“Thrice in One Sitting”
“One witch can do
more harm than a thousand common thieves,” Silas Fear-The-Lord
Doddridge recited along the road to Pontybridge
village. It was a dreadful afternoon in New England, but three facts rolled
Silas out of his inn’s bed on this
wet autumn day. First, as the Malleus Maleficarum stated,
Those who deny the reality of witches are only helping the devil in his work. Second, Pontybridge’s representative mentioned in the note that they would pay the
witch-hunter in advance for services provided. Third, the demand for witch
hunting shrank since the last few misunderstandings, and the destitute Silas
Fear-The-Lord Doddridge had nowhere to stay.
Without these three facts, Silas wouldn’t return to
Cumberland’s farming community
in haste. Pontybridge’s villagers
were a superstitious lot, whose old-world beliefs of
fairies and bogeys taxed Silas’s patience.
They blamed hobgoblins for lightning strikes, giants for
their dry loch, and sluagh when dogs dug up graves. Most irritably, nothing
ever came of Silas’s inquiries
into Pontybridge’s claims. So, when
the town’s latest letter
reached Silas, his doubts ascended in the order of precedence.
Six dead in Pontybridge. One witch suspected. The Lord calls
Fear-The-Lord Doddridge’s divine services
once again—money upfront. -Fiadh O’Connor
Silas sighed as the village built from crooked sticks atop a
grew along the horizon.
“Well, O’Lord,” Silas said, crossing
himself. “I thank ye that
there’ll at least be
“So, what beast
befouls your village this time, Brother O’Connor?” Silas asked
Fiadh O’Connor as the witch-hunter dipped soda bread into a bowl of
Fiadh, squat and bald like a frog, hung up Silas’s wet cape and long brim
hat next to the hearth.
“You think I’m acting the maggot,
Brother Silas,” said Fiadh. “But honest to God
this time it’s true.”
“Such claims reached
my ears when the Púca kidnapped Mistress Kelly.”
“Infidelity ain’t no laughing
“And when the
werewolf befouled the churchyard?”
“No one ever seen
bear dung before.”
“My point, Brother O’Connor—” Silas finished the
last of his bread bathed in stew — “is that you’ve wasted many
days when I could do God’s work in Lynn
or Medford. The witch epidemic flourishes posthaste, and
Satan rejoices in distractions.”
“But we do have a
witch this time,” said Fiadh as he
collected a jewelry box from his splintered cupboard and presented it to Silas.
time, we can pay.”
Silas Fear-The-Lord Doddridge patted his lips with a napkin,
opened the box filled with English guinea, Spanish dollars, and Pine-Tree
shillings. His eyes sparkled in the firelight.
“You collected this
in earnest?” Silas asked, closing
“That is our late
Lady Brennan’s inheritance to her
husband, secured by Father Walsh.”
“And might I ask why
it would go to my cause instead of its proper recipient?”
“We ain’t fond of giving
charity to murder-hungry witches.”
“Brother O’Connor,” Silas pushed his
bowl away before folding his hands atop the table. “I am a thorough
Perhaps you should start at the beginning.”
“Gladly. It wasn’t but a summer ago
when young Lady Brennan returned to Pontybridge with a husband, the stranger
named Tadhg. They moved into the vacant Brennan cottage along the Limingdover
Woods west of town, cutting wood and selling goat’s milk. Lady
was a Godly woman, and we assumed her family made the match in Plymouth. Still,
Tadhg was a batty one who wore his clothes inside out. He spent his first day
in Pontybridge hanging up iron trinkets and washing his doors in salt. Lady
Brennan brought him to church, but he wouldn’t sing. She
introduced him to the congregation, but he’d only nod.”
“Being aloof does not
make one a witch, Brother O’Connor.”
“Fair enough, and
were tolerable until last week. That’s when Lady
Brennan confessed to Father Walsh during Penance that she
hadn’t had a wink of
sleep. A woman’s scream jarred her
awake in the middle of the night, and she hurried to stir her husband. But
Tadhg’s spot was empty.
She waited in dismay, which increased tenfold when Tadhg returned to bed with
an axe. When she inquired of his whereabouts, the young fellow only said Cursed.”
“I assume Father
Walsh told you this after Lady Brennan’s death?”
“The Sacramental Seal
is the absolute duty of priests to hear without disclosing unless in the most
harrowing of circumstances.”
“Of course. Any
village woman missing or corpses discovered?”
“Brother O’Connor, ever listen
to an injured doe’s shrill?”
