The Witch of Berkeley

Once there was a women who, so it was later said, was accustomed to wickedness and to the practice of ancient methods of augury and soothsaying. She was a creature of immodesty, who indulged her appetites. She had taken no heed of scandal throughout her life, but she was beginning to grow old and fearful of the battering footsteps of death.

One day, as she was dining, a little crow which she kept as a pet uttered a cry that sounded like human speech. This startled her so much that she dropped her knife and groaning softly, her face suddenly grown pale, she said: “Today my plough has turned its final furrow. I am about to hear and undergo a great sorrow.” At that moment, a messenger arrived, and hesitantly gave her the news of the death of her oldest son, and the catastrophic annihilation of her family’s hopes.

Wounded to the very heart, the woman took to her bed and, pained by a deadly sickness, summoned her remaining children, a monk and a nun. In a gasping voice, she said: “My children, I have enslaved myself to the artifice of the devil and have been the mistress of forbidden things. But despite my evil doings, I have always been accustomed to hope that my miserable soul might be eased in the end by the comforts of your religion. In my desperate straits, I always thought of you both as my champions against the demons, and my guardians against a most savage enemy. Now, as I end my life, I am likely to face the prospect of being tortured and punished by those very beings who used to be my advisers in sin. I implore you, therefore – I who brought you into the world and suckled you – to do all that you can from faith and pity to alleviate my coming torment. I do not expect that you can deflect the true judgment from my soul, but perhaps you can help me by attending to my body in the following way.

“First you must bind me in chains of the finest gold. Then you must seal me face upwards in a stone sarcophagus, the lid sealed with lead. Let there also be choirs ready to sing fifty psalms each night and masses said each day to lesson the ferocious attacks of my enemies. Finally you must bar the door of the monastery with the stoutest of beams. When I have lain secure in this way for three days and three nights, bury me on the fourth day – although so grave are my sins, I fear that the earth itself might refuse to receive me to is warming bosom.” And with these words the old woman passed.

All was done as she directed, her children attending to the matter with great zeal and affection. But such had been her wickedness that no amount of piety and prayer would avail against the violence of the devil.

On the first night a demon of hideous appearance came to the monastery and battered upon the door, tearing at it with fearsome claws until finally the stout beam was torn asunder. No longer barred from entering, the demon took two steps inside but then the voices of the choir rose up as one to sing the holy psalms and, unable to stand the sound of the music, the demon retreated back outside and circled the monastery until it vanished at the break of day.

On the second night of the vigil, when the choirs of clerks had gathered to sing melodious psalms around her once again another demon appeared and pulled apart the door of the church, which had not been fully restored to it’s former construction. Still, made brave by their victory the night before the choir’s voices rose up but this time to no avail for the demon sent to collect the old witch had no ears and could therefore not hear the holy music.

But neither did it have strength, and although it scattered all who dared stand in it’s path, when it came to the stone sarcophagus, it could not breach the lid which remained sealed. The demon howled as it tore at the lead seal of the sarcophagus but to no avail. And once again, as daylight broke, the demon vanished back from whence it came.

On the third night, around cock-crow, the enemy arrived making the most terrible noise, and all of the monastery was shaken to its foundations. This demonic creature, larger and more terrible than the others who came before it, threw down the entrance door, which was shattered into fragments. The priests stood rigid with dread, hair standing on end and their voices stopped in their throats as the creature approached the sarcophagus with an arrogant swagger. With it’s massive claws the demon took hold of the lid and ripped it away exposing the body of the old witch inside.

In a voice so terrible that all who heard it cried out in pain, the creature called to the old witch and ordered her to rise up, to which the reply came that she was unable to do so because of the chains that bound her in the sarcophagus. Enraged the demon reached for the old witch but was repelled by the purity of the golden chains which bound her body.

Just then there appeared a more sinister figure than all the demons which had come before. Beautiful in appearance but cold as stone.

“By the power of your sins you will be unbound,” the figure said. “For you have been undone by the greed of another. I see the truth for I am The Lightbringer, and I see that the goldsmith who forged your chains failed to make one as pure as all the rest.” With this the figure reached out with one strangely gentle finger and laid it upon a single link in the gold chain. At once the chain was pulled apart as though it were no more than a cord of flax and the old woman was seized and dragged out of the church before the horrified gaze of the observers.

Outside the portals of the church a fierce black horse stood neighing, with iron barbs protruding along the length of its back. On to these hooks the old woman was thrown, and the entire demonic retinue quickly disappeared from sight and their cries of triumph and the woman’s pleas for mercy were heard until the break of day.

And then, no more.

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