Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Scapegoat By Christine Bagley

An author interview the spirit of Bridget Bishop, the first woman hanged for witchcraft in 17th Century Salem Massachusetts; by Christine Bagley.

"Thou know not all of what thou write," said a strange voice.

It took me several seconds to awaken from the haze of a deep sleep. The room was cold and smelled of burnt wood, as if a window was open and a fire had just gone out. I sat up in bed and, peering across the room, saw the shadow of a woman sitting in a chair. A slow, eerie tingling started in the middle of my back, spread across my shoulders, ran down my arms and through my fingers.

"Who are you?" I whispered.

She sighed impatiently and said, "I am the one in thy book and I cannot stay but a few hours."

I groped in the dark for the lamp switch. Squinting from its glare, my eyes traveled up and down her body taking in every detail as if I myself had dressed her and was checking for mistakes. Her hair was wild, thick and black like a forest with a face. She was wearing a red bodice laced up with red, green, and yellow strings, and a white puffy blouse showing deep cleavage.

Her head tilted to one side and her chin was up as if challenging me to believe her.

"Dost thou know me now?"

I nodded, unable to find my voice. Bridget Bishop, the first person hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, and the protagonist in my novel.

My mouth went dry. Was my obsession with Bridget's story making me hallucinate? I'd been writing from eight in the morning until eleven o'clock at night for the past year, and even when I wasn't writing she was in my thoughts and in my dreams. Or perhaps the loneliness of widowhood was driving me insane. I closed my eyes and stuck my fingernail into the palm of my hand, pushing hard. But when I opened my eyes she was still there.

Her legs were crossed and her boot had a hole in the toe where a horrendous long, grey nail peeked out. I tried not to stare.

"Bloody frightful, is it not?" she said holding her leg up. "I did once bite them off but age came upon me and my reach did fail me!" She cackled like a crow and I couldn't help but smile. She was exactly what I had envisioned, leaving me in a state of aching uncertainty.

I was eighteen when I first became fascinated with Bridget Bishop. It was Halloween in Salem and as I walked down a brick sidewalk, I heard shouting. Turning, I saw several men dressed in Puritan costumes chasing a woman. She too was dressed in costume but not the conservative dress of the Puritans. Her scarcely covered breasts bounced as she ran and she held her skirt high over her boots. Frightened yet defiant, she yelled over her shoulder, "I am no witch! I am innocent!" I followed the actors toward Old Town Hall where a mock trial was to be held. I learned that the woman being portrayed was Bridget Bishop, who would be hanged for nothing more than eccentricity and a failure to conform. That day, I witnessed only a snapshot of what had happened in 1692, but the scene haunted me like the honking of the Nazis in The Diary of Anne Frank.

After Bridget stopped laughing, I asked, "Why have you come here?"
 "Dost thou not listen, writer? I am here to tell thee that which hath not been written afore."

"Why me? Why now?" I asked.

"No persons writ a book about me 'til now! The anniversary of my hanging is tomorrow. I have waited 300 years 'twixt heaven and earth to tell my story."

She was right. The next day would be June 10, 1992. If this was a dream, it was the most vivid dream I'd ever had. "Would you like a cup of tea?" I asked, throwing off the covers.

"Indeed." She rose from the chair and sauntered out of the room like a queen leaving court.

When I got downstairs she was staring out the kitchen window at the woods.

"How long hath thee lived in Andover?" she asked.

"Three years." I put the teapot on and set two cups on the table. "How do you take your tea?" I asked.

She turned and gave me an odd look. "I take it with my hand."

"I mean, do you like milk and honey in your tea?"

"Well why did thee not say that? And pray, what are those wee sacks in the cups? Art thou trying to poison me?"

"No Bridget. They're called tea bags. It's how we drink tea now."

"Humph," she said. "A bit of milk will do. I have no need for honey. I am sweet as I am, think ye not?" she asked, smirking.

I grinned, but I doubt her sarcasm had amused the Puritans. Bridget jumped when the teapot whistled, and I lifted it quickly off the burner. After pouring the tea, I sat down to drink, watching her and pinching my thigh.

