Of All the Ways to Burn
She was tending to her garden the first time he saw her, a rather impressive collection of flowers and herbs, many of which the detective was not familiar with but was sure he had never seen in the Village of Salem before. She sat delicately in the grass, at the roots of a thriving bush of rosemary. Her slim shoulders and long neck curved over her work, trimming stems from the lower branches. Her petticoats puffed evenly about her waist, revealing only the sleek polished toe of her boot protruding from the side. The man was taken aback by the elegance of the image. He approached her and coughed.
“Excuse me, Miss.”
She turned her head, laying her eyes upon him. They were startlingly large and bright. Her face was young, slim, and lightly freckled, framed by a strand or two of golden hair that had come loose from beneath her coif. Her small, pink, lips parted in surprise. He found it hard to recall his purpose for the visit. The woman before him did begin to fit the harsh description in the letter the Reverend had sent him. Miss Florence Shea was supposed to be a wretched crone of a woman, filled with hatred for her fellow man. She was rumored to have stolen livestock from her neighbors to slaughter in bloody rituals. She had supposedly abducted young, pregnant women and sent them home, their condition changed, with no memory of being pregnant. The Reverend had received a number of calls from disgruntled husbands demanding something to be done about the issue. He had written to Boston and so detective Doe was put on the case. The detective had expected an ugly, spiteful woman. He assumed the investigation would be easy, and that he’d return to Boston by the end of the week, the matter neatly closed. He was sorely mistaken.
When Florence registered the stranger’s presence she rose smoothly and turned, lifting her brow and waited for him to speak. He braced himself and began.
“My name is Orestes James Doe,” he removed his tall hat in greeting, the polished buckle reflecting a flash of light across her face. “I am looking for a Miss Florence Shea, I was told this was her place of residence. Is there a man of the house I can speak to?”
“I’m afraid not,” the lovely woman explained, brushing her hands on her apron. “My husband passed away; It’s just my sister and myself here now.”
“I see. I’m sorry for your loss.”
She hummed dismissively and proceeded. “I am Florence Shea, how may I help you, Mr. Doe?”
“Miss Shea,” Doe began his introduction with practiced politeness. “I have been sent for from Boston to assist Reverend Parris in an investigation. The matter is quite sensitive; may we speak inside?” He gestured towards the door of her small cottage. The woman froze as if the request had made her uncomfortable. She regained control of her expression before he had time to notice and smiled reassuringly.
“Of course.” She bent to collect the sprigs of rosemary she had cut from the bush and made her way to the door. “Please come in.” He followed her inside.
“May I offer you a cup of tea?” She spoke warmly with her back towards him as she led him into the kitchen. The detective helped himself to a well-crafted wooden chair at the small dining table and watched as she washed the herbs in a bucket before the fire. She patted them dry with a cloth. “The chamomile has been wonderful this year.”
“Chamomile?” Doe pondered. “Is that good in tea?” He had never been offered anything but the usual bitter shavings, cut from their plain compressed block, and had never developed a taste for it. He was fascinated.
“Oh yes, it’s quite pleasant,” she assured, pulling the kettle from the fire and retrieving two cups from the shelf. She moved with such fluidity through the space that he found himself following her figure like a man hypnotized, unable to look away though he knew it was improper to stare. Florence could feel his eyes but she ignored it, intent on her work. If it weren’t for the way she appeared to float across the floorboards from one table to another, one might have mistaken her speed for nerves.
When she finished brewing the tea, she placed the cups on the table and the steam rising from the contents made Doe’s mouth water. He reached for it gratefully, eschewing common sense. He felt the urge to drink the scalding liquid immediately. Suddenly, Florence’s long, thin fingers were on his wrist, halting his hand on its way to his lips. A warm, tingling, sensation, not unpleasant, spread outward from where the woman had touched him. Doe’s breathing caught as he stared at the place her skin had made contact with his, unable to look away until she spoke again.
“You’ll burn yourself,” she stated quickly as if she’d just remembered that fact herself. When Doe nodded, she retrieved her hand, wrapping it around her own cup for safe-keeping. “It needs a minute to cool,” she added as she lowered herself into the chair opposite her guest.
“Of course,” Doe coughed and returned the cup to the table. He could feel the heat rise to his cheeks and found he was grateful for the cover of his substantial beard.
“You said you came at the behest of Reverend Parris?” Florence prodded.
“Hm? Oh, yes.” The words took a moment to reach the detective as if caught in the trails of sweet steam rising from the cup. The scent alone had clouded his senses. He shook his head to clear it. “I work as a detective for the Puritan Counsel Against Witchcraft.” He paused here to observe her reaction. She gave none. “I am here because the Counsel received a letter about a continuing problem with Devil Worship among the people of Salem. It is my understanding that several witches have been tried and hanged, however, there are serious claims that the problem persists and the witch or witches responsible have not yet been apprehended.”
“Would you happen to know anything about that?”
Finally, she moved, sitting up straighter in her chair. Her gaze was unwavering. “I am aware that several people have been accused and hanged for one action or another,” she offered, choosing her words carefully. “Including a five-year-old child. Your tea.” She added. “It should be safe to drink now.” She took a measured sip of her own to confirm.
“Ah, yes, Dorcas Good,” the detective remembered, raising the drink to his lips. The flavor was as intoxicating as the aroma and the moment the liquid hit his tongue, all of Doe’s muscles relaxed. The important matter at hand began to feel less compelling. “She was tried for excessive biting,” he recalled idly. “A most unfortunate circumstance.”
“Dorothy Good was practically an infant, behaving the way most infants do. It was most unfortunate indeed.” There was an indelicate sarcasm in her tone, yet it did not detract from her poise and grace.
“You knew her?” Doe’s eyes drifted about the cabin as he sipped his tea, taking note of what he could. It wasn’t a very large space, nor was it heavily decorated. The kitchen and various work tables occupied one corner of the room, while a rocking chair and a cushioned bench bordered a plain, knit carpet in front of the hearth in the other. Doe noticed a narrow hallway extending behind the fireplace. He could not see very far down it except to identify one closed door. A bedroom maybe, he considered. There was no sleeping space in the main room of the cabin, but that was becoming more common as the villagers grew comfortable building their homes. The only odd thing about the place was the bundles of drying herbs. They hung from the beams of the room, tied together with fine string. Some of them he recognized and some he did not, much like her strange garden. There seemed to be no visible pattern for their organization but he couldn’t imagine that all of them were meant for cooking. His thought process was interrupted by the cool sound of Florence’s voice. Though her agitation was evident, the man found her voice unusually soothing.
“I did know her,” the woman nodded, her sharp chin dipping once. “Her mother and I were good friends.”
“Were good friends?” This was not a friendship that lasted?” Doe assumed.
“You could say that.” She sighed and sipped her tea. “She took her own life after receiving the news that her daughter had died in jail.”
The man spluttered on his tea, caught off guard. He had read the file from Dorothy’s trial but did not know about her mother. “My apologies,” he stuttered, for lack of a better thing to say. “It was indelicate of me to bring up such a subject.”
Florence waved a hand casually. “I don’t shy away from many subjects.”
“I can see that,” Doe agreed, impressed with her composure and only a tad suspicious. But that feeling continued to wane as he spoke with the even-tempered Florence and drank her tea.
“If you don’t mind, would you please get on with what you really came to ask me. I’d like to move on with my day.”
“May I ask what it is you suspect I am here for?” He was intrigued, entertained. Most of the women he had interrogated avoided the subject of witchcraft and the ongoing trials altogether in an effort to seem less suspect. Or they would act disgusted by the topic of witches and Devil Worship and grew uncomfortable when the detective persisted with his questions. Miss Florence Shea was affected by none of it, or so it seemed.
She smiled, a dimple forming in her porcelain cheek. “I am a young, widowed, woman, living alone, who prefers her own company and takes an interest in unconventional herbal remedies. This is not the first time I’ve been called a witch, Mr. Doe.”
“You assume I suspect you of witchcraft, Miss Shea?” He was amused.
“Do you not?”
