THE CAVE OF STORMS
July 19 —1692
According to the Within Written precept I have taken the body of the within named Hannah Larkin of their Majes’ts Goale in Salem and Safely Conveighed her to the place provided for her Execution and Caused the s’d Hannah to be hanged by the neck untill Shee was dead and buried in the place all which was according to the time within Required and So I make Returne by me.
George Corwin Sheriff
Mary Larkin buried her face in her dear sister’s old homespun apron. In the July heat, it smelled of the deer grease in which they had dipped candles together, the corn bread that they had baked in the hearth oven, the meat cooked to a stew, the cream churned into butter, the wool carded and spun, and baby James, little Ephraim, and Lettice whom they tended. As well, she thought she smelled the sweet dead ones in their graves: Rebekah, Nehemiah, and the twins who had succumbed to scarlet fever, one after the other — had it been three years? — and their blessed mother, Elizabeth, who died giving birth to Baby James these seven months gone at Christmastide, when the ice in the christening bowl must be broken to baptize the newly orphaned babe on the anniversary of the birth of the other.
Hannah’s apron even held the scent of the dirt bank that she and Mary had slipped and slid down into the creek at the forest edge that hot June day a month ago, daring the red devils to show themselves, they who scalped even their mothers and children. After which they ran giggling home — was it her imagination?
The smells conjured up more painful memories. Dear Hannah in her cornflower blue dress, newly made by Mama before her pregnancy, an apron and cap to show respect, there in the meeting-house where they had spent long hours worshiping and listening to sermons on hard benches of a Sunday morning — Hannah more devout than Mary. Now, (when not at Ingersoll’s Tavern), the place where they convened examinations of the witches who cursed newborns until they cried inconsolably, or shriveled a calf’s leg, or pinched and bit the young girls of both Salem village and Salem town by the sea, or made poppets stuffed with animal hair to torment the living, or flew through the air with their familiars, doing the Devil’s bidding, an affront to God. Also, the location of their trials and sentencings and the excommunications of the guilty, law and religion being one and the same.
The words pronounced by Magistrate Noyes, with Magistrates Corwin and Hathorne assenting, “The Court, finding you guilty of witchcraft, you shall be carried to the place of execution, and there hang till you be dead.”
Hannah subdued and praying although the presiding magistrates and the crowds knew it not, her lips barely moving, while the vengeful minister, Samuel Parris, intoned Christian homilies at every opportunity, his own daughter having started the accusations with his niece, Abigail Williams. In the front pew, the wretched Putnams, Goodwife Ann with the daughter named after her, with whom Mary used to gossip when they were friends. At the back stood their servants Mercy Lewis and the West Indian, Tituba, who dangled chickens by their necks over open fires during their nightly forays — all making a great show of the pins and pinches that they claimed Hannah was inflicting upon them, even as she sat quietly. On the other side of the aisle with the men whose broad-brimmed hats hung on pegs inside the door, husband and father, Joseph Putnam. It was Hannah’s spectre afflicted them, cried the girls — irrefutable evidence. Not their own family malice over the better land beside the creek that Nehemiah Larkin had more wisely chosen and more productively husbanded to prosperity.
Haunting Mary was the vision of Hannah escorted to the meeting-house one last time, there to be formally excommunicated, thus consigning her to Hell, although that was the destination of them all with the exception of an elect few. No one knew who those might be, but it was incumbent on each member of the congregation to act as though they were, indeed, the chosen.
“I didn’t pray enough. It’s my fault. I should have prayed in all those precious seconds as I stirred the beans and samped the corn and — and swept the floor and dressed Baby James.”
These pictures rolled through Mary’s mind as ocean waves inescapable. Over and over she asked herself, was there any one moment at which she could have intervened? It had been all she could do not to burst out during Hannah’s trial. But she still held hope that God would somehow save Hannah, if He was a just God as Reverend Mather claimed. She must not irritate the magistrates and ministers with a show of rebellion. Men and women are born to obey God, but women were born to obey men as well.
