This is my latest profile photo for Locating the Gothic. I’ve told you about the wonderful events we have planned for the autumn and while I know it’s hard to think about this when the sun is shining, the winter is inevitable. So don’t leave it until the wind is howling in the chimney and ghostly fingers tap at your window panes to have a look at the site.
It will soon be that magical time of year again, Halloween. The shops are filled with costumes, giant spider webs and broomsticks, though they have to vie with the early addition of Christmas goodies. Still, we welcome any reason to celebrate as the dark night come ever closer. The air has changed too. It now smells of wood smoke and at night, the first hint of frost makes its clean and fresh. The weathermen predict the onset of winter this weekend and the crying of its wind always brings to mind ghostly tales. Don’t worry about that tiny glimpse you catch from the corner of your eye. It’s nothing more than the scurrying of nocturnal creatures or the way the shadows fall. Or is it?
Another restless night spent listening to the Worry Witches. You all know these terrible creatures, who creep up beside your bed, when you are desperately trying to sleep, and whisper in your ear about all the things that could go wrong or might go wrong. They’re at their most powerful when you’re worried about something or someone. Yet, on Saturday night, when I’ve had a glass of wine or seven, I am deaf to their murmurings! So the question is, is wine a force against evil or does it just still the voices in ones head?
Revenge is Sweet part Three
Lights flickered in the trees and Nora heard the cries of pain even at a distance. It was pitch black in the back garden and the biting wind sent the last of the leaves swirling about her feet. But Nora did not need a light to guide her way. No, the potion ensured she had perfect night vision and she traced the darting movement in the trees as she walked to the edge of the wood. The dog and cat stalked beside her, their padding steps making no sound on the soft ground. They, like their mistress, were feeling the rejuvenating effects of the potion. The crisp, night air overrode the stench of the rubbish dumped at the base of the trees. The wood was such a melancholy place now that the children were all gone and the tree trunks scarred with initials and crude carvings. She placed a hand on the tree nearest to her and felt its pain.
“Poor thing,” she whispered.
“I have to hear,” she patted his head.
The light in the trees was becoming brighter and the scent of burning wood told her it was a fire and not a torch. Such a dangerous thing to do, here among the trees, but she knew those who lit it were not thinking about danger, which was just as well.
She moved closer, but stayed hidden in the shadows. Someone had formed a circle of rocks so at least the fire would not get out of control. The flames were low and her eyes widened when she saw the reason for the cries of pain. Someone was tied to one of the trees, his arms strapped behind the trunk, his face stained crimson. Mark Jones blocked her vision for a moment, but when he moved aside she saw to her horror, that it was his former right hand man who was being held captive.
“I’ll fuckin teach you to mess with my woman,” she heard Jones sneer. “We’ll see how much she likes you when I’m through.”
There were two other with Jones. Nora recognised them from seeing them around the estate and she knew they were trouble. She watched as Jones reached down and pulled a knife from a sheath inside his boot. It’s sharp, serrated edge glittered in the light from the fire.
“Pull down his pants,” Jones ordered one of his men.
The boy screamed and tried to wrestle free from his bonds, but it was useless.
“Please, Mark,” he sobbed. “You’re making a mistake.”
“I’m through listening to you, you cunt,” Jones nodded to the man to do as he ordered.
The boy cried louder as he felt the cold night air on his exposed scrotum.
“Mark, don’t,” he sobbed, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
“You’ll never be able to screw anyone again,” Jones sneered, waving the knife in the terrified boy’s face.
Nora knew that the boy was the least vicious of the four who stood before her and his cries for mercy tore at her heart and brought with them visions of the burning times. Her sister had begged in the same way as the boy and their cries went unheard. He certainly did not deserve what Jones intended doing to him.
She moved out of the shelter of the trees and stood on the opposite side of the fire.
“What the fuck!” she heard one of the men say and her hackles bristled at his vulgarity.
Mark Jones followed the man’s gaze and turned round.
“What are you doing here, old woman?” He pointed the knife at her.
“I, like you, am here for revenge.”
The men looked at one another and laughed.
“You injured me,” she touched the scar above her eye.
“And I’ll do it again,” he warned.
“No, you will not,” Nora felt the dog and cat move up beside her.
“Oh, what,” he swirled the knife around. “They are going to stop me?”
