I remember the tenants on my father’s estate, their belief in the supernatural and the power of magic. Their faith in these things was unshakable, and who’s to say they were wrong? Orthodox religion mingled seamlessly with their own, for I saw how, in the grip of a hard winter, they’d sprinkle communion wafers on the frozen earth in hope of a bountiful harvest. And in the spring time miniature ploughs pulled by frogs were put to work in the man-ploughed furrows to a babble of incantations, half Christian, half pagan, from a wisewoman called Mother Vine.
I met her one dusky eve on my father’s land. I was ambling through the woods on his estate, out of bounds to all, especially her, the one he called ‘the Witch.’ We sat beneath an oak tree, where she rested her basket on the spongy ground. She knew who I was and she knew my name, she said, as she picked a toadstool that grew by her side. It was a pale, thick-stemmed specimen with a fleshy cap. She held it to our noses then nibbled daintily at the gills. She bid me do the same and I obliged. She had, in this one gesture, made us equals in a shared conspiracy of souls, and there was more to come – much more. I was being initiated, enlightened, seduced by all that was good and evil in a world of which I knew little. And she was giving me something to remember her by, for the toadstool would prolong my pleasure to within an inch of my life. As for herself, giving pleasure was enough; my pleasure was hers. She stroked my chin and smiled. ‘Don’t say anything, don’t speak a word,’ she said, staying my puzzled lips with her fingers. ‘Think of the may fly nearing the end of its one single day of life. Fate has ordained it this way.’
She removed her hood – red, like a poor cardinal’s – and hoisted her skirt to her knees, her thighs, and beyond. I saw a profusion of white stocking, and the dull sparkle of the buckles on her shoes. I daren’t look at what she showed me above the lily-white flesh of her thighs, though her eyes were insistent, egged on, it seemed, by her wispy strands of hair. These were knotted, snake-like and blonde, flecked by the silver-grey of age. She was forty or more, yet her eyes and her quim were a girl’s. Her hands were rough and callused, but that only added to my pleasure. She had been a milkmaid in her youth, and it showed in the skilful working of her hands. I lay back emboldened by desire, my palms flat on the woodland floor, the mushroom’s power heady in my steaming brain, which tightened in unison with my throbbing manhood. Unabashed, I showed her my full measure and her eyes narrowed at my delight, knowing how soon, so very soon, I would reach my …
But no: ‘Get up off that filthy ground!’ the voice said, and I knew it at once for my father’s. His fowling piece was trained on us both, his face a stockwork of uncontrolled anger and shame. ‘Up I say!’ he repeated, wiping his brow hurriedly, for his hands must mind the gun, and his mind his bible. Which chapter did he have in mind? – he knew them all by heart. It would be Old Testament for sure, its judgemental lines as indelible as those on his face. Reading between them I could see the disgust. I had broken every rule he lived by, even the ones unspoken, scarcely to be thought of. ‘Button yourselves up,’ he shouted when we’d got to our feet. My head still swam from the potion; the trees, the bushes, the grass, my father and the woman were a shimmering film before my eyes. And yet the light had never looked more serene as it slanted down between the branches and the leaves; the colours were beyond green, beyond yellow, beyond brown. ‘Hell awaits you, Jezebel,’ my father ranted incongruously. ‘I shall shoot you dead where you stand.’
‘Yes, a man like you can do a lot of things,’ she said, picking up her basket calm as could be.
‘This is my land. I have rights,’ he said, and I heard the cocking of the gun. I feared the worst now. He was sweating with fury, but also fear. I’d never seen fear before on my father’s face. ‘Hear what I say, John. I shall shoot her dead, after which you will fetch the shovels and help me dig. See how she shows no remorse? That’s the sort she is, the Devil’s own.’
I looked at the woman, who stood there calmly, expecting no quarter, nor asking any. For a few short seconds, the only ones that mattered, I remained transfixed. I had the chance to intervene, but I did nothing. I knew he’d fire; he’d given himself no choice. Because he was a masterful man, who’d never back down from his high horse of righteous pride …
My eighteenth-century crime thriller, An Uncommon Attorney, is available on Amazon: tinyurl.com/qylwxnq