They Burned My Mother at Dawn | Victoria Zelvin

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My anger loves me.

My anger loves me as my mother loved me.

My anger put its arms tenderly around me when they burned my mother at dawn. My anger looked for faces, details, tattoos, names, badges, any identifiable information when I was too terrified to speak. My anger said it was wrong, it’s wrong, they burned a woman without trial or proof, they burned her, they destroyed her, they took her.

My anger holds me now that my mother cannot.

“Anger is corrosive,” said the woman pretending she was a saint for taking me in. They — the ones who burned my mother at dawn, the knights and witch hunters and other self-congratulatory names — put me with her, saying she’d raise a good woman of me. I broke all of her plates and stole all her silver butter knives during my teenage escape from that house that smelled of ash.

My anger kept me warm on the long, cruel days and the endless hungry nights while I fled.

My anger is the only reason I am alive.

Like a little flame on a windy day, sometimes it is a fragile thing, but my anger lives on, as stubborn as I am.

They burned my mother at dawn. Before they die, they will realize they should have burned me.


I had no idea how to go about becoming the witch they thought my mother was when they killed her. I had only bad examples from propaganda and fear mongering to guide me, and the anger inside me said that they were wrong. But I was a weird little girl blossomed into a stubborn teenager — what I lacked in knowledge I made up for in commitment.

My mother has friends. Had friends. They burned my mother and they burned her home but they couldn’t burn the knowledge from my brain. My mother didn’t like to write her own letters, so she had me take care of it. Writing, addressing, passing to the postman.

So I go down a list.

The herbalist takes some of the silver butter knives in exchange for food and a few poultices, but there ends his involvement.

The alchemist takes the last of the silver butter knives and lets me take clothes and a new pair of shoes from his trunk. He offers me a place as his servant, but refuses to let me learn his trade, and so I leave. I take my stolen silver butter knives, and his wide brimmed black hat in recompense for wasting my time.

The last is the furthest away, but the most promising. A witch, my mother used to whisper to me, scrunching her face up to be mischievous. Waggling her fingers, then drawing on wrinkles with soot from the hearth. The woman I picture is ancient and shriveled.

A young woman answers the door instead. “Mother said you’d be coming,” she says. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Daisies weaved into her braided hair so neatly it was as if they’d sprouted from her scalp too. Kind eyes. Too kind. “Come in, you must be tired. I’m sorry about your mother.”

I mumble something as I shuffle in. I don’t know what it is.

“I’m Amicia,” she says.

I mumble something approximating my name, and she shuts the door behind me.


Amicia makes my anger quiet. She’s beautiful. She’s terrible. The witch is her mother, indeed ancient but not yet shriveled, and the witch insists on teaching us together if anyone is to be taught at all. Amicia doesn’t want to learn the things that I want to learn. She wants to learn gardening magics, she wants to learn how to help trees grow, she wants to learn how to convince aphids to coexist within a garden rather than destroying it.

I want fire. It’s all I want.

“The weapon of the enemy against them,” I say, when the witch narrows her eyes at me.

“This is no easy thing you seek to do,” the witch says. “It will take time. There are easier magics.”

I want fire. I want the fire.

The witch only sighs. “Then you are determined that your path leads to fire,” she says. “I only hope it does not burn away other paths before you can see them. We will begin.”


The witch works me hard. There is no proof, she says, that I have magic. Willing it to be so will not make it so, I must have innate talent. The trick is unlocking it, but it may not be fire. Despite her warnings, I demand she teach me about fire. Only fire.

So she does. About what burns, what doesn’t. Why some things do, and don’t, and why some do better than others. How a fire breathes, how it burns, how it dies.

She places my hands around fire, tells me to breathe with it, and stay on that point where it just doesn’t burn me. It singes, and sometimes it stings, and often at night I cannot sleep for the feel of searing heat against my flesh. It is a tenth, if that, of what my mother felt.

At night, lying away in my petty agony, I wonder what my mother’s crime could have been. To be torn from your house, tied to a stake, and burned at dawn, it had to be something bad, right?

Or maybe not bad. Dangerous.

Yes, dangerous to the wrong people.

I was young when they burned my mother at dawn. The images that I can conjure of her face seem to have a halo of golden light around her face, and she always smells faintly of fruit pie and lavender. It’s not a true rendering, it’s not a true feeling, but sometimes I imagine her worst crime was smiling too much. Or maybe she was too pretty, and it made all the noblewomen jealous. Or maybe she had dangerous ideas, like stealing from the rich to feed the poor or starting a home community garden.

