Chapter 7 : Chapter Seven
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“I will not go downstairs for supper,” I said, keeping my arms folded as tightly across my middle as I could. My hands were cold with sweat, my knees locked to stay my body from swaying and swooning.
Hannah frowned at me. Her fingers were knotted around the doorjamb, a hint of rare anxiety bringing some pretty color into her cheeks. “Constance, your Papa will never forgive you if you stay in bed. What is the matter with you? You cannot be ill--I know that. Recall how cheerful you were this afternoon?”
“This afternoon, yes,” I grated. But it was night now and the sky was perilously dark, obscuring the moon with clouds and men with shadows. A sudden vision of Mr. Rockwood, half-man, half-bird, leapt into my mind and refused to leave even when I shook my head vigorously.
God, dear God, what treacherous lie had he told to Ann?
My joints tightened with fear. Would it not be worse for me, I wondered, if he had but told the truth instead? The truth of what I was. A haunted thing. Sinful. And if my father had any sense in his head, he should cast me out into the dark where there would be much wailing and grinding of teeth. 
But Hannah couldn’t understand my trepidation. She couldn’t understand my unearthly pallor and the way I had run up from the company room, away from Ann as though I were fleeing from the Devil himself. She did not know that I had upset the table. Had flung the cloth high like a ship’s sail. Had dashed pewter candlesticks to the floor.
But Ann knew and that was enough to condemn me.
“Perhaps I ought to have been more charitable,” I said, surprised at how distant my own voice sounded. I was lost and even Hannah, with her sense of urgency, could not make me leave my room now.
“Charitable to who?” she asked. From below stairs, I could hear the pleasant, bubbling voices of our company. Ann’s parents. They were visiting their daughter and her new husband. And they expected to see the sickly child that was so often kept locked away from the world.
Hannah was right. My father would be furious if I did not join them.
“To Ann,” I muttered, turning my back on Hannah and the light laughter and the warm, welcoming glow coming from the company room.
I hated myself for being so stubborn, for acting scornful towards Ann when I should have at least been tolerant. She had ample opportunity to destroy me now if she so wished. And despite all my father’s preaching, I thought I might do the same, had I been in her position.
“Constance!” Hannah stamped her foot on the uneven floorboards, her white cap set slightly askew atop her auburn hair. “If you do not come downstairs I shall drag you myself. Your Papa thinks I am wicked enough without you openly disobeying him. Please, please, come downstairs.”
It struck me to hear her plead with me so. Hannah had always been above begging. I had never once known her to bow her head and accept what fortune she was granted. Part of me was riled to deny her further, but then I felt forgotten pity stir within me.
If Ann were to expose me, she should do it whether I was in my room or down with her company. Would it not be better if I met her face to face? Surely, there was some courage within me yet and if I could grasp at it now, I would be better for it.
“I must dress,” I muttered, pulling my shoes from beneath my bed.
Hannah found my white collar resting atop my wash stand and threw it to me. “Hurry then!” she demanded before slamming the door shut behind her.
Supper with the Birchards. Such an affair I shall never forget. If God had not seen fit to seal my fate that night, than I suppose I did it myself. My poor father, I don’t think he should ever forgive me if he knew the truth of it all…
The Birchards, I decided, many months later, after my mind had cleared and I was far away from the village, were good people. Mr. Birchard was quiet and polite, his wife, Goody Elizabeth, seemed kind yet stern. They both spoke pleasantly to me after I had joined the company and were wise enough not to inquire after my health.
My father was clearly pleased that I had taken an interest in our in-laws and for a brief time, his hardness softened. Only Ann seemed distracted as the night progressed, her eyes restless as they found the faces of her parents and husband, but strayed from glancing at me.
And I knew why she acted so. I knew why.
When we sat down to supper, I minded the way Ann had set the candlesticks on the table. Their shadows were long and narrow like finger bones, criss-crossing the small spaces between the plates and tureens and all the polished utensils. The table cloth smelled faintly of wood. Discreetly, I slipped my fingers underneath the linen and felt the pitted surface of the table, the knots and the distinct grain of the old oak.
What had Ann thought as she set the table that afternoon? Had her hands trembled? Had she realized that living plainly beneath her roof, in the same house as her minister husband, was a witch?
Time steadied and then slowed as the meal began. I heard the scraping of the forks, saw the grease running from the plates. There were breadcrumbs now on the fine linen table cloth. Candle wax melted and dribbled with the stench of tallow and smoke. I felt Hannah moving amongst us. She stopped by my left, pouring cider into Goody Birchard’s goblet.
“What is the matter with you?” she hissed lowly as she leaned over my shoulder.
The overcooked mutton lay heavily in my mouth, trailing down my throat with the taste of embers and ash. “I cannot move for fear,” I whispered back to her.
Hannah stared at me a moment before she moved on, down to my father and then to Ann who was sitting across from me.
This was the moment, I decided, watching Ann push her food aimlessly around her plate. She had waiting until now, waiting until she had myself and my father together to confess wait she had seen me do.
And she did indeed glance at me once, then at my father. Her mouth opened, her lips curving in a cautious smile.
The world itself seemed to stop and I felt the warmth rush upon me, no, the heat. The fever was at my mind again…
Ann laid down her fork. It clattered noisily against her plate. This was it…my end. “I must say…” she began, but I would not let her finish.
The scream came from my toes, rushing past my tendons and muscles, finding strength in my veins and blood until it reached my mouth. And then I screamed and screamed and screamed.
I screamed even as Goody Birchard pressed her hands to her mouth in shock. I screamed even as Mr. Birchard twisted his napkin in his hands. And I screamed even as my father dropped his goblet, spilling cider all over his lap.
