Friday, July 16, 2010

The Witchfinder, In General.

Hubert opened the mansion door to a decidedly shifty-looking bunch of men carrying hatchets, fronted by an imposing character dressed somewhere between a buccaneer and a church minister.

"Silas Warnes, witchfinder," the stranger declared, tossing his ringletted head. One hand gripped the hilt of a sword, the other rested on the butt of a horse pistol hanging from an improvised sling over his shoulder, so that it lay against his hip, the tip of the long barrel just brushing his knee.

"No, never heard of him. Sorry!" Hubert tried to shut the door but the man pushed it back open.

"I am Silas Warnes, you ninny. Silas Warnes, witchfinder."

"You're the witchfinder?" Hubert asked, eyes narrowed.

"I'm a witchfinder," Silas said, nodding.

"But I thought-"

"I'm not having this conversation again, and certainly not with you, bumpkin," Silas said, clearly irritated. "Witchfindery is open to whoever God calls to the profession, it's not an exclusive thing." Behind him, his men shrugged their shoulders and rolled their eyes at Hubert, having heard it all many times before.

"The last fellow never said that," Hubert said. "He was very particular. THE witchfinder this, and THE witchfinder that. He never suggested there was more than one." Silas' hands tightened their grip on sword and pistol. "What a pleasant surprise to discover we are blessed by another," Hubert added hastily.

Silas growled at the man by his side. "Prepare the bonfire, Nicola. I want it tall as a house."

"Sire!" the man replied, before he and his comrades departed, waving their hatchets.

Silas pushed past Hubert into the mansion. "Tell your master, the magistrate, that I would have words with him. At once!"

"Nicola?" Hubert said, scratching the side of his head.



Hubert knocked lightly on the study door.

"Is someone there?" came the voice from within.

Hubert knocked again.

"Knock once for aye. Twice for nay."

Hubert scratched his head, having already forgotten the question.

"Answer me, spirits of the door. Is there anybody out there?"

Hubert cracked the door open and peeked his head inside. "Was it one knock or two for aye, Sir Bromley?"

"One," Sir Bromley said, from behind his crowded desk. Hubert looked at him plaintively for a moment, but the magistrate made a shooing gesture. Hubert sighed and closed the door.

He knocked once.

"Tell me, oh spirits of the door, tell me-"

Hubert opened the door again. "I hate to impose on your majesty, but we've got a situation kicking off downstairs."

Sir Bromley looked crest-fallen. "Oh, what is it then?"

"There's only a witchfinder turned up. He's stomping around the hall, looking most ill-tempered, and he's touching things and tutting something awful."

"A witchfinder? Not THE witchfinder?" Sir Bromley's brow wrinkled in confusion.

Hubert frantically waved his hands in the air. "Don't get him started on that, boss. It's not worth the aggravation!"

Sir Bromley led the way back downstairs, puffing out his chest as he confronted his unexpected guest.

"Sir Bromley," Hubert said. "Allow me to present Master Silas Warnes. A witchfinder. A..." He let his voice trail off.

"Sir Brody Bromley!" Silas exclaimed. He bowed stiffly at the waist. "A pleasure, sir. I have heard nothing but good things about ye."

"I have certainly heard nothing bad about your own self," Sir Bromley replied, dipping his head. "Now tell me, what's the purpose of your visit?"

"Witches, Sir Bromley," Silas hissed. "I have come to offer my services to you, in the matter of their detection, interrogation and elimination. All for a most reasonable fee."

Sir Bromley threw his hands up and sighed. "But we've already been done. The last fellow gave us a clean bill of health."

Silas leaned in, his face twisted into a tight grimace. "I can assure you, magistrate, I WILL find you a witch. I come highly recommended. The King himself has praised my services."

"The King, you say?" Sir Bromley grinned. "Tell you what, fellow, I will offer you a sound piece of advice in restitution for your, ahem, services. Then you will finish with your business here and be on your way."

