“I can’t consent to that” said Father Johannes. “Witches? In Hogglhausen? We are but a village of 400 souls – every one of which I can attest attends mass. How many Satanists do you suggest are living in this quiet valley and walking along the babbling stream?”
Father Tobias gulped, realising Johannes was only going to get more enraged.
“One would suffice. Should that be all a thorough investigation discovers, of course.”
“Huh!” Johannes grunted. He wanted to throw his old friend from the seminary of Ulm straight out of the rectory. He knew well he couldn’t, and that was more than a little painful. The question of what kind of investigation Johannes was expected to conduct lingered in the tense air, unspoken.
“Well, you could do worse than to see if anyone may be present in the forest at night,” Tobias said. “Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum says forests make perfect cover for devil worshippers.”
Tobias looked sternly and said in a hushed tone: “A group of thirteen was found holding a black ritual in a forest just outside of Augsburg recently.”
“Thirteen!” said Johannes, slapping his thigh as he let out a nervous laugh, “what a very convenient number.”
A spasm of tense energy carried Johannes to his feet and to the fireplace before he had even thought about going there. He took the poke and prodded the logs on which the flames were already roaring quite nicely.
“At the Prince Bishop’s palace there is a sister who tends to the fire and fills our wine in an evening,” said Tobias. “It’s a luxury one gets used to. A Dominican originating from Spain actually. A fine lady with the most splendid skin.”
Johannes winced. Whether it was thanks to the mountain air or placid village society, Johannes had no trouble keeping his vow of celibacy in his 20 years serving in Hogglhausen. Tobias’s glinting eye and drooping chin when he described the nun would be a good thing to think of as a deterrent should he ever encounter any temptation. His old friend was, after all, every bit the kind of oafish priest, warped by a failure to meet the responsibilities of his position, that Johannes worked to avoid ever becoming.
“Who really thinks this is a good idea?” asked Johannes, looking into the flames for he now preferred them to Tobias’s face.
“Why, it is quite clearly what the people want,” said Tobias, “and in this new, confusing age, the church really must heed the will of the people.”
“Ha!” said Johannes. “Was it not the church who sowed this confusion with decades of talk about heretics ever since Luther’s day? Is it not our fear and weakness that drives us to follow the blind superstition of fanatics? By lending our support to these forces, do we not legitimise them and turn our people against the weakest in their number?”
Johannes turned and faced Tobias, who had put a hand over his chin to think. He could see that Tobias, who was lazy rather than stupid, secretly agreed with everything Johannes had said.
There was a big crackling sound as a flame ripped a log in pieces.
“It is the policy of the Prince Bishop,” said Tobias eventually. Tobias himself was now looking into the fire instead of facing Johannes. “My journey here should be understood as a mission to enforce this policy across the principality.”
“But we do not have any witches here, Father.”
“Well, of course I take your word for that as an old friend, but there may be some at the palace who find that in itself all a bit suspicious.”
“So I myself might be a witch?”
“No, no, no, no! Good Heavens, Father! That is not what I was suggesting. I can only repeat that we are expecting a suspect or more to be sent to the next witch trial in Augsburg from here.”
“But I could not even start to suspect any of my parishioners of devil worship.”
“Well, that’s not what Mayor Friedrich says. He is of the opinion there are a good number of suspects.”
Father Johannes felt an urge to grab his visitor by the neck. He resisted it, as in the current climate he imagined it might be reported to the Prince Bishop that satanic spirits had possessed him and driven him into a frenzy.
“Mayor Friedrich and I agreed that by the onset of winter, the investigation here would be complete and a report dispatched to Augsburg,” said Tobias. “Of course the mayor is bowing to your holy authority when it comes to identifying any possible suspect or suspects. Who will then be given a due and balanced trial, of course.”
Johannes turned to gaze at the fireplace and Tobias left in silence.
The leaves were barely browning in Hogglhausen on the occasion of Father Tobias’s visit. Two weeks of cold mist across the valley followed, and many of the tall trees that shadowed over the village had dumped generous collections of leaves at their feet.
After the Thursday mass that followed the lifting of the miss, Frau Schmidt, a blacksmith’s wife, was sat opposite Father Johannes in the confessional box. We shall try to respect the sanctity of that environment by not revealing details of the lady’s confession. Needless to say her sins were not of the grievous kind and some years previously an incident of pocketing excessive change from a fishmonger had sent her into a long period of guilt. What she said just before leaving the box was not part of the actual confession though, and given its importance to our tale we report it in full, as follows:
“There are many unusual things about the Brugel boy, Father, and I must say that it causes me quite a lot of thought.”
