Witch Tourniquet

Chapter One


Belhame, Warbele 1892

I am a child of The Seven Deadly Sins. Witches, many people believe, are worse than murderers.

            Rivulets of blood stream down my back as I think this, splashing red dots on the parquet floor that look like cherry spatter. On my knees, I watch this in a dirty mirror and even count the number of welts I wasn’t able to keep track of during my whipping sessions: fifteen. Perhaps there are more.

            One welt for each year of my life.

            I touch awelt on my shoulder and wince. Since movement is difficult, the rest sting as well. The flesh is puckered and cracked, sending forth beads of blood that join together and trickle down my side, caressing the ribs sticking through my pale, clammy skin. This will be the last welt I ever receive in my life. I take comfort in knowing I’ll never be beaten again. Or I should take comfort in knowing I’ll never be beaten again.

            Tomorrow I’m going to be burned at the stake.

            Staying seated, I slip the white gown back over my head, hissing as the rough fabric makes contact with the tender flesh. The gown sticks to the blood that leaks through, forming deranged blots. I think a psychologist could use my gown to test my mental state. He’ll ask me what I see, and I’ll tell him I see flowers, butterflies, clouds, and pretty things. I’ll tell him I don’t see sinful things, that I only see good things, all in an attempt to prove I’m not a witch.

            But I am a witch, and the proof is on Governor Branch’s burnt tie he still wears, even though I burnt it a week ago.

            A week ago, I didn’t know I was a witch. A week ago, Sara--Governor Branch’s fiancée--was still my best friend. A week ago, I enjoyed tea at his house with Sara. It was during that visit he forced himself on her, and anger caused my magic to surface, magic once unknown but now known to me. All witches are known by the fire they create.

            Now I’m in an abandoned room in Governor Branch’s house waiting for my death sentence, staring at myself in this grimy mirror I want to break. I wish it were possible to run away from Belhame Town and lose myself in the country of Warble where nobody could find me. Or run to other countries Warbele knows little about, if they even burn witches or believe in Deus at all. It isolated itself from the world centuries ago for a reason current generations do not know.

            But I must face the inevitable truth: I’m going to die tomorrow, my death will be painful, humiliating, and the worst way to die.

            I take in the features of what was once my body. My sunken face, gray, hollowed-out eyes; blonde hair with matted to my forehead, and the ghostly pallor painting my entire being is not who I once was.

            “I hate you, Alice,” I whisper to the reflection in the mirror. My muscles involuntarily tense at these words.

            Tired of the pain, a single scream escapes my lips and I ram my fist into the mirror. I keep it there, even as blood colors the broken shards in red. This pain is no worse than the pain of lashes or the pain of being half-drowned. It isn’t any worse than the pain of being singed with matches or the pain of being beaten with boards. My body has endured it all, and I’m tired of it.

            Tomorrow will be my last day of shame. I don’t want to be disgraced anymore. I want escape. I’m not certain how I will achieve that escape, though. The only window in here is boarded up, with just a small hole to allow enough light to make the room dim. The hole faces a garden, where I am only able to make out the leaves of a bush through it. The door locks on the outside, so there’s no chance of getting through there. And I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to escape tomorrow when Governor Branch comes to get me for the witch burning. I have no idea how this burning will plan out, if I’ll have to wear any special outfits, do any special rituals, or say any special words. All I know is I’m going to die.

            Heavy footsteps plod down the hall, growing louder as they near my room. I pull my fist away from the mirror. Though tiny pieces are embedded in my flesh, I don’t wince. If that is Governor Branch outside my room, I refuse to give him the satisfaction of my pain.

            The footsteps stop in front of my room. A bolt clicks and the door opens. In steps the medium-sized frame of Governor Branch, a triumphant smile presents on his smooth, tan face. His burnt tie clings to his neck, mocking me.

