A READING EXPERIENCE
The Witch of Ballyvale
By Ben Kesp
Written 2015 - 2016
Copyright © 2016 Ben Kesp
All rights reserved. No part of this serial may be reproduced in any form without the permission in writing from the author.
The Witch of Ballyvale is now a published free e-book. To download your own copy, click on the link below or alternatively, you can read the story below:
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.
Before long, Mags leaves the valley climbing higher into the trees on a narrow road way. The fog is lighter up high. Casting her gaze onto the valley behind her, the fog settles over it like a blanket. The morning sun hits her face warming her slightly. The men followed her to the end of the village and then departed. Only Bill Roche walks ahead of her. Even Michael has departed.
The great piers of landlord Crosby’s house come into view. Crosby’s house is large, nestled within a clump of trees with smoke bellowing up its chimney stacks. Manicured lawns spread out before it with flowering shrubs and carefully cut bushes. A water fountain stands in front of the main entrance complemented by two garden seats on either side. Mags imagines life inside, so far removed from the life of the villagers.
The clanking of horseshoes comes to the attention of Mags, and she moves to one side letting a carriage pulled by two black horses drive by. The carriage disappears to the rear of the house and soon she lays eyes on it once more when she and Bill enter the rear courtyard of the house. Mags follows Bill, not once opening her mouth. She enters through the rear entrance and arrives into the large busy kitchen. Servants run about cleaning and preparing food. A large table in the centre of the black and white tiled kitchen is filled with fruit and vegetables. Three fresh pheasants are placed by the kitchen sink for cleaning.
A nod from the kitchen head and Bill follows the butler from the kitchen and into a hallway leading past the main hallway with its shining marble floor and grand staircase. Mags quickly soaks up the detail before entering a room at the end of the hallway. An ornate table is placed in the centre of the room and landlord Crosby and his wife are seated, each with a cup and saucer placed in front of them. On the opposite end of the table sits the local constable. The floor is solid oak, and the furnishings are soft green with long floor-to-ceiling curtains draped by a large window allowing the pale light of the morning to filter in.
Mags places her eyes on Crosby, a strong man in his mid to late thirties with a handsome face who no more glances at her before facing the constable. Mags moves her attention to Mrs. Crosby, a delicate lady with a pale complexion. Through her eyes, Mags can feel the worry she carries, perhaps even unknown to her own husband.
Constable Reilly begins the conversation by turning to Bill Roche who stands to one side of the room near a white marbled fireplace. A fire has been lit giving the room its cosy feel.
“Thank you, Mr. Roche, for bringing Ms. Rose to Ballyvale House,” constable Reilly begins before placing his eyes on Mags. “Mr. Crosby would like to ask you some questions about this horrendous incident that happened this morning.”
Mags moves her eyes to landlord Crosby waiting for his probing questions. But it’s not him she is worried about, but his wife Mrs. Crosby.
Over the next two years, the arrival of Bill Roche at the cottage of Heather Rose became a common occurrence. However, it was into my first year with Heather that she became aware of my abilities which she later christened as a gift. Losing myself in a trance concerning a vision of Bill Roche, Heather soon got the information out of me of what had happened. She was very interested to learn more about this and how long I had it. Learning that I had these visions since birth, she knew it was not something that could be learned.
I should say at this point that Heather was an outcast from the rest of the villagers. I soon began to realise this when I started attending the local school and the other children would call her names. Children are children and never quite understand what they are talking about, just listening to stories from grownups.
Heather always refused to be treated by the village doctor or see a priest. She made her own remedies, and at times, local people would come to her in private for potions or cures for their animals and even certain ailments. They would never publicly state, of course, that they had done business with Heather. It was only the blacksmith, Conor Walsh, who was indebted to Heather for curing his mother from losing her sight. Conor and his wife Bridget would sometimes defend Heather when others would not.
You see, Heather was not a witch in the evil sense that people tried to make her out to be. She worked with remedies and potions, using natural herbs that were an alternative method to what were dispensed by the local doctor. The priests referred to her acts of offering cures and remedies as blasphemous, excommunicating her from the Church.
Heather was guilty of taking advantage of my visions and using them against her enemies. One such man who became her enemy was Bill Roche. This led to people believing she had magical powers and many even feared angering her. The local people would never have turned in force against Heather, but there were two opposing forces at play, and they were Heather Rose and Bill Roche. One they feared for what she might do, and the other they feared for what he would do. It was the unknown against the real.
