“Witches” – NYC Midnight Short Story Submission 2021

One of my favorite past-times is to participate in flash fiction competitions through NYC Midnight. Each competitor is divided up into individual groups that are then assigned a specific genre, subject and character and then given a limited amount of time and words to create a cohesive short story. They have multiple types of contests, however the format is similar. I find it to be a fun little challenge and it gets my creative juices flowing.

For the first heat of this years competition I was given: genre – ghost story, subject – dancing, and character – an informant. The length was limited to 2,000 words and the time allotted to craft this entry was 3 days. While, I did not place in the top 5 of my group, and advance onto the next stage, I did at least earn a “third honorable mention.” So in my mind I got 8th place out of 28 other competitors. I am curious to know if I could or would have placed higher had I actually included ghosts in my “ghost story.” My interpretation of a “ghost story” is an other-worldly and spooky tale told around a campfire. It did not, for whatever reason, occur to me that the tale should in-fact contain a spiritual entity.

Below is the story I submitted and immediately following are the judges critiques. I feel their critical feedback is sound. However there were two points that I didn’t agree with, but it teaches me that next time I need to not be subtle with certain details, and really hammer the point home.

************

“Witches”

The word that witches had come to the hamlet of Milium spread through the village like a plague. The women gathered, adorned in their black dresses and white bonnets, in the muddy streets, to gossip about them in hushed tones.

“They only come out at night.”

“I heard they have magical abilities.”

“Not only that, but they eat children.”

“Not just the children.”

“They consume your flesh and soul so that they can wear it as their own.”

“They won’t stop until they get the entire village.”

The husbands weren’t taken as quickly by such prattle. They needed more than just rumors. As they worked in the tan wheat fields, the grain slapping at their waists, they shared their doubts. They chuckled at the absurdity as their scythes cut through the blades.

“But it’s true!”

“Elder Nixolas Venator was out on a hunt and stumbled upon a ritual circle in the woods.”

“There were animal carcasses.”

“Bones!”

“Blood!”

From the streets and the fields, the townspeople carried their worries through the week to the wooden pews. There they sat anxiously beneath the vaulted ceiling, before the towering pulpit, seething with anxiety.

Reverend Prandem attempted to ignore the shake and shivers of his flock; this is God’s time. It belonged to His worship. Try as he might to ignore them, one by one, they heaved their terror upon their spiritual leader.

“What of witches.”

“Why are they here?”

“They want to take us to hell!”

“Who here is a witch?”

“Show yourselves, you vile women!”

Reverend Prandem’s words cut through the chorus of voices.

“This is hallowed ground,” he leaned over his pulpit, gripping its edge, “In the house of the lord, no daughter of Satan would or could dare walk within.”

A high-pitched giggle punctured his words.

The townspeople got their feet, trembling as they looked for the source of the voice.

“Who was that? Did you hear who?”

“They’re far more powerful than we had thought.”

“We’re doomed!”

A chill ran up the Reverend’s body and clutched his heart. Listening to each line as it was hurled through the air, his thoughts spun into chaos. Sweat beaded on his brow.

“Silence, my brothers and sisters! Jesus Christ has all the power here. No need to fear. Now sit!”

There was a whisper of garments and murmur of creaks from pews as the congregation followed his order.

“I will get to the bottom of this.”

He stared out at the cluster of people.

“Who amongst us has any proof?”

A man and a woman stood, pointing to a frail man with straw hair and deep-set eyes. His gaunt face was etched in panic.

“Brother Venator, speak with me after the sermon.”

The man gulped and then nodded.

Those before him took the holy man’s plan of action and calmed, allowing the spiritual lessons that followed to pierce their hearts and souls. They left evermore glad than when they had arrived.

The two men converged in the quiet of the Reverend’s office, through a side door behind the pulpit. It was empty but for a desk and chair and a towering Bible resting on a pedestal. They stood before them.

“Brother Venator, I am thrusting upon you a holy quest,” the Reverend said.

Venator’s eyes doubled in size.

“You must be my informant. The Lord commands that you go to this font of wicked knowledge and bring back further proof and perhaps identities.”

“Reverend, I do not think that I am up to the task.”

“You must, for our safety. This incessant gossip has gotten out of hand.”

“Do you not believe that there are witches?”

“Did you not hear that unearthly sound during my sermon? Of course, I do.” He took a deep breath. “You witnessed proof of their existence. Go there, hide, and return to me your news. We must put a stop to it. Your testimony will bring the townsfolk resolve, and you will find your riches in heaven.”

The spiritual leader placed his hands on the edge of Venator’s shoulders.

“God will protect you. I give you His blessing.”

Nixolas Venator gathered up his coat, ax, blanket, and rations. His wife pecked him on the cheek and ushered him out into the woods as his heart pounded in his chest and echoed in his ears. Shivering, he forged the path until it ceased to exist and then wound his way through the briar and rock until he found his way to the clearing.

One would have missed it had they not been paying close attention. A ring of jagged stones cut the thicket from the clearing like talons. Dark earth and a smattering of pebbles filled the emptiness up to another circle of granite chunks in the center. Neither blood nor bone could be seen amongst the glade since he had last come upon it. Where it had gone, he did not know.

His eyes pierced through the dying light for any other entities, but he saw none.

Venator knew he had to work with haste as to not to be discovered. With careful haste, he trod lightly around the ritual grounds, as to not leave a print, and found a spot in the brush, just to the east. He made a hunter’s hiding place and waited.

For five nights, he did the same but witnessed nothing. Doubt crept into his thoughts, making him wonder if he had, in fact, seen the blood and bone. Perhaps it was his imagination. Maybe there were no witches after all.

At three in the morning, on the sixth night, Nixolas was awoken by a high-pitched giggle.

