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The Age of Witches
Author: Louisa Morgan

1692


It was a cruel day to leave the world.

The sun shone with all the gaiety and promise of early summer. The new green leaves glistened with it, and the apple and pear blossoms, just past their prime, drifted in the warm air like white butterflies, powdering the orchard floor with their bruised petals.

Bridget paced in her cell, angry and getting angrier. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Those girls, those accusers, knew nothing of what it was like to grow old, to bear children and see them abandon you, to bury husbands you could not keep alive no matter how many potions you brewed or charms you concocted. Those girls—Abigail, Mercy, Elizabeth, Ann, and Mary—they were still young and fresh. They suffered no drooping of private flesh from having borne babies. No one mocked them for preferring a red bodice over a dull black one, or for enjoying a laugh with a traveler, or for keeping a pet goat to fuss over.

And the traitorous John Hathorne! He had visited her often and often after Thomas died. John liked the cider she made from her apples, and he liked even more the softness of her bed and the fragrance of her dark hair. Then, when her hair had gone gray and her once-sweet flesh had withered, he turned judge. He forgot those hours in the warm, secret darkness, forgot the special charm she’d made for him so his wife wouldn’t know, forgot the words of passion he had whispered in her ear. He turned judge, and he allowed those silly girls, hysterical chits no better than they should be, to accuse her of all manner of evil doings.

She was innocent of the things they accused her of doing. She had not entered Herrick’s bedchamber in spirit form and seduced him, though she knew he wanted her, even now. She had not laid curses upon her neighbors, only scolded them for stealing her apples. She had made a poppet or two, but they had done no real harm. She had never consorted with the devil.

She was, as she had told them, clear of offenses, but they would not hearken. They had taken the word of five girls and many more men, most of whom had tried for her favors at one time or another. They had judged her a witch and sentenced her to a dark death on this bright day.

Even now the cart waited outside her cell to take her to the gallows. She had listened, these two days past, to the sawing and hammering and the jests of the carpenters as they built her instrument of death. She had trembled in the darkness, then buried her terror under waves of fury at the unjustness of her fate.

The church bell clanged from the center of Salem Village. It was time. The clump of men’s boots pounded across the cobblestones, coming toward her. Their voices rang through the sweet summer air, the voices of men taking pleasure in her punishment, of men who cared nothing for her now that she was old and alone. There was no one to speak for her. No one to defend her. She was lost.

John Hathorne appeared in the doorway, his weedy clothes dull and rusty in the summer sun, his hair sticking out like old gray straw from beneath his hat. He was stooped now, as aged as she was, but his voice still rang with thunder. “Bridget Byshop, your time has come!”

Her knees trembled, and she sagged against the wall, overwhelmed in the moment by terror. She pulled at her hair to regain control, to reignite her fury.

Her daughters were her only hope. Mary was a gentle sort of girl, loath to harm even the smallest creature. Christian was different in her inclinations, as angry as Bridget herself. Neither could save their mother now, but they would be her legacy, both of them. Freed of this tired flesh, inspired by her fury, she would watch over her descendants and see that each received inspiration in her turn. She would leave them the maleficia.

She might not be a witch—indeed, she was not sure precisely what a witch was—but she was not nothing. She was only a woman, but she was a woman with abilities. Woe to the ignorant men who thought they could silence her with a noose! They would learn that her power, whatever its source, was stronger than their cruelty. That would be her revenge.

When the door of her cell opened, Bridget Byshop stood tall, straightened her frail shoulders, and walked out to accept her fate.

 

 

Witch should be a beautiful word, signifying wisdom and knowledge and discipline, but it isn’t used that way. It’s been made an insult, implying evil, causing fear. The word has been perverted.

—Harriet Bishop, 1890

 

 

1


Harriet

 

1890

Harriet preferred foraging in Central Park just after sunrise, before the cyclists and equestrians poured into the Mall, and while noisy young families were still breakfasting at home. On the nights before her excursions, she slept with her curtains open so the first light of dawn could tease her awake, and she could be out in the fields before anyone else.

On a cold, clear morning in May she woke as soon as the light began to rise. She dressed in sturdy boots, a much-worn skirt, and a man’s heavy jacket she had bought from a secondhand store in the Bowery. She took up her basket and slipped quietly out of the apartment so as not to wake her housekeeper. Grace worked hard, and she needed her sleep.

There were no other residents about as Harriet made her way down the corner stairs and out through the central courtyard of the Dakota. In front of the entrance arch she skirted the milk delivery van, its aging horse blinking sleepily beneath its harness. The milkman lifted a hand to Harriet in greeting. The ice cart rattled by as she crossed the road to the Women’s Gate, and the driver, teeth clenched around a pipe, tipped his cap to her. She smiled at him, relishing the communal feeling of their fraternity of early risers.

The first rays of the sun charmed curls of mist from the grass of Sheep Meadow, fairy clouds that sparkled silver against the green backdrop of the pasture. Harriet slowed her steps to take in the sight, savoring the slant of spring light and the emerald glow of new leaves before she crossed the meadow into the chilly shadows of the woods.

Here was near darkness that made her draw the collar of her jacket higher around her throat. Thick boughs of white oak shaded the ground, sheltering riches of sage, red clover, sometimes mushrooms. Harriet breathed in the scents of the fecund earth as she crouched beside a patch of nettles to begin her morning’s work.

It was a good day for her labors. She found a lovely bit of mugwort beside the nettles, and deeper in the woods she spotted burdock, which could be elusive. There was amaranth, too, the herb the shepherds called pigweed. She took care to harvest just what she could use and left the rest to propagate.

When she emerged from the shade of the trees into the brightness of the midmorning sun, she discovered dandelions growing among the Paris daisies, more than she had expected in mid-May. Their greens would make a nice salad. As she picked handfuls to toss into her basket, she noticed with a grimace how stained her fingers were.

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