The Essex Girl

Illustration from The Devil in Britain and America (1896)

The Essex Girl
by Michelle Hemstedt

I have told them she killed my daughter.

I have told them she kissed her and gave her an apple, and the child perished. Laying that tiny body in the earth, I fancied there were eyes upon us as Elizabeth wept and held me close. Then Elizabeth fell sick with fever, so I have told them that, not content with killing my daughter, Sarah Beckett murdered my wife as well.

The Stour has frozen and snowdrifts lie against the house. The estuary mudflats are a dull iron-grey, joyless as last Christmastide. I drag my battle-scarred and twisted body to the barn, tending the animals and talking gently to them as Elizabeth did. The milk has turned sour. Is this Sarah’s doing too?

They say that the search-women found three teats upon her body, proof that she had suckled imps. They say that watchers came at dusk, to see if her familiars would appear. One, two, three nights waiting in the rushlight till dawn, till her body and mind were weakened beyond endurance and no sense could be had from her lips.

It feels as though the war and the winter will go on forever.

They say that on the third morning she confessed to having lain with Satan himself. She will be tried in Chelmsford and hanged before the frosts are over. I have no desire for anything now but the blessed release of the spring.

I remember a summer before the fighting began. Hot, bright days bringing in the harvest, and pretty Sarah Beckett’s mocking laughter. Rejecting my embraces, even while I was young and whole and full of hope.

Michelle Hemstedt lives on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border and works in publishing and events. She is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and began writing flash fiction in 2018. She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize in June 2018 and longlisted in October 2018.

Audio recording read by Ross Norman-Clarke.

Image from The Devil in Britain and America, 1896 from the Wellcome Collection, (CC-BY-4.0).  Caption: ‘In March 1644, he had some seven or eight of the horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree…’