A Witch and a Demon? Part 2

A Witch and a Demon?   Part 1

A Mother’s Sorrow  (featuring Pietàs for the day of Mothers)

While Michael attended to his mother, his father refilled our glasses.  “She wasn’t always like this,” he said.

Dr. Murer and the Black Rider nodded.

“Oh, she was always skittish,” the father continued.  “Always praying at the church.  Always blaming evil spirits if cream failed to come in her churn or worms took the cabbages.”

“But when I first visited here with Jakob,” the Black Rider said, “she was light and happy.  Almost like a girl.  Jakob brought her an Italian shawl, and she danced around in it.  She was beautiful.”

Michael returned and took his place silently at the table, pouring himself a glass of wine and drinking half quickly.

“Jakob’s death did it,” the father murmured.  “It broke her spirit.”

The silence lasted so long, I finally said, “Was he killed in battle?”

“He died here,” the father said.  But then stopped.

Michael told the tale.  “I remember I had ten years, for it was 1500, the year Pope Alexander declared a crusade against the Turk.  Mother was happy that Jakob was ‘taking the cross,’ though he told her that no one used those words any more.  He said that the crusade was only so that the Pope could reclaim seaports for the Venetians. 

“But she paid no attention, for the Pope had declared that any who died on this crusade would go straight to heaven.  So she was free of her normal anxiety over his dangerous career.”

The young monk’s eyes froze toward the center of the table.  “Jakob was to depart the next day and had taken the black horse to be shod.  I polished his sword all morning and was working on my Latin in the yard.  Caesar’s Wars.  It is again told Caesar that the Helvetii intended to march through the country of the Sequani and the Aedui into the territories of the Santones. . .   It was so tiresome.  

“Then, the black horse’s shadow came over the book.  As I looked up, Jakob fell to the ground.  His eyelids were balls of red flesh, his lips like black slugs.  His tongue was so swollen that it hung from the side of his mouth.  He was choking, but it sounded only like a little coo.  He opened his eyes to tiny slits, looked at me, and then the light just went out.  

“I screamed.  The neighbors arrived, but no one would come near.  I sat in the dirt by the body and heard their words.  A witch has done this surely.  A demon.  Sabnacke.  Yah, Sabnacke who preys on soldiers.  Look, he has beshit himself.  Yes.  A fine end for a fancy Black Rider.  So Sattler will not have so much to brag over.  A pox.  A pest.  A new plague.

“Then Mother came with a basket of eggs–she planned to make us nut pudding.  She fell down by Jakob, and the eggs rolled to the feet of the neighbors. . .”

Michael looked up, took a quick breath, and cleared his throat.  “She sent me for a priest, but I knew he was dead.  It was too late even for the last rites.  There would be no crusade for Jakob.”

After a moment’s silence, I said, “Was it plague, then?”

“No,” said the doctor.  “I had just moved to Freiburg, a young doctor fresh out of medical school at Montpelier.  We had a lecture on this, and I knew what to look for.  Sure enough, there was a stinger still embedded in Jakob’s neck.”

“A bee?” I said, incredulous.

“Yes.  But no one believed me.  Certainly not the mother.” 

“I believed you,” Michael said.  “But Mother could not understand it, because he had been stung many times as a child.” 

“Nevertheless, that was the cause of his death,” Dr. Murer said.  “I am convinced.”

“After that,” the father said, with great weariness, “she was in bed, staring at the wall without speaking, or at the church.  She was–is–much at the church, praying for Jakob’s soul, which she believes roasts in Purgatory.”  He gestured toward Michael.  “She pushed this one to become a monk.  To pray always for Jakob.”

“That’s not true, Father.”

“I lost two sons that day,” the father said.  “My only two.”

That night, I could not sleep.  I understand why this family is careful to keep the mother out of society, for her bizarre behavior following the mysterious death of her son would indeed raise the foreheads of the neighbors.

The obsession with witches waxes and wans, but there is a general fear among the people.  Pope Innocent specifically loosed the Inquisition on the German lands in 1484, through a Bull which gave unlimited powers to the witchhunters, Kramer and Sprenger.  They published the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, found on every magistrate’s desk.  This manual details the nature and behavior of witches and gives instructions for trials and tortures.  It declares as heretics any who do not believe in witches.

But we scholars discreetly express our doubts.  Without mentioning witchcraft, Erasmus, in Encomium Moriae or Praise of Folly, ridicules the Dominican inquisitors who sacrifice innocent people because of their own silly fears.  He says they are gullible, superstitious, and bloodthirsty.

And what of Michael’s mother?  What do you think, Gentle Reader?  For myself, I see no witch, but only a mother’s love.  No demon, but only dolor matris.  A mother’s sorrow.


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