The heaped branches were kindled, and the roar of the flames and sizzle of sap drowned out the sound of all else as the rapt gathering backed away from the raging conflagration to form a six-deep circle. They watched eagerly, as first Ariana’s wet clothing steamed and then ignited.
Twisting and straining, her frantic efforts were ineffectual against the chains that held her pinioned to the green oak stake. Her wailing became a strident inhuman scream as her exposed skin began to blister and burst, and her long, raven hair became a crackling, smoking flambeau; a fleeting, radiant torch.
As the fat bubbled and the blood boiled in her veins, a quietus enveloped Ariana. She looked out from what was her pyre, down into the mass of faces – eyes wide, mouths agape - below her.
“Let this day be an end to Twycross and to all who reside here,” she said, her raw, rasping words somehow escaping the fire, to be heard clearly by every man, woman and child in attendance. “By all that is unholy, I curse you and this godforsaken land to reap what you have this day sown.”
The air pricked with the heat that radiated out from the staked witch, and the crowd shrunk back in fearful expectation, aware of the dying woman’s power, as she gave them one last rictus smile, before turning incandescent and exploding outwards, no longer mortal, blackened and burning flesh, but a million glowing droplets of liquid fire, that rained down and engulfed all that they touched.
Twycross was obliterated from the landscape that summer day in 1690, not to be resettled, but reclaimed by gorse, thistle and wild bramble; an area that was shunned by even the largest of native fauna, which slunk around the invisible periphery in morbid fear of unseen evil.
“Oh, Jim, it’s just perfect,” Sally said, looking eastward through the kitchen window of their new house, out over the nearby Sugar River and the undulating pine and spruce-clad hills beyond.
Jim smiled. “It’s a prime site, Sal. Phase two will be behind us, farther down the hill, with no view worth jack shit to speak of.”
“This is better than the pollution and rat race of the city,” Sally said, turning into his arms and hugging him. “I can’t believe we found this location.”
“This spot hasn’t been built on since the town that stood here burned down at the back end of the seventeenth century,” Jim said, going over to the refrigerator and taking out two bottles of Bud Ice, to press one against Sally’s bare arm, making her jump.
“I’ll get you back for that,” she giggled. “Ice cubes where the sun don’t shine, while you’re asleep.”
“You do that and I won’t tell you about the witch’s curse on this place.”
“You mean we’ve got a local hag who thinks the development sucks?”
“No. I mean way back, when the town, Twycross, was here.”
“So, what’s the curse, huh?”
“No ice cubes?”
“Okay, chicken, no ice. Though it could be cool foreplay.”
They sat at the pine table in the nook of the bright and airy kitchen of their newly built Cape Cod style home, and Jim related to Sally the folklore that he had been told by a Salem hotelier, who had claimed to be a descendant of a harness maker and saddler; one of only a handful of survivors to escape the catastrophic events of so long ago.
“The town was supposedly visited by a witchfinder general, who scoured the area looking for oddballs with black cats and a bad reputation.” Jim began. “When he arrived at Twycross with his men, a young woman by the name of Ariana Pelham was immediately arrested and put on trial.”
“Why?” Sally asked.
“Get me another cold one and I’ll tell you,” Jim said, grinning.
Sally went for the beer and handed it to him. Jim twisted off the cap, sipped slowly, then put the bottle down and made a meal of lighting the third of the five cigarettes he allotted himself each day. He took a perverse delight in building up the tension.
“You’re being an asshole, Jim. Tell me the story, or you don’t get to fool around for a week,” Sally said, lying through her teeth, as he well knew.
“Okay, you win,” he said, exhaling a stream of lung-filtered smoke, to join the blue raft that hung cloudlike beneath the ceiling. “Legend has it that this Ariana character was a spinster who had long black hair, a cottage full of cats, or familiars, as they called them, and no doubt a broom or two tucked away in the pantry for good measure. Most damning was that she peddled medical remedies to the townsfolk: pills for malaria, foxglove, tincture of benzoin for wounds, and assorted elixirs, ointments and poultices. She also had an herb garden; the whole nine yards to get any self-respecting witchfinder’s rocks off.”
