Nine year old Betty Parris rolled over in bed. Her heavy fur blanket flopped over her face and she gagged. “This thing smells like smoke, fur trapper B.O. and beaver asshole,” she said, pushing it away. “I can’t believe that guy Pierre had the nerve to tell Father it would come out.”
Her cousin and bedmate, Abigail Williams, age 11, rubbed her eyes and sat up. “It really does stink,” she said. “But don’t worry. That place where Pierre lives is going to be called Canada someday, and every time he turns around he’ll see this stupid restaurant with bad coffee called Tim Hortons. Everyone will tell him the donuts there are good but they never will be. All I’m saying is Pierre will get his.”
Before Betty could reply their room’s heavy oak door swung open to reveal Tituba, wearing a starched white apron and white cap and exuding the efficient air of someone who’d been awake for hours. With a flourish she pushed aside the greased hides covering the attic room’s only window. “Rise and shine, girls,” she said, as the faint grey light of yet another New England winter seeped into the room. “Good morning, Miss Betty. Good morning, Miss Abigail.”
Betty watched dashes of icy water streak the diamond-shaped pane. “Sleet. What a surprise.”
“Can we have smoothies for breakfast?” Abigail whined.
Tituba shook her head. “Young lady, look outside. Tell me what you see.”
Abigail scowled, pulling her knitted nightcap down over her rag curls. She tiptoed across the freezing floor to peer out the window. “Um, I see men and women dressed in black with giant hats with buckles on them clutching themselves against the cold, their grim mouths permanently turned down, raging silently against the relentless toil of their short lives. I see horses tied to fences lifting their feet up and down in futile pursuit of warmth and amusement. Oh wait! There goes Persistence Crocker with a basket of something…”
Betty sprang out of bed and joined her cousin at the window. Then they exchanged looks of disappointment as Persistence got closer. “Wormy apples,” said Abigail.
“No coconut trees?” Tituba patted Abigail’s head. “No mangoes?”
“The Massachusetts Bay Colony blows,” Abigail said. “I wish Uncle would take us back to Barbados.”
“From your mouth to God’s ears, Miss Abigail,” Tituba said. “Come on. Put on those itchy dresses and come down and have some corn mush.”
“The thing that sucks,” Abigail said quietly after Tituba had left, “is that one day there’s going to be a place called Fuddrucker’s right here, and it’s going to have awesome virgin piña coladas.”
Betty didn’t know what to say. Abigail had always said weird stuff like this, but lately it was getting weirder. Last week they’d gone to Boston to a prayer meeting, and Abigail had declared that the very spot where they stood would one day be the site of a glass tower, as tall as a mountain, named after a man famous for having a really cool signature. But Betty looked up to her cousin, who, despite her young age already engaged in that mysterious practice of stuffing rags in her underwear once a month, for five whole days in a row. And Abigail suggested lots of fun stuff. So Betty just shrugged and said, “Neat.”
After the corn mush Betty and Abigail brushed their teeth with birch twigs. They fed the chickens. One of them was dead so Abigail tossed it to a stray dog. In the stable they rubbed sheep suet onto the horses’ cracked hooves. They emptied the chamber pots. Across the pasture Mercy Lewis, Ann Putnam and Mary Warren were also emptying their chamber pots and they all gave each other half-hearted waves from behind walls of acrid steam.
“Someday,” Abigail said, “there’s going to be this great big cart that get us all the way into Boston in 45 minutes. They could call it the T—T for transportation.”
“Is that so,” said Betty.
Then Abigail said, “Guess what else?”
“I don’t know Abigail, what?” asked Betty uneasily.
“We’re going to totally be famous. And some overrated pretentious guy who is married to a beautiful lady who kills herself will write a play about us. But we’re supposed to do something first. The problem is I don’t know what it is. But it will be really exciting.”
Betty was rubbing a bit of rag against a yellow stain on the chamber pot. Her fingers were numb and starting to split where they were chapped. The air reeked of urine, frozen mud and something horrible and burnt-smelling that she was pretty sure meant that Goody Good, the town beggar, was roasting seagulls again. “Exciting?” she echoed. “Wow.”
