The Lorelei Signal
Written by Ross Hightower / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
Signe peered at the old woman from the shelter of a mountain laurel. “Beadu.” She mouthed the word, silently. Beadu sat on a small bench beside a fire in front of her tidy home, her head tilted back, to let the sun fall on her face below the brim of a well-worn straw hat. Her lips moved, as if she were singing to herself, though Signe couldn’t hear her above the rustle of leaves, tossed about by a fitful wind. The rumors about the old woman began almost as soon as she arrived two years ago. Everyone said she was a witch. Even Signe’s mother told her to stay away from her, but Signe couldn’t see anything that justified the frightening stories.
Signe was so focused on her thoughts, she almost forgot the two other children who talked her into coming, until Ana’s giggle close to her ear startled her. “What’s she doing?” Signe whispered.
“She’s casting a spell.” Signe glanced at her. The older girl nodded gravely and pointed to the small pot suspended over the fire. “That’s a potion.”
Signe would have found it easier to believe, if Ana’s brother, Oleg, wasn’t standing behind his sister, smirking. She looked back at the woman and shook her head. “She’s not a witch. She’s just a strange old lady who lives in the woods.”
“Well, if you don’t believe she’s a witch, why don’t you go say hello,” Ana said.
Oleg, who had come around behind Signe, shoved her hard from behind, propelling her into the clearing. She stumbled and fell to her hands and knees, but before she fell, she caught a glimpse of the witch’s head snapping toward her. Staring at the sandy dirt between her hands, she listened to Oleg’s and Ana’s laughter fading as they ran back up the path. It was a familiar sound. Forgetting the old woman for a moment, she squeezed her eyes shut, and whispered, “I will not cry.”
Signe’s eyes flew open. How does she know my name? Afraid to look directly at the witch, she tilted her head and peeked through the hair falling around her face. Beadu hadn’t moved from her place by the fire, but she was looking at Signe, her eyes lost in the shadow cast by the brim of her hat. When she saw Signe looking, her lips stretched wide and parted over white teeth. Signe lurched up and backed away, afraid to take her eyes off the old woman. The witch’s leer fell into a grimace. She shot up onto her feet. Signe’s heart thudded. The witch took a step toward her, and she turned and plunged into the mountain laurel. Tangled branches snatched at her hair and clung to her dress. She caught a glimpse of the witch creeping weirdly toward her. The witch’s lips were moving, her words lost below Signe’s thudding heart and gasping breaths. Finally, falling free from the bush, she leapt to her feet and fled.
She ran up the narrow path, snatching glances over her shoulder, expecting to see the witch flying through the forest behind her. Only when she reached the base of the hill on which the village sat, did she some to a stumbling stop. Spinning around, she stood, muscles taut, her mouth clamped shut to quiet her breath. The path was empty. The trill of a mountain bluebird, the chirp of a chipmunk, joined the whisper of the fidgety breeze. Only the reassuring sounds of the forest.
Signe gasped, straightened and forced her fists to unclench, feeling foolish. What must she have looked like struggling to escape the bush? A bark of laughter escaped her lips, then became a whimper. She sucked in a breath and pressed her hand to her mouth. I will not cry. She should have known better. Ana and Oleg were never nice to her unless they were going to tease her or trick her. Why did she always make it so easy for them? She took a quick breath, shook herself and pulled her hair away from her face. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, and turning her back on the shadowy path, she looked up the hill. Ana and Oleg were nowhere to be seen, of course. They had their fun and were probably looking for someone to tell. Growling in frustration, she dropped onto a fallen tree beside the path and gave into her anguish.
When her tears had run their course, she sighed, pushed herself up and stared up at the miller’s house at the edge of the village. She couldn’t go home. It was Dagadis, the day that awful man, Hera Lackliss, always came to visit her mother. She could tell her mother was just being nice to him, but Signe didn’t like the way he watched her when her mother wasn’t looking. He wouldn’t dare come around if Signe’s father was still around. The forest faded as she remembered the day her father left to hunt in the high places. She reached up absently, brushing her fingers across her cheek. She had giggled when her father’s scratchy beard tickled her cheek as he hugged her. He laughed and mussed her hair, promising to be back soon. That was three years ago.