“Your neighbors seem to.”
“I am no stranger to my neighbors’ suspicions. I asked about yours,” she remarked. He did not give her an answer.
“Those ‘suspicions,’ they don’t bother you?” He persisted. The man maintained eye contact while he drained the rest of his tea, feeling content and dazed by the way this charming woman maneuvered with such grace through the uncomfortable subject and accusations.
“Why should they?” She said and gestured about the cabin. “As you can see, I am a perfectly ordinary woman, living in a perfectly ordinary home. No evidence of dark magic or tools of Devil Worship to speak of.”
Doe barked a laugh at her easy confidence. “That may be so, Miss Shea, although I’d be hard-pressed to call you ‘ordinary.’”
She smiled, wide and warm, but it did not reach her eyes. Doe felt himself grow flush. Something scratched at the back of his mind, something he was forgetting. He found it hard to stay on task, which was unusual for the seasoned investigator. Then he remembered.
He leaned forward in his chair. “You say you live alone, is that correct?” He searched for any sign that he had caught her off guard.
“It is, why do you ask?” The woman remained unshaken, although the detective noticed she had not drunk from her tea in quite some time or moved much at all. She held onto the small cup with both hands, as if anchoring herself in place.
“You said earlier that you live with your sister. However, I have not seen or heard her since I sat down.”
“She is at the market in the village center,” Florence confirmed smoothly. “And is expecting me to join her soon, I imagine.”
“Is that so?” The detective had hoped he would catch her in a lie and had not given up quite yet.
The sharp woman smiled patiently, unfooled. “When I said ‘alone’ I simply meant that we live without the male company this community seems to find so necessary,” she explained.
“You do not find men necessary?” Doe tested, one thick, silver brow lifting in curiosity of both professional and personal nature.
She smirked, one pink corner of her lips tucking up into her pale cheek. “For some things,” she said, and would not reveal more.
Doe gaped at the bold suggestiveness of her response. He coughed to regain his composure and rose, replacing his hat. “Well, I suppose I can see that there is nothing suspicious here.” Though he felt somewhere inside himself that there was. “My apologies for wasting your time. I hope you can forgive me for the intrusion.”
“It is forgiven,” Florence nodded.
“Well, Miss Shea, I best be on my way. Although I may feel compelled to return for another cup of that marvelous tea.”
“You are welcome any time, Mr. Doe,” she said politely although without expression and rose to see her guest out.
“Please, call me James,” the detective offered his hand. Her smile was so simple and yet so enchanting. When she took his hand, the warm feeling returned.
“I hope you enjoy your stay in Salem, James.”
He thanked her and bid her goodbye.
Beadle’s Tavern was quiet when Doe returned to it that afternoon and he settled down to work on his files. The Reverend had sent over the details of the trials upon his arrival and he struggled to make sense of them. While the list of accused was extensive, the details regarding the evidence against them and the following proceedings seemed sparse, almost incomplete. The first two girls to make accusations of witchcraft had been the daughter of the Reverend, Elizabeth Parris, and her cousin, ages nine and eleven respectively. They had accused a slave girl by the name of “Tituba” claiming that she had told them stories of “Voodoo” and witchcraft and was often seen speaking to herself in a language the girls did not understand. They thought she had cursed them as they found themselves unable to control their behavior. The records say the woman confessed during her initial interrogation and was hanged shortly after.
The other two women who had been hanged thus far, Bridget Bishop and Elizabeth Howe were equally interesting cases, especially the Bishop women. The town seemed to agree as her file was quite large and the list of her offenses, long. The eccentric woman had been married three times and fostered no children in any of these relationships. She had been the talk of the town for quite some time, often arguing with her husband in public, not caring about the scene she created. Her dress was of the most concern. She often wore elaborately decorated pieces of expensive colors, a rather promiscuous fashion choice. There were several claims of her enchanting men away from their wives, all within the last six months. There was an older record as well, from nearly a decade prior. Bishop had worked as a nurse for some time for a local family, caring for their young son. When the son died, she had been accused of using witchcraft to keep the boy from getting healthy. Though the record of these claims was included in his files, he could not find anything about her first trial.
Doe scratched his chin, and then, deciding it was appropriate as long as he was alone, unbuttoned his collar to let himself breathe. He felt that he was onto something. He scanned the papers before him again, separating the notes by case. He noticed that there was no record of a trial for the Bishop woman at all, but her death certificate had been the first thing he’d seen. It was as if the town had not bothered with a trial, so sure of their claim that they had proceeded straight to the woman’s execution. The notion made Doe uncomfortable. He understood the seriousness of the claims against these women and the danger their actions could have posed to the people of Salem. But the execution was a serious thing as well. He couldn’t imagine being responsible for someone’s death without being certain that it was justified. Then again, maybe the file had simply been lost.
There was another letter from the Reverend waiting for him when he went downstairs. A local farmer had reported their livestock missing this morning. The Fullers had woken to find two of their prized chickens gone, citing “an unidentified witch” as the culprit. Though Doe was not a farmer himself, he understood the devastating loss of property. The letter begged him to look into it. He received the address from Mr. Beadle and was on his way.
The carriage rattled up to the Fullers’ farm. The main house was a long, one-story building constructed of rough wood. The detective stepped down from the carriage, thanked the driver, and gave his horse a healthy pat on the flank before making his way up to the door. The horse brayed and trotted off. The door swung open before the detective could knock and a sour-faced woman in a yellowing bonnet appeared, glaring at him through sunken eyes as if he’d woken her from a nap.
“What do you want?” She demanded.
“Mrs. Fuller, I presume?”
“You presume correct,” she drew out the word, her irritation clear. “And who are you?”
“Orestes James Doe, ma’am,” he tipped his hat and the woman rolled her eyes at his formality. “I’m from the Puritan Council Against Witchcraft. I’m here to investigate a claim about stolen chickens.”
“Ooh, well it’s about time,” the woman remarked. “Come in then, and wipe your feet.”
Doe stepped through the door and did as he was told although it wouldn’t have made a difference. The floor throughout the whole house was strewn with dirt and straw. A man a few years older than Doe sat idly in a rocking chair in the sitting room. The woman led Doe in his direction.
“I told you I wasn’t in any mood for guests, Mary,” he grumbled, not looking in our direction.
“Hush, Benjamine, he’s here about the chickens.”
“Is he now?” Benjamine sat forward and pushed himself out of the chair, which appeared to be a great struggle. He moved to stand in front of the detective. The farmer’s head rose about six inches above his own. “Did you find the witch who took them yet?”
The detective took a step back to avoid craning his neck. “Not yet, sir, but that is why I’m here. I was hoping to see your chicken coop and hear your own account of what happened.”
The farmer shrugged and moved towards the rear door, gesturing for Doe to follow. “Don’t just stand there, put dinner on, woman,” he snapped at Mary who had been hovering near enough to listen in. She huffed as the men stepped outside.
“Here’s the coop,” Fuller pointed to the small wooden structure against the back side of the house. “Last night I had ten chickens. This morning I had eight.”
The detective moved closer to examine the enclosure. It smelled of fowl and feces and he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket to cover his nose.
“Did you see this witch take your chickens?” Doe asked.
He scoffed. “I don’t see why that matters.”
This made the detective stop. He gathered his patience. “Well, sir, how do you know it was a witch if you didn’t see anything?”
The farmer squinted and shifted his weight. “I saw something,” he said sharply. “I heard the chickens making noise at some ungodly hour and I looked out my window.” He gestured further down the outside wall. There was one small window all the way on the other side of the house. “And I saw a shadow of a woman, all hunched over and bent, digging at the side of the coop.”
Doe looked along the ground and near the corner of the enclosure and saw a small hole in the dirt that reached beneath the wooden beams. He couldn’t imagine how any full-grown human would be able to fit through it. It was scarcely large enough for a child and it would have taken hours for someone to dig through to the other side. It would have been painful to perform such a task with bare hands as well. He bent down to examine the hole more closely, looking for a broken nail or torn fabric, any sign of human interference. The detective already had doubts about the validity of this rough man’s claim. What he did see among the loose feathers was a smattering of blood along the bottom beam of wood, and a clear impression of a paw print in the mud. Likely a fox, by the size of it.
