Falling through the centuries to the German village of Tierkenddorf in 1507, Erika Mailman stirs a frightening cauldron of superstition and fear, famine and ignorance fueling mass hysteria and accusations of witchcraft. Empty bellies growling, neighbors and friends cast covetous eyes on the fortune of one another, the sparse food never enough to feed families in “a winter to make bitter all souls.”
Striding into Tierkenddorf at the behest of the village lord, his rich cloak unfurling like the wings of a raven against the pristine snow, Friar Johannes Fuchs assesses his flock, prepared to purge them of the evil that has blighted the fields. The friar believes that just as “God punished the world with a flood… he is now punishing you with famine.” Carrying the witch hunter’s bible, the Malleus Maleficarum, the friar entreats the villagers to search among them for the cursed one.
In the humble hut of Jost Muller, his wife, Irmeltrude, serves her starving children bowls of snow, incensed by the uselessness of her mother-in-law, Gude, begrudging even fire and shelter. Once Jost has left, Irmeltrude thrusts Gude outdoors, barring the door against her return. Silent, the children watch with widened eyes.
Temporarily distracted from her family’s desperate state by the friar’s demands, Irmeltrude casts about for a likely victim, ruminating on his words: “Someone is making mischief and bringing misery to this village.” Reluctant to incur her husband’s wrath by naming Gude, even though the old woman has been seen petting a cat - a known witch’s familiar - Irmeltrude is content to join the rest of her neighbors in accusing a local widow, Kunne, Gude’s best friend since childhood.
As bowed by age and hunger as the others, Kunne has no defense when one man says his milk curdled after she passed by; another claims his hen stopped laying, and a woman attributes a barren womb to Kunne’s presence. Anguished, Gude witnesses her friend’s shame, stripped and burned to assuage an angry God. For a time the anxious neighbors are quiet, sated by sacrifice. But the famine does not abate.
Recalling the slices of ham given each household after Kunne’s sacrifice, Irmeltrude schemes to be rid of Gude and obtain food for her children. After the men leave to hunt game in the forest, the women are left with their hunger and active imaginations, anxious to please the soul-hungry priest. Finally the innocent are made guilty, the devil’s malevolence at every turn; in an excess of passion, the village turns one upon another, a pyre built for the next sacrifice.
Through the confused ramblings of an aged mind and the imprecations of an arrogant priest, images flow through the icy night: disembodied women, a coven feasting on lost children, burnt flesh blessed by a wild-eyed friar, hearts turned to stone in self-preservation. Rescued from the edge of despair, a black scar stains the soul of this village, revisited through the years. Cloaked in prophecy, Mailman’s haunting novel is a poignant reminder of our basest instincts left unchecked.