“No one had green hair and a buzzcut in the 1600s. You’re going to get burned as soon as they look at you,” Mariah popped a growing pink bubble between her teeth. She had perfected the art of glaring from underneath her eyelashes. Sage sighed (audibly).
“I’ll wear a wig,” she consigned. Mariah’s jaw dangled open a little with each loud chew of her gum. Her appraising eyes drifted down to the tattered band shirt hanging loosely across Sage’s torso.
“Cassandra used to do Civil War reenactments, maybe I can—”
“The Civil War was in the 1800s.”
“Fashion couldn’t have changed that much.” Sage crossed her arms, but then flinched at a particularly loud popping of Mariah’s gum.
“They are totally going to burn you at the stake,” Mariah said. Her voice was a bit too flat to sound even a little bit worried. The corner of Sage’s lips flicked up into a half-grin, half-grimace.
“I’ll figure it out, Mariah. I always do.”
Salem, Massachusetts was a lively town to visit during the month of October. Shameless tourist traps were primed and ready to exploit the centuries-old tragedy of the Salem Witch trials, and people flooded in to buy witchy trinkets and get a cheap Halloween-themed thrill.
However, in the month of February, the place just felt cold and empty. Sage twirled a cheap witch keychain around her finger and stared out the café window at a passing car. She leaned over the table to bring her mouth closer to the straw of an iced coffee without touching the cup.
“There’s got to be a place here that sells a period-specific costume. Or a tour guide with a decent outfit who wouldn’t notice if I borrowed it for a day,” Sage conceded.
“All this effort to avoid my invisibility potion?” Mariah prodded. Sage wiggled her shoulders and frowned at the small vial on the table between them.
“It makes me feel funny,“ Sage whined. “Are you sure you’re brewing these correctly?”
It was a bold question to ask, and Mariah’s deadpan stare cemented into place. In the grand history of their hijinks, Mariah’s potions had caused Sage to suffer “glowing-nose syndrome,” “limp tongue,” and a rancid case of “tuna breath” (which was not tuna-smelling breath, but rather, a projectile canned-tuna blast which surged from the mouth much like a dragon breathes fire).
But Sage knew better than to complain. The ends always justify the means (yes, even the tuna breath).
“Sorry,” Sage said. The bubble gum popped as a reply.
Mariah had gathered ingredients for this spell, brewed this complicated potion, and driven all of the worst parts of Interstate 95 to get to Salem. Mariah was obstinate, yes, but also incredibly loyal, and Sage knew this. She trusted Mariah with any plan.
Even when it came to traveling back in time.
Sage emptied the remainder of her cup with a sense of urgency and a slight brain freeze.
“Ready?” She asked, standing now. Mariah smirked. She was always ready.
The two girls left the coffee shop and stepped out into the sunshine. Sage squinted upward and then checked her phone. Since this particular spell required solar energy, the best time to attempt the spell was when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. Today, that meant they needed to conduct the spell at 11:56am.
She jaywalked across the street and nodded toward the Salem Witch Museum.
“Remind me to check that place out when we finish. I wanna see how much they got right.”
Mariah hardly glanced at it.
“If you mess this up enough, maybe you’ll be featured in it. They’ll put your ashes in a little glass box that says ‘Jane Doe – burned for immorality, immodesty, and, worst of all, green hair.’”
“You know they didn’t burn anyone at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials. Everyone was hanged.”
“Oh, good. That’s a much better fate.” Mariah rolled her eyes.
The two of them walked onto the dull, dying grass of the Salem Commons. Today, it wasn’t very crowded, but the occasional passing car kept them both on edge.
“I hate solar spells,” Mariah moaned. “They make you do everything out in the open where everyone can see.”
“For you, everything will happen in the blink of an eye,” Sage said, and it was true. Even though Sage could spend days in the past, she would be dropped right back to this moment when she returned.
If she returned.
Ironically, traveling back in time was a relatively easy thing to do. If they ignored the moral, philosophical, and historical implications, just about any spellcaster could learn to travel back in time.
However, it was far trickier to return back to the present. Many confident witches whisked themselves away to the past only to get stuck there and never return. And in true honesty, no modern woman wanted to be stuck without the right to vote (1919), commonplace air conditioning (1950s), and the ability to have their own credit card (1974). However, the 1980s and later were pretty fair game for time traveling.
