MONDAY: The Storyteller of Burwell


Copyright is held by the author.

A wicked old crone
Who lived all alone
In a hut beside the reeds,
With a high-crowned hat
And a black tom-cat
Whose looks were as black as her deeds.

ROB WAS stunned that the only mention of Burwell in his guidebook was that it was renowned for once having a witch. Literally centuries ago. Hence the poem. He wasn’t a travel-writing expert — not yet, anyway — but he would have led with the unique village atmosphere and the authentic pub.

He sighed and turned back to the previous day’s diary entry, written on his long journey from Peterborough to Burwell. ‘Peterborough is a city of sharp war-induced contrasts.’ He decided he liked that as an opener, and continued reading.

‘Ninety-eight percent of this city was razed to the ground in the last month of the war thirty years ago. Skyscrapers looming out of the flat landscape mark the time trade routes into the British Fens reopened. Watch out for the cathedral — it’s been rebuilt, using an AI blueprint created from old photographs, but it is obviously new, saccharine and fake, designed to draw in the undiscerning tourist.’

Not bad, he thought. One of these days I might even write stuff like this back in Amsterdam and get paid for it. He rubbed at his blond beard and stared out of the window at Burwell’s quiet streets, daydreaming.

Rob was glad he was staying at the Five Bells. The cozy fire made the horse-brasses glint, and the funny little bronze statues of sprites seemed poised to dance in the flickering light. You couldn’t get that back home.

Once he’d finished annotating his travelogue, Rob turned back to his textbook on Fenland history, supplementing what his father — who was a Fenlander himself — had told him. It was a shame that all anyone remembered the country for was the devastation of the war of independence with England. The brutality of the conflict was the stuff of legend. And like most scraps between countries, it had been triggered by greed as much as need: at the time, Fenlandia had had food and water in abundance, and England hadn’t. But it made a good subject for his dissertation on post-conflict resolution. Now all he had to do was find some ex-soldiers who lived here and weren’t averse to talking to a foreigner.

The crowd in the bar had swelled while he’d been reading and the noise was now a steady hum, the atmosphere thick with poppy smoke and steam from damp clothes. The only spare seats were the one next to him and the rocking-chair beside the fire. The lights dimmed as the pub reached capacity, shadowy people talking loudly, lit by firelight and candles. The chatter stopped abruptly when a gigantic black dog pushed its way through the door. It loped to the fireplace where it circled round twice on a spot beside the rocking-chair before settling down.

Was it because the dog was so huge that the woman who followed it looked so tiny? A small figure wearing a floor-length cape with the collar turned right up and a battered black hat pulled right down, she limped to the rocking-chair and lowered herself onto it. The cape fell open to reveal, not some old-fashioned skirt or blouse, but well-worn olive green coveralls. She began to speak.

“Johnny lived in a hut and cut peat for a living,” she began. “One evening, just after the sun had dipped below the horizon, he reached home to find a very strange bundle on his doorstep, stirring weakly. It made a small snuffling sound . . .”

The story was about a donkey which turned out to be a Fenland sprite; Rob didn’t really pay much attention, mesmerized as he was by the storyteller herself. The firelight reflected in her eyes, giving them a glitter at times friendly, at times menacing, depending on where she was in her story. The melodic rise and fall of her voice seemed to carry far more meaning than the words alone. He could now understand why the Fenlanders loved a good yarn, if they were all told that well.

The effect on the other listeners was equally marked. Everyone forgot their drinks while the storyteller wove her tale; no-one spoke or even took their eyes off her.

The spell broke at the end of the story. As if waiting to savour the punchline for a few moments, the audience paused before erupting in appreciative clapping and cheering. The great black dog lifted its head from the hearth, stood up slowly, shook itself, and trotted round the audience with a bag in its mouth. Everyone dropped coins in, including Rob. When the dog began to walk back to its mistress, Rob finished his beer, intending to follow, but as he stood he noticed that the other drinkers were now ignoring her. He hesitated, fiddling with his glass. As soon as the storyteller’s dog returned, the now-heavy bag of money disappeared within the folds of her cape. She stood and flicked her fingers at the dog, who looked glumly at the fire before following her out of the door.

That accent . . . I reckon I’ve found what I’m looking for, thought Rob. The storyteller was quite clearly English, and an ex-soldier. As the bar returned to a low murmur of noise, Rob resolved to speak with her the next time he saw her.


Rob had lost count of how many tankards of beer he’d enjoyed. He spent the next day having a proper look around the area, trying to shake off his hangover. He started off at Burwell church, a few moments’ walk from the Five Bells. It was amazing, he thought, how something like that could have been standing since the fifteenth century, especially considering the bombing the area had taken.

