The weight of the body was much heavier than Temperance Prower expected. Tied at his hands and feet and hung upside down on a long pole – like a buck after it’s been felled – the women panted as they marched through the darkening woods. Temperance and the others took turns in twos carrying the weight of the load. Six of them, all in black, plodded along steadily toward a familiar clearing. Moonlight shone through the branches as warm puffs of their breath traveled skyward. They didn’t need lamps, as they could cast their own light, and the women grew more confident and chatty the deeper into the dark woods they traveled.
One called Sarah – Temperance didn’t know her surname – shook her head saying, “I almost can’t believe how easy it was. A complete stranger and he let me into his house. Sent his wife and children out to the barn, so ‘we could have privacy’,” now she looked contemptuously down at the man swaying from his limbs. Disdain rippled off her and the others, charging the night.
“I put the belladonna in his drink but he was already unbuttoning my dress to, ‘check for the mark of a witch’s curse,’ by the time it kicked in.” There was an unhappy muttering from the group and the two holding the man jostled him roughly.
Then, under her breath Sarah added, “I hope he wakes up in time.”
Temperance rubbed Sarah’s back comfortingly and said, “He will. We’ll make sure of it.”
As they approached, Temperance was astonished to see nearly two dozen women already gathered together in groups around a bonfire. Shelters had been arranged in a semi-circle and it was clear some of the women had been there for days, if not weeks. Food was laid out on a table and a pot hung over the fire, steam rising from it invitingly. Temperance recognized most of the faces but there were some, Wampanoag or Pocasset she assumed, that were unfamiliar. Now and then the cry of a child would emanate from a tent or the bark of a dog carried over the low sound of human voices. A handful of horses and mules were tied loosely to lines between trees and hoofed the ground. Cheers and whoops of congratulations met the group of six as they walked into the festival-like atmosphere. They deposited their load in front of a large table laid with a white-cloth and quiet descended in the clearing.
A tall woman with long, wavy black hair and beautiful delicate features emerged from a tent with a baby at her breast. The assembly parted respectfully to let her through and Maria Owens walked slowly to stand in front of the prone figure. Temperance noticed that though still beautiful, Maria’s once warm eyes had turned flinty. Her full, sensuous face had become waxen. She peered down her nose at the man who was prostrate and bound at her feet. She stared for a long moment, the only sound filling the forest was the crackling of the fire and the baby suckling.
Then, Maria spat with such force into the man’s face that Temperance flinched. She hissed his name, Hathorne, like a curse and made the sign of the Evil Eye. A satisfied murmur ran through the group. When she spoke again, Maria’s voice was gravelly and low, full of determination,
“Let us begin.”
Immediately, there was a flurry of activity while women moved around the camp collecting their offerings and clearing the space. Children were tucked into bed one last time, the horses lines checked. The baby at Maria’s breast unlatched, burped contentedly, and was passed onto a nearby blanket, swaddled snugly. Maria whistled low and a black dog came to rest beside the child. The air smelled of sage, burning pine, and lightning. It mingled together and tickled Temperance’s nose but she breathed it deeply. Maria moved slowly around the table, assisted by her Pocasset half-sister Wheethao; it was clear to all those gathered that Maria had not fully recovered from the difficult childbirth.
Wheethao, Temperance, and two others had been there the night Maria’s daughter Brigid came into the world. They were in a small house on the edge of Wheethao’s village and Temperance knew she wouldn’t soon forget the smell of so much blood, the corpse-like pallor of Maria’s face when she stopped pushing. When Maria’s head had lolled and no amount of shouting or shaking could rouse her to push her baby out, Wheethao had moved to a position behind Maria’s head. She cradled it in her blood covered hands and had chanted steadily, eyes closed and trance-like. Temperance had moved a smoking bundle of sage and evening primrose from Maria’s nose to her belly in a rhythmic motion while she repeated her own spell. Finally, the baby was delivered just before midnight, healthy and whole, seemingly untouched by her mother’s ordeal.
