By Zamora McBride, ’23
It was the early spring of 1692. The days were longer, and the ground was greener. Salem Village was less lively than usual. Everyone seemed on edge. Bridget Bishop, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, and Susannah Martin had all been executed for “witchcraft.” Every time a woman was persecuted and killed, I made sure to remember her name. I know if it were me, I’d want someone to remember mine. And honestly, I could be next. I’d be the first person executed who was an actual witch. A demonic being from hell who possessed folks into committing treacherous sins. An evil and dangerous creature with horrific intentions. Their idea of us made me laugh.
Life was hard for women. Harder for black women and men. Mama was born into the house, second generation. I never met her mother, my grandma, since she died right before I was born. But my grandpa, he was my best friend. He was a kind man with gentle features and crooked teeth, who even after a long day of work or violent beating, would always try to make me smile. I fell in love with Caesar ’cause he reminded me of him. Grandpa was much darker than the rest of us, and therefore always forced to work in the fields. That endless labor is what got him in the end. I was with him right before he died, even held his hand. I remember that day clearly since it was the same day I met Caesar. Grandpa held my hand tightly and looked me in the eyes, clearly not wanting to show how afraid he was. But how could he not be? If the next life were to be as painful as this one, I’d be afraid too. He motioned for me to lean forward, and when my right ear was practically touching his lips, he said: “Don’t tell a soul.” Seemed ominous for an old man’s last words, but at the time, I was so petrified and miserable that I never read too deep into them. My grandpa died with me by his side in a small stick house with dirt floors, the slave quarters. To this day, that still makes me angry. He deserved to die like a king.
But as spring finally rolled around, over two years later, I started to think about what he had said, and it all made sense. Women were being executed for practicing witchcraft, white women. If I was discovered, they’d burn me at the stake. Mama and my three sisters, Rebecca, Mary Ann, and Lucy, weren’t like me. They were normal. And though the rest of my family was oblivious, Mama knew. I guess Grandma was like me. So as more and more women, innocent women, were being murdered, for power only I possessed, she grew more cautious, protective. Afraid I would accidentally do something that would get me in trouble, get me killed. I rarely used my powers, and when I did, they were almost always undetectable. Like warming up our house when cold air would get through the cracks of the walls or cleaning my sisters’ dresses when they got too dirty. No one ever really noticed except for Mama, not even Papa knew. But as the number of executions grew, Mama got more scared, so we now slept in the cold.
Caesar was murdered around the same time those poor women were killed. He was a Native-American boy, sold to the house right before my grandpa died. As a fifteen-year-old slave girl with a broken heart, he managed to make my days somewhat bearable. We were both lucky enough to be assigned work in the house. Sometimes even the same station like the garden or kitchen. Our masters were from old English money, so their house was ginormous. This allowed us to speak with one another without the fear of being heard. So as the years went by, we both realized our friendship wasn’t platonic. And though it was illegal, it was worth the risk.
He loved me, I’m sure of it. It’s crazy to me how a white woman’s words are always the truth. Always worth more than the truth, and evidence. How everyone believed her bogus story about him cornering her in an alley. Her screaming for help, and surprisingly no one heard her. On a Friday night, in a busy town, at 9 o’clock. Mary Willis. Mary Willis, the victim. Before that night, I’d seen her a few times when I was ordered to go into town. She never really stood out to me until that night. An average girl with a small frame. Always wearing a large and colorful dress with extravagant accessories, so everyone knew she had money. Porcelain skin and short brown hair. A polar opposite to me with my raggedy brown dress and white bonnet. Black, frizzy, “unkempt” hair and skin that made me disappear in the night. That following Saturday morning, a group of fifteen men from Hidden Lake broke into the slaves quarter where Caesar lived with pitchforks and rope. Fifteen grown men for one 17-year-old boy? They tore his house apart, setting fire to the few items inside of it, leaving his poor mother and sister scared to death and homeless. I saw them take Caesar through the small window of my house. My parents wouldn’t let me go out cause they said it was dangerous, but I should have. I’m stronger than all those men combined. With one summoning spell, they’d all be dead. But I wasn’t there for him, and he needed me. I’m a coward. They dragged him through town, and with that rope, hung him up in the town square on a large oak tree in its center. A 17-year-old boy whose last glimpse of the world would be of hate, directed at him. The worst part isn’t that he loved me, it’s that he was innocent.
The morning after Caesar’s death, I struggled to get out of bed. I couldn’t even move, I just felt paralyzed. No matter how hard I tried, my mind would always wander to memories of him and me together. I would momentarily smile when this would happen, then I’d remember that he was gone. After that, all I could think about was revenge. Hatred wasn’t a feeling I’d grown accustomed to. Though plenty of people hated me, I’d always decided hating them back wouldn’t change anything. And hating people just took too much work. But Mary Willis, I hated that girl with every fiber in my body. Not only had she stolen the love of my life, but with no good reason. And why him of all people? The kindest soul in the entire town, maybe the entire world. Though I was still young, my powers were strong. Being a witch wasn’t something I publicized for obvious reasons, but I had never been ashamed. I had been granted a gift, and I was going to use it to kill Mary Willis.
On Wednesday, a group was permitted to bring Caesar home. It took a while since those evil men from Hidden Lake wouldn’t allow it. They wanted to make an example of him. Though I tried to avoid it, I saw Caesar once when I was forced to go into town on Monday. I was crossing the cobblestone street, walking towards the tailor’s shop when I saw him. Like a fallen angel, he hung there. Quietly, almost peaceful. Well, as peaceful as one can be with a broken neck. I’d quickly turned around, afraid that if I stared at him any longer my eyes would light on fire. Or even worse, I would cry. Right then and there, in front of everyone. I wanted to scream, but I knew if I had, someone would tell my Master, and there’d be hell to pay. So I fixed my posture and looked forward as if nothing had happened. As I finished crossing the street, I saw a man, one of the men who I had seen taken Caesar. He stared straight at me, and it was clear he had seen my reaction. The crooked smile on his face and piercing eyes showed that he was pleased, almost proud of himself. They loved to see me scared.
The next day, while I was polishing the kitchen floor, my Master’s wife, Lady Agnes, walked over to me. She was a short, plump woman with long red hair that was turning grey and white near the roots. In my 17 years of living here, I had only ever caught her wearing some elegant dress made of either velvet, satin, or silk. Her dresses were always highly decorated with fancy buttons and lace, something you’d expect from a queen. Lady Agnes always carried around the same plain white silk handkerchief. I’ve never been sure, but I’d guess it was a gift from her late son, Robert, who had been killed in a hunting accident a few years back. She was the only person in the house who remembered my name. A kind woman, well as kind as one could be as a slave owner. “Ruth, come over here darling.” She ushered me towards the corner of the kitchen where she stood, handkerchief clenched in her left hand. “Go get yourself a group of other girls,” she continued. “I need y’all to go clean the house of a friend of mine. I owe her a favor, you see. ” I nodded obediently and awaited any further orders. “I’ll go fetch Richard to lead you to the house. You’re dismissed.”
For the job, I chose my eldest sister, Mary Ann, and five other girls who all lived in the same slave quarters. I found them all together in the garden. Richard was already there, perfect. Richard was Lady Agnes’s youngest son. He was a sinister boy, one who knew he had power and exploited it against his slaves. Against his female slaves. Though his parents never noticed, it was evident to the other slaves working for the house. The way he would always get closer than necessary and volunteer to “help out” the women and girls. He was the only person I had ever been afraid of. Not because he was a creep but because if he ever tried to touch my sisters or me, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. He’d be dead in an instant, and then we’d all be killed.
He guided us down a long path through the woods near the back of the house. I’m forced to spend most of my days in the house, only ever going out when I have to run an errand in town or water the plants in the garden. Though this is a blessing in the winter, during the warmer months, I often catch myself looking through the large windows of Master’s house, daydreaming. So though it was brief, it was kind of nice to be outside, minus the creep. The path was windy and long, difficult to travel in the scorching sun of July. The ground was dusty and rocky, so bad that Mary Ann fell. Near the end, there were lush green trees that blocked out the sun, distracting me from the heat. And that’s when I saw it. Richard walked next to Harriet, another girl who worked for the house, with his hand a little too far down her back. Everyone else had noticed and looked the other way, while she walked next to him, looking terrified, too afraid to speak. Before I could even stop myself, he was on the ground, looking around bewildered and surprised. I knew that if I’d killed him, it would be too obvious, and we’d all be to blame. But if he were to accidentally trip over a rock and land so hard that he broke his nose, well. He quickly got up and looked around at each of us threateningly, as if we made him trip. I don’t think he even realized the blood dripping from his nose until a small puddle had formed at the base of his feet. The rest of the walk there was silent. For once, Richard kept his distance.
