A Turn of the Screw

image_print

This story is based on the demise of Johannes Junius, a Mayor of Bamberg, Bavaria, who was executed for being a witch.

I have always believed in a system. Whether as simple as one good turn deserves another or the more wondrous revolution of the heavens. With order and piety, we bring civility and harmony to chaos. We all have our place in God’s plan – I don’t consider myself elected but ordained. My fellow townspeople trust in me and I trust in God to show me the path to follow.  It was that same direction that led me to accept Fürstbischof Johann’s conclusion that my wife had to be put to death.

[private]The evidence given against her was compelling – witnesses were presented to the court and, whilst I was concerned by her dishevelled appearance in the dock, she can only have been shaking through the guilt her conscience held within her and the realisation of the severity of her punishment. She even admitted to those dark, Satanic accusations laid down by Weihbischof Fürner and Doktor Haan.  Of course, I was mortified to begin with but I have to accept that the Lord’s plan was for her to die as a warning to and as an example for those who try to follow that accursed route, to suckle upon the Devil’s bosom.

My darling children must now be raised properly to ensure they continue to worship the correct faith, especially in this tumultuous time.  We are fortunate in Bamberg, our home, that this war has not yet swarmed into Bavaria. Long may He protect us – so long as we continue to observe the Sabbath, say our prayers, read the scriptures, attend church and so forth.

Therefore, I was initially perplexed as to why the witch-finder, the Fürstbischof, wanted to take me in for questioning. I have always performed the duties required of me within my role as Bürgermeister with pride and good grace, as befits it. I am filled with concern about how Ellse Hopfmennin will care for little Hans Georg, Veronica and Beatrice. They are too young to comprehend what is happening, save for poor Veronica – she is to be fourteen years of age this winter and knows full well that her dear mama will not return. She was distressed, as young women tend to be of course, and it was my task to teach her how to get through her emotional state, to see that her Mutter did not deserve her pity. No servant of the anti-Christ should receive our sympathy nor our remembrance. She was buried in the corner of the cemetery and I forbid anyone from laying flowers upon her grave.

I am sure that once Weihbischof Fürner has finished his enquiries with myself – and some of the other fellow town officials I heard arriving yesterday – I shall be able to continue my duties. It was very kind and sensible for him to recommend that I remain in custody within the Drudenhaus and I have been her for a day now. It would be foolish of me to be strolling around the town when the Devil’s agents have good reason to see to my hastened demise. Fürner and I are part of the vanguard against the malevolence that has been proliferated through the countryside in the past few years.

Through my window, looking out upon the shimmering silver cobbles of the Kaulbergstrasse, I watched Wittich and Gebhard making their way to tend to the rosengarten. I could hear the gentle rippling of the Regnitz river, flowing, ambling beneath the beautiful Obere Brücke bridge, out of sight to the east. I could also hear – and faintly smell – Schlenkerla pub. As daylight receded behind the Bamberger Dom, it winked lustily off of the four Gothic spires, promising a bright future upon its return.  This night, as it advanced, I would spend once more listening to the noises of the guilty contained within the walls of the Drudenhaus, their screams for mercy coming too late.  If they were imprisoned here, then their guilt had been proven in court. That is our system. It is foolproof – it is God’s machine of justice – the only mercy they must pray for is upon the outcome of their Last Judgment.  Looking at the pin-prick stars, partly masked by the three metal bars, I felt sure that the morning would bring peace and resolution.

I cradled my right thumb against my rhythmic heart – the crushed bone fragment scraped together like shoed hooves grinding upon the granite of the Domplatz. The nail was gone but the pain crackled from where tip had once been all the way up to my shoulder. Oh Johannes, Johannes, what have you done?
At first, Fürner and Doktor Haan asked me about my former wife. I told them what I knew, what I heard in the courtroom and, upon my soul, they did not believe me. I cannot think why – perhaps she transfixed me somehow, made me blind to her actions and dumb to speak of those I saw. If that is proven to be correct, I deserve my punishment for being so foolish.  Töricht Jungen!