Maria, however, had lain in a deep death-like sleep for exactly three days. The women had alternated their vigil, preparing the right herbs, saying the right incantations, and carefully washing Maria’s body with the right potions. The baby happily fed from her sleeping mother’s breast but would feed from no one else. Just before midnight on the third day, as Wheethao and Temperance were discussing what to do if Maria never woke up, Maria’s eyes had flashed open.
It had been weeks since Maria regained the strength to walk, though it clearly pained her, and just over a year since the last eight of Hathorne’s innocent victims were hung. The coven had decided to wait until a full harvest moon hung low in the sky to preform the ritual. Temperance and Maria – wanting to honor their homeland’s ancient traditions – had suggested they wait just two days until the auspicious and powerful night of Samhain. Now, a waning moon watched as three women untied Hawthorn’s body from the pole and let it fall to the ground with a thunk. Then, driving that same pole into the ground in front of the table, they tied Hathorne’s arms around his back and to the pole. He slumped forward on his knees. Temperance thought she heard a low moan escape his mouth, so she removed the gag and listened for breath.
“He’s coming around,” she announced to the group.
Hushed whispers flew around and the women gathered in front of the table, holding each other’s hands or entwining arms. Temperance, and Wheethao stood in front of the group, supporting Maria between them. Temperance looked out at the small crowd and saw eyes blazing with pain and fury. The trees around them seemed to sing with the righteousness of what they were doing. The horses whinnied softly, sensing a shift in the atmosphere. The black dog’s ears twitched. Temperance addressed the group,
“We gather here tonight to offer our sacrifices to The Mother, to ask for Her protection and to avenge the Innocents that were lost to this man’s virulent hate and malevolent pride. Bring forth your offerings and say your piece.”
Walking in a reverent line, each woman approached the altar. After the table was laden with lit candles, food, drink, flowers, gold and silver, and all manner of herb and hand-carved bone or wood, the quiet resumed. Tears stained some of the women’s faces and sparkled in the glowing firelight. Wheethao nodded to Temperance and she waved a hand over Hathorne’s head. He gasped and his eyes flew open; they were beady, watery, and rimmed red. A wooded cross swung forward out of his shirt as he struggled against his restraints. It took only a moment before his screeching, squealing voice filled the air with insults and curses. Eyes flying wildly from one woman to the next he screamed,
“Sluts! Whores! Witches! You’ll burn for this!”
Devoid of any sympathy, the women looked upon the wretch. Some laughed coldly. A few even seemed impatient, rolling their eyes. Temperance waved her hand over the man’s head again and silence fell like a curtain. Writhing on the ground in front of her, Hathorne’s eyes became buggy and his mouth worked in silent protestations.
A woman called, “cat got his tongue!”
“We are gathered here tonight, not for our pleasure nor our enjoyment,” Temperance began quietly, but her voice grew loud and strong as she continued, filling the clearing and reaching like a beacon into the night, “but to avenge the lives you so carelessly dispatched and to right the evil you brought into this world. This is not a witch trial,” she spat the words, “because unlike you we take no pleasure in the pain and suffering of innocents.” Appreciative sounds rang out through the crowd.
“However, you’re far from innocent, Hathorne, and we may enjoy ourselves just a little bit!” Cheers rose and temperance locked eyes with Wheethao who pulled Hathorne’s head back by his hair. His pale neck shone, the cross hanging limp and useless as a toy. Wheethao tugged it easily from his neck and ripped open the front of his gauzy blouse. Speaking quickly in her own language, she brought a sharp knife roughly across his beard and hair, quickly sheering him like he cut the hair of the women who festered in prison under his watchful eyes.
“The less you struggle, the less it will hurt,” Wheethao muttered to Hathorne who nonetheless drove his face repeatedly into the sharp blade.