Associating yourself with Heather was for sure taking the losing side, so Heather was left to battle on her own. But she was a woman of pride, and struck out at Bill Roche when she could, cursing and wishing him nothing but bad luck, bad luck that followed Bill Roche, not because Heather had wished it, but I would say, more due to the living actions of the man. I should tell you that the Bill Roche I am talking about, the largest tenant of landlord Crosby, with over one hundred acres of land, a fine house and labourers, was not always in such a fine position. When I first got to know him and his visits to Heather, he was but a lowly farm labourer.
Landlord Crosby crosses his legs and faces Mags. His face is filled with assurance for a man in his position.
“I have to admit, Ms. Rose, which I have just learned this morning is not your real name, I know very little, if nothing, about you. You seem to have crept into this town land and have lived here for twenty years without me even knowing about you,” Crosby begins. “Why don’t you tell me? How did you come to Ballyvale?”
“I arrived here when I was four years old. Heather Rose became my adopted mother.”
“Where did you come from?”
“I cannot answer.”
“You won’t answer, or you don’t know?”
“I don’t know.”
“Surely at the age of four years you had some recollection of what happened?”
“My memories do not go back any further. I remember awakening and sighting Heather Rose for the first time.”
“What of your name? Surely you knew your name?”
“Heather ever only called me Mags, and I became known as Mags Rose.”
“Mr. Roche here even remembers when you first arrived, but he never did get any information from Heather on asking her. He had no interest in knowing more. Ms. Rose, you left Heather’s cottage and moved to another on your sixteenth birthday. Why?”
“The cottage used to belong to an elderly man named Toho Gibbons.”
“Ah yes! Old Toho; he used to be a shoe peddler. Go on.”
“Toho had no family and the cottage was lying idle. Heather cared for him towards the end of his life, and she was who you might call his only next of kin. I asked her if I could move in as no one else was making use of it. Heather’s cottage was small with only one room, and I wanted my own space. I have been living there ever since.”
Shifting in his seat, Crosby leans forward lowering his voice.
“During your time living with Heather, and following, have you ever known her to take part in witchcraft?”
“No, I cannot say that I have, but you would need to explain what you mean by witchcraft so I may understand your meaning,” Mags replies remaining calm glancing regularly at the other members at the table. She is unable to make eye contact with Bill Roche as he is out of her front vision and she does not wish to appear nervous.
Sitting back into his chair again, Crosby scrutinises her.
“I am only trying to get to the bottom of this terrible drowning accident that has occurred. Heather has been accused of witchcraft many times. People fear her. I will not pretend that I believe in such tripe, but the evidence stands that eight head of cattle belonging to Mr. Roche are dead, poisoned he claims. Furthermore, witchcraft or not, Heather has been known to dabble in potions, even the Church and the medical profession have condemned her for such acts. Do you think, Ms. Rose, that Heather poisoned Bill Roche’s cattle?”
“I do not,” Mags replies moving her attention to Crosby’s wife sitting quietly by, her mind occupied on other matters. Mrs. Crosby notices the stares and their eyes lock momentarily until the lady of the house drops her gaze onto the fine bone china cup placed on its delicate saucer before her.
Inhaling deeply, Crosby stands, stretching himself.
“Return to your home Ms. Rose. I will discuss the matter further with the constable here and we will investigate this incident.”
No more is said from Crosby, and the butler quickly ushers Mags from the room, retreating their steps along the same corridor and through the kitchen onto the back courtyard. Keeping her head down, Mags continues forward exiting the short driveway of Ballyvale House reaching the dominant front entrance gate. The fog has lifted, exposing the valley to the late morning sun. A terrible loss attaches itself to her heart, bringing her to tears. There is no one to fight on the side of Heather Rose. Moving forward on the narrow road leading into the valley, tears stream down her cheeks. She will never see Heather again, the woman who has become her true mother.
I carry with me many secrets of the village people. They know this, and they too shun me like Heather, ignoring my very existence. Their mistrust in me runs as deep as it did with my mother. Bill Roche was one such man who has been most curious, even sending his own son to ask for my hand in marriage, sniffing around me like a dog. It was either Bill Roche’s way of taking me away from Heather, or to gather information about her. Why else would he allow his son to be associating with me when I was an outcast like Heather? I will tell you, Bill Roche was once a poor labourer, born into servitude. He was a potato picker during the summers for old Mr. Crosby, father of the younger landlord Crosby. Lacking education, he soon found odd jobs with different farmers. He proved to be a good worker due to his sheer size and bulk. Manual labour was not an issue for him, and with that came demand for his labours as he got older. Some of the larger farmers fought over him wanting him to work on their lands in early spring, ploughing with the horses, building walls or cutting turf. But it was Ronald Ayers that triumphed. He was a large tenant farmer for old Mr. Crosby and he attained Bill full time on his land, housing him in his own home, ensuring he was well fed, and looked after him so Bill would not seek employment elsewhere.
