By JJ Rushmore
I didn’t mean to wake them.
A November chill settled over the ancient cemetery. I had saved Jennifer’s gravestone for last, recording the inscription in my logbook. As the church’s final pastor, she would be the last person buried here.
Not that it mattered. After the fire, the dwindling congregation could not afford to rebuild their historic church. They sold the land, including the adjacent graveyard. The new owners vowed to raze the blackened building and relocate the graves after I had completed the inventory. They planned to build a quaint bed-and-breakfast on the property and call it The Sanctuary. They said it would enhance the town’s “New England village ambiance.”
The townsfolk breathed a sigh of relief. The charred rubble would finally disappear. It would no longer remind them of the pretty raven-haired pastor who had burned alive in her own church. But I could not forget her. I had loved her.
I fought back tears as I rose to leave, when I noticed four grave markers outside the low stone wall boundaries. The dark monoliths stood at crooked attention under a dead oak, its gnarly limbs grasping the sky. I clambered over the wall to record their inscriptions.
None was visible. Running my hands over the smooth black slate, my fingers sensed faint impressions, grooves hidden by the dark stone, stone so dark shadows disappeared. Dusk fell beneath a rising moon as I pulled out rubbing paper and colored wax.
The four headstones were all of one shape, with an archetypal oval top and square shoulders, a familiar silhouette for Halloween decorations. Three of the stones were small, while two leafless thorn bushes flanked the larger one. I started there.
The black rubbing wax revealed a symbol: a circle on top of three overlapping willow leaves forming a three-pointed star:
I continued rubbing. A poem appeared below the symbol, but no name or date:
Four Shall Rise & Seek Another
Father, Son, Perhaps Brother
He Shall Choose & not Resist Her
They Shall Spawn Another Sister
A wave of gooseflesh swept over me. The words were disturbing, but something else bothered. Where was the name? Brushing my fingers over the back side of the stone, I detected more engraving. After further rubbing, an inscription appeared on the paper:
Here Lyes ye Body
of Abigail Wicke
Aged 50 yrs
Kill’d by Fire
July 20th 1692
The light continued to fade, and I didn’t have time to ponder the odd wording, “Kill’d by Fire.” I moved on to the remaining stones.
Rubbing the three smaller headstones revealed they were for Abigail’s daughters: Beatrix, aged 31; Constance, 25; and Deborah, 19. All three were ‘Kill’d by Fire’ on the same date, July 13th, 1692, exactly one week before their mother’s death.
Because the mother’s stone had writing on both sides, I examined the reverse sides of the daughters’ stones. They bore a similar symbol as their mother’s marker, but without the circle:
Each of the smaller gravestones contained one line of verse on its back. Placed in order from eldest to youngest daughter, they read:
Rub ye Stones, Speak ye Words
Raise ye Bones of those Interred
Heed ye Crone’s Hex Unheard
I sat with my back to the largest stone, facing the three smaller ones. I knew to read “ye” as “the.” Without thinking, I read the poem aloud.
Suddenly three figures materialized, each apparition punctuated by a loud foomp. They stood in front of the three small gravestones. I backed away until I sat pressed up against the larger stone. Dead leaves swirled around their bare feet. Intense cold and putrid odors permeated the hollow. My hard breathing formed thick clouds as shivers ran up my spine. The first figure stood tall and slender, the second shorter and heavier, the third a mere slip of a girl.
For they were all women, with straight ebony hair, dressed in long black robes. A sinister fog seeped around us.
“Thou rubbed the stones!” accused Tall and Slender, pointing at me.
“Thou spake the words!” shouted Short and Heavy, also pointing.
“Thou raised our bones!” taunted the Tiny One.
“Thou must choose,” the trio recited in unison. They joined hands and twirled in a circle, cackling, a piercing noise like brittle sticks cracking and snapping.
My heart pounded. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move.
Short and Heavy stopped. “But hold, Beatrix. We must tarry for the High Priestess.”
“What saith thee, Deborah?” said Beatrix, the tallest. “Dost thou agree with thy sister Constance?”
“Nay, Beatrix, I do not,” said tiny Deborah. “If our Mother were coming, she would be hither now. We must proceed as the prophesy commands.”
