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They burned the witch

but the witch lives on

By Wendy ThackerPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 23 min read
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Margrette languished atop the pyre with its blistering flames already lapping beyond her knees, the stubble remnants of her hair were smouldering, her clothes had long become ashes in the wind. The delirium borne purely of searing pain, delivered kindly to her, her mother’s voice and once again she was six, picking dandelion and foxglove and wormwood and sage. It was better that her mind went there than remain in the present but even the sweetness of memory could not protect her.

The shrillness of her scream signalled to the crowd that they had ridden the world of yet another witch and they were ecstatic.

One solitary face in the crowd however, did not cheer. An unassuming lad about Margrette’s age, moderately blackened from the forge he worked alongside, wilfully neglecting his indentures to stand at her execution. The deed was done and he must return. He jostled through the throng of revellers, equally wanting to magic his way to anywhere that wasn’t there but also scream at the top of his lungs that Margrette was no witch. That she was a sweet, innocent girl who just wanted to help others. The noise and the shoving and the smell and the incessant urge to vomit kept him silent.

Phillippe was his name. His cottage was a mere half a mile from hers with wondrous undulating hills bespeckled with dandelion and foxglove. He knew these. Margrette had taught him and her mother taught her and her mother before that. They were healers. They knew what was poison and what would bring life back from the almost dead. He had watched them do this for as long as he could remember.

And while he was teaching her about reading and arithmetic (because girls weren’t allowed to be schooled), she would teach him about making poultices for wounds and different tonics for a cough or a salve for a bruise or lilac tea for the sweetening sickness. These were real things, not witchcraft but now they were as dead as she.

An emptiness chilled him, damning him to never forget her.

As he walked in a semi stupor, he recognised Arthur, a little stooped these years but with a mind as sharp as a dressmaker’s pin.

“Is it done?” asked Arthur.

“Without a doubt,” said Phillipe. “These hills will mourn long after we’re gone.”

“That’s a fact,” said Arthur. “My heart and my back are aching the same.”

Phillippe looked to Arthur with sorrow. His one avenue of relief was now swaying in concert with the buzzards.

“Do you have salve to go on with?”

Arthur lowered his head.

“Do you know what she gave you?”

Arthur carefully raised his head, suspiciously curious and rightly fearful about what Phillipe was asking.

“And what if I do?”

As it stood, the only person who’d been able to give Arthur relief had just been burned at the stake. It was almost always the women who burned. Men did not usually have charges brought against them. It was only the husbands or sons of those blatantly hawking their wares that were brought before the chancery. The worst he had seen was an excommunication. As an indentured apprentice, his safety was almost a given. At the most, he would be charged with breakage and theft.

In that second, Phillippe decided that the risk of being accused was worth it. Even just to be inside her home once again, helping Arthur became almost secondary.

“Come,” he said.

Phillippe walked at Arthurs pace along the uneven cobble, carefully avoiding the gaze of the window peepers. It had been many months since Arthur had last made this walk. The townsfolk knew where he was going and said nothing to him but it must have been one of them. One of them gossiped. One of them was jealous. One of them sentenced her to death.

Phillipe gestured to the tavern. “This will buy us some time, then we can walk in peace.”

“What’ll you manage on an apprentice’s wage?” sneered the barkeep.

“An ale for the old man,” said Phillippe.

Nearing dark, Arthur sipped the very last drop of his ale.

“We’ll be off then?” he said to Phillippe on his return, more blackened than earlier if that was possible, as he held himself up with the table. He’d been sitting there so long that his bones and his joints had stiffened. Some might have thought him drunk and neither were about to announce that he wasn’t.

Candlelit windows were their protection. They could see in but the cover of the nearly dark protected them from those wishing to see out. They passed the last house and traversed to the left on the well-worn path to Margrette’s. It was well worn because it was well used, not that anyone would admit to it. Mr Betts and his gout, Mrs Fleming and her heart and every mother at one stage or another with a poorly child had used this path. Margrette did not use it to come into the village. Everything she needed was at her bower, cows for the milk and cheese, chickens for the eggs and as much in the way of vegetables and herbs as she could eat. There was no need for the village and they didn’t want her there either. If they wanted her, they would come... and they did.

