The Witch Bottle, Rosy Thornton
It began with the installation of a damp proof course.
‘These old houses,’ said Nick, ‘They didn’t bother with anything like that. Just learned to live with it, I suppose.’
Nick was the builder she had found at Wickham Market through a recommendation from English Heritage. Specialist in conservation work and period properties.
The house had no foundations to speak of, either – just the raft of its timber frame and a floor of trodden earth beneath the Victorian brick. If global warming hit and the sea level rose, Kathy imagined Parmenters breaking loose in one piece from its anchorage and sailing away to higher ground.
But building regulations were tighter now than in the fifteen hundreds, and Kathy less prepared than her Tudor antecedents to make mould and mildew her living companions. So Nick took up the bricks and the packed earth beneath and laid a bituminous felt membrane. And that was how, while digging up the inglenook, he came across the witch bottle.
‘Hey, come and see what I’ve found.’
It was still half-buried in the impacted clay, and her eyes adjusting from the dazzle of the computer screen in her brightly sunlit kitchen. Head bent close to his in the confinement of the dark fireplace, she was momentarily dizzy. His smell was hot brick and salt skin. Like the house, she was at risk of slipping the moorings she’d kept so closely bound since the shipwreck of her divorce, and floating adrift.
At the brush of his fingers, a curve of glass became visible, glinting darkly beneath its veneer of dust. He’d heard before, he told her, of bottles like this one, found buried under the hearths of mediaeval houses.
It was a talisman. ‘It will keep you safe,’ he said, but the air between them crackled with danger.
Later, exhumed and rubbed clean, it stood between them on the wooden picnic table in the shade of the apple tree, where Nick had been persuaded to join her for a cold beer before he went home. They both stared down at his find in curiosity: the translucent greenish flask, surprisingly undulled by age, with its contents of dark-coloured cloth, wound to a crumpled twist.
‘Apparently they were pretty common round these parts in the seventeenth century.’ Kathy had been on Google when she should have been chasing unpaid invoices. ‘East Anglia in general, that is – but also just locally. There are stories about a witch trial here in Blaxhall.’
Nick picked up the bottle, held it to the light. ‘And how did it work, exactly? You’d expect some eye of newt or toe of frog in there, not just a bit of old rag.’
Kathy surveyed him with interest. Damp-proofer and Shakespearean scholar: an intriguing concoction. But after all, why not? Craftsman was the word that came into her mind as she watched his long, square-tipped hands turn the bottle slowly round and round. Perhaps he caught some part of her thoughts, because he gurned menacingly. ‘We did Macbeth at school. I made a pretty gruesome second witch.’
‘Spine-tingling, I’ll bet.’ What the hell was she doing – flirting with her builder? Hoping the heat didn’t show in her face, she rushed on at random. ‘Wool of bat was the one that always puzzled me. You never think of bats as particularly woolly, do you?’
‘Maybe you have to get up close. I expect they have secret downy places.’ His voice held the pulse of amusement; he was laughing at her. And she deserved it: a man mentioned a bat’s underparts and she found it stirring?
She pulled herself together. ‘Well, anyway, a witch bottle didn’t call for boiling and bubbling. It didn’t hold some magical brew. The cloth would be a piece of the witch’s clothing, I gather, if they could get hold of some. And they’d often put in some small sharp objects – thorns, or shards of glass, or needles.’
‘Like pins in a voodoo doll?’
‘I suppose so.’ They both peered closely at the bottle, but there was nothing to be seen except the twine of fabric. ‘And also, if they could manage to get anything actually from the witch herself, they’d put that in. A part of her, I mean.’
‘Body parts?’ He slurped his beer with salacious glee. ‘As in, liver of blaspheming Jew?’
Grinning, she shook her head. ‘As in toenails or a lock of hair, or…’
Or menstrual blood, but she wasn’t about to say that. ‘Or urine. That was the commonest thing, it seems. The cloth would be soaked in the witch’s urine.’
‘Oh, nice.’ In pantomimed distaste he pushed his glass away. ‘And how did they go about–? But perhaps we’re better not to ask.’
Kathy was perilously close to giggling.
‘So basically, you had a bottle of witch piss hidden under your fireplace.’
‘First, catch your witch.’ The giggles were tightening her chest, like hiccups. It was Nick’s fault; he made her feel about sixteen. She swallowed, and took a hold on herself. ‘But it’s really not funny. There’s no such thing as witches, never was.’ And it wasn’t, in truth, a thing to be laughed about. It was ignorant and cruel – or worse. ‘She’d be just some poor woman that people didn’t like the look of. An outsider, an outcast.’
