Summer Bonfires

You think you know how this story goes. 

You think you know who I am. You think you know what I did, and what was done to me. You think you know how this story goes. And you are wrong. 

My village loved their witch. Not feared, not hated, not even tolerated out of a need for the works and wonders I could perform, but loved. I never wanted, never went without while others filled their bellies, but I sat with them at their tables, took their children on my knee, hauled water at their well and sang with them at their firesides long into the dark while the wolves howled their hunger in the woods beyond the walls. 

I was the one who called the hunter. Not some jealous priest or spurned lover – their priest knew well I was no threat to him, and I took no lovers of my own kind or otherwise – but my own hand on the pen and my own words in ink upon the page. I told him no tales, wove no webs to trap him, but called him simply by his profession and his will, and bound him to seek out the witch who dwelled just a little off from the old ruins on the hill, where once, so local legend said, the Kindly Ones had kept their hunting lodge.

And he came, black-feathered and behatted, eyes bright, burning with his holy fire. He came to my village, seeking whom he might devour, and my people closed their arms and their mouths and their doors and sent him on his way, for they loved their witch and would not give me up to the fires. 

My poor, poor people. They did not understand why I had called him. Could not understand, because they had not seen what I had seen, had not heard what I had heard. But when I called to them, one by one, they came to my house on the hill and promised that, when next he came to my village, they would let him take me to the green. Let him prick me, test me, call me what I was and what I am. That they would help him gather wood, pile it high and deep around that tall stake where once the maypole stood. That they would not stop him, when he lit the flames. 

They wept, my people. They asked me why, why I wanted this, why I had to make them help. And I could not tell them, for it was not theirs to know, and my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth when I tried. 

But they did as I had asked, and as they had promised. And when he came back, the fire in his eyes burning brighter than ever, and asked again if any had heard tell of a witch, they let him come to me. Let him lead me, though I walked with my head held high, to the village green. Let him test his suppositions, name me ‘witch’ for all to hear (as though they had not known!). And they wept, as they gathered up the wood for my pyre. 

I held my head up high, as he lit the flames. I held my head up high, and opened my mouth, and sang. 

The ropes around my hands fell away. The ropes around my body shrivelled back. The ropes around my feet dropped down into the fire that roared up around me, and I threw back my head and laughed amongst the ashes and the smoke. And, as my people looked up in wonder to see me unharmed in the midst of the inferno, I stepped out onto the tongues of flame that brought themselves higher to meet me, and I danced. 

I danced, and laughed, and sang, for my people were saved. I danced my joy, my pain, my sacrifice for their sake, and right there on the green, right there in the middle of their village, I sang my people into coats of fur and feathers, hides and hair that grew up over their wondering forms and startled faces. I sang them into safety, and every note I sang burned away another part of all that ever made me human, all that ever held what-I-am and who-I-am in any other shape than mine. 

And, when I was done, there was only the hunter, white-faced and staring as he stood on the green in the middle of the village with the woods so wild and free growing in and out the doors and windows and the furred and feathered denizens of the forest who had been the folk scattered into the safety of the sudden upswell of the wild.

He stared at me, and knew not what to do. 

So I stepped down from the fire, with the ashes still hot on my paws-that-still-were-feet, and I kissed him once upon the brow, and left a mark that burned him when I did. For I wanted him to remember, when the sickness that I had seen had passed through this place and all villages that were not mine had withered and died and gone to wildness all by bitter loss, where mine was safe and gone by love. 

And as he put out his hand, to touch me or to hold me or to halt me, I knew not which, the last of all that made me human burned away, and I slipped free his grasp and bounded out and over the last remains of the pyre, my own shape slipped about me like an old familiar cloak. 

They still tell the story, or so I hear. But either he was not so much afraid as to forget all his prejudices, or it twisted in the telling, for I hear they call my sacrifice now a curse. 
Some curse, to save my village from that fate. But let it be so called a thousand times, for I and all my people know the truth of it.

Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan.  All rights reserved.

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