He explored the churchyard. The weeping angel above the largest grave reminded Rob of the war’s impact: so many headstones were dated to thirty years ago. That would have been the worst of the air raids, then, unbelievably bad for a small village like this. “Some of them air raid pilots wer’ evil,” his father had said. “There was some as crashed their planes but tried to escape, tried to melt into the Fenland population. But if there’s anything a Flatlander can spot a hundred yards off, it’s a stranger. So forget the arrest an’ trial of a lot of them pilots, they just disappeared under several feet o’ water. Best thing, fer most of ‘em.”

Standing at the gate of the churchyard, Rob acknowledged the storyteller’s hypnotic effect on him. His desire to talk to her wasn’t simply about his looming dissertation. He also really wanted to know — as he stared around at the miles of waterlogged flat fen beyond the ivy-clad churchyard walls — where exactly she got her inspiration from.


The storyteller sat herself down in her rocking-chair and began: “Do you ever wonder why the angel wept? Let me tell you why . . .”

Rob, having visited every single place in the tale earlier that day, was utterly captivated, if a little surprised at the coincidence. He sat at what he already considered to be his usual table, his eyes half-closed, picturing all the locations. The story was beautiful, the heroine was delightful and the villain very, very terrible. And then the storyteller’s hat slipped for a moment, before she scooped it back into place, and Rob glimpsed her face.

“Oh my God,” muttered Rob. She’s not an ex-soldier after all. She’s wearing a pilot’s uniform and boots and one side of her face is all burned. A hated English pilot. ‘A wicked old crone…’.

Gripped by a sudden nervousness, he couldn’t pluck up enough courage to speak to her. The dog growled as it passed his table with the money bag. Rob looked across to the fire. The storyteller winked at him. It was as though she knew his dilemma. All around the bar, the farmers’ eyes bored into him: they knew it, too.


Rob had some very strange dreams that night, about fire and aircraft and retribution. The next morning, he left the pub quickly, walking past the church with its yew tree sentinels and on to the castle, now just a hump in the ground with a ditch round it. Its vantage point on the twenty-five metre contour meant he could see for miles.

Rob spotted a jetty below him, with a single hovercraft tied up, its tanned elderly owner dozing in the boat. On impulse, he decided to take a ride out to the next village. He hadn’t planned on going to the chapel at Reach, but he didn’t fancy staying in Burwell this morning.

“Where y’goin’?” asked the ferryman as Rob clambered aboard.

Rob sat down with a thump. Water sloshed against the jetty. “Reach, please,” he said.

The ferryman grunted and started the hovercraft up. As it was turning around, Rob spotted a little wattle hut tucked away in the reeds. “Does anyone live there?” he asked.

The ferryman spat over the side of the boat. “Storyteller,” he replied.

Rob wanted to show off his local credentials before asking anything else. “My father is from Fenlandia but he fled to the Netherlands during the war, and then met my mother and stayed on, so I’ve always been keen to visit.”

The ferryman gave a brief inclination of his head, so Rob took his chance. “Does the storyteller ever repeat a story?”


“So she moved here after her war trial, then?”

The ferryman scowled into the sun and didn’t turn round. “No trial,” he said.

“Why not?” asked Rob. The ferryman didn’t answer. If it were possible in such a small boat, Rob felt the man was drawing away from him.

The door to the hut opened a little, then further as the storyteller’s dog nosed its way out. He stared straight at Rob, who shivered a little, and then flinched when the dog began barking, audible even over the noise of the engine.

Rob very soon wished he had stayed amongst the dog roses and elder trees of the castle mound instead of risking the sphincter-clenching journey to Reach. When he got there, he worked out that wasn’t the worst bit: that was knowing the only way back to Burwell was in the same hovercraft. The former road that had connected the villages was now under three feet of water, and he didn’t fancy wading. Besides, the ferryman was waiting for him at Reach jetty, smoking a pipe and watching him with a sadistic grin.

Whilst the little eighteenth-century church was charming, Rob particularly liked the bleached stone remains of the medieval chapel behind it. He found it hard to visualize the bustle of the monastic hospital it had belonged to. He tried to focus on that and not think about the storyteller, but she kept sneaking into his thoughts.

He was about to leave the churchyard when he saw a blob on the horizon. Curious, he stood and watched. The wind whipped up his fringe. The blob coalesced and moved closer, pulling itself into strange eddies and shapes on the way. Like teeth and claws coming out of the sky, pointy tendrils emerged from the main body of the swirling mass. Was it a swarm of bees? It leapt across the field towards him with a seething vitality, making the crows leap into the air with angry cries. The first few specks of peat landed on his jacket. He realized it was a Fen Blow. His father had told him about them: the wind carried away the top layer of peat, depositing it miles away, if at all. He ran inside the chapel and closed the door, brushing the soil from his jacket, leaving small smears of muck. The Fen Blow hammered itself against the windows. He was in for a long wait.

It was only later, as he was climbing out of the hovercraft on shaking legs, that he thought of how foul it would have been to be on route during the Blow.


