short story based on true events surrounding Sara Wildes who was prosecuted for witchcraft
A new nation crept its way along the east coast of an almost uncharted land. Nestled in the middle was Salem, Massachusetts, a small fishing village. Down a sloping field away from the busier part of Salem, an aged woman slowly walked into a graveyard known as The Burying Point. The Burying Point at that time was a small, gated cemetery of lush green grass dotted with gray stone crosses. The town was still relatively young and not entirely built up yet so the graveyard was surrounded by grand sized maples and towering oaks. The sun touching the horizon turned the sky the golden orange the leaves turned in fall. She knew she wouldn’t live to see the autumn colors of Salem this year. Walking between the gravestones she occasionally reached out and absentmindedly grazed one with her fingertips feeling the cold rough stone. She was a solitary soul roaming the graveyard. Not many people dared to near her these days, not with the rumors.
She stopped at a grave. Looking at it she read the familiar name, Patience Averill, her mother. Weathered hands, that should have shook with age but didn’t, touched the dates. Died 1674, that was eighteen years past.
Her mother hadn’t really loved her but the woman forgave her for that. She understood how hard it was to love a person like herself. The way she was had always burdened her mother, her husband, his children and her son, Ephraim. Now it was going to get her killed. She was never liked in the village and for at least ten years neighbors had been accusing her of witchcraft and now the Putnam’s were after her. Any day they would come forward with proof of the accusations. Death would have her soon.
Although her actions caused her fate, she didn’t regret them. Rebellion had been her forte and her downfall in her youth. She smiled remembering that day thirty-two years ago.
Sara Averill stood out in the crowd, she always had. She was tall for the times, with long golden hair. She was beautiful yes, but not in the fragile way the puritans often were. What made her stand out most of all though was her fire. Filled with passion, she tromped through Salem leaving behind her a trail of astonished people and evil glares. She was outspoken and coarse. Some might have said unkind but truly just unafraid.
Today, as she wandered around the market a brightly colored scarf was tied around her neck, red on top of the brown muslin of her dress. To the puritans it was like a scathing demon clinging to her human flesh. To them it was a threat to the morality of their village. To them it was an infraction of the law.
Gray ominous clouds covered the high noon sun and a chilling wind weaved its way through cloaks held tightly closed. Smells of raw meat, animal waste, and charred wood filled the market while countless villagers moved in and out of the stands bartering for eggs and other staples. She could hear the whispers behind her.
“Harlot,” a voice rasped in her ear.
Sara twisted to see the speaker and when she was facing the old crone she smiled brilliantly. The woman spat at her. Behind the crooked, bent old woman was a man she had seen around before. He was John Wildes a land surveyor from Topsfield, a neighboring village. He was a financially stable man with five beautiful children and a quivering puritan wife. He was well liked and had the life anyone could hope for. Their eyes met, Sara saw mischief in them, he was enjoying her garment as much as she was. His young wife followed closely behind him; when her head wasn’t bowed she looked about as disgusted as the rest of the villagers at Sara’s brightly colored scarf.
She was about to greet the Wildes when her arm was grabbed from behind. She looked to see what was happening. The sheriff was standing next to her, left arm in his firm grasp.
“Sara Averill, must we always meet like this? Your inequity is boundless! You are wicked girl, a vessel for the devil to speak through!”
His breath was rank and he was so close she could feel his bristly cheek. His callused hands fingered her scar, the soot from them smudging on the soft fabric. Suddenly he yanked the scarf off. The speed of the fabric rubbing on her neck burned but she didn’t flinch.
“We will purge that devil from you yet.”
The Sheriff, who was all to familiar to her, dragged her from the market to the all to familiar jail, to be arrested for the third time in her young life.
Sara sat, still smiling. Her fingers crept to a small broach on her neck. That was the day she had fallen in love with John Wildes, and even though he was married he fell in love with her that day as well. Two years after that Mary, his wife died. He cried for her fragile soul but he never forgot the young girl in the bright red scarf. They met again, grew to know each other and in 1663 were married.
John held her hands as they stood before the priest in the small white clapboard church. He smiled at her then squeezed lovingly. Not many people were there and a large number of pews stood empty, but there were smiles on everyone’s faces and bright sunlight battered its way into the gloom of the church by way of small windows. The union of these two people put love in a place that had only seen fear from its congregation and condemnation of wicked souls in the past.
Sara peeked at her mother, prettily sitting in the first pew. She never believed her daughter would be married. Her defiant spirit made men run, but that was exactly what John loved about her.
Sara looked back at John. He was her kindred spirit.
“I love you Sara.” He whispered to her.
She returned the sentiment and with an impish gleam in her eye and teasing in her manner said, “but you shall suffer for it.”
Even though she had lightheartedly joked about it then she never could have imagined it was a true forewarning of the distant future.
Tucking her dress under her as she kneeled in front a different grave, she remembered the day she became Sara Wildes. Some said that it was fate that his last name was Sara’s nature, a true sign they were meant to be.
The grave she now kneeled by was her brother’s, Caleb Averill. He was killed by a wasting disease when she was sixteen. Caleb was the one who instilled her fire.