The blood bubbled out of my wound as I held it tighter, hoping that my caress would lessen the anguish. Mein Gott!  I prayed aloud, I prayed that He would guide their eyes and hands to the truth – the truth that I knew no more than I had spoke and would help them gladly in any way required of me.  But this treatment was beyond even my understanding, my faith.  I had seen the executions in the ‘platz. The very public deliverance of Holy Justice. The flickering tinder. The taper lit and leaping, anxious to obey. Kindling and larch glowing into life. Occasionally the merciful, if somewhat gruesome, thunderclap as the powder bag, slung around the heathen’s neck, brings to an end their life of sin. We cannot allow these wizards, these demons, to submit to or spread Satan’s will. These villains had their guilt proven for all to see in the town’s Catholic court. As yet, I have not been paid a visit from a judge nor a priest.

Although Doktor Haan did personally come into my accommodation and accused me, in the present of Fürner, of having visited the Steigenwald forest to dance upon the witches’ Sabbath. I was bemused but they told me that there were witnesses. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. “I swear to Almighty God, I have no knowledge of this crime. I have never – would never – renounce God. Indeed I am the one wronged before him. I would like to hear of any man to have seen me at such gatherings.” Haan, after all, was such a respected councillor. Together, we had made Bamberg a prosperous place to live along with my fellow Bürgermeisters and the church. I know he presented the case against my wife, so I know from experience that he can be trusted, as he manfully performed such a vexing duty, and his faith was not in question.
Yet he treated me with some contempt, as if I were suspected of being a warlock myself. Haan and Fürner had been polite to me, yet now they seemed almost preoccupied with gleaning further information from me about the witches’ Sabbath – which I repeated I knew nothing of – and who was in attendance – of whom I know nothing.  Haan then accused me of attending a witch-gathering in the electoral council room, where we ate and drank to the Devil’s health. I swore it was an untruth. I staked my life upon it. He spat upon me.  My protestations resulted in the thumbscrews being applied.

Oh how I wept that night. I wailed for my wife, God keep her wicked soul, my beautiful children, even Ellse – oh Ellse, what would I say to her? Beautiful Ellse, who was caring for the children and our home. Even she was brought in front of me – the darling girl, she couldn’t bring herself to say a damning word. At least not in my presence. Oh the thought, damn my doubting mind, even St. Thomas was blush that I fear for her senses under such duress.

I praise Him for showing me a sign. The gaoler, I do not know his name for his face was concealed, brought me paper and some writing implements having been given to him by Fürner, presuming I would write my confession. That noble man jeopardised himself for me, though how I wish I shared his courage. Faith!  Glaube!  I must remain true to my beliefs.  I must tell sweet Veronica to be strong in my stead.

Now more gaolers have visited me – even Fürner cannot bring himself to see me in this state – and brought with them a sight that brought tears to my eye and a quake to my very being.  Beinschauben, the leg irons – they sucked the light from the room, how I shook, the black steel stole my tears had I any left to give, stole the words, unhatched, from my throat. If I had anything to confess I would have gladly done so, but I could not, would not, forsake my God, my truth.  The excrutiation!  Rette mich!  Haan turned the screw once more…

The black dog. Is it night time? Sitting on wet slabs – wet with what I cannot tell.  What is it?  Haan, he came in once more. He said he was sorry. Sorry. Wife. Sorry about the wife. I don’t remember details. Webhard and Gittich at the rosengarten – I remember them. What I told them is false, I know it is. The maid eight years ago, the succubus who led me to the witches’ Sabbath, the gold florin Beelzebub gave me as a dowry for wedding the maid, the goat, the maid, I don’t know, the demon. Something. The pain had to stop. I made it stop. Briefly.

The black winged dog again. Haan. Fögen. Rope tied around my wrists. Nothing. Füchsen. That was the name. Succubus. My succubus. Summer heat in the orchard. A wondrous August of my middle-age. Grass. Apples. Peace. Pain. The lever revolved. Feet hang below me. Body tears, pulls, wrenches. Save me Lord – nein, no more – yes, yes, He does not give us solutions, He gives us opportunities to save ourselves. Nothing. Nothing is spoken. The lever turns once more. The damp rope fizzes against the unlubricated winch. Sharp. Crack. The black dog’s wings envelope me.

