Dawn poisoned dusk as the sun rose hesitantly, its fearful golden light creeping along the shadows of another forgotten night. There was humming somewhere along the creek, its sound patient and delighted. A young woman knelt by the water, picking through the reeds and cattails as if looking for something. She smiled wide when she heard what she was looking for, the familiar croak of a bullfrog. Her slender, pale fingers wrapped around its rubbery belly the moment she saw the tall grass shuffle, and the frog creaked and cried to be let go. The woman simply smiled and continued her hum as she laid the small creature down atop a large plateaued rock, dried blood splattered over it, a warning come too late.
“Yes, yes, you’ll do nicely,” the woman giggled in a sing-songy voice. Out came her husband’s hunting knife from her apron pocket, the golden light of morning reflecting on the blade like a dangerous smile. She held the frog down with one hand, and with the other, she severed its legs with steady, practiced hands. She avoided the splash of blood with care and removed a square of stained bloody white cloth from her apron pocket, cleaned her knife, then tucked the frog legs into the center. She carefully folded the corners inward, smiled to herself, and reached for the wicker basket beside her. The cloth-wrapped frog legs were set carefully at the bottom, along with bound bat wings, a lizard’s tongue, and a rabbit’s foot, all given the same cloth treatment. Innocently, she placed an assortment of wildflowers she had picked earlier on top of her animal limbs, concealing the horrors she’d collected like trophies.
The legless frog croaked no more, for it passed out from blood loss; the woman threw it into the creek. Sunfish swam greedily towards the body, picking apart the flesh as the muddy water became a dirty pink. The woman only watched for a moment before she stood, wiped her hands on her black skirt, picked up her basket, and trotted back home to her town, to the husband she so dearly loved.
Five needles slithered through fabric pulled tight by tambour frames. A group of women sat quietly together in the main room of a house only a little bit larger than most in Salem. A cluster of wildflowers sat in a vase on the dining room table across from the group. The young woman, Madeleine, hummed to herself as she continued her embroidering, the other four women choosing to remain silent. Perhaps they were still in mourning, for it had only been a couple of days since their group had shrunk from six to five. When her friends made no move to start a conversation with her, Madeleine sighed and put down her needle and thread.
“Friends, what has made you all so grim and somber?” she asked, the naivete in her sweet voice something she had mastered long ago.
“We miss Elizabeth,” one of the women, Rachel, finally answered, unable to meet the young woman’s eyes. “Her trial is but only three days past. And she was innocent, the poor thing…” she shook her head.
Madeleine calculated her response and suppressed a smile. “Yes, our poor, sweet, Elizabeth…may God rest her soul.” The woman all murmured in agreement.
“Shall we pray for her-” one of the other women was about to propose, but was cut off by the sound of Madeleine’s sudden distress.
Madeleine shot up. “Hold that thought, my dear, for our tea is about ready!” She carefully set down her embroidery and hurried off to the kitchen, her giddy smile on full display once she was out of sight. Her delicate hands shook with excitement as she retrieved five teacups and set them down on the table with quiet clinks. She poured the hot water into each cup, leaving one significantly less filled than the others. Madeleine’s sweet smile turned more hysterical as she reached into a hidden compartment and pulled out a potion. Clear, almost syrupy liquid fell like molasses tears into the half-filled cup, and once everything was mixed together, it looked just like the other cups. But Madeleine knew which was which.
After sprinkling in the tea leaves, the cups were carefully moved to a tray and escorted to the four women in the parlor. Madeleine handed them each their tea, smiling as she tried to keep her eyes from turning sinister as Mary took a sip of the spiked tea. Madeleine hid her smirk behind hand-painted porcelain, focus glued to an unsuspecting Mary as she talked quietly to Rachel.
The effects of the potion took only a little bit longer to set in than Madeleine first predicted, but once she saw Mary’s chest begin to rise and fall with more weight, she knew she and her girls were in for a show.
“Y-es, my-” Mary’s light-hearted conversation with Edith ended abruptly as she gripped her teacup with almost enough force to shatter it.
“Mary? Is something the matter?” Rachel, ever the worrying type, reached out with a gentleness that cannot be taught to touch Mary, who reacted with a screech that seemed to ring out through the whole village. Mary flew backward in her chair and began convulsing on the ground, limbs flailing as she continued to scream. The other four women stood up in shock, Madeleine put her hand over her mouth to feign surprise.
“Speak to us, Mary! What’s wrong?!” the other woman, Margret, tried so desperately to understand, but all Mary could do was cry and shout,
“Demons! Witches!! HELL IS OPENING BENEATH OUR FEET TO SWALLOW US WHOLE!!! They’re here, they’re all around, we’re all hell bound!! Salem is in the claws of Satan!!!” Mary clawed at her face and pulled her hair, spraying spit as she continued to spout her nonsense.
“She’s gone mad,” Rachel sobbed. “Madeleine, call your husband, please! She is suffering!”
“She is a witch!” Edith corrected, “A witch!!” Rachel whined and looked away from Mary writhing on the floor like a barn animal.
Madeleine nodded and ran out of the house in a hurry. She felt elated; she always loved this part of her little spells. She ran to the church as if the wind had lifted her off of her feet and carried her there itself. She threw open the doors and loudly exclaimed, “John! My love, come quickly!”
A kindly priest with eyes worn by sleepless nights stumbled out of his office, awkwardly clutching a bible to his chest with arms just a little too long and spindly for his body. Madeleine held back a swooning sigh when she saw him and instead ran up to tug on his elbow.
