The fire crackled softly. A loud pop sent up a shower of glowing red embers.
Susannah Goode uttered a cry of surprise and jumped back from the hearth. The embers died at her feet.
After straightening the starched white apron she wore over her heavy, dark maroon skirt, Susannah bent over the bake kettle to lift the heavy lid and peer inside.
Behind her in the small borning room, the baby started to cry. Susannah heard the floorboards creak as her mother made her way to the cradle to see what the problem was.
“Susannah!” Martha Goode’s tone was scolding. “You have wrapped George too tightly again. The poor baby can barely breathe!”
“The blanket is too small. I had trouble covering him,” Susannah complained, still bent over the kettle, a few long golden curls falling out of her bun and over her face.
“The blanket will have to do,” her mother replied. “It is the best we can afford.” She lifted the squalling baby and held him up to her face. “Poor George. Poor George. What did your sister do to you?”
Susannah sighed. “These biscuits are taking so long to bake.”
Martha Goode stepped up behind her. George’s cries had softened to quiet whimpers as he lay his head against his mother’s stiff white collar.
“The fire is too low,” her mother said, shaking her head disapprovingly. “You cannot bake in those dying embers. Put more wood on, Susannah.”
Frowning, Susannah straightened up and tossed the locks of escaped hair behind the white collar that covered the shoulders of her dress. “We need firewood.”
Susannah was tall and thin. She had sparkling blue eyes, creamy pale skin, and dimples in both cheeks when she smiled.
Whenever Martha Goode found Susannah gazing into the looking glass or toying with her golden hair, she scolded her with the same words: “True beauty comes from deeds, not appearance, Daughter.”
As a Puritan, Susannah had been endlessly taught the virtue of modesty. She had been taught that all righteous people are beautiful and the same in the eyes of the Maker.
She felt embarrassed whenever her mother caught her admiring herself, as if her mother had peered inside her soul and found it flawed and unworthy.
But at sixteen, Susannah felt stirrings that excited her as much as they troubled her. She found herself thinking of a certain boy, daydreaming about him as she worked. And she couldn’t help but wonder if she was pretty enough to win him over all the other girls in the village of Wickham.
Martha Goode held the baby and rocked him gently as she stared disapprovingly at the fire. “Where is your father? He will want his biscuits on time, but he will not have them if he is not here.”
“I believe he is at the commons, tending the cows,” Susannah told her.
“Cows,” her mother scoffed. “Bags of bone, you mean.” She lowered her gaze sadly to the baby she held. “It is a wonder we survive, George.”
Susannah started toward the door. “I will get the firewood and fetch Father. I was going out for a walk anyway,” Susannah insisted.
“Susannah. Please,” her mother said, fear clouding her eyes. “You must stop taking solitary walks. You must not do anything—anything at all—to attract attention to yourself.”
She gazed intently at her pretty daughter. Then she added in a low whisper, “You know the dangers. You know what is going on here.”
“Yes, Mother,” Susannah replied impatiently. “But I think I can go out for a walk without—”
“They took Abigail Hopping from her house last
night and dragged her to the prison,” her mother said softly. “The poor woman’s screams woke me.”
Susannah uttered a shocked gasp. “Abigail Hopping a witch?”
“That’s what Benjamin Fier says,” Martha Goode replied, swallowing hard. “Benjamin accused Abigail of singing songs of the Evil One as she prepared the evening meal.”
“I cannot believe that Abigail Hopping is a witch,” Susannah said, shaking her head. “Has she confessed?”
“Her trial is at the meetinghouse tonight,” Martha Goode said darkly.
“Oh, Mother! Will she burn like the others?” Susannah cried, choking out the words.
Her mother rocked the baby and didn’t reply. “There is so much evil about, Daughter,” she said finally. “Three witches uncovered in our village by Benjamin Fier since summer began. I beg you to be careful, Susannah. Stay in the shadows. Give no one reason to suspect you—or even to notice you.”
Susannah nodded. “Yes, Mother. I am only going to the commons for firewood. I shall be back quickly.” She pushed open the door, causing a flood of bright sunlight to wash over the dark room.
“No! Stop!” her mother cried.
Halfway out the door Susannah turned, her blue eyes flashing, an impatient frown on her face.
“Are you going out with your head uncovered?” Martha Goode demanded. “Where are your thoughts, dear?”
“I am sorry.” Susannah returned to the room, took
her white cap from its peg, and pulled it down over her hair. “I will hurry back,” she said.
She closed the door behind her and, shielding her eyes with one hand from the bright afternoon sunlight, made her way past the chickens pecking the dirt in front of the house.
