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The Salem Girls

by C.M. Silas 7 months ago in Short Story
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The Salem Girls
Photo by Veit Hammer on Unsplash

"Be wary of what is buried below, for truth has a way of making itself known."

"They went over with herbs and with lullabies on their lips. They went to help. That was all. It wasn't supposed to happen this way."

"And we looked on from a great distance, in horror, as the last member of our society, and the first member to be charged, was burned at the stake."

Salem, Massachusetts - October 31st

I dug up the letters. They were grasped in my shaking, muddy hands, on the cusp of my seventeenth birthday. I stood in the center of The Burying Point, next to the large hanging tree that cast out it's branches over several headstones, illuminating them with moonlight and painting jagged, sprawling shadows across the ground. I had drawn the short straw. At the pressuring from my fellow classmates, I unearthed the letters rumored to be buried, directly under the shadow where the singing woman stood at the cliff's edge, or so it appeared when the moonlight hit the branches just right. I'm not sure if my hands trembled more from my crime or from what I was holding. No one really knew who started the rumor or what the letters supposedly contained, but from my brief glimpses at the thick, old parchment paper and the few lines I could make out it appeared to be letters written by - well, 'them'. I shivered as goosebumps formed, brought on by fear as much as the bitter cold. Frost crunched softly beneath my feet as I made a beeline toward my gaping comrades and tried to grin through chattering teeth. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw her. She was hunched over what appeared to be an oak shillelagh, her black robe cinched with a matching belt. I figured she was one of the stragglers still tidying up after her part in the Haunts & Howls walk-through attraction that had been set up the weekend before. It sent a shiver down my back when her milky eyes met mine momentarily, appearing to stare through me rather than at me. Instinctively, my hand went up to my face, ensuring the plague doctor's mask was still covering it. As we scampered from the scene, no one seemed aware that we had been spotted. A high-pitched shriek rang out from one of the girls, though I couldn't quite tell who, when the clock tower began to chime, indicating it was now midnight. It would be five drinks and four hours later when I would wake in my own bed, head pounding and heart hammering, unsure what woke me with such a shock. I couldn't remember lighting the fire in my room of the inn, but it blazed and crackled, sending a flickering glow across the walls. It was only my second month living in room 213 - the old chamber maid's quarters - of the historic inn that my aunt and uncle purchased a few years back. When I moved to Salem in August to live with them following my father's death, I had no idea what was in store for me. I was about to find out.

