I wrote this as part of a Halloween-y thing I was going to do. But I don't need it for that now, so I reworked it a little and posted it as a one-shot.
Warning: Very dark themes.
Danvers, Massachusetts- 1694
In the end, I suppose it was my fault.
Everything that's happened to me was ultimately my own doing. I never should have looked at that book. I cursed the day my hands ever touched it, but I couldn't bring myself to curse the woman that gave it to me. I could never curse the memory of Sarah White, even though my association with her has led to my downfall.
Stupid, small-minded people. Every woman who studied nature and learned its secrets; who kept her own company and had no use for a husband and even less use for "polite society", was considered suspect by them. I knew that. But I also knew that Sarah White was nothing but an isolated old woman. Oh, the good women of Danvers would come to her door to buy her cures and tonics, but they'd never stoop to invite her into their homes for tea. They'd never make sure she had enough help to harvest her small crops or see how she'd fared after a particularly heavy snowfall.
So I took it upon myself to do so. After all, I was a lonely widow, too. Granted, I was a good deal younger than Sarah White, but I was also no longer a girl. My refusal to marry again after my horrible husband did me the huge favor of dying three years into our marriage had made me suspect— the same as Sarah. My interest in healing and the natural world made me an anomaly, a freak. I might have had a ways to go before I was a stooped old crone like Sarah, but I could clearly see that it was the path I was on.
Therefore, I made her my responsibility. As she weakened and grew frail, I took her food and cleaned her little house. In return, Sarah taught me all she could about the plants and their uses. When she reached the end and still hadn't passed on all she knew, she pressed the book into my hands.
It was battered and thick, with loose scraps of parchment stuffed between the pages, and every bit of it, every tiny corner, covered over with writing and drawings.
"It's all there," Sarah said, after a cough, "all I know of the plants and how to use them."
"Thank you, Sarah. I'll treasure it always," I said, pressing a cool cloth to her forehead.
She reached up her frail little hand and seized my wrist with surprising strength. "But you must be careful, Esme. There are other things in there. Dangerous things. Things I heard from travelers, ancient wisdom passed down. Dark things that you're better off not knowing."
"I'm sure it's fine, Sarah. Don't worry yourself."
"No! You must promise me. Only the plants. Use only the knowledge about the plants. Keep the rest a secret. They can't fault you for knowledge found in nature. Not like the other…" she trailed off in a fit of coughs and never spoke of the book again.
In the months after her passing, I poured over the book she left me, memorizing all the information about plants and what they could do. I also found the other things…the ones she warned me about. Magic. Spells…. Nonsense.
Potions for fertility, incantations to ensure good fortune, spells to bring love…
It was just ridiculous superstition. I didn't know why Sarah even bothered to write it all down. And besides, it might be silly superstition and hocus pocus, but that didn't make it harmless. Things like that led to trouble. A book like that could get you accused of witchcraft.
Why did I keep it, then? For the rest. The real magic. Combinations of herbs that made food last longer, plants that when crushed up, made the crops grow faster and kept the insects at bay. All the secrets of the natural world at my fingertips. I used it all, and I felt powerful. The woods had secrets, and I knew them. I was learning to speak their language.
That's when the trouble started. People began to notice that I prospered. My crops were plentiful, my cow produced more milk than she used to, my tonics worked better than anyone else's to cure illness.
In our world, when you can't understand how something works, the explanation is one of two things: God or Satan. No one thought me blessed by God.
Once I got over the shock of the first accusation, I wasn't all that surprised. I was vulnerable, even if I hadn't fully realized just how much so. I was alone in the world, and when the accusations came, no one stood up to defend me. In these troubled times, I doubted anyone would. The witchcraft hysteria was running rampant in the villages all around us and everyone was poised on the knife-edge of panic. To defend was to risk being accused yourself, so my neighbors stayed quiet and I was arrested and thrown in jail to await my "trial".
I knew how these things worked. One way or another, I was going to die. I'd be found guilty and burn at the stake, or they'd subject me to one of their "tests" to prove my innocence. The problem was, one was only proved to be innocent once you were dead. I would leave behind a corpse that was free of scandal. Delightful.