But today Sage would be traveling to 1692, a miserable place with none of the aforementioned things. And she would attend one of the worst events for a spellcaster to be at…
Sage checked her phone again. Almost 11:56.
“Drink your invisibility potion,” Mariah instructed. Sage made a face, but with the threat of time running out, she opened the vial and downed it like a cheap shot of vodka, shuddering in response.
“Oh, god,” Sage whimpered, “it tastes like feta cheese.”
Mariah didn’t humor her with a response. Instead, she yanked her tote back off her shoulder and began setting up the spell. She unrolled a small scarf, embroidered with an arrangement of symbols and spellcaster cants. She weighed the fabric down with a crystal in each corner and then threw a bundle of dandelion root, nettle, and thyme into the middle of the fabric. Then she held out another vial for Sage.
“Here,” Mariah said. Sage’s forehead wrinkled.
“What is this?”
“Poison?” Sage looked once more at Mariah’s deadpan face. She laughed, but it got a little caught in her throat.
“What, is this like… my cyanide capsule in case I get caught?”
“No, stupid. It’s in case you need to defend yourself, or something like that.”
Sage shook her head and pocketed the small vial. She watched Mariah continue to set up the spell wordlessly as she grabbed the materials for the return spell. She only had one small spool of enchanted thread, but it was enough to tie around her pointer finger.
It was then she noticed that her fingertip was already a bit opaque.
“Your turn,” Sage said and handed the spool to Mariah. Mariah unraveled the rest of the thread and tied the other end to her own finger. Mariah chewed her gum slowly and showed Sage her finger when she finished the knot. This small binding would keep Sage connected to the present, so long as the thread was bound to both of their fingers.
“Okay,” Sage breathed. She readied herself in the center of the spell circle and checked around her for curious eyes. The coast was clear.
“Iter trecenti triginta circum solem,” Sage chanted. Although her hand was now completely enveloped in invisibility, she could still see a familiar glow emanating from where her palm should have been.
Then, the ground surged upward below her, clouding her vision with nothing but dirt and clay.
Sage entered 1692 holding onto the ground and feeling vaguely sweaty. She unclutched the grass and sat upright, blinking at her surroundings. Not that modern-day Salem was anything special, but this assortment of small buildings looked especially pitiful and bland.
All the more reason not to get stuck here.
Sage stood and dusted herself off, since the grass stuck to her pants could be considered a dead giveaway. She also swallowed down the lingering cheese taste in her mouth before it could trigger a particularly forceful gagging sensation. Although she was invisible, she still needed to avoid being heard.
Now, to focus.
The Salem Witch Trials were a series of mass hysteria conflicts, brewed by petty squabbles about property lines, societal expectations, and, of course, church politics. Unfortunately for the panicked villagers, their efforts were great at destroying the lives of innocent people and absolutely ineffective at rooting out and killing real witches and spellcasters. With over 200 people (and a few animals) tried for witchcraft and over 20 deaths, you would have expected that a few spellcasters were caught in the mix.
However, you’d be wrong.
In fact, the only loss that the spellcaster community faced was the burning of one, single grimoire. A family heirloom, held by a non-magical woman named Ruth Gardner.
Ruth had the unfortunate honor of being the wife of the incredibly harsh and horribly illogical John Hathorne (the man who would soon become the leading judge of the trials). Sage did not blame Ruth for burning the grimoire when the first accusations of witchcraft rippled through the village. However, this particular grimoire happened to belong to her family.
So, the way Sage thought about it, stealing the grimoire would be doing both her and Ruth a favor. She would have her family’s heirloom spells returned, and Ruth wouldn’t have to worry about being caught and sent to hang by her own husband. Win-win.
John Hathorne’s home was just south of the Salem Courthouse, a nice, walkable jaunt for an unpleasant man to go to work. Sage had studied maps beforehand, of course, but certain aspects of a 2-D map just don’t properly translate into this depressing, 3-D town. And studying a single cartographer’s lackluster creation was a far cry from the simplicity of pulling Google Maps up on her phone.
Sage pressed her back against the shabby wall behind her as a sensation of being watched crawled over her skin. Sage looked toward the courthouse to see a black cat sitting by the front. Its yellow eyes stared right into her, unblinking. Despite being invisible, Sage waved her hands in an attempt to shoo the cat, but instead it began to approach.
