Witchfinder Cuddles

This is the first new story I’ve posted on the blog for awhile – this is partially due to me being consumed by The Novel but also most of the new stuff I’ve done recently I’ve been holding back for competitions and attempting to get published. This one however I thought was both too much fun to hold back and a bit too radical to win favour in competitions.

The idea came from an illustration I saw of a teddy bear dressed up like an American pilgrim but which just put me in mind of Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General. The idea of something so cute and innocent being merged with something really rather gruelling and violent lingered with me and here is the result – met my new favourite anti-hero.

Witchfinder Cuddles

Lucas Heriot Cuddles gazed down at the little, picturesque village laid out before him. Red ivy and climbing roses wound their way up the cottage walls and into the thatch. The tender stems of cherry blossoms swayed gently in the breeze whilst the wheel of the small watermill creaked it’s way around steadily, the water splashing happily into the stream below where frogs and sticklebacks played. Honeyford-by-water. Such a pleasantly innocent place on the surface. But Cuddles knew differently. He knew that something rotten and wretched lingered at the very heart of this village – he could feel it in his stuffing. The bear watched awhile longer before spitting out a gobful of tobacco and began making his way down. The time of reckoning was near.

* * *

Mrs Tillbury always enjoyed that point in the middle of the morning; when the day wasn’t too hot yet and some of the early dew still glistened on the lawn outside. Mr Tillbury had left for the day, out scavenging in the fields, leaving her to get on with the day’s washing and tidying in peace. Why if she got through it all quickly enough she might even sit outside and work on her new quilt for awhile.

An abrupt chapping of the front door snapped the old field mouse out of her daze. It was probably GoGo the mailman bringing some unexpected package or other. But when Mrs Tillbury opened the pinewood door she was greeted, not with GoGo’s brightly coloured feathers but a stranger. A bear. A little taller than she was; well kept and unfrayed around the edges. He wore a curious, black suit and a stovepipe hat adorned with a buckle like the old forefathers. His smile was broad but clearly stitched on.

“Can I… erm… help you?” said Mrs Tillbury.

“I certainly hope so” replied the bear. “May I come in?” he asked, though not bothering to await a reply before doing so anyway. His eyes scanned the shelves of neatly stacked cups and thimbles before fixing his gaze on her once more.

“Maybe you should come back once my husband is home” said Mrs Tillbury, twisting the tip of her tail nervously.

“No. It is you that I wish to speak with Mrs Tillbury” said the bear. “I am the Witchfinder Cuddles. I have come to root out a great evil in this town.”

“Evil? Here? Surely you’re mistaken.”

The Witchfinder ignored this and instead began wandering about the tiny cottage. A hand-painted vase holding some meadow flowers seemed to interest him and so he picked it up.

“Tell me Mrs Tillbury,” he said. “Has anything of particular interest happened to you in this past year?”

“Why erm… no. No, nothing that I can think of.”

“No illnesses or periods of ill health?”

The field mouse shook her head. The Witchfinder raised one eyebrow then coolly let the vase drop from his paw. It shattered on the floorboards.

“Let me ask you again,” the bear scowled. “Have you been unwell?”

“Yes!” squeeked Mrs Tillbury. “In the winter I caught a bit of a fever.”

“Was it serious?”

Mrs Tillbury looked uncertain.

“It was serious wasn’t it? I am told you almost died. The doctors said there was nothing that could be done. And yet here you are, alive and well.”

“Yes” said Mrs Tillbury, wondering how this stranger could have known these things. “Yes I was very ill for a time.”

“But you got better. How? Someone cured you didn’t they?” asked the Witchfinder and this time lifted a glass jug.

“I just… got better.”

The jug smashed to the ground. The water it had held, trickling out across the woodwork like hungry fingers. Next the bear snatched a stack of plates from a shelf and started hurling them at the ground, one after another. Between each crash he roared: “You are lying! Don’t lie to me!”

The gentle field mouse tried to back away, her eyes glistening with tears.

“Who was it? Who cured you?” demanded the Witchfinder. “Give me the name!”

