You must not go into the burial places, and look about only for the tall monuments and the titled names. It is not the starred epitaphs of the Doctors of Divinity, the Generals, the Judges, the Honourables, the Governors, or even of the village notables called Esquires, that mark the springs of our successes and the sources of our distinctions. These are rather effects than causes; the spinning-wheels have done a great deal more than these.
— Horace Bushnell, “The Age of Homespun,” 1851
Letty’s black silk skirts caught on the nail — or the wood splinter or whatever it was — as she mounted the impossibly narrow circular steps that barely admitted her shoulders, up to the widow’s walk. Her skirts always caught. She’d sought the protuberance many times and never found it because it did not exist. It was her skirts that were catching her up. They had minds of their own, trying to swish her to another destination altogether, something happier, gayer, more flirtatious and exciting for which they would be inappropriate and consigned to a chest and eventually bestowed on some servant like Brigid, who was on occasional loan from Goodwife Charity Farleigh.
Letty resented wearing black. It was the epitome of common. Ann Putnam, her confederate in Salem’s witch trials (until her outrageous apology) had worn black only, nothing else, ever since her parents died ten years ago. Goodwife Tracenbaugh had donned the funereal color even before her cousin passed; she’d been sewing the garment, but her cousin lingered, until the mantua maker couldn’t wait to wear it any longer because she thought it made her look pert. Of course, she decorated hers in shiny black glass beads and a sprinkle of frail bows over the skirt, with a modesty piece of fine Chantilly lace that held a bosom bottle of lavender fragrance and flower petals dyed black. As for Charity Farleigh, she wore black every time she lost a baby, whether she imagined it or not.
Black was a lazy color. No need for servants to waste time scrubbing the stains out because they did not show. Food, pollen, animal spittle and other secretions, squished insects, berry juice, and things that dropped, blew, or brushed against Letty, or flew up at her in the dead of night — all left traces that were invisible. There were odors, of course, but the most important sniffer was the wearer herself. Letty smelled little, and what she did was pleasantly familiar. Anyone else must remain oblivious. It was only polite.
Letty’s torch lit the seam of the roof door that opened onto the night heavens where Sky Bear glittered maliciously. Immune to starlight, Letty focused on the blackness between. There was no longer any need to pace the walk, railing to railing, or to peer out at the shroud of sea beneath the smoky cloud bank. Except that egregious mourning bestowed friendship upon her from the many sympathetic women who spotted her nightly vigil. They gave her a snug, nestled feeling of belonging in the community.
Shem had long ago returned from the sea and told Brigid how Captain Harrow had died. She told her mistress, Goodwife Farleigh, who hinted at the news to Letty. Letty demanded to know directly, so Cap’n Jack had accompanied his mate, both of them dressed in loose seamen’s pants and shirts that reeked of rotten fish. It was a smell that had pervaded her husband’s presence and that he called romantically “the smell of the sea.” Secretly she couldn’t abide it — the price of marriage, there having been many suitors for Letty’s hand but none with firm offers. Their ardor faded in little time.
The seamen doffed their woolen caps. Brigid, who happened to be Shem’s sweetheart, accompanied them in her Irish green shift of many wearings.
They praised Captain Benjamin, beloved among his men, sturdy of sea leg and keen of weather eye, ever alert to the pirate who could race around the cliff or out of the fog at any moment. They told how he had crashed to the deck and how they could find no pulse. They related how they held the services on board.
“Not a dry eye amongst us,” said the Captain.
“The salt sea spray,” explained Shem.
“Tears,” said Brigid, poking him with her hip.
They spoke of wrapping the body in a sail for a shroud, but not of the fish oil stains upon it; the hymns, but not the bawdy sea chanties; the praiseful words, but not the extra noggins of rum; the ocean where he rested in the bosom of his mistress, but not the food he provided for shark and whale. Caps in hands, they painted the memories that they thought a widow would treasure. Even Brigid grew demure and pulled away from Shem’s affection, unseemly to the occasion.
Letty waited for them to mention Sophie. Not a word. Finally, she had to ask.
“What of Sophie, my precious little girl? My life, my treasure! What happened to her?”
Brigid’s blue eyes widened into globes at these unaccustomed expressions of love, but Cap’n Jack knew nothing of Letty’s meanderings from maternal affection to brutality. He simply told her,
“We put them off at Boston as Captain Benjamin intended.”
