“Dementia, 1692” by Sadie Hoagland

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We heard my mother scream just before daylight. The house was bathed in a blue pre-sunlight and the color was the very sound of her wails. She had been trying to sit up with my younger sister but had fallen asleep and when she woke my sister was cold, her mouth open just a little, even the red of the rash gone white.

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It was a year before that she and I had cracked open an egg on the scalloped side of a hand mirror. I cupped its two halves in my hands, pouring the yolk from one half shell to the other so that the white dripped heavily onto the glass. She held the pewter handle of the mirror and swirled the egg like batter on a griddle, the way Tatuba had taught us to do if we wanted to see our future.

Who will love us? We whispered to the glass and I crossed my fingers behind my back that in the eggy mirror would appear the face of John Tucker, the blacksmith’s son. We waited, watching, heads together, and I could feel my sister’s breath on my arm. I saw our twisted mouths in the mirror and I giggled but just then, Beth gasped and dropped the mirror, letting it fall where it landed face down but did not crack.

Skull! She palmed her cheeks. I saw a skull!

I rolled my eyes and picked up the mirror and wiped the soapy egg off with the frayed corner of my apron. The three-legged cat was already licking the floor clean.

Really! I did, I did! She grabbed onto my arm and I could see she really was afraid.

Ssshhh, I whispered, without tenderness, for it was too late, the tall Indian stood in the doorway. Tatuba looked at the mirror and the eggshell on the table, one half spilling yellow, and clicked her tongue. My sister ran to her and told her what she’d seen, crying now, saying that she would surely die. Tatuba held her to her skirts and said softly, Nah, some witch fooling you. But before taking her into the kitchen for some milk, she turned to me and scowled.

I stood alone and looked at the streaked mirror, its aging glass speckled black. I squinted hard but could only see my own pale face with its hook nose. My eyes the exact color of the mud that I had that morning scraped from my boot tread with a stick.

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It started with a pink eye and a fever. Tatuba gave her root broth and sent her to bed. The next day she was no better and the third day she had the rash. The whole of her body was spotted red, like a pig’s belly. My mother cried out when Tatuba asked her to come look and the doctor was sent for.

Dr. Phipps confirmed that it was measles and told us to wash her eyes and mouth with boiled water twice a day. I stayed in Tatuba’s room. One night as she put me to sleep in her bed, I asked her when Beth would get better. She stared at me for a moment and then took my sister’s hairbrush from her apron pocket and pulled a nest of yellow hair from it. Using a strand of her own long black hair, she tied the nest into a small faceless doll, with only a head and a limbless body. Then she knelt and reached beneath her bed, pulling out a small wooden box. She took out a stub of a black candle and lit it on the lamp already burning on her small table. As she tilted the candle sideways, the black wax dripped slowly onto the doll, right where the heart would be. She chanted words from Barbados, the same words, over and over again like a song, quiet and fast.

When she was done, Tatuba blew out both candles and put the doll under the pillow we shared. I watched the wicks still smoking in the moon-filled room and wondered if a witch was watching us at that very moment. I snuggled closer to Tatuba’s warm body but kept an eye open for signs in the darkness, waiting with both fear and desire.

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A few months before my sister died, I did an evil thing. It was the neighbor’s black and white dog, a mean and mangy mutt. One day, as I was waiting on the neighbor’s porch for my mother to finish her visit, I told the dog, who was lying on the step, to get out of the way. Git, I said, and pointed, but the dog only looked at me and bared his broken teeth. So I gently nudged his flank with the toe of my boot, and he turned and bit me on the shin. It didn’t break the skin, but tore my dress and left four teardrop bruises where his teeth had been.

I cried and my mother came out and scolded me. Don’t you know anything? She said. Let sleeping dogs lie?

I wished that night with all my might, my hands squeezing together, that the dog would die.

Two weeks later, it was dead. Just like that. I thought it, and it happened.

I hadn’t wished my sister dead, but I watched Tatuba make that doll and that dull black wax fell on her disembodied hair and I thought, that won’t help, and the next day she was gone. Besides, we looked into the future and had seen the skull. We invited the death she saw then into our lives. The guilt of these memories was all I could think of, until even my grief became a shadow to it. I stayed awake at night, wondering if death would come for me, too. I broke the mirror with a rock, cracking it quick and quiet. I said it was an accident. And that I had accidentally cut myself, even though it was really a sweet and welcome relief when I pried out a wedge of broken glass, cutting my fingers, the drops of blood falling to the fragments of my image in what I hoped would be both redemption and inoculation.

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Years later I still think of that dog, and know it was not me that killed it, of course it wasn’t, but still I am unable to divorce the memory of my throbbing bone with a raw and hungry guilt. It is as if my sister’s death lives in that spot on my shin, and I can finger that smooth skin and feel over and over again that I did something wrong. That it should have been me.