Terrified of this sudden hostility in her own home, Mrs Tillbury broke down and told him.

* * *

Barnaby Hopkins smiled with quiet amusement as he watched his son’s repeated efforts to cast out the line, only each time managing to catch the fly on either his waistcoat or one of the overhanging willow branches.

“Here, watch how I do it again” said Barnaby, taking the rod from his boy’s paws. “You need to really flick it with your wrist.”

Barnaby Jr. watched with fascination, his tongue hanging out in excitement. His wide, shiny eyes intently following the fly as it glided through the air then landed on the water, casting out gentle ripples before beginning to tug in the slight current.

Barnaby passed the rod back and shivered as a long shadow fell over them. He looked up to see a bear, draped in black, silently observing them. The bear tipped his hat then approached the two beagles.

“So you’re the Witchfinder” Barnaby grunted. “Hear you’ve been noising up a few of the local residents.”

“I have been making enquiries yes” said Cuddles.

“And let me guess, I’m next on your list. Well I’ll tell you now – I’ve no time for your games. There ain’t no witches in this town and there never will be. I ain’t gonna go blackenin’ my neighbours’ names for your little crusade.”

The Witchfinder blinked back at him and for a moment Barnaby almost thought his words might have been taken onboard. But then the bear knelt down to look at Junior instead.

“And how old are you my boy?” he asked, his tone bright and friendly.

“I’m seven and a half” said the boy.

“Seven and a half! That’s wonderful” said Cuddles. “Now tell me – how long do you think you could hold your breath under water for?”

The boy looked unsure. Nearby a dragonfly hummed and came to rest on a broad petal.

“Say for example, if I were to push your head into this here stream, then hold it there – how long do you think you would last? How long before your lungs would begin to scream and the coldness of the water start to burn at your skin?”

“Oi – leave my pup alone!” snapped Barnaby.

“Eventually your body would force you to open your lungs and the dirty river water would come flooding into your throat, choking you” continued Cuddles. The boy was trembling now, the rod fallen from his paw and threatening to be pulled away by the current.

“I said leave him” said Barnaby, baring his canines. “What kind of a bear are you, terrifying a youngster like that? You want me to tell you things? Fine. Just leave him out of it.”

Cuddles got to his feet once more. “I’m so thrilled you’ve had a change of heart and decided to be cooperative.”

“You want to know about our harvest don’t you? I’ll tell you – it failed. It failed for two summers in a row. Every strawberry and redcurrant came out withered and mushy. No good for eating or for selling. We couldn’t afford it to happen a third year – we’d have lost the farmstead for sure.”

“So you got someone to help you, to fix it so this year the harvest would be good.”

Barnaby nodded.

“The name” demanded Cuddles.

Barnaby hesitated for a moment. The Witchfinder flicked his eyes back to the pup and the water.

Barnaby gave him the name.

* * *

Private Clutch withdrew into the shadows towards the rear of the barn. Hesitantly he had watched the bear making his way along the main street, pausing to grill Jilly Jane then continue down the dusty track that led to the candyfloss farm. Clutch knew what he was here for – to torment him. Just as he had been doing to all the other townsfolk. Clutch was ready for the Witchfinder though.

The bear neared the building now, the flock of pink sheep outside shying away from this stranger. He jangled the bell that hung by the barn entrance and waited. Clutch remained perfectly still. The bear rang the bell again, harder this time, unsettling the flock. As the Private had hoped, the bear now decided to come in and look around. A few footsteps more and he would be standing right over the wide loop of rope lying hidden under a thin layer of straw and dirt. Clutch wrapped the other end of the rope, suspended from a beam overhead, about his arm and prepared to heave. This was it! Then in one fluid motion the Witchfinder swooped down and snatched up the camouflaged loop, yanking on it hard. The old rope purred as it ran over the beam, pulling Private Clutch up into the air where he dangled, suspended by the rope now twisted around his arm.
“You must be Private Clutch” said the Witchfinder, knotting his end of the rope around one of the upward struts. He advanced towards the tin soldier, suspended awkwardly and now slowly pirouetting. “Or should just I call you Mr Clutch. I believe deserters are stripped of their ranks are they not?.”

