Friday, August 12, 2011

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Trials

I might have taken this challenge too literally. The story is based on Grace Sherwood's, in Virginia in 1702.

You stood and looked from woman’s face to woman’s face. Though I was beside you, I could track your gaze by watching their flinching and downcast eyes.

“Sarah,” you said at last to a comely woman who stood at the back with two small children. “You know the trial will not harm the accused. If she be innocent, she will bear no grudge against you, because you let her go. If she is guilty, she will be hanged, and no harm will come to you.”

Reluctantly, your wife left your children in the care of a neighbour and stepped between the rows of spectators in the courtroom to stand below you, looking out as if she was accused herself.

Next you implored your sister, who instead took your children from your neighbour.

So you looked to that neighbor. Perhaps because she was your wife’s friend, she came to the front of the court to glance back at me as if I was bestowing the evil eye right now. As if that’s the way it works.

But willing were your brother’s wife (not the one in charge of the colony, but another, to whom I’m told you owe money), a seamstress who wanted to advertise her wares, and the wife of a local publican. My trial would give her a lively tale to tell.

The jury of my peers finally filled, you said, “Let’s get this trial underway so we can get home to our dinners.”

Your bailiff led me and my jury to a room, then left and locked the door. A small yellow bird perched at the top of one of the trees outside.

“Her familiar?” the publican’s wife asked.

“Or someone else’s,” your neighbour said.

“There’s little we can do about it now,” said your wife. “Let’s just get this over with. Strip down, Claire.”

She sounded like she was coming down with something.

I removed my shoes and stockings, feeling I was being judged for my housekeeping and laundry skills. I folded my bonnet before setting it on the chair. The other women watched as I removed my apron and overdress, skirts, blouses and petticoats. I stood naked, perhaps engaging in the sin of pride.

“Perhaps if you stood with your feet just so, and your arms up, we can get this over quickly,” said Sarah.

I did. They moved in closer for the inspection. None of them touched me.

“This could be a teat, I suppose,” said the seamstress, pointing to a blemish on my lower back.

“It’s just a mole,” I said. “I was born with it.”

“Witches are born, not made,” said your sister-in-law.

“Odd place for a teat,” said your wife.

“Witches are odd people,” said the seamstress.

“And this on her arm,” said the publican’s wife.

“A wasp sting,” I said. “I suppose it got some sun, and never faded.”

“It’s an odd shape,” said your neighbour.

My arms felt like lead.

“I see nothing else,” said your wife after a while.

“Me either,” said the dressmaker.

“You might as well get dressed,” your sister-in-law said.

“What do we say?” your neighbour asked.

“Perhaps if we had her familiar and we could see how she suckled it?” said the publican's wife.

They glanced at the window. The yellow bird still sat there, eyeing us through the glass.

After I dressed, your wife knocked on the door. The bailiff led me out first so he could keep an eye on me. I got back in my box and the jury of my peers turned to address the court.

“How do you find?” you asked your wife.

“Inconclusive,” she said.

You looked at her as one might look across the supper table.

“There was a raised mole that might have been a teat, but it was in an awkward place, so we could not guess the use of it. Also, if it was a teat, it was dried up.”

“Like my cow!” my accuser chimed in.

“There was an odd patch of skin that could have been the devil’s hoofprint, or a wasp sting.” Your wife finished.

“Right then.” You sounded like you had lost your stomach for the whole affair, but it was begun and could not be just abandoned. “After dinner, we will continue with the trial by water, down by the docks.”

I had a pleasant lunch in my cell, and then was walked to the harbour. My hands were loosely tied. Easily half the town was there.

The water here at the end of the dock was deep enough for the deep-hulled ocean-crossing vessels at low tide. At high tide, I could not have stood and touched the bottom.

“How does this work?” I asked.

“You get in the water, prove you’re not a witch, and we fish you out,” you said.

“How will you know?” I asked.

“Witches float,” you said.

“Perhaps a demonstration,” I said.

Your wife glared at you and dropped into the water.

Her clothes pulled her down, and her shoes. Men on the dock with long, hooked sticks poked at her while you yelled, "Hurry up, it's not her on trial here."

Ultimately two men in a rowboat fished her out. She lay in the boat, coughing weakly. I said a spell to work my hands free and walked to the end of the dock.

I gave myself a little jump. My skirts held air like a bladder, and I used my arms to propel myself to shore.

“She’s a witch!” the townsfolk yelled, and I picked up my pace. “Don’t let her get away!”

There was nowhere for me to escape to. Eventually my layers of clothing would fill with water and drag me down.

When I reached the shore, I let them take me back to my cell.

Sorry about your wife, though. I hear she never recovered from the water in her lungs. Your god took her a few days later.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Great story. Well written, I really enjoyed it.