The Life of Death
<a class="link" href="/authors/lucy-booth">Lucy Booth</a>
In 1590, I sold my soul to the Devil. I was 23.
I was born in 1567 in the tiny village of Tranent, clinging to the fraying skirt hems of Scotland as they dragged into the icy waters of the North Sea. My name was Elizabeth. Elizabeth Murray. Lizzy, Lilibet, Bess. The Devil was all around us in that remote spot – lashing the shores with whipped up tempests and slicing us to the bone with the Arctic winds. But whilst the others could wrap up, turn their backs to Him over the whistling winds, He had chosen me and from that there was no escape. Where I went, he would undoubtedly follow. I was marked – a livid red birthmark scoring the soft skin below my right ear and curling into my neck. An unanswered question mark etched into my skin. I found refuge in the dark – when the flickering light from open fires disguised my disfigurement and I could hide in the shadows. Refuge in the dark, and amongst the women of my family.
We’d gather on the kirk green late into the long summer evenings – huddled in the shadows of the squat, thick-set stone church, backs turned to the wind and driving rain. The walls were at least six feet thick and when we were there we were safe. Myself, sisters, my mother, my aunts. It started small - just we six - before more women from the village joined us and we would gather nightly to swap tips and exchange advice, gossip about the local men, offer a friendly ear in a hostile world.
I had a talent for a poultice – bring me a lame horse and he would walk, an infected finger would soften and bend under my care. I heard the whispers from the village – we all did. “Witchcraft”, “Devil’s Child”, “Dark Magic”, flitting past our ears and floating in the air to be netted and pinned like fragile butterflies by those who believed. And we’d laugh – laugh at those men who feared and revered us in equal measure. Who had their own meetings by firelight to “free their midst of evil”, flames dancing in their eyes, shadows carving canyons into weathered faces. Only a day later they would appear at our doors, heads hanging, eyes cast to the floor and feet scuffing the dirt as they mumbled out requests. A lame mule, an angry, red, swollen eye, weeping and oozing. A third still birth in the family in as many years. They were torn – torn between their contempt for us and their need. And that made them despise us all the more.
So when the King’s men came to rid the country of witchcraft and magic, there those same men stood. Eyes once more turned to the floor. Toes once more scuffing the dirt. Names mumbled, fingers pointed towards crofts, and faces turned away from women bundled and pushed ahead of aristocratic men dressed in metal, their rich fabrics saturated with colour in the harsh light bouncing from the sea. Faces turned away from me and the women who would join me on those long, late nights on the kirk green. Faces turned away as we were bundled and pushed into dank dungeons dripping with slimy moss to await a trial – accused of nothing more than helping and healing. Accused of a knowledge the men would never understand. Accused of witchcraft and a devotion to the Devil.
For days I was strung up in that freezing cell. Shackled to the wall and strapped into a Witch’s Bridle – the metal prongs jabbing into my cheeks and the spiked iron bit tearing welts into my tongue. For days I hung there. When my body sagged under it’s own weight, under the exhaustion of night after night without sleep, the spikes would bite into my tongue and pain would jerk me upright and awake. The whistles and whispers of the wind began to sound like voices. Until, after an eternity hanging in the dark and cold those whistles and whispers became a voice – His voice. Alternately charming and cajoling, curt and cold. Chipping away at me amid the drips of my prison. Chip, chip, chip. Drip, drip, drip.
I first saw Him through the gloom, sitting in the corner of my cell. Long legs stretched out in front of him, head leaning back against the cold stone wall. His skin was alabaster white, creating a soft halo that shone unnaturally clean in the midst of the squalor. His nose turned up at the days old smell of excrement, at the foecal streaks that smeared my legs. His clothes were those of a gentleman. Well-cut, rich fabrics, with a long dark cloak wrapped around thin shoulders to keep the cold and the damp at bay. Even the rats that used that wall as a channel between their nests and the outside world gave that incongruous figure a wide berth. Though we’d never met before, I recognised Him as soon as I saw Him. As soon as I heard that voice.
