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Tell Them Increase!

Honorable C.S.H.M:

I was there when it started four years ago to the day.

I, the baker and Matthias, my friend the farrier. We walked the quaint cobblestone streets of our town that night as we did most, houses unshuttered,
the trees at ease,
the glow of a far-off lantern or two modest sentry.

The cooler weather we thought better for Mathias’s poor health,
and I myself liked to pick mushrooms along the path.

“Feeling much stronger,” grumbled Mathias.
“Stronger still tomorrow,” I replied, pocketing some fleshy caps while patting him on the back. As he grunted a response I looked up and into the swarthy sky.

This night felt most different.
The usual character it assumed of a silent third companion,
an impish magician who disappeared the day
and could transform its mundanities into newfound mysteries
suggested by the teasing wink of stars at play,
had been vacated. In its place slid a hollow impostor
reflecting feeble constellations.

By the end of our stroll all things had seemed to cease:
The barking of dogs, the roll of the clouds,
the gentle clopping of unseen shoes over the streets,
our very hearts’ pounding.
This night the air loomed pregnant with frozen expectation.

Its delivery was marked by great flocks of Silverbeaks from the south;
Streaking arrows through the moon, they broke a wall of night-mist with unified, alien purpose.

Never do they fly from the south this time of year.

The noise of their passing overhead, jarring though it be, was soon surpassed in alarming effect by another, quieter sound:
That of uneven padding somewhere in the fog.

We stopped, listened, spun, and listened.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter.
To the left for a spell…then straight ahead.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

The fog spit forth a ghost.

It was a terrific fright the way he came at us,
a mirage emerging from spectral sand,
equal parts crazed and craven,
clothes tattered, boots ribboned, and
dripping with perspiration and fear.

Matthias anchored both hands on the poor bastard’s shoulders trying to keep him still. The man was thin, gaunt, hairy I think; too blurry in his squirming to remember certain details with clarity. He repeated a single phrase,

“Tell them Increase! Increase Mather!”
as he struggled against us.

He spoke in a sonorous, watery accent that sparkled through ears like bells
yet seemed chased across the rolling hills and dells of its rhythmic cadence by Death itself.
The peculiar lilt identified him as one from the villages to the south, a friendly people not yet touched by higher arts
with whom we sometimes traded.
Our eyes locked for a moment, his spelling brief acknowledgement as they scanned each tic of my own.
I wonder what he read in them before I looked away.

And then again from his trembling mouth spilt the words:

“Tell them Increase! Increase Mather!”
before he broke our grip and ran off;

back into the night he faded.

We were left with naught but feeble thought to guess a lofty mystery.
I turned that name in my head over and over — Increase Mather, Increase Mather — being rewarded with precious little. Across seas of lost recognition its syllables might churn —
Few were the juttings of rocky remembrance at beacon’s foot.
Vaguely familiar, the name conjured half-cogent memories of schoolroom lessons,
nigh-mythic tales of town founders and historic deeds
instilled, with luck, in adolescents’ minds
that they should grow as seeds of exemplar morality.

The beacon flared in a trice and was gone.

I so wish I could remain on that spot, content to forever turn that riddle of a name like a fine wine, drinking partner yet at my side!

For what came next was far worse than perplexity until now benign.

You see, it’s a funny thing from the right angle,
that we might consider such puzzling moments to be a mild if persistent gnawing at our being,
when only with retrospection is it seen
that we were, in fact, full ensnared in dragon’s jaws.

Musings be damned — now came the true cause of the Silverbeak exodus:
First the beat of drums, slow and steady,
a throbbing heart waking in darkness,
then the smashing of clashing cymbals,
my dragon’s hissing tongue one instant,
its gnashing teeth the next.

And finally out of the fog spilled a medley of white shapes, hazy edges congealing as if molded from the stuff like clay.
Silhouettes, boxes — closer they came — people now, marching, cages in tow, movement within — closer they came —

Beating, clapping, hissing, ringing, closer they came, this unruly procession of untold numbers…

Bestial dancing animated the spaces separating bars, but human were they —
just barely. We saw how they crouched and squirmed, and shook their jails,
or flailed their arms or beat their heads and breasts — for they were all of them women displayed in cages,
a vulgar mockery of the floats in the annual harvest parade.
We could only stare at these frail, wispy things with eyes of coal that refused all light,
viscous globs dropping from misshapen heads — flesh or hair, impossible to tell —
naked, emaciated bodies caked in filth, surely leprous,
a horrible sight.