“Dost thou accede, dear Sister?” Beatrix raised her chin at Constance.
“The prophesy saith four shall rise. We are but three,” Constance said. “Tragedy shall befall us if we ignore its decree.”
“Thou art timid, Sister,” Deborah sneered. “One wonders if thou art truly a witch.”
“I have nerve enough. Test me if thou durst!”
Beatrix raised her hand. “Enough! This lackwit hath raised us.” She leveled a finger at me. “We possess but one chance to attain our goal. He shall choose among us three.”
“Thou art the eldest,” Constance said. “Thou hast decided. I shall not oppose thee.”
I found the courage to speak. “Excuse me. Ladies. May I ask a question?”
Beatrix answered, “Thou may ask. Speak.”
“You all died on the same day. How did that happen?”
Beatrix stiffened and balled her fists. “The townspeople feared us.”
“The mundanes hated us,” added Constance.
I shook my head. “Mundanes?”
“Those who are not witches. They trapped us in the church.” Deborah shuddered. “They barred the doors.”
“They set the building aflame,” whispered Beatrix. “They burnt us alive.”
Deborah snickered. “But Mother foiled them. She cast a spell.”
“The mundanes found out. They captured Mother and burnt her. At the stake.” Constance began to weep.
“They exiled us from consecrated ground. They debased our graves with unmarked stones,” Beatrix waved at their grave markers. “But Mother’s magic was potent. She carved unseeable marks. The marks you exposed this night.”
“And now thou must choose,” said Deborah. “Thou must choose one of us.”
“I don’t understand. Why?” I suspected I did understand, but hoped I was wrong.
“To mate,” Beatrix said. “To father a child. We desire a sister, and thou shalt give us one. Through her we shall live once again.”
With that, the three witches dropped their robes. They stood there, silvery figures shimmering as moon shadows rippled over their voluptuous bodies.
Three naked women in moonlight would normally be cause for arousal, but I was petrified in all the wrong places. My leaden legs would not move, and my arms turned stiff. The chilling cold penetrated my bones and immobilized me.
“Thou must choose,” Beatrix intoned.
“Choose one,” Constance chanted.
“Choose one,” Deborah repeated.
“Choose!” they cried altogether.
The thorn bushes on either side of me came alive, twisting and writhing, their bristling branches lengthening and surrounding me. They tugged and pulled and shredded my clothes until I was as nude as the three women.
A brilliant flash of light exploded behind me. The three witches recoiled, shielding their eyes from the glare. They screamed in pain as gust and gale of blistering wind blew at them, shrinking them, withering them into small lumps of quivering gray ash. One by one they vaporized in puffs of black smoke.
The brilliance faded until only soft moonlight remained. The heat and wind subsided into a balmy, pine-scented zephyr. A figure in flowing white robes appeared from behind me.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Jennifer? I—I don’t understand. I thought you were…”
“Dead? I am, mostly. I should’ve known that damn church was cursed when I heard the stories about the Wicke women.”
“Remember the prophesy? Four Shall Rise…?”
“But what about Abigail, the mother? Wasn’t she supposed to…?” I was still confused.
“Yes, but not to worry. I took care of her.”
“But wasn’t she a High Priestess? What about the symbol on her gravestone?”
“The Triquetra? That just means she’s head of a coven. The symbol itself has no power. My magic is much stronger. It’s all right, William. You’re safe”
I suddenly realized my condition, and covered myself.
“Don’t be shy,” she purred, and smiled. “The prophesy must be fulfilled—He Shall Choose and not Resist Her, They Shall Spawn another Sister. If anyone’s going to get a child out of this, it’ll be me.”
Jennifer let her robes slip to the ground. While the Wicke sisters’ skin shone cold and silver, Jennifer’s skin glowed warm and golden. She lay down beside me and we embraced.
What they say about a witch’s breasts is not true, for Jennifer was warm all over. Indeed, she was hot, burning hot.
I moaned in painful ecstasy.
She cackled in delight.
“By the way,” she whispered. “Don’t ever stay in that new bed-and-breakfast, The Sanctuary. You won’t be safe.”
Writers’ workshop and writing group