Stratford, Connecticut, 1651.
A sea of stern and anxious faces glared back at the helpless maiden, whose bonds fastened her securely to the tall wooden pole that stood in the village square. In the lines of her audience’s expressions could be read both fear and disdain; the girl needed to die in order for them to feel safe again, and salvation could not come too quickly. Scarred with the black smears of burned heathens past, the wood felt cold against her back, merely a thin gown separating her from its hard and uninviting surface. The bramble piled beneath her feet dug into her pale soles, the leafed ends of branches and sticks tickling her youthful flesh. The air was neither cold nor warm; simply a passing ghost on its way to the afterlife, where soon she would reside. There was comfort in this idea, yet the means by which she would travel were not eagerly anticipated. From what her friend Goody Bassett had told her, the smoke would end her life, and not the cruel flames. The black and sooty mass would fill her lungs completely, thus draining her of vital breath. Only once her head drooped in death would the flames consume her body, reducing her pink skin to a charred and withered husk. She anticipated this sweet release, freed from the persecution of her peers forever. Her only hope was that the smoke was fast and merciful. She knew her last sounds would be the crackling of impending death at her ankles, but also the scathing words of condemnation by the people she once called her neighbors and friends. There was no convincing this lot of her innocence, and there had been nowhere she could run. She was one girl, without the blessing and trust of her own family, who had turned on her in her time of need. Few were foolish enough to argue the charge of witchcraft, for the law could be even more ruthless and swift than the most diabolical of magic. Her family had simply surrendered their daughter and sister to the powers that be—they who held the fate of their own people in their quivering hands, and were swayed easily by events and behavior not to their liking or understanding. Such was the life and death of many young women in the village, those who were unfortunate enough to be gifted with beauty beyond mortal comprehension, or a physical feature too unique to be socially acceptable, or even an ability to which the majority of the village was not privy.
Somewhere in the rear of the crowd loomed her mother, father, and brother, whose grief she hoped to hear over the din, once the kindling had been ignited. As painful as it would be to bear this sound, it would comfort her to know that she would be mourned and, in time, missed dearly. She could take solace in this reassurance and fall willingly into death’s waiting arms. When she looked out over the heads of those gathered, however, and spied her family, her mother’s eyes remained dry, while her father and sibling sobbed openly. The placid look on her mother’s face was agonizing to behold—would she not weep for her own daughter? Yet, as she stared deeper into her mother’s seemingly emotionless expression, the girl realized that it was not coldness she detected, but rather a quiet strength, as if her mother did not believe there was anything to be concerned about.
This confused the girl immensely, and she dismissed this strange observation. Instead, she turned her attention to the one item that she requested be in her possession at the time of her death—a very old bracelet, which her mother had also been adamant that she wear that day. With the tips of her fingers, she toyed with the small white objects strung together around her thin wrist, hoping the mindless act would soothe her rampant thoughts.
The crowd parted, and two men calmly approached, each of them dressed in black robes. One carried a torch, the other a thick book with a cross on the cover. Neither man would hold her gaze, their eyes remaining fixed on the ground. When they reached her side, they separated; one stood on her left, the other her right. The man with the book opened the battered tome and began reciting a string of phrases, intending to justify the barbaric act for which they had condemned their souls. The other man applied the flaming torch to the kindling, and stepped back, allowing the fire to feast greedily upon the dry wood. It was not until the flames began to boast of their true power and size that the girl had begun to panic. Her heart thumped rapidly; her lungs struggled to filter the rancid plumes encroaching upon the fresh air around her. Impulsively, the girl looked out at her mother again, whose face she had been ignoring. Yet, there she stood, her serene expression still being worn like an elegant garment she was incredibly proud of. The girl fiercely penetrated the surface appearance of this look, scrounging for some kind of meaning or consoling factor that would guide her through the next few terrifying moments peacefully and without fear.
Then at last, she found it.
Inscribed as vividly as if it were carved into her face, a lost knowledge now recovered, filled her mind completely. The girl’s memories had been infused with this knowledge, this power over death, instantaneously, and she could not tell if she was experiencing the searing heat of the flames at her feet, or the hot rush of information scorching her brain.
She lifted her head defiantly to the crowd, and shouted, “Dileu!” and the flames extinguished as quickly as if someone had doused them with water.
She then shouted, “Rhyddhau!” and her bonds unfurled from around her wrists, dropping to the ground.
A gasp of horror and disbelief washed over the people standing before her, followed by profound silence. No one moved, save the maiden, who stepped down from the wooden pile as if she were a queen descending the steps of her gilded carriage. Those gathered parted respectfully, and the girl made her way toward her family. Her father and brother shared the same reaction as those around them; however, her mother bore a conspiratorial grin. The girl returned this grin, and in that moment a lifetime of knowledge was exchanged.