Susannah turned onto the path that led into the village. Walking quickly, her long skirt trailing over the dirt, she passed the Halseys’ house. The glass for their windows hadn’t yet arrived from England, Susannah saw. The windows were boarded up. Mr. Halsey was bent over his vegetable garden and didn’t look up.
At the meetinghouse she saw someone up on the shingle roof working to attach a brass weather vane above the chimney.
The village magistrate, Benjamin Fier, a troubled expression on his face, was just entering the building. Susannah stopped short and waited until he had disappeared inside. A cold shudder ran down her back as she thought of Abigail Hopping.
I know Benjamin Fier is a good and righteous man, Susannah thought. But I am afraid of him, just as everyone else in Wickham is.
As village magistrate, Benjamin Fier was the most powerful man in Wickham. He was also the wealthiest.
His home, the biggest in the village, stood across from the meetinghouse. The aroma of roasting beef wafted out from the summer kitchen as Susannah strode past.
The Fiers are so prosperous, Susannah thought,
unable to suppress a feeling of envy. They won’t be having biscuits and gravy for their dinner. The Fiers can have roasted meat every night.
Susannah knew that the Fier brothers, Benjamin and Matthew, were the most prosperous men in Wickham because they were the most worthy. Since she had been a little girl, she’d been taught that good fortune goes to those who are the most righteous.
Thus, Benjamin Fier became magistrate because he was the wisest, most pious man in the village. It was he who conducted the witchcraft trials. And he who insisted the guilty ones be burned—rather than hanged as they were elsewhere in Massachusetts. Benjamin’s younger brother Matthew had a farm that prospered when others failed because Matthew Fier was more righteous and faithful than the other farmers.
That was plain and simple knowledge.
As she passed the meetinghouse and glanced toward the commons, Susannah found herself thinking about Benjamin’s son, Edward Fier.
Edward, where are you?
Are you thinking about me?
“Oh!” she cried as she stumbled over an enormous pink pig spotted with black, and went sprawling onto the hard ground.
The pig grunted a loud protest and scrambled off the path.
Susannah picked herself up and brushed the dust off the front of her white apron. That will teach me not to have improper thoughts, she scolded herself, straightening her cap over her hair.
But how can thoughts about Edward be improper?
She saw her father at the far end of the commons, the large, rectangular pasture in the center of the village. He was busily raking a section of ground and didn’t see Susannah wave to him.
Mr. Franklin, the blacksmith, was at his anvil in front of his shop, pounding noisily on a sheet of tin as Susannah hurried past. She smiled at Franklin’s apprentice, a boy named Arthur Kent, who was tending the bellows, which were nearly twice as big as he was.
Behind the blacksmith’s shop were the shimmering green woods. Tall poplars and beech trees leaned in toward the village. Behind these the woods grew dark with pines, oaks, and maples.
A village woodpile stood at the edge of the woods, logs neatly chopped and stacked. But Susannah’s eyes were focused on the woods.
Sunlight filtered down through the shimmering leaves, sending rays of light darting over the ground. Black and gold monarch butterflies fluttered in and out of the shafts of white light.
I shall take a short walk into the woods, Susannah decided.
It felt good to be out of the dark house, away from the heat of the cooking hearth, away from the crying baby.
Away from her chores and the watchful eyes of her mother.
Away from the heavy fear that hovered over the entire village these days.
Susannah stepped into the woods, dry twigs cracking beneath her heavy black shoes. As soon as she was hidden by the trees, she pulled off her cap and shook her hair free.
She walked slowly, raising her face to the shafts of bright sunlight. Her dress caught on a low bramble. She tugged it free and kept walking.
A scrabbling sound nearby made her spin around, just in time to see a brown and white chipmunk scurry under a pile of dead leaves.
Susannah tossed her long hair back and took a deep breath. The air smelled piney and sweet.
I’m not supposed to enjoy the woods, she thought, her smile slowly fading. Susannah had been taught that the woods were a place of evil.
As if mirroring her thoughts, the trees grew thicker, shutting out the sunlight. It became evening-dark.
Away from civilization, deep in the woods, was where the Evil One and his followers dwelt, Susannah had been taught.
The witches of the village came here to dance their evil dances by moonlight with the Evil One and his servants. The Evil One and his servants lived deep in holes in the ground, hidden by scrub and thick shrubs. Susannah believed that if she wandered alone into the darkness of their domain, they might reach up and grab her and pull her down, down into their netherworld of eternal torture and darkness.
The air grew cooler. From a low branch just above Susannah’s head a dove uttered a deep-throated moan, cold and sorrowful.
“It is so dark, suddenly so cold,” she said.
Time to go back.
As she turned, she felt strong hands grab her from behind.
“The Evil One!” she cried.