weekend-readsThe Witch of Truro

Alice Hoffman

1801

Witches take their names from places, for places are what give them their strength. The place need not be beautiful, or habitable, or even green. Sand and salt, so much the better. Scrub pine, plumberry and brambles, better still. From every bitter thing, after all, something hardy will surely grow. From every difficulty, the seed that’s sown is that much stronger. Ruin is the milk all witches must drink; it’s the lesson they learn and the diet they’re fed upon. Ruth Declan lived on a bluff that was called Blackbird’s Hill, and so she was called Ruth Blackbird Hill, a fitting name, as her hair was black and she was so light-footed she could disappear right past a man and he wouldn’t see anything, he’d just feel a rush of wind and pick up the scent of something reminiscent of orchards and the faint green odor of milk.

Ruth kept cows, half a dozen, but they gave so much into their buckets she might have had twenty. She took her cows for walks, as though they were pets, along the sand-rutted King’s Highway, down to the bay where they grazed on marsh grass. Ruth Blackbird Hill called her cows her babies and hugged them to her breast; she patted their heads and fed them sugar from the palm of her hand, and that may have been why their milk was so sweet. People said Ruth Blackbird Hill sang to her cows at night, and that whoever bought milk from her would surely be bewitched. Not that anyone believed in such things anymore. All the same, when Ruth came into town, the old women tied bits of hemp into witchknots on their sleeves for protection. The old men looked to see if she was wearing red shoes, always the mark of a witch. Ruth avoided these people; she didn’t care what they thought. She would have happily stayed on Blackbird Hill and never come down, but two things happened: first came smallpox, which took her father and her mother, no matter how much sassafras tea they were given, and how tenderly Ruth cared for them. Then came the fire, which took the house and the land.

On the night of the fire, Ruth Blackbird Hill stood in the grass and screamed. People could hear her in Wellfleet and in Eastham and far out to sea. She watched the pear and the apple and the peach trees burning. She watched the grass turn red as blood. She had risked her life to save her cows, running into the smoky barn, and now they gathered round her, lowing, leaking milk, panicked. It was not enough that she should lose her mother and her father, one after another, now she had lost Blackbird Hill, and with it she had lost herself. The fire raged for two days until a heavy rain began to fall. People in town said that Ruth killed a toad and nailed it to a hickory tree, knowing that rain would follow, but it was too late. The hill was burned to cinders; it was indeed a blackbird’s hill, black as night, black as the look in Ruth’s eyes, black as the future that was assuredly hers.

Ruth sat on the hillside until her hair was completely knotted and her skin was the color of the gray sky up above. She might have stayed there forever, but after some time went by, her cows began to cry. They were weak with hunger, they were her babies still, and so Ruth took them into town. One day, people looked out their windows and a blackbird seemed to swoop by, followed by a herd of skinny milk-cows that had all turned to pitch in the fire. Ruth Blackbird Hill made herself a camp right on the beach; she slept there with no shelter, no matter the weather. The only food she ate was what she dug up in the shallows: clams and whelks. She may have drunk the green, thin milk her cows gave, though it was still tinged with cinders. She may have bewitched herself to protect herself from any more pain. Perhaps that was the reason she could sleep in the heat or the rain; why it was said she could drink salt water.

Anyone would have guessed the six cows would have bolted for someone else’s farmland and a field of green grass, but they stayed where they were, on the beach, beside Ruth. People in town said you could hear them crying at night; it got so bad the fish were frightened out of the bay, and the whelks disappeared, and the oysters buried themselves so deeply they couldn’t be found.

It was May, the time of year when the men were at sea. Perhaps there might have been a different decision made if the men had been home from the Great Banks and the Middle Banks, where their sights were set on mackerel and cod. Perhaps Ruth would have been run out of
town. As it was, Susan Crosby and Easter West devised a plan of their own. They won Ruth Blackbird Hill over slowly, with plates of oatcakes and kettles of tea. They took their time, the way they might have with a fox or a dove, any creature that might be easily startled. They sat on a log of driftwood and told Ruth that sorrow was what this world was made of, but that it was her world still. At first she would not look at them, yet they could tell she was listening. She was a young woman, a girl really, nineteen at most, although her hands looked as hard as an old woman’s, with ropes of veins that announced her hardships.

