Among them came a terror as they watched the frothing dog fall dying in the snow.
Among them some had seen other frothing terrors, other falling deaths in blood and snow.
Not all remembered. Not all were watching. Some were at their work, stitching, sweeping, cooking, some at studies, Bibles, prayers.
Still, they watched, they knew.
The dog fell hard, snow crunching under, and all about them crows, wings whacking, rose up out of trees, a cawing and a shrieking as of Satan’s legions fleeing Hell for the cold white winter air.
The sky darkened, a storm swept up, rain fell.
They pulled their cloaks about them and ran through cold and wet for home: they, the soon-to-be-famous girls.
They: the missing pronoun, the singular they, the plural she.
A single organism, a shared heartbeat, shared breathing, common dreams.
When she separates from it, it is hard to know where she has been.
She remembers: shrieks and outcries, her own, and shrieks and cries around her. She remembers her body: shaking, plummeting, pounding, flying as if across the room.
Under layers of linen and wool, petticoats and stockings, pale skin bruised.
Her body a temple of the Holy Ghost.
But her body is wet now, contaminated, bled.
Inside her mouth she has bitten herself, the flesh inside her cheek raw, her throat sore from screaming.
Her heart aches for fear of knowing the words her voice has spoken, the names named.
And aches with something more. An elevation. A deliverance. A new tenderness and life in the flesh of this body that is a temple. A new vividness. A brightness to the air, a clarity to the faces, the voices, the light, to everything that surrounds her.
Across great distances she can hear the other girls. Silent at night in bed she converses with those who are near and with those invisible. As if they were together still, bound as if standing in a single room.
As if. It was all as if, but real enough, more than real. It started slow and grew. At first a choking and a fading, a shaking, a kicking and flailing, a passing from consciousness as if into sleep, a coming awake in weakness, washed over, washed through. A feeling of the holy, as if she were newly baptized—but uncertain lest this were a blasphemous thought, Mercy Lewis keeps it to herself. She has no father, no mother, no one safely to put such a question to. She had flung herself toward the fire they say; it had taken three strong men to hold her back. At first she saw only shadows like women but could not discern who they were, who pinched and pulled and pushed and hurt her, although even then the echoing voices seemed to demand that she write her name in their book. More than a week passed, almost two, before she could see the specters’ faces. Then her visions went further. She witnessed Satan’s mockery of the Lord’s Table; had heard the voice of the Tempter, now saw his beautiful face. Yes, beautiful. Others might say the demon was ugly, repulsive, but beauty was what Mercy saw. When he whispered to her and promised and scared her with lies about her future, when he told her that without him she was doomed to servitude and singleness, but that he (and she could see by his beauty that he was there with her, right then in her presence, unlike her God, who remained absent and silent and was no more hers than anything else in this, their world), but he, he would show himself to her directly, would show her more than his face, would show her all of himself, and the world too, a world bigger than her masters could or would imagine, she had only to ask, to agree—yes, then she saw his beauty.
She resisted. Young though she is, she has been alone a good while and by necessity has become adept at resisting beauty. Other visions came to her, and among them her protector, radiant in a white light.
The singular they, the plural she—these are the missing pronouns.
Each her own self, her own and particular condemned or regenerate soul, together they become something other, a force, elemental.
Separated one from another, they are girls and young women, each with her history, her motives known and unknown, her where-she-came-from, her where-she’s-going, her family character, her love and terror, her poverty of hierarchy and rank, each her own devastation, her own pleasure, her joy.
Only together do they become something more. A living body. One the eyes, another the voice, another the hands. What one sees, all see. What one says, all approve. What one touches, or suffers, all feel. If not immediately, then before long. Internal contradiction they negotiate, adjust, as if by secret communion, not in meetings, not in language, but in an understanding that crosses the distances between them, that as they cluster together moves skin to skin, or in the nights, or during those days when they are apart, travels on the air that keeps them one from another.
A single organism, a shared heartbeat, shared breathing, common dreams.
The afflictions began in the wind and sleet and chill of middle January, near the increase of the wolf moon, when Betty Parris, the minister’s daughter, fell ill, a week or more before news came of the Abenaki devastation of York, forty miles to the eastward on the Ipswich Road. Fifty dead and a hundred carried into captivity. Three or four hundred people their houses and barns destroyed by fire.
