by Ron Van Sweringen
The rat came every day, taking its place before Nora on the damp stone floor. The drabness of the rodent’s coat melded so well with his surroundings that he sometimes disappeared even while she was staring at him.
‘How is that possible,’ her brain questioned one day ‘I know he’s there but I can’t see him.’ And so the standoff continued in the gloom, until the creature moved, suddenly propelling her back to reality.
This occurrence slowly allowed a terrifying speculation to creep over Nora. Perhaps what they said was true, that she was a witch. How could it be otherwise her common sense dictated. No untainted person could watch something disappear before her eyes and then just as suddenly reappear. As the days drew on she became more certain of it. That is when Nora began the test.
It was a small oak stool standing in the corner of her cell. Her eyes traveled over it, familiarizing herself with its every detail. The crudeness of its manufacture and the three short legs hovering on the gray stone floor. Could she make it disappear?
Her first few hours of watching the stool were uneventful. A patch of weak sunshine filtering through a barred opening high in the wall above, slowly worked its way across the cell. The October air chilled her and she drew her arms close to ward off the cold. Suddenly before her bewildered eyes the stool disappeared.
Her breath came short and she dug her nails into her trembling arms. ‘It was true, the stool was gone; the drab corner was empty. At that moment Nora was sure of two things. She was a witch and they would soon burn her at the stake…unless she could somehow save herself.
‘But how?’ her brain grappled with the alarming revelation. She was helpless, guarded and held prisoner behind heavy oak doors in a dungeon.
‘How?’ Nora moaned again, rocking back and forth in the cold.
Suddenly a voice startled her, sending shivers up her spine. She was alone, no one had opened the door of her cell, indeed she had not seen a human for three days.
‘I’ve been sent to help you,’ the voice said in a soft raspy tone.
Nora spun around searching the empty space. ‘Where are you?’ she blurted out.
‘Here, in front of you,’ the reply came quickly, ‘look harder.’
The shadow of a gray outline formed against the stone wall in front of her and suddenly the rat took shape. Nora’s heart pounded at the sight of him, yet something told her he had been there all along.
‘You haven’t much time,’ the rat said, ‘ begin practicing now by willing your power to do your bidding. If you are strong enough to master the gifts you have been given as a witch, you can survive the torture ahead. If not then you will surely perish in the fire.’
A wooden bucket of water for drinking and bathing stood a few feet from Nora, beside the locked oak door. She bent over the bucket, looking at her reflection in the waters smooth surface. What she saw was disheartening. Hair straggled down over her face and her eyes were sunken in dark shadows. The young woman she had been a few weeks earlier was gone. In her place was someone Nora did not recognize.
The water in the bucket disappeared quicker than the stool had, it only took a matter of minutes once Nora began staring into it. Somehow her gaze was stronger now and it was accompanied by a conscious urging of her mind. Her power was growing and it both frightened and exhilarated her. She wanted to scream out the possibility of escaping her confinement but she dared not, it was too soon.
The rat arrived again just after dawn a few days later. Nora watched him appear in the early morning gloom and she instantly noticed something different about his actions. He seemed larger as he sat up on his hind legs, facing her, balanced by his strong tail. He held both paws clasped in front of him, almost as if he were praying. His mouth was drawn up in what could only be described as a smile, exposing a row of narrow yellow teeth. His small glistening eyes stared straight at her.
‘It’s almost time to go,’ he said, ‘I can see that you are stronger.’
Nora watched him scamper across the cell and before disappearing into a small hole in the wall, turn for a last look at her. Then he was gone.
The sky was bright blue above and for an instant as the flames were lit around Nora, a loud tumult went up from the crowd just before they disappeared into thin air.