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Authors: Kathleen Kent

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BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
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I was bitterly disappointed to be banned from the evening’s company for not only was the Reverend to be there but also Margaret’s elder brother, Allen. The porridge I had eaten for breakfast soured and turned to goose eggs in my stomach. I looked again at the apple as it lay in the hollow of my apron. The pearly inside of the meat had remained unchanged for months, the skin darkening to a dull rust. But I had pierced the skin with my teeth and like a shadow stealing overhead, the whiteness had turned to yellow and brown.

Before dark Hannah and I were given food and sent to Margaret’s room. Upon sunset the Reverend Nason appeared at the door. Margaret had shown me a chink through the wall for a spy hole, and, putting my hand over Hannah’s mouth, I placed my eye at the opening. The Reverend was a man of prodigious size but with a remarkably small head. His skin was pale and glistening, as though brushed with the white of an egg. His eyes were settled deep into his face, and his ears were dainty for so large a man. He looked like an immense loaf of bread too well seasoned with baker’s yeast. And yet I held my breath, for so keen was his gaze about the room that I felt surely he must see my eye pressed against the peephole. He took stock of every homely item, fingering the linen on the table, testing the joints on every chair, hefting the pewter mugs to test their weight.

Allen followed shortly after, and from the start I did not like him. He was dark with a high forehead like his father but with a face narrow like a ferret. His lips were full and out of proportion to his eyes, which were set too close together to be pleasing. The set of his face was of someone tasting bread soaked in vinegar, and I could well believe that he was a man who would find pleasure in the plaguing of small children or the needless hectoring of animals.

The Reverend praised Aunt’s cooking, invoking the Bible in defense of his gluttony. “As you know, Goodwife Toothaker,” he said, spilling food on the table from his mouth, “in Isaiah, chapter twenty-five, verse six, the Almighty’s good graces are also brought about through the bread at table. Truly this repast is a worthy companion to the soul’s feast of God’s holy word.” One would have thought Aunt had served up angel’s bread rather than an aged and pungent spit of mutton. As he chewed, he pulled pieces of gristle and fat from between his teeth and wiped his oily hands on his trousers. In awe of the sound of his own voice, the Reverend closed his mouth only to swallow. And, as Uncle and Allen were eager to be heard, one would hardly finish speaking before the other would launch himself over the last word. At times the three would speak all at once, sounding like Dutch merchants on market day.

My eyes grew heavy until I heard the Reverend saying, “The pox has run its course, it seems. Only six people dead this past month. Three of them from a Quaker family, one of whom was a runaway. We can all thank God He has rid us of three more heretics.”

“Have you heard how fare the neighboring towns?” asked Aunt, twisting the table linens in her hand.

“I have not, Goody Toothaker. The inclement weather has kept us prisoners in our homes. But I have recently had a letter from a fellow theologian in Boston. He said the smallpox has come. As well as an outbreak of . . . strange disturbances.” He waggled his fingers about at the last, imitating a flock of scattering birds.

“Disturbances?” Uncle asked, the corners of his mouth turned down.

“Witchery. Spells and incantations. My colleague has taken the belief that disease follows a decline in virtue and brings a rise in witchcraft. In the same fashion that foul vapors arise from a bog. He remembers me the case in the south of Boston not two years past of an outbreak of smallpox at the same moment that a Mr. John Goodwin, mason by trade, and his entire family were plagued by stupendous witchcraft. I say ‘stupendous,’ as these were the very words used by Cotton Mather in his writings of a woman named Glover who was charged with these happenings.”

Not to be outdone, Uncle motioned for Margaret to stand in front of the Reverend and said with pride that he had trained his daughter how to sight a witch. The Reverend gestured for her to come closer. “Now, here, sweet child. Tell me what you know.”

She recited the signs, saying, “Firstly, a voluntary confession of the crime.”

The Reverend responded, “As Perkins has written, ‘I say not, that a bare confession is sufficient, but a confession after due examination. . .’ ” He patted the shoulder of her frock with a dirty hand and lingered there. A black crow despoiling a field of snow.

Margaret continued, “Secondly, if the accused will not confess. . .”

