The mayor's son figured it out. At least, he took the credit, years later, when the only reporter bored enough to brave a ride to our stranded little town asked him about the woman that wouldn't die.
They came for her in the waking hours of a summer morning. The sky was cooled lava, the air cut-grass and whispers. The mayor assembled his sheriff, three officers, and the priest, but the mayor took the pleasure of rapping on her front door himself. He ordered the officers to kick through when there was no reply.
Thirty glowing eyes from unfinished canvasses watched the men trample through her studio, topple bowls of inky water, scatter the crusted-up paintbrushes and desiccated larvae-husks of paint tubes, easel-by-easel upset the intentional disorganization of her trinkets, tools, and toys. They stacked her paintings to be burned at a to-be-determined time at to-be-determined location.
They found her where she did most of her sleeping, in her bed.
The town's residents were informed of her trial by flyer, posted conspicuously on the front doors of all cafes, taverns, and shops within huffing and puffing distance by the mayor's son, who even at age nine was stricken by remarkable weight gain, indolence, and indiscipline. These each were added to the woman's list of charges.
Her trial was held lakeside. Those residents that were curious, scandalized, horrified, or intrigued - that is to say, most of them - gathered to watch. The mayor's wife was prevented from attending on order of the mayor, though the official story was that she was simply exhausted following a recent horseback excursion.
The accused woman wept quietly beneath the hood tied over her face. She felt the canoe roll side to side like the hands of a conductor. Her wrists and ankles were bound to a stone the width of a keg. From the shore, she heard the mayor read his condemnation:
“For germinating perversion, for corruption of fabrics moral and physical, for injecting lethargy and stoutness into children, for desecration of walls and sidewalks, for souring expensive wines, for fabricating authority, for unfeminine conduct various, repeated, and unmentionable, for these she stands accused of the venal sin of witchcraft and by the order of the mayor she, what, yes and by the order of the church, she will now be compelled to submit proof of her sinlessness.
It is said that witches have ninety-nine lives. And so, to prove her innocence, we shall send her to the bottom of this water with heavy weight affixed to her ankles and retrieve her at noon tomorrow. Should she remain among the living after this duration, we will have proof of her demonic nature. Should she be drowned, then we will celebrate her reunion with the divine three days hence.
Let us proceed.”
The mayor signaled the priest. The priest signaled the elder in the boat. The elder, who was actually rather young and strong, lifted the accused woman and tossed her into the water. She yelped and was quickly sucked below. A froth of bubbles bloomed at the surface of the lake. The bubbles dispersed. The crowd muttered.
Then gasped: the woman's head broke above level, and from the shore they heard her damp-cloth cries. Her body floated to the top of the lake. The elder paddled to her feet and found the thick stone still tied to her ankles, bobbing in the water, weightless as a paper anchor. The mayor vomited into the nearby bushes. This was added to the woman's list of charges.
As a confirmed and condemned witch, the woman was sentenced to death by burning. A week later, the townspeople assembled before the mayor's house to observe the execution. The mayor's wife was again absent. This time, we were told, she was occupied with preparations for the rapidly approaching corn festival. Being the second most important harvest-related festival of the year, little more needed to be said.
The accused woman was bound in chain link to an iron pole set deep into the gravel of the plaza. They heaped thin, mangled arms of tree branches up to her waist. The mayor read his condemnation. When he was done, he signaled the priest. The priest signaled the elder. The elder threw a rag soaked in kerosene onto the pile, then lit the rag. The woman was engulfed. The heat of the flames pressed the crowd back. The woman's body thrashed against the pole, and she shrieked in terror. Within moments, the wriggling ended, as did her cries. Most of the crowd dispersed, whether satisfied or sickened. The mayor stayed the hour to watch the conclusion.
The shouting began anew when the flames receded. The accused woman stood in the smoldering kindling, still fixed to the pole, unmarked and unharmed. Word spread instantly. Exhilaration swept people from their daily business and into the plaza to gawk and wonder. Her clothes had been burned from her body, to the fascination of boys and the consternation of wives. This was added to the woman's list of charges.
