Chapter One ONE
Early September, 1645 Wednesday
She was in the garden at first light. There were herbs to cut: rosemary for the roast meat, mint and mallow for her cough. The house and the street and the hill beyond it were dimmed by a thick, flame-coloured haze, and as she crossed the grass she saw how the morning star was swathed in the vapour. A single magpie flew from it, so close that its wing-beat stirred the air by her face. It landed on the roof’s ridge and mocked her in its grating voice.
Two bad omens; but what was she to make of them? The day would unfold as God intended.
The mallow grew full and fierce at the street’s margin. Martha crouched and cut handfuls. Over her shoulder she saw three men approaching. She stood. The men faltered and fell back as though they had seen a hell-fiend rise: that hag was her.
When they recovered they came on apace, right up to the house. Then she knew them—Hesketh’s lads from the smithy at the far end of the village, and Herry Gowler from the gaol. She ran for the door and was almost through it when they reached her. They had the blunt look of men uneasy with their task and their fear told itself in needless force. They shoved her aside and she went down like scythed barley, lying over the threshold while her lungs pumped noise like punctured bellows. They stepped over her and went in. She turned her head and saw Simon coming from his bed under the stairs with his hands raised: part greeting, mostly alarm. With their staves they felled him and then turned for the kitchen. Martha pushed herself onto her knees and crawled after them, trying to call Master Kit’s name. The curtain rail splintered as they wrenched it. Cloth poured onto the floor. Prissy had been shelling peas into a dish. Martha heard the dish break, the hail of green beads, Prissy’s animal wail. Accusations—unconscionable, shocking—issuing harshly from the men’s throats. They left dragging Prissy between them like a heifer bound for the slaughter-house.
Martha got to her feet and watched them go. The front door was ajar and the mist seemed to clot and fold in, as if to veil what had happened.
Simon came and stood by her. “It were only time,” he said thickly. One of his nostrils had split and the red ran into his mouth. “For our turn,” he said. “In Cleftwater.” They looked at each other in silence. His eyes were dark and glassy, fixed on her. In them she saw her own fear reflected.
She made a wide circling gesture, to the kitchen, the house, their village.
“Right enough,” Simon said. His voice was flat with misgiving. “Nothing’s safe now. Nothing.”
All the black of the world rose then. In it was a vision of the Archer babe—his blue mouth, his waxy pallor. Dread grew through her body like a vine. Simon saw her sway and grasped her elbow and brought her to the kitchen stool, making her sit while he went to bring the master. His steps flustered away over the flagstones to the stairs. Droplets of blood marked his route. After a moment she heard his hesitant knock on the bedchamber door and Kit’s voice, deep and with the husk on it that it always had in the first of the morning. And then Mistress Agnes’s also, high with alarm.
Gone Prissy. Taken Prissy. They had wrenched her from here so roughly, from her hearth and her home, Prissy’s hard-won places. Everywhere there were reminders. Proving bread dough in a bowl in the hearth embers. Gold hairs, glinting from the floor rushes.
Martha forced her legs to move, hauled herself upright, pulled back the kitchen shutter. Meagre light seeped in and she found the ewer and drank straight from it, so fast that ale runnelled from both sides of her mouth. The fire was all but out. She raked it, coaxing the embers by blowing on them. Her breath was short and the flames took a long time to catch and were weak until she fed them, pine cones and a piece of salt-wood from one of the wrecked boats on the beach. She sat on the stool again. The sun wrote strips of light on the wall and for a long time she studied them, unsure of their message. Her cheek was smarting where she had fallen, the split skin puffing up on either side like lips. It felt bad, like some judgement, to be marked in such a way. Through the kitchen window she could see the back yard’s dimness beginning to thin, and through it came the faint repeating pulse of the sea, regular as breathing. She listened to it until her heart began to slow.
Maybe she dozed or maybe it was just that her eyes closed. Her thoughts were dark and running and she did not like to be in them. Why Prissy, and not her? And what of the other taken women, from the villages not far south of here? Women in Salt Dyke and Holleswyck, a mother and daughter among them. More in Sandgrave, not a half-mile away. Some of them dead already of gaol fever and some still to die, if the courts willed it so. Kit said a London lawyer had been hired to try them, a man known to take coin in advance of a judgement; a man not known for clemency.
She was Cleftwater-born and knew many things, but not the true nature of this new terror that had until today been safely distant, a rumour only. Now it had arrived. Now it was real. Prissy’s arrest would not be the first. The kettles hissed over the fire and their noise mingled with the ripe waft of the slops bucket, setting off a queasy current that ran from the base of her throat to her guts. The same anxiety came and went and nudged again. When? When would they come for her? If they came, what then? Nothing then. She would be less than nothing. Disowned. Stateless. Worse than that: she would be reinvented, made monstrous; every one of her misdeeds and defects—real or imagined—magnified a thousand-fold.