The Reverend squeezed and kneaded her shoulder tightly. “Then there is need of the testimony of two witnesses. Who must offer proof.”

Allen leaned forward in his chair and asked, “What kind of proof ?”

The Reverend removed his hand from Margaret’s shoulder and counted off on his fingers. “The accused was seen in the company of the Devil by invocation or spell making. The accused has a familiar, such as a dog or some other creature, in the use of spells. The accused has put into practice spells or enchantments against the accuser’s person or belongings. Also suspect are divination and petty forms of magic, such as moving objects about the room.” I looked at Uncle, thinking of the feather he had pulled from my ear. Uncle waved Margaret back to her seat and said, “I myself have successfully broken the spell of a witch by boiling away the water of the victim.”

The Reverend picked from the pocket of his coat a small worn Bible and said, “That, Dr. Toothaker, is using the Devil’s shield against the Devil’s sword and will go very hard on you should you be called to account. There is only one way to conquer witchery and that is to invoke the holy word of God. And that, mark you, is the only legitimate course of action.” He threw the Bible down on the table. “This is God’s hammer, which will forever break the Devil’s sword. Boiling piss in a pot, no matter how well meaning, will only bring trouble.” He looked pointedly at my uncle, who sat silent for the rest of the meal.

The Reverend took his leave late, crumbs following behind him like a cloud. I crept out of hiding and stood before my eldest cousin, watching him scowl at me. He crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side as though listening for something, and I knew with a certainty that he disliked me as much as I disliked him. Something about him made the front of my teeth ache as though I had bitten into a hard summer peach that was mostly pit.

He turned to his father, saying, “It’s a dangerous thing, don’t you think, to take them in. After all, Thomas’ family has been known to carry infection.”

I could feel the red blush of anger creep up my neck into my cheeks and I dropped my head to hide my true face. Father and son lit their pipes, and when the smoke was thick enough, Allen leaned his arm upon the chair where his father sat and said to me, “Your father brought pox to Billerica when first he came. As well as a bad history.”

“My father is every bit as good as the next man,” I replied, feeling a hatred like black ice form in my heart. In that moment I wondered if this was what Uncle had meant by saying Father had blood on his hands.

Allen bent down so that our eyes were on a level. “One would think he believes himself better than most, as he has taken over our grandmother’s house.” If I had been a boy, I would have thrown seed to the Devil and planted my fists over his nose.

Uncle put a hand on Allen’s arm and said, “You must remember, Sarah is our family, and while she is here we must try to be kind.” But he said nothing in defense of my father, and the shadowy smile behind the pipe smoke stung deeper than the insults.

Later that night I lay with my back to Margaret, stewing in rancid juices until she coaxed me to turn and face her. “Do not be angry, cousin,” she said. “You will love my brother as I do when you have come to know him better. You will love him as I love you.”

I lowered my head and tucked it into the hollow of her throat. Not because I was ready for sleep but because I wanted to hide the thought that burned my face. The thought, the prayer, that in that moment I would be made an orphan so I could forever stay in my cousin’s house. Roger as my father, Mary as my mother, and Margaret as the sister of my heart. I think God must have damned me then for my thoughts, for the next day Father came to take me home.

I returned the following morning from the barn, our arms about each other’s shoulders, lingering in the watery light of the sun that played in and out of blue-gray clouds. We squatted down to look at the spongy ground and at the ripening tips of bulbs stabbing their way through the thinning layers of snow. The churning engine of spring was massing, bringing a sharp smell to the air as from a blacksmith’s stable. There would never be a time of an early melt when I would not think of my cousin braced by the gathering warmth, the clouds racing behind her smiling and enraptured face.

I did not know my father at first. I had come into the common room to find a giant sitting at the table, my aunt sitting across from him with her head in her hands. She was sobbing loudly and Uncle stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders. The giant looked up at my approach but did not speak. It was Margaret who spoke first and made me know my father again.

“Uncle, what has happened?” Her hand found mine and squeezed it painfully. Uncle Roger beckoned for me to come closer. I took tiny steps towards the table, trying to multiply the distance and increase the time before hearing what I did not wish to hear.

Father stared into his lap and said, “Your grandmother has died.”

