The Wisp, Chapter One, Part Two, Fiction, Reading, Photography, Blog, and Digital Art
(A reading can be found toward the end of the blog.)
“They were tortured until they confessed. For those who continued to deny their guilt, there was a test, the water test. A suspected witch was held under water. If she died, she was found innocent and buried in sacred ground. If she lived, she was assumed a demon’s handmaiden. Death by burning was her fate.” Professor Chestermire paused and sipped at his coffee.
The students of St. Catherine’s Academy for Girls—St. Cat—were studying the witch trials of Europe. Most of the girls were too worried about the upcoming exam to ask questions. The only sounds outside his voice were the low murmur of clicking keyboards or the even smaller scratch of pen on paper, until Bara did the unthinkable. She raised her hand. Like having just one hair out-of-place on a thickly jelled and smoothed head, it instantly caught his attention.
“Yes, Miss Cavanagh?”
“Didn’t Windfall have its own witch trials?”
The question wasn’t met with any real curiosity from the rest of the class. It wouldn’t be on the test. Keyboards stopped clicking. Pens stopped writing. Most of the girls phased out, but Cassandra rolled her eyes, Louise snorted, and several other Pops, the most powerful clique at school, followed suit by giggling. Bara despite her good looks and money wasn’t popular. She wasn’t counted among the brains and she certainly wasn’t a Goth. She had only two real friends, Amy Frank and Colin Van Fitt from the neighboring St. Xavier’s Academy for Boys, St. X.
Chestermire laughed good-naturedly. “Quite right, quite right, Miss Cavanagh. Salem, Massachusetts is most often remembered for its witch trials of 1692, but Windfall did have its own Petit Inquisition.” He paused and took another sip of coffee. His mug claimed he was the number one teacher. He placed the self-congratulatory cup on his desk, put his hands into the pockets of his sweater vest, puffed out his sizeable chest and belly, and rocked on is heels.
This was a sign. He was about to go on—and possibly—on some more. Sly smiles crept onto teenage faces. The more time he spent off-topic, the less facts they’d have to memorize. Forbidden cell phones emerged from bags and pockets. Browsers opened to banned websites.
“If I remember correctly,” he continued. “It was five women and one man found guilty. They were sentenced to burn at the stake, except for one. Her they intended to bury alive.”
The mention of burning flesh and live burials grabbed the attention of a few others, Patsy Pillanger among them, the only girl less popular than Bara.
“Did they really burn them?” she blurted out.
Patsy hadn’t raised her hand. Chestermire narrowed his eyes in rebuke before answering.
“There's no record of anyone actually having been burnt or buried. Rumour is remains were sunk in a lake north of Windfall. It has since dried up and with no sign of bones. So perhaps the townsfolk saw sense before putting a match to light.”
“Did they really believe in witches?” Bara asked.
Most of the other girls realized no grotesque story of witch burning was to come and shifted focus back to where it had been. The tech-inclined texted or surfed. The brains caught up on homework. Most everyone else drifted back into daydreams. Bara was the only one listening, but a touch on her shoulder split her focus. It was best to ignore the tap until Chestermire finished. There soon came a second, more insistent summons. This one sparked on contact. She turned around. A bright glare came through the window. She brought up her hand to shield her face and blinked. The light disappeared. When her vision cleared, there was Amy with her head down in a Math textbook. Amy didn’t look up. She hadn’t tapped her shoulder. Maybe someone had thrown a wad of paper? The Pops often used Bara as target practice, but Louise and Cassandra had their heads down, their concentration focused on their laps. Their hands moved slightly. They both giggled, one after the other. They were obviously texting each other. It hadn’t been them either.
Bara continued to look around. No one met her eye. No one was avoiding it, but no way had she imagined the touch. Chestermire interrupted her thoughts.
“Really Miss Cavanagh, you asked the question. It’s common courtesy you await the answer before turning your attention elsewhere.”
She turned back. He’d grown red in the face. His thick neck bobbed in his starched collar. He resembled a boiling kettle top. It was hard not to laugh. She did her best to stifle her giggles.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I was distracted. Someone tapped me on the shoulder.”
“That could only have been Miss Frank.”
Amy raised her head.
“Miss Frank? Did you tap Miss Cavanagh on the shoulder?”
