Lured back to consciousness by the early-morning din of the birds, Tabitha knew before she opened her eyes that this was to be her last day on earth.
She had seen the approach of this man for many weeks, but today the feeling of him was very strong. Until recently the images surrounding him had been of pale, flat countryside, unfamiliar roads, a white skyline dotted with skeletal trees, but since yesterday she had been glimpsing the hills she had roamed around since childhood, faces known all too well, the sinuous curve of the river she had dwelt beside all her life. Tabitha had felt many different minds in her time on earth but none to match this, the final one, for power and vengefulness.
She shuddered. It was as if a block of ice was growing inside her. Damp autumn light streamed through the cracks in the wooden door; river mist crept underneath. Tabitha had lain on the same straw pallet for a week now, scarcely able to move. She gazed down at her own body with the curiously detached feeling that she had already left it, that it was her own corpse she was looking at. All this time the bones of her skeleton had existed, but she had managed not to think about them. Now here they were, clearly outlined, rising to the surface as flesh fell away. What would he make of this powerful witch, she wondered, when he pushed open that door? Coming upon this squalor, would he feel that he had won a great victory?
A saucer of milk lay beside her on the floor, the remains of a crust soaking in it. ‘Are you about, Puss?’ she whispered. How strange her voice sounded now, like the dry leaves drifting up against the cottage wall.
PUSS HAD always been about. When Tabitha tottered at her mother’s knee, Puss had been a kitten, a pair of glittery orange eyes set in a scrap of brindled fur; so Puss must be almost as old as herself. Eighteen? Maybe nearer twenty. Tabitha had never been sure of her own age either.
‘Ma, why did you call me Tabitha?’
‘I found your name in the Bible, my dear; the very book they employ to condemn the likes of us. Tabitha was a lady who was raised from the dead by St Peter. Some called her Dorcas.’
‘But which was her real name?’
‘Both. It is possible for people to have more than one name. Cats have at least three. There is the one you give to them and then there the one they never tell you, which they call each other by. And there is a third, and magical name, which they have but do not know they have.’
TABITHA HAD learned everything she knew from Ma: those summer days down by the river bank, the murmur of her voice, the gurgle of the water, dandelion seeds drifting about on the still air. In those days Ma was still teaching her the names of the plants; wolfsbane, mountain daisy, belladonna, windflower, St John’s Wort. Later Tabitha would learn how to mix them and grind them in the mortar, into cures. Ma would show her how to make medicine to ease a child’s cough, something for the dropsy, a poultice to speed the mending of a broken bone. And last of all, when Ma judged her old enough to shoulder the responsibility, something to ease the pain of birth, and something to speed the dying to their rest when they had suffered overlong.
Puss never appeared to be paying attention to their conversations, being more interested in the comings and goings of water voles and kingfishers at the river’s edge and the glimmer of fish in green water, but he was always there. He accompanied them on their long walks in search of rare herbs. Many a time the three of them were out together all day long, tracing the miles along the field margins, into coppices, high up on the chalk downs, but taking care never to come too close to the villages. That was one of the earliest things Ma had taught her. ‘People do fear us, my girl.’ Even now Tabitha could not understand why anybody should fear someone like Ma. It made her angry to think about it.
THE DOOR swung open, just wide enough to admit a thin, arthriticky creature. ‘Oh, there you are, my dearest,’ Tabitha whispered, stirring a blue-veined hand to stroke his knobbly old skull. ‘How went the hunting last night?’ The cat made no reply. ‘That bad? Not a solitary mouse? Never mind, there’s still the last of the bread and milk. See, I saved it for you.’
The cat sniffed at the saucer but declined to eat, choosing instead to settle himself on the pallet beside Tabitha, folding his tail around his paws and gazing at her with long, considering eyes. ‘You know, don’t you Puss?’ she whispered.
Suddenly, for the first time, she was terrified. Would death be painful? How would he do it? Would he have a sword like the noble men she had seen riding by, or would he use his hands like a peasant? What would the steel blade feel like entering her body, would it be possible not to panic, not to gasp for breath? Would she be compelled into an ungainly struggle with Death or would He be merciful and permit her to let go of her own accord?
