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Jill Taylor’s back ached. She had been in this position, knelt on both knees, sunken in the damp soil, for a near forty minutes. Her shadow had moved from one developing kernel of rye grain to the next. These were her pride and joys. At nineteen years old, Jill was beyond mature for her age. Her parents had brought her up here in Salem Massachusetts until 1678, when Jill was five years old, when both her parents fled south. Jill never quite understood why. It may have been that they were overwhelmed with raising a young child along with raising a new village, but the truth will never be known. Rather than turn to dolls or playing childhood games like tag, Jill turned into a mini-scholar. She read up on scientific journals, fables, and even stole diary entries from her friends just to feed her hunger for literature.
Today, blowing her whispy dirty blonde hair out of her green eyes, she focused on planting these baby rye seeds. She had read a recently published book about the joys of growing rye and wanted to feel that same bit of accomplishment herself. Her hands weren’t dainty or polished. She wore her calluses proudly, along with her dry, cracked knuckles. She arched her back and then stretched it as far as it could possibly stretch, and let her tired body fall backwards onto the overgrown lush grass behind her. It had been extremely warm this harvesting season. There had been an excess of rainfall. Puddles lined the single dirt road, over-used yet so dependant.
As Jill glanced over at the puddles now, she saw one small little boy, overcome with such imagination, leading his home made sailboat through the rough waters of the muddy puddle. His eyes darted back and forth from the boat to the outskirts of the puddle. Using his mud-covered hands, he splashed one end of the miniature sea and created a vicious wave that toppled over his sailboat. He cackled out a series of prideful laughs, for he had just played God—or was he channeling the Devil?
The Devil seemed to be prominent in the village of Salem. Less than seventy miles away, a brutal Indian war was raging. Refugees flocked to the growing town of Salem for safety—bringing their war stories with them. Along with the war, two well-known families, the Putnams and the Porters were competing for ultimate control of the village. Jill herself, was a fan of the Porters. Joseph Porter, the son of the richest family in Salem, used to let Jill follow him on his hunting trips for wild birds. He stressed to Jill from a young age to be eager to help around the village—that laziness was a sin. Joseph had been the father figure she longed for.
It was easy for Jill’s mind to wander as she lay on the fertile grass. She closed her eyes and heard the sounds of the silversmith not more than ten yards away clanking and clanging as he hammered away at the metal horseshoe for the Rifter family’s mare. She could hear the musical harmony of the chickens behind the wooden fence being flustered by her three year old English Pointer. He barked and rose to stand on his two hind legs as he clawed at the fragile wooden fence. She couldn’t help but smile as she heard Ralph McGregor’s heavy breathing and door slam as he rushed out of his house to shoo away the mutt. A cool breeze swept over Jill. And as goose bumps rose and sweat on her forehead was cleared away, she felt the tickle of the grass beneath her. She heard her mutt bark as he ran from the mountain of a man which was Ralph McGregor. Jill lifted herself up and chased after her pup. They ran together, into the emerald green field heading towards the forest. When Jill grew tired, her English Pointer held back and together they rested upon a rock. As she lovingly tugged at the scruff of his neck, he panted a satisfactory pant and she could’ve sworn she heard him giggle. Was that a girl’s giggle? Suddenly alert, Jill sat up and turned around. Behind her were two spunky young girls, Betty Parris and Ann Putnam. Betty, only six years old, held a strand of grass and slowly was peeling it into two pieces. Ann, a bit older than Betty at eleven years old, wiped her dirt covered hands on her skirt and leaned in to pet Jill’s dog.
“What are you two doing all the way out here?” Jill anxiously prodded.
“We were just exploring,” Ann answered as she rubbed her cheek into the Pointer’s white and brown spotted fur.
“And do your parents know you two are all the way out here?” Jill asked in a motherly tone. Jill often babysat Ann and Betty together after they came home from school, while their parents were still out harvesting or working.
“Yesssss Jill,” Ann rolled her eyes as Betty let out yet another giggle.
“Yeah, I don’t believe that for a second. Come’on you two, I’ll walk you back to town.” Jill grabbed each of their hands, motioned for her mutt to follow, and headed back to the bustling village.
