Continuing my series of posts celebrating the first anniversary of An Unquiet Calm, today I discuss the inspiration behind ‘Washed Clean’. There may be spoilers ahead.
‘Washed Clean’ was originally an entry in a flash fiction competition from the prompt ‘Innocence’.
After many years in law the first thing that sprang to mind was that the English and Welsh legal system (along with many others) splits criminal liability not into Guilty and Innocent but into Guilty and Not Guilty. This triggered a thought about one of the most guilt-finding-focused legal processes: witch floating.
There was a superstition in Medieval Europe that water, being pure, would reject evil. So, to test if someone was a witch, their community tied them up and threw them in deep water. If they floated, they were a witch and were killed. If they drowned, they weren’t evil after all. Therefore, while you might technically be found innocent, it would be a meaningless vindication.
So I decided to write a story about someone who was a witch, but was accused of something they didn’t do. Both innocent and not at the same time.
One of the things that has always puzzled me about witch trials was the vast disparity between the alleged crimes (for example, sinking fleets) and the ease with which the alleged witch was caught and tried. While magic as complex ritual and the greater power of God both explain why these immense powers don’t help, the idea of no smoke without fire that persists into modern society made me wonder about another approach: if a witch did escape, it would be proof of the crime and they would be hunted down. So I came up with the idea of using magic to appear to drown.
The original outline ended with Seimunda waking up from her magical trance and chuckling to herself because no one had anticipated her using magic to survive. However, her body disappearing would have raised questions, so it didn’t quite fit the image of someone smart enough to fake their own death. Which is where the idea of her filling the shroud with blossom came from: if she had fooled the village into thinking she was innocent, why not cover her tracks by pretending to be transfigured.
To keep with the theme of guilt being what could be made to stick, I made the trial about bitter villagers taking the opportunity to blame all their problems on someone without a family to protect them.
However, when I expanded the story, I realised there was real innocence in there: Father Grevil thinks the trial is about whether or not Seimunda is a witch and just explaining things will sort it out. I like to imagine he received considerably more respect after the apparent miracle.