“Let he who enters her be nimble,
So she feels no more than a tingle.
Give to him a fox’s soul,
To let his fingers find their goal.”
The shadows of the great, spreading oaks lay like black webs across the darkness-greyed grass, the smaller shadows of the witches moving like seven spiders chasing each other between the threads. The chant grew louder as they spun their circle, treading a ring of flattened grass amidst the high, dew-damp blades.
“Fuck” The chanting dwindled and broke off. “Shitting fuck.”
“What the….who broke the chant?” hissed a second anger laced voice.
“Gertie? Is that you? What happened?”
“I stubbed my toe on a fucking stick. Who left a fucking stick here?”
“Gertie, it’s a field. With trees. There are sticks.”
“Darling, I’ve got my picnic chair, come on, come over here and sit down.”
“I feel it though ladies, I feel a change in the air! Do you feel it?”
“Can we stop with the ‘Ladies’, please” came a seventh, male voice. “I’m tired of talking about this every sodding week. I just feel devalued as a witch every time.”
“Greg, now is not the time, Gertie is injured.”
“If not now then when Mary? When is it time to call out bigotry? When is it time to speak truth to power if not ALL the time?”
“Darling, you are quite right, of course. Linda, can we please try harder with our use of language going forward, yes?”
Gertie sank into the folding chair, Jackie looming protectively over her, and lifted her smarting foot to lay across her other thigh. “I think I might have broken it” she said, a faint note of panic in her voice.
“Shall I call an ambulance?” asked Mary
“And say what, ‘Can you please send help, we are in the field behind the wood half a mile west of the village, please park at the community centre and look for the people in pointed hats?’” said Mira, contemptuous as always.
“You’re right, I’ll ask for a helicopter shall I?” said Mary, as earnest as Mira was sarcastic.
“She’s going to be fine, she just stubbed her toe.” There was something in the practicality of Helen’s tone that people generally mistook for authority, though she had scant expertise in anything other than floristry. Generally this served her well, however, and the coven accepted her word and started to gather up blankets and flasks they had brought for the occasion. Gertie stood up and with Jackie poised to hold her up, tentatively tried the foot.
“I think I can walk” she told the others, then paused, looking at her friends as they packed up. “Oh, gosh! I’m so sorry! Did I ruin the spell?”
They all stopped then and watched, pale faced in the moonlight, as Linda swayed, arms upstretched like a silver birch amidst the ancient oaks, slight and undulating, shimmering almost, as she tilted her face to the sky, her eyes closed in rapture.
“I think we did good” said Mira, “I think we did good.”
* * * * * * *
Wednesdays were coffee with the coven days, and the Wednesday after the full moon was Greg’s turn to host. Gertie loved Greg’s Wednesdays most of all, and that was in no small part due to his kitchen. Most of the houses in the village were old, though Mira and Linda lived on the new estate, and Jackie had had hers rebuilt on the insurance after the fire. But where Gertie’s kitchen was ramshackle rustic, Greg’s was elegant rustic. Gertie almost felt she was sitting in something out of Ideal Home magazine, taking her coffee on the worn leather couch while Greg sliced a cake on the reclaimed wood kitchen counter. Helen loathed it of course, the counter. Impossible to properly clean. She usually ate the cake without too much complaint though, and was just carrying two slices on china plates over to the coffee table when Mary arrived, flushed and breathless, and slammed an A4 printed booklet onto the surface, skimming coffee buttercream from the side of the cake.
“They’re ON TO US!”
“Hello Mary, very well thank you, how are you?” jabbed Mira.
“Darling, what are you talking about?” Jackie wriggled up from the pouf she had martyred herself by sitting on and walked over to where Greg and Helen had gathered round Mary to read the front cover of the “Village Voice”. The Village Voice was published more or less weekly by Maureen Foster, who used Microsoft Word to arrange the gripes and witticisms of the village’s interested populace amidst her own opinion pieces on subjects such as dog fouling and the nearby traveller encampment, before running off forty copies on her home printer and getting her husband John to deliver them by hand while he walked the dog on a Wednesday morning. Or a Friday, depending on how much she had to say each week.