God help her then. God help them all. All the taken women.
A hand was on her shoulder, anchoring her with its grip. She opened her eyes.
“How do you, Martha?” Kit said.
She looked at him, then at her hands. They must talk for her. Inside her were unvoiced words—so many—that shoved and bobbed in her head and chest. That could not be sounded because of the thing in her throat—a thick, throbbing form that stole her voice and used her breath for its own. Something lived in it: a serpent, a worm. Since childhood it had been there. The herbs she took damped the coughing but did not stop the worm’s work. It hurt to talk. Because of it she rarely spoke. Now her hands drew the shapes of their language, soundless signs and gestures—made up more than thirty years ago between Kit and herself—that was their way of speaking to each other.
He put some fingers lightly under her chin and tilted her cheek to the light. I will bring the doctor, he shaped back.
Nay, she motioned. I have my herbs.
He brought the jug and a beaker and poured more ale and squatted beside her while she drank. “What did they say? When they came. What reason did they give?”
She shook her head. None.
“They must have reason to enter a house—any house—like this.”
Her cheek throbbed. She found she could not look at him. Life with Kit had gone along of its own accord, she had lived it more or less content, had never thought to question it. Or be questioned, in her turn.
She let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. Kit was a good man and a kind one. He had rescued Prissy—their comely, golden-haired cook—from a life of whoring on Salt Dyke docks. Similarly with her, Martha. She had been his boyhood nurse and he had kept her on, given her the dignity of work and a home. It was impossible to lie to him.
She made her hand into horns and brought it to her forehead.
“They said… what? That she is of the Devil?”
Aye… aye. His servant. She circled her ring finger. The Devil’s bride.
He looked uncertainly at her, then past her. His expression hardened, decided itself. “Rest here a while,” he said. “Mistress Agnes is still abed. Simon and I will see about Prissy.”
He squeezed her shoulder and went. She tried to stand but all her strength had drained away and she had to lean against the kitchen table. The house was quiet except for familiar sounds; the constant soughing of the waves and over it the grunt of the hogs, which were beginning their day’s foraging in the unyielding dirt of the yard. The window showed the wash-house and her physick garden and behind all these the far flint wall with its gate that opened onto Tide Lane. Beyond the lane was the sea: flat, listless, the colour of polished pewter. With Prissy gone there would be so much more to do. Ale to be brewed. Meals to prepare. Mistress Agnes would soon rise and want help getting dressed.
There was a ringing numbness on the hurt side of her head and for some minutes she stood without moving, trying to steady herself in the kitchen’s disarray, scattered pans and plates and drying herbs, shards of broken dish, the slew of peas on the floor. Hearing Kit’s voice upstairs as he conferred with Mistress Agnes; knowing with utter certainty that Prissy’s arrest was the beginning, had set something in motion, some pitiless mechanism that could be neither stopped nor diverted.
The prospect set her in motion. She went upstairs and along the narrow passageway that passed the main chamber, then up another flight of stairs to her room in the attic. Its one small window looked out over the back garden to the sea.
Mam’s small cedarwood casket was under the bed. She lifted it onto the mattress and unlocked it. The hinges complained as she raised the lid. On top was a layer of yellow flowers that crumbled to dust at her touch. The casket held the past, the difficult past: heirlooms from Mam mostly. One by one she took them out. Mam’s rosary beads. Mam’s scissors. Mam’s thimble, carved from a walnut shell by one of her lovers. Mam’s best bodice of wine-coloured damask, too small now for Martha. Pins, needles, three wood bobbins, an awl, two shallow dishes of beaten brass, and a copper cross that had once been set with chips of blue glass, all but one of them gone. Pieces of fabric: thin pennants of silk and an oblong of green velvet, cut from some lady’s gown and still bearing the traces of rotted embroidery, which held some tiny yellow teeth and a coil of brown hair. Whose? Hers, most likely. Baby teeth and hair.
Underneath all these was the chamois pouch. For years—decades—it had lain in the chest. She had never needed its contents. The pouch held all Mam’s charms, ones she’d been gifted as well as those Mam had made herself. Martha loosened the drawstring. The first charm was a tiny, wizened organ, grey-pink and dried to a nut-like hardness: the gallbladder of some field creature—a vole or shrew. She threw it on the bed, mouthed a soft curse, brushed her fingers clean. Went on with the unpacking, discovering a tiny lidded jar holding a handful of nails, a corn dolly, some dried trumpets of foxgloves, a shrivelled sprig of white heather. Then a toad, crushed flat as paper, with a crushed collar of briar-thorn wound around its neck.