It took months before she and her mother began to pick up the frayed threads of their life. Then the priest came. No one talked about witches until the priest came and built his church. No one teased her or was mean to her mother. Her mother refused to take her to listen to the priest’s sermons, but the teacher in their small school was only too happy to repeat the most lurid parts. Signe suspected it was mainly for her benefit, as she was the only child in the village who didn’t hear it on Dagadis. She sat quietly in class, enduring his disapproval, and though she was forced to listen, she didn’t believe. Her mother told her the priest used the stories of witches, demons and the Otherworld to frighten and control people. Signe believed her mother. Still, she couldn’t help hearing the stories. Sometimes, when you heard the same thing over and over again, no matter how silly, some part of you started to wonder. She planted her hands on her hips and scrunched up her nose. If Beadu wasn’t a witch, how did she know Signe’s name? And the creepy way she moved and smiled… “But mama says there are no witches.” She let her eyes unfocus and replayed the memory. It was just a smile. There was nothing creepy about it. It was just the way the shadow fell across her face. She walked funny because she’s old, that’s all. “She’s no witch,” she murmured.
She wiped her hands down her cheeks. “What are going to do, Signe? Hide here in the forest all day?” Giving her head a firm shake, she thrust her chin out and marched up the hill.
~ * ~
Signe worked the handle of the village’s well, catching the chill water in the other hand and using it to wash her face. Though she told herself she didn’t care, it was a relief to make it to the center of town without encountering any other children. Pumping the handle one last time, she caught the water in both hands, drank it down, then gazed around the village’s square, flicking the water from her fingers. A few adults were going about their business or gathered in small groups, but no one was paying her more than passing interest. She sat on the edge of the platform that surrounded the well, plucking at the blouse of her threadbare dress.
“Can’t go home, Signe?”
Signe startled and twisted around to find Fra Vinton, the baker’s wife, filling a kettle at the well. She looked away, squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then turned her biggest smile on the woman. “My Ma is resting.”
The look the woman gave her brought a flush to Signe’s cheeks. She dropped her eyes again, wishing the woman would go away. When the rhythmic squeak of the pump handle ceased, Signe peeked from lowered eyes and was disappointed to find Fra Vinton, holding her kettle and looking down at Signe with that pitying smile Signe hated. She didn’t know which was worse, the teasing or the pity.
“Bye,” Signe mumbled, relieved. She tilted her head and watched the woman waddling away. Laughter brought her head around. Ana and Oleg were entering the square with some of their friends in tow. They hadn’t seen her yet. She was turning away, to slip out of the square on the opposite side, when something caught her eye. At first she thought it was sun glinting off the window of the apothecary, but it was moving. As it glided silently across the square, Signe got a sense of its shape. It was a glittering ball of light, casting everything nearby in its luminescence. She looked quickly about, but no one else was paying attention to it. She watched, fascinated, as it passed close to Ana, setting off highlights in her blond hair.
Just before it left the square, it stopped, hovered for a moment, then started to move again. Straight at Signe. She backed up, bumped against the trough, sat on the edge and had to plunge her arm into the water to catch herself. Dimly, she noticed the splash alerted the other children to her presence, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the light. She braced herself, wanting to run, but held in place by curiosity. When the orb was two paces away, it stopped. Signe gaped at it as it dipped once, then began to orbit above her head. She turned slowly, keeping it in view. There was a shout behind her, but she ignored it. And then the orb was joined by others. Many others. They flowed into the square from all directions, swirling in the air above her. Signe looked down at herself and found herself awash in lambent light. Laughter, pure and spontaneous, bubbled up out of her.
She lifted her arms, reaching up to the orbs and turning slowly until she came face to face with Ana. Oleg was beside her, and the other children were arrayed behind them. Signe slammed her mouth shut, pivoted and tried to brush past them. Jona, the baker’s oafish son stepped in front of her. She took a step back and looked up, expecting to see the superior smirk Jona reserved for her. Instead, his face screwed up in a pained grimace. He put a hand to his forehead, shook his head, and shuffled backwards.
Signe eyed the space his retreat opened, but others moved over to fill the gap. There was nothing for it. She would just have to endure what had become a familiar ritual. Setting her mouth, she turned to face her chief tormentor.
