Win­ning words

This tale of witch­craft and su­per­sti­tion, set in Suf­folk, by Ni­cola War­wick, of Ip­swich, won this year’s Felixs­towe Book Fes­ti­val Short Story Com­pe­ti­tion

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

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.

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