"Advice? I am commonly offered-"

"Advice, yes, and more valuable than coin, sir."

Silas regarded Sir Bromley. The magistrate had the air of a man who was most singularly assured. Was that Silas Warnes a gaming man, he was certain it would be time to fold his hand.

"I am, of course, grateful for what little God sees fit to put my way, Sir Bromley. Speak as you will."

"Only this. I wouldn't be drawing on the King's reflection to throw light on your own endeavours. I have been assured - I can not reveal my source - that Cromwell is sure to prevail in the present altercation. Look here!" Sir Bromley flicked his recently-bobbed hair. "Why do you suppose I have adopted this ludicrous haircut? What sort of gentleman would be seen with such a preposterous lack of locks otherwise? I've had my hair clipped, to save my neck from a more serious clipping, and I suggest that you do the same, sir. Those roundheads will not tolerate long hair."

"Cromwell? Really?" Silas stroked his chin, staring at the floor. "That is most interesting, Sir Bromley. Most interesting indeed..."

"Hubert, arrange for the scullery maid to style Master Warnes' hair. I must withdraw upstairs. I expect I have important things to attend to. If you feel the need of my attention, you know what to do."

"Knock once for aye?" Hubert ventured.

"No, you silly man, deal with it yourself."


"Please Molly, you must! The master said so." Hubert wrung his hands, flicking his eyes at once from the cracked plaster walls of the larder or the packed earth floor to the pretty scullery maid's face, and away again. He could not, dared not, look at her directly over long. He imagined his head would explode. As it was his stomach churned just to be talking to her.

"Are you crazed, Hubert?" Molly shrieked. "Do you know what he will do with me? Have you no sense, no consideration... consideration for my welfare?"

"Of course I have. I would die for you." Hubert gulped. "I mean, I... I..."

"He's a witchfinder, Hubert!" Molly grabbed his jacket, her face so close to him. "He'll take one look at me and... do you know what he'll do?" She fell against him, sobbing. He waved an arm near her back, wishing he had the nerve to hold her.

"You don't have to do it, Molly," Hubert said. "I do not know what, but concern yourself no further. I will find another way."

Molly beamed a glorious smile at him. "Truly? Oh, Hubert!" She hugged him tightly.

"I'll fetch someone from the village," Hubert said.

"No!" Molly said. "There's no time. You must cut his hair yourself."

Hubert stifled a laugh. "Me? Oh Molly, you jest."

Molly slapped his face. "That man is a monster. Is that a joke to you?"

Hubert scratched his head with one hand, while he smoothed his cheek with the other. "Don't be angry with me. If you tell me what to do, I will do my best."

She pushed a hairbrush and a pair of shears into Hubert's hands. "Here, take these. They are all you will need."

Hubert looked at he tools as if he had never seen their like before.

Molly sighed. "Simply put, brush his hair out and then cut it to a length which suits his purpose. Please, Hubert, it really is a very easy thing." She put her hands over his hands, bunched around the items as they were.

Hubert dared to hold her gaze for some part of a second. "Molly, I will do it. For you."

He made to exit the larder, but Molly caught his arm.

"Wait!" she said. She pulled a ragged old sheet from under some shelves and shook it out. It was nearly black with grime. "Put this over his clothes to catch the clipped hair. The master will not tolerate a hairy house."

Sheet in hand, Hubert entered the kitchen, where Silas was already seated by a table.

"Where's the scullery maid?" the witchfinder barked.

"Dead, sir," Hubert said at once.

"Dead?" Silas fixed Hubert with a beady eye. "Then why did your master recommend her?"

"I'm afraid Sir Bromley has not yet let the death sink in. The old girl was most popular."

"Old?" Silas sneered. "I've no time for old maids. Never any problems there. It's the young gals that dabble most in the witching arts." He leered. "Lucky thing too."

Hubert hung the sheet about Silas' throat, pulling it so tight the witchfinder coughed and dragged it off his neck a fraction of an inch with his hand. "What are you doing, you idiot?" he demanded.