“Don’t let them bring you down,” he’d tell her, “You're not a rabbit like the other girls. You are a lioness, go out there and be one.” She listened to his word everyday playing them over in her head.
She remembered the hopelessness she felt when he slowly died, like everything was broken and she no longer really existed. Her body moved around but her soul was lost in shadows back with Caleb in his room, ever more rotting away with him.
Now, like the cold solid earth she felt through the layers of her dress she felt that hopelessness again. They would come for her and she would see shame in John’s eyes and hatred in Ephraim’s.
The sun was gone and in the absence of the light the leaves on all the trees were black. The dark velvet sky was marked with stars. She wanted to be with those stars. Just open up her body and let her soul drift right on up to them, where she could burn forever.
Ephraim shook his head.
“I can’t do it.” Looking at the sheriff, tears came to the young man’s eyes. In his shaking hands was a warrant for his mother’s arrest. As he worked for the sheriff he should be the one to make the arrest.
“She’s not a witch. The confession of Deliverance Hobbs in that dirty old jail cell you put her in is not the truth! My mother never tempted Goody Hobbs into witchcraft and the only reason she said so was because a few harsh words had passed between them in there years as neighbors. That is no witchcraft! My mother is no servant of the devil!” he yelled at the sheriff, his desperation making him weak.
“It must be done Ephraim. To many accusations have been made about your mother for us to believe she is anything but a witch. But I understand your resistance and I will concede to it and make the arrest on my own. I’m sorry Ephraim.” He patted the broken man’s hand trying to soothe a pain that could not be soothed.
The large brick building that was the court house stood in the middle of the town. The stone foundation that supports every brick of the court was the metaphorical foundation of thier justice system. But the puritan justice system included lies and revenge filling the stone with a deep rot. The courtroom was terribly crowded. The July heat, smothering and rancid, worked its way in, making sweat bead on the brows of women and a bitter odor rise from the men. The heat settled into the air intending to stay.
The trial went to quickly for Sara. Her heart felt to big for her chest as it pounded. She was lost in anger, anger at Deliverance Hobbs for confessing those lies about her, at Priscilla Gould, Mary’s sister, for testifying against her and at the Putnam’s for getting to John through her.
John, being a land surveyor, corrected a mistake in the town limits, which resulted in lands being taken from the Putnam’s, a transgression that to them was punishable by Sara’s death.
She had been attacked from all sides. All circumstances worked against her and she had made to many enemies over the years. The Putnam’s needed an easy target and Sara was it.
Many different people were brought to the stands and one by one they all told their own stories of witchcraft and every story had Sara as the satanic witch. But she never heard a word of it. The only thing she did hear were the final words from Judge Hawthorne.
“…and for the crime of witchcraft and servitude to the devil Sara Wildes is sentenced to death.”
It had rained the day Sara was hanged. It was as if they were making an attempt to dampen her vigorous fire along with killing her corporal life. When they had finished they had taken her body and buried it in a mass unmarked grave.
John walked into the graveyard Sara had spent one of her last days in. He took his shakey old body to an oak, because Sarah had no grave when he became lonely for her he would come here. Anger had been bubbling and fermenting inside of him.
“You should be here, buried in this hollowed ground. The injustice of your death should be known! Your spirit should be remembered!” John yelled.
He started to sob; life without Sara was like a life with no color or warmth. Cold and gray was how he would spend his last years on earth until he died too, returning to his Sara.
“Your children and I will always know your worth even if they didn’t.” the word they was dripping with venom.
“But your grandchildren and their grandchildren and theirs still should know too and because of how they plotted against you they will never know.”
Salem is a much different place today, clapboard was replaced by plastic siding and the market replaced by malls and other shops. Horns blared on busy streets and tourists flocked in. The people strolled down cement sidewalks as opposed to cobblestone and dirt. Some structures from the 17th century still stand, restored and preserved, but the courthouse is gone, the stone foundation crumbled piece by piece over the years. The biggest change though was with the puritan age long over people were free.
Across from the Old Burying Point, the same graveyard that heard the words of John and Sara Wildes so many years ago, a group of people gathered, all on a tour that took them into the graveyard and through fields to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.
“…and the memorial dedicated in 1992 stands in honor of the men and women killed in the hysteria of the infamous Salem Witch Trial…” the tourist guide continued on as a tall blond woman pointed to a name on the memorial with one hand and with the other fiddled with a red woolen scarf tied around her neck for warmth against the cold New England fall.
“That’s my ancestor, you know my so many greats grandmother. Her story is legendary in my family. She was an amazing woman, really.”
The courthouse had fallen and names of her accusers not remembered but there set in stone was hers, Sara Wildes.
As the autumn moved into Salem and the whole area was ablaze with color, ablaze with passion. The trees spoke the fire of the spirit that was smothered that rainy July day in 1692. Lit again it engulfed Salem and burned away the cold and gray created by those men and women so filled with hatred that they destroyed life after life. As John Wildes had wished his wife was known and the injustice of her death repaid.