Agnes stood at the edge of the assembled villagers gathered around the old stone bridge. On the bridge stood Matthew and Tobias, both blacksmiths, and Thomas the cobbler with his half-witted son, Jacob. The latter wore a leering grin as the two pairs of men lowered two women, tied around with ropes, into the scum-covered river Lud that formed a pool below the bridge. A cheer went up as they were dumped unceremoniously into the water. “Now we’ll see as they’ll sink or no!” laughed Susanna, the village candlemaker, then all fell silent as bubbles rose from the submerged bodies.
Agnes remembered her father’s words, “If the body floateth, then thou art a witch. Sinketh, and thee be free of Satan’s grasp!” She could just make out the green smock of old Alice Runcorn, the village seamstress, under the water, whilst the other’s head, her aunt Katherine’s, bobbed up from time to time, the face staring wide-eyed and gasping for air. She felt sick and helpless. Aunt Katherine had done nothing wrong, in her eyes anyway. True she had a mole on her neck and kept a pet toad, but was that really the proof of a witch?
With his grey hair curled down to his cheeks, the visiting judge, Master Hopkins, compressed his thin lips. “Up,” he shouted to the men on the bridge. The women were hauled up, filthy water cascading off their sodden clothes and slime-covered hair.
Agnes watched as the judge marched along the bank and onto the bridge. He looked down on the women, gesturing to Alice Runcorn. “This woman is no witch.” He watched as the old woman, thin and frail, coughed up river water. She spat out mud, reeds and blood, then lay still. He gestured to Agnes’s aunt Katherine. “This woman is a witch. Strip her.”
The villagers roared in approval, even Master Stephen, the priest and normally the gentlest of souls, joined in, shouting “May God, with his divine sword, strike down the evil witch!”
Agnes felt nauseous. She looked around in dismay at the gawping faces of the men and the tutting females, the kindest villager become a monster for the day.
As the two women were taken away, one for burial, one for burning, Judge Hopkins called down to the unruly mob. “The women have been swum according to the law, one did float, another of Satan’s servants exposed. She will pay the price!”
The half-witted Jacob stood grinning and clapping, whilst the other villagers tried to keep their excitement to themselves.
Agnes watched in horror as her aunt was tied face down to a rude ladder. Stripped naked, bloody bruises marked the mottled flesh of her podgy back and thighs where the judge’s assistant, Thomas Selwyn, a huge brute of a man, had pricked her with a long needle, searching for the mark of the Devil. “Come on, admit that thou art a witch, that thou meeteth with thy fellow witches at thy evil Sabbats!”
Any mole or wart or unusual mark on the skin would be jabbed. Should a woman feel no pain, she was likely a witch.
Her aunt’s hair, once an envied array of ruby curls, now lay across her white flesh like rotted straw. The ladder, with Katherine bound to it, was carried by Matthew and Tobias to the gallows post, in front of which roared a blazing bonfire. Agnes could feel the heat of it from twenty feet away. The ladder was turned and propped against the gallows post so that all could see the woman’s wild red pubic bush. “For God’s sake, have mercy on me, I am no witch!” she screamed as, by means of ropes running over the horizontal gallows beam, she was slowly lowered onto the crackling flames, screeching like a peacock.
The villagers looked on, their faces red and gloating, mouths open in a mixture of horror and excitement. Finally, they became silent as Katherine’s screams grew louder. Her hair blazed like a flaming torch and her blackened face began to peel. Then, as she was lowered fully onto the flames, she became silent, there was a popping sound as her eyeballs burst, and the sweet pork-like smell of her burning torso began to fill the air. The crowd stood as if turned to stone, then, almost as one, turned and went back to their homes, the excitement over for the day.
Back in her cottage, Agnes drew the curtains and called to her cat. “Gyb, come and drink!” A black cat appeared and jumped onto her lap. She lifted her smock above her head revealing heavy pale breasts. Lifting her right breast, a teat lay in the crease, which the animal latched onto. She stroked the cat. “Good Gyb, thank you for your protection, you have done well. It was ill fortune indeed for auntie, who knew nothing of our religion, but tonight we shall fly to the Sabbat on the back of one of Mistress Henty’s goats, which I did today bewitch!”
The cat began to purr.
“I shall feast on a baby or two and take my turn with our horned God!”
Suddenly the cat vanished and a black man stood before her. “I shall be honoured to serve you, mistress, in his name.”
Agnes looked into the unearthly eyes, then down at the demon’s huge erect member. She felt blood coursing through her veins. “Come, my sweet Gyb, let me get familiar with my familiar!”
Featured in the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural
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4 thoughts on “Sink or Swim”
Wow, you gave some frightening images with your words.
Thank you, Geri. I like to write a bit of horror every now and then!
Descriptive as bloody hell, your story kept me spellbound (no pun) from start to finish. I could feel the horror of those poor women as well as the depraved fascination and desire for punishment of those looking on. And the ending? Superb! Well done, indeed, Simon. Perhaps one of my favorite stories so far!
Yes, they were brutal times and that scenario was played out all over Europe for hundreds of years. What could be worse than being half-drowned, then stripped in front of your townsfolk, bound to some wood and slowly lowered onto a fire to be burnt alive? The ending was fiction. Probably! But from the crimes recorded at the time by some of these women it can’t all have been down to hallucination etc., e.g. a case where people vomited pins, caused by the witch, though the ‘modern world’ would like to think so. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy!