By: D.A. Henneman
They were coming for her. Judging from the shadows that hung low on the wall, they would arrive shortly. Ignoring the quivering panic in her stomach, she packed her most precious belongings into a small brown sack, thin from years of use and lovingly created from her mother’s faded dress.
Although she was pressed for time, she was methodical in her preparation, carefully selecting the items that were crucial to her upcoming journey. She wrapped the more delicate contents in thin strips of fabric, placing each thing precisely within the pouch. Her very existence depended on the contents of this bag, she knew that now. Ignoring the racing of her heart and the tickling beads of sweat that traveled down her face, she concentrated on her task.
A gentle breeze floated through the windows near her, lifting the tendrils that framed her face, a welcome change from the stifling heat of the summer that was finally at an end. The sun hung low and pregnant in the sky, starting its downward crawl towards the horizon as she drew the strings of the bag tight. Taking a deep breath to calm her frazzled nerves, she collected herself as the seconds ticked by. Confident that the first step of the process was complete, she navigated through her fear and onto her next task.
She pushed the small wooden table where she had been working to the edge of the sparsely furnished room and returned to the spot, lowering herself quickly to the hand-woven rug that lay beneath it. Careful not to shift the rug’s location, she rolled the end upon itself, uncovering a row of loose floorboards. One by one she removed the boards, revealing a cramped crawlspace beneath her home. This space had kept her belongings safe from the eyes of those who lacked tolerance. She prayed that the space would remain undetected until she could return, no matter how long it took.
The hole beneath her house was just as she left it earlier in the week, the soft dry dirt that had been dug from it rimmed its edge. She lifted herself from the floor and went back to the table for her bag, it needed to be hidden or they would destroy it upon her capture. Moving soundlessly back to the opening and sliding beneath the house, she placed the bag gently in the depths of the hole, covering it with crystallized salt before pushing the dirt back into place with a spade. Though she was hunched in the confined space, she worked quickly and within minutes the hole had been filled. The final few inches of dirt she pulled in and smoothed by hand so her spade could be buried as well.
It was then that she heard them, the bays of the hounds and the angry grumblings of the men who controlled them. As she pulled herself from the crawlspace and back into the house, she noticed the sun was low, nearly set in fact. She quickly replaced the boards she had removed and righted the room, careful to lay the rug in the exact place it had always been. There was no hint to the existence of what lay below. Confident that she had hidden her preparations, she washed her hands in the bucket of water that stood near the fireplace, removing the last of the evidence. With her task was complete, she took a moment to look around the small space that had been her home. She would miss the comfort it had provided.
Walking hesitantly to the door, she raised the latch and pushed it wide, basking in the welcome breeze that kissed her through the opening. She could see them now, just down the lush green hillside with their fiery torches and hate crazed eyes, as they edged their way toward her.
The group’s collective ignorance urged them to capture the single person that fed their fear, just as they had done in months past, just as they had done with her friend. Arguments during a trial had sealed her friend’s fate, made by simple minds that believed that all the worlds’ ills were the result of a single soul’s existence. They were quick to reason soon after, that the evil had spread from its source and thus eliminated the need for trials. They took justice into their own hands and with each death blamed a new person although the problems remained long after the culprit had been dispatched. Most recently, the blame had come to rest on her shoulders, but wouldn’t stop there. Fear wasn’t created by a single soul, nor was it fed by sorcery or witchcraft, panic was bred by intolerance and there was no fighting it, at least not in this lifetime.
Enraged voices echoed in the valley surrounding her home as the men bore down upon her. She stood firm awaiting her fate, prepared for the judgment they would pass and the future it would mean for her. It was as if their panic fed on itself, creating a separate entity that urged the already furious mob into a frenzied state. They stormed towards her, torches raised high above their heads and their hounds snapping, snarling and straining against the ropes they were led by. From their actions and hateful accusations, it was clear they felt beyond the shadow of a doubt, that she was in league with Satan.
She stood serenely on the porch, garbed in her modest black dress with her hands folded before her. Over it, she wore a simple white apron, one that had belonged to her dearest friend, still stained from the cherries she had picked days before her trial. A cotton cap covered her head, painstakingly edged with a scrap of lace she had found all but trampled into the ground. Her humble demeanor and grace spoke volumes to those who would listen, would describe the honesty and integrity of the person she was, but those who approached were deaf to it. Her fate had been sealed.
Framed by the gentle glow of the candlelight reflecting in the room behind her, her outward expression remained composed, despite the frantic fluttering she felt deep in the pit of her stomach. She was resigned to her fate, destined to follow in the footsteps of hundreds of others like her, like her dearest friend, but she would not allow her fear to show, especially to those who were fueled by it.
The men reached her vantage point, a few of the braver ones coming forward to bind her hands with rope. She didn’t resist, didn’t utter a sound, as the rough weave cut into the tender flesh of her wrists. She had seen what had been done to the others, her sisters of the heart, innocent of the crimes that they were accused of, and knew that pleading would only make her torment more agonizing.
She took mental note of the men around her, locking their features into her memory to serve her in the time to come. She knew almost all of them by name and knew them to be guilty of the very crimes they set against her. They were guilty of condemning their spouses or lovers to death when they grew tired of them, of gathering the lands and belongings of the deceased to benefit their own fortunes. She knew these men, who professed to be God-fearing but who conveniently turned their back on their religion when it suited them. Their names would forever be burned into her memory.