The words brought the smell, but Betty Parris was already fallen to fits and fainting, and soon her straw-haired cousin Abigail with her, also of the minister’s household. Among the servants and goodwives and goodmen of the village this news traveled as fast as the news of the spreading war: the girls in an illness that started with tics, bursts of wild violence interrupting their usual sober demeanor, falls without warning into trance, acute twists of head and limb, confusions of speech into brute utterance, involuntary motions both subtle and extreme—stuttering, twitching, uncontrollable shaking, and sudden gestures as if to ward off blows. Efforts to confine them, to hold them, made every symptom worse. They hid themselves under tables, chairs, stools, backed into corners as if into some dark hole, jerked as if tortured, wept and moaned, were taken dumb, struggled against choking, or spewed the cries of animals and strings of senseless words, pitched their bodies about, or were pitched by powers unseen—flung down hard upon themselves, or bent so far back as if to burst their bellies, all with a force beyond the power of any fit of epilepsy or earthly disease to effect, the violence of their convulsions that far beyond their ordinary capacity when in their right minds.
As suddenly as they fell, in their own time the children would calm, would wake, dazed and bruised and much afraid, until the fear thus aroused brought on another fit.
When late in February Dr. Griggs could find no natural cause, he judged them under an evil hand.
Mr. Parris called on his neighbors and ministers from the nearby towns to join him in fasting and prayer, but before such a treatment could accomplish its cure, and with the shadow of bewitchment hanging over them, the doctor’s own niece and servant Betty Hubbard also fell to fits, and the younger Ann Putnam too, child of the family that has this year and close on two taken Mercy Lewis in.
In the meantime, and without Mr. Parris’s knowledge, a small witchcraft was practiced in his own household, when under the direction of Mary Sibley, a full church member who should have known better, his own John Indian baked a cake of rye meal mixed with the little girls’ urine and fed it to a village dog, by this diabolical means proposing to discover the witches and break the spell.
Sometimes they remember their visions and afflictions, sometimes not. What have they seen, what heard? Hard now to say when words so immediately become images, images words. Tituba says four women sometimes hurt the children, and the shadows of four women become visible. Tituba says four women and one man hurt the children, and soon they all have seen the man. She says a great black dog said serve me, and they all have heard the words of the dog. A red cat and a black cat scratch her and say serve them, and scratch marks appear on all their skin. Tituba says Sarah Good had a yellow bird to suck between her fingers, and soon they see the yellow bird. Sarah Osborne, Tituba says, had a thing with wings and two legs and head like a woman, and now Abigail Williams has seen this creature but yesterday and saw it take the shape of Goody Osborne. But Goody Osborne hath also a thing all over hairy, says Tituba, all the face hairy and a long nose, the creature hath only two legs and goeth upright like a man, about two or three foot high, and last night did stand in the fire in Mr. Parris’s hall. And Sarah Osborne’s hairy imp comes visible. The man, Tituba says, is very strong, a tall man, with white hair she thinks, a man of Boston. He goes in black clothes, and sometimes in a serge coat of another color. And one by one they see him. The man tells her he is God, she must believe him and serve him six years. He visits her and threatens her and tempts her many times to hurt the children and shows her his book with a great many marks in it, some red, some yellow, and the man and his book become visible: sometimes tall, sometimes short, no longer white haired, but always strong and dressed in black, and they call him the black man for he comes in black clothes.
In the beginning, in a time lost to the seasons now, to the comings and goings of habit and secrets and daily life, when Mercy was new in the village and Tituba not much longer in the village than Mercy herself, Tituba, the slave, the Indian, had almost been her friend. It was Tituba who helped her to find her place, servant to servant, showing her the local ways, the paths and patches, the waters, the weeds. Mercy was frightened of her at first—her tawny Indian face too like the faces that terrorized her people in Maine—but in the work of their hands together, in the movement of their bodies side by side, through task after task, in some deep kinship of loss in Tituba’s blank black eyes, Mercy knew her fear overcome. Tituba was older, she thought, though she couldn’t have said for sure—knew it more by her steadfast manner than by any sign of greater age. They were mostly silent together, a silence soothing, free of the impositions of the men who made the world around them, the men and women who mastered them. In the silence she imagined that Tituba knew her, that she knew Tituba, that they knew each other’s secrets, altogether without speaking.
But it was a dream, somehow a dream she must have wakened up from. She hardly knows now how or why. When she began catechizing maybe, when she went to sit and listen to Mr. Parris with a new hunger, a new appetite—drawn to him, Tituba’s master, by his beauty, his voice, his gesture, his long black boots, his great black coat, and by his words, the teaching he was preaching, the possibility—even for her, weak and fallen sinner that she knew she must be—that she might yet be redeemed, and saw in his words inscribing in her heart the vessel of grace she might yet become.
