CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Souls, Seduction of
I. All Souls
Which ones do you hate, Mercy, she asks me. I turn my head to look at her face, and she keeps her side to me so that I can see the smooth cheek—very pale, like chalk it is—and the only thing to show how strong she might mean her words is a little pulse above the ear. The way she wears her cap, the band be set high on her brow and you see more than you should. There is no line even of whiter flesh where her hair pulls back: It is all the same, same whiteness. Abby’s face don’t bloom like another girl of her age (eleven, twelve: We don’t know for certain).
Why what do you mean, dear, I say back. I am some five or six years older to she, I can speak to her like that, the way I speak to little Ann at home. It is better these girls be calm (so is said often). To-day we must be more careful. Not like we are not watched on all days, but this one is for even more prayer than others. Though truth be told there is always a heavy quotient of that.
Them for instance, Abby says.
We have reached the opening to the little lane behind the church. No wagon tracks turn this way; it seems like an escape. The sky is bright and we blink. Some others come out of the church now and stand quietly talking: None will show they wish not to hurry. For November the day carries memory of summer, like a reprieve.
This will not last long, I think, pushing my collar from my throat. Too warm. I feel a dampness round the edge of my cap.
It is the Proctors to whom Abby refers. Them, she says again. There they are by the door, the husband and wife and the two sons, and Mary Warren their working girl holding the daughter’s hand. Now why do they do that? I ask. Aren’t they but old enough?
It’s the slowness, Abby says. You know Sarah never be the same since the fever left her.
It is for the passing of the fever from the village that we give thanks this day. Six hours—more? The sun has moved over us while we sat and sat.
Now Abby laughs. Do I imagine it, or do her shoulders seem to lift her higher? Her dress has been handed down to her, of course—till this moment, it always seemed an ill fit on her frame. A bell going from high to low; this is Abby’s laugh. Mary Warren hears and looks at us, then down quickly at her feet. You see, hisses Abby, she is ashamed. Her shoes are no better than ours but look at her, she don’t bear it. It’s the same lot we have, all of us, like slaves we are and they praise themselves with hosannas for taking us in—
I say, Shhh.
And now Abby has no more need of speech, for as the Proctors walk near (they will not speak, only incline their heads with no true politeness) she is pulling herself higher still, it is as if her body is burning with something righteous. I wish to be as she is but when the young son William pass by I feel my anguish again. He used to let his look stay on me, once smiled, and now he do neither. Folding his hat in his hands, he goes by talking to his father John and I am unseeable to him now. I am rooted to my place; I wish a breeze to come up and give cool. Abby has her arms folded over her bodice and she do the nodding first when they go. John Proctor ignore it but Elizabeth’s face twitches inward like the hinge of a clam. Come, she say to Sarah, taking her daughter’s hand from Mary’s. They go round us into the lane and Mary is left with nothing to hold.
Poor Mary, I should think. But then I cannot but smile when another peal of laughter from Abby—this time like the crack from a whip—chases Mary on her way. It pushes dust at her skirts, catches her up, and her hair wisps in her eyes to make her sneeze.
Reverend Parris come out the church door finally, along with Mister Putnam who be master of my house. Abby, she does not lower her head at all.
Mister Parris slides the bolt. Niece! he calls out to Abby. Go home.
Tonight, Abby whispers. There is a catch in time, a soft hiccup when I freeze and thaw.
She turns to walk away, and air ruffs around the nape of my neck.
Can I say: I will begin again? Let me start over. Perhaps you have been told other. I am Mercy Lewis. This is my story.
No. It is not mine.
But there is more than one way to tell this. Here: See, there is beauty here, too, with all the rest of what you may know. By that little lane behind the church there are trees that will flower in springtime, the leaves shine green, fat enough to drink from should you fancy it. Farther down the lane there is a place to stand where no soul can see you for the thick of it—a bower it is. A resting place. Apples to catch scent of, when the air brings it to you. When the green has done in the year all turns fiery, golds and reds falling all round, the scratch of drying twigs on the forest’s floor. While we pray inside I can see nothing. But I do keep it in my head, the falling and scattering, and when we are allowed to come out the leaves will have rained over our rooftops like a blanket.
If I walk through the marshes, the sea grass whistles at my skirts and leads me to the water, where gray wet sand sucks my feet into circles that vanish when the tide slides in. Here the waves lap gently, miniatures of how they are when the sea and skies come at us rough. It smells of salt, a tickling.
