Barefoot Poetry

SS Matthews

Chapter 2 – The Witches of Malzieu

hedge witch 1

CH 2….The Witches of Malzieu

*The young maid stole through the cottage door,
And blushed as she sought the Plant of Power;
“Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me thy light,
I must gather the mystic St. John’s Wort tonight,
The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide,
If the coming year shall make me a bride.”

Emerging from the door of her own cottage, Antoinette Debaraz was singing her song of Midsummer. Now eighteen years of age, her heart was light and yet full of the promise of dreams to be fulfilled. She felt no urgency as she made her way along the familiar trail to the meeting place and often paused to gather herbs of interest, or to visit with the creatures of the forest.

As this was to be a special night in her young life, a night of marvelous events, there was a skipping spring to her stride. With her novice year of service complete, tonight she would be initiated into the group of witches. Upon commencement, the reigning priestess of the Sisters of Melusine would scourge, purify and then welcome her with the sacred kisses. At the conclusion of the ceremony, she would be fully vested in the practice and privy to every secret enchantment.

As for the coven, they were overjoyed to receive the maiden into their company. It was not a secret to them that more so than any other, including the matron crone herself, Antoinette was of a talent born. Familiar with a great many herbs and how to combine them, without benefit of any formal training the girl already possessed a reputation as an accomplished healer. Since her training began, she’d proven herself swift in learning the details of every art; readily memorizing the words and motions required in divination as well as the performance of rituals. So much so, that she showed every promise of one day ascending to the station of high priestess.

Her understanding of the web of dependence between living things and their relationship with the unseen world was certainly precocious, made manifest by her creativity in the design of incantation. Her talent exceeded most artificers who’d labored before her and already it was believed by her mentor, that if there was one among them who could unite the scattered and frightened witches of France into an organized coalition, it would be Antoinette.

Much like me, by choice she remained a recluse of the wilderness. However since the time of our first meeting, it had become a practice of mine to pay occasional visits to the girl. Being ever in her debt and gifted with her friendship, I would leave her with packages of venison and useful items that resulted from my hunts. Sometimes we would talk and she would tell me of the power and properties of certain plants and attempt to explain how they could be accessed. Her youthful mastery extended to many crafts and was already plain even unto me, a man mostly ignorant of magical byways.

Even with those things that I brought to her and the bounty of her gardens, it was none the less necessary at times for her to make her way into the city. Being a girl of exceeding beauty and intelligence, it might surprise some that Antoinette would prefer to live alone. She was however, a being of such bright spirit that she did not suffer from loneliness and only at urgent need would she brave the congested streets of Malzieu.

When such necessity did arise she was not prone to tarry, for all too often she would encounter vulgar men avid to lust after her. Falling under the spell of her natural allure and bountiful charms, without pity these men would press her for her favor. Without pause they would badger the girl in hopes of winning the coveted prize of her virginity. Being a chaste girl, and innocent in the ways of carnality, Antoinette would spurn their unsolicited advances. Too often her rejection of these men resulted in rousing not only the anger of would-be suitors, but an insidious spitefulness. Unrelenting, their bold persistence would sometimes escalate to ruder forms of attention. Though earnestly alarmed, she never used spells against them, even when it became necessary for her to physically fight her way free.

On one such occasion, Françoise Boulet, a farmer and keeper of sheep, came also to the marketplace in the company of his wife, Claudette. As Françoise was a man of simple education and poor at conversation, his wife would relish these opportunities to visit with her friends in the city and share in their gossip. While going about his business, Françoise happened to spy the girl in distress. Cornered on the street by a pair of uncouth men, she was struggling to break free of them as they tugged at her clothing.

To Françoise it appeared the men were daring enough to assault her on the street in the broad light of day. Approaching the scene, Boulet took up one of the men by the collar and seat of his pants. Tossing the ruffian rudely onto his face in the street, the second offender was so taken aback by the action that he decided to flee before receiving a similar scolding. In gratitude, Antoinette gave Françoise a brief and innocent embrace before hurrying away.

Observing the incident, Claudette became furious. Sharing her dismay with friends Renee and Elizabeth, these same two women claimed to have witnessed their own husbands fawning after the girl. Resentful of Antoinette’s youthful glow, and expressing extreme displeasure at their men being bewitched by the maiden’s comely appearance, born of a common jealousy they united in a liaison of intent.

Devising a plan by which they might rid themselves of the girl’s distracting influence, Renee secretly followed Antoinette through the woods to her home. Hiding near the cottage and taking note of the girl’s predilection for witchcraft, a conspiracy was born. At her next meeting with Claudette and Elizabeth, between the three women they formed a plan to end their concerns. Choosing both the moment and course of their action, they conspired in secret to kill the imagined contender for their husbands’ affections. Ready to implement their plan of vengeance, the night they chose to engineer the girl’s undoing was Midsummer’s Eve.

