The Strange Case of Charity Bartlett


D. J. Belt



Copyright: Original story and characters, copyright D. J. Belt, October, 2015.

Disclaimers: Probably about a PG-13 type of thing.

Comments: Write me!

Misc.: This is for the Halloween Invitational at RAOB. Hope you like it.


In New England, a lone grave marked with a hand-hewn stone stands far outside the cemetery of Barnstable’s oldest colonial-era church. Its inscription reads: Charity Bartlett, 1678-1694. Loved by family, accursed by God. This is her story.





Of all the ills suffered in the last two days, the crushing loneliness hurt the worst.

It was worse than the chill, or the hunger, or the contempt with which people spoke to her – when they did speak. It was even worse than the jailer’s glances when he came to check on her. In those glances, she detected a combination of contempt and lust. She didn’t know which took precedence, but she shivered when he shot that predatory gaze at her through the bars of her cell.

No, what hurt the worst was that her own family would not visit her. They probably feared for their souls, afraid that if they approached her, she would woo them with a spell and force madness upon them. They feared her because they believed the Church. They believed their neighbors. Worst of all, they believed their own fear. It was as if they had never loved her.

Charity Bartlett glanced down at her lap. In it, her hands rested, folded one upon the other. Slowly, she realized that she was sitting as if she was in church on the Sabbath. Back straight, hands folded, knees and feet together, silent, motionless, with only a vivid imagination to entertain her, she had learned how to sit still for long periods of time from an early age. The alternative was to incur the wrath of her Puritan parents and a whipping when they reached home. Besides, she was a minister’s daughter. She had to set an example. So, she did her best. She always tried to be obedient. It was the way to her father’s love, to her mother’s love, to God’s love. Obedience. She silently chewed on that thought for a while. Where was that love now, she wondered. Where was her father, her mother, her sister? Where was God?

Not here, she decided. Not here. Not in this cell, and not in the village of Barnstable, Massachusetts Colony, in the year of our Lord 1694.

The cell in which she sat was small, but clean. The thick stone walls radiated a chill that belied the pleasant autumn night outside her tiny window. The only piece of furniture was a wooden bucket, tightly-lidded, in the corner to serve as her toilet. Not that it mattered; she had not eaten for two days. Luckily, cold tea was brought to her from time to time, and she gratefully drank that. What she would give for a scrap of her mother’s bread now! She thought of her mother, and she felt hot tears overflow her eyes. Silently, they dropped to her lap and wet her hands. Her mother had not come to see her. No one had come to see her.

A male voice broke the still. “Charity Bartlett?” it asked. She looked up, and she saw a man of middle age standing on the other side of the bars, watching her. He had a face which reflected a studious, practiced seriousness and eyes which spoke of pity and caution. As with all men, he was clothed almost entirely in black, except for a white collar and stockings.

“Yes?” she said. The sound of her own voice surprised her. It was a whisper which resounded in the cell.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“No,” she replied, as she cast her gaze back to her hands.

“I am the Reverend Josiah Winthrop. Your father and I have been friends since we studied for the clergy together as lads. That was many years ago, before you were born.”

The ensuing silence told Charity that some answer was expected of her. She could only manage an “Oh?” in reply.

“He asked me to come and speak with you about your present – your present situation.”

Charity slowly glanced up. “To what end, sir?” she asked.

“He has begged me to intervene on your behalf.”

“I ask again, to what end, sir?”

“Why, I’ll defend you in court.”

Charity considered the statement. Then, she spoke slowly. “I thank you, sir, for your kindness, but I have been accused of witchcraft.” She waited for the word to settle upon both of them like a dark, wet blanket. “Witchcraft,” she repeated. “There is no defense. There is only guilt. No one has ever been found innocent of being a witch. My future, at the moment, is rather grim.”

“How old are you, Charity?”

“Sixteen, sir.”

He considered that, then asked, “Are you a witch?”

“No, sir,” she said. “As God is my witness, I am no witch.”

“Then why were you named? By whom? For what purpose?”

“My friend since childhood named me as a witch. She had herself been accused, and was facing execution. The only way to preserve oneself is to admit guilt and name others. She named me.”

“How do you explain the fits?”

Charity glanced up. She reflected puzzlement. “What fits?” she asked.

“The fits you are sometimes given to display,” he urged. “Your family told me of them.”

Again, Charity looked down at her hands. “I know nothing of fits. I do admit that, since childhood, I have occasionally been given to a sudden sleep which comes over me. It most often happens when I am extremely hungry or tired.” She paused, then said, “As I am presently. It doesn’t last long, and then I awaken. I do not know what happens during those sleeps.”

“Your neighbors and your family testify that you are agitated during these times, that you say odd things.”

“I know nothing of that, sir. All I know is that I sleep. I remember nothing else.”

“Then you do not hold discourse with Satan at those times?” he asked. “You are not the Devil’s compatriot, his mistress during these ‘sleeps’, as you call them?”

“Is that what people think?” Charity asked. “That I whore myself to Satan? That I worship the evil in the world above the goodness to be found?”

“Many fear so.”

“Then I see that no one knows me, and that all is lost.” Her eyes met the pastor’s. “For how can I defeat the ignorance and superstition of false belief?”

“Talk like that will get you executed,” Reverend Winthrop said. “Satan is real. Witchcraft is real. To suggest otherwise is to aggrieve the Church. You do not wish to go there.”

She rose and approached the bars. “If I were Satan’s concubine and a witch, could I touch the Good Book without doing myself injury?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Satan’s witches shy away from such action.”

“Then give me your Bible,” she insisted. “Let me hold it and swear upon it.”