In these places I am alone.
Behind me are field and farm; from the water animals seem small as spots are, and I can turn my head so that the wind brings me no voices.
Yes, beauty too. That I remember, and I will say it was so.
The Maine folk, they be queer, I have heard say some time when I pass by. Man’s invented devotions, they say.
I be superstitious? Where I am from to-day it is the Day of All Souls, when we can help those of ours who have left us, remember them into Heaven, and give ourselves comfort too. But not here. Not scripture, they say. And no comfort.
This evening we shall pray more. Our whole village we have been blessed, we drive out an evil and we give thanks, we give thanks. We pray in Salem: every house a little church, a little Commonwealth, they say. Mister Putnam he be clear on that. His wife Ann she tucks little Ann in her bed, tells me Mercy, go stoke up the fire.
These are not my people.
It is the day I think on what has passed for me and the things that will never be. Three years now it is since I travel to Salem Village, and most times I make myself not remember any more of the Eastward, from where I come. That other land was colder than it ever be here. So completely have I healed from what happened that I do not speak of it, never. Would not be fitting.
I was never, no I was not out of my head.
But when they here complain of the snows, which perhaps—in my time here—have once or twice been hurled down on us like a penance, and have frozen the Bay, I grow angry. This be nothing, I said once, and for that Mister Putnam slapped me. Since, I put my hands to my ears when they talk like that. I remember drifts so great with majesty, and so quiet, lovely; we were spun into a winter cocoon, and came to believe it was a gift from God and would keep us safe. I recall the stones my father dug out of our fields, and we had low walls made from them round our house, where moss grew into the cracks. The first time the Indians come my parents took me away to the islands of the Casco, and years later when we come back those stones be there still. We were long enough, that time, for more moss to grow.
I say, you tell me for what to give thanks.
Is it for this fever that has taken but few, and them so gently? Or do it also mean that I give thanks for the axe to my mother’s neck? Tell me.
Mercy, she says, come out. Mercy, are you there?
She is a whisper on the wind, giving the night something to haunt. Like a wraith she is: Looking down from my window there she stands in a ring of moonlight she looks to have made, for it follows her form as she switches back and forth, back and forth, hands on hips that have bloomed since the sun set. Come down, she says. Do not tell me quiet. Swish, sway. The light alters her shape and for a moment, I lose her.
These Putnams are sleeping the sleep of the dead here, it seems.
And perhaps it is the entire village, too, that has been dealt out this slumber, for when I lift the latch it stirs no one, and the crunch of pebbles under our shoes brings only a fox to the path, lifting its snout as if we bring something of interest its way. In the clearing of the woods, which is up a hill and down again from where the gallows be, Abby brings the moonlight with her and continues to sway. My head fills up with a strange air. When Abby lets go my hand—she has led me here—I nearly fall. That tease on my nape again, like a breath, memory, promise. Here are leaves floating down, birch and maple, and yes, I think, it is November. A heaviness lifts from my neck and takes wing in the night—I see it go. Here is Abby, dancing. See, she says to me. I blink, and when I open my eyes she has done a trick with time. One turn and she is a hand taller; her ankles show from her skirts. Another turn, and I see that those hips are no joke. The hem of her skirt unfurls, dusts the ground. She smiles, lips reddening against that white skin, sharper planes there now in her face, and she runs her hands lightly up from her waist, where she has swelled out above, too.
Quite clearly she says, Mercy, did you pray for the faithful today? All those departed souls? The smile again; it will madden someone, I think.
No more for them, she says. And I never tell you do what be forbidden.
I no longer need blink to see that Abby has grown herself up.
II. Days of Thanksgiving and Praise
Over and over I do the egg in the glass, but it tells me nothing. What should it say? Abby laughs; she says, you have to believe before it will work.
To make a W or a P? I ask, seeking it in the swirl of yolk. If I wish it, then why not?
Abby takes the glass and shakes it. Do you still want him? William Proctor?
There be no one else, I tell her. Though nothing has changed between us.
We sit at the rough wooden table by the Parris’ hearth. January now, and an ice has fallen across the whole of the village. It glimmers and shines, throws halos into the trees whenever we walk to the clearing wrapped in many shawls. We have taken a pot, the bones from a hen, wound strands from our hair round sticks. Once a frog, but we could not kill it and it leaped away. More than this we have not done.
In two months the sleep of the villagers has been as stones are.