Blood sang in her temples and ears: these things occurred when Mam was near. She put the dried toad on her bed with the other charms. The worst of her panic had subsided but still she paused, needing to gather herself. She regarded the charms. Not these. None of these. What she needed was still in the pouch.
She looked at it again. From its open mouth she thought she heard a tiny sound leaking, a sinister, persuasive hum. She took a breath, steeled herself to reach in, brought out the package. The linen wrapping was frayed but otherwise as she remembered. She unwound it. The contents fit neatly in her palm. A prickle of feelings went over her; the lancings of memories and old grief.
The doll was ill-made and lumpen, crudely fashioned from a stump of candle, egg-shaped where the wax bulged at its hips. Remnants of burnt wick were still in it.
She turned it in her fingers. It had two aspects, she remembered now. The two faces. One without eyes or only pinpricks for eyes, the nose a pinched-out nub, the mouth barely discernible—a sickle-shaped nock made by some woman’s fingernail. This side, this face, quite peaceful. Closed-looking. The face on the other side was more formed and more frightening, the burnt-in eyes widely staring, the O of its mouth agape, as if it were trying to scream. The hands looked splayed, their fingers crudely scratched into the wax. The legs likewise, suggested only, a carved line.
The doll seemed to cling to her skin. Mam had taught how a left eye was the witching eye, able to see things not readily visible but present nonetheless. She turned the doll to one side and studied it aslant. Light haloed it, put a sheen on the dingy yellow wax, kindling the recollection of its purpose. It would need rousing if she were to use it—make use of its powers.
She took the doll down to the kitchen. A fly on its back spun frantically on the windowsill and she watched it without really seeing before pulling the shutters closed. Her apron with its map of stains hung from a peg and she put it around her neck. Prissy’s skillet swung from the beam, and she lifted it down and put it on the trivet and lit the big candle beneath. The copper flushed as it warmed. She pressed the doll’s legs first into the pan and after a moment the wax began to yield. She turned it upside down and repeated the process, holding the doll’s head to the heat until the wax was doughy. She took the pan off the trivet, set it aside. With her thumb she stroked the curve of the head.
Her body felt cold and partly vacant, as if her own solid self had been nudged aside to make room for something other—a force, a spirit. It coiled up her, very chill. The doll’s wax skin was clouding. Its eyes as yet were blind. A small draught toyed with the flame of the trivet candle and the strands of hair that hung about her face. The flame died. With its disappearance came hesitation and she put the doll quickly down and stepped back, wrapping her arms about her ribs as if to reassure herself of her own substance. Her undershift needed washing; her own musk came from it, reassuring.
Surely, always: it was better to do something. To take things in hand.
From the table the doll looked out. Already it was cooling, firming its purpose. She relit the trivet candle and held the doll’s nether end over the heat until the wax softened again. Then inserted her cuttings knife, slicing longways up until the blade came to a nub of wax. Let that be its groin. She teased the segments apart. Let these be its legs.
She propped it against the ale jug. It was done. Was it done?
In her chest excitement and alarm jostled, speeding up her heart. She picked it up again to study it. The thing seemed to quiver; she felt air moving around her as though people—women—were brushing past; she could hear rustling skirts, felt the touch of hands on her face. There were sounds also—she brought it to her ear—an echo of voices—cries and protests and shrieked entreaties, Mam’s warnings—coming from its open mouth.
She held it away from herself, at arm’s length. The noises stopped. Her heart calmed a little.
The doll was just that—a child’s toy, a stick of wax. All the same: she brought it again to her ear and heard it once more: a thin, reedy keening.
A hammer of thoughts in her head; the doll in her fingers, which now she dropped, as if it had stung her. What was it really, this deformity she had woken? What had she woken in herself? She squashed her hands together, as in prayer. Forgive me, forgive my trespass, O Lord. Wax flaked from her fingers. The doll was for using, that was its truth, the essence of its nature. As much as she feared it, she needed it.
She went back upstairs and searched in Mam’s casket for a bodkin, pulling it gingerly from a square of plain linen. Downstairs she was struck with fright, threw down the bodkin and put her hands to her temples. Felt her own flesh, her pulse that was quick with a springing excitement.
She wanted to live, and live freely. Prissy must live, and live freely.
She pressed the needle to the doll’s bloodless skin, working the tip to make a wound.
Prick, aye she must prick the hardening wax, pierce the rind of the poppet’s throat. On her neck and arms the hair stood up, responding to some unfamiliar, alien current: revulsion, attraction, a variety of awe.