Suffer a Witch to Live
by Seth Mullins
Part 1 appears|
in this issue
Mater ducked between the beams of the fence and then stepped into muck. Most of the grass had been torn up, and his boots sunk deep into the wet soil. The low-lying moon pushed its silvery light through the clouds and mist. The old man ignored the reek of manure as best he could, and in moments he stood within the shadows of the barn. From there he stared at the door to the diminutive shack. There were no windows, and no light outlined the door from inside. He could not know if she was sleeping, or even if she was there.
“For Jain,” he mumbled. This was not murder; no human being dwelt within that place. If Jasmine had been a woman she would already have died a long time ago.
He slipped his weapon out of his cloak. If there was to be a struggle, then so be it. His life was already forfeit, whatever the outcome. With his free hand he turned the knob and slowly nudged the door open.
He heard her breathing, and a shift in the rhythm of it. He paused in the doorway until she settled back down. Mere drizzle was falling now, and Mater was conscious of the sounds of his movements. Most of the room’s space seemed occupied by a bed lying vertically. He approached the dark mound atop the mattress.
A moment later he raised his axe. He couldn’t see her; but witch or no, she’d have no presence to enchant him once wounded by steel.
“Will killing me bring her back, Mater?”
The calm appeal froze his will. He should’ve dealt the blow and not hesitated. But now that she’d spoken he had to know what she’d meant — and what gave her the audacity.
“You don’t know what you speak of, witch!” he rasped.
Her voice emerged from the darkness again. Mater had heard that she spoke like a sophisticated lady, her lilt as polished as brass. But now she sounded hard, even bitter.
“I know little more than the local gossip. But of course I would take an interest in a man who’s watching me. I had already marked your intent. Very well; I will not fight you. Perhaps I’m weary of this overlong and empty life. But first I think I deserve to know your motive.”
“You have set your thoughts on my son!” Mater said. “I will not let you take him!”
“Then I will avoid him, if you ask it of me,” she said. “And if he approaches me I will spurn his advances.”
The old man had not been prepared to win a concession from the woman. Did she seek to undermine his resolve with a show of compassion? He teetered where he stood. She didn’t sound afraid. And he’d vowed not to let her speak!
“It would be best for all, were you to die,” he enunciated. He seemed to be trying to convince himself as much as her. “It’s well enough that Jain be safe, but what of the others whose lives you ruin with your witchery?”
Jasmine sat up, and Mater retreated a step from the bed.
“I’ll not deny my practice,” she said, “since it’s obvious that you have learned the truth. You think it evil — that much is plain. I can’t make you understand that I’ve taken nothing that wasn’t freely given. The men who come to me suffer no worse than they would have from a night’s binge. Ruin lives? All I’ve done is I’ve found a way to survive.”
Then her tone softened. “Give me a moment, and I will light a lantern. You can put your weapon down, since it’s obvious that you have no intention of using it.”
Hypnotized by her words, Mater hung in helpless inanition. Then warm yellow light illuminated the room. The little bed was covered with a patchwork quilt of various shades of hazel. Little else occupied the space, but Mater wouldn’t have noticed peripheral details anyway. His attention was consumed by Jasmine herself. His throat went dry at the sight of her. Reddish-gold hair, lightly curled, draped down to a white sheet that she’d wrapped around her shoulders. Her every feature suggested abundance: her wide eyes, eyebrows pronounced and dark, lips full and pink. The linen folds did little to hide her generous figure.
“Your wife and I had something in common, Mater,” Jasmine began. “You should know how it was that I learned —”
“Witch! Don’t you dare speak of her!”
Frustration and need broke the spell of passivity that had held him. The axe clattered on the hardwood floor as Mater’s hands groped for the woman’s sheet. She didn’t resist. The old man yanked the fabric off of her... and then his fury expended itself as quickly as it’d arisen. In disbelief, he stared down at his shaking fists.
‘What have I done?’ He felt himself on the verge of weeping. He heard Jasmine’s soothing voice as if from a great distance away.
