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What if the Salem Witch Trials Never Ended?
My fingers are chapped to the point of rawness as I head back home, scrunching them up to avoid further damage. It’s October and already I can see that we’re going to have an intense winter; snow has already begun to drift lazily from the sky.
I sigh and bury my chin more firmly against my blue scarf, walking more briskly past town square where the gallows sit vacant, nooses moving back and forth from the lazy wind. Anyone who is anyone knows that you can’t pass the gallows without feeling a shiver run down your spine, like a bony hand is caressing your back. Once, my oldest brother told me he saw a pair of detached hands brush their fingers through my hair as we passed.
I shiver just thinking about it.
“Keep up,” Auntie whispers at me, eying the nooses right along with me, “this place is surely cursed.”
I scowl, “You think?”
“Don’t get smart with me, girl. You pretend you know but you don’t. You don’t.”
Everything my Aunt Clarice says sounds trivial and makes me scrunch my brows together and ask “What are you talking about?,” but she never answers. Not clearly, at least.
To deliberately annoy her, I slow and stare at the gallows with raw awe. I’ve never seen it used, since my mother and aunt reason that I’m only sixteen and shouldn’t see such things, but my eyes always smolder with excitement when I pass this stand.
“Come on, Sylvania!” Auntie grasps my chapped fingers and wrenches me forward.
I wince, “Auntie!” I pull my hand away from her and groan, “you’ve made them bleed!”
“I’ll make your backside bleed if you don’t hurry!” My aunt fires back, grabbing a fistful of my beige hair and pulling me until we’re well past the gallows. I fight all the way, fingers clawing at her equally-chapped hand until she finally releases me, “You ill-natured brat!” She spits, “I told your mother you’d be hung if you’re not careful!”
I barely manage to keep my tongue in place as she hobbles ahead, cane making a thwack thwack thwack on the broken cobblestones. After a slight, and angry, hesitation, I finally follow her around the bend.
“We’ll just see what your father has to say about this when he gets back…”
She begins to mutter and I tune her weathered voice out, instead watching a Murder of Ravens flock towards the town prison only a stone’s throw from where we’re walking.
“Ladies,” Trysten, the guard, tips his hat at Auntie and winks at me.
I grin back but Auntie glares, “Enough flirting, Trysten. You’re fifteen years her senior.”
Trysten shakes his head and laughs, “Such odd notions you carry, Clarice.”
I flush in anger at my aunt’s assumption and pinch her elbow to prompt her forward, “We’ll be late, Auntie!” I hiss, debating whether to kick her cane from her hand or shove her over.
But I don’t and we pass in heavy silence until we come to our street. Our house is a simple box connected to a whole line of them. The exterior is much nicer than our neighbors; being a faded teal siding and white shudders. The sight of it makes me beam.
“Syl!” A tiny hand waves at me from the open window and soon, Kane, Brawn, and Maria are running towards me.
“Well?” Maria demands, kicking at Auntie’s cane for me.
“You wretched child!” Auntie scolds, tugging at my little sister’s braids.
“Aunt Clarice,” Brawn says gently, shooting poor Maria a smile, “let me take you inside.” She lets him take her arm and Brawn grasps Maria’s hand with his other, “come on, Syl, Kane. Ma’ll be wanting that letter.”
I take Kane’s hand and we follow after them, Kane fumbling inside my ripped jacket’s pocket, “Where is it, Syl?”
I grin down at him and reach inside my other pocket. A crisp white letter with a velvet seal peeks out of my pocket to show him.
“Da!” He giggles and snatches for it but I push it back inside my pocket.
“You know the rules; Ma opens it.”
He pouts as we enter the fiery warmth of our home. While outside flares with cold, our house suffers from too much heat per Ma’s strange preference. I may never know why she preferred such aching conditions.
“Sylvania,” Ma switches off the stove, a big, bubbling pot simmering atop it, and hurries to help me out of my coat, “do you have it, darling?”
I nod, wincing as the wool catches on my bleeding fingers, “It’s here.” I point to the pocket she has already begun to search and pass Auntie to warm my fingers by the blazing fireplace. As I pass, she gives me a sharp thwack on the butt with her cane.
I pretend I didn’t notice.
“Here it is!” Ma brandishes the letter and everyone, save me, crowds about her.
“Open it!” Kane and Maria cry.
For a moment, Ma fingers the scarlet seal on the back, eyes vacant and worried.
“Ma?” Brawn prompts.