The mayor tried again and again. He hung her until the branch broke. He hung her again, until the rope snapped. He ground her beneath an iron wheel. He buried her for forty days. Drained of their apparent danger, her executions became town events. Friends took their mates. Teens took their crushes. They cheered her every defiance of annihilation. The reverent members of the town scolded as many as they could, eager to remind observers that they were witnessing the stubborn and repulsive clutch of a diabolic malignancy.
With each unsuccessful execution, her reputation grew. Some called on the mayor to release her with a full reprieve. Many women, especially young women, took up painting. Oils and dyes and inks disappeared from shelves. Paper became impossible to come by. Murals began to spring up along the facades of houses and buildings. Each morning the sun revealed new portraits affixed to doors, freshly tattooed carriages, windows wet with ink. The mayor ordered the police to scrub these acts of vandalism clean by the time his first meal was served each day. In response, the most fanatical followers stitched illustrations into their skin, their arms and ears traced and colored, necks, ankles, backs, legs, all canvasses for their wit and whimsy.
At last, the mayor decided that if death would not have this woman, then neither was he obliged to keep her. He released the accused woman and banished her beyond the town's borders. Night after night, week after week, people left their homes in twos and threes and fours to join her. An exile colony sprouted in the mountains like a flowering vine. The mayor's wife made her own plans. She left in the wine-soaked silence of night while her mayor lingered at the corn festival, which was by all other standards a rousing success.
The mayor awoke the next morning to the news of his wife's desertion. Ordinarily, he would have spent the day envisioning the elaborate and gruesome murder of his rival. However, given the unusual case that his most savage efforts toward the accused woman had created only humiliation, the mayor instead wandered his estate in an empty-eyed stupor. At the dinner table, the bitter ember of his rage was finally roused as he watched his fat son dig carelessly into a second helping of smothered meatloaf.
He spent his fury indiscriminately: his boy was a pig, his wife was a whore, his people were perverts and imbeciles. His son, now well into his third plate, remained undisturbed. If mother loves witches, the boy reasoned, then we should plan a witch party. Surely she would return for that. The mayor stood and stomped out of the room, leaving the boy to his plates.
In his bed that night, the mayor admitted the idea had a certain amount of savvy in it. The harder he tried to dispel the witch and her enclave, the faster her clan grew, as if her deviance fed on rejection. Perhaps he could starve it with abundance.
The town soon noticed that the furtive murals painted overnight were no longer scrubbed away in the morning. Initially, rumor spread that the police had refused their command, but the sheriff quickly clarified that the artwork remained by order of the mayor. That same week, the mayor assembled his citizens for a series of announcements: by his request, a surplus of paints, oils, and paper had been purchased by the town; all children would receive mandatory painting instruction in school; and most importantly, he offered a formal reprieve to the accused woman in the mountains, for she had convinced him that whatever spell had protected her was not a mark of demonism, but virtue; it was virtue that had inspired all the greatest works of art, and with her inspiration the next great work of art might be produced in their little town; and so, in her honor, they would hold a festival of the witch, an annual tribute to the unique grace of the townspeople.
The accused woman remained in the mountains, but in time the town's trickling exodus to join her would stall. The glut of amateur painters in town created a congestion of artwork in public spaces. Experienced painters complained of a depression in the prices of their work, while neophytes bemoaned the lack of opportunities for recognition. As the average quality of murals declined, many in the town grumbled privately about urban nuisance. Children became as listless in painting classes as they were in reading and natural sciences.
The following summer, the town held its first festival of the witch beside the lake where the accused woman's trial had taken place. The mayor strolled beside his son amidst the face-painting booths, candy vendors, petting zoo, musicians and magicians. Actors performed execution farces to giggling children. The story of the accused woman was told and retold, and in the telling became myth, and metaphor, and parlor trick. The centerpiece of the afternoon was the witches' trial. Dozens of families rowed to the middle of the lake. They affixed themselves with inflated vests that were tailored into gray “witch's smocks,” and attached paper maché “rocks” to their ankles. The mayor and his son rowed to the middle of the lake. As the bloated evening sun sank into the bruised sky, the mayor stood and told his people: tonight, we are all witches.
He leapt from his boat and plunged into the dull water. Families splashed around him. His son floated by his side, cackling with delight. They all floated.