A grey green day hung low in the Berkshires. Thick fog lingers over the frost kissed grass standing in stiff solemnity on the leeside slopes of the hills. William Miller crosses over the dale towards the highlands and the woods behind, his newly shaven face ruddy with youthful countenance and the biting autumnal chill reminiscent of the western moors. A sickly heifer, near invisible in the clouded translucence, lows in the distance. As he marches with a loping stride somewhere between giddy adolescence and adult resolve, the lures and footholds of his trade clanging against his back, the thick western forest infested with savage natives fixed in his mind, Abigail Patchett watches him from afar, her urge to shout and wave settled by an incessant tug at the hem of her woolen shawl. Her eyes loitering upon the spot where he fades into the brume shroud until her aunt called her to the loom.
“Take these,” the Widow Blackwood offers, “And hang one outside his window and place another under your pillow. Do this on the night of the next full moon. Venus will be in the house of Libra. In his dreams he will see you and within a fortnight approach you.”
The wigwam is dark and warm and fetid with the smell of tallow and charcoal. In the candle light Widow Blackwood smiles with blackened teeth and knowing looks, obsequious in her winks and nods and the insinuating way she repeats her understanding of young women’s desires. Abigail tugs at her shawl and does not quicken her step until the smoke from the wigwam disappears against the horizon. The caws of a rook follow her all the way home.
Night is still and uncanny in the baleful moonlight. She has counted the oil paper windows and knows by heart that the second is his. She hangs the charm with a tack on the deer bone lintel. An owl splits the darkness with a cry of “Who? Who?”
“William Miller,” she whispers in reply.
Red-faced and bellowing, his breath sour with cider, spittle flies from the frothing corners of his mouth as Uncle Caleb demands to know from where she has come. Tremulous and wearing an idiot’s smile, all she can think is how heavy steps and the hiss of the cat have undone her. She does not feel the first blow until after she pushes herself up from the dirt floor. Lifted by her hair she does not wait long to produce the figure woven of feathers and twigs and a lock of her own hair. Between sobs and whimpers into her shawl, she whispers a name to her mother’s sister that will absolve her.
“Patience Blackwood,” the magistrate calls, “You stand accused by the good man Caleb Mayhew of practicing dark arts, having congress with wicked spirits, and contriving to bring his niece Abigail under the influence of Satan, your master. Having entered no plea and been named in the testimony of your neighbors as conducting odd rites and making rituals to your dark lord by moonlight, this court finds you guilty of the charge of witchcraft. Thou have forsaken the way of the Lord and refused to repent for your wickedness, so the court has no choice but to condemn thee to death by hanging until you breathe no more and to split your property and claims among your neighbors. So signed, Carpus Lawton, Justice of the Peace.”
The magistrate nods to carpenter, who wears the brown scarf of official anonymity across his face and underneath a wide brimmed capotain. He fits the noose around her neck before stepping backwards towards the lever on the scaffold.
“Have ye any last words?”
“Qui sine peccato est vestrum primus in illam lapidem mittat.”
Justice Lawton’s face contorts darkly and he nods curtly to the carpenter. The trap door is released and the Widow Blackwood falls slowly until the hemp fibers jerk her upwards with savage resistance. Her legs kick about for an eternity until she is still, suspended in a moment in history until she will be forgotten amidst a long ledger of names and accusations and irrevocable sentences. The hood refused, she stares out from underneath the leathery folds of her wrinkled skin at the crowd with bulging eyes. Her tongue, swollen with death, protrudes in a posthumous act of petulance. The smell of excrement fills the afternoon. Dogs bark and sniff the gallows as the crowd begins to dissipate. From across the square, William Miller approaches the contrite Abigail Patchett.
“’Tis a miracle you were discovered by your uncle before you were corrupted by her wickedness,” he manages after a long stuttering greeting. She nods all but imperceptibly, her blackened eyes cast downwards, “Perhaps with your uncle’s consent, I might see you to church on Sunday so that you may be closer to Him.”
Abigail nods again, tugging at her shawl as her lips curl upwards into a smile.