"So," I said. "What don't I know?"

"I am parched, hurry me not," she said, slurping her tea and imitating the way I lifted my pinky. "A fancy lady, eh?" she asked, placing the cup noisily in the saucer.

"Not really, but my mother was."

"Never knew me mum. She passed when I entered this world."

"In Norwich, right?"

"Aye."

"There's so little personal information about you."

"Why the devil dost thou think I have come?" she asked, looking at me as if I was dense.

Hiding a smile, I grabbed a notebook and pencil from the counter.

Sitting down, I said, "Whenever you're ready."

"Dost thou know how it began?"

"I'd like to hear it directly from you."

"In those days, 'twas two Salems, Salem Town and Salem Village," said Bridget.

I nodded, remembering my frustration with the research on where the lines were drawn.

"Salem Town was a prosperous seaport and took in Beverly and Marblehead. Salem Village took in Danvers and Peabody. Within Salem Village, a separation was wrought, one side seeking free religion, and the other holding fast to Puritan laws.

"Thomas Putnam was a great landowner in Salem Village. 'Twas his daughter, Ann, who danced in the moonlight with her friends and got found out. Said they were bewitched so they would get not in trouble. They were sly they were, placing the blame on those less privileged. Putnam and the elders brought forth charges against Sarah Good, a wizened beggar, Sarah Osborne, an old wretch, and Tituba, a slave of Reverend Paris. Dost thee not think 'tis cowards who mark women of little means and unusual character?"

I nodded.

Bridget drank her tea and held her pinky up. "I lived in Salem Town. But they mistook me for my daughter-in-law, Sarah Bishop of Salem Village. I had not a tavern like they said, 'twas Sarah and Edward who owned the tavern."

"So they got you confused with Sarah Bishop when they indicted you?"

She nodded.

I snapped my fingers. "That's why you said at the trial that you never knew the people who accused you from Salem Village. You never lived there."

"I told them, I never saw these persons before, nor I never was in this place before. It helped not that I dressed with color and spoke my mind, and it mattered not if I was Sarah Bishop or Bridget Bishop. They had their scapegoat."

"Weren't you allowed counsel?"

"I was naught but mud on their boots. Kept in jail for twenty-three days I was, in the most shameful of conditions, until they hanged me on June 10."

Her imprisonment must have reminded her of the meager rations she received because her next question came out of nowhere. "Dost thou have corn soup?"

"No I don't. Would you like some breakfast?"

"I wouldst."

"I'll make you a fritatta."

"Eh?"

"You cook mushrooms, peppers and onions, then add eggs and cheese and bake it in a skillet."

"Aye, I shall eat that," she said, putting her cheek in her hand.

Bridget watched while I prepared our breakfast, sipping her tea and scratching her throat. I'd noticed a red welt around her neck in the morning light of the kitchen and I felt a stab of compassion envelop me.

"Does your neck hurt?" I asked softly.

"Like a pox that wilt not leave my person."

I scooped the fritatta onto a plate and offered it to her.

After breakfast Bridget tried to help me clean up. As I sprayed the faucet hose around the sink she screamed. "It's a bloody serpent!" she yelled, grabbing it from me as it squirted the window and counters. I took hold and put it back in its place.

"Bridget. It's only a hose," I said, putting my hand gently on her arm.

She held her head with her hands, eyes wide with fear. It struck me then that Bridget had confronted intimidation, humiliation, and a hanging, yet a modern day appliance had scared the bejesus out of her.

"Why don't you sit down and I'll finish up."

She nodded and took a shaky breath. I stacked the dishes while she observed everything I did, her eyebrows furrowing as I pressed the button to start the dishwasher.

In my writing room at the back of the house, where long windows faced the fields and woods, I explained to Bridget how a computer worked. She sat in the chair beside me with her mouth open and eyes narrowed, as the words she spoke appeared on the screen. "Saints in heaven," she said.

At one point, she sat back and waved her arm at the windows. "Dost thou own this property?"

"Yes," I said. "My husband and I moved to Andover three years ago, but he died in a car accident." My heart raced at the thought of Connor.