“So, what happened to her?” Sally asked as Jim paused to chug his beer.
“She was tied to a ducking stool and half drowned in the river we drove past on the way in.”
“The Sugar River?” Sally asked, standing and going back to the window, to once more gaze at the broad expanse of slow moving, brackish water.
“Yeah. They dunked her like a doughnut for a while, then took her back to the town square and did a Joan of Arc job on her. Only she allegedly took most of her executioners out. As she died, the whole town went up, and almost everyone with it.”
“That’s awesome, and sad,” Sally said, a shiver running down her spine as she turned away from the view of the river, which now appeared somehow menacing and unsettling.
“It’s just folklore, honey; an urban legend. I don’t buy witchcraft or spontaneous human combustion, especially when over three hundred people are supposed to have just gone up like roman candles.”
“What do you suppose happened, then?”
“I don’t. I keep UFO’s, Bigfoot and all that X-File kind of weird shit firmly where it belongs, in the file labelled fiction and entertainment.”
“I think I believe it,” Sally said in a whisper. “Not everything can be explained away by saying that if it’s outside the perception of our five senses, then it can’t exist. There are too many strange events. You can’t just write them all off, or come up with lame, convenient, half-assed solutions.”
“Okay, Scully. But let’s hope that in this case it is bullshit, and that Ariana was just an innocent victim who took the rap for locals tripping on ergot-laden rye bread.”
“Because she cursed the land that Twycross – which is now Madison Bend – stands on. And I don’t want us to be part of the next unexplained mystery to hit the tabloids or the front page of the Enquirer.”
It was a week later that Sally had the first nightmare. In it, she was being hustled – fettered in manacles and shackles – up the steps of what she knew to be a courthouse; the sun glinting off its round-headed windows as she squinted her eyes to look up at the cantilevered pediment and octagonal cupola above her.
Now standing in a dock, she could smell the polished wood, and even briefly admired the fine panelling and rich carving about her. That was before she caught the cloying, sweet scent of the cologne that the bewigged witchfinder general wore; no doubt to mask a body odour as sour as the vilifying tirade of accusations he levelled at her. His name was Travis Ludwell, and his vocation; to rid New England of all witches, who he considered to be the spawn of the devil and an affront to good, God fearin’ folk.
Sally woke, not in bed beside Jim, but stood naked, her hands white-knuckled, clenching the top of a ladder-backed chair. A sheen of perspiration coated her from head to foot, her long, ash-blonde hair was matted, soaked, and her stomach alive with the sensation of cold, fluttering wings, that she recognized as a symptom of the state of terror that gripped her.
“You’ve been letting that story pray on your mind, Sal,” Jim said as he slipped a towelling robe around her shaking shoulders. It’s just overreaction; your subconscious running riot. I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“No, Jim. It was too real. I’ve never had a dream with so much vivid detail and...and solidity. I couldn’t have invented such a scenario. I want to check out the man I saw. His name is Travis Ludwell. Maybe we could find a painting or etching of him. I need to know that he never existed, before I can try to dismiss this as just a nightmare.”
“Sally, can’t you just―?”
“No, Jim. Don’t patronize me. You should be able to see how important this is to me. I have to be convinced that I wasn’t experiencing an event that really took place.”
The following morning, still on vacation following the move out to Madison Bend, Jim and Sally visited the reference section of the Salem public library, which gave up surprisingly concise historical facts pertaining to the region, including an account of Twycross being razed to the ground, but with no clue as to whether it was believed to have been effected by human hand, an act of God, or at the instigation of a dying, closet witch, who had not confessed her affiliation with the devil.
Sally gasped and reached across the scarred top of the oak table, between the stacks of books that they had gathered, to grasp Jim’s wrist in a vicelike grip. Unable to speak for a moment, she stared at the illustration of an engraved copperplate in the leather-bound volume before her.
“Found something, huh?” Jim asked, and then saw how ashen her face had become and moved quickly to her side.
“It’s him,” Sally said, stabbing her finger at the image of the cruel, hard face staring up from the yellowing folio, with sinister oil-bead eyes, that sat too close together over a large, hooked nose and downward curving knife-slash mouth.
