Brenda Mann Hammack is an Associate Professor of English at Fayetteville State University. She also leads online writing classes in magical realism and revisionist fairy tale via The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative and The Eckleburg Workshops. Her first book, Humbug: A Neo-Victorian Fantasy in Verse, was released by Misty Publications in 2013. Hammack also serves as managing editor for Glint Literary Journal ( www.glintjournal.wordpress.com). Other pieces on the Pendle trials are forthcoming in Menacing Hedge and Elsewhere Lit: A Journey of Literature and Art.
Alisoun Device and the Black Dog
Forest of Pendle, County of Lancashire, 1612
Though she would not look behind, Alisoun could hear the hitching step of the black dog behind her. Ahead of her, the next rise in the road blurred; its surface the color of wheat-corn. She could almost taste the cock-ale she might wheedle out of someone’s sod of a husband. Not having one of her own, though she was nearly fifteen, Alisoun had to make do with the occasional staggerer too far in his cups to mind his church vows. Or to mind her relation to a mad-eyed mother. Gave her a knock about the noggin, did he? What she do to deserve it? Somefink naughty? Alisoun spat.
What she wouldn’t give for a smidge of sugar, a dollop of egg yolk. She’d brew a hot caudle to drink so deep it might solace her aching soles. Alisoun could already feel the warmth unribboning through her breast, belly, and loins all the way down to the nubbins that were left of her toes.
All this hard walking without—in honesty—so much as puddle-water to dampen a tongue that felt rough as a cat’s. Alisoun would not think of Tibbs, the plump cat that her Grandmam wore across her lap like an over-loud cushion. She would not think of the almost-purr that sounded too much like the grinding of the bones of songbirds. Tibbs always kept that look of just-fed smuggery as if he knew Alisoun would never feel anything but empty no matter how many eggs she managed to steal from coops of uncharitable village folk.
As she finally crested the hill tuft, Alisoun spotted the peddler, Law, and remembered the needles she was supposed to be fetching for Grandmam’s conjurations even though she hadn’t so much as a farthing. Still, she disarranged her bodice, then quickened her step if only because the attempt to do her duty might help to lengthen the distance between her insubstantial shadow and the darker form that scythed through the undergrowth.
But the suddenness of her scurry left Alisoun unbalanced so that she all but tumbled into the hump of pack that jostled on the old man’s back. Law turned, brows lifted, but not welcoming.
“Got somefink sharper than bristle?” she asked.
The old man spat.
“Give a girl a bit of bone-shard? Give a prickle?”
“No time for beggary.” Law twisted away. Or, perhaps, he said, “No time for buggering.” She couldn’t be sure for all the spinning of the tree limbs. When had the wind begun to fill her head? Or was it the black dog, the Bargeist, the Skriker, the Grim that whined in both ears at once till the air around Alisoun’s head seemed to darken?
“What you mean?”
The old man hawked again; this time a glob missed her shoulder by only the barleycorn it resembled.
Alisoun felt a swarm of butterflies burst in her brain. She’d never heard anything so ferocious as the sound wings could make as they kindled into flame. No. Alisoun shook her head. It was only hunger kept her from hearing or seeing straight.
The old man had mistaken her for someone other than Demdike’s granddaughter. Perhaps he’d grown unmindful in his dotage of Grandmam’s dealings between villagers and spirits. Who else could folk turn to when warts wanted curing or thieves finding? Who else told a fairy cake from poisoned mushroom?
Law shoved Alisoun aside.
She felt rather than heard the cackle of undergrowth. Or, perhaps, it was a growl that rose from somewhere inside when her ankle twisted. In response to the pain, Alisoun did not swear words exactly. Sounds that could not have been spelled—even if she’d had letters—erupted like pronged lightning. Only denser.
Only then did Alisoun remember the black shape as it arose between her and the peddlar, its legs too elongated for any dog; its expression too mild to truly frighten as it settled onto haunches. And then, one foreleg reached impossibly back to remove what she took to be its tail until it firmed enough to notch into a bowstring. The creature was a dog. And then, it wasn’t.
Alisoun realized that she was looking at a child drawing an arrow at the peddler’s skull. It was a fairy spirit she had called though hadn’t meant to. That creature had been stalking the peripheries as Grandmam always said a Familiar would when Alisoun was old enough to spare the blood it wanted to thicken its pudding.
The bow might have been fashioned from shin bones. Its string: scalp-snatched. A dirty yellow strand as stray as one of Alisoun’s own.
She’d meant to scream out loud, but the only sound came from the shaft dividing air, then, the crack. Law’s head jerked as if fist-struck.
