THE EXECUTION OF BRIDGET WILLIAMS
Fiction by Joshua Laing
Reposted with permission
“This creature that stands before you is a being of the most disgusting nature.” His voice carried easily. Each syllable thick and heavy, every word rough and hateful. Despite the crowd’s noise, he could still be heard. He drew in a deep breath, savouring the moment before he continued to speak. “This woman, charged and proven of being a witch, chose the most vulnerable of victims.” He paused and licked his teeth, his tongue working across each dirty, yellowing stump. “She possessed her own daughter.”
The crowd of people broke out in a deafening roar. He looked down on them, comfortable with his height atop the gallows. The looming timber construct stood thirteen steps tall, its wood splintered and damp. The knot hung from it ominously in the icy dawn air. The fibres of the rope were frayed, sand coloured strands spiking off in an abundance of directions.
Raising his hands he quieted the people with a ubiquitous authority. A large gold ring glinted from within the wrinkled folds of flesh on his fingers. The crowd stood mesmerised. “But not only did she possess her innocent child, she has ruined your crops, and endangered your mortal souls. Her punishment is to be hanged from the neck until she breathes not. Then, and only then, she will be pronounced… dead.” He lingered on the word, his satisfaction ringing as if it were a church bell. It was threateningly prominent; irrevocably permanent. Looming, as were the gallows.
The woman stood beside him, naked but for her tattered linen undergarments. Her body was layered in brown grit. A hessian sack tied around her head, framed through the noose like a twisted portrait of desolation. Her silent figure trembled in the grey light of the overcast daybreak. Blood plastered her calves like red socks, and her taut skin stood in tiny raised bumps. Knotted twine bound her wrists at her waist. A slight man in an overcoat too large for him gripped her by the arm. Horn rimmed spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose, an accessory too old for him.
The Reverend nodded. “Proceed Doctor. Fit the noose.”
The man’s moustache twitched momentarily, his eyes foggy and unfocussed. He shook his head and stepped away from the woman with slow deliberation. “I will not be party to this.”
The Reverend stepped forward angrily, dark eyes flashing hotly. Reaching upwards, he clasped the top of the sack in his hand, ripping it off the woman. She cringed, squinting against the sudden light.
The crowd remained still, transfixed.
She had been hit, and hit quite hard if the blood caked between her nose and top lip was anything to judge. Her bottom lip had puffed up, and one eye had swollen nearly shut, ringed in a violent black bruise. Her dark hair hung in matted clumps on her shoulders, heavy with congealed blood.
The Reverend reached upwards again, the man that had been holding her shaking his head morosely. The Reverend’s thick fingers wrapped around the noose and pulled it down, slipping it around the woman’s neck. He stepped behind her to tighten it.
Stepping back to her front, he grinned at her.
Straining her throat to speak, her voice croaked with disuse. ‘It was you.” They locked eyes. His grotesque beads were as soulless as coal, hers vibrant with fear, sharp with resilience.
His grin split his face even further, gaping like a sick, septic wound. “Yes. But who is going to take the word of a whore over mine?” He chuckled, three concise noises that sounded more similar to hiccups than laughter.
She spat, a thin lump of mucus flying from her swollen lips and splattering on the Reverend’s cheekbone. His eyes flared at her final act of defiance, their emptiness deepening momentarily. A collective gasp rang out from the crowd below, a murmur sparking up.
He took a step back, reaching a meaty hand to the lever controlling the trapdoor. His gold ring clunked dully on the wood.
The spit shined on his face. “Does the witch of Salem have any last words?”
She opened her mouth. “I’ll see…”
As she did, he ripped the handle.
She dropped only two feet; an uncomfortable wet pop ringing out as her neck jolted out of place. Her legs kicked savagely, shins cracking on the floor of the gallows. The rope twisted erratically.
The Reverend’s yellow teeth shone through his thin grey lips again, his face pulled upwards in a tight grin.
The crowd pushed forward, screaming, their bloodthirsty cries echoing across the gallows.
The rope began to slow its twisting and her movements calmed.
He watched her.
He watched as her face began to tint blue, flecked with purple. Her soft pink tongue protruded from her mouth, hanging limp as though her last words were frozen there.
He could smell the ammonia as her bladder gave out, could see the urine as it tracked its way through the blood on her calves and disappeared out of his line of sight, dripping to the dirt below. Steam rose off the golden liquid. The blood vessels in her eyes began to give way, popping slowly like blossoming flowers, staining them a gorgeous red.
An evil red.
Her whole body gave a convulsive twitch and then she was still. The gristly sound of her spine continuing to twist on itself was clearly audible.
