There’s a hill on the Isle of Man called Slieau Whallian. Folk legend has it that they used to put suspected witches – women and men – into spiked barrels at the top of this hill to see if they survived being rolled down. If they made it to the bottom alive they would be killed for being witches. I’m sure you get the twisted logic.
Whether any of this actually happened, I don’t know. I do know it’s a very peaceful and lovely hill now. And also a good setting for a story, one in which things don’t quite go to plan for those meting out this “justice”…
by Simon Kewin
Ginny Kerruish watched the men roll the herring barrel up the hillside. Her big brother Calum and three others, grunting and straining against its weight. Calum scowled at her but didn’t speak, his face red from the effort. The barrel was empty, of course, but heavy with all the extra ironwork hammered into it. Down at the foot of the hill, earlier that day, Ginny and the other children had peered inside to see the nest of spikes there, like a great mouth full of uneven teeth. The sight of it, the reek of fish, had made her stomach lurch.
The slopes of Slieau Whallian rose steeply off into the blue sky. Wind whistled through clumps of yellow-flowered gorse. She stood and watched as the old woman was led up the hill behind the barrel. Ma Quirk, her arms lashed together with sailor’s knots, another rope tight around her mouth to stop her speaking curses. The children went silent then, watching the old woman they lived in fear of. They all knew the tales. If you crept too near her cottage, if you simply crossed her path, she’d work some spell and you’d be dead by morning.
The woman also glanced down at Ginny. Ginny looked away. She had her own reasons to fear the old woman. Because they’d spoken, once, something no one else knew about. She’d been wandering in the woods, seven or eight, lost in some game. She’d slipped and done something bad to her ankle. Broken it, maybe. The old woman had found her like that, writhing in the mud and leaves.
‘How did you find me?’ Ginny had asked, heart hammering, hands clutching her ankle. She’d feared the worst. ‘Were you following me?’
‘I didn’t find you, did I?’ the old woman had said. ‘You found me. I heard you calling.’
‘I didn’t call you.’
‘Course you did. Heard you in my head, bright and clear. You have the Sight, child, no doubt about it. You’re like me.’
The words had terrified Ginny. Even at that age she knew what happened to those with the Sight. There’d been plenty of whippings and rollings before and there would be more again.
‘No. I’m nothing like you,’ she’d shouted. ‘Leave me alone.’
The woman hadn’t replied. Instead, she’d bound Ginny’s leg, mumbling some charm over it, and let Ginny hobble home. She’d told her mother and brother she’d just twisted her ankle, and that was that.
Then, two weeks ago, five sheep had dropped dead in the night and Father Clegg had denounced Ma Quirk. Said she was dark-hearted; that she danced with themselves and lay with the devil. Everyone knew what it meant. If she survived the rolling she was a witch and a knife would finish her off. If she didn’t survive, she’d be buried in consecrated ground and receive her rewards in the afterlife.
The thought of it all made Ginny tremble with excitement. Because she did have the Sight, just like the old woman had said. She desperately wished she hadn’t. Wished she was normal. But there was no doubt: she could see into people’s hearts and she could make things happen just by really needing them to happen. Of course, she’d told no-one. Not her mother, not Calum, not any of her friends. If anyone learned the truth it would be she bound in ropes and led up Slieau Whallian. And only this old woman could betray her. One way or another, by the end of the day, Ginny would be free of her burden. The prospect of it made her light-headed with joy.
Her friends had argued about where they would get the best view. Some wanted to climb to the top of the hill to watch the old woman being forced into the barrel. But others said the bottom was best. Then you’d be there when they opened it back up to see what was inside. That had swayed them. They left, now, to join the small crowd gathered around the bog at the foot of the slope.
Only Ginny stayed where she was. She very much wanted to go with her friends, be a part of the group, be just a child. But, still, she hesitated.
‘You coming, Skinny?’
‘No. I have to take something to Calum. I’ll be down soon.’
‘Hurry, then, or you’ll miss it.’
She nodded, then turned to follow the barrel up the hillside.
Father Clegg stood with Ma Quirk at the top of the hill, along with Calum and the other men. Ginny hung around at the edge of the group, not wanting to come close now, not wanting to see what was about to happen. Why had she even come up here? She didn’t really have anything for Calum. She’d been longing for the moment when they pushed the barrel off down the mountain, but now the thought of it made the feeling of sickness return.
She watched Father Clegg perform his rites over Ma Quirk while two of the men held her by the arms. The wind, stronger up here, made the old woman’s straggly grey hair lash around. She tried to struggle free and Father Clegg, barely interrupting his flow of words, lashed out with the staff he carried, striking her a blow across the forehead. The old woman sagged to her knees, a great purple mark suddenly there on the side of her face. The men holding her laughed. Calum laughed.