“You’ll find that they will,” Nora reached down and rubbed the dog’s head.
“You better fuck off,” Jones grew tired of her. “When I’m finished here, I’m coming for you next, you old witch.”
Nora began to chant, her words echoing in the silent air.
“What the fuck is she up to now,” Jones shook his head at the other men.
“She’s mad,” one of them muttered. “Nutty as a fruit cake.”
But even the boy had stopped crying and was watching as the flames caused the shape of the animals to swell and grow. Seth, the old dog, arched his back as his rib cage expanded. His mouth grew wider as his teeth grew in to sharp, vicious points. The cat leapt in to a tree, her nails stretching through the pads of her feet and her eyes glowed red among the dark leaves.
“Let the boy go,” Nora said.
“Go fuck yourself,” Jones swallowed hard, his eyes darting from the dog to the cat overhead.
“I’ll give you one last chance,” Nora said. “One chance to prove that you are human.”
“I’m going to slit your throat,” Jones hand shook as he pointed the knife at her. “Grab her, lads.”
The two men rushed forward. Seth sprang more wolf than dog and his teeth sank in to the throat of the first man. The cat flew from the tree, her talons tearing through the flesh on the other man’s throat, ripping veins and sending a fountain of blood spraying through the air. The leaves dripped crimson as they fell and lay dying at her feet.
Jones licked his lips and tried to swallow. What he had just witnessed seemed impossible; he wouldn’t have believed it, if he’d not seen it with his own eyes. The dog growled and the sound made the hairs on his head rise.
He didn’t wait to hear her reply, but took off running through the trees. He would do as he said and she could not allow that to happen. She bent and whispered in the dog’s ear. It took off in pursuit and it was obvious from the screams echoing back that he had found his target. Mark Jones would never trouble anyone again.
“Please, missus,” the captive boy whispered, when Nora picked up the fallen knife.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Nora walked to the back of the tree and sawed through the ropes.
He fell, overcome from the pain of his beating. Nora knelt and helped him to pull up his pants. He was crying from shock and she pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her coat and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he wiped his face.
“I’ll help you to walk back to the houses and then you are on your own,” she held out her hand. “You will need to call an ambulance. You need hospital care.”
“He took my phone,” the boy nodded towards a pile of beer cans.
Nora pushed them aside and found the phone.
“Call them now,” she said and waited while he dialled with trembling fingers.
He gave the address of her road and leant on her as they started back through the trees.
“You will never speak to anyone about what happened here tonight,” she looked at him from the corner of her eye.
“Who would believe me?” He asked.
“I mean it,” she stopped and turned towards him. “If you breathe a word to anyone, you will suffer the same fate. They might take me away, but my pets will see you are punished.”
“I hear you,” she saw by his face that he understood. “I won’t tell a soul.”
“Good,” she led him in through the back door of her house and out on to the road.
They walked to the end of the street and she left him sitting against a wall. The shrill moan of a siren was drawing closer and she knew he would soon be taken care of.
She stopped and tutted her displeasure at the front of her house where the white of egg glowed like silver snails trails. Little terrors, she shook her head as shells crunched beneath her feet. The estate was quiet for once, as thought those who lived in the nocturnal world sensed danger and had scurried away to their hiding places. Somewhere a dog barked, its sound joining that of the ambulance siren. Nora went inside and closed the door. The dog and cat sat waiting in the kitchen. Both were back to normal, but showing signs of the battle.
“What a mess,” Nora wet a cloth and wiped the blood from the dog’s face.
The cat sat on the draining board and lifted each paw as her mistress cleared away the last of the blood.
The savage attack, as the papers describe it, was the talking point for days, but interest soon trickled off. Jones and the men were known to the police and no one was surprised that they had come to a bad end. A pack of dogs was blamed for the injuries, the nice policeman who called to ask questions told Nora.
“Probably some vicious breed trained to kill,” he patted old Seth on the head. “Not like you, old fellow, eh?”
Some good did come of it though as since that night little old ladies can now walk the streets without fear of harm and the feral cats and dogs are given a wide berth. Nora saw the boy a few times since, but he rushed by and refused to make eye contact with her. He, no doubt, had hinted to others that he knows something about what happened that night, but there are none interested enough to press him on the subject. Tales have grown around the killings and fear and superstition are rife even in these enlightened times. And there is always next year!