‘Perhaps she was promiscuous. I bet witches all shagged around like nobody’s business.’ His eyes glimmered like flame. ‘Or maybe she was a lesbian?’
Ignoring this, she said, ‘Probably had a disfigurement or something. Dragged her left foot or had a hare lip or a birthmark on her face and they decided it was Satan’s brand.’ Marked by the devil. She withdrew her fingers from the chill, beaded damp of her glass. The garden was suddenly cold.
Maybe Nick also felt it, since he was no longer laughing either. ‘So why did they bury them, then, these witch bottles?’
‘Oh, it was something about the fireplace, this website said. Being open to the outside air above. It meant the chimney was the way that evil spirits could get into your house. So if you buried the bottle under the hearth, it would ward the spirits off. Keep them out, I suppose, if the witch tried to invite them in.’
‘Better give it back, then.’
She looked across at him, puzzled at the choice of phrase.
‘You’d better put it back in the fireplace where it belongs, as soon as I’m done with the work. We don’t want the demons to get you.’
Then the charm is firm and good… But on which side, exactly, lay the evil in this case – with the witch or her persecutors?
She was smiling again, but as she held his gaze her stomach turned a strange, slow dance. ‘Let’s hope so.’
I burn for him; my fever rises and I burn. And yet, for all, I know that it is mortal sin to think of him as I do. Has not the rector preached as much from St Peter’s pulpit every Sunday? I know that this burning in my body is the burning of hell-fire, the tongued flames which slicken my woman’s parts are devil-sent, the lappings of Satan and his fiendish incubi. Oh, sweet baby Jesus in your innocence and pure mother Mary preserve and save me, for I burn, I burn.
Kathy had fallen in love with Parmenters the first time she drove round the corner past the row of flint-faced cottages and saw it there at the bottom of the hill, lying low and pink and mellow between the pair of cedars, ankle-deep in the buttercups of its overspilling lawn. It was the colours which seduced her as much as anything: the warm terracotta of the pantiled roof and, most especially, the soft, earthy pink of the rendered walls between the struts of timber frame. It made her think of Italy, although they called it Suffolk pink.
‘Pig’s blood,’ Nick informed her with unnecessary relish as he packed away his ladders. ‘That’s how they used to get the shade of pink: cut a pig’s throat into the limewash. But don’t worry – you can order it from Farrow and Ball these days, and I expect it’s strictly kosher. ’
It was a fortnight since the discovery under the hearth and he was working outside on the roof, repointing the chimney and renewing the lead flashings. ‘You really ought to get a spark guard put on there, too, if you’re planning on lighting fires this winter.’
The day had been dazingly hot. The heat, which in the early morning had shimmered with soft humidity, building slowly, layer by washed watercolour layer, by mid-afternoon was fat and thickly textured, laid on with a knife like oils. Even now, at past six o’clock, it still crouched heavy in the shade of the cedar trees and shimmered over the lawn. Nick’s neck and forearms were sheened with sweat.
‘Afraid I’m out of beer. But there’s juice or Coke in the fridge, if you fancy it?’
‘I’d rather have a proper drink. Raymond at the Ship makes Victor Meldrew look sunny, but he keeps a good ale.’
So they’d adjourned to the terrace in front of the pub, and he was on to his second pint while she tried to remember to take slow sips at her cold white wine. Inside the bar a man in a leather cap was playing the melodeon while an elderly woman, with greater confidence than musicality, sang a song about a wounded knight’s quest.
‘I’ve been reading up about the Suffolk witch trials,’ Kathy found herself telling Nick. ‘It was quite a bloodbath. Eighteen of them hanged in one day at Bury St Edmund’s in the 1640s.’
The history class nerd. But Nick was a receptive audience and his blue-grey eyes didn’t stray from her face. She took another gulp of wine, which was slightly tingly on her tongue and tasted of summer twilights.
‘It was that man they called the Witchfinder General – Matthew Hopkins. He was based down south near the Essex border but his family had land at Framlingham, so this whole area was his stamping ground.’ And stamping is what he did – along with burning and slashing and crushing beneath his heel. ‘They came from all round here, his victims. Halesworth and Yoxford and Brandeston.’
‘But not Blaxhall?’
‘Not that day, at that particular trial. But another time, who knows? They claim this Hopkins was responsible for putting to death three hundred women.’
A low whistle. ‘Bloody hell. Makes Jack the Ripper look a very dull boy.’