The path wended this way and that and the smoke from the stack was noticeably absent. Arthur was tired and slowing, if that was at all possible. Phillipe entered the only door, as he had always done and gestured Arthur inside. Arthur sat at the stone bench just outside the door. He always sat there.

“I can’t find what you’re after with you sitting on the bench,” said Phillippe. “Come inside, nothing will eat you.”

Unconvinced that something wouldn’t indeed eat him or at best curse him, Arthur lowered his head. “I shan't,” he mumbled.

“You are either a coward or a skulker and I for one wouldn’t be likened to either. Now stand and come inside.”

Phillippe lit the candle inside the front door as he had done many times and scanned the rows of herbs hanging along the wall and then to the jars and boxes of various cure-alls. He was seeing everything anew. Familiar but today with new purpose. They had an order about them; breathing ailments, skin afflictions, mood improvers, bone salves, tinctures for rashes, tonics for fever. Everything had a place. He deftly swept a salve from the shelf above the cold and blackened fireplace and lifted the lid, receiving the sweet aromatics of ginger, frankincense and wormwood.

“Is this the one?” he said, thrusting it under Arthur’s nose.

Arthur kept his head bowed. Phillipe scooped some of the salve into a small jar and shoved it into Arthurs top pocket.

“Go,” he said. “Come back when you need more.”

Arthur lifted his head for the first time. “You’re not staying, surely? You’d be mad.”

“I am staying and maybe I am.”

Weeks past and Phillippe had been travelling between the forge and the bower almost daily. His mother was concerned that such a young lad was still mixed up with Margrette, even after she was dead but she was the self-serving type and Phillippe knew it. So long as the milk and the eggs continued to line the larder, he was free to do as he pleased.

Days turned into weeks, turned into months and not a day was missed where Phillippe didn’t go to the bower. The chickens and the cows seemed to greet him like an old friend and in turn he had milk and eggs and all the vegetables that Margrette’s plot could provide. The vegetables and greens were tending to seed and Phillippe began to seriously grieve them. Quite foolish for a man who could turn a lump of metal into a sword or a kettle, to find his undoing in the end of season summer vegetables. He knew nothing of what to plant next but Margrette would have. She would have had all the seeds prepared and ready to plant once the previous crop was finished. The garden would surely die too.

“No more death,” he yelled. The echoes reverberated throughout the bower, as he maniacally searched for seeds or a manual or a planters guide or something, anything.

Nothing.

Solemnity overcame him that supper, sufficiently enough to warrant the curiosity of his mother.

“What are your troubles, son? I would have thought you’d be ecstatic.”

“How so, Ma ma?”

“Your indentures were returned this morning. You are free to work as your own.”

Phillippe rubbed his face in his hands if for nothing more than to extend the time by which a reply would be warranted.

“Was that today?” he asked through his fingers.

“Ok, what’s your trouble then?”

Phillippe had been caught in the trap of the caring mother syndrome before. He knew better now.

“Just the forge,” he said blandly. “Nothing to trouble yourself over.”

Without further conference, Phillippe walked out to their own garden to see what his mother had planted. Did she have a book? Or was it all in her head. She took over his thoughts both in his company and not and it was unwelcomed. Phillippe shuddered as if he was shaking off a clutter of spiders. Unconsciously yet somehow deliberately divorcing himself from her; a trick, many years in the making. Make the very thought of her disappear to an exotic, faraway place. And poof, like magic, her personal questions and her insipid gossiping mind were gone.

There was rocket and turnips and potatoes and peas. This seemed to be the staple across the countryside but he knew that Margrette would have planted other things.

As he walked through the fields, his mind wandered to younger days when both he and Margrette would play as children. He pictured her mother preparing supper in the kitchen. An explosion of thought danced through his mind and with it his steps hastened to a sprint.

Phillipe flung open the door of the bower and headed to the hatch aside fireplace. “Hazar!” he shouted. There in the nice, dry chamber were shelves apon shelves of seeds, each wrapped in cloth and marked with their name, best time to plant and best time to harvest. “Hazar, indeed,” he shouted, holding firmly up high, a simple cloth bag of barley. “Here I will stay and nothing else need die.”

Except it did. Over the coming months, their tiny village had ultimately succumbed to the black death and many of the townsfolk were ailing. The affliction affected their very breath with bulbous lumps growing from them, fingers and toes turning black and the masks worn by the undertakers lest they succumbed themselves. There were not scholars in the village and none who could count beyond the number who were lost. They were many.

