A READING EXPERIENCE
The Witch of Ballyvale
By Ben Kesp
The shouts overwhelm her. Strong hands grip her body, shoving her onto the damp sands. The same hands drag her through the cold sandy ground. She fears the oncoming waters. Placing her feet under her once more, she manages to stand, pushed forward under his force. The bitter cold water reaches her feet pulsating through her body. The strong hands push her deeper into the Atlantic waters, down into the murky depths overwhelming her senses.
She gasps, suddenly becoming aware of her surroundings; the sweeping broom in her hand and the dust still on the floor. The loud banging on the door follows with her name. “Mags! Mags!” It is little Tommy Walsh, the blacksmith’s son. As she opens, she rests her eyes on his.
“Quick! Bill Roche is in the town square! His cattle were poisoned last night and he says it’s Heather Rose! They are after her and she has been seen on the beach,” he splutters out of breath.
“Return to your home. I will find her,” Mags quickly responds grabbing her shawl from the nearby chair and exiting into the damp morning.
A fog of mist lies heavily around her having rolled in over the sea blocking out all signs of daylight. It is late October, not an unusual occurrence living by the coast for this time of year, but she knew the morning would be like this. Racing, she reaches the narrow path leading to the beach. The grass is damp under her feet. It soon changes to sandy patches as she climbs higher until the whole of Ballyvale beach spreads out before her. Through the watery fog she spies an outline. Heather! Moving quickly towards her, Heather’s voice reaches her.
“Go home Mags. This is no place for you.”
“Heather, the villagers are out looking for you!”
“Led by the mighty Bill Roche.”
“You must hide!”
“No point in hiding my girl; he will find me. Listen! I hear the murmur of voices.”
“Please, Heather, come with me!” Mags pleads, reaching for Heather’s arm in an attempt to drag her off the beach.
“Get out of here now Mags! Leave! You never saw me. Go, or they will think you are like me,” Heather responds by pushing Mags from her reach.
Hearing the voices growing, Mags fears the moment and retreats through the sands to the top of the beach. Sinking into the tall grass, she waits. The waters lapping on the shore edge soon disappear under the shouts of the village people. Peering through the reeds, she spies Bill Roche appearing on the sandy edge of Ballyvale beach shouting. “Witch!” His voice directs at Heather echoing through the dampness of the early morning. She eyes his son, Michael Roche, standing next to him. He has made his intentions of his affections for her more than clear. Watching the scene before her, Mags concludes they are all cowards, sheep, following one man, afraid to stand up and voice their own thoughts. Bill Roche is a large strong man with a personality to match. He is the largest tenant farmer for landlord Crosby; but his strength, she believes, comes from the fear he instils and from his loyal bunch of followers.
The crowd becomes silent on sighting Heather. The grey outline becomes clear as they move near her. Bill’s booming voice echoes throughout the beach carried by the quiet morning.
“Witch! You have done the devil’s work for the final time! I warned you!”
Heather stands firm facing her judge and jury. Grabbing her by his strong hands, he pushes her onto the sands. Mags closes her eyes unable to watch the scene that will unfold before her eyes. The townspeople raise their voices in shouts, their words inaudible. They surround Heather and Mags loses sight of the victim whom they lead to the cold watery grave of the merciless Atlantic. Retreating, Mags races quickly towards the safety of her home.
I first called my visions a gift, as Heather used to call them, when I was four years old. They were something I learned to live with, even if at times, their instant arrival without warning overwhelms me. My dear mother feared me, but I believe she feared being treated as an outcast even more, or having her friends of high society ridicule her. She was happy to hide me, wrapped behind the walls of her grand house. But on hearing a rumour, my father, a man of standing, could not bear to have such a story leak into the public.
I should take a step back and explain that I have not always been living at Ballyvale, but in the grand stately house of a rich merchant. I still have memories of my home, big it was, with many rooms. There were servants, and I had my own nanny to care for my every need. I had no sisters or brothers, well none until I left. Perhaps some followed and exist today, totally unaware of my existence.
My memory of that night is blurred. I was awoken from my sleep during the night, wrapped in a warm blanket smelling of soap after being freshly washed. The smell of that moment lingers today. Through sleepy eyes, candlelight flickered in the hallways until the cold of the night struck my face sending a shiver through my body. Drops of rain fell against my warm jaw wiping away all slumber from my body. Hushed voices echoed across the courtyard of my home, and I was lifted onto a trap.
Soon, my home, my parents and all childhood memories were left behind. It was then, for the first time, I found my voice and fear crept over my body. Unsure of where I was going, I recognised the lady next to me, Alice, one of the kitchen hands. She refused to answer my questions, just repeating that I should go to sleep while she held me tightly.
Sleep crept upon me again with the rocking of the trap and the echoing horseshoes off the ground. On opening my eyes, the light of the morning sun rising to the east gave the night sky a warm glow, sending the night away for another day. I lost track of how long we had been travelling. Alice still held me tight. Rising above the warm blanket perfumed with soap smell, I spied the ocean glitter softly against the warm glow of the morning sun. Shortly, my eyes fell on a small group of houses spread across a valley leading to a sandy beach. I suddenly feared the outcome as the horse pulled us down the slope entering the valley. The outline of the houses soon came into view through the early morning dew. Before long, we left the main crop of houses of the little village and entered a track secluded by trees on both sides. For several minutes, we continued before the trap stopped. As the driver’s strong hands lifted me onto the ground, my eyes fell onto a little cottage that had a low door with a small window on either side. Its roof was thatched, and white smoke drifted upwards from its chimney into the calm morning. Bushes and trees surrounded it; everything was quiet. We waited for a little while, then the door opened and I saw Heather Rose for the first time.