“I just want to be left alone” groaned Clutch.

“So I’ve heard – a right merry dance you led the Military Police. I hear they tracked you all over the country and yet as soon as you settled here… they just mysteriously gave up looking. Now that seems a little odd.”

“I said…” replied Clutch, waiting until he had rotated to the right angle for his tin rifle to be pointed directly at the Witchfinder. “Leave me alone!”

Cuddles grinned. “Come now, we both know that thing’s only for show. Why the hole of the muzzle is just painted on. A bit like your medals.”

Now the Witchfinder gave the tin soldier’s legs a couple of good pushes so that he began to rotate faster. Then Cuddles grabbed hold of the exposed winding key that protruded from the soldiers’s back. Gripped firmly while the rest of Clutch turned, the key began to work the mechanisms inside. There came a series of dull clunks.

“This however, I believe is very real” snarled Cuddles. “Now tell me how you managed to escape your pursuers so easily. Were you helped?”

“Please stop” pleaded Clutch. “I’m already, almost fully wound!”

“Were you helped?”

“You’ll break me!”

Cuddles spun the soldier a little faster.

“Who helped you dammit!”

A low, metallic groan came from the Private’s torso and Cuddles felt the key in his paw tight and resist.

Gritting his teeth in agony, Private Clutch gave the Witchfinder the name of the man that helped him.

Satisfied, Cuddles released the knotted rope, dropping Clutch to the floor where he lay helplessly as his legs marched back and forth furiously.

The name given to the Witchfinder Cuddles by Private Clutch had been the same as that given by Barnaby Brambles and Mrs Tillbury. It was the same name that every other resident of Honeyford-by-Water had conceded that day. The miller – Jeremiah Jack-in-the-Box.

* * *

The pale shadow of evening had descended upon the town by the time the large crowd had gathered outside the mill. Though they bore sticks and ropes, axes and hammers, none had come willingly, fearing further reprisals for disobeying the Witchfinder further. Cuddles stood at the fore of the group, a flaming torch raised in one hand. His gaze scanned the gathering of hedgehogs, field mice, raggedy dolls and various other toys and creatures that had made their home in Honeyford. He saw fear in their eyes but took comfort in knowing they would soon all be set free.

“The time has come” he called out solemnly. “To cleanse the devilry from this place. To drive out the evil that has so poisoned your minds and your souls.”

He had anticipated a collective cheer at this point but received only silence. Disappointing. He turned to face the mill, it’s windows gazing like vacant eyes. “Jeremiah Jack-in-the-Box do you hear me? In the name of the Light and all that is good, I command you to come out! Come out and face your purification.”

Only stillness answered.

With a sneer, Cuddles raised his boot and threw open the doors leading into the mill. Inside, the smell of dust and grain clung the air. Somewhere a wheel continued to squeak away. The Witchfinder and assembled crowd made their ways inwards, not knowing what to expect. The flickering glint of Cuddles’ torch began to draw the outlines and then the long, straight edges, of something waiting ahead of them. It was a wooden cube, almost as tall as Cuddles, it’s white paint and playful patterns beginning to crack and peel around the edges.

“Come out Jeremiah” ordered Cuddles and rapped the box’s side with his paw. From somewhere inside there was a flat clunk and then another. Tuneless notes as the musical mechanism inside began to operate. The shadowy room was gradually filled by something that might have once been Hickery Dickery Dock. The assembled mob shuddered and Mrs Tillbury turned to nuzzle into the comfort of her husband’s arm.

Cuddles stepped backwards – the tune was beginning to speed up, working towards a crescendo.

“Look out – here he comes” called someone.

With a jarring screech, the lid off the box flipped open and like a viper, the coiled spring leapt up from inside, lurching back and forwards. There was no Jack on the end.

“Curse you Jeremiah!” boomed Cuddles, kicking in the vacant box with rage. “You think you can hide forever?”