We stepped aside to make room for the macabre column. Cage after cage rolled past, flanked by steady streams of marchers, and each of these clad in violet monastic habit with drooping cowl and golden sash,
some with their drums and cymbals, others holding torches,
all assuming stony scowl.

We were ignored at first, which gave us ample time to gape, until three broke off from the line
with the swiftness of a spider’s twitch
to confront us
face to solemn face.
One kept eyes locked upon mine, while two presented open palms to Mathias and asked,

“From whom do we come?”

“Who the devil are you?” he retorted, batting down their hands. “What is this vile pageantry?”

The palms rose again to open with surreal calmness. “From whom do we come?”

Matthias wiped his brow and shook his head. “How the devil should I know? Tell me man, what is this?” He made another, half-hearted attempt at the hands.

“From whom do we come?”

He spat at their feet. “I do not care to know! You stink of piss and lies anyhow!”

The sweat beaded at his eyes. I lowered my own, heart sinking to match.

It happened in the span of a blink: a confused blur of hands and fabric, followed by a sharp crack. Mathias stumbled backward, and were it not for the red trickle at his temple, I’d have never known he’d been struck.
But now I saw the blunted clubs as my friend hobbled,
saw all too well as he raised his arms to check their attacks,
but they beat them down,
then beat his head,
then beat his body to a lifeless pulp, crumpling,
and watched his oozing blood fill the spaces between the cold cobbles
with disturbing fascination.

They returned the clubs to their robes, then leveled attention on me.

“From whom do we come?”

Their hands opened, revealing a queer brand of interlocking snakes and crosses rising from the surface of each seared palm.

My head reeled. The scene did not register. How could it?

“From whom do we come?”

In the flicker of fire the snakes appeared to writhe beneath the skin.
Echoes of the southerner’s voice bubbled through my mind:

Tell them Increase! Increase Mather!

So I did.

A pause. “Excellent,” they responded at last in lavish, sibilant tones. “It is good.” The hands lowered, their veins continuing to pulse with quiet fervor. “We are the new intendants of this town and its people,” intoned the nearest figure. “We bring with us witches, powerful witches, and seek others of their kind.”
The second chimed in, hushed: “The wicked shall perish. The ignorant shall perish. God alone prevails. You have nowhere to go, so stay.”
Then the third: “We are the intendants of this town now, and it is good that you do as we say.”
They clasped their hands and melted back into the procession. The cages rolled on. The clamor dimmed to a low buzz as I felt something in my hand —
the forgotten mushrooms I’d picked, squeezed to a mash in clenched fist, and I thought of
but could not turn
to Mathias’s body.
I let them drop.

There were others like me — thank providence, thank the southern crier, the schoolman’s lessons, sheer dumb luck — who carried on as best we could. Undeniably though, a pall had been thrown across the land,
a cloak of fear and doubt in the wake of tyrannical cleansing.
No one could resist the intendants’ strange influence, cast as it was on long lines through our streets and our homes,
invisible strands to hook our minds and keep us near.
“One more day,” we repeated in vain. “Just one more day.”

The days added up, and they were colder from then on. The wind blew harder, ripping right through us, biting skin and rattling every bone as it went. Owing not entirely to the elements however, we felt a coldness that seemed to radiate beneath our very feet wherever we stepped,
a coldness that seeped into our clothes
and slept with us under the blankets,
sapping the will to resist in ways I can neither describe nor understand.
Cries of protest faded faster than the clouds on our breath,
replaced by faces of hardened indifference.

The new masters made good on their vow of retribution
with terrible industry.

The witches were hung from the trees that lined our cobblestone streets,
swaying softly in the autumn breeze.
But they were not dead,
for they were powerful witches.

They lifted drooping heads on crushed necks as I walked the main avenue,
pointing and laughing and spitting curses in my direction.
I kept my own head down, hands stuffed in pockets,
feet
moving
brisk

to set greater distance from them. But it mattered little, for their cackling traveled far, farther than was wholesome, and stung about my ears like gnats.

