Samuel Hawke is a charlatan. Through his experience, he found no evidence of witchcraft and knew he was condemning innocent people to die. After taking advantage of the paranoia of the English Civil War, he accepts a routine investigation in a small village called Beckborn in Lancashire, England. Two fifteen-year-old-twin girls, Mary and Elizabeth, had been accused of witchcraft after their mother died and their father disappeared.
“The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these
detestable slaves of the Devill, the Witches… hath
moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following
treatise of mine… to resolve the doubting harts
of many; both that such assaultes of Sathan are most certainly
practized, & that the instrumentes thereof, merits most severly
to be punished.”
Daemonology, by King James I (1597)
14th March, 1643.
An eccentric old woman. Creaky and bent. Snarling. Haggard. Annie Parsons hunched in her chair, dribbling and murmuring. Clumps of lank, grey hair shrouded part of her face. Grime made the whiteness of her shift barely visible. It clung to her body like a loose skin. Her bony wrists and ankles bore the sores of a long spell in irons.
Samuel Hawke loomed over her, arms folded, about to perform his service for the town and the county of Hampshire, and more importantly, for God.
“How many have you cursed, Mrs. Parsons?” Samuel’s voice boomed.
Annie Parsons mumbled out her words in a gravelly tone. “I have cursed the Robertsons and the Pyes and the Shepards and the Knoxes.” Her eyes rolled around as though unable to focus.
A wave of gasps filled the cramped room. A Constable sat behind a small table, scribbling notes with a quill. Evidence for the court. Four others in the room sat in each corner, watching Annie Parsons as they had done for three days and two nights between them.
Samuel turned to the Constable. “Has the woman been visited?”
“He appeared on the second night,” replied the Constable, supported by the slow nodding of the watchers, “in the form of a black rat. We remained still. He tried to communicate with her. As soon as she spoke in a tongue we could not understand, he left. From then, the widow Parsons was silent.”
Samuel stared deeply into the old woman, then shook his head slowly.
“There we have it,” Samuel declared, “She is in league with the Devil. She communicates with his forms. And behold, he leaves his mark on her.”
Samuel rolled up her loose sleeves. The dark patches on her hands and arms provided further evidence of her guilt. Again, gasps sailed around the room.
Annie Parsons continued to drift into incoherent mumbling, like a small child trying to learn how to count under its breath. Head rolling from side to side.
Samuel took a sheet of paper from the Constable and read the indictment. “Annie Parsons, you are accused under the Witchcraft Act of 1604. You cursed John Reece, a cooper, and his good wife, and murdered her unborn child with your words. When did you make this covenant with Satan?”
“I have never met him,” she sobbed, “animals only. Cats. I have lots of cats. Sometimes a big hairy thing with ears… what do you call it?”
“In the last year, how many times have you attended Mr. Shelley’s church?” he boomed, gesturing to the Constable to write it all down.
“Mr. Shelley…. Such a nice… nice church. Stone. White walls. Nice looking…” the woman mumbled.
“The Lord’s Prayer…” Samuel cleared his throat. He was near. “Recite it for me.”
“Is our Father in heaven? Really in heaven? Or is he…”
Samuel’s father had warned him of people who turned away from God. Satan extended his fingers everywhere.
He stepped backwards and held out his arms as though presenting a work of art he’d just created. “The evidence is plain to see. She bears the Devil’s mark on her arms where Satan’s familiars suckle on her blood. He communicates with Satan through his creatures. And she has been witnessed by many, and I have their sworn testaments, that she has cursed their livestock, made sick of their children and in the case of Goody Reece, murdered her unborn child with her words.”
He looked at the Constable and the watchers. Their eyes fixed on him. Their faces frozen and white. Samuel was near. Just the confession. During his apprenticeship with James Wilmot, it was easier to secure convictions. People were far more superstitious back then, especially in smaller Puritan villages where everything was the Devil’s work. Even Catholics were accused. But Samuel’s intellect had always transcended superstition, unlike his father's. His apprenticeship with Wilmot taught him how to produce the evidence required to rid the world of the unwanted. Witches? These people were merely outcasts. But fear was real. Fear would compel people to say things. Even see things. And evidence of the Devil was all around, seeping through the terror in the world like blots of ink creeping through water.
Samuel leaned into the old woman and spoke with a soft voice. “According to folk, you were a beautiful woman, Mrs. Parsons. Is that true?”
Annie Parsons smiled and blushed, head bowed. “Yes,” she sniggered.
“And this declined after your husband disappeared? Is that when you signed your pact with the devil?”
Tears swelled in Annie Parson’s eyes. “Seth?” She flicked her head around as if following someone in the room. “Seth? Is that you? Are you there?”
Samuel took a step back once more, folding his arms. “Where is Seth Parsons? Do you see him?”
Annie Parsons pointed to a space in the room. The others gasped once again.
Samuel leaned in. “I can be your saviour,” he whispered, “I can help you gain redemption for you and your husband.”
She lifted her gazed towards Samuel, eyes glistening and wanting. “Seth is here. Seth can hear me, you know. He talks to me.”
“I know he speaks to you,” whispered Samuel, “Satan speaks through him, does he not? Tell me, woman.”
