Exceprt from The Flower of Clear Burning

by Joel Van Valin

Clarence Winered was a narrow, stumbling man, a clothes merchant by trade, whose clerkish character leaned towards the fastidious and wary. A pair of small, stout, eyeglasses adorned the end of his nose, and his hands were always in a flutter. His hair was an unusual brushed red, his joints were knobby, and though he traded in clothes he seldom looked good in them. This— combined with his habit of frequently talking to horses and other animals—gave him the image of a quietly respectable eccentric.

His father, the august Thadius Winered, had taken the Winered dyed cloth works, moved it from Dunhus north to the smaller town of Hillkirk, and expanded into silks and retail clothing. Clarence himself had no such inspiring genius; he was content to manage the thriving business quietly and without upheaval. And under his hand the business continued to thrive—for as Clarence was fond of saying, within the confines of the Blue Fountain Inn from behind a pint of bitter, one could not help but succeeding at commerce, if only one held steady to it.

"For every time I go to market or fair, gentlemen, I find others who are shrewder and more calculating than I. And yet, through simple industriousness, I succeed. Why, gentlemen? Why?" (Here he held out his hands imploringly to the ceiling, as if summoning divine guidance.) "Because those very same ones, who are so cunning, will throw away their money and reputation in the most surprisingly straw-headed ways. They will perform intrigues at court, and end up in poverty, or in exile, or on the gibbet. And those who get all in a passion about honor—dying in battlefields and in duels. Bah! Gentlemen. Bah! But the worst are those that throw their fortunes at liquor and women." (Here he would look, almost disapprovingly, down at his pint of simple beer). "Especially women. One can’t believe what some fools will waste on a bit of lace and frills, and a scented kiss!"

Clarence would not tarry long at the inn after such speeches, but, inspiring himself, quit the alehouse and make his way up to his account room, where he would work diligently at his books all through the night. At other times, however, when the dashing glimpse of a petticoat or a startled smile from the milkmaid caught his sight, the clothseller would stop and reflect, thinking that he, too, might have fallen victim to those friendly vices. "But luckily for myself," he would conclude with relief, "I was saved from such folly, by marrying well."

And truly, no one who knew Clarence and Theresa Winered could cast doubt on the harmony and agreeableness of their marriage.


Other than a reddish tint to their hair, husband and wife had little in common. While Clarence had a rather bent form and anemic nervousness, Theresa Winered stood straight and calm. Her husband was deprecating to his superiors, and a touch patronizing to his servants and workers, but she treated everyone alike—with a cool detachment, laced with an occasional sarcastic remark. He frequented the busy market squares and dockyards; she walked in the silent, cliff-cut woods that rose above the town. And while he lived in a tight succession of days, with tangible aims that brought him step by step higher in wealth and respectability, to her, life was a sort of wandering, as you sometimes wander in dreams. At times, a great fire seemed to leap in the distance, and she would make her way towards it, feeling some deep passion; but always, before she had covered even half the distance it would be collapsed into a heap of smoke and debris.

She had been rather old for a bride. He had said to Thadius his father: "Pater, look at these young girls running in the shops—they are nothing but trouble, spending your money behind your back in every little shop in town, and what is one to do with them? No, if it please you, I’d rather wed a woman of twenty-two or thereabouts, and one who is not overused to having money around."

"Bah!" his father would reply (an odd characteristic of the Winered clan was that they all said "bah!" with frequency), "if the wench gives you trouble, throw her in the cellar! We must keep our womenfolk in line."

At this Clarence would sniff and grumble, but make no reply. Nonetheless, the father understood his son’s mild disposition, and returned one cold evening in late November with just such a woman as his son had described.

"Look, son, my old friend Darrow Croft from Dunhus, the winemaker!" Thadius said, escorting in a broad man with graying hair and mustache. "And his daughter Theresa. I found them at the King and Shield, but persuaded them to bide here at Apelfre."

The girl came in only reluctantly, her cheeks flushed and breathing deeply. She looked quite a beauty, in a bright blue cloak with a deep green dress; snowflakes were still melting on her lashes. The old men quickly resumed the drinking and merriment they had begun at the inn. Clarence drew up a chair but his father motioned him away with a wave of the hand towards Theresa, who was standing, quietly and without nervousness, in the corner. She was looking out the high windows at the sledges that passed through the narrow streets, the horses clop muffled by the snow.

