An Coinín Diabhal
by Jade Braden
Croagh, Ireland 1861
From up the stairs she could hear Mother and Father upset. Father was swearing revenge and Mother must have been begging him not to go, but as Caoilainn crept down the bare wooden stairway to intervene, the front door slammed. Mother sat at the kitchen table and brushed her tears away as Caoilainn came into the kitchen. Caoilainn did not ask what was wrong. She thought it must have been the butter, for there was none in the cabinets to be found.
“Caoilainn, come pray with me child.”
“Where did Father go?” The girl asked.
She sat beside her mother and folded her hands in prayer.
“He’s gone off accusing old Widow Ryan of witchcraft, against all my begging and pleading. There’s nothing to stop him but the grace of God Himself. Whether she has been the one to hex us, she surely will now.”
Rory had crept down the stairs and now came forward into the kitchen.
“Well, Mother, I can go find him for you.”
She hushed him harshly, “It’s no thing for children to go toward a witch’s house.”
She bade him sit and pray with them until Finn began to cry from his crib. Mother got up and held him on her hip, pacing the small downstairs back and forth until the sky grew dusky, waiting for Father.
Mother’s sister reached the house before Father did. Mother let her in amidst her pacing and Rory and Caoilainn rushed to their aunt who always had something for them in the way of treats.
“Beggars, the both of you!” She laughed roundly.
She gave them each a piece of soda bread and they contented themselves at the bare table with their goods.
“Brigid, we’re having dinner tomorrow. We’ve got us a fair haul of rabbits and we’re celebrating the good luck God has given,” Aunt Katie announced.
“But we cannot.”
“I see nothing to stop you.”
Mother burst into tears once more, upsetting Finn. She handed the baby off to Caoilainn who bounced him on her knee as she pinched the crumbs of sweet bread into her mouth.
“Katie, it’s worse than I can say,” Brigid wiped her eyes on her apron, “We been bewitched and I can’t say for what. I pray all day through, but the cows bring no more butter and the animals have gone from the forest. We have nothing to repay you.”
“Oh now you hush and come to dinner. No good ever came from starving. God sent extra rabbits to us in order that we may share, Him hearing your prayers I’m sure.”
“Sean hasn’t come home yet and I’m sick with worry for he went cursing and accusing Widow Ryan for our misfortune.” Brigid wrung her hands.
Katie guided her to a chair, “You go and rest yourself, I’m sure he’s just beyond the hills. The fae won’t be bothering him none.”
“It isn’t the Good People I worry about, it’s the witch. And what do you mean by visiting here at dark, Kate?”
“So superstitious,” she scoffed, “There’s nothing out there to get me while I say my prayers walking home.”
“Don’t be expecting me to let you leave now with the devil and his kind out.”
Katie shook her head, “You get yourself to bed Brigid, you’ve had enough. I’ll look after the children meanwhile.”
Brigid refused to sleep before her husband came home. Katie was bright in the meantime, telling stories of old heroes and witches caught for their misdeeds. Caoilainn and Rory listened with perfect attention and even Finn looked on without fussing. Sean had been two hours gone when they saw a lantern coming up the walk. He pushed in the door and his heavy boots crossed the threshold. Brigid rushed to him, fretting over her husband from head to toe.
“God bless you, Sean. How are you?” Katie asked.
Sean brushed Brigid off as she crossed him with holy water.
“The woman is nothing but trouble,” he grumbled, “Brigid, leave me be, I’ve not been cursed.”
Brigid proceeded to sign the cross over the doorway and Sean muttered under his breath about the trouble of Widow Ryan.
“Off to bed,” Sean commanded of his children.
They were reluctant, but obedient, and gave goodnight to all before returning upstairs. They could hear the adults conferring in the kitchen beneath, but could decipher nothing of the witch. They imagined her as a crippled old woman with a hunch in her back. People in the village occasionally claimed to see her flying high in the sky during the full moon on a broomstick. Others claimed her to be a shapeshifter, sneaking into their yards to steal away their chickens or strike their cows down with illness.