As Wheethao worked, Temperance continued addressing the women, “we will no longer stand by and watch as this man reign with fear and terror in our communities. We will be persecuted no more! His sons, his grandsons, and his grandson’s sons will be cursed as they walk this earth, never finding peace or happiness so long as they live under the Hathorne name. Let them rebuke him and the evil, Satanic work he has done here. May no woman know the pain we have endured!” The horses stamped their hooves and neighed loudly, the black dog stood and pranced, yelping softly, the women raised their arms and howled in agreement.
Wheethao had stepped back and allowed the others their moment of personal retribution with the silently screaming Hathorne. Each woman was allowed to make her own personal peace, should she want it, with this demon. Temperance saw that most of the women chose to find peace in the form of a curse, but that was their choice and she didn’t fault them for it. Temperance hadn’t known one man capable of such degradation, none whose deplorable actions had caused so much anguish.
Maria approached Hathorne last, letting go of Wheethao’s hand and standing at her full height, a grimace passing over her face. By now, Hathorne was stripped naked, his torso covered in various women’s sigils: some were carved lightly with a needle, others painted in blood, some in ash of bone, all of them a curse. Maria asked Temperance to remove her enchantment so she could hear Hathorne speak, and Temperance obliged. Hathorne immediately began a shrill tirade against Maria,
“You dog! You’re disgusting! I do as God directs me and for you to interfere–”
Maria shouted to be heard, “I will ask you one time, will you repent for the sins you have committed against the innocent? Against me?”
Hathorne’s shrill hallow laugh sounded obscene to Temperance and she saw her own dislike reflected in the faces around her.
“Innocents? Their blood is on their own heads! The Lord Our God wills it thusly–”
Maria bellowed in a baritone her emaciated body seemed hardly capable of producing and even Hathorne fell silent, of his own accord. Maria’s face contorted in concentration and she moved her hand in a slow sweeping motion toward Hathorne. Still bound, he began to float in the air, feet just brushing the ground, as Maria moved him toward the prepared altar. Hathorne’s toes scraped the earth as he bobbed, wrinkled and glowing pale, his body completely under Maria’s control. For the first time Temperance saw fear, in the man’s doughy face. Good, she thought.
The effort of the spell to move Hathorne to the altar had exhausted Maria and the women quickly gathered into place. Each of his limbs was secured so that Maria could release the spell holding him there. After pausing a moment to steady herself, Maria spoke softly,
“You’ve done the Devil’s work and I live not because of your mercy but in spite of your evil. In repentance was your salvation, John Hathorne. My daughter will never be preyed upon by men like you, I will be sure of it.”
With that, Maria carved a small ‘M’ onto Hathorne’s forearm and said her invocation. Laying the knife down with shaky hands, Maria slumped back into Wheethao’s waiting arms as tears streamed down her face. Wheethao looked to Temperance and then toward the night sky,
Reverently, each woman clasped hands with the one next to her and formed two concentric circles around the altar. Those on either side of Temperance placed their hands on her shoulders, as if giving a blessing. She picked up the knife and, speaking over Hathorne’s recitations of various scripture, said,
“The wages of sin is death but tonight, Death does not come. Death will follow you all the days of your life, John Hathorne. You will be haunted by images of your evil, for what you put into this world will be returned to you threefold. We are Retribution, you cannot escape us. You condemn us as witches? So be it.”
Temperance breathed deeply and felt the powerful presence of all those gathered and raised her knife. The women began chanting: at first clumsily, then finding their rhythm, in perfect unison, like a song. Their words rang out like thunderclaps through the trees,
“Mother we ask for protection; curse this man and those of his kind. We bring you this sacrifice; with his blood and ours, we make the bind.”
The tempo and voices reached a fever pitch, drowning out Hathorne’s wailing screams until the women abruptly stopped. Even Hathorne ceased his crying, surprised by the halting shift. Their echoing voices continued to reverberate in the dense air. Before the last echo died, Temperance called out,
“The righteous are bold as a lion,” and brought the sharp blade swiftly through the base of Hathorne’s penis, removing it cleanly from his body.
Happy Halloween witches!