— Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1692 —
(The Salem Witch Trials)
Carmen Wesley had never been one to declare her thoughts, or talk at all, really. Throughout the hardships and often gossip in the Bay, her lips remained as dormant as the once effervescent, crimson buds that blossomed near the river. Her preferences were prayer and tranquility, and unlike everyone else she had met, the slowly aging woman decided her ability to flourish would prosper without relaying her every secret to those that asked. Carmen had moved into the cramped, vacant cottage next to Abigail Williams when she was twenty-two years old. The meager chalet had been perfect to her then, proving to be sufficient for herself and the limited amount of belongings she held close to her heart. Now she stood at her snow-hooded window, twenty-four years old, while still managing the quietness she detained from the moment of her relocation. But what really was the source of her insistent seclusion?
Perhaps it was loneliness that practically crawled on her bare skin, persistently reminding her of the isolation she deliberately embraced. But that couldn’t be the problem — Carmen was already accustomed to the feeling of separation, even before she had made her journey to the colonies. Nevertheless, she openly displayed her discomfort with making even the slightest of eye contact with anyone she met, although that was a rare occasion within itself. Her mother had once insisted that perhaps she feared social interaction, but Carmen knew that her trepidation was all but anxiety. The only fear she had was that of the dark . . . or, more specifically, what awaited her there.
There was something about the ambience of Massachusetts that kept her in a constant state of perturbation and antipathy — it certainly wasn’t just from the cold, delicate snowflakes that fell to the damp, sienna soil outside.
She had wrapped a blanket around her frail body from the chilled atmosphere; the coruscating fire in the chimney was not nearly enough to heat the entirety of her room. Her breathing was weighted, and she seemed to fight for air as a few local children faltered outside of her home. Carmen promptly moved away from the aperture for a cautious moment, apprehensive of how they stared at her with such judgemental eyes. But within the next second, they had gone.
She released a sigh of relief as the children ambled down the town’s gravel road, resuming on their daily route to the schoolhouse. She carefully lowered herself onto the cushioned seat that she had placed in front of the window for her daily recreation, and smoothed out the wrinkled pleats of her dull gray dress. Carmen observed Abigail Williams, her disreputable and uncultivated neighbor, as she stepped from her cedar-crafted home. Abigail stopped in the midst of the pale white snow, and spared a glance in Carmen’s direction with a false smile forming on her lips. Then, she lifted a hand, and waved at her.
Carmen had simply ignored the small — and likely forced — gesture, not returning the obligatory courtesy. She was always this guarded. It was, after all, what had kept her sheltered from the daunting expressions of discernment that came with each whisper from the wives of the working men. Abigail’s smile had faded into a frown before she had left, making her way into town, just as the children had. Consciously, Carmen’s tension had alleviated as soon as the woman turned and continued in the opposite direction. In fact, she had even relaxed into her seat and allowed her shoulders to ease into a slouch from their original posture.
Carmen stared at Abigail’s retreating figure with her eyes narrowed in discontent; she pondered her intentions so early in the morning. But Abigail had done nothing wrong to her, so why was Carmen putting so much resentment behind her endeavors? It was only a feeling inside of her — something that had never before been wrong. Her heart clenched within her chest and her palms grew sweaty at the mere thought of having even a short encounter with Abigail. But why?
Carmen’s cottage was her safe haven; it was the only setting, other than the church, that she could trust with the totality of her being. Only on the Sabbath would she leave the solace of her own home, and worship the God that obdurately watched over her. But on any other normal day, Carmen wouldn’t need to leave the serenity that her home offered. The colony sheriff would personally deliver her meals from the kindness and understanding in his heart, while relaying to her every piece of influential information she required.
Sheriff Charles Abraham had known Carmen most of his life, the two of them had been close childhood friends in England. When he was near, something in Carmen changed — the way he looked at her made the woman stand a bit taller. He had qualities that made her feel appeased and at liberty in his presence. Her favorite quality he possessed was the depth that lay behind the dark brown ember of his eyes, reflecting his generosity and the admiration he held for every living thing.
