Catherine Fearns

Image of Catherine Fearns
Catherine Fearns is from Liverpool, UK. In previous incarnations she was a financial analyst, a cocktail pianist and a breastfeeding counsellor, but nowadays she writes novels, with a bit of music journalism on the side. Her three crime fiction novels (Reprobation, Consuming Fire & Sound, all published by Crooked Cat/darkstroke) are Amazon bestsellers in multiple categories, and her short fiction, non-fiction and music journalism has also been widely published. Her new novel, a dark historical drama entitled All The Parts Of The Soul, is a departure from her crime series and she thoroughly enjoyed conducting the research and finding a new voice.
Catherine is a member of the Crime Writers' Association and the Geneva Writers' Group. When not writing, she plays guitar in a heavy metal band, mainly to embarrass her four children.
Award Category Finalist
Award Submission Title
All The Parts Of The Soul
Geneva, 1545; magistrate Henry Aubert is sent to investigate accusations of witchcraft in a village outpost. When he meets local healer Louise de Peney, he is suddenly confronted with the possibility of love. But Aubert is an unreliable and increasingly sinister narrator..
My Submission
1. Crimen Exceptum

When I was a boy of twelve, I saw a long-tailed star. It was a hot night, and the stagnant air hung heavy over the city that was under plague curfew. Rue Tabazan was deserted save for the crier who paced slowly ringing the warning bell. In my childish zeal to contribute to civic duty, like my father, I leaned over the window frame watching for curfew-breakers or, most thrilling of all, the terror of the plague-spreaders. Sometimes I would sit for hours, not knowing what I would do if I actually saw one of these servants of the Devil.

But that particular night I was distracted from my vigil by a white light in the sky. Far across the lake, it lit up the snowy peaks of the Mont Blanc so that I could discern every ridge and contour, like a secret glimpse of heaven itself. In awe I shook my elder brother awake, and he was unwilling at first but when I finally persuaded him to stagger bleary-eyed to the window, he too widened his eyes in amazement.

‘What is it, Pierre?’ I asked him, unable to tear my eyes away. ‘Is it an angel?’

‘It is a portent of some sort, that’s for certain.’

We watched in silence as the star continued its passage, slow and steady across the sky, with a tail that quivered like white fire. And we prayed for good fortune; for how could anything so beautiful ward ill?

Within a month, Pierre was dead; my mother, father and baby sister too. The baby went first, and my mother might have died of a broken heart had she not then been afflicted herself. My brother held out the longest. I sat with him at the Plague Hospital and watched him suffer in blood and pus and faeces until it pleased God to take him too, and then I was alone in the world.

It was the greasers. There is no doubt; they had been active in our part of town, and my father, as a merchant and councilman, certainly had no shortage of enemies. Greasers, plague-spreaders, bouteurs de peste, engraisseurs – call them what you will. Call them demons; for the very idea of it could only come from hell itself. These evil conspirators hack the rotting limbs from plague victims with which they concoct an unguent or powder to smear on door handles. For an ephemeral chance at profit; to raid the houses of corpses. Or worse, out of enmity or jealousy. Petty neighbourhood squabbles turned into unimaginable evil and torture.

Had I not been distracted by the star that night, perhaps I would have seen them and been able to prevent what happened. At least this particular conspiracy was caught and punished. I watched a woman burn for it in the Field of Execution at Champel. And I knew the Devil was there because when I saw her shaved head and her shaved sex, the weals and bruises on her broken body, I felt the first ever stirrings in my loins. As the flames licked around her and she screamed in terror, I felt la petite mort for the first time and I knew the dangers of the lustfulness of women. Even at the moment of her death she was tempting me. I knew it was my lot in life to be tempted and to resist temptation. I saw too the power of the magistracy that could right these wrongs, in Geneva at least, and knew that I would devote my life to bringing about God’s justice on earth.

