The Witch of Willow Hall – Hester Fox

1811 IT WAS THE Bishop boy who started it all. He lived one house over, with his snub nose and dusting of freckles, and had a fondness for pelting stones at passing carriages. We were the same age and might have been friends, but he showed no interest in books, exploring the marshy fens of Boston, or taking paper kites to the Commons—unless of course it was the rare occasion of a public hanging. Catherine would sit in the window, watching him flee from angry coachmen, shaking her head. “That Bishop boy,” she would say. “It’s a wonder his pa doesn’t put a belt to him, the vicious little imp.” I’d follow her gaze from the safety of the drapes, ducking back if I thought he might catch me looking at him. In my small, sheltered world the Bishop boy came to symbolize the murky edge of a larger evil of which I had no understanding. When Father lamented British aggression toward American ships, I imagined a fleet of freckled boys with sandy hair, identical in their blue coats as they drew their swords in unison. If there was news of a killer in the city, then he took on a slight frame, a shadowy figure with a snub nose protruding from his hood. The Bishop boy lurked around every dark corner, responsible for every terrible thing in the world that my young mind could not comprehend. One day, Father—this was before he had made his fortune and he was still our “Pa”—found a little black cat under the steps at his office, and brought it home as a pet for Catherine and me with the stipulation that it wouldn’t come in the house. Catherine said she was too old to play nursemaid to a kitten, though sometimes when she thought I wasn’t looking I saw her sneak out to the stable with a bit of bread soaked in milk. This was before our little sister, Emeline, came along, so I was hungry for a companion, as Catherine and our brother, Charles, were practically joined at the hip. Every morning as soon as I could be excused from the breakfast table, I would rush out to the stable with a precariously balanced saucer of milk and a tattered hair ribbon that I had appropriated as an amusement for the cat.

It must have been spring, because I remember the heady scent of wet earth and lilacs as I emerged from the house into the garden, my heart light and happy to be free. To this day I can’t smell lilac without a pit hardening in my stomach. And it must have been a Thursday, because Mrs. Tucker who came on that day to teach us French was there; I remember later the way her severe black eyebrows shot upward, her thin lips that never did anything except press into a tight frown, thrown open forming a perfect O, emitting that awful scream. So it was a Thursday in spring. Usually Bartholomew—I thought myself very clever for this name until Catherine pointed out that Bartholomew was, in fact, a she—squeaked in greeting before I even got to the straw-filled crate that Mother had made for her. The only sounds that greeted me that day were the gossiping swallows and soft whickering of the horses. I slowed my step, not wanting to wake Bartholomew if she was sleeping. I rounded the corner to the empty stall and peeked over into the crate. I think I knew what I would find there before I even saw it.

There was something heavy and terrible about the silence, a disturbance in the air, quivering with secrets. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw the blood-flecked straw. Something pure and loving made base, a pile of inert organs and tufts of black fur. I don’t know how long I stood there, unable to comprehend what lay in front of me, and after this it gets hazy. I found myself outside, storming into the street with pounding ears and a film of red behind my eyes. It’s funny, because for all the racing of my heart and the tightness of my throat, I have the recollection that I was remarkably calm. I had a sense of purpose, of what needed to be done. But for all that, I still didn’t know how I was going to do it. The Bishop boy was there. He blinked when he saw me coming, the slow, lazy blink of someone who either doesn’t know what they’ve done, or else doesn’t care.

Why, he didn’t even try to hide the fact that there was fur on his cuffs, that his brown shoe was damp with splattered blood. He just gave me that infuriating blink and then turned back to the stash of pebbles he was collecting. There must have been at least a dozen people gathered around on the cobblestones by the time Tommy Bishop lay whimpering and crying out for his mother. That was when I came back to myself, when I realized just how many eyes were on me and what I had done. From somewhere behind the crowd Mother was calling to be let through, elbowing her way past a fainted Mrs. Tucker and snatching me up before a mob could form. More than anything else I was frightened of what would happen to me. Would she tell Father? Would I be sent away? Catherine had told me that bad children were often sent to Australia, a desert land where they were forced to build their own prisons out of sunbaked mud bricks. The only food was rats roasted on spits, and there wasn’t a book on the whole island. Mother installed me on a bench in the garden and I drew my knees up to my chest, willing myself to disappear.

A tear welled up as I thought about the little body in the stable. Would they at least let me give her a proper burial before shipping me off to Australia? I hastily wiped the tear away and braced myself for my sentencing. But it never came. Mother took my hand in her own, her soft brown eyes studying my face, the lines around her mouth tight with worry. “So,” she said at last, “that answers that.” I had no idea what the question was, or even what exactly had been resolved, but something in her tone told me I wasn’t going to be punished, and in my young mind that was all that really mattered. She went on to tell me that I must never speak of what happened in the street again. If anyone were to ask about it, we would say only that it was a scuffle. Children get into scrapes all the time and sometimes they get out of hand. “And Lydia,” she added before I could dart away back to the stable, “you must never show the world what it is that you have inside of you.