“All of them?” Letty asked. Brigid was quite sure that Mistress Letty had no idea of numbers or identities. This was her way of obtaining information.
“Tituba, too?” she pursued, trying to extract the list.
“’Chuba, Sally, yes.”
Oh, it was Sally now, was it?
“And Mary and the rest?’
“To be sure.”
“Who else?” Letty demanded, compelled to ask at last.
“Oh, all of them. Elihu, Abigail —”
“The pesthouse family!” Letty said it with the curl of her lip reserved for vermin.
“Yes, Thaddeus, too.”
“And James,” Shem said. “Queer duck, that.”
“Her brother,” Brigid reminded him with a playful elbow.
“Oh, yes. Nice gent,” he hastened to add.
“Was Dorcas with them?”
“How could we forget?” Cap’n Jack turned to Shem, who added, “She made a right mess of the galley trying to cook.”
“And the ghost of little Son,” added the Captain. “At least, they said he was with them. We never saw him. We don’t go by ghosts, except for ghost ships, of course. Many’s the sailor seen ghost ships.”
“The Abigail girl saw him, though. She was always chasing around, saying they were playing a game,” said Shem.
“You remember Mary’s child?” Brigid added for Letty’s benefit. “The dead one?”
Letty clucked her tongue.
“Awasosak’s boy, yes. She still mourns him.”
“The boy or the Indian lover?” asked Shem, not beyond a tidbit of gossip.
“All of them let off in Boston?” Letty said finally. “Why?”
She hadn’t meant it to sound demanding, but the conversation suddenly turned tense, both sailors twisting their caps.
“That’s where Captain Benjamin was taking ’em.”
“We wanted to follow his plan,” said Shem.
“It was what he wanted,” said Cap’n Jack, to make sure that the young widow understood he’d acted only out of loyalty. “And I had to make my ports south.”
“But he was going to bring them back here,” Letty said, trying not to stamp her foot. Hadn’t he promised in his last letter to her?
“Well, eventually, maybe. Them as wanted to come,” said the Captain, replacing his cap as if it might help him think.
“They all wanted to, I’m sure,” Brigid said quickly. Cap’n Jack and Shem both took the hint and nodded.
“Sure, they did.”
Cap’n Jack and Shem must get back to the ship for unspecified deadlines, duties, and delays. Brigid left with them, explaining that Mistress Farleigh was awaiting her return.
As usual, Brigid had a splendid bit of flimflammery going, and she was certain that no one was the wiser. Servants were scarce here in the North, and she made the most of her value. She would explain to Mistress Farleigh that Captain Benjamin’s widow had asked her to perform a few chores. The mistress wouldn’t begrudge what little Brigid could do for the poor woman, would she? If Mistress Farleigh chose to pursue her servant’s excuse with questions as to the nature of the work, Brigid had a long enough list of past tasks to throw her mistress into a dizzy fit. On the other hand, Brigid had already excused herself from Letty in order to get back to her mistress — all with the intent of giving herself time to dally with her sea lover, whose doxy she was proud to be.
Letty paced the house, turning over this latest news in her mind. Through the great room whose gold sofa cover was in shreds, to the kitchen untended with dirty dishes, implements, cups and saucers, and pots, up the stairs to the bedrooms, up the stairs again to the roof, then down, down, down.
They had escaped her — ’Chuba, her slave no matter what her husband had decreed; Sophie, her daughter, who was at this moment probably disobeying everything her mother had taught her. She might even be eating. That little hypocrite, Mary, had deprived Letty of her brothers, James and Ephraim — left Ephraim with the Indians — and Letty had heard tell that they worshiped him as a god of some sort. James was Letty’s brother as well as Mary’s, but he’d sided with his older sister, even after the hospitality that Letty had afforded him in the wake of their father’s deluded wanderings and death. Mary had also hidden Letty’s daughter from her in the pesthouse, risking her health. And surely the pesthouse family shared in Mary’s guilt. Dorcas, that conniving little refugee from Satanism, needed to be taught a lesson she wouldn’t soon forget.
To think they’d all conspired with her husband to escape Letty, to fool her into thinking they were gone from her grasp, to elude Letty’s justifiable power over them!