By night their bodies were doused in kerosene and set ablaze so as to hasten their passing, and to act as torches for our benefit. The evil of devilry makes for potent fuel, our intendants told us. Truly they burned well,
their dark cores thrashing about within halos of righteous brilliance.
But they did not die,
for they were powerful witches.

By morning the charred remains, still smoldering, would stir and snicker at my passing. Accusatory fingers would be raised,
black and white with ash and bone.
From them came noxious fumes to chase after me down the road, wriggling through the air like vaporous snakes.

How I detested such unnatural fruit our once-beautiful trees had borne! But time’s touch, if overdue, proved merciful:

They blew away in the wind, even as they blinked. Their wretched ashes spread across the bark of their gallows, thereafter causing the branches to grow to gross proportion and in contorted directions,
forms suggesting the ossified corpses of monstrous ogres.

These trees were forever cursed. It soon became apparent they were the only things our intendants feared. They leered at them from afar,
seared palms turned heavenward as cryptic prayer escaped their lips.
Well-attested rumors spread
that to touch the wood of a witch-tree spelt certain death
for any member of Increase Mather’s secret sect.

Where now was their special brand of faith? Where indeed had resounded but into the unbounded aether that once-galvanizing cry, “I will not fear; what can a Satan do unto me?” Among the Devil’s mille nocendi artes, surely one at least had manifested in souls weaker than mine!

Our intendants gave us axes that we may chop them down.
They did not instruct us toward the method of disposal, so we devised plans of our own.

We’d grown stronger.
We waited patient,
ever so patient,
cutting,
shaping,
hoarding,
waiting.

And then we built.

The masters gladdened at the sight of the houses. “Good,” said they. “It is good that you stay productive. Take root, children.” We smiled, grew cordial. Why should we not? Time and familiarity ought to soften chains,
blunt throat-held blades,
slacken line between pole and fish,
ought they not?

We invited them into our homes.

They seized the opportunity for closer scrutiny and walked about the rooms with all the pomp befitting a foreign dignitary. They clustered in the corners to whisper and titter at our insipid presence, right in front of us. We smiled.

And they soon began to wither. One by one they grew ill;
sores speckled their leathered flesh,
joints popped and festered,
thick secretions of viridescent pus oozed from their pores,
and hair came out in fat chunks:
At last from chaff had true sin been threshed!

Still they prayed for salvation,
tried to govern according to their god’s will,
but too few were they
and left as quick as they’d come
on charnel winds,
their sickness weighting the air with starless promise.

Likewise did the tainted housing rot, and with it the final vestiges of our intendants’ collected witches. As you well know,
honorable young Mather,
I tried to invite you to our town, to the last of the witch-wood houses. Most were content to begin anew and forget the past, but I could not.

I could not forget Mathias and countless others who suffered at the hands of so misguided a lineage as yours,
its corrosive scope yet growing through forking lines of odious descent.
I could not forget the million tears that sowed our lands with endless grief,
nor the blank expressions worn by those too numb to favor hope,
not in light of things I learned over the course of those insufferable years.

For I know what truths stay hid from history books, to turn a man from crook to myth.
I know how he can steer the wheel of time, who charts the course with grim design.

How fortunate then that I —
I! —
traced you through the ages, found your name betrayed by a simple book of genealogies.
How fortunate I was able to write you.

But you politely turned my invitation down in courtly correspondence, scorn peeking furtive from your every cursive word,
complicit in your denial.
This you know.

Let me tell you what you do not know.

The last of the witch-wood houses is no more. It collapsed in a great cloud of fungal dust. I retrieved some of the timber, enough for my purposes.
I pulped it, pressed it, laid it on a frame,
rolled it, squeezed it,
and cut it such that it became paper
onto which I have written this letter you presently hold.
So you see, young Mather, since you would not come to the witch-wood,
the witch-wood has come to you,
and you shall know it,
for they were powerful witches.

Reflect well on what you have read
so long as you breathe.
Know that your kind shall abate. Know that I still walk these quaint cobbles at night,
alone,
to pick mushrooms by the moon’s white light,
and with each cry of Silverbeak,
grieve.

With warmest regards,

A humble baker,
Taker of vengeance,
“God” forsaker.

Credit: alapanamo

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by cnkguy
Tell Them Increase!

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