She seems to awaken and snaps on a smile, “Right.” She breaks the wax seal and hurriedly unfolds the letter. Her eyes skim over it, mouth still trapped in that waning smile.
“What does it say?” Auntie demands, “is my brother all right?”
Ma peeks up at her with slight annoyance and then clears her throat, “He says that he loves us and can’t wait to get home and to tell Brawn that the excavation in Egypt has gone very well and that he will be home in…” She pauses, “... five months.”
I curl my fingers inward and sigh, “I told you he wouldn’t be home in time for Saturday.”
“He says he’s sorry, Syl. But he’ll bring a present. Promise,” Ma assures me, stowing the letter away inside the pocket of her Kiss the Cook apron.
Everyone disperses in low spirits; Auntie takes up her sewing in the chair beside me, Ma continues cooking, Maria and Kane begin sword fighting with hollow sticks, and Brawn reads a book at the dining table.
I sigh again and study my uncurled fingers. I stand gently, kicking off my boots at the door, and pass Ma to get to the bathroom between mine and Brawn’s room. I flop down on the toilet seat and angrily kick the roll of paper away from my left foot. Da has been away for nine months already. He missed the twins birthday as well as Ma’s. Now mine?
“It’s not fair,” I whine, wiping my bloody fingers on my jeans. The cracked skin catches on the denim and I wince as I turn them over to see the damage.
Twelve hours in the cold air, waiting to get Da’s letter at the back of the long line leading into the post office, really did its damage.
Someone knocks softly on the door and I muffle a whiney, “Come in.”
Brawn pokes his head inside and smiles, “I have a surprise for you, Syl.”
I perk up a little, “Oh? What is it?”
His smile widens and the rest of his body appears inside the bathroom, “Ma agrees that it’s time…”
“Time for what?” I prompt.
Brawn doesn’t answer and instead rummages around inside the cupboard below the sink for bandages.
“Brawn,” I plead, “come on!”
He grins wickedly and kneels in front of me, taking my left hand to bandage first, “Get that pout off your face and maybe I will.”
I scowl, “There. Gone.”
He tips his head back and laughs, “I told Ma, ever since you came out screaming and whipping up a fuss, that you’d be the fiery one. The one that fights and usually wins.”
I grin, “Do I usually win?”
He nods, “Every time Auntie picks a fight with you she’s left writhing in the dust.”
I laugh at the image of Auntie turning to and fro in a patch of dirt, her cane thrust far from her body. The scene makes me grin wider, “I hope so.”
Brawn finishes with my hand and moves on to my right, “But you have to be careful, Syl, Auntie always gets back up.”
I snort, “I’d like to see her try to fight back. She’s, what, eighty?”
“Sixty-seven,” he corrects.
“Same difference. Now tell me my surprise!”
Brawn leans back and studies me, the same beige hair as mine tilting back behind him, “How good of a stomach do you have?”
“Brawn!” I punch him lightly in the chest with my bandaged right hand, “tell me!”
He raises his hands, “Okay, okay… I convinced Ma to take you to a trial.”
“Seriously?!” I ask excitedly, clapping my hands, “for real?!”
He nods, “Yep!”
I jump from the toilet seat and wrap my arms around his skinny neck, “I love you!”
He snorts in surprise and peels me away from him, “Thanks, but I think Ma would like a hug too.”
I ignore him and clasp his hands, “When are we going?”
I squeal in delight and crush him with a hug once again, “You are officially my favorite brother!”
Before he can revel in my excitement, I bound out the door and wrap up my mother from behind.
“Oh!” She exclaims in surprise, the spoon she was holding to her lips clattering into the pot, “now what’s all this?”
I giggle and pull away so she can turn, “Brawn told me about my surprise! Thank you!” I plant a sloppy kiss on her cheek and rush over to Auntie, “did you hear, Auntie?” I stoop down in front of her, watching her beady, brown eyes narrow in suspicion at my kind voice, “perhaps you’ll get your wish of me being hung.”
Auntie pshaws, “Oh, I doubt that, you little fiend! You seem to have as many lives as a cat!” With that, she pricks me with her needle on the skin of my wrist and I wrench it back angrily.
“Syl,” Ma warns, spooning the broth into ceramic bowls, “come help me get the table ready.”
“Then can we go to my suprise?” I ask, using my lips to relieve the pain in my wrist.
Ma smiles wanly, “Of course.”
Dinner seemed to go on for hours, but now we set out, donned in our coats and hats with excitement kissing our cheeks.