Ronald Ayers had the fortunate turn of events when his neighbour died suddenly and old Crosby added another forty acres of land to his holding at a reduced rate it was noted at the time. This gave Ayers an extensive farm of over one hundred acres. Bill Roche worked there for many years. Being childless, Ayers agreed with old Crosby who was nearing seventy-five years to sign over the lease of his lands to Bill. The agreement was put in place and the younger landlord Crosby did not see any need to change it.
I did not know this at that time, but this was the reason why Bill Roche stopped calling regularly at Heather’s two years following my arrival at Ballyvale. Being a man of property, Bill became a fine match for the daughters of many of the larger farmers, and soon married Eileen, the daughter of Mel Crowley, who bore him three daughters and one son.
The next part of the story is unclear to me even to this day as Heather never made it clear as to why Bill Roche took it out on her. Was it simply down to a battle of dominance in the local community? Did Bill feel threatened by her and the sway she held over people, fearing her abilities? Sometimes I ponder, did something else happen between them? I arrive at this conclusion due to Heather’s lack of openness on the matter. However, I also believe the real root of the issue was that Heather knew things concerning Bill Roche and other members of the community that really put the fear of God in him. It was through my visions that she got these insights.
A week following the harrowing events, Mags’s mind has been in turmoil. Sleepless nights haunt her. Heather’s body was recovered from the water and buried, not in the local cemetery, but outside its walls. It was done during the night, and not a prayer was said over her grave. Mags visits the site each day and stays for hours sitting by the grave. None of the villagers have offered her support except for the food that was laid outside her door for the first three days following the death. This she believes was done by the blacksmith Walsh. Fearing to be associated with her, they delivered their gifts during the darkness of the night. That has now ceased, and her only comfort is knowing that someone is thinking of her.
Arriving from visiting her mother’s grave, she sweeps out the fire hearth and prepares a new fire for the day. A cold Atlantic wind drives in from the sea sweeping into the valley, bringing with it a biting chill. Setting down her bucket of turf, she kneels on the flag before the hearth. Her stomach clinches in pain sending a scream from her mouth doubling her over onto the floor. Her vision blurs and rich blood becomes visible on her hands. Fear mixed with sorrow rides her emotions as she stares onto her blood soaked dress. Tears stream from her eyes, and she closes her wet lids to block out the sight. Darkness returns along with the familiarity of her home. Lifting her eyelids, she finds herself stretched out on the kitchen floor.
As she pulls her body to the nearby chair, she centres her thoughts, shaking the image from her head, soon realising what the vision represents. Pushing the recent vision to one side, she continues with her daily routine. A shuffle outside brings her attention to the kitchen window. With heightened senses, she reaches for the door opening it, sighting Michael Roche standing outside.
“What brings you here?” Mags demands, her voice stern. “Has your father not done enough already? Now surely with Heather gone, you have no need to come sniffing around here.”
“I am not here because of my father.”
“Perhaps you are even more foolish than I thought. Why else are you here? Do you really believe your father wants you to have anything to do with me?”
Moving his blocking frame closer to her, anger flares in his eyes. She remains firm.
“I have let you push me away, even tease me, but now the witch is dead and I have nothing to fear.”
A chill runs down her body and rests uneasily in her stomach. Michael Roche is like the rest of the villagers, unable to think for himself, but like a sheep following his father. But he is more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing fearing his sudden change in nature. Feeling his strong grasp on her back, his fingers dig into her bones. Her body slams against his. She resists his attempts to kiss her, yet his second hand pulls on her hair tilting her head to one side. His lips plant down on hers, his coarse beard stubble scratching her skin. Biting his lips, his scream reaches her ears. Her body strikes the ground from his powerful blow.
Heather soon got to understand my visions even more than I did. I often questioned how she possessed the knowledge of understanding, or perhaps, being an adult, she saw more easily what they might have represented. Unlike my mother, she did not fear them, she revelled in them.