Later that night, as Jill watched the flickering of the candle upon her rustic table in her single room house, she leaned back in her wooden chair and rested her feet on top of that same table. She let out a sigh. The town was now silent. With the recently imposed town curfew to increase village safety, Jill spent many nights listening to her own exhaling and inhaling. She had piles and piles of books upon shelf after shelf. The only problem was that she had read every single one. The most recently finished book, the one about the joys of raising rye grain, lay neatly in the middle of the table next to the melting candle. So many pages had been dog-eared back, ripped and then added back, that even as it neatly sat there on that table, it still looked like a tornado had whizzed right through it.
As the silence deepened, Jill’s mind began to wander. She thought about how she’d bake bread for the girls tomorrow, ready for when they came home from school. She made a mental task-list of the chores she’d have to accomplish tomorrow. She’d have to gather firewood for the oven, harvest the grain, replace those loose floorboards underneath the rug in the center of the room—maybe she’d call Joseph over for that—Jill knew a whole lot about farming but not so much about building.
Jill’s thoughts were interrupted by her Pointer’s barking just outside her wooden walls. Accompanying the barking came a series of footsteps, running from one end of the street to the other. She could hear young pre-pubescent male voices laughing and calling out, “Come’on hurry up!”
Sure they’re just fooling around, but even so, the curfew rule was in affect. Jill’s responsible attitude was getting the best of her. She became anxious, almost wanting to go out and reprimand the boys, but she knew better. No one else would set the boys straight however, Governor Phips was away in England for the time being. The boys knew that, so they had decided to run about town acting like little rebels.
Jill let her anxious thoughts settle as she grabbed her book on rye harvesting and headed for bed. The flicker of the warm candle began to dim as she thumbed through her notes and favorite chapters. Her green eyes squinted at the words with each flip of the page, becoming heavy, and then dozing off to sleep.
When Ann and Betty were let out of school the next day, they were greeted with the familiar scent of bread rising in Jill’s oven. After it had cooled, Betty quickly grabbed a piece and snacked on it as both Betty and Ann reminisced about the events of the day.
“And did you hear Laura discussing Cotton Mather’s book, Memorable Provinces?” Ann began. “What he says is true, yah know. That Irish woman up in Boston, what was she? A washerwoman? Well she was definitely a witch. She did all sorts of voodoo and witchcraft on all those sorry people. No doubt about it.”
“What is this I hear about witchcraft? It’s all about as true as Mrs. Turner’s ‘home-made’ pie. You two don’t seriously believe in that foolish talk do you?”
“It makes sense, Jill. How else would you explain the weird happenings up in Boston? The devil chooses some poor soul to be a witch to haunt other people, and ruin lives forever,” Betty explained.
“I’ve read Mr. Mather’s book. It’s a bunch of crock. There are too many variables and unanswered questions,” Jill argued as she headed for her bookshelf.
“You’ve read it?” asked Ann.
Jill ignored the question and continued scanning the bookshelf. Her eyes rested on the binding she was looking for. She removed it meticulously from the shelf, confidently walked back to the table Ann and Betty were sitting at and slammed the book on the table top.
“Oh I’ve read it. It disgusts me. There’s definitely a reasonable explanation for all of the occurrences in Boston. You’re insulting my intelligence when you argue that this garbage is true,” Jill stated as she huffed out the door.
She paced back and forth for a few moments, only to lean back on the rough wooden wall and slide her body down onto the cool ground. She let the brisk air cool her heated face and neck. Her chest heaved as she struggled to bring her breathing back to a normal pace. Jill’s passion for a select few subjects could be both a charm and a curse. What was it about witchcraft that ticked her off? It was common knowledge throughout town, throughout the state, that witchcraft was a reality. Why did Jill feel so strongly against it? Something in the back of her mind told her that she knew better than to accept witchery.
Later that night as Jill dreamt about what her life could’ve been like if she had grown up with her parents at her side, a painful scream echoed throughout the village. Jill drowsily woke, both disappointed to wake back into reality, and confused as to why at this time of night with the curfew imposed, there was such chaos.