Doe sighed and rose to face the farmer, trying to decide if the man was attempting to deceive him or if he was simply unaware of his own stupidity. “Sir, are you sure what you saw was human?” He dared to ask.
“I didn’t say it was human, I said it was a witch, a Devil Woman,” he snapped. “When am I getting paid for my chickens?”
“I see,” the detective hummed. “I am sorry if I’ve misled you, but I’m afraid I don’t have the power to do that.”
The indignation was clear on the farmer’s face.
“I came to investigate cases of witchcraft and I don’t believe there has been any of the sort here,” Doe explained calmly.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Mr. Fuller stepped towards Doe, aligning his hulking form with the detective’s slighter stature.
“N-no, Sir, not at all,” his attempts to placate the larger man were unsuccessful. “I simply believe you are mistaken. If you look here at the mud you can clearly see that an animal-”
“I’m not looking at anything, I know what I saw and I want to be compensated for my trouble.” His hands were fisted against his waist and his eyes bore into Doe’s. The detective realized then that he had wasted his time. The farmer knew exactly what had happened to his chickens. Briefly, Doe wondered just how many claims had been investigated and led to similar results, or how many no one had bothered to investigate at all.
“You’ll have to take that up with the Village Council then,” he pulled his hat down onto his head in a hurry. “I’ll show myself out.”
It was nearing five o’clock when the detective returned to the edge of the town intent on finding something to soothe his rumbling stomach. The aroma of stew from the Tavern’s kitchen was mouthwatering and he turned in its direction. He was stopped short in his tracks by a familiar voice.
“Continue with the rosemary treatment for the inflammation, and make sure she receives plenty of fresh water. The colder the better, and her fever should break by the end of the week.” The lilt of her voice washed over the man like music, drawing him in and erasing the day’s previous frustrations.
“Bless you, Florence. Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to repay you?”
She stood on the doorstep to a small townhouse, conversing with an older woman who wrung her apron between her hands with worry. “Don’t trouble yourself with it one bit,” Florence demanded. “It’s my pleasure to help. Just keep that little girl healthy.” She reached up to touch the woman’s arm and she relaxed immediately, thanking the wise woman again and retreating inside.
Doe’s feet had moved in her direction of their own accord and he stood at the bottom of the steps. She saw him as she turned, her eyes wide. “Mr. Doe, I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
“Just my luck, I suppose,” he smiled, feeling warm, and offered his hand to assist her down the steps. She returned the smile politely and took his hand, descending gracefully. “I was on my way to the Tavern for an early supper. Would you care to join me?”
“I suppose I can spare a moment,” she nodded, glancing briefly in the direction of her house. “How goes the investigation?”
Before he could respond, Florence was jostled from behind and fell forward into a startled Doe. The man caught her before she hit the ground, supporting her by her hand and waist as the perpetrator rounded in front of them and spat at her feet. The bottoms of his trousers were covered in mud and his skin shone with sweat.
“Witch!” he shouted. “Damned woman!” She recoiled.
“Excuse me,” Doe interjected. The shocking lack of decorum left him at a loss for better words. “that’s quite rude-”
“The witch killed my son!” he accused loudly, shaking a fist in her direction. “My little boy! He was only six! How dare you show your face here?” The accuser made quite the show of his rage, almost as if he meant to draw a crowd. Heads began to turn in the pair’s direction. Doe felt the urgent need to protect the woman beside him and he turned his body to show his defense, an arm barring her from the angry citizen.
“I assure you I had nothing to do with your son’s death, Mr. Putnam,” she affirmed. “As I explained before, the disease had progressed too far. I tried to help-” she insisted. Her attempts to placate Mr. Putnam fell in vain.
Another man, dressed near as nice as the detective had come to his aid, throwing accusations of his own. “That’s the woman who bargained with the Devil to impregnate my wife!”
Doe peered at him suspiciously. “Now that really seems easily explained by the, um…” he wasn’t sure how to make himself clear in a way that was appropriate for public ears but the man knew what he intended to say.
“Before we’d consummated our marriage,” he clarified.
“Oh, dear.” Doe spluttered.
Florence looked uncomfortable. “You should really talk to your wife about that-”
“Now, just what are you suggesting?” a petite woman with a discernible rounding to her belly challenged. She clasped her hands around her husband’s arm and they had already drawn a crowd, all of whom seemed to have something to say.
“She seduced my husband!”
“Put her on trial!”
“She’s a witch, and a Devil Worshipper, just like her damned sister and she should be hung like her too!” Mr. Putnam shouted with so much finality that the rest of the villagers had no more to say.
The detective was struck silent by the statement as well. Her sister had been executed? He felt a turning in his gut and tried to fight it off. Doe glanced back at Florence and for the first time, he saw her calm demeanor begin to crack. The words had sent tears to her eyes and her cheeks flamed with the force of holding them back.
“What is going on here?” a voice that commanded respect spoke above the mob. The rest of the shouting diminished and the crowd parted to reveal Reverend Parris with a stern expression on his face. “There are citizens trying to enjoy a quiet evening; what is it that has interrupted them?” Doe noticed more than a few of the members that had been shouting moments ago were taking great measures to avoid the Reverend’s eye.
Finally, someone off to the left of the group spoke up. “She’s a danger to society, shouldn’t be allowed to walk free.” He was met with uproarious agreement. When the Reverend’s eyes finally fell upon the subject of the clamor, he stiffened.
“Miss Shea,” he acknowledged with surprise. He was polite and professional but the discomfort in his voice was clear. His body seemed to be fighting the urge to retreat as if he feared her presence.
“Reverend,” she responded. The coolness in her voice was apparent as well. The animosity hung heavy in the air around them.
“And…?” he scrutinized Doe, waiting for his introduction.
The detective suddenly became aware that he was still holding on to Florence’s waist, and of how improper that was. “Um, Orestes James Doe, Sir,” he retrieved his hands and stepped away from the woman, offering a handshake. “From the Pur-”
“Mr. Doe?” Parris seemed surprised, looking between Florence and the rattled detective. “And with...” Doe realized the source of the Reverend’s confusion. He had been sent to investigate Florence Shea, and instead, was found defending her. “I see,” Parris coughed, adjusting his stance. “Would you care to tell me what this fuss is about, Mr. Doe?”
He stepped forward to address the Reverend respectfully but kept an eye on Florence. “I was escorting Miss Shea to supper when this man,” he pointed at Putnam, “shoved her and proceeded to make slanderous accusations. It drew a crowd of people with similar… recriminations.” Doe could tell it was not the explanation he was looking for by the suspicion that spread across Parris’ already concerned features.
“Well… they are entitled to their opinions,” Parris said slowly. There was a buzzing of agreement from the villagers. The man struggled to remain professional while fighting his own apparent bias. “And, do you not find these accusations… to carry any weight?” He chose his words carefully, giving Doe the space to do his job while also suggesting, both in tone and with his intense gaze, what he had really wanted from the detective all along.
Florence glanced at her guard with clear eyes. There was a particular sadness in them, one of bitter acceptance. She already expected him to turn on her. Briefly, Doe thought of the strange herbs in her garden, and the room in her home tucked away and yet unexplored. He might have found a more clear answer there but the time to make his decision was now. The statement regarding her sister was also very fresh. She had lied about the other woman’s whereabouts when they’d first met. There was clearly information she did not want the detective to know. I should turn her in right now, that’s what he wants. Other women have been hanged for less. The thought passed through his mind like an arrow, quick and sharp. He should have at least argued that he needed more time to deliberate, to spare his reputation in some way. But he found that he could not. He looked back at her again, her dress in disarray, her brow set, prepared to take her punishment. She was a strangely alluring woman but did not see in her a witch or a woman of any kind of cruelty. He did not believe that she deserved this.