For lunch they had more mush with sheep suet left over from the chores. Later, while they were carding wool, Betty tried to think of something they could do to get an overrated pretentious guy to write a play about them. She thought about running naked through the market, or throwing rotten pumpkin at the Magistrate, but none of these ideas seemed like something that would get a play written about you. Abigail was starting to nod off. Betty poked her with her foot. “Hey,” she said. “I think I know something we can do. Let’s say my mom is a witch.”
Abigail roused herself and considered the pale, limp white woman sitting in a straight-backed wooden chair in the corner pretending to take a serious interest in the scrimshaw inlays on Reverend Parris’ silver snuffbox. She regarded the girls with frightened blue eyes and then inhaled, so suddenly and sharply that they both jumped.
“No one would believe it,” Abigail whispered. “And I think a lot of people think she’s already dead.”
Betty rolled her eyes. “Not that lady,” she said impatiently. “Mom.” She pointed to Tituba, who stood in front of the hearth. Her eyes were rolled back in their sockets and she held a struggling chicken by its feet in one hand and a small axe in the other. She muttered unintelligible sounds in strangely masculine tones.
Abigail snorted. “That’s not your mom.”
“Are you sure?” Betty asked.
“Yes,” Abigail said. “I’m sure.”
Betty decided she didn’t really care if Tituba was her mother or not, just as long as the white lady kept herself to that chair. She watched as Tituba raised the axe and brought it down on the chicken’s neck. For a few seconds the body made frantic circles around the severed head. Still muttering, Tituba wiped up the spatters of blood with a rag. “I can’t believe Father lets Tituba do that,” Betty whispered.
“He doesn’t exactly let her do it,” Abigail said. “I was there when she asked. She said, ‘Reverend Parris, would you mind, as long as I have to kill the chicken anyway, if I incorporate a ritual from my homeland?’ And your dad put his fingers in his ears and said ‘lalalalala.’ It’s not the same as letting her do it.”
“At any rate,” Betty said, “Forget it. I don’t think we should say anyone’s a witch.”
“Suit yourself,” Abigail said. They went back to carding wool. After a few minutes, Abigail said. “Did you know that your father only makes £68 a year? And like, £30 of that is firewood and salt?”
“Oh my God, that sucks,” Betty said, “If they do make that T thing we will never even have the money to ride it.”
“Exactly,” Abigail said. “And get this. They’re also going to invent some way to put moving pictures up on the wall and they’re going to call them movies. And after they make that play about us they’re going to make a movie about us with some really hot Irish guy, who’s actually married to the daughter of the guy who wrote the play, and my character’s going to get to make out with him even though I’m really only eleven.”
“That awesome,” said Betty. “Do you think those people in the future might know that you already have to put rags in your underwear?”
“Maybe,” Abigail said. “And think about yourself too. Would you rather pass through this world wholly unnoticed or would you rather live on forever as represented by the actress who had a child with and later filed a restraining order against Edward Furlong, the child star of an ’80s sci-fi classic also starring the future governor of an as yet non-existent state called California?”
Betty said nothing. She was scared but excited. She nodded mutely, and then whispered, “That second thing you said.”
“When I say go,” Abigail said. “Fall down on the floor and start shaking. Cry out that you feel like you’re being pricked with pins. We’ll freak out for a while and we’ll tell everyone Tituba did it.”
“Alright,” said Betty.
Later some men came and took Tituba away.
“Bye, Mom,” said Betty. “I mean, Tituba.”
The next morning they saw Goody Good, the beggar, and some other people being dragged through the street. Later they went outside to empty the chamber pots and again saw Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren and Ann Proctor through the steam. “You guys rule,” said Mercy Lewis. “I got them to arrest my boss.”
Ann Proctor nodded approvingly. “No more burnt seagull smell,” she said.
A few weeks later all the people who they said were witches had
to go to court.
Betty and Abigail got new dresses in Danvers. “We want you to be presentable so people will believe your story,” Reverend Parris said. They didn’t care why, they’d gotten new dresses, and they’d gotten to go all the way into Danvers to get them. “We bought these in the exact same spot where they’re going to build the Liberty Tree Mall,” Abigail told Betty, shaking her head in wonder.
Things really had been much more exciting since this all happened, even if all they did eat at home now was hardtack and cold bacon. At night, Betty fell asleep to Abigail’s vivid descriptions of Fuddrucker’s shining interior, and selections from its eight-page menu. “They’re going to make all their buns from scratch, just like people do now, but later, it will be special, and amazing.” Abigail said. “And you’ll be able to select from three different sizes of hamburgers.”