Phillippe did not need to concern himself with the goings on in the village, death would not come to the bower. He was more concerned with the next generation of plantings. Developing some pride, knowing that although his training lay in blacksmithing, he had become quite adept at what the soil offered and the days task was to plan what to sow where. He had done it two seasons before with reasonable success and was about to retire for the evening when a thunderous banging all but brought the door down.

A very officious looking, large gentleman insisted on coming inside. “I have a request of you,” he said. Phillippe was almost certain that he was not going to be able to say no to this “request.”

“Come, sit,” said Phillippe, gesturing to the wooden kitchen bench.

“No,” the gentleman replied sternly. “What I say, will be brief and to the point.”

“We know that you had a special relationship with Margrette DuPont, some years ago. We know that this is her house where you now live. We know that the townsfolk are coming here for the same craft and wares provided by the witch.”

“And,” said Phillippe boldly.

“We have need of your outbuilding for a plague hospital and you must provide for the people within. Provide this and we will remain silent on the other matter.”

“And if I don’t? The black death is as close as I’d like it to be and I don’t care for it to come closer.”

“Then we shall have no option but to act on the report of witchcraft and charge you accordingly.”

The gentleman turned to exit by the still open door and paused. “The first five people will be transported the day following the upcoming Sabbath. You will be prepared.”

Phillippe sat stunned. Ten then twenty thoughts at once circulated his mind. “If I leave, I will be abandoning Margrette and all her work, if I stay, I shall surely succumb to the beast myself and if I don’t the townsfolk won’t come for their other maladies.”

A dazed morning followed a fitful night. There really was no choice but to set up a plague hospital right there in his field. He stood at a distance at the pitiful sight, planning in his head the work required over the next five days.

Fixing the thatch, patching the rock walls, liming the interior and cobbling the floor lifted the spirit of the building but nothing seemed to remove the yellowing in the corner, seeping through nearly an inch of lime plaster.

“This will have to do,” he thought as his mind wandered to the running of it. How would they be placed? Should there be an area for food, drink, tonics and preparations? How much lighting would it require overnight? Can the window openings be closed over or would that trap the beast inside or would leaving them open, sentence them all to freeze to death?

The Sabbath came and went. Less in attendance but you would have to expect that. His mother stood at the opposite corner to him trying to make subtle eye contact. Phillippe wanted none of it and the day would pass as any other day.

A wagon could be seen travelling the deeply rutted track and as promised unloaded five wretched souls. Phillippe watched with morbid curiosity, as one by one, the moans and the rasping breaths disguised as people were stretchered into the outbuilding. “Surely their families would need great skill in order to recognise them,” he thought.

He had fashioned himself a mask and stuffed it with sage, fennel and lemon balm and prayed that it would keep the beast at bay. He really didn’t understand why the doctors in the cities used theriac with its fifty-five different ingredients, none of which clearly worked. He stood at the doorway, scanning the decrepits and stopped in disbelief.

“Arthur?”

A feeble moan confirmed his suspicions. Arthur had indeed succumbed.

They had at least brought cots and blankets and linen for the infirm and Phillippe worked hurriedly but not in haste to settle the five into their cots and assess at what stage of infirmary they were all in.

He recognised Mrs Potts but the others were clearly not from town. They all had the sunken eyes, the death like cough and the swellings. The swellings were either on the neck or the underside of the arms and sometimes below the trousers. Some of the swellings were oozing. Some of the normal skin was oozing. It was all so very putrid and Phillippe was almost resigned to this being a house of death.

He was also very used to walking past the cart, piled high with dead people and every third or fourth house, a new dead person would be thrust up high so as not to topple off. “There has to be better than this,” he thought. “There has to be better for the dead and for the nearly dead.”

If this was their last place of repose, it had to be as dignified as he could possibly make it. The outbuilding wasn’t overly large so there was no real way of separating the men from the women but maybe he could fashion a screen of some sort between them. This would keep their suffering to themselves. Each could have their own water cup. “Should they have wine?” he thought. “Why not?” he retorted in argument with himself. Their clothes were putrid. They should have clean, fresh ones. And food. He had bread and plenty of fresh vegetables. Gruel and maybe soup were probably the easiest things they could stomach. And a big empty bowl in case they couldn’t.