“No, Reverend, I do not believe they do. I feel like I’ve performed the thorough investigation I was asked to do and I have found no evidence of wrongdoing. Miss Shea is not a witch, sir.” The statement dropped like lead in front of them. He could not take it back now.
“That is your educated opinion, then?” Parris tested.
“Yes, sir.” Doe glanced once more at Florence. Her body had relaxed but her face remained unreadable. The detective felt emboldened by his statement and stared the Reverend down. “And if I may be frank,” he tested, “I wouldn’t be so quick to trust the claims of your villagers in the future. I have discovered that some people are willing to use this… discord within the town and village as an excuse to further their own agendas.” The detective thought of Mr. Fuller and was glad the rough farmer was not among the crowd. He could hear the scoffs and offense of other members and read the distaste on Parris’ face. He knew he had been correct on that matter as well.
“I see,” the Reverend conceded. “Then I suppose you should see Miss Shea home safely.” He turned to go about his business but not before the crowd was ready to disperse.
“I want a trial!” Mr. Putnam demanded.
“Miss Shea has been cleared, Mr. Putnam,” Parris sighed.
“Well, I don’t trust this Mr. Doe.” The brute insisted. “What does he know? How do we know he isn’t afflicted himself?”
“Hear, hear,” a few other men agreed. Doe flinched at the suggestion. They couldn’t truly believe he was guilty of something simply because he’d stood his ground.
“The matter is closed,” Reverend Parris raised his voice. “And I expect you all to act accordingly.” He left without another word.
The two walked briskly back to the cottage, the tension between them palpable. Both the detective and the accused woman were silent with shock. Doe’s head swam. He had been confident in his decision to publicly acquit the intriguing woman when even the Reverend had insisted against it, but now he experienced a growing sense of dread. His eyes traveled from the path ahead to the quick woman, to his own feet in front of him and back again. He tried to watch Florence without her knowing but each time he glanced at her, trying desperately to observe her hidden state, she met his gaze with such an intensity that he had to look away. They went on this way, tense and silent until they reached her small residence. He hadn’t noticed before how much further from the Town the house was. He wondered now if that had been intentional.
Florence pushed through the heavy front door and Doe let it swing shut behind him, the metal knocker clunked against the wood on the other side. He lingered in the entryway and watched the woman move frantically about the kitchen to prepare a pot of tea. Her rapid movement and wide eyes showed that she was still rattled by the ordeal in town. She tried to distract herself.
“Are you alright?” Doe asked, moving cautiously further into the space.
She did not answer, nor did she meet his eye. She hurried about her tables, retrieving herbs from their bundles and laying them in front of her. She seemed to be looking for something in particular and everything all at once. Finally, she halted, and with her hands pressed against the wood of the table, she tried to level her breathing. She looked up at the detective as if she had just remembered he was there. He took it as an invitation to move towards her again, intending to comfort her, but she moved swiftly from her perch, like startled prey, and bent before the fire to retrieve the hot water that had been boiling for tea.
Doe leaped forward in alarm. “Florence, wait!” He snatched a cloth from the edge of the cutting table and reached for her. In her compromised state, she had meant to pick up the steaming pot with her bare hands. The detective was a second too late and she gasped as she grabbed the scorching handle and retrieved her hand so quickly that the pot nearly came off its hook, splashing more hot water over the edge that sizzled as it fell upon the hearthstones. Doe managed to grab the handle with the cloth and stop the rest from spilling. Carefully, he removed it from the hook and walked it to the dining table before returning and kneeling to check on her.
“Are you hurt?” He asked. She was not able to hear the genuine concern in his tone. She stood as soon as he knelt to examine her hand and retreated to the table.
“Yes, I’m fine, I hardly touched it,” she said quickly and hid her hand in her apron. By the glimpse her concerned companion caught of her skin, it seemed it was miraculously unburnt.
He stood, slowly this time, coming around to the other side of the table. Once she had collected herself, she poured the herbs and hot water into the two waiting cups and thrust one into his hands. He was less interested in the delicious concoction this time, distracted by the internal chaos leaking from the woman in front of him. She tried to hide her panicked expression, but the matter had clearly affected her. She was coming apart in front of him. Doe was almost rattled to see her so distraught. He wanted to be angry, he wanted to scold her for deceiving him and for the dangerous position she had put him in in town. But he found he could not blame her. He had gone with his instincts and the tugging in his chest told him he had not changed his mind. The strange compulsion to protect and comfort her that he had felt earlier had not left him.
“Florence,” he spoke more forcefully and reached to place his hand over hers to steady it. She flinched and pulled away yet again.
“I don’t like playing games, Mr. Doe, so please, quit this pretense of worry and say what you must.”
The blunt tone of her voice stung. Hadn’t he done enough to prove that he was not working against her? He told her as much but she scoffed. It was true that he was now also more suspicious of her and she knew this without needing to be told.
“I know you heard what they said about Eva. Go on, ask your questions, detective.”
Her words cut. She stared, forceful and direct, and did not break eye contact until, reluctantly, the depleted man spoke what needed to be spoken.
“Is it true? Was she a witch?” he asked gently, for he was afraid of the response.
“Of course not,” Florence insisted sharply. “Eva was precious. She was kind and smart and beautiful and only ever wanted to bring happiness to people. She knew more about herbal remedies than I ever did and she was brilliant with them.” The graceful woman had taken control of the expression on her face again, but her tone revealed more than Doe had expected. He began to suspect where this conversation would lead, but, as was his nature, he needed to hear the whole story and he gently urged her through it.
“Then why was she persecuted? Surely, something must have happened for enough of the town to agree to a trial.”
She sighed and supported her weight with her hands on the table again. Though she hid it well, the detective thought he could detect a slight shake in her arms.
“She spurned the wrong man,” Florence explained regretfully. “He had been pursuing her for weeks, making all sorts of inappropriate gestures. She never gave any indication that she reciprocated his affection, but I suppose he thought he was entitled to it.”
“Who was this man?” Doe wanted to know.
She looked at him through narrow eyes and with ice in her voice she told him. “Samuel Parris.”
“The Reverend? But he’s married. Are you sure?”
“Oh yes, I’m certain,” she laughed bitterly. “He didn’t care to be all that subtle about it either.”
“So, other people knew he was courting her?” Though his head still swam he had not forgotten the things that made him a good detective. He knew how to ask the right questions.
“Most likely, yes. I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t be more discreet. His wife is not the most forgiving woman. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the first to accuse Eva. But perhaps Parris thought his clerical status made him untouchable.” That was exactly the information he was looking for. Doe could tell it had grown more difficult for her to continue but she soldiered on, intent on providing him with a full account in Eva’s defense.
“What was it exactly that compelled the town to try her as a witch?” he encouraged. She struggled with the memory, wringing her hands in her apron. Doe drank the tea while he waited for her to catch her breath. It was a different flavor from before, but he couldn’t name it. The taste was less gentle and yet he felt compelled to finish it. The same numb calm befell him as he did so.
“Eva was an honest woman. She warned Parris that if he continued to pursue her she would tell his wife. He called her bluff and continued anyway, more forcefully. He was determined to get her to return his affections. Eventually, he pushed her so far she felt like she had to tell him the real reason she couldn’t be with him.”
“I suppose, because she could never love him?” The detective guessed.
Florence nodded. He could see the effort it took for her to continue to speak. “She could never love any man.”
The detective’s earlier suspicion had been confirmed. “I see,” he hesitated. He was not sure what else there was to say. His attention was drawn again to the hallway behind the fire and the one closed door. He began to realize what had been missing from the cottage. Florence had told him she had lived here with her husband and her sister before he had passed. But there were not accommodations to support both a spouse and a family member. He felt sure the room in the shadows was a single bedroom, likely the bedroom the two women shared in sin. Doe sighed. “Am I correct to assume that your… ‘sisterhood’ was only a pretense then?”
She pulled in a breath and let it out carefully. “Yes, Mr. Doe.”
