Glowing in a narrow shaft of moonlight the man’s hand
faltered, floating expectantly above the door, and the water-stained wood
quivered in anticipation of his touch. In the pale, aqueous light, he became
aware of how he had aged, skin turning rough and muddy looking, odd new hairs
sprouting on his knuckles. He had the hands of his grandfather, more than half
a century old with fingers like gnarled roots.
Shaking the image away, he knocked boldly, ears cocked to catch the footsteps sounding in answer. There was nothing but the brightness of moon glossy across the door and the rain of mist on distant leaves. As he raised his fist to knock again the door fell back to reveal a woman, slender in girth, with wide, intelligent eyes burning within a mass of dark hair. Her face appeared to melt away from the heat of her unwavering eyes, immediately humbling him. She stood in silence, the man who summoned her sensing his measure well taken and duly noted.
She spoke first. “What do ye want with me?” Her voice was deep and rich, like sweet wine.
“I come to seek your services, mistress. My wife is ill in childbed. She’s begun to birth the baby though she is but a few months gone. Have ye a remedy for such as this?” He delivered his speech exactly as he had practiced it but was unprepared for her answer, which struck him as solidly as would her hand.
“Are ye sure it’s the babe whose sake ye came for and not to lighten any burden ye might feel should ye lose them?”
Startled, he managed to stammer an assent. He wanted the child. “Alright then. Wait here.” She closed the door, leaving him alone with the creaking, watchful oaks and dew dripping leaves. Had he come for the child? That he wanted it, he knew. His wife was a weak and mousy woman. He had little faith in the powers of her will, less in the ability of her body to heed that will. He had already made peace with his choice, should it come to that, the woman for the child. When her labor pains began early, he experienced a deep, vitals-clutching fear, which surmounted his mistrust in midwives and wise-women.
Rose Dubois was the witchiest woman he could find. She lived just within the border of the Great Wood, beyond the neighboring village. Terrible stories circulated about her, tales that would freeze the blood in the veins of a lesser man than he. She ran naked through the wood smeared with gore and ate the still pulsating afterbirth of her women. She spelled to curdle milk in the breast, made a scrying glass from a fresh caul, stretched and dried like a hide. Her glowing red eyes rarely saw the light of day.
Rose Dubois kept a bottle of stolen innocence to slake her thirst when she was wasted from her consort with the devil. He’d expected a crone with rotten teeth and crazed eyes gleaming with a bloody fire. Instead she was a handsome woman, no more than five and twenty with an unflinching gaze and fine, clear skin.
As if hearing his thoughts, the door swung open again and she stepped out, wearing a dull red cloak, its voluminous hood obscuring her face. She carried a basket with a hinged lid and set off down the path. It looked to be a weighty thing but she held it fast, not allowing it to bend the line of her back.
“Ye don’t even know where you’re going,” the man cried after her, his nervous, high pitched voice trailing her like a sheep.
“Well then, take the lead, or do ye intend to follow me to your own house?” she tossed back.
The house looked clean and cozy from the outside, it’s windows bright with a fire whose tangy scent permeated the air around them. Inside his wife lay on a pallet near the hearth, her shallow breathing barely audible in the warm, close room. Moving nearer Rose noticed her blanched cheeks and the sheen of sweat across her lip.
From across the room the man watched intently as his wife, so often unanimated, came to life in Rose’s presence. Their earnest voices mingled into one as Rose gently manipulated her sloping belly. Rose made herself at home, finding a bowl and pouring off hot water from the kettle hung in the concoction of herbs. His wife drank timidly at first then deeply hearth. An unfamiliar odor curled his nostril hairs as Rose mixed a while Rose held her head. Soon she lay sleeping.
“Well,” said Rose softly. She came to him rubbing her hands. “She’s having a bit of a struggle holding on to that babe. She must stay abed. No chores, not fetching water, not cooking, not washing. She may sew if she likes but she’s not to tire herself, d’ye hear me? I’ve left a packet for ye to make a tisane when she wakes. Let her have as much as she can hold. I’ll come round in two days unless ye come for me first.” She stood gazing into his eyes and he sensed the little house and forest beyond dissolve away leaving him in a barren land with no heat save the source of her. His member stirred hopefully between his legs. Startled and embarrassed, the man looked away, breaking the spell. Rose gathered her cloak about her and disappeared into the night, her basket hanging heavily upon her arm.