Travis Ludwell had indeed existed; lauded in text as a distinguished lawyer and burgess and clerk of the House of Burgesses. But they could find no further details of Ludwell in the library as they cross-referenced and searched for a fuller history of the man.
“Let’s try the public records office,” Sally said. “There must be more on this guy, somewhere.”
“It’s almost five, Sal,” Jim said, rolling his neck to ease the ache from hours of being bent over the reference books, as he closed a dusty tome that must have weighed in at over four pounds and had probably not been opened in decades. “Let’s call it a day. We’ll start again in the morning.”
Driving the Jeep Cherokee back to the ‘Bend’, Jim tried once more to rationalize Sally’s anxiety. “You could have seen a picture of this dude before, and just not have any conscious memory of it, honey.”
“That’s as likely as finding rocking horse shit, Jim. Or New York blizzards in southern Florida. I saw him, up close, warts and all. He even had an oversize ring on his pinkie; a solid gold lion’s head, that he kept rubbing all the time, as though it was a genie’s lamp.”
Sally tossed and turned that night, and was about to get up and take a couple of sleeping pills, or go downstairs and read for awhile, when sleep surreptitiously claimed her. She was immediately transported back in time, into the mind and body of Ariana, and was at once hit by the full force of the undiluted fear that surged through the young woman, whose sensations she now shared.
The ropes chafed her skin as she was lowered in a seat attached to a pole, down into the icy waters of the Sugar River, which crept up her legs, then higher to her breasts. In an instant she was fully submerged, choking on the muddy water. The ducking stool was raised and lowered a dozen times; the torment measured to ensure that she would not drown, but only suffer closeness to death as a precursor of the purification by fire that she had been sentenced to.
Now, as both Sally and Ariana, she sensed the power within her; the special talent that she had only used to heal and benefit these people, who until so recently she had considered to be good friends and neighbours. In the presence of Ludlow and his cohorts, these same fickle folk now bore her aloft, across the fields, away from the river to the square in front of the church. And with less consideration and sensitivity than they might afford a hog being led to slaughter, they thrust her up and secured her tightly to the stake.
Gobs of spittle and phlegm slimed her face, and punches bruised her body as she was also verbally bludgeoned by accusations of all manner of despicable acts of black magic that they knew to be false.
“Burn witch, burn!” they chanted, and a flaming torch was hurled into the mountainous bonfire, that was the fuel to set her alight and supposedly deliver her to hell.
As the searing pain ate into her feet and legs, Sally was cast out, to become separate from Ariana in her final agony; to watch her horrific end from within the mob, which jeered and threw fruit at her, and more kindling to feed the blaze. Many of them were intoxicated with both the spectacle and the punch that was being served up from the barrels of an enterprising innkeeper.
It was then that Ariana cursed the townsfolk and the land that Twycross stood on, in the final seconds before her burning body seemed to expand, to become a glowing ball that erupted and sprayed out a deadly firestorm onto the flesh, buildings and earth of the town around it.
Sally’s scream was dying in her throat as Jim shook her awake at a little after three a.m.
“For Christ’s sake, Sal, are you okay? Speak to me,” he said, stroking her cheek with his hand.
Sally was sitting bolt upright, perspiring heavily from every pore, sweltering, feeling as though she were naked in the salt wasteland of Death Valley.
“I...I need a glass of water,” she stammered, shakily climbing off the bed and hurrying to the bathroom, where she stood transfixed, staring into the mirror at the blisters which began to swell on first her face and then all over her body; domes of pain, stretched by the pus that filled them.
Jim appeared behind her, and at first could only stand open-mouthed, stupefied at the sight of Sally, whose flesh was bubbling. It was as if an invisible paint stripper were being applied to her skin, which the cool, air-conditioned atmosphere made all the more incredulous to behold.
“What in God’s―”
“I was being burnt at the stake, Jim,” she shouted. “It wasn’t a nightmare. Look at me. I’m being possessed by a girl who was legally murdered over three hundred years ago.”
As they stood, both scared and confused, Sally’s skin returned to its former smooth and unblemished state, and the raging heat in her veins dissipated.