Maybe, I think, she was the best woman who ever lived and they killed her for being too kind. That’s their mistake, I tell myself, like a lullaby. They killed the nice one. Now there’s just me.

Would my mother be disappointed in me? I lie now. I steal. I tell myself that it’s to live, but it’s fun too. They should have burned me at dawn for that, I think.

But they didn’t. Their crime, I decide, is that they’re stupid in their cruelty.

Tonight, I lay awake with Amicia sleeping pressed to my side. She breathes gently, untroubled. I twirl one of her curls around my finger and imagine what I would do to anyone who came to tear her out of this bed and tie her to a stake. When I finally sleep too, I dream of them screaming, cowering away from me.


The fire won’t heed me. Every time I try to influence it, it pulls the other direction. The witch tells me that is a kind of progress, that if I was truly hopeless at it then the fire wouldn’t move at all. I sulk, because fire is always moving, but I keep trying.

And trying.

And trying.

But I fear the fire. I don’t want to admit it, but I do. Ever since they burned my mother at dawn, I’m afraid of dying like she did. It’s holding me back.

I burn my hand on purpose the day I realize that. The witch sends me to bed early and won’t let me train for days.


I don’t know how it happens. Amicia becomes a fixture in my life by proximity — in space, in age, in power. She grows me flowers. She cooks me food from her garden. All I have are my arms and my body and my warmth, and I hold her because she wants me to, and somehow that’s enough for her to fall in love.

She wants to run away together, start a life where no one knows us.

I tell her no.

She doesn’t want me to hold her after that.


“Do you even remember your mother?” the witch asks abruptly one day. “Or has your anger burned all that away?”

The insinuation burns. I am doing all of this for my mother. I —

I remember her.

I remember.

Screaming as the flames licked up her dress, dancing up to her hips. Her laughing, cackling. The flames surging in a rush, shooting taller than the trees, burning bright, bright, gone. The smell of ash and cooked meat and —

“No,” the witch says. “Not that. Not only that. Your mother was not what they made her, she was bright and loving. Her memory should warm you like a campfire, not burn you too. That’s why the fire will not help you, why you cannot wield it. And you won’t until you can see through it. Now tell me one thing — just one thing — about your mother that has nothing to do with how she died.”

I think.

I try to, anyway.

But I leave the room without answering and slam the door shut behind me.


My mother didn’t wield the fire that killed her. I don’t need to either. I need to unleash it, like she did. End lives — their lives, not mine.

Maybe that’s what the witch wants to teach me with her question.

But without anger? Was that really how my mother died? Was that really how she lived? I cannot imagine it.

Maybe she was angry. Maybe that’s why they burned my mother at dawn. Maybe she cursed them, and they’re all dead already. Maybe they hated her because she saw them for what they are, and she hated them first.

Maybe her hate burned as brightly as mine does.


They come to the village by chance. It doesn’t matter to me what brings them, only that it is them. With their armor and their sigils of fire and thorn brightly emblazoned on their chests. They march in, kick over food carts, act like bullies while townspeople scream, and then announce that they are here to save them from evil. They declare martial law.

They declare they are here to hunt witches, and they will burn any they find in the town square. They begin to build the pyres almost as soon as they enter, even before they finish saying that law abiding, god-fearing folk have nothing to fear.


Amicia is scared. I encourage that. I help her pack, I make her pack. I grab her by the front of her shirt and I pull her out of that home, the only home she’s ever known, and tell her to run. I tell the witch to hide them both deep in the woods and never to come out again.

I turn to go, and Amicia grabs my wrist.

I pull away.

She calls my name.

I pause, look back.

She reaches for me, and I turn back to where the witch hunters wait.

Amicia doesn’t follow me.


They don’t notice me at first. Then they laugh.

“A witch, come to confess!”

I don’t have a plan. The fire, the witch warned, is a fickle weapon. She warned me to be careful it does not burn me too. She warned me for Amicia’s sake. But here I am, stopped before them, the girl who shouldn’t be. My only weapon, should the fire fail to come, is a butter knife.

I press the pad of my thumb so hard against the silver butter knife it cuts. Sharp, stinging pain, then the welling of hot blood.

No, hotter than blood.

As if I am holding a coal. Light so bright I can barely see their faces, their bodies beyond it. It catches my skirt, climbs up my leg, dances around my side. I lift my hand, and it swirls up with me, searing my sleeve away with it.

The fire is mine now.

I smile.

And we burn.

Victoria Zelvin is a speculative fiction author living in Washington D.C. Her work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. Find her online at or twitter @victoriazelvin

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