They’d made a mockery of her to the community, leaving her all alone to suffer the indignity of pity, the shameful descent in social status, the proud contumely of her neighbors — she who had saved Salem by exposing the witches even now flying over their community, inflicting children with strange diseases, crippling little babies in the womb, putting spells on guns that made them shoot their owners instead of the French and Indians, and compelling horses to give birth to three-legged foals.
Some, like Judge Samuel Sewall and Ann Putnam, now disavowed the trials and condemnations of witches and even apologized for the hangings. Did these apologies make Sophie, ’Chuba, Dorcas, Mary, and the rest of them imagine that they’d get away with their escape? Well, obviously so! And they deserved whatever fate awaited — the lot of them!
In that suspension of mind, that dream state when the spirit wanders and things get done with no memory of them, Letty paced throughout the house, unaware of her next destination or what she would do there. Her steps simply led her down the cellar steps from the kitchen to the basement, where she had held the meetings of her witch-watcher group until recently when, one by one, the watchers dropped out. There were still plenty of opportunities to act, even without her comrades.
Letty, of course, wouldn’t dream of Satan worship, no matter how much power it could bestow upon her. Hadn’t she been the heroine who had exposed it, leading some witches to be hanged? During her witch hunts, accusations, trials, and her role as witness to the hangings, however, she’d casually accumulated many artifacts, much like explorers digging up ancient ruins. Sheriffs confiscated them from the houses of those to be hanged when they turned out the families. Fellow witch watchers brought them to her as curiosities, believing that in her hands they were safe from the Devil’s work. Occasionally, an afflicted girl begged her to take a poppet or a book or a grisly piece of bone or the corpse of a red bird or a yellow one that had flitted about everyone’s heads in court. One poor demented servant had handed her a box that, when opened, revealed nothing at all. Sheer emptiness! The girl insisted that there was the corpse of a red bird inside.
All these mementos were now safely stowed in her basement.
Past the tables and chairs swirled her skirts in an eddy of determination, as if she were drawn by an umbilical cord stretching all the way from the glories of past deeds into the future. Here her witch watchers were accustomed to sit in judgment on their neighbors over the tea and sweet cakes that ’Chuba provided. Letty picked up one of the candles they’d used, lit it, and moved on. This was a special candle made of precious beeswax that Goody Higginbotham had provided.
Once during a gathering, they saw smoke curling up from it, higher and thicker. Goodwife Tracenbaugh began to scream that it was Cheitan, the Demon of Smoke. Of course, as witch watchers, they were required to know their demons — Lucifer, Mammon, Leviathan, Beelzebub, Baal, and Astarte being the major ones — Cheitan not as well known. The smoke curled and darkened until it reached the ceiling and began to form a shape of some sort, but quick-thinking Letty had leapt to her feet and cried,
“Begone, thou foul Demon!” as she had heard the Reverend Mather say. With a little moan and a whine, the smoke had shriveled into the normal shape and height for a beeswax candle, finally subsiding with a hiss.
Across the wooden floor she now passed to the far corner of the room, where rested a small table spread with red damask which, when removed and respectfully folded, revealed a fine Irish lace covering. Some might take it for an altarpiece. Of course, it was by no means a sacred place, there being no Bible or other evidence of holiness.
Letty hadn’t set out to collect these souvenirs, if one could call them by that name, just that, when each came to hand over the years, she knew exactly where to put it as a memento of her heroism in the good fight.
Her collection of candles she’d gathered from many occasions and sources. There was the stinking one from the gaol where four-year-old Dorcas Good and her mother, Sarah, awaited the justice that would surely come. Made of pig’s fat that stank more than any other, it guttered horribly. That was a candle she never lit. She wanted to maintain it forever and not risk losing a precious drop of wax, bathed as it was in witches’ tears. Another taper, belonging to Rebecca Nurse’s home, had been brought to Letty by Sheriff Corwin, after he had dragged the ill old woman from what might be her deathbed (no matter that some held her holy) and carted her up Gallows Hill.