My brother had been right about the portent, for in the fifteen years since then it has pleased God to trial Geneva with such misery and suffering that it has often seemed the very Tribulation itself is upon us. With the Papacy finally revealed as the seat of the Antichrist, Calvin and the city fathers are building the new Rome here in Geneva, and as such the new faith and its people are under attack from the forces of Hell. And now the plague is upon us again, worse than ever. I do wonder sometimes if I am immune, having survived so many bouts and such close proximity to sufferers, but nevertheless I take all the precautions. I have perfected the art of never touching the door handle. I never leave the house without scented pomanders, my only extravagance in life, around my neck and attached to my belt, and I hold a vinegar-soaked cloth to my mouth as I weave my way through the city streets, so crowded are we within these city walls I could not avoid the dreaded miasma otherwise. Indeed my whole life since my parents died has been devoted to avoiding people, and I have succeeded as well as can be expected in a city so teeming.

Today I stepped even more gingerly than usual across the cobbles, determined to keep my robes and shoes clean. I had been summoned to see the great John Calvin himself. Our city’s saviour and mentor keeps himself close to his people, with all welcome at his twice-weekly St Peter’s Cathedral sermons, from the grandest prince to the poorest beggar. Indeed, Calvin himself is a refugee from the heresy of his native France. But still, to be personally invited to his home: this was an honour I had not expected to befall me at such an early stage of my career.

Calvin lives in a fine, yet relatively modest, house on the rue de Chanoines, gifted to him by the Council as part of the negotiations for his return from exile. I hesitated before touching the iron door knocker, and then reproached myself, for surely only the Devil himself would dare to grease the door of John Calvin. The door was opened by his wife Idelette de Bure – no housekeeper or fanfare, and although she wore fashionable wide sleeves and expensive lacework on her collar and cap, she was otherwise dressed modestly, one might even say severely, in black. She ushered me through with the weary friendliness of a woman who probably never has her house to herself, telling me ‘You are in luck, Monsier Aubert. His last meeting ended earlier than expected so you can go straight in to his chamber.’

Before I knew it the door was opened and I was in the library of the great Calvin himself. I myself am an avid collector of books, but I had never seen so many books in one place. Leather-bound books and scrolls line the shelves from floor to ceiling, and more were piled on the floor and open on his desk. He was almost buried in them, and maybe this added to the surprising impression that he was physically fragile. He must have been around forty years but he looked older, his wide eyes sunken, prominent cheekbones and a long hooked nose. He wore a close-fitting black cap and plain black robes, a rich fur throw his concession to luxury. His greying beard was almost absurdly long, dwindling to a point around his chest, where it blended with the fur of his robe. So engrossed was he in the letter he was writing that Idelette had to introduce me twice before he looked up, and even then he didn’t put down his quill. ‘Husband, here is Henry Aubert, city magistrate, as you requested.’

‘Ah, Aubert, come and sit down.’ He motioned to the chair across from his desk and I sat and waited while he continued to write. Finally he signed the letter and put down his quill, speaking to me as he sealed the letter with wax.

‘My apologies. I can barely keep up with all this correspondence. Our brothers in Strasbourg,’ he nodded to the letter. ‘Wrestling against heresy with the full armour of God,’ he smiled as he put it to one side. And now he gave me his full attention. ‘Now, why have I asked you here today? I see you are the youngest magistrate on the council, Monsieur Aubert. Very impressive. How did you manage it?’

I bowed. ‘I am twenty-nine years old, sir. I have been a notary since my apprenticeship, and it was my honour to be selected for the magistracy in the February elections.’

How strange to hear the sound of my own voice, speaking phrases unplanned, responding to a conversation as if it were nothing. This is uncharted territory. My work as a notary provides very little human interaction; I go to the town hall, I listen, I write, then I return to my empty house.

‘A legal training, and of modest background. Very much like myself.’ He smiled with such warmth suddenly that I was filled with pride.

‘My father was a shoemaker.’

‘Head of the shoemakers’ guild, no less? And a councilman himself. You lost your family at a young age, I am sorry for you. I too lost my mother very young. These trials can never truly be overcome, although with God’s grace we persevere. You were taught by Froment, and lived with him too, I believe?’

‘Yes, I went to his classes at Molard, every day in the months after my parents died. He and his wife were very kind to me; they saw my potential and sponsored me to go to the College Rive and obtain my training and apprenticeship. I will be forever indebted to them.’