The Reverend squatted and took a limp hand in his own, reaching it to his face. He wiped the saliva off his cheek with it and dropped it carelessly.
He turned to face the crowd. A crack of thunder rippled in the distance as the orange glare of the sun began to seep into the morning.
The spectators jostled for a view of the dead woman, shouldering, barging, screaming out. But the Reverend wasn’t watching them.
He was watching the girl.
The dust tingled in Bridget’s nostrils, despite her having finished cleaning hours before. She sat at the dining room table, enjoying the heat tumbling out of her cup, misty waves of tea cascading across her hands. Her light dress stuck damply to her skin. From in the next room, she could hear her daughter’s soft voice as she crooned to one of her few toys.
Bridget stood, setting her tea down on the corner of the table. She crossed to Abigail’s doorway, standing with her shoulder propped against it. The child paid no attention, her attention fixed wholly on the doll in her hands, her face obscured behind her auburn hair.
Slowly, Abigail began to look up, angling her head up millimetre by millimetre.
As their eyes met, Bridget’s stomach dropped.
Abigail’s eyes had lolled back so far in her head, her pupils no longer visible. Blood trickled from her nostrils, and her mouth hung slack.
Bridget screamed and dropped to her knees, pulling Abigail across her chest. “Child! What’s wrong?” Abigail’s neck craned back and she convulsed out of her mother’s arms onto the floor. She rolled, before stopping momentarily. Her back suddenly arched upwards, her head cracking on the ground. Her back dropped, flattening out. Abigail’s head twisted right around, kinked on an angle that turned Bridget’s stomach even further, propelling her out of her state of shock and into action.
Lunging to her feet she ran for the door. Her hip banged painfully on the corner of the table as she passed. The tea sloshed, the cup teetering for a second. It fell, delicate pieces of white china exploding on the floor. Bridget made it to the door, fumbled for the handle. She burst out onto the street. As she did, her skirts twisted around her knees and she fell hard. Her chin bounced off the cobblestone ground jarringly. The coppery taste of blood flooded her mouth as the few people in the street turned and gawked at the scene she had made of herself.
“Help me!” she rasped. Her voice felt as if it were sandpaper being forced from within her lungs. She climbed to her knees as the first of the bystanders reached her. He was a pristine man in a neat suit – from the bank, she was sure of it. He crouched at her side and gripped her arm.
“Ma’am?” His level voice purred calmly, reassuringly. “What’s going on?”
Bridget flung an arm back like a possessed marionette. “My child, she’s,” she coughed, her voice abnormally rough.
The man stood and ran into her house, ignoring Bridget. Bridget hauled herself to her feet and followed him, ignoring her aching face and stinging hands. The china chunks rattled as she passed them, collapsing to her knees again in Abigail’s doorway in complete disbelief, her voice frozen in her throat. The man from the street stood just inside the door, rooted to the spot, his jaw gaping ridiculously.
Abigail was pinned against the wall by an unseen force. Her eyes bulged, the blood from her nose now running steadily in twin rivulets, splashing off her chin and onto the floor below. Each of her limbs cocked off her body at impossible angles, while her already ratty clothes hung off her in a ghostly fashion. Her ginger hair obscured her shoulders behind limp tangles.
The most striking detail, however, was that Abigail was floating.
No contact existed between her and the ground. The crown of her head kissed the roof softly. Her young figure hung in a supernatural embrace of the imperceptible, her contorted state oddly tranquil.
Bridget’s scream split the air like an axe through wood. She launched herself at her daughter, grabbing her ankles, trying desperately to drag her down. Her breaths came harsh and jagged, animalistic noises escaping from her lips just as frequently as the air itself.
With a heavy, dead thump, Abigail crashed to the floor, her head hanging back loosely. Her skin was clammy, a clear sheen seeming to wash over it. Bridget took her comatose child into her arms, sobbing into her hair as Abigail’s blood smeared her clothing.
Bridget held her daughter.
The Reverend Jonathon Hawthorne stood silently against the wall. He fiddled with a gold ring he wore wedged onto a fat little finger, watching the girl twitching in the centre of the room. Her spine was nearly doubled back on itself, red foam bubbling out of the corners of her mouth. Harsh, ugly growls rattled in her throat. The child’s mother clutched at the girl, despite being battered every time a fresh convulsion struck.
The Reverend looked across at the Doctor. Griggs was a slight man, with a thin moustache sprouting above his top lip. His coat was too large for him, a big black overcoat that looked as though it would be more at home on an undertaker. His horn rimmed glasses magnified his brilliant green eyes.
The two men made contact, the Reverend’s beady, almost-black eyes boring into Griggs’. “Well, Doctor?”
