Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Cellar.


The Pub was not particularly old. It had been built over the foundations of another drinking house and dated back to the origins of the village. The only part of the Pub that was really old was the cellar. This underground room was clad with slabs of grey stone that had been so well built that there was not a trace of mortar between them. So tight were the slabs that not so much as a cigarette paper could be slid between them anywhere over the walls.

The flagstones on the floor were just as well placed and showed centuries of wear as generations of publicans had walked the floor to empty the barrels that were stored down here. A chute had been replaced many times at one end that had an opening to the road outside where the beer was delivered. Horse drawn carriers had stopped here over the years while the draymen had wrestled the barrels down the chute and into the cellar. Summer or winter the temperature never varied down here, it was as cold as a grave.

Amanda had always had an uneasy feeling when she went down the ladder into the depths of the cellar to change a barrel over. She felt watched! It was a certainty that apart from her, the cellar was empty. Never the less there were times that she just knew that there was someone behind her. No matter how quickly she turned, she never glimpsed a sight of the watching presence. But ---- she knew that she was not alone.

It was the middle of the after-noon and the dinnertime drinking session had closed. One of the pumps had begun to stutter, showing that down in the cellar a barrel was approaching empty. She would have to go down there and undo the pipes, flush them through and connect to another cask. Amanda was on her own as the children were being collected from school by her husband, as it was a short day at school, due to half term. She pulled the ring on the trapdoor and the cantilevered flap opened easily to show the yawning hole down into the cellar. She turned round to switch on the light and climb down the cellar stairs.

As always the chill of the cellar hit the tops of her legs as she climbed down, leaving the warmth of the pub behind her. The hairs on her arms stood up as goose bumps popped up between her wrist and elbows. Once again she could feel the watcher behind her as she reached the bottom of the stairs.

This time she felt all of her suppressed fear bubble to the top and she cried out, “I know that you are there. What do you want?”

A whisper scurried about her and answered, “Peace!”

As she stood stock still, she felt a bony hand upon her shoulder and almost wet herself with fear. Shuddering with suppressed terror she turned to at last see the watcher from the darkness and saw a young girl just visible in the light of the single lamp.

The girl could be no older than fourteen as she was just developing a figure. She was dressed in dark clothes with a broad white collar around her neck and shoulders. Amanda’s motherly instincts overwhelmed her and pity replaced the fear. The child’s long blond hair fell all about her back and chest. There were no ribbons in her hair or any adornments to her dress. The eyes that stared beseechingly at hers were light blue in colour and without malice. She was just tall enough to reach Amanda’s chin and stood in the full light of the cellar lamp, casting no shadow.

The child leaned forward and clasped her hand and the cellar vanished. She found herself outdoors, stood in front of a small cottage at the side of a country lane. There was no trace of the road or the pub to be seen. Behind the cottage was a field that was planted with various food crops, laid out in rows. Amanda could see rows of potatoes with the green shades of cabbages and beans climbing sticks, cut from the hedgerows. Rough curtains of sacking were shading the inside of the cottage from the warm summer sun. A woman was picking raspberries from the front garden helped by a young child. It was the girl that had brought her to this place. She was much younger than the pale shade she had met in the cellar.

While the mother of the child was busy gathering the fresh red fruit, the little girl held up her hand and a robin flew out of the hedge and landed onto her outstretched hand. She whistled bird cries to the nervous creature and listened to its returned cries.

The child turned to her mother and said, “Father is coming!”

With a whitened face, her mother answered, “Martha! Stop doing that. Cast the bird away from you. Say nothing to your father about it.”

She stood straight and fearful and watched the lane that wandered down from the village. Sure enough, soon she could see the top of her husband’s head as it topped the hedge. She wrung her hands in despair and worry as she saw the others with him. The robin fled into the field behind the cottage and roosted among the ivy growing around the stone stumps of the remains of the old abbey.

Amanda was aware of the elfin touch of the child’s hand in hers as she watched the group of people approach the cottage. It was obvious that they could not see the two of them, as the father led the way to the front door. Their clothes were dark with white collars around the necks. From watching various historical films, Amanda realised that they were dressed in the style of the puritans some four hundred years ago. She was viewing events that had taken place a long time ago. One of them carried a large black book that could only be a bible. He was dressed in much finer garments than the others who walked with him.

His face was full of anger as he pointed at the young girl and said, “Is this the ungodly child?”

The mother’s face drained of what little colour she had as she cried out to the small group, “She is not ungodly! Please remember that she is a little girl of no more than ten summers!”

“Do you take it upon yourself to argue with me, the very word of God? Let us go inside, out of the heat of the sun and I will decide what is to be,” the minister replied.