There were candles from the homes of other witches, made from tallows of various other sorts like cows and sheep, occasionally scented with bayberry or pine. There was one from the tavern in which Martha Corey had been condemned; Letty had begged it from the judge. Central to the group was the torch from the procession that led John Proctor up the street named for him. There was the taper with which they were supposed to celebrate Sophie’s fourth birthday that had ended up on the table outside Sophie’s room in its tin candleholder, Letty having sent her off with no supper for violating some rule no longer remembered. (Odd how penalties were so much more easily recollected than infractions). By the light of the very same candle, she had chased ’Chuba with the Captain’s gun into the kitchen where she shot her just as any other self-respecting slave owner would have done. Which was why ’Chuba and Sophie had fled.
Also on the main table was the bell with which she called the meetings to order. When she shook it, oddly enough it echoed throughout the house. Sometimes she heard it when she was upstairs and nowhere near it; it rang on its own. Goodwife Baker of the doughy face and hands thought it was of the Devil, but Letty said that was ridiculous. On the contrary, the bell must ring to warn us that evil is abroad and there is work to be done. Its independent peal is a kind of miracle.
A sieve and a pair of shears to use as an oracle for divination purposes rested on a shelf. Letty always meant to try it out of curiosity, but she was never sure whom she could trust to share the experience. It took two people, each of whom held a handle of the shears. The sieve was balanced on top, a mantra or prayer said, which always included “St. Peter and St. Paul,” and a question asked, such as where to find her daughter. They would try several different destinations more specific than “Boston,” and when they named the right one, the sieve would begin to shake and spin completely around. Perhaps Charity Farleigh would join her in this harmless little venture.
Letty’s accumulation of artifacts had started small, not even a collection but just a place to put things. Through the years it had grown. Now she had a set of shelves for books as well, tomes of spells and demonology, removed by the sheriffs who’d come to take possession of the witches’ homes and turn their families out. Some were rare, with red or black or brown bindings of calfskin, goatskin, or sheepskin, many stamped with gold. She’d only dipped into these a few times, but they had an odd familiarity that made her shudder. She liked to stroke them. Sometimes it seemed as though they vibrated beneath her fingertips, and they felt soft and warm. She wondered at this, because they were nowhere near fires or candles or any other sources of heat. Nor did she herself feel warm. Nor did the table or the chair.
The spells for many curses and enchantments were listed in these volumes like the receipts for cakes and cures. Also secreted in one was a sliver of meat that Charity had said was preserved and of the Devil for some reason, because it was not rotted as it should be. Stuffed among her books were apothecary jars of porcelain containing tidbits of insects as well as potions for these ingredients. When James had gone off to join the militia, he’d left behind his childhood collections of bees’ wings, dead toads, efts, newts, beetles, and birds’ eggs. Letty had appropriated them, having heard that they could be used for spells. A clod of dirt from Gallows Hill rested in a delft jar with a lid of skin, and it was said that the tears of witches about to be hanged dampened the earth beneath them, which had never dried.
Beside the bookcase was a small chest of poppets gathered from various homes, one of them the doll that she had made to curse ’Chuba, brought back and stowed under her bed. Also in the chest were bits of thread, scraps of cloth, ribbons, leathers, laces, slippers, combs, a precious fingernail that she’d found on the floor, though she knew not whose, but it was probably from someone who deserved to be cursed. Hairs from various people who had lived in the house, like Mary and Brigid and Captain Benjamin, as well as Letty’s two sons, who had had the nerve to be born of Captain Ben’s eternally loved first wife and whose disobedience might merit a spell or two — each was gathered here with care, examined, and wrapped in its own scrap of cloth or leather for future use. The Captain would not rest easy in his watery grave if she decided to be angry at him for transporting her daughter to Boston.
Not that Letty would ever do anything with any of these. She wasn’t a witch herself, after all. These were simply possessions to give her a bit of additional power should she ever need to call on them.
There might be a way of influencing others. Simply by thinking, your thoughts go into the air like prayers, and everyone breathes it.
What could she do to bring Sophie back within her reach? Was there any way?
She lit candles and sat down to meditate in the smoke. She leafed through the various books of ominous receipts and fondled poppets — their hair, clothing and other parts. Before she knew it, hours had whiled away. In her hand she held a little man, an assemblage of ill-fitting scraps, pants too big for his bottom, a hat that was tall but crushed over tufts of gray cotton, and warts on his bulbous nose. Above his head, as if he were about to strike, he brandished a hammer.
It did not occur to Letty to pray.
An American Children’s Crusade
by Patricia Weenolsen
Paperback: 326 pages