The Gossip Killings
The awkward shape of the hunting party emerged from a misty cloud of rain into the dull dusk light. At first, all I heard was my mother’s painful moan but as the procession moved near, I saw the slung form on the back of my father’s horse and I too joined the mournful chorus of the bereaved. Even as my grief was fresh and tears still flowed it was decided that something must be done to ease the hunger in the house. My mother was hard pressed to feed my sisters and me so it was agreed I would live with my aunt, to tend the garden and become an apprentice in the craft.
‘She is a good age,’ my aunt said.
‘And a good learner,’ agreed my mother.
It was true. I could read and write, do arithmetic and was skilled in many kinds of preserving, of which I am most proud.
I gathered a thick blanket made from scraps and rags and early attempts at needlework, folded it into my satchel with the boar-bristle hairbrush my father made for my fifth birthday, and added the few garments I owned and was ready.
It became my job to make tinctures and teas for the trail of needy and feeble who came knocking. My aunt allowed only pregnant woman and children to cross the threshold into the cottage; all others remained at the door while she observed and considered and they declared their troubles.
‘Some of this and that, a drop or two of oils and they be gone,’ she would turn and say, and I would select and mix a paste or tonic, listening all the while as I parcelled the remedy and sent them on their way.
‘I am grateful to you,’ they said, whether they were man or woman, old or young.
They arrived in the gloaming light or the dark of night, never during the full of day. They skulked along the hedge, stood hesitant, never a smile amongst them. The need was great during that harsh winter of our undoing.
Through seasons of watching and doing I became adept. I planted seeds, tended seedlings, raked, weeded and harvested. I measured and mixed, and all the while I understood more than the mingle of villagers imagined. It was the most desperate of winters. It changed the way people spoke and looked upon us as they envied our hearty crops and healthy ways as others fell to fever. Hope shifted and turned to fear. Loathing was at our heels. I became privy to disgruntled rumours and warnings to watch my back.
‘Bide your time and take your leave,’ said the whispering wife of the blacksmith.
‘You are not safe,’ said a friend’s mother under a veiling shawl.
‘They will come for you,’ my father’s brother predicted. ‘Your aunt is one of them,’ he added with a wily tone.
These were the words from amongst those who had paid for a cure at our door. I overheard lies and fictions of unlikely fantasy. Stories of my aunt cavorting in the forest, selling souls and bewitching beasts became more detailed in every telling. Once-friends turned away as I approached. Fear made me silent in reply. I kept my head low and heard the whispers. Children chanted behind my back in their giggling and playful songs.
Witch-girl, witch-girl on a stack of sticks,
set her alight,
watch her burn all night.
I shrank from view. Hearing lies as I hid in the shadows.
Her garden is lush when our crops fail.
Her medicines are poisonous concoctions.
Her night strolls are the wanderings of a mad woman.
She is a banshee.
She is wanton.
Names of victims and afflictions confirmed the plot. The verdict was agreed with a nod and a glance. Accusations echoed through the town like rats in the guttering. The whispering beast of ignorance had been unleashed. It hissed a verdict. Guilty, it snarled. Guilty, guilty, guilty it roared into the silence. Brows furrowed and lips tightened. Neighbours exchanged morsels of gossip. They savoured and pondered, decided they knew. I saw a shift in the gaze of those who become strangers. My aunt had warned me of the turning. She had seen it before and knew the putrid current. The time of sacrifice had come.
The final spate of accusations began as a slip of the tongue, like a lost thought. I was selling preserves to folk at the public drinking house when I heard my aunt’s name. It was spoken like a curse from the lips of the man I had seen in her embrace when they thought themselves alone. He did not speak in a single coherent sentence, nor did it seem a decision to betray; yet he did so without reservation. He drank beyond his limit and laughed.
‘She is harlot and maid,’ he said. ‘She is the day and the night.’ He slammed a jug of ale like a gavel on the table. ‘She is a cryptic woman.’
The men to whom he spoke were eager to hear his tales. They moved closer and listened with a curious and shared delight.
‘She is a woman as wild as the storm and as tame as a summer creek. Her mind runs between complex thoughts of the great skies, to the simple notion of women’s chores. Her vigour is easy and anxious.’
The men drew nearer.
‘Oh, yes,’ the man slurred his story. ‘She is indeed a woman of uncanny pleasure; she satisfies desire with a lusty appetite and a gentle cunning.’ He drank himself further into the trench of her demise.
‘She has the magic of a witch.’
The word echoed through the minds of the men who stood to listen. It defined their loathing and their envy. It had been said. It could never be unsaid.
Judith Lofley writes stories, poetry, reports and summaries. She is completing a political thriller called The Sad Man at Whitireia. Her favourite food is anything she hasn’t cooked herself, especially sushi. She is a mother of two, project manager and a volunteer fire fighter on the Kapiti Coast.