The Burning

By E. C. Ambrose
Feb 23, 2018 · 4,438 words · 17 minutes

The fight for my son's soul began just after the witch burning.  We'd gone up to London together, leaving little Nate with the Cutlers as I didn't think he'd handle the journey.  We were far from the stake, given the crowds, but we did have the farm wagon to stand on, so we could see the witch tied up there, and the piles of wood. Once the fire started, smoke obscured everything but the flash of the bishops' golden crosses as they warded us against evil.  Owain gave Elisha a penny to buy a banner from one of the vendors, so that's what lead him away to where it happened.  What with the smoke we couldn't see the Devil manifest in the flesh of his witch--saints be praised! we couldn't see that--but Elisha'd run right down in there, and it was that brought corruption to our house.  I'm sure it was.

When the priest who found him brought him back to us, the boy was different.  Insisted he'd seen an angel, not the Devil at all, and no amount of praying nor beating would get it out of him.  He kept touching his cheek, like he'd been kissed, and it was Father John told me the Devil had touched my son.

Owain smacked the boy's cheek hard after that.  Me, I'm at my wit's end.  Not only my son's been touched by the Devil, but Owain's gone on a tear, trying to beat the evil out of Elisha's flesh, and the whole time looking scared half to death.  But I never seen him look so scared as he did when Father John come up to the house after Elisha's outburst.  Taking him to church more often should've shown him back to the Lord, yet it only made him wilder, saying the priests had let an angel die, and he'd seen it all.  It was me brought Father John back to the house, after bringing Nate down to the Cutlers', but I mightn't have done it if I had known how Owain would react.

I gave the priest the chair, and me and Owain took opposite benches, Elisha kneeling at his father's back, still bleeding a little from the corner of his mouth.  That boy did look wretched—not like he wanted to believe what he said, and it's that makes me sure of the Devil's touch.  My boys're strong-willed, no doubt, and Elisha was fighting the Devil with all of his nine years, but he needed help, and Owain. . . well, my husband didn't know what to do but beating and pleading and neither of those did any good.

Owain sat with his hands gripped between his knees, not looking at the priest, but his eyes flashed white now and then in the firelight, round and gleaming.  "The lad's always been headstrong, Father, you know that.  There's no Devil in him."

 "Witchcraft requires a firm response, Owain."  Father John leaned forward, shadows deepening his features.  "People are beginning to talk.  They know what happened at the—the city."  Father John managed a wan smile.  "And the interventions of the church on behalf of your son have not gone unnoticed, so incidents like this cannot simply be ignored.  Some are beginning to suggest a dunking."

A dunking!  If Elisha floated, he was the Devil's and if he sank, he went to God.  I clamped my hands on the edge of the bench.

"Father."  Owain drew up at that, the line of his chin strong and handsome still.  "I have disciplined him—"He reached back and caught Elisha's chin, tipping the boy's face to display a reddening bruise—"He's got this idea stuck in his head, and I'll beat it out of him, I promise you."

Elisha's blue eyes glinted in the dim light, staring openly at the priest, and I clucked my tongue at him, trying to encourage at least a show of obedience.

Owain's back stiffened and he let the boy go.  "What is it, Edith?  Don't you think I've beat him well enough?"  He always did know when I had something on my mind.

The priest nodded at me, so I found my voice, trying to talk calm so Owain would hear me.  "We've done the best we could, Father, Owain, but it's been weeks now, and he's still not settled. The abbey is the best thing for him.  It could be this was God's way to call him to prayer."

Elisha's jaw set with anger. I gave him my stare, scolding without saying a word, and he ducked my gaze, knowing there'd be worse to follow if he made it any harder.  It's not as if I wanted him to go. . .although it's a worthy thing, having a monk in the family.

"We need him, Father," Owain snapped.  "I can't manage the farm on my own."

As if I hadn't been speaking--as if I didn't do no work at all.  My jaw clenched, and I tried to relax.  Owain and the priest had never got on well, and this madness of Elisha's affected him.  Man couldn't see his first-born touched by the Devil without some kind of pain in himself.

"You have another son, Owain, and that new colt of yours."  The priest smiled again, more broadly, and tipped his head to me.  "And neither of you is so old that more children are out of the question."