“And Tom and Andrew and Richard?” My hands crept to my ears to blot out the words.

“They are alive.”

“And now must I leave?” I would be the last in the room to comprehend that I had not asked about my mother.

“The ban has lifted. It is time for you and Hannah to come home. We will leave at nightfall.”

Margaret led me to our room, where I lay on the bed until it was time to leave. She whispered to me again and again that we would never be parted. That she was the sister of my heart, now and forever. Aunt tied together a bundle of food and clothing for our journey. She promised they would come to Andover in the spring, but I would not be comforted. Hannah screamed and struggled and had to be torn from Aunt’s arms. I believe that losing Hannah was more painful to her than the death of her mother. Even as a swaddling babe, Hannah had been sober and quiet, as though she sensed from the beginning my mother’s intolerance for plaintive neediness. But my sister had come to know the fawning attention and gentle caresses of the Toothaker family. That Henry had come to adore her as well raised him in my estimation and made a sort of peace between the two of us. Hannah would soon be sent to other families and other house-holds, and not all of them would be so kind. It was this separation from her truest mother, though, that would leave her forever fearful and grasping.

Margaret and I held back at the last and exchanged poppets. She lifted the crimson skirt of her doll and showed me where she had left a needle so I could practice my sewing and not lose the skill. From the cart I watched Margaret grow smaller and smaller until she looked like the poppet I held in my hands. Father had said to me as he lifted me into the cart, “Your mother is alive.” I set my jaw and looked away, giving him no cause to think me happy about the news. I would return to a cold house with no certainty of when I would see my cousin again. I gripped the poppet tightly and felt the needle prick my finger.

A needle is such a small, brittle thing. It is easily broken. It can hold but one fragile thread. But if the needle is sharp, it can pierce the coarsest cloth. Ply the needle in and out of a canvas and with a great length of thread one can make a sail to move a ship across the ocean. In such a way can a sharp gossipy tongue, with the thinnest thread of rumor, stitch together a story to flap in the breeze. Hoist that story upon the pillar of superstitious belief and a whole town can be pulled along with the wind of fear. Perhaps I should have seen the needle prick as a sign. But I was very young and the wound had stopped bleeding long before we arrived in Andover.

I looked at the sky but saw no stars, only clouds that would bring many weeks of snow before winter would end.


April 1691–August 1691

the smallpox had left its mark on my family in many ways beyond a pitting of the skin. Only Father retained his vitality and continued to press himself in caring for the livestock and hunting for days at a time in the surrounding woods. On those early mornings when he moved across the fields alone, his flintlock strapped to his back, the world leeched of all colors save for white and black, he looked like a towering elm walking upon the snow. He would return in the evening with a hare or fox hanging from his belt. At times he returned with his belt empty and we went to bed with our stomachs gnawing at our backs.

I don’t know what my mother must have thought the day Hannah and I were returned by wagon to Andover and she was greeted by my hard-set face and Hannah’s fright over seeing this now-forgotten woman. But there was little time to brood, as my first days home were filled with bringing the house to rights, boiling rags and clothes in vinegar and lye to kill the evil humors lurking in the folds of the cloth and behind buttons and clasps. The sickness had taken what little patience my mother possessed and, however much I scrubbed or boiled or swept, she found in me shortcomings to shame a pope. I did not yet know that, like fermenting ale left too long in its keg, restrained sorrow will turn towards anger.

I had promised Aunt that I would be a good and compliant daughter, but within a few days, there were Lucifer sparks between my mother and me. I searched the house for signs of my grandmother’s presence, but her dress and bedclothes had been burned, her cot by the fire broken into pieces for kindling. She had left me her shawl and, after it had been boiled and scrubbed, I wore it round my shoulders like an embrace. I cried for her goodness lost to me so soon, and it was at these times that Mother took pity and left me to mourn her passing. At night in my bed, I held Hannah close and imagined Margaret’s breath, warm and moist, on my neck. The rancid smell of sickness still cloaked the house, and to my regret, my first thoughts on seeing my brothers’ wasted bodies brought shame. Watching my father escape into the brilliant cold wash of snow made me wish to be a boy and leave the fear of contagion behind.

BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
2.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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