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Eventually I told my mother about the mirror and the doll and begged her not to tell Tatuba I had told her. I told her about the dog, too. She told me it was not my fault, any of it, and stroked my hair until I slept a child’s sleep again. Still I longed to ask Tatuba if one always knew one was a witch, or if it could sneak up inside you, like a bad habit.

But there was no more talk of magic, white or black, until two years after my sister’s death, when the neighbor’s children became ill. The sickness started with seizures: strange jerky movements that seemed to rust their joints even while they were standing. They spoke nonsense. The youngest had been heard barking like a dog, even, and had red marks the size of a child’s bite into an apple all over her little body.

The neighbor, Jane Good, was beside herself and came to my mother crying one afternoon. Tatuba was sweeping the kitchen and I was sitting in the corner sewing my first quilt. Mother sent me out to gather chicory, a fool’s errand, but as I left I heard Mother Good say that her children were undoubtedly bewitched, and that her husband said he knew who had done it all right.

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Widow Smithson lived on the edge of town in a house half fallen-down, with one side collapsed and broken so you could see clear through from front to back. The other side had a tight little room just barely listing away from the collapsed side. She piled kindling, dead and crooked branches, everywhere in her yard. She fed all sorts of animals, so dogs, cats, and birds hung around the yard, too. She had no teeth and stringy gray hair and people said she drank. She traded with Indians, and sometimes had a bright red stone around her neck. There were hundreds of glass jars in her half-felled house, jars filled with the leaves of dried plants and animal hair and horns. For a fee, she would vanish your warts or heal your pox. She could also tell the future by reading your own hand like a book. Though now, most people went to Dr. Phipps, especially after the new reverend called her work white magic and deemed it “of the Devil.”

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I found a few stalks of chicory and, gathering the corn blue flowers in my apron pocket, I headed back to the yard where I could see tall Tatuba, shaking out Pa’s wet pants to hang. I watched her stern face as she clipped flapping legs to the line.

Come help me, child, she said when she saw me. She handed me a damp blue dress of my own to hang and as I did she looked toward the kitchen door and then reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a small white nugget on a piece of twine. This, she told me, is a black rabbit’s tooth. It’s for protection. I want you to wear it under your dress, and then put it under your pillow at night. If that spirit’s got them Good children, it might get hungry for you, too.

I put the tooth to my nose. It smelled like nothing, like snow. Tatuba tied it around my neck and I tucked the long nub under my dress just before Mother called to me.

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The Good children became the talk of Salem. The following Sunday during sermon, Reverend Mathers asked us to pray for them. The three, all towheaded, were sitting in the front row. As he called on the Lord to help battle the Devil that besieged them, the youngest Good girl, the one that had the bite marks, a curly-haired cherub of a child, began howling out like a kicked dog. The whole congregation shifted and whispered, like restless water. Mother herself went flourwhite and grasped me to her hard. Still the child bayed. Reverend Mathers preached above the howls, yelling at us to pray that the Devil would let this child be. He grew more and more angry as he yelled at us and at the Devil. His tall thin body paced and preached and paced quicker and quicker, his spindly hands flying about him, and even from where I sat I could see the spit spraying from his mouth. As he smacked fist to palm again and again, I felt the little rabbit’s tooth against my sternum, and rolled it across the bone under my dress. My mother and several other women were crying when Reverend Mathers finally stopped his sermon, took a bowl of holy water, and dumped it over the child’s head.

The room went silent. The child was still and Reverend Mathers leaned over and stroked her wet hair. She seemed to see, then, that all gathered were looking at her and she started to cry. The congregation sat in still and silent awe.

They arrested Widow Smithson the next day.

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I still remember the unearthly wails of that child. A meeting house, quiet and orderly, completely swallowed by that high and even sound. Indeed, as time passed, and all that was to happen happened, it seemed that all of us disappeared into the small black gaping hole in that child’s angel face. We were not impervious. A girl’s mouth. All it took. I think that and I feel that old fear. That old desire. Smoking wicks in the moony dark.

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A few days later Mrs. Good came over in her work dress. I was out in the yard trying to get the three-legged cat out from under a cart when she came. Child, she said, hurrying to me. Then she looked around before she reached into her apron and pulled out a jar of yellow water.

Child, give this to Tatuba, or your Mother, and for the heaven’s sake, do not open it and do not let anyone see. Not your pa, you hear?

I nodded and took the jar as she turned and walked quickly away. I watched her body rock, her large bottom toddling away as she disappeared down the road. Then I walked slowly to the kitchen door, examining the contents of the jar on the way, tipping it up and down to catch the sunlight.

I put it on the table with a smack so that Tatuba would look up from her darning. It’s from Mrs. Good, I said.

