An extract from Margaret Meyer’s debut novel, The Witching Tide, published by Phoenix in July 2023
Early September, 1645
She was in the garden at first light. There were herbs to cut: rosemary for the roast meat, mint and mallow for her cough. The house and the street and the hill beyond it were dimmed by a thick, flame-coloured haze, and as she crossed the grass she saw how the morning star was swathed in vapour. A single magpie flew from it, so close that its wing-beat stirred the air by her face. It landed on the roof’s ridge and mocked her in its grating voice.
Two bad omens; but what was she to make of them? The day would unfold as God intended.
The mallow grew full and fierce at the street’s margin. Martha crouched and cut handfuls. Over her shoulder she saw three men approaching. She stood. The men faltered and fell back as though they had seen a hell-fiend rise: that hag was her.
When they recovered they came on apace, right up to the house. Then she knew them – Hesketh’s lads from the smithy at the far end of the village, and Herry Gowler from the gaol. She ran for the door and was almost through it when they reached her. They had the blunt look of men uneasy with their task and their fear told itself in needless force. They shoved her aside and she went down like scythed barley, lying over the threshold while her lungs pumped noise like punctured bellows. They stepped over her and went in. She turned her head and saw Simon coming from his bed under the stairs with his hands raised: part greeting, mostly alarm. With their staves they felled him and then turned for the kitchen. Martha pushed herself onto her knees and crawled after them, trying to call Master Kit’s name. The curtain rail splintered as they wrenched it. Cloth poured onto the floor. Prissy had been shelling peas into a dish. Martha heard the dish break, the hail of green beads, Prissy’s animal wail. Accusations – unconscionable, shocking – issuing harshly from the men’s throats. They left dragging Prissy between them like a heifer bound for the slaughterhouse.
Martha got to her feet and watched them go. The front door was ajar and the mist seemed to clot and fold in, as if to veil what had happened.
Simon came and stood by her. ‘It were only time,’ he said thickly. One of his nostrils had split and the red ran into his mouth. ‘For our turn,’ he said. ‘In Cleftwater.’ They looked at each other in silence. His eyes were dark and glassy, fixed on her. In them she saw her own fear reflected.
She made a wide circling gesture, to the kitchen, the house, their village.
‘Right enough,’ Simon said. His voice was flat with misgiving. ‘Nothing’s safe now. Nothing.’
All the black of the world rose then. In it was a vision of the Archer babe – his blue mouth, his waxy pallor. Dread grew through her body like a vine. Simon saw her sway and grasped her elbow and brought her to the kitchen stool, making her sit while he went to bring the master. After a moment she heard his hesitant knock on the bedchamber door and Kit’s voice, deep and with the husk on it that it always had in the first of the morning. And then Mistress Agnes’s also, high with alarm.
Gone Prissy. Taken Prissy. They had wrenched her from here so roughly, from her hearth and her home, Prissy’s hard-won places. Everywhere there were reminders. Proving bread dough in a bowl in the hearth embers. Gold hairs glinting from the floor rushes.
Martha forced her legs to move, hauled herself upright, pulled back the kitchen shutter. Meagre light seeped in and by it she found the ewer and drank straight from it, so fast that ale runnelled from both sides of her mouth. The fire was all but out. She raked it, coaxing the embers by blowing on them. The flames took a long time to catch and were weak until she fed them, pine cones and a piece of salt-wood from one of the wrecked boats on the beach. She sat on the stool again. The sun wrote strips of light on the wall and for a long time she studied them, unsure of their message. Her cheek was smarting where she had fallen, the split skin puffing up on either side like lips. It felt bad, like some judgement, to be marked in such a way. Through the kitchen window she could see the back yard’s dimness beginning to thin, and through it came the faint repeating pulse of the sea, regular as breathing. She listened to it until her heart began to slow.
Her thoughts were dark and running and she did not like to be in them. Why Prissy, and not her? And what of the other taken women, from the villages not far south of here? Women in Salt Dyke and Holleswyck, a mother and daughter among them. More in Sandgrave, not a half-mile away. Some of them dead already of gaol fever and some still to die, if the courts willed it so. Kit said a London lawyer had been hired to try them, a man known to take coin in advance of a judgement.
She was Cleftwater-born and knew many things, but not the true nature of this new terror that had until today been safely distant, a rumour only. Now it had arrived. Now it was real. Prissy’s arrest would not be the first. The kettles hissed over the fire and their noise mingled with the ripe waft of the slops bucket, setting off a queasy current that ran from the base of her throat to her guts. When? When would they come for her? If they came, what then? Nothing then. She would be less than nothing. Disowned. Stateless. Worse than that: she would be reinvented, made monstrous; every one of her misdeeds and defects – real or imagined – magnified a thousand-fold.
God help her then. God help them all. All the taken women.
A hand was on her shoulder, anchoring her with its grip. She opened her eyes.