And in the meantime, I was rotting away in this filthy, foul prison. There was a tiny slit of a window, but no sunlight ever made its way in, and the walls were always damp. The rats had been a problem at first, but then I tried to train them as pets. That scared the guards, who accused me of making the rats my familiars. So they brought in a cat to keep the rats away from me. I wasn't sure why the cat was considered safe from my "powers", but not the rats, but who was I to question this madness?
I was pulled from my thoughts by the heavy oak door that separated the anteroom from the hallway scraping loudly across the floor. I managed one bored look through the bars to see who might be coming, although I didn't really care.
At the sight of his face, I sat bolt upright.
"What brings you here?" I couldn't quite keep the sneer out of my voice, even though he was head of the town council that would decide my fate, and being disrespectful wouldn't exactly do me any favors. Not that it mattered. I was going to die.
He stopped just inside the door and considered me for a long moment.
"I've been sent to see if you repent yet," he finally said, his blue eyes cold and distant. It was hard to believe that he and I had once shared any sort of intimacy at all, not when he could look at me and speak to me like this. But then, we were very young then. People change.
I snorted crudely. "Repent of what? Reading? A shocking sin, indeed."
"Don't be coy, Esme. You know very well that it's what you read that's the issue," he snapped, his voice rapidly filling with anger.
"I read a book. About plants."
"It was about a lot more than plants."
"I didn't read those parts. I don't believe in that kind of nonsense."
"Convenient words for someone in league with Satan."
I don't know why I was even surprised by him any more. Yes, once, when we were young, he and I were close. He had been sweet and kind. He cared for me; I cared for him. It might have even been love. But then when my parents announced the marriage they'd arranged with the man who would be my husband, he'd chosen to direct his anger at me, as if I had any say in things. I understood that he was hurt and bitter, but I never could understand why he turned on me because of it. And I truly couldn't understand the person he had become in the years since.
"Now you sound like your wife," I said sharply. His head snapped back and his eyes flashed. I knew I hit him where he felt it. He was a loyal husband; no one would ever breathe a word otherwise. But I found it hard to believe that he was actually fond of her. Or maybe it was too hard to take that he could care for someone like me and then within a few months, marry someone like Jane.
Jane was pious. It was hard to argue with that. She was on her knees in the front pew of the church every single morning before dawn. She worked tirelessly with the minister to run the parish. But I had known Jane my entire life, and I knew what was in her soul. She was petty, mean and spiteful. Oh, she hid it all well under the veneer of a good, God-fearing, Christian woman, but there wasn't an ounce of compassion or true Christian charity in her heart. Every act of kindness she performed was just another way to polish her reputation, to prove to the world what a good woman she was. And she was never one to do good deeds for their own sake. If she did something nice, she never let you forget it. Her "kindness" was nothing more than part of her front; the worst kind of self-centeredness.
I almost felt sad about it. Carlisle, a young man with a broken heart, was convinced to propose to a seemingly- good girl from the village, when he'd only spoken to her for a few moments previously, and under close scrutiny from their elders. There was so much wrong about the way our people lived in this new world and that was one of those things. There was such a sharp division of the sexes, which left partners entirely ignorant of each others' true natures until it was too late. I knew more about Jane than Carlisle did, and he was the one pledging his life to her. The small, intimate moments he and I had shared had been stolen on secret walks in the woods, but he'd had no such connection to Jane.
Over the years, I'd watched him bend to her relentless influence. The intelligent, caring boy I knew was gone, replaced with this harsh, narrow-minded, hypocrite standing before me now. It might have made me weep if I could summon any feelings for this ridiculous situation at all.
"You leave my wife out of this," he said, pointing an imperious finger at me. "She's a woman that knows the right side of God! It's God's work we're carrying out here."
I sneered at his façade of moral superiority. If Jane was on the right side of God, then we were all seriously mistaken about the nature of our God. And what was going on here had nothing whatsoever to do with God.
"You believe that, if it makes you feel better. If it allows you to sleep at night after what you're doing to me."
Carlisle sniffed and drew himself up straighter. "My conscious is clear."
"I'm so glad to hear it, Carlisle," I said, softening my voice and my manner. He started a little at my casual, intimate use of his first name. It wasn't how I should address him, if we really did only know each other as everyone assumed. My calling him by his given name was my way of reminding him of who I was to him, who he had been to me once. And judging from the way the color abruptly washed out of his face, it worked.
He looked down at his hands, where he was twisting his hat in his hands. "And you really won't repent and save yourself?"
"That's all I need to do? Tell them I repent?"
