The Witch's Ride

   Agnes Browne lived in Gilsborough in the County of Northampton, of poor parentage and poorer education.  She was born to no good, her neighbors said, never in the way of receiving any grace, nor wanting it. She was spiteful, they said, and malicious.  Ugly, too. So they called her a witch, though she wasn't one. 
      Emily Early also lived in Gilsborough, and a blithe-looking girl was she.  Always smiling and laughing, as if every living thing told her an  amusing tale.  She had golden hair and a golden disposition and if ever grace shone on a spirit, it was on hers, or so said her neighbors.  But unbeknownst to them, Emily Early was a witch and she practiced her dark arts secretly and alone. 
      Now, one day in summer two black cats wandered through the streets of Gilsborough, yowling and howling as if looking for trouble.  They fetched up by Agnes Browne's rude cottage and sat there for a while, preening one another and passing the time.  Anon they set off again, once more yowling. 
      It was right after this that Mistress Goody's baby daughter, Charity, went missing.  The milk curdled in Mistress Dwight's churn.  Three black crows flew west over Squire Danforth's field and immediately his prize bull escaped from its meadow. 
      A crowd gathered quickly at Agnes Browne's door, where so recently the two black cats had been seen gossiping.  A mob reasons with rumor. They called Agnes forth, trampled her flowers, and pulled the latch from her door. 
      She came out, her spiteful tongue wagging.  "Clear off my stoop and out of my yard, you ill-bred ninnywits!"  It did not help her cause that she spat as she spoke. 
      They bound her tight with the binding of the three narrows: wrists, elbows, knees.  Then they dragged her to Witch's Hill, a place of dreadful inquiry.  And there, though Squire Danforth's bull was soon caught, though Mistress Goody's Charity was found in the henhouse cracking eggs, there they named poor Agnes Browne a witch.  Three witch-hunters were brought in from London to question her and at last she confessed. She said that the two cats were not cats at all but familiar spirits named Bobbin and Drew. And having confessed, she was given a quick death, too quick for her to repent, but not so quick that she could not call down a curse on them all.
      "All this town," she cried as the flames took her, "will come to no good of this."  She was spiteful to the end, though it should be said that she had right to be.
      Watching from the crowd, Emily Early of the sunny disposition smiled. 
      The squire himself died soon after, from a fall off his horse.  And     though the townfolk talked about it, they did not talk long.  The squire was known to like his drink and had often taken a spill.
      So the squire's son, Ewan, took over the estate, with his mother to run things as she always had.  Ewan was a handsome, big boy, not overly bright.  He had inherited his father's brains, though he would have done better with his mothers.
      One day in this same summer Ewan saw Emily Early walking through the fields of corn, her hair yellow as flowers.  In that very moment he fell in love, as if struck by lightning.  And though she was not of the gentry, he determined to marry her.
      His mother had misgivings about the match, but Ewan was not to be denied.  By surnmeri's end the two were wed and the widow Danforth moved into the dower house on the estate, leaving the newly - weds the fine big house.
      Now, Widow Danforth kept her own counsel. She loved her son but was not blind to his faults.  Neither was she charmed by his new wife.  So when Ewan came to her one morning in late Autumn, she was not surprised.
      "Mother, I sleep the night through," he said, "but I wake more tired
    than when I lie down.  I fear I may be dying."
      And indeed he looked it, for his handsome cheeks were now sunken and he seemed twice the age his father had been when he had had his fall.
      His mother gave Ewan tea and stroked his brow and told him to bide with her a bit.  She tucked him into a bed and left him to sleep the morning away, but herself she took off to the village priest. 
      The priest shook his head. "Call the doctor, madam," he advised.  "It is no matter for me." 
      "And if it be witches?" asked Widow Danforth. 
      "The witch is dead in the cleansing fire," the priest said, and would hear no more from her, for he thought she was just a widow pushed out of her house by the new wife and come to complain.
      Having got no good of the priest, Widow Danforth determined to watch the night at her son's bedfoot to see if Agnes Browne haunted him. Or if - as she really suspected - the damage was inflicted by his bride.  So she sent her son back home, and waiting until he and Emily were at their dinner, sneaked up the back stairs to their bedchamber and hid herself behind the curtains, hard against the cold stone wall. 
      It was a long time till they came to bed.  The night was dark and starless.  Widow Danforth could scarcely see.  But she waited patiently till all was quiet and both husband and wife slept as one. 
      Suddenly a candle flared to light.  And Emily Early, her yellow hair spread about like a halo, rose out of the bed.  She passed her hand once, twice, then a third time over the flame.  She whispered something that Widow Danforth could not quite hear, then turned to her sleeping husband.  Leaning over him, she blew into his mouth. 
      Eyes still closed, Ewan rose and stood silent by the bedfoot.