‘How do you, Martha?’ Kit said.
She looked at him, then at her hands. They must talk for her. Inside her were unvoiced words – so many – that shoved and bobbed in her head and chest. That could not be sounded because of the thing in her throat – a thick, throbbing form that stole her voice and used her breath for its own. Something lived in it: a serpent, a worm. Since childhood it had been there. The herbs she took damped the coughing but did not stop the worm’s work. It hurt to talk. Because of it she rarely spoke. Now her hands drew the shapes of their language, soundless signs and gestures – made up nigh on thirty years ago between Kit and herself – that was their way of speaking to each other.
He put some fingers lightly under her chin and tilted her cheek to the light. I will bring the doctor, he shaped back.
Nay, she motioned. I have my herbs.
‘What did they say? When they came. What reason did they give?’
She shook her head. None.
‘They must have reason to enter a house – any house – like this.’
Her cheek throbbed. She found she could not look at him. Life with Kit had gone along of its own accord, she had lived it more or less content, had never thought to question it. Or be questioned, in her turn.
She let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. Kit was a good man and a kind one. He had rescued Prissy – their comely, golden-haired cook – from a life of whoring on Salt Dyke docks. Similarly with her, Martha. She had been his boyhood nurse and he had kept her on, given her the dignity of work and a home. It was impossible to lie to him.
She made her hand into horns and brought it to her forehead.
‘They said… what? That she is of the Devil?’
Aye … aye. His servant. She circled her ring finger. The Devil’s bride.
He looked uncertainly at her, then past her. Then his expression hardened. ‘Rest here a while,’ he said. ‘Mistress Agnes is still abed. Simon and I will see about Prissy.’
He squeezed Martha’s shoulder and went. She tried to stand but all her strength had drained away. The house was quiet except for familiar sounds; the constant soughing of the waves and over it the grunt of the hogs that were beginning their day’s foraging in the unyielding dirt of the yard. The window showed the wash-house and her physick garden and behind all these the far flint wall with its gate that opened onto Tide Lane. Beyond the lane was the sea: flat, listless, the colour of polished pewter. With Prissy gone there would be so much more to do. Ale to be brewed. Meals to prepare. Mistress Agnes would soon rise and want help getting dressed.
For some minutes she sat without moving, trying to steady herself in the kitchen’s disarray, scattered pans and plates and drying herbs, shards of broken dish, the slew of peas on the floor. Hearing from upstairs Kit’s voice as he conferred with mistress Agnes; knowing in her marrow and with utter certainty that Prissy’s arrest was the beginning, had set in motion some brutal, pitiless mechanism that would be neither stopped nor diverted.
The prospect set her in motion. She went upstairs and along the narrow passageway that passed the main chamber, and then up another flight of stairs to her room in the attic. Its one small window looked out over the back garden to the sea.
Mam’s small cedarwood casket was under the bed. She lifted it onto the mattress and unlocked it. The hinges complained as she lifted the lid. On top was a layer of yellow flowers that crumbled to dust at her touch. The casket held the past, the difficult past: heirlooms from Mam mostly. One by one she took them out. Mam’s chamois pouch had lain for years in the chest. It held all Mam’s charms, ones she’d been gifted as well as those Mam had made herself. Before now there had never needed its contents. Martha loosened the drawstring. The first charm was a tiny, wizened organ, grey-pink and dried to a nut-like hardness: the gallbladder of some field creature – a vole or shrew. She threw it on the bed, mouthed a soft curse, brushed her fingers clean. Went on with the unpacking, discovering a tiny lidded jar holding a handful of nails, a corn dolly, some dried trumpets of foxgloves, a shrivelled sprig of white heather. Then a toad, crushed flat as paper, with a crushed collar of briar-thorn wound around its neck.
Blood sang in her temples and ears: these things that occurred when Mam was near. She put the dried toad on her bed with the other charms. The worst of her panic had subsided but still she paused, needing to gather herself. She regarded the charms. Not these. None of these. What she needed was still in the pouch.
She looked at it again. From its open mouth she thought she heard a tiny sound leaking – a sinister, persuasive hum. She took a breath, steeled herself to reach in, brought out the package. The linen wrapping was frayed but otherwise as she remembered. She unwound it. The contents fit neatly in her palm. A prickle of feelings went over her; the lancings of memories and old grief.
The doll was ill-made and lumpen, crudely fashioned from a stump of candle, egg-shaped where the wax bulged at its hips. Remnants of burnt wick were still in it. She turned it in her fingers. It had two aspects, she remembered now. Two faces. One without eyes or only pinpricks for eyes; the other face more frightening, its burnt-in eyes widely staring, the O of its mouth agape. In her chest excitement and alarm jostled, speeding up her heart. The doll seemed to quiver; light haloed it, put a sheen on the dingy yellow wax, kindling the recollection of its purpose. It would need rousing if she were to make use of its powers.