Hannah in eight pounds of chains that weighed her strong, capable hands down to her sides, brought here to Salem Town gaol by the constable, leaning against dank stone walls that smelled of human excrement, decay, madness, and despair, overrun with water rats that frightened her, she now a convicted witch, sentenced to be carted up Gallows Hill and hung, both sisters crying.
Mary handed her a packet that she had prepared, cornbread, berries, and venison, as well as two jacks of beer and a noggin of hard cider, begging her to eat and drink before the gaolers seized them, so she need not consume the foul matter that they provided. Even so, Mary paid them for their vomitous food that Hannah couldn’t stomach. Perhaps an occasional shilling would lessen the frequency with which they made Hannah strip to search for witch’s marks, even in her most private parts, using pins to prick any pimples or warts, moles even. Witch’s marks do not bleed.
Hannah thanked her, lifting these gifts of sustenance one by one and offering them to Goodwife Martha Corey and the others in the cell with her, saying,
“Mary, little sister, be brave. God has a purpose unknown to us.” Even as she said it, her trembling gave away her fear.
Mary stood appalled at the wasted whiteness of her older sister, barely seventeen, eyes bruised with lack of sleep, more mother than sister since their blessed mother’s death. Only fourteen herself, Mary wanted to shout that she hated God, a blasphemy that would have had her jailed as well. Instead, she said,
“God’s love is cruel.”
“Nay, nay, you must not think it. God is all-compassionate. Even now, I feel his presence around me. He’ll save me if that be His will.”
“He didn’t save Goody Bishop.” The first witch to die only a month ago.
“Perhaps He is testing us.” But the trembling didn’t stop. In seeking to comfort Mary, there was scant solace for herself.
“Nay, nay,” echoed Goodwife Rebecca Nurse, the pious old woman they’d accused and acquitted, until the judges insisted that the jury reconsider and return with a conviction. “All praise be to God. Those poor little afflicted ones know not what they’re saying. I pray for them day and night.”
“Goody Bishop prayed they’d rot in hell,” reminded Goody Corey to no purpose, although Mary thought that she would not admit to those feelings in herself.
“You have my things, little sister, my brown dress, my old apron and Mother’s cap. I give all I have to you.”
“Oh, no, dear Hannah, I couldn’t bear it.”
“Take good care of Lettice, Ephraim, and Baby James. Especially our dear Letty’s spiritual state.” Poor Letty afflicted with a malice without reason. “She needs it more without knowing why. Tell them I loved them to crumbs —” her favorite endearment. She would pick up corncake crumbs on the tips of her fingers and nibble.
“They’ll not be able to live without you.”
“Watch your thoughts. God sets the rules for who lives, who dies. Plague, pestilence, misfortune, and Indian devils enough will do His bidding, one way or the other.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Do not come here again. You could be in danger. Do not remind them that you are my sister. Do not come to Gallows Hill tomorrow.”
“I will be there, my Hannah, sending my love to you in your hour of darkness.”
“No need. I have God’s love. I am moving beyond already, and you, little sister, must do the same. You were of this life. They say my destination is Hell, not Heaven.” Hannah could barely lift her hands to wring them in their heavy chains, Heaven and Hell both as real to them as Salem Village, and far longer lasting. “Could the all-knowing God send one innocent of the charges to Hell?”
“Never think it.”
As the Reverend Cotton Mather and the other ministers averred, it was a sin to assume that you were destined to Heaven. Children were born of original sin and only God’s mercy could rescue them. Even the newborn babe who died before there was time to baptize him was doomed to Hell, although, in view of his fewer opportunities either to sin or do good, he was confined to “the kindest room.”
“God will welcome you to Paradise, Hannah, I know it. The judges are wrong.”
“Shhh, the judges are God’s instruments, on earth to work His Will.”