Two days later she returned. The wife was sitting up in her bed looking a little but not much better. Seeing her pleasant, hopeful face, Rose had a sorrowing flash of defeat. There was little she could do.
The man waited in the wood until the witch left. He’d no need for knowing women’s business. His load was doubled now with caring for his wife as well as himself. The wood kept him busy enough trapping and hunting without having to tend to the cooking of the stuff.
As he watched her walking down the path, his body again betrayed him, making him hot and rushed about the groin. He wondered when she would come again.
He didn’t have long to wait. The pains returned and the moaning accompanying it drove him out of the house and to her door. “Rose! Rose!” Panic dispensed with formality. She was on the path in an instant, clutching her basket, red cloak billowing around her like cardinal’s wings as she ran. When they arrived, the woman lay hunched on the floor, sobs rising up like spirits from the dead. He helped Rose lift her to the bed to sit holding her grim white hand to his chest. Rose flew from the fire to the bed and back, bathing the woman’s face and throat with a steaming cloth, giving her sips of brandy and viscous tincture drops. She murmured soothingly beneath her breath, keeping a hand on the hot, exposed uterine mound, stroking and rubbing, fingers assessing the turn of tiny limbs.
The worst of it over, Rose followed the man to his room. They sat silently for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. Rose decided to be completely frank.
“Your wife is very ill. She may recover of her own with good care, even then she will have a difficult labor, but she’ll most likely die. Before the birth if not during.”
Stunned, he could only stare at her, his gaze fastened upon the rustling petals of her lips. True, he’d never felt strong passion for his wife but she was a good companion. Kept his home clean and put fine food in his belly. Evenings were spent in front of the fire knitting and whittling in pleasant silence. They both hoped for a child to bring a touch of laughter to their quiet lives and when she conceived they’d danced a celebratory jig in the yard.
It had gone well enough, his wife had been quicker to tire and did less of her usual work but he didn’t really pay it mind, filled as he was with thoughts of teaching his son the ways of the wood. He liked to imagine the boy at two, at ten, at twenty, living his life, sharing a laugh with his papa as they worked side by side in the glens.
Then the pains had come, he was struck dumb by the sight of her bloodless as a ghost, her outstretched hand dripping with the bright crimson flow. And then Rose filled his world, rising up like a blinding smoke to obliterate everything save herself. Rose all red and black, her hair shifting loose on the breeze, she was a fire smoldering in the depths of a fathomless dark pool. He felt himself falling soundless and grateful into that pool, his nose and mouth and lungs filled with the very essence and idea of her.
“Are ye all right?” Rose inquired tenderly, laying a hand upon his hard muscled arm.
Looking down at the slender, capable hand resting lightly upon his sleeve, feeling the heat seeping through his clothes transmute its
warmth to his very system, he was seized with unquenchable longing for the taste of her against his tongue. His eyes met hers. She read the question posed therein and stumbled surprised over the words forming in her throat. Before they made themselves heard he was upon her, his hands gripping her shoulders, forcing her back against the cold straw mattress his weight crushing her, smothering her with the force of his need.
Rose sucked in her breath, at once horrified and on fire, shivering beneath him as he clawed at her clothes, exposing her small breasts to the cooler air of the cottage. Bestial desperation sank needlelike teeth into her; she turned snarling upon him, snapping and lashing, pawing him hungrily. The man’s mouth was everywhere upon her, drinking down great draughts of her skin, swallowing the spittle collected in his mouth from their greedy kisses. Licking her neck and ears like a voracious dog, he thrust himself between her thrashing legs his stiff member seeking out the source of her waters. Plunging himself into her depths, moving within her, Rose’s arms and legs knitting him into a hot cocoon. She moved against him furiously, teeth scarring his shoulder in an effort to silence her cries.
The man, enraptured by the look of her, half bared, face twisted in grimace of pleasure-pain, felt the tethers of earthly life and all he had ever known come unbound. Released he flew singing into the worlds above and below. Rose shuddered and moaned as he arched above her. She saw the white moon through the thatched roof. Trees flashed past, a soft thunder of pounding hooves against the dirt. A smell of fire. She howled into his chest, a sound of agony. Then they lay still, panting steamy breath into the cold air.
Rose dropped down to the floor, gathering her clothes about her and ran. Her footsteps sounded briefly then vanished. The man lay alone on the bed, filled with a sorrow as deep as any well.