A few minutes later, we finally reached the house. It was larger than the Master’s and completely white, with a luscious garden in the front yard that likely extended to the back. Cleaning this house with only seven of us was gonna be a challenge. Richard walked up to the front door and knocked lightly on its white wood with his only available hand. When someone finally opened the door, he looked at them, embarrassed. And I looked at them, furious. There she was, Mary Willis, standing there holding the door. She was wearing a large green dress that did nothing for her complexion and had her hair in a bun that showed off her long giraffe neck. Images of Caesar appeared in my mind. Caesar and I talking in the kitchen, Caesar holding my hand in the garden, Caesar hanging on a tree. She must have noticed the disdain in my eyes because she walked straight up to me, completely ignoring Richard at the door. “Is there a problem?” she asked. “People who look at me that way often wind up dead.” What did she say? I swiftly plastered a smile on my face and met her gaze. “Of course not, Miss. I apologize if I disrespected you.” There was a long silence as everyone watched to see what she would do next. Mary looked me up and down, seemingly unimpressed, then motioned us all to follow her inside.
The interior was gorgeous, absolutely breathtaking. Unfortunately, I barely even noticed. I was seething inside. She killed him, she murdered Caesar. And afterward, she got to come home to this extravagant house and be served by her servants and slaves. We all followed her to the grand staircase in the center of the house. I noticed that Richard wasn’t there with us. Probably went off to see if anyone could fix his nose. I momentarily grinned at the thought. “Mom and Dad want every room in the house cleaned to exceptional standards,” she began. “The floors must be polished, the windows so clear I can see my reflection at night. We will accept nothing less. And you must be done by nightfall, we have important company tonight. “ With that, she promptly left the room, likely too disgusted to be in our presence any longer.
Everyone went to a separate room, hoping we would finish sooner if we divided the area. I decided to go to the kitchen, where it was the most open and welcoming. Hopefully, there, I’d be able to hear something that would help me bring this girl down. Most of the interior was wood, a deep brown that contrasted nicely with the bright exterior. Though the house was larger, the kitchen was much smaller than Master’s, giving me hope that we may be able to finish cleaning this house after all. Doing jobs like this could be so tedious since, with one stroke of my finger, I could clean the entire house. Sometimes I imagined what my life would be like if I could use my powers freely without fear of persecution or death. Then, I imagine what it would be like if I could live my life freely. What would I do? Would I help people or exploit my power against others, the way the Masters do now? I’ll never understand what makes them so much better than us.
A few hours passed, and I was finally finishing up in the kitchen when a group of men walked in. They were following Mary and a woman that was likely her mother towards the large dining table, parallel to the kitchen. Mary saw me and briefly stopped, surprised that I was still there. I’m guessing these men were important, so my presence wasn’t ideal. She walked over to me gracefully, careful not to cause a scene, while her mother gestured for the men to sit at the table. “Do you see those platters on the table?” she barked. “Good, now take them to the dining table and serve those men as your life depends on it. Don’t look them in the eyes, don’t speak unless called upon, and above all, be quick.” With that, Mary curtsied at the men to show that she was leaving and walked out of the room.
I followed Mary’s instructions and quickly served the group. By listening to their conversation, it was clear that these men were important. One wrong move and I really could wind up dead. I was placing a platter of something that looked like ham when one of them finally mentioned something that spiked my interest. “Thomas, they’re everywhere. They blend into the crowd, but honestly, one could be living in our own homes and we wouldn’t know.” The person speaking was a middle-aged man with dark brown hair and a greying beard. He looked anxious. “John, it’s fine, you need to relax. Not a single one has hurt anyone, we catch them right on time,” the man whom I’m guessing was Thomas replied. “And hell, if I found out one of my daughters was one, I’d kick the barrel myself.” Though they were only speaking with one another, all the other conversations dwindled, likely captivated by its topic. A short, plumped man with a monocle chimed in. “ It brings me no greater pain to imagine how many of those creatures live among us. But as Thomas said, we can’t live in fear. God is watching us, he hears our prayers. Eventually, this nightmare will end.” The man’s short speech seemed to put everyone else at ease and they quickly switched the conversation. But if what they had said was true, I now had a plan that might work.
