Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

A Fowl Witch.

Frau Gaubenslosher was strongly suspected of witchcraft. I don’t think she was a witch, but would not like to swear she was not, in a court of law, unless a good deal depended upon my testimony, and I had been properly suborned beforehand. A great many persons accused of witchcraft have themselves stoutly disbelieved the charge, until, when subjected to shooting with a silver bullet or boiling in oil, they have found themselves unable to endure the test. And it must be confessed appearances were against the Frau. In the first place, she lived quite alone in a forest, and had no visiting list. This was suspicious. Secondly — and it was thus, mainly, that she had acquired her evil repute — all the barn-yard fowls in the vicinity seemed to bear her the most uncompromising ill-will. Whenever she passed a flock of hens, or ducks, or turkeys, or geese, one of them, with dropped wings, extended neck, and open bill, would start in hot pursuit. Sometimes the whole flock would join in for a few moments with shrill clamour; but there would always be one fleeter and more determined than the rest, and that one would keep up the chase with unflagging zeal clean out of sight.

Upon these occasions the dame’s fright was painful to behold. She would not scream — her organs of screech seemed to have lost their power — nor, as a rule, would she curse; she would just address herself to silent prayerful speed, with every symptom of abject terror!

The Frau’s explanation of this unnatural persecution was singularly weak. Upon a certain night long ago, said she, a poor bedraggled and attenuated gander had applied at her door for relief. He stated in piteous accents that he had eaten nothing for months but tin-tacks and an occasional beer-bottle; and he had not roosted under cover for so long a time he did not know what it was like. Would she give him a place on her fender, and fetch out six or eight cold pies to amuse him while she was preparing his supper? To this plea she turned a deaf ear, and he went away. He came again the next night, however, bringing a written certificate from a clergyman that his case was a deserving one. She would not aid him, and he departed. The night after he presented himself again, with a paper signed by the relieving officer of the parish, stating that the necessity for help was most urgent.

By this time the Frau’s good-nature was quite exhausted: she slew him, dressed him, put him in a pot, and boiled him. She kept him boiling for three or four days, but she did not eat him because her teeth were just like anybody’s teeth — no weaker, perhaps, but certainly no stronger nor sharper. So she fed him to a threshing machine of her acquaintance, which managed to masticate some of the more modern portions, but was hopelessly wrecked upon the neck. From that time the poor beldame had lived under the ban of a great curse. Hens took after her as naturally as after the soaring beetle; geese pursued her as if she were a fleeting tadpole; ducks, turkeys, and guinea fowl camped upon her trail with tireless pertinacity.

Now there was a leaven of improbability in this tale, and it leavened the whole lump. Ganders do not roost; there is not one in a hundred of them that could sit on a fender long enough to say Jack Robinson. So, as the Frau lived a thousand years before the birth of common sense — say about a half century ago — when everything uncommon had a smell of the supernatural, there was nothing for it but to consider her a witch. Had she been very feeble and withered, the people would have burned her, out of hand; but they did not like to proceed to extremes without perfectly legal evidence. They were cautious, for they had made several mistakes recently. They had sentenced two or three females to the stake, and upon being stripped the limbs and bodies of these had not redeemed the hideous promise of their shrivelled faces and hands. Justice was ashamed of having toasted comparatively plump and presumably innocent women; and the punishment of this one was wisely postponed until the proof should be all in.

But in the meantime a graceless youth, named Hans Blisselwartle, made the startling discovery that none of the fowls that pursued the Frau ever came back to boast of it. A brief martial career seemed to have weaned them from the arts of peace and the love of their kindred. Full of unutterable suspicion, Hans one day followed in the rear of an exciting race between the timorous dame and an avenging pullet. They were too rapid for him; but bursting suddenly in at the lady’s door some fifteen minutes afterward, he found her in the act of placing the plucked and eviscerated Nemesis upon her cooking range. The Frau betrayed considerable confusion; and although the accusing Blisselwartle could not but recognize in her act a certain poetic justice, he could not conceal from himself that there was something grossly selfish and sordid in it. He thought it was a good deal like bottling an annoying ghost and selling him for clarified moonlight; or like haltering a nightmare and putting her to the cart.

When it transpired that the Frau ate her feathered persecutors, the patience of the villagers refused to honour the new demand upon it: she was at once arrested, and charged with prostituting a noble superstition to a base selfish end. We will pass over the trial; suffice it she was convicted. But even then they had not the heart to burn a middle-aged woman, with full rounded outlines, as a witch, so they broke her upon the wheel as a thief.

Hans Catches the Frau

The reckless antipathy of the domestic fowls to this inoffensive lady remains to be explained. Having rejected her theory, I am bound in honour to set up one of my own. Happily an inventory of her effects, now before me, furnishes a tolerably safe basis. Amongst the articles of personal property I note “One long, thin, silken fishing line, and hook.” Now if I were a barn-yard fowl — say a goose — and a lady not a friend of mine were to pass me, munching sweetmeats, and were to drop a nice fat worm, passing on apparently unconscious of her loss, I think I should try to get away with that worm. And if after swallowing it I felt drawn towards that lady by a strong personal attachment, I suppose that I should yield if I could not help it. And then if the lady chose to run and I chose to follow, making a good deal of noise, I suppose it would look as if I were engaged in a very reprehensible pursuit, would it not? With the light I have, that is the way in which the case presents itself to my intelligence; though, of course, I may be wrong.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31