Rose returned the following week and everyone after that, showing her face once or twice before fleeing to the sanctity of the Great Wood. The man tried to keep clear of the cottage whenever he suspected she might be coming. Occasionally he was surprised and caught sight of her before she vanished. She was cool, guarded. His words died an expectant death on his tongue, as she slipped away, a wraith between the mossy dark limbs of trees.
His wife seemed to be on the mend. She managed to keep the cottage tidy and the big iron pot over the fire filled with steaming vegetables, roots and the hares he brought home already skinned, their juices running down over their sightless eyes like tears. Her belly grew round and taut, she smiled meekly through her pallor. The time was coming near, Rose had done her job.
The man tried to put everything behind him, to allow memory to seep from his consciousness in a slow bleed of light, but the image of Rose, eyes narrowed like an animal’s as she turned on him that night was seared in his mind. Haunted by her, he thought he heard her voice simmering between the pine needles in the overhanging trees. He could think of little but her.
One afternoon he sat in the yard sharpening the blade of his axe, liking the steady grate of stone against metal, the sharp purposeful sound it made. He was admiring his handiwork when a clatter sounded from inside. He sat silently a moment listening to see what followed but nothing came.
“All right, woman?” he called, his voice sounding tinny and faint in the clearing. A stab of panic spurred him to action. Throwing the axe into the dirt he dashed to the house. His wife was crumpled on the floor, onions and beets scattered around her.
“My lord!” he exclaimed helping her to her pallet.
“The babe! It’s started!” she cried. “I must have Rose! Please fetch Rose!”
“Yes, yes, you shall have Rose!” The man raced over the boggy ground, leaping fallen saplings. As he ran, heart bursting with blood and exhilaration, he thought of her, his Rose in the Wood, of sweeping her up into his arms with lusty thanks. His son! At last his son! His laughter exploded in his mouth. Jubilant, he spied the clearing where her cottage stood. Popping from the trees he almost collided with her, hanging her washing from the branches.
Rose, wearing a thin dress turned almost angrily to him. “What do ye want? Haven’t ye done enough already?!” she said scornfully. Astonished, the man staggered back, the picture of her head atop a stranger’s body confusing him further. Where once had been a slip of a girl stood a voluptuous woman, breasts heavy and full cradling the heavy round bulge beneath.
“You!” His mouth bubbled wordlessly. “Rose, why did ye not tell me?”
“There’s no need. It’s naught to do with ye. Naught at all.” She stuck a determined chin in the air.
“Rose my Rose, how could ye leave me unknowing? I could have helped...” he murmured.
“With what? One wife and child is all that’s plenty and legal. Ye don’t be needin’ to add me to your brood. Your wife’d take none too kindly to sharing her roof with me.”
“My wife! Good god, she’s having them pains again. She says it’s time. Now Rose, get yer basket!”
She disappeared into the house and emerged with her basket and cloak. Arriving back at his home, he noted admiringly that she hadn’t even broken a sweat on their run. Inside, the woman looked up gratefully from her makeshift bed. Rose took her hand and spoke soothingly to her. The man turned away, oddly sickened by the sight of the two together. Dusk lengthened into dark and sound filled the house, his ears packed down with her noise until he could stand it no longer. Outside he paced the yard, swinging his axe. He decided to chop wood until his head cleared, pleased with the clean, sure strokes of the newly sharpened axe.
Looking up from his task he realized that the steady moaning had ceased. Instead he heard a curious short barking sound which stopped as quickly as it started.
He approached the house, his feet carrying him leadenly forward. Glancing through the window he caught a blur of activity, a shadowy, sinister figure contorting over the bed. He opened the door. Rose sat silently by the bedside. His wife was still as bone and just as white. There was no welcoming infant’s squall. Nearing the pallet, he realized with horror that the quilts were soaked through with blood, he smelled the hay mattress through the wetness of it.
Rose looked up, her vast, black eyes glittering with an absurd, brilliant light. In her arms she held a tiny bundle of cloth.
“My son?” he murmured. She nodded and handed him the feather light package. His fingers trembled as he pulled back the cloth, revealing the diminutive face of a baby bird, eyes closed, the miniature nose and mouth in perfect repose. Shaking violently, he exposed the tiny, impossibly frail body, its legs and arms like kindling twigs.