Hand in hand, the girl and her mother went home to gather their meager belongings and prepare for travel; the remainder of their family followed close behind. Though she had escaped her foul end, the girl and her family could no longer seek residence in the village. The villagers’ small and fearful minds would never tolerate such a blatant defiance of nature and of man’s law, so the family would need to go elsewhere. Perhaps someplace near the coast, where her father’s fishing business could prosper, and no one will have heard of the witch who fled the fires of justice.
“I said, in what year was Goody Bassett burned at the stake?”
In the theater of Winter’s subconscious, the orchestra had reached a crescendo, a flurry of carnivorous arpeggios devouring the flesh of her boredom. The sound of her teacher’s voice, however, rang through her mind, disrupting the Mozart concerto that had temporarily freed her from the shackles of academic catatonia.
“Um, what?” Winter replied, sounding as foolish as she felt.
Her question was rewarded with laughter by those seated around her.
“Young lady, you have a bad habit of zoning out during my discussions. Not only is it rude, this repeated offense is grounds for detention. If you focused as closely on your work as you do in mentally escaping this class, you would rival the likes of Einstein.”
“I’m sorry,” she uttered, bowing her head shamefully. “I know I always say that, but I really do mean it.”
The teacher sighed. “You’re not a bad kid. Everyone here knows this. Nor are you dumb. You’re just distracted, as many of the artistic persuasion tend to be. Your gift becomes a curse, in a manner of speaking. Yet, unlike the charge of witchcraft against poor Goody Bassett, it is a curse that can be overturned and undone. Unfortunately, I cannot do this for you, so it’s up to you to become better at directing your energy on your work while you’re at school, and resume the status of ‘struggling artist’ once you leave this building. Understood?”
“Yes, Mrs. Ledowitz.”
“Good, now I will ask you again, in what year was Goody Bassett burned at the stake?”
Later that day, Winter and her best friend and chief confidant Taliba Jones sat across from each other at lunch, as they had done every day since first grade. Taliba shook her head disapprovingly, as Winter nibbled absentmindedly at her goldfish crackers.
“Jesus, Winter,” said Taliba. “Why didn’t you just stand up and demand that Ledowitz give you a detention? It would’ve been far less humiliating.”
“I don’t know,” mumbled Winter, slipping another pizza-flavored cracker between her chapped lips. “I don’t care…whatever. It doesn’t make any difference.”
“It’ll make a difference when you’re sitting with all the other losers in detention, while the rest of us are at home, basking in the warmth of our freedom.”
“I said, I don’t care,” Winter insisted. “It’ll give me time to read…or draw. Something.”
“Not today. Detention’s in Mr. Civatello’s room, which means you’ll be doing lines—as many as your little pen can scribble, until the bell rings. I’m sure you’ll love it.”
“No way,” argued Winter. “I thought Civatello makes you do homework. Santino makes you do lines.”
Taliba shrugged. “Shows how long it’s been since I had detention. Just don’t forget your homework again. You can’t afford another zero.”
“Tell me about it.”
Three hours later, Mr. Civatello glared at Winter from behind his desk, which was stacked with computer magazines and loose papers. “I’m sorry,” he snickered mockingly, “would you please say that again?”
“I said, I forgot my homework.”
“That’s what I thought. Silly me for giving you the benefit of the doubt—my bad.”
Winter hated that saying: my bad. She thought it made people sound infantile and dumb.
“Can I just run back to homeroom and grab it? It’ll take me two seconds.”
Mr. Civatello crossed his arms and sat back in his chair. “Now what would be the point of detention if I were to make exceptions for the sake of a student’s convenience? Isn’t the point of you being here to punish you for some irresponsible act you committed? I will not reward delinquency with favors, young lady.”
“That’s fine,” Winter assured him. “I’ll just get it when I leave.”
“You will do no such thing! Your teacher is gone for the day; her classroom is locked, and that’s how it shall remain until it is unlocked tomorrow morning. You will go home today, without your homework, and that is how you will arrive tomorrow—without your homework. Maybe after enough detentions you’ll learn, though I’m probably giving you too much credit.”
Winter sunk into her seat, defeated, her humility compounded by the fact that she must once again explain to her mother why she received another zero in Mrs. Ledowitz’s class.
On her way home, Winter removed the iPod from her bag and gently pushed the earbuds into her ears. There was little that Johan Sebastian could not remedy with only a few bars. She let her eyes fall nearly shut, and in that gesture Winter shut out the world—the faces and voices of those she passed, the pressures and anxieties of school, and the inevitable scolding she would receive at home. Most of all, Winter shut out the image of her ailing brother, as he struggled to lead a normal life, despite his weak heart. For a brief moment, she saw him playing his Wii, his breath quickening slightly as he swung the video game controller like a baseball bat. Yet, this memory was quickly replaced by one of him lying in a hospital bed, connected to a machine. She shook her head and rid her thoughts of this cruel recollection. No seven year old should have to live this way, and no seven year old should ever be denied a lifesaving operation, simply because his parents couldn’t afford the insurance. It wasn’t Abel’s fault the small publisher her father worked for didn’t offer health benefits. Winter and her family had worked with the town in an attempt to raise money many times, from fundraisers to donations, but it wasn’t enough.