When I was alone in those months after my family died, only daring to leave the house when I was so hungry I could no longer bear it, I saw Antoine Froment in the Place du Molard, announcing his classes and putting up notices. He offered free schooling to all who wished it, claiming he could teach anyone to read and write within three months. Every day I went to the Grande Salle du Boitet, at the sign of the Croix d’or, with the other children of Geneva. I already knew how to read and write, but Froment also taught us the true Christian religion. These were revolutionary days, and while the soldiers and men of politics fought for our freedom from foreign princes, the children and preachers were on the frontline of our spiritual battle for the reformed faith. Most children went home to pass all this on to their parents, and I envied them. I had no-one to teach. But Froment and his wife Marie Dentière saw something in my abilities, and encouraged me to take up an apprenticeship. I kept much from them and they knew nothing of my true situation. I will certainly not tell Calvin how I was really living during my teenage years. But still, they saved my life and I have vowed to devote my life to civic duty and the building of a truly godly city, as they did.

‘You have honoured your family’s memory,’ said Calvin, looking at me kindly.

I was stunned that he knew so much about me, and made some bland attempt at a reply.

‘It has pleased God to trial our city with such manner of horrors. This latest bout of plague is the worst yet, I fear.’

‘And that is exactly why you are here, my son. There is a situation, and I would like you to assist. Have you been to Satigny?’

I had not, and had no wish to, for everyone knows it is an infamous place. Satigny is a mandement of Geneva, but it is something of an outlier, particularly since the city walls came up. A half day’s ride from the cathedral, it is a rural area, a scattering of villages in the shadow of the Jura and on the border with Savoy. A strategic outpost, perhaps, but its inhabitants’ main contribution to the city this year other than wine has been a notorious bout of plague-spreading. Back in the spring no less than forty people burned for it. This year’s plague is still raging in the city, and brings back painful memories.

‘I confess I have not.’

‘No matter. In any case – the place is overrun.’

‘Surely not the Savoyards?’

‘No, no. Although you are correct that with the whole mandement surrounded by Savoy, loyalties to Geneva have not been fully established. No no, I’m talking about witches. The whole place appears to be crawling with witches.’

‘Witches? I know about the plague-spreaders captured there.’

‘Plague-spreaders, witches, what is the difference? They are one and the same. It is all the work of the Devil. The council received a supplication from Donzel, the chatelain of Satigny. A prominent farmer’s wife has accused her lying-in maid of witchcraft. Apparently. And now there are accusations flying all over the place. I want you to go out there and assist.’

I must have looked stunned, so he continued to explain.

‘With the mandement’s population decimated by war and plague – the bailli died in the spring - they have neither the prisons, the legal expertise, nor the equipment to deal with this situation. They are so understaffed they can’t cope with another set of trials. And they made a terrible mess of the last ones, which should have been transferred to the city. There is still a lot of unruliness there. You have assisted at criminal trials before, have you not?’

‘Yes…theft, usury, and other financial cases. But are these not matters for church courts?’ My head was spinning.

‘No, no, The Church is far too busy with heretics. These are, and must be, civil matters. Indeed, heresy is now a civil matter, since the church and state are one now in Geneva. And you have witness witch trials already, have you not?’

‘Yes. But upon my honour, I do not feel worthy of…’

And I felt myself reddening and hardening as I thought of the burning I had witnessed last week, the effect it had had on me. But surely we all feel like this.

‘Monsieur Aubert, these are momentous times. Perhaps the End Times, or moreover, with God’s grace, just the beginning. But either way we must all do our part. Peace is fragile, and we must bring the rural bailliages into line or the Savoyards will be back in no time. And as for Berne… we are their veritable slaves and that displeases me. The rural communities do not have the same morals as the city people whom I have educated. We are building a new moral realm here in Geneva, and that must extend to the villages as well. Furthermore, as the Senate continues to remind me, we need Satigny. Much as I would like to keep us all in our fortress behind these city walls, the coffers are almost empty – the wine cellars are almost empty. And there is wealth to be tapped in Satigny. You will see how glorious are their fields and vineyards…’

I opened my mouth to speak, simply because I felt I had been listening for a long time and perhaps it was my turn. He stopped and gestured for me to continue, but I had nothing, and had only succeeded in interrupting. I curse myself for my ineptitude in all these situations. But he seemed to understand and to my relief he continued.