“She never should have told him that,” Florence brought her hands down hard against the table and pushed herself away from it, pacing the room. “It isn’t fair to persecute a woman for preferring the company of other women. Especially over the men who only wanted to take advantage of her. That doesn’t make her a witch!” She was clearly distressed, one porcelain hand covering her forehead and the other across her stomach as if holding the pieces of herself together. “The bastard had no right to put her on trial! Eva did nothing wrong, she was innocent of every damned accusation and--”
“Well, not entirely innocent,” Doe suggested impulsively and instantly felt the regret of speaking out of turn. The tea had relaxed him to the point in which he forgot himself.
“Excuse me?” Her hands fell away from her body and she drew herself up to her full height, which seemed taller than the detective remembered.
“I only meant it was likely apparent that it was more than just the company of women that she desired. If Reverend Parris knew, and his wife knew, then the rest of the town might have found out and it would have been easy for them to agree to--”
“And you truly think she deserved to be hanged for that?”
The detective could not stop himself. He tried to temper his words, hoping not to incur her wrath but he seemed to have no choice. “I-- no, I suppose not-- if it is a sin that only hurts the sinner then--”
“Eva was not a sinner,” Florence fumed. Her face had turned a shade more red than pink and she held her fists tight at her sides as if keeping herself from throwing them at the man overspeaking in her kitchen. Her shoulders shook and her chest heaved in anger beneath her corset. “It is precisely because of ignorant and intolerant people like you that we are in this whole ordeal to begin with,” she accused. “Men killing women because they fear them, or because they are interested in things besides being a housewife. Women accusing other women out of jealousy when all they want is to keep their husbands pleased and the damned philandering animals still can’t keep their rotten impulses to their marriage beds. These trials are nothing but an excuse to exercise fear and hatred against those we do not understand, those who differ from us, and not a single woman who has been hung at those damned gallows has deserved it!” Her voice filled the space and echoed off the walls. Doe felt as if the room had grown several degrees cooler. Although maybe it was just that his face had grown so warm. He hadn’t meant to upset her. He had only stated the obvious, assuming she already understood. Nevertheless, he was ashamed. The detective had been spurned by a woman or two before but never had he felt this kind of grief. His skin crawled as if he had not shaken all of the mites from his clothes and he repressed the urge to fidget. When she took a step back and spoke again, he realized he had leaned all the way back in his chair.
“I suppose it’s for the best that I know the nature of your character now,” she sighed ruefully. “You should leave, Mr. Doe,” she ordered. Her tone left no room for argument. Doe replaced his hat and backed away, turning swiftly at the door and removing himself without another word. He traveled back to the Tavern with haste and locked himself in his room. The files he had been working on that morning lay open his desk. The accounts of each woman on trial seemed so false now and it angered the detective further. He knew there was truth to Florence’s words. No matter the circumstances, none of these women had deserved to be hunted like animals and hung for the brutality of the town they were unfortunate enough to live in. Viciously, he grabbed the papers from the desk and cast them into the fire. The flames crackled as the documents burned and shriveled and sent up small leaves of ash that blew about the room. He watched them burn until they disappeared and when his anger was somewhat abated, he went to his bed and gave in to sleep.
The detective was awoken by the light of a flame on the other side of his eyelids. He could feel its heat. No sooner had he opened his eyes than was a sack thrust over his head and he was yanked from his bed so forcefully he almost fell to the floor. But the arms that carried the sleepless man were sturdy and unyielding. Doe became aware of voices, all men as far as he could tell. He could distinguish three distinct tones barking short orders at each other.
“You! Get the door,” one gruff voice demanded. He heard the wood groan and he was pulled forward.
“Watch the stairs!” another warned. He braced himself as they neared the decline, trying to form thoughts through the haze of sleep and panic. Doe felt the grip on his right arm slip and, thinking quickly, he lunged forward. He hadn’t enough time to protect his face or judge the direction of his fall and he felt his nose crack as it collided with the hard wooden edge of the staircase. The event left a ringing in his ears and a throbbing behind his eyes. He tumbled the rest of the way down until he hit the parlor floor. The landing knocked the wind from his lungs and he coughed as he heaved himself up onto his hands and knees. Before he could get further, or remove the sack, a heavy boot pressed down on his lower back, shoving the defeated detective back to the floorboards.
“Not so fast,” a voice said near his ear. “You’re not going anywhere, Mr. Oh-rest-ees Doe. It’s for your own good.” The voice sounded unpleasantly familiar. The footsteps of the other two men descended the stairs.
“Hold him tighter, Goddammit,” the foot on his back spat. “Or do I have to do everything myself?”
The foot was lifted and Doe was hoisted upwards again before he could scramble to his feet. He spluttered to catch his breath through the blood clogging his nose and mouth. With the taste of iron in his throat, he tried to kick off the ground and away from the men, but his struggle was futile. The hit he had taken to his nose had ruined his balance and made him weak. Doe felt the change in the temperature when his captors dragged him outside. His head throbbed and the warm, thick, July air did not lessen the pressure. Doe attempted to ascertain his position. If he was correct, they were traveling towards the center of town. When the ringing in his ears subsided, he heard another sound and the molasses of despair claimed his stomach. He would have gasped if he’d had the air. Doe could hear the familiar clamor of an angry mob and he could see the torchlight through the threads of the woven sack. He knew what was to happen. The fear fell upon him like a slaughter of stones. The villagers had been denied the excitement of a trial. They were taking him straight to the gallows.
His panic renewed, the sentenced man bucked and pulled at the hands on his arms, hoping to dislodge their grip again and rid himself of his bindings but they held fast. He felt the bile in his stomach shift and hoped he wouldn’t be sick. If this was to be his dying day, he prayed that God would at least grant him that dignity. Doe tried one last time to break free of the men but received only a swift kick to the back of the legs and fell to his knees in the dirt. He sucked in his breath as a lightning bolt of pain sang up his right leg, incapacitating him further. He cried out and one of the men laughed at his expense. A few yards further and he was pulled into the center of the crowd. His shins hit the edge of the shoddy wooden steps and he was thrust upward. The harried man could barely stand, but he tried, hoping only that his kidnappers would remove the sack. A hand lodged itself beneath his chin and he felt the rough cord of the noose around his neck. The heavy knot tightened at the base of his skull and another rope bound his hands behind him. They had not bothered to be gentle.
Finally, the sack was yanked from Doe’s head and he squinted into the torchlight. To his left stood the owner of the familiar voice. Mr. Putnam glared at the accused and shook his head.
“You’re making a mistake,” Doe coughed desperately. He flinched at the spatters of blood that hit his white collar.
He bent forward, his face close enough for the detective to smell his foul breath. “You’re the one who made the mistake, Mr. Doe. You should have put the Shea witch on trial while you had the chance. This is your own fault.”
He stepped away on the gallows platform to address the crowd. Doe looked about the mass of people before him and, to his horror, he recognized many of the faces. The farmer Fuller was there, scowling up at him with his wife on his arm, an equal look of distaste on her puckered face. Doe was surprised even more by the sight of Reverend Parris. He locked eyes with the man, pleading, trying to make sense of how he came to be here. The Reverend looked less than pleased, but he did not interrupt. He had a duty to the people of Salem, after all. Putnam’s voice cracked like a whip above their roar.
“This man has betrayed us! He was sent to help us, to rid us of the dark forces in this town and of the wicked people who partake in it. Instead, he has conspired against us!”
“You’re wrong!” The accused insisted, choking as the rope around his neck restrained his movement. “I simply found no witches here. Your problem is finished with! Shouldn’t you be glad?”
The man would not even grant him a glance. “See how his mind has been overtaken? So convinced there is nothing wrong when the problem has only begun?” He gestured wildly. “The Shea witch has him under her spell. He is a danger now, to himself and others. This cannot be allowed to continue!”
