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Authors: Kathleen Kent

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BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
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He looked away, sweeping his eyes across the horizon, and said softly, as though speaking to the wind, “She humbles me with her strength.” I studied closely the granite features of his face in profile. I saw the dirt lining the pores of his skin and the curved lines of pitted canals encircling his eyes and lips and saw the stamp of years of struggles of which I knew nothing.

“Is there nothing we can do?” I asked him, my hands closing around his arm.

He looked back at me and said, “It is in her hands and the hands of her judges.”

It was not what I wanted to hear from his lips. I wanted him to hatch some black and fatal plan to release her. I wanted to shout out to him, “But what about Uncle? He was against us and now he is dead.” I wanted to cry, “If you love her, let loose the dogs, Father. Burn down the jail. Bring a cudgel down onto the head of the sheriff, grease the locks, swing wide the door, and in the dead of night lift her from her prison and carry her away.” And then, I thought, then the rest of us might be saved as well. But I said nothing. I only looked at him, my eyes burning in their sockets, my grip tightening around his forearm, and I remembered it was Mother who had come to my rescue that day at the meetinghouse when Phoebe stood over me, whispering “witch,” and he only sat in the wagon.

He said, “I have talked with her by the hour these many weeks. But the stones in her cell will change their course before she will.” He grabbed me around my shoulder and pulled me closer to him, saying, “I would shame her by begging her to lie or speak falsely of another. Do you understand what I’m saying, Sarah? We, all of us, must be left alone to make good on our own consciences. And no county magistrate or judge or deacon can separate us from the truth, for they are only men. You would say to me, ‘Father, if you love her, save her.’ But it is for love that I will not seek to sway her away from the truth. Even if it means she will die for it.”

His eyes as they met mine were desperate and searching like some Celtic king who has launched his queen’s funeral bier into the river and in his grief would swim after it and in so doing drown himself. I remembered my mother gently stroking the side of his face as they spoke in front of the fire those many weeks ago, and for the first time in my young life I had a presentiment of womanly feelings and I knew then that he loved her. But from that time on, I would never think of the love between them without the partial taste of flint in my mouth.

I said weakly, “You are saying that she is lost to us.”

He bent his massive head to one side as though he would rest it on my shoulder and he said softly, “I am saying that she is not lost to herself.”

Suddenly we heard the frantic barking of the lurcher from the yard. Father stood up, almost knocking me over, and, dropping his shovel, ran towards the house. I grabbed for Hannah and ran stumbling after him, my legs weak and shaking, thinking, “They have surely come for us.” When I cleared the field, I saw that a wagon had stopped in the road in front of the house and in it were a man and two women. They were as any other villagers of Andover and about, wearing their drab workday clothes, the women in their starched caps, the man wearing an old felt hat. But they sat so queerly still and quiet, watching us as we approached them from the yard, that for a moment they looked carved from stone. The breath caught in my throat, as I thought that our warrants had come, but as I got nearer I saw that the man was not the constable but the constable’s brother, Joseph Ballard. Joseph was a close neighbor who lived just to the north a quarter mile on Boston Way Road. His wife had been gravely ill for several months, and Mother had sent herbs for her fever in the spring before she was taken to Salem. Goody Ballard had only worsened and it would surprise no one if she died.

Father hailed the wagon but something in their silence made him wary and tense, the muscles in his forearm flexed and tight. They did not greet us or smile or even nod. They said not a word but stared at us until Hannah buried her face in my hair, tangled and loose without a cap to keep it neat. The young women whispered together and then one of them, a heavy, raw-boned woman with a scarred lip, whispered to Joseph. She pointed to me and Hannah, and in that one small gesture the earth pitched and rolled beneath my feet. Father, seeing them point to us, walked with a set jaw towards the wagon. Joseph quickly jostled the reins and urged his horse away from the yard. We stood and watched them retreating north up the road and never once did they turn to look back. I would later learn that the constable’s brother had gone to Salem Village to fetch the witch finders Mercy Lewis and Betty Hubbard, who had uncovered more than a dozen witches in their own town. He had long feared that his wife was ill because of maleficence, and since Mother’s arrest he had come to believe that she was the cause of their family’s misery. The young women would later give further testimony against my mother.