There was a stir among the five others huddled together with little four-year-old Dorcas Good, also adjudged a witch. The child had been found to have a witch’s teat on the thumb she sucked increasingly, manacled though she was at her mother’s knee. When pricked, it neither bled nor hurt.
“God will give them blood to drink,” spat her mother, Sarah Good, from the shadows of the cell. Arousing the community’s indignation, Sarah Good had begged around town and gone off muttering her resentment of their charity instead of her thanks for crusts of bread and gristle well-chewed. They gave to her for her children, including the babe she carried inside, not herself. Now, she broke off a bit of the bread that Mary had brought for Hannah and handed it to little Dorcas before stuffing her own mouth full.
“If you would but confess, they might spare your life, as they have others,” Mary said to Hannah. The judges seemed loath to hang confessed witches, perhaps, Mary thought, because these saved their consciences from guilt.
“Confess a lie? That were a sin indeed!”
Now, as Mary wept these memories into Hannah’s apron, she could tell by the sun that it was time to go. She must get to Gallows Hill before the crowds, in order to hide and keep her promise to her sister at the same time. It was called Gallows Hill not for any structure there, but because it was too steep and inhospitable for any other purpose except hanging. Wild things grew and lived among the rocky ledges, but corn, squash, and beans would not do well. No one would be willing to donate good land for the purpose.
A second locust tree accompanied the one for hanging about twenty yards away. She knew it well. She and Hannah had climbed both many times, and here was where Hannah would look for her. Now, panting from the climb up the hill and over its broad shelves of granite, she stood in the crotch, clinging to the trunk so that her dark gown would be one with it and she would not be spotted.
Drawn by oxen and jostled by the crowds, the cart had followed Main Street to Proctor Street, named for John Proctor who also stood accused. It hauled up the steep rocky hill, stopping short to let its burden of the five convicted climb the rest of the way. Sarah Nurse had been plucked from what might have been her death bed, and now the Sheriff threw her over his shoulder and carried her up the rest of the way. The prisoners had been made to urinate and defecate in a chamber pot guarded by the backs of constables before getting into the cart, so that there would be less self-soiling.
The tree itself was like the inhabitants of this land, stretching its roots through the hardscrabble earth to gain the many holds it needed to remain upright, its stout branches sheltering them. She and Hannah had loved the trees, but not now.
Hannah stood just one step above the executioner on the ladder as he looped the rope around the stout branch that had borne the weight of other women’s bodies. Mary could feel the shaking in her sister’s legs and arms, the chill in her bones, the cramp in her bowels, the scrape of the rope around her neck. She could feel her sister’s lips move in a prayer she no longer felt, fear having routed faith.
Below her, Magistrate Nicholas Noyes, who undoubtedly thought he cut a handsome if porky figure in his black suit and hat, called up to her,
“Will you confess to being a witch, Hannah Larkin? It may go easier for you in Hell.”
“Alas, I know not what I have done, although I confess that I am full of sin. I pray you pray for me.”
“Those consigned to Hell do not merit our prayers.”
Hannah cleared her voice as if preparing to speak, but instead swept her gaze across the treetop where Mary hid, in silent acknowledgment of her loving presence, then fixed on the town below, the sailing ships lying to and gently lifted by the water in the harbor, and then inland toward fields, orchards, swamps, hills, and sky so as not to betray Mary’s presence, and she said nothing more.
At the very moment that the executioner placed the thin white cotton hood over Hannah’s head, the last of the five women hanged that July 19th in the year of their Lord 1692, a day for working in the sun and singing hymns to God’s glory, not for hanging innocent women, Mary stuffed her fist into her mouth to stifle her scream. She must not betray her whereabouts to the festive crowd below, a sea of white caps and black broad-brimmed hats. The church encouraged them to attend as a lesson in crime and punishment, and they welcomed the break from their continual work. If they spotted her, who knows what they might do? Mary had left the other children, Baby James and five-year-old Ephraim at home in Letitia’s charge. Letty was eight and wanted to attend, too. Mary hoped that, if she did, she would at least shield Ephraim’s eyes. Those below had no qualms about exposing their children of all ages to such grisly sport, however. What were they teaching them?