Heather soon began to see a connection between my visions and the people they related to. Just like with her potions and mixtures, she recorded the patterns of my visions, analysing the outcomes, the frequency, and added her own conclusions for the occurrence of the vision along with the people affected and my relationship with them.
Stopping by Heather’s house was one of the first things I did after my return from being questioned by landlord Crosby following her death. I collected her notes and books. The remedies and collections gathered over the years by Heather were numerous resulting in treatments for many ailments and documentation of natural herbs. My biggest fear was her note book containing all the information on me falling into the hands of the villagers, or even worse, Bill Roche.
I am happily able to say I have rescued all the books and notes from Heather’s hiding place within her home and I have had them securely hidden. The book containing information on my visions has been invaluable in helping me understand my gift especially from a younger age when it was rather frightening. Heather recorded every vision from the day of my arrival to the last one when she was still alive. That vision was sighting Bill Roche’s herd of cattle dead and scattered across the pastures to the east near the marsh lands.
As I have already mentioned, the visions come without warning and are difficult to predict. However, Heather has helped to train me in recognising when they are happening and to allow my conscious thoughts to understand the nature of the message being shown to me. More importantly, she taught me not to fear them. I recalled each and every one of my visions in detail for her. She quizzed me and quizzed me until soon I became familiar with her line of questioning. What was I feeling? What did I see? Who did I see? Was it day or night? Where was I? And the list went on. For Heather’s help, I will be forever grateful.
The smoke dances, rising under the control of the southerly breeze. The heat of the flames warms her face, her eyes cast downwards onto her burning clothes, torn and tainted by her attacker. Catching the narrow tree branch, she churns the clothes in the barrel ensuring the flames reach every last thread of the garments.
Numbed from the sensation of the attack, Mags returns to her kitchen taking a seat by the table allowing her gaze to sit on the burning turf as the sparks flow gently upwards, disappearing into the darkness of the chimney. She has not noticed the ending of the day and darkness creeping over her cottage. The dying embers no longer hold their heat. A cold shudder passes over her body as she pulls herself from the trancelike state.
A knock suddenly startles her as she jumps from her chair facing the door. She waits, standing motionless. The knock is repeated along with the gentle calling of her name. Pulling her shawl around her, she moves to the door, opening it slowly. A young woman’s face is visible in the dusk of the evening.
“Sorry to bother you, Ms. Rose, but your presence is needed,” the woman begins, staring intently into Mags’s eyes and pointing at the awaiting carriage parked a little distance off.
“Who is it that looks for me?”
“Come,” the lady responds not allowing Mags to ask any further questions.
Cautiously, she follows the young woman who opens the door of the carriage directing her in. Climbing inside, the door closes behind her, but the young woman does not enter. A match strikes illuminating a small lamp. Mrs. Crosby’s face comes into view marked with worry and fatigue.
Leaning forward, Mrs. Crosby allows her gaze to settle on Mags, her eyes soft.
“Forgive me for coming here at this late hour, but it was as if I was spurred on to meet with you. I cannot explain.”
“What do you wish to speak with me about?”
“When I first saw you at my home I knew there was something different about you. You may not know your background, but you have a noble character. I felt your worry for me on that morning. You know my fears, don’t you?”
Mags is unsure how to respond to the question. She knows Mrs. Crosby’s fears, but how can she openly admit it?
“Mrs. Crosby, you must be an intuitive person to be aware of my worries for you. That morning at your home you were very distracted, withdrawn, that at times, I wondered if you even knew I was in the room.”
“I knew you were there,” Mrs. Crosby responds taking a slight pause. “My husband does not know I am here. I am with child, but you know of this. I know you do. Don’t ask me how I know.”
“Surely, this is joyous news to be celebrated. The arrival of a new born baby is a wonderful occasion.”
“It is my third child, but alas, my first two were still born. My heart aches that I will not carry the child growing inside me. I have not even told my husband in fear of getting his hopes high.”
“Mrs. Crosby, I am at a loss as to your visit. I do not think it is to tell me your news.”
Leaning into her seat, Mrs. Crosby’s features soften.
“I believe that you have the ability to see whether my child will live or not.”
Alarm runs through Mags’s body, taken aback at Mrs. Crosby’s knowledge. Is the woman before her desperately searching for help eager to ask the only person that might have been associated with the witch Heather Rose?