‘This is a glorious opportunity to strike against heresy. And a glorious opportunity for your own advancement. Use the full force of the law to secure some convictions for us, Monsieur Aubert. Convictions that shall be well -promoted abroad. You will be amply rewarded for your efforts.’

Now I had got over the initial jolt to my senses, I decided that I should be thrilled with this opportunity. To see my hard work and abilities rewarded – this was truly a new world. I bowed solemnly.

‘It is my honour to serve the city. To help you build a new society. When shall I begin? How… shall I begin?’

‘Immediately, my friend. Wrap up your affairs here, and set out tomorrow morning, it is only three hours’ ride. If all goes well you shall not have to stay long; indeed it is far better if the accused can be tried here in the city, where everyone can see them. Although on the other hand, you would do well to be out of the city at this time. It is September; by the time this is over winter will be almost upon us and the cold always seems to kill off the plague, does it not?’

With that he appeared to go back to his work, taking up a document to read. But I was still hovering. He was entrusting me with life and death, and had given me almost no instruction. Sensing my insecurity, he looked up again.

‘Do you have a copy of the Malleus?’

‘The Malleus?’

‘Malleus Maleficarum. The Hammer of Witches. It was written more than half a century ago now, but it has become something of a manual. Very respected work. I believe it is the most published book in the whole of Europe after the Bible. What does that tell us, eh? Here, I will lend you mine. You can use it as a guide to conducting your investigation. It’s still only in Latin at the moment. I must commission a French edition, in fact.’

He handed me a heavy leather-bound volume, and I clutched it to my chest, still hovering. In truth, I felt the ground moving beneath my feet.. if I could just have had some time to think about all this..

‘If I may, Monsieur Calvin, why did you choose me? I am the most junior of all the magistrates you could have selected. I have no experience at all in these matters.’

‘Witchcraft is a crimen exceptum. You don’t need experience - you need initiative.’

He could tell I was not convinced, so he put down the quill he had just taken up, and came around the desk to be close to me.

‘I know you have been cruelly touched by the horror of plague-spreading, and so you have an even greater incentive than most to …’ I waited for him to say ‘avenge’, but he seemed to reconsider his choice of words and finished with ‘to want justice done.’

‘But this conspiratorial poisoning, it’s not the same as witchcraft surely.’

He dismissed this. ‘Does it matter? Both are the work of Satan. Both present an opportunity to lead people back to God. And also…’ Here he paused and smiled, in an almost fatherly manner. ‘I want someone who I can mould into my successor. You are young and talented. And as I said, witchcraft is a crimen exceptum – normal rules don’t apply, and…creativity, shall we say…is not only permitted but advised. It is even an advantage to have a novice magistrate, or one not trained in the law. We must play the Devil at his own game.’

‘Regarding that, Monsieur Calvin. What about…well…persuasive techniques. It is my understanding that witchcraft confessions are almost never obtained without torture.’

‘Ah yes. Well, you may use whatever means are at your disposal in Satigny. I don’t know what it is they do over there. You have the Malleus to guide you. And when it comes to the strappado and the barber surgeons, by that point you should have transferred proceedings to the city anyway for the trial. And I have no doubt there will be a trial. Or even trials… You know how these things escalate.’

‘And if I find the accused to be innocent?’

I could not read his expression here, even though I felt I was supposed to. ‘You will find what you find,’ he said. ‘But you are tasked to investigate. Any trial should take place here, in public view.’

And with that strange mixture of pragmatism and dogmatism, fervour and calm, he took me in his arms as a signal that the meeting was over and I was to get to work and use my initiative. Although I was almost a head taller than him, especially with his stoop, I felt my face buried in the musty depths of his fur collar, and I felt his body pressed against mine. I stiffened and shrank at first, then relaxed into his grip and felt strangely tearful. I realized that it was the first time I had been touched in a very long time, perhaps since I was a child, and as his body pressed against mine I tried with all my might to shut from my mind the images of witches being tortured. A power that was now being entrusted to me.

He released me from his grip but continued to hold my upper arms, looking up at my face. ‘How handsome you are! And not married yet? You must marry, my boy! It is the only honourable state for a Christian man.’