My cheeks warmed at that, and I wished Owain felt the heat as well—Lord knows I've prayed for children--but he pushed himself to his feet, as if he didn't hear.

"Thank you, Father.  We'll speak on it.  And I'm sorry about his outburst.  If it happens again, I'll beat him 'til he can't talk at all."  Owain used to be such a soft hand with the boys, which maybe played a part in Elisha's madness as well.  It was my husband I started to worry over, more even than the boy:  at least the church could help him.

"Do speak on it."  Father John rose up, brushing down his woolen robe.  "More than that, Owain, pray on it.  You will do that, won't you?"

I bobbed him a courtesy, trying to make amends for Owain's rudeness.  "Of course, Father."

Father John gazed on me with a measure of pride as he said, "Listen to your wife, Owain.  She is wise beyond her stature."  Then Owain held the door for him, summoning a spate of barking from the sheepdogs.

Owain stared into the twilight after him, then shoved the door closed, his fist still pushing against it.  He swung away from it at last and shouted, "Elisha!"

The boy leapt up, his head tilted all angry-like.  "Yes, Da."

"Don't you ever mention angels again, you hear?  Not angels, not visions, not prophets, not witches, not Moses—not anything near magic nor miracles, you hear me?"

Elisha's Adam's apple bobbed, then he said, soft but clear, "How can I not speak of prophets when I'm named for one?" 

I downright gawked at my own son.  I hated seeing him bruised and all, but I hated more this madness that turned him astray, taking his heart from God and making his father turn against him.  His defiance would be the death of him, even if they didn't toss him in a pond.

Owain snarled, grabbing Elisha's shirt so that the linen—worn from too many washings—tore at his shoulder, exposing his bruised back.   For a moment I feared Owain would take the boy's head right off, but his lips twisted like he was the one in pain.  I never seen anything like that face:  as dread as a painting of Hell.

"Another beating won't help, Owain."  I put a trembling hand on my husband's arm, but he felt hard as oak.  I wished I could make him tender again, the way he used to be.  "He's tainted.  Somehow, that witch ruined him.  Let Father John take him to the abbey.  It's the best thing for him, and for all of us.  If the villagers are talking—"

"I'll move to London before I let Father John take any son of mine."

Just for a moment, Owain's eyes gleamed as if he might weep—but what for?  His hand twisted in the boy's shirt, then released him, stroking lightly over Elisha's bruised shoulder.  "For the love of God, boy, you've got to let this go—can't you see that?"

"Owain—"I tried again, but Owain slipped from my touch, dropping to one knee before Elisha, touching the cheek where he'd slapped the boy not an hour ago.

Uncertainty edged white in Elisha's eyes.  "It was an angel I saw, Da—not the Devil.  You'd feel if I were lying."

Owain winced as if the boy's words hurt him more.  "I believe you, but whatever you saw, give up saying it. I don't care what you say to God in your own heart, but when anybody else can hear you, you keep your mouth shut."

I took a step back, feeling for the chair, my knees felt so weak—but I had to draw up my strength, and I told him, "Elisha, go quiet the dogs."

"Yes, Mum."  Elisha dodged around his father, slipping out the door.  He always had the touch with animals, too, just like his father, even after the Devil.  But it was my husband's madness I had to face.

"What can you mean telling him that?"  I folded my arms so he couldn't see me shaking.  "You don't care what he says to God?  You don't care for your own son's soul?  Mary and all her saints preserve us, Owain Farmer, you're sending your own son into damnation!"

Owain lurched to his feet.  "Where else can I send him, Edith—I'm already there."  His fingers knotted through his hair, his chest shuddering with every breath.

I did find the chair, then, sliding into it without taking my eyes off of my husband.  I crossed myself as careful as Easter.  Father John had praised me:  somehow, I would have the strength to face this.  "What are you saying, Owain?"

But he only shook his head, his loose hair tumbling against his shoulders.

I clasped my fingers in prayer, pleading for my husband to come back to me.  We'd been a love match from the start—or so I thought—until these last few months. "If you believe yourself beyond even the redemption of our Lord, Owain, then let Elisha go.  Let him be taken to the abbey.  How can the discipline of a damned soul ever serve to raise a child?"

"You would so easily let him go?"

Every word he said seemed spoken by a stranger, and I searched for the clues to his madness.  "To serve God?  Not easily, but I would.  What's come over you, Owain?  Tell me you don't want our son's soul in torment."