"Please, do come and...er...share some sherry," Clarence managed to spit out, trying to imitate the witty manner of the cavaliers in the King’s household.

"I’d rather whisk up some whiskey," she replied casually, looking at the richly gilded plate on the walls.

He had never been in such a position, and could not stop his hands from shaking. Yet, as he had on hunting clothes and was not wearing his glasses, to Theresa his looks were not unpleasing. He coaxed a smile from his guest, took her cloak, and presented her a small silver glass containing the strong liquid; they made the customary toast, their glasses clinking together. Old Croft looked up from the table. "Ah, there they are! You know, I should have had your name—Winered for a winemaker! But it will be fitting for her, too, because of her hair."

Thadius laughed mightily at this.

It seemed, really, that the old friends were getting married, and not their offspring. Clarence had no real recollection of how the engagement came off, and when he asked her later, he found that Theresa was also vague. They were told to show up at the church on a certain date, and they both went through the ceremony without hesitation. Apart from her father, Theresa was not fond of men—they seemed vain and overbearing, they did not act naturally, they were blind to the world beyond knowing what it could give them. But Clarence seemed to be a pleasant, innocuous sort of man, who would let her live as she wanted; and she longed for a change of scene from her father’s dingy presses and casks. As for her husband, he was quite elated at the prospect of marriage; he was really quite fond of her, and her presence seemed to fill his days with an extra little hum of satisfaction. After the marriage, this feeling deepened all the more.

Yes, they were really quite well suited together, and were rarely out of humor.

Until, of course, the day when Clarence found out that he had married a witch.


Now Apelfre was a spacious, rambling house of three stories, leaning high above the street on a terrace with a thick limestone wall. The roof was slated in limestone, with tight, narrow gables rising from the top story through the attic. It could be quite damp in the winter, but in the summer, the tall rooms and long corridors were breezy and cool. One day in June, Clarence mounted the heavily chiseled stairs to the attic, smelling of cedar wood, and looked about for a spare dying rack that he needed in the shop. Not immediately finding the object of his search, he idly rooted about, opening several dark stained chests and pulling old blankets from the ancient furniture. Under a dated choir bench in a small nook, he spied a small, heavy pewter box that would bring about a revelation. For within this box, he found two snowy white owl feathers tied together, a small silver five-pointed star, and a tiny glass vial containing a lavender powder. Reaching farther under the chair, the bewildered husband brought out a small stone statue, the figure of a beautiful young woman with a crescent moon in one hand.

The look of shock was a long time coming off his face. For some moments he paced to and fro, desperately muttering under his breath. "Witch! I can’t believe her...witch? Her?" Mad thoughts dashed through his mind like panicked horses. He had visions of his wife, her face distorted and demonic, chanting and drinking vile liquids; of his wife meeting old hags on the rocky, blasted heights above town and partaking in nameless rites; of his wife stealing babes from their warm cribs and luring children into the forest.God and hell! And what horrifying catastrophe was she reserving for him? Was her evil eye following him, day and night? He thought of her father, who had died this year past, his heart suddenly failing as he rode off to Dunhus, on his return from a visit with them.

Clarence was afraid his own heart would fail as he fled the attic, pushed his discovery into the strongbox in his counting room, and dashed out into the street towards downtown. He must take refuge in a church...no, he must alert the authorities first. The burgomaster? No, a cosmopolitan man sent from the capital...he wouldn’t understand. The constable then? Bishop Thwaite, or the zealous young brother Ribear? At last he hit upon it—the town aldermen. They were involved with such things from time to time. Yes, he still remembered the witch that was put to the stake quite a while back—evil Drulagga—and how the hooded elders had gone house to house rousing people to witness her interrogation and burning.

He made for the courthouse...perhaps old Daulk would be there. He would spread the warning. Theresa would sleep in chains tonight...she would be interrogated, confess her role in the unspeakable rites of the Black Mass, that she had caused her father’s death, and...suddenly, Clarence thought of the miscarriage. It had happened earlier this year, in March, when the wind was howling about the roof and fog lay like an immovable blanket upon the sea. Had she caused her own babe to die? Yet she had looked so forlorn, afterwards, lying in the bed covered with blood and sweat. She had not gotten up for many weeks, and the tears hardly dried from her eyes those first four days. He had pitied her so, and crept quietly about the house, not knowing what to do. How gladly he had seen that look of despair in her eyes slowly lift, taking in the blue of an April sky as the hawthorn branch outside their window filled with bloom.