I had no reply, so he continued. ‘I suppose without parents to find you a suitable match… I will help, don’t worry.’ He winked, and I was mortified.

2. Index Librorum Prohibitorum

Sleep has never come easily to me, and I usually stay up into the early hours of the morning, reading, writing, watching out of the window. These are the loneliest hours but I am not lonely, with my books, my diary and most of all my thoughts. I have quite a collection of books in this house. Geneva has several printing presses now, and I am a regular visitor to the book stalls in the Place du Molard, which also receives interesting new works every year from the Frankfurt Book Fair and from passing tradesmen.

The Index of Prohibited Books is of course extensive in Geneva, Calvin being keen to purge the city of unclean acts and unclean thoughts. More books are being banned every week by the Consistory, and so most of what I can obtain is religious and philosophic in nature. It is odd though that so many of these texts seem to intensify the very desires they command us to suppress. The Penitentials castigate a variety of carnal sins in great detail. One of the volumes I read most often is the Bishop of Worms’ Decretum; most often because I can still hardly believe the depths of depravity to which women apparently stoop. Fashioning large implements and devices to place within themselves for pleasure, or worse, attaching these implements to their genital areas in a mockery of masculinity? Placing a live fish within themselves and leaving it there until it is dead, then roasting and feeding it to their husbands? To make more ardent their husbands’ love? This is obscene sorcery, and committed by common housewives. One cannot imagine what a real witch would do. Or perhaps all women are witches at heart.

When I turn the pages of the second-hand liturgical manuscripts, I often find shocking images scrawled in the margins; beasts with giant members, women with splayed legs, fantastical multi-limbed creatures copulating in bizarre fashions. Perhaps the priests who drew these images wish to remind us that temptation is everywhere, and that we must resist it. So when I lock myself away to wrestle with temptation I do see it, in a strange way, as a spiritual act.

I have plenty of secular materials, too, being fortunate enough to have had a book-loving father. He had worked himself from poverty into the shoemaking business, wealthy enough to purchase Genevan citizenship and a place on the Small Council, and although he did not read well, he viewed books as a symbol of his elevated status in the world. I have inherited from him the works of Catallus, and the Priapeia – poems so scandalous it is no wonder that the city has banned them. I have seen two booksellers imprisoned for attempting to sell copies of Catallus, but I see no reason to surrender my copies, since it would only draw attention to myself. My father even owned a strange Catalan book – well hidden from me when he was alive – entitled A Mirror For Fuckers, which details innumerable and impossible entanglements between men and women, even between men and men, women and women. When I read and re-read these sorts of book it is only so I can better understand the minds of the depraved. Because surely these things are impossible outside of the imagination.

When I tire of reading, I write in my journals. And how easy it is to express myself by means of the written word. Would that we never had to open our mouths! Although Froment taught me to write in French, and it is the French language that is encouraged in all things now, I prefer to write my diaries in Latin. There is something freeing about being so detached from the things I am communicating. Even though in truth I am only communicating with myself.

But my most important occupation when I am at home is to watch out of the window – especially when the plague is raging. This was the place where I saw the fiery star. This was the place where I was distracted that night, when the plague-spreaders must have come to baste the door with the unguent that killed my family. This is the position I must take, ever watchful. If I had only been more watchful that night, perhaps things would be very different. And so this is my penance, my atonement, my torture, my pleasure. Because there is much to see in our busy streets, in the daytime at least; and it is not so terrible to watch the world go by. When it is quiet at night I have my imaginings to keep me company. an unknown guardian of the city. I anchor myself here, a constant amidst the constantly-changing, a silent watchman. And it gives me comfort.

I knew that night would be no exception to my insomnia, so anxious was I about the adventure ahead. And in any case I had a new book to read – the Malleus Maleficarum. By candlelight I devoured it, turning the pages with the measured thrill of one who has perhaps found the book he has been searching for his whole life. It was written in the Rhineland, late last century, by Jacob Sprenger, an inquisitor and also a Dominican friar, so by all accounts a godly man. It had been granted a Papal bull, and while we no longer recognize the Pope, this stamp of authority confirms its status as a reliable text.

