Mary knew that there were many strange things in this world. Some of these strange things were words. They once had truth, but then they had been contorted and twisted out of their meanings. Sarah had taught her that. Mary had learnt it in the woods last spring.
‘There’s ‘strange’ and then there’s ‘bad’. There is a big difference in what they mean.’ Sarah had said. She smiled down to Mary as they walked hand in hand. Sarah hoped over a fallen tree. The horizontal trunk was rotten and fungus and moss grew in the wood. She turned and smirked to her daughter. She was very nimble. Mary was not. Sarah held out her hand to her.
‘How do you know the difference?’ Mary had replied. When she thought on the topic it made her head spin.
‘Contrary to the Minister’s teachings today, ‘difference’ and ‘strange’ means something out of the norm. It doesn’t mean ‘bad’ and ‘woman’. It is there that he is wrong. He has twisted the word to mean something that it is not.’
‘He said that a strange woman is a ‘witch’. ‘Strange’ is a bad word and ‘woman’ is the product of Eve’s evil.’ Mary echoed.
‘A witch is a woman who is different, a woman who is strong, a woman who can see the truth.’ Sarah said it with certainty. Mary believed her wholeheartedly.
‘Why can’t all women see the truth? Why are some only witches?’ Mary watched her steps as they crossed a stream. She accidentally slipped from her steppingstone and her foot landed ankle-deep in water.
‘Because they are fed lies by men like the Minister. They are taught words that have different meanings. Take the word ‘strange’. The Minister means it as one thing, and I mean it as another. But we are both using the same word.’
‘Then which meaning is the right one?’ Mary asked.
‘The one you believe in. You must be careful, my love.’ Sarah paused. They were nearly upon the village, nearly home. She spoke in a whisper. ‘Do you see how sly and tricky they are? They take your word, the one which you believe in, and they make you think it means something else. When you then try to speak, you get so muddled with your meanings and words that you can’t find your truth.’
From then on, Mary had realised that Sarah carefully filtered out the Minister’s words. She never let her absorb the lies of the simplistic villagers. Whatever the village folk said was wrong. Their world was based on a word which was interpreted wrong. She could see that now. She could see what they had done to her mother. The trap was so plainly laid out in words and meanings. Those simpleminded, pathetic and disordered things, she thought. How could they be so crafty when they were wrong? Sarah was not a witch. She was never a witch. She was never what they meant to call a ‘strange woman’. Did they call Miriam strange too? When did the word acquire its new meaning? When did ‘strange’ mean ‘woman’? when did ‘woman’ mean ‘threat’? How did these words somehow end up being synonymous?
She could imagine when the word was first whispered. Witch. The lightness and quietness of it carried so easily in the wind. It was a spell. As soon as it was uttered, it made the women suddenly stop talking to their husbands, it made the women watch one another with wary eyes, it made the women begin to hide secrets. They put them under the floorboards, they buried them in the woods and covered them in skin. When would the spell break? As soon as the true word was remembered, when all the secrets had been unearthed. Now she had done that, Mary determined that she must be a ‘strange woman’ too.