It was well after dark, time to set aside the herbs Susannah Layhem was sorting at the table. Time to blow out the candle and join her husband Nathan.
Nathan had worked since dawn, hard physical labor helping his younger brother build a home. The boy--Susannah couldn't help thinking of Nathan's younger brother George as a boy, even though he was a scant two years younger than her age of twenty--was getting married in a month. It made her smile to think about the couple moving in nearby and starting a family. If Patience, the bride, caught a baby soon after marriage, then she and Patience could raise their first children only a year apart. The two young women had already grown as close as sisters. Patience reminded her of the sister she'd lost years ago, in the rush of a flooded river. Susannah would be the experienced mother Patience looked to for guidance, and that would deepen their relationship further. If Patience could get out from under her mother's broad and smothering wing, that is.
Susannah had been working with horehound, useful for the coughs that came with winter. She'd also fashioned a number of packets of yarrow that could be grabbed in a hurry and used to staunch bleeding from harvest time accidents. The pungent odor of the yarrow filled her nostrils, reminding her why it was sometimes called Devil's Nettle.
Silly. If the Devil wanted to do a person harm, I doubt he'd need to use a little flower.
She gathered the remaining herbs from the table and placed them into a basket, then scrubbed her hands in a basin of water. Herbs were very useful, but some of them discolored her hands, added a bitter taste to any food she touched, or weren't good to be exposed to for a long time--especially with a baby growing inside her.
After blowing out the candle, she sat in the fading light of a dying fire in the fireplace, one hand on the swollen belly that rounded the front of her nightgown. Looking around the room, she felt warmly enclosed in the place she'd turned into a home. Sometime soon, she would sit and look at the fire while nursing her baby. She hoped that her baby would be born by the time Patience got married. The midwife said it would be so, and Susannah's healer's instincts agreed.
My baby. The name will be Resolved if a boy, Constanta if a girl. I hope a son first, for Nathan, then a girl for me the next time.
She'd thought those words so many times they were practically a prayer.
Nathan had gone to bed more than an hour ago. He'd come home in the dark, smelling of sweat and freshly-sawn wood, and gulped the meal she'd prepared. She heard his snoring from the other room with satisfaction. She could go to bed and not have to worry about Nathan's intentions, about his arms wrapping her and fumbling with raising her nightgown.
It was the only thing she faulted her husband for, and never aloud. He wanted to lie with her nearly every night, and at first, she enjoyed it--so much that she wondered about the wifely duty her mother had told her she must endure. It wasn't a duty to her. Nathan was a gentle lover compared to stories she had heard, involving her and not just taking his pleasure. As her birth time grew near, though, it became very uncomfortable for her, yet he kept on even after she told him that. She secretly dreaded his touch, his whispered, "Come here, wife," in the darkness.
Any other time we can shake the bed, but now I fear for my baby's life. Maybe it's a fear that doesn't make sense, but can't he wait a month or two?
Nathan told her that babies didn't suffer any consequences from a man's natural urges. What did he know? She hid from him the red stains she found on the sheet in the morning. Susannah loved her husband and wouldn't do anything to make him think less of her as a wife, so she tucked her fear away. That worked--mostly--during the daytime, but at night, worry crept back.
It was the kind of thing that slowly eroded marriages from the inside, but she didn't want to think about that. In a little while, she wouldn't have to deal with the issue for another year, and maybe by then his newlywed's ardor would have cooled enough that he would grant her a few weeks' peace.
Breathing a sigh of relief at his continued snoring, she rose and went into the room. Perching cautiously on the edge of the bed, she slipped her feet under the blanket and rested her head on the pillow.
Safe! At least for tonight.
She slept on her side, letting her belly rest on the bed, one arm cradling it. For some reason, that seemed to be the signal for her baby to kick. She would lie there unable to sleep for a while, but enjoying the feeling of life within her.
A thunderous knocking rattled the front door.
Susannah sat straight up in bed. Nathan was still asleep. He was so tired she could have clapped wooden plates next to his ear and he wouldn't have noticed. She shook him, hard.
"Nathan! Someone's at the door."
He got groggily to his feet. Few things brought a knock at the door at this time of night, and they were all bad.
A death, a birth going bad, a fire ...
Susannah's heart pounded in her throat as he crossed the room and went to the door. She heard the front door's familiar squeak as it swung open, but now it sounded sinister to her.
Patience! Something's happened to her.
There was a buzzing in Susannah's head, and she was dizzy. She heard men's voices from the other room, but couldn't make out the words because of the buzzing. Her dread grew as boots slapped the floor, coming in her direction, the men standing all too soon in the doorway. Three figures were backlit by the fireplace glow, with their faces darkened. She was breathing hard, open-mouthed, staring.
"Susannah!" Her husband's shout broke the frozen moment. "They're here to take you away!"