"I'm preparing to cut your hair, sir," Hubert said, his face blank.

"Oh, take care then. I shan't be man-handled."

Hubert looked first at the shears, then at the hairbrush.

"Don't tarry!" Silas snapped. "Get on with it."

Hubert set the shears on the table and tried to run his hands through Silas' hair. The tight ringlets harboured knots that caught on his fingers. Silas grunted as Hubert tugged at his tresses.

Tentatively, Hubert attempted to drag the hairbrush through Silas' hair. It was hopeless. He swiftly retreated to the larder to consult with Molly.

"Oh Molly!" he cried. "I am doomed."

Molly slapped him,  then as she held his shoulders, demanded, "What is the matter? Tell me the problem, and we will solve it!"

"I can't brush his hair out! Can't I just cut it?"

"No," Molly said. "It won't be even when you're done. Here take this." She handed him a pot of bacon grease. "Rub it in his hair and it should be easier to brush."

Hubert looked at it sceptically. "Are you sure?"

"Please, Hubert, just do it. Do it for me."

"I will!" Hubert declared.

He went back into the kitchen and began to knead the bacon grease into Silas' hair.

For his part, Silas lay back in the chair and sighed contentedly.

But when it came time to use the hairbrush, Hubert found there was little difference.

"Stop hauling on my scalp like it's a blessed fish on a hook, you devil," Silas exclaimed. "I want a haircut, not a neck injury."

Hubert slipped back to the larder.

"It's all going wrong, and I don't know what to do," he said, scratching his head.

Molly slapped him hard on the side of his face. He snorted, tumbling backwards a little way. Molly began to blub, rubbing at her eyes. "What did you mean?" she gasped "When you said you'd die for me?"

"I didn't think you heard that," Hubert said, puzzled, his battered face forgotten. "You never said anything."

"I heard," Molly replied, "but I wanted to think on it. I thought a lot about it."

"Oh. What did you think?" Hubert asked.

"I told you, silly." Molly smiled, face brightening up. "I thought much of it..."

"Oh Molly, what am I to do?" Hubert asked. "His hair is so tangled, and he is getting ever so angry with me."

Molly rubbed her temples, forcing out her thoughts. "You need to pamper him, so he won't notice. Here, use this."

Hubert looked at the pot she had handed him from the shelf. "Ain't that gooseberry jam?"

"No, it's gooseberry face cream. Plaster that on his boat race and he'll just giggle and coo while you're cutting his hair. Trust me!"

"Oh, Molly, I do," Hubert said, the words a breathy vow.

Silas regarded Hubert as he emerged from he larder.

"Why do you keep dodging in there, churl?" Silas asked, his tone an accusation.

"I wanted to fetch the master's best face tonic," Hubert said, waving the pot as evidence.

"A face tonic?"

"It will melt away the years, making you look ever so youthful." Hubert smiled awkwardly.

"Oh, in that case..." Silas relaxed back in the chair, his eyes tight-closed.

Hubert cautiously smeared the mix across the witch finder's face. When he had done with the pot, he took the hairbrush up in his gooseberried hand and attempted to brush the witchfinder's hair. The tight ringlets were like an impenetrable barrier to the brush. At each attempt Hubert winced, while Silas grunted or moaned.

Hubert was soon back in the larder.

"I can't brush out his hair, it is a task beyond my abilities."

"Take this," Molly said, handing him a battered old hat. "Just stick that on his head, pull it down as far as you can, and cut around it. It will be a shoddy excuse for a haircut but... but... oh, Hubert, you exasperate me."

"Oh Molly, I'm so very sorry," Hubert said. "But most of the time I simply do not know what to do." He scratched at his head, feverishly.

Molly slapped him soundly on the cheek. "Why do you keep scratching your head?" she demanded.

"I sleep in a stable, amidst a pile of dogs," Hubert whined. "Is it any wonder I have fleas?"

She cupped his face in her little hands, then slapped him hard again. "You poor, sweet, lovely man." She slapped him once more.

"Why do you keep hurting me?" Hubert clutched his throbbing face.

Molly pulled aside his hands and stroked his cheeks, pulling his face a smidgen closer to her own. "I don't know, Hubert. I just don't know, but I think if I stopped hitting you... well... I wouldn't know WHAT might happen next."

"Hold that thought," Hubert cried. "I've a hair cut to dispense with, then we must discuss this further."

Hubert re-entered the kitchen. He looked aghast at Silas Warnes, whose gooseberry-smeared face was now crawling with wasps, all unbeknownst to the witchfinder. "Oh Lord," Hubert whispered. "Oh Lord, preserve me."

"Come now, boy," Silas shouted, bouncing wasps on his lip. "Finish the damn job before my hair is not only unfashionable, but grey."

Hubert took the hat and pulled it down on Silas' head, glaring at the ecstatic wasps the while. He clicked the shears experimentally.

It was at that particular moment that a particular wasp entered Silas Warnes' mouth.

Silas did not, particularly, care for it.

"Gah!" he exclaimed as the wasp, in a final act, stung his tongue. The witchfinder's eyes bulged and his face turned purple with pain and rage.

Hubert dropped the shears. He glanced at the larder, hoping that Molly would be there to tell him what to do. The door was ajar, but she was not to be seen.

Silas had risen from his chair and was clutching at his belts for a weapon, but he had left both sword and pistol in the hall, in deference to his host. He lunged for Hubert. "Ooh ehh ahhh uhhh ehh," Silas swore, over a thickening tongue.

Heart-sinking, Hubert dashed out the back door. Silas was in hot pursuit, but not before grabbing the first heavy object that came to hand with which to beat on Hubert.

Outside, Hubert was at once struck by the bonfire that had been erected while he was engaged inside, and which was now ablaze. Secondly he was crushed at the sight of his sweet Molly talking to the witchfinder's man, Nicola.

The pair turned their eyes to him. Molly's smile was enigmatic. It stole his breath and placed an elephant of weight upon his shoulders. He sank to the ground.

Nicola jabbed a finger at him. "There! Burn it!" he said.

The while he stared at Molly, destroyed by her neutral gaze, Nicola's comrades rushed towards him. Then past him.

"We have her!" one cried.

Hubert watched as Silas Warnes was wrestled towards the bonfire, grimy black cloak flapping, gooseberry-green face lit by the flickering yellow flames, pointed hat stuck firmly on his head, still brandishing the broomstick he had grabbed with which to assault Hubert.

Once the bacon grease caught fire it was soon over.

Sir Bromley paused as he passed Hubert, patting him on the shoulder. "Nicely done, lad. Take the rest of the day off." The stars twinkled as he continued to his bed.

Hubert got to his feet, idly scratched his head and turned back towards the stable. He was stopped by Nicola, Molly hanging off him. Nicola thrust a calloused hand towards Hubert who, instinctively, took it. Nicola squeezed his hand painfully as he shook it.

"I'm sorry..." Hubert did not know what exactly to say.

"For what?" Nicola beamed as he spoke. Molly tittered.

"You know.... Silas?"

Nicola's grin widened. "I'm sure that Silas, wherever he is, will be happy for all of us."

"But he's-"

"Wherever he is!" Nicola reiterated. Molly squeezed his broad shoulders between her little hands and giggled.

"Oh." Hubert let the realization sink home. "I hope you'll both be happy."

"Both?" Nicola said, his face creased for a moment. "I wish it was both, but she says you're taken."

"She?" Hubert glanced at Molly, his eyes on her eyes for a brief moment. He turned his head away, eyes watering and his guts flipping.

"I'm here," Molly said. She raised her hand and Hubert flinched, but instead of the expected blow, she ran her hand down his face to stroke his neck and shoulders. She took Hubert's head and guided it so he was looking directly into her face. "You'll need to get used to me."