Often, in the past months, Caoilainn had seen a rabbit sitting on the edge of the yard, just at the tree line. It was a large, grey rabbit, surveying its dominion as if it were some predator. Just once, it had been a dark brown rabbit. Rory had shot at it for sport but it refused to do so much as flinch. He was no failure as a marksman. Father was prideful at the market presenting the clean shots that Rory skillfully put through the eyes of smaller game. There had been no animals in the woods since spring, save that grey rabbit.
“Do you think it was Widow Ryan?” Caoilainn whispered in the dark.
“If it were, I wish I had killed her.”
“She’s a witch, do you think a gun could kill her?”
Rory said nothing.
“Do you really think she sold her soul to the devil?”
“I don’t know. Hush now.”
Footsteps could be heard on the stairs and soon Katie came in with a lantern.
“Aren’t we having dinner tonight?” Caoilainn asked.
Katie produced another chunk of sweetbread for the children to share.
“What did Father say about Widow Ryan?” Rory asked.
Katie shook her head, “Your Mother would say it’s no talk for children.” She paused, “However, the village says Widow Ryan has brought an awful lot of butter and game to sale. She denies all. Says she practices the Good Word. I’m not here to slander those who I do not know.”
“You think she’s a witch!” Rory accused.
“I think it’s time for you to say your prayers and sleep,” she caressed his smooth cheek.
* * *
Soon after, Father took sick. Brigid cried and cursed Widow Ryan for afflicting her husband so, and still the cows produced no milk, nor the forest game. Even Finn could sense the absence of God for he fussed day in and day out.
“We can’t carry on like this,” Caoilainn said.
She and Rory had given up on milking the cows. They had grown irritable and amongst the three of them had not produced so much milk as to cover the bottom of the pale.
“I’ll see that witch myself,” Rory vowed, tossing what little, sour milk there was aside.
“She’ll hex you too.”
“We’re starving and Father is sick. I heard of people tricking witches before. Do you think yourself clever at all?”
* * *
The children left Mother home to tend to Father. They took Finn away with them, but brought him to Katie’s and left under the guise of returning home. Instead, they walked into the woods and found the path toward Widow Ryan’s cabin. It was small and ill-worn for lack of use and Caoilainn’s skirt collected twigs and brambles along the way. The day was still bright, as they had set out in the morning, but the coverage of the forest obscured the light and caused a damp chill beneath its branches. Rory held fast to his gun, loaded with bullets they had sprinkled with Holy Water.
Caoilainn began to shiver, from fear or from cold, as the cabin came into sight from over the ridge. She crossed herself and encouraged Rory to do the same. They paused at the tree line. Ahead of them was a grassy slope, opening up to a field where Widow Ryan’s shabby abode stood. They could see her cows in the pasture, fat and healthy, as well as pelts hanging in the yard. Widow Ryan was in no time of hardship. As they built up courage to descend the hill Rory heard the rustling of a bush to their left. From it emerged a rabbit.
“That’s the dark rabbit I’ve seen in the yard,” Caoilainn gasped.
Rory set his gun toward it and it stared back, looking at them with human-like eyes.
He got one shot off but the creature bolted down the hill and toward the house. The children chased it as Rory reloaded and set to fire again, but it eluded them with impeccable intelligence, darting this way and that, always just out of reach. The rabbit made it to the door and Rory aimed again. It was a fat creature and struggled to get through the hole in the door’s bottom corner. Its hind was stuck for just a moment before the gun cracked and the rabbit disappeared from the doorway. Rory ran over to survey for damage with Caoilainn shortly behind. He poked his finger through the hole in the door, which was now noticeably larger and rolled the splinters between his fingers. Had the rabbit still been stuck, there was no chance he had failed to hit it. Caoilainn screamed.
She pointed to a lump on the ground, writhing and bleeding into a grass. It had the appearance of that which was somewhere between a rabbit and a human foot, and as it continued to convulse, the hair disintegrated. It was transforming before their eyes: a hideous and unexplainable sight that turn their stomachs. The foot became more human than animal, stretching larger, toes distinguishing themselves from one another, soft white skin glowing where the fur fell away.
Naked, a severed, now human foot lay still on the ground to the side of the door. Rory inspected the appendage and gauged that it looked like a young woman’s, soft as if the owner had never known labor, dainty, unnaturally perfect. Fearful, he turned and ran.