“What does it say?” asked Linda, looking up from the henna tattoo she had convinced Gertie to let her paste across her foot.
“Local Beauty Spot Desecrated by Satanic Revellers” read Greg. “On Monday night, devil worshipers were witnessed in a frenzied ritual in a field belonging to Homefield Farm. A dog walker, who has asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, reported witnessing the demonic troop writhing and screaming in the field at around 10.30pm on Monday night. “I was scared for my life”, he told this reporter “so I quickly went back down the footpath towards the village. I don’t know what might have happened if they had seen me.” Mr Grout told us that considerable damage has been done in his field which, fortunately, was fallow this year. One source is quoted as saying “These people come in from all over, and no good can come of it”. Have YOU been affected by devil worshipers? Write to us at PO Box 424, Writtham Post Office, and let us know?”
No one ever wrote to that PO Box, preferring to hand Maureen or John their letters in person, or drop them through the letterbox if they were a bit more contentious.
“Helen, I don’t think there is any need for that” reprimanded Jackie, but there was, really, and Linda gave voice to what they were all thinking.
“Where will we go now? Do you think they know it’s us?”
“Oh my God, I’m going to be a laughing stock at the golf club if they find out!”
“Well that would be a shame, wouldn’t it Jackie, after all the effort you’ve gone to to avoid actually playing golf.” Snapped Mira. “I could lose my job!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, they can’t fire you for your beliefs, it’s against the law” Greg reassured her.
“Well clearly they don’t know who we are or they would have said so” said Helen.
“But…. We’re not devil worshipers though.” The disappointment in Gertie’s voice brought the coven up short, and at a stifled sob from Mary, who was imagining the Bishop forcing her husband to choose between his calling and his wife, Jackie straightened her spine and clapped her hands together.
“Right, we know they don’t know who we are, and we will just have to do indoor spells only for a while. It’s getting cold anyway, don’t you think? I was frozen when I got home on Monday, I had to have a hot water bottle and I still couldn’t get warm. Bill said my toes were like ice. Who wanted cake?”
With that, the coven settled into talk of their next spell, a veil of protection they thought it might be nice to cast over the village with Halloween coming up. No one even remembered to ask how Helen’s daughter’s operation had gone after their last ceremony.
* * * * * * *
A few days later, things got worse. Much worse. It was one thing having Maureen Foster write some ill-informed twaddle in the Village Voice, but quite another when the Writtham Echo publishes a front page story.
Satanic Bestiality Uncovered in Little Writtham
A group of devil worshippers was apprehended in the midst of a satanic ritual involving as many as eight or nine animals last Monday night.
A local resident reported having been approached by a neighbour who was too afraid to speak to us directly. Maureen Foster of Little Writtham told us the unnamed witness had been walking his dog at around 10.30pm when he stumbled across the scene near the footpath. “He was obviously terrified” she said “and came straight home. It was lucky I saw him out my window and was able to break the story in the Little Writtham Village Voice. The screams were terrible, he was very badly shaken. I pity whatever animal made them.”
No evidence of slaughter were found at the scene, but the witness recalled seeing hooded figures copulating with at least one animal, and estimated that there may have been up to eight or nine present. Police are investigating the allegations but as yet no arrests have been made.
