Soaking Wet by Denarii Peters Hysteria 2023 short story category winner

Denarri Peters is the winner of the short story category in the 2023 Hysteria Writing Competition with her story ‘Soaking Wet’. You can read the winning story below as you listen to the recording. It is published, along with the other winners and finalists from each category in the Hysteria 10 anthology, which is published by Crystal Clear Books.

Listen to the recording

Read by Linda Parkinson-Hardman during the Hysteria 10 Anthology Launch.

Read the story

I never did like it when they came in threes. Even when my heart was happy it was too much work – all that torturing and drowning – and when the situation was like this…

I tried again to be heard. I was supposed to be in charge. I was the one who could tell if the accused was a servant of the devil or a foolish old crone. It was my decision to try by water or destroy by fire.

“Sit down. Stop shouting. Everyone will get their chance to speak. But it must be one at a time. Otherwise how can my clerk possibly list all your accusations?”

“They’re not accusations. They’re true.”

A rumble of agreement followed the baker’s words. He was a bruiser, arms as thick as his head. And one of the three was his own wife, though she was not the one who had caught my eye.

“We’re wasting time. We brought you here to burn ’em.” He was playing to the gallery, enjoying the moment, his wife too frightened even to sob let alone protest her innocence. And I had seen enough women exactly like her to know she was innocent. I wondered which of the other women in the crowd the baker had chosen to replace her.

It was time I cleared the room, time for the charade to begin. I nodded to my clerk and Simon got to his feet.

“The Witchfinder is ready to start. He will give his verdicts in two days’ time. You will all disperse and leave this to us.”

Grumbling, they shuffled out. They had hoped for more – a bit of blood, a request for tinder – but they didn’t need to be so impatient. All that would follow.

The baker’s wife collapsed into the arms of her companions. Perhaps she had thought he would relent when he saw me, realise it had all gone too far. If so, she had clung to a false hope.

I gave her to Simon, so enthusiastic, so eager for a victim of his own. He had not yet discovered torture is such a boring occupation.

And, worse still, he was now suspicious of me. He watched my every move and if I were to make a misstep along the way, give him the slightest cause, he would not hesitate to denounce me. If burning a “witch” gave pleasure to the mob, burning a witchfinder corrupted by the devil would give them ecstasy.

All had been well between us until we came to a small village and a smaller child. She was no more than seven. Her grandmother was the one on trial but, as is often the case, one burning is never enough. The child had the mark of a dog bite on her leg but those around her claimed it was the mark of the devil. I could not save her.

When I slept that night I saw her eyes, not accusing but terrified. My nightmare became a parade of horror, all the faces of the ones I had condemned. Not all had been women. There was the young man who had shouted defiance from the midst of the flames… until his cries became howls. He had taken a long time to die. I knew why. The villagers had steeped some of the tinder so that it smouldered. More heat, less flame.

I had become a hollow shell, too afraid to stand up, too afraid to leave my robes behind, too afraid of the accusations which could be levelled against me. So I did the work. But with every false verdict I found the words more difficult and every night I suffered my own torture.

Now there was this young woman, her hair the same raven black, her eyes the same deep green as the girl in the village. They could have been mother and daughter. Would it end my nightmares if I could find a way save her?

Simon’s interrogation of the baker’s wife went awry. She died by his hand but the mob tied her to the stake and burned her anyway. The other two verdicts could not be delayed much longer. I decided we should swim them.

Tied hand and foot, gagged to prevent the speaking of spells, they would be thrown into the river. If they drowned, they’d be given a Christian funeral. If they floated, they’d be dried then burned.

I saw to the knots myself. Risking everything, I whispered into her ear, “The rope is slack. Wriggle free but do not surface. Swim as far as you can underwater. I will distract the mob.”

She held still as I tied the same loose knots on the other woman. But my plan for her was different.

Into the water, thrown from the bridge, shouts obscuring the splashes… I knew what would happen. It is human to struggle. My accusing finger pointed to the floating rope and the choking victim. The plan worked. No-one looked for the one who surely must have drowned. Her innocence would be her reward, an early entry into Heaven.

I’ll leave Simon to take care of the drying and the burning. I’ve done my duty and someone has to see if it’s possible to gather the corpse from the water.

Racing away downstream I look for her. She can’t have swum far but there is no sign. The banks are silent, the thick reed beds undisturbed.

I stumble on blinded by tears. I have failed. Something must have gone wrong with my knots. She has indeed died and I have once again murdered innocence.

But out in the stream there are ripples, small eddies with no current, a whirlpool… and she springs from the water, soaking wet but so very alive.

I fall into her arms and hear strange words. We rise up above the river and as we fly away from the village I realise the truth.

Only a witch cannot drown.

________

Denarii Peters was born in the north-west of England but now lives in the county of Lincolnshire. A former primary school teacher, she spends her days writing stories and drinking a lot of coffee. In the last eighteen months, she has concentrated on shorter pieces, achieving longlist or better in over 40 competitions across the world, including four third places, one second and two winning stories. This has resulted in 20 of her pieces being published in various anthologies both in print and online.

(Image: Illustration from an 18th-century chapbook reproduced in Chap-books of the eighteenth century by John Ashton (1834)

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