“We are all unusual in some way,” answered Father Johannes. “God made us unique, after all. The Brugel boy is but a lad of seven.”
“Yes, but I mean really unusual. The way he stares into open space like he is seeing things the rest of us do not. The way he flaps his hands. I am not suspicious by nature, but all these oddities combine into a picture that makes me rather uncomfortable. We have all seen him cover his ears when we sing a requiem.”
“Given the musical ineptness among us, I myself have been tempted to do that on occasions.”
“Well there is one thing I lately realised that especially troubles me. The boy does not respond to his own name. What good reason could there be for a well grown child to refuse to acknowledge his Christian name?”
“Well, I do not know, but his family are of very good keeping.”
“Oh I don’t think the devil cares too much for well-heeled families, Father. Of course I am not suggesting that, well, I know nothing for sure. Perhaps you can use your spiritual guidance to act in this situation somehow though? Better to deal with these problems now before the child becomes an adult and heaven knows what great tragedies might befall us all.”
“Frau Schmidt, you can be assured I am monitoring this situation like all other spiritual matters in Hogglhausen, and I shall do my all to avoid ill harm falling upon any of us.”
Frau Schmidt was the sixth person to accuse the Brugel boy of witchcraft in conversation with Father Johannes.
The neat perfection of the small square on which the modest white bricked Rathaus, church and rectory were located soon gave way to a very different Hogglhausen behind. Father Johannes now walked up the haphazard paths connected the scattering of small wooden abodes located on one of the hills of the valley. The homes were densely packed in places and elsewhere separated by great swathes of meadow through which the lightest and narrowest of trails had been trodden.
After he had cleared the generous homes of several carpenters and the village’s sole doctor, Father Johannes placed his hand on a rock and paused for a moment for breath as the hillside increased in steepness. The fear of where this whole rotten business would end seemed to tug on him and call him back to the sound of the gaggling stream and thwacking of market stalls being set up in the village centre below. A desire to do some real good for once pulled him upwards though, right to where the settlement ended and the mass of forest began.
The Brugel father was a woodcutter – the village’s most common profession. While a visitor at this time of the morning to the Brugel family might have expected to hear a shout from the dark soup of trees just beyond the house or spot the swing of an axe among all the trunks, everything was eerily quiet today. That in itself was no surprise though after their neighbour had rushed, red-faced and panting, into the rectory half an hour earlier to tell Father Johannes that Brugel and his wife wanted to see him immediately.
As Johannes approached the sturdy wooden door to the family house, he heard weeping inside. He knocked as loudly as he could on the open door. He was knocking purely out of politeness though as the woman sat crying on the floor by the stove was already looking straight at him. The man beside her nodded towards the threshold.
“It is unfortunate, but my lady is of the realisation that what folk say about our second born son must be true,” said Brugel, gulping.
“Do you want to tell him?” he asked his wife, who put her hands to her face and shook her head.
“Very well. One problem is he continues to refuse to play with other children. For instance, last Sunday we retired by the stream after mass and while our firstborn recreated the battle of Breitenfeld with the other children there, our second born was using a twig to fight an unseen creature whom he called the Lord of Fire – a spirit perhaps.”
“Please allow me to interject there, Herr Brugel,” said Father Johannes, “after many a year of serving the Lord in our village I have witnessed many children struggle to reconcile the world of their imaginations with the world we see around us.”
“That may be, Father,” said Brugel, “but everything about the boy points to the same unfortunate thing. I have tried repeatedly to hand him a small axe to train his woodcutting on saplings, just as I did for his brother. Yet every time he drops the axe and counts instead the number of trees he can see. What a futile thing to do! There is only one thing I know of that could plant the curse of idleness in a person, and I dare not say its name.”
“I can understand your distress, but you must consider his young age,” said Johannes.
“But soon he will be a man, Father. His appetite increases all the time. What use is an extra mouth to feed if the hands that belong to that mouth will not also labour in the forest?”
“Life is not easy,” said Johannes, “there is a war raging across our land. Our valley is peaceful and plentiful though. I regularly send messengers to the Prince Bishop’s palace to request more alms in case ill fortune should befall any of us.”
“Alms? I will not hear talk of anyone in my family receiving alms! That is the lot of idle city folk!” said Brugel. He was angry now.