I want to try it, says Ann, standing up and reaching for the glass. Her fingers are stout, this girl of twelve years: same as her waist, which does not grow slimmer, same as her mother and all of the Putnam women are.
Ann is my charge, well again after many months ill. I present to her this world: the well-trod path from our hearth to this one, where Abby be. Mostly Ann sits still with little Betty Parris, watching and listening. They will do as we tell them.
She takes the egg from the bowl and reaches for the glass.
No! Abby shouts. She gives Ann a vicious pinch on the shoulder. Those fat fingers crush the egg and it drips a puddle onto the wood. Ann starts to let out a yelp, but something keeps the sound in her mouth. Her eyes are round in a terrified face. Abby pinches again, holding on. Her grip sinks Ann to the floor. Tituba looks up from the fire, where she stirs the pot of beans. You, she says to Abby. Tituba’s brown face gleams. The fire flares up.
Abby, she look curious on Tituba as if it be the first time she ever do it.
The wind shrieks and bangs open a shutter somewhere—Tituba looks away first.
Abby smiles and rearranges herself on the bench. These days, she is all the time smoothing her skirts.
Ann is just a little girl, Abby says.
She moves her skirts under those hips again, and in the firelight that dances up and down the walls Ann begins to tremble, and she whimpers, and then Betty too quivers and stretches her small body straight out along the hearthstones, adding her harmony of cries to Ann’s. Their teeth chatter together like instruments of a new music.
You, Tituba spits out, and raps the spoon on the pot, where it splinters.
It goes on and on, louder, and Abby’s hands fly up to her face, and there she hold them, rocking herself, while the little girls’ cries fill the room. Oh, Mercy! she exclaims. Look! Look! She points. I know not what to do. Tituba, no wailing for her: She take up the spoon and crack it in half, hurls it into the fire and she say, Miss Abigail, you done let Him in. You done so.
Ann curls herself into a ball and moans.
Pray now, Abby says. We must all pray, now.
And when her uncle, the minister, comes running in, Abby’s eyes are wet and her hair is falling down her back, snaking around her waist, snaring like a noose. She holds Betty in her arms and says to her, Shhh, shhh shhh. The little girl falls silent; she will not speak a word for many a day more.
When there are so many of them in the gaol as it will hold, the stench of them crawls through the village and the rest are thus forced to holding kerchiefs over the mouth and nose when they walk. It is everyone in the village now standing with care. God’s work, they will say when we go by, pulling themselves in. Then they are pulled in to church, where they give thanks and thanks again, the more times to drive the Devil from among us.
The Devil, I think, cares not for thanks from fools.
This is what the new season brings: buds and blossom, but unable to do the usual work of freshening. When they burst, the stench comes forth from them too.
And some days be like always. I tend the fire; Abby and I meet on the path bringing pails of water from the well. Some say even the water be cursed. Abby and me we have secret smiles. Handmaidens we be, and anyhow would Goody Putnam fetch water on any day?
When we go to the court, Abby steps outside and inhales the air deeply.
The apple did not work for me either; the peel dropped in long twists, a different one each time, unreadable. And now, I wonder that it may be too late. On the day William Proctor is brought before the magistrate Abby and I sit behind the row of girls—Ann, Betty, and others by now to include Mary Warren, her a plain girl really, she do know it as we do, and she must look always to Abby before she have the courage to do or say a thing. If she is right or wrong, Mary always receives a new pain to double her over. To-day we shiver on the benches; this spring keeps its chill, and it do seem like it may never end.
Forget the son, Abby says when they bring him up, hands tied behind his back. By now she can speak to me without moving her lips or making a sound any other can hear.
No, not egg nor apple told me anything of this.
The magistrate says, And you, Sir, how do you say you know nothing when these tormented are before you? The girls in front of us rustle and twitch.
No witchery, not none in our house, William says.
You assert your innocence?
Aye, says my once-love. I do.
Forget him, Abby says. Her voice be mild now, and she stroke one finger on my hand, releasing it from its clench.
I have scorned him like he done you, she say.
Yes, Mercy dear. He not do it again.
She turns her head swift to the rafters; the girls in front of us scream. You see how she give them no clue?
The father, now, Abby say to me through the racket. I bet you anything I be remembered for that.
We do distinguish ourselves of the Lord not the Devil. This is how we think on it. Many years later Mister Mather’s words will make me wistful.