No, no, no….
The black cat began to rub itself against Sage’s transparent pant leg. It began to purr, loudly.
No, no, no!
Sage stepped away from the furry headbutts, feeling the slightest bit guilty for snubbing the cat who so desperately wanted the affection. However, she couldn’t risk drawing the attention of an anxious villager.
Sage darted down the worn path over to a wooden home with peaked roofing. A few lonely windows with diamond-shaped panes decorated the front. A few children ran past her. The skirt of one of them brushed against Sage’s leg, but the running child did not seem to notice.
Sage hadn’t thought about how she would actually get inside the house unnoticed. In the chilled weather she hadn’t expected to see children playing (but she supposed there was little else to do in 1692).
She also hadn’t thought about what it might imply if an invisible force opened and closed a door within the eyesight of another. And in a similar string of thought, she hadn’t even thought about whether the door would be locked to begin with.
As if on cue, the door to the home opened. A woman stepped out into the cold air, clutching a shawl around her neck. She only appeared to be in her late twenties, but her mousy brown hair and tired brown eyes aged her slightly.
“William, Elizabeth… be careful!” She called after the children. Sage used the opportunity to slip in through the open door. Like a draft. The woman stepped back inside and closed the door behind her, sighing quietly. Sage stood against the wall and stared at the woman, presuming that this must be Ruth herself.
Ruth hovered by the hearth, staring down at the flames flickering away the near-constant chill. Her eyes darkened, and Sage wondered, for a moment, whether the deed had already been done. But if a book had been burned, then there was no trace of it. The pages were already ash by now.
Ruth’s presence would complicate things. Sage didn’t have full freedom to search the house without fear that Ruth would see things held by invisible hands and call for an exorcist.
Sage touched the string tied on her finger to ensure it was still there and turned away from the woman to begin her search of the house. The longer that Sage stayed in the past, the more difficult it would be to return to the present. So, it would be best for both her and Ruth if this was completed quickly.
Sage turned to a sorry-looking bookshelf first. Two copies of the Bible, one Latin translation guide, some philosophical texts, and a book laid open on the shelf. Sage read the title of the section:
A pathetic and serious Dissuasive from the horrid and detestable Sins of Drunkenness, Swearing, Uncleanness, Forgetfulness of Mercies, Violation of Promises, and Atheistic Contempt of Death.
A bit of a mouthful.
Sage leaned back and stared at the rest of the empty shelf, feeling a bit stupid for looking at the bookshelf first. It would have been too risky to keep a grimoire in plain view like this. Ruth moved across the room, toward Sage. Sage stiffened and stepped closer to the wall. She held her breath and stepped to the side as Ruth stood before her. Ruth reached out, but her hand swung just past Sage’s shoulder and grabbed the Latin book. Ruth turned and walked away.
Then a thought occurred to her.
Her family’s grimoire was written primarily in Latin.
Despite her better judgment, Sage followed Ruth up the stairs into the bedroom. She carefully timed each step with Ruth’s, so as to disguise the creaking of the wood under each step. They entered a small bedroom with little but a dresser and a lumpy-looking mattress. Ruth hovered by the dresser and then looked up at Sage. Sage held her breath again, before realizing that Ruth was perhaps looking at the door behind her.
She stepped to the side once more as Ruth hurried over and closed the door.
Ruth then approached the dresser and withdrew a small bundle of cloth. She unraveled a small sewing kit and pulled a pair of scissors from it. Then she approached the mattress and dug the scissors into a seam. A bit of straw tumbled out from the loosened threads, and Ruth reached in to pull out a small, leather-bound book with carvings embossed in the front.
Sage stepped forward.
It was the grimoire.
Ruth opened the book and laid it out on top of the dresser next to the Latin book.
Sage hesitated nearby, heart pounding. She was so close to the object of her desires, but she couldn’t very well just yank it out from under Ruth, at least not without seriously disturbing the poor Puritan woman.
Ruth rubbed her wrist slightly, but the motion pushed her sleeve enough to reveal a purpling bruise hiding underneath. Sage swallowed and looked over the woman’s shoulder at the grimoire. Ruth had opened to the page of one particular spell:
Honey Jar Love Spell
Spellcasters frequently used honey for love potions and spells because it was so sweet, and this particular spell promised to pass this sweetness on to a lover.