The baby’s head lolled on its frail flower stem neck. Rose wore a tortured mask of hope and disbelief. She shook her head. His wife lay on the bloody bed, the silt colored slits of her eyes still dribbling a thin, salty stream. Both gone.
“How...?” he choked.
“She was ill, she lost too much blood. I could do nothing.” Rose gestured at the heap of stained rags in the fire.
“And ... my son?” he whispered holding the tiny body to his own.
“Came with a cord round his neck. She died with him unborn. It was all I could do to pull him out.”
The man examined the baby, noting the mottled marks at his neck. “I am sorry,” Rose said. “We should bury them as soon as possible ... there are scavengers in these woods who’d think little of coming through your window to get a piece of meat.”
The man stared at her, horrified, then slowly nodded. “Give me a minute. Please.”
Rose nodded and left him with the remains of his family. Outside she squatted, listening to the hiss of her urine splattering the dirt. Her baby moved within her, kicking violently. She winced, pressing an offensive protrusion with her fingers. The little knob under her skin vanished. Rose waited in the night until the man called her. Together they cleaned up the blood as best they could. Taking pick and shovel they ventured into the wood to find a pleasing spot for burial. The man led Rose to a grove of young firs.
“Here. The flowers always return in spring. She’d like this place.” He said nothing of his son, the extinguished flame of all his dreams. They had dressed the bodies in the cottage, washing the blood and fluids from their skins, clothing them in the wife’s wedding gown and the baby in the christening gown fashioned in anticipation of that celebration. Wrapping them in a quilt, he tied the bodies onto a flat raft of twigs he used to haul his day’s cuttings from the deeper wood. Now silent, they lay in the grove, her arms stiffening, holding the baby in an eternal embrace.
He began to dig, his breath forming thick, white clouds. Sweat dripped from his brow to a nose pointed and red with ice. Rose crouched nearby, watching. Finished at last, he straightened, his back cracking painfully.
Wordlessly, they moved as one to the bodies and dragged the raft close to the grave. At her signal they lifted then lowered. The woman and boy lay haphazardly in dirt that refused to yield its comfort. The man hesitated, trembling again. He removed his hat, clutching the wooly thing to his heart. The image of their faces floated against the night sky like moons.
Seeking a place of solace within, he closed his eyes, hearing only the rustle and sigh of dark in the leaves. Rose’s breath was a faint thread tickling his mind. She was here, his Rose. He opened his eyes and met hers. She smiled gently, as if she knew and forgave.
Her hand was poised over the grave, fingers slowly releasing their burden of soil. He took the shovel and began to work.
The man stirred in his sleep, a shaft of bright sunlight warming his skin and blood. His eyes fluttered open, he lay quietly in bed enjoying the stillness of his heart and mind, two entities which had given him no end of grief over the past three months. Today held much promise.
He dressed and ate his meager breakfast of boiled quail eggs and cold rabbit. Since his wife died, he learned to do much for himself and today he thought he’d tend to the house, wash his few articles of clothing and perhaps try his hand at mending the rent in his trousers.
Outside, scrubbing the clothes with the lye soap that burned the cracks in his rough hands he felt a calmness as soft as a kiss steal into his soul. He found himself almost weeping as the clothes frothed against each other, remembering how he had scrubbed the bloody birthing quilts to no avail.
Suddenly, voices sounded in the distance. Startled, he rose to see three men coming up the path. They entered the courtyard, somber in black, official looking hats and coats.
“Be you the husband of Charlotte Ramsay?” asked one particularly dour faced man.
“That would be me. And who might you be?”
“Matthew Hopkins, Witch-Finder General. I am certain that a being grievous of nature and deed has been visited upon you. Your wife died in childbed?”
“Yes,” he answered, hackles rising. Though he lived in seclusion on the outskirts of an insignificant farming village, tales of Hopkins’ arrests, savage interrogations and vile punishments of suspected witches were legendary.
“Are you known to one Rose Dubois, witch and murderer?” Hopkins’ beady eyes scrutinized the man’s face intently, his narrow mouth a crooked slash in his pasty flesh.
“She is known to me,” the man answered carefully.