Copyright © Gemma Mawdsley 2012
The air in the attic smelt musty, mould hung from the rafters, trailing green tendrils that touched her face. Nora brushed them aside and shone her torch around the room. The trunk she was looking for was in the farthest corner and she chose her step with care, picking her way across the joists. If she put one foot wrong it meant plunging through the ceiling. Placing the torch on a box, she fumbled with the ancient lock and nodded in satisfaction as the lid groaned open. The smell from the interior was more pungent than the one surrounding her and she wafted her hand in front of her face. She knelt down, the wood as rough as glass on her tender knees, but she had to find the things she needed. They were all there, just as she’d left them many years ago; the herbs and dried roots, the potions still safe in the bottles and most importantly the grimoire, the book of power that would show her what to do. She stuffed the small bottles and herbs in to the pockets of her cardigan and tucked the book under her arm.
Her eyes travelled to the old suitcase beside the trunk, but she willed herself not to look. It held the few baby clothes she kept and she couldn’t bear to view them, not now. Her daughter, like many of the women in her family, had died before her time.
“Six months,” Nora muttered. “That’s all the time we had together, child.”
No, she could not think about it. She tore her eyes away. There was work to be done.
She was panting as she navigated the joists and relieved when she reached the top of the wooden ladder.
“Move, Seth,” she called to the dog, who was standing sentry at the bottom.
He got out of the way just in time, as the huge book flew down and landed with a thump on the floor. Nora didn’t bother to close the attic door. She would put everything back when she was finished. Seth followed at her heels as she made her way down in to the kitchen. She sat at the table and started to leaf through the book’s yellow and brittle pages.
“Yes, this is the one,” she read aloud words written in an ancient language and the dog cocked his ear at the strange sounds.
Nora spent the next few hours grinding and cooking the things she needed for the spells. She had been a child when she last seen the book put to use and her husband had forbid her to practise any of her strange arts, as he referred to them. She was descended from women of power, a power that lay dormant within her until now.
Dusk was falling by the time she was finished. The few streetlights that still had unbroken bulbs came on and a cold mist descended. Nora picked up the animals feeding bowls and scraped food from a tin in to each one. Next she poured some of the potion and mixed it with the food. Before placing it on the floor, she filled a small glass with the same potion and swallowed the lot in one quick gulp. It ran like fire through her body until it reached her stomach where it lay for a moment before spreading its warmth until her senses swam. She gripped the cold sink until the room steadied itself once more.
“It’s all right,” she looked down at the worried faces of the cat and dog.
Placing their bowls on the floor, she urged them to eat.
“Finish it all, my pets,” she smiled as they tucked in.
She felt better than she had in years, empowered, she thought. The hand that stroked the dog’s head was no longer veined and spotted with age. She held it up to the light and wondered at this. There was only one mirror in the house and that hung in the dark hallway. Nora turned on the light and gazed at her reflection. She was seventy-four-years-old and up to a few minutes ago looked every one of her years. Now, she looked younger, not girl young, but the fire within her had knocked at least twenty years off her age. She brought a hand to her face and felt the smoothness of the skin. She had never been a beauty and no one would call her such now, but she looked better. Turning off all the lights, she picked her way through the dark shapes of the furniture in the sitting room and stood at the window. So far no one had called at her house looking for treats, which was just as well, as the yob had taken her meagre few. She dreaded to think what those who were refused would do if they did call. There were childish screams as a small vampire, witch and mummy ran past her gate. They looked like wraiths scampering through the white mist. She sighed and waited for the night to deepen. It was cold in the house, cold and damp. There was no central heating and other than a coal fire nothing to banish the icy fingers creeping along her skin. It was too early in the year to spend money on fuel, so she put on more layers and went to bed earlier when the nights were longer.
She sat on the threadbare couch and pulled a shawl around her shoulders. The cat came in and leapt up beside her and the dog huddled down at her feet.
“There’s nothing to do but wait for them to come,” she patted the cat. “And they will come. Why wouldn’t they? The street vermin need to have there blood-lust fed and picking on an old women is the easiest way they know.”
The curtains were left open so the blaze from the nearest oil barrel reflected off the glass. Dark shapes circled the flames and cars drew up from time to time, their occupants in need of the poisons that fed their cravings. The chimes on the mantle clocked counted out the hour. It was cold on the stroke of midnight when she heard them outside her door.