"Well, you would have to tell the town council who it was who led you into this wickedness. So we can stamp it out at the source."
I laughed loudly, but with no humor. "I see. I can save my own neck, but only if I give you another one to ring. Thank you, but no. I'll keep my own council."
His color returned in a flash as he angered all over again. "You always were so strong-willed and stubborn."
"And there was a time when you thought that was a good thing!" I snapped back, standing abruptly.
His eyes showed his horror as I forced it to his attention, our history, the feelings he once had for me that were now absolutely forbidden. "Age has given me wisdom," he muttered.
"You call this wisdom? Chasing ghosts and killing innocent people for the sake of some ridiculous superstition?"
"It's about more than that and you know it!" he shouted, taking a step back away from the bars separating us. "There's more at stake here than just your immortal soul, Esme. There's the village's peace of mind; its sense of well-being. There is value in restoring order, in assuring people that they are safe."
"And you'd pay for your false sense of security with my blood." It wasn't a question, because I knew the answer. He'd let Jane's warped values twist his viewpoint. And in that moment, I hated him for it. I hated him for giving in to this most base kind of hysteria, for being in league with the same small-minded idiots who'd made my life hell. As I stood there, staring at him through the coarse iron bars, I wanted him to suffer. I wanted vengeance. I hated my weakness, this confinement that left me powerless.
The book flashed through my memory; the recipes and instructions that always made me feel so powerful, like the mighty force of nature itself was mine to command, and I wished I could have that feeling again. In my mind, I flipped through the book, past the drawings of herbs and the recipes for medicines, back to the other things. The spells. It was stupid. They were just fairy tales, really. There was no magic to be found there.
So there would be no harm in performing a ritual or two, right? What better way to snub my nose at this whole farce of justice than for my first foray into witchcraft to take place inside their very own jail cell? And who better to be the target of my first and only spell than this man who let his mind be prejudiced against me so unfairly? After all, he'd betrayed every better feeling he'd ever had for me. So I would betray him. I would use those feelings to destroy him.
"You should use this time to reflect, Mrs. Platt," Carlisle was saying, even though I was only half-listening. "Examine your heart, and beg for the Lord's mercy."
The page with the spell played out behind my eyes— the items needed, the incantations spoken. I might not believe it, but I'd read it, and I had a very good memory.
I needed some of his hair. That part was vital. Except he was at least six feet away from me, on the other side of the bars. Unthinking, I thrust a hand through the bars.
"I can't promise," I lied smoothly, "but I'll pray on your words, and ask for guidance."
Carlisle looked up at me, his face more familiar to me than it had been since he came in. It made my heart twist in my chest. I wavered for a moment, until I remembered why he was here. He stepped forward, apparently pleased at my show of near-contrition. He reached out and grasped my hand between both of his. The heat and familiarity of his touch took me entirely by surprise. With an effort, I re-focused. He closed his eyes for just a moment, murmuring a brief thanks to God. My eyes flitted over him. There, on his shoulder, clinging to the navy wool of his coat, were two of his fine, blond hairs. His eyes were still closed. My free hand darted out and snatched the two hairs off his shoulder. His eyes opened at the movement, but my hand was already safely back on the other side of the bars. I lowered my eyes and smile demurely.
"Pray for guidance, Esme," Carlisle murmured, before backing away towards the door.
Once the heavy wood had slammed behind him, I whispered, "Pray for mercy, Carlisle."
The candle, begged from the guards.
The symbol, etched on the ground with a bit of lime chipped from the wall.
Four drops of my blood, dripped from the end of my finger and the tine of my fork.
Two strands of his hair, stolen from his shoulder.
The words, chanted in a whisper in the dark.
It was done.
In the cold light of morning, I felt ridiculous. I felt like a little girl, dressing in her mother's clothes and pretending to be a queen. The idea that some words mumbled in the dark could affect the actions of another person…it was absurd. So much for feeling empowered. I just felt pathetic. I smudged out the chalk symbol with my foot and scattered the burnt hair into the straw on the floor.
A few days later, he was back.
Carlisle sat on the too-low stool in the corner, elbows on his spread knees, fingers lightly laced together, shoulders curled forward. His face was drawn, his color washed out and the circles under his eyes pronounced. I wondered what was happening on the outside that had him looking so ravaged.
