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PART OF THE A Cup O’ Kindness ISSUE

‘And I will crouch in the heather, heart skittering, a midnight hare. My long ears twitching in the wind, as a flea bites my shank.’

New Writing Scotland collects the best new poetry and short fiction in Scotland today, from both emerging and established writers. This latest edition – nobody remembers the birdman – is no different, bringing together over forty pieces of new writing to dive into. You can read Ellen Forkin’s story ‘Hare, Bee, Witch’ below. 

 

 

‘Hare, Bee, Witch’
By Ellen Forkin
 

Taken from nobody remembers the birdman: New Writing Scotland 40
Edited by Rachelle Atalla, Marjorie Lotfi & Maggie Rabatski
Published by Association for Scottish Literature 

 

I never profited the neighbours’ milk, my familiars sneaking in the moonlight, with cream on their snouts. I have no poppets, dirty wax, torn linen and stolen hair, moulded with swift fingers to the likeness of my enemies. There are no spare pins to prick agony into them. I did not curse the village cat, plump and thick-furred, until it vomited up blood and lay on its side, all a-twitching. It was unwelcome upon my table, but I meant it no harm. I have lived many a year; I fear the rumours about me will live longer. But it is not true. I, Isobel, am good. 

It has started to rain, a fine drizzle made ice by the wind. My body is tied to a stake with peat, and what little wood they can spare, all stacked up about my bare feet and legs. It will burn slow. I am in a shift, grubby and torn, my exposed body shivering violently. A crowd stares; surely the whole of Orkney has come to Gallow Ha’ to watch. They take in my matted hair, unwashed skin, blooms of bruises, red, festering cuts and sores. My nose is broken, crooked. I am one of four women, all equally ragged and bleeding and staring into nothingness. We have known horrors. The executioner stands by, legs apart, breathing deeply. He, with a twist of rope in his meaty hands, promises of more horrors to come. 

‘Witch!’ 

‘Hag!’ 

‘Crone!’ All shouted into the wind. Am I a witch as they say I am? I certainly didn’t curse Old Rob who ate and drank too a-plenty, until the great redness of his nose and cheeks finally poisoned him. Now he is confined to his bed with only weak ale to wet his trembling lips. I am not homeless, dirty, and simple like Margaret who begged constantly for alms and bread and sometimes the sweet oblivion of honey. She slept in byres and barns, unseemly on folks’ doorsteps. And neither am I like Ingrid, with her one, wandering eye, who has lived through many a bad crop. She was foolish enough to comment her wisdom on dying grain before the young folk even thought of the word ‘famine’. 

Oh yes, people are hungry. 

I feel their eyes eating us up. 

My throat feels prickly, exposed to the icy rain. Soon the rope will curl around my neck. A kindness, some say. A kindness before the flames. It is but little comfort. The meaty hands fidget, making the rope twitch. 

After the strangling, our bodies will be burnt to nothing. We will not crawl out of our graves, groaning and undead, to torment the isles with our evil. On Judgement Day, we will not rise with every other soul, facing east into the holy light. That’s what burning is: a precaution for the living; a punishment for the dead. 

We will be unmarked ash, filth in the breeze, and nothing more. 

I hear Margaret keening. 

I try to twist to catch Agnes’s eye. Agnes who is pious and good and churchly. Agnes who I, in my agony under ‘the boots’, named as a fellow witch because she was so devout. Who could ever suspect her of devilry? But then, it was Agnes who dared to scold the bishop for misquoting the Bible. Agnes who shamed her husband for not compensating young Jamie, his future uncertain with a mangled hand. Agnes who stood tall in church, singing loudly, unflinchingly. Untouchable. 

The husband stands apart but does not look sorry. The bishop, I’m sure, is word-perfect now. The sermon and its prayers flow over us and few pay attention. Certainly not I. 

My neighbours say I cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer without mistakes peppering my speech. It’s a tricky thing to learn for a simple woman such as myself. They say, in breathless whispers, that I slip out into the darkness as a midnight hare. To gaze at the moon and read the stars. They say I eavesdrop at their doorways as a bumblebee, then fly away home heavy with their secrets. It is common knowledge I killed the plump and thick-furred cat because she was a rival witch. 

Shapeshifting. But not quite. I swallow, my throat raw, and think of my mother. Her murmured words. Her tricks. I gaze at the crowd, waiting, waiting. Anne, kind but slow, meets my eye. I strike. 

Our souls – they swap. I snap into her plump and doughy body, taking my thoughts and feelings and knowledge and memories with me. Her blood feels warm and sluggish. Her fingers thick and shorter than I am used to. And my body, the one I have just abandoned, starts screaming. 

‘You’ve got the wrong woman! I’m not Isobel! I’m not Isobel! It is not I.’ The crowd titters, delighted. Anne, trapped in my old body, sobs. Hysterical, ugly tears. The executioner wraps the rope around his hands. He is ready. 

I step away. My new body has small, spongey feet. I cannot be Anne for long. I do not want her husband. Her children. Her skills of midwifery. Anne will be found lifeless, crumpled in a ditch, before the sun has set. The shock of the burnings, many will say. No one will notice the froth of hemlock upon her tongue. 

And I will crouch in the heather, heart skittering, a midnight hare. My long ears twitching in the wind, as a flea bites my shank. I will hide and know that I, Isobel, am good no longer. 

 

Ellen Forkin is a chronically ill writer living in windswept Orkney. She has a love for all things folklore, myth and magic. Find her published and upcoming work in The Haar, Paragraph Planet, Crow & Cross Keys and in Ghostlore on the Alternative Stories podcast.  

 

nobody remembers the birdman: New Writing Scotland 40 edited by Rachelle Atalla, Marjorie Lotfi and Maggie Rabatski is published by the Association for Scottish Literature, priced £9.95.   

 

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