“I am sorry, Mrs. Crosby, I cannot be of any help to you. I was only paraded to your home last week to discuss the death of my mother and her meddling with witchcraft. Do you wish to put the same fate on me?”
“Please, I desperately need your help. Would you give me some insight into my child’s life?”
Reaching for the door, Mags exits the carriage, facing Mrs. Crosby for the final time.
“Nature will play its hand, and I believe that deep within you, when you move beyond your outward emotions, you too know this will be true.”
Retracing her steps to her cottage door, Mags returns to her kitchen. Her vision of the blood soaked dress and screams of agony will be fulfilled.
I must admit, it has often crossed my mind as to how I was placed in Heather’s care. It cannot have been a coincidence. Why choose a woman that was already on the edge of society, a woman that no one associated with? I never did bring myself to asking Heather directly, but there were times when she did not wish to speak about something. She closed herself off, and that was that.
There must have been some connection between my family and Heather. Did they know of her? If so, it would mean my family held knowledge of where I was living, and yet, I never had a visit from anyone. Heather often pointed out when she was analysing my visions that the gift I had might have been inherited. Could my mother have had it? Doubtful, as I still remember the look of horror on her face, fearing me. But it may not have been me she feared, but it frightened her as to what might have happened if it became knowledgeable in her high social circles, causing disrepute to her name. She too may have had such a gift and hid it well, but feared its outcome in an uncontrollable child.
I will never know if there was a connection between my family and Heather Rose, or if the gift I carry was passed on to me from a family member. For now, I live alone with these thoughts.
Throwing the potatoes into the barrel, Mags begins to scrub the dried soil caked around the skin. Housed over winter in a jute bag covered with straw, the potatoes remain fresh along with her carrots buried in a drum of sand. She starts to peel the second potato when shouts reach her ears. Fear runs through her body, dropping the knife into the bowl. A loud bang on her door is followed by her name.
Heads move in and out of view by the small window with inaudible murmurs. What brings a mob to her door? She has no place to hide, but face it. Opening the door, Bill Roche bears down on her with his mighty frame blocking her path.
“Mags Rose, you are to come with us and pay for your evil ways!” his booming voice echoing around her small yard.
“What am I to be accused of?” retaliating her response.
“You have cursed my son, and it is said, you secretly meet with clients under the darkness of night. Just like your mother did.”
Before allowing a response, Bill’s great hands grasp her shoulders pulling Mags from her doorstep cascading her onto the ground with the onlookers forming a circle around her.
“Bring her to the village and we will make an example of her. Drag her if you must,” Bill continues marching onwards towards the village.
Her body is arched upwards under two men, each clutching her arms. Onwards they march, pulling her towards the village square. A crowd has gathered, waiting for her arrival. Some are silent, while others throw their shouts behind the mob. Keeping her head down, Mags blocks out the din focusing her mind, but the adrenaline rush is too much, her emotions overriding her focus. The wheels of two carts come into her view. Her arms are stretched on either side, tied to each wheel. The crowd becomes silent, and the boots of Bill Roche meet her eyes. Raising her head slowly, she faces him.
“You are still young. You need not follow your mother’s way, or you might find yourself following her to a watery grave. Already you are an outsider to this community, you play no part in it,” Bill states, removing his jacket and picking up the whip that lay inside one of the carts.
“Let it be a lesson to you Mags Rose. Thirty whip lashes and you will submit your ways. Submit to the ways of the village, the Church and landlord Crosby. Do you have anything you wish to say?”
Keeping her gaze firmly fixed on Bill, Mags does not falter. Ill luck will always follow him throughout his life and it will lead to his death. She dares not to glance around the crowd as there is no one to help her. The blacksmith family is present, she is sure of this. They will not be among the haters, but to be absent, would only raise suspicion. Bill’s voice reaches her ears once more.
“For the final time, Mags Rose, have you anything to say?”
Straightening her body under the strain of the ropes holding her fast, Mags forces to keep her voice even.
“I know who I am. You will not force me to submit to your ways.”
“Her defiance is proof she is not one of us!”
Some of the crowd usher on Bill’s last statement and then fall silent. Rough hands tear the shawl off her back. The tearing of her dress reaches her ears and the coolness of the day hits her raw skin. Murmurs rise gently through the villagers and horseshoes follow clanking on the village street. Mags does not turn to look but recognises the voice as landlord Crosby demands to know what is happening. With only silence greeting him, he orders that she is untied, and before Mags knows what is happening, she is entering the carriage along with Bill Roche and travelling towards Ballyvale House.