"I was twice a widow. I am sorry your husband has passed, but you are fortunate to live in these times. Women owned naught in my day. We were nary more than farm animals. It mattered not that my second husband, Thomas, struck me and I struck back. We were gagged and tied for public misbehavior. Made us stand in the marketplace for hours, they did."

I shook my head and typed what she said.

"Samuel Wasselbee, my first husband, was a good man. I was but twenty years old when we wed at St. Mary-on-the-Marsh. He passed before I moved to Salem."

"So you moved here by yourself?"

She tossed her hair back. "I sought freedom in a new world. My charm and handsome countenance served me well, think ye not?"

Still typing, I said, "Your beauty lies in your passion for life, Bridget. Which is part of what did you in."

"'Twas the times that did me in," she said after a while. "That and a cunning twat named Mary Walcott."

Chuckling, I asked, "Did you use that word then?"

"Which word?"

"Twat."

"I cannot remember what I might've called her, bitch, twat, what matter of importance is it?"

I shrugged.

"The woman shouted in court that I bewitched her brother, that he tore my coat fighting off my specter. They examined my coat and I had a tear in the same place he said he tore it. They convicted me on spectral evidence, saying my ghost bewitched him. What wouldst thou call her?"

I frowned as her eyes searched mine for the truth. Finally I answered, "A fucking twat."

Bridget laughed, and I picked up my manuscript, flipping to a page marked with a red tab.

"Tell me about the physical examination."

"I wouldst rather birth in the public square than go through that again."

"What did they do?"

"Eight days afore my hanging, Sheriff Corwin ordered Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Proctor and Susanna Martin to examine my person whilst I bent over. Said they found the teat of a witch betwixt my pudendum and my anus."

Groaning, I said, "Didn't they examine you a second time and say it was dry skin?"

"Aye."

I shook my head at their stupidity.

"They waited to hang me until after June 8, when the General Court brought back a law saying witchcraft was punishable by hanging. Two days later, I swung from a tree on Gallows Hill."

"You never stood a chance," I said, shaking my head again.

"Nay. But who the devil were they to tell me how to live my life? Only my savior can do that."

"So you believe in God?"

"Named my daughter Christian, did I not?"

"Yes, of course."

"I was the first to go," she said quietly. "They used me to scare the others."

"I know."

"Never did I think they would go that far, I can tell you that."

I paused.

About the others who had accused her: Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, and Mercy Lewis, Bridget would only call them squawking hens. It was Mary Walcott and the minister, Cotton Mather, who wrote the condemning pamphlets, who she blamed the most.

"I could have said I was a witch and been done with it. Deliverance Hobbs and Mary Warren did it and saved themselves." Frowning, she added, "Deliverance went daft. I know not which is worse, ending it, or being mad 'til you die."

"Why didn't you just confess?" I asked.

"Because I was no witch!" she said, holding her palms up like a petulant adolescent. I am innocent as the child unborn, I told Judge Hawthorne and that son of a sick pig, Corwin."

"If you had it to do again, would you have given in and told them what they wanted to hear?"

She looked straight at me with red-rimmed eyes full of sorrow.

"I tell thee now that which I told them at the trial, I know not what a witch is." And then she added, "I would stay as God made me full of life and free as a crow."

I sighed, wishing I could go back and change her fate.

Bridget had to go to the bathroom and I showed her how to use the toilet and flush the chain. I heard her muttering then laughing, flushing several times before she returned.

"I want to tell thee something else thou wilt get not from thy research."

"About the politics?"

"Nay - the fornication! I was always on top," she said proudly with her hands on her hips. "Rode my men like a horse!"

I laughed as she sat down.

"I remember the first time with Samuel," she continued. She stared at the woods with a faraway look on her face. "'Twas after the wedding at the inn. Thought I was an afeared young bride. Got the surprise of his life he did.

"Women in those days were hypocrites. 'Twas their duty, they said, whilst they primmed and pranced to the bedchamber. I pretended naught. Never was I false about anything in my life."

She daydreamed out the window while I typed.

"I took pleasure in the company of men," she said. "Held many a gathering at my home and we had our share of cider."