There goes Betty, there goes Ann. It is a marvel how their small necks are ringed constant with the prints of hands, their ears appear singed by flame, they are blue and black all down their arms. Their tortures be indiscriminate.
To save them Our children, they to be brought home unto the Lord—
Abby is a more particular mark: a needle drawn out from her stomach, bloody to the hilt. Small maleficium be not becoming to her no more.
Cut with Knives, and struck with Blows that I could not bear.
There is a day when Abby show that she love me, when Mary Easty is before us and she wish to make laughter, declares us false. I am a woman of God, she says. I grow cold, and my head clangs with the sound of bells; then I flush up sudden hot, hotter, I am burning alive—the fire in the hearth leaps like tongues from Hell, closer, and the tongues pull me to them while screaming is all around that I imagine to be many voices but is only me. Abby throws me to the floor and stamps out the spark from the hem of my skirt. She looks up at Goody Easty and says, You.
And Mister Burroughs, yes him too, oh him who come away unscathed from the Eastward after he help the Indians make death on my father and my mother and all my kin—him, oh him be the one to show me the Book he tell me I must sign—there is fire he make in that chimney there, see it, yes I see it too—
In August, we will see him hang.
Him I hate, I tell Abby.
She hold my hand, curl me up in her arms. She shares with me some of her light.
Yes yes Mercy, she say, you do well but remember it be mine story, all mine—
III. Days of Humiliation and Fasting
It is glorious what is out there when you believe. I open my window of a morning and the air shakes with things possible. The sun dapples my arms; I push them from the long sleeves of my nightdress and if anyone see it don’t matter.
My happiness feels complete, but Abby is restless. I know that how I saw her—in that moonlight’s dance, the night of All Souls—is a miracle; all others take her as she is, and say nothing but It is God’s work you do, Abigail Williams. No more can she ask them to see her truly but if she should strip off her clothes.
And who strip but the Towne sisters, all three, for the magistrate? Mary Easty. Rebecca Nurse. Sarah Cloyce.
Mister Putnam he ask me, Mercy, be you well? He asks on a day I am tired; I did not like to see those women there before us, old flesh prodded with sticks, but I could not look away from it no more than if I had seen a bear on a chain.
You do good, Mister Putnam say.
Abby they see for one cause only. They will not see her beauty. Afraid, all of them, I assure her. I think her tears may come; she shakes her head in temper instead.
Not enough, she says. We are sitting in the field together, it is a late afternoon. Soon we will be called, each by our respective masters, but when they call it will have some courtesy in it now.
I don’t wish to be remembered like that, she says. Not like those little girls and their fits.
She takes my wrist in her hand, traces a pattern along the veins.
Not like that, she says.
I remove my hand to my lap. I say to her, Abby, is not this enough?
This is when she takes my hand again, says fiercely: I will hold it, Mercy. She presses her thumb into my palm with roughness, then pushes in the nail. At my cry she smiles. Her eyes change; I see her sitting in the grass with her skirts spread round her, and when she looks at me now I am made afraid and unsure. If I let go I will be ugly, uglier than Mary Warren, that little fool, and though I know this I say one more time: It’s enough, Abby. Please.
But there is no pleasing her now. I shall do otherwise, she says, tossing my hand back like she cares not to own it no more.
A bloody crescent remains in my palm, in the shape of half a heart.
Was there a list of them, you ask. Did they do it? Was there a fire in the forest, dancing girls, the casting of spells, afflictions and torture, knife to a neck, stone on the chest, a needle in the belly, the sending out of spirits, sour milk, dead cows, a broken fence, a broken heart?
Mercy Lewis is my name. It is too late to begin again. If there be any lists, any reckonings, I will that you find me there.
Are you there, are you there, she calls, but to-night I pull the coverlet up, hold it around my chin. There is some weight on me now like a stone, and it sinks me down into my bed.
She was not content to change everything but once.
For when I no longer go she take John Proctor out to that ring in the woods. Who knows how it is she pulls him there; while I slept I dreamt it clear, that swish and sway in the light as she cast him into the story like was not to have happened, like he’d not imagined, like no one could. It were sweet, she says to me later. Sweeter than all I have known.
Whatever any say she did do it.
She tell me, Mercy, the only regret is that none were there with a pen, but to etch us as we looked, or to write it down how it was. See, she says, but I need her not to tell me. I know her trick with time make them beautiful, and he were amazed too. She make them something to be remembered. And then you may ask, who were it truly possessed? Mister Proctor he say to the magistrate that he took her there; yes, he be not too fine for lechery but that was all he done. (See? Abby say again, in the court. And when I blink he look as old as sixty years would.)