“You know they’ve said it for years don’t you?” He examines His fingernails, blunting the torn edge of one against the rough fabric of His woollen trousers. “Jem Porter says you sold your soul to me when you were 10… Thomas Mortimer says you came out of the womb with the Devil in your eye.”
I know. I know what Jem Porter says. And Thomas Mortimer. And Frances Miller. I know what they all say. Starting as hushed whispers when I was small, rising to sideways comments in the street as I aged, peaking at open jeers and shouts in the street in these last few years. Open jeers and shouts echoing down empty lanes, sly jabs in dark alleys, spit hawked from the back of throats to land in mucal globs at my feet. I know what they say for I have heard it since birth. He stands, crosses my cell to peer out of the tiny barred window looking out level with the street outside. He steps back as the stinking piss of a passing horse splashes through the gaps, keeps His distance as the cart wheels that follow closely behind churn urine with mud to send it splattering into my hole. “Listen to them out there. Calling your name. ‘Bring us the Witch!’ ‘Death to the Witch!’,
‘Devil Woman!’ That’s you Lizzy – you’re the one they’ve come to see. And they won’t be happy until you’re dead.”
I know that too. I know I’m going to die, and I know my death is the one thing that will sate those men. I’ve heard the cries, the hoots of a crowd baying for blood. Smelt the stench of burning human flesh long after the screams for mercy have died down. Sensed the crowd whipping themselves into a blood-thirsty frenzy of death.
“It’s a shame to die so young isn’t it Lizzy? What are you? 16? 17?”
I try to answer but my tongue is pinned by metal spikes, and all I can manage in reply is a long spool of drool that drips to the floor.
“Where are my manners!” He stands, drawing up to His full height and striding towards me across the cell. “Asking you questions when you have no hope of answering?” He stops next to me, draws one long finger down my cheek to cup my chin and raise my eyes to meet His own. Wipes away the saliva that leaks from the corner of my mouth with a cold thumb. “And, without even explaining why I’m here.”
He tuts to himself, before standing back to fold His arms across his chest and contemplate me, His head cocked to one side on slim shoulders.
“It’s simple Lizzy. Quite simple. All I want is your soul. What’s the harm in that eh? If you’re going to die anyway? And you are going to die Lizzy, make no mistake.”
I don’t hear any more. Once more pain overwhelms me and my mind closes itself to the horror around. The cell fades to darkness as I lose consciousness, to hang lifeless from my shackles once more.
I have no idea how much time passes in that tiny cell. It could be hours, days, weeks when my body fights its fate. Time has lost all meaning. Jarring my head against the metal frame as I come round suddenly. The first few seconds always, always unexpected. Happy moments of innocence before my vision clears and the clarity of my situation swims into focus.
When I do wake, it is to the sound of names being called. Eliza. Agnes. Mary. Margaret. Names of the women of my childhood who are being summoned to their end. Alice. Jane. Katherine. Names that are called first by the warders, to be echoed by the guards who accompany them to their place in the marketplace. Names that are picked up by the waiting crowd and cheered and whooped as shrunken figures shuffle past. Names that fade to wisps on the air, replaced by the animal yowls and guttural howls of their owners as flames lick skyward and the devil is chased from within.
And when I wake, He is there. Sometimes He sits. Sometimes He paces the smooth flags. Biding His time and waiting for me to wake. Sometimes I see Him standing at the barred window of my cell. Breathing in deeply to savour the smell of burning wood, the stench of burning flesh. And when He senses my body rallying, my mind awakening, He is there to continue His pursuit, His relentless pursuit, of my soul. He can be charming, wheedling when He wants to be. Dropping His voice and smoothing my hair back from my face. Soothing the ache as the damp from the sodden walls seeps deep into my bones.