Good Lord, child, get that off the table. Here, give it to me.

I grabbed it and held it back for a minute.
What is it? I started to open the jar. Is it tinkle? I asked. It looks like tinkle. Tatuba grabbed for the jar, but I was quicker. I put my hand on the lid, and started to twist it. I had to hold it carefully to keep any of the liquid from sloshing out while I grinned my threat at Tatuba’s scowling face.

Tatuba signed and said, Child, that’s for a witch cake, so don’t you play.

I immediately put the jar in her hand. She knew she’d won with that one word, witch, and picked up the jar, turning away, taller.

I followed her and pulled her skirt a little. Tell me, I said, tell me.

She sighed and looked out the open kitchen door. When she spoke, it was a whisper. One can see if someone is bewitching another by making a witch cake. You make it from rye meal and the piss of one bewitched. This, she said, wrapping the jar in a cloth, is of the littlest Good girl.

But how do we know from the cake? I asked, too loud.

We don’t know, sshh. Tatuba put the jar in the bottom of an empty wash basin. We know when we feed the cake to a dog. You see a witch’s invisible spirit, some of her venomous wisps, go into the body of the one she bewitches, and is even in that there, she said, pointing to the covered jar. Once we feed that cake to the dog, the witch will feel herself being chewed by a dog. The witch will scream in pain at the same time the dog is eating the cake.

So how will we know if Widow Smithson is screaming? She’s in jail.

Your mother and Mrs. Good will feed the cake to one of the Good’s dogs and at the same time I will go visit her in jail.

So you think she is the real witch?

I don’t know, she said quietly. I don’t think so, but that’s why we make the cake. So we know.

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Decades later, my mother’s own widowed mind would flee. One of her last completely lucid nights, she would tell me that she had always blamed Tatuba for my sister’s death. Not because of the mirror or the doll but because, did I not remember, Tatuba had been traveling the week before, to market in Boston to buy cloth for the Salem ladies. It was undoubtedly her that had brought the measles into the house. She would tell me, as firelight flickered against her open hands, that she had decided that it was God’s will, then, that she condemn Tatuba. 

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The day the cake was baking the house smelled like the woods in the summer heat when all the plants start to sweat their scents all over. They barely let it cool before they took the cake tin outside and set it on the back stoop next to a mangy gray dog that Mrs. Good had brought over. Tatuba had already gone into town and was, at high sun, supposed to be at the jail. I watched from the kitchen window as the dog ate the cake happily, pulling her lip up to show yellow teeth as she picked it apart. She licked the last crumbs and Mother and Mrs. Good looked satisfied, and they brought the tin inside and sat down and waited.

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It turned out Widow Smithson did not cry out or scream in the jail and Tatuba was triumphant when she returned home. I said it, didn’t I, child? She patted my cheek, I said No Way is that harmless old lady a witch.

Mother suggested they write Reverend Mathers an anonymous note saying that he had perhaps arrested the wrong woman. But Tatuba thought telling him right out would be better. They spent the rest of the afternoon talking softly about who the real witch might be, Tatuba mending socks, Mother drinking tea.

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Tatuba didn’t come home the next day after market and Mother sat up all night, long after the last candle had burned to its nub. The next morning Pa took her to town to inquire, which is when Reverend Mathers somehow convinced Mother that Tatuba’s cake was nothing more than a ruse, played on herself and Mrs. Good, in an attempt to free Widow Smithson, her sister in Devil-worship.

She would, he told her, be asked to testify at Tatuba’s trial.

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As her mind went, Mother’s hair went from glossy black to stone gray within two months. She was no longer a woman, but a sick woman or, to the village children, a crazy woman, not unlike—I thought one morning as I walked her through town and saw two small girls pointing at her and whispering—not unlike Widow Smithson had seemed to me as a child.

When she still had some faculties, Mother told me she was cursed, that the witches had come for their revenge. When she lost her way home, she would tell the neighbors that a witch had put a spell on her path, moving familiar oaks and posts, to lead her astray. She would shake her head and cluck then, looking up to the cloudless sky in resignation to the Lord, or perhaps it was to Tatuba.

It seemed to comfort her, her imagined persecution, and was her one point of clarity for which I was grateful, though I had never believed Tatuba a witch. Others, maybe, but not her, with her soft brown hands that were always gentle in my hair, and her pretty voice singing songs from church. But it didn’t bother me to think of my mother’s illness as Tatuba’s revenge. It made me, in fact, a woman of thirty, feel like I was a child again, listening carefully for Tatuba’s footfall. Ready to tell her spirit that I understood, and would not betray her again. Ready, too, to ask her for mercy on my mother’s behalf.

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Summer swelled as the day of the trial came. Mother didn’t want to go but Pa told her she would. He said if she did not, she would likely hang, too.