Ginny didn’t really know her brother any more. Not since he’d gone off to make his living on the fishing-boats. He was a stranger. She realised she was afraid of him.
Father Clegg stopped speaking and the old woman was dragged on her knees towards the barrel. It had been set on its side in a small hollow to stop it rolling away before they were ready. The men began to push Ma Quirk’s head and shoulders inside. The old woman struggled and fought, but she was no match for them. Ginny heard her brother laugh again as he kicked her.
It was the laughter that made Ginny act. She whispered a curse of her own. She’d done it before, in secret, when no one was around to see. Tried it on butterflies at first, making them drift to the ground and settle there as if dead. Stopped mice and dogs, too, holding them asleep for a few moments. She’d never dared try it on a person, of course. Never dared try it when there was anyone else anywhere near. But by practice, she’d found the words she needed to speak. They were meaningless sounds to her ears, but she could taste their sharp power as she spoke them.
She spoke them again now, eyes closed against the wrenching effort the curse would cost her.
She saw how badly wrong it had gone when she opened her eyes again. Four of the men lay in a circle on the ground as if they’d all fallen asleep. Father Clegg and the three men whose names she didn’t know. But still standing, staring at her in open-mouthed shock, was Calum.
‘What have you done?’ he shouted. ‘What have you done?’
He charged towards her, fury on his face. She stepped back, ready to run from him, afraid of what he would do. He would dash her to the ground, drag her over to the barrel and stuff her in alongside Ma Quirk. She could see the rage burning in his mind.
Then she saw something else, too, kept well hidden until now. Something so surprising she forgot to run and stood still while he charged up to face her.
‘You know,’ she said. ‘You know about me.’
That stopped him. He stood there, breathing deeply.
‘Course I do you little fool.’
‘You know and you haven’t said anything.’
‘Have you told him? Father Clegg?’
‘Do you think I’m stupid?’
‘But, Ma Quirk. How can you do this to her knowing about me?’
‘You don’t understand anything, do you?’
Ginny glanced down the slopes of the hillside. Hopefully people would just think she was talking to her brother while the others rested. But when Father Clegg and the other men awoke, they’d come for her. She didn’t have much time. She saw what she had to do.
She refused to be like Calum.
‘I understand well enough. I’m going to let her out.’
She brushed past him, but he grabbed her by the arm, hurting her.
‘What I’m doing is trying to protect you, little fool.’
‘Protect me? You?’
‘How can you have the Sight and be so blind?’
‘I can see clearly enough. What you are. You and your drunken crewmates there.’
‘Those men are my friends.’
‘Nice friends. Look what they’re doing. Look what you’re doing.’
‘Those men trust me and I trust them. We put our lives in each other’s hands every day. Do you know why I do that?’
She tried to struggle free but he held her firm.
‘Why should I care?’
‘I do it to protect you, little fool. To keep you safe. Father Clegg would need more than a few rumours before he’d dare denounce Skinny Ginny Kerruish because he needs us to do his dirty work for him. He’s afraid of us and he only gets away with what he thinks he can.’
‘Oh, so you expect me to be grateful do you?’
He looked surprised, as if this was a question he’d never considered.
‘And what about her? Ma Quirk?’ Ginny asked.
‘I had no choice about her,’ said Calum.
She felt suddenly furious at him. For thinking he could just sacrifice the old woman. For not telling her he knew, all this time. For not being the funny, exciting older brother he’d once been.
‘I’m going to get her out,’ said Ginny. ‘Try and stop me if you like.’
She pulled away from him. He let her go.
‘Hardly matters now, does it?’ he shouted to her back. ‘Now everyone will know. The Father can’t ignore this. And it won’t just be you they come for, will it? The Sight runs in families, you know.’
Ginny ignored him and ran over to the barrel. Ma Quirk, half her body still inside, was trying to worm her way out. She was, suddenly, just a frail old woman, eyes red with tears and fear. One of the spikes had gashed her cheek open. Ginny loosened the rope in her mouth. She looked around at Ginny, at the sleeping men, at Calum, standing and watching them. It took her several moments before she could speak.
‘Decided to help after all, did you, girl?’
‘I thought you’d stop them.’
The old woman shook her head.
‘Not much I can do with a rope to chew on, is there? Not much I can do anyway when I’m trussed up like this.’
Behind them, Father Clegg began to stir.