Rob felt as though he was the only person in the room, that the storyteller was going to tell her tale to him alone. He also felt his project had taken on a new dimension: not just finding out about post-conflict resolution but understanding her inspiration, what the locals were up to, and their recalcitrance about her. She shifted position in her chair, and began: “It looked like another bright and sunny day, but what Peter didn’t know when he got on the hovercraft that afternoon was that his little journey would put him in great peril….”

Very funny, thought Rob. He was getting pissed off at having games played with him. Pissed off and a bit freaked out.

This time the storyteller herself brought round her bag for contributions, leaving her familiar to doze by the fire. She hobbled round the bar area while the locals silently dropped money into her bag. A long red scar ran down from her ear to her jaw, rippling through the vivid burns on one side of her face. Rob smiled at the storyteller when he paid her, but it felt forced. Think of the dissertation. “Can I have a chat with you later?” he asked.

“No,” she said, moving off to fetch her dog. The spell broken, Rob stood and walked in the opposite direction, towards the bar.

How responsible, how culpable was the storyteller, anyway, Rob pondered over yet another beer. Some pilots had defected without dumping their deadly cargo, had lived in Fenlandia or had run away elsewhere. But that meant ditching your whole past, your family, everything, probably for the rest of your life. Was that what she had done? Or had she piloted the plane that had dropped the bombs here and then crashed? If it was the latter, it would explain why no-one talked to her, would explain the burns too. She could claim she was only obeying orders, and how often had that excuse been used in history? But why in God’s name settle here? And why had the locals allowed it?

Stuff her and the farmers, thought Rob. I want to know. I’m going to go and talk to her. But making up his mind brought no comfort.


Rob spotted her far ahead in the scattered moonlight, skirting the churchyard as the bells struck midnight. He wanted to see her on her own territory; maybe that way she’d be willing to talk to him. Was he doing the right thing? Why wouldn’t the locals talk to her, or about her? He followed her round the outside of the church, past the weeping angel statue. He slid along the edge of what had been the castle’s moat. It began to rain.

Why had the locals taken in this strange woman who had bombed their village? It couldn’t seriously have anything to do with her prowess at telling a good story, a local obsession of theirs . . . could it?

Rob walked across the clearing, the rain pouring down the back of his neck. The door opened before he had the chance to knock. A black cat shot past him and into the yard. ‘And a black tom-cat.’ He caught a whiff of something unpleasant, a slight corruption in the air. He hoped it was the dog. The storyteller was sitting beside the fire, pouring water from a cast-iron kettle into two mugs. He sat down opposite her without speaking, and she passed him a mug. Their hands touched, his warm, hers chilly. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. ‘A wicked old crone…’ The giant dog lying in front of the hearth glared at him, then settled back down.

“I’m not going to help you with your dissertation,” she said eventually.

How did she know about that? He thought about all the other coincidences. “Are you a witch or something?” he asked suddenly.

She snorted. “No, I’m not. That lucky cow died years ago.” She sipped her tea. “‘Once upon a time, there was a witch in the village . . .’ I started a story like that, one time. I know better, now.”

“But you were an English pilot. Why’d they let you stay? And why weren’t you tried before a court?” He swallowed a mouthful of tea.

“The Fenlanders have their own ways of dealing with wrongdoers.”

“I don’t understand. It’s like you’ve got away with it. They even healed you up when your plane came down.”

She laughed, a sharp bark of a sound. “They did no such thing.”

“But . . .”

“You young foreigners, you see everything so simply,” she said, more than firelight flickering in her eyes.

Rob thought about her burns. Hideous burns. A wounded enemy in a country at war, who had bombed the village without mercy. It took a while before he understood. “They made you like this?” She nodded. “You’re not dead, but you’re not alive either. Not an escape but a curse: to recount tales forever.”

The storyteller nodded again. “This is the story that doesn’t end. I’m not the witch, but the person who did this to me was.” The storyteller smirked, pushing her hat back. It was a skull-like rictus of a smile. “But I have had time to do some research of my own. A parachute, delayed thirty years.”

Rob glanced down at his mug, registering the tea’s bitterness too late. He threw it into the fire with a cry.

“What’s the matter?” asked the storyteller. “You wanted to be a writer, didn’t you? Tell stories to people who’ll listen?” She smiled again, that dreadful smile. “Lock the door, Shuck.”

The huge beast by the fire lumbered to its feet and laid in front of the door, growling.


Image of Josie Gowler

Josie Gowler has had over 50 short stories and articles published,
including fiction in 101 Words, 365 Tomorrows, Every Day Fiction,
Bewildering Stories, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction
and Perihelion. She
has recently seen her first memoir piece published, in Clownchair. In
her non-writing spare time, Josie is a Napoleonic re-enactor, another
source of short story inspiration.