The frown on Ana’s face was such a surprise, Signe almost asked her what was wrong. She glanced around at the other children and saw the same pained expressions on many of their faces as well. When Ana spoke, it had the forced quality of someone compelled to play out a ritual. “I believe the witch must have cast a spell on you after we left,” she said, earning a few weak titters from the others. Of course, she and her brother told the story to all their friends.
Oleg put his hand on his sister's shoulder. “Ana, do you feel that?”
Ana shook her brother’s hand off. “Whatever it was, it made you even more simple than you were bef— ” She stopped mid-sentence, her mouth open, her eyes widening. “What were you gawking at? Before?”
Signe looked up. The sky was empty. She spun around, searching the square. No lights. Were they real? Maybe the witch did do something to her. She needed to get away. She considered climbing over the trough, but the story would follow her for the rest of her life. Squeezing her hands into fists, she turned to face Ana.
Most of the children were backing slowly away. While she watched, the cobbler’s two sons turned and fled.
“What—” Ana mumbled.
Oleg took his sister’s arm and pulled her backward. “Ana, stop talking.” He put his mouth close to her ear and said between clenched teeth, “We have to go. Now!”
Ana resisted, lifting a hand to the side of her head and grimacing. And then she yanked her arm free of her brother’s grip, turned an astonished glare on Signe, pointed and shouted, “WITCH!”
The other children, who were backing away, stopped, realization transforming their faces. Then, as one, they turned and scattered. All except for Ana who continued to scream, “WITCH!”
The adults who hadn’t been paying attention to the confrontation, stopped in their tracks. Woden, the innkeeper, caught Oleg as he passed. The boy struggled and spoke frantically, then Woden pointed to the church, and gave the boy a push in that direction. When Oleg took off, Signe fled.
Ana’s accusations followed her as she ducked down a narrow alley, running, unthinking, blind to her surroundings. She emerged onto a wider residential street and slowed at the sight of people. Ana’s shouts were barely discernible, but the alarmed buzz traveled fast. Villagers were already gathered in small groups, pointing toward the center of town. Some of them set off toward the square at a jog. Signe took a cross street and ran. She passed the stables. Sven, the stable master’s son, busy exercising a horse, looked up as she passed and watched her as she leapt the corral fence, sprinted across, slipped through the rails on the far side and disappeared into the forest at the edge of town.
She ran until she could no longer see the buildings, then stopped, clamped her hand over her mouth and listened. No one was pursuing her. Yet. She wrapped her arms around herself, sank to the damp debris on the forest floor and stared into the space between the trees. For a moment, shock stilled her thoughts, but then the images of the frightened faces pointed her way when Ana shouted her accusation swirled through her mind. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out. Then she fell to her side and wept.
Later, she rolled onto her back, opened her eyes and gazed at patches of blue sky through the gently swaying forest canopy. The lights were back, orbiting above her, like silent sentinels. They were utterly alien to her, but she couldn’t escape the feeling they knew her, and she knew them.
Bathed in their light, her mind settled, and she began to think. She would have thought it absurd, Ana’s accusation, but for one thing. She had seen the other children playing the game they called ‘kill the witch’. They would call someone a witch, then scatter while the accused chased them. The game always ended the same way. They would drag the witch, hissing and growling, to the pole used in the spring festival and pretend to light the fire. Because everyone knew witches were burned. Signe stared, unseeing, at the sky, remembering the day she and her mother were passing through the square while the children were playing the game. Ana was the witch, and as the others scattered, they stumbled around, their hands clasped to the side of their heads.
Signe tugged on her mother’s sleeve and asked, “What are they doing?”
Her mother stopped and watched the game for a few moments. “It’s one of the signs,” she said and resumed walking. “Supposedly, before a witch learns to control their power, it leaks out and causes discomfort in people nearby.”
Could the children in the square have been pretending just to tease her? No, Ana and Oleg might have been so convincing, but Jora was too stupid. Signe focused on the lights rotating slowly above her. Was their appearance a coincidence? None of the stories mentioned balls of light. She needed to talk to her mother.
~ * ~
Their small home was at the far end of the village, beside the Imperial Highway where it descended into the Ishian River valley. Most of the way home, she stayed in the forest, but she had to emerge to cross the bridge near the mill. Fortunately, she didn’t see anyone. In fact, it was ominously quiet. Even the water wheel was still.