“John, my love, Mary has turned mad! You must come at once and save her soul lest she be turned into the Devil’s own familiar!” she sniffled, eyes wide and pleading. John tensed, conflict flashing somewhere behind hazel eyes. He lightly drummed the pads of his fingers against the hard leather binding of his bible, then nodded slightly.
“Alright,” he murmured in a quiet, distant tone that Madeleine either didn’t notice or chose to ignore. “Lead the way, dear.”
“STOP THIS AT ONCE!! I am no witch!!!” Mary kicked, screamed, and growled as she was forced in front of a rickety wooden ladder.
“C-come now, you know the law, Mary…” John affirmed, hands shaking as he held his open bible. Madeleine watched with her remaining three friends at the front of the crowd, hands folded in front of her, faux sorrow painted on her lovely face. Mary thrashed against the rope that bound her hands behind her back; the guard pushed her forwards in response.
“NO!!!” Mary struggled all she could as she was forced to climb the ladder, blubbering gibberish about how she wasn’t a witch and how everyone who convicted and executed her would pay for this. Madeleine thought it funny that Mary threatened them, for it surely didn’t help her case. John flipped the page in his bible and raised his head to speak.
“M-Mary Booker, you- you stand here on trial for indecency and accusations of witchcraft. To prove your innocence you have been- been brought to these here gallows. If you, if your neck does not snap, then you are no witch. If it does, then…” John straightened himself and darted his eyes to his wife, “…you are a witch.”
“LIARS!! The lot of you!! I am sentenced to die either way!! Curse you, ALL OF YOU!! Go to hell, go to HELL!!” she jabbed the guard in the jaw with her tied hands and almost fell backward had she not caught herself. The guard muttered a swear and pushed her forwards as his buddy took hold of the noose. Mary’s eyes widened and she shrieked, “NO!! NO!! Get that wretched thing AWAY FROM ME!!
They forced the noose around her neck and prepared to push her off the ladder. Mary screamed for the final time, “I AM NO WITCH!!!” before powerful hands on her shoulders lifted her off of the ladder and let her dangle in the air. Mary thrashed and scraped her nails against the thick rope tightening around her throat, writhing similarly to how she did at Madeleine’s house. As her face turned a deathly purple-blue, Rachel clung to Madeleine’s arm and wept into her shoulder. Madeleine gently petted her bonnet-covered hair and looked deep into the light fading from Mary’s eyes. When Madeleine let a malignant smile slip, Mary’s eyes widened for a final time before she stopped moving and hung limply suspended in the air, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Rachel shivered against Madeleine, tears staining her cotton dress. Madeleine looked down at the girl with a thoughtful expression, then leaned down to kiss the top of her head, if only to hide her smile. Yes, yes, she would do nicely.
Dusk fled the earth in a panic the moment it saw a sliver of golden yellow slither past the horizon, for it had learned its lesson several suns ago. There was humming somewhere along the creek, its sound patient and delighted. A young woman knelt by the water, watching the ripples as if waiting for something. A school of sunfish swims over, wiggling through the water, traveling peacefully along. Madeleine smiled pleasantly and readies the hunting knife she “borrowed” from her husband, drew her hand back, and plunged it into the midsection of the largest sunfish she saw. When she swiftly yanked the impaled fish out of the water, it squirmed only a little bit before giving in to its fate.
She laid it down atop her favorite plateaued rock and withdrew the hunting knife from the sunfish. Then, with trained precision, Madeleine carved out its wide golden-green eyes, then deposited them into a jar full of similar-looking organs. She screwed the top of the jar back on, then moved to dispose of the sunfish in the river, then paused. Oh, why let this perfectly good sunfish go to waste when she could cook it up for her dear John? She giggled at her almost careless waste, wrapped the dead fish in some spare cloth before putting it and the jar of fish eyes into her basket. She began to sing to herself, a simple tune from her childhood she always loved, and skipped back to her home, to the husband she so dearly loved.
…except that husband she so dearly loved was not at home. He was hiding behind a tree and had been watching his wife work for some time now. His nerves were shot, as they usually were when he witnessed Madeleine perform these cruel, gruesome acts. John fidgeted with his shirt cuffs, and oh god, why was she doing this? Elizabeth, Mary, their deaths were both so recent, surely she didn’t have to do this again so soon? But he knew that nothing would satiate her lust for violence, for blood, for he has seen it first hand. Ever since John first saw Madeleine dancing alone in the woods around a fire, tossing torn-out pages of the bible into the flames, he was afraid of her.
John had been counting down the days until it was his turn to become stricken with her power, his turn to see demons and hellfire and be hanged for witchcraft, but that day never came. Madeleine never slipped him anything unsavory in his supper, never put him under a hex, never forced him to write his name in the devil’s book. She never even raised her voice at him, and he didn’t understand why. If she loved him, then why did she torture him this way? Why was she doing these terrible things, framing these poor, innocent women for witchcraft and leaving him to point the finger and sentence them to hang?
A cold tear slid down John’s cheek, his breath faltered. Even after everything, Madeleine’s warm smile every time he came home from his work at the church, the way her eyes lit up at the sound of his voice, her desire to take care of and tend to him whenever she could, all of it still made his heart flutter. She still managed to be the center of his universe, no matter how terrifying she was, and John simply could not understand.
He began to cry behind the tree, sank down the trunk and sat in the grass damp with morning dew. His wife, his dear, lovely wife, the woman he promised his very life to, was a monster. And he loved her still. And he sobbed for this, cried out in the woods, for no one except the comforting embrace of a wife who did not frame innocent village girls for crimes they did not commit, who did not mangle forest creatures for her own twisted desires, who did not smile in the face of death. A wife who was kind, a wife who loved him, a wife who was Madeleine.
By Julz Dreyer