“Are you coming tonight?”
Deana looked up from the cow udder and bucket, upon which she had focused. Nelda Wilsone leaned from behind the corner of the Blacke homestead. One hand gripped a wooden beam and she dangled at a precarious angle. Deana wondered what it would be like if she lost her grip and tumbled face-first into a cowpat. And then chastised herself for such an awful thought. God would send her straight to hell for these mental images. Be good, Deana, she told herself.
Deana scrunched her nose, and not because of the animals. “I don’t know. I never did like these things. They’re always so violent. And I hate the smell.” And the sound. And the sight. Was it ever okay to do that to another person? Could they ever justify it? If God were to judge them for their actions, would that be a tally against their names?
“The lady’s the Devil’s spawn. That’s what Father Bannermane says.” Nelda nodded. “Besides. If you didn’t come, it would look like you were a fellow witch, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t want your poor old father to thing you’d lain with dark magic, now, would you?”
Deana didn’t have to answer. Who’d want to suffer such a fate? And if Father Bannermane had said that, it must be true. What other alternative existed? She thought back to the time her father had fallen ill, and she’d been too young to take on the farm work. Kendall Bannermane — pre-priesthood — had rallied the townsfolk to donate what they could. With the help of the future Father of Hardwicke, the Blackes had survived a tough winter. And now, surviving didn’t describe their situation. Thriving did. It went without saying that the church could only be a force for good.
“I’ll be there,” she told Nelda. An acidic burn stung the back of her throat. “You can be sure of that. If it’s something that cleanses Hardwicke of evil, I support it.” Deana locked eyes with her, forced herself to hold it beyond discomfort. “Unequivocally.”
“Unequivocally,” Nelda parroted. Then burst into the childish giggle she should have outgrown five years ago. How a face full of animal faeces would take her down a peg or two. Level the playing field once more. Be good, Deana, be good. “Well, you better get a move on, then!” She looked to the horizon. “Sun’s setting in the hour. You know how Father Bannermane likes to roast ‘em at sundown. Says it brings out the Devil in them.”
Deana recoiled in the offhand manner Nelda had described the events. It bordered on the pornographic. Some labelled what they did as necessary, and they could be right about that. But Deana had the notion that for others — such as Nelda — the event served as entertainment. Something joyous. She fought to suppress the look of abject disgust before it reached her face.
“I just need to finish up here, I won’t be long.” She gestured to Marigold, who’d stood there — patient as a stone — whilst they chatted. Come rain or shine, she always remained the best of girls.
Nelda nodded, then pranced away. “See you there.” A mischievous fairy who danced from toadstool to toadstool. She stopped a few steps away and turned one last time. She called out. “Have fun playing with cow tits!” Nelda stuck her tongue out and waggled her fingers. She ran off before Deana had time to react to what she’d said. Left her there with Marigold in her hands and her jaw agape in an O of surprise.
By the time she arrived in Hardwicke’s town square, the Sun had indeed set. The crowd gathered in a rough semicircle around the focal point. The horde must have contained every person in town, or so Deana thought. The mood amongst them did not reflect their future actions. Light-hearted conversation and idle chitchat. Grins and laughter — faces distorted in the flickers of the flames. Some held pitchforks and torches, held aloft. Others clutched rotten eggs and bad fruit. A few held mugs of ale to their chests. The stench of beer and sweat assaulted her nose. It did not surprise her to see a few of the locals stumbling and slurring. How good and righteous they are, she thought. Deana followed that with: Do not cast the first stone, Deana. Doesn’t the good book say so?
Deana pushed through the throng, between friend and neighbour. Some parted at the sight of her, happy to make space for a fellow sister of the light. Others turned and eyed her with drunken eyes, foul breath expelled into her face. She smiled a false smile and exchanged her fair share of feigned pleasantries. They were not the reason she’d come — she wanted to see the person at the heart of it all.
She wound her way through the people, headed for front and centre.
Until a sound made her freeze.
The titter of childish laughter.
Deana’s skin prickled, cold all over.
Her stomach dropped, plummeted through the floor.
Her heart tripped over itself within her chest, fell to its knees.
At the front.
Because of course.
She’d want to be so close that the flames left a warm glow on her cheeks. Wanted to remain within reach of the sacrifice-to-be. Wanted the smoke to linger in her hair, for the image to remain seared into her mind’s eye. For the stench to singe the very hairs from her nostrils. Nelda turned — face, to Deana’s sadness, still devoid of manure — and locked gazes. A flash in her eyes, followed by a too-wide grin. She extended her arms and cried out. “Deana! You made it! For a while there, I thought you’d skip it all together and spend the night with your cow.” Nelda tilted her head back and giggled again.
With no choice but to press on, Deana stepped into the unwelcome embrace. Nelda hugged her — no warmth in that gesture — and tugged her forward. She staggered on feet that threatened to tangle and allowed Nelda to lead her. To her credit, at least she dragged Deana to the front. She’d proven herself useful if only in that regard.
An arm around her shoulders, Nelda murmured into Deana’s ear. “Doesn’t she look positively evil?” Ee-vuhl. Visions of Lilith, the Edenic Snake, who tempted Adam and Eve. The flicker of a tongue, the slither of its body, the whisper of its words.
Deana could only stare.
Up at the woman who they’d all come to watch burn.
Bedelia Clifforde, strapped to the stake.
Arms tied behind her back, Bedelia leaned forward. Lank hair hung in her face. She appeared not to be upright of her own volition, but as a result of the ties that bound her to her fate. Cuts, bruises, and open wounds adorned her face and arms. Some, Deana saw, looked like burns. Her eyes remained hidden, beneath her hair. A trickle of drool spun its way down from her parted lips. The beads reflected the amber of the torches, miniature universes suspended in animation.
The crowd erupted into cheers and jeers and hoots and howls.
Father Bannermane took to the stage.
Robed in black, a golden crucifix hung from a chain around his neck.
In one hand, he held aloft a torch.
The conflict in Deana’s heart tore her soul right in two. “Be good,” her father had told her as a little girl. “And cast out sin.” A lesson she’d taken to heart. Along with always go to church and forever stand in the light of God. Yet here strode good old Kendall, the young man who’d saved her family, the priest who’d taught her to love thy neighbour. Every fibre of her being screamed this is not the way. The pot boiled over and the words erupted from her lips before she’d had half a chance to stop them.
“This is wrong.”
Nelda turned her head. “Hm, what’s that?”
Deana didn’t hear her.
She’d already broken free of the crowd.
Deana launched herself up. She scrambled atop the unlit pyre, loose logs and kindling kicked free beneath her. Frantic footfalls, desperate claws that searched for handholds. An unsteady mountain of precarious shingles. Behind her came yells and barked orders. Deana did not stop. At this point, she’d halt for neither man nor flame. Bedelia’s downturned head twitched at the sounds but did not look up. At the base of the stake, Deana gazed up into her face like Mary who washed Jesus’s feet.
Bedelia’s eyes opened, crystalline with her tears. Redness stained the sclera, but the blues of the irises remained bright and true. “Puh…” A sigh rippled through her whole body. “Please.”
As if a woman on stilts, Deana wobbled to her feet. With every stuttered heartbeat, the pyre threatened to spill her into the crowd. And yet, it never did. Deana turned, body in front of Bedelia’s, arms extended like the saviour on the cross. From the corner of her eye, she saw Father Bannermane with his flame. The flame that would grow, if she let it. Deana sucked in a breath, pulled in until her chest could take no more. She, Deana Blacke, the quiet girl who would never say boo to a goose. The loudest she’d ever been in her life — the loudest she ever would be.
She bellowed at the top of her lungs