Tituba withdrew from her then, or seemed to withdraw, away into her savage silence.
And maybe, after all, that savage silence is where Tituba has always been.
They call him the black man for he comes in black clothes and because the language calls the devil black, the only language they know, and the devil is him they fear—and with his bright black eyes and black brow and black long streaming hair all gleaming and skin a-shine and hairless, tawny like skin of a savage, voice deceptive and sublime, the devil is who they fear this black man to be.
They do not mean by this naming that he is a man descended or taken from Africa, like Mary Black, slave to Nathaniel Putnam, or Mrs. Hawkes’s Candy from Barbados, or Goody Cory’s mulatto son, or handsome Timothy, the boy that belonged to Mr. Parris before he took fever and died. What they mean is what they have seen in printed pictures in little books, a little European man cold and black as ink, a Frenchman maybe, or maybe an Indian dressed in European clothes, for before the English came the Indians were—they know, they have been told—the devil’s people in these lands, and those that live among the French still are. They mean what they have seen in darkness, abroad on a moonless night when they should have been in bed, or when they were in bed, and even in their sleep, and for her, for Mercy Lewis, it is the terrible beauty of this tawny almost-Indian more-than-man that terrifies and compels, the terrible beauty and his voice, melodious and smooth as an English preacher’s. For she has seen the savages long ago that close, their bodies oiled and naked and painted red for war and black for grief and their blood and the blood of her grandparents and the flesh of all commingled wrapping her round when she was so young she knew nothing of what she saw but the noise and smoke and smell and hunger and no one anywhere to help. She has seen this face before, that long ago, that young, and heard this voice, not then but at some later time, a time she recalls but can’t collect now, adrift in the voice itself.
In the white spaces read the work to be done: the cooking, which starts with the killing; the washing, which starts with hauling water, building up the fire; the knitting and sewing, which start with spinning flax and wool.
It is winter, remember. The harvest is in, corn and rye milled and stored, tubers dug, peas dried, hops brewed, cider pressed and turned, dairyhouse full with butter and cheeses, smokehouse with beef and bacon.
Now is the season of handiwork, of sitting at the fire while bread bakes and dinner boils, of cutting and stitching woolens and linens coarse and fine, and if the master’s laboring clothes are mended and his new white shirts all sewn, the mistress her new summer shift of India cotton complete but for the embroidering that she will do with her own hand, her Sabbath-day collar its lace new bought from Boston attached, then still are there stockings to knit and wool and serge to cut, to work, to quilt, to wear the fingers out upon, for cloaks and waistcoats and petticoats and breeches, for all the family, master, mistress, sons, daughters, men, and maid.
It is the season of labor indoors, of boiling tubs of suds for scrubbing, of polishing pewter and scouring iron pots with sand, of stringing laundry up to steam at the fire; the season of lessons and study, of reading the Bible early and late, and edifying books from Boston, bought at market time in Salem or borrowed from Mr. Edward or Mr. Parris; the season of cleaning the hunt, when the master and his brother and cousins and their dogs and horses and men return from the woods with fowl and rabbit and deer, though not so abundant they say as in years past, every year worse, the farms too crowded they say, the forests so far receding, and more and more the danger of savages—her hands bloody and stuck with fur and feathers, when sudden she remembers her father, her brothers, bear, and the taste of the meat, dark and coarse and salty, remembers the heart of a kill so fresh it seemed still to beat, and her brothers’ wild laughter, the strange excitement they brought in from the forest, remembers that smell, the dark blood smell and something else, something that lived in the flesh of the men, her father, her brothers, even the young ones, the feel of them, their bodies warm and hard, safe, protecting—remembers everything but their faces, not one face.
Not even her mother’s face can she remember.
Her father’s face she could never see.
As if they were together still, bound as if standing in a single room. As if they saw before them everything their words make visible: a yellow bird, a red cat, a black man, a black book, signatures in red and faded yellow, the spectral figures of women and men, profane communion rites, Take, eat, this is my body, performed with human flesh, human blood. This Mercy saw, they saw—saw everything. At a house in the village on a public fast day. Outside in Mr. Parris’s pasture. While they lay in their fits in the midst of their neighbors, or secretly, at night, at home in their beds. A few words spoken and all took form, indelible. Especially the flesh, the blood.