“It was not lust for me that possessed you, was it? No, I think it grief — and guilt turned against yourself for so long, now finding its outlet with me.”
Mater shook his head to suppress his tears. “How is it that you can speak to me thus, like I’m a child?” he managed.
“Because compared to me you are — and I mean no offense by saying it. But I have lived well over four hundred years. I remember Teramnak in its final days; that was when it happened to me. Oskwai stormed and burned the city, after the wasting sickness had claimed so many already. I was taken. At the age of fourteen I was forced to be the wife of an Oskwai chief. My torment persisted until one fateful night, when — how can I say it? — he was unable to be potent as a man with me. And somehow I knew that I’d brought that humiliation upon him.
“After I was driven from the tribe I sought to understand what it was that I had done. I fled to Junamere, and there I studied within the mystery schools. I learned of the powers and perils of the subtle body, and over time my natural talents were honed and refined.”
Her eyes expressed empathy for the old man, but he could not hold his gaze to hers. He held out the sheet so Jasmine could cover herself again.
“You have claimed that I ruin lives,” the woman said, “but I have brought destitution to no man. I well know how much I can take without endangering the life-force, and young bodies rejuvenate quickly. You might call it black sorcery nonetheless, and certainly you would not be the only one to make such an accusation. But I have not judged you for your act of violence towards me tonight. Consider this, before you revile me.”
Mater hung his head. Everything that he’d suspected about Jasmine had been confirmed, and yet he knew now that he couldn’t do the deed for which he’d come. Her forbearance left nothing for his rage to latch onto, and into its place there arose the old sorrow, the unanswerable loss that he borne for so long. His voice was thick with the weight of pain.
“When Althee was killed, it was told to me that it’d been a wain driver who hadn’t been paying attention.” He tried, unsuccessfully, to swallow. “But in my heart I knew differently. She’d thrown herself under those horses’ hooves.”
“So the stories are true,” Jasmine whispered. “When first I saw you I guessed as much.”
“She’d been wantin’ to die,” Mater went on, “ever since Ducas and his boys had raided our farm by Bear River and burned our homestead. The butt of someone’s gun had knocked me out cold. Four of them took Althee out into the cornfield and had their little sport with her. My Jain was back there cryin’ for his Ma. He seen the whole thing.”
For years after that, Althee had scarcely been able to look at her son and acknowledge the torment within him; and she’d shuddered to feel her husband’s touch. The memories were too much. Mater sunk to his knees, and warm tears streamed down his face as he gave his essential grief its due. He felt slim fingers grazing through his hair, but the sensation seemed to belong to another man.
“My ability does not work in one direction only,” he heard Jasmine say.
“Huh?” Ashamed, Mater swiped the moisture from his cheeks with the cuff of his cloak. “What are you saying, woman?”
“I am saying that the same gift that enables me to nourish myself on the life energies of others also allows me to give it back, if I chose.” She cradled his chin, and tilted his head back until he met her gaze. “I cannot make you young again, Mater, but I can kindle in you something of the fire of youth: enough to erase your aches and fatigue, and your shortness of breath. What’s more” — her smile delivered sympathy to him — “that energy will work to heal the wounds of your heart also. Your son does not like to see you suffer so, and your Althee would not want it.”
Mater stumbled over his words at first. He drew breath and tried again. “Why would you be willing to... with me?”
“Because you and I understand a little about each other,” she said. “I’ve shared something with you that I bore in silence for too long. And the sacrifice you were willing to make for love of your son has done something to endear me to you, also.”
For a moment, silence lingered. Then she added, more softly: “I would ask only one thing in return: that you keep my secret.”
Mater shrugged. “Done,” he said, in spite of himself. In reality he felt much less confident; confusion had engulfed him again. “It’s just that it’s been so long that I’ve...”
“Forgotten how to love,” Jasmine finished for him. Then she smiled. “That, for me, will prove easy enough to remind you of.”
With that, she sauntered over to the lantern and extinguished its fire.
Copyright © 2006 by Seth Mullins