         Higgety, boggity, let me ride,
         Saddle and bridle by my side,

Emily said distinctly. 
      At once the sleeping man got down on his hands and knees as if he were a horse, and Emily straddled him.  She whipped the cord off her nightdress and put it through his mouth like a bridle, and he turned into a
horse. Then she jammed her heels into his sides, and they were away, the girl on the blue-eyed steed out the door, down the stairs, and lost to sight.
      "Well!" said Widow Danforth, stepping out from behind the curtains. "And here's a pretty pickle.  Emily has enchanted my son and ridden him off like a prize stallion-to a witches' meeting, I have no doubt of it.  But what I can do to help my dear boy, I do not know."  And she sat in the bedchamber the rest of the night, puzzling it over. 
      At last daylight came, a pink thread of light stretching from hill to vale.  And back they came, rider and ridden, clattering up the stairs, through the door, and to the bedfoot, where Emily took the cord from her husbands mouth and tied up her nightdress, whispering:

         Hoggity, biggety let me sleep
         Ten miles wide, a lifetime deep.

      Then she slipped easily into the bed and drew the covers around her, while poor Ewan, back in his own shape, lay down where he was on the floor, too tired to go even one step further. 
      A second night the widow watched, and it was the same.  But on the third, Emily Early was so full of herself that she spoke loudly.  And the words she spoke over the flames were these:

         Fire to water, water to air, 
         Make me a borse my weigbt to bear.

      And when the two had galloped away into the night, Widow Danforth went to her own bed eagerly, saying, "Now I've got you, .my girl."
       That day Ewan visited his mother again, his blue eyes that used to be the color of dawn now the color of dusk.  I have come to make my peace with you, Mother," he said, "for I am not long for this world." 
      "Nonsense," said his mother, "you are but bewitched." 
      "Bewitched?" His puzzlement was all in the one word. 
      So she told him what she had seen, but he would have none of it. 
      "My Emily is sun and moon," he said.  "You have mistook her for old Agnes Browne." 
      I will prove it," said his mother.  "Take no food this night.  No drink, either, for I believe she has set you a potion in them to make you sleep the sounder.  But put you a potion in her meat and wine, and I will show you what she does." 
      So that very night Ewan pretended to eat and drink, but he put a sleep
draught in his wife's food.  And when it came time for bed, he laid himself down as if to sleep and was quickly snoring. His young wife lay down by his side. 
      No sooner was the girl asleep than Widow Danforth crept from behind the curtain.  She lit the candle and three times passed her hand over the flame, saying:

         Fire to water, water to air, 
         Make me a borse my weigbt to bear.

      Then she turned and leaned over the bedside and blew into Emily Early's mouth. 
      All this Ewan watched from the bed, without a word. 
      Emily stood and went to the bedfoot, where she waited, eyes closed, as patient as any mare, on her hands and knees. 
      "Get up, my son," Widow Danforth said, "and take the cord from her
    nightdress.  Then place it in her mouth as if it were a bridle."
      Ewan did as she bade, but most reluctantly, for he feared to hurt
    his pretty wife.
      "Now get astride," said his mother, "and give her a kick."
      "I cannot," Ewan said.
      "You must," remanded his mother.  "For you must ride off and see
where she goes.  Only be sure to return by first light."
      So he gave the yellow-haired mare a kick, just a tap, and they were     away, out the door, down the stairs, and out of sight. 
      When they returned at dawn, Widow Danforth was waiting.
      "Oh, Mother," Ewan said, "I was wrong to doubt you.  She is a  witch as ever there was one."  He climbed off Emily's back.  "We galloped up one side of Bald Mountain and down the other.  And there was a meeting of witches, all sitting atop their steeds.  And when they saw me they cried out, 'Where is Emily, who is always so early?'  And I answered, 'She is off to another meeting and sent me in her place!  That seemed to satisfy them, for they did not ask again."
      "Well done, my son," the widow said. "You have more than your father's brains after all."
      Ewan took the bridle out of his wife's mouth. "But what shall we do about her?" he asked.
      "Why, nothing," his mother said.  "There is nothing we can do."
      "But she is a witch and must be punished."
      "There has been punishment enough in this town already," his mother answered.  "And she will serve better as a mare than ever she did as a wife.  Besides, in all the excitement of the night, I have forgot-
    ten the words to change her back."
      It was the one lie Widow Danforth ever spoke, but she never repented of it, especially in the years that followed, when Ewan married again and she had seven grandchildren to teach to ride the yellow - haired mare in her son's fine stable.

Jane Yolen
Here There Be Witches

 

 


 

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