The Burning of Jennifer Sweet

The house was abandoned, but there was still a presence there, palpable and malevolent.

I stopped on the road and looked at it.

The door opened, slow, as if someone were inside peering out, but there was only darkness.

I checked the oil in my lantern, and ventured toward the open door, suffused in shaded moonlight that was choked off by tendrils of black cloud like fingers from behind sliding over a screaming mouth to silence it.

The place was dusty, and the rustle of scurrying vermin was audible as they fled the intrusion.

She was sitting in the chair, spectral and beautiful; turning toward me, she bid me enter.

“You would hear my story?”

I found myself nodding, not trusting myself to speak. She bid me take the chair across from her, and her black eyes shuttered over with a milky film as she flooded my mind with her memories.

**************

The wolves, starving for game, were attacking.

Jennifer’s father had trained her in the impalement arts, and as she fought with the pack, severing limbs, and dodging her own share of fangs and claws that sought her life, her father was taken down, bleeding out his life on the moonlit grass, unable to defend her.

Jennifer redoubled her efforts, and the weapon released its lore to her.

As the pack bore down on her in force, she was ruthlessly efficient, butchering with the grace of dancer.

Some of the wolves, sensing easier fare, broke off, and the fight came to the village. Rather than save herself, she chose to stay and help them.

They saw her fight, saw the grace and power in her movements, the detached efficiency she used to dispatch the wolves, and grew afraid.

 

                                                                                ***********

 

“Take her,” the governor said.

 The ranks of merchants and politicians hired their strong-armed peasants.

She went quietly, but they beat and spit on her all the same; they threw trash and shit, glass and pottery, and when she slumped between those carrying her, they dragged her, not caring if her ankles snapped.

The torch flames danced in hypnotic rhythms, complementing her twisting and writhing, and flared with passion as she screamed her obscenities when they planted the stake, the piled kindling piercing her skin, adding blood.

“You are in the month of Duir, you fools!”

“Gag her,” the governor ordered.

They used a boy to clamber up the ladder and stuff her mouth with a filthy rag.

She spit on him, and his cheek sizzled, but he got the rag inside.

The crowd slowly gathered and milled about as she hung, wilting with the hours and her waning strength.

                                                                                ***********

“Burn her,” the governor said.

The fire crawled like an eldritch baby, hungry for sizzling flesh.

“Look!” the boy who gagged her yelled.

Jennifer was fading away, just as the fire was catching the hem of the ragged shift they gave her.

A black slit appeared in the stake behind her, and she seemed to be seeping through it.

“What type of wood did you use?” the governor asked the timberman.

“Oak,” he replied.

“Duir,” the boy said.

“What?”

“Oak, sir. It’s called Duir in the Druid legends. It means ‘door.’ She’s escaping.”

“How do you kn—?”

The crowd began to clamor and scream as the slit in the wood began to fill, and Jennifer was gone.

As they fled the dead wolves slowly blocked the path, their gory fur and red-fanged snarls striking a new and hopeless terror in hearts already quailing, and what had been a witch burning turned into bloody carnage.

The boy escaped.

                                                                  ****************

When the sun came up, Jennifer stood among the corpses.

She smiled at the pack that had killed her father and saved her life.

“Well done, my children. Sleep now.”

The wolves silently left her there in the rising sun.

As Jennifer turned to follow, unnatural flames blanketed the abbatoir, and took all day to burn.

 

*****************

“Are you satisfied, wanderer?”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

The door opened, the moonlight pouring in.

“Follow the road.”

As I walked it, the dead wolves padded silently beside me, red eyes flickering in the darkness, their deep growls raising the hair on my arms.

They walked beside me to the edge of the forest, to the start of the hill country, and left me to my fate.

A small boy called my name. I hesitated, but he beckoned again and called.

As I started toward him I thought I heard, from all this distance away, her hovel’s door close, the lock bolting portentously behind me, but I dared not look.

 

*Art by Leah M. Gully/blogspot.com

 

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