by Rick Danforth
Rick Danforth resides in Yorkshire, England, where he works as a Systems Architect to fund his writing habit. When not working valiantly at the typeface or the plot mines, he can normally be found doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a type of involuntary yoga with uncomfortable pyjamas.
Hopper watched his wife burn with a grudging nod of approval. To the surprised faces of the villagers, she was gone in a flash. Probably all the brandy she drank. Or had drank anyway, Hopper corrected himself. At least he wouldn’t have to share the last of the bottle.
The villagers had done a good job of clearing their green for the impromptu bonfire. The drab square of grass was surrounded by a dozen or so damp hovels looking as if the fire spreading would make the world a more hygienic place. Only a church to the Wind God Flatus, and Lowbraü’s pub looked like they would survive more than a stiff breeze. Hopper happily noticed Lowbraü’s was twice the size of the church. He’d sooner trust a bartender than a priest.
“In sickness and in health for both of your lives”, the priests had said a decade ago. Neglecting to add, “Unless she’s a witch. Then setting her on fire is not only allowed, but encouraged.”
If anything, the bastards owed him a refund on the wedding costs. But the priest hadn’t mentioned that at the trial. The trial which had lasted less time than signing the death warrant afterwards.
The entire village turned out to watch today’s show, the antisocial highlight of the year. Children were brought, as it was considered important for their education, but mothers held hands over their eyes to ensure not too much education.
A pie seller skulked at the back, taking advantage of the event. No-one knew where she came from. By some ancient, mystic rules they appeared mysteriously at last minute events even here, a village not worthy of an address book.
Tears welled in Hopper’s eyes, another certainty of life. He’d never gotten used to the smoke. The acrid fumes clung to his heavy black leathers, and the burning witch smell reminded him of sausages. It put him in mind to cook some over the fire, but last time the villagers had complained. Apparently, it ruined the scene.
But today’s scene was a good witch burning, for the villagers at least. Regrettably Skedaddle was a fishing village, and the rods they hoisted didn’t have quite the same effect as pitchforks. They didn’t even have enough wood for torches. But they made up for it with enthusiasm, bunting, and children playing with little witch effigies sold by Hopper for a shilling apiece. And after the evil witch was good and burnt, zealous, if out of tune, hymn singing.
And then his wife was gone. Leaving behind nothing but mostly pleasant memories, a tarnished ring, and a smell that would stick in his clothes for a good week. Perhaps longer if she wasn’t here to help him wash them.
As the villagers shifted to the townhall, a building kinder architects would call a shed, the Mayor sidled up to Hopper. A portly, balding man in a mostly gold chain who was sweating through ceremonial robes made of badgers. Hopper suppressed a laugh. People were always nervous around witch hunters. It was hard not to be nervous near a man you had watched set a person alight. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome,” said Hopper with a bow of the head, removing his wide brimmed hat with a flourish. “Not a sir, I work for a living.”
“Oh yes.” The Mayor blushed, and fumbled about in a pocket. After dislodging half an old sandwich, he handed over the traditional payment. A silver sixpence and a ceremonial pin.
“Ta.” Hopper took them, opening his coat to reveal a money bag hanging between a long thin knife and his ivory handled witch-pricker. A second later a wrapped lunch was passed to him. Hopper was disappointed to see that the contents weren’t greasy enough to stain the brown paper. It might even contain that old wives’ tale, vitamins.
The Mayor hung about like a bad smell while the embers ceased glowing. More jittery than a bucketful of crabs, he sent fleeting glances to the festivities he clearly wanted to join, but was too polite to abandon Hopper for. Inviting a witch hunter was obviously out of the question, it would be like inviting Death for post-funeral sherry and nibbles.
After a pretend cough, the Mayor asked, “Do you have a lot of experience pricking witches?”
Hopper nodded solemnly. “Aye. Sometimes twice a night if I’m good.”
“Lovely.” The answer didn’t placate the Mayor. If anything, he looked more despondent than when he begged the witch hunter to remove the blight from the village. At least the witch had smiled a bit. Deep down, despite the rules of religion, everyone was more afraid of those who burned the witches than the witches themselves.
After taking a moment to savour the awkwardness, Hopper relented. He wasn’t an unkind person, besides professionally, of course. “You can go if you want. I’ll take the ashes and be on my way.”
“If you don’t mind?” said the Mayor gratefully.
“Not at all.”
“Are the ashes important?”
“If I don’t take them, I’ll never hear the end of it,” said Hopper truthfully.
As the Mayor left, Hopper stooped down and scooped the ashes into a battered piggybank he fetched from under his coat. Taking care to drag in a discoloured wedding ring he had bought in happier days. A lot of dirt joined too. He should probably be more careful, but his back wasn’t what it used to be.