Two burly men pushed into the room after him. They were men she knew, villagers she'd known all her life.
Take me away?
Susannah pulled the blanket up and held it protectively below her chin, covering herself and her baby. Nathan crossed the distance toward her in the space of one of her gulped breaths. He threw himself across her legs, holding her down, holding his wife and child where they belonged.
"They say you're a witch. Your healing, those herbs… You've been accused, Susannah." Her husband stared at her from the foot of the bed. The flickering light painted his cheeks faintly red, but his eyes--his eyes were dark holes in his face. "You're not a witch. Say you're not a witch!" His voice bounced from the walls of the tiny bedroom and seemed to come at her from all sides at once.
She tried to use her voice but fear constricted her throat. All that came out was a low moan.
The men shoved Nathan aside and moved toward her. She gripped the blanket, her fingers locked around the cloth. She was tugged from the bed, dragging the blanket with her. Each man put an arm under one of her elbows, and she was propelled across the room, her feet barely touching the floor. At last a scream, a terrible wail, burst forth from her, and she twisted in their grasp toward Nathan. At the sound, her husband collapsed onto the bed and buried his face in her pillow.
Susannah huddled in the corner of the dark, windowless room, awaiting execution. The place smelled of damp dirt and the covered bucket in the corner that held her wastes. It was cold. No warmth drifted through the tightly-closed door from the fireplace in the jailer's room.
It had been three days since the men came at night, three horrible days filled with fear, pain, and betrayal. There had been a trial. Her accuser, a young village woman named Alice, pointed at her across the room, and gave details of afflictions she'd suffered from Susannah's practice of witchcraft. There wasn't a bit of truth to it, but Alice played her part grandly, crying, shivering, thrashing her limbs, and shrinking away pitifully if Susannah looked at her. Not only was Alice afflicted, but she testified that she had overheard Susannah planning to slaughter her husband and use his blood in the practice of witchcraft.
Nathan wasn't given an opportunity to speak on Susannah's behalf. As her husband, he couldn't be expected to give unbiased testimony. Friends and family turned from her, caught up in the swift-moving drama and willing to believe baseless accusations instead of trusting their inner feelings. Every accidental hurt Susannah had ever caused was paraded in front of the crowd and seen to support the claim of witchcraft. When Patience shook her head and left the room in tears, Susannah's heart broke. She cried out, and was swiftly gagged before she could utter any "curses."
The jailers callously mishandled her during the trial, and no one seemed to notice or care. More than once she'd been shoved and landed hard on her belly, denied even the comfort of cushioning her full womb from the fall. Her arms were tied behind her back and her fingers were wrapped together with rope to prevent her from making evil signs.
In her prison, in the middle of the night, birth contractions shook her body. Her muscles cramped and the tendons of her neck strained under her skin. Her hands clenched into fists, the fingernails cutting into her palms. Sweat drenched her clothing and her dark hair clung to her forehead and cheeks. It wasn't her time, she wasn't due until the harvest, but her baby was coming now. When she could breathe after each contraction, she screamed for pity, for a midwife to help her give birth, for someone to save the life of her baby. The jailer stopped his ears against the malevolent cries of a witch.
Hot blood rushed from between her legs. She could smell it in the dark. She was a healer who had helped midwives with births, using herbs and hot water, offering a hand to squeeze and comforting words. Susannah knew the blood was wrong. She cried out her anguish, but no one came.
Please, if my baby dies, let me die here with him.
She couldn't control the urge to push. With her back against the cold stone wall and her legs drawn up, she bore down. Her screams echoed in the room, again and again, as she strained and rested. One last mighty push and the infant slipped out onto the floor.
Susanna lay down next to the small body. In darkness as deep as a cave's, she could see nothing, but she could feel that the baby was flaccid, unmoving. Hope dying in her heart, she did what a midwife would do for a baby who appeared dead--try to share her own life with it. She placed her mouth over the baby's mouth and nose and breathed out in small puffs. Each time she lifted her head, she willed the baby to draw breath and begin crying.
After a while she stopped trying. Tears streamed down her cheeks and onto the still form, and she thought she felt the baby's soul fleeing the place of its miserable birth.
Contractions squeezed her womb and the ragged afterbirth slid onto the bloody floor. Unwelcome cramping stopped the flow of blood from her body, keeping her from dying with her baby. Susannah longed to pick her daughter up from the floor that was fouled with dirt, blood, and afterbirth.
She rested her head next to Constanta and tugged, for the hundredth time, on the bonds on her wrists that kept her from pressing her daughter to her breast.
The heat left the small body and the soft, perfect arms and legs locked into the stiffness of death.