Reverend Winthrop considered the offer, then passed his Bible through the bars. She held it in her hand. “I am innocent,” she said. “And I am alone.” Her eyes, usually submissive in downcast countenance, blazed up at him. “I swear that I am not in league with Satan. I swear that I am not a witch.” She handed the book back to him. “Does that satisfy you, sir?”

He received the Bible and tucked it beneath his arm. “Me? Yes. The court? Probably not.”

“Then what is to be done?” she asked. “Is there nothing?”

“Repent,” the reverend said. “Admit guilt and show remorse. Beg for mercy, and the court may grant it.”

“But I am innocent!” She wiped her face with a sleeve. “Innocent!”

“Play the role,” he said. “Play it well, and you may yet live to see your seventeenth year.”

Charity stared at him for a moment, then returned to her seat on the stone sill. For a moment, she remained silent; then, she looked up at Reverend Winthrop. “Such is to be my defense, then?”

“It is the safest path.”

“But not the truth.”

“Consider what I have said. Think on it tonight, and I will meet you in court tomorrow. And pray,” he urged. “I will go and comfort your family now. They are quite distraught by the events of the last two days.”

“Think,” she echoed, “and pray. I have little else with which to fill my time. I thank you, Reverend Winthrop, for your efforts on my behalf.”

He nodded, then turned and took a few steps. He was halted by her next statement.

“Please, sir. Render my love to my family.”

“You should do so yourself,” he countered.

“They have not visited. In the two days I have been here, no one has visited but you.”

“I see. I will urge correction to that. Good night.” With that, he left.

A wind whistled through the tiny window above her head; branches of the trees outside scratched against the stone wall. The sounds overwhelmed her, echoing in the little cell. She closed her eyes, but no relief came to her. She attempted prayer, but the words fell, hollow and empty, to the stones around her. She had been forsaken by family, by friends; even, it would seem, by God himself. The abandonment was like a knife which pierced her most vital parts and stabbed at her soul. She willed herself to die, to leave her body and seek solace among angels, but even that eluded her.

Soft footfalls outside the cell reached her hearing, and she opened her eyes. In a moment, she sprang to her feet and ran to the bars. “Mama!” she whispered. Familiar, comforting hands grasped her through the bars as her mother kissed her face. “Where have you been? I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’m sorry, child. We are not allowed to visit.” She held Charity’s face in her hands and studied her. “You look awful. Your hair is unkempt. Where is your coif? It should be upon your head.” She smoothed the long, loose locks of hair from Charity’s face. “And your eyes are sunken and pained. Oh, child. You are suffering, aren’t you?”

“Mama,” Charity said. “This is surely Hell. Can you not get me out of here?”

“Oh, Charity. I cannot. If I could take your place, I would. I have begged, I have pleaded; they disdain me. You are to be put on trial tomorrow, it seems, and nothing can prevent it.”

“I am innocent, Mama.”

“I know, child.” She beamed at Charity. “Such a lovely soul, my Charity.” She grasped her daughter’s hands and kissed them. “Are they caring for you?”

“The jailer, I’m afraid of him, the way he looks at me. And I have not eaten in two days.”

“Oh, my girl. Here, I brought you something.” Charity’s mother pulled a large piece of bread from the pocket of her apron and passed it through the bars. “It’s this morning’s bread.”

“Oh, God, Mama. Thank you.” As Charity stared down at the piece of bread, she voiced a thought. “Mama?”

“Yes, child?”

“If you are not allowed to visit, how did you come to be here?” When she glanced up, her mother was gone.

Charity gasped in amazement. As she wondered at her mother’s sudden disappearance, she felt a sudden, intense desire to sleep descend upon her, consume her, wrap her in its comforting blanket. Her eyes closed. She felt herself floating, it seemed, upon a warm current. Then, she slowly awoke. She was lying on the cold stones of the cell’s floor, staring at the ceiling. For a moment, she was all confusion; then, her mind began to clear, and she looked toward the cell’s bars. “Mama?” she said. There was no answer. The space in front of the bars was empty. Slowly, Charity sat up. “Mama?” she called, but there was no answer. She rose to her feet, brushed off her clothing, and tucked some wayward, long locks of loose hair behind her ear as she shuffled to the bars. “Mama?” she called out.

A door opened, and the jailer stepped into the room. “What’s this, then?” he asked. “What are you shouting about?”

“My mother was just here,” Charity said. “Where is she now?”

The jailer stared at her blankly, then said, “There’s been no one here but the Reverend Winthrop, girl.”

“But she was here. I spoke with her.”

“No more lies from you, witch. Now be quiet.” With that, he left and shut the door behind him.

Charity was stunned by the response. Nothing made sense. The world she’d known all her life was inside-out and upside-down. Slowly, she turned and walked to her seat on the stone sill. After she sat, she looked down at her hands. In them, she held a crust of bread. She tasted it, chewed a piece, savored the flavor. It was her mother’s bread. No one else could make it taste just this way. As good as it tasted, it was even sweeter in its proof that her mother had been here. In spite of the jailer’s words, she had been here.

Perhaps she’d been frightened away, she thought, by my having another of those ‘fits’. Her mother had always been afraid of the fits. Charity hadn’t been. They were actually comforting, warm, accepting. Everyone else was afraid of them. She didn’t know what caused them, and neither did the physician. She just knew that they were a part of her. A touch of witchcraft or a touch of an angel, she had no clue, but they were a part of her.

“Charity?” a voice whispered.

Her head jerked up, and she glanced around the cell. She saw no one, but heard the voice whisper her name again. “Who’s there?” she said.

“Ezra,” the whisper answered.

Charity stood. The crust of bread fell from her hand and came to rest on the seat she’d just vacated. “Ezra? Where are you?”