His rapid pace began to flag. He was almost at the courthouse, in Holbecks Square with its large clock tower and small, closely groomed gardens. The clock tolled two, a pair of low, gonging knells, and Clarence sat down on a low stone wall flanked with columbine. Perhaps he was acting with undue haste...he was not, after all, a rowdy or an adventurer, drawing on men in the heat of passion or staking a family fortune on one bet. And Theresa, for her part, was not a sour old hag, or a strumpet. True, she was distant, even cold at times, and her piercing sarcasm did not make her a favorite with his friends. Yet she was cordial, bright, easy to be with.

What had frightened him so in the attic now seemed, in the clear and open sunlight, less satanic and dark. He had been told that witches were brides of the devil, that they must be found out and hunted down at all costs.But his wife was so obviously not a witch, as he knew them, that he could not bear to even pass through the courthouse doors. Staggering a little, he began a slow walk back to Apelfre.


After staying quiet and reserved all that day, and awake all that night, seeing again visions of conjuring and hellfire in his wife’s peaceful slumber, he confronted her the next morning. Concealing the stone statuette in his palm, he stole upon her while she was snapping out rugs on the back terrace. To his surprise, when he revealed the token of witchcraft, she—burst out laughing!

"Oh, aye, it’s something I had from Mother," she said, becoming more sober as she noticed his frightened gaze.

"Oh, then you’re not a witch! Though your mother must have been, for these things I found, feathers and whatnot, are sure signs of the craft. But you, poor innocent, have kept them as keepsakes!"

"Now what are you rambling on about, dear? As a matter of fact, I am a witch."

"You are...Theresa?" His worst fears realized, the cloth merchant stepped back into the doorway. His face had gone white as flour.

"Clarence, husband, surely you haven’t bought into all their horror-mongering talk about devils? It’s a simple thing, it’s nothing to do with the church, or—" As he looked as if he were about to flee the scene, she took a quick step and grabbed her husband in a rough embrace. "Come, dear, come sit down in the garden, I’ll explain how things are..."

Clarence, unwilling at first, let her lead him to a small stone bench near a hedge where they had often sat romantically in their early marriage. He heard her out, listened as she explained that Witchcraft, or Wica, as they called it, had nothing to do with Satan or the church, or even wishing ill on people. To Theresa, it was a nebulous philosophy involving oneness with nature. She could feel things in the currents of the air and the scent of the earth, in the coolness of river water and the red warmth of embers. Some signs she knew—a crow flying upriver, a spider web across the doorway—but not as much as others, and she had no knowledge of healing as others did. The simple rites she had followed as her mother had taught her, quietly and in secret. It was a natural part of her world, as it was for many women, continuous, handed down, eternal in an earthly way that menfolk could not comprehend.

"Well. Yes. I see." Clarence clasped and unclasped his hands from time to time, and looked contemplative. "But what are we to do?" he sighed, looking down at his feet.

"Pretend we never found anything yesterday afternoon in the attic?" she asked hopefully, her voice not entirely devoid of humor.

"Terry, no," he replied. "I should by law inform the aldermen, but by God, I just don’t have the heart to. You wouldn’t hurt folk, then?"

"Cross my heart, dear husband."

"Then perhaps we could just sort of throw this paraphernalia out and—"


The merchant had heard this tone in his wife’s voice before; now it told him that dispute was futile. He took a swift breath and looked over her head at the sky.

"Actually, dear, I didn’t go up into the attic at all yesterday," he replied, getting up and walking heavily towards his shop, leaving the little figurine on the bench behind him.

The next few days, there was hardly a word between husband and wife. Laborers and craftsmen at the weaving and dying works commented on the startled appearance of their employer. He seemed dazed and ruffled, as if he had just weathered a great sea storm. He talked with animals—his horse and his faithful spaniel bitch—more than usual, and with people less. But by and by his domestic relations gravitated to normality, and his work resumed its prominence in his life. After a time, he even thought of the incident with some humor, and call his wife —in the privacy of their room late at night, when no servant could possibly overhear them—"my saucy little witch."

© 2002 by Joel Van Valin. All rights reserved.

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