The Malleus explains so many of the ills of the world. Since Eve first took a bite of the apple, women are to blame for so much. Indeed, the book makes the point that ‘If we inquire, we find that nearly all the kingdoms of the world have been overthrown by women’. This is a true work of scholarship, corroborated throughout by evidence from the scriptures as well as from the confessions of witches themselves. The first part of the book provided a definitive justification for the reality of sorcery and the need to extirpate it. The proofs from scripture are too innumerable even to mention. Suffice to quote Exodus: Thou shalt not permit a sorceress to live. Put simply, if the devil exists – and it would be heresy to deny this fact – then witchcraft must also exist. Because witches cannot perform their evil tasks without the help of the devil, with whom they must enter a pact.

The Malleus also justified my role in this whole process and gave me the confidence that it is my sacred duty, since women are so weak, to protect the world of men from their wiles and the wiles of the Devil. It explained what Calvin had insinuated, that sorcery has the criminal status of heresy – which is of course, logical, since a witch must go against God - and that secular courts can and should use inquisitorial practices in order to extirpate witches. Of course – why had I not realized this before? This was my justification, and now I felt better. Despite my relative inexperience, I was after all qualified for these investigations.

The second part of the book dealt with the activities of sorceresses themselves, and how to prevent them. The detail was shocking. The accused must engage in six different activities in order to qualify as a sorceress. These consist of a pact with the devil, sexual relations with the devil, aerial flight, assembly at a sabbat, magic, and the slaughter of babies. A witch is occasionally a man, but usually a woman, and Sprenger did extensive and impressive research to explain why it is women that are the weaker and more terrifying sex. They are far less constant in their faith and therefore far more likely to be swayed by the devil. They are also insatiable in their sexual desire which cannot be sated by mortal man. Concubines are the most wicked, followed by midwives, then women who dominate their husbands. These facts were shocking enough, but the Malleus went into such detail, such was the diabolical filthiness that had to be addressed.

There were parts of the book that made me blush, that made me sweat. The temptations to which men are exposed, the filthiness and debauchery of women. It was hard to believe some of the things the book mentioned. Things I would love and hate to see with my own eyes, that might scar me forever, things that could surely only have been invented in hell. A woman writhing in pleasure with an invisible demon? Kissing the devil’s backside, licking his anus? I can hardly bear to write the words. His enormous spiked member and ice-cold semen? Rendering an innocent man impotent or worse, stealing an innocent man’s member? The grinding down of babies’ bones to make a powder; the roasting of a baby’s organs and the drinking of his blood – such gruesome activities almost paled in comparison to the depths of sexual depravity to which women are capable. How can such things be written? Who could even think of such things? And yet I was struck by a strange sense of familiarity, as if these visions had already been there, just waiting to be developed. And since no-one could simply imagine something so depraved, perhaps it must indeed come from real life.

I felt guilty even for reading this book, shocked and delighted in equal measure that Calvin himself had given it to me. Had his eyes too really taken in these very words? These images must be in his mind too. I was terrifyingly, and deliciously, out of my depth, swimming in filth and yet finally authorized to do so.


Mark Stibbe Judge Tue, 25/08/2020 - 11:57

Love your writing Catherine. And I'm especially intrigued by the Calvinistic themes/characters in both your submissions - eBook and writing awards. The fusion of Calvinism and Heavy Metal - that's so unique! Looking forward to reading more. Congrats on being a fellow finalist! And thanks for accepting the friend request on Facebook. All v good wishes. Mark

Larae Mitchell Sat, 29/08/2020 - 16:42

Congratulations! I am so glad you did well, good luck as they choose the winner. I learned a lot from all of you 😁

B_Castle Sun, 30/08/2020 - 04:01

This is great writing. Surprised this isn't represented by a lit agent. (Or is it?) Either way, it's good!

Best of luck!

authorshaunnar Sun, 30/08/2020 - 22:33

Congratulations on making it as a finalist! Best wishes! (heads up- &amp is in the body of your story... reads great despite this.)

Mary D Mon, 31/08/2020 - 11:50

Congratulations on your success Catherine -:)

Lara Byrne Sat, 05/09/2020 - 11:20

Congratulations on making it as a finalist! I love your opening. Good luck for round 2!