“Keep an eye on her, Brawn,” Ma tells him, both arms wrapped around Kane and Maria who sulk at not being allowed to go. She lowers her voice as Aunt Clarice ties a silk hankie around her head, “And keep Auntie out of Syl’s way.”
He tips his cap affirmatively and kisses her fondly on the cheek, “Of course, Ma. We’ll be back soon. Come on, Auntie.” He takes her arm and I trot ahead, face glowing as we merge with the rest of the crowd headed towards the gallows.
Most hold lanterns and others have their servants, mostly young girls who hope to buy their way out of Salem, trailing behind them with a basket of rotten fruit and vegetables.
I curl my nose at the smell, “Brawn? I want a rotten apple. It’s my first time and I want it to be memorable.”
Auntie scoffs, “Forget it, weasel.”
I turn my head to give her a nasty look and slip my hands into my pockets, “Fine. I have saliva, after all.”
Brawn laughs behind me, “That’s not very ladylike, Syl.”
“I’m not aiming to be ladylike, Brawn.”
“That’s for certain.”
We emerge into the square and I can’t help but shiver in excitement. Somehow, the gallows seem more alive than usual. Maybe it’s the man in black standing beside the empty noose, a cruel smile curving his lips upwards.
I can’t help but smile too. What a spectacle it will be!
“Here it comes, Syl!” Brawn points to the approaching prisoner van jolting along the road.
I cheer with everyone around me, fists raised for blood.
“Let’s see them, then!” Someone shouts, tossing a moldy carrot at the van as it comes to a stop beside the gallows.
The driver’s side door swings open and everything falls hush as Ludlow, another officer, rounds the van to the back.
“Out!” He barks and I hear chains clanking together.
My Aunt’s sour breath touches my ear as she leans down to me, “That’ll be you someday if you don’t clean up your act!”
I elbow her in the stomach, a little lightly since I’m too excited to be cruel, and crane my neck to see the prisoner.
Then Brawn sucks in his breath, “Auntie… that’s Mary Caspis!”
She nods gravelly, “Yes.”
I frown and study her; she must be at least Auntie’s age with graying blonde hair and brown eyes that are newly haunted.
“You know her, Auntie?”
She snaps her gaze to my confused face and sighs, “I thought I did.”
We watch as she’s forced up the stairs, gait trembling, to stand before the noose.
“Mary Caspis!” Ludlow cries, “you have been convicted of Witchcraft! The highest form of crime! You plead not guilty in court, but do you renounce this and reveal your Coven to go free? Speak, woman!”
Mary jumps and then steps forward, head lowered, “I am not guilty!” She announces, “I am not a Witch!”
The crowd boos, me and my small group along with it. Auntie seems furious with her friend for lying and being something so wicked, and I’m grateful she does not cry and wail like Brawn told me others do.
If she does then she will ruin my day!
“Then you will be punished!”
He raises his hands to us and the humiliating begins. The crowd chucks food at her and taunts her, even Auntie joins in by calling her a Demon. I don’t know what to say, so I merely shout obscenities and stomp my feet unitil Ludlow calls for quiet.
Mary squeals in fear as the man in black grabs her arms and shoves her head into the noose, tying it tight around her wrinkled neck.
“No!” She wails, crying for us to help her.
We laugh and throw more food.
It’s so exhilarating! I can't help but grin and whoop, shaking Brawn’s arm in gratitude.
“Does anyone wish to spare her by revealing another Demon to take her place?” Ludlow asks us per tradition.
I scowl, “Why don’t they get on with it?!” I ask my brother, “I want to see it happen!”
Auntie shifts angrily next to me, “So impatient,” she tskes. “I ought to teach you a lesson…”
“No one?” Ludlow grins and is about to nod to the executioner when Auntie raises her arms, cane held high.
“What are you doing?” Brawn demands.
She smiles wickedly and I tap my foot in impatience and anger, “Auntie!”
“Yes?” Ludlow asks in annoyance.
“I know of a Witch!” She announces.
“Who, Auntie? You know no Witch!” Brawn hisses in fear, eyes darting to mine.
“Auntie, stop it!” I spit.
But she doesn’t listen.
“Who?” Ludlow demands, “who is it?”
The crowd shifts uneasily and excitedly at the new spectacle.
Auntie crooks her lips in a wide grin and lowers her arm to point.
“She is! She’s a Witch!”
St. Louis, Missouri
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