"Mine is!"  he shot back.  "Mine is in torment!  By God, Edith, I thought to save him!  You don't know how hard I've tried to keep from tainting my family. I never should've had children."

That hurt me from my heart to my loins, I tell you.  Tears burned at my eyes, but I held back.  "We don't have to have more children, Owain."  I wanted them, to be sure, and I wanted the pleasure of the marriage bed.  I always thought the fault was mine that we had only two who lived.  "Even if Elisha goes—"

"If that priest takes him, Edith, we'll never see him again."

"For the good of the Lord, and the good of his soul, Owain."  And yours, I wanted to say, for I could see the boy's madness tearing at his father's heart.  If Elisha went, and took his madness to the abbey, it might be the saving of all of us, if it brought back the husband I knew.

"You don't understand, Edith!  Father John—he's like them, the ones that burned the witch!  He doesn't think Elisha can be saved at all, didn't you see that?"

I remembered the compassion of the priest's look, and the faith he placed in me.  I swallowed and spent a minute to collect myself, but my hands kneaded my apron as I spoke.  "You believe Father John will burn our son."

Owain sighed and shook his head.  "I didn't say that."

"He's a man of God, Owain.  He's worried for Elisha's soul."

"He would break his flesh to save his soul."

The crackle of the fire echoed in our little house, so empty with the boys both out, and now empty of faith in my husband's heart.  What Elisha said was true:  my husband could sort out lies like a hound tracks a hare.  "You don't trust Father John—why?"

Owain evaded my question, his mouth turned down.  "He's not the only trouble, Edith.  It's true when he says the village is starting to worry.   They're starting to be afraid of our son."

If Elisha went, I'd lose him.  If he stayed, I'd lose them both, along with the trust of Father John and the rest of the village.  Our life in the village would be over if Elisha stayed.

Across the valley, a bell rang.  It was time to bring out the bedding, to secure the sheep pens and check oats for the morning.  It was time, and I had to choose before I, too, lost my faith.  "We ought to be picking up Nate from the Cutlers, Owain. Why don't you go down and fetch him home?"

"Edith."  His hand brushed my cheek and I leaned my face into his rough palm.  "You're a good woman.  We'll find our way."  His weight shifted.  "We'll move to London—they won't think to look there, given how you feel about the place."

All this to keep your son from God?  I thought, but I didn't say it, as Owain took up his cloak and went out the door.  I caught it before it shut and hurried out to the shed where Elisha was petting one of the dogs. 

"Tend the sheep, Elisha," I ordered, and he glanced at me, but gave a nod.  Maybe his father's last talk had made the difference.  And maybe it hadn't.  As soon as Elisha went out the back, I tossed a halter, over our colt's nose, took the lead rope around for reins and pulled myself up on his back.  I rode hard toward the village, dusk falling over the fields and gilding the thatch of the cottages, lighting gold upon the cross that crowned our church.  Father John stood in the yard with a lantern, no doubt going in to say the mass.

"Come now, Father!  Take him now—Owain's gone to the Cutlers' house to fetch Nathaniel back, so we've not got much time."

The priest hoisted his lantern, shadows dancing down his face.  "This is for the best, Edith.  For the village, and for your family. We must prevent the devil's work from spreading.  Your husband will see that in time."  He hurried back to his house to prepare while I turned for home.

Elisha opened the door for me, frowning, but not questioning.  "I've done the sheep. Da's not home yet."

I wanted to just look at him a while, before he went to the abbey, to blaze his sharp blue eyes and wild black hair into my heart—but he already watched like he worried over something, so I turned away. Under cover of taking out the bedding, I fetched a few of his things: his other tunic and trews, a carving Owain made him, his hood with the pattern I stitched on last winter.  When the door popped open again, we both startled.  "Father!"  Elisha cried.

I turned, my heart thundering in fear of finding Owain already there, but it was Father John filling the door.  "You're coming with me, Elisha, to take care of that Devil once and for all."

Elisha shook his head.  He glanced at me and caught sight of his things bundled in my arms.  "It was no Devil—there was no Devil that touched me, Father, you've got to believe me."

"The Devil sends visions to overpower the weak. He spreads his poison through his witches here on earth, and even through the innocents they snare.  If your soul is pure, boy, you have nothing to fear." 