Phillippe was given leave from his employer. The black death was affecting everyone, especially in the larger towns and the employer didn’t want anyone to shut him down for having the cloud of the beast hanging over them. Phillippe would be free to go out on his own. It was clear that his employer didn’t want him back. Phillippe wasn’t at all concerned. He hadn’t been the least concerned with being blackened inside and out, burnt and yelled at for some time. It was quietly, a welcome relief.

Phillippe set to baking and gathering vegetables. “They’d need something several times per day,” he thought. "What should I add to it for their state of fragility,” he thought. He hunted through the garden..... “hmmm, nettle would be good.... And garlic..... And primrose...... These will bolster them, at least a little.”

He lay the bread along the shelf in the back of the outbuilding and every day he would bring a large pot of gruel in the morning and his especially created soup for lunch and supper. He had no help and while this was exhausting, he knew that without him their fate was assured. At least with him, they might live for another daybreak.

Phillippe had to assist three of them to eat, one of which was Arthur. “One more spoon, Arthur, just one more,” he urged. Exhausted, Arthur rested back on his pillow. “At least have the bread,” said Phillippe, placing a chunk between his withered fingers.

The following morning, Phillippe prepared the same gruel as he had done every day for the last week. Expecting to find the same five almost dead skeletal people, he found two. One had succumbed through the night, one was a woman he didn’t know and the other was Arthur, sitting in his cot, still skeletal but with his life back. “Arthur, good to see you my man,” Phillippe called enthusiastically.

“I dropped the bread,” said Arthur. “It landed somewhere on me but it appears lost?”

Phillippe looked to the offending morsel of bread, sitting firmly on his chest. Underneath, the skin appeared to be in the process of healing.

Phillippe looked at the bread. A strange golden mould had permeated the bread. He glanced at the rest of the bread on the shelf and it too appeared to have developed the same golden hue. “Did you eat?”

“Yes.”

Phillippe’s mind was an orchestra. His thoughts playing all different kinds of instruments at the one time. The bread, it had to be the bread. He could feed it to all of them and maybe some of them would live.

He rationed the yellowing bread between the surviving four and covered the fifth with a shroud. He didn’t know who she was and they would come for her with their cart. Or maybe he could bury her there with dignity. “Dignity,” he thought. “Such a small word that could mean the world to someone.” He would bury her.

The other lady in amongst the infirm was Louise. She too was improving with the daily ration of bread and gruel and soup. She might be attractive if she weren’t bones masquerading as the living flesh. Except there wasn’t any living flesh.... Just bones and skin but she was talking today. Phillippe helped her to eat and delicately changed her bedding and when she was able, provided her with a wash cloth and clean clothes. The clothes were all the same, a big shirt with ties at the front. It would easily double as a nightshirt.

“Do you think you are able to rise from the cot,” Phillippe asked one day.

With a nod and not unlike a newborn foal, Louise rose from the bed. “The floor is spinning underneath me, sit me down.”

“That’s enough for one day. We’ll do this again tomorrow and maybe we might do it twice.”

Louise trusted him the next day. She rose not twice but four times and on the fourth time, she asked if she might step a little. Four steps forward, holding firmly to Phillippe, or more accurately, Phillippe holding firmly to her. Days of small steps turned into weeks of walking the outbuilding.

It took many, many weeks for Louise to become as robust as she once had been and took a keen interest in helping the other infirm when she was able. She had watched Phillippe all through her recovery, it had become her second routine.

There were the losses and the grave digging. Somehow word came around and more of the afflicted arrived at the outbuilding. It was likely that those who turned up unaccompanied, turned up because of the recoveries, not the burials. Word was easily spread from bower to village and beyond.

Louise prayed over them all, both alive and dead. Phillippe chided, “woman, it is the care they receive, not the words from a woman.” Louise, also quick with the tongue would reply every time he uttered his nonsense, “then my prayers for you have not worked. I will stop.” Usually, Phillippe would be quick to apologise but this time Louise watched in slow motion as Phillippe spiralled to the floor.

Phillippe had succumbed, after six months of caring for those equally afflicted and now the woman he just chided was supposed to cure him. “Leave me, woman.”

