once the Puritans were satisfied that the heathen was dead, her body was raised out of the pond, and taken to an old oak tree, where she was hung by the neck as an example to the villagers of the punishment meted out to women who dared to indulge in the occult.

Friday 9th December 1644: nightfall

Julia, an uncommon name in those times, meaning youthful or love’s child (derived from the soft, downy, facial hair which appears on the face of an adolescent girl), Pettitt (from the French word petit), hung dead for a full eleven hours. It was the peasant, Seth, who cut her down from the noose that night. And her mystical, magical, lover, the child-witch Alice (meaning truthful, of noble birth), who breathed new life into her…

That she might live to haunt you all.



Submitted: January 23, 2021

© Copyright 2021 HJFURL. All rights reserved.

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Comments

Craig Davison

Good story H.J. I really liked it.
Cheers,
Craig.

Sat, January 23rd, 2021 8:42am

Author
Reply

Thank you so much Craig,
HJ x

Sat, January 23rd, 2021 5:08am

AdamCarlton

Atmospheric, of course, leavened by the richness of language you've brought to bear. The pace is nicely balanced too. And you care.

Sat, January 23rd, 2021 10:18am

Author
Reply

Thank you very much Adam,
HJ x

Sat, January 23rd, 2021 5:09am

Meaghan Kalena

Interesting!!

Thu, January 28th, 2021 4:52am

Author
Reply

Researched!!

Thu, January 28th, 2021 9:36am

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