Saturday 6 July 2024

Saturday Sample: Matters of Life and Death by Philip Stuckey, whisky on the rocks


Witch in a bottle

 ‘In your own time, sir, and please, stick to the facts.’

‘The facts?’

I am required to provide a statement for the young police officer who sits before me now, poised with notepad and pencil in hand. But how am I to account for events I cannot begin to understand? And yet, account for them I must, and then make peace with God. But as to the facts of this matter, I am no more reliable than the village cat.

‘Yes, Reverend, we are here to establish facts. We are not interested in conjecture, embellishments or justifications…so when you’re ready, please begin.’

It is the grim-faced inspector standing at the constable’s side who addresses me now. The weariness of his tone suggests that he is simply going through the motions. I believe this man has already made up his mind.

‘Very well, Inspector, I will relate, as far as I am able, the circumstances that have brought me here in ruins. But as to whether this information constitutes fact, I cannot be certain.’

 I take a deep breath and begin…

‘…It was the farm labourer, Jack Higgins, who brought it to me that fateful night, rousing me from slumber with his great fists upon my door. He looked like a ghost in the wan, yellow glow of my oil lamp, but I could see something in his hand that glistened like a cat’s eye.

‘‘What brings you here at such an ungodly hour Jack?’ I asked him.

‘This!’ He held out his glistening prize as though it were an offering.

‘I adjusted the light so I could get a better look at the thing. It appeared to be a small, silver bottle, sealed with wax. I was irritated at having my sleep disturbed by what appeared to be a trivial matter and asked him if it couldn’t have waited until morning.

‘He placed both the bottle and a small scrap of parchment into my hand, stating emphatically, ‘No, Reverend, it could not,’ and before I could engage him further, he turned and fled into the night.

‘Feeling confused but also intrigued by this strange and unexpected event, I closed the door and took Jack’s bottle to my study, where I placed it upon my desk along with the parchment. I could see now that the bottle was of an unusual design, consisting of two bulbs, one larger at the base and one smaller at the top, separated by an elegant narrow waist. The contents of the bottle were obscured by a silvered lining of some kind and the top was sealed with wax, just as I’d thought.

‘‘And where is this bottle now?’ the inspector interjects, disturbing my train of thought.

‘‘I do not know, inspector,’ I lie, without conscience.

‘’I see. You mentioned parchment?’

‘‘Yes, I then turned my attention to the parchment, noticing that there were words upon it. Turning up the light, I examined the writing through my magnifying lens and was shocked at what I read.’

I paused then, regathering my thoughts before continuing, determined to relate every nuance to the officers in the vain hope they would come to understand.

 ‘Go on, Reverend. The words were?’

I swallowed hard, remembering…

‘Here be the remains of Agnes Simpson, witch. Open at thy peril.’

‘Despite my curiosity, I resolved to wait until morning to investigate the thing further and returned to my bed, where my dreams were filled with strange, lucid dreams and the new day brought me down to breakfast agitated and far from rested.

‘My housekeeper, Mrs Barrowman, had prepared my boiled eggs and tea as always, but had departed without a word, adding to my sense of unease. I determined there may be something unusual stirring my flock and I resolved to find out what it was. How had Jack come to be in possession of such a curious artefact and what had made him appear so afraid?

‘I assume it is usual for people to come to you with matters that are of concern to them, Reverend?’

‘As you are aware, Inspector, the village of Little Pemberton nestles in a fold between two hills, where the infant stream has not yet become the adolescent river. The road in is a difficult one, so few ever come and go, save the fifty or so souls that reside there, scattered amongst smallholdings, cottages and shepherds’ huts. Farm workers they are, in the main, hardy, simple folk and dependable. They built the chapel with their own hands and fill it every Sunday without fail. I have come to know them as my own family these past ten years. The Landowners are the Wright family from nearby Longridge, but they are often absent. It is left to me to care for the wellbeing of this small community and they have accepted me well enough into their midst.’

The young officer raises his eyebrows at this, and I can’t blame him for I speak as though nothing has happened. But he cannot know what is in my heart. The inspector is experienced and shows little emotion, already convinced of my madness.

‘Indeed, please do continue, Reverend. And I wish to know every conversation you can remember in as much detail as possible.’

‘Very well, Inspector.’

I close my eyes and replay the memories of the previous days, reliving them in all their horror. I relate my tale as though it were a fiction and not simply a retelling of my own fate.  With a shudder, I continue…

‘After breakfast I returned my attention to the bottle and the strange note that accompanied it. I am not a superstitious man, or at least I did not consider myself to be so, but I knew something of what must have befallen Agnes Simpson if her remains were indeed contained within. Although it is true that women are no longer persecuted as witches, burned or hanged on flimsy evidence construed to be the work of the Devil, there are still places, remote and insular places, places like Little Pemberton, where the old fears still linger.

‘I placed the bottle into the pocket of my coat and went out to greet the day. The sky hung low upon the hills, threatening rain. I pulled up my collar, put on my hat and followed the lane that led down and across the upper fields towards Jessop’s farm. It was as I approached the standing stone at Withen Point the attack came. I registered the dark shape from the corner of my eye as it swept down upon me, but too late. It was a bird, a raven, and intent on doing me harm. Though I raised my arms in defence, my reactions were slow and the creature broke through, drawing blood from my scalp. I staggered forward, dazed by the impact, and the dark menace came at me again. Fortunately, my hand found a rock and I was able to fend off this second assault without taking further damage. The bird wheeled away with a shriek, leaving me reeling.

‘I kept going, and as I approached Jessop’s farm I could see the man himself, mending a fence at the perimeter of the lower field, with his dog in attendance. He must have sensed something was wrong because he threw down his tools and came striding towards me.

‘”Reverend Greenacre, whatever has befallen you this mornin’?”

‘”An encounter with an angry raven, John,” I replied.

‘We met at the gate and he checked my injured head.

‘‘That’s a nasty one,’ he said. ‘Better let the missus clean that up.’

‘‘Very well,’ I replied, ‘thank you. I was hoping to discuss something with you anyway.’

‘We sat around his kitchen table staring at the bottle as Mrs Jessop cleaned and dressed my wound. There was an awkward silence that I took to be their great discomfort at seeing it.

‘‘Do you know how Jack Higgins came by this, John?’ I asked.

‘‘I do not,’ he replied.

‘‘I would like to speak with him about it. Do you know where I will find him today?’

‘‘Well, I didn’t see him at the inn last night, which is unusual for Jack. Sometimes he chops logs for Alec Mortimer, over at Sherriff Wood.’

‘‘That’s a fair trek across the moor. I will visit the Hall on the way. Maybe the Wrights will know something about it.’

‘‘Something don’t feel right about that thing, Reverend,’ remarked Mrs Jessop. ‘I would bury it if I were you…or throw it down the old mine.’

‘‘Thank you, Mary, but it has pricked my curiosity,’ I said. ‘I will discover its heritage and can and dispose of it then. It may be of some interest to a city museum.’

‘I noticed the furtive glances between husband and wife but chose not to press them further. I decided it was time to leave.

‘‘Thank you for your care and for your hospitality. If you would see me on my way, John?’

‘We were back to the farm gate before John spoke again.

‘‘Take care, Reverend,’ he said at last. ‘There’s history to this place that not everyone knows about.’

‘‘Indeed so, but I’m not a man prone to superstition. This artefact is of historical and maybe scientific interest, but that is all.’

‘At that I took my leave and made my way towards the ridge at Highcliffe so that I could get to the Hall by the shortest route. I had no idea if there would be anyone there to greet me, but it was worth a try.  Reverend Charles Wright was of another parish, and retired, but would surely understand my concern.

‘The Jacobean Hall graced the horizon as I dropped down past the brook at Hollow Crag. It is an impressive sight and one of long standing, built soon after the plague brought this place to its knees in 1665. I pondered that sorrow as I made my way through the gardens to the imposing front entrance. I announced my presence with a peel of the doorbell and was soon greeted by the friendly face of Alice, the maid.

‘‘Good day to you, Reverend Greenacre,’ she said, with a warm smile.

‘‘And the same to you, Alice. Might the Reverend be accepting callers today?’

‘‘I’m sure he will be for you, sir, would you care to step inside?’

‘The entrance hall was beamed and oak-panelled, rather like the chapel, but with a greater sense of grandeur. Family portraits hung on the walls next to tapestries and plaques of various descriptions. I felt diminished somehow by the sight of it.

‘Alice had gone to fetch the Reverend and soon after, he appeared, dressed all in black as is his preference. He’s a tall and slim man with a stern, grey face that now regarded me dispassionately.

‘‘This is a most unexpected pleasure,’ he announced, without sincerity.  ‘How may I be of service to you, Reverend?’

‘‘It is a curious and perhaps sensitive matter, Reverend Wright. May we retire to your study?’

‘He ushered me through the oak door to the right of the hallway and into a small library. I’d been here once before but not for some time. We sat on leather reading chairs, beside a grand fireplace, the fire now cold in the grate. It was a room I could certainly take pleasure in, surrounded by books of all types and art of great worth.

‘‘Tea?’ he asked, cordially, but I was not there on a social visit.

‘‘No thank you, Reverend, this shouldn’t take long.’

‘I brought out the bottle from my pocket, along with the scrap of parchment and passed both to him across the card table which separated us. He took them from me with trembling hands. His face had drained of what little colour it had and for a moment he could not speak. I noticed him swallow hard.

‘‘Where did you discover such a thing?’ he asked.

‘‘Do you recognise it?’ I watched his eyes.

‘‘No, no I do not,’ he said, ‘but it is a strange thing is it not?’

‘I felt certain this was an untruth, which in itself was extraordinary, but I chose not to challenge him.

‘‘What about the name on the parchment?’ I asked.

‘He put on his reading spectacles and brought the parchment near to his face, accentuating further the nervousness he clearly felt.

‘‘Agnes Simpson,’ he muttered, ‘no, I’ve never heard the name.’

‘Another lie.

‘‘Might you have access to historical records that could shine some light on the name?’ I probed.

‘‘What about your own church records?’ he countered.

‘‘Only recent entries are registered and recorded,’ I said, knowing that he understood this already. ‘The majority are held at Longridge. I could write, I suppose. But I’m sure your own land and tenant records go back as far as the great plague and beyond, do they not?’

‘‘Perhaps,’ he said, regaining some of his composure, ‘but the archives are locked away in storage. It would take a great effort, and I’m not sure it is worth it.’

‘‘Very well, Longridge it is then.’ I stood, indicating that our conversation had reached its conclusion. ‘Thank you for your time, Reverend Wright.’

‘‘I returned the bottle and parchment to my pocket and made to leave, but he placed his hand upon my arm.

‘‘Do not pursue this further, Thomas,’ he said. ‘The past is best left alone. Who knows what frightful truths may be uncovered and what trouble it may cause if we choose to rake over the past. Leave the bottle with me and I will dispose of it.’

‘Whatever do you mean, Charles?’ I asked. ‘The past is dead and gone. All that remains are curiosities such as this. At least I must find out where Jack discovered it.’

‘Mention of the name raised his eyebrows.

‘‘Jack? Jack Higgins?’ he asked.

‘‘Yes, the same,’ I replied.

‘‘Throw it into the old mine,’ he said then, with a dismissive gesture of his hand, ‘and forget about Jack Higgins.’

‘‘Perhaps I will,’ I said, and let him show me out.

‘It had begun to rain and looked like it was set for the day. Nevertheless, I had resolved to find Jack and find him I would. Sherriff Wood was another long trudge across the moor but I did not let the rain deter me. I set off along Bridge Hill Road and then turned off onto the old sheep track that led up and over the hill and onto the moor.

‘It was just as I was at my most exposed, picking my way through the gorse and bracken of the moor, that thunder clapped astonishingly loudly above my head and a bolt of lightning struck not fifty feet away to my right. My heart pounded and my skin was enlivened by the electricity in the air. I prayed then, prayed vigorously and passionately as my shoes filled with water and the continuous thunder shattered my nerves.

‘I made the perimeter of Sherriff Wood a sodden mess, stripped of composure and longing for a bath and a warm fire. I knew roughly where the woodcutter’s cabin was, close to Mary’s Well and not much further, thank God. The shelter it could provide would be most welcome and so I forced myself on.

‘The wood was dark and eerily still, despite the storm still raging above and beyond my sight. The birds had quietened their voices amid the tumult and every other living thing had apparently gone to ground. Only the shadows remained and fleeting glances of ghostly apparitions, as my mind played cruel games. 

‘Mercifully, I came upon the clearing quickly and the cabin that lay within it. I called out Jack’s name but got no response. I called out again and again but to no avail and so decided to take shelter inside the cabin and wait out the storm. It was warm inside and dry.

‘Though Jack was clearly not within, he or at least someone, had been present very recently. The stove had burning wood in its belly and there was unfinished bread and cheese on the table. I returned to the front door and looked outside but could see no trace of anyone and so decided to make myself at home and wait. I topped up the fuel in the stove, took off my sodden coat, hat, and shoes, and, though it felt a little inappropriate, ate some of the remaining bread and cheese. Feeling somewhat restored, I sat near the stove, pointing my cold feet towards the heat, and allowed my heavy eyelids to fall.

‘Amongst my troubled dreams, a young girl of about fifteen or sixteen appeared before me and spoke, her voice filled with menace.  

‘You must sacrifice yourself she said, for the good of us all.

‘Before I could respond, I was woken by the sound of the cabin door crashing open and there, framed in the doorway, stood Jack Higgins, axe in hand.

‘‘You shouldn’t have come here,’ he spat, ‘you’ve brought it back!’

‘‘Jack, wait,’ I implored him. ‘I only wish to speak with you.’

‘‘You brought it back!’ he said again, as he advanced.

‘My fear was now absolute. The man was clearly not to be reasoned with. His face was contorted with rage as he wielded his axe. He advanced towards me with hate-filled eyes, an animal-like growl exploding into a roar as he charged.

‘I watched the axe sweep down, sharp blade brought unerringly towards my head. Falling backwards off my chair, I resigned myself to the inevitable. But it was only as my head hit the floor that I truly woke from my slumber to find myself alone, sweating and in a crumpled heap.

‘In shock, I sprang to my feet, expecting an attack to come at any moment, but I was wrong. The cabin was cold and empty. The fire in the stove had long since died and there was no evidence of there ever having been food upon the table. I was still wearing the wet clothes I was sure I’d removed, and my head now throbbed in pain and utter confusion. It was time for me to leave. Never before had the idea of home felt so appealing. With great haste I left the cabin and re-entered Sherriff Wood in the direction I thought would lead me back towards the moor and Jessop’s farm.

‘I was running and scared when I burst into the small clearing that housed Mary’s Well. It was there a new horror awaited me. For at the edge of the stone that encircled the lip of the well, lay Jack Higgins, bleeding into its gaping mouth. I knew Jack well enough to be quite certain it was indeed he who lay prostrate there, despite the fact his head was no longer present. The axe I’d witnessed in my dream lay at his side, stained with blood.

‘I staggered in disbelief over to where he lay and prayed for his soul. As I did so, a voice I now recognised echoed from the well…

‘Sacrifice yourself, for the good of us all.

‘‘This is no sacrifice,’ I exclaimed into the trees, ‘this is murder!’

‘I did not have the strength to move Jack’s body but vowed to return with help. I set off once again for Jessop’s farm, a ragged expression of my former self.

‘I stumbled across the heath, losing my shoes quickly to the eager peat bog made worse by the rain. But my discomfort was easily overshadowed by the desire to reach the safety of Jessop’s farm and find some sanity there. I ran and fell onto hands and knees, picked myself up and ran again and yet I came no closer to my goal. I looked about me and the grey sky pressed down like a heavy weight upon my shoulders. A dense mist descended, robbing me of sight and reason.

‘Sacrifice yourself, for the good of us all, came the voice again, an echo from within the gloaming, and so I drove myself on, now almost blind and desperate. My strength had all but deserted me when I happened once more upon the sanctuary of the trees, but quickly realised there was no succour to be had there. For to my utter dismay, I could see that I had returned to Mary’s Well. Jack’s decapitated body was no longer present, nor was there any sign of it ever having been there. The axe was similarly gone, and no blood stained the earth or the well.

‘I resolved to spend my remaining strength on disposing of the damned bottle down the well. Maybe it was cursed. I no longer cared. I removed it from my coat pocket and staggered over to the well with it clasped in my shaking hand. It was as I raised the thing above my head with no more thought than to cast it downward, that the apparition emerged from the mist. At first it was the mist, but as it flowed into the clearing, the shape formed into that of a young woman, dressed in peasant clothing. It was the girl from my dream.

‘‘Who are you?’ I croaked, ‘And what do you want of me?’

‘‘When the plague came, they blamed it on me,’ she said.

‘’Who did?’

‘‘The likes of you.’

‘I was confused enough already, but talk of the plague was nonsensical.

‘‘But that was three hundred years ago!’

‘‘Time has no meaning for me,’ she said, ‘I cannot rest. I must have revenge.’

‘I no longer believed my own senses, such was my confusion, but this apparition seemed real, or at least as real to me as Jack’s body had been.

‘‘I can only surmise that I’m dreaming again, or lying on my bed delirious with fever,’ I said, ‘and so will consent to have this conversation with you before I wake and discover the truth. What makes you so sure that the blame was laid at your door?’

‘The girl mocked me. ‘The truth? Ha! Well, they did burn me and place my remains in that bottle you hold so closely to your heart.’

‘I looked again at the bottle in disbelief, and renewed fear throbbed at my temples.

‘‘I see you’re afraid,’ said the girl, ‘they were also afraid, afraid of the black death. It was I who suggested that all who suffered should sacrifice themselves, but only for the good of those that remained. It is true that I was considered a witch, but even my lore could not help those stricken with plague. Only fire can purge such a curse.  But your Christian Church could see no further than Satan, and looked for his mark upon me.’

‘‘We are not all the same,’ I said.

‘‘No? Then how would you interpret the words of your God? Thou shall not suffer a witch to live!’

‘‘There are no true witches,’ I countered.

‘‘I have already told you that I am a witch. Do you doubt me?’

‘‘I do.’

‘The apparition drew closer, until I could see her eyes. They were as black as night. They looked into my soul and took hold of my will.

‘‘What do you want of me?’ I begged.

‘‘Revenge!’ she spat like a viper.

‘‘Take me then,’ I said, and the girl bared her teeth like an animal.

‘‘You will indeed be my instrument, Reverend Thomas Greenacre. Take up yonder axe!’

‘‘I looked and there it was, once more by the well. I took it in my hands, no longer a man but as a vessel possessed…and from that moment, I remember no more…’

It is evident from this remark, that I have now completed my statement. The young constable lays down his notepad and pencil and looks aghast at his superior. His face is ashen. The inspector on the other hand stares at me with distaste. When he addresses me, I understand at once my fate.

‘Though it is not for me to judge you, Reverend Greenacre, I believe you to be insane. Fortunately, you are lucid enough to be considered culpable for your foul actions and will, if justice is properly served, pay the ultimate price. And may God have mercy on your soul.’

All I can do is nod my head in response. I no longer wish to live.

And now, as I write these final words, alone within my cold, damp cell, I have come to understand that in one respect at least, the inspector is quite correct. God alone will be my judge.


The rain beats down so hard and constant, the windscreen wipers of the Land Rover can no longer keep up. Jerry and Sarah have been on the road for hours and it’s starting to get dark.

‘We must be close now,’ remarks a rather tired Jerry.

‘I do hope so,’ says Sarah, ‘I’m starting to think this was a bad idea after all.’

They bounce up the track, thankful for the four-wheel drive. Finally, they pass a farm they recognise from a description in the book they are referring to. They turn uphill and spy their goal in the near distance.

‘That has to be it,’ says Sarah, pointing. Jerry smiles back at her.

The car slips and slides on the muddy surface of the track and Jerry engages a lower gear. The tyres bite and soon they emerge at the chapel gate and slide to a halt. Sarah is clearly excited. ‘It’s just as I thought it would be. Working in a museum has its advantages.’

Jerry turns off the engine. ‘Tell me again what the book says.’

Sarah flicks through the pages and finds the place with the corner turned over. She begins to read the passage that has brought them here.

‘The chapel, now derelict, has remained unused since the tragic events of 1876, when the Vicar, Reverend Thomas Greenacre, violently murdered his parishioners during Sunday service, with an axe.’

‘Good God,’ says Jerry, ‘that never ceases to amaze me. What on earth possessed the man?’

‘A good question,’ replies Sarah, ‘and one I intend to use in my novel. Let’s take a look around.’

They get out into the pouring rain and try the gate. It screeches open. They look at each other, grinning like school children, and hurry through. Skirting around the side of the chapel and into the small graveyard, they find a little shelter beneath an old oak tree. The area is unkempt, with nettles and briars everywhere and some of the gravestones have fallen. The chapel is clearly in a poor state, with many of the windows broken.

‘Shouldn’t you be taking some notes?’ asks Jerry.

‘Pictures will do,’ replies Sarah, removing her phone from her jacket pocket.

‘Perfect weather for a ghost story,’ remarks Jerry, grinning.

Sarah ignores the comment, and wipes her rain-spattered glasses so she can see more clearly. ‘I wonder if we can get inside.’

‘Hang on,’ replies Jerry, ‘you didn’t say anything about breaking and entering.’

‘I don’t think we’ll need to do much breaking, do you?’

Sarah strides off towards a side door that looks the worse for wear. Jerry reluctantly follows. ‘It won’t take much, Jerry, go on.’

He instinctively looks around before giving the door a hefty kick. It yields easily. They hesitate for a moment or two before plucking up the courage to step across the threshold. The air inside is stale and a thick layer of dust covers every surface. There are birds in the rafters, or bats, they can’t tell in the shadows.

‘Jerry, this is where it happened. Right here!’

He nervously walks up the aisle to the dais at the front. A dusty bible is still spread open upon it. He blows off the dust and takes a look.

‘Matthew chapter 2, the Slaughter of the Innocents,’ he reads aloud.

‘How very apt,’ replies Sarah, taking more pictures.

Suddenly a dark shape flies down from the rafters and swoops towards Jerry’s head.

‘Shit!’ he cries, waving his arms about.

The dark shape comes at him again and he sprawls forward, pushing the dais over with a loud thud, sending the bible skidding across the floor. Sarah comes running. ‘Jerry! Are you OK?’

‘Damn bird went for me,’ he replies, bringing back blood onto his fingers from his forehead.

‘We must have frightened it,’ says Sarah.

‘Bloody frightened me,’ he grumbles.

Jerry picks up the damaged dais and tries to put it back in place. As he does so, he notices a hole in the floor where it had been standing, obscuring its presence.

‘Sarah, the dais was covering up a hole in the floor. Come and see.’

Sarah kneels down at the hole and uses the torch on her phone to inspect it. ‘There’s something in there,’ she says, reaching in. She pulls out a velvet bag, tied closed with a woven cord. They look at each other with barely disguised thrill.

‘Buried treasure now?’ asks Jerry.

‘Let’s see,’ says Sarah, as she undoes the cord. She puts her hand into the velvet bag and withdraws a silver bottle from within. They are speechless at their discovery. It is just as the book had described it. Finally, Jerry finds his voice. ‘Could that really be…?’

Sarah replaces their find carefully back into the bag. ‘We need to get this back to the museum. Time to go, Jerry.’

The rain is still falling in torrents as the Land Rover twists its way back down the hill. ‘I can’t believe it,’ says Sarah.

‘Put the radio on, Sarah, and find us some music,’ replies Jerry, ‘I need a distraction.’ Sarah turns on the radio but finds only static. ‘It must be the weather,’ she says, searching with the tuner.

The Land Rover skids, barely missing a tree. Jerry guns the accelerator and drives the car to safety. The weather seems to be getting even worse. ‘That was a close one,’ he gasps.

Then, out of the static noise a voice can almost be heard. Sarah tunes more finely and gradually it clarifies into the voice of a young girl. What she says strikes terror into their hearts as a lone figure emerges from the storm, on the road ahead, bloody axe in hand…

      …Sacrifice yourself for the good of us all, sacrifice yourself for the good of us all, sacrifice yourself for the good of us all…

There is no one to hear them scream as their car spins off the road, tumbling away into the ravaged night.

Find you copy here. 

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