“Wait here, my pets,” she stood up straighter than she had in years and went to answer the fist that was beating on the wood.
“Yes,” she was looking straight in to the face of the yob who had scarred her.
He drew back a little, not sure for a moment if it was her. He was with his friend, his right hand man, as she’d heard him referred too and behind him stood his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, a tight top proudly displaying her swollen belly.
Mark Jones, the yob, could not lose face, so rolling his shoulders back; he started his usual tirade of filth. It began in the usual way.
“Your dog nearly bit my little brother,” he jabbed an accusing finger at her. “You better keep the fuckin thing under control, do you hear me, you old witch or I’ll cut its throat.”
I must say I’m surprised,” Nora caught the look between Mark’s girlfriend and his right hand man.
“I’ll give you surprised, you old cow,” he made his fist in to a ball.
Before he could strike, Nora words stopped him.
“I think you words belie your true natural, after all you are willing to raise another man’s child as your own.”
“What?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he struggled to speak.
“Am I the bearer of bad news?” Nora smiled. “So sorry, but the truth must out.”
“Forget her,” his girlfriend pulled at his jacket. “She’s mad, everyone says so.”
“Fuck off,” he shook her off. “What do you mean?” He asked Nora.
“Ask her,” Nora nodded to the girl, who was retreating down the path.
“Hey, come back here,” all thoughts of Nora were forgotten as he took off after her.
She watched as the girl placed both hands beneath her bump and tried to run.
“There’s going to be fuckin murder,” Mark’s right hand man muttered, as he took off after them.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Nora smiled.
Nora no longer recognised the housing estate that had been her home for over fifty years. The tidy gardens were now littered with an assortment of rubbish from empty drink cans and broken bottles to other unsavoury things she didn’t dare think about. Most of the surrounding houses were derelict and an attempt had been made at boarding them up. The barriers the council put up to keep the human scavengers out never lasted long. She shivered as she recalled the nights spent listening to the groans of the boards as they were wrenched from their housings. The wood was used to feed the huge oil barrels that blazed each night throughout the estate.
“Time to go out,” she picked up her cat, which was dozing on a chair and carried her in to the kitchen.
All Hallow’s Eve dawned dry and cold. Perfect weather for the children to do their trick or treating, Nora thought, as she placed the cat on the ground. It looked at her in disgust before turning its tail up and walking away. She smiled at its antics and watched as it made its way to the bottom of the garden. The trees in the little wood outside the wall looked sombre. It was no longer a playground for children, but a dark, sinister place. She ran her hands down the sleeves of her faded cardigan, trying to brush away the cold. The wood was deserted now, but she saw them at night; the dark shapes scurrying through the trees. The glass shards she cemented in to the wall, in the hope of keeping them out, glistened under the watery sunlight, but they did little to add to her sense of security. The little timber gate in the centre of the wall was kicked down countless times and her hands were too old and bent from arthritis to repair it. She walked back inside and turned the key in the lock. It was wishful thinking that the frail door would keep anyone out. Shrugging on her black coat, she tied a scarf under her chain and picked up her old wicker basket.
“Come on, old fellow,” she called to her dog, Seth. “Time to go shopping.”
He looked up at her bleary-eyed and groaned. Like his mistress he did not relish the daily trek to the shops. She warned him to keep his temper in check as the last time he showed his objection to the way the street vermin treated his mistress it had resulted in a visit from the police, with a warning to keep the dog in check or else. He knew she depended on him for company and he could do nothing more than walk by her side and behave in much the same way as the stupid cat. It made him feel worthless, but if he kept his mistress happy then so be it.
“Come along,” she held the door open for him. “You’ll have no dinner otherwise.”
Leaning heavily on her walking stick she started down the path. She didn’t really need the stick, but it would serve as a weapon if need be. It was still too early for the druggies and the dealers. All would be sleeping off the effects of last night. Nora nodded to one or two of the old neighbours, but kept her head down for the most part. It was best not to make eye contact with anyone and as the pavement was cracked it meant she could choose her footing with care. Seth growled, as a mongrel crept out from one of the abandoned houses, but the animal was too ill and staved to offer any threat. There were many such animals roaming the estate; dozens of feral dogs and cats abandoned in much the same way as the houses.
