The Crime Readers' Association

The Cats of Capriale, by J G Harlond

A spooky story with witches

They staggered down the deep steps of the coach as if they’d been at sea for a week. Edna was particularly wobbly, her shorter leg ached terribly and she was close to tears. The driver was far too young and nonchalant to be in charge of such a large machine on precipitous roads. As if to prove her point he lit a cigarette before she had touched terra firma.


Susie, first off as always, extended a manicured helping hand then waited while her dumpy companion tucked the strap of her bag into the belt of her mackintosh and fumbled with a buckle. Joan, who had got off behind Susie, sighed and wandered across to a low wall on the other side of the road.


Below lay steep Apennine terraces in shades of willow green and grey; across the valley were mauve and grey mountains and silver olive groves. It was very picturesque. A group of other tourists lined up beside her and began the ‘Oh, lovely’ routine.


Joan sniffed and returned to her two friends. “Torquay next year for me; couple of who-dunnits, cream teas, and no hanging around waiting for oldies who’ve never been further than Margate. Package tours,” she huffed, “everyone doing the same thing, seeing the same sights at the same time. Last time you get me in a package.”


“Ready?” Susie asked, taking no notice and addressing Edna.


“Ready, thanks,” Edna said.


Susie looked up at the driver and rattled off some phrases. He responded in a staccato rush then gave her a slow wink. Susie turned to her friends and gave them a knowing smile: over fifty – well over fifty – and she could still pull. “He says we’ve got an hour and a quarter to see the castle and dungeons.”


Edna let out a heartfelt sigh. There was a steep lane down to the city gate followed by a tortuous climb up low-rise cobbled steps to the castle. Was there an alternative, apart from staying on the charabanc with the lecherous brat? Perhaps there’d be a café or a bench. Was it worth joining another group and risk having to help someone in a worse state than herself? It had happened before. At least Susie and Joan jollied her along and had a sense of humour, although Joan could be really caustic.


It had been like this at school: Susie got them into scrapes, she, Edna, tagged along, and Joan got them out of trouble if she could. They shared the punishments. They’d been good scholars, though, gone on to have successful careers and families. Not Joan, of course. Joan’s attitude to men had started young. She hadn’t reached the dizzy academic heights predicted either. But it had been her choice. Joan could have made a success of anything if she’d wanted. For the hundredth time Edna wondered what had made them pals all those years ago. And why she hadn’t listened to that inner voice warning her not to get caught up in it again. Why did people creeping into old age want to resuscitate dead friendships anyway?


Susie and Joan strode on ahead then waited for Edna inside the still-functioning portcullis, where a vaguely feminine creature in a black cardigan was sitting behind a table. On the table was a black felt witch on a stick and three piles of brochures in different languages. Susie chose the English version and began reading.


“Interesting place,” she said.


Joan wasn’t listening: she was watching a young priest manoeuvre a wheelchair down cobbled steps, its aged occupant clutching the sides as if he were about to be catapulted off the cliff.


“I might try Bournemouth instead,” she said with an inward shudder. “Nice shops, they say.”

“Now, now,” Susie replied, “you won’t get anything out of this trip like that.”


Edna watched Joan pull a face.


“Rally guides!” laughed Susie, striding ahead again. “It’ll be dark soon.”


“We should’ve come in July,” said Joan.


“Too hot, late October is perfect. Nights drawing in, wood smoke . . . wonderfully evocative.”


“Evocative,” mimicked Joan, but she fell in beside her friend. Edna hobbled along behind as best she could.


Susie glanced down at her crib sheet. “According to this, there was a witch trial here in 1577 – the Inquisition. All the women in the village were accused.”


All the women? Who accused them?” Joan demanded.


“The men I expect.”


“Typical,” Joan sighed.


“What had they done?” Edna asked, joining them.


“Nothing!” snorted Joan, “You don’t believe that rubbish, do you?”


“No, of course not, but what did the men think the women had done?”


Susie read in silence for a moment then said, “Bad harvests – three years running.”


“Harvests?” Edna stared about her at stone walls and narrow streets. “What on earth did they grow?”


“They worked the lower hill terraces during the day – grapes and olives I suppose – then came up here to sleep at night for safety.”


“Safe from what,” Joan asked.


“Wolves,” Susie replied. “That’s why there’s so many sharp turns and recesses in the streets – because of the wolves coming into the village. It’s actually not that different in the modern areas. Remember when we came up from the airport? Miles of fertile land and people crammed together in concrete blocks.” Susie travelled widely; she knew about these things. “Not many wolves about any more, though, which is a bit sad.”


“Plenty of cats,” said Joan sniffing.


Edna looked at the alleyway that led up to the castle, aware that it had been moving, very subtly but definitely moving, for some minutes. Grey wood smoke and black shadows, rolling, billowing out then regrouping, an ominous feline cloud pushing gently but irrevocably towards them. She stepped closer to Joan.


“So, what happened in 1577?” Joan queried, leaning over Susie’s arm to read the pamphlet.


“The girls were tortured. In the castle dungeon, I suppose. Their cries could be heard across the valley, and the men ran away to escape from the noise. Then all the women were taken to Genoa and convicted of witchcraft, except for three girls, who escaped and came back.”


“I hate cats,” Joan said, noticing the felines spreading around them.


Without a word, Edna started to walk back towards the city gate, but her path was blocked by a huge night-black tom, his yellow eyes fixed on her face. She paused, turned and looked at her two friends. A low cloud now surrounded them: grey and grim, ashes and dust, each creature the hue of despair and death. She had to move, get away. She turned back towards the gate, but another huge black-coated male was blocking her way. She straightened her shoulders and glared at it. It glared back. Then very slowly, subtly, its yellow eyes flickered sideways indicating the entrance to a narrow alley.


