Ancient and Modern
by Roger Ley
The White Witch was in her garden, lifting combs from the bee hive, when the deputation from the “Old Uns” arrived. She’d discussed the honey stock with the Queen and they’d come to an agreement, but she wore her wide-brimmed hat and veil just in case any of the foragers hadn’t received the Queen’s message yet.
Tan Boreham and Mother Nancy waited quietly while the Witch wrapped the honeycombs, placed them in her wicker trug and replaced the hive’s roof. Tan held his cap in both hands. He bowed respectfully, and Nancy curtsied when the witch walked over to them, pushing back her veil and passing the back of her hand over her forehead.
Tan had been the keeper of the village bowling green these past fifty years, and he’d been church warden longer than that. In his younger days, two hundred years before, he’d been the village gravedigger as well.
Old Mother Nancy had lived in the village time out of mind and, like the witch, could remember the oldest part of the flint church being built six hundred years ago to replace the ancient wooden one.
The Witch recalled that there had been some sort of romantic incident at the time. It hadn’t ended happily, and old Nancy still never had a good word to say about any builders and contractors who did work around the village. ‘Good for nothin’ masons’ she called them.
‘Tan, Mother Nancy, how can I help?’ asked the Witch.
‘It’s them-there Mormons, Madam Esme,’ said Tan.
‘They’re a-foolin’ with the village records. We’ll all be uncovered if they have their way,’ said Tan.
‘What are they doing with the church records?’ asked the White Witch.
‘They be a-baptisin’ the dead so they’ll all go to Heaven, like it or not,’ said Tan.
‘There’s one of them in the Church now along with his infernal ’lectric computertator,’ said Nancy. ‘They mean to do it all over the country, and what a pickle we shall all be in then.’
‘Surely, if they’re in the Parish records, then people have already been baptised,’ said the Witch.
‘Maybe it’s the wrong sort of baptism,’ said Nancy.
‘New-fangled nonsense, computers and the like,’ said Tan. ‘The trouble is that some of us was baptised hundreds of years ago, and these-here Mormons will find out, and the cat’ll be out of the bag for us Old Uns. The modern folk will find we’re livin’ among them, and who knows what the end’ll be?’
‘How many Old Uns are there in the Parish?’ asked Mother Nancy.
‘Well,’ said Tan, ‘there’s six in the Alms Houses at the moment. Then there’s four in the cottages down Pound Lane, two on Laundry Loke, includin’ me. Mother Nancy here livin’ next to the village stores and, of course, there’s Becky as runs the Tea Rooms. She’s the youngest of us, barely over a hundred.’
‘And don’t look a day over thirty, much like yourself, ma’am,’ said Mother Nancy.
‘How many will appear in the Parish records though?’ asked the Witch.
‘All of ’em, exceptin’ me, I suppose,’ said Nancy. ‘There weren’t a deal of record-keepin’ when they first built the Church, all that scribblin’ and scratchin’ started about four hundred years ago, as I recall.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said the Witch, and the two Old Uns took their leave. Nancy curtsied again, and Tan didn’t replace his cap until the two had walked up the garden path and he’d closed the gate behind them.
There’s always something needs dealing with, thought the Witch. Plums to jam, apples to pick, herbs to dry, and now this. Her power came from the soil, and Autumn was her busiest time. She walked back to the house with her honeycombs. In the kitchen, she poured herself some gooseberry cordial and added a couple of blocks of ice from the tray in the refrigerator. Not all of the modern folks’ inventions were “infernal,” she thought. She sipped her drink and pondered the best course to take. If she’d known beforehand, she could have easily altered the records, added some imaginary funerals, erased some baptisms, perhaps, but it was too late for that now.
She walked down to the Church. She had no problems going inside. Like so many others, it had been built on the site of one of the old religion’s holy places, in the times of the burnings and conversions. The old altar stone was built into the back wall of the Lady Chapel, and the Witch still used it for some of her major rituals, including the equinoxes and solstices; she had a key to the church door.
The Church smelled musty but not damp. She introduced herself to the young man who had been contracted by the Mormon Church. He told her his name was Henry and that he’d finished scanning the records for the day. He was letting the computer extract the names and connect the dates of births, deaths and marriages into family trees. As he was packing away the rest of his equipment, he told her the job would take another two days.
‘Have you found any anomalies?’ asked the Witch.
‘I won’t know until the database is complete,’ said Henry. There’s a massive amount of statistical information to be extracted. The Church of Latter Day Saints will be making it available as part of their agreement with the Church of England. Death rates, life spans, infant mortality, fertility, causes of death.’ He was quite animated and obviously enjoyed his work.
While they talked, the White Witch surreptitiously probed the workings of his computer. She was surprised at the simplicity of its function. There were only two variables involved; she was used to manipulating dozens at a time. She changed some noughts to ones and “magically” the Old Uns records disappeared from the device.
She made her excuses and left. The Sisterhood would have to be alerted. The records in every parish would need to be “adjusted.” She’d come back on Friday and finish the job here. She’d bring Henry a cake or, better still, some elderberry wine. He was a fine-looking fellow, and she fancied she might have a use for him.
Meantime, there were sloes to gather from the blackthorn bush in the west corner of the churchyard. She needed to make sloe gin for the celebration of the winter solstice. It was her turn to host the Coven this year, and the ladies did like their tipple.
Copyright © 2020 by Roger Ley