“Here.” A figure stepped from the shadows and stood at the bars. She covered her mouth to silence a cry of surprise, then ran to the figure. Through the bars, they embraced and kissed. “Oh, Charity,” Ezra said. “Let me see you.”

“No,” Charity said. “Let me look on you.” She held his shoulders, looked him over. Yes, it was Ezra; the strong shoulders, the long hair, and a face which was, to her, so youthfully handsome that it mesmerized her. “Have you actually come to me? Is it really you?”

“It is,” he said.

“How did you come here? I am told that there are no visitors allowed.”

“I have my methods.” He smiled a disarming smile, one which quickly turned serious. “Your father is heartsick over your present circumstance. I am, too.”

“It fares no better with me,” Charity said. “Did you see the Reverend Winthrop?”

“Yes. He’s come all the way from Boston to plead your case tomorrow.”

“Then there is some hope?” Charity asked.

“He is eloquent and deeply respected,” Ezra said. “If anyone can benefit you, he can.”

“Can you not?” Charity asked. “After all, you are of the clergy, as well. Can you not plead for me?”

“I’m not quite twenty, and I’m newly out of my schooling. I’m merely your father’s assistant in the minding of his church. No one will listen to me.”

“Am I not worth the effort of an attempt, at least? Please, Ezra.” She grasped his tunic with a desperate fist. “Let your love for me give your speech passion. You said that you love me; then rescue me from this hell and take me as wife.”

“I am young yet to take a wife,” he protested. “And much too poor.”

Charity’s jaw dropped. Her fist loosened, and she released the front of his tunic. “Did you not say that you loved me,” she asked, “when I freely gave you my virtue?” She stepped back a pace. “Or was that a sweet lie? Just a moment in time, done when our passion was spent?” Her eyes clouded, and she felt herself weeping. “Am I not worthy to be your wife?”

“I am not worthy to be your husband,” Ezra said.

“Another sweet lie,” she said. “Tell me, what is it with me that you do not want me?” When he did not reply, she said, “I know what it is. You fancy me a witch. Satan’s whore. A disciple of the Devil.” She stared at Ezra. “You believe them. How can you believe that about me? Me, that you held so tenderly and spoke to so sweetly as we shared our act of love.”

“Lust,” he said. “It was merely lust.”

The words staggered Charity. “Not – for – me!” she said.

“Charity, hear reason. How can you be a clergyman’s wife, accused of witchcraft? It would not work.”

“It would not work for you,” she said.

“For us,” he countered. “For my position as a right reverend would feed us both.”

“And with a witch as your wife, no one will give you position?” she asked. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

Ezra could not look at her. “Yes,” he said.

“I am innocent!”

“We are all sinners,” he replied.

“I am not Satan’s whore!”

“No? You were right anxious to give yourself to me,” Ezra said.

“Because I love you!” Charity grasped the bars with both hands and shook them. “And for that, you deem me Satan’s whore? I was innocent. A maiden. Did I not bleed? Did I not?”

“You did,” Ezra said. “A witch’s trick, perhaps.”

Charity’s jaw dropped. “Then you believe me to be a witch.” It was a statement, not a question.

Ezra looked at the floor. “I do not know what to believe.” He looked up. “Please try to understand, Charity.”

“Oh, I understand all too well.” She glared at him. “So this is what it’s to be?” she asked. “A final farewell? You are not here to rescue me, but to forsake me?”

“I fear so.”

For a period of time, they faced each other through the bars. She looked up at his face, and saw anguish in his gaze. Perhaps, she thought, he really does love me. Or perhaps, she thought, he merely weeps at the breaking of my heart, a little display of sympathy to comfort me. Or to comfort him. “Ezra?” she whispered.


“I have not had my courses this month.”

“I beg your pardon?”

She sighed. “I am very possibly with your child,” she explained.

He visibly paled. “You’re sure?”

“Not as of yet. As time passes, I will know.” She saw his expression. “But that isn’t to be, is it? Tomorrow, I am on trial as a witch. I will be convicted. And I will be put to death. And your child will die with me.” She paused, and then spoke in a bitter whisper. “And then, you will be free of obligation, and your reputation will remain intact.”

“Such was not my intention,” he protested.

“But such will be the sure result,” she countered. “Good-bye, Ezra.” She turned away, but she did not hear footsteps. When she looked back, however, Ezra was gone. A second later, she collapsed.

Again, the sleep overtook her. Again, she welcomed its embrace, warm and comforting. In her mind, she did not wish to awaken. But she did. When she sat up, she saw a figure at the bars, watching her from beneath a hooded cloak. This figure was female and was in a crouch, leaning against the bars. She could not see the face, though; it was in a shadow. “Charity?” a voice whispered.

Charity shifted to her hands and knees, and she crawled the short space to the bars. As she drew within a foot of the shadowy figure, she recognized her visitor. “Prudence?” she whispered.

“It is,” she answered.

“How do you come to be here?” Charity asked. “The jailer allows me no visitors, and yet they arrive, one after another?” She settled next to the crouching figure, reached through the bars, and pushed the hood back from the figure’s head. Her dear friend, Prudence, stared back at her, but there was no joy in the face. There was only anguish. “Why do you come?” she asked.

“To say I’m sorry,” she answered. “It’s my fault that you’re here now.”

“Why did you name me a witch?”

“In court, they threatened me with horrors. They urged me to repent, and I would be forgiven. I was so frightened. I was sure they would hang me, so I lied. I said that I was a witch. I repented and begged forgiveness of God and the court. I thought they would let me go, and that would end it.”

“But it didn’t?”