As if. It was all as if, but real enough, more than real. She writhed with the pain of pinches and pinpricks shooting all through her body and heard the screams of the others, and louder than the screaming, explosions of gunfire at her ears—although no one spoke of the gunfire, it was impossible to speak of, the secret she keeps to herself—and she pressed her hands hard to her head and doubled up choking, coughing, gagging on blood and terror.
When it passes they often find themselves in a crowded room, wherever they have come together, wherever the day’s interrogations began, first in the village meetinghouse, then at the great meetinghouse in town. Crowds gather. The magistrates sit at their table asking questions and making notes. One by one the accused stand before them to be examined. And here are they, too, the famous girls—children, singlewomen, wives—huddled together for comfort, for warmth, clutching together their hands.
Sometimes they remember their visions and afflictions, sometimes not.
Her mother’s face Mercy can’t remember. Her father’s face she could never see.
Now their voices torment her, threaten, promise.
They died in fire, under hailstorms of bullets, stripped naked and scalped as everybody with them had been stripped and scalped, around them a roaring singing dancing yelling.
She had forgotten them, buried them, given them to God.
Now she sees them living on, carried into captivity, sees their bloodied bodies, under tortures rumored and read. She doesn’t look for such images. They just seem to come. Her mother alone and strangely small in a sea of tawny naked men. Her mother knitting, a little shirt, her face gone bony and pale, vague in the oily light of a wigwam. Her father tied to a stake, an ear sliced off, made to eat the ear, fresh and bleeding. Chunks of flesh cut from his arms and thighs tossed back at him, or roasted, he and her mother and the other English prisoners made to watch. Her mother in the smoky darkness puffing on a pipe as at home she used to, or sleeping there, all covered in scraps and rags. Her father left to burn and cook across the dying coals, alone in snow to die.
The images come from stories she knows are not her own, accounts read, or heard whispered. An English child, its eye forced out of its socket for bawling. Heads cut off, and scalps. Bellies slit. Savages wearing English fingers for a necklace, strips of English skin braided for a belt.
Maybe her father’s fingers became such a necklace, his skin such a belt, his scalp and her mother’s displayed somewhere, on a spear, a shield, a doorway, a hat—like the heads of Irish rebels, or royalists and Parliamentarians spiked at the Tower of London.
More than two years since the loss of her parents and nothing of this fear, these images, these stories, had come to her mental vision. Not when Mr. Burroughs stopped her at her scrubbing to say her parents were killed, and never since. Only now. First in dreams, the night the news arrived of the devastation at York, not long after Betty Parris fell ill.
Suffering came first, visions later. News of the Abenaki brought nightmares. News that Abigail Williams and Betty Parris were bewitched made Mercy’s heart beat fast. Ann’s affliction narrowed her breathing, trembled her hands. Then the dog died. The tormented saw their tormentors, named their names. Warrants were issued, the women arrested, examined. The constable, searching among their belongings, their dwelling places, for poppets, dolls, figures of torment, objects upon which they might work their evil magic, found nothing. Good and Osborne maintained their innocence. Tituba confessed. The fits continued, spread. Near two weeks into March Ann complained of Goodwife Martha Cory, and when Goody Cory came to confront her, Ann fell down choking, bleeding, hands clutching her face, her eyes, and cried out that Goody Cory would strike her with an iron rod, and went on shrieking until Mercy felt a blow to her arm, felt it but couldn’t see, and the pain continued, and they continued together, Mercy and Ann, clenched and kicking, choked and spun.
Later Mrs. Ann and the men will tell her she saw shadows like women, heard voices, cried out I won’t, I won’t! and many other such stories, but Mercy will remember nothing, only the pain, the rod struck hard to her arm, and after, when she was calm awhile and resting, a wind inside her body, a falling darkness and no more.
What the men that night will say they saw: Mercy Lewis drawn suddenly to the fire by invisible hands, and when they grabbed hold of her chair, Mercy and the chair pulled onward toward the fire, against all their strength—feet first, drawn by a force outside herself, she clutched the chair as if to stop the movement, until Mr. Edward taking hold of her feet struggled to lift them, and all their strength together was little enough to keep her from burning—and so on. This effort they made until eleven in the night, when finally she fell weak again and quiet, and came again to herself—Sergeant Putnam at her one side, the tenant Goodman Crowly at the other, Mr. Edward at her feet, and standing, praying, the handsome black-haired minister, Mr. Parris at the fire.