It was almost too simple. Within less than half an hour of arriving at the public records office, and with the assistance of an enthusiastic clerk, they found all the information they needed.
Travis Ludlow had been appointed as witchfinder general in 1688, by the then lieutenant governor, Peyton Greenhow. A painting of Ludlow, reproduced in The Salem Gazette, showed quite clearly the ornate lion head ring on his finger. And courthouse lists yielded the all important fact that one Ariana Pelham, a spinster aged twenty, had lived in the parish of Twycross, had been accused and found guilty of practising the art of bewitchment, and condemned to the fire.
Back home, still up at midnight, Sally and Jim were sitting together on the sofa in the den sipping Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and trying to make sense of the enigma that was disrupting their lives.
“I don’t understand why she would single me out to relive her torment,” Sally said. “Why not one of the other women who have just moved onto the patch?”
“I’m only guessing, Hon, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we found out that our house is built on the very spot where she was torched,” Jim said.
“You mean to say you believe that what’s happening is supernatural, not just all in my mind?”
“After you came up in those blisters, and then they vanished in front of my eyes, I became a convert. Up until then I thought this sort of hokum was safely confined to between the covers of King and Koontz type books.”
“Does it feel cold to you, Jim?” Sally asked as her arms suddenly crawled with gooseflesh.
Jim nodded as his spine flash-froze and the hairs on the back of his neck tingled and stiffened. As their breath fogged the now chilled air, the figure of a young woman, her skin an alabaster-white against long tresses of jet hair, appeared as a slightly out of focus holographic image before them. She was without substance, the backdrop of the wall still clearly visible through the wavering manifestation.
“It’s her...Ariana,” Sally whispered, as Jim dropped his glass, dumbstruck at the projection from the past that was drifting across the room, hovering a few inches above the Axminster carpet. It stopped a yard away from them, a spectre that studied them with dark, hypnotic eyes. The mouth remained closed, and yet they both heard the rich, silky voice that spoke in their minds.
“Leave Twycross this instant, Sally,” it said. “You have in some way touched me, and so I give you fair warning. Go, or you will suffer the same fate as all others who have trespassed on this accursed land.”
Before Sally could reply, the vision distended, expanding outwards to be absorbed by all four walls and the floor and ceiling of the room. The cold receded, and warmth was allowed back into the space that the spirit of Ariana had occupied.
“Jim, let’s go, now,” Sally demanded. “Something terrible is about to happen.”
“You got it, Sal,” Jim said, his voice no more than a wavery whisper as he got up, looking around for the car keys. “I don’t understand it, but I agree. Shit is about to hit the fan, big-time.”
With tyres screaming, smoking and laying rubber down on the concrete driveway, Jim gunned the engine and the Cherokee shot out into the street. He clipped a trash can, causing it to spin across the sidewalk to empty garbage sacks out, which split open like black satanic underbellies, to disgorge their stinking contents over the pristine front yards of their neighbours’ homes.
A mile south of the Bend, on the highway that would take them to Salem, Jim stopped next to the River. He fumbled a cigarette from the pack on the dash with trembling fingers, lit it and inhaled the calming toxins.
Without saying a word, both of them stepped out of the four-by-four, and Jim walked around it to Sally, put his arm around her waist and held her tightly. They looked back, apprehensively, to the distant development that had been built on what they now thought of as being a small portion of hell on earth.
Thunder rumbled and cracked through the darkness; cannon fire on high, followed by myriad, jagged tines of forked lightning, that in a torrent of brilliant light struck the community of Madison Bend like a fusillade of death-dealing serpents’ tongues, turning the earth black and barren in the wake of a fireball that obliterated all that had lived and stood within the old parish limits of Twycross.
Over the ensuing weeks, there was much speculation as to what had happened that fateful night. Only Sally and Jim knew the terrible truth, but would never tell it, knowing that they would only attract ridicule and disbelief.
The power that had manifested to fulfil a curse that would never be repealed, had sunk back into the earth, content to stand guard in wary hibernation; forever ready to rise again and consume any and all who attempted to settle in its Godless domain.
Mike Smail ~ 2012