Ballad of the witches
They stared in hatred. Fettered to the wall
the pretty daughter of the alchemist,
the cunning woman with a broken wrist,
lay side by side. Outside they heard the call
of men building the fires in which they’d burn
‘More pitch, more straw’. They would be starved that night
and would be shaved bald early. ‘Try and fight’
Father had said. ‘The beating you will earn
may stun you senseless. Leave you in a daze.’
It had not helped him. Pepper in his eyes
woke him to pain, then flame. She heard his cries
and saw his shadow, twisting in the blaze
on the cell wall. The cunning woman spat,
said he deserved it. ‘Men like him betray
secrets we kept for ages in a day,
steal them and waste them.’ Her tired voice was flat
as if there were no question. ‘As for you,
his daughter dupe, whose maidenhead he took
because some recipe in some old book
said virgin blood would make the Stone be true
that is a lie – I hate to burn with whores.’
‘We burn as witches, and I am a maid
whatever some old man with pincers said.
You are the one with syphilitic sores
on both your legs.”They’re ulcers from my chains.’
‘We made the Stone. The Bishop stole our gold.’
‘I’ll bet that that’s some fairytale he told
you. Girl, you must have straw for brains.’
‘He never touched me. And I saw it bright,
born from the mercury, the dragon’s egg,
after the years in which we’d had to beg
for food. It lit our cellar with its light.’
‘You know so little of real magic, child.
I’ve seen twelve Sabbats. Ointment on my skin
that tingled like bright sun. The fire within
my cunt; sweat on my breasts. My hair flew wild
We danced and then I felt him hard as ice
ram into me.’ ‘I think that you’re quite mad.’
‘I fucked the devil, laughing and sky clad.
When have you known the like?’ ‘We brought hard ice
out of the sky to chill the burning flask.
My father shook his staff and down it fell.
We talked to demons, phoenixes as well
The salamander helped us with our task.’
‘And will not help you now.’ ‘ Nor will your Lord.’
Both paused, and wondered. ‘Can you reach my hair?
I’ve picklocks where it’s matted. Yes, just there.’
‘My father never could pronouce the word
that softens iron.’ ‘Try it.’ ‘Arbogast
alakarist.’ The fetters loosened fell,
the cell door sagged, the window frame as well
and out of danger to the street they passed.
This is not true. Of course the women burned
screaming in pain and not allowed to die
until the flames had reached up, shoulder high.
There is no magic spell they could have learned
to save themselves from that disgusting end.
Perhaps they never talked. Women can glower
in silence even in their final hour.
I like to think they both found one last friend