Prelude: Salem Village, Massachusetts – May 30, 1706…

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How long must I wait?

His tongue creeps out the corner of his mouth while he writes, the tip of it black with ink, the blacking in his gums staining his teeth. He looks like he’s got a mouthful of tar. I’ve been waiting for some time, but Reverend Green’s still writing. His quill runs across the paper, scratching like mouse paws. Scratch scratch, dip, scratch, lick, scratch.

My feet ache, and shifting my weight just makes the one hurt worse than the other. I’m leaning in the door frame, and in my mind my mother prods me in my back to make me straight. It’s so sharp, the prodding, I could almost swear she was really there.

“Ann?” he says.

I’d gotten so used to the waiting that I don’t hear him at first.

“Ann!” He’s tossed his quill down.

“Yes,” I whisper.

He turns a chill eye on me, an arm over the back of his chair. His elbow’s worn the turkey-work well away, ’til it’s so threadbare, it shines. Reverend Green’s the kind of man who’s always being interrupted. A harassed look about him, as if he can never get time to concentrate on one thing altogether. Spends his whole life turning around in his chair.

I take a step back, thinking better of my errand. He gives me a long look. He’s none too eager to hear what I’ve got to say either.

“Well, you’d best come in,” he says at length, returning to his paper.

He hunches over his desk, free hand clutching bunches of his hair like he’s anxious to finish whatever he’s writing. Scratch scratch scratch.

I should’ve gone when I had the chance; he’d never’ve known I was here. I glance over my shoulder, through the parsonage hall.

Goody Green, his wife, has got the fire going all right, but the door’s open to the yard, as it’s a warm day. The patch of sunlight on the floor is so bright, I have to squint. A long stretch of shadow, and a cat wraps around the doorjamb and flattens himself out in the sunshine with a yawn. He rolls on his back, batting at ghosts. Goody Green’s at the table wringing out cheesecloth. She looks harried, and no wonder, with the baby hiccoughing so. She was bouncing him up and down the hall when I arrived, beating him over her shoulder. I said she should hold him upside down and give him a little shake, but she glared and said, “If you’ll just wait for Reverend Green over there.”

I not being a mother, I suppose she’d ignore my advice, though it’s common knowledge how many Putnams I raised myself. Now I see she’s given up. The baby’s stashed in a long wooden cradle near enough that she can rock it with a foot, but she’s just letting him cough, all red in the face like a baked apple. And to be sure she can’t call on anyone for so much as a poultice.

No one can, in the village, anymore.

“Go on, then,” she says to me, giving the cloth a final twist. She’s got some arms, has Goody Reverend Green. “Don’t you keep him waiting.”

If she weren’t there, I could sneak away. I feel my heart pressing against my ribs, and the top of my head opening, as if my soul were being ripped from my body by the hair.

A girl in a dirty coif wanders in from the yard, finger in her mouth, her apron splotched with mud. She looks over at me all shy, because she doesn’t know me, or perhaps because she’s been warned to keep away. She’s like a sweet piglet walking on two legs, with those pink cheeks all in mud like that, and I smile at her. She squeaks in terror and runs to hide behind her mother.

“Come now, Ann,” the Reverend coaxes me from within his study.

It’s cooler in there. It’s away from the kitchen fire, with its window over the side yard, facing away from the sun. I’d like to sit. My feet are so tired.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

But there is.

There is everything to be afraid of.

I swallow the lead ball in my throat that no amount of swallowing can be rid of, and move into the shadows of the Reverend’s study. There’s a bench between his desk and the fireplace. It’s as hard as a church pew. I could swear the back isn’t so much straight as curved, to force my head to bow. But it’s not the bench that’s making me hang my head. The Reverend gingerly sands his paper, blows it clean, and blots, holding the paper to the light to approve of his work. Satisfied, he turns at last to me. But when his eyes fall on my face, he recoils, as if I’d moved to strike him. I’ve come to Reverend Green to make my confession.

 

– Katherine Howe, Conversion, Putnam/Penguin Books, 2014

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