“No. They wanted names of others who practiced witchcraft. I didn’t know any. I said so. They threatened me. Then, they – ” She wiped at her eyes with her knuckles. “They whipped me until they broke the skin on my back. It hurt so much. Never have I felt such pain, even from my father’s beatings. In my agony, I cried out the name dearest to my own heart. I cried out your name.” She looked at Charity. “And I will relive that horrid moment to my death, and I will take it with me to the grave and beyond.”

She wept as Charity sat next to her, as they held hands through the bars. After some silence, Prudence asked, “Do you hate me?”

“I do not,” Charity said. “I never could.” She held Prudence’s face in her hands. “I love you.”

“And I, you,” Prudence said. She managed a weak smile and asked, “So, what of your minister suitor? How fares that?”

“He is gone forever.”

“I suppose he’ll seek another for a wife, now that you’re accused.”

“He never saw me as a wife. He merely saw me as a foolish girl and took his opportunity with me.”

“Then – ?”

“He and I are done.”

Prudence whispered, “Are we done, you and I?”

“I fear that we are undone,” Charity said. “For you are free, but I will soon die.”

“Repent,” Prudence urged. “Plead for mercy. They will let you live, perhaps.”

“And whom shall I name as a witch to stop my pain when they whip me? You? My sister? My mother? No. I am done for. Let them kill me; I will not condemn others to this fate.”

“Oh, Charity,” Prudence said. “What will I do without you?”

“You will live.” She managed a snicker. “I suspect that the right good Reverend Ezra Smyth will be seeking a wife. Perhaps it will be you.”

“I had rather it be you,” Prudence whispered.

“Don’t talk foolishness. Such is not to be in this life,” Charity replied. “Can you stay by me for a while?”

“I must go,” Prudence said. “Once more, will you kiss me?”

Slowly, gently, they pressed their faces together between the cold iron of the bars, and they kissed. For a long time, they stayed so. Then, Prudence asked, “Does Ezra kiss like me?”

“No,” Charity said. “He is awful. You kiss sweetly.”

Prudence grasped Charity’s hands. “I am so relieved that you do not hate me.”

“I am so relieved that you were not put to death,” Charity said. “And if my name bought you freedom, then I am content with my fate.”

“Farewell, Charity. I know that we shall meet again.”

“Sometime, somewhere, we shall. Go now, and live for both of us.”

Prudence leaned forward and touched her lips to Charity’s lips. Then, she vanished.

Charity gasped. She looked down at where Prudence had been crouching, and saw nothing. No evidence existed that she had ever been there. Was it a dream? Was it – was it witchcraft? That thought echoed in her mind as a sudden, overwhelming weariness descended over her. She drifted into a restful sleep, slouched against the bars of the cell.

As she slept, the tendrils of a mist slowly wound their way into the cell through the tiny outside window. It wafted, like smoke, through the air, and it pooled on the floor. Slowly, silently, it rolled across the stones and gathered around Charity’s legs. In her sleep, she smiled.

She awoke to the repeated sounds of a metallic clang. When she looked up, she beheld the jailer standing outside the bars. He stared down at her, then banged his stick against the bars a few more times. “Wake up, girl,” he said. “Dawn has broken. You have visitors.”

Charity rubbed her eyes. “Who?” she asked.

“Agents of the court,” he said. “Goodwife Chadwick and Goodwife Irons have come to examine you.” He fiddled with his key, then unlocked the cell door. “You may enter, Goody Chadwick, Goody Irons,” he said as he pulled the door open. He looked down at Charity. “Get up, girl. Show some respect.”

“Yes, sir,” Charity said. “May I have some tea? I’m terribly thirsty.”

He glowered down at her. “I’ll see if there’s anything.”

“Thank you,” she said, as she rose and brushed her clothing into some semblance of order.

The two older women entered the cell, paused, and considered the adolescent woman standing before them. Charity asked, “May I be of some service to you?”

Goody Irons said, “Girl, we’re here at the court’s request. We are to examine you for unusual marks.”

“Marks of the Devil,” Goody Chadwick added. “Do you have upon your body any unusual marks?”

Charity felt her heart sink. “I have upon my hip a birthmark,” she said, “but it has been there since I was born.”

“We must examine it, and you.” For a moment, no one moved or spoke. Finally, Goody Chadwick said, “You must undress.”

“I beg your pardon?” Charity asked.

“All your clothing,” Goody Irons said. “Now, child. We’re waiting.” When Charity did not move, she added, “The court requires it.”

Charity glanced to her left. Just beyond the bars, the jailer stood, grinning. She focused her attention on the two women in her cell. “Not with him there. Send him away.” Goody Irons shooed the jailer away with a motion of her hand, and he reluctantly left and shut the door behind him. Then, in front of them, Charity slowly disrobed.

The two women inspected her body in intimate detail, noting freckles and singularities, and especially studying the birthmark on her hip. They lifted her hair, they perused the soles of her feet, they left nothing to chance. And when they finished, Goody Irons began gathering up Charity’s clothing as Goody Chadwick handed her a single garment: a long, gray wool shift which would cover her from her neck to her ankles. Charity held it up against her chest, then stared at the two women.

“I’m to wear this to court?” she asked. “Nothing else?”

“Yes, child. The court will want to see your mark.”

Charity gasped, “But it is on my hip! To raise my clothing like that would be immodesty of the worst kind. And before the court? Before the men of the village?”

“That’s who comprises the court,” Goody Irons said.

“It would be humiliating,” Charity protested. “I’ll not do it.”

“You disrespectful young woman! It’s the court’s order,” Goody Irons insisted. “That makes it proper. They’re godly men.”

As Charity hurriedly donned the shift, she asked, “Do I not at least keep my shoes?”

“A witch shouldn’t need them,” Goody Chadwick said. “Can you not fly?” She turned toward the door and called for the jailer, who appeared and led the women out. As Charity watched them leave, she heard their comments.