The brush about him shuddered as he sat upright. He peered through the leaves, and two rocks, at a fire that had been set in the middle ring.

His limbs went numb.

Six cloaked figures moved about the glade with their cowls over their head. From within the shadow of their hoods, they focused on the burning tips of the dried sprigs they held aloft. They made circular motions with them in the air, leaving behind a trail of serpentine smoke.

When each witch had passed by his view, they stopped and turned toward the fire.

A duo of drums erupted in the silence and beat a measured rhythm.

The figures swayed to it, from side to side, back forth, like a clock pendulum. And after each designated set, the tempo got faster. When it reached a furious throb, the witches kicked out their legs and threw out their hands. The movements were disjointed and unorganized.

The witches danced around the fire. They stabbed and cut through the night air.

The flames growing higher, filling the clearing with light and leaving everything beyond in shadow.

Another set of drummers joined the first two, deepening the rhythm. It was then that the figures shed their cloaks to reveal their naked, milky bodies beneath.

Nixolas instinctively averted his eyes from their sinfulness and blushed. As they were indeed not men. But he knew that he had to get their identities to save the village. He prayed a silent prayer for forgiveness before he turned back to their nude dancing. He squinted against the brightness of the flames as he tried to make out their faces, but the shadows cast by the flames danced across their facial features, changing them. They morphed from one to another. Ever shifting, never staying the same.

Brother Venator found it hard to breathe.

Another set of drums joined the chorus, and the witches started to chant. The words were garbled and guttural. Their voices bellowed from deep within their shapely bodies.

The flames got even taller, pouring out waves of heat over the circle.

The wind picked up, swaying the trees to the meter but not disturbing the growing conflagration.

The witches danced faster. Their movements were quick and sharp.

More drums joined. The percussion’s booms pierced Venator’s chest, taking hold of his heart and bending it to conform.

The chants grew louder until they were shrieking into the night—their words gibberish to the lone man’s ears.

Suddenly a bone-chilling scream silenced the chants and the dancers ceased their number, with their heads bowed. Nixolas convulsed.

The fire stretched up toward the night sky until it birthed from it an unearthly form. It took a step out of the flames with cloven feet. Two horns spiraled from the shaggy mane of hair that threatened to consume his flat face.

As he lifted a long bony arm that came to an end in long black talons, the women fell to the earth before him. They moaned in ecstasy.

His two pure black eyes, dissected with a long, thin, white pupil, surveyed those around him and up into the shadows of where Nixolas hid.

The devil sneered at him with dagger-like fangs.

The wind howled through the trees and extinguished the flames, submerging the clearing in total darkness.

The gusts had pummeled against the church for hours, whistling through the cracks in the structure, as Reverend Prandem worked diligently on this week’s sermon. His quill scratched

feverishly against the parchment, spewing forth his holy words of salvation and the promise of paradise—the time lost into the blackness of the night.

A slow, measured knock pulsed from the door of his study, pulling him from his work.

He set his quill to the desk and rushed to open the door.

In the flickering candlelight, he found Venator’s form in the doorway. His head tilted forward and a broad smile on his lips.

“Come in,” he said, stepping aside, “What news have you?”

The man entered the room.

His voice was calm as he told him the details of what had transpired.

“Who were these women?”

“Get a paper,” Venator said.

The Reverend hustled around his desk, brushed aside his former notes to grab an unblemished piece of paper. He picked up his quill and waited.

“Genevieve Pater.”

The Reverend wrote the name in curling script.

“Charlotte Filius.”

The quill scratched on the paper.

“Seamus Prandem.”

The pastor stopped halfway through writing his own name. He looked up slowly into the face of a goat-man with black eyes. The creature bowed his head and charged.

**************

JUDGES FEEDBACK

”Witches” by Joshua Hensley –

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{2124} “Witches” brims with visceral description. Lines like “as his heart pounded in his chest and echoed in his ears” and “The witches danced around the fire. They stabbed and cut through the night air” evoke a dark, frantic mood throughout the story. It’s easy to see why the whole village fears the witches, especially Venator. The ending feels fitting and deliciously grim.

{1970} I think that you have delivered everything a spooky tale reader would love. As I read “Witches” I found myself quite satisfied with the period feel and way the characters relate to each other. The pervasive, oppressive nature of old school religious dogma and strict belief is palpable. Thanks for that, it makes for a gripping tale. I feel for Nixolas as he is sent out, reluctant in is task, to find proof that witches are indeed in town. Chilling tale, thanks.

{1772} The story has a frightening premise that turns from a quest of religious fervor to a darker supernatural tale. Venator has a clear goal to shape his characters. Vivid detail and action bring the plot to life.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{2124} It’s clear that the witches in this story are powerful and threaten the community. What’s less clear is why this matters. Should the readers care that this town could be annihilated? Are the identities of the witches important? If not, what core emotion or idea is this story trying to convey beyond a good fright? Is it related to the priest’s perceived security and power? Consider what ideas you want to further explore in this story, how they mesh with the dialogue and description already present, and what details you could weave in to further bring them out.

{1970} I’m not so sure that this story needs work. You’ve checked off so many boxes. It would be nice to know why the couple stood a point specifically to Nixolas, why did they choose him for the task, what proof does he have? This is a bit confusing because the reverend asks who has proof, the couple points to Nixolas, he’s not happy about it, and then he is sent to find proof. He doesn’t have it already. Anyhoo, this said, it’s a chilling story, so thanks again.

{1772} To help the resolution feel fully earned, it might be worth further exploring Prandem and Venator. At what lengths are they willing to go to find the witches? Do they have ulterior motives? By giving them more inner needs or conflicts, it might help to add another layer to their characters and the plot. For example, Prandem might struggle with a personal wish to rid himself of the women in absence of witchcraft.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s