She offered a crooked smile. Small streams of tears followed the crevices in her cheeks. She lowered her head and wept quietly. “Let me sleep.”
“And who else?” Samuel put his ear to Annie Parson’s mouth. “Tell me and you can sleep. Who else?”
Her eyes rolled upwards and her head tilted back. Samuel took the nape of her neck in his hand and brought her head towards him once more.
“I think Seth is dead,” whispered Annie Parsons, “so who is he?” She pointed to the space in the room again. More gasps from the watchers. The Constable’s hand shook as he scribbled his notes.
“Do you think he is Satan in disguise?” asked Samuel.
“Yes.” Annie bowed her head. “He must be. Seth is dead.” Her shoulders jolted with every sobbing breath.
Samuel ignored her crying and placed his hand on her shoulder. “May God find it in his heart to show you mercy.” He turned to the Constable. “You have everything you need. Inform the Magistrate.”
Samuel preferred it this way. Some witch-finders seemed to be less concerned about questioning, instead resorting to torturous means. Some even persisted with swimming – an archaic technique best left in the past, even though some people still believed it. But some people were beyond saving.
The next day, as a representative of the law, the Constable presented the evidence to the judges. The Devil’s marks. Communicating with the dead. Reactions to the Lord’s Prayer. Her trance-like state. And the cats. Always houses full of cats. And, of course, the final confession sealed the verdict. Guilty of murder by witchcraft. Samuel received a pleasing fee.
At the local inn that night, several members of the Anglican congregation bought drinks to reward him for his work in removing such evil from their community. The acclamation was always intoxicating. He imbibed the comments about how God had blessed him. Better still was the awe of the risks he took in his job. He soaked up the joy with a false smile knowing that if his father knew the truth of his work, he would condemn his own son to hell. The wine helped.
“How do you ward off the curses, sir?” shouted one of several red-faced sycophants huddled around Samuel.
“Years of training,” replied Samuel, gesturing for more wine, “and a strong will. And of course, faith in the good Lord and his protection.”
“Are you ordained, sir?” a soft voice came from the small crowd.
Samuel looked through the men to see a young woman, glowing in veneration, pretty in her grey calico dress and white bonnet that covered her neat blonde hair.
“No,” he replied with a wide smile, “I am not ordained as such, but I spent many years mastering my craft under the Minister James Wilmot. A strong Puritan man from London. He taught me to harness the power of God, which is why I am able to reveal Satan’s work.”
“Then we have James Wilmot to thank,” declared another, holding a pewter mug aloft.
“No, sir,” called Samuel above the cheers. “You have Samuel Hawke to thank tonight!”
The room erupted in loud cheers and laughter. Shouts of “Hurrah, Samuel Hawke” echoed through the inn. Amongst the chaos, Samuel put down his goblet of wine, flicked a gaze towards the young woman, and retired to his room, knowing it would not be long before a knock on his door would signal the company of someone who yearned to feel closer to God for a single night.
But the next morning came too soon, as always. Dry mouth and sore head, Samuel left the warm body in his bed to dress and prepare for his chosen ordeal. First, he packed his belongings. This was his ritual, allowing him leave immediately, once he’d completed this final, dreaded act.
He attended a small gathering of witnesses at the Market Cross. His father would be so proud of him right now. Another witch condemned. Proof of God’s victory over Satan. And his only son, Samuel, the one he’d sent to Wilmot for a better life than that of a carpenter, was doing God’s service. This was God’s service. So why did he feel so nauseous?
The Sheriff and the Constable led Annie Parsons up the steps to the gallows. Samuel’s mentor always refused to attend these events. Too gruesome. But this was Samuel’s way. He needed to see this. This was his price for “God’s service” and possibly his only redemption.
He watched, distracting his mind. This money will pay for a fine room in London. I must look at this.
The Sheriff fitted the rope around her neck. New clothes with brass buckles and polished shoes. This woman has been an affront to this town.
The Sheriff checked the knot on the rope. Imported French beef in red wine sauce.
Annie Parsons requested no minister. She wanted no hood so she could see the sun for the last time. She looked over at Samuel, blank faced. Samuel’s body chilled. He stopped thinking about the hotel room in London, and the wine, and the new clothes. Even the joyful accolades from the townsfolk seemed empty. The old woman’s face drew him in, unable to look away. He imagined her husband working on a lathe. She had raised two children – both had died as young adults from the pox. Samuel’s father was a Godly man and had encouraged him to do God's work. Was this really God's work?
The Sheriff kicked away the stool and a loud crack broke Samuel’s thoughts. Annie Parsons’ body dropped. Her head jolted to the side. Her mouth snapped open with a rapid, deafening yelp. The look of shock on her face. Mouth open, tongue bulging, eyes like baubles. Her body tensed and convulsed. Arms stiffened down to her fingers which seemed to claw at something that wasn’t there. The last minute of her life drained away from her purple face. Her legs kicked then twitched and trembled. She became limp.
A plain wooden box stood against the gallows beckoning her old, withered frame inside, where she could be slowly eaten by the earth, month by month, year by year, until her physical existence was as dissolved as any memory of her life. For Samuel, it was time to leave.