The only shop still open in the area was kitted out like a prison. Stout bars lined the windows and razor wire ran the length of the roof. Nora ordered the few items she needed and packed them in to her basket.
“I see the eye is healing up nicely,” Joe, the shopkeeper remarked on the cut above her eye.
A stone, thrown by one of the yobs had met it marks and the cut required four stitches.
“Yes, thank you,” Nora said. “It’s not too bad now.”
“It’s a bloody disgrace that decent people can’t go about their business in peace.”
Everyone had an idea of what should be done to better the estate, but no one was acting on it. After saying her goodbyes, she began the short walk home. Seth walked before her, sniffing the ground, searching for new scents. The skeleton of a burnt out car sat on one of the green areas and it became a playground of sorts for some of the children. They were three of them sitting in its ravaged innards now, so Nora crossed the road rather than pass them. They knew she was easy game and would lose no time in picking on her. Things could have been so different, Nora thought if her daughter had lived and her husband hadn’t run off, but that was long ago; too many decades for wishful thinking. She tried to banish such thought from her mind as the loneliness threatened to overwhelm her.
“Look at the witch.”
She picked up her pace and tried to ignore the taunting voice.
“Hey, witch,” the boy ran in front of her and was soon joined by his other two companions.
He was no more than ten or eleven years old and should be in school. Nora knew enough to keep such things to herself and she kept walking.
“Fuckin old witch,” one boy sneered. “Where’s your broom?”
They fell about laughing at this and Nora felt her heart race as they stood in a line blocking her way.
“Let me pass, please,” she hugged her basket closer.
“Let me pass,” the mimicked her soft tone.
Seth bared his teeth and his growls of warning rumbled like thunder in the silence.
“You better watch it,” one of the boys said. “My dad will have that mutt put down if it touches me.”
“Seth will not touch you if you let us pass.”
They eyed the dog warily and moved apart just enough to let her pass. One of them jostled her as she squeezed through and she lost her footing and fell against some railing. She managed to grab one of the rusted bars so she didn’t hit the ground, but she banged her side. Her basket fell from her hands and the contents went spilling out on to the dirty ground. The boys laughed as she staggered to her feet and one of them scooped up the packet of biscuits she’d bought as a rare treat and the bag of sweets for the few children who would call that night. Saliva dripped from Seth’s mouth as he gnashed his teeth and made small lunges at her attackers.
“Don’t,” Nora whispered and the dog drew back.
Tired with their game, the boys started to walk away.
“Thanks for the goodies, witch,” one called over his shoulder.
Nora concentrated on picking up the rest of her shopping. Her side ached and she could feel the bruise begging to form in her skin.
“Come on, Seth,” she was glad of the solidness of the walking stick as her knees shook from fright.
The boys had returned to the burnt out car and their laughter followed her all the way home. It took her a while to get the key in the lock of the front door as her trembling fingers refused to stay still. Placing her basket inside the door, she turned back and looked back to where the boys were sitting. Seth followed her gaze and looked up at her in question.
“Do you know what tonight is boy?” She looked down in to his big eyes. “It’s All Hallow’s. Do you remember, Seth?”
The gleam within his eyes flared until they burned like fire. Of course he remembered, but that was long ago and something his mistress ordered he forget.
“That’s right, boy. Tonight belongs to us and it’s time we showed those who torment us the full meaning of Halloween.”
Her cat, which was lurking in the bushes, ran forward and rubbed against her legs; purring her pleasure at her mistress’s words, because black cats remember too.
copyright © Gemma Mawdsley
For all those who died-stripped naked, shaved, shorn.
For all those who screamed in vain to the Great Goddess, only to have their tongues ripped out by the root.
For those who were pricked, racked, broken on the wheel for the sins of their Inquisitors.
For all those whose beauty stirred their torturers to fury; and for those whose ugliness did the same.
For all those who were neither ugly nor beautiful, but only women who would not submit.
For those quick fingers, broken in the vice.
For those soft arms, pulled from their sockets.
For all those budding breasts, ripped with hot pincers.
For all those midwives, killed merely for the sin of delivering man to an imperfect world.
For those witch-women, my sisters, who breathed freer as the flames took them, knowing as they shed their female bodies, the seared flesh falling like fruit in the flames, that death alone would cleanse them of the sin for which they died-the sin of being born a woman who is more than the sum of her parts.