“It wasn’t witchcraft,” I tell him with my wheezy voice

The Punishment Of Time

 By Alicia Bruzzone

For The Scene of the Unseen Obscene Award

My body creaks in protest I attempt to stand after another harrowed night’s sleep. With a cacophony of cracks and complaint, I finally manage to slightly straighten my throbbing spine, the bed warbling in rusty squeals as I use the metal frame for support. The sound of bed posts scraping over stone floor echoes down the hall; my usual morning revelry.

A staff is thrust in through the cell bars, and I’m too slow to dodge. White hot pain lances my shoulder as the over-zealous guard jitters uncertainly. “Are you attempting to escape?”

Shaking my head, I feebly sit back on the bed. It’s enough trouble for me to walk; I can’t get anywhere fast in this condition. I’ve done nothing but rot the past twelve cycles as my body grows weaker and wearier.

The young guard sneers at me, his top lip puckering. “You might resemble one of us, maybe you even were once some form of human, but practicing witchcraft changed you. You’re a hideous abomination.”

Fire burns through my chest at the insult, heating my blood and ire. A pained laugh finds its way out of my throat, causing the guard to flinch. He can’t bear to look at me for too long. None of them can. They won’t get close enough for me to touch them either. “It wasn’t witchcraft,” I tell him with my wheezy voice, still not resigned to my fate. It doesn’t matter what I say, no one believes. Ironically, the only one on my side is Father Time himself, and he’s what brought me into this mess.

Rattled, the guard leaves, leaving me alone in my dusty cell.

Hips crack and knees screech as I shuffle to my rations. A foreign reflection stares back at me from my water pail. Father Time has not been kind. Skin sags from my neck like a permanent shawl, swaying with an unknown breeze. Eyes once bright now lie dull and lustreless, enclosed by crinkles of folded skin. My forehead, once smooth, now bumps and dips like poorly kneaded dough. I’m barely recognisable from my former self. The guard was right, I used to be like one of them.

With a melancholy ache I dip my hands into the liquid, distorting the image until it can no longer haunt me. Twelve cycles is a long time to be lost to yourself, and they’re beginning to feel like a countdown instead of a tally. How many more can I survive?

“Where is that thing?” a voice snarls from the hall, the steely click-clack of heeled shoes alerting me to a speedy visitor. There isn’t long to wait.

The woman wears a hooded cloak of deep burgundy velvet, signifying her to be part of the council, and hiding her hair from view. “Tell me the foul spell you have wrought before I have you destroyed, insidious creature.” Her dark eyes burn with ire, promising me pain for noncompliance.

Bowing my head respectfully, I clamp my hands together in my lap. “I have done nothing, mistress.”

“You have found a way to spread your affliction! I will not let a treacherous beast become overlord of our kingdom. This curse will be undone.”

Allowing myself a brief moment of contemplation, I close my eyes and let the information she has given me soak in. Soon now. My ordeal was nearly over. As a knowing smile plays across my lips I push gnarled fingers to my mouth, trying to savour a brief moment of buoyant hope.

The councilwoman screams at my response, demanding the guard to open the door that keeps me held captive. With a shuddering jerk the wall to my claustrophobic cell moves, and an agitated face promptly appears at the end of my nose. The councilwoman looks older at this distance, small crow’s feet beginning to frame eyes that are hung heavily with dark circles. “Undo this indecent magic!” she screams at me.

“You’re aging, it’s what happens,” I explain for the thousandth time since entering this colony. Poor health meant they rarely lived past middle aged. Their perennial youth was what had attracted me to the colony in the first place, but it was also why they feared me. They did not know of old age. I’d been too slow, and they’d seen me before my work was done.

“You are naught but a treacherous witch, and I’ll see you hanged!”

Anger bubbles inside me. “Twelve cycles you people have accused me of being an unwholesome creature unworthy of your kindness. No more.”

I clamp one hand on her face while the other grasps the wrist of the guard, and begin to feed. The hunger is insatiable, and the councilwoman is too old to be of use for long, but I take everything they have. I require their relative youth.

With a gasp a haggard woman and ancient man fall to my feet, their faces contorted in pain. Haughtily, I make my way over to my water supply. There is no longer an old woman reflected back.

A genuine smile pulls painfully to my face, forgotten muscles reactivated. They had feared me for my age, and always kept their distance. Next time I wouldn’t take so long to feed, and they’d never know me for the witch they accused me of being.