Helen sighed and folded the paper. She tilted her head back in her chair and pressed her fingers to her closed eyes, thinking about how she never should have got involved with this nonsense in the first place. A lotion for athlete’s foot, that’s what had got her into this mess. It had worked, in fairness, and it had sparked a friendship between herself and Linda she never would have seen coming. Then when Gertie came along asking for help with ants in her kitchen, and Jackie with her dog’s scabby ear, there had been something unexpected in the way they hadn’t felt the need to hide from one another. Perhaps it was something about asking for help, you start with the vulnerability and after that, you can’t pretend it was never there. It was when Mira spotted Gertie digging up dandelions outside the pub in the early hours of the morning that things had shifted. The way Gertie told it, Mira guessed immediately what she was up to and offered to help, but Mira always said that Gertie had spilled her secrets before she’d even said hello. Helen had always wondered if Gertie had something of a crush on Mira, she often seemed a little flustered when Mira spoke directly to her. Still, it had turned out that Mira had been in a coven in the seventies, and was keen to move things up a notch. They say it’s always the ones you least expect, and Helen’s jaw had hit the floor when Gertie knocked on her conservatory door before sunrise, with a dog poo bag full of dandelion root and Mira Anderson. Metaphorically, of course. Outwardly, Helen had not batted an eyelid, but just got an extra tea cup out and put a another tea bag in the pot. But now, they were in a terrible mess. Helen slipped her shoes on and trudged round the corner to Greg’s house.
Greg had already seen it, and so had Mary, of course. Linda arrived with Gertie twenty minutes later and at that point they thought they had better call Jackie and Mira.
* * * * * * *
“Bestiality! Well you lot are ok, but if this sticks, it’ll stick on me because I’m a man!”
“So you keep telling us” said Mary, her little barb returned in Greg’s glare.
“He’s got a point though, if they find out who we are, he’s got the most to lose at this point.”
“Mira, they don’t know who we are, they’d have said.” No one was sure whether Jackie was reassuring or pleading, least of all Jackie.
“Right then. What are we going to do?” asked Helen. Mary all but raised her hand.
“An anonymous letter to the paper explaining what we were doing?”
“Ladies….” Linda began, caught another glare from Greg and went on “… and gentlemen. Fellow Witches of Little Writtham, we are missing the obvious. We need a spell.”
“Of course, a spell to cast this whole story in a different light.”
“Like a letter, do you mean Linda?” Mary asked. Greg looked aggrieved. He had been working hard on the preparations for the protection spell, and had seven bunches of sage drying over the Aga and an order of amethysts due to be delivered any day.
“But we’re doing the protection spell next, for Halloween?”
“No, Linda is onto something” said Helen. “We are due to do the protection spell on Thursday, yes? We’re nearly ready for that, once the amethysts arrive we just need to pick up some pork pies from the butcher for after and we’re ready. We could do the other one tomorrow. Jackie, Bill is in Scotland isn’t he? We can do it at your house and I can get that hedge trimmer off you at the same time?”
* * * * * * *
The coven had a busy week. They researched and shopped, gathered and recited, and by Tuesday night they were ready for action. The spell went well. Jackie had a large lounge and once they had pushed the sofas back, there was plenty of room to form a circle, and not a stray stick in sight. They opened the bi-fold doors to let the moonlight in and nearly lost a sausage roll to a passing fox, but otherwise, the casting went off without a hitch. Thursday’s spell was harder to do, given the need to circumnavigate the village laying points of protection all the way round, but they moved in ones and twos and miraculously, apart from the ten minutes lost to Mrs O’Neil, who spotted Linda and Greg by the old phone box and insisted they come into the bungalow to use her phone, they were not impeded. For the sake of plausibility, Greg took the opportunity to ring his brother in Lincoln and tell him he couldn’t come for Christmas, which was a weight off his mind, at least, and Mrs O’Neil said that she understood what families are like and that her children never got on and so goes to one for Christmas day and sees the other on Boxing day and isn’t it a shame but that’s how it is and as long as everyone is happy that’s ok.
At the end of the mission, the coven reconvened in the vicarage, where Mary’s husband served them cocoa and cheese and biscuits and asked if they had spotted much wildlife on their night time walk, before retiring to his study to work on the sermon for Sunday.
“That’s that then” said Gertie, stretching her legs out in front of her “What a week.”
Greg extended his own damp socked feet towards the fire. “I’m exhausted, honestly, I could sleep for England”
Linda hugged a cushion to her chest and looked into the flames. “I feel safer already though, don’t you?”