“We seek Rose Dubois for the murder and bedevilment of Charlotte Ramsay and infant Ramsay. Rose Dubois is hereupon charged with witchcraft with evil intent. We advise you not to speak or be seen with her lest you incriminate yourself. Her trial takes place in six days. I assume you will want to be present to see this foul and wicked creature receive her just punishment?” Hopkins, edging closer to the man, wiped the sides of his mouth in drooling anticipation. His breath was dense and malodorous.
The man regarded the trio warily, the other two standing like mute beasts behind their master and he wondered whom among them was the true demon.
Yellow noon sun frosted the long blades of grass, the wood all around them a storm in whose eye they hung suspended on the turn of a word. He did not wish to place suspicion on himself, but what had Rose done? Night filled his head, a foul beast swam through the sunbeams glinting in his hair. The moaning, the void of space echoing overhead, tiny pinpricks of stars piercing his brain. The barking. The blood, the smell of wet hay. He felt the harsh frozen ground, heard the soft thump of dirt clods dropping on the bodies in the pit. His Rose, guilty? A witch? He attempted a laugh which snagged in his throat on the way out. Deep in his face, a slow squeeze of tears.
“She’s guilty of nothing. She did her best.” The words stretched and dimmed in his ears. He fought an urge to dash into the wood, away from the Witch-Finder General to Rose and her dazzling all consuming fire.
“Just mind you keep well away from her,” Hopkins returned with a sensual leer. “Or you might find yourself at the bottom of a hasty, night-dug grave. We’ll be watching out for you.” Doffing his hat, he bowed low. The man wrinkled his lip in disgust at the sight of Hopkins’ scabrous, crusty pink scalp and thin dirty hair. Were his parting words intended to console they fell far short of their target.
Replacing his hat on his greasy head, Hopkins and his escorts turned and were soon swallowed up by the wood. The man, his heart hammering like a woodpecker under his ribs, snatched up the axe embedded in the hopping stump and hurled it ineffectually after them. It too vanished in the rough net of trees.
Inside, he donned his cap and jacket, sheathing his hunting knife at his side. In a carved wooden box, the size of a bread loaf was a collection of Charlotte’s things. A tiny suit and hat she’d knitted. The wedding ring which had belonged to his grandmother and hers before her. He wrapped them carefully in a clean handkerchief, tucked the package into his shirt and barred the door of his empty house.
Burgeoning clouds threatened the sky with rain. His sunny mood had fled.
Walking briskly he made his way to Rose’s cottage, led by eerie compulsion towards that scandal of red and black, of nimble delicate hands dancing like knives or a flurry of wings to cut the sight from him. He’d been so afraid at first! Then he’d taken her, overpowered her, became intoxicated by the intensity of her response, the querulous nature of their attraction; though it stung, he yearned for more.
Walking the path in the growing cool, the breeze unfurled itself inside the shell of his body. Every root, twig, or branch caught him up in its teeth to chew at him endlessly. Was the wood so thick as this? He was confused for a moment. Afraid he’d gotten lost from the path, but no, it was there under his feet, benign and brown.
Overhead, the gray sky was barely visible through the weft of branches. Something rustled in the distance. He placed his hand on his knife, preparing himself for whatever lay in wait but the noise died away. Whether facing east or west he couldn’t tell, the wood closed around him pressing in from every side. Columnar shadows stood like sentinels between the trees, darkness mounting every minute from behind. He continued walking in the same direction, his zeal diminishing with each step.
He was raised in these woods, knew them like the back of his own hand. He glanced down and snorted. There was a tiny dun colored spot he’d never noticed before. Certain he was now lost. Let the road take him where it may. At some point he was bound to run into another path which crossed and led towards a village. He jumped a narrow trickle of water and almost slipped on the slick muddy ground. Charlotte was somewhere with all that wet mud pressed against her body. He was glad he’d insisted on wrapping them in the quilt. He shuddered to think of it pushing up into her nostrils, the worms and crawling things keeping house in her soft, lovely hair. Rose’s hair had been rough and snarled itself around his fingers, got into his mouth whenever he’d drawn a breath as if to suffocate him.
He wondered about his babe nestled in her hot womb. A son, a daughter? Would she have told him, come to him? Dwelling on the happy vision he was caught by surprise at the tenderness blossoming in his heart.
He smelled wood smoke before his eye caught the pewter plume limning up from a break in the trees. There, a light in an amber window. The bite of the smoke seared him with pleasure. He would be glad of its cheer and perhaps a mouthful of wine to refresh him before he was on his way again.