Though frost covered the moonlit windows, my room felt stifling with heat radiating from the fire. Feeling for my glasses on the nightstand, I felt the warm, glass shade of the lamp slide against my fingers before it tipped on it's side and landed with a crash on the floor. I jumped out of bed, stumbling as soon as my feet hit the plush carpet. When my shaking hands finally stabilized the lamp, patting it gently once it was back in it's place, I scanned the room as I tried desperately to focus my bleary eyes. My heart rate was beginning to slow when it happened - a sharp, high-pitched squeal came breaking through the barriers of the walls. I jammed my fingers into my ears and yelped in fright, nearly knocking the lamp over a second time. The flames that licked the walls of the fireplace suddenly went out and a frigid breeze crept through my window, snuffing out the heat and enveloping me. Moonlight spilled into the room as I sat there, stiff with fear and clutching the letters to myself that had fallen from my hands as I drifted to sleep a couple hours before. Tossing them to the floor to distance myself, I glanced at the door, which I felt sure would open at any moment with that sinister, milky-eyed face appearing. The booze clouded my head, but an image slowly came into focus in my mind's eye. The robed woman who spotted us at The Burying Point. I tried playing back the events of the last two hours of the night before I arrived back at the inn, but it was a blur. A snap followed by rapid, creaking footsteps outside my door caused me to jump and throw myself against the door, grabbing at the lock to make sure it was clicked into place. The footsteps faded down the long corridor and silence followed for one minute, then two, three, four. I sighed, rubbing my eyes, and turned to flip on the light switch when I heard soft breathing on the other side of the door. I froze, wanting to scream, but feeling like all the sound was stuck in my throat. "Give them back to us, Bella." An old woman's voice crackled through the door. "You know what I mean. The letters. They are not yours, oh no, no, no." I cannot say what happened next, but I can only assume that I fainted out of sheer terror. The next thing I knew, I was slumped over in the corner of my room, the fire blazing once again. I could hear the hissing flames and the fire being stoked, but my eyes were shut and felt too heavy to open. "She's coming to," one voice said, as if in warning to another. "Let her come to on her own. Don't wake her, you'll only frighten the poor child again." Another voice said, this one sounding tender. "If I wanted to frighten her there's a lot more I could've done, you know!" The first voice replied, followed by a third person snorting out a laugh. "You always did enjoy giving people a fright, admit it." An amused yet indignant scoff was the only response. I finally lifted my heavy lids with caution and scanned the room, my mouth dropping open and quickly snapping shut again when one of the four women in the room caught my astonished stare. "Evening, dear. Or should I say, nearly mornin. It's almost four-thirty, it is!" She said, a thick Irish accent carrying each word. She had auburn hair and appeared to be in her fifties. She was a stout woman with kind eyes. "Forgive me, love, the name's Aisling." She added, smiling down at me. There was another woman there with jet black hair, down to her waist. I guessed her to be in her forties. Her face was severe when she turned from the fire and looked at me, eyes scanning from my tattooed wrists to my chopped, unruly red hair. A sudden smile, almost frightening in it's apparent lack of use, spread across her lips. "Brenna," she said. "I- I'm sorry," I stammered, trying to adjust so I could sit upright. "My name is Brenna." She repeated, turning back to the fire. My heart gave a jolt when I noticed that the third woman in the opposite corner of the room, sitting contently in the wicker chair, was the same woman from earlier that night. Her milky eyes wandered about the room aimlessly. Aisling, upon seeing my shock, gave a soft giggle. "And that is Cecilia," she said. The fourth woman in the room walked towards me and bent down beside me. She whispered, almost inaudibly, "Not to worry, she doesn't bite." Standing up and patting down her long, black velvet robe, she grinned. "I'm Lily." She was younger than the rest and had soft, golden hair. The elderly woman in the corner had a terribly tired, weathered face, courtesy of a hard life. Her gray hair was clumped together in thick, long strands. I blinked and peered around the room once more. "What do you want?" I finally asked, trying to grip the wall as I stood. "You have something of ours, and we would like it back." The black-haired woman said, a bit of a cross undertone. "I don't know what you mean," I replied pathetically. An obvious lie. I was spotted digging them up. The woman in the corner let out a raspy cackle. "No need pretending, Bella. I saw you," she said. Her words made my stomach tie in knots. "But-", I began, then thought better of it. "She's blind, but that doesn't stop her." Brenna said, her long, black hair flitting back and forth as she snapped through the snarls in her hair. My perplexion apparently showed on my face. Aisling burst out with a hearty laugh, "Oh, look at the poor girl's face. Stop frightening her, everyone. Honestly." She sighed with an amused look, nodding her head. The young woman, Lily, spoke up again. "You're probably wondering why we're here, aren't you? And you probably don't understand why these four strangers have strolled into your quarters, casual as an ox, and are frightening you out of your wits." I ignored the strange ox metaphor and shook my head. "I- look, it was just a dare. We weren't hurting anyone. I'll- I can put it back. Just leave me alone, I'll return the letters." Brenna slammed her wrist down onto the mantle, cracking the bracelet against the wood. "And just why would you do that?" She demanded. I floundered for the right words. "Because, I just thought, well isn't that why you're here? You saw me dig up, er- why exactly are you here? And who are you, by the way? How do you know my name, yes, I would like to know that!" I snapped back. Brenna gave an I'll back off expression, as though she were