Editor’s Note: We met up with Tom Corson-Knowles, founder of TCK Publishing, at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon, and got to talking about new fiction he’s been publishing. Tom recommended we share Heidi Eljarbo’s novel with our readers. After reading, we agreed. It’s a fascinating, well written look into the 17th century’s profound fear of women who were deemed witches. While American readers may only be familiar with the witch-hunting Salem, Massachusetts, is known for, this tale is set in Norway – demonstrating that Salem was hardly an isolated event.
If you enjoy this prologue, you’ll want to head over to Amazon to get your own copy by clicking here.
Catching a Witch
Toomber’s Cottage, Rossby, Norway
I was not there the day the gravedigger injured his foot, but the account was passed on even decades later…
It was a misty day when the air was full of water but did not let go enough to make it rain. Toomber was preparing new graves in the cemetery. He was always a step ahead of the dying. A ready grave meant quick business to him. He had visited the Laursen family that same morning because they had a sickly child. Surely, they would want a grave ready in case the child passed on within the next few days? Then he had crossed the marsh to speak with an elderly couple who lived in the woods close to the abbey. He had convinced them it would be disastrous if they died, and no one would bury them. “Buy in advance,” he’d said. “Buy while you can still pay.”
When he next awoke, it took him a while to recollect what had happened. His first thought was that there would be no breaking up earth in the cemetery for the rest of that day. That made him irritated, and he tried to sit up. He looked around the room and saw her standing by the table.
“Wretched woman!” he grunted, but all his strength was gone. He fell back onto the straw-stuffed mattress.
Even lying down, he felt as if the room was spinning, going around and around, and he wanted it to stop. He tried to lift his upper body again, but the woman put a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back down. He wanted to protest, which was something he was good at. He was his own master, the minister had said; no one told him what to do. No one was worth listening to except the minister; but he was long gone now.
Toomber was confused and could not plainly remember what had happened. The ground in the southeast corner of the cemetery was full of clay, and he had been using an iron lever and had stabbed the unwilling soil with all his strength. At one point, he must have hit his right foot hard, as that was where the pain was. Then he must have fainted.
“Please, lie down, Toomber,” the woman said quietly.
She was small of stature but had a firm grip and a determined look on her face. Her green eyes looked straight at him and showed no fear, which confused him even more. Most people avoided him, and he wanted to ask her why she had come but did not want to start a conversation.
Toomber knew who she was. He knew what she was known for and what she could do. He knew the people in Rossby needed her but did not want to be her friend. They feared what they did not understand and were jealous because she descended from a line of independent, strong women. Women who acted as midwives in the villages, who cured ailments and diseases by administering potions and warm beverages made of herbs and plants. The villagers feared women such as those and believed the power over life and death belonged to God Almighty, not inferior females.
Toomber watched the woman try to move his leg, so it would not slip off the edge of the bed. He groaned loudly. It felt as if he was being tortured. His thoughts would not turn into words. It was too much effort and too bewildering.
“We have to try to save your foot. You’ve lost so much blood, but I’ll do what I can,” the woman continued.
With all the strength he could muster, the gravedigger lifted up his head to see what was going on. His foot was a distorted mess. The force of the iron rod had shattered his tarsal bones, leaving his foot bent like the broken neck of a chicken and had torn through an artery. Swollen and caked in dirt and blood, it was a certain recipe for a bad infection. The pain was excruciating. Then he went unconscious again.
* * *
The woman worked quickly. She knew what she had to do. The cottage had two rooms, one small room for working-tools and Toomber’s treasures. Old pieces of rope, a copper kettle without a handle, an old, wrought-iron cross with the initials E.J. inscribed. The other larger room functioned as everything else—kitchen, living room, and bedroom, all in one. The furniture was a mixture of homemade, wooden crates and half-elegant pieces that had previously decorated finer homes. The windows were small and thick and without curtains. The wooden floor was muddy with dried grass and sand. Common to the whole setting was that it had not seen soap and water for ages. Cleanliness was not a priority in Toomber’s life.
The woman made a fire with some twigs in the open hearth, filled up the kettle with water from a small barrel in the corner, and hung it on an iron rod sticking out from the stonework over the flames. Out of a black leather bag she pulled out anise, chamomile, sage, and horsetail. The herbs left a sweet aroma in the dust-covered room. Using rags soaked in the aromatic liquid to clean the wound would help heal the sores and tame the infection.
Trying to hurry before he came to, the woman rinsed the foot with the soaked rags, picking out small stones and pieces of grass and leaves. She had to work fast. There was no time to spare.
“What happened?” Toomber muttered.
“You injured your foot by the large oak tree near the Laursen family grave and pulled yourself along the ground by your elbows. There was a trail of blood along the path to the east gate of the cemetery and about a hundred meters farther toward the hill by the marsh and the cottage. That’s where I found you unconscious.”
The woman told him how she had pulled him toward his little cottage. Even though she was strong and used to hard work, he was a large man to move. The small hill down, she could handle, but getting him through the cottage door had seemed an impossible task.
