Excerpt from Megan Abbott’s “Sometimes My Arms Bend Back”


The following is an excerpt from Megan Abbott’s contribution to the Black Magic issue of Spolia, “Sometimes My Arms Bend Back.” You can find this story, and many other dark, twisted things, in the issue. It’s for sale here.

In 1696 in Renfrewshire, Scotland, Christian Shaw, the eleven-year-old daughter of John Shaw of Bargarran, spotted one of the household maids, Katherine Campbell, sneaking some of the family’s milk and reported the theft to her mother, who disciplined the maid. Two days later, the maid purportedly confronted Shaw, cursing her three times: “May the Devil Harl your soul through Hell.”

Shortly thereafter, Shaw came upon Agnes Naismith, a local widow described in some accounts as having a “malicious disposition” or bad reputation. The following day, Shaw became violently sick, experiencing fits that caused her body to contort. She claimed Campbell and Naismith were using diabolical powers to “cut the sides of her body.” Contemporary accounts note that she was “often so bent and rigid that she stood like a bow on her feet and neck at once.”

For eight days Shaw experienced a series of escalating incidents, with the local presbytery sending officials to observe the fits. Reportedly, they witnessed impossible acts of levitation, such as Shaw being transported, as if by invisible forces, from her chamber, down a long winding stair and to the outer gate, all the while laughing wildly. As the parish minister attempted to restrain her, the girl said her tormentors were “pulling her back out of his arms” with the intent of throwing her into the well by dark of night. Reportedly, she told authorities she faced only two choices: become a witch herself or be drowned by her tormentors.

Further, when individuals prayed in her presence, Shaw’s fits reportedly worsened and she would often do a great deal of “loud talking, whistling, singing and roaring to drown the voice of the person.”

The presbytery held fasts and prayer meetings while Shaw’s father called in a doctor and an apothecary, even taking her to Glasgow to see a renowned physician, Dr. Matthew Brisbane. While under his care, symptoms reportedly dissipated. After returning home, however, the symptoms resumed but in a different, alarming form.

During a second visit to Glasgow, Dr. Brisbane observed, “She spat or took from her mouth, every now and then, parcels of hair of different colours, which she declared her two tormentors were trying to force down her throat.” The expulsions then became more diverse. Soon enough, Shaw was pulling cinders, hay, feathers and other “trash” from her mouth. The objects vary across accounts but can be quite exotic and include, as noted in Domestic Annals of Scotland, “mouth bones of various sorts and sizes, small sticks of candle-fir, some stable-dung mingled with hay, a quantity of fowl’s feathers, a gravel-stone, a whole gall-nut, and some egg-shells.” The obvious skeptical response would be that Shaw had consumed these objects, but Dr. Brisbane noted,

‘…for the most part she pulled out those things without being wet in the least; nay, rather as if they had been dried with care and art; for one time, as I remember, when I was discoursing with her, she gave me a cinder out of her mouth, not only dry, but hot, much above the degree of the natural warmth of a human body.’ (Annals)

Image: Backward witch riding on a goat by Albrecht Dürer