” So I carry it like a little locket, tucked deep down beneath my breast, never taking it out to open, but knowing that it will always be there should I choose to peep inside. We would never speak of it again after that day, but Mother made it clear that should it come bubbling out of me again, that we could find ourselves turned out of our home, or worse. No, I never considered that we might be turned out for other reasons, and certainly not for the rumors that surround us now—which are just that: rumors. 2 1821 “IT MIGHT AS well be the edge of the world,” Catherine says with disgust. “As if being banished weren’t humiliation enough.” She huffs and throws herself back against the padded carriage seat. Mother assures us that it is neither banishment, nor the edge of the world, and that if it hadn’t been for the horse that went lame outside Concord it would be a three-day journey from Boston. It might only be a matter of a few days, but as our new house looms into view, all I can think of is how isolated it is, how utterly cut adrift we are from everything familiar. No more rows of neat brick houses, no more cobblestone roads filled with the traffic of a bustling city, no more safe and sheltered existence. “You’ll be real country girls now.

” Mother follows my gaze out the carriage window to the jutting silhouette of our new home. Ever since that spring day ten years ago, there’s been a pooling of sadness behind Mother’s dark eyes, a heaviness to her once pretty face that has only worsened with the events of the recent months. “There’s a ballroom on the third floor, and we’ll hold parties and dinners. You’ll be surrounded by fresh air and good, simple people.” Desperation tinges her words, and Emeline stirs in my lap, looking up at me to confirm that this is something good, something that we sought out rather than were forced into. I force a thin smile for her sake. “A ballroom?” Catherine perks up a little, craning her head to get a better look as the carriage lurches up the drive. Willow Hall is fine, I will give Father that. Three stories of pristine white clapboard, and windows flanked with crisp green shutters. A carriage house abuts it on one side, a barn on the other.

It stands in defiant contrast to the forested, sloping hill behind it. I try to imagine the windows glowing yellow in welcome, a stream of merry visitors jostling and laughing their way up the winding drive and I fail. It may be a handsome house, but this place will never be home. Yet at the same time I want to untether my heart, toss it up into the sky and let it take wing. There’s a wildness here that, if nothing else, holds promise, possibility. Who needs society? What has it ever done for us? A cloud passes over Catherine’s face and she must be thinking the same thing, though for different reasons. She slides the little curtain closed. “There won’t be any parties though, will there? No one will come. Fifty miles from Boston is still too close. We could be in Egypt and still it would be too close.

We should have at least gone to London,” she says with a wistful sigh. “If we were going to run out of town with our tail between our legs we might have at least gone there.” Everything is London with her these days, a faraway Mecca or Xanadu where the world is bright and polished, gleaming with possibilities. Mother doesn’t say anything, just wipes at her perspiring brow and twists the handkerchief through her hands over and over. Her ideas for painting our situation in a rosy light ended with the balls, and now she has given up. Poor Mother, who has sacrificed her prized garden and the house she called home for near on two decades. Catherine, Emeline and I are young and adaptable, but she is like an uprooted oak, and I fear she will wither and fade. And Charles…well, I’m sure Charles is fine, wherever he is. It’s nearly dusk when the carriage comes to a stop. Apricot and coral streak the country sky, and fireflies flit across the broad lawn, blinking at us from the surrounding trees.

My neck prickles under the scrutiny of a thousand eyes. Emeline is the first to alight, throwing the door open before Joe even has a chance to come around. She’s running ahead, up to the imposing white house. I follow her, slowly, stretching my aching back and wiping the sweat from my lip. We put our feet on the hard ground, take in the night air and look around as if this whole place has sprung up for us and us alone. Not just the house, but the ancient trees, the watching insects, the stars and even the moon. But they have all lived without us for lifetimes that make our own look like the blink of the eye. The house, with its strict walls and severe lines, is shamefully out of place, something modern dropped down somewhere as soft as feathers, as twisty and spreading as willow roots. How do the trees and the insects and the stars and the moon like it, I wonder? How do they like to have to share their secret lives with us now? Catherine unfolds herself, complaining of a headache. It was fatigue earlier in the day, and before that nausea.

She calls out to Emeline to slow down, but Emeline is already running around the side of the house, free as a colt feeling grass under its hooves for the first time, her little spaniel Snip chasing at her heels. I haven’t seen her so happy and carefree for months. Mother gives directions for the trunks to be unloaded and brought in, then sweeps up to where Catherine and I are standing. She catches Catherine’s grimace. “Our nearest neighbor isn’t for some distance and she won’t bother anyone.” All the same Mother yells after Emeline to mind her dress. Catherine grumbles something, and then picks up her skirts and stalks off to the front door where Father has finally emerged. He stands aside as the trunks are loaded in, and gives Mother a cursory peck on the cheek in greeting. When Catherine passes he affords her a chilly “Hello,” and then looks away. “How lucky for us that your father had this house built as a summer home,” Mother had said last month when it became clear that the rumors were not going to abate, that Father was not going to be able to continue with his business in Boston anymore.