mocking me, and casually turned back to the fire. The room fell silent. Aisling spoke, cautiously, though I wasn't sure if her tone was wary toward me or what I'd stirred up in Brenna, whose expression I could no longer read. "Bella, you don't understand, but we can explain to you. Better yet, come. Let us show you." She smiled, as though trying to coax a frightened lamb to it's slaughter, I feared. Minutes later, we were standing back at The Burying Point, letters in hand. "Drop them back in," the old woman said, but Brenna's anger erupted. "No, these have been buried too long! These letters contain the truth about us. These are what should be put on display in there!" Her nostrils flared and her thin, boney fingers pointed shakily in the direction of the museum. Cecilia smiled, eerily looking directly into Brenna's widened eyes. "There, there." She tried reassuring her, but Brenna would have none of it. Snatching the letters from my hands, her long fingernails grazing my skin, she spat on the ground. "This is not a proper resting place for this- this," she faltered for words and huffed loudly. "For the truth to be buried - quite literally - is to hide who we truly are and let the myths prevail." Cecilia gazed at her for a long while before speaking. "Don't you remember her words? What was it she said? 'Be wary of what is buried below, for the truth has a way of making itself known.' Remember?" Brenna's dark eyes held tears at their base and as she blinked, she sent the teardrops rolling down her pale cheeks. "Of course I remember." There was a reverent silence, though I didn't fully understand what was happening. "Perhaps this is how the truth will make itself known." Brenna said, the air of persuasion seeming to surround her entire being. Cecilia shook her head as Lily bit her lip, looking sideways as the sloppily-covered hole in the ground where I had dug up the letters hours before. Brenna turned to Aisling and gave a rueful look before sighing, "I know. These aren't meant to be seen by the living." My heart gave a jolt as I turned to her, my eyes wide in alarm. She shrugged casually at my bewilderment before huffing and tossing the bound letters with a thud into their muddy grave. "Brenna!" Lily groused. A bright light flashed into my eyes, blinding me momentarily. "Bella? What are you doing out here all alone?" The officer said. "I was-", I began, but stopped. "Alone?" I asked, glancing at all four women still standing within a few feet of me. Officer Raksden laughed, "Unless you've got invisible buddies, yeah, alone." Aisling had a huge smile on her face and began to laugh and shake her head fondly. "He looks so much like my Bennett. He was a night watchman, too." She said proudly. "Are you alright?" He asked me, concern showing in his expression. I stood for a long while in total confusion before I finally replied. "Yes, I'm alright." He clicked off the Maglite. "You shouldn't be out here. Come on, let me walk you back to the inn." I glanced back and saw them all standing around the letters, watching as we walked away. When I finally closed my eyes for the second time that night, I fell into a deep sleep. Brenna was there in my dream, standing with an unknown person amongst something I couldn't quite make out at first. Like a kaleidoscope, blurred images began to form before my eyes. They were on a hill filled with headstones and watching something below. Something burning. The scene skipped like a glitching DVD that jumps from one scene to the next. All four of the women that were in my room earlier that night suddenly appeared in my dream, and I was standing nearby but invisible to them. Their hands were all dripping with black ink onto the letters at their feet before the pages burst into flames, emitting that same blood-curdling scream I heard hours before. The scene flickered into blackness then a grayish haze enveloped me. Fog was thick before my eyes. I began walking, hands outstretched, when I hit something cold and solid in front of me. The loud creak of an opening door could be heard and my view was suddenly crystal clear. I saw a small, cozy little cottage lit with the soft glow of a fireplace through the open door. Stepping over the door frame, the fog vanished behind me as the door closed. There was a young woman inside, sitting before the fireplace with a little girl in her lap, giggling at the hand shadows they were making on the wall. The young woman appeared to be Lily when she could have been no more than nineteen years of age. "Fiona, sweetheart, it's your bedtime." Lily suddenly said, jumping up and glancing at the window where torches could be seen quickly drawing near. Lily looked me in the eye, apparently no longer invisible to her in my dream, and tears streamed down her face before the scene skipped once more. I now stood outside a black picket fence that ran the perimeter around a huge, gray colonial house. Someone bumped into me from behind as she chattered hastily. The woman entered the gate and ran up to the door of the home. She had a wicker basket, full of something that was covered by white sackcloth. Next to her was an elderly woman - Cecilia. When the chattering woman turned to her, I saw that it was Aisling. "Are you sure it's all here, Ceci?" She asked, uncovering what appeared to be rotting fruits in the basket. Even in my dream, I recalled eating a browning banana yesterday and thought to myself, 'That's why the gross fruit are coming into play.' The three of us were suddenly in a bedroom within the house, standing over a bed with a person lying beneath a heavy quilt. Aisling pulled the sheets back to reveal nothing but a skeleton in the bed. Horrified, she began screaming at Cecilia, "What have we done?" The wicker basket was on the bed with it's contents spilled out all over. It was no longer rotting fruit, but herbs and medicine bottles with modern-day biohazard symbols on each one. I ran out of the room that felt as though the walls were becoming smaller and closing in on me. I kept running til I reached the front door. I swung it open and tried crossing the yard, but the gate seemed to get farther away every step I took until it disappeared and I found myself running up the hill toward Brenna and the other figure she stood next to, looking down at what was burning