Füchsen. Vixen. Veronica. The letter. The house. Ellse. I heard Ellse. I recognised her cry. Two, three cells away. Füchsen – married to her by the Devil himself. A second wife. Is it still night? I cannot hear the river, it must be night. Discite justitium momiti et mon temnere divos. How could you forget? Carved atop the door of the Drudenhaus. Krix. He called me Krix. The baptism in the woods. No, no, it was in the electoral chambers. The black dog nears. Wrists tighten. Fürstbischof calls my name. Is it my name or is it just a name? Staggering silence. “Johannes Junius.” The strappado, or is it the vice? Suffering is a currency with no value now. “You colluded with the Devil, ja? You undertook sacrilegious acts with your succubus, witches and Beelzebub himself.” Head movement. No matter. Blinking goodbye to Füchsen, black wings flap back.

Who stood before me? Upon what street do they live? Die lange gasse? I know of no-one at that address. “Barbara Schwartzein, the tanner’s wife, she lives there.” Gears rub. “Bürgermeister David Beyer on the Zinkenwert. He cannot have earned that big house through honest, Godly means.” Ropes twist. I only feel myself blink. I know no-one. Names fall into my ears. Roof tiles after a storm. Shattering. Smashing. Hofmeister. “The market place.” Dietmeyer.  Neudecker. I see their doors slam open. Paintings are torn from the walls. Money possessed, property seized. Orchard. Füchsen. Her eyes, her words. Was it love? I know not but that she enchanted me when I was penniless. Ellse must have betrayed me. Haan said accomplices had confessed.

Light burning at my eyes. Daylight? “Hofmeister Ursel?” Yes. “Anna Dusslin, Martha Spessin, Anna Füchsin, Christiana Morhauptin.” Yes, yes, yes, wait, yes – Morhauptin. Familiar. The Sabbath. She was there, they were both there. Coins. Remembrance of a gold florin. That at least could not be taken from me – Veronica would pay my messenger with it. The black dog has not visited for so long. “Doktor Braun?” My brother-in-law. He visited. He accused. The names came to me. Above, below, who knew where from. “God forgive you, kinsman, for misusing an innocent man.” Is that what I said to him, oh foolish. God challenged us to bear his torture – I bear it badly. Darling Veronica. “Over the Obere Brücke, onto the Georgthor – speak without fear. Who there do you know?” Fear. Strange. No longer feeling fear. My letter is sent, my children are safe. Füchsen again, maybe Morhauptin. Words, clouded words. Kill the children they said – it cannot be, God forbids it. They demand blood. The horse’s carcass lies in the orchard now in Friedrichsbronnen. Krix. That is whom they speak to but I would not do it, those sirens. At the Pfarrkirche, St. Gangolf’s, on Wednesday. Or was it St. Martin’s on Sunday? It is unclear. Beelzebub was clear. The brown horse was not sufficient. Yes, they were His words.

More words closer to me. “Junius.” Who was he talking to? “Johannes Junius. Who did you see in the council chambers?” Yes. Was that my voice? Yes. “Who?” Who indeed. Who. Veronica appeared – an illusion perhaps, what I see appears as if viewed through a sleeve of milk. Safety for her. My sacrifice made it possible – perhaps that in itself is God’s will. “Who was in the council chambers?” An urgency not detected before, anger.

The black dog’s wings fluttered once before the familiar shattered into hundreds of thick, pitch ravens – screeching, panicking, no one else saw it but I cowered from the flock.  “The knave is damned – take him away.”  There were no tears left, as I was dragged away, just the ringing in my ears of the final, prophetic word.  “Haan.”  “He was there?”  “Haan.”[/private]

Mark Wilson, 28, has written for newspapers, magazines, theatre, short films, poetry collections and reference books. He was nominated for several international awards in the process (Guardian Student Media Awards and South Australian Young Journalist of the Year).