As he’d come to and had seen her standing over him, he’d uttered, “What are you doing? Get your hands off of me!”
But she was both firm and gentle and did not scare easily. “Toomber, help me out here, she’d said. “Try to stand on your left foot, so we can get you in the door.”
“We are not getting me anywhere! Get away from me!”
“I understand you don’t want anyone in your cottage, but you are in a terrible state. This is something you cannot do alone right now.”
She had pushed and pulled and raised him into a half-standing position, and they had stumbled toward his bed, where he had fallen like a large tree being axed down. The bed cracked and creaked, but luckily it was built to hold his long and heavy body. As he had drifted off again, she had run back to the cemetery to pick up her black leather bag containing her herbs and potions. Because she was a cunning woman. She was a healer.
“Wretched woman!” The gravedigger’s voice was deep and hoarse. The words coming out of his gaping mouth were imprecise, as if he had chewed thorny twigs, leaving his throat scraped and wounded and his half-open mouth unable to close.
After she had cleaned his foot and given him some warm gruel with honey for nourishment and rest, she put stinging nettles in and around his pillow and at the foot of the bed, hoping to drive away some of the many fleas and lice that bred there.
* * *
The gravedigger was in his own bed, and he had been fed and nursed. He looked up as he saw the evening sun hit her head of unruly copper-colored hair in the open doorway.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, Toomber. I’ll come at midday.”
The cunning woman came back the next day and the day after that. And so it went on a dozen or more days, maybe weeks. She would enter unannounced in her hooded cloak, carrying that black leather bag with funny plants and strange-tasting remedies in it. She gave him drink and food and sang to him. She even brought the wee child bound on her back by a long piece of cloth. He was surprised she never expected anything in return, and he certainly never offered it. His comments were unfriendly and harsh. Pretending she did not hear his rude and offending remarks, she nursed him just the same.
He would never have done anything for anyone without getting paid in return. His services in the village were important, because people were always dying. He would never be out of a job. They needed him.
One day, she pronounced him well enough. The foot was suitably healed. He would have a limp, but it was a limp in a leg that still had a foot attached to it. She had tidied up his room, humming tunes he might have heard before, and had filled his cupboard with berry preserves, bread, and half a dozen apples. On the small table was a pewter cup with field flowers in cheerful colors.
“We’re off, then, Toomber. Take care of yourself,” she said.
She carried the child out—a little girl with curls the same copper glow as her mother’s hair. It would be the last he’d see of them for a while. Finally, he would get some peace and quiet in the cottage. He still did not need anyone.
My father, the minister, had told Toomber to be in charge of his own life. No one should tell him what to do.
He limped out the front door, lifted his chin, and drew a deep breath. Well, he thought. Good riddance to her and her black leather bag. There are things to do, folks to bury, payments for coffins and graves to collect.
He would be his own master.
* * *
Clara pushed her journal to the right and put down the pen. The window drapes blocked the view of the blossoming hillside. She leaned forward and pulled them aside to let the morning light flood in.
Images of the small, Norwegian, seaside town of Rossby and its impressionable inhabitants danced vividly in her mind. She licked her lips and imagined the taste of salt from the ocean mist. She looked at the clouds coming in and believed she heard seagulls crying, looking for fish. The chatter of people waiting for fishing boats to arrive sounded familiar. The feeling was tangible enough, that if she stretched out her hand, she could touch the folks of Rossby on their shoulders, and one by one, they turned around and looked into her eyes. Their stare opened up a passage, and she saw into their souls.
It had not always been like this. At first, she had not known the townspeople, nor had she comprehended their ways and why they had reacted the way they did. Time, experience, and dealings with the Rossbyans had helped her understand.
Clara wiped her hand across her wrinkled cheek and stared at the books on the shelves next to the writing desk. Unforgettable tales of heroism and voyagers’ quests, natural philosophies of Isaac Newton, and thought-provoking writings of faith she had read and pondered. Though she was in the autumn of her life, she felt she still observed. She still learned.
“Nothing compares to life itself,” she said and picked up an old piece of paper on the desk. The corners of her lips turned up as she remembered Bess. Clara leaned back in her chair, clutched the letter to her chest, and closed her tired eyes.
Every story is like a prism. When light hits the prism, it breaks into a rainbow, causing an array of magical colors. And so it is with this tale, like light that travels with varying swiftness through a prism, the words of this story can only be revealed at a certain pace and at different angles. Summers have come and gone, but these reflections are mine to tell.
“Just for a moment,” she whispered. “A few minutes of rest and then I will write this story. It needs to be told.”
Reflections in her mind formed into words and comprehensible sentences. They brought her back to a time when her wavy hair had a deep, flaxen glow and witch-hunting was nothing more than a distant fable.
Heidi Eljarbo grew up in a home filled with books and artwork and she never truly imagined she would do anything other than write and paint. She studied art, languages, and history, all of which have come in handy when working as a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and painter.
Heidi’s new book Catching a Witch tells the story of one young woman’s fight to save her loved ones from being burned at the stake by witch hunters. You can sign up for Heidi’s newsletter and connect with her on her website, on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.