The spell called for a dead man’s hand. Not just any dead man but, according to the manual, “the hand of the man who killed one most dear.” That put old Elizie in a bad spot. It wasn’t that she would have minded sacrificing someone close to her. The problem was there was no such person. The only solution was to have someone else perform the ritual.
All she would have to do was find someone willing to read from the book, and then command whatever hell spawn answered the summons to do her bidding. This person would have to be corrupt enough, or foolish enough, to work with a witch, but not so corrupt or foolish that they didn’t have at least one person close enough to be dear to their heart. She would have to arrange for a man to murder this person, obviously without her helper’s knowledge, and then procure the killer’s hand.
It wouldn’t do. There were too many steps, each one requiring a level of scheming usually reserved for the final stroke of some master plan. She couldn’t see devoting that much effort to any one detail, only to have the whole plan unravel with the next step. But what if she could simplify it? What if she could find a way to merge the collaborator, the victim, and the killer all into one?
Elizie stirred her caldron, then waited for the froth to settle before leaning over to peer in. Whatever lie beneath the black waters hissed defiantly before belching up a face. Vacant eyes stared up at her over swollen, pockmarked cheeks, while the mouth, pulled down at the corners by the flaccid jowls, drooled over a seeming multitude of chins.
“Speak your name!” Elizie commanded, extending a withered claw over the caldron.
Folds of flesh swallowed the eyes as the muscles of the face clenched against the graveyard dust Elizie cast down upon it. Then the face relaxed, and the lips whispered: “Deacon John Kelly” in the monotone cadence of the somnambulist.
“A man of the cloth!” Elizie cackled. “All the better! The devil saves a seat at his table for the hypocrite, and hell has no better ambassador than the apostate. Rush to me!” she shouted, pricking her finger with the point of a dagger. “Make haste! I expect to find you at my door before the expiration of the hour that now contains us.” The face quivered and sank from view as the witch’s blood rained on the black waters that had consumed it. She wrapped herself in her shawl and waited in the rocker by the hearth.
The door rattled just as Elizie poked her finger into the mouth of her pipe to tamp down the last of her tobacco. She let the pounding continue while she puffed, waiting until the rim of the bowl glowed red before she climbed out of the rocker and hobbled to the door.
“Who’s there?” she shouted, though her voice was too weak to compete with the wind howling for admittance. It whistled unbidden through the chinks in the boards, while the rain beat on the thatched roof, threatening to break through. Receiving no answer, she drew back the bolt and, pressing her body against the door to counter the thrust of the storm, she allowed a sliver of light to throw itself into the face of the man outside. The shadow of his wide-brimmed hat guarded its secrets jealously, making it impossible to match him to the face in the caldron. A gloved hand clutched the heavy cloak draped over his wide shoulders, but failed to gather it fully around his bulk, exposing the buttons of his waistcoat to the rain.
“For the love of all that’s holy, open up, woman!” the man shouted, rapping on the door with the head of his cane. “It’s not a fit night for any but the devil to be out in.”
“Your name?” Elizie asked. “Tell me your name.”
“John Kelly!” he shouted, though I doubt if it means much to the likes of you. “All you need know is my purse is full of gold, some of which I’d be willing to part with for a few hours respite from this storm.”
“Your name is good enough, Deacon,” Elizie said, opening the door and stepping back to let him enter. “Come on! Don’t dawdle, man. I said come in!”
The Deacon entered, his gaze never leaving Elizie as she slammed the door shut behind him.
“You know me?” he asked, searching for something familiar in her withered countenance.
“I know of you,” she said, taking his arm and leading him to the fire. “Even the beasts in the fields pay reverence to the esteemed Deacon John Kelly.”
“Whence comes this flattery?” he demanded, shedding his cloak and hat and stretching his hands out before the flames. “You fancy my trust so easily bought? What mischief are you about?
“There isn’t sense enough in this old head to coax an egg from a hen,” Elizie said, flashing a toothless grin. “What does a man of letters have to fear from such a wretch?”
“Nothing would surprise me this night,” Kelly said. “My carriage was beset by demons in the lowlands just beyond the ridge upon which we now stand. My driver is dead. My horses have run off. It took all I had to make it here.”
“They say these hills are the haunt of the damned,” Elizie said, lowering herself into her rocker and nodding at the stool by the table. Kelly dragged the stool over to the fire and sat with his back to the old woman. “I’ve yet to glimpse anything not made of flesh and blood and I’ve ventured no more than five miles from this place in fifty years.”
“I tell you I saw them tonight! Horrible things with black leathery wings and talons like gigantic falcons! They swooped down, tearing at the horses with their claws and flinging themselves against the wheels, threatening to send me into the ravine. I believe you when you say you have never seen them, for if you had, you would not have remained in these desolate woods.”
“It is well and good these fiends didn’t succeed in depriving your family of such a noble head,” Elizie said. The Deacon let out a Humpf!” and waved her off with his broad hand.
“My work is my life,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “I have no time for the pleasures granted to lesser men.”
“It doesn’t seem right, a man such as yourself being alone.”
“I have no need for companionship, or heirs. The good I accomplish is its own reward and will live after me.”
The Deacon leapt to his feet and stared wide-eyed at the window as the wind pushed its way in, slamming the shutters against the wall with enough force to cause them to bounce back into its path, only to be slapped away again.