As part of ‘setting the watch’ for the celebration of Saint John’s Eve, Antoinette arrived early and alone at the meeting place. Gathering wood for a balefire was a task assigned as part of her initiation and though others might consider it drudgery, she went joyfully about her work.

With the evening warm and her skin dampened with sweat, she removed her clothing and laid it aside as not to further soil the fabrics. Upon returning to the task, with arms fully loaded she was set upon by the vindictive Claudette and her fellow conspirators. Outnumbered and surprised, Antoinette was readily overpowered and pushed to the ground. Before she could again rise, she was subdued by the three vexed women, suffering many blows from the hands and feet of her tormentors.

Having made her scratched and bruised, after initially venting their anger by striking at the girl, the trio was not yet finished with their plan. Lifting the girl up from the ground by her arms, they drug her half-conscious body to a sapling where they bound her upright with twine. Fueled by envy, the wives of Malzieu planned to carry out a ritual of their own.

It was known to them that the burning of a witch had been banned by the court of King Louis, but even so, the fire that scorched their jealous hearts could only be quenched with flames. Without the fair girl to dote over, surely the attention of their husbands would return where belonged and, at the same time, they would be ridding themselves of a sorceress. To the three women it seemed a just and fitting solution to their problems.

Fully aware that if their actions should be found out, they would be punished, perhaps even hanged, the women knew this secret must be eternally keep between them. But such was the awful passion that drove them, that the danger incurred was not enough to dissuade them. So powerful was their unreasoning hatred that each in turn agreed to a solemn pact.

While Renee and Elizabeth set about repositioning the wood Antoine herself had gathered around the now bound girl’s feet, Claudette produced a tool of reaping from the pocket of her apron. Brandishing the steel with spiteful taunts, with its sharp and cutting point she began to nick at the skin of the naked girl. Upon seeing the blood well and trickle in response to her aggression, a dark and insidious passion took hold of the woman’s mind.

Mesmerized by her work, with long, almost caressing strokes of her sickle, Claudette began to slice at her victim. With murderous intent she wanted more than anything to flay the hide from the girl’s still breathing body. Reveling in the blood as it washed over her hands, she gave no heed to the horrified protests of her companions or to the agonized screams of the young witch as they rang through the forest.

If those torturous cries were heard by her coven sisters as they approached through the woods, upon hearing such terrible screams, who could fault them for fleeing? I can only imagine that it was enough to convince them that they too were at risk. With darkness falling around the tragic tableau, there seemed no one else in the wood that might come to aid Antoinette in her desperate distress.

Not long thereafter, the echoes of the girl’s anguished cries faded into whimpers before ceasing altogether. The respite was not because the blood-thirsty Claudette had tired of her work, or heeded the reservations of her friends. Mercifully, Antoinette fainted from the pain and could no longer feel the awful brush of the breeze blowing across her raw flesh.

Standing in awe, Renee and Elizabeth were both appalled and spellbound by the gruesome brutality of the scene. Unlike Claudette who was accustomed to the base environment of life on a farm, being of the city, neither of the two women had been exposed to the horrors of this sort of bloodshed. Though they found it to be terrifying, they were none the less drawn to its awful fascination.

As a hunter of wolves, I know it to be uncommon for the beasts to covet the blood of humans. Only will they consider people as prey when all other sources of sustenance are exhausted. If the animals on which they normally predate are scarce, they will either move away, or creep closer to the livestock that men keep. Although this second sometimes will bring the two into contact, wolves will target animals long before risking a confrontation with man.

In spite of this knowledge, it might be asserted that the combination of the scent of Antoinette’s blood, fear and pitiful cries were what first attracted the beast to the scene. It might also be argued that Antoinette was a sorceress of such potency, that in her terrible anguish she conjured forth a dark and terrible savior. Still, knowing my own savoir as I did, I thought it impossible for her to wish such harm upon another, even when being tortured by them.

Perhaps it was that already in route to the meeting place of the witches, the creature known as Satan happened upon the scene. Finding Antoinette in her helpless state, perhaps then he formed a plan to use her to his advantage. Certainly the deeds of those three women could have opened the doorway of blood by which he arrived, a route by which evil could invade the Gévaudan and see it drenched in crimson fear. Quite possibly it was they who ushered into our province the awful plague of tragedies to follow. However, it is my belief that the beast appeared as part of a different plan, one set in motion long before that fateful night.

Meanwhile, believing the girl already near death, the three women were not yet willing to be robbed the witnessing of her burning. Being inexperienced at woodcraft however, for several moments they struggled in the attempt to set fire to the damp tinder of their makeshift pyre. So it was that before succeeding in igniting an irreversible spark, they were interrupted by an unexpected visitor.

Perhaps it was a howl, a growl, or just the sound of paws approaching that distracted them. Regardless of which, the sudden appearance of a large and menacing wolf-like animal put a halt to the proceedings. Enormous in size and of imposing feature, it was now the turn of the three women to tremble in fear. With crimson colored fur and eyes looking like lanterns of fiery death, it emerged from the veil of dusk putting the trio to immediate flight.