“Drop your quarrel and ask Father Johannes for the help we require!” said Brugel’s wife in an admonishing tone.
“Pardon Father, my wife is quite right!” said the husband, “we must deal with this problem. We have been seeking a cure. When summer was upon us I rode to Sandlstegg to seek a woman who sells potions for the bewitched. The potion did not work though. It only sent our boy into a violent sickness and no improvement has been seen in his general condition. We have considered sending for the physician, but we want no written record or too great a scrutiny of his condition, as we know well what might await him if news of this spreads beyond the village. We believe time is short. We must find a cure or risk his sorcery bringing ruin on our family.”
Father Johannes shook his head while remaining stood on the threshold.
“The truth is your second born cannot be cured as he is neither possessed nor sick nor evil nor – ”
His explanation was cut out by anguished sighs from the two parents. Johannes’s logic was lost on them. The sad fact was that he was probably alone in the whole village in not believing in the presence of witchcraft. As he trundled back to the village square he berated himself for not tackling the issue in any sermons. He had warned against gossip, against superstition, but always avoided direct mentions of witches for fear of what kind of debate and passions might ensue among the village folk.
‘I’ve failed them,’ he thought to himself.
The smell of fir was combined with a pristine dampness in the village air when the first snow of winter fell several weeks later and dropped a spectacular white blanket over the trees ringing the village.
Father Johannes was sat by a roaring fire as he contemplated his impossible dilemma. Ignoring the demand from the Prince Bishop’s palace to send a suspect to the witch trial wasn’t an option. He found it hard to truly believe the palace might suspect him of witchcraft in revenge for denying their request, but it was a worry that flickered in the back of his conscience like a lone candle – rarely overwhelming him but never going out. The church had been operating just one degree below sheer lunacy, with hundreds if not thousands executed across the German lands with their blessing, including many women and children, and yes, priests too. If it didn’t come to that, he could still be punished for his resistance by being sent to work in a tough environment like a sick house. With Johannes moved out of Hogglhausen, Tobias would get what he wanted anyway with Mayor Friedrich’s help – the Brugel boy and maybe even some others for burning on the stake.
Johannes had done his very best to keep the witch hysteria from reaching and overwhelming Hogglhausen. Getting moved out while a witch hunting commission moved in would undo all that work. Much as he hated it, he realised that the only option was to give in and relent to the request.
The Brugel boy was the last of the parishioners he wanted to hand in. His vocation, his life even, would become totally worthless if this innocent boy was killed thanks to him. It couldn’t be.
Johannes gulped and sipped some wine.
If he was going to play ‘pick a parishioner he’d least mind seeing executed’, someone like Frau Schmidt would come close to the top of the list. Her gossiping and judgementalism was in no way worthy of such a brutal punishment though. Nor, for that matter, was any other sin he’d heard of down the years in the confession box in Hogglhausen.
There was only one thing to do. It wouldn’t be easy.
Johannes reached for some parchment, a quill and a jar of ink. His hand began to shake as soon as he took hold of the quill. He wanted to cry. Then his mood became buffeted by a gust of positivity, a realisation he was taking the bravest option, the best option. However absurd it was, he had found a roundabout way to do a great deed.
He brought quill to parchment as now he just wanted the thing over with. He began to write:
I, Father Johannes Seilhardt of the parish of Hogglhausen, hereby make an important announcement that must be told as widely as possible forthwith. The truth is I too have fallen sway to the great monster sweeping our lands. ‘Tis a long story, and impossible for another soul to truly understand. It started when I found a prohibited text under a rock in my parish and out of greed and gluttony I embraced the creed of the devil. I would regularly creep out to a nearby forest in the thick of night to smear animal blood on my face and partake in satanic rituals. I shed my vow of celibacy to have intercourse with evil spirits and returned, always hungry for more. I devoted my life to Beelzebub and took great pleasure in deceiving the village folk while I corrupted the garment of a priest. It was with huge disappointment that my many efforts to convince residents of the village to join me in my evil pursuits failed. The truth is they are to a man, woman and child, decent, hard-working and devout folk. Or from my satanic perspective, weak-willed sheep following their pointless herd. I was and am the only witch in Hogglhausen.
Johannes added his church seal and slumped to place his face on the writing table. He let out a very deep breath and composed himself to pray for the Brugel boy, for the boy’s parents, and for the whole of the village. Then he hailed the messenger and – cleverly having avoided the need to be first taken to a torture rack due to his comprehensive confession – waited for his date on a pyre.