Without Fear or Favour

by Christopher Stanley

Ellen’s dying breath became a wind that rattled the timbers of our cottages. Lightning split trees and thunder shook the earth beneath our feet. “You never listened to me,” she said as the noose tightened around her neck. “But soon you shall see.”

All night, village elders knocked at my door, ashen-faced and shivering, begging me to cut my daughter down. Some wanted to bless and bury her body. Others wanted to take an axe to her limbs and burn the remains. The cycle of life, they said, requires the appeasement of natural things.

I thought back to the scales in Ellen’s cottage.

For generations, we’d hung witches without consequence. They’d always had apprentices to take their place. “Maybe she was the last,” I said, as the elders cowered on my doorstep. “Maybe that’s the difference.” Thunder growled in the darkness. The wind had teeth and claws. I told them my daughter would hang until scavengers ripped the flesh from her bones. Just like the others.

In the weeks before Ellen was arrested, I’d resisted the rumours, claiming no daughter of the Scrimshaw family would ever practice witchcraft. When Ellen was found naked in the forest, dancing to a tune no one else could hear, shame prevented me from defending her. Reverend Hale searched her cottage for incantations and salt-drawn pentagrams, finding nothing more insidious than dried herbs and chicken livers. If he hadn’t looked in the loft, she might still be alive.

I awoke to raised voices and clamour, loud enough to drown the squawks of Grandma Parris’s chickens. Little hands thumped against my door. Children’s voices called my name. I’d been disturbed so many times in the night, I pretended not to hear them.

“Will you not let an old woman rest?”

The children tugged my sleeves as they dragged me towards the village square, where the elders were gathered in billowing cloaks and hoods. My daughter’s body swayed from the bough of a black walnut tree, frail and small. Just yesterday she’d had colour in her cheeks and fire in her eyes. Now her flesh was a tapestry of veins and bruises. Her eyes were gone.

I told myself I didn’t feel anything.

“What is the meaning of this?”

Grandma Parris pointed to the sky.

Above the tree canopy, clouds resolved into shapes. The first was a rolling white giant, with broad shoulders and muscular arms. The second was a thunderous monster, darkest grey, with lightning raging in its chest. Larger than mountains and oblivious to our presence, they fought in slow motion, teeth bared, wrestling at the edge of the storm. Every movement became a gale that could lift a roof. Every blow they struck tore holes in the sky. The air exploded in our ears.

“Your daughter’s dying words,” said Grandma Parris. “She said we would see.”

“I see nothing but clouds and circling crows,” I replied. “You’re a victim of your imagination. You would do well to remember there are children present.”

As I spoke, the giant’s foot came down on us. Grandma Parris disappeared behind a wall of fog that smelled of damp walls and dewy mornings. The air was haunted by the cries of children separated from their parents. I fled the square, relying on memory to keep me on the path until I reached Ellen’s cottage.

Inside was a shrine to my daughter. All her belongings; every possession she’d loved and left behind. I wanted to gather her clothes and clutch them to my breast. I wanted to crawl into the comfort of her bed and weep into her pillow. Instead, I dragged a chair over to the loft hatch.

When Reverend Hale discovered the brass scales in the loft, they were perfectly balanced. In one bowl, a bunch of freshly picked wildflowers, primroses and violets, their colours vibrant and perfume sweet. In the other bowl, the horned and hideous skull of a goat. There was nothing natural about the arrangement. This evidence alone was sufficient for me to deliver a verdict.

I poked my head through the loft hatch and waited for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. As I feared, no one had moved or tended to the scales. The wildflowers had wilted, and the bowls had tipped in favour of the skull. I felt like I was falling, even as my feet remained sturdy on the chair. Had I made a terrible mistake?

I left the cottage, thinking I might have time to visit the forest, to gather fresh flowers. I had to try something.

Outside, the thunderhead monster raised a blade of soot-black cloud until its edge glistened in sunlight, sharp and true. I screamed a warning as the monster brought the blade down on the giant’s neck, over and over. The giant’s body collapsed, lost its shape, and dispersed on the breeze. All except its head, which the monster held triumphantly over our village.

Blood-red rain stained our cottages, our clothes, the soil. Within days, our crops had withered and died, along with our livestock and Grandma Parris’s chickens. Those who drank the pink, cloudy water from the well suffered severe abdominal cramps before their hearts exploded. The rest of us were glad to be thirsty as we took shelter in the church. We prayed to the only god whose existence we acknowledged, the one who would surely save us if we could just make ourselves heard.

Christopher Stanley lives on a hill in England with three sons who share a birthday but aren’t triplets. When he’s not hiding from cloud gods, he’s the author of numerous prize-winning flash fictions, the darkest of which can be found spreading misery and mayhem in his debut collection, The Lamppost Huggers and Other Wretched Tales (The Arcanist, June 2020). Follow him @allthosestrings.
%d bloggers like this: