I was born of the water. My mother squatted in its depths and brought me forth, crying out thanks to her goddess. My gift was placed within me by the Earth’s spirit, bubbles of life claimed me as I rose. I heard the voices of my sisters singing as I opened my new-born eyes and saw their faces in the light. My first breaths were taken on the banks of the river … and my last.
The river was my lifeblood. I would wade into the water, relishing her cold embrace. I bathed, sky-clad under each new moon and she would renew my gift, while the cattails and rushes whispered their secrets into the breeze. I knew the river’s twists and turns, her dark past and hopeful future.
At night, my mother and I would sing away our stories, let our words be carried by the flowing water. When Beltane brought the first warmth of a new summer sun, we would lay on the riverbank, listening, as the wind carried back the voices of the others, women, like us, blessed with the knowing. We sang our songs while we washed and swam, watched closely by the bright-eyed vole and the red-dashed moorhens.
Mother Earth decrees that our gifts are not our own to keep. They are meant for all to share. I was taught to take the herb and mix it. To take the seed and crush it. To cast and chant with my mother to guide me. I learnt how to tend and heal with herbs and poultices. We boiled bark from the white willow, made soothing tea from the crimson poppy. We cast to banish sickness from the bodies that had no right to live, we chanted to ease the minds of those crippled with grief. We took babies from bellies and showed them the light and we brought love to those with empty hearts. Not all are blessed, but those of us who are, must giveback threefold. They called us wise women, cunning folk, healers, sisters… until the tide turned. Then, they called us ‘witch’.
Moons passed and my mother’s hair became woven with silver. We sat by the river and I held her hand as the sun touched my brow. My mother breathed her last and slipped quietly into the water while a mute swan sailed past. She was gone and I was gifted her strength and her spirit, Mother to daughter, as it has always been. The river carried her to open waters, sweeping her into the realm of the dead, where the Ocean Goddess would bless her and guide her home.
Alone and yet not, I stayed by the river through summers of bountiful harvests, gifts from those I had cured, bread to eat, peat to burn, all were given with kindness and I was grateful. The river shared her fish to eat and her reeds and rushes to weave. I looked out toward the dark hills etched against the grey skies of the outer worlds. Worlds I never wished to visit; such was my content. I stayed through winters of frost and crisp bleak mornings when a mist lay across the river like a silken shroud. Reflections of my mother’s face would warm my soul on those dark mornings. The river flowed on, year after year. Time would never still her beating heart.
I waited for a different harvest. One of my own. A daughter to bless in the river. A new sister to pass on the gift. But none came. Parish men looked at me with curious affection, yet none were willing to be lured. It seems I lacked my mother’s guile. And still I stayed close. The river was all I knew, all I needed.
Over time, the outside world began to change, and Mother Earth began to weep for her daughters. We had always lived in harmony, but now, a King had come. His words swept across the land like a deadly sickness. They crawled into the hearts of men and filled them with hatred. The people no longer heard harmony in our songs, only discord. The women were forbidden to seek our healing, and our wisdom was scorned. This new King was afraid, and fear, as always, brings mistrust. He told his men to take us to the river and cleanse us of our imagined sins. Sins a Christian God decreed, a God I neither worshipped nor understood.
As rusted leaves fell across her banks, the river slowed and swelled. Soon songs of terror began to echo all around me. The river pulsed with menace. Run, sister, run!
It was the deepest winter-tide when the King’s men finally came. I lay on the bracken, watching embers from the fire glow in the grate. I did not run. Where would I go? They pulled me from my bed and placed a sack about me, striking, prodding, hissing.
My hands were bound. A cart carried me to a small, stone cell, rank with stench and fear. Parish women came, their eyes lowered in the candlelight, their voices soft.
‘Be still, it will go quicker.’
They tore away my dress, ran their calloused hands over my skin, spread me open, their own cheeks flushed with shame, searching for a darkness, a devil’s stain. It was a fruitless search, but that mattered not. A man, stuffed plump like a fattened foul, read laws from a leather-bound book. Not true laws governed by Mother Earth, the tides, the moon, the natural order, but laws written by a King. Laws that decreed that I was born from the Devil’s blood. A Christian Devil, one that had no place at my alter.
‘Maleficium!’, the man cried out, over and over, louder and louder, until I heard nothing. His voice faded into darkness until all I felt was the beating, striking, burning wrath of his God. When he was spent, I welcomed the shadows that crawled over my broken body. I closed my eyes and longed for my mother’s arms.
A trial was set. I was dragged form the cold stone floor, into a room filled with men. A room that throbbed with hatred. I hung my head; the verdict was decided many days before.
Finally, I was led back to the river. Flakes of snow brushed my cheeks as I stood shivering by the water.
They came to watch, those whose sickness I had cured. They stood on the banks, clutching the children I had borne for them.
A man, eyes gleaming with malice, took out the leather-bound book, proclaiming his God and his King. I was damned to a hell they all believed in. A place I knew did not exist. The shouts came first.
‘Duck the witch!’
‘Save our children!’
Then came the stones.
How they laughed as each one struck, blood dripping from my brow into the folds of my dress. I was bound once more, this time to a squat wooden stool. A man, whose child I had nursed through a fever, spat on my neck as he tied the knot. His eyes met mine and he smiled, then gave a nod.
Down I plunged, down into the ice-cold depths of the river. She fought hard, pushing me up, up to the bankside, not yet ready to take me, for it was not my time. Yet the men, with their laws and their God, the shouts of the others urging them on, plunged me in once more, and then again and again… until finally, the river relented. I saw my mother’s face, then the darkness came, falling like a heavy cloak. I was swept away in a rush of water… out, out, toward the ocean goddess.
Many moons have passed since that day. The river ebbs and the river flows, carrying with it all that has been before and all that will come. The circle turns and death becomes life. The river’s heart beats steady and true.
They called us wise women, cunning folk, healers, sisters…witches.
To those who sought to silence us, listen well. The river slows and swells with our voices, pulsing with menace. The day would always come when the tide would turn and now I shall rise up and sing with my sisters once more.
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