When they walked into the courtroom everyone started talking at once. “We look hot,” Abigail said, and Betty nodded. Tituba, in chains, sat in the witness box. The judge asked her if she was a witch. She surprised them all by saying that she was, and then she named a couple other people who were too.
Betty saw Tituba in the hallway at the break. “Why did you say you’re a witch?” she said.
“I wasn’t going to,” Tituba said. “But then Abigail explained to me what a Wikipedia page was. She explained the difference between a stub and an actual article. And I didn’t want to be a stub. I also didn’t want to be responsible for Charlayne Woodard’s career just totally stalling, especially after getting that Tony Nomination in 1978 for Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
After the break, those accused who refused to admit guilt were dragged off to jail. They would be hanged soon. Still, a number of the accused said they were guilty of casting spells.”I’m a witch,” declared Goody Lacey. “A really bad one.”
“Why would someone admit it? “ Betty asked.
“Well,” Abigail said. “The people who say they are in fact witches get to live, and the people who don’t get hanged or maybe pressed to death under a lot of stones. And since I know what they’re going to be reincarnated as…”
“What?” Betty said. This had gotten so out of control. “What are you talking about?”
Abigail pressed her lips together and spoke sternly to her. “Do you want me to explain this to you or not.”
“Oh bother,” said Betty. “Go ahead.”
Abigail smoothed her linsey-woolsey skirt demurely and proceeded. “Since I know what they’re going to be reincarnated as, I told them so they could decide whether they wanted to try to stick it out or just die now. Interestingly, most of them are coming back to this area. I told John Proctor that in addition to being played by someone super hot he’s going to come back as the manager of the Legal Seafood at Logan Airport, which actually has a pretty great benefits package, so he was like, ‘Oh ok, I’ll just die now,’ because he’s always really loved clam chowder, and was excited about the prospect of sharing that love with a large, international clientele. I told Dorcas Hoar she’d be a teller at Bay Banks, and she wasn’t that psyched about that but when I told her she was also going to live next door to a 24-hour Shaw’s, she was like, ‘If I never rotate another vegetable in the root cellar it won’t be too soon.’ Giles Corey, yeah, he got suffocated to death under a pile of stones, but he’s coming back as a buyer at Newbury Comics in the early nineties, which, naturally, means he’s going to get a lot of ass. Mary Lacey confessed—she’s going to work in the hosiery department as Filene’s Basement. So I guess she wants to see what she can get going in this life. Makes sense.”
“This is a horrible, horrible nightmare,” Betty said.
Abigail went on as if she hadn’t heard her. “And then I did have some coupons for a free Fribble® with a SuperMelt® and the people who confessed were curious about Fribbles® but not enough to like, die today. But Rebecca Nurse really wanted one. They’re taking her out to the gallows right now.”
As Rebecca Nurse was dragged from the courtroom, she managed to reach out and squeeze Abigail’s arm.
“Thanks for your wise counsel, my child,” she said. “I can taste that Fribble® already.”
Betty shuddered at the sight of the metal chains digging into the tender flesh of Rebecca’s wrists. “Oh my God!” Betty cried. “This is all my fault.”
“You’re thinking about this in entirely the wrong way,” Abigail said. “We are the architects of one of the greatest historical metaphors of all time. I wish there was something to make you feel better. Oh, wait. I have an idea.”
Abigail turned away and began to rummage in her sack. Betty forced herself to look at the men and women, lined up on Gallow’s Hill, hoods covering their faces, nooses around their necks. I did this, she thought, and she was just about to scream when Abigail thrust something into her hands. It was a book called The Good Earth. The cover showed a Chinese man and woman. They both looked pissed. Betty opened it and read the first page. “This is hella boring,” she said.
Abigail slipped a comforting arm around her young cousin. “If it weren’t for us, ninth graders all across America would have to read that book twice.”
Betty leaned her head on Abigail’s shoulder. “Abigail,” she asked sleepily, “What’s ninth grade?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Abigail replied. “Other than it’s some place you get to learn all about us.”
The gallows floor dropped and four bodies swung through the air.
Engraving via Wikimedia.