Witches of Washington War of 1812.jpg

Earlier this year, I entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction contest. The rules were simple. On Friday, just before midnight, the contest organizers would send a story prompt consisting of a genre, a location, and an item of some sort. My task was to write a story of no more than 1,000 words in that genre and use the location and item in some significant fashion.

And I had to submit the story within 48 hours.

This is the second story we all had to write for the first round. The judges would add our scores from the two stories and the top five point-getters would advance to that second round. The prompts we got were Historical fiction / A butcher shop / A strongbox.

When I submitted this story, I figured it’d have to be good enough to place in the top three or four. Honestly, I figured it was a bit better than The Box, which would make it a solid top ten story.  The judges hated it.

Well, that’s not quite right. The judges loved the story, said it was “fun” and “creative”, loved the twists and turns and how I wrote them. Yet they awarded it no points and, apparently may God have mercy on my soul. Guess it wasn’t historical enough for them.

Oh well. Them’s the breaks, right?

I like this story. I think you will, too. Maybe it’s not historical enough to be historical fiction, but….yeah, it definitely is. Come alone and see. President Madison is on the move.

The Witches of Washington

James Madison stumbled down the alley, a strongbox thumping against his back. The hooded figure he followed moved ahead of him surely and silently, then stopped at an unmarked wooden door. He looked around. No one had followed them, which was his greatest fear. British patrols crossed the city of Washington, but most of them stayed south of the Capitol. There was little need for them to roam far. The Army of the United States, such as it was, had been routed and, thanks to a decoy, he had reportedly fled the city with his family and a few members of the Cabinet. 

The figure knocked on the door twice and it opened immediately. Another figure in a forest-green cloak waved them in. When they had gone inside, the figure looked left and right, then closed the door.

“We were not followed, Lydia,” Madison’s guide said and pulled back the hood. He was surprised to see a young woman, perhaps sixteen years old, and Indian. Her black hair was pulled back tight with leather strips, to stay out of her way.

The other woman pulled her hood back as well and smiled at the girl. “I did not think you would be, but it is always wise to check twice, especially of a thing that you know is sure.” The girl nodded and smiled back. Lydia looked at Madison. “Her name is Dorcas. She is Piscataway, but her mother’s mother was Nacotchtank and lived on Anacostine Island, where the mansion is now. Her father is my brother. I trust her with my life.”

Madison nodded and put his hands on his hips, breathing hard. “As did I, it seems.”
She chuckled. “Indeed. Did you bring what we asked?”

He unslung the strongbox from his back with a groan and set it on the rough plank floor. It was not large but it was heavier than it appeared. He remained bent over for an extra moment. The air here was heavy and redolent with blood and he was not used the sort of physical activity in which he had engaged for the better part of the last two hours. Dorcas had met him just outside the Presidential Mansion and led him north, then west, through back streets and alleys he had not even known existed. The journey was a revelation for Madison, who had been involved in the founding and building of Washington from the very beginning.

“Where are we?”, he asked after he had caught his breath.

“In a butcher shop, Mister President, though I dare not give you greater detail. The less you know, the safer we all shall remain.

“I will tell you momentarily. First, please open the strongbox. We must see what you have brought us.”

It took him a moment. His hands were trembling, both from nervousness and exertion. He located the true lock, hidden behind a sliding panel on the back of the strongbox and unlocked it with an ornate key. “Mind this lock, Lydia,” he said as he showed her how the mechanism worked. “The key fits the obvious lock as well, but if you try to open the box that way, you will have to destroy it to get inside it.”

She smiled. “Clever, Mister President. And prudent! Both are good.” Her smile grew more broad as he opened the lid and she saw what was inside. Gold glittered in the lamplight. She looked at him quizzically. “No coin?”

He shrugged. “I thought this safer. It would be easier for you to concoct a story about heirlooms passed down to you from your mother then about bags of gold. And British soldiers still retain enough honor to let you keep your sentimental treasures, even if they are valuable. Most of them, at least.” He winced as he remembered the smoke from the burning buildings — the Capitol, the Presidential Mansion, the Treasury building. So much lost. But it would end soon. Very soon. “Besides, it will be easy to claim later the treasures were stolen or burned by the invaders. No one will ask questions. Legend will carry the lie.”

“Thank you, sir, for that. I am grateful that you protect our privacy, but—ahhhhh!” She let out a long exhale as she drew out a small glass container wrapped in velvet and filled with a thick red fluid. “Was this drawn as we asked? Willingly and by the giver’s own hand?”

“It was. And collected hard against my departure.”

“May I ask whose it was? You do not have to say, of course, but I am curious.”

Madison removed his his cloak and showed her his hastily-bandaged forearm. She gave him a long, appraising look and he shrugged. ”Who else could I ask? But will you tell me why here? And why this?” He gestured at the vial of his blood Lydia held in her hands like it was a vial of the most precious perfume.

“Blood is power, sir, and we work with that power. Customarily, we use only a little and so the butcher shop acts to conceal our Workings in the same way a blizzard conceals a single snowflake. Do you see?”

“Yes. The blood of the shop is a great clamor and you make only small shouts.”

She smiled. “Well said! But you have asked of us a great Working, which requires more blood. It is likely the shop will not conceal us, but if we act quickly, the British will have far greater concerns than searching us out, even with their Witch Hunters.” She stomped on the floor and a trapdoor opened. Dorcas took her lamp down the stairs. Lydia followed. Madison took a step, but she gave him a severe look. “No, Mister President. This is witches work. You wait here,” she said and pulled the trapdoor down behind her. “Be patient and we will conjure you a storm the British will remember for a very long time!”

Score: 16th Place, at best (0 points)


{1777}  I enjoyed the historical adventure with Madison, the mystery of the hooded figures, the unmarked wooden door. Strange goings-on for a president. How intriguing to have a Piscataway woman and all three of them gathered in a butcher shop. I liked Madison’s confusion, the discovery of all the back streets and alleys, the secret lock on the strong box and its unusual contents, especially the blood. I liked the line, “the butcher shop acts to conceal our Workings in the same way a blizzard conceals a single snowflake.” Witches’ work indeed. May the storm begin!
{1865}  It was fun following Madison w/ complicated strongbox in tow. The start of a great story…
{1815}  I loved this creative take on a crucial moment in the Revolutionary War. The suspense is high and the twists are revealed artfully — first that Dorcas was Madison’s guide and finally that Madison had come to ask witches to make a storm for him.

{1777}  It was clear that the British had invaded Washington and set fire to the Capitol. But when Madison remembers the smoke from the burning buildings it feels like something from the past. Not ongoing. I wanted to see the flames and the smoke and the mass confusion, see the British troops. Show me 1814. What are the characters wearing? Who is Lydia? Describe the butcher shop. How is it lit? Describe the strong box. I was confused about its contents. The story says, “Gold glittered in the lamplight.” Then Madison talks about how heirlooms are easier to explain than gold. So what’s in the box? The part about the blood was intriguing, but I had no idea what kind of storm they would conjure or why. Make it clear that they’re calling rain to put out the fire.
{1865}  As a stand-alone work of flash fiction, the story doesn’t seem to fit. If we were going to stay with Madison for a much longer time, say a novel, then I could see the pacing and historical setting making better sense.
{1815}  I had trouble really investing in this story because Madison’s character wasn’t as fully developed as it could have been. He’s a public figure, but in the context of this story, he still has to be relatable and interesting. I wanted more personal facts about him; more about his desires and what his life was like at that time.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)