Barefoot Poetry

SS Matthews

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A Season of Wolves Ch. 2 / Pt. 5 The Witches of Malzieu

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 seem 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? Beginning abruptly 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

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A Season of Wolves Ch. 2 / Pt. 4 The Witches of Malzieu

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.

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A Season of Wolves Ch. 2 / Pt. 3 The Witches of Malzieu

Mesmerized by her work, with long, almost caressing strokes of her sickle, Claudette began to cut at her victim. Her intent being murderous, she wanted more than anything to flay the hide from the girl’s still breathing body. Reveling in the blood as it flowed onto her hands, she gave no more heed to the horrified protests of her companions than she did to the agonized screams of the young witch as they rolled echoing through the forest.

It may be that those torturous cries were heard by Antoinette’s coven sisters approaching through the wood and upon hearing such terrible screams, who could fault them for fleeing? I can only imagine that such wailing was enough to convince them that they too were at risk and with darkness falling around the tragic tableau, there seemed no one else who might aid the girl in her desperate distress.

Not long thereafter, the pitch of her anguished cries faded to whimpers and then ceased altogether. The respite was not because the blood-thirsty Claudette had tired of her work, or even 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 at the handiwork of their friend, Renee and Elizabeth were appalled, but also spellbound by the gruesome brutality of the scene. Unlike Claudette who was accustomed to the baser elements of a life involving animal husbandry, being of the city neither of the two women had been exposed to the horrors of this sort of bloodshed. Both found it to be terrifying, but were none the less drawn to its awful fascination.

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

In spite of this knowledge, it might be that the combination of Antoinette’s blood scenting through the forest and her 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 horrible savior. Still, knowing her as my own savoir, I believe it impossible for her to wish such harm upon another, even while being tortured by them.

Perhaps, it was that already in route to the meeting place of the witches, Satan himself happened upon the scene and finding Antoinette in a decidedly helpless state, formed a plan to use her to his advantage. Although certainly the deeds of the three women were sufficient to have opened a doorway of blood by which he arrived; a route by which evil could invade Gévaudan and see it drenched in crimson fear. Quite possibly it was their jealous actions that ushered into our province the awful plague of tragedies that followed. It is my belief however, 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, 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.

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A Season of Wolves Ch.2/Pt. 2 The Witches of Malzieu

Witch Burning by Granat Olga

Devising a plan by which they might rid themselves of the girl’s distracting influence, at her next opportunity 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 that would rid them of their concerns. Choosing both the moment and course of action, they conspired in secret to kill the imagined contender for their husbands’ affections. Once ready to implement their plan of vengeance, the night they chose to engineer the girl’s undoing was Midsummer’s Eve.

Assigned the task of gathering wood for the balefire, this duty was part of ‘setting the watch’ for the celebration of Saint John’s Eve. As part of her initiation ritual, another might have found the work a drudgery, but for Antoinette the activity gave her pleasure and she went joyfully about it.

With the evening being warm and her skin dampened with sweat, she removed her clothing and lay them aside as not to soil the fabric. 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 repeated 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 with twine. Fueled by envy, the wives of Malzieu were determined 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, even so, the fire scorching their jealous hearts could only be quenched with flames. Afterwards, without the fair girl to dote over, surely the straying attention of their husbands would return where they belonged. At the same time they would be ridding themselves of a sorceress. To the reasoning of 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 hate that each in turn agreed to a solemn pact.

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