I looked around and saw Mary’s mother sitting in the far corner of the living room, sewing what was likely one of her husband’s suits. I walked over to her graciously, making sure to be as discreet as possible. “Excuse me, ma’am, I’m sorry to disturb you. I was wondering where I could find a bathroom.” She barely acknowledged me. She didn’t even look up. Had she even heard me? “We have bathrooms outside near the slave quarters for people like you. You best be quick though, you are on the job,“ she replied. I could see where Mary got the attitude. I had finished serving all the men, so while they were distracted, I quickly ducked out to the backyard where supposedly the bathroom would be. As I walked across the grass towards the slave quarters, I noticed I had been right about my previous predictions on the garden. It was even more impressive in the backyard than it had been in the front yard, harvesting all types of plants and flowers. Caesar would have loved this.
The bathroom was filthy, much worse than the one in the slave quarters at Master’s estate. It smelt and looked as if it hadn’t been clean in years. There was likely more fungus growing in that bathroom than there were plants in the garden. I sat down on the small toilet in the corner and attempted to calm myself down. If I went through with this plan and it worked, she would no doubt be killed. A possession spell, that’s all it would take. I would simply take control of her body, and make her do things, act out in a way that would prove their speculations true. Make them believe that the girl who just hours ago had been such a fantastic host, was a witch. It was too perfect a plan to pass up. She’d be publicly humiliated, turned on by the people she once considered family and friends. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. A second later, I was standing in the dining room.
Mary must have been talking with one of the men at the table because when I opened my eyes, a man was staring back at me, he was smiling. I guess it must have worked then ’cause there’s no way you’d ever catch a white man smiling at a slave girl the way he was. Mary must be important to him. “Miss. Willis, you are turning out to be a beautiful woman. Have you thought about a husband yet? I know there are plenty of fine gentlemen just waiting for the opportunity.” He was hitting on her. A man that had to be twice her age, likely older than Papa. It was repulsive. I looked down at my hands. Perfectly polished and manicured, sitting lightly on my bright green dress. I met his gaze and gave him a shy smile. “Aww, stop, you’re gonna make me blush,“ I replied. He seemed pleased with himself. If this didn’t work, the least I could do was get Mary engaged to this creep. He continued to speak, talking about how gorgeous she was and how successful his new business was going, real subtle.
I pretend to be listening, but in actuality, all I could pay attention to was the other conversations. I needed an opening. A few minutes later, it finally came. “Henry, you’ve seen a witch in action before. What did it do?” It was the same man from before. I think his name was John. “Well, John, it may have been the most appalling scene I’ve ever had the misfortune of setting my eyes on. All I’ll say is for the weeks that followed, I went to church every day.” This was it, the chance to make my move. “Why do y’all hate witches so much? They ain’t ever hurt nobody.” I completely interrupted their conversations. It was clear that as a woman, my actions were looked down upon. And the fact that I was defending witches, well. Everyone’s conversation stopped, and they all looked at me, disgusted. So I continued. “How can one be born a sinner? How can you say they’re so bad when they’ve never actually violated anyone. If witches are sinners, some of y’all must be Satan with the way you treat your slaves. It’s completely…” Before I could finish, a man grabbed my arm violently and yanked me to the ground. He looked embarrassed, but above all furious. I’d guess he was Mary’s father by his brown hair and similar features. “Young lady, get a hold of yourself. What are you saying?” With each word, his hold on my arm grew tighter. It was starting to hurt. So I broke his hand. He yelled in pain, clearly terrified by what had just happened. Everyone at the table saw it too. The way his fingers bent in all directions without anything forcing them. The fact that the broken hand was also the one that had been gripping my arms. And that’s all it took. Everyone from the table stood up and encircled me, all careful not to get too close. The man from before with the monocle spoke up. He was the leader of the group. “Mary Willis, you are hereby condemned for treason against our town. Due to the circumstances, a trial is not necessary. You will be punished accordingly for your crimes. So, as a witch, Mary Willis, you are sentenced to death.” The circle of men around me slowly got smaller, they were getting closer. Mary’s mother must have heard from the corner because she let out a dramatic gasp and ran to her husband’s side. It was as if as soon as Mary had been “discovered” as a witch, all blood tied between them vanished. Her parents just looked ashamed. That was my cue to leave. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, right as they grabbed my arms and legs.