She could hear the pitter-patter of rain on the weakened roof, along with footsteps splashing in puddles. There was the incoherent sound of nervous chatter mumbled with more excruciating screams. Jill quickly jumped out of bed and rushing past her shoes, she left the safety of her four walls and entered a world where there were no faces, only familiar silhouettes and voices. Bodies hastily flew by her, into her, behind her. She felt very much in the way. She walked mystified and barefoot down the trodden road. She seemed to be walking at a snails pace compared to the hustle of other villagers.
The moon seemed to shine directly onto a woman in a rocking chair. With the dim light of the moon Jill could make out the features of this woman, recognizing her as Mrs. Harris. Jill increased the speed of her step and stopped as soon as she stood directly in front of Mrs. Harris in her rocking chair.
Jill’s hair was soaked now, dripping wet from the relentless downpour. Her whispy blonde hair was now turned into clumped sections, plastered to her forehead and cheeks. As raindrops fell from her nose, Jill stared into Mrs. Harris’s eyes which seemed to be in another time altogether. Jill leaned over and put her hands onto the rocking chair, halting the comforting rock of the chair and setting it deeper into the mud. Her face was now inches from the elder woman’s.
“Mrs. Harris,” Jill’s voice begged, “What’s going on?”
“Naumkeag… Naumkeag… Naumkeag…” Mrs. Harris repeated with the same beat she had been keeping with the rocking chair.
To any other baffled villager, the repetition of this word would only confuse her more. But Jill’s love of literature had given her the answer. Naumkeag had been the town’s name back in 1624. Mrs. Harris had been here when the town had gone by this name, and even when the name was officially changed to Salem in 1629.
“Shalom,” Mrs. Harris suddenly said.
“Peace?” Jill inquired. The town had been renamed Salem after the Hebrew word Shalom, meaning ‘peace’.
“Shalom no more, Ms. Jill,” Mrs. Harris simultaneously stated with a scream coming from the house next door.
Jill backed away, her toes squishing farther and farther into the wet mud. She quickly turned her head only to have her wet hair smack into her opposite cheek. The house next door was the Parris’. That scream had come from Betty. Without thinking, Jill hurriedly headed towards the Parris’ front door and let herself in. What she saw gave chills up her spine.
What Jill was witnessing was the town doctor kneeling next to Betty’s bed, with Mr. Parris on the other side. Betty was not lying down in bed, but standing on top her covers shaking, her eyes rolled back in her head. Her arms were contorted, her joints were stuck. Her wrists and fingers were frozen into uncomfortable positions. Both uncomfortable for Betty, and uncomfortable to watch. The six year old girl continued shaking and shifting into grotesque positions, only to fall down into frozen postures. She was sweating, her face beat red, and even as she lay down, she gurgled and then let out a horrid scream. After being frozen for a couple of seconds, she suddenly began scratching her skin and screaming, complaining of biting and pinching sensations. As she’d scratch her raw skin, she’d be distracted by something along her ceiling, and point to it. When everyone in the room would look to where Betty was looking, no one would see it.
“What is it, baby?” Mr. Parris begged his daughter.
Betty continued to point and gurgled, “A raven.”
With no such bird in sight, the doctor tilted his head down and leaned his head on his hand. He played with his mustache while deep in thought, and then looked back up at Mr. Parris and gave his findings.
“This be the work of witchcraft Mr. Parris. I’m so very sorry…” The doctor confirmed, as he grabbed his medical kit and left.
“I refuse to believe that Betty’s been overcome by witchcraft,” Jill confided in her English Pointer the next morning, sprawled across her bed, sun peaking through the corner of her window.
“I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it—it was a mess—a real horrific scene. But witchcraft? I’m not convinced. Betty’s got a wild imagination, but to go as far as pretending to be overcome by the devil? Not Betty.”
The Pointer’s brown eyes seemed to calm Jill, if only for a minute. Her passionate nature didn’t seem to faze the mutt. She playfully ruffed up his spotted fur and nuzzled her cheek next to his. Just then, there was a knock on the door.
“Ms. Taylor, Thomas Green speaking. May I come in?”
“Go right ahead.”
Thomas entered, followed by two other men Jill couldn’t recognize by name, but was familiar with. One, a stocky fellow with an unkempt reddish brown beard and stain covered trousers, and the other, a blonde, frail, sorry excuse of a man.