“The latch musta give out,” Elizie said loud enough to be heard over the clamor, but without much urgency. Seeing the Deacon was unwilling, or unable, to cross to the window to secure the shutters, Elizie raised a gnarled hand and made a gesture toward the window, forcing the wind out. Both shutters swung shut in unison, their hinges groaning.
“How did you accomplish that?” the Deacon asked, backing away from the old woman.
“I did nothing,” she responded around the stem of her pipe.
“I just saw you force the storm from this room with a wave of your hand!” Kelly shouted. “What devil did you compel to perform the task, witch?”
“There are no devils here,” she said, calmly rocking. “The wind took a momentary shift in direction. That’s all.”
“I suppose the wind closed the shutters behind it as it left? How courteous!”
Elizie shook her head and pointed at Kelly. “You accuse me of trafficking with the devil while you bear his mark on your hand!”
Kelly raised his hand palm out and stared at the black splotch on the back. “It must have come from one of those things,” he said. “One brushed my hand with its wing as it flew past.”
“If this is true,” Elizie said, “That hand belongs to the devil now. It was Lucifer who closed those shutters. The devil has a new vessel.”
The splotch seemed to change shape as Kelly stared, spreading black tendrils down toward his wrist. He clasped his forearm with his other hand, squeezing tight.
“It wants to claim your body,” Elizie said.
“How can this happen?” Kelly shrieked, dropping to his knees before the witch. “I am a man of God!”
“That is why you were chosen,” Elizie said, rising to grasp him by the shoulders. “There is yet a way for you to triumph, but it will take courage.”
“Tell me woman! I will do whatever is required!”
Elizie hobbled over to the hatchet suspended from a hook on the wall above the hearth, took it down, and ran her finger over the edge. Saying nothing, trying to conceal her glee, she presented it to the prostrate Deacon.
“It will be the end of me,” he said, his gaze locked on the hatchet as though it were a viper about to strike. “My life’s blood will drain from the wound.”
“You can use the fire,” Elizie said. “Stick the stump in the flames as soon as the deed is done. The fire will cleanse and close the wound. In any case, would you gamble with your soul? Better to bleed to death right here, and deny Satan his prize, than to surrender yourself to eternal damnation.”
Kelly nodded and, still clutching his wrist, rose and staggered over to the table.
“You must read from this book as you do it,” Elizie said, flipping through the yellowing pages of her grimoire, taking care not to reveal the symbols embossed upon the cover. “I shall stand beside you with it so you may see the words clearly, but make haste before the stain reaches your heart.”
“Where do I begin?” Kelly stammered, dropping down onto a stool and rolling up his sleeve before laying his arm across the table.
The witch pointed a boney finger at the middle of the page. “Read!” she commanded.
“Infernal Mammon, Lord of avarice, I summon you with this sacrifice that you may do my bidding,” Kelly read. “Accept this token and be bound to me as a slave is to the master.” He paused to stare at the witch, his suspicions aroused, but she answered his doubts with a nod toward the table. The mark had spread beyond the cuff of his sleeve. Kelly swallowed and continued, his voice trembling: “Appear before me and fulfill my desires.”
“Now strike!” Elizie commanded. “Do it now while your soul is still your own!”
Kelly hesitated only a moment before bringing the blade down on his arm severing the limb. He screamed as he fell back onto the floor, then rolled over and began crawling toward the fire, his mangled arm pressed tight against his chest. He felt his shirt turn damp, and he slipped in the blood pooling up beneath him, sending him face first onto the floor. He was almost to the flames! He reached out with the stump of his arm, and braced himself for the searing pain he was about to subject himself to, when the fire went out. Behind him, Elizie cackled with manic glee.
“There is one more task you must complete,” she said, stooping down to thrust a piece of parchment in his face. “Finish the incantation!”
“I command that Goodwife Elizie Jaccobs be obeyed without question or hesitation,” he read by the light of the candle she held just out of his reach. “My will is her will; my slave is her slave. There! It is done! Light the fire!”
Kelly felt the cold wind rush in through the open door and heard the sound of cloven hooves on the floorboards. The dim light of the candle cast a monstrous shadow across the room as the stench of brimstone filled his nostrils. He gagged and buried his face in his arm. Racing against the life flowing from his veins, he tried to recall his sins so he could seek absolution before the darkness consumed him. He recalled how he had loved himself too much, and his fellow men too little. As he contemplated his failures, he remembered the love of God that had inspired him to take up the cloth, and again felt that love stirring in his breast.
The witch sensed something was amiss and hissed in rage as the shadow shrunk back toward the door and the sulfurous air gave way to the scent of candle wax and rain. With a wave of her hand, the fire in the hearth was rekindled and the door was closed against the storm. She gave the dead man at her feet a kick and settled down into her rocker with a sigh. Her plan had still been too complicated. There were just too many things that had to go right for it to work. Now it was all over for her. The devil, she was well aware, does not like to be cheated.
She lit her pipe, gathered her shawl around her, and waited for the knock she knew would be sounding soon on the door.
Image: Anonymous author from the Middle Ages, original possibly by Maslama al-Majriti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The Picatrix was a book of magic and astronomy created during the Middle Ages,