Wrapping her shawl tighter around her naked back, she exits the carriage and enters the house through its front door. Not daring to lift her head, the black and white marble tiles shine reflecting her dull image. Entering the same room where she was first interviewed by Crosby, she stands in the same position with Bill Roche next to her. Crosby does not sit, but paces back and forth before the white marble fireplace. Pausing, he stands facing Bill Roche for his statement.
“Sir, the girl needs to be taught a lesson. We cannot have her behaving like her mother, inflicting harm on animals or people.”
“Poppycock. Enough of this! What has this woman done to you?”
“She has cursed my son. He told me so himself.”
“Do you fear this woman, Mr. Roche, a man as big as yourself?”
“I fear evil, and she is a carrier of evil. Even the Church will have nothing to do with her.”
Facing Mags, Crosby lowers his voice.
“Ms. Rose, did you curse Mr. Roche’s son?”
“I wished him unwell following his rape of me.”
Silence descends on the room momentarily until Bill Roche’s voice echoes throughout the house.
“Take a look at your son when you return home. You will see his bitten lip and scratched ear,” Mags’s voice quavers revealing for the first time her incident with Michael Roche. Her body trembles on realising the emotion, but she must remain strong.
“Enough of this, Mr. Crosby! The woman is evil, tainting my son. She is a witch, meddling in evil works. She is not part of this community and should be got rid of,” Bill demands stepping closer to landlord Crosby.
“She is not a witch, and I will stand over it,” a meek voice sounds from the doorway of the room. Turning, Mags faces Mrs. Crosby clutching the doorway. Her bloodshot eyes peer out through an ashen face. She is helped to a nearby chair and is joined by her husband who places his arm around her. Mrs. Crosby whispers briefly into her husband’s ear. Standing, he moves to the centre of the room.
“This ends now Mr. Roche. My wife and I do not agree that Ms. Rose is a witch. The incident of Heather Rose should not have happened. The proof of the cattle poisoning was a result of eating the hemlock weed, too starved from not having good grass that made them wander too far near the marsh lands. You know of this. The woman before me is to be left in peace by you and the villagers. Without delving deeper into this matter, I would suggest you keep your son in check. Neither I nor my wife condone any such acts on innocent defenceless women. Do remember your place Mr. Roche, and of how you got to be where you are.”
Without a response Bill departs the room leaving Mags standing with Mr. and Mrs. Crosby.
“My dear, would you mind leaving Ms. Rose and I alone for a while? I wish to speak with her,” Mrs. Crosby asks glancing at Mags. Approving, Crosby departs.
Mags moves towards Mrs. Crosby. A gentle smile crosses her lips as she kneels down next to her chair.
There are days I stand on the headline staring out across Ballyvale beach. The Atlantic air dives deep into my lungs filling me with renewed life each day. Everything I have told you about happened a long time ago. No one ever knew what Mrs. Crosby and I discussed, and that is how it will remain.
I am old now, but the memories are fresh in my mind. I still live in my little cottage next to Ballyvale beach with the mighty Atlantic Ocean hounding its shoreline, sending its coldness over the headland and into the valley. The villagers are less now, empty stone shells where cottages once stood full of life. Smoke escaping upwards through small chimneys and screams of playing children now silenced. For the few that remain, they maintain their distance. Events of the past still lie beneath the surface.
I receive a polite nod, a wave or a smile when I mix among them. The Church has tried many times to communicate with me, but I will have no part of them. Why should I? To give them the satisfaction that they have healed me of my evil ways? To give them even more power over the people? No, I will not have it.
Reflecting on my life, I cannot help but smile. I beat them all; the Church, landlord Crosby, the villagers, and even Bill Roche. I am satisfied that I am still standing and the mighty have fallen. Landlord Crosby’s glory days of power are long gone. His home has fallen into disrepair. The Church is now the new power over the village where guilt has become the new fear. As for Bill Roche, he met his fate to the east on the marsh lands where his horse went down, pulling his large frame under, drowning him beneath the murky dark water. I must smile at the irony, for it is the same place where his cattle were poisoned, the very thing he accused Heather Rose of causing.
If any of them wished to point a finger at someone in Ballyvale for being a witch, they had a right to point it at me. I am surely the real witch of Ballyvale in their eyes, born with a gift of insight that is unexplainable to any Church, landlord or villager. I am Mags Rose, the daughter to Heather Rose, my mother and believer.
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