"The cider got you into a bit of trouble didn't it?"

"I made money is why. Sold it on the side and all, but they found me out. 'Twas when the first accusation came about. Wanted a share of my profits so they said I bewitched my husband, Thomas.

"I told them, if it please your worship I know nothing of it. Wasn't for Reverend Hale, Pastor of the Church of Christ in Beverly, I would have gone to jail then. But as I was wont to do, I sought another way.

"How so?"

"I sold herbs."

"Herbs?"

"My grandmother schooled me in herbal medicine in Norwich. Even in her day the growing of herbs wrought accusations of witchcraft. They said witchcraft was passed down through the mother. 'Twas why many a mother and daughter were accused or hanged. Sarah Good and her daughter, Dorcas, Ann Foster and her daughter, Mary, and Abigail Faulkner and both her daughters."

My eyes filled as I thought of all the innocent men, women, and young girls herded into jails or hanged because of fear and ignorance.

"What kind of herbs?" I asked after a few moments.

"Fennel for snakebites, marjoram for coughs, sage for fever, cilantro for stomach pain, and parsley root for the joints. And I grew jimson weed, which doth made thee forget all thy ailments!"

"Jimson weed?"

"Look not at me that way. Every generation hath its spirits, though ye must be careful of the jimson weed. Give more than needed and it wouldst take thee life. 'Twas called jimson weed for it began with the early settlers in Jamestown, Virginia. They used it to ease pain 'til the villagers learnt it made them dream whilst they were awake!"

"You keep surprising me Bridget," I said. "Your third husband, Edward, didn't come to your defense at the final trial. Were you hurt by that?"

"I did not expect a coward like Edward Bishop ever would. If I got hanged, he got all the property bequeathed to me from Thomas. Edward thought they would accuse him too so he shut his mouth and went along. The bastard wed again right after they hanged me."

"I'm so sorry, Bridget."

She looked at me surprised. And then her eyes glistened. "No person ever said that to me afore." She bowed her head and when she looked at me again her face was wet with tears.

"Someone should have," I said, trying not to cry myself. I stood up. "Let's get some fresh air."



We sat on the Adirondack chairs facing the woods. The sky had turned a somber gray and a warm breeze blew across the field. I wondered if it carried the transgressions of the past.

Bridget was quiet. I looked at her long, graceful nose, large lips and straight chin. Although she had the fair skin of the English, her fiery personality brought color to her cheeks as if they were sunburned. I could see why three men had wanted to marry her. But resiliency and determination were also evident in her countenance. Perhaps the same strength that had driven them toward her later drove them away.

"Thou art holding the memory in thy head?"

"Yes."

She turned her head and smiled. Her teeth were not bad for someone who'd probably never been to a dentist. She was swinging her foot and I looked down at the ugly toenail protruding from her boot.

"Excuse me," I said, and headed back in the house.

"Why dost thou leave?" she yelled.

"I'll be right back," I said. From the bathroom, I grabbed nail clippers and a bottle of bright red nail polish and hurried back outside.

"What the devil are those?" she asked with a scowl on her face.

"Nail clippers and polish for your toe," I said kneeling down and pressing hard on the clippers. "If it's going to stick out of your boot, then it might as well look pretty."

When I finished, Bridget clapped her hands and laughed. "'Tis the same color as my bodice!"

"Of course," I said. "I could do your hair."

"How?"

"French braid it."

"I hate the French."

"They have nothing to do with it. It's what they call it, see?" I pulled my braid up into the air and showed her how it was intertwined. "It'll be fun," I said.

"Suit thy self," she said, but I could tell she was amused.

I went back in the house and ran upstairs to the linen closet. I pulled out a brush, comb, bobby pins, elastics, and a mirror. I wondered when the last time was that Bridget had looked at herself in the mirror. Then I grabbed a jar of moisturizer and warmed a facecloth under the tap before I went back outside.

"Were thou napping, dearest?"

"Well I'm not as quick as you," I said. "Now sit still." For the next half hour I French braided Bridget's hair, which nearly touched her waist. I gently washed her face and used the moisturizer to soften her skin. When I finished and stood back I was not surprised at how beautiful she looked.

