A Witch's Work by Dan Fields


A hand of frost clenched at Hendrie Tulloch’s chest as he waded from the shoal, carrying the slack body of the witch’s daughter. Any man so burdened would have sorrow in his heart, just as any sensible man would fear Mother Moghren’s wrath. Yet, it was something else that caused the chilled stir of dread: Truly, in death, little Elspet curled against his breast with more repose and childlike sweetness than ever she had shown in life.

No brave neighbor accompanied Hendrie past the village outskirts to the hovel in the fen. They foresaw unhappiness for any who crossed Mother Moghren’s threshold with mournful tidings. Every gossiping tongue in Pen Lammoch proclaimed that Mother Moghren was the devil’s wife. But no prayer for deliverance passed Hendrie's lip. He was a frugal man, saving even holy exhortations for when they might do him practical good. Only the patter of brackish water from the sodden black hair and coarse frock of the drowned child, dripping down along the legs of his breeks, announced their passing.

Breta Bunt, the reeve’s wife, hid her scarlet face from Hendrie. Standing so near without offering help shamed her. She stood aggrieved at poor Elspet’s fate, knee-deep in self-pity.

Good Calum Craik, the village carpenter and boatwright, broke the silence first. “Up now,” he told his son. “Go snatch the moor line of Master Tulloch’s boat, lest she drift. Empty the nets and fold them, as I’ve taught ye.” Calum had built the pine-plank dory for Hendrie and would have it looked after. The lad assented, making for the shallows at a run with his father calling after him all the way. “Mind ye bring anything he’s caught ashore to salt and keep by!”

Calum went next to his wife Elein, whose sister was Hendrie’s wife, Moira. Elein had just taken a fresh, crusty bannock from the hearth. “Go,” he entreated her, “and call on your sister. Take that bread along and Hendrie’s fish, which the lad’ll bring.”

Elein, flushed from the heat and sweat of baking, peered askance at him. “What trouble’s come, husband?”

“I know not yet,” Calum replied, scanning the dreary sky for storms. “Ill winds, I fear. Moira shall need the comfort of her kin, and soon.” His trembling voice was enough to speed her along. Nothing about such a visit exceeded neighborly kindness, yet it bore the scent of funeral offices for a man already dead. That, and the care of his widow.

Hendrie had never gone to the hovel in the fen, yet he knew the way. Mother Moghren’s trade in domestic charms and divinations had subtle influence throughout the village. Hendrie had never questioned his wife concerning her commerce in benign magicks, though he knew the sore wish of Moira’s heart to bear a child. Moira sold Mother Moghren fish, that much Hendrie knew, and to his knowledge, no Tulloch had shewn her anything but courtesy. Now, coming laden with the woman’s dead child, as the author of that misery, Hendrie felt doom rap upon his head. Some would have hidden the calamity to escape blame but, given the rumor of Mother Moghren's true powers, it went against wisdom to trust in the sheltering silence of other villagers.

The sight of Mother Moghren was familiar from Moira’s rambles about the village environs and her occasional visits to Pen Lammoch for goods and, at her doorstep, the crone of the fen received Hendrie with terrible silence. She might have been a slate idol in her heathen shrine of wattle and daub. Had she cast bloody pox on him at once or leapt forward to dash his brains with a stick, she could not have frightened him more. He knelt abjectly, laying Elspet’s body on the earthen floor with utmost care.

“Fair mother,” he implored in a reedy whisper. “Show mercy, I pray thee, to a piteous man. I bring thy precious wean in shameful sorrow for her mortal accident. After a hard morning at the nets, I failed to see the child splashing in the shallow. Careless was I not to have remarked her in time.”

The children of the village proper knew better than to wade blindly where the boats came in. As Elspet kept no society with those children, Hendrie had better sense than to lay a mote of blame on any but himself.

“The prow struck her head,” he gasped through tears, “and under the keel she’d gone before I could reach to save her. So delicate a thing, drowned in an instant.” He gave full account, lest he dishonor a mother’s right to know the hour and manner of her child’s passing. When the witch made no reply, Hendrie sought to soften her heart.

