The Witch of Fife
Here, all the Elves, Faeries, and Mermaids of the North were celebrating with Warlocks, Brownies, Pixies, and even the Phantom Hunters, of whom have never been looked upon by mortal eyes.
By Joanne Fong
Long ago, in the Kingdom of Fife, there lived an old man and his wife. The old man was of the quiet sort, but his wife was light and flighty, and some of their neighbours would look at her in askance and whisper about their fears of her being a Witch.
Her husband feared that too, as she had a curious habit of disappearing at dusk and staying out all night, and would look pale and tired when she returned in the morning, as if she had been working very hard or travelling very far. He used to watch her carefully to find out where she went or what she did, but she would always slip out of the door when he was not looking, utterly vanishing before he could even reach the door to follow.
One day, when he could no longer stand the uncertainty, the old man asked her to tell him directly if she was a Witch or not. Without hesitation, she answered in the affirmative, making his blood run cold. However, she also told her husband that she would tell him all about her next midnight outing if he promised not to let anyone know. The old man promised, as he believed he should know all about his own wife’s cantrips.
He did not have long to wait — the very next week there was a new moon which, as everybody knows, is the time above all others when Witches are likely to stir. On the first night, the old man’s wife vanished, not to return until daybreak the next morning.
When he asked his wife where she had been, it was with no small amount of glee that she told him how she and four other companions had met at the Kirk on the moor, mounted branches of the green bay tree and stalks of hemlock which instantly transformed into horses, and swiftly ridden over the country hunting foxes, weasels and owls. She told him how they swam the Forth and then dismounted their horses at the top of Bell Lomond; and that it was here where they drank beer that had not been brewed in any earthly brewery, out of horn cups that had not been crafted by any mortal hands.
And she told him about how after that, a wee, wee man had jumped up from beneath a great mossy stone, a tiny set of bagpipes under his arm; he piped so wonderfully that the trouts jumped out of the Loch below and the stoats crept out of their holes, and the crows and herons came and perched on the trees to listen. And the Witches danced until they were so weary that they could scarcely sit on their mounts due to fatigue come daybreak.
The old man listened to his wife’s tale in silence, shaking his head all the while, and when she was finished, all he answered was, “And what the better are ye for all your dancing? Ye’d have been a deal more comfortable at home.”
At the next new moon, his wife left for the night yet again and when she returned, she told him how this time they had taken cockle shells for boats and had sailed over the stormy sea to Norway. There, they had mounted invisible horses of wind and ridden long over mountains and glens and glaciers, until they alighted upon the snowy land of the Lapps.
Here, all the Elves, Faeries, and Mermaids of the North were celebrating with Warlocks, Brownies, Pixies, and even the Phantom Hunters, of whom have never been looked upon by mortal eyes. And the Witches from Fife joined them in their celebrations; they danced and feasted and sang with them, and they learned from them certain words which, when uttered, would bear them through the air and undo all bolts and bars and locks, allowing them to gain admittance to any place they wanted to be. And so, the Witches returned home, delighted of their newfound knowledge.
“What took ye to such a land as that?” the old man contemptuously asked. “Ye would have been a sight warmer in your bed.”
But when his wife returned from her next midnight outing, he showed a little more interest — for she told him this time, they had met in the cottage of one of their number and how, after hearing that the Lord Bishop of Carlisle had rare wine in his cellar, they had pronounced the magic words they had learned. Lo and behold! They flew up the chimney as if they were smoke and sailed through the air until they landed at the Bishop’s Palace at Carlisle. There, the bolts and bars flew loose right before them, and they descended into the cellar and sampled the wine and were back in Fife before dawn. When he heard this, the old man started from his chair as he loved good wine above anything else, but it seldom came his way.
“By my faith, but thou art a wife to be proud of!” he’d cried. “Tell me the words, and I will e’en go and sample his Lordship’s wine myself!”
His wife only shook her head as she said, “No, no, I cannot do that! If I did, an’ ye yelled it over again, ‘twould turn the whole world upside down as everyone would be leaving their own work and instead fly about after other folk’s business. So just be content, husband, for ye get on fine with the knowledge ye already possess.”
The old man tried to persuade her with all the soft words he could think of, but his wife would not tell him the words. But he was a sly man, and the thought of the Bishop’s wine could not be forgotten. Night after night, he hid in the old woman’s cottage, hoping that his wife and her companions would meet there, thinking it was all in vain; but at last, he was rewarded for his trouble.
One evening, the five women assembled and in low tones and laughter, they recounted their adventures in Lappland. Then to the fireplace they went and, one after another, climbed onto a chair and put their feet on the sooty crook. They repeated the magic words and presto! They were up and away before the old man could draw his breath.
“I can do that too,” he said to himself, crawling out of his hiding place and going to the fireplace.
He repeated the actions of the Witches, said the magic words, and he too flew up the chimney; through the air he went after his wife and her companions, as if he himself was a Warlock.
Now, Witches are not in the habit of looking over their shoulders, and so the five old women did not notice he had followed them until they reached the Bishop’s Palace and went down into his cellar; though they were not pleased at being followed, there was nothing to do about it now and so it happened that the group settled down for an evening of merriment. They tapped a couple of casks of wine and drank a little of each, but not too much for the old women were cautious and knew that if they wanted to be home before daybreak, it would be wise to keep their heads clear.
However, the old man had no such qualms, and he sipped and sipped until he became quite drowsy and laid on the floor, fast falling asleep. His wife, upon seeing this, thought to teach him a lesson not to be so curious in the future; when it was time to leave, the Witch departed with her companions without rousing her husband.
The old man slept peacefully until two of the Bishop’s servants, having come down to the cellar to draw wine for their Master’s table, almost fell over him in the darkness. Astonished at the old man’s presence, as the cellar door was locked, they dragged him up into the light; they shook him, cuffed him, and asked him how he came to be there.
The old man was so confused at being woken so roughly, and his head seemed to be spinning so fast, that he could only stammer out, “that he came from Fife, and that he had travelled on the midnight wind.”
As soon as those words were uttered, the men servants cried out that he was a Warlock and dragged him before the Bishop. And Bishops in those days held a holy horror of Witches and Warlocks, and so had ordered the old man to be burned alive.
When his sentence was pronounced, the old man wished dearly that he had never had such a strong desire for the Bishop’s wine and had, instead, stayed quietly at home in his bed. Alas, it was too late to wish that now, as the servants dragged him into the courtyard, putting a chain around his waist and fastening it to a great iron stake. They piled wood around his feet and set it alight. As the first flickers of flame crept up, the poor old man thought that this is the end of his life.
But no sooner had he thought that, that he remembered his wife was a Witch.
Just as that first flicker of flame began to singe his breeches, a great Grey Bird with outstretched wings appeared in the sky with a swish and a flutter; it swooped down suddenly and perched on the old man’s shoulder for just a moment.
In its mouth was a little red nightcap which, to the amazement of everyone watching, the Grey Bird popped on to the old man’s head. Then it gave one fierce croak before flying away again — but that croak was the sweetest voice the old man had ever heard, for to him, it was not the croak of any earthly bird.
It was the voice of his wife whispering words of magic to him.
When the old man heard this, he rejoiced, for they were words of deliverance; the old man shouted them aloud, and as soon as the words had passed through his lips, his chains fell off and he mounted in the air while the onlookers watched him in stunned silence.
The old man flew right away back to the Kingdom of Fife without so much as a farewell, and once he was safely home again, you can be very sure that he had learned his lesson — he never attempted to find out his wife’s secrets again.