Griggs swallowed hard. “I’m afraid the result is not positive, although it is still not conclusive, Reverend. Her contortions might be explainable if it were them alone plaguing her. But the spontaneous bleeding, the beastly noises and the hovering that transpired before our arrival leave me one verdict.”
The Reverend nodded in anticipation, wringing his hands together.
Bridget stepped away from her daughter, closer to the two men. “What is it Doctor?” Her voice was colourless, drained.
Griggs twisted his head, cracking his neck. “The girl is a victim of an unearthly bewitching.”
Bridget gasped, clutching at her chest. “But who would possess my child? And for what reason?” Her eyes were wide, naïve.
The Doctor shrugged, shoulders rising in a moment of uncertainty. “This I do not know, Ms Williams. But to have such an extreme effect on this young girl the proximity of the witch to the girl must be close, close indeed.”
The Reverend stepped forward. His stomach bulged out his robes, his small head sunken into the folds of his neck. His forefinger and thumb worked on the ring in hypnotic motions. “A friend of age, perhaps. A neighbour. There is an abundance of options, Ms Williams. And until we investigate further, you are very much one of these options.”
Bridget gasped a second time. “Why would I bewitch my own child? That is an absurd notion, Reverend!” Her expression changed from one of confusion to defensive anger, her features tightening up and drawing her face into a vicious snarl. “Why, she sees you just as regularly as the rest of the village does! It may well have been you that bewitched her then, may it not be?”
The Reverend’s hand shot out, fat fingers gripping Bridget’s throat. She emitted a strangled gurgle, grabbing at the Reverend’s wrist with both of her hands.
“I would not advise the advocating of such claims. They may be catastrophic to your health.” He punctuated his sentence with a wry grin, releasing his grip on Bridget’s throat. Angry purple finger-marks stood out on her pale skin, a welt rising where his ring had pressed.
Abigail roared suddenly, scurrying across the floor in an inverted position. She collapsed just as quickly as she rose, slapping dully on the ground.
The Reverend looked from the girl to her mother. “As it appears, Ms Williams, you may very well be the bewitcher in this young girl’s life. For if you were a truly decent person, your daughter would not be possessed, nor the cloth of your dress cut.” He leaned forward and Bridget flinched back. His fingertips touched the cloth of Bridget’s dress, where she had cut the sleeves and sewn them shorter. She felt the cool metal of his ring against her flesh.
“Are you mad?” she inquired, slapping his hand away. “For that claim is ridiculous! My cloth being cut does not change whether I am guilty or not, as much as you may wish it so, Reverend. I could have cut cloth and be less of a witch than a woman with full sleeves!” She glared resiliently.
The Reverend looked to Griggs. “That is but a proclamation of guilt! Is it not, Doctor?”
The Doctor looked momentarily perplexed, his face becoming shrouded in a cloud of confusion. His moustache twitched. “I’m not sure. Do you believe it to be?” He stretched a single slender finger up and scratched his neck.
Bridget took a step back. The Reverend’s arm shot out before she could move out of reach and gripped her arm. “I believe it to be Doctor. We must subject her to trial appropriately.”
Bridget thrashed her arm. “What are you doing?” Her voice was high with panic. “Why am I being persecuted?”
The Reverent looked at Griggs. His eyes were flat; glassy; dead. “You take the child. I will take this beast.”
Griggs took a tentative step towards the girl as the mother flailed under the Reverend’s stone grip.
Bridget shivered violently on the rough floor. The room had no light, no ventilation. She nestled Abigail’s head in her lap, back propped against the rough timber wall, her knees gaping open, pink mince poking tenderly through her shredded skin. She had been dragged by her hair through the streets to the church, a bound Abigail marched alongside her.
Bridget leaned her head against the wall. Sighing, she closed her eyes as Abigail stirred in her lap.
She licked her dried lips and spoke. “How are you feeling, Abigail?” It pained her greatly to speak, burning bolts of pain exploding up her throat.
Abigail whined softly. “It hurts mother. It hurts.” She began to weep.
Bridget opened her eyes and looked down. “What hurts, dear?”
Abigail shook her head and continued to cry, soft whimpers bouncing around the tiny space.
Bridget’s head swam with uncertainty as she began to cry with her daughter.
He sat in the shade beside his ramshackle house, jaw knotting and grinding as he worked a hunk of chewing tobacco back and forwards between his rotted teeth. His eyes were hollow, devoid of emotion and feeling. The dilapidated chair he sat in barely supported his bulk. His stomach bulged, flabby arms hanging down, fingers as thick as sausages trailing in the dirt.
He jumped, throwing himself out of the chair and spinning around with incredible speed for someone of his size.
The voice that had startled him belonged to the Reverend. His brow furrowed in a mix of confusion and annoyance. “Afternoon, Hawthorne. What brings you?” He spat a stream of tobacco juice.
The Reverend fingered the gold ring adorning his left hand. “Tomorrow, we have a trial for the whore of Salem, Bridget Williams.”
The executioner shrugged. He continued to chew furiously.
“Now,” the Reverend coughed. “She is going to be found guilty of witchcraft. Her daughter is sick with febrile convulsions; hyper tension of the mind in addition to this, the Doctor has informed me, will give her the appearance of possession, of bewitching.”
A spurt of juice splashed the dirt directly between the Reverend’s feet. “Why?”
“The crops are failing, and the people are losing their faith because of this. No one attends church with any regularity any more, my friend, so this will push them back into churchgoing ways.” He smiled, his yellowed teeth seeming to glow with disease between his sickly grey lips. “The people will be told that she has killed the crops, that their souls are the woman’s playtoy.”
“Okay.” The executioner’s voice was flat and heavy.
The Reverend smiled again, low menace bubbling up inside him. “The final detail to add to that, however, is that you will not be executing her – I will be.”
Each face in the audience looked at her with nothing more than hatred, nothing less than distaste. Bridget sat shackled to a heavy wooden chair at the foot of the pulpit, the chains grinding on her wrists uncomfortably. Beneath them, she could feel the rawness of her flesh, stinging as the metal constantly shifted on her.
The anger emanating from the packed pews was a greater concern to her. The creased brows, the glaring eyes, the upturned noses – her stomach roiled and convulsed in anxious waves.
The doors at the opposite end of the cosy church crashed open, the boom resounding deafeningly throughout the tight space. As the Reverend entered, the dull murmur in the crowd ceased completely. He stalked down the aisle, his heels clacking with each step. He seemed to fill the narrow space between pews entirely, a threatening mass cloaked in black, the only highlight a large gold ring peeking out from within the fat on his left hand.
The Doctor trailed in his wake. He seemed to have shrunk into himself, overshadowed by the much larger Reverend. Bridget watched as they crossed through the nave and climbed the few steps to the pulpit. Griggs sat in a much smaller chair than Bridget’s own, while the Reverend occupied the pulpit itself.
He cleared his throat and began to speak.
“Bridget Williams shall now be examined relating to her accusation of Suspicion of Sundry Acts of Witchcraft.” He scratched his chest, his robe bunching briefly. “The afflicted persons including her own kin, a nine year old child. Also afflicted, the local plantations.”
Bridget dug a finger under one of her shackles. Her wrist burned to touch, the flesh raw and pink beneath the cold steel. The Reverend addressed her for the first time since entering.
“Williams, what do you say?” He stepped down from the pulpit and stood between her and the first row of pews. He locked eyes with Bridget, black pupils boring holes into her.
Her voice wavered momentarily. She steeled herself and started again. “I am innocent. I know nothing of witchcraft, nor have I committed any against my own daughter, let alone the people of Salem Town and their crops.”
The Reverend lifted his eyes from Bridget’s and addressed the audience. His tone softened, the edges becoming rounder, more condescending. “Look upon this woman and see if this is the woman that has cast harm over her own kin, and kin of your own!” His aggression reverberated off the high stained glass windows. “We must now charge her to her face with the hurting of Abigail Williams.”
Bridget screamed out. “I have not brought harm to my daughter, nor any of these people! I am innocent!” Her voice cracked.
The Reverend stepped behind Bridget and placed both hands on top of the backrest. “What do you say, Williams, now you see you are charged to your face?”
Bridget swallowed hard, breathing evenly to try and steady herself. She eyed each member of the audience, allowing herself to pause briefly on each face she could see. Slowly, she answered, her words even and steady.
“I never hurt anyone in the course of my life. I am innocent as the child unborn.”
Stepping back towards the pews, the Reverend clasped his hands behind his back and paced calmly. “If one is as innocent as you proclaim, answer me this: is not your coat cut?”
Still searching the crowd for a scrap of support, Bridget answered without thought. “It is not.”
Hawthorn threw back his head and let a harsh, grating laugh escape. “Is this witch expectant that we shall believe the lies which she spews forth? That her coat is not cut, when so clearly it is?”
He calmly stalked back to behind Bridget’s seat, placing his hands on top again. With a violent surge of force, he launched the chair forwards, throwing Bridget to the floor. Her shackles dragged the chair after her. There was the soft crunch of bone as her nose impacted the polished floor, the chair sliding upwards and cracking the back of her head as it did. She shrieked weakly, hot tears spilling across her cheeks despite her efforts.