"Here. Look."

"They say a mirror wilt capture the soul of a dead person."

I could feel the goose bumps on the back of my neck. "Where did you hear that?" I asked.

"Thou must remember I am from a superstitious country. What was not understood - the plague or a bad harvest - 'twas blamed on witchcraft.

I nodded.

"Hast thou lovers?"

"No," I said wondering what made her think of that.

"Why not? Keeps thy youth."

"I'm not ready."

"Ah. You mourn him still."

Barely above a whisper I answered, "Every day."

She stared at me but said nothing.

"Did you ever have any female friends you could talk to? Someone you trusted?" I asked.

"Most women cared not for me. They did not understood that I was living my own life is all, in a land held fast by men."

"But didn't you realize, dressed like that, being contentious, you were doing more than surviving?"

"I know not what thou say," she said.

My voice had an edge to it. "Didn't you know that you were attracting attention and that it was the wrong kind of attention? Weren't you afraid of being so rebellious?"

"Indeed. Dost thee not think I despised spending weeks in a jail with moldy food and dirty water? Dost thee not think I was disgusted by the smell of my own waste two feet from my person? They were trying to shame me and I was damned if I would let them. I could not bear their hypocrisy."

"You were a feminist, Bridget."

"A who?"

"Someone who believes in equality for all women. Exactly what you were fighting for, although it didn't have a label then."

"A feminist, eh? Some good it did!"

I cringed, but she was laughing. I was amazed by her ability to rebound. I wanted her to stay forever, live in my world, and be my friend.

"I am hungry once more," she said.

"Can you stay for dinner?"

"I suppose," she said, but seemed unsure. "I must bring something to the table," she said finally. "I will come back."

She stood up and disappeared into the woods. I had no idea where she was going or when she would be back. I headed into the house and pulled a chicken out of the freezer.



As I was peeling potatoes she came in the back door carrying a hefty jug.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Cider."

"Where did you get it?"

"In good time, writer," she said, grunting as she lifted the jug on to the counter. "Now take heed, drink too much and thou wilt land on thy buttocks!"

"Well then pour away," I said, looking out the window and wondering where in hell she got the jug. "Glasses are in the cupboard."



"It is not unlike Thanksgiving," said Bridget, helping herself to the mashed potatoes. "Thou cook well. The chicken is tender, and the gravy has much flavor."

"Thank you," I said. "Your cider's wonderful," I added, raising my glass for more. "I've never tasted anything like it.

"Nor will thee again," she said.

My expression changed. "Meaning?"

"I must leave soon. And afore I go, thou shall know something of utmost importance."

"I don't want you to leave," I said before thinking.

"Thou hath much work to do. Thou must finish the book and tell my story."

"I know that," I said, unexpectedly filled with grief and longing. I was close to tears but kept on going. "I miss having someone to talk to. My husband was everything to me and I didn't realize it would be so hard." Embarrassed, I looked away, blinking the dampness from my eyes. "I'm not strong like you. I've always admired people who fight to the bitter end for what they believe in. I can only go so far and then I end up compromising."

"Women art strong, oft times stronger than the men. They bleed, they bear children, they do the work of a man, whilst pretending the men are all knowing. If thou were not strong, thou would care not for a large property, thou would rise not in the morning, dress, cook, or write a book. Thou art moving on with life - it is not what it was, is all."

"Writing and sharing a life with my husband was all I ever needed."

To my surprise, I began to cry.

"Easy now. The cider has gone to thy head." She leaned over and put her hand on my shoulder. "Everyone needs a good cry. Thou art too afraid of showing what is inside."

"But I don't want to be weak!"

"Thou thinks crying makes thee weak?"

"Yes."

"Well thou shall scream or holler if thou cannot cry. 'Twas what I did."

It was all I needed to hear from the woman I'd long admired for her bravery. Deep heavy sobs erupted as I vomited my anguish. I cried for my husband whose death I'd never fully mourned, too afraid of not being able to get back up if I broke down. I cried for Bridget who'd been all alone in the fight for her life. And I cried for all the times I'd walked away instead of standing my ground even if it meant standing alone.

