THE WAY OF THE WITCHES
Madrid is all tapas and tired tourists, throngs of people walking too slowly. Nina had come to Spain to enhance her conversational skills and to take the Business Spanish course. She sat in a café drinking from the demitasse and hankering for a large Americano which this place didn’t do, just had the espresso machine. Her grandmother used to say that coffee was bad for your kidneys because it causes a short but sudden increase in blood pressure. Nina figured the recent research on coffee protecting against Parkinson’s and liver disease balanced out the risk. People round where she lived thought Nina’s family were Hispanic and that her name was Niña or ‘infant’, used diminutively for girls in the sense of ‘petite’. She was actually named after her Polish maternal grandmother who had told her the name originated in the old Slavic Ninati, meaning ‘dreamer’ or, possibly ‘one who dreams’ or has visions, but her grandmother was into all that hooey stuff. Nanna lived with them until she died in 1997 and used to whisper charms in Polish to her and her brother Alex when they were sick, which neither of them could understand. It used to make them laugh, her hot breath tickling their ears. Their dad used to make fun of her and her ‘snake oil shit’ behind her back. Nina and Alex loved her dearly, and just put it down to harmless superstitions from the ‘Old Country’.
Nina’s reverie was broken by her phone ringing. She frantically tried to find it in her bag amid makeup and tissue packets; her ringtone would get progressively louder and she hated people looking over as it did. It was her friend Lucy from back home in Chico. They’d met on the Spanish program at CSU where they’d both majored in the language. Actually, they’d both signed up for the Bachelor of Arts after seeing the same ad with the Spanish flag and the red-on-yellow lettering beneath: ‘Second-most widely spoken language in the world!’. Lucy wanted to travel in South America while teaching English and Nina wanted to be a translator, as there was much more money to be made that way. Lucy was “way jealous” that Nina was in Spain and wanted to know her exact itinerary, and Nina told her she was travelling to Santiago de Compostela next. ‘Wow! Are you going on pilgrimage?’, Lucy asked. Nina explained that she didn’t have time to walk there, or even part of the Camino, as she had to be back to Madrid the following Monday for her Business Spanish class. They agreed that it would be a great opportunity to see ‘something medieval of Old Europe’, a big deal for Americans, and the Spanish architecture, and Nina promised to phone her from Santiago before ending the call.
Next morning, Nina was at the airport far too early for the Iberia flight and spent more time than was healthy spraying perfume on her wrist and looking through packets of garishly coloured Spanish candies in the Duty Free. On the plane, she slept for a while and started to feel excited about visiting Santiago during Holy Week. On arrival at the airport, she got a taxi straight to her hotel. She checked in, and at the reception desk took a brochure, ‘Town of the Apostle’. In her room, she read the tiny text summarizing the legend of St James, how he had come to Spain to preach Christianity before returning to Jerusalem where he was beheaded by King Herod for his faith. Nina shuddered to think how someone could be so vicious, to decapitate someone just because of the thoughts in their head! She continued to read about how the saint’s followers put his corpse into a rudderless boat which was carried by angels to the coast of north-western Spain where he was laid to rest, and how eight hundred years later his tomb was rediscovered and the relics authenticated by the Catholic Church. She wondered how they had authenticated them. On the back of the brochure was a list of Holy Week processions and she saw there was one that night. She decided to try sleep for a few hours before heading out for it, as it was to commence after midnight.
Nina got dressed with time to find the right location on Google Maps for the meeting-point for the procession, as she wanted to follow it from the start. In the pouring rain, she walked along the seemingly endless cobblestoned narrow street. She knew she shouldn’t look at her phone while walking in case someone snatched it but she had a really bad sense of direction and all these streets looked the same! She held the phone under the umbrella so it wouldn’t get wet. This Maundy Thursday, due to the inclement weather, it was not in fact a procession but a ritual held outside the front door of the church on Rua das Orfas. The procession organisers didn’t want the flowers and decorations on the float to get ruined and they definitely didn’t want the candles to be snuffed out – what an ominous display that would be, Jesus resurrected into pitch blackness!
Nina stood in near the church wall, amid elderly Spanish ladies and a large group of tourists – she could hear them speaking English – hoping for the best view. The penitents came out the church door barefoot, robed with long pointy black hoods like the Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizards. They were carrying a large heavy-looking float with Jesus on it, arms stretched Heavenward, surrounded by white flowers and candles. Some penitents did a slow swaying dance with the float in hand before placing it on the ground. Other hooded men were standing by, holding big black staffs with the crucified Jesus at the top.
Nina stared into the eye-slit of one penitent’s hood. She could feel her mind drawn in through the slit, like a pull on her consciousness. A camera flashed, she thought, and she suddenly found herself surrounded by a crowd wholly different to the tourist group and elderly Spanish women. These people were angry-seeming, shouting, and dirty. The rain was dripping off ragged clothing and the smell of unwashed flesh pressed against her made her retch. The crowd were pushing forward past her. She tried to see what they were doing and, over by the church wall further on, she saw something crouched. An old woman, maybe in her seventies, was naked, trying to cover her thin form with a patch of sackcloth. Nina was horrified to see that the woman’s toenails were missing, just dried crumply skin where the nails used to be and some toes dark red and bulbous; the chunk of white on the woman’s left ankle was a protrusion of bone.