When I finally opened my eyes, I was back in that dingy bathroom. It was dark, so I couldn’t see myself. I touched my hair, just to make sure I was back. Dry and coily, perfect. I quickly ran to the door, afraid that if I didn’t get back soon, the others would notice. But as I ran back towards the house, that’s when I heard it. The yelling, the pleading, the screams. The closer I got, the louder it became, practically engulfing my mind. It was Mary, no doubt about it. I opened the backdoor and walked in just in time to see her forced outside the front door. She looked petrified. They had ripped her dress, so she was shivering in her undergarments, and tied her hands and legs, likely as a precaution to keep her “powers” in check. She looked around at all the men innocently, clearly confused about what was going on. “Father, Father, make them stop! I’m innocent, Father. You know me, let me go!” In response, her father just hung his head, too embarrassed to look at her any longer. Now he was a coward. “Mother, stop this please, I beg of you! Please, I’m innocent, let me go.” She continued to scream, pleading for any compassion from anyone. She was met with frightful stares. Tears began to spring up from her eyes, and she started to move around, a hopeless attempt to set herself free. Together, the men yanked her through the door, into the summer night.
I’d only ever used this spell once. It made me completely undetectable to the human eye. And though it was risky, I knew tonight was the time to try it. I made this happen, so there’s no way I’m not gonna see it through. While everyone was still distracted by the outburst, I ran back to the backyard, trying to find an area where I couldn’t be seen. I settled under a large willow tree with leaves long enough to conceal me from the others. Was this wrong? In my head, I knew that Mary deserved it, but my consciousness couldn’t seem to get on board. She would be killed. A teenage girl with her whole life ahead of her would be killed for something she didn’t do. Sounded kind of familiar. I laughed out loud at the thought. It was like a Domino effect. A life for a life and so on. Did I want to play into something so vile, so evil? But what about Caesar? If I let her live, what does that mean? That if you have power, you can do whatever you want without consequences? The idea of just letting her off was repulsive. I hated that girl, and unfortunately for her, that feeling couldn’t just simply go away. I was gonna watch her die. I quickly cast the invisibility spell then ran from the tree. I’d need to catch up, or else I’d miss the show.
A took me a few minutes but eventually, I caught up to the group holding Mary. A lot more people had joined, and it now looked like a full-fledged riot with Mary as their target. It was obvious that they had been dragging her on the ground due to the dirt and rubble in her hair. Mary looked exhausted. Fortunately for me, the spell had worked. I could walk right in front of someone, and they wouldn’t be able to see or detect me, perfect! I walked with the crowd and followed them as we went past the town square, past where Caesar was killed. I’d never been there, but I knew there was a special place they took witches to be killed, the infamous Gallows Hill. It took another hour for us to finally arrive. As we walked through the streets, the crowd just continued to grow. It was as if everyone in town was there, even children. The town square was located at the edge of Salem, so once we passed it, there was a straightforward path through the woods. The sun was starting to set, and the sky was a bright blood orange. The woods were silent. The only sound that could be heard were our footsteps on the ground, breaking old sticks and leaves. Mary was now silent, it seems she had accepted her fate, that was quick.
Eventually, we came to a large clearing with a large bendy tree in its center. When they arrived at the base of the tree, the men finally put her down. She didn’t even attempt to run. One man in the crowd stepped forward, holding a large rope and wooden barrel. He placed the barrel under the foot of the tree while some other men from the original group put the rope around a low branch. The crowd spread out, forming a circle around Mary. I wondered why everyone was so eager to watch. Wasn’t she one of them? A woman from the crowd stepped forward and grabbed Mary’s hand, guiding her towards the barrel. She was the only person I’d seen who looked upset about this, pity in her old eyes. She helped Mary step onto the barrel and squeezed her hand before letting go. The rope was then lowered, close enough for Mary to grab, a loop for her head already formed. She grabbed the rope and looked around at the crowd, likely searching for some remorse or empathy. At one point I thought I may have seen her look at me, but that was impossible. Now she looked scared, petrified. I wonder if this is how Caesar felt right before they hung him up. I’d been with him for long enough to know he was a fighter. But to be aware that your death was coming so soon. When just days ago you had been living your everyday life, completely oblivious. She put him through that, and I’ll never know why. Mary took the rope and placed it around her neck, then she closed her eyes. A final tear rolled down her cheek, falling to the ground as she let out a defeated sigh. I watched them kick the barrel.