BURN THE WITCH • by Ronald M Larsen

“This woman is a witch!” boomed Reverend Josephus Drage.

Reverend Drage, for six months now the vicar of Fellwood, preached fear and punishment — much easier for him than preaching hope and redemption, as they were more fitting to the darkness of his soul. Drage derived a certain delicate pleasure from seeing women suffer floggings or torture when accused of witchcraft. Exercising that pleasure too openly was precisely why he was ousted from his last post in disgrace and wound up in this mountain hamlet.

Fear and hate were an easy sell in Fellwood. For several weeks the Black Death had been sweeping through the lowlands like an early winter storm, approaching ever nearer to the mountain towns. Now the plague had arrived, and fear had locked its iron-fisted grip on the hearts and minds of the people.

Granny Hatcher, herbalist, midwife, healer, had become Drage’s latest target. It’s true, Granny was a bit odd. While she wasn’t antisocial, she preferred to spend her time in the woods and fields, hunting for herbs and medicinal plants.

Prior to Drage’s arrival, Granny had been respected in Fellwood for her healing remedies and her skill as a midwife. He wouldn’t admit it, even to himself, but Drage was jealous of the respect accorded her, a level of respect he felt entitled to by his position, but had not yet achieved.

Granny was unmarried, having turned down two or three would-be suitors; even deflecting the attentions of Reverend Drage himself. Stung by her rejection, Drage had begun a campaign to improve his standing in Fellwood by diminishing Granny. He had sown the seeds of suspicion and watered them with discontent for some time. A question or two here, a sly comment there, a raised eyebrow as appropriate… and finally everything came together: the plague, the suspect, the fear-crazed mob, his damning accusation and, at last, a witness, young Belle Thurban.

“What did she give you?” Drage demanded.

“Please, sir, she sells me a potion for two coppers,” Belle replied. “She says t’ rub some all over my body ever’ day, ’specially on my hands an’ face. She says ’twas ‘Four Thieves Somethin,’ supposed t’ keep folks from catchin’ the Black Death. It helped me, but my sister died of the plague, vomitin’ blood an’ with black sores all over her body.”

“So… the witch saves one and takes another.” Drage pointed at Granny. “And what is this Devil’s concoction?”

“People call it ‘Four Thieves Vinegar,’ but I don’t know why,” Granny replied calmly. “It’s an herbal remedy for protection against the plague. It’s made with three pints of vinegar; a pinch each of several herbs; a few cloves; and two ounces each of ground campanula and angelic roots. Healers down in the valley use it all the time,” she added. “Sometimes it helps; sometimes not. God only knows why.”

“You dare to speak God’s name! Blasphemer! Lies and more lies!” Drage stepped in front of Granny and ripped off her bodice, aroused by the sight of her breasts. “There,” he pointed to a small birthmark above her left breast. “There is the sign of the devil. It proves she’s a witch and the Bible says ‘Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch to Live.’ She must be burned.”

“The pyre is ready, Reverend,” offered Teel Murtaugh, one of Granny’s spurned suitors. “Greasewood to burn hot and Morewood to ward off evil spirits.”

“Seize her,” Drage commanded, stepping aside to let the mob rush in. As he said those words, a tingling pain began in his feet and raced upwards through his body. He experienced a weird, wrenching sensation, then a wave of nausea and mental confusion swept over him.

Somewhat dazed and shaky, Reverend Drage was swept along with the fear-crazed mob down the street to the town square as a few of the braver townspeople cursed and spit on Granny and lashed at her with willow switches.

Barely comprehending what was happening, Drage watched as Granny was roughly heaved to the top of a pile of branches and bound to a post. She made no move to escape and said nothing, but her eyes bored into him, like a blacksnake hypnotizing a rabbit.

With other witch-burnings in his previous posts, Drage had stepped forward, demanding that the witch confess and repent her sins. Of course, even if she did, he had incited the crowd to burn the woman as a witch, as he obtained a perverse pleasure at watching the spectacle and hearing her anguished screams. But this time, he was struck dumb.

“Light the fire,” someone finally shouted, and three villagers stepped forward, flaming torches in hand. They looked at Drage for leadership. He nodded ever so slightly, unable to speak. But that was enough. The fire was lit.

As clouds of greasy smoke billowed upward and flames began leaping toward the body tied to the stake, Reverend Drage experienced the wrenching sensation again, much stronger this time, then he dimly realized he was observing the mob though the eyes of the woman on the stake.  Terrified, he looked over at his old body, shocked to see Granny’s black eyes and sly smile.

Finally comprehending what was happening to him, as the fire began to sear his feet and legs Drage screamed, “No,” in Granny Hatcher’s high-pitched voice. “I’m Reverend Drage! The witch has switched bodies with me! Stop this in the name of the Lord!”

Several of the villagers looked over at the former body of Reverend Drage. He (or now she) shouted above the crackle of the fire and the screaming, “She’s crazed.”

Just before the flames and pain totally engulfed his new body and snuffed out all reason, Reverend Drage heard Granny Hatcher’s voice in his head: “Well now, you aren’t very good at recognizing a real witch, are you, Reverend?”

Ronald M. Larsen is a retired electrical engineer who went over to the dark side (Marketing) right after college graduation and spent 50+ years writing technical manuals, marketing brochures and technical articles in the computer and automation industries. His work has been published in Bewildering Stories, Every Day Fiction, Fewer Than 500, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Word Stories and numerous engineering magazines. He’s also worked as a farmhand, draftsman, cook, salesman, junior college instructor and property manager. Current residence is in the Florida panhandle, a proper distance from snow.

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