* * * * * * *
Friday was Halloween. Mira took a degree of joy in dressing her front porch for the occasion, with spider webs and pumpkins framing her doorway, and Mary always brought her grandchildren by on their trick or treating trail through the village. Mira opened the door in a cape and pointed hat and waited for the children to chant “Trick or treat!” before breaking into a maniacal laugh. She handed the kids the plastic cauldron. “One each. Ok, two, since we’re friends.”
“Have you heard?” muttered Mary, quiet over the children’s heads as they sifted through the treasure trove of sugar seeking their favourites in the semi dark.
“Upper Writtham’s been completely Teepeed!”
“It’s been what?”
“Teepeed. You know, when they throw toilet paper about.”
“What do you mean?
Helen’s grandchildren appeared from the dark beyond the candle lit porch, with Helen behind. She was not used to taking the children trick or treating, but though her daughter was recovering well from surgery and the doctors said it had been a success, Helen had thought she shouldn’t be out traipsing the streets in the cold.
“Teepeed!” Mary went on, turning to include Helen whilst the children tipped the cauldron out onto the stone path.
“I heard! One each boys, Mira isn’t made of sweets. Almost every house! They must have gone through dozens of rolls!”
Gertie, who hated trick or treaters and had agreed, somewhat keenly, to spend the evening at Mira’s where she wouldn’t have to keep all the lights off and pretend to be out, by virtue of actually being out, appeared in the door way. “Did you say Upper Writtham? I’ve just had a text from my nephew in Mapreth, apparently they’ve done the whole village. He says its set like concrete on the front of his house, they must have done him while he was out with the kids.”
* * * * * * *
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, one of those clear autumnal days that leave you feeling incongruously alive and invigorated. Jackie was out early to get the weekend paper and her Saturday treat of fresh apple turnovers at the big supermarket in Writtham. She had slept through the night’s revelries. With Bill away she didn’t want to keep answering the door to unsolicited calls in case any of them were teenagers looking for trouble. Last year, she’d found a smashed egg on her car roof and another on the driver’s door handle. Greg, she recalled, had to call the RAC after his car broke down half a mile from home with a rock in his exhaust. It didn’t surprise her, then, to see the headline on the morning’s Writtham Echo.
Writtham and the villages surrounding it were subject to a campaign of terror last night as rampaging gangs thought to be from the city coated houses in toilet paper, eggs, and in some cases, suspected excrement. One resident described cowering inside his home as he heard his house hit multiple times. This appears to have been a calculated and deliberate operation, with all victims describing the attacks as efficient and silent. None of the vandals have been caught and police have warned residents in Writtham, Upper Writtham, Middle Writtham, Mapreth and Parford to remain indoors after dark until further information is provided.
Jackie paid for the paper and drove to Linda’s house. “Have you seen this?” she said, not waiting to be invited in. “Writtham, Upper Writtham, Middle Writtham, Mapreth and Parford. Not Little Writtham. Every other village off the Writtham road has been vandalised Linda, but not us. Not us. Why not us?”
The excitement of the implications gleamed in Jackie’s eyes, but Linda was methodically scanning the paper, turning the pages one at a time, all the way to the sports section. “We’re not in it Jackie. No mention of us. We were page four earlier in the week, how to spot a Satanist. Before that we were page three, some eye witness account of seeing shrines built in the Lower Wood, page two before that, next to a murder trial and the piece about shutting the school for asbestos, and we started on front page. Today, we’re not in it. Nowhere.”
The women looked at each other, and decided to convene the coven.
* * * * * * *
“To the Witches of Little Writtham!” they raised their champagne, fizzing in tall glasses despite the hour. “May we rise in sisterhood….”
“Sorry Greg. May we rise in…. What should it be? Mira, you’re our writer, what should it be?”
“Fuck! Linda, I’m so sorry,” Gertie looked horror stricken “I’ve spilled champagne on your carpet!”
“Paper towels!” shrilled Mary. “Somebody get some paper towels!”