“A witch, worried about modesty,” Goody Irons said. “I’ve heard that they dance naked in the moonlight and fornicate with Satan himself.”

“Disobedient little wretch,” Goody Chadwick replied. “I can see the Devil within her, as Reverend and Goody Bartlett would not have raised such a headstrong.”

“And she used to be such a sweet girl.”

After the women left, the jailer brought her a flask of cold tea and a wooden cup. She accepted the drink and settled down to savor it. As she did, she cast her gaze to the little window above her head. Outside, the weather proved overcast. A forbidding weather to reflect a forbidding mood, she thought, for this is the day that Charity Bartlett will die. As she contemplated that thought, she found herself strangely without emotion of any sort. Good, she thought. That will make it ever so much easier. I only pray – if God is even listening – that my little sister does not witness my end. If she does, then I will forswear my faith in Him, for I cannot pay loving tribute to such a cruel and heartless  master.

She had resumed her silent, still position on her stone seat when footsteps sounded in the hall outside her cell. The jailer’s voice announced a visitor, and the cell door was unlocked. It creaked open, and Charity opened her eyes to identify her visitor. It was a young village wife with a porcelain wash-bowl in her arms. She attempted a kindly smile. “Charity Bartlett, dear. How do you fare?”

“Goodwife Joy Fayerweather,” Charity said. “It seems odd to call you that.”

“I’m not yet used to the title. I’ve only been married for a week.”

“How is marriage?” Charity asked.

Goody Fayerweather placed the bowl on the stone seat beside Charity, then turned to the jailer. “Would you bring us some water?” she asked. When the jailer left, she embraced Charity. “Marriage is a new thing to me,” she whispered. “In truth, I do not know what to make of men. They are strange creatures.”

“Serpents,” Charity said. “Not to be trusted.”

“So young, and so aged in your views?” Joy teased. She accepted the jug of water from the jailer, waited until he had left, and then set about to clean Charity up. “Come, now. Wash up. I’ll brush your hair. You’ll feel better soon.” She poured water into the bowl and handed Charity a bar of soap. Charity scrubbed her face and hands as Joy held her hair behind her head.

It did feel good, Charity decided. She had not washed or bathed in three days. “Thank you, Joy,” she said, as she accepted a cloth and dried her face and hands. She considered Joy’s presence with curiosity. “Are you not afraid of me?” she asked.

“Should I be?” Joy replied.

“They accuse me of witchcraft.”

“I have heard the talk. I’m not sure that I believe it.”

Charity’s eyes watered as she glanced up at Joy. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“There, now. Enough of crying. Let’s put on a brave face for today, shall we?” Joy pulled a hair brush from the pocket of her apron and began brushing Charity’s hair. “Such pretty hair,” Joy said. “Long and yellow, like the wheat. I was always a little envious of it, you know. Mine looks like a wet dog.”

“Nonsense,” Charity said, as she sat, eyes closed, and enjoyed the touch. “You were always a pretty girl. That’s why you married before the rest of us.”

“Is it proud, to boast on our looks?” Joy asked. “Your minister father would chide us for that.”

“How does he fare?” Charity asked.

The brushing stopped. “What, you have not seen him?”

“Not in the last few days.”

The brushing resumed. “Since your arrest, he confines himself to his house and will not come out of it.” The brushing stopped again, and Charity felt Joy braiding her hair into a long braid. “There,” she said. “You look more presentable, and less like an orphan.” She handed Charity a little hand-held mirror, and Charity held it before her face.

She almost did not recognize the face that peered back at her. It seemed another person’s face, pale and hollow and drawn, almost gray, a premonition of a death mask. Her death mask. The mask of a young accused witch who would soon be hanged, then thrown, lifeless, into an unmarked grave to rot in unconsecrated ground, just as her soul would rot in Hell. Then she looked again, and her heart thudded within her chest.

Her eyes had turned blood red, the pupils slitted in black, vertical lines. She gasped and blinked several times, then looked again. The sight was still there, and her hand was shaking so much that she had trouble steadying the mirror. “Joy!” she whispered.

“Why, what’s wrong?” Joy asked.

Charity turned and looked up at Joy. “Look at my eyes. Do you see anything wrong?”

Joy studied her with a kindly expression. “No, nothing,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Quite sure.”

“I’m going mad,” Charity said.

She placed a hand on Charity’s forehead. “It isn’t madness, and you aren’t fevered. You’re just upset.” She knelt in front of Charity, held both her hands in her own, and looked up at her. “You’re no witch. The court will find the charges false, and you’ll be free. You must believe that the Lord will protect you in difficulty such as this.”

“He didn’t protect those accused in Salem-town last year.”

“Salem-town is an unhappy place. Perhaps they were witches. Here, in Barnstable, there are none.”

Charity glanced down at her lap. In it, the little hand mirror rested, reflecting side up, between their clasped hands. Charity leaned forward, looked at her face, and shivered. Her eyes were still blood red. She looked at Joy’s face.

“Yes,” she echoed. “None here, in Barnstable.”

“See, then? It will be well.”

Joy rose to collect her things and leave. Charity watched her, then reached out and grasped her forearm. “Please,” she said. “Will you stay with me? Just until they come for me?”

Joy considered the question, then nodded. She sat on the stones beside Charity, held her, and allowed her to rest her head on her shoulder. She said nothing when she felt Charity weep and heard the soft sniffles of anguish, but merely held her until a delegation of the village’s men arrived to escort her to her trial.