As she was dragged down the hill towards the pyre, surrounded by men wearing terrifying masks of blind hatred, she allowed her mind to wander from the harsh reality of the moment.
She had once seen her future, confusing visions of black fabric and a blindfolded woman who held scales that weighed in her favor. She somehow knew in this vision that she would be taken from her home and forced to leave the world that she knew behind, but that she would return one day. When she did judgment would be hers to pass. Perhaps not on these particular men, who would live out their lives in moral turpitude, but on those who would sprout from their transgressions, sealing forever the fate of their descendants. It would be in that future that she would return, to right the wrongs set against the hundreds of women that had been put to death for healing the sick, comforting the infirm, and practicing the faith of their hearts in the most reverent of ways.
She remained silent, as she was forced to climb upon the logs that surrounded the tree that she would be bound to, and stumbled on the rough terrain before her. As she fell forward, her hands grazed a small hard shell, which she scooped up before being pushed the rest of the way up the pile and lashed to the tree that rose high through its center. She could feel the rough bark pinching her through the thin cotton of her dress, and looked out helplessly upon the valley thick with the shadows of the night and ghosts of the past.
As she was bound to the tree, she smiled gently at the irony of this journey, secretly laughing at the stupidity of the men who discarded the age old beliefs and assumed in their arrogance their religion to be the most powerful. Had they asked her to choose a tree where she would meet her death, she would have picked none other than the very one she was bound to. They were quick to light the flames, giving her little chance to utter magical words or cast evil spells. They were too naïve to know special spells weren’t necessary for her survival. They had already secured it. As the flames licked her clothing and singed her delicate flesh, she was comforted by the knowledge that she would be granted immortality by the very place she drew her final breath, sealing her destiny forever.
She met her fate without a sound, not a cry was voiced or tear was shed, and her face reflected a serene smile as she held tight the tiny gift the tree had given her. She held the acorn as long as she could, until her muscles quivered and shook from the trauma tormenting her body, and her soul was released from it’s charred, blackened shell. From above she looked down on the flames, crackling at the base of the ancient oak, and watched as her body collapsed on its own weight. She floated above the fire, no longer bound to her physical form, and looked at the men that surrounded it. As the shadows of the bright orange flames danced across their face, she promised them each in turn, that she would be back. Over time, she became one with the great oak, her ashes mixing with the soil and drawn below the earth’s surface by the roots that secured the tree. She and the oak helped the other to survive, and silently kept vigil over her homestead and the treasures buried deep beneath it, patiently waiting for the day of rebirth.
Futures were forever altered that day and many innocent lives were lost over the years, caused by the close-minded persecution of innocent souls, by imperious men greedy for a power they wanted as their own. When each met his demise and only the children of their children’s children remained, she was reborn into a world where women had the power to make choices for themselves and could heal the sick, nurture the infirm, and pass judgment upon those who victimized the innocent. She grew independent and strong in this new world, just as the mighty oak had taught her, and increased her already vast knowledge by attending the finest schools. In time, she became what the men in her past feared the most, a woman who not only know her own mind, but who was powerful enough to do something with it.
She became the supreme judgment in the highest court, and her decisions protected the descendants of those who had been wrongly charged and executed in her day. She now wore flowing robes of black, dark as the hearts that had persecuted her, and wielded a gavel that in any other person’s hand or in any other place would be insignificant. Here, in this place, it struck fear into the hearts of the guilty when she cracked it upon the small oak base, its sound like a gunshot through the halls.
A rendering of Themis stood in the corner of her courtroom, regal in her stance, her expression as cool as the marble she was made from. In this time Themis was known as Lady Justice, blindfolded against biased judgments and balancing the scales that weighed the guilty. The statue stood for her as a reminder to emulate the Goddess, to strive for divine order, law and custom, and to not seek vengeance though she would be justified.
She waited patiently, never allowing negative thoughts to creep into her heart or soul, or to seek justice like a vigilante. She waited for the day that she knew would come to pass, the day when the descendents of the men that put her to death would come before her in a court of law. They were guilty of crimes against humanity they were doomed to repeat, walking in the footsteps of history and ignoring the lessons to learn. Justice would be served, the lessons would not be overlooked and she would have the final say in their destiny.
She smiled softly, her facial expression similar to the one who was immortalized in her time in a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and looked down at the charred acorn she always carried with her. Its blackened shell was rubbed smooth from her caress; its cap still intact and perched at its top like a Frenchman’s beret. This gift from the oak tree at her greatest time of need comforted her, and she knew that the Goddess she honored had provided her a second chance to live a life of her choosing. Free to practice her faith without persecution, all in a world where the power of the future was not entirely in the hands of hate-filled men.
Original Publisher: The Washington Square Review – 2022
I am pleased to announce that my short story, Persecution, has been selected for publication through Lansing Community College and is now available for purchase through Amazon! https://www.amazon.com/Washington-Square…/dp/B0BHXD8K6S/. The ebook version is only .99 and includes a wonderful selection of essays, poetry and short fiction!
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