“Constance!” My father was on his feet at once, pulling me to him. But I did not recognize him…or pretended not to. With his arms around my waist, I thrashed and kicked and cried until he could no longer hold me still.
“Constance! Constance!” Ann’s voice came at me from across the table. And in a moment of lingering sanity, I recognized and felt her fear. It crashed over me, wave upon wave upon wave until I was senseless. Until I was convinced that spirits had taken over my body and would command my flesh and I had no more power over myself than a newborn babe.
“The child! Dear Lord, the child!” This from Goody Birchard.
Once more, I felt my father’s hands on me, his grip no longer iron but shaky and cold. “Hannah, the doctor, fetch the doctor!”
“Reverend Palmer--” And then Hannah’s voice, trembling.
Her steps faded into the distant, reverberating within the wooden floorboards up to my spine and through my soul. Darkness and then my tongue was stolen from me. Darkness.
And my father carried me to bed.
The sound of crackling fire. Singed wood. Hell.
“Samuel, I must--”
My mother’s quilt, smelling of bones and dead flesh.
I was suffocating. The spirits pressed down upon me, the voices of demons circling about my head in a fair mockery of guardian angels. I kept my eyes shut against the shadows, but could not stop my ears. Somewhere close by, Ann’s voice reached me.
“Samuel, I must speak with you.”
They were standing in my room. My father and Ann. Some sound of distracted movement, of rustling cloth and heavy-soled shoes made my skin prickly.
My father was pacing. “I must fast. Doctor Norris cannot be of any help to her. He says the cause of her illness be unnatural. I must…we must pray.”
So it had come to this. The truth was lying at my feet, waiting with jaws that stank of carrion, waiting to devour me.
My fit at supper had done nothing to defer my sentence. My father would seek me out as a witch. He would see me hanged.
And oh, was I not his devoted daughter?
Perhaps God would forgive me for my sins if I loved my father yet.
But he was desperate now, that I heard as he paced and when he spoke, his voice was edged with a sob. “There be witchcraft in my house, Ann,” he said.
I waited for her to reply. She could deliver me up to him now, could confess it all. And I lay limp as a poppet. Helpless.
“It could be the fever yet,” she replied.
I did not have enough sense to be shocked. She was holding her triumph over my head. I could taste the blood of it now, dripping down, down…
“Samuel, I must--”
The door opened. Closed. I caught the scent of tobacco and wet wool.
“I have been searching in my books these past three hours.” Doctor Norris, for all his usual certainty, seemed shaken. “Sir, I beg you, we ought to look to the unnatural for this. You are the minister of this village, are you not? Do you not see the people assembled outside your home?”
“You have broken your promise, mister!” my father shouted suddenly.
“You swore not a word of this would reach the village.” Although my eyes were closed, I could readily picture my father shaking a finger at the doctor. “Now there are rumors saying that my child flies through the night on broomsticks. They say she be witched.”
“God forbid it all,” Ann breathed.
Yes, God forbid it, I thought, drenched in a cold sweat of terror. The heat from the fire in my room failed to reach me and when the door opened once more, I felt the chill of the April night rush in.
“Sir, there are people in the yard.” To my surprise, Hannah’s tone was light and jumpy. Had I not known better, I would say she were excited. Pleased. “I expect the Birchard’s told the entire village already.”
Quick footsteps. “That isn’t true!” Ann cried, her voice a defiant bleat. “My parents would never say such things. They are at home, praying for Constance as we speak.”
The entire village knew. My heart threatened to break through my ribcage, it were pounding so fiercely. No escape.
“Sir, this child be witched, you cannot deny it.” Doctor Norris spoke most forcefully.
I thought I heard my father start to weep.
“The village would have some news,” Hannah insisted.
“Samuel! Samuel!” And then Ann began to sob.
“There be an unnatural spirit attacking this child!” The hysteria in Doctor Norris’s voice was undeniable.
My breathing quickened. Became swallow. Spirits. Dark, evil spirits. The likes of which Mr. Chestnut used to tell me haunted the forest. Mr. Chestnut….
I sat bolt upright. “He come at me by night!” 
My father’s back was to me and he jumped, pressing his fist to his mouth. “Constance, dear child!”
“Who comes?” Doctor Norris rushed to my bedside. The scent of tobacco became overwhelming.
My eyes were blurry and I blinked. Once. Twice. They would believe me…they would believe anything I said.
“Mr. Chestnut.” My breath left me all at once and I felt as though hands were around my throat, squeezing.
My father clapped his hands together. “Oh God!”
Ann stood behind him, her back pressed to the doorjamb. Beside her, I noticed Hannah. Her eyes were wild.
“He…he…” I hiccupped, “he would have me dance with him in the forest and say spells. But I saw him, I saw him….I saw Mr. Chestnut with the devil!”
My last words were drowned out by Hannah. She was screaming, much as I had screamed at supper, her hands balled into tight little knots, her cap falling off her head.
“I saw him!” she screeched. “I saw Mr. Chestnut come through my window. He pinched me and pricked me and threatened to see me dead where I laid. I saw Mr. Chestnut with the devil!”
And she screamed. Screamed into the night and fed the darkness and sent Doctor Norris running to tell the village and my father down to his knees and, Ann, she sent Ann into silence.
I looked helplessly at Hannah and saw things that I should have seen from the first.
When the bells began to toll, I thought only of Mr. Chestnut with his seven fingers, dragged out of his house in the middle of the night and thrown into the jail.
Thrown into jail all for a lie.
Author’s Note: Hysteria is rather contagious, is it not? Poor Constance. She really should have kept her mouth shut.
As always, I must thank everyone who has taken the time to read/review/favorite this story so far. You guys rock! The next chapter has already been written and should be posted in two weeks. Until then, take care and be well!
 Taken from Matthew 25: 30
 Taken from Act III of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”.
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