After the first hanging, seizures of strangulation will leave the marks of rope. Mercy will be well in it by then, half her days lost in voice and vision, but at the hour of the hanging her sight will be uncluttered, her soul serene. It will be a bright warm day in June, and half the village will travel to town to see the witch to the gallows.
A woman of the town, Bridget Bishop, her name not yet a whisper, will be the first accused of witchcraft brought to trial, the first convicted by a jury and condemned, and on that bright June morning will ride along in her felon’s cart, the ministers Hale and Willard riding with her and she refusing consolation, confession, repentance, her pretty yellow-haired head held high, for she is a vain woman, guilty, proud, and angry, long and widely known for a witch, taken to trial upon it some twelve years past, and escaped punishment on that occasion by persuading the ministers that better could be hoped for from her. But no more. Still adamant as to her innocence, despite so much that will have been brought in against her—poppets made of rags and hogs’ bristles, stuck with headless pins; the preternatural witch’s teat found in the privates of her body that promptly disappeared; her general reputation for sickening or killing by her craft not only several children, but also her own first husband; and for all to see, the grievous torments of the afflicted, before and during her examination. If Massachusetts was generous at her first trial, from the second she will have found no escape, and for all that is sworn against her will be hanged until dead in the bright June sun.
In July five more will hang, another five in August, eight in September, and then the hangings for witchcraft will come to an end.
Late in February, to discover the witches and break the spell, the man the masters call John Indian kept the little girls’ night water and stole into Tituba’s kitchen to mix a biscuit according to the recipe told him by Goodwife Sibley, careful the while not to let Tituba know his design lest Parris blame her when he found him out, as he certainly would, but too late by then to stop him from working this necessary magic for the relief of the poor children.
It was a terrible sight their little twisted bodies their cries unbearable to hear.
At night they slept peacefully but throughout the day they kicked and flew and screamed.
The family all went to fasting and prayer and that included as it did often but not always himself and Tituba, and the more they prayed and fasted and endured the hunger and heavy hours of Psalms and Revelations the more greedily the spirits tormented the children with pinching and wrenching and throwing them about until little Betty more than Abigail would faint near dead away.
So the cake baked on the coals and was well in the jaws of the big black wandering dog before Tituba caught him at it and together they followed the track of the mad animal across the thin crust of snow on the pasture down to the stream and the stand of old trees, and Betty and Abigail came after and the child Ann Putnam and her mother Mrs. Ann and the servants Mercy Lewis and Betty Hubbard, and he did not know from where all these girls and young women had come.
—From prayer, Tituba said. —From fasting. From reading Revelations.
Then a silence fell but for the growl of the great black dog and when the animal stopped and planted itself on four stiff legs before them, steam rising from its mouth and nose and trembling slick wet coat, they all stood back and waited they knew not for what but felt and a terror came among them as they watched the frothing dog fall dying in the snow.
The devil says to her, he says, Mercy Lewis, you are my servant, you are my handmaid, you have only to agree, I know all about you and all you know and all you crave to know, I could offer you gold and many fine things, new clothes, a piece of money, a pair of French fall shoes, a yellow singing bird in a golden cage, but child, I know you better than you know yourself. I know that such inducements, though they might work the heart of some other girl, some wicked little straw-haired girl, some black-eyed Delilah, some vixen Salome, to you will seem but vanities. To you must be offered that fruit that freed your mother Eve. Ask me your questions, I’ll answer you anything, you need only touch your hand to me.
Mercy resists but still the questions take shape and the devil says, I can answer those questions. For a kiss I’ll tell you why your parents had to die, and your brothers, and before them your grandparents, you and your sisters scattered, and all the fine young men of this desert plantation cut down at the eastward by the French and Abenaki. Why?
He leaves the question in the air. She raises her head as if to listen, heart drumming her fear, the listening itself the agreement she has need to resist. His laughter recedes to the distance but his hands move about her waist, inside her bodice, into her shift, his lips at her ear, not the devil’s anymore but the lips and hands of the dead, the dead young men of Casco and this her present village, John, Nicholas, Godfrey, Thomas, Edward, George, the dead she has known and those she has but heard spoken of, and the hands and lips of the living, whose names she must never speak, whose faces she must never imagine, they whom it were sin in too many ways even secretly to long for.
She kicks her legs. Her belly screams. Desire seizes her. For what?
He is hidden in shadow. At night he comes to her bed. Pressed down hard upon her, he sucks her breath. He says, You don’t belong here, none of you English belong here. If you English mean to keep in this place you must make your bed with me.