So unearthly and savage was it in appearance, that I’m sure the beast had no need of showing further aggression toward the women. Certainly they believed the devil was upon them and like the stroke of a saber, fear readily severed their tether to hatred. Stricken with such panic that two of the three fouled themselves, Claudette and her companions fled the site of desecration in want of their lives.

Although unable to complete the act of witch-burning, I’ve no reason to believe that any of the three involved ever spoke a word of what they had seen. Certainly they never told another of abandoning the young witch to the mercy of the beast. Only by chance was it that I came upon the scene two days in the aftermath. So excepting myself and one other, the fate of Antoinette Debaraz was likely never mentioned or even speculated upon.

Having been successful in hunting a stag of reasonable measure, I set out to deliver a fresh packet of venison to Antoinette’s cottage. Finding her away from home, I chanced upon her footprints and decided to follow them through the wood. Leading to a clearing that seemed an obvious witch-hold, at first exposure I could hardly comprehend what it was I beheld.

Discovering Antoinette’s clothing upon the ground appearing purposely trampled, I came to realize that no ritual of worship had last taken place there. Stunned by the horror of what lay before me, with unhurried and careful action, I made a thorough study of the area. Isolating and retracing the movements of each actor involved, the brutal nature of the performance became clear.

Arriving at the sapling still tangled with twine and piled round with wood, my wretched heart was taken by grief and gnawed by anger. The purpose of the wood pile was apparent, but splashed with many droplets of blood, it also bespoke of despicable torture. The details of a dire play told a story of foulest conception.

By this time in my life, I had long ago deduced that where the passions of men and their female counterparts are involved reason will hold uncertain reign, but even so, there was something more here than could be sanely reconciled. Even should I be able to correctly interpret, and in some way accept, the nightmarish treatment of an innocent maid, the tale as I could read it was as yet without conclusion. Sad a scene as it was, the resolution should be obvious. The girl Antoinette, though dead, should lie somewhere about. But what I saw stood in defiance of rational explanation. Strange as it may sound, after considering the evidence, this is what my deductions led me to consider.

Set upon by a trio of female assailants, the maid was attacked and knocked to the ground. Beaten until she could not stand, she was assisted to her feet, falling twice before being bodily dragged. Lashed to a sapling for the purpose of burning, it was at that point Antoinette’s true torture began. As if no more than a diseased animal they cut at her. In testament to this, lying on the ground like a symbol of their hatred was the abandoned reavening sickle used to abuse her.

Furthermore, her assailants had been free from any sense of haste. Rather, upon discovering a wicked enjoyment in carving at the defenseless girl, they had taken their time. All of this was made clear by the clues left behind. The puzzling part of the grotesquery however, the part that called for an intuitive explanation, was that not all of the prints in the area belonged to the women. In light of this discovery, why the fire was never lit and their departure so sudden seemed quite understandable.

By shape, I would have thought the prints belonging to a wolf of incredible size and most unusual design. Counting six toes upon each paw, with four forward and a pair facing rear, I knew of no creature in the animal kingdom that could account for them. Standing on four feet, it may have equaled the height of the tallest of the women. Its sudden appearance would certainly have given them the fright of their lives.

Leading both towards and then away from the tree to which the unfortunate girl was bound, the tracks indicated that upon reaching her position, the animal had risen up onto its rearmost legs. Resting his forepaws on the girl’s shoulders or chest, he had taken the time to kick away much of the kindling from around her. Balanced directly before the trussed and helpless maid, the beast had then performed a diabolical mating.

Abused and bleeding her life away, anyone might deduce that the unfortunate Antoinette became the first victim of the monstrous wolf of Gévaudan. But what I witnessed advised me differently. Upon reaching her, the beast had stood on his rearmost legs so that he might ravish her. The evidence, though of a delicate nature, was clearly presented and hardly mistakable. Due to the girl’s already wounded state however, I could not determine if intercourse was forced or solicited.

Impossible as it might be to imagine, for some unknown reason the idea came to me that while delirious from the loss of blood and distraught from the hurt of jealous harm, Antoinette might actually have invited the beast to partake of her. Recognizing him as a creature not of this world, perhaps she even implored him even to drink of her blood and afterwards render his bite, so she might herself arise and walk at his side as a wolf of the night!

Shaking the unbidden and unwelcome image from my mind, as unlikely a mystery as this was to reconcile, I could find no evidence that Antoinette had at any point been dragged or carried from that place. After all she’d been through, certainly she had not walked unaided, that is to say, I could find no evidence that she’d managed to walk away on her own two feet.

What I did find indicated the unreal possibility that she had walked away on four. Otherwise, how should I explain a mysteriously appearing second set of wolf-tracks? Appearing suddenly at the base of the sapling, they led but in one direction. Undeniably they were the prints of a she-wolf and departed the tragic scene by leading away into the forest.

*A Pagan song of midsummer; Eliza Cook’s Journal

SS Matthews

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