"I will..." he whispered, voice choked.

"There's one thing though," Molly said.


"No more sleeping in the stables." Molly pulled his face down and kissed him.

"Promise," he said. He followed her back into the kitchen, his hand in her hand, thoroughly under her spell.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kilkenny Cats

His head pounded and pulsed in time with the mass of shadow and colour circling the pair. Shapes swayed to the beat of the over-powering music. She smelt of expensive perfume and cheap liqueurs; enough to blear his eyes, though his vision already had naught but bitter-sweet memories of a time when focus came easy. His mouth gaped wetly as he leaned in for the kiss.

Spun about, a fist smacked him solidly in the eye. His vision had enough, threw a few things in a battered suitcase and beat a hasty retreat. As the chair he was in sailed backwards, and him in it, he paused to wonder  how his brain could so distinctly hear the crashing white light that flashed in the ebon vacuum behind his eyes.

He came up swinging wildly, half-blind, but half-mad with anger too. A chair was plucked up single-handed and rolled up over his head into a double grip. Somewhere between intending to dash his opponents brains out and lurching forward, bent almost double, the chair was pulled out of his hands from behind.

He thought to catch the knee that snapped towards him. He succeeded, but with his already throbbing eye. Collapsing sideways, he curled on the floor. The shadow and colour closed in on him, pressing him down with many hands. A face, dark of aspect and yellow of eye, declared, "Fetch a steak."


Declan held the raw meat to his eye, sitting on his jacket atop the white sand, looking out across Jumby Bay. The sun had almost set and dappled shadows rode the dark blue water as a lone speed boat, with whooping water-skier in hot pursuit, skimmed the surface. He could smell the faint whiff of brine, and the tantalizing smells of a beach barbecue thirty or forty yards down the sands.

"Here, take this." It was Connor, the bride's brother. He held out a plastic bag filled with ice. "You'll get an infection off that."

He sat down beside Declan and said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have hit you."

Declan pressed the ice to his face. Unsure what to do with it, he held the steak in his other hand. "It's fine. I didn't hurt your knee, did I?"

Connor snorted a laugh. "Ah, it'll be grand." He was silent a moment. "It's just..."

"No need to say it. I was out of order. Carrying on with your mother... she's a well-preserved woman... but I shouldn't have done it. I can imagine how I'd have felt if it had been you, with my mother."

"That's not likely," Connor said.

"What are you implying?"

"Not a thing. I just have too much respect for your father."

Declan nodded. "That's under- hey, I didn't think you'd met my father before today."

"I hadn't, but he makes a wonderful first impression."

"I suppose. He's awful plausible."

"Are you coming back?" Connor asked.

"I'm going to sit a spell. Clear my head."

Connor followed Declan's gaze out over the water. "She's beautiful isn't she? Antigua."

Declan nodded. "And then we arrive."

"You can take the wedding out of Ireland, but you can't take the Irish out of the wedding."


Connor got up off the sand. "Don't leave it too late. She's wanting more photographs tomorrow."

"More? Lord preserve us from more photographs."

"She wants it to be memorable."

They exchanged a wry look and both laughed weakly.

"I'll need to be careful what side of my face I show the camera," Declan said.

"No problem," Connor said. "We'll use plenty of concealer."

"Concealer? That's a sly trick."

Connor winked. "This isn't my first wedding."

Declan sat a while after Connor had gone. The speedboat was no longer visible, but the distant putt of the engine and the faint holler of its tow was just audible. The ice had melted in the bag. He pinched a hole in it, letting the cool water drain into the sand, then crumpled the bag and stuffed it in his pocket. In another time, and at another place he might have left it there, but the sand and the sea was so perfect he couldn't imagine defiling it.

