Prelest by George Aitch

The herring did not come. October brought damp weather and the salt barrels filled to the brim waiting for the hasty lads peering from the lookouts along the coast. The harvest time ordinarily meant the currents would be teeming with fish. None came this year. The boys kept watch atop the towers for the first signs of the fish. They kept watch through into Martinmas. Alas, the hissing flashes of the shoals thinned and died. The men gazed into the sea with ever hungering eyes.

Their vigilance was unstirred when Idony passed into Saxwell, barefoot on the flagstones. Her homespun robe soaked in the spray from the beach front. As former convent sister led the chant, she held a lantern in one hand. With the other she took alms. Her light glowed through the fog as the mist came rolling in and she disappeared with the other mendicants down the coast to Dunboltham.

The clergymen of Saxwell held no love for the weirding woman. Her presence was a sickness on the town. As fishwives flocked to have her hear confession, it was as though an abscess had formed in the community. She was the root which needed plucking. The righteousness and zeal by which she conducted herself was not proper. Much vexed, they knew her for the trouble she was.

Another traveller took hospitality in Saxwell at this time, the Dutchman Jan Hamond. Although many came to the port in its heyday, the waning fishtrade had drawn back the tide of visitors. Lately the merchant boats had sailed for richer shores and so the appearance of the Hanseaman had served to further stir the quietening town from the eddies Idony left in her wake.

He was, after all, a broad-backed man with a handsome face. Hamond was wealthy also, having a well-fortified merchant set up in his home port. Taking advantage of his reputation, he’d swagger each day down to the starved market to lay deals on the men and throw glances to the women. Plenty of gossip flew from jealous lips broaching the subject of his conduct and where he might be spending his evenings. Not all of it was spiteful. There was longing in these whispers. As a bachelor of good standing, he might be looking for a wife. The hand of Jan Hamond was extended to save a good Christian woman from the fading seaside port and its drudgery. In truth, there were many pairs of eyes gazing at the merchant with lust. He saw this and was pleased. He took to encouraging this behaviour to see what he might extract.

The priests were content to overlook these petty trifles, but not Edony. Her proclamations that the adulterous nature of the populace was to blame for the herring famine stirred the folk into anger. She decried this in her weekly beach sermons to all who gathered. Trust her consolation, she urged, and do not be led astray by feeble counsel. The miasma which had befallen Saxwell would not be quelled by weak hearts of the churchmen, many of whom were happy to violate their oaths and frolic willing maidens when the mood took them. Some listened and fell under her sway. Others carried word back up to the cobbled streets and traded them for harsh words on taverns benches and over market stalls.

The season passed without any herring. As many faced destitution, the churchmen grew fat on the generosity of Hamond, who sought the good graces of the clergy. Their coffers and church boxes were stuffed with the Dutchman’s largesse. The salt in the barrels spoiled as Idony’s following grew. Those loyal to her sheltered her masses under their rooves. More fools to witness her fraudulent visions, said Jan.

Two figures circled each other in a war of words. Idony had nothing polite to say on the subject of Jan Hamond, the figurehead of the town’s arrogance, and he returned her harshness in kind. To her and her flock, the Dutchman was the devil made flesh. He came down on two legs and stalked the town, eager to lead all into temptation. The rivalry between them came to a head when she strode into the market, barefoot with tumbledown grey wool hair. Jan was leant over a meat counter, sharing a private joke with the butcher’s wife.

“Hamond!” she cried. Her voice pierced the market. Chatter ceased. The cows halted their lowing and looked to her. Only the tide beat against the sea wall; in rolling waves sprayed with mist. Foam flecks washed up over the port as all stood aside for the weird woman to state her piece.

“Dishonest man. Your deeds do not go unseen. You carry us good folk off to disaster. Quit this place now before we fall off the brink. Attend to your sinfulness.”

Jan span to face her and, ribald, stroked his beard.

“Much deluded hag,” he replied, “we have no quarrel. Bother me none and get your rags, ghastly visage and those who flock to it hence.”

The crowding townsfolk divided and massed behind the two figures. Idony fumed and spat. From her jaw she unleashed a torrent of abuse against the man. Hamond looked to her in distaste and was about to reply when a goat fattened for market loudly brayed. The merchant jabbed a finger at the former nun.

“Your preaching is nothing but a nanny goat bleating.”