Doe couldn’t stand to hear it. His mind whirred with realizations. This was madness, a true sickness. No one in their right mind could be this convinced by nothing. Florence’s words earlier that evening began to make sense. She was right, he knew she was. There were never any witches at all. It was all a ruse, a mass hysteria. Doe searched the crowd, taking in all of their faces. Their eyes were wide with excitement and mouths foamed with rage. And then he saw her, his saving grace, walking slowly along the edge of the masses, mostly out of sight. She wore a long, brown cloak that blew about her feet in the breeze. He couldn’t see her face but he recognized her figure and her purposeful stride. He called to her with the breathless voice of a desperate man, knowing she wouldn’t hear him. But she stopped short and turned as if she somehow had. The cloak fell still and straight against her frame. Out of the corner of his eye, Doe watched the executioner move towards the lever. Surely Florence would stop this, she wouldn’t let this happen. She would say something in his defense, or in hers, and prove she wasn’t a witch and there was no spell. Her pale, thin fingers rose to remove her hood. The fabric fell away from her face and the two locked eyes. The entirety of her golden hair was loose from her coif and lay about her shoulders like wild threads of silk. Doe’s heart leapt, waiting for her voice. But she did not speak. His hope evaporated as slowly, a delicate smirk spread across her face, one pink corner of her lips tucking up into her pale cheek. The floor fell away beneath him and she stared with fire in her eyes.
I swallow butterflies just looking at her. The way she smiles, the way she laughs, the playful way she sticks her tongue out at her friends in false mockery when they deem her crazy. On the outside she’s invincible, and now, not for the first time, her confidence stuns me to silence.
She gasps and jumps next to me; her face lights up at the song on the radio. She bounces off the couch and dances towards the machine to turn it up to a “proper volume.”
Nate and Sam lounge on the couch across from me in the wide living room, laughing at her as she lip-syncs the lyrics to Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and twirls past them. It’s her attempt to convince them to join her like she sometimes does.
I can’t help my dopey smile, not that she’d notice in her state of euphoria. She continues to sway her hips back and forth, bubbling over with laughter, completely unperturbed by the decline of her invitation. Her cinnamon hair flicks over her shoulders, fanning out around her as she turns toward me, still bouncing, and takes in my lazy self, sprawled across the couch. Her vibrant green eyes and equally bright smile bolt me into place.
She strolls toward me, frowning, and nudges my leg with her toe. “Come on, John, don’t kill the party,” she mocks as she grabs my forearms and tries to pull me off the couch.
“I’m having just as much fun as you are,” I assure her. I have to concentrate on making my voice sound even.
She pouts. “Well then someone should tell your face.” Her hands sit on her hips as the boys laugh behind her.
“C’mon, man!” Nate persists. “Dance with her! Don’t be such a sour-puss!” Nate is loud and obnoxious, but also, somehow, a total ladies-man. I think he’s flirted his way both in and out of many precarious situations. I wondered to myself sometimes if that very charm had anything to do with how three broke college students managed to rent such a nice apartment from a usually crusty and bitter landlady who had tossed out many of our kind before. He tried to teach me how to flirt once, before taking me out to the bar off-campus when I turned twenty-one. But I’d mixed up my words so bad he had to apologize to the girls he’d thrown me at and take me home. Why he thought I would do any better this time was beyond me, but as soon as he realized how I felt about this dancing girl, he’d backed off and given me the chance nonetheless.
She chuckles once and bends toward me. Her hair slides forward over her arms and the ginger-brown curls bounce like springs in front of her face. When she puts her hands on my shoulders to support herself, the heat radiating from her fingers is all I can feel. They sink into my skin as she rocks to find her balance and her porcelain face fills my vision. Her eyes swim with green and flecks of brown, like the freckles splatter-painted across her face. I could count those freckles for hours. And those eyes, they never stop moving. I can remember the first time I saw them.
I heard Nate slam the apartment door. His keys jingled as he dropped them in the bowl behind it. My focus remained mostly on my laptop and on an essay due tomorrow that I should have started earlier. I needed to finish desperately, but when does Nate care about school?
“John! C’mon, man! House meeting, let’s go!” he said with blundering excitement, slapping my shoulder as he passed me. The gesture, harder than it appeared, pushed me toward the shaky desk and knocked my cup of coffee tumbling to the floor. It dribbled through the half-capped lid into a sticky, brown puddle on the wooden boards. As I sighed and bent to pick up whatever was left, I heard Nate calling for Sam in the hall before he came back through and--of course--stepped in the puddle.
“Dude, what are you doing on the floor? I’ve got something important to tell you!” he threw over his shoulder as he continued into the kitchen.
“Nate, I have to clean this up or the landlady’s gonna be pissed,” I groaned.
“It can wait. Trust me,” he pulled me up by the shoulder and dragged me with him, the half-full cardboard cup still in my hand. I could hear Sam’s boots stomping in behind us.
“Men!” Nate let go of me and walked forward toward a girl I’d never seen before. Her red hair bounced over her shoulders as she turned to face us. “This! Is Alex!” Nate smiled with pride. “Our new roommate! I saw her looking at our ‘roommate wanted’ ad and convinced her we had a pretty good gig going here.”
“How’d you manage to do that?” Sam teased his brother.
Her eyes flicked up to meet mine, wide with emerald curiosity and a barely detectable hint of nervousness. I could understand why she might have been overwhelmed, just now realizing what she’d signed up for. The rest of the coffee in my hand clattered to the floor as I froze. Alex’s eyes grew even bigger as she let out a little gasp.
“Oh shoot!” she said, reaching behind her to grab the paper towels off the counter and before I could say a word, she bent to clean it up.
“No!” I almost shouted at her. I followed suit and took some paper towels to the floor. “I mean, it’s not your fault. I’m just clumsy today, I guess.” She gave me an awkward smile. I shook my head, trying to clear out the building fuzz.
“Well, I hate to see a mess anyway,” she blushed and I stopped scrubbing, my hand sitting in a pool of wet towels as I looked up at her. She was already staring. I couldn’t even swallow.
“Okay!” Nate clapped his hands together, breaking the awkward silence. Sam rocked back on his heels behind him, hands in his pockets and a small grin on his face. “Well, now that you two have gotten acquainted,” he turned toward Sam, his hands still clasped together in front of him. “Why don’t we show the newbie the rest of the house?”
“Right,” Sam jumped in agreement and gestured for Alex to follow him.
“Oh! Um, here,” she handed me the roll of paper towels, unsure what to do with them.
“Right, thanks,” I took them, with a lack of something better to say. She stood up slowly, straightening out her shirt. She shot one last look over her shoulder before following the boys out of the kitchen, and I was left sitting there with my knees in a puddle of coffee, still staring at the door.
“You should listen to him,” she says, pulling me from my trance. She is close enough that I can smell her honey-lavender shampoo. “He’s smart. For a college drop-out, anyway.”
“Hey!” Nate makes a wounded interjection and Sam guffaws next to him.
Next thing I know I’m being flung to my feet and the room spins around us. I guess I must have been smiling something awful because when she stops and lets go of my hands I almost fall backward into Sam’s lap, and they’re all laughing at my expense.
“See! Now you look like you’re having fun!”
I roll my eyes, letting it sink it. She’s right anyway. This could easily have been the best night of my semester and I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Giving in to the joy of the moment, I lunge forward, grabbing her by the waist and throwing her over my shoulder. I spin her toward the center of the room. I know she hates it, people always tease her about her short stature, but she laughs all the same. It’s a sound like sunshine and windchimes. She pounds her small fists into my back in protest with pleas of “let me down, you jackass!” broken by fits of giggles. When finally, I let her down, she flops into the tattered couch and blows her hair out of her face. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Nate whispering something to Sam and he gives me a smug and knowing look before standing from the couch, Sam behind him, and excusing himself to bed for the night. They left me alone, staring down at the giggling girl. She smiles at me for what feels like minutes before she too stands up. Wordlessly, she kisses my cheek and I’m too caught off guard by the warmth of it to say anything or move an inch. But I force myself to turn just in time to see her glance at me before she disappears down the hall to her room, that smile lighting her face the whole way. It’s that look that keeps me up tonight. That look, the lyrics of a new favorite song, and the image of a dancing girl.
It’s almost one in the morning, and I’m laying on my back, my hands behind my head, staring blindly at the ceiling when I hear a knock on my door. I jolt up and pull the blanket higher out of instinct. Nate and Sam had played so many midnight pranks on me when I first moved in, it was my knee-jerk response to cover myself. But the sound was too light and hesitant to be either of the boys.
