Pick of The Pack: October 2022
a witch’s heart does have warts
Dawn poisoned dusk as the sun rose hesitantly, its fearful golden light creeping along the shadows of another forgotten night. There was humming somewhere along the creek, its sound patient and delighted. A young woman knelt by the water, picking through the reeds and cattails as if looking for something. She smiled wide when she heard what she was looking for, the familiar croak of a bullfrog. Her slender, pale fingers wrapped around its rubbery belly the moment she saw the tall grass shuffle, and the frog creaked and cried to be let go. The woman simply smiled and continued her hum as she laid the small creature down atop a large plateaued rock, dried blood splattered over it, a warning come too late.
“Yes, yes, you’ll do nicely,” the woman giggled in a sing-songy voice. Out came her husband’s hunting knife from her apron pocket, the golden light of morning reflecting on the blade like a dangerous smile. She held the frog down with one hand, and with the other, she severed its legs with steady, practiced hands. She avoided the splash of blood with care and removed a scrap of bloody cloth from her apron pocket, cleaned her knife, then tucked the frog legs into the center. She smiled to herself as she carefully folded the corners inward before reaching for the wicker basket beside her. The cloth-wrapped frog legs were set carefully at the bottom beside bound bat wings, a lizard’s tongue, and a rabbit’s foot. She placed an assortment of wildflowers she had picked earlier innocently on top of her animal limbs, concealing the horrors she’d collected like trophies.
The legless frog croaked no more, for it passed out from blood loss. Unphased, the woman threw it into the creek with a minute splash. Sunfish swam greedily towards the body, picking apart the flesh as the muddy water became a dirty pink. The woman only watched for a moment before she stood, wiped her hands on her black skirt, picked up her basket, and trotted back home to her town, to the husband she so dearly loved.
Five needles slithered through fabric pulled tight by tambour frames. A group of women sat quietly together in the main room of a house only the smallest bit larger than most in Salem. On the window sill sat a cluster of wildflowers in a glass vase, and beneath it an empty wicker basket. One of the young women, Madeleine, hummed to herself as she continued her embroidering, the other four women remaining in a grievous silence. Perhaps they were still in mourning, for it had only been a couple of days since their group had shrunk from six to five. When her friends made no move to start a conversation with her, Madeleine sighed and set her needle and thread down on her lap.
“Friends, what has made you all so grim and somber?” she asked, the naivete in her sweet voice something she had mastered long ago.
“I suppose we are just missing our dear Elizabeth,” one of the women, Rachel, answered, unable to meet Madeleine’s eyes. “Her trial is but only three days past. And she was innocent, the poor thing…” she shook her head.
Madeleine calculated her response and suppressed a smile. “Yes, our poor, sweet, Elizabeth…may God rest her soul.” The woman all murmured in agreement.
“Shall we pray for her-” one of the other women was about to propose, but was cut off by the sound of Madeleine’s sudden distress.
Madeleine shot up, “Hold that thought, my dear! I just remembered our tea should be about ready!” She carefully put her embroidery on the seat of her chair and hurried off to the kitchen, her giddy smile on full display once she was out of sight. Madeleine’s delicate hands shook with excitement as she retrieved five teacups from the cupboard and placed them each on the table with quiet clinks. She poured the hot water into each cup first, leaving one significantly less filled than the others. Madeleine’s sweet smile turned hysterically mad as she reached into a hidden compartment and pulled out a potion kept in a fancy glass jar. Clear, almost syrupy liquid fell like molasses tears into the less-than-half-filled cup, and once everything was mixed together, it looked just like the other cups– but Madeleine paid careful attention to which ones were which.
After sprinkling in the tea leaves, the cups were carefully transferred to a tray and escorted to the four women in the parlor. Madeleine handed them each their tea, smiling like a most gracious host. She tried to keep her eyes from turning sinister, hiding her wolfish expression behind hand-painted porcelain as she watched Mary take a sip of the spiked tea.
