This story is by Kacy Hogg and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Secrets. They spilled out of people faster than their guts when sliced down the middle. His ears hissed with their noise, a ceaseless buzzing as the Whisperer spoke in sour breaths. There were always Whisperers, those who came to tell him their secrets. In fact, the cobblestone path and the twisting wooden staircase they had to climb to come visit had been worn down so violently from repeated use that if one was not careful, they’d lose their head.
The Whisperers were foolish and hateful, gluttonous, eager. To have him bear their lead-weighted sins like the prisoner he was. As the people washed their hands clean of their secrets, he grew more wretched and more scarred. There wasn’t a spot on his body that wasn’t covered in swirling, glowing words, each letter throbbing like millions of tiny heartbeats as they curled along the curve of his ribs, down the length of his spine, beneath his jaw. But he was used to the pain, the ebb and the flow as a new phrase sewed itself into the fabric of his skin.
England, 1624. The witch hunts had been going on for a while, with women as the main targets. The list was long. Not many men were accused, but some were. He was.
He’d gone through the trials as the others had – stripped naked and dumped into the river only to discover that he did indeed float; inspected for ‘the Devil’s Mark’ though he had nothing but a single scar from where he’d touched a hot coal; stabbed with needles until he bled. He was a different kind of witch though, incapable of turning little children into toadstools or encouraging a demon to possess them temporarily. It wasn’t until a Bible was thrust into his hand that the people discovered what he could do.
Words, parchment, ink, every treasure contained within the pages of a book was at his command. He could manipulate them, rewrite paragraphs of scripture and history just by placing his hand against the cover. The words would jump right onto his body, as if sucked from the page by a gust of wind. Spoken words were no exception. Every word he read or heard became branded on his skin, fading enough to make space for new letters, forming layers of magical ink.
It took some time before the people – he called them Whisperers – figured out what happened if they told him a secret, but they did figure it out. And now he was here, removed from life and spared from death only to be sentenced to a fate worse than death. Witches lived notoriously long, and he was no different. Nothing about his situation bothered the Whisperers. As long as they could unburden themselves, everything was fine.
But those strings could be plucked at any moment. He was counting on that. Witches were intimate with the sightless forces of the universe, and he knew a new day was dawning.
The latest Whisperer leaned down, her hair brushing his sweaty cheek. “I killed my sister’s cat.” she purred. “She slept with my husband, so I killed her cat. Buried it right under her bed.” Not a totally original secret, but he didn’t have the strength to care about which ones were and weren’t interesting. The woman’s eyes bulged as her words appeared suddenly, glowing golden-black as they coiled around his throat. Then she was gone, and he was left with the feeling of burning.
The rest of the day was much the same, people coming and going, giddy with wrongdoing. They spoke curses like poetry, in love with evil:
“I stole money from my husband and bought new silk.”
“I fed my grandmother poison and watched her die during supper.”
“I seduced two men in one night.”
“Last night I prayed Elisabeth would fall ill so I could marry William. She caught smallpox this morning!”
He sighed, tired. And I’m the one supposedly in communication with the devil.
He was nothing, a commodity at the town’s disposal. And the worst part (besides being unable to die in peace like he’d wished the moment he was convicted of possessing magic) was that he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t call for help or scream, couldn’t condemn them all to damnation. It was an unintended side effect of his magic that he couldn’t control, and it’d been that way since he was a boy. There were rumors: some thought he was mute, or his tongue had been cut out. Others thought he was just dumb. For someone who could manipulate language as skillfully as he, he couldn’t do it on his own behalf. Words, once his haven, were now his hell.
That’s why the Whisperers loved him: because he could never tell their secrets. Only his skin could but he was tucked away in the damp, musty tower where no one would see him unless they came to visit, and even when they did it was impossible to decipher each glowing letter. So, the Whisperers were safe.
Not for long, he’d promised himself.
He’d been practicing. Trying to make the smallest of sounds. A whimper. A groan. A laugh. He practiced shooing the rats away. Usually, they just flashed their teeth and bit his leg. Still, he didn’t stop. The Whisperers were relentless; so was he. It took more than chains and verbal lashings to kill a witch.
None of them knew; none had bothered to study any of the volumes, the grimoires he’d kept below his bed before he was arrested. They’d just burnt them as a substitute because they couldn’t burn him. It was cathartic, they’d said; it was stupid, he thought. Because voices can only be silenced for so long. Even magical ones. They should’ve burned me after all.
The following day was the same and yet different. He sat there and let secrets drown him, each more pathetic and disturbing than the last. When the people weren’t there, he practiced his sounds. He didn’t have to say much, just a single phrase. Because if he could teach himself defiance, he could be free of this fate even Death itself avoided.
Tobin, the man with the keys, came to his cell that night. Dumped a bowl filled with slop in front of him. “Dinner, devil scum.” he announced. “And I’ll tell you a secret, eh? I cut up a rat and stirred it in there, just for you.”
He just reacted, bursting up from the ground like a coiled serpent and struck the sneering man hard in the chest. His captor screamed, losing his balance. The boy-witch snatched the keys from his belt before giving him a harsh shove. He watched the man tumble down the steep stairs, bones cracking. He finally came to halt at the bottom, head dented.
Jamming the key into the lock, he followed Tobin’s trail down the tower. Fetid air washed over him as he opened the door that led to the square. The moon was full, winking down at him from its throne in the black night. A perfect time for him to try. To speak the words. To curse those who cursed him.
The alarm bells had already been sounded; people swarmed like flies. Gasping, whispering as they gaped at him, their private instrument of vice standing free of his chains. Flickering torches and pitchforks appeared as the mob began to chant. There was so much noise and he wanted to scream as fresh blisters bloomed on his body, but he couldn’t . . . he couldn’t . . .
You must, he thought. Use your magic. Speak.
They closed in, foaming at the mouth like rabid dogs.
He was breathing hard, panicked but ready. The moon watched him, an unblinking, all-knowing eye. The eye of all his fellow witches that had been killed.
And then, he screamed. It hurt like nothing ever had. “NO!” He felt the bindings that had silenced him unravel. Before the crowds could surge forward, he spoke again. Clearly, vengefully.
“Your secrets are mine no longer.” He was thankful he’d read the grimoires before his life had crumbled. All his words glowed fiercely, scorching him like hot oil as they trembled and slithered, lifting themselves off his skin and taking flight. Every single secret joined together to become a flurry of dark wings. The people were rendered deaf, shouting and crying as their own evils were thrust back at them, shattering their eardrums, choking them into an agonizing, guilty death. Magic wasn’t inherently bad, but it did feel good to act badly just once.
He smiled, walking away from the square as the Whisperers writhed and wriggled on the ground, clutching at themselves. The strings had been cut. It was time someone else suffered a fate worse than death. It was infectious, like fear and like secrets. He’d taken his turn. Now they would too.
It was good to be a witch.