The villagers had been gathering in front of the town hall, and there was much speculation and whispered rumors among them. Some doubted the charge of witchcraft, and others were insistent on the truth of it. On one thing they agreed, however: If Charity Bartlett did not confess, repent, and name her accomplices, she would be executed. When the party escorting the prisoner finally approached, the crowd fell silent, parted, and watched the accused pass them by.

Charity walked, barefoot and with iron shackles on her wrists, among the black-clad men. She kept her chin high and did not return the curious gazes of her fellow villagers. To them, Charity Bartlett was no longer the laughing, yellow-haired girl who ran and played through the dirt streets of the village; she was now a witch, a thing to be feared and slaughtered – or redeemed by repentance and confession. How would it go?

Inside, Charity stood before the raised judge’s platform, silent. Her hands rested by her sides, and the chains of the shackles on her wrists clinked whenever she moved. She could feel upon her the eyes of the others who crowded the building. The temperature inside the room rose from the packed humanity, and she began to perspire until windows were raised and a breeze rustled the hem of the shift around her legs. Eventually, the bang of the judge’s gavel silenced the room, and a clerk began droning in an official tone of voice.

“King’s court...Barnstable, Massachusetts Colony...thirty-first day of October, in the year of our Lord Sixteen Ninety-Four...bring before us one Charity Bartlett, a young woman of the village, accused of there anyone to plead on her behalf?”

“I shall,” a voice said.

Charity raised her head and looked toward the right Reverend Josiah Winthrop. He stood, clad in the required black, his Bible beneath his arm, his glasses low on his nose, a picture of authority as he took his place near her and faced the judge.

“How does she plead?” the judge asked.

“She is innocent,” he declared. A hushed whisper swept the room.

“And who will argue the charges? Who does the King’s business here?”

“I do.” Charity recognized the voice, and her gut knotted. She looked aside, and she saw the young Reverend Ezra Smyth approach the center of the floor. She glared at him, but he did not look in her direction. He continued speaking. “An accused witch would traditionally be examined by a respected senior clergyman, I know,” he said, “but that position in Barnstable is taken by her father, the right Reverend Bartlett, and he is – indisposed.”

“Is he ill?” the judge asked.

“Yes, sir. He has not left his house since his daughter’s arrest.”

“Perhaps understandable. All right, Reverend Smyth. Proceed with your argument.”

The Reverend Winthrop leaned toward Charity and whispered, “Be strong. We will get our chance.” Then, he stepped aside to listen to the interrogation.

Ezra Smyth turned so as to face the judge, the jury of village men, and the spectators. “Three days prior, Charity Bartlett was named by a repentant witch as a confederate. On this basis, she was arrested and jailed.” He looked at Charity. “Miss Bartlett, are you a witch?”

Charity looked him in the face. His expression was mostly unreadable, but she felt that she could detect a grim determination, a sense of duty. Or was it something more sinister? In a second, a realization struck her that he had an interest in seeing her put to death. With her gone, their secret adultery and her possible pregnancy would no longer threaten him.

“I repeat: Are you a witch?” he asked, his voice rising in volume.

“No,” she said.

“You hold no league with Satan, then?”


“Then why were you named by a known and repentant witch just three days prior?”

“She was afraid for her life. She had to name someone.”

He cast her a doubtful glance, then began pacing. “Your neighbors testify that you are often seen wandering the woods on the edge of our village. Why is that?”

“I enjoy the woods.”

“Is it not to practice witchcraft in secret?”


“You seem to have some knowledge of herbs and potions, as well. Where did you acquire this?”

“From old Goody Learned. She taught me, before she died.”

“Herbs and potions,” he repeated. “A witch’s stock in trade, and not a Godly art.”

“My potions ease pain and soothe the humors. Is that not a good end?”

“It is not for you, a young, unmarried woman, to question. It is for you to practice obedience.” He studied her. “You have a reputation for being defiant.”

“I do not, sir. I strive to be what is expected of me. Sometimes, I fail.”

“Right there! Defiance!” he shouted. “Do you not see it?” He cast a glance toward the jury, then back at Charity. “Your neighbors testify that they have heard you in argument with your father on several occasions. Do you deny that?”

“I do not. We are both of a fiery temperament. Upon occasion, we clash. It is a private family matter, sir.”

“A fiery temperament, you say. A rather ungodly attribute, is it not?”

“This, sir, is the temperament with which I was endowed by the Creator. If you have objection to it, take up the matter with Him.”

Guffaws of laughter echoed from the assembled villagers, and from the direction of the jury. The judge’s gavel pounded. Ezra’s face reddened, and his voice rose in pitch. “And these strange fits which sometimes possess you? What of them? Evidence of witchcraft? Possession by a demon?”

“I know nothing of fits. I only know that I sleep. Others say they are fits.”

“Fits,” Ezra said. “An ungodly temperament. Known association with an admitted witch. Signs of witchcraft, are they not? Do you deny that you have actually held discourse with Satan? That you have his mark upon you even now?”

“I do deny it.”

“And the mark upon your hip? You deny that? Raise your clothing. Show the court and the jury this mark.”

Charity’s heart began pounding, and her chest tightened in fear. She met Ezra’s gaze, and she saw triumph in it. She felt a hot anger well up inside her, an anger which melted her fear away. “I will not, sir. It is merely a birthmark, and its location is very intimate. It would be humiliating to me to have my body exposed to the men of this village.”

“How convenient,” he said. “She will not. Once again, we witness her disobedient nature.”

The judge motioned to several of the men standing nearby. “Seize her,” he ordered, “and hold her. We will see this mark for ourselves.”

Reverend Winthrop shouted, “I object to this!”

“Silence, sir,” the judge said. “It is commonly done in such cases.” He motioned again, and Charity felt herself grabbed by her arms and legs. She fought and struggled, but their strength was overwhelming, and she was held still. They turned her to face judge, jury, and spectators.