“John? Are you awake?” I hear her whisper.
“Yeah,” I answer, but it comes out rough and quiet so I clear my throat and try again. This time she must have heard me. The door squeaks open and her face peers around it, moving into the light from the window.
“Can I come in?”
I nod and sit up to see her better. She steps in on light feet and closes the door behind her. I observe the way she paces back and forth before she finally sits down on the side of the bed. I can feel her weight next to my knee and the blood rushes to my face. She’s wearing a plain white t-shirt that hangs down to her thighs. It probably belonged to one of the boys at some point but she’d made it her own and wore it well. She could wear anything well.
“Is everything okay?” I squint at her as she wrings her hands together. I wasn’t used to seeing her anxious. It tugged at something in my chest.
“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable tonight, making you dance with me, and all,” she says.
“No,” I rush out. “Not at all. It was… it was good.” I hit myself internally for my lack of creativity.
She smiles, relieved. “Well, good.”
She doesn’t say anything for a moment, just continues to wring her hands together, throwing glances my way every few seconds. “Is there…” I gulped, “another reason you came in here?” I know what Nate would have said, what he’d want me to do, but I wasn’t as bold as he was, and I wanted to know what was on her mind.
She sighs. “It’s just that you mean so much to me. All of you do. When I moved in here a few months ago, I really wasn’t so sure about living with three boys, but I was strapped for cash and needed a place near the campus. Not to mention, Nate can come on pretty strong sometimes.” We both laugh at that. “But I’m glad that I did. You’ve all been so good to me. You’ve been so good to me.” Her voice lowers a bit and she flicks her eyes up to catch mine. I tell myself not to look away. “I just want you to know how much I appreciate that.” My heart beat like a hummingbird’s. I was almost afraid she could hear it.
I cough. “Yeah, of course. You too.”
She raises an eyebrow.
“I just, I mean that, um, I appreciate you too.”
She smiles and releases a breath without looking away from me. “Thank you. For everything.”
“You’re welcome,” I say, still not entirely sure of what’s going on, but I know what it feels like. She leans toward me and I expect another peck on the cheek. The breath leaves my lungs when her lips meet mine instead. It takes me a moment to catch my breath and kiss her back but she doesn’t seem to mind. She tastes like cinnamon and honey. She stops, too soon, and I follow her with my head as she pulls away.
“Goodnight John,” She smiles. And then she’s gone. My back hits the mattress with a whump of air. I fall asleep with a smile and dream of dancing.
The Willow in the Woods
Her mother warned her about the circles in the woods. The ones made of mushrooms or wildflowers. The ones that seemed to pop up overnight, but looked as if they’d existed for ages. “Evil spirits” planted these circles, her mother would say, to lure children away and back to their own world. This was a common belief in the village. The Elders said children had been disappearing into those woods as far back as time goes, always after a circle was spotted nearby. Sometimes, even adults would go missing, like her father, who vanished before the girl was old enough to remember him. Her mother blamed the woods for that too.
For years, the girl’s mother confined her to their farm, scaring her with tales of dark magic as she fed the cows and pigs. She attended to her chores and the care of her little brother dutifully, but her head was always somewhere else, somewhere far more colorful than the dusty gray of the farm. Before long, the pull of the misty, green forest became too strong for the farm girl to ignore and she began to sneak out after morning chores. Before her mother knew she was gone, she would hike up her skirt and run barefoot and bold into the trees. For a while, she wandered aimlessly, picking flowers and exploring the forest at whim, until one day, a short while after her seventh birthday, a path made itself known to her. The direction of it became clear and there was no other way to go, no other trail to follow. Her feet slid their way down the grassy slope until she came to a wide clearing among the trees. The grass grew tall and wild like it had never been touched before, and flowers of the most exquisite purple sprouted among the stalks. In the center of this ethereal circle stood an ancient, drooping willow. It called to her like nothing had before. The child ran to it eagerly. She did not know what to expect, but she knew she had to get closer.
When she pulled back the branches, her breath caught in her throat, her mouth forming a tiny “o” of wonderment. The space beneath the cascading branches of the willow appeared to be a whole other world. The wide trunk of the tree was a soft, warm, brown. And while the space should have been cast in shadow, the air seemed to have its own greenish glow, as if tiny lights had been sewn into the leaves. A voice that whispered from the base of her skull told her to leave and she knew she should listen. But a greater feeling, something old and instinctual, deep within her bones, vehemently disagreed. With reverence, she stepped towards the trunk of the great tree and lay her hand against the bark. The air crackled and sparked as it pressed in on her, causing stray wisps of her messy, red hair to rise next to her cheeks. Her mother had always chided her about her hair.
“You’re not supposed to be here.” The comment came from her left, from a voice that tasted like sugar and black licorice. A young man had appeared from behind the willow’s trunk and stood, observing her. While his words suggested surprise, his casual posture made it seem like he’d been waiting for her. He leaned with his shoulder against the tree, his arms crossed over his broad chest as he watched her curiously. His eyes pierced hers and she couldn’t quite place the color. Were they blue? Gray? Pale yellow? They seemed to be all colors at once, shifting back and forth between natural and unnatural hues alike. She looked closer. Maybe it was just a trick of light and shadow, but she couldn’t see the black of his pupil. His hair was short and spiked in the front, the midnight black of it absorbed all light. It was a shocking contrast to the fairness of his skin. His features were all the same, sharp, distinguished, and stunning.
“I didn’t think the village allowed their younglings into the woods anymore,” he narrowed his eyes, pressing for an explanation. The young girl knew better than to talk to strangers, but she felt compelled to speak.
“They don’t,” she said, her little hand still lay against the trunk. Although she felt small tendrils of fear rising in her stomach, she did not flee. She did not particularly want to, anyway.
“So, you came because…?” His tongue poked between his teeth as he awaited an answer. For a moment she thought each one of them was sharp and pointed, like a cat’s, but she blinked and they returned to normal. It left her feeling unsettled.
“I don’t care what they think,” she responded to his question. She hadn’t meant her answer to be funny, simply honest, but it made the man laugh. The noise sounded like wind chimes. When he stopped, he tilted his head and considered her carefully. She held his gaze without flinching.
“You should find your way home now, little one,” he said, pushing himself off the tree to stand up straight. He was taller than he appeared. He looked down at her more seriously when she refused to move. “Do so quickly. Not everyone in this forest is as kind as I.”
The girl blinked up at him. She wanted to argue but found that she couldn’t. So, wordlessly, she removed her hand from the tree trunk and hurried off the way she came. She could feel the man’s gaze follow her all the way back home.
The young girl heeded the strange man’s warnings, for a while anyway. And though she did not return to the forest for years, she could not keep that morning’s events from her mind. The memories implanted themselves there and they were all she could see. They took over her. She took to drawing them, on every surface and with whatever material she could find. She would trace the outline of the willow in the dirt inside the horses’ stable, and etch the bending curve of the man’s smile onto the wood of her bedpost. She collected charred scraps from the fire and spent many hours and many rolls of parchment on charcoal drawings of the scene. As she grew older, the drawings grew more detailed, and she began to realize what she had seen that day. When her mother saw them, she suspected where her daughter had been all those years ago, but she assured the woman the drawings were only pictures from her dreams. It wasn’t entirely a lie. The images followed her into her sleep every night.
For seven years, the farm girl remained possessed with these dreams, hearing bells where there weren’t any and tasting licorice when she breathed until she could not take them in her head any longer. She’d been growing forgetful with her chores, daydreaming when she should be feeding the goats and horses and forgetting to bathe and comb her hair. Her mother often found her crouched in front of the fireplace with charcoal up her arms and parchment in her hands. One day her mother practically lifted her off the ground and threw her into a tub of lukewarm water herself. She sat on a milking stool at the tub's side, grumbling as she scrubbed at her daughter’s skin and tied her hair in a braid.