"Don't send me away, Mum." 

My heart near melted, but I clasped the wooden cross I wore and said, "It's for your soul, Elisha.  There's naught else to do."

Father John loomed there in the door, hands spread in pleading for my son's faith.

"No!"  Elisha shouted.  "The Devil take you—he's never had me!"

In that awful moment, while we crossed ourselves and the priest started forward, Elisha made a run for the door.  Father John snatched him up.  He bound Elisha's wrists, then had to gag him so he wouldn't call back his father with screaming.  Tears streamed down my cheeks, and my son's—but after that awful curse, I could only pray it wasn't already too late.

Father John put Elisha upon the saddle before him and mounted his tall horse.  I offered up the bundle, but the boy struggled so that the priest had to hang onto him with one hand while he steered his mount with the other.  "God be with you, Edith!"  Father John shouted, but the clouds of his worries crowded out any compassion this time.  They galloped away toward the mill bridge and the Roman road beyond.  I wiped my face on my sleeve, clutching Elisha's things to my chest.  Foolish woman—he'd be given a habit there, given all he needed, and what we could not provide:  a sanctuary against the fiend.  The road climbed up the hill, and I watched until they topped it and disappeared over the other side toward the water before I finally turned away. 

Tucking the bundle under our bed, I laid out the boys' mattresses of straw along the wall, then stopped myself, and stacked them instead.  Nathaniel might as well have a little more comfort.  He'd need that tonight when he knew his brother was gone.  I heard him and Owain talking as they came up to the door, then Owain called my name.

Fixing my face with a plain expression I went out and got a shock to realize I hadn't put the colt away, but left him by the post, I'd been so anxious about getting inside to keep an eye on Elisha.

"Why's the horse here?  Elisha!"  Owain slid Nathaniel down from his shoulders, and tousled his hair.

"Oh, he's tending the sheep. I'll take care of it."  I reached for the reins, but Owain caught my arm.

"Don't lie to me, woman.  I can feel a lie."  He bared his teeth, his fingers too tight.  "Where's Elisha?"

I stood my ground.  "I asked Father John to come for him.  To take him to the abbey where he can be brought back to God."

Owain cried out and pushed me away.  At that sound, Nathaniel grabbed my skirts, staring up at his father.

"But the priest was lying!   I know he was lying!"

"What about, Owain?  You're not making any sense.  You tell me you're in torment, but you won't trust the priest.  You're afraid for our son, but you don't care that our neighbors want him dunked!  You won't let the priest tend to his soul—I don't know who you are any more!"

Then he stood for a moment and he spoke softly.  "I’m sorry you don't know who I am,"  he told me.  "I'm sorry that you never did."  He seized the reins and flung himself up to the colt's back.  "Where did they go?"

He looked majestic, just then, his hair made bright in the last of the sun, his face made terrible by the secrets he held from me.

"Edith—where?"  he barked down at me.  In the brightness of the sunset, he burned.  The priest was lying, my husband was afraid, and the priest had taken our son down the mill bridge road.

I shook off Nathaniel's hands.  "Stay here!"  Then I pulled myself up behind Owain, wrapping an arm about his chest, my hand pressed against his heart.  "There!  To the bridge!"

With a hard kick to the horse's ribs, Owain thundered down the path.

"Tell me!"  I shouted into the wind.

Owain's fingers found mine and twined into them.  "You'll curse me, Edith, as you are a God-fearing woman, you'll wish me dead."

"No," I told him, but my voice shook, and I clung to him tighter, my face pressed against his strong back.  What could be so awful that it tormented my husband and spread to my son?  "You're a witch," I breathed, as the wind whipped the tears from my face.

He could not have heard me, but his chest shuddered with a deep breath beneath our joined hands.  "I never meant to be, Edith, and sure I never wanted to taint my son."  He swallowed and spoke again.  "I can feel a lie. I can feel the truth.  I can feel the minds of the dogs and the horse and the sheep. I can feel when springtime's moving in the ground."  He jerked another breath.  "I can feel you love me.  I can feel your fear."

He was right, God help me, about the fear and the love.  "I thought I was losing you—that keeping Elisha meant losing you both."

"To Satan?"  He gave a sharp laugh.  "For me, at least, it's too late."