Charles had recently reached the age of twenty-six; a day in which he only spent with Carmen and his family. Even through his line of duty and personal days, he always managed to find a way to visit her daily. It was a tradition now — since Carmen was such a reserved soul, he felt it was his responsibility to be of her service and keep her company.
But today, oddly enough, Charles hadn’t shown up.
Carmen had been worried at first, but swept her thoughts aside. Perhaps Charles was engrossed within his work tasks and had forgotten.
She examined the settlement outside, and watched closely as the remainder of the children made their way to the aging schoolhouse. Carmen had vaguely remembered her days in school, constantly studying anything more that she could learn from the Bible. Her parents taught her the significance of religion, and had encouraged her to attend church even when she made the grand gesture of migrating to the colonies. Charles, who had already accomplished his denomination and the endowment for his move, had followed in her footsteps with protective intentions, and escorted her to their holy sanction every Sunday morning.
A movement from the end of the gravel road caught Carmen’s eye and pulled her from the brief daze in which she was captured, her attention abruptly averting. A smile tugged at her parted lips, and a natural blush tinged her cheeks a light shade of pink when her gaze met that of Charles. He had caught her glance without hesitation, and returned her sweet gesture. Carmen’s smile faltered, however, when she noticed that someone was fastened to his arm . . . and that someone was none other than Abigail Williams.
Why would Abigail accompany him? She had left only minutes ago, why had she returned so quickly? Usually, Charles would come alone without someone attached to his hip. What had happened between the two of them to change his routine?
A light tap on the front door made Carmen jump to her feet. She stood still for a formidable moment, before she built up the courage to descend the staircase of many weakened balustrades. Upon opening the groaning door that led into her unfurnished dining room, she smiled weakly at the pair. Abigail held an unsympathetic facade while looking at Carmen; in fact, Carmen even recognized the countenance of satisfaction. Charles, despite the tension that fell between the three, wasted no time before he pulled Carmen into an embrace, holding her tightly for a fleeting second.
“I’m sorry for doing this,” Charles whispered in Carmen’s ear. His voice nearly trembled as he wrapped his hands firmly around her pale wrists, and fastened weighted chains around them.
“W-what?” Carmen stuttered. She winced when the shackles scraped against her smooth skin, and pulled against them in an attempt to free herself. Upon finding it impossible to remove them, she halted and stared up at the Sheriff. “Charles, what’s going on?”
He averted his remorseful gaze, not meeting her pleading eyes as he pushed Carmen from her home. The warm blanket draped over her petite frame fell to the ground as she stepped into the frigid snow, before being trampled by Abigail as she carelessly followed Charles. Carmen shivered as the bitter air practically bit at her exposed skin.
“Charles, please!” She begged, striving to prevent him from pushing her any farther. “What’s going on?”
Her eyes widened as she realized the three of them were nearly in the middle of town; they settled on a large, wooden platform where many women stood — chained, and sobbing in their places. Above the women were nooses, knotted tightly, and secured to a damp, rotting bannister from over-head. Only then had she understood the instantaneous appearance of Charles and Abigail at her secluded accommodation.
They were taking her to the gallows.
Charles had told her about a similar occurrence only a few days before. She knew why these women were about to be hanged, herself included . . . but she was innocent.
The townspeople had begun to crowd, they gathered and shouted amongst each other, but Carmen’s focus was elsewhere. She had recognized one of the restrained women. She had, in fact, been the previous owner of Carmen’s home. Although the others weren’t familiar to Carmen, she felt pity for them. They, too, had been dragged from their homes and families to face a permanent fate.
Abigail surveyed the women closely, as if memorizing every assertion of horror that traversed their features. She seemed to be enjoying the chaotic scene ahead — she watched them plead to be saved from the punishment of the crimes they did not commit. Carmen’s heart clenched as she was once again urged further by Charles.
She didn’t ask any more questions as she was forced onto the platform and placed upon a trap door that trembled beneath her feet. The woman glanced down at the wood, waiting for it to crumble under her at any given moment. She took a look at the raging crowd in front of her, then at those who accompanied her fate. Carmen swallowed her paralyzing fear as her eyes found those of Abigail. She grinned smugly, as if she was content and received the very thing she desired.