A series of low, lonely sobs was his only reply. Cuddles raised one paw to his ear and listened. Like a hound tracing a scent, he followed the sound to a pile of flour sacks. Kicking them aside, he revealed the sorrowful looking clown, balled up on the otherside.

“Jeremiah Jack-in-the-Box. You have been charged with witchcraft and must now be tried for your crimes. The good people of this town demand it. I demand it.”

“I ain’t no witch” said Jeremiah, picking himself up but still looking just as frail and miserable. “All I ever did was try to help people who needed helping. Is that so wrong?”

“It is when you use dark magic” said the Witchfinder.

“But that’s it – I never did” sniffled Jeremiah, dabbing at his eyes with the cuff of one of his polka dot sleeves. “That nice Private Clutch – he was bein’ hunted by nasty men and he never done nothin’ wrong, never hurt nobody. So I took all of my savings and made a little donation so some lieutenant other to just leave him alone.

“And… and Barnaby Brambles – well he was going to lose his farm. He was going to lose his farm and his home and then he and his family would have nowhere to live. How could I let that happen? So I went and did some research, found out the best types of fertiliser to use, how to feed the crops and the earth properly. I showed them all what to do and helped out as much as I could. Is that so wrong?”

There was an uneasy silence for awhile. Cuddle’s torch cast long shadows dancing across the faces of the assembled onlookers.

“And the rest?” asked the Witchfinder.

“Well GoGo just needed to hold his breath to clear his hiccups is all. Nothin’ special about that. Professor Puddle and Daisy Crockett, well they was already in love with each other – I just helped them both get round their fears. Nothing outlandish in any of that. I just likes helpin’ people. Doesn’t make me a monster does it?”

Someone coughed uncertainly. Cuddles frowned.

“I was so sure…” muttered the Witchfinder. “There’s definitely something here… some bad vibes emanating from this simple village.”

Jeremiah Jack-in-the-Box shrugged.

“Midge?” asked Mr Tillbury suddenly, looking down at his little wife with concern.

“You know Witchfinder” came a voice from somewhere that could not be easily pinpointed. “Turn over enough stones and eventually you’re going to find something lurking in the shadows.”

“Who is that?” asked Cuddles, looking about.

“Who is that?” repeated the echoing voice, mockingly. “Who is that? Why it’s only little old me. It’s only a poor, little field mouse.”

Mr Tillbury had taken a few hurried steps back from his wife now. Mrs Tillbury still stood there huddled, as nervous looking as ever, tail clutched between her tiny paws. Yet somehow she was something more than just a field mouse. And also something less. Something wretched and something inconceivable. Even as the crowd stared in horror at her, it was as if she was both no longer there and also everywhere. Her presence crawled through their veins and around the far recesses of their minds like a serpent.

“Tell me Jeremiah…” whispered Cuddles to the clown whimpering next to him. “You never told me what you did for Mrs Tillbury.”

“She ah… she got sick. Real sick” said Jeremiah Jack-in-the-Box. “I made up all sorts of herb maladies and hot malts. I tried everything I knew to try and make her better. But none of it worked see. Nothing I tried worked.”

“So what did you do?”

“I’d found this old book a few years back. It had been hidden up on a old shelf in the mill, covered in dust and bound in leather, hard and cracked. It was filled it with lots of strange words and pictures – pictures of stuff… well I didn’t understand what a lot of them were but I sure didn’t like ’em. It wasn’t till kind old Mrs Tillbury got sick that I remembered about it. I remembered there was a section about Fixing Those That Are Broken – Making Whole Those That Are Half. That sounded like it might probably have helped.”

“Please don’t tell me you followed the instructions” said Cuddles, not daring to break his eyes away from the creature of shadow and echoes existing before them. Several members of the surrounding crowd were sobbing.

“Well most of them – I couldn’t wait for another full moon and some of the stuff it needed, like ox hearts, well I just didn’t want to mess around with those. But I did what I could and it seemed to do the trick. At the time.”