When she made it home, she peered at their small house from the underbrush across the road. The wails coming from the house must be Fra Lothan. Her mother told Signe the woman was due any day. It was just Signe’s luck, today was the day. Still, the noise would allow Signe to slip in unnoticed and hide in their bedroom.
After glancing both ways, she ran across the street and stepped onto the porch, careful to avoid the loose boards. Easing the door open, she peeked in and found the common room empty. Her mother’s soothing reassurances, punctuated by Fra Lothan’s grunts came from the birthing room. She hurried to the bedroom she shared with her mother, slipped in, and shut the door behind her. Putting her back to the door, she gazed around the room. It had been a happy home, once. Before her father disappeared. Signe could never understand why the priest didn’t like midwives, no matter how many times her mother tried to explain. But, whatever the reason, as the church’s influence grew in the village, she and her mother suffered. The women still came to have their babies, but they wouldn’t say hello on the street. Signe could tell from the tempo of Fra Lothan’s labors, the baby was close.
And then what? The only thing she knew was that she would have to leave. She didn’t know what people would do to her mother because her daughter was a witch, but it could only be worse if she stayed. She piled her few belongings into the center of a blanket, drew the corners together, and tied them. She would need food. Returning to the common room, she looked into the nearly bare cupboard. Half a loaf of stale dark bread, a block of cheese, two sausages and a couple of onions. One would think people would be more generous to the woman who brought their children into the world. She was still staring at the cupboard when the door banged open. Signe jumped backwards, her head swiveling toward the door. Lackliss stood in the doorway, a triumphant smile on his face.
“Got her,” he shouted over his shoulder and started forward, throwing their small table aside.
Signe looked to the door of the birthing room. The moment of crises had arrived. The baby was coming. She turned to flee toward the bedroom, but before she could take a step Lackliss’s hand clamped onto her arm. She beat at the hand until his other hand caught her wrist.
“Mama!” she screamed, tearing her throat.
Other men squeezed into the small room, taking her arms and pulling her hands behind her back. She felt them tying her wrists with a rough hemp rope, then they lifted her and carried her to the door. Fra Lothan’s high, piercing scream came from the birthing room.
Outside, they set her down and Lackliss appeared in front of her. He grimaced. “She’s got the sign, alright.” A chorus of agreement rose from the gathering crowd.
When he bent down to tie her ankles, Signe saw her mother standing in the doorway. Her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows, her hands drenched in birthing blood.
Signe struggled vainly. “Mama!” she shouted, her voice ragged.
Her mother’s eyes met hers for a moment, more disappointment in her expression than horror or anger. Signe mouthed, “Mama.” Her mother shook her head, turned away and closed the door.
Lackliss stood, blocking her view. “I always knew there was something wrong with you.”
Signe stared at his chest, barely listening. Her mother just turned away. They were going to burn her daughter, and she just looked disappointed.
Her legs collapsed. She hung limply between the hands gripping her arms. They lifted her and began to move. She knew where they were going. They were taking her to center of town. To the priest.
The lights had returned. They swirled around the crowd, as they marched through the street, unseen by everyone but Signe. The crowd swelled as they approached the center of the village.
She recognized the priest’s stentorian exhortations before they entered the square. The rest of the villagers were gathered in front of the church. The priest, garbed in his vestments, was visible from his place on the steps of the church. He stopped in mid-sentence when Signe appeared, his glower transforming into a triumphant smile. Lifting his hand, he pointed dramatically, and said, “Behold! The witch!”
The crowd in front of the church turned and parted, opening a path for Signe’s procession. Signe struggled, but it was no use. They set her down in front of the priest, gripping her arms. The priest smiled down at her. “The spawn of the midwife. Why am I not surprised?” He looked out over his gathered congregation and spoke in a normal voice that carried in the silence. “And what does Daga require of us? What must we do with this witch, to please our god?”
There was the barest hesitation, then Signe’s neighbors, the people who knew her all her life, chorused, “Burn her!”
The priest swept his arm across the crowd and shouted, “Gather wood. Tonight, we build a bonfire for the glory of our god, Daga.”