Alisoun did not know how she suddenly found herself kneeling, her hands shaking as badly as Law’s left side. The dirt road emptied of any other form but hers and the juddering peddler’s. The girl could see no weapon, no wound, only wind rippled through his jaw-line—and the old man’s eyelids, though open, held only rheum.
In the courtroom, Jennet Device, Alisoun’s nine-year-old sister, stood upon the table. The younger girl’s hair had never seemed so bright.
The elder did not cry as the younger recounted the spell their mam had taught them to cure thirst.
“Three Biters hast thou bitten, the Hart, ill Eye, ill Tongue: Three bitters shall be thy Boote, Father, Sonne, and Holy Ghost.”
If only Alisoun had remembered these words on the road to Trawden, she would not have found herself charged for witchery in Pendle Forest along with eleven others, including Mam, who had to be hauled scratching and spitting like a sack-bound kitten as Jennet was led into the room.
The child blinked scared; baffled, but bold, at the attention.
“Papist devilry.” Alisoun heard someone intone, though she couldn’t place words in the mouth of a single onlooker.
Would she really be hung when she’d never meant, had not even known her power as Demdike’s own? Her Familiar hadn’t even been named in the usual ceremony where cunning folk baptized their newly blooded spirits. When she’d sensed that slinking darkness just off the roadway, she had suspected it might belong to Grandmam’s rival, Chattox. That old woman’s Fancie often took the form of a stag-sized dog. Even Tibbs kept his distance when the other daemon teased the tree line as if surveying territory that should have been restricted to the Device family, if their own Familiars had been more vigilant in protecting their own.
Alisoun Device should not have found herself on trial for attempted murder, or for conspiracy by witchcraft. She had not meant to sanction elf shot. Why, even the victim, Law, had forgiven her when the old man’s eyes had returned to their niches. She could tell he understood when she’d wept words of penance by his bedside. It was his son who had accused her, not the elder Law.
And though she knew that her family was known to consort with the fair (though they often seemed unfair) folk that inhabited Pendle Forest, Alisoun had never intentionally killed anyone by shaping their likeness in clay to be needle-pricked, and then, slowly, crumbled so that the flesh wasted mysteriously away.
In fact, Alisoun had always been afraid of such cunning and kept her distance from the animals that strayed into the cottage, sometimes resembling rats with arm-length tails or, horned toads that hopped about the beds of uncultivated henbane, thorn apple, nightshade. These creatures had never been petted or dandled by Alisoun.
Even Tibbs never made himself at home on any other than Grandmam’s lap-nest. Alisoun always stood, making busy if that beast cat came too close. The old woman never knew how shifty-eyed Tibbs flirted with less bony thrones.
Alisoun did not tell even as Grandmam gasped her last in Lancaster gaol. Mam sat across cell, pretending to see no one at all though both her good eye and her knotty eye fixated in opposite directions. She had not confessed; had not believed promises of forgiveness from that wheedling magistrate. Alisoun could not say if she trusted in Mam’s ability to see inside and outside at once.
Only Jennet did not join the family’s watch in the dark unlit by the eye flames of the Familiars, who had candled for them once. The one time Jennet had been led inside the darkened gaol to visit (or perhaps to witness), she’d barely been recognizable in that clean, blue frock. And that feather-light tongue of hers might have turned to pot shard, an earthen stump in her mother’s presence. Jennet had hardly looked at Alisoun or their brother James or their grandmother, Demdike, before the gaoler’s wife pulled the child back into the light that hurt the elder sister’s eyes. Jennet’s dress had been a blue wraith as it receded from the dim dank where the accused rocked and prayed and coughed.
Where was Tibbs? Or Fancie? Dandy? Or Ball? Or any of the other imps that the prisoners were supposed to have enthralled by blood-pap? Hadn’t Grandmam fed that hank of Tibbs’ fur until it fluffed into finest ermine when even Jennet’s hair seemed dull as a coin buried too long under soil?
Before she died, Grandmam had said iron bars kept fairy spirits out in the cold.
Even later, in the courtroom, Alisoun’s chill went deeper than bones. Guilty is as guilty does.
At least, Jennet did not hear the fall of verdicts, having been led through the throng, followed by—Alisoun was near certain—at least one ungainly dog. It paused to look over its shoulder.
And Alisoun wanted to call out to her sister, but bile rose into her throat as green sparked in sockets too large to be what Alisoun knew she saw: a boy in a black, stoat jacket, waggling a rattle. An arrow. Then, a paw.