Amy looked blankly. His voice rose in volume.
“Of course, you didn’t.”
Somebody quipped, “Barbie was off in her Malibu mansion.”
“No,” someone else, no doubt a Pop, chimed in. “Her dad lives with Barbie now.”
Ouch! The Cavanaghs were freshly divorced and Mr. Cavanagh newly married to a much younger and blonder woman. Bara was far from okay with it. There were unkind snickers all around. Chestermire held up his hand to signal for silence.
“No, Miss Frank, your interest was elsewhere, as was Miss Cavanagh’s.” He looked pointedly at Bara. “Would you like me to finish?”
She nodded. He scanned the classroom. Those looking up nudged those who weren’t. Browsers closed. Electronic devices were put away. All eyes faced forward.
“Well then,” he began again. “The women were jailed and tortured. The question is why. Did the townspeople truly believe in witchcraft? Witches? Demons? The devil?”
No one responded and he answered his own question.
“They may have practiced ancient ways of healing, non-Christian religion, nature worship and such, but communing with the dark side …” He looked ominously at the Goths, smiled, and shrugged. “I don’t think so. More likely, the not-so-good townsfolk wanted the wealth the women would lose if they were found guilty. They were all without a husband, widowed, or orphaned, and all held property. Greed was the obvious motive.”
He took another sip of coffee and continued on with the lesson. Again keyboards clicked. Pens scribbled. Bara snuck a look back. Amy gave her a sympathetic smile in return.
The bell rang. Chestermire reminded the class of their upcoming exam and dismissed everyone. The girls began to pack up and exit. The Goths all but flew out of the room, their long black hair flapping like crow wings behind them. Everyone else moved at varying but slower speeds. Bara slid her laptop into her bag and was ready to go. Amy took longer with pens, highlighters, and notebooks to put away.
“I have to go to Tech and sign out a computer,” she told Bara. “Do you want to come with? Then we can go to the library.” She finished packing up and headed for the door.
Bara followed behind and yawned.
“I need caffeine.”
They spoke in hush tones as they walked down the hall. Cassandra and Louise watched. They stood near the exit with the other Pops gathered around paying court.
“You dreamed about him again?” Amy asked.
Bara was having a reoccurring dream about a dark-haired boy. The dreams were pleasant enough. Okay, maybe too pleasant. They left her with a sense of longing when she woke and realized he didn’t really exist. But the last dream had been terrifying too—an eyeless doppelgänger with a mouth threatening to eat its own face, not exactly sweet dream material. Getting back to sleep afterward had been a struggle. Bara was exhausted.
“I’ll get us some coffees?” she offered. “Then meet you down in the stacks.”
Amy agreed and they separated, going in opposite directions. Bara headed for the exit. Just ignore them. She had to pass the Pops. She stumbled and almost fell. Someone had tried to trip her. She didn’t stop to name the culprit. Such occurrences were far too common to bother.
“Say hi to Ken, Bar—beee,” Louise taunted.
Mocking titters followed her down the hall and out the door. They ended with the slam of wood against a metal door frame.
Bara is fortunate in ways most of us could only dream of. She is beautiful and from a wealthy family. She is receiving the best education money can buy. She is blessed. She is gifted. But she is different. Too different and despite being kind and intelligent completely unable to fit in. It's not allowed.
The Pops sense that although she has all the necessary traits to belong, to lead, and to be one of them, she possess an unusual power too that they don't quite understand. What can't be understood by the controlling, the ruling class, is to be feared and oppressed. Diminish what threatens you, and it becomes a little less threatening, yet more alien.
Bara's unusual power will not fade under the shade of others. It plays with the flickering light; grows bent and misshapen in the shadows, feeds in the psychic recesses of the dark thoughts she harbours. When the mind is clouded with resentment, there's no telling what is real and what is a dream, a nightmare, even when the sun shines bright, and you are surrounded by the mundane and normal. Her only hope ... she isn't quite alone and finds connection and support with others different like her. Amy and the dark-haired boy, in life and dreams.
Words and Images are my own.
The Wisp and its sequel, the Tall Man, is published in borh paperback or digital and available through amazon and your local libraries and bookstores. Click on any title below to further explore and support my writing.