Caoilainn hesitated. The foot began to twitch once more, warping until its form resembled a goat’s hoof. The pinkish toenails congealed into one and turned black and thick. Hair grew straight and course on the ankle, which cracked and writhed until it was animal. Compelled by the strangeness of it all, she reached for the remains and weighed them in her hands. For certain it was no longer a human foot. Hearing a struggle from inside the house, she dropped the bewitched object.
“Be damned! Be damned!” a voice screeched.
A young woman stumbled out of the house, crawling on her hands and knees, covered in blood as a low wail continued from inside. Caoilainn hid behind the shrubbery against the hut watching the young woman in horror as she removed a human foot from her shawl, far too wrinkled to match her smooth, lily white hands. Thick dark hair obscured the woman’s face but Caoilainn could tell she was far too young to be Widow Ryan or of any known kin to her. The cries of pain that emanated from the house were pitiful and horrible. The old voice was tired and hoarse, indistinct and miserable and Caoilainn knew not whether she feared more the old woman’s cries or the young woman’s strangeness.
The young woman set the foreign foot on the ground before her, removed a knife from the folds of her dark skirt, and slit her palm so that her own blood trickled down onto it. She lifted her skirts, revealing a ragged stump and placed it on top of the cleanly severed ankle. She cried out, and as the bone and flesh healed around the appendage. The foot itself transformed as well, becoming perfectly white and smooth to match the rest of her body. The woman broke into unearthly peals of laughter and rose to her full height. Caoilainn covered her mouth to stop herself from crying out and buried her head in her skirts so she could see no more. She could hear the woman’s footsteps as they neared the house, suddenly stopping not a couple strides from her.
“Out of hiding, child. Out now,” she said. The voice was firm, but gentle.
Caoilainn rose, trembling, and the woman got down to her knees. She was very beautiful, with milky skin and a rosebud mouth. Had Caoilainn not seen her in all her wretchedness, she would have seemed a kindly stranger. But she could not look into her too familiar eyes.
The woman caressed the young girl’s cheek, pushing the tear dampened blonde strands from her face.
“Oh, what a beautiful child,” she sighed.
Caoilainn could feel the woman appraising her. She tried to hold her gaze but those eyes, the rabbit’s eye, unsettled something deep within her.
“You starve,” she said. “Your whole family starves. You don’t wish that do you? You want their health? Poor Father. Poor Finn.”
Tears streamed from Caoilainn’s eyes as she nodded.
“That will do.”
The woman kissed her forehead and Caoilainn swooned.
* * *
“Come on, Caoilainn!” Rory tugged at her hand.
She surveyed the land around her. It was still Widow Ryan’s cows, and fields, and trees, but the young woman had disappeared. Rory followed her eyes, but could discern nothing and pulled her along.
“We need to go home.”
The boy tugged his sister away from the property and back toward home though she was slow and sluggish. A quiet moan still emitted from the Widow Ryan’s home. Meanwhile a fat, brown rabbit watched the children from the window as they ran back toward the woods; with keen, knowing eyes.
* * *
Katie was surprised to see her niece and nephew in such a frenzy at her door. They confessed their lie and begged forgiveness through their tears which had flowed plentifully since their fleeing. Katie ushered them inside and bid them say their prayers for lying and sneaking off to a witch’s cabin. They prayed with the whole family for an hour’s time until Katie and her husband shooed their own children off to the yard so that Rory and Caoilainn could recount what they saw.
“And then there was a big ugly rabbit beside us—”
“With human eyes,” Caoilainn said.
“And we chased it all through the yard to the door and I shot at it again, but couldn’t see if I hit it and then Caoilainn sees this ugly thing squirming on the ground and it looked like a rabbit’s foot, but then transformed back to a human’s and it was the ugliest thing I ever saw in my life!”
The adults shared a worried glance, for it sounded like the devil’s work.
“Now you all get home,” Katie began, “And you say your prayers the whole way.”
She prepared a basket of food and felt for fever in each of them before handing it over, “It isn’t natural, what you all described. It’d be best you don’t tell you parents; lest they think you bewitched or unwell.”
Caoilainn and Rory returned home with Finn, saying their prayers every step, crossing themselves at every unnatural noise.
When they returned their Father was out of bed. A cough still affected him, but he was better than when they had seen him last. Brigid hugged her children, “I do believe God has finally heard us.”