In the crowd, Mary spotted the Reverend Parris with his daughter and niece. Did he believe that Hannah’s death would somehow prove his own holiness, Mary asked herself bitterly? Beside them stood the Putnam family, Ann, both mother and daughter, and Joseph in his well-worn britches, who, as usual, was otherwise occupied instead of tending fields whose fallowness he blamed on the Larkin father instead of his own idleness. Accompanying them were their indentured servants Mercy, and Tituba, both of whom had borne false witness against Hannah. As they faced her sister at the gallows tree, they exhibited none of the pangs that a true witch might inflict on them at the moment of the death that they themselves had caused. Indeed, their small mouths moved in constant merriment and chatter, as if they were having one of their best days.
Next to them stood Paul with his father, the cooper, whose shop was on the harbor street of the town near the wharves. The father, whom Mary did not know as well, looked up at Hannah, but Paul kept his eyes on the ground. He and Hannah had managed to meet and talk, and even go about together a few times, and there was gossip of courtship, bundling during the cold winter months, and maybe even a marriage in the Village. Thank God, Hannah didn’t seem to notice him, her mind on less worldly concerns.
The hood in place, so that Mary could barely make out the dear features of her sister’s face through the flimsy cloth, the executioner tightened the rope around Hannah’s neck, pausing to scratch himself mightily in the nether regions. The drums began their low beats to the rhythm of a heart. Then he pushed her off the ladder. Hannah dropped, and the drumbeats stopped as Hannah’s heart stopped. A cheer went up. Mary bit into her fist. Swinging from side to side, her sister struggled briefly. Then it was over. God had shown His mercy in the end. One of the others had not died so quickly, writhing in a seizure of agony until the crowd began to murmur doubt among themselves. Surely this was God’s will? The executioner had found it necessary to tug mightily on the witch’s feet that her neck might break.
Dutifully, Mary prayed for her sister, although there was no love of God inside her. It had quite evaporated.
The executioner cut the rope and, with the help of another constable, carried her body a short way down the hill to the cart where they tossed her in with the others. Where were they taking them? Witches were not entitled to burial in consecrated ground, and Mary had not paid that much attention to the one hanged in June.
The crowd began to move off, as there was nothing left to see. Their voices carried up to Mary, exchanging words of piety. Thanks be to Providence that the witches were dead, although even now Salem Town and those of the surrounding towns as far as Boston were stuffed with witches awaiting their turn on the hanging tree. Like little Dorcas Good, now motherless although probably still unaware, Sarah Good having been the first to hang this day. So her child was left with strangers in that communal cell, at the mercy of any scraps of kindness those fretting women might be disposed to bestow, her light hair coming out in fistfuls, sores from infected rat bites creeping over her face, which she scratched at, despite words of warning — not that Sarah Good would have gently removed her fingers as Mary would.
And there were more accusations abroad in the land. If all witches were hanged, no more crops of corn or beans or squash would fail, and babies would no longer be born sightless or catch the fevers that periodically plagued the community — typhoid, yellow, and scarlet — and horses would not go lame or cows dry up on the Commons, and the smallpox pestilence would stay away from the doors of the good people here.
The last that Mary saw of Paul, he was linked arm in arm with his father as they descended Gallows Hill toward the street by the harbor where they kept their cooperage.
Witches could not be laid to rest in the burying places that dotted the area, so their bodies needs must be disposed of elsewhere without even the grace of shroud and coffin. As the crowd dispersed, Mary climbed down and followed the tracks of the ox-cart. It would not be far; the day was hot, and the men had other duties. When she spotted them stopped at a distance, she knew that they were stuffing her sister into a rocky crevice, and she could execute her plan.
The Cave of Storms
by Patricia Weenolsen
Paperback: 300 pages