“I suppose you heard about the incident last night… at the Parris’?” Tom began.
“I didn’t just hear about it sir, I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Well then you won’t be surprised to hear that four more accusations of witchcraft have come up in this village alone,” Tom continued as he made his way toward Jill and her mutt.
“Gosh no! Four? You don’t seriously believe the accusations, do you?” Jill tugged her puppy closer for comfort.
“Mrs. Berger, Sir Gilleon, Ms. Edwards and…”
There was an unpleasant pause.
The confusion in Jill’s eyes quickly turned stern. “Go on Mr. Green. Have they wrongfully accused me?”
“Not you Ms. Taylor. Your mutt over here. He’s been accused of being a witch.”
Jill’s forehead creased as her eyebrows painted a baffled look across her fair skin. The two men accompanying Mr. Green seized the mutt, and through whimpers and scraping paws on the wooden floor, Jill’s best friend was taken away.
Jill, not aware of what she was doing, got up from her bed and started towards Mr. Green. Her arms flailing, Jill attacked Thomas Green.
“You’re accusing a dog for goodness sakes! A dog! How could a dog be a witch Thomas? How could a dog be a witch?”
Thomas, a good foot taller than Jill, grabbed hold of the young girl and pushed her onto the bed. His hands over her wrists, he quickly subdued her. He stared blankly into her eyes as she desperately tried to catch her breath.
“It’s not me who’s gone accusing your pooch, Ms. Taylor. Ralph McGregor says your pup’s put a spell on his hens. Whenever he gets around ‘em, they go wild.”
“Mr. Green, listen to yourself! Hens go wild when any dog goes near ‘em. It’s nature Mr. Green. Not witchcraft—nature!”
“I’m goin’ let you go now, Ms. Taylor. Don’t make me regret my decision. Every accusation’s got to be accounted for. Good day.”
And with that, he left. Jill’s green eyes lost their sparkle as they became engulfed in tears. As if the world was crying with her, a soft pitter-patter began on her rooftop. First light, then heavy. The downpour helped to muffle Jill’s sobbing. When her pillow was as drenched as the grass outside, Jill turned over and lay on her back. She listened to the steady tapping of the raindrops above her. And to calm herself, she thought first of the rain soaking slowly into the already moist soil in her garden. She thought of the roots taking in the pure, clean, fresh water. Nature’s natural irrigation system. She thought of the grass—no, better—her baby rye seeds taking in nutrients from the soil. She thought of those baby rye seeds, oh how happy they had made her these past months. She laughed silently to herself, thinking of how her mutt would surprise her from behind as she’d care for the rye grain, toppling her over, the sound of her laughing and her dog barking along with her. They, her and her mutt, had bonded these past few months, over the rye grains. She’d collect the grain, bake bread, and slip her mutt a bite or two whenever Betty wouldn’t hog it all for herself.
Wait a minute. The rye grain!
Jill sat up in bed, retracing her thoughts—from the pitter-patter of the rain, irrigating the rye seeds—it had been an overly moist harvesting season. She retraced her thoughts on the nutrients entering the rye grain, her baking the bread, her serving the bread to Betty, and to her pooch. She herself never did fancy bread.
The bread? Jill often gave Mrs. Berger samples of her well-known delicious and uniquely baked bread. Mrs. Berger and Sir Gilleon often spent time together over tea—and bread? Ms. Edwards was known to steal Jill’s garden creations from time to time. Could Ms. Edwards have stolen some of her rye grain?
Jill’s head began spinning, throbbing. She rushed over to her book shelf, grabbing a book she knew all too well. She flipped erratically through dog eared pages and notes, stopping upon a chapter warning those caring for rye grain about one dangerous fungus disease—convulsive ergotism. Jill’s eyes focused on two sentences she’d previously underlined.
‘Ergot is caused by a fungus which invades developing kernels of rye grain, especially under warm and damp conditions…’
‘…if ingested, convulsive ergotism causes violent fits, crawling sensations on skin, vomiting, choking, and hallucinations…’
“Oh God, no,” Jill said under her breath. “I did this.”
Hackettstown, New Jersey
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