The effects of the potion took only a little bit longer to set in than Madeleine first predicted, but once she saw Mary’s chest begin to rise and fall with more weight, she knew she and her girls were in for a show.
“Y-es, my-” Mary’s light-hearted conversation with Edith ended abruptly as she gripped her teacup with almost enough force to shatter it.
“Mary? Is something the matter?” Rachel, ever the worrying type, reached out to Mary with a gentleness that cannot be taught. Mary reacted with a screech that seemed to ring out through the whole village as she flew backward in her chair and began convulsing on the ground, limbs flailing as she continued to scream. The other four women stood up in shock, Madeleine included, as she put her hand over her mouth to feign surprise.
“Speak to us, Mary! What’s wrong?!” another woman, Margret, tried so desperately to understand, but all Mary could do was cry and shout,
“Demons! Witches!! HELL IS OPENING BENEATH OUR FEET TO SWALLOW US WHOLE!!! They’re here, we’re all hell bound!! Salem is in the claws of Satan Himself!!!” Mary clawed at her face and pulled her hair, spraying spit as she continued to spout her nonsense.
“She’s gone mad,” Rachel sobbed. “Madeleine, call your husband, please! She is suffering!”
“She is a witch!” Edith corrected, “A witch!!” Rachel whined and looked away from Mary writhing on the floor like a barn animal, unable to bear witness to another one of her friends turning wicked.
Madeleine ran out of the house in a hurry. She felt elated, she always loved this part of her little spells. She ran to the church as if the wind itself had lifted her off of her feet and carried her there on a cloud. She threw open the tall church doors and exclaimed, “John! My love, come quickly!”
A kindly priest with eyes worn by sleepless nights stumbled out of view, awkwardly clutching a bible to his chest with arms just a little too long and spindly for his body. Madeleine held back a swooning sigh when she saw him and instead ran up to tug on his elbow.
“John, my love, Mary has turned mad! You must come at once and save her soul lest she be turned into the Devil’s own familiar!” she sniffled, eyes wide and pleading. John tensed, conflict flashing somewhere behind hazel eyes. He lightly drummed the pads of his fingers against the hard leather binding of his bible before finally nodding.
“Alright,” he murmured in a quiet, distant tone that Madeleine either didn’t notice or chose to ignore. “Lead the way, dear.”
“STOP THIS AT ONCE!! I am no witch!!!” Mary kicked and screamed as she was forced in front of a rickety wooden ladder.
“C-come now, you know the law, Mary…” John affirmed, hands shaking as he held his open bible. Madeleine watched with her remaining three friends at the front of the crowd, hands folded in front of her, faux sorrow painted on her lovely face. Mary thrashed against the rope that bound her hands behind her back, but the guard only pushed her onward in response.
“NO!!!” Mary struggled all she could as she was forced to climb the ladder, blubbering gibberish about how she wasn’t a witch and how everyone who convicted and executed her would pay for this. Madeleine thought it funny that Mary threatened them, for it surely didn’t help her case. John flipped the page in his bible and raised his head to speak.
“M-Mary Shoemaker, you– you stand here on trial for indecency and accusations of witchcraft. To prove your innocence you have been– been brought to these here gallows. If you– if your neck snaps, then you are no witch. If it doesn’t, then…” John straightened himself and darted his eyes to his wife. “You are a witch.”
“LIARS!! The lot of you!! I am sentenced to die either way!! Curse you, ALL OF YOU!! Go to hell, go to HELL!!” she jabbed the guard in the jaw with her elbow and almost fell backward had she not caught herself. The guard muttered a swear and pushed her forwards as his buddy took hold of the noose. Mary’s eyes widened and she shrieked, “NO!! NO!! Get that wretched thing AWAY FROM ME!!