"It can't be," I wailed, but his words struck cold through my body.  A man could have uncanny ways, he could know animals and lies and not be a witch, couldn't he?  Owain was no witch, only wise to the ways of man and beast, but another man might not see that.  Another man—even a priest—might see witchcraft, and worry over that man's son.  "Faster!"

Owain bent forward, and that colt gave his heart.  I squeezed my eyes to shut out the way the hedges blew past as we rode.  Up the hill and down the other side, and the colt stumbled.  I rolled off his back, and Owain dropped heavily, catching the colt's head and murmuring so its wild eyes went calm.  The rumble of the millstream filled my ears, along with a splashing.  Bunching my skirts in my hands I ran, leaving the tall shadow of the mill.  Father John's horse towered in the center of the bridge, the priest staring into the water where violent ripples spread.

His head jerked up when he saw me and he kicked his horse into motion, clattering to come before me, the horse's hooves splashing in the pond.

"Elisha!"  I shouted.

"Wait!"  Father John cried, opening his hand before me, his face grave.  "Wait and see if he rises."

"And if he sinks, he dies!"  I tried to get around him, but the priest drove his horse again before me.  "He can't swim!"

Owain's voice rumbled, "No more can you."  My husband seized my arm and thrust me behind.

"Would you not rather your son reside with the Lord in Heaven than be possessed of the Devil here below?"

My husband raised his chin.  "That is for God, not you, to say."   Then Owain ripped apart the air with his hands and howled, "Be gone!"

Father John's horse pranced and skittered, drenching us both as it cleared his path.

At my husband's command, the waters rose.

They tore before him as if his hands had gripped the waters and severed them each from each.  Rippling in the sunset, the pond broke in two, pushed away to either side, furrowed as the earth by a plow.  At our feet, slick green stones appeared and pebbles and pilgrim's tin badges tossed in to bless the village.  A few fish flopped in the air as the waters departed.  Others flashed tail or fins in the gleaming walls.  Sticks protruded and receded, bobbing still above sunken stumps and--there!

Elisha lay drenched, face down in the mud.

I stumbled past Owain, slipping on stones, tripping over roots, squelching and losing a shoe before I caught Elisha's cold shoulder and pulled him from the muck.  I rolled him into my arms, wiping his face, pulling free the gag.  His chest shuddered and his legs twitched as I drew him close, and rose.  His feet broke the water wall, splashing and startling the fish.

To either side, water rose above our heads, higher than our house, higher than our apple trees, a dark passage back to the earth, which still glowed gold before us.  Owain stood there, feet braced, hands spread, eyes wide and unbelieving.

"Unholy fiend!"  Father John wheeled his horse back, plunging into the chasm Owain held, but the horse would not run my husband down. It brushed his hand, and he shook his head, just a little. 

The horse shied, rearing, trying to turn away from Owain.  Father John shrieked as he fell.

"Run!"  Owain told me, and his arms trembled.

I stumbled toward shore, Elisha cradled in my arms.  I skidded once and fell on my back, but the jolt popped Elisha's eyes open. He coughed violently, his thin frame rocking with it as I tightened my grip and ran once more.

"Edith!  Do you not see the Devil's work here!"  Father John slithered to his knees, his hand reaching toward me as I ran by.

I lay my son by the bridge and turned back.  The priest staggered to his feet, swaying, his hand impossibly large.  No—a stone.  He swung hard, his teeth set into fury.

The cracking of my husband's skull echoed in the dusk.  He fell, face downward, the walls of water crashing in upon him.  Upon them both.

Father John broke the surface, sputtering, waving an arm, bobbing like the Devil's thing, but Owain never rose again.

"Mum."  Elisha's voice, weak and small as never before.  He coughed again, wiping his face on his quaking shoulder.

I found breath and went to him, tugging at the rag until his hands came free.  "We have to leave, now, tonight.  The colt's gone lame—you'll need to walk with him."

"Where's Da?  I thought I heard him."

Where indeed?  Heaven, for he stayed beneath the waters?  Or Hell for how they took him?  Hell for the priest that drowned beside him, or Heaven, for saving his son?  "I don't know." 

"Don't lie to me, Mum," Elisha whispered.  "I can feel it."

Only once I struck that boy, and we never spoke of it again.  His father saved his body, and still, I fought for his soul.

This story originally appeared in Penguin E-singles.