“I shan’t,” said Louise. “You’re taking precious space on the floor and I need to wash the linen. Move to my cot, I am cured. I shall sleep in the house.”

Phillippe moved on all fours like a dying fox and rolled into the cot fully clothed. Louise knew that his best chance at overcoming the beast was the bread. She softened some in the soup and fed it to him under sufferance.

“This tastes like the graves I was digging.”

“Well, let’s hope I don’t have to dig one, now eat.”

Louise was fast becoming the healer that Phillippe was, she reminded him in part of Margrette. She had the finesse with the herbs that he could never master and her gruel was far superior to his. In fact, although he would not admit it, she was more skilful at this than he.”

Phillippe slept more often than not. He had fallen hard with the beast. Louise tended him meticulously and prayed, sometimes hourly, even though she had vowed against it. His seemed severe. Was that because he’d been around the beast for so long and it finally worked out how to best him? And why was the yellow bread so important? Why did people recover here and not elsewhere? She didn’t think it was witchcraft. She’d seen everything he’d done, or had she? She didn’t see what he did in the house though. Was he a witch?

A carriage arrived one fine afternoon sporting a gentleman but also accompanied by two footmen, a valet and three servants. “Mr Parkinson is here to visit with Mr Beaufort,” said the leading footman without appearance of moving any part of him.

"Beaufort?” said Louise. “I fear we don’t stand on so much ceremony out here. We are lucky to learn of the first name and then not at all if the good Lord takes them.”

“Phillippe Beaufort,” said the footman

Louise had to try and hide her curiosity at learning his name. “Beaufort, a beautiful stronghold,” she silently mused. “He is as indisposed as the others,” said Louise presenting an appropriate amount of reserve. “I have been ministering to the sick in his stead, having recovered many weeks ago.”

Louise was bombarded with questions and overwhelmed by the pageantry of the visit and the insistence of Mr Parkinson, she feared she had spoken of things she ought not.

The valet retrieved a piece of bread from the shelf, wrapped it in several layers of cloth and mounted the rear of the carriage. No sooner had they come, then they were gone.

After many months, new people stopped coming and Phillippe was back to his usual self. He was grateful to Louise but giving her an outright compliment did not come easily to him. The only two other women in his life were dead in the ground or dead to him. How do you treat a woman? How do you tell them you want them to stay?

Louise and Phillippe were at odds most of the time, either something she’d done or something he’d said until Louise told him about the visit from the gentleman and all his finery.

“Ah Mr Parkinson paid a visit; I was wondering how long before someone came calling.”

Phillippe explained that John Parkinson was the chief medical aide to the king and in taking the yellow bread, he would use it as his own and cure those afflicted. He was not upset with her, far from it. Her actions had drawn the beast away from the bower.

Perhaps the beast was indeed gone and perhaps with it, the spectre of accusation.

Louise and Phillippe were wed. The vows exchanged and the night consummated. Both contributing a fiery, passionate love of healing and of each other. The townsfolk began to return but neither Phillippe nor Louise ventured into the village. They had no need, all they had want for was at the bower.

Phillippe had never shown true delight until the moment he saw the look in Louise’s eyes. The sunrise through the window casting a radiant glow about her shoulders. She nodded. Phillippe with a glisten in his eyes, swooped her up and spun her like a maypole. He looked wistfully around the room. “I ask only one thing. If this child borne of you is a girl and God willing lives healthy, we must call her Margrette.”

They embraced an eternity.

Phillippe never pursued credit for the golden bread of which John Parkinson gained prosperity and title from his book, nor did he reunite with his mother. His father long gone; he was truly the patriarch of his house. He would protect everything he held dear until his last breath. This was his solemn vow and promise.

Postscript:

A story full of heart and passion but herein lies the very essence. The names John Parkinson and Ian Fleming are synonymous in the history of antibiotics but there is an untold history of the many people just like Phillippe and Louise Beaufort and women like Margrette DuPont, whose contributions were pivotal but will never be told. We need to remember these stories and these people, for we need both, those with a heart as strong as the body as well as those with sufficient means and connection to enter the history books.

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HistoricalLoveShort Story
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About the Creator

Wendy Thacker

I’m a nurse, mother and house renovator, one of those is begrudgingly. And I love words, big words, small words, obscure words and the way they can captivate, send you somewhere you never thought you’d go. Like magic.

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