This tale of witchcraft and superstition, set in Suffolk, by Nicola Warwick, of Ipswich, won this year’s Felixstowe Book Festival Short Story Competition
The Felixstowe Book Festival best short story
IT was a rare, hot summer. The ground was cracked and hard, crops had failed, cows were dry. The swans at the quayside had to walk further on their leathery feet to reach water. Not even the old people could remember such a time. Not even Old Lizzy, if anyone bothered to ask her.
Old Lizzy wasn’t suffering the way everyone else did. She had plenty of milk, her old goat would eat anything and produced enough for the old woman’s modest needs. Lizzy had enough to eat, crept out at night and caught rabbits, some said with her bare hands. She gathered greens from the hedgerows, samphire from the shore, made her own sort of herby bread, flat and crisp as a biscuit. She didn’t know about the mutterings in the village, as people tried to understand where the weather had come from, why it did what it did, what they had done to deserve it.
“Maybe we’ve been cursed,” said John Mayhew, as he sat in his usual place in the village inn. He’d seen the years in and out too many times to count, seen the cycles of nature, though he’d never call them that, knew that things only happened because of something else. When asked to explain, he shook his head, sucked at his teeth until someone offered to fetch him more ale. There was still plenty of that, although the landlord quipped he’d have to mix it with seawater, if things got worse. Someone whispered they wouldn’t know the difference, there was already salt in the ale to make them thirsty and buy more. “Well,” said John Mayhew, slurping on his ale, “I was out walking the other evening and met Old Lizzy milking that scrawny goat of hers. It was warm, see, so I asked if she’d spare me some to lay the dust in my throat. Well, she spat and swore, which I took as a ‘no’.” He slurped the ale again. “Well, I were that parched, I made a grab for the jug she was holding, but missed” and it ended up all a-soaking into the ground. Then she cursed me, right and proper.’ “I’ve seen that goat,”said Sally Piper, softly. “It looks like the Devil.” “So it’s your fault, John,” said Peter Youngman, a twinkle in his eye. “No, no, no,” said John, “it’s Lizzy, she cursed us.” “Ay, she did,” said Mary Golding. “She cursed me for trying to pick some of the greens she wanted down by the stream.” “And me for scaring away the rabbits she was catching with
“I seen her walking in the fields at dawn in the shape of a hare”
nothing but her hands,” said Kitty Shoesmith.
“I seen her walking in the fields at dawn in the shape of a hare,” said Sally Piper. “There was a whole crowd of them, all round her, then she changed into one of them and they all danced together.”
“And I’ve seen her change herself into a big, black bird that came down and tried to peck out my eyes,” said Mary Golding, her gaze flickering across the faces of everyone assembled.
Outside, the evening had begun to cool down, but the temperature of the inn was rising. More and more people came forward with stories of how they had crossed Old Lizzy, and then been cursed by her. There were tales of creatures she kept in the house, a toad, a cat, an old shaggy thing no-one had a name for. Kitty said she’d seen Old Lizzy suckling an imp in her bed, though no-one asked when and how she’d had the chance to witness the event.
“Well, then,” said John Mayhew, draining his ale, “we know what we must do.”
Old Lizzy was washing some rags in the stream when they came upon her. They wore scarves across their faces, hats pulled down over their eyes, carried torches which shone in her face so her vision filled with sparkles. They seized her arms and walked her roughly towards the village.
“What are you doing?” she asked, in her old crackled voice. No one replied.
No one spoke when they ransacked her house for evidence, turning over stools, rooting through rags and piles of herbs left drying in the hearth. No one spoke as they scoured the ground outside the house for
traces of the creatures they knew she kept there. They found only the goat, its eyes set like topazes in its wild black face.
No one spoke either, when they took her to the river’s edge, tied her arms behind her back. They didn’t realise how small and light she was until they tipped her in, saw her tiny body float on the surface, saw how well her clothes soaked up the water and began to pull her down. If she survived, she’d be hauled from the water and hanged. She could prove her innocence only by drowning.
Cold began to grip her bones. She sank down to the riverbed, her feet finding the mud first. There was nothing to be gained from trying to breathe. She had to give herself to the water, let it judge her. Her mind swam with words she wanted to scream out, curses, pleas, something that shaped itself like a prayer.
She knew the state of the tide. The water was slowly being drawn towards the sea as the river emptied. Her accusers had misjudged it. For folk who earned a good living from the sea, they had surely jumped too soon. If she could hold on, under the water, not let her body break the surface she would be safe.
The water knew her too, held her close, tugged at the bonds around her arms. It cradled her body as it pulled her out to sea, as her body began to change. Her hands grew webby skin between her fingers, her feet fused to a tail fin. Her lungs ceased their burning in her chest, as she discovered she could breathe freely. The water took her right out to sea, beyond the land, to safety.