* * *
Over the next few days, word began to spread that Widow Ryan had taken unwell. In the markets she walked with a limp she never had a day before in her life, and brought much less butter and much less game to sell. They all whispered how unnatural it had been for her to live so long alone and so far away with no children to care for her.
“I heard she had a child once,” Rory said to all of Brigid and Katie’s children as they played in the yard.
He was the eldest at fourteen and bore the respect that came with it, though Caoilainn wasn’t more than a year behind him.
“A wee one, only days old. She sacrificed it to the devil to gain her powers and her husband died of shock.”
None of the children had ever known Widow Ryan’s husband, including Rory. Their parents hadn’t either, so all was speculation.
Soon Widow Ryan stopped showing up to market altogether. Father had completely recovered then, and he joined a group of men to see what had become of her. Rory tagged along, having been deemed old enough for men’s work. He later recounted what he saw to the younger children:
“We came over the hill, and we could see no one had been tending to the cows nor the chickens, so we suspected she hadn’t left the house in a right while. We went down, slow-like with one of the men praying aloud because Widow Ryan could’ve been cursing us as we walked. The men up front got to the house and Father knocked on the door—having done it before and survived—but there was no answer. With her limp, we didn’t expect the witch to have made it very far and we see this big split in the bottom of the door where something must have broken a good deal off, so we wonder if she’d been robbed, being all alone out there.”
Rory didn’t admit he was the one who put the hole in the door.
“We pushed the door and it glided open so a couple of the men stepped inside—”
“Did you go in the witch’s hut?” Caoilainn asked.
He shifted on his feet and a tinge of pink spread through his cheeks.
“Well, no. But they said it looked like a witch’s dwelling: herbs and animal bones hanging from the walls and a book of spells and the like. But there she was on the chair near the fireplace, dead as anything and missing her whole right foot!”
Some of the younger children screamed.
“Hush now, all you,” Rory warned. He looked around to make sure neither Brigid nor Katie had come out to see the fuss.
“But the witch is finally dead and Father says the cows are giving milk again and no one else’s chickens have gone astray since.”
Caoilainn and Rory looked at one another.
“How’d she die then?” Caoilainn asked meekly.
Rory cleared his throat, holding his audience in suspense “They said her leg was damned rotten, cut clean through the bone. I think the devil finally got tired of her and wanted to collect his debt.”
He spat in the dirt. Caoilainn didn’t believe his bravado.
“A woman like that isn’t natural,” he said. “Not natural at all.”
* * *
Caoilainn woke up in the middle of the night to scuffling in the room. She rolled over to look for Rory and through the weak moonlight could see his form in his bed. She dismissed it and closed her eyes once more. When she awoke again a weight sat in the middle of her chest. Her eyes fluttered open and the dark rabbit stared into them.
“We made our deal, Caoilainn,” it said.
It had the voice of the strange woman. The girl could not cry out.
“I made no deal,” she whispered.
“You ended Widow Ryan’s service to me,” the woman’s voice grew unnaturally low, until it was guttural and inhuman. “You shall replace her.”
Caoilainn tried to cross herself but could not move her hands.
“There’s no telling when I may need a new foot.”
* * *
In the morning the girl’s bed was empty, and for every morning after the same. No search nor prayer could ever produce her and the grey rabbit disappeared forever from her parents’ yard. Despite her absence all was peaceful and prosperous in the village without any disparity too great between the success or starvation of families. Chickens were safe in their coups and cows produced their bounty. Widow Ryan’s death had ended the witch hunt for several years, despite rumors that the devil had been responsible for Caoilainn’s disappearance.
“Takes a witch to kill a witch,” some women whispered.
Other’s felt sorry, imagining that the devil had swept the girl off and forced her into hellish servitude.
Eventually, most forgot Caoilainn’s disappearance and stopped crossing themselves every time they went out into the yard. The incident had all but been put behind them, until families began to see a new rabbit, small and blonde, sitting on the edge of their land. The cows and chickens fell ill once more.
About the Author:
Jade Braden is an author and artist, based in Ohio. She has been published in FANGLE, Sphere, Scribendi Magazine, and is currently working on her undergraduate creative writing thesis at Ohio University. Jade often explores gothic, religious, feminist, and queer themes in her writing. Website: jadebraden.com