As if they were all too familiar with the setting, five men planted themselves behind the women, including Carmen, and fastened the nooses around their necks. They all wore passive features or expressions of disdain as they did so. The unrecognizable man behind Carmen was unbothered by the fact that the noose was restricting her ladened breathing.
Charles took his position in front of the women, looking directly into the eyes of each, before clearing his throat to catch the attention of the mob that had formed in the town square. Carmen stiffened as everyone suddenly grew quiet, and Charles began to speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome you all, and allow you the opportunity to witness what will unfold on this day,” he began. His voice was bold, as if he was sure that everything he said would be the irrevocable truth. “It has come to my attention that there are traitors among us.”
Most of the crowd stayed silent, anticipating — but the woman standing to the left of Carmen continued to weep. As Charles continued, Carmen noticed that his voice had begun to crack. “A pledging citizen came to speak with me, and recounted the many times she witnessed witchcraft from the women you see behind me. After hearing her sworn-oath testimony and discovering appealing evidence that supports the accusations, it is my responsibility to protect our colony and those within it from the terrors that accompany the unlawful acts that have been exercised.
“Subsequently,” he hesitates, stumbling over his words, “a-after holding a vote from the council of the Massachusetts colony, the verdict has been made to publicly identify and punish the guilty for their treason against the throne of England and God. In front of you are those who have been accused and convicted for the forbidden practice of witchcraft, and are hereby sentenced to death by hanging.”
Stepping down from the podium, he took his place in front of the mass and faced the innocent. “May this be an example to forever remind you of the consequences that come from treachery.”
As he nodded to the five men who held the levers controlling the impending doom of the ingénues, he couldn’t help but allow himself to look into the molasses-colored eyes of Carmen. They held so much vulnerability and desperation, almost pleading him for help — but what more could he do now? He prevailed upon council to sway their decisions before they voted, but their minds had already been poisoned by the false pretenses of Abigail. Her intentions were impure, and she had planted fake corroboration in order to spitefully remove from the colony those who she didn’t think highly of.
And the woman he loved happened to be one of the many she had framed for a crime that wasn’t committed.
But as the sheriff, he had no choice but to execute the obligations that were appointed to him. He was practically being forced to stand defenseless and watch as the levers were released, one by one, and to hear the overbearing yells from the crowd that cheered for what they believed was justice.
Carmen’s eyes were different now, he realized. They were filled with tears, and didn’t hold the usual brightness that he saw within them.
They used to be colored like copper, or that of deep sienna. They were every shade of brown that Charles could imagine: a raw umber and caramel mix, dotted with bits of dark chocolate. Within the earthy hues of her eyes lied the kind of beauty that expanded a moment into a personal eternity, and a never-ending piece of heaven that he wished so desperately to be a part of. They reminded him of the deep brown of the winter trees at twilight that he loved to gaze upon, a delicate cinnamon, or the color of soft brown sugar that his mother once baked with.
Fear had changed her.
There was only one woman remaining to Carmen’s left — she had been forced to endure the sudden silence of their screams as they plunged to their deaths. She focused all of her attention on the sorrowful expression that Charles held, not willing to watch as the woman before her violently thrashed and reached out for the embrace of anyone. And suddenly she stopped.
And now Carmen was the only individual remaining. Abigail stared at her without any indication of emotion, waiting for the moment that she had anticipated.
Carmen was shaking before it happened, and could only feel the rough material of the rope that tightened against her skin before she, too, fell to her doom. Carmen didn’t thrash like the other women had — no, the fall immediately broke her neck. Though Charles was relieved that she didn’t suffer while feeling the oxygen slowly leave her lungs, he still had to bear the pain of watching her leave the unforgiving world.
As she hung from the bannister, the light gradually faded from her eyes. Her trembling limbs had stilled, and left the entire crowd breathless.
For a reason unbeknownst, the townspeople grew quiet. They continued on as they did before, leaving Charles as the only standing citizen that stared at the gallows, his hands beginning to shake from aftershock. And, like the man who had lost the person closest to his heart, the clouds, too, began to weep. A daze of unsettlement fell over the colony for the remainder of the day.
Oh, how they relished in the silence.