‘And that was just him – just that one man. But there were others, lots of them, sniffing out imagined witchery at every parish pump.’
‘And clear was the paley moon,’ came words of the old woman’s song through the open door from the bar, ‘when the shadow passed him by…’
‘But what about the buried bottle?’ Nick seemed really to want to know; at least, he was leaning forward across the table and his loosely laced fingers where they clasped the beer glass were almost touching her wrist. ‘Doesn’t it mean our witch can’t have been burned or hanged or whatever they did to them? If there was a bottle, doesn’t it mean she was still around to be her chucking about her spells and hexes?’
It seemed to matter to him, and, oddly, to her as well. Our witch.
‘I honestly don’t know. The book said they think the bottles were usually intended as a counter-charm against the black magic of a living witch. But maybe not always. Maybe… well, the thing is, once or twice a bottle has been found which appears to contain entrails.’
‘Oh God.’ He looked genuinely aghast and a shudder ran between them like chilly electricity.
‘I know – horrible.’ Their witch, already dead; their bottle, a fetish to ward off sorcery from beyond the grave.
Another beer and another glass of wine, and Nick was prepared to volunteer the information that he’d been doing some witchcraft research of his own. ‘Just online, you know.’
‘About how they spotted them, these women who were supposed to be witches. For a start, they all had their familiars. A familiar was the witch’s evil spirit, that she sent out to do her wicked work for her, but they took the form of animals or birds. It could be almost anything – a fox, a jackdaw, a starling, a toad. If there was an owl nesting in your barn, say, then you were in big trouble.’
In big trouble… This glass seemed to be even tinglier than the last one; things were beginning to buzz and spin. The singer’s toneless voice hung at the edges of perception: ‘…below the hill were the brightest stars, when he heard the owlet cry…’ Kathy attempted to focus. ‘Or if you were a bit too fond of your cat, perhaps?’
He grinned. ‘Right. And then there was always supposed to be some kind of mark, somewhere on the witch’s body. Beelzebub’s sign and all that. It could be a birthmark, like you said before. But often it was just a wart, or even a mole. Just an ordinary discreet sort of mole, a cute sort of mole, the kind that anyone might have…’ His eyes slipped down towards the open neck of her shirt, and the upper slope of her left breast.
Aware of the heat in her face, she clutched her wine glass tight against her chest. Her head felt unanchored, weightless.
‘And then they’d claim it was a third nipple – Satan’s nubbin, the devil’s dug.’ The blue-grey eyes were dark and dangerous. ‘The place where the sorceress would suckle her familiar.’
‘…wherefore came you here? I seek the witch…’
By an effort of will, Kathy forced herself to break his gaze and lightness into her voice. ‘So, what kind of websites were these that you’ve been looking at, exactly?’
At that he laughed and the spell, for the moment, was interrupted.
‘Another glass of wine?’
I burn. At night it is that I burn the worst, lying alone in my maiden bed where I no longer know the peace of a maiden conscience. My linen constricts me, with its brazen coils which twist and cling close about my limbs. Each evening I slip out from its sleepless embrace and creep from the house while all are abed. As if by the tugging hands of demons am I drawn to the place, to Parmenters, to stand and gaze upon its walls. Its pink walls: such a pretty hue, but I did hear the maddened squeals of the pig when its throat was slit and bled into the limewash for the renderwork. I gaze upon the house wherein he lies, he for whom in sin I burn, and I picture him there. May God forgive me, I picture him lying naked there, there in the house whose very walls are soaked in blood and ruddied with the stain of death.
The name – Parmenters – was unusual, of course, but she had grown accustomed to it and ceased to give it thought. If she’d had any notion of the reason for it, it was of some kind of medieval craft, like pargeting or parquetry. Or she associated it with Parliament men, thinking perhaps this had been a Puritan house – which brought her back to zealotry, and witchfinding.
It was only when, after two months since her move here of telling herself she must, she finally took a visit to the church one Sunday that she realised how literal the name of her house must be. There were several stones of Parmenters – Victorian Emilys and Regency Janes – growing grey and gold with lichen among the drooping heads of cow parsley. And in the floor of the aisle, worn almost to smoothness by more than three centuries of devoted feet, was an older memorial, carved in pinkish sandstone. It was this one in particular which arrested her attention, because of its age and the woman’s name – her own name.
Here lyes the Body of Daniell Parmenter, Dec’d May 19 1656 aged 24 years. Also Katherine his wife, Dec’d Octob’r 5 1685 aged 51 years.
