Thursday, March 1, 2012

Burn, Witch, Burn, Witch, Burn

Charred Wood from Elizabeth Selwyn’s Pyre (inspired by the film, The City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960)) – Antiqued clock case; burnt wood; antique flat head nails; genuine raven feather; hand-stained vellum print of witches sabbat taken from an original fifteenth-century woodcut; antiqued pewter Baphomet charm; altered art piece—business card for the Raven’s Inn

The low, measured cadence of a drumbeat sounds.

Through an unnatural fog, which clings close to the ground, choking the tree roots, a swarm of New England puritans come. Their leader, his wide-brimmed hat shadowing his face, calls, “Bring out Elizabeth Selwyn!”

The jailers bring forth a formidable woman with hair as black as pitch. She is disheveled, dirty, cloaked in what resembles nothing more, nothing less, than a tattered shroud. Her wrists bear the marks and bruises of shackles. She and the assembled are now face to face.

An unbearable stillness falls, apprehension and fear grow.

Then one old, wizened shrew moves to the front, her eyes set in determination on the woman held fast by burly captors—“Witch!” she screams, unafraid.

Elizabeth Selwyn meets the defiant stare with one of her own. She hisses and spits at the old woman’s feet.

The crowd parts, allowing Elizabeth Selwyn her first glimpse of the wooden stake and its surrounding pyre; allows her the first glimpse of her impending fate.

Another woman in the group smiles triumphantly, and points, shouting, “Burn the witch!”, a chant echoed by one and all, while Elizabeth Selwyn is dragged forward, kicking and fighting. But it is no use, and she is soon bound and chained to the solid, unyielding post.

The leader steps up, a blazing torch raised, to pronounce sentence.

“Elizabeth Selwyn. On this, the third day of March, in the year of our Lord, 1692, we the people of Whitewood, Massachusetts, condemn thee as a witch. May the flames cleanse thy soul of its evil and its lust for blood…”

He thrusts the torch into the kindling, and the conflagration erupts.

Elizabeth Selwyn struggles a few moments, then a vociferous roar of thunder rolls across the heavens and a great black shade descends, obliterating the light from above. Elizabeth Selwyn ceases her fight, her gaze uplifted, saying loud, saying strong:

“I have made my pact with thee O Lucifer! Hear me, hear me! I will do thy bidding for all eternity. For all eternity shall I practice the ritual of Black Mass. For all eternity shall I sacrifice unto thee. I give thee my soul, take me into thy service…”

Next she sets her sights upon her accusers, intoning, “Make this city an example of thy vengeance. Curse it, curse it for all eternity! Let me be the instrument of thy curse. Hear me O Lucifer, hear me!”

The townspeople blanch, draw back, eyes wide as the woman on the burning pyre at first smiles, then laughter pours from her as the flames soar, relegating Elizabeth Selwyn to ashes.

Today, exactly three-hundred and twenty years on, Whitewood is a mere pin dot on maps of the northeastern United States. Some guides to the area do not even mention the tiny hamlet. Salem has claimed the glut of tourists seeking safe, cheap thrills of the Samantha Stephens/Bewitched or the “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble,” kind, as well as the students and scholars seeking serious knowledge, seeking actual proof of the hysteria of the pathetic, shameful American witch trials of the 1600s. Not many god-fearing folk visit Whitewood these days, but for those seeking just a little bit more than what those musty library books and family-friendly attractions have to offer, here are the directions to Whitewood, MA:

Take Road 28A, turn onto Wamport Road, bear left at the fork through to Whitewood.

As you travel on, the forests will become denser, darker, an unnatural fog forever looms and swirls, clinging, suffocating, even in the middle of the day. The town is not much, and they who live there don’t take kindly to strangers, especially those interested in the taint of its past, those curious, those prying and probing, those anxious to stir up the ashes.

There are no fast food joints in Whitewood, no shopping mall, no Starbucks, and not a single image of an old crone in a black cape and pointed hat astride a broomstick can be found. In Whitewood, time stands still, electricity seems to be the one compromise made to the modern day. There is nothing in neither the amenities nor the atmosphere that would make one want to stay and linger. There is but one antique shop, the owner possibly the only person willing to talk about Whitewood’s infamy. There is a long-standing cemetery, overgrown and unused for nearly two-hundred years, where, in one corner, those charged with the blasphemy of consorting with the devil lie in unconsecrated ground. And there is a church, ancient and rotting, which hasn’t seen a worshipper in decades.

Then there is Whitewood’s lone hub of activity—The Raven’s Inn, a genuine seventeenth-century structure of leaded windows and oaken doors, of hand-planed clapboard and hand-hewn shingle—a place rivaled in its somber and solemn New England aura only by Salem’s own cursed House of the Seven Gables. Within silence, nothing more than a fire crackling on the hearth and a clock’s metrical passing of the seconds can be heard. The rooms are considered colonial quaint now, furnished with sturdy, simple pieces. The lobby is austere, unadorned, save for an old-fashioned barometer, a few mundane canvases in plain wood frames, a calendar, and that ever-ticking clock—and that strange plaque, the one hung directly, prominently, on the wall behind the front desk that reads:

March 3rd 1692
On this site was burned for witchcraft
Elizabeth Selwyn

All this is lorded over by the Inn’s proprietor, Mrs. Newless, a formidable woman with hair as black as pitch.

Of course, with its outdated, archaic, and antiquated way of life and its unwelcoming, unfriendly, and inhospitable ambiance, Whitewood has earned its place in local legend—the inhabitants are nothing but a coven of witches; that good persons, young and old, have traveled there, never to be heard or seen of again; that some guests at the Raven’s Inn have found dead birds and sprigs of woodbine on their pillows at night instead of a foil-wrapped chocolate; that strange and frightening noises and litanies of sacrilegious chants emerge from that smothering fog every February 2nd—Candlemas Eve—a well-known witches sabbat.

And that Mrs. Newless’ name spelt backwards, may be too close to “Selwyn” for comfort.

Tall tales, of course, hearsay, gossip, tittle-tattle, and chitchat—something better suited for Halloween nights and the autumnal equinox than the sun-drenched advent of spring.

But if you manage to speak to the elderly, sightless reverend who still presides over an empty church, the Good Lord’s shepherd abandoned by his flock, he might just urge you on quickly with this warning:

“Leave Whitewood. Leave Whitewood, tonight, I beg of you…before it is too late…”

It’s a warning I’d heed.