She was so weak, now. ‘I cannot bear to be parted from you, Puss,’ she whispered. ‘Stay with me until he comes, for I need someone to talk to in my dying. But when you hear his footsteps on the river bank you must run, do you hear me? Run, because your life may depend on it.’
‘Such an evil man, Puss. He sends his agents before him into the villages to gather tittle-tattle, rumours of unexplained happenings. They enquire as to the names of women living alone, and when they have done with their asking, they talk. They tell people that healing women ride about the evening sky on besom brooms, congregating in the trees outside people’s windows, to chatter amongst themselves in devilish tongues. According to them, we are behind the sickening of cattle, the failure of wheat and the babe that dies in the cradle. Thereafter, every misfortune will be blamed on us. Such fools men and women be.’
‘Before he sent his agents the villagers would come to me for succour, just as they came to Ma until she died. Oh, they would look over their shoulders in case anyone saw them, picking their way down the river path, tiptoeing towards this little white cottage at the edge of the wood, but still they would come.’
‘I’ve brought young Thomas with his boil, Missus.’
‘My rheumatics is bad this year, Mistress Tabitha.’
‘There’s this wench. I need a spell, to make her look on me with favour.’
They’d bring whatever they could manage; a length of cloth, a bird for the pot, apples and pears, a basket of nuts from the common. It wasn’t much to live on but Tabitha and Puss had managed, and better than some.
Beyond the cottage, the sun rose in a pale sky, reached its pale zenith and started its pale descent. Rain threatened, the clouds grew dark, but still the Witchfinder did not come. Tabitha lay on her bed of straw, too weak now even to shiver.
At last Puss uncurled his tail from around his paws, stretched and yawned, then crawled onto his mistress’s chest. To Tabitha, less than half conscious now, it seemed the old cat weighed less than a feather, and the warmth and the closeness of him were a comfort.
THE MEN gathered at the Inn, bolstering their courage with ale and loud talk. Apprehensive as they were, they could not back down now: they had boasted and bragged too much.
They’d carry the wench back with them, kicking and screaming if need be. They had equipped themselves with a variety of stout ropes, and a sack to go over her head, for it was said that witches possessed a preternatural strength. Whatever sort of a fight she put up she must be carried back to the Inn, for the next day she was to be tried by the Witchfinder himself. He had announced that he would put her to the cauldron test, her right hand to be plunged into boiling oil and held for a long count of three. If her wounds healed within three days she would be set free. If not, she was a witch and would be hanged. If she refused the test she would still be hanged.
IN THE deep, dark black inside the cottage, Tabitha heard their heavy feet tramping along the path, and their muffled voices. She was very, very tired now. Finally, the cat bestirred himself and bumped his head against her chin in salutation.
‘Run, Puss!’ she mumbled. ‘Now is the time, now, I beg you! Find yourself a new mistress and, once in a while, remember Tabitha.’
But the old cat did not run. Instead he began to purr, quietly at first and then more loudly, so loudly at the last the sound seemed to fill the room. As Tabitha slid into the darkest darkness of all, the cat on her chest seemed to become heavier, and heavier, and heavier.
THE STENCH in the cottage was unbelievable. Rather than the spitting devil’s-spawn they had anticipated, the men found nothing but a bundle of soiled rags on a straw pallet, and what was left of the woman’s body, already cooling. There was not a stick of furniture.
‘Must have broken it up and used it for firewood before she became too weak to go out and find more’, someone said. There was no food, either, apart from a saucer of milk with half a crust of mouldy bread floating upon it.
Of course there was much grumbling amongst the men at having been cheated of their evening’s sport, but more than one breathed a secret sigh of relief, having feared that the witch might single them out for a spell, some foul enchantment to root them to the spot, render them blind or mad or trap them in the body of a toad. The newcomers had made special mention of toads.
But even as they turned their backs on the cottage, a shape was emerging from the darkness. It was that of a brindled cat, sleek and fit, scarcely out of kittenhood. With a last look round at the cottage through glittery orange eyes, the creature set off at a trot away from the village, down the river path and towards the wood, to find a new place for them both.