Susan and Easter brought Ruth over to Lysander Wynn’s farm, where he’d built a blacksmithing shed. It took half the morning to walk there, with the cows stopping to graze by the road, dawdling until Ruth coaxed them on. It was a bright blue day and the women from town felt giddy now that they’d made a firm decision to guide someone else’s fate, what their husbands might call interference had they but known. As for Ruth, she still had a line of black cinders under her fingernails. There was eelgrass threaded through her hair. She had the notion that these two women, Susan and Easter, known for their good works and their kindly attitudes, were about to sell her. She simply couldn’t see any other reason for them to be walking along with her, swatting the cows on the rear to speed them on, waving away the flies. The awful thing was that Ruth wasn’t completely opposed to being sold. She didn’t want to think. She didn’t want to ask questions. She didn’t even want to speak.

They reached the farm that Lysander had bought from the Hadley family. He’d purchased the property mainly because it was the one place in the area from which there was no view of the sea, for that was exactly what he wanted. The farm was only a mile from the closest shore, but it sat in a hollow, with tall oaks and scrub pine and a field of sweet peas and brambles nearby. As a younger man, Lysander had been a sailor, he’d gone out with the neighbors to the Great Banks, and it was there he’d had his accident. A storm had come up suddenly, and the sloop had tilted madly, throwing Lysander into the sea. It was so cold he had no time to think, save for a fleeting thought of Jonah, of how a man could be saved when he least expected it, in ways he could have never imagined.

He wondered if perhaps the other men on board, Joseph Hansen and Edward West, had had the foresight to throw him a side of salt pork for him to lean on, for just when he expected to drown, something solid was suddenly beneath him. Something hard and cold as ice. Something made of scales rather than flesh or water or wood; a creature who certainly was not intent on Lysander’s salvation. The fish to whose back he clung was a halibut, a huge one, two hundred, maybe three hundred pounds, Edward West later said. Lysander rode the halibut like he rode his horse, Domino, until he was bucked off. All at once his strength was renewed by his panic; he started swimming, harder than he ever had before. Lysander was almost to the boat when he felt it, the slash of the thing against him, and the water turned red right away. He was only twenty at the time, too young to have this happen. Dead or alive, either would have been better than what had befallen him. He wished he had drowned that day, because when he was hauled into the boat, they had to finish the job and cut off the leg at the thigh, then cauterize the wound with gunpowder and whiskey.

Lysander had some money saved, and the other men in town contributed the rest, and the farm was bought soon after. The shed was built
in a single afternoon, and the anvil brought down from Boston. Luckily, Lysander had the blacksmith’s trade in his family, on his father’s side, so it came naturally to him. The hotter the work was, the better he liked it. He could stick his hand into the flame fueled by the bellow and not feel a thing. But let it rain, even a fleeting drizzle, and he would start to shiver. He ignored the pond behind the house entirely, though there were catfish there that were said to be delectable. Fishing was for other men. Water was for fools. As for women, they were a dream he didn’t bother with. In his estimation, the future was no farther away than the darkness of evening; it consisted of nothing more than a sprinkling of stars in the sky.

Lysander used a crutch made of applewood that bent when he leaned upon it, but was surprisingly strong when the need arose. He had hit a prowling skunk on the head with the crutch and knocked it unconscious. He had dug through a mat of moss for a wild orchid that smelled like fire when he held it up to his face. He slept with the crutch by his side in bed, afraid to be without it. He liked to walk in the woods, and sometimes he imagined he would be better off if he just lay down between the logs and the moss and stayed there, forevermore. Then someone would need their horse shod; they’d come up the road and ring the bell hung on the wall of the shed, and Lysander would have to scramble back from the woods. But he thought about remaining where he was, hidden, unmoving; he imagined it more often than anyone might have guessed. Blackbirds would light upon his shoulders, crickets would crawl into his pockets, fox would lie down beside him and never even notice he was there.

He was in the woods on the day they brought Ruth Blackbird Hill and her cows to the farm. Sometimes when he was very quiet Lysander thought he saw another man in the trees. He thought it might be the sailor who’d built the house, the widow Hadley’s husband, who’d been lost at sea. Or perhaps it was himself, weaving in and out of the shadows, the man he might have been.