“My wife, Moira, tells me thou art a fisherman’s widow. I knew not thy husband, but none of us in Pen Lammoch are strangers to the sea’s cruel whim. Unto my last hour I’ll repent my part in this calamity and, if I cannot one day call myself thy friend, I hope at least ye’ll speak a word of pardon to me. O poor lady, pardon thy neighbor!” he entreated.

But Hendrie perceived a malign vibration of the air, and the witch’s lips and eyes danced in awful unison. Hendrie had thought she must be in a fatal fit of anguish, until her hitching breath became plain to his ears.

“Tha an diabhal a’marcachd a-mach,” she spat. It was Lowlanders’ language, mostly unknown to Hendrie, though he recognized that dreadful phrase. “An diabhal.”

“Djevelen plystrer ved vinduet!” she hissed more sharply, meeting his gaze. This utterance was in Norse or something like it, but the unwelcome invocation of “djevelen” came again.

Then, “An deofol plantast thann seod fram seod!” Three successive namings of the dark one could not be mistaken, and the tide of imprecation flowed likewise on. Although ignorant of their substance, Hendrie grasped their sense. He sat inert while they washed over him, expecting to wither and die there beneath her searing eyes.

The witch spat full upon the ground before him. A dismissal. The fisherman stammered a promise. “I’ll pay this debt, good Mother Moghren! By any means in my power. I swear it.” So saying, he withdrew from the hovel. From the silence that overtook the place once more, he knew not whether she’d heard or minded him.

Bryd Skeller passed Hendrie on his return to the village, and she tarried half-hidden in a thicket to study him. Bryd was a lass newly come to the bloom of womanhood, yet the flint of her grey eyes had the circumspection of a woman thrice her age: Her sharp senses perceived more than the common lot. She was on her way to the fen, having heard naught of young Elspet’s death. A quarrel with her father had occupied Bryd’s morning. She gnawed a painful split in her lower lip, a favorite target for her father’s knuckle. Malcolm Skeller was a brewer, and far too dissolute a man to resist the vice that lay within easy grasp of his trade. Bryd’s mother lay five years dead, leaving the daughter as first apprentice and helpmeet to the auld man. She bore her mother’s share of bruises alongside her own, quietly determined to outlive their dealer.

It was to salve her fresh hurts, and perhaps gain a device to ward away more, that she went to the fen. Bryd had no ambition to keep a cleaner house, pined for no young man’s heart, and had not conceived a child, yet she was a more regular caller on Mother Moghren than most. There was a respect and a friendly regard between them. At times, Bryd had even dandled wee Elspet while Mother Moghren saw to tricky alchemical business.

The fractured countenance of Hendrie Tulloch and the cry of maternal rage rising that moment over the fen told Bryd that she had best go softly. And so, she did, giving loving ear to the woman’s sorrows before asking aught for herself.

Because he bore no mark of the witch’s vengeance beyond a downcast bearing, Hendrie did not straightaway become a shunned man in Pen Lammoch. His one hope of grace, as he saw it, was to resume honest toil, sending any gifts and offerings he could spare to the hovel in the fen. Thus, might godly work and charity expiate his guilt.

He took up fishing as before, never going alone, but choosing times convenient for the brothers Cromertie to take their boat out alongside his. Even those windblown sons of fisherfolk

took notice of the change.

“Have ye seen a fellow look more hunted in yer life?” Hew Cromertie asked his brother one morning as they launched. He’d raised a hand in greeting to Hendrie, getting only a wide-eyed stare in return.

“Aye,” said Jacob Cromertie as he worked at unfurling the nets. “Father took me once to see a man hanged in Balfour. He wore that same face as he waited the drawin’ of the noose.”

Villagers grew used to seeing Hendrie check his steps in sudden fright, listening for phantom footsteps only he seemed to hear.

“It comes, but slowly tonight,” he murmured to Calum Craik once. “Other nights, it fairly hops with glee.” In the dusky light, it was doubtful, but not impossible, that something small pursued him, clinging to long shadows when he looked back for it.

“Can ye not smell the briny stink and rot of it?” he asked of Elein another evening, wrinkling his bloodless countenance in revulsion.

“It may be I can,” said Elein with cautious indulgence. She took the question for a sign of Hendrie’s growing madness, for nothing was in the air but the common redolence of a fishing village. Reading the thoughts of her heart in her diffident face, Hendrie turned away.