But, for every ounce of charm, so He can be curt. Petulant. Pulling on the chains that bind my hands, my feet. Making me shriek with pain, whimper with fear. Squeezing my cheeks in His hands until the metal of the hood scrapes against my teeth. Hissing into my ears, spitting my name. “You can make this stop Lizzy. It doesn’t have to be this way Lizzy.”
This alternates, this studied effort to break my spirit, to tatter my will, to exhaust my body, to win my soul. And it works, let me tell you. It works. When He is kind, I want nothing more than to make Him happy, to win Him round. And when He is not, well, I could do anything to once more make Him so.
But as those names are called, those names as familiar to me as my own, as I drift in and out of consciousness, dragged sharply back to reality by the searing pain, I notice some changes in Him. With each name called, a graze. With each breath of acrid smoke, a bruise blooms hyacinth blue on that pale cheek. With each scream from the funeral pyre, a wince and a clutch at ribs feeling tender beneath taut skin. These deaths are affecting Him. Physically hurting Him. For although He is the Devil Himself, He is somehow not immune.
Darkness sweeps through the cell, plunging me once more into a night of the deepest black. My head nods, sending spasms of pain once more through my ravaged body, and I tumble into a blackness of my own. Safe from pain, safe from the reality of my surroundings.
When I wake, He is there once more. A new day, a new start. Once more His skin shines alabaster white, with not a trace of a graze to betray the pain He has suffered previously. He is renewed, refreshed. His skin glows halo bright in this dank, dark cell. And His pursuit of my soul begins once more with relish. “Where is the harm Lizzy?” He wheedles. “What loss is it to you?” He chips. “It is all I ask Lizzy. One soul when you have your very life to thank me for.” And I listen to His beseechments, I acknowledge what He says. But His questions raise those of my own. Where is the harm? What loss would it be? Do I really have my life to thank him for? For He is the Devil, and surely things cannot be as simple as He would suggest.
With the rising sun, the names come flitting through the window as more of my family, my friends and acquaintances are led to their fate. And as the screams reach us, so the pain they inflict upon Him becomes ever more evident. A ruby drop of blood weeps down a sharp cheekbone. The white of an eye bleeds red. Breathing becomes laboured. He is affected by these deaths. By all deaths, I cannot be sure, but these deaths and their proximity to Him have a profound effect.
Mid-afternoon and I awake from my pain induced slumber with a start. I am numb. Pain has softened. My body is rallying against the conditions imposed. He is standing by the barred window to the cell, shoulders straight, body pulled upright. Without turning He speaks.
“I need you Lizzy.” He leans forward to peer into the street. “I sensed you wake. I felt you rally. And I knew.”
“What?” I breathe, through crushed lung and bloodied tongue. “Knew what?”
“We are one, you and I. You have seen the damage these deaths inflict upon me.
You have seen the pain I suffer.” He turns to faces me. A shaft of sunlight highlights His glowing skin. Skin that is white, clean, unblemished. His breathing is steady, no longer labouring under the cracked ribs suffered by this morning’s cull. “When I sensed you rally, when I felt your strength giving me strength of my own. I knew. We are linked you and I. We are one.”
“But I will die. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But I will leave. And you cannot save me from that.”
“Oh but Lizzy, I can. You may die, as you say. A mortal death. But give me your soul Lizzy and I can reward you with an eternal life. And, what’s more, an occupation for that life. To fill those endless years, that yawning eternity of life without life.”
“What will this entail?” I stammer, I feel my body weakening, and as it does I see the ruby tear once more track its way down smooth skin.
“Allow me to show you Lizzy. Tomorrow. For tomorrow is her time isn’t it Lizzy? Your mother’s? Tomorrow I will show you your role and you can agree or disagree with what you feel. But please note Lizzy, I need you. And we are forever to be linked. From that you cannot escape.”
With that, pain floods my body and I collapse against the unforgiving upright of the iron from that holds me. He shrieks as a gash opens on His chest and blood seeps through the rich brocade. The darkest black of the subconscious takes over to support me and soothe me until once more wakefulness will take hold with its inescapable pain.