Susan Crosby and Easter West explained the situation, the parents lost, the house and meadows burned down, the way Ruth was living
on the beach, unprotected, unable to support herself, even to eat. In exchange for living in Lysander’s house, she would cook and clean for him. Ruth kept her back to them as they discussed her fate; she patted one of her cows, a favorite of hers she called Missy. Lysander Wynn was just as bitter as Ruth Blackbird Hill was. He was certain the women from town wouldn’t have brought Ruth to the farm if he’d been a whole man, if he’d been able to get up the stairs to the attic where they suggested Ruth sleep. He was about to say no, he was more than willing to get back to work in the fires of his shop, when he noticed that Ruth was wearing red boots. They were made of old leather, mud-caked, but all the same, Lysander had never seen shoes that color, and he felt touched in some way. He thought about the color of fire. He thought about flames. He thought he would never be hot enough to get the chill out of his body or the water out of his soul.

“Just as long as she never cooks fish,” he heard himself say.

Ruth Blackbird Hill laughed at that. “What makes you think I cook at all?”

Ruth took the cows into the field of sweet peas. Lysander’s horse, Domino, rolled his eyes and ran to the far end of the meadow, spooked. But the cows paid no attention to him whatsoever, they just huddled around Ruth Blackbird Hill and calmly began to eat wild weeds and grass. What Lysander had agreed to didn’t sink in until Susan Crosby and Easter West left to go back to town. “Hasn’t this woman any belongings?” Lysander had called after them. “Not a thing,” they replied. “The cows that follow her and the shoes on her feet.”

Well, a shoe was the one thing Lysander might have offered. He had several old boots thrown into a cabinet, useless when it came to his missing right foot. He put out some old clothes and some quilts at the foot of the stairs leading to the attic. He’d meant to finish the attic, turn the space into decent rooms, but he’d had to crawl up the twisting staircase to check on the rafters, and that was enough humiliation to last him for a very long time. Anyway, the space was good enough for someone used to sleeping on the beach. When Ruth didn’t come in to start supper, Lysander made himself some johnnycake, half-cooked, but decent enough, along with a plate of turnips; he left half of what he’d fixed on the stair as well, though he had his suspicions that Ruth might not eat. She might just starve herself sitting out in that field. She might take flight and he’d find nothing when he woke, except for the lonely cows mooing sorrowfully.

As it turned out, Ruth was there in the morning. She’d eaten the food he’d left out for her and was already milking the cows when Lysander went out to work on a metal harness for Easter West’s uncle, Karl. Those red shoes peeked out from beneath Ruth’s black skirt. She was singing to the cows and they were waiting in line, patiently. The horse, Domino, had come closer and Ruth Blackbird Hill opened her palm and gave him a lick of sugar.

In the afternoon Lysander saw her looking in the window of the shed. The fire was hot and he was sweating. He wanted to sweat out every bit of cold ocean water. He always built the fire hotter than advisable. He needed it that way. Sometimes he got a stomachache, and when he vomited, he spit out the halibut’s teeth. Those teeth had gone right through him, it seemed. He could feel them, cold, silvery things.

He must have looked frightening as he forged the metal harness, covered with soot, hot as the devil, because Ruth Blackbird Hill ran away, and she didn’t come to fetch the dinner he placed on the stair—though the food was better than the night before, cornbread with wild onions this time, and greens poured over with gravy. All the same, the following morning, the plate was clean and resting on the table. Every morsel had been eaten.

Ruth Blackbird Hill didn’t cook and she didn’t clean, but she kept on watching him through the window that was made out of bumpy glass. Lysander didn’t look up, didn’t let on that he knew she was staring, and then one day she was standing in the doorway to the shed. She was wearing a pair of his old britches and a white shirt, but he could see through the smoke that she had on those red shoes.

“How did you lose your leg?” Ruth asked.

He had expected nearly anything but that question. It was rude; no one asked things like that.

“A fish bit it off,” he said.

Ruth laughed and said, “No.”

He could feel the heat from the iron he was working on in his hands, his arms, his head.

“You don’t believe me?” He showed her the chain he wore around his neck, strung with halibut teeth. “I coughed these up one by one.”

“No,” Ruth said again, but her voice was quieter, like she was thinking it over. She walked right up to him and he felt something inside him quicken. He had absolutely no idea of what she might do.

Ruth Blackbird Hill put her left hand in the fire, and she would have kept it there if he hadn’t grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

“See?” she said to him. Her skin felt cool and she smelled like grass. “There are things I’m afraid of, too.”

People in town forgot about Ruth; they didn’t think about how she was living out at the farm any more than they remembered how she’d been camped on the beach for weeks without anyone offering her help until Susan and Easter could no longer tolerate her situation. Those two women probably should have minded their own business as well, but they were too kindhearted for that, and too smart to ever tell their husbands what part they had played in Ruth Blackbird Hill living at Lysander’s farm. In truth, they had nearly forgotten about her themselves. Then one day Easter West found a pail of milk at her back door. As it turned out Susan Crosby discovered the very same thing on her porch—cool, green milk that tasted so sweet, so very filling, that after a single cup a person wouldn’t want another drop to drink all day. Susan chose to go about her business, but Easter was a more curious individual. One night, Easter had dreamed of blackbirds, and of her husband, who was out in the Middle Banks fishing for mackerel. When she woke she had a terrible thirst for fresh milk. She went out to the farm that day, just to have a look around.

There was Ruth in the field, riding that old horse Domino, teaching him to jump over a barrel while the cows gazed on, disinterested. When she saw Easter, Ruth left the horse and came to meet her at the gate. That past night, Ruth herself had dreamed of tea, and of needles and thread set to work, and of a woman who was raising three sons alone while her husband was off to sea. She had been expecting Easter, and had a pail of milk waiting under the shade of an oak tree. The milk was greener than ever, and sweeter than ever too; Easter West drank two tin cupfuls before she realized that Ruth Blackbird Hill was crying.

It was near the end of summer. Everything was blooming and fresh, but it wouldn’t last long.

“What is it?” Easter said. “Does he make you work too hard? Is he cruel?”

Ruth shook her head. “It’s just that I’ll never get what I want. It’s not possible.”

“What is it you want?”

There was the scent of cows, and of hay, and of smoke from the blacksmith’s shop. Ruth had been swimming in the pond behind the house earlier in the day and her hair was shiny; she smelled like water and her skin was cool even in the heat of the day.

“It doesn’t matter. Whenever I want something, I don’t get it. No matter what it might be. That’s the story of my life.”

When Easter was leaving, Lysander Wynn came out of his shop. He was leaning on his crutch. He wanted something, too. He wasn’t yet thirty, and his work made him strong in his arms and his back, but he felt weak deep inside, bitten by something painful and sharp.

“What did she tell you?” he asked Easter West.

“She’s afraid she won’t get what she wants,” Easter said.

Lysander thought this over while he finished up working. He thought about it while he made supper, a corn and tomato stew. When he left Ruth’s dinner on the stair he left a note as well. I’ll get you anything you want.

That night, Lysander dreamed he wouldn’t be able to give Ruth what she asked for, despite his promise. She would want gold, of which he had none. She would want to live in London, on the other side of the ocean. She would want another man, one with two legs who didn’t spit out halibut teeth, who didn’t fear rain and pondwater. But in the morning, he found a note by the anvil in his shed. What she seemed to want was entirely different from anything he had imagined. Bring me a tree that has pears the color of blood. The same exact color as my shoes.

The next day, Lysander Wynn hitched up his horse to a wagon and left on the King’s Highway. He went early, while the cows were still sleeping in the field, while the blackbirds were quiet and the fox were still running across the sandy ruts in the road. Ruth knew he was gone when she woke because there was no smoke spiraling from the chimney in the shed; when Edward Hastings came to get his horse shod, no one answered his call. Ruth Blackbird Hill took care of the cows, then she went into the shed herself. She put her hand into the ashes they were still hot, embers continuing to burn from the day before. She thought about red grass and burning trees and her parents calling out for her to save them. She kept her hand there, unmoving, until she couldn’t stand the pain anymore.

He was gone for two weeks, and he never said exactly where he’d been. He admitted only that he’d been through Providence and on into Connecticut. What he didn’t say was that he would have gone farther still if it had been necessary. He had no time frame in mind of when he might return. He would have kept on even if snow had begun to fall, if the orchards had turned so white it would have been impossible to tell an apple tree from a plum, a grapevine from a trellis of wisteria.

Lysander planted the pear tree right in front of the house. While he was working, Ruth brought him a cold glass of milk that made him feel like weeping. She showed him her burned hand, then she took off her shoes and stood barefoot in the grass. He hoped what he’d been told in Connecticut was true. The last farmer he’d gone to was experienced with fruit trees, and his orchard was legendary. When Lysander had wanted a guarantee, the old farmer had told him that often what you grew turned out to be what you had wanted all along. He said there was a fine line between crimson and scarlet, and that a person simply had to wait to see what appeared. Ruth wouldn’t know until the following fall whether or not the pears would be red, nearly a full year, but she was hopeful that by that time, she wouldn’t care.

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