Over and again the horde screamed at the poor woman and asked her for her Christian name. Repeatedly and with a strange confidence she told them it was ‘María Soliña’. ‘Bruja!’ they shouted, ‘maligno!’. Nina’s heart started to flutter. She felt confused as to how this was happening and where the tourists had gone, why no-one was helping this woman. She pushed forward to get closer and held her hand out to the woman named María. An old bearded man with missing teeth started to attack the woman, aiming for her face with his long bony feet. María shielded her face with bruised and lacerated arms. Nina put herself in between the woman and the old man, and he flung her to the ground. When she hit the cobblestones, she found herself in a circle of light, almost like a spotlight, María beside her, and all around pitch black and silent.
The woman looked at her with intense bright brown eyes. ‘I am María Soliña, Mary of the Sun. My mother was Mary Queen of the Stars and my grandmother was Mary Queen of the Heavens’, she said, ‘the people worshipped us and over time we accrued much resources and land’. Nina felt frightened as the woman’s eyes were staring into hers and her mouth was not moving, yet Nina could hear the woman’s strangely lilting voice clearly in her mind and she listened to the Spanish sentences as if it were one of her language tapes. ‘You are with me in the seventeenth century’, Maria said, ‘and what you witnessed isn’t happening now’. The frightened feeling abated and Nina felt enthralled. She listened intently as Maria described Galicia as a land of magic-workers. ‘When we lived, we were open about our practices, there was no shame in the old ways, not to us!’.
The woman’s eyes glittered as she recalled Cangas, the little fishing town where in 1551 she’d come into this world. Growing up, she would play on the rough paths, run barefoot through the streams, meet with other Meigas, all stunningly beautiful girls, at night in forests and whisper to each other surrounded by ancient sighing trees. When the Catholics came, they brought the concept of the ‘witch’ as evildoer, hechicera, sorceress as demon-lover. They built churches and monasteries, and converted the people. The locals would say, with a wink that intimated a shared understanding, ‘Eu non creo nas meigas, pero habelas hainas!’ – ‘I don’t believe in witches, but they exist!’. The people continued to visit the ‘magic women’ for cures of herbs or healing incantations, for love-spells, to find out the future told in lines on the palms of their hands, or to get a countercharm against spiteful neighbours. People could practice magic by themselves, maybe to steal livestock, but the Meigas were much more powerful and only they could remove curses.
As a young woman, María would see the nuns bless themselves when she passed by. Rumour had it she ran naked in the forest and put flying ointment on her genitals so that she could fly up above the town and in through keyholes to have sex with men who weren’t her husband. By the woman’s sardonic smile, Nina understood that this was rumour alone. María did in fact have a husband, Pedro, and three girls by him, two of whom she trained in magic once they turned seven, the age by which they could use the gifts responsibly.
Coming from a long line of powerful women, the gifts passed down through matrilineal lines, María had personally inherited a number of properties and farmlands, not just in Cangas but as far as Moaña. The Meigas had met with the bishops personally to explain that they didn’t want houses of worship to be built since the forest and the hills were already sacred and full of powers. Despite this explanatory meeting, the bishops proceeded to instruct local clerics and their followers to build churches on the land the women owned! On María’s lands, they erected the Church of San Martiño in Moaña, the Collegiate de Cangas, and the Church of San Cibrán in Aldán. The second time she met with the bishops – they travelled to Cangas to see her – they beseeched her to leave the churches there so the praying people could shelter and they promised that the Catholic Church would pay Maria every year for using her land. She declined this offer, not needing it since she got everything she required – food, manual labour, clothing – in exchange for her charming and she wasn’t sure if it were true that the gifts would die with her if she accepted monetary payment. However, María saw no harm in different beliefs, so allowed it to be thus.
Time went on and the Meigas pooled their energies into defeating a group of invading Turks in 1572 by creating a magical invisible shield so they could not dock their boats, and blew them back out with a wave-spell which left some of their boats in smithereens. The Turks went back to their lands with stories of the ‘witches of Galicia’. The stories spreading in the Ottoman Empire drew the gaze of the Holy Inquisition onto the Old Religion in the remnants of the ancient lands of Gallaecia, and a new breed of Catholic cleric was on its way.
In 1574, a permanent tribunal of the Inquisition was established in Santiago de Compostela. They didn’t burn the powerful Meigas, fearing a revolt of the Galician people who venerated them. Instead, they tied poor old grandmothers to the stake, asking them once more to read a passage from scripture knowing that even if their half-blind eyes could see, their illiterate mouths couldn’t formulate the words. They shouted over their screams as the flames reached their legs that it was the Devil preventing them from saying the words of God! The crowds in the streets would cheer them on and chant ‘Queimar, Bruxa’ - ‘Burn, Witch!’.