After a while my body stopped heaving. I took a cleansing breath and felt a sense of release and calm, as if I thought I'd done something terribly wrong but then found out it wasn't my fault.

"Good. 'Tis time to make right the history. Fetch thy notebook."

I was back in seconds. She looked at me like a child hiding candy. I flipped to a clean page and snapped my pen.

"The rope that should have broken my neck was wrongly knotted. I had air enough to keep breathing."

"What are you saying?" I whispered, "That you survived?"

"Indeed. My daughter, Christian, Sarah Lord Wilson of Andover, and a gravedigger named Caleb Butler, came to my rescue."

"Sweet Jesus," I said as I wrote furiously, a euphoric sense of justice spreading through me.

"The villagers stayed not, ashamed perhaps by their silence. When the last person walked away, Christian, Sarah, and Caleb climbed to the platform and cut the noose. They wrapped me in blankets and put me in a wooden cart. Caleb threw dirt in the grave that he was told to dig for me. We rode fast out of Salem through Salem Village, 'til we arrived in Andover."

I paused when Bridget said this.

"They took me to a cottage four miles into the woods on land called The Indian Ridge."

I looked up with an incredulous look. "Here?" I gasped. "On my land?"

She nodded, smiling wide.

"Christian brought me back to health and we lived out there," she said pointing toward the woods, "Near a grove of apple trees. Ten years later, I died from a cold in my chest. I stayed hidden and dressed in Puritan clothes, and I kept silent for once. Caleb brought supplies and sold my cider. No other persons ever knew what happened that day."

I looked up and Bridget was watching my reaction. Then I jumped from my chair and threw my arms around her. "You won! You outsmarted the bastards! I can't believe it!"

I was laughing and crying at the same time.

"Believe it."

I sat down, turning back the pages and reading my notes in delight. When I started to say something, I realized she was gone. I ran to the back door and put on the floodlights but there was no sign of her. I called her name again and again but only silence answered. I felt abandoned, like a close friend had suddenly died. Hours later as I lay in bed staring at the wall, I wondered if I would ever see her again.

The next morning I woke up early. All day I hoped Bridget would appear. But she never did. It was dusk when I looked outside, drawn to the woods like a child to a forest in a fairy tale. And then I sprinted out the back door and across the field. For over an hour I walked and ran, calling her name. My sneakers and jeans were splattered with mud, and I could hear the pounding of my feet as they hit the leaves and broke branches.

I finally stopped and stood still, breathing heavily. It was quiet in the woods; not even a bird peeped. As dusk cast its purple gold spell through the trees, I turned around smelling apples. Then I saw the remnants of a brick wall and stones from a partial fireplace.

I moaned softly and leaned against a tree. The flutter of wings caused me to look up at the darkening sky. Directly overhead, within a small patch of orange light, a large black crow paused in mid-air. Watching the crow, I began to feel an intense wave of empowerment starting at the top of my head, then streaming down my throat and into my chest. It poured into my stomach and rippled through my groin, flowing through my thighs and crashing down my legs into my feet.

I closed my eyes and stood in place for several minutes after it had washed over me. When I opened my eyes, the crow was still there.

7 comments:

  1. this is absolutely first class. brilliantly descriptive, lovely use of language, old and new!
    you really feel for the writer and Bridget as they describe their fates.


    Michael McCarthy

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    1. Thank you Michael. Feeling for the writer and Bridget is high praise, and I appreciate you taking the time to make your comment.

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  2. I'm with Michael. This is outstanding. I almost passed over it, thinking it might not be something I'd be interested in. I couldn't have been more wrong. Both characters absolutely come to life here (and such a emotional draw) with fine touches such as the French braid and the toe nail. Well done, Christine.

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    1. Thank you for your wonderful feedback, Jim. The "emotional draw" is what I was hoping for for my readers.

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  3. So very well written. I must tell you I was sorry the story ended.

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    1. Your comments are truly appreciated, The fact that you were sorry the story ended is the best compliment I could receive. Thank you.

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    2. I couldn't ask for more than to hear from a reader that they were sorry the story ended. Thank you!

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