Luck doesn’t have much to do with our new circumstances, but it calmed her to speak of it in such terms. Father had come out to New Oldbury the week before to meet with his new business partner here and tour the mill in which he was investing. It was a mercy that he was able to furnish the house and make it all ready for Mother; I don’t think her nerves could have taken the prospect of starting over in an empty house. Once the trunks are all inside, Father bids us good-night and disappears back into his study, leaving us to explore our new home. “New Oldbury,” Catherine says with a grimace. “Whoever heard of such a ridiculous name?” She’s inspecting the rooms, running a gloved finger over the white mantel in the parlor. The house is more opulent, grander than I ever could have imagined. There’s even a room for the sole purpose of dining. It’s papered in a panoramic scene of people enjoying a French garden, some in boats drifting past marble ruins, others lounging on grassy banks with parasols and baskets. I imagine myself slipping into that static glimpse of paradise.

Could I row the little boat out past the horizon? Or would I find that the world ends where the artist’s brush had painted a thin blue line? Everything is the best, the newest. Father has spared no expense, and yet my heart only drops deeper as I wander through each room. All the silk drapes and woodblock wallpaper in the world can’t mask the fact that we’re here as outcasts. All this wealth, and to what purpose? I move to the library. A stern ancestor of Mother’s on the Hale side glowers down at the finery from beneath her starched white cap. When I was little Catherine told me that the woman was hanged as a witch in Salem, and tried to frighten me by saying the eyes of the painting could see everything I did. I was never scared of the woman herself, but of her fate. Her face, to me, always held more of a grim warning than anger. “Do not make the mistakes I made,” she seemed to say. What those mistakes were, I have no idea.

To this day I can’t pass under her portrait without a shiver running down my spine. Mother hardly notices the decorations and furnishings, and bids us good-night and retreats to find her bedchamber. Dark rings hang under her eyes and her color is poor. It’s hardly surprising; the house is stifling in the July heat. Father hasn’t aired the rooms and it feels as though the gray, paneled wallpaper and golden drapes are closing in on me. I’m just about to step outside for some air when Emeline comes bounding back in, cheeks flushed, Snip bouncing at her side. “There’s a tiny house up the hill behind the house! It doesn’t have any walls but there are benches and a little steeple. And a pond! Lydia,” she says, taking my hand in hers, “a pond. Do you think there’s mermaids in it? Can we go back and look for them?” I’ve been reading to her from a book of poems, and one of them mentioned the mythical creatures. All she can think about since then is finding a mermaid and then no doubt exhausting it with a list of questions about life beneath the water.

“Why don’t we take a look tomorrow in the daylight? It must be well past your bedtime now. Let’s find your trunk and get you into bed.” Catherine has thrown herself down onto one of the plush, upholstered chairs, her hand resting on her stomach. “Let Ada do it, that’s what she’s for.” Emeline is on the floor playing with Snip, the mermaids apparently forgotten already. I lower my voice so that she can’t hear. “Do you have to be so harsh? Everything she ever knew was in Boston. I can make it easier by tending to her myself.” Catherine rolls her eyes. “Oh, please.

It’s a grand house in the country, she’ll be fine. Soon she’ll completely forget what it was like to live in the city anyway.” A headache is coming on, and perspiration drips down my neck. All I want to do is get out of my dress and into a bed with cool, clean sheets, not argue with impossible Catherine. But I can’t help myself. “So you’ll be happy here then? In your grand house in the country?” She bristles. “Boston was becoming tiresome. I—” “It was tiresome because of the situation you put us in,” I snap. There’s a tug at my skirt, Emeline is staring up at me. Catherine presses her lips and looks away.

I sigh. “I’m taking her to bed. Good night, Catherine.” Catherine nods, her shoulders slumping forward. She looks so tired, and for a moment I almost feel sorry for her. But then I remember why we’re here in the first place, and my sympathy evaporates. * * * The eerie stillness of this new place makes falling asleep almost impossible. I don’t know how long I lay in my new bed, my body tensed, flinching at every faraway hoot of an owl that punctuates the night like a gunshot. It feels like hours later when the owl finally grows weary of its endless mourning and takes wing. My eyes are just starting to grow heavy when a terrible sound cuts through the silence.

Sitting bolt upright, I hold my breath as it comes again. It’s a slow moan, a keening wail. The sound is so wretched that it’s the culmination of every lost soul and groan of cold wind that has ever swept the earth. My blood goes cold despite the stifling heat. I don’t know where my parents’ bedchamber is, and although the wail comes again and sounds as if it were in every plank of wood and every pane of glass, it must be Mother. She hasn’t cried like this since Charles left, but the stress of the move must have taken its toll. I slump back into my pillows, guilty that I can’t gather the strength to go to Mother and comfort her. Kicking off the sticky sheets, I lie back down and close my eyes, trying to block out the awful noise. At last the wail builds and crescendos, trailing off into nothing more than an echoing sob. The first dim light of morning is breaking when I finally drift off to a fitful sleep, unsure that the cries were anything more than a dream.


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