‘You have to get away,’ said Ginny. ‘Before they wake up. Please.’
She began to undo the woman’s ropes, her fingers used to the fisherman’s knots. The wind made her eyes water as she worked. Ma Quirk stood stiffly, like she was made of sticks. At least she would be invisible to those at the bottom of the hill, hidden behind the bulk of the barrel.
‘You have to get away,’ said Ginny again.
‘Oh, and what will you do then? Send them after me? Let them hunt me down? And what will he do?’ She indicated Calum, walking towards them, with a nod of her head. ‘Because I could make them believe they’d already put me inside, maybe, but it ain’t going to work on you and it ain’t going to work on him.’
She could still let this happen, she saw. Wake Father Clegg and the others, tell them the old woman had spoken some curse. She could still be rid of her, one way or another. But that wouldn’t really be an end to it, would it? All this time she’d been terrified of what Ma Quirk would say to someone. But it worked both ways, didn’t it? The old woman must have lived with exactly the same fear. And for a lot longer.
‘We won’t say anything, will we?’ said Ginny. She looked up at Calum as she spoke. ‘Tell her, Calum.’
‘It would be safer for Ginny if you were dead, old woman.’
‘Really? You think I make much difference, compared to your friends there?’
‘You’re wrong anyway,’ said Ginny. ‘Because I can’t just pretend I haven’t got the Sight can I? I thought I could. But it’s a part of me. It’s the way I am.’
Calum said nothing for a moment. He looked down at the sleeping men, the old woman, then back at her, the struggle clear on his features.
‘You can really make them think we’ve already put you in the barrel, old woman?’ he asked.
‘Work your charm and go, then. And make sure you never come near here again, understand? If you tell anyone Ginny has the Sight, I’ll kill you myself.’
‘I know you would,’ she said.
Looking down at the ground, Ma Quirk spoke words unfamiliar to Ginny. Frowns bloomed across the sleeping men’s faces. Then the old woman turned to walk away.
‘Ma Quirk?’ said Ginny. ‘I’m sorry. For not helping sooner.’
The old woman stopped and looked backwards.
‘You just make sure the same doesn’t happen to you, too, girl. Things are changing, here, the old ways dying out. And you, Calum Kerruish, look after your sister by actually looking after her, eh? Not by going around with bullies like Davie Clegg.’
The old woman turned and picked her way down the far slope of Slieau Whallian then, away from the crofts and villages. She moved slowly, limping, but was soon lost to sight among the gorse bushes.
Ginny watched her go, knowing she would never truly be safe, now.
The rest of the men, when they woke up, looked confused. Calum pretended to wake with them. Ginny stood back where she’d been. The barrel containing just ropes lay sealed on the ground, ready to be pushed off.
‘Come on,’ she shouted across. ‘We’re all waiting. What’s wrong with you?’
‘She’s … in there?’ asked Father Clegg, sounding confused.
‘Of course she’s in there,’ said Ginny. ‘Where else would the old hag be?’
‘Heave, ho,’ said Calum. ‘Time to push her off before she casts some spell on us.’
With a shout of effort, the four men set their shoulders to the barrel and sent it cartwheeling and jolting down the slopes of Slieau Whallian. Ginny could hear distant whoops and cheers from the people down there.
She began to walk towards them.
It was Calum. He strode over to her, then stopped, as if he’d forgotten what he’d meant to say.
‘You were really trying to protect me?’ she asked.
He nodded, frowning.
‘We miss you, you know,’ she said. ‘Ma doesn’t say anything, of course, but she does. Me too. We could do with you around the place more.’
He looked at her, looked away.
‘Might have to now, anyway,’ he said. ‘Keep an eye on you.’
‘Sooner or later Father Clegg will find out,’ she said. ‘He’ll want to do the same to me.’
‘I know,’ said Calum.
She hooked her arm through his, like she used to. Calum, saying nothing, let her.
‘You said he only gets away with what he thinks he can,’ she said. ‘You’re right, you know. Perhaps if we stopped hiding ourselves away, afraid of what people will say, he wouldn’t hold any power over us.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Calum.
‘Those friends of yours. You think you can change them?’
‘Perhaps,’ he said again.
Ginny squeezed her brother’s arm. They walked in silence after that.
She began to think about her own friends, which of them she could confide in. A start. She could see them down at the foot of the slope, now, gathered around the shattered barrel where it had ended up, half-buried in the bog. There were two or three, at least, she thought she could trust.
She smiled to herself as she imagined the look on their faces when they opened up the herring barrel and peered inside for the witch.
Image: Slieau Whallian © Copyright Jon Wornham.