THE WITCHE’S DRESSMAKER
Aldine plucked me from obscurity. It is not magical to foretell my death from overwork and childbearing and that I would not see past twenty summers. My hands are big, my shoulders wide, and I tower over the women in the village. The men see past my plain face and have visions of the hardy sons my womb would provide them. My stepfather’s pleasure in my worth hardens my heart. My mother’s distress breaks it. This autumn heralds my fourteenth year.
Aldine has seen me in the fields, in the stench of the pigpen, the smell of chicken kill and washing the clothes in the river, but rarely clean for cleanliness spoke of personal indulgence, time taken away from work. However, there is indulgence. Aldine has seen my art with needle and thread.
She has seen the roses, leaves and patterns I embroider on the inside of the coarse material of the women’s clothing and the small, strong stitches I employ to hold together the rough working clothes of the men. The roses and leaves and patterns keep me from madness but are a threat to my stepfather’s life. With good reason. There is great fear of breaking the strictures of the English Sumptuary Law of 1363, a law designed to uphold the hierarchy of class and keep us in our place. It governs what we can eat, drink, where and how we are to live and even what jewellery we can possess. The penalties for violating this law, for moving out of your class, are severe, and include fines, the loss of property, title and even life. The Law proclaims that women must be dressed according to the position of their fathers or husbands. The men, made responsible for their women’s appearance, act with alacrity if any woman draws attention to herself with her outer garments.
The Black Death breaks the grip of the Sumptuary Law. It is no respecter of class. It kills those above us and so many more. But those who survive become more valuable. We are a diminished pool of workers. The ruling classes need us. We are in a position to bargain, just a little, for better food, for better clothing, for coin. And so my patterns of roses and leaves and other fancies grow bigger and bolder and I am paid. I have a sense of worth. However, in these circumstances my worth has increased to others as well. My stepfather revels in the attention he receives from those seeking use of my body.
In that autumn of my fourteenth year, Aldine wrests the control of my labour from my stepfather. She stands before him, not tall, not small, smelling of lavender and roses, her skin looking as if it had been dipped in honey, sunlight in her hair. My stepfather roars he will have her whipped. I am his property. I am promised to a man. He hisses that men know Aldine is a witch. She will burn. Aldine stands, her stillness infuriating him. It is not the frozen stillness of an animal being beaten or the stillness my mother retreats into. He raises his left arm and then clutches it with his right as it falls uselessly to his side. He runs towards her, lowering his head to ram it into her stomach. She stands aside as he falls at her feet, winded. He raises his head and his eyes slew to my mother. I will not leave without her. With my stepfather still at her feet, Aldine throws some coins near his head. His eyes never leave my mother’s face. His face contorts as he tries to speak and then rasps out, “I will find you.” He twists to watch as my mother and I follow the sunlit hair and the soft swish of a skirt.
In the autumn of the following year, when the trees are at their brightest, Aldine, my mother and I lift our heads at the same instant and carefully put down our needles and threads and wrap precious velvets in protective calico. “They are coming,” Aldine says. “There are too many,” my mother says. “Go,” I tell them, it is I they want. You can escape.”
And they can. After months of better food and free from fear my mother is now unrecognizable with her soft skin and rich chestnut hair. Aldine’s hair has changed from sun glinted gold to black. Her changes no longer astonish or frighten me. But I taste fear. I can do nothing about my size. I will be recognized.
“We will face them,” Aldine says. My stepfather has planned this attack well. He knows the nobility of the household is away. We are without the protection of the highest authority.
The people in the castle hear the advance of the peasants. Hear the word “witches.” Hear how the young innocent girl and her mother were spirited away by a spell. The young girl who was known for her size and strength and love of her stepfather, was rendered powerless by the dangerous actions of a witch who disguises herself as a seamstress.
The soldiers of the castle call us out. We are three women, not tall, not small, our shoulders rounded, our hands a little gnarled, grey strand in our hair.
The peasants, the men of the village we came from, turn and leave at the advance of the soldiers.
In the early evening, as the smell of roasting meat distracts the soldiers’ attention and before they start to drink and suspicion heightens of the possibility of a witch in their midst, we leave and disappear into the future.
Susannah Thompson © 2018
If you would like to make a comment directly to the writer of this story, please email them at: