God of Vengeance, God of Light
There is blood on the moon tonight as I lie in bed staring at the copper disc that hangs in the nighttime sky. I turned the curtain aside, tied it with bear grass to the notched maple frame so I could keep watch on this renegade god whose blade of light cuts across the quilts.
Beside me in this heatless night lies Benjamin, my husband of twelve years, the man who built this five-room house, the man who gave me three children, the man I wish were dead. He is not a cruel man, not greedy or selfish. He plows the fields and takes up collections at church without complaint. He helps the children with their ciphers and spelling lessons. But Benjamin has committed the unforgivable sin of passivity. Hailstones beating the roof, our mule gone lame in the ditch, and the murder of Goody Snow did not stir him, and when Reverend Standon demanded we give a quarter of our field to the church, he said, “So be it.”
We are a tight community with our backs bent against hard weather and Satan. If my neighbors knew of the disgust I felt for my husband they would turn me out. Who can afford the luxury of familial hatred when fighting the forces of darkness? Who can afford a tear in the seam of solidarity during the battle for our souls? Reverend Stanton says that God will save us only if we first work to save ourselves; what he doesn’t say is that although we are made in God’s image, we are as frail in spirit as a soapy bubble, as a fallen leaf, as the early ice that smothers Yeoman’s pond.
Six weeks ago my neighbors pulled me from my home on a moonless night, seized me from my bed in the midst of harvest season, and dragged me to the stocks. They were disappointed that I did not fight, that I did not beg for mercy like the others. The pile of stones collected in the event that my husband was found to be my accomplice still stands in the square, a solid reminder of the fear that deprives people of conscience.
“She stared at my cow a full ten minutes,” Goody Wynn spat as she pointed her crooked finger at me. “Now she gives up blood for milk.”
I noticed the Wynns’ cow when I crossed her field to pick gooseberries near the river. The animal, a dark-lipped, mangy, spectacular creature, stood by the fence chomping apples. I knew she had broken the gate, that she was eating the Wynns’ dessert, but I knew too that she was one of God’s creations. Hadn’t this beast, although a lesser creature than Adam, simply given in to the temptation of the apple? I stared at her bovine heft, watched her big jaws working, and understood that she would find redemption because, unlike the man, she was not endowed with the gift of rational thinking.
“Did you stare at her cow?” demanded the reverend.
“Yes,” I said, “and at Winslow’s barn and at Larson’s horse and at my husband’s plow.”
A sigh thick as a flannel bedsheet descended over the courtroom, and I wondered if the devil himself had swept in to silence them, though I had made no pact with him.
“Well, what am I to make of this?” cried Reverend Stanton. “What am I to make of it?”
I said nothing, for I knew that they would make of it what they would.
“Did your husband conspire with you?” He slammed his fist on the table before me.
“My husband is not interested in cows or in conspiring. My husband is actually interested in very little.”
Benjamin, who sat on the front-row bench with his hat in his lap, disclosed no response to the statement that had both acquitted and indicted him. I knew then that he would neither accuse nor defend me, that he would not risk his own life to save mine the way Thomas Snow swore desperately on his wife’s behalf as he was crushed under the weight of the stones. Benjamin was likely thinking about the unharvested fields, perhaps worrying about his plow. After I was jailed, he visited me often, bringing news of the fields and the children. He did not ask about the cow or the devil; he spoke casually, as if I was sitting across from him at our rough-hewn dining table eating pork pie. The moon often blinked through the small window in my cell, and I imagined its sharp rays carving deep bloody gashes into the back of Benjamin’s balding head. I’d then send him away, saying the children needed him more than I did.
“Go,” I’d say, “tomorrow still comes,” and he’d lift his hands as if to ask, “Why me?”
Each time he left I’d climb onto the small bench to watch his hunched form trudging through the square, past the mound of stones and the gallows, hat in hand, a perfect picture of resignation.
“You pathetic bumble,” I wanted to shout. “If my hatred could kill, I would outlive you!”
Three weeks after my arrest they pulled me and Goody Fromm—the spinster accused of visiting town elders in their dreams—from our cells to witness the hangings of both Goody Meade, accused of becoming a wolf to kill Larson’s chickens, and her young daughter Elizabeth, who had the mark of the beast on her neck.
“Will you confess?” asked Reverend Stanton as their bodies danced on the rope like poppets.
“I looked at a cow,” I said, “I did no more.”
Goody Fromm collapsed, and they carried her back to her cell, gently, so that justice could later prevail.
Soon after they hung Elizabeth’s cat, her portal to this world from beyond, but they did not make us watch.
I grew thin on bread and water, and my children grew thin on grief. They were allowed to visit five times during my imprisonment, not out of pity but as a warning to offspring who carried dark seed in their marrow.
“Hush,” I’d say when they gave in to fear. “Know that if they hang me, I’m a witch, and if I’m a witch, I’ll be with you always.”
When I’d been in jail for three weeks, Sarah and Ben, Jr. stopped going to school. The other children threw rocks at them and pulled their hair, dared them to summon their witch Mama for help.
“Have her change this stone into a cake,” they’d cry. “Have her turn into a bear and tear us apart.”
One day Sarah took the dare, closing her eyes as she spun furiously and lifted her arms to the dead sky and cried, “Mama, come eat Jimmy Harrison alive, come drive a lightning bolt through Abby Larson’s heart.”
When she opened her eyes her tormenters had fled, but Miss Ida said Sarah and her brother should not return to school. It was for the best as Benjamin needed help at home with the baby.
“Sarah,” I said during her last visit as I plaited her thick, red hair, “you will never do that again.” I was terrified they would hang my children for calling on specters.
“But who will save us?” she asked, and it was then that the hatred for my husband swelled up and raced through me like a rabid beast that grew throughout the night, pounding against bone, raking flesh, eating through me until I could no longer contain it, until its jagged fury burst through me and into to darkening night, stabbing upward to wound the moon.
Benjamin wouldn’t save the children because he refused to understand that they needed saving; reality finds no foothold in my husband. Perhaps it was the weight of the church on his conscience, Reverend Stanton’s red-faced demands that the men—there was little moral expectation of the women—deny the existence of Amy Knudsen’s freckled skin and the honey-colored locks that bounced across Carrie Mason’s shoulders, that they abandon their fields each Sunday to give their backs and their profits to the church without yielding to anger. “Anger begets hatred,” he said, “and God knows the heart that hates. I,” he cried, banging his chest furiously with his fist, “know the heart that hates.”
Maybe Benjamin felt anger when they killed Goody Snow and Goody Meade and Elizabeth and her pet, anger at himself for his own silence. Maybe he winced when they gut-shot Larson’s horse so that the devil possessing it would suffer. Maybe he thought Amy Knudsen was beautiful. But the guilt seeded by those leaden thoughts surely stirred in him a personal vision of hell, one that persuaded him to stop thinking altogether, one that transformed him into a passive and cowardly man.
I, however, had much time to think in the small cell I started sharing with the spinster Fromm when the other cells filled with more witches, sorcerers, devil’s accomplices. Fromm slept through most of her days while I stayed awake considering my husband, a basin with a hole in the bottom, a container that would hold nothing, one through which all things passed unsieved. Regret assailed me and I was sorry I hadn’t pointed my crooked finger at Benjamin to watch him embrace life as only a dying man can.
* * *
I was not hanged as a witch even though the hour had come and my death skirts were sewn. As I mounted the stairs to the gallows, a group of horses—some say I conjured them—came thrashing into Camen carrying calvary soldiers, men carrying a proclamation written by Judge Hathorne himself. The decree demanded the release of all accused witches, and while Goody Wynn, whose mangy, spectacular cow had resumed giving milk, seemed disappointed, the Reverend Stanton was enraged. Had he not delayed my hanging because of rain—some claim I conjured that, too—my body would have jerked as wildly on the rope as had Goody Fromm’s an hour before.
* * *
My neighbors are frightened by the screech owl in encroaching woods, by the God that will strike them down in their fields for impure thoughts, by my hand beside theirs on the bench at church. They avert my fearless gaze, pull their livestock in by dusk, wear crosses over their breasts in bed. My husband asks if we should leave this lonely place, and I hate him more than I hate Goody Wynn and the God that has forsaken me. I do not tell him what I will later admit to the blood moon: I will be lonely anywhere I go if I am with him. Instead I say that I will not be run from here, and he raises his hands as if to ask, “Why me?”
* * *
A harvest moon carves a deep hole in the black sky, and by its sharp light I struggle up Banniker Hill with a sprig of hemlock in my left hand and a satchel tied around my waist. By firelight I mix warm beeswax with rue, rosemary, and oil. I pull, smooth, and mold the mixture into a human shape, and as the garnet moon rises in the east, I throw rowan and elder twigs onto the flame. Slowly I pierce the waxen heart with a darning needle, then wrap the form in hemlock and set it beside the blaze to melt. Fanning the flames with my death skirts, I summon that rebel angel, that first outcast, then draw a thorn from the worn satchel and stab. I thrust my wounded finger up, and as the moon stares down with its bloody eye, the pact is sealed.
There is blood on the moon tonight, and I lie in bed staring past the ivory curtain, through the wavy glass. I forgive my neighbors their sins, for we are all weak and my crime far outweighs theirs. As I suck the dried blood from my gashed finger, I pray to my vengeful god, the tempter and the destroyer whose sword of light cuts across the blankets to touch my idle husband.
Dorene O'Brien is a Detroit-based writer whose fiction has won the Red Rock Review Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Prize, the Wind Fiction Prize, and the international Bridport Prize. Dorene is a Vermont Studio Center and a Hemingway-Pfeiffer creative writing fellow whose creative work has been nominated for five Pushcart prizes and has been released in special Kindle editions. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Madison Review, Best of Carve Magazine, Cimarron Review, Short Story Review, Southern Humanities Review, Detroit Noir, Montreal Review, Republic of Letters, Connecticut Review, Passages North, Owen-Wister Review, and others. Voices of the Lost and Found, her first fiction collection, won the USA Best Book Award for short fiction. Her fiction chapbook, Ovenbirds and Other Stories, won the Wordrunner Chapbook Prize in 2018 and her most second full-length collection, What It Might Feel Like to Hope, released in 2019, was a finalist for the American Fiction Award and won a 2019 gold medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPY). She’s currently completing a literary/sci-fi hybrid novel. She is a long-time teacher of creative writing at the College for Creative Studies and at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she has mentored students to success in publication and production of stories, poetry, movie, stage, and game scripts.