In the clearing an ancient cottage slouched against a massively ribbed grey tree. The thatched roof was weathered and shabby, the walls caked with pale blue lichen and green moss as if had risen from the very ground itself. Sprung from the turmoil of roots and earth it had come clawing its way into the world. He cast a quick glance about the wood realizing there was nothing for hundreds of yards, perhaps miles. The blackened forest stretched ahead seamless and unending. He turned back, searching for the path that had led him here and found no trace of it. Beneath his feet the bracken swelled, obliterating his tracks. There was no direction but forward.
A terrible crunching sounded with his every movement, he was the dinner bell tolling in the dead of night. Nearing the house his mouth watered to find a brace of birds curing by the door. A scuffling in the bushes startled him, he rapped quickly. How dark it was! He’d been walking for hours, wandering round lost and felt near to fainting from hunger. The door opened slowly, reluctant to allow the last weak dregs of daylight into the cottage. An ancient crone, bent almost double appeared in the crack. Her rheumy eyes strayed over his face and body.
He smiled weakly, dropping his hat into his hand. “Madam, I–” he began.
“Shh. You are just as she said. A bit taller perhaps but well made all in all. A sound piece of work,” she chuckled to herself. “Mmm, yes a very fine man indeed!” she murmured, her misty gaze drifting over the lines of his body.
He stood confused, hesitant. Chided himself for the spark of childish fright that ignited in his breast.
“Mother,” he began courteously, “can you help a traveler lost from his path? I seem to have found myself in unfamiliar lands and ask that you will allow me to rest for a moment before I’m on my way again.” Faced with the owner of this overgrown troll’s lair, he regretted having knocked, much less come into the clearing. Why had he not waited for night and let the stars guide him home? His stomach convulsed angrily. His tongue licked parched, stale lips, hopefully probing the air for a drop of moisture.
“Yes, child, do come in. I think you’ll be very pleased with what I have for you!” She smiled handsomely, displaying strong ivory teeth. He ducked through the doorway into a warm cozy room. Shelves burdened with multitudinous containers stoppered with cork and wax lined the walls. Thick, myrtle green glass jars dense with rubbery organs and mucous stood side by side with tall, slender beakers of amber and garnet liquid and bottles of fresh herbs packed neatly in salt; fronds of chamomile, belladonna, tansy and pennyroyal floating in oil or alcohol.
Overhead, bunches of dried flowers, ferns and grasses spun on twine tails. In the hearth a fire leapt and smoked. It was neat and orderly, a place of work rather than leisure. He began to feel less regret at his decision and gratefully took the seat offered.
The old woman stirred around in the great black cauldron bubbling away over the fire and ladled a steaming portion into a bowl. A nimbus of orange fat coated the dish and he greedily sucked down the stew.
Chunks of hot meat slid unmolested over his teeth. She poured wine from a goatskin, which he guzzled noisily and tore into the hard crumbling cheese she produced from its sling.
Fortified, he grew sleepy, lids collapsing over gritty eyeballs. In the periphery of his vision the woman shuffled noiselessly, arranging the already tidy room. He fought the rising tide of unconsciousness sweeping into view, dulling his senses, ushering in vertiginous dreams of loss. He ran through the wood, pierced the lacery of trees with his cry, “Beware the wolves! Beware the wolves!” A volley of muted footsteps, a shower of flying debris, enormous shadows vaulting over the ground in a flicker of white, gnashing teeth. Soft fur caught on a branch. A flash of red robin swooping overhead, red cape aloft on the air, red stain on outstretched hand. An unbearable, rending howl collapsing the sky, torn by the keen edge of moon from a throat most wretched and lost. Falling face down into the black grave, Charlotte drained of life and weeping dry tears. Cunning, lycanthropic blades flensed the life from his bones. Rose twisting serpentine below him,
eyes lambent and wild. The wail of a babe freshly severed from its home.
Bitter rills trickled down his face. He sobbed aloud in terror and longing. Rose danced out of reach and vanished into the thickets.
He woke with a start. The room was quiet and dim, embers cooled in the grate. Everything came flooding back. Hopkins and his hunters, his flight through the Great Wood in search of Rose. Getting lost and ending up here, the hobbled old woman and the meal. Where was he?
