Midsummer 1640 - Louise MacBean
That Alizon Virtue had murdered her children was not in doubt.
Twelve witnesses could attest to the fact; they had either heard her confession, or seen for themselves the blood on the bark of the wych elm. One after the other she had taken the babes by the ankles and struck their skulls against the trunk.
It was two days later that I arrived in the hamlet of Ayletoft with my own infant daughter and her wetnurse. Perhaps by some act of providence I happened to be passing through - I was on my way to the next parish on the King’s business, and had stopped only to re-acquaint myself with an old school friend, John Twyforth. As justice of the peace for Ayletoft, the villagers had brought the matter to him.
Rightly horrified by such news, Twyforth found himself in dire need of advice, which he requested of me almost the moment I arrived. Owing to the length and warmth of our friendship, he knew me to be a Christian man of good sense and considerable learning. The villagers were all crofters and simple folk, he said. Hardworking but prone to superstition. They looked to men like us for moral guidance.
Thus I was compelled to assist, if only to repay my friend’s hospitality. As a new father - and a widower too - I felt a particular sense of anguish upon hearing that a mother had killed her own offspring in such a cold and ghastly fashion.
As soon as I was agreeable, Twyforth insisted that we journey down to the village so that I might meet Alizon Virtue for myself. Leaving my daughter with her nurse in my host’s manor house, we proceeded downhill towards the clutch of homesteads in the valley.
I remarked upon the beauty of the landscape; the lush greenery and fertile dark soil. My friend, in turn, pointed out the gnarled and ancient wych elm standing at the centre of an untended field. He mentioned I would have a clear view of it from my guest room window.
As we walked, John Twyforth also described to me the people of the village, that I might be better prepared. Ayletoft is home to some sixty crofters and their children. Of these sixty, perhaps seven families, and of these seven, only three family names. Suffice to say, the community was close knit.
Indeed, as we entered the village we were greeted with some interest. The crofters left their tools and beasts in the fields to see us, and I surmised that they were not accustomed to visitors, small as Ayletoft was, and being so isolated by the surrounding hillsides.
What was more; it seemed to me that I did not meet one person who was not either named Virtue, or could not claim to bear some relation to the murderess. Each of them shared the same russet complexion and deep set black eyes. We were lead to Alizon’s holding place, a wicker construction guarded by two strapping lads.
There was strange air about the dwelling. Heady and mulchy; the stink of decay.
Alizon was a widow of perhaps thirty years of age - this was a matter of dispute, as her date of birth was not recorded. Though she had been imprisoned for two days, she seemed to me to be in good condition, sitting with her hands bound in her lap, in clean clothes, with fine chestnut hair and a fairly attractive face.
“I did it,” she said, when questioned. “I did it, but it wa’n’t my fault. I was told to. I was summoned.”
“Summoned by whom?” I prompted.
“By my lord and prince,” she smiled. “My king beneath the soil.”
Here we ended our interrogation - I was disquieted, but had no doubt in my mind that she was quite mad. It would thus be a decision for the next assizes, due two weeks hence.
My work complete, I was exhausted from my travels. We ate a light supper at the house and I retired to bed, where I found that I could indeed see the wych elm from the window, its branches spread against the night sky like the black legs of a great upturned spider. I was so struck by its peculiarity that this image followed me into sleep.
I dreamt that the branches of the tree creaked and its leaves whispered, and I saw the villagers all gathered about it. They held axes and saws, and with fury in their black eyes they set upon the trunk, hacking at it with savage abandon, until only the stump remained.
The wood within was swollen and mouldering, riddled with grubs and beetles and other foul crawling things. The villagers now set to digging; to tearing up the very roots which sucked the goodness from the soil. But they were not only roots. There were bones there too, tangled underneath, coiled around the heart of the tree. Dessicated flesh hung from parts of these bones, strange clods of black fur over thick blueish scales. The villagers grew frantic in their digging, eager to unseat this beast, which was three times the size of any man. It was hours before they finally pulled its carcass from the earth.
I lurch awake from this vision, gasping. The mania which gripped the crofters in my dream now fills the room, setting my heart racing. The sight of the creature’s bones haunts me. Such strength; such dizzying power. All one needed to do was let it in.
At once, I leave my bed and cross the moonlit room to the window to see the field where the wych elm stands.
I am filled with joy. It has stood there two hundred years, and will stand one thousand more. I know this better than I know my own name. Beneath the branches, arms raised in welcome and naked as they day they were born, are the villagers. Twyforth, at the front, holds aloft a great oaken staff, and at his side is Alizon, beautiful and smiling.
I go to my daughter’s chamber at once, passing her sleeping nurse. I lift my child from her bed, so gently she doesn’t stir. Her flaxen hair shines silver in the moonlight and her heart beats steady as I clutch her to my chest. The leaves outside whisper to me.
My lord and prince. I know what I must do. (C) Louise MacBean, 2019