They forced the noose around her neck and prepared to push her off the ladder. Mary screamed for the final time, “I AM NO WITCH!!!” before powerful hands on her shoulders lifted her off of the ladder and let her dangle in the air. Mary thrashed and scraped her nails against the thick rope tightening around her throat, writhing similarly to how she did at Madeline’s house. As her face turned a deathly purple-blue, Rachel clung to Madeline’s arm and wept into her shoulder. Madeline gently petted her bonnet-covered hair and looked deep into the light fading from Mary’s eyes. When Madeline let a malignant smile slip, Mary’s eyes widened for a final time before she stopped moving and hung limply in the air, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Rachel shivered against Madelaine, tears staining her cotton dress. Madelaine looked down at the girl with a thoughtful expression, then leaned down to kiss the top of her head, if only to hide her smile. Yes, yes, she would do nicely.
Dusk fled the earth in a panic the moment it saw a sliver of golden yellow coast past the horizon, for it had learned its lesson several suns ago. There was humming somewhere along the creek, its sound patient and delighted. A young woman knelt by the water, watching the ripples as if waiting for something. A school of sunfish soon swam over, wiggling through the water, traveling peacefully along. Madeline smiled pleasantly and readied the hunting knife she regularly borrowed from her husband. Counting down from three in her head, she drew her hand back and plunged the blade into the midsection of the largest sunfish she saw. When she swiftly yanked the impaled fish out of the water, it squirmed for only a little bit before giving in to its fate.
She laid it down atop her favorite plateaued rock and unsheathed the hunting knife from the sunfish. Then, with trained precision, Madeline carved out its wide golden-green eyes, then deposited them into a jar full of similar-looking organs. She screwed the top of the jar back on, but just before she was about to throw the sunfish back into the river, she paused. Oh, why let this perfectly good sunfish go to waste when she could cook it up for her dearest John? She giggled at her almost careless waste, and wrapped the dead fish in some spare cloth before slipping it into her basket. She began to sing to herself, a simple tune from her childhood she always loved, and skipped back to her home, to the husband she so dearly loved.
…except that the husband she so dearly loved was not at home. He was hiding behind a tree and had been watching his wife work for some time now. His nerves were shot, as they usually were when he witnessed Madeline perform these cruel, gruesome acts. John fidgeted with his shirt cuffs, and oh god, why was she doing this? Elizabeth, Mary– their deaths were both so recent, surely she didn’t have to do this again so soon? But he knew that nothing would satisfy her lust for violence, for blood.
Ever since John first saw Madeline dancing alone in the woods around a fire, tossing torn-out pages of the Bible into the towering flames, he was afraid of her. John had been counting down the days until it was his turn to become stricken with her power, his turn to see demons and hellfire and be hanged for witchcraft– but that day never came. Madeline never slipped him anything unsavory in his supper, never put him under a hex, never forced him to write his name in the Devil’s book. She never even raised her voice at him, and he didn’t understand why.
If she loved him, then why did she torture him this way? Why was she doing these terrible things, framing these poor, innocent women for witchcraft and leaving him to point the finger and sentence them to hang?
John’s breath faltered as a cold tear slid down his cheek. Even after everything, Madeline’s warm smile every time he came home from his work at the church, the way her eyes lit up at the sound of his voice, her desire to take care of and tend to him whenever she could, all of it still made his heart flutter. She still managed to be the center of his universe, no matter how terrifying she was. No matter how much agony she put him through, John knew he would always love her for reasons he could never understand.
He began to cry behind the tree, sank down the trunk and sat in the grass damp with morning dew. His wife, his dear, lovely wife, the woman he promised his very soul to, was a monster. And he loved her still. And he sobbed for this, cried out in the woods, for no one except the comforting embrace of a wife who did not frame innocent village girls for crimes they did not commit, who did not mangle forest creatures for her own twisted desires, who did not smile in the face of death. A wife who was good, a wife who loved him, a wife who was Madeline.
By Julia Dreyer