María’s voice lightened in Nina’s mind as she related how her three children survived, hiding inside a wrecked ship on the northern coast of Ria de Vigo, one of the Rias Baixas bays. Whenever a vessel came close, they together raised a magic mist and drifted further out to sea. Magical women of Galicia were tormented and told there was a prohibition on non-Catholics wearing ostentatious clothes and their silks were stripped from them to publicly humiliate them. In 1621, María was incredulous when new bishops came with documents stating that the ‘peasants’ were no longer allowed on ‘church land’. The Meigas easily resisted them and so they called in the Grand Inquisitor, Luis de Aliaga Martínez. When he arrived in Cangas, he publicly confronted María, spat his bilious phlegm in her face, and said she had ‘little respect for Christianity’. He, and his vile companions, pulled María through the streets by strands of long grey hair in front of her adulating community, who were powerless to help her now. One of the inquisitors shouted out snidely that ‘Galicia produces witches as easily as turnips’, but the people here were not cheering them on or fanning any flames. In the absence of a bloodthirsty throng waiting for the spectacle, they brought her to Santiago de Compostela, to put her in prison there away from her people.
Nina stared as the old woman opened her mouth to reveal that she had no tongue. The Grand Inquisitor himself pulled it out with a ball-and-claw carpenter’s pincers. Without her tongue, she couldn’t whisper incantations and without words, she had no magical formulas or powers of invocation. To prevent her bleeding to death from the severed lingual artery, Luis cauterised her mouth with a hot iron. Following that, he concocted her full and shocking confession in a letter to Philip IV, who had just ascended the throne and was terrified of witches. The letter recounted how María claimed to be seven hundred years old, not seventy, that she had practiced evil spells taught to her by demons who sucked from her bloody nipples every night. There were salacious details of her licking the Devil’s buttocks, forcing married men to ejaculate into her at midnight so she could steal their semen for her nefarious potions, how she had ridden every man this way who lived in the entire region around Ría de Vigo, how she bathed in the fat of babies she murdered to enable her to use their lifeforce to change her physical form at will. The king burned the letter after reading it, but wrote a note of thanks to Luis for ridding the world of the ‘diabolical whore’.
It was true that María wanted to be released from her flesh, for her spirit to ascend and be free. She never thought the body could endure such agony without ceasing to be. Each day, more men came to torture her, to rape her, old as she was, against the cold stone of the prison, their faces blurring into indiscernible forms. One of them said in her ear that he would bring a Pear of Anguish, and so sick and weak, she couldn’t feel fear anymore or consider what this might mean. Later that night, or some days later – she no longer knew – that man or a different man returned with a metal pear-shaped object, with sharp petal-like top that he showed her was operated by turning a screw so that the blade-petals divided outward. He inserted it into her vagina and she felt cold metal cutting up into her. When he turned the screw, it was like she had transformed into a white hot poker of searing pain and she saw a viscous red, like falling face-first into a river of blood and then the world turned black and still.
The rapes stopped because there was nothing left but a great festering abscess. Her mouth was no use to them either, stinking from her putrefying and gangrenous throat, destroyed by caustic rags and sharp implements. There were maggots inside the hole where her groin used to be and lice crawling along her naked skin, and she wasn’t quite sure if she was already dead and rotting. The sackcloth was covering the part where the woman’s abdomen ended and her legs began and Nina felt sick to her stomach. In her mind, she beseeched María not to remove the covering from her body. Nina didn’t think she could bear it. Instead, the old woman reached out and put her hand caressingly against Nina’s face. The woman was comforting her! ‘The hangman is coming’, María’s voice said. Nina turned to see emerging from the dark a tall and broad-shouldered executioner, robed in black. He entered the circle of light and Nina’s eyes locked on his eyes through the slit of the hangman’s hood. There were flares of light in her peripheral vision. She tried to reach for María but the woman was too far away inside the light. It took force to jerk her head away from the hooded face, turning her stiffened neck to see the crowd of clapping tourists with cameras and umbrellas. The penitents were lifting Jesus back up.
About the Author
Dr Jenny Butler likes to write about the dark and the disturbing. She has had short stories published most recently in Laurels & Bells, and previously in Other Terrain Literary Journal, October Hill Magazine, Adelaide Literary Journal, Spillwords, Dime Show Review, The Same Literary Journal, The Raven's Perch Literary Magazine, Fictive Dream Magazine, Literary Orphans Literary Magazine, Corvus Review, The Flexible Persona Literary Journal, Tales from the Forest Magazine, The Roaring Muse, Mulberry Fork Review, Killjoy Literary Magazine, Firefly, The Ginger Collect, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine. You can read more about her on her website www.drjennybutler.com. You can also find her on Twitter @jenny_butler_ and on Instagram @spiral_eyed_grrl