Ezra stepped forward and lifted the hem of her shift. When he bared her pelvis, an audible gasp was heard in the room. Many people leaned forward, squinting to peruse the mark on her hip, and a rumble of conversation began. Ezra pointed to the birthmark. “Do you see?” he asked. “The mark of Satan! She has been freely consorting with the Devil himself!”

Charity fought and squirmed against her captors. “It is there since I was an infant!” she shouted. “Ask my parents!”

“That’s enough,” the judge said, and the men released her. She collapsed to the floor, weeping, as the men resumed their places against the wall.

Ezra walked around her. “Do you deny it now? The jury has seen the mark of Satan upon you.”

“It means nothing, sir,” she said, between sobs. “It is only a birthmark.”

“It means that you are guilty of witchcraft!” he shouted. “You are, aren’t you? Admit it. Confess yourself and beg forgiveness. Name your associates, and save your soul from the eternal fires of damnation!”

“I am guilty of nothing, sir,” Charity said. She looked up at him. “You are wrong to accuse me so. I am innocent!”

“Are you?” He smiled down at her as he paced around her. She felt a cold chill travel the length of her spine at his expression. He had something else in mind; what it was, she didn’t know. What would come next? She sat on the floor, staring up at him, as she wiped her face with her sleeve.

“Charity,” he said, “how old are you?”

“All in the village know my age, sir. I am sixteen.”

“Sixteen,” he repeated. “And you are an unmarried woman?”

“Again,” she said, “all in the village know this. I am.”

“You have never been married?”

“Never, although I am of marriageable age.”

He studied her silently. For some seconds, a still, hushed silence fell throughout the room. Where, she wondered, was he bound with this? She glanced toward Reverend Winthrop, but saw only an impassive expression on his face. When she looked back at Ezra, she got her answer.

“It is well known that witches carry on wild, orgiastic rites with Satan. Are you a virgin, Charity?”

“What?” Her jaw slackened. “How dare you ask such a thing! That, sir, is not a proper public question!”

Ezra looked toward the judge, who nodded and said, “The question is allowable here, in court.”

“I repeat the question, Charity Bartlett. Do you swear before God and this court that you are untouched by man or Devil?” He leaned down over her. “Your silence betrays you, Charity Bartlett. Shall we ask the goodwives to examine you again? This time, for the state of your maidenhead? Being unmarried, it should be intact. If it is broken, then it is proof that you are a witch! Satan’s own whore!”

Charity stared up at him. She felt an anger posses her, flood through her, instill her arms and legs with power. Her pulse pounded in her ears, and her vision tinted itself with a red hue. She gathered herself and rose from her place on the courtroom floor. As Ezra stepped back a pace, she turned to him and shook a manacled fist at him. “Do you actually wish to take this journey with me?” she hissed. “Do you? All right, then. Let us speak of this. Let us speak honestly before the King’s court, the jury and this entire village. Let us speak of unspeakable things!” She snatched the Bible from beneath Ezra’s arm. As she returned to the center of the courtroom, she waved it in the air. “It is commonly held,” she said, “that witches, consorts of Satan, cannot touch the Holy Bible. I hold it in my hand. Do you see it flame? Do you see my hand blister and burn? No, you do not. I am no witch.” She turned to the jury, then the villagers. She shook the book above her head. “Do you see? I am no witch!” She allowed silence to reign for a few seconds, then said, “The right Reverend Ezra Smyth accuses me of adultery.” She pointed at him with the hand holding the Bible. “Yes! I have lain with a man, I do confess it. He was beautiful, and he was persistent, and he is the Devil incarnate! For I have lain with Ezra Smyth!”

The courtroom burst into excited gasps and shouts, and the judge began pounding with his gavel and shouting for silence. Charity’s voice rose and silenced them. “Do you not see where evil truly lies? It is there!” She waved the Bible at Ezra. “And in this court. And in the ignorance and superstition with which we condemn our neighbors to whip and fire, all in fear of things we cannot see. Do you wish to behold the Devil? Then look upon him. I give you Ezra Smyth, the Devil himself in a beautiful form.”

Ezra stared at her, slack-jawed, then stepped back a few paces. He said, “Charity, your eyes!”

Charity held up her hands, and the shackles fell away. They hit the floor in front of her feet with a loud clank as the Bible clutched in her hand burst into flame and sent gray, wispy tongues of smoke into the air. She threw it down, grasped Ezra by the neck, and hurled him against the judge’s raised platform. Her eyes, as red as fire, flashed around the room as it broke into pandemonium. Screams sounded as people crowded the exits, as some fainted, as others held up their Bibles as protection or began shrieking prayers to the heavens. The judge pounded furiously with his gavel, then ordered several men to restrain Charity. The men cautiously approached, only to stagger backward when she turned in their direction, glared at them, and uttered, “Back!”.

It was only a few moments before the building had emptied of all but the most brave souls, or those paralyzed with fear and inaction. They watched with wide, fearful eyes as Charity stood in the courtroom, as her red eyes challenged and subdued all whom they beheld, as she stood, unopposed, against the entire village and the power of the Church and the King’s Court. She looked at Ezra, but he was frozen with fear. Then, she beheld two figures sitting on a near bench, motionless and shocked, their eyes riveted upon her. She made her way to them and knelt before them, and her manner softened.

“Mama?” she said. “Faith? I had hoped that you would not see my end.”

Charity’s mother managed to find her voice. “We could scarce avoid it.”

“How is father?”

“He is broken-hearted. He will be even more so, when news of this reaches his ears.”

“Tell him I love him.”

“I will.”

“Tell him I’m sorry to have been such a vexation to him.”

“You never were.”