The grip of the child tightened and the days flashed forwards to another time when the child was several years forward. Amanda watched with amazement as Martha called the deer from the wood at the edge of the field to her side. She whistled birdsong and a small flock of nuthatches and great-tits flew around her head. Some perched upon her outstretched fingers and continued to sing to her. Amanda could see that the child was making the change into puberty and becoming a young woman.

At the edge of the field, on the other side of the hedge, were a group of village children watching her. Their eyes were full of fear and they were silent as they watched. Martha turned and stared at where they were hidden and sent the birds to see who watched her. At this the children fled screaming with terror.

A still quiet voice whispered in Amanda’s mind, “I meant them no harm. All I wanted was to be friends!”

It was several days later and this time the mob that approached the cottage were not bent on mercy. Leading them was the minister holding a crucifix in front of him to ward off the evil eye. Torches of fire lit the way through the dusk to the cottage.

 “Bring her out John! Bring out the young witch and we will do God’s will,” the minister cried.

“Have mercy, Minister Ezra! She is but a young girl, barely into her teens. What harm has she done to any of you? You said years ago that she was just a young girl with an affinity with animals. She is no danger,” Martha’s father implored.

Someone from the back shouted out, “She is no danger now. What danger will she be when she becomes a woman and calls Satan’s black imps into the village?”

“Give her up John, or we will set your home alight!”

Now Martha’s mother, Elisabeth begged them from the doorway, “Please don’t do this terrible thing. You are killing a child, for God’s sake. She has attended church with you all ever since she could walk the distance. Would the Devil’s child be able to do that?”

“The Devil is ever the deceiver, Elisabeth. Bring her out or die with her in the purifying flames that will take her soul to the Lord,” shouted the minister.

A rustling in the trees around the cottage made the crowd look up and gasp with fear. Hundreds of birds had gathered onto the lower branches and were calling in distress. Swooping down from the skies came hundreds of bats that tangled themselves in the hair of those that were hatless. A stag walked into view tossing his antlers and lowering them to charge followed by several more. The farm horse and dog also appeared to menace the crowd.

“So be it,” cried the minister and tossed his flaming torch onto the thatched roof.

At that action many more followed, with some kept to ward off the gathering animals. The dry thatch soon caught alight and the heat built up around the building. Soon the animals scattered, as Martha lost control when the roof fell into the bedrooms. The crowd watched as the cottage continued to burn in the late evening and the walls caved in.

They waited until first light to see that all was destroyed and there was no chance of the family escaping. When the ruins had cooled down enough to search them the men sifted through the smouldering heaps for the bones. They soon found John and Elisabeth’s charred remains and kept them separate to be buried in the churchyard. In the remains of the kitchen they found the small bones of a child soon to be a young woman. These they kept separate and put them in a sack and left them by the front doorway.

The scene blurred and Amanda found herself in a churchyard watching as the congregation buried the remains of John and Elisabeth. Once the ceremony was over, the group walked away. Some of them made their way back to the ruins of the cottage. They swept the rubbish away from the kitchen floor and found the slab that covered the cellar. This had once been part of an abbey that had been sacked by Henry the eighth. Many of the stones had been used locally in the building of the village and the cottage had been built over the cellar that had been constructed by the monks. As they lifted the slab, the vision blurred and once more Amanda found herself back in the cellar at the present day.

The child released her hand and beckoned Amanda to the corner of the cellar where old worn-out things had been stacked. From the state of the rotten wood that was underneath the sacks, nothing had moved here for a very long time. The little girl pointed to the corner and faded away. Ignoring her wet state Amanda pulled the accumulated rubbish away from the stonework and brushed the flagstone clean. She retreated to the shelves at the other end of the cellar to pick up the big torch that was always kept there and returned to the forgotten corner. There she knelt down and wiped the stonework clean until she could just make out old lettering chiselled into the stone.

Amanda placed her finger and traced the first letters of the first word. There was a large Y and a small e together. Next she found a letter s with an h the rest of the letters obscured. Gradually other letters began to be discernable and she spelt out the words ‘suffer’ and ‘live’ at the end of the inscription. Amanda tried to make out the letters in the middle of the tablet and realised that the word seemed to be something ‘itch’. As she ran her finger over the large letter at the front she suddenly understood what the inscription was telling her.

Ye shalt not suffer a Witch to live.

Amanda was looking at a tombstone and she was sure that she knew what lay under it! With a sense of mounting horror she withdrew from the corner with the promise in her mind that she would return with a spade and her husband. Amanda quickly climbed the stairs and changed her clothes upstairs in her bedroom. There she waited for her husband to return with her children.

When he returned she told him everything and they both went down into the cellar and removed the flagstone with the inscription. Underneath they found the delicate charred bones of a child. These were buried in the local cemetery in the same grave that John and Elisabeth had been interred, with a service held by the local vicar, attended by Amanda and her husband.

After this, she never felt watched again when she changed over the barrels in the cellar.


Barry E Woodham.

April 2009.


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