‘Devils’ by Claire Askew

“In The Witches of Huntingdon (1646) it was unambiguously stated that ‘the office of the man-like spirit [the Devil] was to lye with her carnally, when and as often as she desired’.  It was the witch who was responsible for these sinful acts, not the devil.” — ‘Satanic Seduction’
This poem is dedicated to survivors of sexual assault, and comes with a trigger warning. 

They liked
the pink, misty end
of the day: knew
we’d be sent to fetch
the horses from the pasture,
or we’d be walking away
from the schoolroom:
round the lane’s last turn
where the hawthorns knit
into an alleyway
of gibbering birdsong.

They liked the woods,
days when the rain
was fine and the smoke
from the village lay down
among the trees — 
or days when the wind
raffled its big cape
and our screams were lifted
and thrown away like the storm-
blown rooks, like all
the garbage of the town.

They were men
who owned things — our father’s
land, our parish’s
collective souls — always had
some hold over us weak-legged
girls too hungry to run.
Or too afraid: they made us
promise such secrecy,
regaled us with nauseous
threat of what we all,
eventually, got: the courtroom
where we hid our broken
hands and lied
under the hot eyes
of their wives.

We welcomed the fire.
Our cries were cries of joy
as every fingerprint,
shackle mark, every bite
in our flesh was blistered
clean.  They liked
to think they could strip us
off into the wild
where men’s bodies ruled,
convince us of our own
incurable loneliness.
But we collect our sisters
from the half-world
as their smoke drifts out
and fills the dawn
with its sick, familiar smell.
They were all devils, but
they will not find us in Hell.

Claire Askew’s poems have appeared in numerous places, including The Guardian, The Edinburgh Review, PANK, and on Radio 3’s The Verb. Her debut collection, This changes things, was published by Bloodaxe in 2016, and shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award. Claire is also a novelist, and her debut novel in progress won the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She is currently at work as the 2017 Jessie Kesson Fellow, lives in Edinburgh, and can be found on Twitter @onenightstanzas.

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