I wasn’t allowed to go, as children were not permitted, except in this case the Good children, and I was left to watch them disappear down the road in Pa’s cart. As I waited for them to return, I went into the yard to the edge of the woods and untied the rabbit’s tooth from my neck. I took a stick and scraped a hole in the hard black dirt underneath a sycamore tree. I laid the rabbit’s tooth in its shallow grave and whispered over it to protect Tatuba now. And Mother, I added, before folding the earth back over it.

When they came home, Mother went straight to bed, so I had to wait for the next day to hear that she had told the court about the mirror, the doll, my sister’s death. I screamed at her that she was a traitor and stomped outside, where I fell asleep crying under the sycamore tree, my body cradled over the buried tooth.

When I awoke I was empty, feeling as if my heart, too, had seeped underground. I had betrayed Tatuba once by telling Mother about the mirror and the doll, and now I had betrayed her again when Mother told the whole of the world.

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Mother began to cackle and start at the very children that pointed at her. She did this, she said, because she was a witch. Did I not know? She started to drool, and refuse her bath. Her hair become gnarled, her face sunken. Dr. Phipps, an old man himself, gave me a sedative for the nights when she would rage and scream from the porch. Asking the sky to come and get her already.

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I only saw Tatuba once more, the day she was hung in the square. She looked taller and fiercer than ever on the scaffolding. The whole town was gathered. I watched her eyes, so white against her skin, and I both hoped she wouldn’t look at me and hoped she would. Finally she did and gave me a sad smile. I thought I heard her say Child, just as they kicked the stool she stood on, and there was a knock and a snap and then just the creak of the gallows’ frame as she swung there. I saw her eyes stop seeing even though they were open and I felt like this was the skull my sister saw in the eggy mirror. Tatuba’s. Her feet swung and I wanted to go to her, to hold her skirts and still them. I wanted her to shoe me off of her one more time, but Mother dragged me away.

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Mother grew worse, unable in the end to even feed herself, before she finally died. One morning I went to wake her, and she was cold, half of her face had gone slack in a way that reminded me of Widow Smithson’s half-fallen house. I buried her next to my sister and Pa in the Salem cemetery and as I began to grow old myself, my own dark hair streaking with grey, I wondered if my mind would go, too.

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Widow Smithson died in jail a few months after Tatuba’s death, but nobody seemed to notice as Reverend Mathers had revealed that the Devil had indeed besieged us and witches were everywhere. I never went to another hanging, though there were several as I grew taller. I didn’t live in fear of being bewitched, only the lingering fear that I was a witch and that Tatuba had somehow known this, which is why she had taught me some of her white magic, why she had looked at me with that sad smile as they kicked the stool out from under her bare feet. My suspicions were only made worse when Reverend Mathers published his pamphlet on the identification of witches. Among the numerous symptoms was a preternatural teat on the body, which is not sensitive to the touch. I had a mark just like that below my right hip, one that I could not feel, no matter how much I fingered it in my bed in the night. It made me sure I was not innocent, even as I knew I couldn’t harm anyone—that I was untrained and impotent, protected still by Tatuba and the rabbit’s tooth I had unburied after her death. I clung to its white dullness in the dark, feeling that old fear, that old shame, but no longer any desire, nor any curiosity to know magic.

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In the end, it was my eyesight that failed me. Now, I fumble around the furniture, alone in my darkness, and hear the world outside edging around me. I feel them seeing me, a lonely old woman. Children throw stones at the house, the cracking sounds sharp and startling. After they are gone, I go out and feel for the stones around the side of the foundation and when I find them I bring them in and put them on my shelf. I roll them in my palms from time to time and try to guess their color. The youngest Good child, now an old woman herself, brings me a basket of food each week. She leaves it on the porch and does not knock and I let her think I can’t hear her steps coming and going softly, though I would like to ask her about those days when she howled in the meeting house. I think of almost nothing but that time: of my sister’s freckled face, of the mirror, the jar of yellow, Tatuba’s hands, the dog eating the cake with greedy and indifferent judgment, and I think of the Widow, dying alone in the gloom of the jail, and Mother, relieved even as her mind slipped away, and me, here in the dark, waiting. Waiting for Tatuba to come and pull my dress up, point at my unfeeling mark, my witch’s teat, and shout to whomever will listen that I am not who I seem, and never have been, and I think this waiting, this, too, is punishment.

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Sadie Hoagland has a PhD in fiction from the University of Utah where she worked as an editor for Quarterly West. She has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slush Pile Magazine, The Black Herald, MOJO, Alice Blue Review, Oyez Review, Grist Journal, The South Dakota Review, Sakura Review, and Passages North. She currently teaches fiction at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. More on her can be found at www.sadiehoagland.com

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