Such a long widowhood, thought Kathy, to outlive her husband by almost thirty years.
‘Don’t you think it’s sad?’ she asked Nick in the half-lit heat of the pub bar. ‘All those long, lonely days on her own in the house.’
‘And lonely nights,’ he said softly. ‘Without a man to warm her bed.’
She sat up late that evening on the rug before the inglenook. September was only two weeks away but it was far too hot still even to contemplate laying a fire, so she found some church candles, fat and buttery white, and lit them around the grate. The Ship’s pinot grigio still warmed her blood and cast a glow to merge with the candlelight, and she thought about chimney places and how they were the conduit of spirits. But the shadows that danced around the flickering light were friendly ghosts; dark demons seemed far away tonight from the encircling safety of hearth and home. She gazed into the candles’ fire as people had gazed before her in this very spot for half a thousand years – her predecessors, the chatelaines of Parmenters. She thought of Katherine Parmenter and her thirty years in widow’s weeds; she thought of all those who had sat where she now sat and conjured pictures in the flames, hugged close their memories or dreamed their future dreams. She thought of all who had lain where she now lay – had lain alone or lain with another. And, as sleep crept in to fade the light, she thought of Nick.
They say I am too base for him. They say that Spalls are low of birth, of simple Saxon stock – tillers of other men’s soil, bondsmen and rentlings, quarter-day slaves – while Parmenters are fine and fancy folk, born of Norman seigneurs and overlords, that noble blood runs in their veins. But cannot a mouse raise its eyes from the ground and gaze upon a cat, a pauper look at a prince? I only look at him, at Daniell Parmenter in his house with walls of blood. I only look – and burn.
Another book arrived, an old one from the 1930s not currently in print, which she’d had on order from the library in Ipswich and picked up after work. From it she learned of the ingenuity of witches, of the monstrous range of mischiefs attributed to their hand. Stillbirths and miscarriages; childhood agues; droughts and floods and thunderstorms; fits in hogs, milk fever in cows; fruit that withered and crops that failed to thrive; drownings, poisonings, and even fires.
And that was when she found her: the witch in the bottle, her own Parmenters witch. In the settlement of Blaxhall in Suffolk, the author wrote, another death by fire was laid at the door of a sorceress, a village girl of fifteen summers by the name of Patience Spall. The victim was Daniell Parmenter, a yeoman farmer. According to one local account, Daniell was awakened at night by the whinnying of his plough-horse and went out to the barn to attend to the animal, thinking it perhaps to be sick of the colic from a surfeit of spring grass. When he did not return to bed, his wife looked out, saw the barn ablaze and raised the alarm. Too late: her husband’s body was found next morning in the embers.
‘An arsonist?’ Nick demanded. ‘A pyromaniac? Our witch?’
‘Well, all we know, I suppose, is that there was a fire and Daniell died.’ If even that was certain, so long ago and on mere hearsay evidence.
‘And she was the one who lit it? No doubt by sending out her familiar with a box of Swan Vestas. Of course she was – because she had a limp, or one shoulder higher than the other, or freckles in the shape of the devil’s horns.’ He sounded scandalised, but his voice was also strangely edged with glee. ‘No question of his just going out there with a torch or a taper and putting it down for a minute to look at his horse, a bit too near some dry straw. Oh no – it had to be black magic. It had to be our witch.’
But Kathy only frowned, and crossed her arms around her body to close out the chill that stippled her skin in spite of the breathless evening heat. Slips of yew, sliver'd in the moon's eclipse… finger of birth-strangled babe, ditch-deliver'd by a drab. And they had burned her here for her sorcery, right here in the village, above the church on Silly Hill – which the book explained meant holy hill, a name surely most inapt to this ungodly purpose.
‘Her name was Patience,’ was all she said, ‘and she was just a child.’
I hate her, Kat Alward – Kat Parmenter that is to be. She it is, not I, who shall share his bed. ’Tis bitter bile to think of it, and yet, for shame, the devil does inflame and heat me with imagining of their wanton marriage bed. And Kat’s flesh shall exult to his touch and she shall grow ripe of him, while I in my narrow bed shall shrivel and dry, an empty husk, untended and unfilled. And like the discarded chaff, the dry-parched straw, I am tinder to the spark and hungry for burning. And the flame that consumes me is the flame of hate for her: for she that shortly will become my Daniell’s bride.
Read the rest of The Witch Bottle and other wonderful short stories in Rosy Thornton's Sandlands: only £1 this weekend on Amazon Kindle!