On the
15
th day of July, Robert Russell came to us with the news that in four days’ time Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes, women from four different towns, were to be hanged by the neck until dead at Gallows Hill in Salem. He had meant to tell Father alone, but Father called us all into the house and seated us together at the table. We did not weep or cry out to one another or reach out for any comfort, for there was no comfort to be had. I thought of Mother in her cell and I said a silent prayer that we would be arrested soon so that I might see her before her sentencing. I remembered Dorcas Good, Sarah Good’s little daughter, who had been imprisoned and in chains with her mother. I asked Robert if she would be released upon her mother’s death, and he paused before saying that she had been left motherless in her dark cell. She would not be released for another four months. It would take that time for her father to raise the bail to release her. That night in bed as Hannah slept, I gave myself over to my tears of misery and anger. I tore the pillow with my teeth and stretched the blankets between my hands until the seams came loose, and sometime deep in the night I dreamt of blackbirds pierced through the breast, struggling against the pike.

I
F WE COULD
see the fullness of our tomorrows, how many of us would take desperate action to change the future? What if our far seeing showed us the loss of our homes, our families, our very lives, and to save it all we would need only to barter away our most precious souls. Who among us would give up what we cannot see for what we can hold in our hands? I believe many of us would peel ourselves away from our immortal selves as easily as the skin from a boiled plum if it meant we could remain on the earth for a while, our bellies full and our beds warm and safe at night.

My mother would not and she would pay the price for her resolve. She was too singular, too outspoken, too defiant against her judges, in defense of her innocence, and it was for this, more than for proof of witchcraft, that she was being punished. Which made it all the more remarkable that my father was not. In all of the months of the witching madness, my father, a man of preternatural size and strength who against custom hunted and fished alone and who said hardly a word to his neighbors, was never questioned, deposed, tried, imprisoned, or even cried out against, and the jails held men aplenty who had supported their suspected wives.

What was it, then, that kept my father walking free among his fellows? There had been widespread rumors among our neighbors of his life in old England. Was it his reputation as a soldier that kept people at a distance? I would have worked my way to asking Robert Russell about Father’s soldiering, as they had been comrades in old England, but I would not get the opportunity. After Robert told us of the hangings, Father put his hands on Robert’s shoulders and said with great sorrow, “My friend. My old friend, you put yourself and your family in peril by keeping company with us. You must not come here again until all this has ended.” At first Robert protested strongly, but he soon saw the wisdom of it and left, promising to do what he could to help us.

Mounting his horse, he said to Father in parting, “Salem Village isn’t the only town where rumors and gossip of the dead can be resurrected to wreak havoc.” And with those queer words he rode away and I was made more alone than ever.

Alone except for my sister, my brothers, and Father. And to my father I had always been a kind of stranger. I had rarely ever been in his company except to bring him food or a drink of water. Father’s silent and purposeful work about the farm had been so ever-present, and at the same time so distant, that I came to view his movements as unremarkable as a field horse or an ox. But while the days without Mother passed, I molded myself to his rhythms, rose when he rose, slept when he slept, and flayed muscle from bone to lift and carry and dig as much as my brothers could. And in that time, I watched him and I watched others who came across his path, and I saw that they were, almost without exception, in great fear of him.

The day after Robert’s last visit to us I went with Father to Thomas Chandler’s iron mill for a small bag of nails and a blade sharpening for one of our scythes. Thomas Chandler was brother to William Chandler, the innkeeper, and was one of the most prominent men in Andover, his mill a kind of gathering place for the men of the town. Father at first told me to stay and look after Hannah, as Richard had left early to bring a sack of food to Salem jail, leaving only Tom and Andrew to mind the farm. But I had grown a mortal fear of being without his protecting presence, and my fear made me immovable. I threatened to throw myself under the wheels if he did not take Hannah and me, so he finally relented and lifted us up to sit with him on the driving board. The way to the mill was as to the center of town but for the sharp turn west on Newbury Road before reaching the burying grounds. The mill sat on the western side of the Shawshin River, and the morning we pulled over the little bridge to approach the ironworks, there were four or five wagons with men coming to repair, sharpen, or buy new tools for the harvesting that was fast approaching.

