By: P.D.C. Hastings
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Gerti knew she wasn’t being a good Catholic girl to let Anton do what he was doing to her but she didn’t want him to stop and no one could see into this tiny meadow by the Rhine River. The trees and the steep hills surrounding it turned it into a secluded spot. They had only reached it by walking to it after leaving the horses with Anton’s traveling entertainer friends. Gerti spent every morning practicing trick riding with Anton. She was learning how to jump on the back of the horse while Anton was riding it. They had walked among the hills until Anton had asked Gerti to leave her village and travel around the countryside with him. Gerti had said yes. She had never felt so close to anyone before. Anton kept touching her. The only time she had ever felt such pleasant sensations before was when she’d drunken wine from the nearby monastery. Her friends had joked that it was sacramental wine. She wasn’t sure.
When Anton was done, he told her they were married. They lay under a huge tree and talked in drowsy whispers. Their reverie was broken when they heard voices. Someone was shouting from across the Rhine. Gerti and Anton looked over and saw a group of people. One of them was the new priest, Babtista. He was clothed all in black. When he saw them looking at him, he raised his crucifix and started screaming something. They couldn’t hear what it was but gathered up their clothes and dressed. They walked back to Anton’s group of traveling entertainers and he told them it was time to pack up to leave. He then took Gerti back to her village’s road so she could go home and gather up her belongings. Gerti started towards her village. Her head was still filled with thoughts of Anton as she heard horses approaching. She stepped to the side of the road in order to let them pass and was surprised when they stopped. She looked up and realized it was the Priest Babtista and some of his men. They surrounded her.
The priest drew his mount closer and looked at Gerti’s disheveled appearance with distaste. He asked Gerti what she had been doing in the woods. She tried to answer and come up with some sort of coherent lie when he looked straight at her and said, “You have been fornicating with him, haven’t you?”
Gerti looked at him numbly and wondered how he new. She nodded her head.
“She admits it,” he said to his companions. He was so excited. “This woman admits to being a witch and fornicating with the devil.”
“No, no” Gerti said as she shook her head and tried to make them hear her but no one was paying attention. They were touching her roughly and tying her up. The rope dug into her wrists and ankles when she tried to move around or wiggle away. A cloth was stuffed into her mouth before she could scream. It took all the energy Gerti had to just keep breathing through her nose.
They took her away to the castle that the priest, Baptista, had aquired from an unbeliever. The men carried her into the castle’s depths. Gerti struggled against them when she saw where they were taking her. One of the men shouted then hit her. She sank into oblivion. When she woke, she was chained to a wall in the dungeon. She could not see anything but shadows. Gerti felt the chains digging into her and heard the clinking of other chains. Was someone in there with her?
“Hello.” Gerti tried to speak since there was no longer a cloth in her mouth but only a whisper came out. She tried to see if she could slip out of the chains but they were tight and digging into her. Gerti didn’t try for long since it only made her wrists feel worse. She stood in the dark gloom for hours. Gerti’s eyes had adjusted to the dark by the time she saw a light appear. There were shadows with the light and the sound of rustling cloth as well as whispers. The footsteps and voices grew louder. Gerti saw them as they turned a corner and came closer. She recognized the priest, Batista.
They entered her cell and he sat down at a small desk. Someone took her chains off of the wall and led her to him. “You’ve already confessed so just sign your name,” he told her as he motioned towards a paper on the desk.
“But I wasn’t with the devil.”
“Oh,” his eyes raised and he looked quizzically at her. “Who were you with then?”
Gerti didn’t know what to say so she said nothing.
“It is as I said,” the priest, Batista, said slowly. “You have confessed now sign.”
The priest made a sign and Gerti felt a whip against her back. The pain washed through her feeding her anger.
“I will not sign.” she said. “I was with a man.”
The priest made a sign and the whipping stopped.
“Then who is it?”
“I will not say.”
“Because you lie. Either way it’s a sin.”
The priest moved his hands and Gerti prepared for more. It went on and on until she felt no more.
She came to and was attached to the wall. Gerti waited for hours until she saw the light again. This time the priest was by himself.
He approached her as she hung up on the wall and pushed a paper at her. “Confess and put your mark here.”
She refused and he started telling her about all the terrible things she was accused of. As the priest spit words at her, his hands were moving over her body. They were tracing the whip marks on her back, legs, and breasts. He mouthed into her ear how she had indeed been sleeping with the dark one as her body winced from his touch. It was rough as it pushed against her recently inflected scars. The priest told her how the trees in the forest and the vineyards were full of rot and disease caused by that diabolical act. The vineyards and trees had sustained her village for generations but wouldn’t anymore because of what she had done. He asked her if the one she had been with was a local boy or a stranger.
Gerti hung her head and thought about confessing. Maybe the act itself was the problem. She had known Anton was lying when he said they were married. Gerti raised her head to speak as the priest continued on.
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“The thing you were with may have appeared to be human but wasn’t. It was just in human form. You need to tell us who he is and confess. The dark one has led you astray and you need to cleanse yourself by telling us who he is.”
Gerti thought of Anton who had listened to her dreams and taught her how to ride. She moaned, “No,” as she thought about the boys hands gently caressing her.
The priest yelled for some help and Gerti soon found rough hands unshackling her body and holding her straight. They began to whip her again as the priest continued to berate her. He kept telling her how evil and wicked she was. She began to wonder if he was right. She had drunk the wine from the monastery. Had it been sacramental wine? She had fornicated before marriage. Had she ruined herself and Anton in the process? Did they cause the trees to become diseased? Had they ruined the life of the village? Why else would a priest be treating her like this? Gerti began to realize she needed to confess and blacked out.
/ / / /
She came to when a light shown directly in her face. The priest told her to sign and she agreed to confess to sleeping with the dark lord. When the priest prodded her to name the person, she knew she should tell the priest about Anton in order to be free of sin but just couldn’t. She shook her head as she realized what a weak and foolish woman she was. Whether or not they were married, she had slept with Anton as a husband.
Gerti signed the paper with her mark and was led to the village people. The priest proclaimed her crimes to the people. She looked around at faces that had once been friendly to her. Those faces were full of rage. The people were shouting and making menacing gestures. One of them picked up a rock. Gerti stopped looking and waited for the first hit. It did not come. Instead she felt a stir in the crowd as hoof prints sounded out and became louder. She peeked out to see the crowd looking off into the distance where a solitary horseman was coming. She wasn’t sure but it looked like Anton. He was galloping up fast and people were scattering to get away from the hoofs of the horse. As the horse and man came into view, Gerti realized it was Anton and he was coming straight towards her. His hand was reaching out and she knew just what to do. The priest was screaming at the people telling them to stop her and Anton but they just kept yelling and running away from the horse. Anton slowed the horse down as Gerti grabbed his hand and in one smooth flowing motion, Gerti was beyond Anton on the horse. They picked up speed and were soon away from the village.
“Let’s go get married in another village,” Anton said to her as they rode away from the inquisitive torturer. “I don’t think that priest will agree to marry us.” They traveled with Anton’s band of jugglers and minstrels from village to village but never returned to Gerti’s home.