Slamming the door of her cottage shut, Mags fights to keep the blame from creeping in through her raging emotions. Trying in vain to push the horrifying scenes from her mind, she paces to the fire hearth and grabs the small brush to sweep out the ashes. Her heart races. Grabbing the ash bucket, she shovels in the light brown ash with trembling hands. Anger rises for Bill Roche and his blind sighted ways. A man like him would never learn his lessons. How quick he is to take the law into his own hands! This act will not be forgotten, and the local authorities will act on it, but it will all depend on the ruling from landlord Crosby. He controls everything that happens in the area.
Dropping her brush and shovel next to the flag hearth, she rises, moving slowly into the centre of her small kitchen. Glancing around at her belongings she has gathered over the years as she sits by the floor-to-ceiling dresser, she muses the thought of fleeing. She questions, why should she run? What has she to be afraid of? No one has ever questioned her existence before. Closing her eyes, she controls her mixed and confusing emotions, allowing calm to take over, bringing back clarity. She knows they will come for her. Questions need to be answered, and she is the closest of kin to Heather Rose.
She will deny all knowledge of Heather being suspected of meddling in witchcraft. She may have been reared by her, but she will deny having any hand, act or part to play in her life since moving into this old cottage eight years ago when she was but sixteen years old. They don’t need to know the truth. Distancing herself is the better option as well as checking her emotions to ensure composure, but not too much, as they would think she is being uncaring towards her adopted mother.
Murmuring brings her attention to the small kitchen window refusing to let any light in under the foggy morning. They have arrived. The blacksmith and his family are her only allies, but they will not defend or speak for her. She holds them no blame for this for they fear being cast out with her.
Mags jumps on hearing the bang on the wooden door. Approaching, she opens facing the powerful figure of Bill Roche with his self loved son Michael standing next to him, beaming with confidence in the presence of his father. Bringing her eyes towards Bill, she waits.
“Mags Rose, you are to come with us to landlord Crosby,” he begins with his loud clear voice. “There are questions to be answered over Heather Rose.”
“Can she not answer any questions that landlord Crosby has on her own? Why is my presence required?” she answers pretending not to know of the earlier morning events, but a lie she knows Bill is too well aware of.
“You can come willingly, or I can have some of my men escort you.”
The reply is clear, and Mags has no intention of giving him the satisfaction of making a scene of her. Wrapping her shawl tighter around her body from the coolness of the foggy morning, she steps forward, closing her cottage door behind her. Bill Roche turns on his heels with his son joining him. The other men that have accompanied him move to one side allowing her to walk after their leader. This will be the first time since arriving at Ballyvale twenty years ago on that fresh morning that her very existence will be questioned.
For several days following my arrival at the cottage of Heather Rose, I refused to speak to Heather whom I found to be a rather strange woman. I remained curled up in a corner holding onto my blanket, the only reminder of my former life. Soon, the smell of perfumed soap disappeared under the house odours. The cottage smelled, there was no floor but stone flags. I remember wondering how anyone could live in such a house. There were but two rooms. The kitchen where everything took place, and her bedroom, a small room located behind the chimney.
I recoiled at everything, the smells, the food, and even Heather’s advances towards me. Polite and warm she was, but this world was not what I had known. Where was my room? The food I was used to? Or my nanny to look after me? I cried by night, silently, so Heather would not hear me. I slept on a mattress next to the fire hearth. The heat kept me warm until the early hours of the morning when not an ember glowed anymore. I waited earnestly for my mother to arrive, or a member of the household, but no one came. I kept my eye on the door each day.
Eventually, over the weeks, I accepted the fact that no one was coming to rescue me from the house and take me home. I questioned many times what I had done to be left alone so far from home. Heather Rose’s house was where I was going to live. She fed me, looked after me, washed me, and was always attentive. I gradually came out of myself over that first year and soon followed her everywhere. I watched her bake bread as she rolled out the dough on her kitchen table and placed it on a griddle over the open fire, turning it occasionally. The flour she kept in a large barrel under the kitchen window covered by a plank of wood. I followed her outside to her little vegetable patch where she grew potatoes, carrots, cabbage and turnips. She cultivated the soil regularly, and replanted the cabbage twice a year.
Next to her garden, she held a brown donkey in a patch of grass no bigger than her house. During the summer days she would let it roam freely around grazing off the bushes surrounding the house and on the track leading from her house. Attached to one end of the cottage was a lean-to shed where Heather kept three hens, two brown and one white. There was no shortage of eggs; I had one each morning for my breakfast.
I began to become familiar with this new life, simple yet carefree. Nature was all around me, and soon, the cleanliness that I had been used to from my old home disappeared, and I loved getting my hands and clothes dirty. It was a part of the day whether I was out in the garden, feeding the hens, or just rolling on the grass.
During this early time, I was always aware of a regular visitor at the house. Heather did not receive many visitors, but this one stood out. A large man, like a giant, who would stare at me, never smiling, but always looking angry. I hid from him, playing in the little vegetable patch at the rear of the house each time he arrived. I soon discovered that this man was Bill Roche.
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