“Aye, but it wasn’t a deer that slew
Lady Brennan two nights later. Tadhg stumbled into town square with his wife’s lifeless body in
arms, speaking in tongues.”
“Did the woman suffer
wounds or signs of injury?”
“Her body was
unblemished besides a few scratches along the ears, but the look of frozen
terror on her face is a memory I’ll take to
the grave. Not only that, but when we investigated Tadhg’s home, all
goats lay dead and woundless in the yard.”
“Ah yes, five goats,
judging by your correspondence?”
“Aye, the elders
argued a lack of evidence, so we let Tadhg go home. But the town is unsettled.
They smell a witch, so I brought in an authority on the matter. If you deem
Tadhg clear of witchcraft, it might settle the tension. But, if he’s hexed Lady
Brennan, then a hanging it will be. All we ask for is proof.”
“I will visit this
Tadhg at once to deem whether he is victim or assailant,” Silas stood,
collecting the coin box and placing it into his satchel. “In the meantime,
you have a spare bed, please make it up. God’s work takes
“Good luck getting a
word out of the fellow. He’s quiet as
a snake—a most cursed snake.”
“That is for The
Almighty to decide.”
Three evening crows cawed at Silas from atop wet branches. Pontybridge’s west end sat dingy
and sparse, Limingdover Woods scowling in its backdrop. The Brennan home, an
A-shaped timber cottage with a thatch roof, clung to the forest’s shore with
branch-fenced yard between. Silas heard Tadgh before he saw him, as the storm
didn’t deter the widow
from chopping wood in his yard. Emboldened by his position and doubtful of O’Connor’s claims, Silas
approached the young man with his hands under his sodden cape, gripping his
satchel. Tadgh, a brawny specimen with a bearded jaw that could chew iron,
split logs with a single thrust. He ignored Silas’s approach.
“God’s grace upon you,” Silas greeted. Tadgh
eyed Silas, but kept dividing the lumber. “I am Silas
Fear-The-Lord Doddridge, and I come at the bequest of your village in search of
answers to the untimely death of your wife. You have my condolences.”
Tadgh planted his axe into a tree stump. He traded stares with
“I must be blunt,
Master Tadgh,” Silas said. “They accuse you of
witchcraft, and should you not be forthcoming, it may cost your life. Now, I am
a patient man, and I understand your hesitation, but if there was a time to
speak, by God’s grace, let it be
now. Who slew your wife?”
Tadgh straightened his back. He looked over his shoulder, watching
drown the forest. With a sober expression, he pointed at the wood line.
“Someone from the
wilds?” asked Silas.
Tadgh spit, then shrugged.
“Speak man. How did
they kill her?”
Tadgh opened his mouth, then paused. He cleared his throat,
head, then in a monotone voice said, “Cursed.”
“Ah yes, there was a
“Three? As in the
Tadgh nodded, plucked his axe, then lined up another log.
“Come, you must give
me more. Your salvation depends upon it. Was there one rogue or three? Perhaps
this trio poisoned the drinking well?” Silas paused,
waiting for a response. “You’re going to be hung,
Master Tadhg, if you can’t divulge further.”
Tadgh swung his axe down, splitting more kindle. Silas moved his
attention to the woodland. A white prick of light shimmered in the thicket’s distance.
“Is there a witch in
the woods?” Silas raised a brow
at Tadgh. “The power of the
Church can aid you.”
Tadgh wiped his brow with his forearm, then swung again. Silas
heat rise in his cheeks.
“You fool. I only
wish to bring justice, but if you will not give answers, then justice will be
done upon you. I shall not squander my time further and bid you farewell.”
With a dramatic thrust of his cape, Silas walked away, taking
steps in case Tadhg leaned into the witch-hunter’s bluff. Tadhg
not. Halfway out of the west-end of Pontybridge, Silas stopped under the only
tree that kept its beard of leaves, and studied the Brennan home. Chopping
echoed as the sky bruised, all evening light sinking into the earth.
“There is darkness
afoot, O’Lord, though I lack
the evidence to prove it.” Silas pressed
his back on the tree, removing the jewelry box and
counting the coins. “All Mighty,
work is ceaseless, and I shall not be denied proof of such wicked
transgressions. If you wish thee, I shall wait.”
Silas emerged from the tree’s canopy an hour after the chopping died down. Shadow painted
Pontybridge, and Silas guided himself by the sparse fireplace glow undulating
from Tadgh’s home. Silas crept
his way to the fenced yard window, where Tadgh prepared supper. The woodsman
laid a plated colcannon on his table beside a plume, ink vial, and parchment.
