Black Annis by Matt Kendrick
Her body is on the ground by the pigpen. The Abbess kneels beside it, washing away the blood, scrubbing at the blue dye until there is only the winter white of her skin. The Prior stands nearby. He says, Enough. She doesn’t deserve such kindness.
The woodcutter’s son cowers in a corner like a pheasant caught within a net. She was in the woods, he says. Her hair was wild, her fingers clawed around a knife. The woodcutter asks, Are you harmed? The boy shakes his head – She cackled when she saw me. Licked her teeth. Gave chase. The woodcutter picks up his axe.
A goodwife worries the woodcutter with tales of the past. Children aren’t safe in the woods, she says. Not with Annis in her bower. The boy’s eyes grow big as the goodwife describes the crone’s crooked back, the blood spatters on her kirtle,the dye – a smothering of blue.
When a child goes missing, the villagers trawl the woods, calling, calling, calling. The echo of their shouts. The smell of wild garlic. The smoke from a woodfire curls under a young man’s nostrils. He follows its trail, stumbles across Annis soaking hide in potash alum. A deer’s hide, he thinks. Or a badger’s. Or a child’s. Their flayed skin, he whispers years later, draped from the branches of a silver birch.
In the village, a rumour trickles from mouth to mouth. Annis is pregnant. It is a wild beast who is the father. She has lured him with her witchery. The rumour grows with the swelling of her belly, the lacerating screams of her childbirth. The baby is covered with coarse black hair. It has a boil on its face the size of a fist. It is blue like her. It is silent. She wears its severed finger as a pendant.
The men of the village get drunk and laugh about the woman in the woods. She is a thing to be hunted, to be tamed – as her mother was. One of the men, the bravest of them, cavaliers from the tavern. The others watch him go. The mead blusters sweet and scented down their throats.
A boy hides in the bushes, watching Annis pick leaves from the woad plant, cut them, boil them, stir them, strain them into dye to smear the white of her skin. Bold as a foxglove peeking through the bracken, he asks about the dye. She shies away from him. When he asks again, she stutters – It is protection.
A girl lives alone in the woods. From her mother, she knows which berries to eat and which will send her stomach into cramps. She knows how to tan an animal’s hide, how to fashion it into a kirtle. Sometimes, she catches a rabbit in a trap and, overcome by hunger, holds the point of her knife against the pulsing sinews of its neck. Sometimes, she slashes the knife and there is blood across her kirtle. Other times, she loosens her grip and lets the rabbit scamper free.