For a long time, he just sat there and looked at the floor. I wasn't going to say anything. The silence might be uncomfortable, but I wasn't about to make it easier on him by making polite conversation. So I stayed on the floor on the far side of my cell, leaning back against the damp wall, and just watching him.
"Will you repent?" he finally asked.
"If by 'repent', you mean falsely accuse another innocent person, then no. I think I shall not repent, thank you very much."
He looked at me with hard, tired eyes and shook his head slowly. He muttered something under his breath that sounded like "Stubborn, willful woman."
"Why did you do it, Esme?" he said again, at length. "You knew how it would look. Why did you keep that book? Why did you associate with that woman in the first place?"
"That woman was old and frail and alone in the world. No one else in this village would give her the time of day. They all claim to be so pious and full of God's love, your shrew of a wife included, and yet they'd willingly let a sick old woman starve to death under their noses because she didn't live quite like they did. What kind of God would want his children to behave in that way?"
His face twisted up, in disgust or in despair, I couldn't really tell. "Be careful. You are dangerously close to blaspheming."
"Oh, I'll blaspheme, alright. I'll insult your wife, too, while I'm at it, because in case you haven't noticed yet, I have absolutely nothing left to lose. If false piety like Jane's is the key to salvation, then I'll take my damnation willingly."
His eyes were wide with horror.
"Don't look at me like that," I hissed. "You know what she's really like. You know what's in her heart. That's the 'good woman' I should aspire to be? You know me better than that. Or at least, you did once."
Slowly, something like acceptance crossed his face and I sighed a little inside. He wasn't all gone then. He really did see the reality of his wretched wife. The Carlisle I knew was still in there somewhere.
"You shouldn't speak that way," he said faintly, but with no conviction.
I smiled softly. "Nothing left to lose, remember? I'll say what I like. It's the last freedom I have. You should try it sometime. It's good for the soul."
He sighed heavily and leaned back, "It's not as easy as you like to think. People have obligations and responsibilities."
"I understand that. But you shouldn't allow those obligations and responsibilities to warp who you are. You ask why I did it? That was why. I lived up to my obligations once before, when I married that man. Once God saw fit to free me from that nightmare, I decided I'd live only as I chose from that day forward. The price of living up to other people's expectations has been too high."
He looked right at me then, long and seeking. "Did you really feel that way? Did you honestly regret what you had to give up?"
I couldn't believe he was asking me this, willingly revisiting our painful past. And I couldn't believe he had ever been in doubt of my answer. But I had nothing to hide. There was no point anymore in being coy, so I answered him truthfully.
"Of course I did. Did you think I wanted any part in that? You know me better than that."
He looked away then, his shoulders falling. "I always wondered… He had more money than me. I thought…" he muttered.
"I did what I was made to do," I said harshly. "And my obedience was repaid with misery. So forgive me if I won't bow to the will of others quite so easily this time, even if it costs me my life."
Carlisle said nothing; he just sat there and stared at his hands. I sat and watched him. Finally, several minutes later, he rose abruptly and walked out, the heavy door slamming shut behind him.
He came one more time.
He sat again on the little stool in the corner, and didn't say anything for a long time. Neither did I. I had nothing left to say.
Finally, when I thought he meant to just sit in silence the whole time, he spoke. "They've convicted you, you know."
I shrugged. "I expected as much."
"And you know what the sentence will be?"
"And you still won't do anything to save yourself?" He was leaning forward again, his face urgent.
"I won't betray anyone else or myself," I said succinctly.
He shook his head sadly. "I knew you'd say that. I'm sorry. I don't know why I came."
"I'm not sure either."
"You should know…" he said, then paused to rub a hand over his face, "The council has voted and I'm to be the one."
"To light the fire. It will be me."
I hoped the horror I felt didn't show on my face.
When I didn't say anything, he went on. "I won't see you again until that day. Just…"
Finally, he seemed to acknowledge that there was absolutely nothing to say in the face of the nightmare awaiting us, and he just left without another word.
It was grey and overcast on the morning of my burning. It seemed fitting and right.
Even the murky, half-light hurt my eyes, though, as I was led outside for the first time in months. I stumbled, half-blind, behind the guards across the yard to the platform that had been specially erected.
