I was surprised to wake up in my bed this morning. No one had taken me in the night to punish me for going against the rules of the Advent House. No one had even knocked.
But then something occurred to me: perhaps no one noticed my absence.
It was possible. I often stand at the back, and not all activities involve everyone in the village. Maybe I had got away with it.
Yet I was still on edge. I began searching for clues – anything new, missing or out of place in drawers, cupboards or under the bed – but there was nothing. Nothing to suggest that anyone other than myself has been inside the house. And since no one has visited in almost five years now, I’m sure I would have seen even the slightest of changes.
I was supposed to be at the library at nine o’clock and then make my way to the Advent House for ten, but it seemed pointless working for less than an hour, so I decided to start work early. I also wanted to do a bit extra to apologise to my manager, Janice, for not working yesterday. She is my only colleague and, although there is never an abundance of tasks to do, I can imagine she felt displeased at not having any company.
I put on my coat, boots and hat and opened the front door. There was a light dusting of snow on the fields surrounding the house, and I felt a glimmer of excitement. It would turn into slush by midday, but it still made me happy. I have loved snow ever since I was a child. It’s the only joyous thing to occur in winter.
But then I noticed the footprints. They were covered in a thin layer of fresh snow, but I could just about make them out. They started somewhere down the road, came in a straight line to my front gate, and then went down the garden path to my front doorstep. They then veered off to the left and over the fence.
I looked down.
By my feet was a small, simple wreath made of twigs, ivy and twine, and woven into it were the severed body parts of a hare. Its small, grey head and huge ears were at the top, the front legs at the sides and the back legs and tail at the bottom. The blood inside had frozen.
From the way the hare had been attached, it looked as though the wreath had grown from within it, with twigs jutting out of its open mouth and eyes and ears and paws. Like a parasite that had overtaken its host, grown too large and pulled the whole body apart.
I looked around but couldn’t see the rest of the hare, nor the person who had left it for me.
“Hang the hanged hare on your door and invite the curse inside. It’ll eat you up, but at least you won’t have to hide.”
Words all Morkwood children are taught at Christmas. The evil spirits do terrible things, but they have a strict code to follow. If you abide by their rules, they’ll do exactly what they say they’ll do. But if you don’t, you’re opening yourself up to the unknown.
Like Father Christmas, these threats are only real to children. I lifted the lid off my dustbin and dropped the wreath inside.
At the library, I worked quickly in an attempt to forget. I dusted shelves, swept the floors, put away returned books and organised displays. Finally, I tidied the kitchen and wrote a list of everything I had to do once I returned from the Advent House. Christmas was going to be a side note to my day, not the main event.
I left at the last possible moment, taking my time to lock up the library before meandering to the Advent House. What if I was five, ten minutes late? What would be the worst thing to happen? Would I receive another wreath? Yes, I’d rather a poor animal didn’t have to suffer for these crazed rituals, but hopefully this Christmas would be the last in Morkwood.
Despite walking slowly, I arrived just in time for the opening of the door. No one looked at me as I arrived, as usual. Being ignored gave me a great sense of relief. Comfort, almost.
Of course, I went straight to the back of the crowd. I didn’t need to stand right in front of William again, I had already made my point to him in that way. I had other ways of bringing down this farce.
William was in the Cherrypicker anyway, ascending to the second row from the top.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, and pushed open the door.
The painting was of a grey lake. To the side of it was a wooden T-shaped structure, with one arm hanging over the water. At the end of the overhanging arm was a cage. Inside that cage was the grotesque figure of the shtriga, hunchbacked and teeth bared, excited to be drowned and reunited with the devil.
William looked down at us all, not even bothering to hide how pleased he was.
William took a deep breath. “If any of you are shtriga, I command that you show yourself.”
No one ever admits to being shtriga, so every female over the age of thirteen has to follow William and Father Hundyke to the village hall. One by one our arms and legs are searched for the mark of the shtriga. Moles, warts, any sort of blemish could be a sign. It depends what kind of mood William is in on whether he decides someone has a mark or not. If he does, we go to the lake. If not, we go home.
At the lake, the woman accused of being shtriga is dunked using the wooden cage shown in the painting. If the woman floats, they are shtriga. If they sink, they’re pulled out and everyone gets on with their day.
There have been no deaths at the lake during my lifetime, but everyone always dreads it, just in case something goes wrong or someone floats. Plus, the water is freezing.
I decided I would volunteer to be checked first at the village hall, to save time. I had a feeling William would find a suspicious mark on my skin.
“I am shtriga.”
There were gasps as someone in the middle of the crowd raised their arm. In all my life, no one has ever called themselves shtriga. It’s suicide.
“Come forward, shtriga,” William said, and lowered the Cherrypicker.
Everyone was pushing and shoving, both trying to let the shtriga through while at the same time grabbing at her to show their disgust. I heard a few people shout ‘traitor’ and ‘devil’.
By the time the shtriga had got to the front, she looked a bit dishevelled. Her coat was falling off her shoulders and her white hair was falling out of its bun.
“Reveal yourself to the villagers you’ve deceived,” William said, relishing every second.
The woman turned.
The shtriga was Aunt Iris.
I started to make my way through to the crowd, but unknown male hands grabbed onto my shoulders and pulled me back.
“Aunt Iris!” I shouted to her, but she couldn’t hear me above the excitable noise of the crowd.
The harder I pulled against the men behind me, the firmer they held me in place.
I could only watch as William led Aunt Iris around the Advent House. They were going into the woods, with Father Lundyke not far behind.
“Stop!” I yelled.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” said one of the men holding me.
I managed to free an elbow and rammed it hard into his face, but he retaliated with his fist.
Everything went grey.
I woke up yesterday evening in my bed, my face covered in dried blood.
They barricaded my bedroom door and nailed planks of wood across my window. I can’t get out.
My diary was still under my mattress. So I started to write.
I went to sleep. I think I woke up in the early morning.
It’s almost ten now.
I think I can hear them coming.
Read the last episode of The Festivities of Morkwood.