“Thank you for visiting me last night, Mama.”

“I never visited,” she said.

“Yes, you did.”

“Charity?” It was Faith, Charity’s younger sister, who spoke now. Cautiously, she touched hands with her. “What are you? Are you a witch, like they say?”

“No. I am no witch.”

“Then what are you?”

“I don’t know. Are my eyes still red?”

“No. They’re white.”

“Then whatever power Divine Providence has seen fit to grant me has left me.” She warned, “I am not long for this world. They will hang me straightaway, you know, after this.”

Goody Bartlett swallowed hard. Her eyes watered. “I know,” she whispered.

“Why do they wish to kill you?” Faith asked. “Are they afraid of you?”

“Yes. Are you afraid of me?”


Charity smiled. She felt suddenly very weary, overcome with that familiar, dark, heavy cloud of sleep which she could not shake away. She closed her eyes and allowed her head to fall into her mother’s lap. She was still that way when, some minutes later, several village men entered, armed with pistols and swords, and surrounded the three women.

Slowly, Charity felt herself leaving her comfortable, dark place and returning to consciousness. She felt a breeze stir her hair, and she knew that the sun was attempting – and failing – to shine. She opened her eyes and saw that she was outdoors, in the village square. A crowd of people surrounded her at a distance and watched as rough hands slipped a thick hemp rope about her neck and pulled it tight. She looked down at herself and saw that she was sitting in a chair. Her hands and feet were bound. As those same rough hands pulled her to a standing position, the right Reverend Winthrop came into her sight and stood near her. “I am sorry,” he said, “that your fate is not a better one.”

“It is not your fault, sir,” Charity said. 

“Do you have any final words,” he asked, “before the court executes sentence?”

Charity looked up at him. His eyes were sad, questioning. “I am no witch,” she said.

“Then,” he asked in a whisper, “what are you? Tell me. I wish to know.”

“I wish to know, as well,” Charity said. “Good reverend, report my story with sympathy when I am gone, for I am as much in the mystery of this as you are. Convey my love to my family.”

“I shall.” He hesitated, then said, “Do you wish to repent and ask forgiveness?”

“For what should I repent?” Charity said. “Please tell me.”

“For nothing that I can see,” Reverend Winthrop said.

Charity smiled at that. A moment later, the rope was drawn tight, and Charity Bartlett was hanged in the village square, in front of those who had known her all her life.

Goodwife Bartlett, Charity’s mother, took Faith by the hand, and they walked home. People did not speak to them; they walked in silence. For the next hours, as Charity’s body hung in the square, not a word was spoken in Reverend Bartlett’s home. The reverend sat, unmoving, by the fireplace. Goody Bartlett managed, zombie-like, to move from place to place about the house, tidying this or cleaning that. From time to time, grief would overcome her and she would sit and weep, and then eventually rise and busy herself again.

Faith, for her part, sat in the little loft that she and Charity had shared, brushing her hair before a mirror. Long and yellow, like her beloved sister’s hair, she admired it as she brushed it, and she felt guilty for her vanity even as she enjoyed her budding beauty. As she sat, she did not notice the wisps of fog which flowed through the open window and gathered around her stool and her feet.

Her brush halted when she studied herself in the mirror, and her breath caught in her throat. What she saw made her pulse pound, and it awed her.

Her eyes were blood red, the pupils a vertical slit.

Faith smiled at that. Charity had not abandoned her, after all. In fact, she had left her a gift.

*     *     *

Three hundred and twenty-one years later, a park ranger wandered across the grounds of Barnstable’s historical district. To her right was a church and its churchyard cemetery; to her left, a lone grave in the distance. A solitary visitor, muffled against the chilly autumn wind and its swirls of leaves, stood next to the grave. She approached the visitor and stood by her side for a moment. The visitor looked up, and the ranger could see that it was a young woman. Long yellow hair spilled from beneath her knit cap and blew in the wind.

“Curious about this one?” the ranger asked.

“Yes,” the visitor said. “For some reason, I’m really drawn to this grave. Why wasn’t she buried with everybody else?”

“She was hung as a witch,” the ranger said. “On this exact day in 1694, as a matter of fact. She couldn’t receive a Christian burial.”

“A witch? On Halloween, even. How bizarre. How sad.” The visitor looked at the grave and did the math. “She was only sixteen. What happened?”

“It’s a long story.” The park ranger gestured toward the downtown area. “The city library has archives which record the trial. They’re fascinating reading.” She smiled. “Not today, though. It’s closing time. The park, too.”

“Oh. Sorry. The day flew by.” Together, they began strolling toward the park’s entrance. “May I come again tomorrow?”

“Sure. We open at nine a.m. Come look me up if you’re curious about Charity Bartlett. We can talk. I’ve recently finished writing a booklet about her for the park service.”

“Oh, I’d love to. I’ll still be in town tomorrow.”

“You’re not from around here?”

“I was raised in Boston,” the visitor said. “But my family was originally from here.” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, really from here.”

“Yeah. Mine, too.” The park ranger extended her hand. “I’m Prudence. Ask for me tomorrow.”

“Thanks.” The visitor grasped the hand. “I’m Charity. Yeah, I know. Same name as her.” She laughed. “Have you ever been to Boston? I get the feeling that I know you from somewhere.”

“Nope. Strange, though. I get the same feeling.” She shrugged. “Maybe we’ve met before.”

“Odder things have happened,” Charity said, as she unlocked her car and climbed inside. “See you in the morning.”

“See you then,” Prudence said. As she watched Charity drive away, she found herself in an unusually exuberant mood. She didn’t know why, but suddenly, she was really looking forward to tomorrow. And that was fine with her.

The End.

–djb, October, 2015.