Asa Manning was twelve when his mother was hung from the longest branch on the Hanging Tree. The branch was called the Livingston Limb after Josiah Livingston, the first witch to hang in this part of the New World. Since Livingston’s hanging, over one thousand witches, clairvoyants, psychics, and old women with too much intuition have met their fate on the branch.
Nineteen years after his mother’s death, Asa stood before the tree with his hat in his hands as another witch was hung. This hanging was different. When his mother died, Asa’s cheeks were covered in tears and snot. He stood beside his tight-lipped father and distant sister as his mother’s body jerked and bucked before settling.
The woman who hung from the Limb now was not moving. She stared at Asa with reproachful eyes. Her lips were gray and her skin was pale. Asa’s mother had been a Voodoo priestess. This woman before him was a Chaos magician, a necromancer, and responsible for an outbreak of smallpox that killed a third of the people in the village of Felice. His hometown. A Witchfinder General named Dauphin Robicheaux put his mother to death. The woman with the grey lips will be put to death by Asa himself. Asa took his hat off and held it in his hands.
“Madeline McGuire, you have been charged with heresy and the murder of the citizens of Felice. By the power vested in me from the authority of God and Jericho County, I, Asa Manning, Witchfinder General, sentence you to death by hanging. Do you have any final words?”
Her voice rang through his head like a bell.
“Someday it will be you on this limb. You will burn and all you love will perish.”
His lips curled and he slipped his hat back on his head.
“Oleuo’r ,” Asa said. Flames bit the hem of her dress and licked at her corset. She screamed and writhed in pain, just like the others. He turned away and slid across the leather seat of his carriage. He pressed down on the brake and the engine roared to life. He sat back and listened to the hum of the vehicle as it took him away from the Limb, and away from the witch.
It was a scorching August day when the missionaries rode in to Felice. It was Asa’s twelfth birthday. He and his classmates stood on the school steps and watched as the missionaries rode by, effulgent in white, their skin almost as light as their clothes.
When Asa asked his father later about it, his lips pursed beneath the hair of his auburn beard.
“They are here because they believe we are heathens,” his father said, his accent drawing out the word heathen so it sounded like haaythins. “They want to convert us.”
“But why?” Asa questioned. His sister, Esther, looked equally affected.
His mother placed a hand on his. Asa looked up into the inkwells of her eyes.
“They are Christians. They don’t believe in the magic of the Old Worlds. They believe magic is evil, and they wish to punish those who practice it.”
Asa didn’t press further. He knew the implications of what his mother was saying. He was a young boy but already his magic was powerful. Unlike his sister, who was only psychic, Asa’s power ranged from the prestidigitation to telekinesis to conjuration to alchemy. His spell work and potion making were already more advanced than the other children in Felice. If he wasn’t careful with his magic, he’d be punished.
Over the next few months, while the magical community of Felice hid their craft, the missionaries built a church. It was the first one in Felice, and despite the fact that he knew it was built to worship a god he didn’t believe in, Asa fell in love with it. He’d sneak out to the church after school and run his hands along the white sandstone. He’d stand back and marvel at the spires and the great, golden cross that climbed high in the air. He wanted to go inside, but could he? What would this god, this unfamiliar and torturous god, do to him if he entered?
But Asa couldn’t help himself. He extended a trembling hand towards the door and let it rest on the brass door handle. He waited, expecting to be struck by lightning.
But there was only silence.
He pulled open the door, his heart galloping in his chest.
God? Asa thought. He took a step inside but jumped as the heavy door closed behind him. The room was bigger than he thought it would be. Mahogany pews lined both sides, with one long aisle in the center. Stained glass windows lined the sides of the building and on them were images of a man draped in blue robes. He had long hair and a long beard, just like Asa’s father. There was a golden circle around his head.
He heard a commotion outside. There was shouting and cursing and Asa thought he heard his father’s voice in the cacophony. He sidled up to the window and peeked outside. A crowd gathered in front of the church. The missionaries stood in their white robes. There were the locals, with their muted clothing and dirty, calloused hands. There was also his mother, who stood with her hands tied behind her back. Holding her arm was a man clad in black. He was unfamiliar to Asa, but somehow he still knew there was something wrong.
Asa ran, flinging open the door.
He sprinted towards the crowd, and his heart sank. Carriages and horses were lined up along the road. The man who held on to his mother’s arm held a noose in the other.
They were going to the Limb, and his mother would be hanged.
He pushed through the crowd, searching for his father and his sister. As he pushed and shoved and stepped around the mass of onlookers, he heard the head missionary, Solomon, speak:
“Fabienne Manning, you have been accused, before God and the citizens of Felice, of the crime of witchcraft. Several members of our town have come forward and stated that you frequently provide potions and spells to tourists for money, that you read fortunes and palms, and that you have been observed worshiping the devil and making sacrifices to him. What say you?”
Asa’s stomach was filled with butterflies rattling in their cage. He looked at his father, who stood with his fists clenched. He wanted to take him by the arms and shake him. Why aren’t you doing anything? Asa wanted to ask. Why are you just standing there?
His mother was silent. The man in black slapped her. The crowd gasped, yet still his father did nothing.
“Speak, whore,” the man in black said. Asa’s mother glared at him, which only provoked him more. “Speak or you will be placed on the rack until you confess.”
“Why protest my innocence when you’re only going to kill me anyway?” She said. “I’ll not apologize for my actions, nor will I deny my abilities. I don’t believe in your god, only the Loa of my people.”