Ruth traced her finger over the English descriptions first, then she touched the words of the spell, written in Latin. In doing so, Sage noticed another set of bruises on the other wrist. These had healed more than the others and had begun to turn brown in color.
Sage touched the string again. It had loosened slightly. She knew better to tamper too much with history. She hadn’t come here to help anyone but herself. But still…
The door slammed downstairs, and Ruth jumped. Her face contorted as she quickly closed the grimoire and thrust it back into the mattress. She scooped straw off the floor and shoved it into the small hole. Sage could see her eyes flick to the sewing kit, debating whether she had time to mend the hole before greeting the man with the heavy footsteps downstairs.
Ruth tugged a blanket over the loose seam and hurried out of the room, leaving the Latin book open on the dresser.
Sage blinked at her good fortune. She wasted no time pulling the grimoire from the mattress (but she, too, stuffed the straw back into place after). Sage hugged the spell book tightly to her chest and glanced over at the Latin guide laying open on the dresser.
Amare [a’mare] – To Love.
Sage’s chest tightened. She glanced over her shoulder at the door and leaned over the book, flipping through the fragile pages with speed and care. She found the page she wanted quickly.
Venenum [veˈnɛːnum] – Poison
The binding was loose enough that she could simply pluck the page away from its spine. Sage pulled the vial of poison from her pocket.
“It’s in case you need to defend yourself, or something like that.” Mariah had told her.
Or something like that. Sage agreed quietly.
She wrapped the Latin definition carefully around the vial, noticing that the edges of her fingertips were beginning to regain color once more. Sage sighed and tucked the vial back into the hole in the mattress, then pulled the blanket back over the seam. She hugged the grimoire to her chest and tugged the string off her nearly visible finger.
The invisibility potion was wearing off. It was time to go home.
With a racketing crack, the door to the bedroom swung open.
Sage froze, caught red-handed despite it all.
Ruth stood in the doorway, looking pale and shaken but locking eyes with Sage. Sage opened her mouth, aware that she was likely visible to a certain extent but unable to say anything in her defense.
Ruth did not scream, nor shout. She only glanced at the grimoire in Sage’s arms and back into Sage’s eyes. Ruth nodded and looked down at her feet. She turned away and pulled the door closed behind her.
“I could not find it up here,” she called down.
Sage exhaled, slowly. Then she brought the enchanted string back to her lips.
“Reditus,” Sage whispered.
And the floor moved away under her.
Mariah and Sage stood in the Salem Witch Museum. Sage crossed her arms as Mariah ignored the “No Food or Drinks” sign and popped a fresh piece of bubble gum in her mouth. They stared at the plaque before them.
“Is it accurate?” Mariah asked. Sage shrugged. She still hadn’t decided whether the place was worth the $17.50 admission.
“It’s not like I was sitting in the actual courtrooms. How would I know?” Sage retorted. Mariah rolled her eyes and continued reading.
“It’s funny,” she started, “I thought John Hathorne died in 1717. It says here that he died in 1694.”
Mariah chewed slowly as she looked over at Sage. One eyebrow lifted slightly.
“Huh,” Sage muttered. She studied the portrait of Ruth’s husband. Sage stared at his thin face and slight frown. But then she shrugged.
“You’re probably getting your dates confused.”
Mariah popped another bubble and grinned.
“Yeah, I probably am.”
Historical Notes (For the curious):
- Ruth (Gardner) Hathorne was a real woman, although, like many historical women, the details of her life were lost to time. Therefore all descriptions of her are fictionalized. Much more is known about her husband, John Hathorne, a judge known for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials, his harsh prosecutions, and the controversial reliance on "spectral evidence" in court.
- The descriptions of Ruth and John Hathorn's home were based on "The Witch House," a historical site in Salem made from the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, another judge of the Salem Witch Trials. The Witch House is the only structure still standing in Salem with direct ties to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
- "A pathetic and serious Dissuasive from the horrid and detestable Sins of Drunkenness, Swearing, Uncleanness, Forgetfulness of Mercies, Violation of Promises, and Atheistic Contempt of Death" is an actual writing by the Influential Puritan Minister, John Flavel (1627-1691).
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Nicely done, very interesting story!