            He frowns as his brown eyes dart to the bloody fist I keep in my lap. “Oh, dear.” He clicks his tongue and walks over to me, standing over me like a hulking mountain. “I’ll have to get a nurse on that, and perhaps the welts on your back. I didn’t think they’d bleed so much. I wasn’t that rough.”
            I refuse to say anything. I only look at the stubble on his chin, the way each whisker stands out like the spike of a mace.

            A jagged smile crosses his face. He begins to pace my room. “We wouldn’t want you to die of infection, after all. No, no. That would be a most unpleasant death.”

            I stiffen as I watch his strides. He should be afraid of me, but at my tribunal, the judge asked me if I performed magic prior to burning his tie. I said no, then proceeded to explain I had no idea how I did magic in the first place. This lack of my not knowing alleviated everyone’s fears of me.

            Governor Branch stops and faces the boarded window. “Would you like to see outside?” He looks over his shoulder. “It’s lovely. Bright and sunny. Just as it should be tomorrow. No clouds. The weather seems promising.”

            I dig my nails in my palms to suppress the burgeoning scream. What more does he want to do to me? Does he want to force himself on me the way he forced himself on Sara? Does he want to tear my hair out by the roots? Whatever he wants to do, I wish I could take the shards of the mirror, cut him, and let him bleed to death.

            I’ll be a real witch then.

            “The living embodiment of sin should be allowed to see the sun Deus created for us to enjoy. You are, after all, still part of His creation.”

            My jaw clenches at the mention of Deus. I once worshipped and praised him, just as any other person does. Now I wonder if he’s really a god at all, or just some figment conjured by those desperate to blame something for the faults of the world. A god wouldn’t create somebody like me the entire world hates just because The Vulgate, a book of religious texts, tells them so. Rather, a god would punish my mother for her sin of gluttony.

            That’s how witches are born. We’re not born from a single, short sin, like choosing to eat a massive amount of food one night and going without for the rest of the week. No. We’re born from the prolonged sin or sins of one or both parents. Take my mother, for example. She engages in heavy drinking almost nightly. Because of this her dominant sin is gluttony, and Deus punished her with me. Of course, my mother isn’t being punished. I’m the one being penalized, the one being burned at the stake. She just has to live knowing her daughter died because of her sin. She’ll simply drink away the pain, if she feels any at all.

            Governor Branch turns around and takes a more authoritative stance. He puts his hands behind his back and looks down at me. The smile disappears. “I don’t think you’ve realized how badly you’ve damaged my fiancée. She’s hurt. She has nightmares. She cries every night. Poor thing.”

            The shards of the mirror grow more enticing. I can just imagine what it’d be like to carve a permanent smile on his face--or one on his neck.

            “She can’t even speak,” he says.” But one thing I do know is that she hates you. It’s evident in the way she reacts every time I speak your name.”

            This is my last punishment. Governor Branch is shoving the pain of my best friend in my face, and he wants to make certain I die knowing the mental trauma I caused Sara. I want to argue he created the majority of her mental scar tissue, but she actually believes I caused her pain, that it wasn’t Governor Branch. He warped her already fragile mind and twisted the truth so that she has nothing to say in defense of me.

            No one has anything good to say about me. Not even my own father, who has always been there for me. Hot, angry tears threaten to spill down my face, but I keep them back by grinding my teeth. I can’t believe my father has yet to visit me. I thought he would have. He was also the only person who cried during my tribunal.

            He’s too ashamed of me. What a coward.

            Governor Branch comes closer, almost closing the space between us. He bends down on one knee until his face is level with mine. The whiskers on his chin are now magnified, threatening thorns that can pierce my flesh if he tries to kiss me, as he tried to do the day I burned his tie.

            “I want you to remember this,” he says, his breath scented with thick cognac. “Remember Sara huddled in the corner, bleeding, screaming hysterically. Remember that image. Take it to your grave. And remember her last words to you, words she delivered to me: ‘Tell her I hope Deus plants her on a steeple when she gets to the Gates of Hell.’”

            Governor Branch grips my chin, his fingers cold, always cold, pulls my face close, and plants an icy kiss on my forehead. His whiskers do feel like thorns.