The press of the crowd loosened as some left to do the priest’s bidding. It’s not real. The villagers told stories of witches. The children played the game, but they wouldn’t go through with it. Signe searched familiar faces, looking for doubt, sympathy, a friendly face. Instead, she saw fear, anger, and righteous vindication. She sagged against the hands holding her and looked up at the priest. His satisfied smile was the last thing she saw before a hood was drawn over her head, cutting off all light. The men lifted her and carried her toward the post. A hymn rose up. People snatched at her sleeves, her skirt, they hurled insults and prayers at her. They set her down and held her while someone struggled with the knot holding her hands. She felt it loosen, then they pressed her back against the post and her hands pulled painfully behind her and retied.
A frenzied wall of sound pinned her against the post; voices raised in song, angry insults, manic laughter and, above it all, the priest’s exhortations. “Stack the wood high! Bring the oil!”
Signe panted. Inside the thick hood, she couldn’t catch her breath. Her head swam. She lurched away when logs clattered to the cobbles at her feet, pulling at her bindings. The sharp odor of burning pitch, torches, penetrated the hood. She opened her mouth to vent her terror, taking a breath and sucking the fabric of the hood into her mouth.
A scream that wasn’t her own pierced the ferment and cut off, as if snipped with scissors. The hymn grew ragged and trailed away. The oaths and prayers quieted, leaving only the shuffling of feet and whispers. Signe froze, straining to hear what was happening.
“So, you reveal yourself,” the priest’s voice boomed out. “Gentles, gather more wood, for tonight we burn two witches.”
He was answered immediately. “You foolish old man. Do you think I am as defenseless as this child?”
The voice was familiar, but muffled by the hood, Signe couldn’t place it. She stood on trembling legs, something too ephemeral to be called hope, keeping her upright.
There were frightened murmurs from the crowd. Then the priest said, “Do not fear this witch. Daga will protect us from her evil.”
Signe held her breath, willing her savior to respond, to argue for her life. When she finally spoke, it was with such weariness, Signe’s heart quailed. “Priest, the only thing that protects you is my patience.”
In the long moment of silence that followed, Signe whispered to herself, “Please, please, lose your patience.”
And, as if answering her prayer, the voice said, “And my patience has worn thin.” She felt a small buffeting, as of a puff of wind on the hood, followed by a grunt, a thunk and splintering wood.
Chaos erupted. Screams, squeals, growls, the slap of running feet. Knowing only that she had been given a momentary reprieve, Signe fought against the rope binding her wrists, then lurched away from a hand that gripped her shoulder.
“Stay still, Signe,” the voice said near her ear. Her fear vanished in an instant, chased by astonishment. She recognized the voice. But it couldn’t be.
She screamed as a roar, as of a giant bonfire, drowned out all other sounds, but though she felt the heat, she did not burn.
The roar subsided into a low rumble, allowing the screams and shouts to emerge once again. The hand on her shoulder lifted, then someone began to cut away the rope binding her wrists. When her hands were free, the person went to work on the rope at her ankles. Signe snatched the hood from her head and gaped down at the person kneeling on the cobbles in front of her.
Her mother glanced up and said, “Hush, Signe. Wait until we get away.”
Numbly, Signe stared around at the nearly deserted square. Only a few brave souls peered at them from around corners or windows. The church was burning merrily, on its way to a great bonfire. The priest lay broken before the doors, his vestments beginning to smolder.
“Mama, did you do tha—” she got out before her mother pulled her into motion. They crossed the square, headed toward the road Signe took after her encounter with Beadu. She was staring at the inferno that was the village church, allowing her mother to pull her along, when her mother came to a stop and jerked Signe around behind her. Signe peered around her, at Lackliss and three other men, who stood in the center of the street, bows drawn. They loosed their arrows, at the same time her mother lifted her hand. Signe flinched away, but the arrows stopped in mid-flight and clattered to the street, as if they had hit a wall. Glittering light, similar to the orbs she saw earlier, emanated from the spots the arrows stopped. Lackliss gaped, and the other men turned and fled. Her mother thrust her hand toward Lackliss, and he flew backward, tumbling on the cobbled street before stopping in a tangled heap.
Her mother pulled Signe into motion again. She followed on wooden legs, staring at the body as they passed. Her mind finally caught up as they were entering the forest along the path to Beadu’s home. A giddy sense of relief washed over her. She was going to live!
“Signe, shhh. Wait until we get away from the village.”