The next morning the jailer opened the door to check on his charge. Susannah blinked as clean sunlight spread over the floor of the room. She gazed at Constanta, looking for the first and last time at her baby. Her daughter had dark, curly hair like her own. In the hours since the birth, Susannah had come to think it was a good thing that her daughter died quietly, here in this room with someone who loved her. Constanta wouldn't have to suffer the fate of being burned alive.
The jailer recoiled in horror at the blood and at the dead infant lying next to the witch and slammed the door. A midwife came and gathered the baby in a blanket and shoveled the afterbirth into a bucket, but made no effort to comfort or clean Susannah under the jailer's watchful eye. Susannah cried wretchedly, her body shaking. When the jailer turned his back, the midwife smoothed Susannah's hair and rested a palm against her forehead in a fleeting gesture of empathy. Then the woman stood and carried away her burdens.
My baby, my Constanta.
After that, Susannah's grief was hot and wordless. She rocked herself back and forth, back and forth, feeling a phantom baby suckling at her breast.
When she was forced to leave the room, her dress sagged over the soft belly of recent childbirth and the blood had dried, stiffening the cloth. Her appearance shocked the assembled townspeople. There was a thick silence as Susannah was tied to a post, a freshly-cut trunk that would outlast the fire. She twisted her wrists hard, feeling the bite of the rope into her flesh, drawing fresh blood. Her hands were slippery with it. With no past or future that she cared to think about, the narrow present of heartbeat-to-heartbeat was all that was left for Susannah.
Her body was drenched in sweat, but it wasn't clean sweat from honest work. She was bathed in mortal fear, anger, and bitterness. Even if she could slip free of the stout rope, it wouldn't make any difference. Young men were standing by to catch her if she succeeded. And what was there left for her anyway? She tried to console herself with the thought that her husband still loved her, but she was haunted by the emptiness in his eyes that night in the bedroom as she was dragged away.
So long ago. A lifetime ago. Constanta!
The voice of the magistrate droned on.
"Whereas Susannah, wife of Nathan Layhem of Trenton Village of the County of Essex at a special Court of Oyer and Terminer was arraigned on two indictments for the Crime of Witchcraft upon the body of Alice, daughter of John Hobbs and Rebecka wife of John and on one indictment of Petty Treason for plotting the death of her husband ..."
The glares of the gathered villagers struck her as if they were casting stones. Among them, hands on hips, face flushed, mouth leering, stood Alice Hobbs, the afflicted young woman who had cried out from the torment of Susannah's evil craft. Or so Alice had claimed. It was a lie.
"... trial whereupon she was found guilty by the Jury and sentence of death passed upon her for the Crime of Witchcraft and for the heinous crime of Petty Treason ..."
The only affliction Alice suffered from was jealousy. She'd wanted Nathan as her husband, but he'd chosen and married Susannah instead. Alice would try to claim his affection when Nathan was a widower, doubly bereft of wife and child, and in need of the comfort of a woman in his life and in his bed.
And I'll be nothing but a pile of bones and ashes with my soul moved on, and I'm not done with this life. I want to live, to see Constanta smile, to grow old with Nathan. I swear I would kill Alice if I could get my hands on her. She stole my life and soon my husband.
Susannah sent a blast of hatred toward the woman who'd ruined her life. She, a healer, had been driven to hate and to wish death on someone, and to be willing to deal out that death.
She pulled her wrists until pain blackened the edges of her vision. She saw Nathan as if looking through a tunnel. He seemed so far, impossibly far removed from her, even though he stood within the ring of onlookers.
"... by the law of this Colony and of England cause her to burn until she be dead."
She saw him fall to his knees and weep, overcome with emotion and shock at the horrible meaning of the blood on her dress. There was nothing he could do now but bear witness to her death.
They would have burned my baby alive inside me. They couldn't even show mercy and wait until Constanta was born to claim my life. Alice probably told them the baby would be born a witch, too. She didn't want my baby around to get between her and Nathan. She wants to be the one to bear his children. Forgive those who injured me? Never!
Alice smirked as one of the magistrates stepped forward with a torch and touched it to the dry brushwood piled around the post. The brushwood caught immediately. Susannah's stomach turned and she gagged. Bile burned her from the inside as the fire moved forward.
The heat, oh no, the heat!
She pulled her feet back as far as she could, pressing them against the post, hoping the sturdy green wood would somehow protect her. The fire reached her toes and the scent of burning ...somethingfilled her nostrils.
I'm going to die. Please, help me, help me, anyone! Help! I want to live!
She shrieked with her mind and her heart and a voice roughened with smoke. Bitterness flowed from her like a defiled river. She screamed her plea again and again, until pain seared her lungs and silenced her. The flames came higher still, and the heat singed off her eyelashes, set her hair afire, and burned her eyes so that she was blind. Coherent thoughts were driven from her mind as the fire began to consume her.