“Mark that goat!” Idony cried. “It portends the hex he has laid upon this town.”

Gathering her wispy robes and straggle of followers, she repaired to the house of her most ardent believer to spend several evenings in quiet communion.

The weather turned, as did the town’s fair opinion of the mendicant. Encouraged by her now sour name, the Church Fathers met to cluck their tongues over the weirding woman. That Saxwell was cursed, there was now no doubt. The source of this misfortune was easily located. Idony was a witch, she’d mocked their pure hearts long enough. Her arrogance against church teachings had drawn her into prelest and enveloped her dwindling followers in the spiritual sickness. Even now they were seeped in sin. There was only one thing to be done, one thing which could be done. The sentence was drawn and pronounced that same day. At the back of the meet, Jan picked his teeth and laughed.

A heavy rain beat down on the tiled rooves of the Saxwell houses as the elders marched to the place where Idony was sheltering, their ranks bolstered by men of arms. When they reach the shack, the former lodgings of the blacksmith who’d since upped his trade and fled the town, they wrenched open the door. There was no struggle. With her hands bound and beaten by their cudgels, Idony was led through the emptying Saxwell lanes to the port.

The preacher kept her head raised high on the way down. This too was used against her; a symbol of her pride. They bloodied her crown, beat her in the mouth. The few men of the town stayed to jeer her on the path even as others packed their belongings and left.

At the flagstones by the sea gates, stout beams formed a ducking stool. Her captors led Idony to the contraption and bound her to it. Once fastened, her sentence was read to her by the churchwarden, himself supported by the sexton and sacristan. Jan Hamond and his priest co-conspirator did not deign to make company.

“Sister Idony, you stand accused of apostasy, prelest, and inciting violence against the church. There are many here who regard you as a witch even though you so clearly hold yourself as a saint. For your arrogance and presumption against God, we commend your soul to the sea in the hope that its purifying power will land you in the lap of the divine.”

Idony did not plead. She instead regarded her accusers. Scowling, she turned her gaze to the men of Saxwell. Her loyal ones did not speak out, even now. They too would be punished. Righteous even in death, she did not flinch when they cast her into the waves. The grey ocean rose above her shoulders then past her ears as she plunged beneath it. The last sight of the weirding woman was her wild grey hair cast loose by the tide, rising to the surface like buoyant wrack. Her final breaths bubbling through the incoming tide. She was drowned.

Later that day, when the tide went out, the heavy chair her body had been tied to was not found among the scattered pebbles on the shore. The empty sea did not leave a physical trace of her. But her memory was not so easily expunged. The nightly storms grew more violent in her stead. Still no herring came to Saxwell. Jan Hamond took a wife a fortnight later and made to sail back home to Holland with her. Overnight, his vessel sunk and all hands were lost. The Dutchlander had reaped his crop. This was the first hint that the waves had not sapped Idony’s rage.

Nightly, heavy waves pounded against the sea wall. The ocean was staking a claim on the land. This assault kept the townsfolk from their sleep. More so for those who slept in the rectory up on the cliffside whose nightly rest became disrupted by trepidation from the tide. Now every morning they beheld vast chunks of rock which had been clawed by the sea. During the day, the calm waters lapped higher and higher at the sturdy rocks lining the bay, raising much alarm.

These terrors increased as all other discussion was consumed by the worry of which quarters would be flooded first. All the villagers could do was to barrack themselves and wait out the storm. But there was no end to it. The downpour did not cease and droplets found their way through leaky rooftops, drenching the sleeping men of Saxwell. With their fires dampened, at sundown they shivered themselves to uneasy sleep.

The winter tempest swelled one final evening. Rippling storm cloud rolled over the horizon brining promises of renewed strength from the visitations of the waves. As it had promised to every night for the last month, the sea wall was finally rent in two. A monstrous swell reached in from the ocean maw and took all with it. One great wave rose above all others and claimed spilled over the ragged houses of Saxwell. Thunder bellowed through the destruction though in the morning all was still. The morning tide was calm over the newly formed inlet. Nothing was left of the town as every man and all he owned had been washed out to sea.

About The Author

George is writer from Blackheath. He has written for The Guardian, Litro and The British Journal of Psychiatry. You may find his work in print and online in places such as Storgy, Bunbury Magazine and The Crazy Oik among others

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