The men had been standing about in small groups as we pulled up, no doubt trading village news and waiting for their turn at the forge, but when Father climbed down from the wagon they stopped all their talking. They stared at us for a moment and then turned away as though from a chilly wind come off the water. They stood awkwardly hunching their shoulders, making dust motes in the air and islands in the dirt with the toes of their boots. Now, Father never ambled or shuffled and rarely slowed his gait through furrow or field, and when he was in his full loping stride I had to go at a dead run to keep to his heels. He pulled his large harvesting scythe from the wagon and walked towards the men at such a pace that the wind from his swinging arms could have filled a small sail. A ripple went through the small group, and they looked at first to stand firm and make him go around them. But as the rusted and sharply upturned blade of the scythe swung its way ever closer, the group parted wide and Father passed through them unmolested.

Once he had entered the forge, the men came into a group again, like flesh cleaving together after a sharp wound. They turned to Hannah and me to steal a look now and then, but I met each eye with a straightaway stare, which I think made them bold. After a time one of them, a man I had seen only in passing on the Boston Way Road, said loud enough for me to hear, “So the mother goes, there the children will follow.” Another man laughed and said, “By the looks of the older one, they’d better send for the constable quick before we’re struck down with black looks.” My fists tightened, bunching up my skirt into twin hillocks on my thighs. The other men had turned and were looking at me speculatively, their eyes wary, amused, hostile. Hannah crawled beneath the driving board and went silent, like an animal run to ground.

Then another man said, “They say there is one true test for a witch. You throw ’em in the river. If they drown, their innocence is proved. If they float, they’re a witch and you take ’em out and hang ’em.”

They made a great show at being at their ease but they edged closer, inch by inch, to Father’s wagon. I think had I been alone, they might have drowned me in the river and been done with it. But at that moment a deeply resonant voice rumbled out from the forge, saying, “Who’ll be next at the fire?”

The men wheeled around as if one body and I saw Father standing in the shadow of the forge, his old scythe blade sharpened and polished, and as he passed into the sunlight, the blade winked wickedly at the men. He stood a full foot and a half taller than the tallest of them, and when the sun struck his face his eyes were black and obsidian-like. The heated sweat from the forge had soaked through his coarse-woven shirt, his long hair looked lank and oiled, and a fire-smudge banded his nose. He must have looked to the men standing in the yard as the lime-washed druids looked to the Roman soldiers standing on the other side of a Welsh river.

Father called out, “Who, then, is next? Is it you, Granger, who lives on New Meadow?” His arm made a slight swinging motion, bringing the scythe along with its arc. “Or is it you, Hagget, that lives on Blanchard’s Pond? Or maybe it’s you, Farnum, who lives at Boston Hill?” And so he went, calling to the eight or so men that stood in the yard, naming their names and their farms, harvesting the air with his scythe, and putting them on notice that he knew them all and where they lived. He said the words not with a threatening tone, but as simply as a county tax collector will call the next man in a queue to make good on his debt. But there was something else beyond the words my Father said, something in the set of his face and the way he held his body at the ready, that washed the air with urgency and tension. The scalp on the back of my head tightened and I knew from the way the men buried their heads in their collarbones and hurried for their wagons or to the forge that there had already been some seed of fearfulness placed in their hearts.

Father laid the scythe as lovingly as a babe in the straw and, climbing into the wagon, hitched the reins around to return us home. I looked at him from the corner of my eye on the journey back, but he said nothing more to me, as though scattering a group of seasoned yeomen to the winds without a blow given or any harsh curses traded was an everyday occurrence. It was this incident at the mill that caused me to study my father in a new light, for not only had he raised himself in status in the pecking order of men but his actions left me in no doubt that I was in his protecting care. Not the strident and crackling interventions of my mother but a quieter, more subtle kind. It was our last visit to the Andover meetinghouse that revealed to me, at least in part, the fear and dread that most people felt for my father. A dread that went beyond a natural temerity in the presence of brute force.

BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
9.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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