By the time I was up there, tightly bound to the post, my eyes had adjusted enough to take in my surroundings. The platform was a few feet off the ground, and perhaps ten feet wide. A good, sturdy base. The stake that I was tied to was at the center. Once I was in position, the guards began to stack kindling wood all around my feet. They were quite organized. It would be an efficient, fast-moving fire. Nice to see that they'd given it so much thought.
I cast my eyes past them. The entire village had turned out on this cool, damp morning. Hundreds of people, most of them I'd known my whole life. They'd all come to watch me burn. It turned my stomach to come face-to-face with this lowest form of the human spirit, and I glanced down so I wouldn't have to look at the repulsive lot of them for one more second.
And there they were, right in front. Carlisle and Jane. He had his head bowed, looking at the ground. But she was looking right at me. And she looked delighted. I always knew she was not what she seemed; that she was petty and mean-spirited under her good, Christian façade. But I never thought her soul was quite this evil. Because there was no doubt about it, she was enjoying what was going to happen to me. And what kind of person could ever enjoy witnessing what was about to take place here, no matter what the alleged offence had been?
It all disgusted me. I'd long since made peace with the idea that I was going to die, but suddenly I was eager to just get on with it. This life here, living alongside these people with their hypocrisy hiding diseased souls, sickened me. I'd rather take my chances facing whatever lay on the other side of the fire. I just wished the end wouldn't be quite so gruesome. I was trying to be brave and show nothing, but inside, I was terrified of what was about to happen. How bad would it hurt? And how long would I suffer before death claimed me?
Carlisle consulted briefly with the rest of the village council and one of them read out my sentence. I tuned him out. The words didn't matter anyway. Then Carlisle spoke up and said he would be the one to test my restraints, before they got on with the business of burning me alive. I couldn't imagine why he'd want to come face-to-face with me up here one last time, but I found myself feeling oddly grateful. If I had to have one last contact with humanity, I wanted it to be him over all the rest of these monsters.
Slowly, he climbed the steps to the platform. He kept his eyes lowered. I tried to keep my chin up. I might be scared, but damned if I'd let them see a flicker of emotion from me until I absolutely couldn't hold it in anymore.
Carlisle crossed behind me and I felt his fingers tug once on the rope around my wrists. Predictably, it didn't budge. But his fingers lingered. Then I felt him press something, a slightly-pliable ball covered with fabric, into my hand. It was about the size of an apple.
"Gunpowder," he whispered behind my shoulder, his head still lowered as if he was examining the rope. "Drop it into the fire."
A ball of gunpowder, enough to blow me to bits instantly once it hit the fire. Gruesome, but certainly a better way to go than the slow roast they had planned for me. This would end it instantly. I'd heard rumors of such things at some other burnings. Sometimes loved ones found a way to carry out this last act of mercy. I wanted to nod my understanding, but I couldn't, so I just squeezed the ball. His fingers brushed lightly across my knuckles and then he was gone. I watched his back as he strode away to the edge of the platform.
One of the men from the crowd stepped forward and handed him a lit torch. Carlisle took it and, without glancing at me, lowered it to the kindling at the edge of the pile. They'd chosen the wood well; it caught quickly and flared up brightly. The smell of wood smoke immediately filled the air, oddly pleasant, considering. Immediately, I could feel the heat on my face, and around my feet. Fear coursed through me, but I kept my face passive and my eyes on Carlisle. He turned on his heel and marched down the steps to take his place back at Jane's side. She reached out to tuck her hand in his elbow, a small, satisfied smile on her thin lips. His face was stone as he jerked his arm away from her. Jane covered her surprise well, and just turned back to watch the big event.
Then, finally, he looked up at me.
I was not a witch.
I knew no magic. I didn't believe it even existed.
But how else could I explain what I saw on his face when he looked at me? Because it was love. He was a man hopelessly, desperately in love. With me. While the flames that he had set were already licking at my feet.
My stupid spell could not have worked. That couldn't be what caused this in him. But isn't it exactly what I planned when I cast the spell? To make him fall in love with me, only to have to put me to death with his own hands. The perfect revenge. Except that I never actually thought it would work.
And maybe it hadn't. Maybe what I saw in his face— the love, the despair, the agony— maybe it had been there all the time; I just didn't see it under the face he wore for the world.
I saw it now, though. I saw the love pouring out of his eyes while my imminent death circled me like the heat and smoke from the fire. In that moment, my revenge was complete. And my heart broke right along with his.
I dropped the gunpowder.