What he say do no good, of course. We all know it. He the last of his kin to go in the gaol, the first to come out, but he never go home. Abby change everything once and for all. I have wondered often, in the long years hence, whether that night when she took him there did he look behind him to the gallows, and know what was on his way.
When I walk now it is God help you I hear: God help you. May He forgive. Mary Warren will follow me along the path. It be the month for it but no May Day takes place here—it is only stagnant and hot.
Why be you alone, Mercy? she ask with all tartness. I’ll walk with you a way.
Her eyes have always been like a cow’s, so empty, though of late they have taken on quickness.
They will let Goody Easty from the jail, she tell me. She torment no one no more.
She torment me, I insist, but Mary say, Oh?
Abby know it, I say.
Mary leaves me at the fork of the lane. She tries for a swirl of her skirts; the cloth is unyielding as board. Her face goes pink from rash. Well, she says, I shall tell Abby what you say.
Ingersoll’s Tavern. I wish not to go, but Goody Putnam sends me for ale; I am her servant still.
They crowd to me there; they come close like they’ve not done in these long months, so long, they come near and say to me Mercy, Mercy—you show yourself to us now, you tell us. One dares to take me by the arm, he shake me back and forth like a doll, and when his hand slips off it brushes hard on my breast but he only watch me flinch. You lie, he says. You make lies on my friend William Proctor and them all, you cry out on him false you do—
No I never said that I never said it I did not
His face be in mine and no one make to stop him, they all watch me put my hands up against him and he say again You lie, Mercy Lewis, like a whore you lie I am sure of it—
It were for sport the girls they must have some sport, no I never said
He raise his hand to strike me. As Putnam tells you, that is what you say, he shouts.
I was out of my head.
I hear you, he say, now say it again Mercy Lewis Mercy Lewis, confess it again. (My name, it is my name.) But I say, No. And he falls back with the force of my word. His friends make him quiet, and now I say, with calm, I cry out only as the Lord tells me. And the others, as God say so too. Even Ann, poor little Ann Putnam, who be afflicted the most.
They are silent.
As I walk to the door the man sits again, counseled now by another. I reach for the latch, aim for the night.
You be no Putnam woman, he says to my back.
Once more Abby comes to me. It has been days on end of torture, this pain, this turmoil. It will not quit me. Mary Easty has been recanted by all, but me she does not forgive, does not let go. Yes, she do fly out in the night, no matter what any say now. I will die. I will die but for Abby, who come to me with Ann and they watch over me till they see it again too, this malevolent spirit above, so clearly it seizes me and pummels my body again and again so that my condition is most desperate and I would die but for Abby who holds my hand once more.
Mercy, she says, I am with you.
I pine away after the wrackings leave off me. It is a shell I am now. Ann, she too falls back in her sickbed: but this be what she knows always to do, to receive touches and kisses, sufferings to show the parents that maybe they pray not enough.
I lie there, for years and years, the scar in my palm growing whiter.
They say she went away in some night. She leave on a ship, they say; it be said she become a whore in Boston, or she go as far as Barbados. It be said that she take Mister Parris’s money he have saved; she wrap it in her apron and was gone one night when the darkness kept all of Salem within and no moon did shine.
That is one version of it.
And we in the village say be it possible, no more innocent blood to be shed.
Or maybe she did shrink herself down, collapse five years like a scope you would use from the mast of a vessel forever lost at sea.
In any story, she disappears.
I—I have ten years where time presses around me as if I sleep still; I be no Putnam woman, but tainted I be like them till one day I go to another place yet again (it is like that, for those ten years) and one man finally say to me, You. Yes, he know how they make me give thanks for my life by the Bay. I tell him how that last day in the Eastward I were snugged up in the hayloft to dream on a rainy day, and how I watched them all die. Then I went in the wagons going south and the survivors said Pray for them, Mercy, and in Salem they called them sinners, and taken in I had to give thanks over and over again, tasting it bitter, till Abby show me her moonlight. Could I have but seen other?
I rock my child in my arms on a cold November night.
They will say she did die; they will say they know not where or when, and it be fitting. But if Abby ever come back I would hear her.
Mercy, she would say, are you there?
Remember, Mercy. Remember me.