“We are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn.”*
We lived in the shadows, through winters of fear and nights of desolation, treading barefoot through the twigs of hidden forests, over frosts of forgotten plains, through the blood of battlefields, the rot of landfills, over the papercuts of history, giving births, suffering deaths, in the cold light of obscurity. Our vengeance, washed in tears, has dried away to the dusty, powdery, porous bone. Our anger no longer has a beating heart. Our lives, like death, are buried deep in the silent ground.
I, Petunia, have stepped out of the shadows, to deliver a message, only a message, to save Humanity, curse the name, who condemned us. Had our vengeance not been so dried, our hatred not so old and cold, we should not want to do this. We should want nothing more than to watch Humanity, and the irony of its name, burn in the inferno this surface is to become. Yet I am here. I am here to give them a semblance of a chance against an enemy only we, at this time, can detect.
“Hello beautiful,” said a man, a stranger, as I walked by, my eyes straight ahead not registering him.
“Hi honey. Whatcha doin’ tonight?” said another man not long after.
Headlights swam over wet streets in the night. Pedestrians walked by, some hurriedly, some slowly, couples arm in arm, young men in packs, some people carrying folded umbrellas, others just braving the risk of further rain. Some were smiling, grinning, meaninglessly.
“Hey lady, gotta minute? C’mon lemme buy ya’ll a drink.”
I walked by until I reached the police station and walked up the stone staircase to the entrance. Grey cloth covered the metal detectors in the entrance hall.
“Visitor hours are over,” said a uniformed officer.
“I want to report a murder.”
“Why don’t you call it in?”
“I need to talk with a homicide detective, urgently.”
“Give me a minute.”
He picked up an ancient black handset from behind a counter and made a call. After a short exchange, he hung up and motioned me to come closer, picked up a portable metal detector and scanned me.
“Don’t have one.”
“Okay. Third door left.”
I walked down a corridor to a cheerless office with a ceiling too high to be modern construction. Varnished wood cohabited with metal office furniture in varying degrees of wear. A middle aged man in shirtsleeves, his tie loosened, looked up from his sandwich, his glasses up on his forehead. He gestured to himself and another man at the adjoining desk.
“Brown. Schwartz. Take your pick.”
“Which one are you?”
“I’d like to report a murder.”
“Who’s the victim?”
“He is not yet dead. There will be a murder at exactly eight twenty-five. It will be in room 209 of the brownstone at the corner of Easton and Craig. The victim’s name is Justin Crumb.”
The officer looked at me crossing his brow.
“What is this young lady?”
“I am not so young. You have twelve minutes to send someone there.”
“Why don’t you wait on that bench?”
He conversed wordlessly with officer Schwartz, an exchange of looks, gestures and nods, then left his desk.
I sat on the old wooden bench, much older than anyone in the building knew. I felt the spirit of the maker, for it was hand crafted more than a century ago. Old neglected furniture dotted offices like this across the country. This one crafted by a man named Brine with block planes, chisels and saws he inherited from his father. An uneducated man, he lost his family to the Spanish flu, his health to whiskey and his fortune to the whims of the economy. He did not understand the nature of finance any more than he understood the nature of the virus, so he blamed his misfortunes on Jews, just as his forebears blamed their misfortunes on us. I ran my fingers over the almost imperceptible bumps of the wood, the uneven contours of the hand crafted furniture, unappreciated despite its age, in the corner of a police station.
My conversation with the bench lasted over an hour, by which time we were fast friends. I sensed the police officer approaching and I bid farewell, almost tearfully. Good luck to you. May you last long and be well.
“I’d like to talk to you,” said Brown.
“Yes,” I said, still caressing the bench. “I thought you might.”
“Place of birth?”
“Rather not say.”
“We need your age, m’am.”
“Twenty nine.” Actually two hundred and ninety, but close enough.
“Where are you staying?”
“For the moment, at the Berkeley.”
Brown shifted a little in the grey darkness and yellow light of the interrogation room, his dark face became a little more visible as he lowered it closer to the light.
“How did you know?”
“The death of Justin Crumb.”
“I just knew.”
“We need the truth, m’am.”
“Do you? Do you understand the circumstances of his death?”
“We ask the questions here, m’am.”
“What good are questions if you are unable to understand the answers?”
The two men looked at each other.
“Detective Brown, do you understand how Justin Crumb died?”
There was reluctance in his manner as he opened a laptop computer on the table.
“Do you know what a badge-cam is?”
“It’s a camera officers wear on their chests to record what they do on the job.”
A shaky video appeared on the screen. A fist was knocking on the door. A balding man in an undershirt answered the door.
“May we come inside?”
“What is this about?”
The digital clock on the corner of the screen showed that the time was eight twenty-four.
“We received a report of a crime in progress.”
“There is nobody here. I, I live alone…”
“We need to take a look, for your safety.”
“I don’t think there is any need.”
“Can we at least see your ID?”
“No! No! No! Noooooo!”
Then, in front of the shaking camera, Justin Crumb started bleeding from his chest, a horrified expression on his face. A vertical slit opened on his chest as if an invisible sword pierced him from behind. With his lung collapsed, Crumb was no longer able to scream, though his face was frozen in mid scream and the cries of the policemen filled in where he could not. The invisible sword moved upward, snapping the ribs as it went, stalled at the collar bone, then burst up through the shoulder with a vicious crack, spraying an explosion of blood over the screen.
Lieutenant Brown closed the laptop.
“We need to know what happened and how you knew he would die.”
“I want my words recorded.”
Brown looked at Schwartz. Schwartz took a voice recorder from his pocket and gave it to Brown. He put it on the table in front of me.
“I have come to deliver a message. We have sensed the approach of a terrible event. The death of Justin Crumb, an innocent man, was the first of many to come. It two nights, there will be another death, and from there the pace will accelerate, doubling every other day, more or less. It will spread to other cities, other states, then other countries. Eventually, it will become a plague that will engulf the world. Once it gains momentum, it will become impossible to stop. Your window of opportunity is small. You must destroy the steeple of the Blackstone Church, on the corner of Westgate and Brook, before the thirteenth death.”
And that was the end of my mission. That was all that was required of me to do. The puzzled policemen had no grounds to hold me. In the morning, I would have been gone, out of reach and invisible. The warning was given and that was that. Humanity was on its own. Most probably, it was at its end.
In fact, events would have unfolded very differently had the old bench not begged me to stay.
*This story was written when someone in the nanowrimo group on Facebook dared me to write a story beginning with the sentence “We are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn.” I had no idea at the time, but the sentence turned out to have been pilfered from “The Witches of BlackBrook” by Tish Thawer. Many thanks to Heather Grossart for pointing this out.