Leather booted feet crushed wet grass--they marched a path through a fallow field to a large tree. The men wore coarse black cloaks and the flames of their torches did little to hold back the starless overcast night. Under the tree lay a stack of brush and cut wood. The woman they carried was hooded. Her face was crusted with blood. Welts were swelling up on her cheeks and chin. She murmured her pain.
"Please," she said. "Please..."
"Shut up! Shut her up!" said the man in the lead. He carried a black book under his arm. The two men carrying the woman set her down on the ground and a third stomped on her abdomen. She screamed, then writhed. Another man whipped a belt at her head. The buckle caught on her teeth. As he pulled back on the belt it ripped out one of her front teeth. She spat out blood.
"String her up!" said the lead man. They pulled her up. One of them swung a rope over a low branch of the tree. It landed in the brush pile. They tied the rope to her wrists, then pulled on the rope until it held her weight and she stood upright. The lead man pulled back her hood. She looked at him with wet eyes. Her hair was matted with blood. Clumps of hair fell to the ground.
"Don't--" she said. The lead man slapped her across the face with his free hand, then wiped it with disdain on the edge of his cloak.
"You will not speak unless you are spoken to!" He screamed at her. She looked down at the grass. "Look at me!" he screamed. He grabbed her chin and squeezed. She tried to wiggle back, but he put his fingers in her mouth and wrapped them around her teeth. He pulled her closer. She started gagging, then looked at him with steely eyes, and bit down. He screamed. Two other men prised her jaw open, then punched her in the face several times. She moaned with pain. The lead man cradled his hand under the opposite armpit. He slapped her again, with the black book. She was silent.
"Mary Smith, you are accused of practicing witchcraft," said the lead man with an authoritative voice. All the men in the crowd went still, focused on the lead man, with fervor. "We will now read the charges against you." Another man, shorter, stepped forward with a sheaf of paper.
"Mary Smith," began the short man, "for the first count, you have fomented adultery between two other citizens of the town."
"How do you plead?" asked the lead man.
"I don't know who you're referring to--" said Mary.
"How do you plead?!" screamed the lead man.
"How can something like that apply to me?"
"How do you plead?!" He slapped the book across her face again.
"Innocent," said Mary.
"Do you not plead guilty?" said the lead man. Spit leapt from his mouth.
"No," said Mary quietly.
"Did you not put a hex on these two people?" asked the lead man, inches from her face.
"I assure you, I've never put a hex on anyone," said Mary.
"Liar. Liar! This woman is a LIAR!" bellowed the man to the crowd. Laughter rippled through the crowd. He turned back to Mary. "You're insolence will not go unrewarded." He stepped back and turned to the short man. "Read the next one."
"Count two. You caused a cow on your neighbor's farm to be born with two heads."
"How do you plead?" asked the lead man.
"That is simply nature--"
"It is NOT nature!" screamed the lead man. "How does it help a calf to have two heads?! Tell me that!"
"It happens some--"
"It does not just happen! It is caused, by the meddling of evil witches!" He pointed the corner of the book at her nose. The crowd laughed again. "How do you plead, witch?"
"Innocent," said Mary quietly.
"You are far from innocent," said the lead man. "Read the next count."
"Count three. You murdered your husband," said the short man.
"I did not!" said Mary. "How could you even--" The lead man slapped her again with the book.
"Silence!" he bellowed. "You poisoned and twisted his mind until he hung himself." Mary burst into tears.
"No, no, no..." she moaned, sobbing. The lead man smiled broadly.
"He could not stand to live with you any longer," said the lead man, laughing. Mary stopped crying. She spat blood in his face. Three men came at her, punching. Another man lowered a torch to her legs, singing the bottom of her dress. She screamed.
"Enough!" said the lead man, wiping his face with his sleeve. "Let's get this over with. How do you plead?"
"Innocent," said Mary, rolling her eyes.
"Fine. Read the next count."
"Count four. You incinerated the sheriff's house with a gaze," said the short man. Mary suddenly looked down at the grass.
"How do you plead?" said the lead man.
"I did not do that," said Mary quickly.
"There were witnesses!" bellowed the lead man.
"I did not do it," repeated Mary.
"How do you plead?!" screamed the lead man. Mary was silent. He slapped her again with the book.
"Innocent. I plead innocent," she said.
"Those are all the counts," said the short man. He stepped back awkwardly, folding the paper up.
"Innocent..." said the lead man slowly. "On the surface, any one of these things could be, explained away as coincidence. But taken together, we can only conclude that it is the work of a witch in our town." His tone went soft. "Mary Smith, you are the only unmarried woman of age in the town. You are the witch."
"You are an ignorant man," said Mary in a low voice. The crowd looked expectantly at the lead man, but all he did was stand staring at her. Finally his spoke.
"We've had enough of this. Strip her." he said, as he unbuckled his belt.
"No, no!" said Mary. Several men grabbed her, and ripped off her dress. The tore away her underclothes.
"Turn her around," said the lead man. "I don't want to see her face."
Mary thought of her children, back at the house. April and Lyle. Lyle was ten and looked like his father, with red hair and freckles. He had grown tall in the year since his father's death. He was a quiet boy, but determined in everything he did. Mary felt comfort knowing that he would be strong enough to take care of his sister. She was seven, strong-willed and too smart for her age. Too smart for a woman in this town. She was raven-haired and had an extremely fair complexion. Her father sometimes called her Snow White. She was special. Mary told them to hide in the cellar when the men came. She told them if she did not come back that night, that they were to run away from the town.
Mary blacked out as the men took their turns with her until blood ran freely down her legs. She woke up to an intense heat. The brush pile was alight next to her. She tried to wiggle away from it. The men in the crowd laughed. They pulled up un the rope, and she was suspended over the flames, screaming. She drew up her legs, but the men started to lower her again. Flames licked at her legs.
Then an engine roared into the field. Headlights illuminated the men in silhouette. They turned to look, dropping Mary to the edge of the brush pile. She rolled out onto the grass, cooling her skin in the dew. She recognized the sound of the particular engine. Her heart leapt with fear and relief. She stumbled to stand.
A metal door slammed.
"Who the hell is that?" said one of the men.
"Where is she?" said a boy. Mary gasped. It was Lyle.
"You're that bitch's spawn, aren't you?" said the lead man.
"Where is she?" Lyle repeated.
"Grab him!" said the lead man. The men moved into action.
"Get off me!" yelled Lyle.
"Stop!" said Mary. She rushed toward Lyle, struggling against the men. Some of them turned and grabbed her. Through the crowd she could see her truck. Inside, in the passenger seat, was April.
"I think we'll let both of you burn tonight," said the lead man, with glee.
The truck door creaked open. April slid out. The men did not notice her. Mary watched April raise her hands above her head. She clapped them together, then slowly drew them apart. A crackling ball of electricity grew from a point of light. It engulfed her hands. April was impassive.
The men all turned to look. The ball developed a blue aura. It expanded outward. It formed a dome around her, but it continued to grow, spreading towards the crowd.
"What the f--" said a man, his voice cut off when the edge of the aura reached him. Some of the men started to turn and run. The man inside the aura started to float upward. Then he imploded. His clothes drifted to the ground. The aura started expanding faster. It enveloped Lyle, but he stayed rooted on the ground. Several men were caught, floated, and imploded. The aura reached Mary. It was warm, and her pain seeped away. The burns and welts started to heal. Mary felt an intense love emanating from her daughter. The aura continued past, extinguishing the fire, and caught the rest of the fleeing men.
The aura faded. April clapped her hands together, collapsing the ball of electricity. April, Lyle, and Mary were left in the light of the truck headlights. Lyle ran up to the truck and retrieved a long coat. He ran back to his mother and placed it around her shoulders.
"We have to leave," said Lyle.
"Thank you for coming," said Mary. She started to cry. Lyle hugged her.
"We'll have to drive far," he said. "We can't ever be seen here again."
"Yes," said Mary. They walked up the truck. She went to April, and placed her hands gently against her daughter's face, looking deeply into her eyes.
"I'm sorry mom," said April. "I'm sorry for the sheriff's house. I got you into trouble." she started to cry too. "I'm sorry about the bad men tonight."
"It's all right," said Mary, stroking April's hair.
"But's wrong to kill," said April.
"You did what you thought was right," said Mary. "You're a good person. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Do you understand?"
April nodded. Mary lifted her back into the truck, then slid in next to her. Lyle started the engine, and they drove away.