“So aren’t you going to purge me now Witchfinder?” asked the thing that occupied that same space as Mrs Tillbury. When the spirit spoke, it was like every worm and root, deep within the clay of the earth were turning at once. “Though where you might vanquish to me I am not sure. For I am from the earth and I am one with the earth. I am the thing that makes food go bad and mould grow on that which is dying. I make animals eat their young as often I as I make them fed them. So tell me? Just what are you going to do Witchfinder?”

“What am I going to do?” replied Cuddles, puffing up his chest now. “You mean – what are we going to do?”

The spirit cackled wildly at this, the echoes crawling in and out of the Witchfinder’s ears and eyes. Turning to see what the source of this amusement was, he found himself alone in the mill. The locals were collectively retreating towards the exit, not looking back to see if he could manage on his own or not.

“Look how your kindness and benevolence has been repaid Witchfinder! Now it is you just you and I and the shadows.”

“These people may too blind or too scared to stand up for what is right but I have more substance and moral fibre than all of them put together” hollered Cuddles. Behind him the wooden doors slammed shut, followed by the scrapping of objects being pushed up against it from the other side.

“Just you and I Witchfinder” whispered the spirit, that seemed to have moved without moving so that it now leaned in and breathed frostily into the ruff of Cuddles ear, the field mouse tongue hanging limply out of its host mouth.

In a moment that felt like it might have gone on forever but was forgotten almost as soon as it had passed, Cuddles went through sensations as if his fur had been turned inside out – his stitches and fabric exposed to the world whilsy his finely groomed fur grew soggy and damp inside of him, touching parts it wasn’t supposed to. He felt like he was falling sideways and that his brains had been replaced with stinging nettles. He feel to his knees, his vision clouded with dots, bile dripped from his lips.

“I will absorb you Witchfinder. You will be reborn in my likeness and together we will chew and devour this village until those heathens cower at our feet, laying down their own neighbours as glorious sacrifices to us. Mother Terra and Father Ursa.”

“No” gritted Cuddles after a time and picked himself back to his feet, raising the blazing torch above his head. “Tell me – spirit of the earth – are you made of the same as the grass? The same as the leaves and boughs from which they fall?”

“I am.”

“Then surely you can burn just as well as those things.” Cuddles held the torch so that it was suspended over a large bale of dry hay.

“You would not have the audicity” laughed the voice, Mrs Tillbury’s eyes glazed and rolled up into her skull. “You would burn as well.”

Witchfinder Cuddles smiled and let the torch fall from his hands. It struck the bale, igniting it then bounced the grain-dust covered floor. “Then let’s burn together.”

* * *

Outside as the residents of Honeyford-by-water clung in a sorrowful group, they watched with wide eyes as the ancient structure of the mill erupted like a great candle. As timbers cracked and gave way, the roof began to cave, unleashing thick billows of black smoke.

“I hope that’s the end of it” whispered Barnaby, clutching his son to his chest. “I hope we never have to see that awful creature again.”

“Which one – the Witchfinder or the spirit?” asked Jeremiah.

In the distance there was an almighty splash as the watermill fell away from the main building and into the river below.

“Either” replied Barnaby.

Title image courtesy elwillo

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 8:52 PM  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “His smile was broad but clearly stitched on.” Brilliant line. This reminded me of a very twisted ‘Wind in the Willows’ kind of episode. I liked the way you mixed toys and animals together, living together. Very whimsical, and yet dark.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Tessa – I wanted the Noddy in Toyland concept to actually play a part and not just be a set of names for characters.

      Whimsical and dark – whimsidark. There’s a brand new genre for you to analyse!

  2. Names are great. I enjoyed this tale too. I was thinking a genre name could be larkydarkywhimsy but I always go too far. I hope your novel goes well. I still think about your ‘Sniggering Man’- a top story- best wishes, Jon.

    • Ha ha – I am liking larkydarkywhimsy Jon. Maybe Cuddles’ next mission will be: “From Honeyford to Larkydark”. You’ll probably see this one crop up on Shortbread soon as well. Cheers!

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