Securing the little package on a stained cart seat with a loving pat, Hopper set off down the road. There were no pleasant farewells from the villagers, just curtain twitching to make sure he had really left. He tried the lunch, which tasted like he should have visited the pie seller.
Slowly the horse and cart wound their way round a dirt track carved through grassy knolls and decorated by dry stone walls. It was a picturesque route, except the recent addition of tree stumps, through the mountainous countryside that could have inspired artists and operas throughout the nation. But Hopper had more important things on his mind. Even more important than the pub lunch served at the next village down, the one with the four cheeses and pickled onions.
At the first battered and decrepit milestone he pulled into a clearing, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he was alone. A squirrel watched from a tree, so he lobbed stones at it till it fled. You never knew, not with witches.
Safely crouching in the middle of the clearing, he opened the piggybank, releasing a flavoursome barbeque smell with a hint of nutmeg.
Next Hopper cursed at his dodgy knee, which seemed to be in cahoots with his back, and bent down. Following the guidance of a dogeared copy of the Bumper Fun Book of Spells, he drew a rough pentagram in the dirt.
On the second attempt. On the first he drew a duck before realising he had the wrong page. As he redrew, he grumbled to himself that this was the problem with this hocus pocus nonsense, you couldn’t learn anything worth knowing from books.
Next Hopper inserted one silver and one copper coin into a lemon that had seen better days, before placing it in the pentagram. According to the grimoire, a live mouse should be sacrificed, but the author grudgingly accepted a lemon as a cheap substitute. Personally, Hopper preferred them as he felt they added more zest. And in any case, Hopper wasn’t suited to catching mice. Witches were far easier. Especially when you lived with one.
This former witch got poured into the pentagram without ceremony, creating a mess of ashes she’d have complained about in other circumstances. Finally, he added a bottle of beer as an offering, before returning to the cart.
Removing a folded paper spell out of a little box in the cart, Hopper grunted as he noticed they were nearly out. He shook the paper, muttered, “abracadaver”, then threw it at the circle as it crackled.
A plume of blue smoke covered the pentagram, magic masking things not to be seen by man. It glowed a dim throbbing blue light that shone over the whole clearing so brightly that Hopper could see through his hand. It gave a passing badger a brief yet troubling existential crisis.
After a brief delay for a crack of lightning and a distant cockerel crowing, Hopper’s wife, Alice, emerged. Tall, with the striking features that he fell in love with, framed by blonde hair. As naked as the day she was born.
The effect was only ruined by a torrent of swearing and coughing. As soon as she had finished, she fixed him with a glare. “Did you use a lemon again?”
“Why do you say that?” asked Hopper, hiding a hand behind his back before remembering lemon juice was clear. Then he breathed a sigh of relief. No matter how often they did this he was always nervous. Seeing her back always cheered him up.
“Gives a tingle, not unpleasant,” allowed Alice. “But it turns my bloody hair blonde. No-one wants a blonde witch. It’s grey or black.”
“Look I’ll catch the mice for you if you want. But now I have to dye my hair black before the next one.”
“Yes, dear,” said Hopper, who would do no such thing. He’d never felt comfortable killing mice. Even after Alice had explained mousetraps were placed, not thrown at mice.
Alice stopped to sniff herself. “Is that nutmeg?”
“The villagers insisted. They believe it gets rid of the…heresy.” Hopper wisely decided against saying, “unclean”. And he was fairly sure the local apothecary had just over ordered nutmeg.
“With that and the lemon I smell like mulled wine.” Alice swore as she sniffed her hair. “Bloody hate peasants. No imagination whatsoever.”
“Rarely,” said Hopper. Who should know, after four decades of being one.
Alice trampled round the clearing, grumbling and hissing at shrubs. Before necking half the beer in one long gulp. “The crops fail, burn the witch. Their crappy marriage fails, burn the witch. A plague of giant beavers destroys their entire forest, burn the witch.”
“In their defence, you did cause the beavers?”
Alice turned to him. “Well yes. But they had no bloody evidence, did they? And they got beaver sandwiches for a week. Habeas corpus they say, until the beavers come out. Then it’s string up the witch.”
Hopper nodded his agreement. That much was true. Like his black leathers, stringing up witches never went out of fashion. Unlike the beaver sandwiches, which got boring after two or three.
Everyone liked a witch when they rolled into town selling helpful potions like Son Block, Foetus Deletus, and Mycoxaflopin. But sure enough, after stocking up they joined their neighbours in outraged protests. None of whom admitted to buying any potions. Then when the beavers arrived and the wood disappeared, lynching naturally followed.
At which point a Witch Hunter conveniently arrived, with some very reasonable deals on firewood he’d happened to bring from the next village over. A witch was burnt, and they were on the road with a bag of coins, a piggybank of ashes and a packed lunch before anyone could say, “grifters.” Taking extra care not to confuse the containers. Not after the gravy granules incident.
