Father Cotton clutched his crimson-bound bible to his chest and spat his words. “The Lord sees your sins, creature of darkness, and denies you entry into paradise. What have you say? Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”
“I’m innocent,” cried Emily Tanner, fighting the Hessian ropes binding her to the thick trunk of the diseased oak tree. It had been healthy and strong only weeks before, but was now black, decayed, and listing over the river. “I have done nothing. Where is my husband? Jonathon, where are you?”
Jonathon stepped out of the crowd, clutching Martha Hamleigh, the grieving mother against his chest. “I am here, Emily.”
Her face lit up. “My love, help me! Tell them I am innocent. I would never hurt a child. I would never-”
“Enough, Emily!” her husband snapped, pulling a sobbing Martha even closer. “You are my wife and I love you, but I can not deny what my eyes have witnessed. You broke your vows and gave yourself over to the darkness. Our union is no more, and I will not help you. It pains me so, but Martha is the victim here. You took her children both. What did you do with their eyes, Emily? Their eyes…” He covered his mouth with his free hand. “God help you!”
“I am innocent. Martha lies! Help me, Jonathan!”
Father Cotton thrust out his bible like a shield. The pages fluttered in the odd breeze that had taken up just minutes before. His wiry, brown hair whipped about his shoulders. “You have been given a chance to repent, but seek only to bend and manipulate. To ask Jonathan to intervene is to condemn his soul alongside yours.”
“Damn you,” Emily screamed, glaring at each man, woman, and child assembled in the grove. “Damn you to the darkest of hells. I am no witch. I am no child butcher. It is you all whom are guilty. You who judge with fear and loathing instead of love and compassion. For years, I have lived amongst you. I am your neighbour, your friend…” she looked at Jonathan, then looked away. “Your wife…”
“And have given your husband no family,” someone shouted. “The ungodly cannot bare children. They are cursed barren. Harlot!”
Emily spotted the heckler—Thompson the sheep farmer—and whipped her gaze upon him so fiercely that her hair whipped about her like a nest of golden snakes. “It is you who will be cursed if you do this! Your soul will be forever damned.”
“She admits it! She places a hex upon me! A witch!”
“Lies!” shouted Emily. “All lies.”
Father Cotton spat in the mud. A gust of wind beat at his cassock. “Quiet beast! Your sphere of unholy influence is at an end. Tonight, all shall weep for the woman you were and celebrate the smiting of the evil you became. May your slaughtered victims rest in a peace you will never know.”
Emily thrashed against her bonds, drawing blood from her narrow wrists. She kicked her feet amongst the leaves and flicked them at the crowd—a defiant, yet ineffectual gesture. “I hope you all die in agony,” she screeched, tears soaking her face. “I will see it so!”
Father Cotton gave no reply. He returned his bible to his chest and put out a hand. Jonathon placed a torch in his grasp. Emily moaned at her husband’s betrayal and he quickly rejoined the crowd. Father Cotton pitied him. A true torture for a righteous man to face, the condemning of a loved one.
He strode towards the pyre, torch held out in front of him. “As your flesh burns, Emily Tanner, and agony cleanses you, Heaven will not await. You give your soul to the devil, and it is to his sickly bosom you go. Be gone! Leave our Lord’s blessed earth. Be gone!”
He threw the torch down into the crisp, dead leaves, and the conflagration was immediate. Flames rose in a circle around Emily feet and she screamed, but only in fear at the moment, for the pain had not yet begun. The night sky turned orange, and the crowd looked upon each other’s faces—none showed regret. They did the Lord’s work today. Taking the life of a child killer.
Emily’s screams halted, and she bit her tongue. More tears came. The look she gave the crowd was no longer condemning, only pleading. Father Cotton had seen the defiance of the wicked melt away before. It always did once their moment of judgement came. All evil quivered before the glory of the Lord. He would hold that beautiful image of Emily’s terrified face in his mind tonight as he flagellated himself. No better way to wash this vileness from his soul.
Emily’s screams begun again—a high-pitched wail like a wounded goat.
The flames circled inward. Heat devoured the dry leaves and started on the chopped logs piled behind Emily’s ankles. The pale skin on her bare shins turned red and bubbled. The stench of hog meat filled the air, made those in the crowd cover their mouths and fall to silence. These were godly people and watching human flesh burn was a dark thing to witness.
Emily’s woollen nightdress caught fire, and her high-pitched screams transformed into bovine moans that reverberated through the crowd. In unison, and without prompting, the villagers chanted the Lord’s prayer.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
The sinewy flesh of Emily’s legs reduced to liquid fat on the bone. Her body began to melt. Blood turned black. Sinew sizzled. Her nightdress shrivelled away and exposed her nakedness. The points of her breasts popped like blisters and drizzled down her chest like pus. The woman’s golden hair curled and smoked, fell from her reddening scalp. Her eyes rolled back in her head. Her bellows became a whimper as her cheeks turned sticky. A few seconds more and she was a glistening skull staring out at them.
Then the fire leapt ten feet in the air and took Emily away forever.
But the blackened oak tree remained. Even in the inferno, it remained.
Father Cotton turned to the crowd. “We did the Lord’s work today, my children. Be not troubled by what you have witnessed, for the righteous act is never the easy one. Go home to your loved ones. Pray.”
A billowing draught had risen, summoned by the fire. It brought sweat to the brow of those closest, including Father Cotton. He clutched his bible tightly and used his free hand to pull the hair from his face. As he did so, pain flared in his left eyelid. “Jesus Mary!”
“Father?” said Jonathan, wheeling on him. “Are you okay?”
Father Cotton pressed his palm against his burning eyelid. “It’s nothing, child. An ember from the flames. We should depart this place, lest its echoes haunt us too long.”
“Of course, Father.” Jonathan attempted to pat his back, but he shrugged him away, angered by the pain still flaring in his eyelid. “I hope days ahead do not reveal you complicit in your wife’s actions, Jonathan. May the Lord forgive you if you are.”
Jonathan rocked backward as if struck. “I swear it, Father. I had no idea what Emily was doing.”
An angry buzz drowned out their conversation and made the departing crowd stop to look back towards the fire. The great inferno lit the night sky red, but the glow continued spreading outward, tendrils dispelling the darkness in every direction. Embers fled to the air like a swarm.
A literal swarm.
Buzzing filled Father Cotton’s ears. Fiery specks flittered through the air, and members of the crowd cried out. Father Cotton did a circle, trying to decipher the Lord’s will in what he was seeing. What was happening?
Jonathan batted at himself, an angry welt rising on his cheek. A wasp, formed of flame, crawled along his jawline. “It’s Emily,” he cried. “She has cast a hex upon us. She swore it. Dear God, what folly have we bought?”
Father Cotton faced the pyre, flames whipping and swirling like a sentient beast. Thousands more tiny, spiteful embers grabbed hold of the wind and descended upon the screaming villagers, but a separate swarm surrounded him alone, marking him out and buzzing in his ears so loud as to make his brain ache. He threw up his arms, dropping his bible into the soft, black mud beside the river, and opened his mouth to scream. But before he could, burning agony filled his throat. Jonathon collided with him, prisoner to his own panic, and knocked him to the ground, and from on his back, Father Cotton stared into the fire and saw Emily. The fiend stared right back at him, passing her own judgement even as Hell claimed her soul.
The swarm of embers engulfed Father Cotton’s face and stung the sight from his eyes. Unable to see, unable to speak, he prayed to the Lord for help.
But the Lord was not there.