The alley was a stone-clad tunnel going down, down, downhill. Sooner or later there’d be a turning; she’d be able to slip back into the piazza as she used to, except it wasn’t going to be so easy with so many of them behind her. She followed as instructed, because you couldn’t argue with these men. You couldn’t make them see sense. You just had to do what they said and stay quiet.


It always seemed a long way to the houses with the stables beneath them. That’s where they were going, it was obvious now. Down to where they kept the cows and mules in winter. Down to where few would hear them, and none would interrupt.


The door was slightly ajar. One of the men from Genoa was standing just behind it. She caught his eye and lowered her gaze modestly, folding her hands in front of her as she had been taught, then stepped into darkness. The only light came from a tiny barred window. It was the first thing she noticed, the barred window, although she’d been here before – often – under different circumstances. Was that why they’d chosen it? Did they know this was where her friends, and their friends, used to meet?


As her eyes became accustomed to the gloom, she realised the stable was full of people, of women: girls in their rough brown workaday skirts and bodices; dark-haired matrons and grey widows in perennial mourning. They were all waiting for her, so they could blame her. A palpable sense of excitement mingled with the stink of stale straw and male cats. They were going to accuse her here. Perhaps they already had.


Spine rigid, hands held before her, Maria Fernandina searched for the Inquisitor. He was standing in the far corner, arms folded under his ornate crucifix. From here she could see his expression. She had watched him watching the women during the week, seen him lick his lips.


A hand touched the small of her back. There was a shuffling and then she was standing in the centre of a circle. Then they were pushing Susanna into the circle too. Susanna, who had started it all, making up the steps of the dance, showing them how to stamp on the ground to waken the spirits of the soil, to make it fertile. But it had only been a dance.


Giovanna pushed past her mother and sisters to join them, shaking her head, sending a warning message to them with her eyes: Don’t say anything!

Maria Fernandina side-stepped away from her friends, trying to distance herself, waiting for her particular accusation. She was the malformed one; the one who would be to blame.


“You can’t accuse her,” Giovanna cried. There was a hum of muttering. Giovanna took advantage of the moment. “You’d like to, though, wouldn’t you? Accuse her and get her out of the way. Because she’s got one leg shorter than the other, because she sees what is true, because she’s cleverer than all of you. Too clever to be a woman. I’ve heard men say it. You’re frightened of her because she sees you for what you are.” Giovanna turned towards the Inquisitor, “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Finding someone to blame for things you cannot control – not even your precious God!”


There was a collective intake of breath. Susanna began to weep. The man with the crucifix raised his left hand. “Tell us then, if she is not to blame, where do we look for answers? Who was the first to raise the spirits? That’s what you do, isn’t it, drum on the ground like howling pagans and pour virgins’ menses over your ‘Mother Earth’? If it wasn’t this ‘clever girl’ here who told you about these ancient wicked rituals, who did?”


No one moved, they barely breathed. Voice raised to the low, rustic rafters, the Inquisitor gathered momentum as if he were in a cathedral.


“Satan has come among you! It is a known fact, Satan preys on girls, who take his seed and spread it among innocent boys so they also become tainted. That is what happened here.” He paused and glared at Maria Fernandina, then twisted his head towards Giovanna and very softly added, “Is it not?”


Giovanna didn’t blink. Didn’t speak. Slowly, she lifted two hands in the air making the shape of a chalice. She raised the mimed chalice high above her head then brought it down to her stomach and spread both hands over her abdomen. “We are full! And the seed is fecund.”


Maria Fernandina gasped. It was a lie. Susanna shouted, “We were dancing, just dancing. The boys took it too far, they said blood was needed, sacrifices – all those poor kittens.”


We? All three of you?” bellowed the Inquisitor, turning back to Giovanna, ignoring the reference to the boys.


“Mary, Martha and Magdalena,” screamed Giovanna and gave a fool’s harsh laugh.


This, Maria Fernandina understood: they could not torture or condemn a pregnant woman, nor would they touch a woman who was a religious maniac. Giovanna was giving her friends time to plan their defence, or escape.




Susie suddenly didn’t want to go up to the castle. She reached out for Joan’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Shall we wander back and see if we can get a cup of tea?”


“This place gives me the creeps,” Joan said.


“I expect we’ll find Edna down there. Is she all right, do you think? It’s not like her to wander off on her own.”


“Yes, it is. She always was a loner.”


“Not really, that was you.”


“I don’t mind my own company,” Joan said. “I’ve never needed to chat about nothing for the sake of it.”


“That’s why we trusted you with our secrets,” Susie said, tucking her friend’s arm under hers. “Careful with these steps, they’re very uneven just here.”


“I know,” Joan said.


When they were back in the coach, Joan leaned between the gap in Susie and Edna’s seats. “What’s this polenta stuff we’re getting for supper?” she asked. “Sounds disgusting.”


“Mashed maize. Soft, like tapioca or semolina,” Susie said.


“Ugh, school dinners.”


“They’re a long time gone,” said Edna. “We shouldn’t try to go back.”


“Who wants to go back?” Joan huffed.


Susie gave her reflection in the black coach window a wry smile. “I make a point of never looking back.”


Edna and Joan exchanged glances in the same black window, but said nothing.



Historical note: This story was written after a visit to the mountain village of Apricale in Liguria, Italy. According to local legend, all the women were taken to Genoa and accused of witchcraft. Only three girls survived, or escaped, and returned to their village. I have renamed the village because I have twisted the tale. There are a great many sinister cats in these mountain villages.


Find out more about J G Harlond here.

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