Nothing Winter did was ever enough.
From her grades to her efforts to help Abel, she could never live up to her parents’ hopes and expectations, and the worst part was it made her feel terrible. At thirteen, she should be feeling rebellious and acting out against her parents’ wishes. Yet, Winter was cursed with a sense of maturity that other children her age seldom possessed. She felt instinctively compelled to both satisfy and please her parents at all times, as if she was incapable of feeling anger or defiance. It hurt her to hurt them, and she knew she did so every time she brought home a zero or failing grade. It was not for lack of trying; however, her artistic mind, as Mrs. Ledowitz had so kindly pointed out, would not allow her to focus her energy on anything remotely uninteresting—or, better put, anything that wasn’t beautiful.
At all times, her thoughts were filled with music, and her eyes saw only in bold shapes and colors, arranged in exquisite patterns to depict something grand and timeless. Numbers and dates did not peacefully coexist with such things and were treated as hostile invaders. Her aged and eccentric piano teacher understood, and sometimes she felt Taliba did as well, but they seemed to be the only ones. This is why artists and musicians were essentially loners, communicating with the unforgiving world around them via their creative ideas, and reserving their words and sentences for the conversations they conducted in their heads.
One would think that with her father being a writer, and her mother being a pianist and dance instructor, her parents would show more patience for her scholarly shortcomings. Yet, as they had explained to her many times, it was because they were a writer and a performer that they were so hard on her. “The world doesn’t need dreamers—it has plenty of those,” they would say. “It needs doctors, scientists, teachers, problem solvers. No one ever cured a disease, or prevented a catastrophe, by drawing a picture or singing a song.” Perhaps not literally, but Winter had performed such feats many times. Mental and emotional crises were constantly being averted with every stroke of her pencil, or pressing of her piano keys. Would that her parents had learned to accomplish such things, they might not be as high-strung as they were.
Then again, they might not be as high-strung if their young son was not perpetually living on the verge of death.
Winter was patient, forgiving, and understanding, where her parents were concerned. She only wished that she would receive some of this same patience, forgiveness, and understanding in return. After all, they were going through this together; Abel was her family, too. Weeks ago, in the midst of an argument, she had played the “At least I’m not pregnant or on drugs” card, but this was petty and irrelevant. It would be like saying, “At least Abel doesn’t have leprosy.” You cannot rationalize misfortune with greater misfortune. It was both childish and unfair.
Turning onto her street, the last few measures of “Badinerie” were coming to an end, the timing of which could not have been more ideal. How she loathed having to turn off Bach in the middle of one of his masterpieces. There seemed to be something criminal and sinful about the act.
Third house on the left; Winter walked up the path to her front door, and entered quietly. It wasn’t that she hoped no one would hear her come in; rather, she had a tendency to move about stealthily wherever she went. It was a habit of hers since she was a baby, always hiding and wishing to be found. If her parents had failed to locate her after only a few seconds, she would panic and reveal herself. Nowadays, she merely wished to reveal herself when she was ready; otherwise, she did not mind remaining a ghost. It meant having to hear less from her parents about how she had disappointed them.
“You’re late,” her mother called out, from down the hall. “Detention again?”
Winter entered the living room, shoulders slumped. “My only regret is that I’ve become so predictable.”
“Well, then maybe you can predict when you’ll eat dinner. Should be easy, seeing as it’s been sitting on the table for the last hour. Your father and brother have already come and gone.”
“Cub Scouts?” asked Winter, unslinging her backpack from around her shoulder.
“No,” said her mother, gravely, stepping into the room with her eyes to the floor. “Doctor. Abel had another episode today at school. It was mild, but enough to warrant a hospital visit.”
Winter’s stomach turned to ice, which normally would’ve been ideal for eating cold dinner; however, she had suddenly lost her appetite.
“Damn it, Mom!” cried Winter, tossing her backpack angrily onto the couch. “There has to be something we can do. Don’t we have a bunch of rich relatives over in England, or something?”
“For all the good it would do,” her mother huffed. “They don’t even know who we are.”
“All the more reason to contact them, don’t you think?”
“It doesn’t work like that, sweetie,” explained her mother, calmly.
“Well, then how does it work? At what point do we simply throw our arms up in the air and say that we’ve done all we can?”
“Winter, honey,” said her mother, with a sad chuckle and a shake of her head, “I threw my arms up in the air a long time ago.”
Her mother vanished back into the hallway, leaving Winter to her thoughts. She had gotten her wish, and she was a ghost once again.