from pre-1700 to 1862, following the Battle of Antietam~
Death-prayers dismantled the dawn, mocked the air, throttled the name of the Divine as if to rid the village of an evil — an assumed evil — burning at the stake. Burning in the form of those charged with witchcraft.
Their ashes released an ineffable vapor in the exequies breathed from the throats of their accusers — growling charlatans invoking terror and death in the place where life and love and laughter should have been.
In those years there was no laughter. Too long before the infamous witch-trials there was only hardness and worry, threat of death around every corner, and blame for evil ways voiced from the tongues of the true evil lurking in their midst.
“Die!” they’d shouted, throwing all manner of venom at the ‘guilty’ ones. Men, women, children, soon it didn’t matter — any were blamed as the ‘pure ones’ saw fit. To continue ridding the villages of the evil in their midst? No, no. To any outsiders, the evil was vivid in the shrieking echoes of “Die, Witch, Die!” that still, to this day ring in my ears. And I ask myself again, why was I not fingered? I who held certain questionable abilities? I, who could have withstood the rope, the fire, the weight of rocks.
I was always a softy for a happy ending, always believed somewhere in the back of my throat that “all’s-well-that-ends-well” line. But the nefarious happenings of Mary Bailey Bacheler and Ann Hibbens, all but lost among the manifold of the misaligned, broke my belief in the goodness of others.
In Massachusetts, where I was residing in the middle of the seventeenth century, throughout Europe and other places, their trials set off a blaze of other trials — as if exposing fornication and witchcraft had come into fashion. But theirs weren’t tales told on All Hallows Eve. Their lives were real. So, so real, lighting up the blasphemy of puritanical religion — the true contagion of the masses. All those innocents that died slandered as heretics. Goody So-and-So standing silent while at the end of her daughter’s accusing finger stood an innocent woman, then another — the cause of the tale-spinning daughter and her mischief-making friends bored perhaps, jealous perchance, whipping up accusations of a so-called witchcraft, or other suspicions. Looking to entertain themselves? Their mothers and other silent Goodies So-and-So standing by feigning helplessness, powerless, silently watching out of fear-salted gazes, waiting with bated breath lest they be the next ones fingered. When all the while it should have been me. And I question, why? Why was it not me — the one who should’ve hanged?
I had been alive for decades before the trials, lived in towns long since buried under new villages. In silence, I cultivated invisibility. Invisibility — the thing we women seem to fear most. I craved it. Invisibility kept me safe. The ability to blend with the narrow crowds, cause little to no stir wherever I was. In this everyman guise I married, grew my gardens, tended my children and my children’s children, buried my husband when he died of a lung affliction, and brought others’ children into the puritanical world that beckoned them to grow into judges of the innocent and believers of the deceivers. I’d watched new generations thrive, harden, and bear their own children — a few of which were the very girls crooking their fingers in agitated entertainment at women who had no defense other than their panic. Girls who watched with eyes of flint that sparked terrified women to shrieks of innocence while the women were carried off to trial, then eventually to death.
How did my invisibility cloak me from those who desired all evil purged from their midst? Surely, my strange abilities should have given me away, fodder for the hangman if they’d only known. Why did they not see?
To this day, it baffles me…
I walked among those people and their descendants, and their descendants, a palimpsest in my common dress with my common tongue, avoiding conflict as I had, for centuries, done. Through the years, I was my own daughter several times over in villages far enough apart to not know that my grave held another set of bones that belonged to my real daughter a time or two — or no one. I traveled, offering a midwife’s assistance to mothers deep in their confinements, although, at that time there was no confinement. A woman worked until the pains set in and then just sort of collapsed in labor. I’d shake my head as they’d bring her in the house and fetch me to see to the birthing.
Sometimes the babies lived; once in a while they didn’t. I had the gift though, so before the mothers knew their babies’ fates, I could simply rub their blue lips, their still bellies, breathe into them the will to live, and they’d sputter a gasp and cry, their parents none the wiser. Sometimes all it took was a brisk rubbing of their footsoles before they’d lust up with life, those feisty little ones.
Wherever I went, I was held in deep regard. At first a stranger, but soon, village women would nod as I passed by, eventually satisfied in the knowledge of their experience — when I was present, their babies lived. And bringing life kept the wolves of suspicion at bay. The villagers rejoiced, the mothers hesitant to birth until I was there. I’d show up with the humble confidence a woman as old as I carries. Nothing more. I know the art of herbs but with herbs you have to take care. Herbs pose a question. The ignorant always question, so I am careful with herbs. I own no cauldron other than that which is standard, say nothing obscure, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing suspicious. Just a sharp intake of “Blessed be the Bringer of Life” when each blue newborn voices its pinking existence.
Some try to call me when an older child is mortally ill, but this is dangerous. This may bring life, it may bring death. Only the child can will itself in my hands to return to life or not. So I take myself off in times of greatest threat without word, and move on to a distant town, new and unknown.
I don’t hold life in my hands. I don’t know why I can breathe life into these tiny ones, but I do know that I haven’t died in six hundred and seventy-three years. An old, old girl, with the shrieks of those early puritan women still ringing their insistent innocence in my ears. I take them with me, serve in honor of their names — from Bridget Bishop to Martha Corey who lost her husband under a pile of rocks — Giles, slain for non-compliance to the accusations presented to him — three days before Martha was hanged.
And then almost two centuries later, pausing only long enough to breathe as we remembered with a sigh how far we’ve come in those years following the trials. Our own country then, our own set of laws. Our own ability to tumble down a monarchy and set ourselves up as mini-minded gods. The ability to breathe the will to live as we want.
Some of us.
It only took a few decades to tear ourselves asunder, one from the other in our demand for the pursuit of happiness — even when that pursuit enslaved the brave and singed their freedom.
We are the same, you and I. There is no us and them. It is only we. And we were broken, North and South. In those middling days I walked the bloody fields of the blue-and-gray willing them to live. Some rose, I tried, some shook their heads and closed their eyes. In their names I went on to assist the births of the children their young wives were carrying. And I weep for what we do to ourselves in this vast melee of crowded ignorance.
. . .
Years laid generations to rest, their biases inked into the minds of the future. The future became the present. A present that leaves its handprint on the graves of generations to come. Where are we now in the factions of intolerance — justified and embellished? A few of us contend with the civil mercy of rights. Mercy, such a strange word — so selective, so misunderstood.
The same patterns reveal themselves to new people who fight life and soul for what they hold dear, even though it proverbially tears us limb from limb when not so very long ago, our forebears died because their freedom was suffocated out from under them, while greed fed the wounds on their backs. Greed and fear of difference.
Further still in the labyrinth of my mind, those Goodies So-and-So, decades and decades ago, said nothing — and I, all the while, assisted in silence, saying too little for the sake of saving more and more lives as the decades, then centuries, passed. Yet even that is now salted down in the germinal fear that still focuses itself behind charlatans’ haughty eyes. Eyes reviving the past — and the ghosts are again revealed from the wide-eyes of long-dead village girls who lived in terror for what they (what we) had unknowingly begun.
Still, we grow, as slow as the decades that pass, into people infiltrated with knowledge. We are responsible for that knowledge — to use it, to practice the bettering of our world through our learned history. Learn from vacancies that history left.
If we are not intentional, that knowledge slips through our minds and stains the soil of our ancestors instead of securing the visionary cornerstones for the next generations. We are responsible to harness a vanguard of equality, of generosity instead of fear, and the wild abandon of courage to fill empty spaces of our now, the moment at hand, with mercy, freedom, compassion, while we, today, have breath.
©2023: Zoëtrope in Words. All rights reserved.