He looked to the hotel, thinking on an early start and more photographs. Then he looked at the steak, still in his hand, and instead, walked slowly towards the barbecue, drawn to the noise, the scents and the promise of new adventure.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Happiness Tree and Me

Deep in the Valley of Despair, in the midst of the flame pits and just down the road from Mr Dead's Dead Shoppe, was the chapter house of the Led by the Nose Manic-Depressives Club, Valley Original.

Big Sol Kaminski slouched on the podium, psyching himself into a deep blue funk before addressing the assembled hoards of blood-shot, party-killers, here for the monthly general meeting. He'd remembered to set out the seats this time, though there were a few who preferred to lean their foreheads against the side walls, muttering savagely to themselves, and rubbing their cheeks against the condensation which their breath formed on the slick black paintwork. Someone had brought a boombox and was playing early sixties songs of teenage suicide. but it wasn't cheering anyone up. Not that that was the idea.

"I hereby bring this, the one hundred thousand three hundred and ninety seventh meeting of the Led by the Nose MDC to order," Sol said.

Last Bobby ambled over to the podium clutching a sheaf of papers, and awkwardly leaned over to speak into the microphone. "The meeting started with a general proposal to... look, does it matter? I mean, we'll all be dead in a few centuries, right? I don't even feel all that well today. I've a terrible headache and I think it might be spreading to my lower intestines. My doctor says I'm-"

"The minutes, Bob. The minutes. Remember?" Sol sighed wearily.

"Wait a minute!" came a voice from the audience. "I think Bobby has a valid point."

Sol looked out at the crowd. Mox. Might have known.

"Do the minutes of the last meeting really matter?" Mox continued. "They won't make my life any better. I say, we put it to a vote."

Sol shrugged. Who cared anyway? "So the proposal is that we do away with the minutes? Entirely?"

"Well..." Mox ventured. "We could shorten them. Just list successful motions and suicides."

"Any second?" Sol asked.

"Not half! I'll second that," Last Bobby said. "It really gets me down, having to go over all that old business again. It wasn't much fun the first time around, and then I'm expected to drone on about it again at the next meeting? I get hate mail, you know, My dog has left home, and sometimes I wake up at night for no good reason and can't think why I don't go downstairs and stuff my head in the food processor. On Mince! I get stopped in the street by complete strangers who hurl insults at me and poke me with pointy sticks, just because of my reputation."

There was a silence for several, long, seconds, then a voice from the back of the hall said, "I used to have days like that... God, it was bliss. Now, things are really bad."

"Look, can we address any comments through the chair," Sol said, trying to regain control of the meeting.

"Might as well," the voice said; Sol still couldn't place it. "Sometimes I feel so miserable that talking to furniture is the only comfort I get. There's nothing like a sympathetic kitchen table to keep you from slitting your wrists, is there?"

"I used to talk to my shoes," Last Bobby said, sounding half-distracted, as though he was thinking of far-off coral islands and grass skirts. "It didn't help. We never got to the root of anything. I just couldn't open up to them. My own shoes, and I didn't feel I could trust them with any of the important stuff. Christ... I'm a failure." He began to sob, slumping against the lectern with a crash as the microphone dislodged and fell towards the floor.

Sol watched as the microphone was brought up sharply when the cord ran out, swinging back and forth on the flex. He remembered the last time he'd tried to hang himself. He smiled. It was only the few good times that kept him going.

"Right!" Sol said, "we'll put that to a vote then, shall we?" Nobody heard him. The microphone was still swinging like a phallic pendulum. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

Idly, Sol wondered why he bothered. It was the same every month. If he hadn't already been depressed nigh unto death, he might have let it get him down. As it was he felt only mild upset and a slight impatience with Last Bobby, who was now dampening his sleeve.

"This is awful! You can't go on like this!" Another, unfamiliar, voice, Sol mused. "We should call on someone to seek out the Happiness Tree and bring it back to solve our problems, liberate us from the darkness of being, set our souls free, afloat on the raucous helter-skelter of enjoyment."

"Do we have a second for that?" Sol asked. Nobody spoke. "Next item of business..."