Notes with the unfamiliar words bean sídhe spread by
cup. Silas watched as the kettle frothed over into the hearth, sizzling on the
embers, but Tadgh paid it no mind. Silas attempted a closer look in search of
poisons or witch ingredients along the shelves, but stumbled in the mud,
thudding his knee into the house’s shingle.
He hurried to his feet, then peered inside, but Tadgh
ignored the commotion. Instead, the woodsman sat himself in a chair, and with
his hands over his face, wept.
“So, he’s mortal after all,
O’Lord,” Silas whispered. “Are those tears of
sadness or remorse?”
As if in response, a female cry of woeful agony wailed from
Jolted from the surprise, Silas’s heart drummed
from his chest. A copper flavor clung to his mouth.
Lightheaded by excitement, the witch-hunter leaned on the window. Inside, Tadgh
continued to sob. Silas’s vision hazed
as he conceded concealment and rapped on the glass.
Tadgh didn’t respond. Silas
cried out, but a shortness of breath graced Silas only with a rasped whisper.
Silas used the cottage as a crutch and guided himself to the front door. His
spine stiffened and stomach wrenched when, from inside the woods, the
approaching form of a luminous woman sobbed but a stone’s throw away.
“B-b-be gone, witch.” Silas’s trepidation helped
him stammer out words, brandishing the cross around his neck. “By the grace of God,
I renounce thee claim on this land.”
The woman extended beyond the last line of timbers. Her exposed
features sharpened, and Silas noticed a crimson fountain in her eyes. Adorned
in rags and crowned in a wild tangle of hair, the woman kept a dagger in her
hands. Along her cheek, an eternal wound exposed a row of teeth.
“I said be gone bawd
of Satan,” Silas wielded his
cross. “I banish thee back
The woman stretched her lips wider than any mortal should have.
screech, the white mistress cried out a mourner’s antiphon.
felt the scream as if it were a winter gale blowing through his bones, numbing
his limbs. Shaking, he reached for the front door’s bell string,
the weary fragment of rope snapped in his fingers. With a torpefied fist, he
pounded on the door, rattling the iron horseshoe nailed at the center. Still
the woman keened, but Silas refused to cast his eyes behind him. He abraded the
door’s surface, a sharp
ring in his ears, but before the woman reached him, the entrance gave way.
Silas fell into the warmth of the cottage, dropping at the feet
Tadgh. His coins spilled from his satchel, rolling along the floor. The young
woodsman raised the witch-hunter from the ground, then shut the door. A
trembling Silas took in concern on Tadgh’s face as the
woodsman placed his hands over Silas’s ears.
“Release me,” said Silas, slapping
Tadgh’s hands away.
“How many times?” asked Tadgh, staring
at the witch-hunter’s lips.
“What mean thee?”
“How many times did
she scream?” For the first time,
Silas noticed Tadgh’s unchanging
pitch in voice, void of intonation. Silas’s eyes widened
relief washed over his conscience as he recalled clues overlooked.
“By The All Mighty,
“Please answer me.
How many times?” Tadgh cupped his
hands over Silas’s ears again.
“My sweet young man,
you’re no witch,” Silas wriggled his
head from Tadgh’s grip, a grin
rising from his face. “You’re a victim. I know
it now, as I know the truth of resurrection. We must get to Master O’Connor and profess
your innocence. Then we shall burn down these woods.”
“Please take notice
at once.” Tadgh shook Silas by
the shoulders. “This curse is
something I know well. Whether once at midnight, or thrice in one sitting, if
the woman of the woods cries three times, one will perish. Now, how many times
did she scream?”
Tadgh didn’t get a response. From his view, the witch-hunter’s drunken smile
turned upside down into an eternal yawn as he clawed at his ears. Silas’s eyes rolled in the
back of his head, his neck folded, and his body went limp in the woodsman’s arms. It was the
same look stained on Tadgh’s wife’s corpse. The woman
of the woods was unyielding in her pursuit. She’d followed
from Plymouth to Medford and Gloucester, too. She would never let Tadgh be
happy, and anyone caught between, would listen to her song.
My name is Justin
Carlos Alcala and my pronouns are he and him. Born and raised in Chicago, I now
live with Bigfoot in the mountains of North Carolina, where I teach and write.
In the past twelve years, I’ve published five novels, plus dozens of stories in
American literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. Readers have compared
my writing style to authors like Terry Pratchett, Andrew Smith, and Christopher