The next morning, on the first of spring, she dressed before dawn and left for the woods again. It had been so long since she last set foot beyond the trees but her feet took her where she wanted to go. When she found herself at the ancient willow once again, she parted the branches and sat down with her back against the bark. The girl removed the parchment and charcoal from her pockets and began to draw as she waited. It wasn’t long before she felt the air change and the strange man’s presence surrounded her again. She sensed his hesitation at first, the air taking on a cool blue hue before shifting to the greenish-gold she remembered. Could it be that he didn’t recognize her? But he showed himself nonetheless and watched over her shoulder as she worked. He was the first to speak.
“You’re very talented, little one,” he said in that sugar-frosting lilt. “You drew that from memory?”
“It wasn’t difficult,” she noted. “The memories were so vivid, so constant. I couldn’t get them out of my head any other way.” There was a flash of emotion in the air. She could almost taste it like she could when she heard his voice. It tasted like guilt.
“Why have you come back when I told you not to?”
Her hand froze above the parchment. The most instant answer that came to mind was “I had to,” and she almost said it. She stopped herself, and instead, changed the subject. “I fear there is nothing for me at home but the horses and the goats.”
“Don’t you have a family?” he said. She expected him to be surprised, but instead, his tone was even.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Do you love them?”
“Do they love you?”
She paused this time, her voice quiet. She thought of her mother’s constant grimace and cold, demanding voice. “I don’t know.”
The man sighed. He seemed to have seen this coming. He slid down the side of the tree to sit next to her in the grass, not quite close enough to touch. They both knew that could be dangerous.
“You could have more, you know?” He offered cautiously. “You could see the whole world, or other worlds entirely if that is what you wish.”
She did wish. She wished it desperately. But she had her duties at home, her little brother to take care of. Her mother may not care if she disappeared, but the wide-eyed little boy who always wanted to hold her hand, the one who squealed with delight when she lifted him to pet the horses, he would not understand. She was scared of her selfish desire.
“Maybe,” she gave nothing away. She finished her drawing and set the piece of charcoal down by her side. They were both quiet for a while before she spoke again. “I know what you are.”
The man’s smile was almost proud, and when he sighed she could smell lilacs on his breath. “I had no doubt you would figure it out.”
She turned and looked him dead in the eye for the first time this visit. She noticed how he leaned away ever so slightly. Had she swayed him somehow? Startled him with her forwardness? “My mother says it was your kind that took my father away from us,” she accused. “His name was William. William Mackenzie.”
“Perhaps…” he said.
She did not lower her gaze.
“I know the name,” he admitted. She shivered, probably from the cold, but she wasn’t certain. “It would be an honor to know yours as well,” he suggested and waited for her response.
She sighed, disappointment dragging her shoulders downward. She had hoped he wouldn’t ask for something so dangerous to give. “I know better than that, I’m afraid.” She rose from her spot on the ground and he followed her with his pale, shifting eyes. She tore the finished picture from the ream of parchment and held it out to him. “For payment,” she stated. He took it from her silently and she walked back through the woods. He was left to sit there, staring at a beautiful drawing of himself beneath the tree.
Her mother was waiting for her in the yard when she returned. A priest in black robes with an unrelenting posture stood to one side of her. The Elders of the town council stood on her other, clutching copies of her drawings in their hands. The girl knew she had made a mistake. Her mother had seen through her lies and now it was time to pay the price. The mother locked her willful daughter in her room with the priest to cleanse her of whatever dark magic had its hold on her. Although the priest found none, the council agreed that the pull of the ancient willow was too dangerous. The next morning, the girl watched from her window as the council gathered volunteers and set off into the woods with axes over their shoulders. She held her breath and tried not to cry as she felt her heart turn to stone.
Like stone was how she remained. She resigned herself to her work on the farm and to the care of her younger brother, teaching him how to tend to the animals himself as he grew older. She caught him on more than one occasion, staring wistfully into the forest and she worried her mother would notice. She feared he would lose his innocence the same way she had, on the day the villagers brought their axes. She tried not to think of what had become of her willow tree and the man who seemed to live within it. For years, she worked the length of the day. She kept her head down and her feet still and only every so often, did she allow herself to glance into the woods. She knew she could no longer dream of walking beneath the trees. She feared what her mother would take away next. Seasons passed in their monotonous cycles. She watched her brother grow older as the farm changed from green to brown and back again. She was growing older too and she could feel the change in her bones. Everything else remained the same. Until one day, on the first of spring.
Her mother threw open her bedroom door as dawn rose in the morning, a bundle of expensive fabric clutched in her arms. “Get up,” she huffed, “and get dressed. Be downstairs as soon as possible. I don’t want to hear any bellyaching about it.” She spread the fabric out along the bottom of her daughter’s bed.
“What’s going on?” she demanded, catching her mother before she could close the door.
“Your husband is here.”
The girl felt shock ricochet up and down her spine. “But I am not wed!”
Her mother grunted. “With any luck, that will change today. Be thankful someone’s still willing after all these years.” The girl felt what little freedom she had left drain from her chest as her mother slammed the door.
The man’s name was Michael. He was the son of a wealthy farmer from another wealthy village. He had kind, brown eyes, and a welcoming smile. He was well educated and he spoke to her with respect. He was everything her family could have wished for her. But those were never her wishes. As her mother bid the man’s family goodbye, settling on a trade of a goat and two hens, the girl climbed out of the washroom window for the first time in her adult life and took off for the woods again, this time in desperation. The hem of the pristine white dress absorbed the dirt from the ground but she kept running. Fear and panic turned over in her stomach. The years of warnings her mother gave her filled her head, but she kept on. It had been so long since she stepped foot in the forest and so much had changed, she was afraid she would not remember the way. She wasn’t sure what would be there even if she did find the clearing. She tripped on the hem of the expensive dress and tore the seam, but she didn’t care. Her hair had fallen out of its braid as she ran. Eventually, like it had both times before, the path made itself known to her and she came upon the clearing once more.
The young woman froze. The willow was gone as she knew it had been for years now, but the sight still shackled her in place. A large, ragged stump jutted up from the ground, and a circle of deep orange mushrooms had grown around it where the bottoms of the tree’s branches once brushed the ground. She approached the circle with intent. Her dress hung about her frame in tatters and her hair, likewise around her face. She pulled the ribbon from the end of the braid and let the rest of it fall around her shoulders. She suspected she finally looked like the wild and unruly girl her mother blamed her for being. As she drew nearer to the circle, the air around her crackled and buzzed. The closer she got, the more her hair stood on end and the skin around her face grew tight. As she stepped into the circle, all the sounds of the forest ceased. For a moment she could only hear the rush of her own blood. The same man sat atop the stump with his legs crossed beneath him. The corner of his mouth lifted ever so slightly at the sight of her.
“Hello, little one,” he tilted his head. “Though, I suppose you are not so little anymore. ” In seven years, the forest around her and the girl herself had grown and changed. But the man looked just the same, without a single flaw. Like he’d been sculpted from marble. “What brings you back after so long?”
“My mother wishes me to wed,” she said. “to a wealthy farm boy in the neighboring village.”
He was quiet for a moment. “That’s wonderful,” he said, although his flat tone did not support it.
“No!” she declared. He blinked in surprise. “It’s not what I want, what I have ever wanted. My entire life has been on that farm. If I am to marry him, it will be the rest of my life and my children’s lives as well. It will never stop, never change.” He watched her, an unreadable expression in his otherwise clear gaze. “You once told me I could have the whole world,” she reminded him. “Does the offer still stand?”
“Are you sure that is what you want?” His look was firm. “Think carefully. My kind do not often give second chances.”
The girl stepped forward to the edge of what was once the ancient tree. She wasted no words, she knew how precious they were here. “My name is Sophia Grace Mackenzie. Take it, I give it willingly. I am not meant for this life. I wish to see other worlds and leave this one behind. Will you bargain with me?”
The man smiled as he stood and stepped forward to the edge of the stump. He held out his hand. Sophia took it and he pulled her up next to him onto the remains of the ancient tree. The forest faded to white around her.