The Vicar plucks a crisp curl of witch skin from the pyre. He nibbles, clasping the charred flake between his forefinger and thumb. With every bite you feel your heart snapping in the witch-burnt morning.
He nods as you repeat his epistles, the summons to Guernsey, the correspondence with Chelmsford — his back arched, his eyes flame-filled.
three pounds for ten loads of coal to burn them
five marks for a tar barrel
(You slide your finger between the lines; slim blanks between one purchase and the next. You pray he doesn’t notice how your hand shakes.)
eight pounds for the executioner, for his pains and his expenses here
The Vicar shushes you with a flick of his wrist, bearing his soot-darkened teeth to the crowd. Black spittle collects around the corners of his threats. Lucifer and Lot, Jezabel and Judas, hunched amid all those bonneted heads, and not one he wouldn’t burn on this pyre. And which of them took the tongue from the Church Bell? Who choked the Holy Throat? The moon has spun out of order — errant and blue — bringing the night down in patches. Witch-work. None will come or go from here til the bell rings true and the night is whole. He turns and rakes the ashes now, plucking and pocketing teeth. You pray he isn’t counting them. The one in your palm, after all, is not supposed to be there.
After dinner, you push blackberries against your gums with juice stained fingertips. You say your excuses in careful time, calm in every syllable. You wrap your cloak against the mottled night. Fevered stars and hamstrung clouds fighting blue-black darkness and a moon that won’t stay still. Take no heed of overheard words as you pass through the village – people can sense being sensed. See only as much as you need to — rooftops buttered with fresh snow, lantern light hemming the streets with gold. When you come to the cold pyre, walk around it in widdershins, keeping one eye on the ash and the other on the forest at the far end of the square. Run. Run into that root-stuffed earth where old wood creaks its welcome. Once in the forest, tear your cloak from your back, strip naked but for that tooth clutched in your fist. Between button holes and belt hooks, you will find your way through — know better than to direct yourself by a fickle moon. †
You arrive at the lake. You skim starlight from its surface with a cupped hand. Quicksilver fish suck berry-sweetness from your fingertips. Trees crowd round to watch your unholy work. On a large lily-pad lies a ring of teeth and bones. You lift the leaf. Watch the witch remnants scatter and bob along the surface, vetoed by the water. Duck your head beneath the lily-pad and kiss the wet face you find there. The Lady of the Lake is as fair as they say.
— My love?
You ask her for a faery song. A lilting, tiny thing. She coils around your arm, her scales smooth and cold, her whiskers pricking your cheek. Half-whispered, that ancient tune sends sorrow through you. Each tear you cry catches on her lip, and in her shining eyes you see her savour the salt of it. (Collect yourself. There is work to be done.) You uncurl your fist and reveal the tooth you have brought her. She swallows it and disappears beneath a lily-pad. She returns with the bell-tongue in tow, that great copper pendulum you heaved through the forest with your sisters before they were so much ash. You swallow a cry. The bell-tongue is too heavy, too much for you alone to drag back to the village. And your sisters are gone, after all. The Lady splashes at you. You let her coil around you again, submerging you in the lake. She spells words against your skin: Do Not Fret. For some time, you see, the Lady has been making arrangements. Every piece you have squirrelled from the pyre floats above you, drifting among pond-muck. Something about it offends you. The Lady insists: look carefully. She has latticed your sister’s bones with lily-pad stalks and lichen, thrown stones in all the lonely sockets, employed a spider to wrap vertebrae in little cocoons. Spines and knuckles and teeth and green stems peel themselves from the lake’s surface, crawling on the tips of ribs and roots towards the bell-tongue. The skeletal mass lifts the bell-tongue on one side, inviting you to take the other. The water steals your thanks to the Lady as you kick to the surface — your heart hammering, your head full of faery song.
The Vicar claws through old ash beneath a pyre that won’t light. The village crowds his desperate work.
He responds with a strangled noise like a tree falling, his wild eyes whirling. He hits upon something huge among the muck of old fires – something hard, wrought from copper. As he dusts it clean with shaking hands, an impossible bell-ring eats through the air. The Vicar writhes his despair. Blood pools in his empty mouth. You have taken words from him. You found a Holy Tongue for a Holy Throat, after all.