There was more chatter in the crowd. Several onlookers shouted “heathen” and “witch” and “Satan’s whore.” Asa wondered who Satan was. He wondered why these people, who had never had a problem with his family and who also had magic or intuition themselves, called his mother a whore. He felt his anger rise in him like the tide against the beach. He wanted nothing more than to shout at them, to push them and hit them until they all went away.
The man in black pushed his mother and she fell to her knees on the dirt road.
“I am Dauphin Robicheaux,” the man in black said to the crowd. “I am the Witchfinder General, sworn to protect the people and the faith of Jericho County. You were all witnesses to her confession. This heathen, practicing Voodoo, makes a mockery of our Lord. By the power vested in me, by God and through this great county, I hereby sentence you, Fabienne Manning, to death by hanging from Livingston Limb.”
There was shouting. Asa’s sister cried. Asa’s father’s face was red. Only a few people in town knew about his Druidic magic, and even less knew about Asa’s and his sister’s. His mother had always been out in the open, unafraid. As the town began the caravan to the Limb, as Asa walked in line with his family, he hated her for it.
They reached the Limb as the sun was highest in the sky. Beads of sweat formed on his upper lip and neck. His sister’s hair clung to her face and neck, and the front part of her dress was soaked through.
Dauphin pulled a rope from the saddle on his horse. He placed it around Asa’s mother’s neck and walked her to the Limb. The missionaries stood with their hands clasped around black leather books, their faces pictures of serenity.
The rope was flung over the Limb. Dauphin gripped the end in both hands.
“Do you have any last words?” He asked. The crowd whispered. The missionaries prayed.
Asa’s mother looked at him and his father and sister. To his sister, she said: “I love you, Esther. Be strong.” To his father, she said: “Dearest, I’ve never loved anyone more than you, in this life, or any other. Take care of our children.”
And to Asa, she said nothing out loud. She spoke with her mind, because she was telepathic, and so was he.
“Don’t be afraid of the power within you. You’re stronger than anyone in this family. I love you, my bear. My Asa.”
Dauphin pulled the end of the rope. It took ten minutes for Asa’s mother to die.
After the hanging they walked back to the town in silence.
Asa’s was at war with himself. He hated his mother for being so bold. He hated his father for doing nothing to protect her. But most of all, he hated Dauphin Robicheaux and the missionaries and every other Christian who believed his mother was evil.
He stared daggers into the back of Dauphin’s head. If only I was stronger, he thought. I could kill him dead, right here and no one would know.
As if he could hear Asa’s thoughts, his father placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear.
“Now more than ever you must be careful, Asa. I’ll not bury two people I love in the same fortnight. I couldn’t bare it.”
“Why didn’t you do something to stop this?” Asa said through gritted teeth. “Where were you when she was captured?”
“There was nothing I could do. Your mother was foolish to practice magic in the open. I’ll never forgive her.” His voice cracked, but it only filled Asa with more rage.
He shrugged his father’s shoulder off and walked several paces ahead of him. Esther had her head down and her arms crossed over herself.
They got back to Felice as the sun was setting. They buried his mother in a shallow grave with only a cross to mark the spot. The missionaries prayed for her soul. Asa cursed them inside his head, wanting nothing more than their god to strike them down.
The man in black did not leave town. He stayed at Augustine’s Lodge and for two weeks, Asa watched him through the windows and saw him at the bar nearly every night, drinking beer and laughing with some men from town.
Asa gritted his teeth. He knew what he had to do.
That night, under the lamplight, he ran to his mother’s grave. He brought the chalk and the purple candle and the peppers his mother always used in rituals. He drew the Veve for Erzulie Freda, the Loa his mother favored.
He prayed to Legba for welcome. He asked Damballah for strength. He begged Maman Brigitte for justice. And he asked Baron Samedi to be kind to his mother as he led her to the underworld.
When he finished he left the candle burning, but he poured some of the wax on his fingers and drew Veves for his mother and Runes for his father on his arms and chest.
His heart beat fast in his chest. His stomach churned and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He’d never done any major spell like the one he was about to do. Necromancy was his mother’s most powerful and most feared ability. Asa himself had never been successful with calling the dead for longer than a few seconds.
But he knew he had to avenge his mother’s death. It was all he could think about. He wanted nothing more than to make Dauphin and the missionaries pay. Who were they to say that the Loas and the Vanir weren’t real?
Asa’s father’s voice echoed in his mind:
“Your mother should have never practiced her magic out in the open. You must be careful.”
“Sorry dad,” Asa whispered. He stood over another freshly dug grave. He grabbed a black candle and held it out in front of him.
“Oleuo’r gannwyll,” Asa said.
A small flame illuminated the area before him. He set the candle down on top of the gravestone. He took a deep breath and recited the spell his mother taught him.
You, whose body dwells beneath me
You, whose life ended not so long ago
You, whose soul was guided by Samedi
Lend me your ear, heed my call
Back to the land of the living I command you
With this sacrifice of blood, hot peppers, and sage
Do my bidding, then sleep once more
Silence. Asa’s heart fell. He thought about the spell over again, wondering if he got the incantation correct or if he left off a verse.
He heard a sigh, and turned to see a milky white figure floating towards him. The ghost peered at him with the depthless eyes of the dead.
“I command you, ghost. Do my bidding,” Asa said, doing his best not to sound as terrified as he was.
The figure held its hand out.
“Sacrifice,” it breathed.