Rose! Ah, a spike of urgent helplessness sat him bolt upright. They would find her and she would have no chance. No hope of rescue or redemption. He’d endured the villager’s stares and whispers behind his back. They believed Rose responsible for Charlotte’s death and were hungry to pin blame for his misfortune on someone. Matthew Hopkins would host a speedy trial followed by a lengthy, exhaustive execution. Rose, if not burned, would be decapitated, her head impaled on a post in the village center as a warning to her fellows in the coven.
He had come with the intention of making her his wife. They could easily go elsewhere to begin life anew. The old woman must set his feet right before he lost her.
“Mother!” he called softly into the darkness. A feminine form materialized in the doorway. Stepping into the glow of firelight, her tangle of hair marked her.
“Rose!” he whispered. She moved towards him, her red cloak sweeping the ground. In her arms a bundle of mewling black fuzz. “A girl,” she said huskily.
“My girl? My wee girl?” he breathed. “Ah!” Taking her up in his arms pressing the sweet child to him. The baby squeaked and struggled. Rose studied him cautiously. His happiness was genuine and deep, she allowed herself a smile, which he caught and returned.
A commotion sounded at the door. The old woman burst into the room her voice edged with fright. “Rose, ma fille! They are coming!”
“Grand-mère!” Rose cried in terror.
The man raced to the open door. In the distance a parade of torches flickered among the trees.
“We can get through the Wood, Rose. Lead us to the other side and I’ll take you away from here.”
“No. It’s too far, and at night with a child? No, it’s not possible,” she moaned, pacing the floor. Dry pine needles crunched underfoot of the approaching mob. Faint voices grew more distinct.
“Rose, please, we must move now!” he begged. “Ohh,” she groaned. “Grand-mère, help me! Help me!”
“Ma coeur, only one way, there is only one way.” “No, no, please!” Rose circled the room in panic.
He clutched the tiny baby, shaking his head in confusion. “We must go!” He shouted, startling the baby who began to cry. He rocked her in his arms immobilized by Rose’s hysteria.
“It is the only way!” Grand-mère repeated more forcefully. Rose fell sobbing to the floor. She had seen the mark on her daughter, she could not leave her behind. Grand-mère moved quickly, pushing her towards the door.
“Now, it is time ma fille. Take her.” She plucked the baby from his arms and handed her firmly to Rose. She pulled Rose to her feet and began stripping her of her clothes. Rose fumbled with the babe’s wraps until she was naked and squalling. Her tiny fists pummeled the air.
Grand-mère produced a short thin blade from the folds of her skirts and held it poised over Rose’s breast.
“You may not return. God go with you.” She struck with the knife, cleaving Rose’s flesh in two, a ribbon of red appeared down her chest and belly, the better from which to step from her skin. Then the baby squealed angrily at Grand-mère’s knife.
Boots crashed at the edge of the clearing. Torch light like morning in the windows.
Grand-mère pushed Rose outside. “Go!”
The man stumbled after her. A glimmer of skin and silver amid the boughs and they were gone. He scanned the forest, rushing towards the trees and the emptiness of their embrace.
“Rose!” he shouted, his voice breaking egg-like around the word. “Rose!” Her name leached effortlessly into the atmosphere. She was gone.
Stunned, he turned towards the cottage. A rush of sensations overcame him, he laughed acidly, his hands squeezing into tight fists at his sides. The shades of men in high black hats turned the little house over and crumpled it back down into the loam. He dashed up the steps where Grand-mère crouched before the fire, 1icking the blood from the tip of her knife. She poked at the bundle of burning skins, as they melted into wax and sinew. The stink of singed hair and the smoking red cloak was everything left of Rose.
Watching him with her eyes bright as rubies, she rose shaking down her wild silver hair. How sharp her teeth looked in the firelight! How rough, the hands curled like paws!
She hobbled quickly past and out into the torch-lit, thorny night. She opened her mouth; her throat became a cavern gathering sound, spinning it into that eloquent sorrow and lunacy drenched howl which shot like a flaming arrow through the skeletal trees to reach its mark. From deep within the bowels of that forest, that Great Wood, an answer came. High and long and clear, a voice arched with shame and much pleasure. Like a death wail, it tore through the air to snatch up and crush in its jaws the man’s tissue paper heart.
Hungry for more? See "Rhapsody in Snakeskin: Tales of Erotica and Horror." http://www.icesong.com/books.html