“But you’re a witch.” Her mother took a breath and blew it out, but she didn’t say anything. Signe let her mother pull her along by the arm. “But you said there was no such thing as witches.”
Her mother let her arm go but kept walking. “We are not witches. We are saa’myn.” She looked down at her daughter’s uncomprehending face and smiled. “Long before the church came, we were women who were respected, even revered.”
“You! You’re a witch!” Signe said, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
Her mother harrumphed. “Really Signe, how many times have I told you, you must not let these people fill your head with silly ideas.”
The small balls of light filled the forest. Signe stopped and looked up, then rushed to keep up. “Mama, do you see the lights?”
Her mother glanced up. “Yes, these are the lan’and, the land spirits. They are the saa’myn’s guardians, friends…they are the source of our magic.” She stopped and looked around, then stooped to peer under a spruce beside the path. “It was here, I’m quite sure.”
Signe watched her mother, then looked over her shoulder. They weren’t so far into the forest that she couldn’t see the smoke rising from the burning church through the trees. The shouts of the villagers fighting the fire rose briefly above the wind. She looked back at her mother and asked, “Did you know I would be a witch?”
“Oh, yes,” her mother said, then, as if noticing the accusation in her daughter’s voice, she sat back on her heels and looked up at Signe. “But not for a couple of years.” She smiled and added, “You are quite young to have spirit sight. I thought I had more time.” She returned to peering under the spruce. “Also, you must stop saying witch.”
“But you didn’t tell me about…saa…”
“Saa’myn,” her mother said absently. “The wrong word in the wrong ear, would be all it took. You can’t talk about what you don’t know.”
Signe watched her mother searching under the spruce tree, working through what she said. Finally, somewhat mollified, she gazed up at the lights drifting through the branches.
“Looking for this?”
Signe jumped and looked down the path. Beadu emerged from the shadows, holding two travel sacks over her shoulder.
“Hello, mother,” Signe’s mother said and climbed to her feet.
Beadu gave Signe’s mother a hug, then said, “Hello, Signe.”
“Hi,” Signe mumbled. The strange old lady in the woods was her grandmother?
“If possible, can you save your ‘I told you sos,’ until we get away from here,” her mother said, settling the strap of one of the travel sacks on her shoulder.
“I will say no such thing. You had a good life here. Until your husband went missing and the priest came.”
Her mother sighed. “There will always be priests who come, it seems.”
“Humph. There’s not a child younger than ten in this village who doesn’t owe their entry into the world to you,” Beadu said. “They didn’t deserve you.”
“Thank you, mother.” Signe’s mother sighed and smiled at the older woman. “I’ve missed you.”
“And I you. I came as soon as I heard about your husband, but you were right to stay away. The old priest had his minions watching me constantly, the old fool.” She took in her daughter’s guilty expression and gave her a firm nod. “Serves him right.”
“I suggest we get on before they find their courage,” Signe’s mother said.
Signe was staring at Beadu, when her mother’s words filtered through her racing mind. “Are we leaving?” she asked hopefully.
“Yes, Signe. I hoped to spare you this kind of life, but it seems they have left us little choice.”
“I don’t mind,” Signe said. She followed Beadu down the path and asked, “Are you a witch too?”
“Really, my daughter, you must teach this girl some respect,” Beadu said. “But yes, Signe, I am a saa’myn, as was my mother and her mother before her.” She smiled down a Signe and said, “And now you are, as well.”
Signe walked in silence, watching the spirits frolicking among the branches, then asked, “Where are we going?”
“We will go where the road takes us,” Beadu said. Her mother joined her when she added, “And there we will find ourselves a new life.”
Signe looked back, but the smoke was now obscured by the trees. She took her mother’s hand. When her mother smiled down at her, Signe said, “We’ll find someplace they still respect saa’myn, Mama.”
Somehow, after spending most of his life in the south, Ross Hightower found himself living in Milwaukee and loving it. One cold, snowy morning, not too long ago, he woke with a story stuck in his head. That wasn't unusual, but what happened next was unprecedented. He wrote it down. That small story grew into his first novel, Spirit Sight. While he anxiously waits for its publication, Ross and Debby, his partner of 34 years, are hard at work on a prequel. Some might wonder why it took so long to find their calling in life, but Ross is just grateful he has.