The whole mission eventually culminated in their present scene; Alice chuntering as she changed into a black dress, trampling flowers, grass, and Hopper’s foot in her annoyance at prickly fresh skin. Hopper wordlessly passed her a bag of silver occult jewellery. It was mostly skulls, and even the jeweller thought it incredibly tacky, but the customers expected it. Alongside a fake wart made of putty, black clothes and a cow skull they’d found at the side of the road one day.
But even with tacky jewellery, fake wart and a plain black dress with beer stains down it, Hopper thought she looked even better than the striking landscape she stood in front of. Although she didn’t seem to be in the mood to appreciate it. Being burnt really took the charm out of a quaint morning scene.
The ritual of the chuntering finished, Hopper hugged his wife. Trying to wrap his soul itself around her body. It didn’t matter how often she burned, he was always relieved to see her back.
“How are the sandwiches?” asked Alice, breaking off to cautiously sniff the lunch bag.
“Upsettingly moist,” said Hopper sadly. It was like chewing a urine infested mattress. He should have accepted the beaver instead. “I’d avoid the beer.”
Seeing her quizzical expression, he added, “Seaweed.”
“Oh, that you rescue me from.” Alice grimaced and spat sandwich on the floor. “But you couldn’t have rescued me from the fire?”
“I just did.” Hopper smiled warmly. “You’re welcome.”
“I meant before the burning.”
“I was busy.”
“You know,” said Alice thoughtfully, swapping the sandwich for a lunch of last night’s brandy. “Do we really need to burn me?”
“Yes,” said Hopper automatically. They had a working system, why change it?
“You realise we made ten crowns just selling potions and lotions that we made from scavenging in the woods?” asked Alice. Her potions were advertised as crafted under moonlight, but that was only because she kept burning the tent down.
“Yes, but we get sixpence for burning you. And sixpence is sixpence.”
“Do you have any idea what we could do?” Alice turned to him, magic of a gold kind in her eyes. “We could open a shop. In the city maybe, selling potions to thousands upon thousands of customers.”
“Who would also want to burn you.”
“Eventually,” allowed Alice. Even she accepted having a witch next door aged as well as used toilet paper. She’d been run out enough times to learn that lesson. “But maybe we could change the plan up? You know that book is full of spells? We could use them for once? Use more magic than a cheap disappearing act?”
“We’re not good at that. We’re good at the burning.” Hopper surreptitiously clawed the scar on his cheek, the one from when she’d summoned a demon when he wanted a lemon for his drink. Although he didn’t mention it. Nor did he mention the time she meant to vanish him, and varnished him instead. A surprisingly sticky afternoon for them both.
“And sixpence is sixpence,” spat Alice.
Alice sent a wistful glance to the mountain line in the distance. “Don’t you ever want anything more?”
“What do you mean?” asked Hopper with a frown. He didn’t ask philosophical questions. Hell, he couldn’t even spell them. But he knew exactly why he was here, to burn his wife. And he called a shovel a specified digging implement.
“More than roaming from village to village?”
“Going to a city once or twice wouldn’t be the worst. But you do get lost a bit.”
Alice took a deep breath to reset. “I don’t mean that. I mean how long have we done this?”
“Ten years? Maybe. Burnings blur together after a while.”
“Don’t you want a change?”
“Could do with a new blanket?” offered Hopper thoughtfully, his dreams running amok. “Maybe some padding on the cart seat?”
“I mean what do you want? What’s our goal?”
Alice took a deep breath. “And when we’re old? What about then? Do we have something different?”
“When we’re old?”
“Grey, tired, our knees worn out?”
“Yes!” screamed Alice, her hand caressing Hopper’s face.
“Well, I wouldn’t mind going down to the Southern coast. Then we could work in the sun. That would be nice.” Hopper grinned, he enjoyed the sun. It made cold beer taste even better.
Alice sighed, and went to sit on the wagon. Awkwardly shuffling on worn out padding. “So where next?
“Little village called Pork Scratching. Tourist Guide to Fouren says trying their sprout beer is a once in a lifetime experience.”
“I expect that’s true,” said Alice after a moment’s reflection.
Before they set off, Hopper went to the back of the wagon and opened a wooden box. With great ceremony, he placed the little pin amongst a foot high stack of similar brethren. Allegedly there was a prize for collecting a thousand.
Hopper dearly hoped he would get a new pricker, his just wasn’t big enough for the task.
More importantly, if he collected just another ten crowns he could surprise Alice with a trailer. He had one in mind; pots for her herbs, bookshelves on the side and a little cauldron on the end so she’d stop burning the tent down. He couldn’t wait to see her surprised face.
But until then, it was back to the certainties of his life. Death, avoiding taxes and burning witches.