            He pulls away and leaves.

            Later, a nurse comes into my room and disinfects the welts with salve. She removes the pieces of glass with tweezers--an unbearable procedure--and wraps my hand in bandages. After all, I’m  not allowed the mercy of dying from infection. My skin must be stripped from my muscles, my muscles from  my bones, and my bones from my soul.

            Once night sets, I curl up on my pallet of blankets set out for me and wonder what it’d be like to be burned at the stake. I’ve never been to any burnings since my parents forbid them. All I know is that whenever there is one in the Village Square, the screams from the victim penetrate for miles around. In fact, the screams are so immense they can wake up the entire continent of Warbele from hibernation. Those screams gave me nightmares, made me wish I existed on another plane of reality.

            Burning is probably a thousand times worse than being whipped. Fire is a destructive force of nature. Anything flammable is at the mercy of fire, and I am flammable.

            I can’t die by burning.

            There is only one option left: suicide.

            The upswept shards from the broken mirror are the perfect tools to aide in this mission. I can slice my wrists and let my body bleed out. Bleeding to death will be painful, but I’m certain it will never match the pain of burning to death.

            Or maybe I can slit my throat. A slashed jugular will present immediate death. Sliced wrists are for those hesitant to commit suicide anyway, and I’m not hesitant.

            I will not let Governor Branch tie me to the stake with a smile on his face. I will not let him let him view my slow, painful death. I will not let him remember my face as I die.

            I smile the first smile I’ve managed since imprisonment a week ago. If Governor Branch finds me dead, my throat bleeding, he’ll be angry. I know he wants to create a humiliating death for me while I’m still alive. He can’t manage that with a corpse unable to feel degradation or pain.

            Even better, I’ll slit my own throat as soon as he comes into my room to gather me for the execution. I’ll smile while doing it, and hopefully that same smile will stay on my face in death. That smile will mock Governor Branch. I will also be able to die with an infuriated image of him; not an image of a horrified best friend who now hates me.

            I settle on slitting my throat for Governor Branch. It’s an impulsive choice, and anyone else might spend longer contemplating, but those are the people who find they still have a reason to live. I have none. I’m even too emotionally drained to search for reasons to continue living until my burning.

            When morning comes, I set out to find a shard of glass that will slice right through my jugular. I don’t want to choose a weak piece that’ll only slice the skin of my throat.

            “This has to be perfect,” I say to myself, my skin tingling at the thought of the initial slice. If I choose the wrong piece, I risk bleeding for too long. I also run the risk of not slicing deep enough. With the right piece, I’ll be alive long enough to register Governor Branch’s impulsive anger. “That will make me happy to die.”

            I spread the glass pieces around in my frantic search to find the perfect one. None of them fit the description of my ideal suicide weapon. This piece has to be big, sharp, and jagged.

            Sighing, I look up at the broken mirror, my reflection mirrored several times over in the many fragmented sections. Then I spy my weapon, a piece so big it’ll be impossible to miss my jugular. The only reason I’d miss is if I decided not to follow through with my decision.

            I stand, through my welts protest, and slip the piece in between my fingers. I wiggle the piece, then break it off. Minute shards follow in its wake and shower the floor, joining my dried blood drops and the rest of the broken pieces.

            I run a finger along the sharp edge, careful not to press too hard. I pull the piece in front of my mouth and watch my pale lips curve into a smile.

            Piece in hand, I walk over to the door, sit in front, and wait.

            It isn’t long after I’ve found my chosen piece that heavy footsteps begin to echo down the hall. I prepare myself by setting the edge against the delicate skin of my throat. I hold my breath, counting each footstep, each second that passes. Time seems to slow down. My heart speeds up in anticipation of his arrival.

            The door opens. My breathing quickens. A deranged smile etches my face.

            His foot steps through.

            I press the shard against my throat.

            He steps in all the way. “You’ve been spared.”

            I scream as blood slides down my neck and creates cherry spatter on the floor.