The stable hand wept. He cried for his helplessness, he grieved for his inaction, and with all his heart he lamented her. For a week he had isolated himself in the horse barn to mourn with nothing to sustain him but trough water. His Lord Master had told him again and again that it was out of his hands and there was nothing anyone could have done to stop it. He also warned that the young man better return to tending to his duties soon or he’d be forced to find a new groomsman.
Well, he tried to do his master’s bidding, but poorly, because he could never escape the horror of the images that were continually projected in his mind’s eye. Another week passed, and he once again found himself in a crowd as he watched feebly while the Bishop pronounced sentence, “In accordance with the Holy Roman Empire’s Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, this girl has been found guilty of malevolent witchcraft and she will face punishment by fire!” The portly and richly-clad so-called “man of God” had spit the word “girl” as a slur, but her only real crime was giving herself to a young man two castes below her station.
The stable hand staggered and dropped the reigns. The horse he’d been leading to the barn ran back to pasture and the young man dropped to his knees. Phantasmagoria overtook him. He stood frozen as they tied her hands behind her back on the stake. His tears blurred the scene when they lit the tinder around her bare feet that were also bound. The despotic flames grew and matched the hue of her long scarlet tresses. She screamed in terror and pain when her velvet dress ignited, and the lad cried out to the heavens as he witnessed her body melt down into charred blackness.
He came to with a sudden resolve, and leaving the horses in the field he returned straightaway to the stable. A fire still burned in the hearth he used to form horseshoes, and he stoked it with the bellows before gathering up as much hay and loose wood that he could find. He piled it all nearby the fireplace, and even tossed on the wooden tools and implements of his trade. If anyone would’ve been present, his intentions would’ve been clear…he was going to set the barn on fire and take his own life.
His face was wet from weeping as he put a fresh torch in the hearth’s fire to serve as the match for his immolation. Once it was lit, he cursed God for his misfortune and reached to pick it up. “There is no God, and even if there is, he is not a god to be worshiped for the evil he oversees!”
When he made that wholly blasphemous declaration, the fire flared up and in the flames he thought he glimpsed the shape of a face. A wind from the fireplace flue whispered a single word, “Nooo…”
He retracted his hand from the torch, “No?”
The fire didn’t answer him, and for some reason he clarified, “No as in a double-negative? No…there is no God?”
Firewood split and hissed, “Yesss…”
His lover’s crimson mane formed around the face in the blaze and he all but fell to the ground in front of the hearth. “My darling, is it really you?”
The wood split again and whistled, “Yesss…” A loud snap added, “Stop!”
The groomsman reached into the flame to touch the apparition, and he pulled his burnt hand back with a yelp, “Stop?! Stop what I’m doing?”
Again steam emanated from a crack in a log, “Yesss…”
He sucked his singed fingers and murmured, “But why my dear? I cannot live without you! This is the only way we can be together.”
A gust swept down the chimney scattering the flames with a loud whoosh, “Shhh…”
For a time he thought he had been hallucinating because her aspect didn’t immediately reappear. So, he remained on the floor and tried to reason with himself, “She says God exists. Well, the church agrees with her, but I see with unblemished eyes what the hypocrites of the church so cruelly and unjustly did to her!”
He peered into the smoke, but when he did not observe her fiery spirit he continued his line of thought, “Church doctrine says that believers will reap an eternal reward and non-believers will gain nothing but hellfire and damnation. She was not a witch! She was a devout believer…and until recently so was I.” He paused, letting his confession permeate his lonely surroundings, and then he remembered another bit of dogma. “If I kill myself the church says I will share the same fate as the unrepentant evil doers and deniers.”
He watched the torch he had set in the hearth burst into flames, and still the fire remained a fire. He pushed the stick into the fireplace and pleaded, “It was impossible for us to marry! We were forbidden by our caste! Even though we may have sinned by sharing our love in spite of being wed, please forgive us…forgive her, Lord! I no longer doubt that I saw her ghost, so please God, I pray she did not speak to me from hell but instead from heaven!”
The torch he’d added to the fire split with a sizzle causing a backdraft, “Yes...yes...yesss…” His lover’s visage reformed in the conflagration.
“Yes?! Then you are alive in eternity?”
The echoes of her previous answer continued and he thought he saw a slight smile on her glowing countenance.
His previous resolution swiftly dissolved. He would not take his own life, but instead he vowed to live his life to honor her memory…and to honor God. The hearth fire suddenly flickered and died as if it was her spirit that had been fueling it. She was gone, but the young man knew he would see her again…in time. After cleaning the stable and boarding the horses, his Lord Master never again had to admonish him. In fact, after many years he left his master’s service with not only his freedom but also a small inheritance which he used to do great deeds that honored both his fellowmen and God.
The stable hand was unable to save his lover from the witch’s stake, but fortunately for them both, she was able to save him from death by his own hand. More importantly she intervened to save him from a second death in the eternal inferno of Gehenna.