below. Brenna appeared still as a statue, holding a long scroll in her hand that extended down past her feet and was rolling down the hill. At the top of the scroll, between her thumbs, I read the scribbled writing. "The Salem Girls Society," it read in the title, "We, hereby, declare ourselves a secret society of those falsely accused of evil and hunted down under cries of our wickedness. We are healers yet outcasts, protectors yet vilified, wise yet regarded as ignorant, different and therefore ostracized, imperfect and disparaged for it. We hold fast to the truth - that we within this Society are absolutely innocent of the offenses we are said to do, and what we are said to be. Let us stand firm, and the truth we profess in whispers within our hidden sanctums, will be known to all - in time. We must always remember this - we are not the first, nor will we be the last, to be persecuted and have scorn poured down upon us by the ignorant." The ink was no longer legible - it bled black and red down the page. The other figure's image became clearer as the crackling of the fire below began popping loudly in my ears. It was a man wearing a black, flat-topped and large-brimmed hat. He had black, scraggly hair sticking out beneath it and somber, caramel-colored eyes. In his hands he held the letters that I had dug up that night. He placed them in my hands and droplets of rain hit the pages as I read the cursive writing of what appeared to be at least nine different hands. On the bottom of each page was signed the first name of each of the girls. Brenna was still motionless, her eyes transfixed on the flames below, when I looked up at her. She spoke, not batting an eyelash or moving a muscle, save for her thin, red lips. "She was going on twenty-five. She was the last to join the Society, and the first of our Society to be charged by the townspeople. And she-", her voice broke. Her long, ink-smudged finger pointing toward the flames below, surrounding a stake. I understood. "And you?" I asked. She nodded, "Yes, all four of us met the same fate. The other five in our Society that fled out of reach of the crazed townspeople continued to write letters to document the truth of what was happening, but you see.. those letters contain nothing that you don't already know, in your heart of hearts. History repeats itself, does it not? Society will grab hold of a scapegoat to blame all of it's problems on - rather than seeing the truth. And so it was formed, The Salem Girls Society. It was a safe haven - or meant to be one - for the innocent who were accused." I was about to ask her something else when her eyes, now milky like Cecilia's, turned to meet mine. "Bella?" She asked. "I'm right here." I answered her, but she continued, her voice becoming more frantic with each repetition of my name. "Bella? Bella? Answer me, Bella!" I felt myself being shaken awake, opening my eyes to see Brenna standing above me, the other three standing behind her, eyes narrowed and mouths twisted into concerned frowns. "There you are," Lily cooed, smiling warmly. "You sleep like the dead, dear." Aisling said, then was met with a cross look from Brenna. "What's going on?" I asked, groggy and lightheaded. "Am I?" I didn't finish. I felt absurd asking, but the events over the last few hours were nothing but absurd. "Dead?" Aisling laughed, "No dear, you're not. We are, sort of, but not you, lass." I shook my head, "Why couldn't he see you, but I can? Last night, at The Burying Point." I clarified. Lily stepped toward me, looking quite short compared to Brenna's tall, rather gangly figure. "No one can see us." She said. I nodded at Cecilia, "But I saw you last night outside The Burying Point, and all of you here now standing before me." Brenna gave me a sideways look and Lily spoke again, tenderly. "Well, of course, you can - you looked at the letters. Letters that were never meant to be above the ground. The truth, written within them, died with us. Eventually, they were buried alongside us and when you unearthed them, you brought us with it; however, as Brenna said, history will repeat itself. There will be others, like us, ostracized for other iniquities - real or imagined. And it is up to the people to see the truth for themselves." Glancing around the room, I noticed that Cecilia was gone. "Goodbye, Bella." Lily said. I blinked and she was gone. Aisling gave me a gentle squeeze of the hand and smiled before she, too, disappeared. I was left in my room with only Brenna - her stern expression no longer covering the sorrow in her eyes. "Well, it's time for me to leave, too. Don't take this lightly - what you've learned." . By unearthing the letters, you brought the truth – quite literally – out from it’s grave. You saw us for the people we are, not the myths that others want to believe. Thank you for that," she paused, and let out a half-hearted laugh, "but if you dig it up again I swear I will haunt you." She smiled, and for the first time her sad eyes and cross expression formed into a genuine, kind smile. “Goodbye, until next time,” she winked, vanishing before me, the flames in the fireplace going out as she disappeared. “Wait-“, I began, but she was gone. It gave me chills. What did she mean ‘until next time’? I wondered. Glancing over at the nightstand, I saw a single ticket to the museum that I was sure had not been there moments before. The following day, I stood in front of a large picture of several who had been accused, charged and burned at the stakes - peering out from the image were those same stern but sorrowful eyes. It was Brenna. Beneath the picture was a caption, "Brenna Thornbridge - Third from left, burnt at the stake on October 31st, 1692." In the background, I could hear one of the museum guides giving a tour and the entranced whispers of tourists. One tourist's hushed words caused my heart to pound in the pit of my stomach. She was speaking to her friend, standing back from the rest of the group. "I heard one legend at summer camp this year about the dead returning for vengeance, and no one knows when or how they will come back, but when they do-" she halted and gave a shudder. My eyes flicked back up to the picture and Brenna's tight, straight lips had curved into a mischievous grin.

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