The crowd began to roar. To Bridget, their cries were inaudible.
The Reverend seized a handful of Bridget’s hair and hauled her and the seat upright. Her shoulders twisted as tight as her weight shifted dramatically.
Bridget saw through her streaming eyes that the population of Salem had stood. They were chanting, jeering: she could tell by the cockiness of the Reverend’s movements that they were supporting him, not her.
“This woman,” he cried, “Is nothing but a whore, a liar, and a witch! Thereby she is to be hanged by the neck until she is dead. Tomorrow at dawn, the whore will be hung!”
The crowd’s noise increased, becoming a wall of noise. Bridget screamed, her proclamation of innocent slurring into a panicked torrent of incoherent syllables.
Griggs moved across to Bridget, his hands working nimbly to right the twists in her shoulders. He spoke, nearly drowned out entirely. Bridget was not sure whether or not he was talking to himself or to her, but the words he spoke struck more fear into her than the Reverend’s announcement.
“The child unborn shall not be pronounced innocent after today.”
“This creature that stands before you is a being of the most disgusting nature.”
Her body vibrated with cold, her skin pulled painfully taunt in gooseflesh. The skin on the back of her head stung, the pain in her knees was a constant burn. The hot throb of infection pulsed from one knee to her hip.
“This woman, charged and proven of being a witch, chose the most vulnerable of victims.”
Her wrists were bound tight, the twine grinding painfully against the chaff that was already there. Her head swam sickeningly, eyes blind, her breath hot and confined in the hessian sack tied around her head.
“She possessed her own daughter.”
She could her the crowd, their overpowering roar erupting in a bloodthirsty wave. The individual scents had mingled together and become a visceral wall of odour; the murky, wet scent of mud; the rotted scent of the leaves; the sharp tang of her own fear.
The ruckus dimmed. The air in her sack was becoming increasingly hot, each breath harder than the last.
“But not only did she possess her innocent child, she has ruined your crops, and endangered your mortal souls. Her punishment is to be hanged from the neck until she breathes not. Then, and only then, she will be pronounced… dead.”
Her chest throbbed with panic as he lingered on the word. She was trying to speak, but the words stuck below the lump in her throat. She could feel a smooth palm against her arm.
“Proceed Doctor. Fit the noose.”
She felt the hand lift off her bicep and steeled herself. Her veins seemed to have frozen solid, her lungs filled with ice.
The Doctor’s voice punctured her veil of fear. “I will not be party to this.”
The gallows vibrated heavily twice, and a fumbling hand found the hessian and tore it from her face. Her eyes squeezed instinctively shut, the grey light sending searing bolts of pain through her head.
His sick, beady eyes were locked with hers. Dirty twists of blood vessels decorated the otherwise straight black emptiness. His odour rose off him in a thick, pungent blanket. Her nose crinkled in disgust, sending a further eruption of pain through her.
The crowd faded into nothingness momentarily while she continued to glare unblinkingly.
He reached behind her head and she felt the coarse materiel of the noose brought forward. It slipped around her head, the fibres of rope tearing at her skin.
He disappeared from her view. The rope tightened around her neck as she looked at the crowd, straining her eyes, desperately looking from one face to the next.
She couldn’t see the girl.
The man’s face reappeared in her view, blocking everything else from sight. His face cracked into a rotted abyss, sickening stench floating out from behind his yellowed teeth. His head seemed to collapse in on itself and she tried to recoil in horror as his eyes erupted into black geysers, sticky tar flooding down his cheeks.
She blinked hard, leaving nothing but his grin when she opened her eyes.
Straining her throat, she managed to speak. “It was you.”
Her voice was nothing more than a croak.
His grin seemed to wrap around his head, swallowing all humanity he may have had and transforming him into a grotesque creature. “Yes. But who is going to take the word of a whore over mine?”
His cockiness rang in each syllable.
Gathering as much of herself as she could, she dredged phlegm from the shredded walls of her throat and spat. She watched the thin green mucus splatter on his cheekbone. His eyes flashed, glowing with anger.
The crowd gasped, disbelief ringing out in their voices.
He took a step back from her, reaching out one of his thick hands to the lever by his side. She heard the heavy metallic click as his gold ring hit the wooden handle.
She watched her spit shine on his face as he spoke.
“Does the witch of Salem have any last words?”
She opened her mouth. “I’ll see –”
An immense pressure suddenly built around her eyes as her throat closed off. Pain erupted briefly as her mind cleared, and her stomach lurched violently.
Her vision blackened.
He had ripped the handle.