November 1, 1989
Isn’t it a little late for praying? Tom Dayle thought but did not say. The child sat on a gurney just behind the privacy curtain in one of Salem Hospital’s ER stalls, clutching what, to his lapsed Catholic eyes, appeared to be rosary beads.
It was an odd picture: a young girl, not more than five or six, prayer beads dangling from clenched and whitened fingers that were holding on to the crucifix part of the rosary so hard it drew blood, trails of dried reddish brown branching down her forearms and into the cracks between her fingers. Mean-looking scratches covered the child’s arms and legs. If you could ignore the blood, she looked like one of Botticelli’s angels: dark curls cascading down her back, alabaster skin not yet marred by tanning beds or summer sun.
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The two nuns who accompanied her completed the angelic picture: the younger one sitting next to the child, holding her own rosary as she silently mouthed the prayers, the older one, whom he recognized as the mother superior from St. James’s School, standing just behind, keeping watch.
It was the nuns who’d found her. He’d heard the story on his way over here. While the murders were being committed, the child had hidden in a patch of bushes, clutching the rosary and praying. The nuns, who’d admitted to hearing screams during the night, hadn’t found her until the following morning, when the screaming faded to a mournful moan. They’d followed the sound along the North River and discovered the little girl standing by the pit where the bodies of her mother and two as yet unidentified young women had been dumped.
“Maybe she should have prayed you’d called 911 sooner,” Dayle said to the older nun. He didn’t say it so much to be cruel as to keep his own heart from breaking at the sight of the little girl. She looked the same age as his granddaughter.
One of the officers at the scene had asked the older nun why she’d waited to make the 911 call when the screaming continued into the night. “It was Halloween in Salem,” she said, sadly. “It would have been strange if we didn’t hear screaming.” Another responding officer thought he recognized one of the young women as her body was hauled from the crevasse. Upon closer examination, he changed his mind.
This morning, they had picked up a person of interest, a local woman who lived over on Daniels Street, but he wasn’t about to share that information with the nuns. “At the moment, we’re still trying to identify the victims.”
“One of the victims was the child’s mother.”
“How do you know that?” he asked, as if hearing it for the first time.
“She told us. She was talking to us when we first got here,” the older nun said. “She only stopped when you came in.”
In all his years as a detective, Tom Dayle had never seen anything as grisly as what had happened last night on Proctor’s Ledge. Three young women, throats slashed, had been dumped into a narrow crevasse, the same mass grave where Salem had unceremoniously disposed of the bodies of those accused and executed for witchcraft
during the hysteria of 1692.
A nurse hurried in and began to minister to the scratches on the girl’s arms and legs. The child recoiled.
“I’m sorry, honey, but I have to clean these up.”
“How’d you get those scratches?” Dayle asked the child. She didn’t answer but stared as if seeing right through him.
“She was hiding in the brambles most of the night,” Mother Superior said to Dayle. “That’s how she got those scratches.”
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼The nurse walked over to get bandages. “She’s going to need a tetanus shot,” she said.
“No,” the child said, snapping out of her trancelike state and acting, for the first time since he’d arrived, like a scared little girl. She started to cry.
“It’s okay, honey,” the nurse said. “Tetanus shots don’t hurt.”
The child began to cry harder, recognizing a lie when she heard it.
“Let’s see what the doctor says first,” the nurse said, trying to comfort her. “Maybe you won’t need any shots.”
“I want Rose,” the child said. Rose. That was the name of the woman they’d just picked up over in Broad Street Cemetery. When they’d found her, Rose Whelan had been covered with blood and babbling incoherently. The patrolman who’d picked her up was a rental cop. Salem used a lot of them on Halloween. He’d assumed Rose was just a leftover, someone who’d partied too hard last night and needed to dry out. It was a safe assumption. When he’d realized that the blood that covered her skin and clothing wasn’t the fake stuff they sold in the costume shops but real—he’d seen enough bar fights and car accidents over the years to know—he’d taken her to the station, where the woman was recognized almost immediately, which made the story even more bizarre.
Rose Whelan was a noted historian who’d written several books on the subject of Salem’s history and founded the city’s Center for Salem Witch Trials Research, a resource library that drew scholars from all over the world. She was a well-respected woman, who, sometime between last night and this morning, appeared to have lost her marbles.
“She keeps asking for Rose,” Mother Superior said. “Rose is the woman who pushed her into the brambles and told her to pray. She gave her those rosary beads.”
“The rosary beads saved her,” the young nun said, holding her own set out to him, its crucified body of Christ swinging like a pendulum. “It’s a miracle.”
The nurse finished washing the scratches but did not tackle the larger wound on the child’s hand. “The doctor is on his way. . . . Don’t open your hand, honey. We don’t want you to start bleeding again. Hold it just like you’re doing until he gets here.” She left the stall.
With the nurse out of the way, Dayle focused on the child, pulling up a chair and sitting in an effort to be less threatening.
“What’s your name?” he asked in his most gentle voice.
She didn’t answer. She was clearly afraid of him.
“It’s okay, he’s a policeman. You can tell him,” the younger nun said.
Dayle pulled his chair closer to the gurney. “How old are you?” Again, she didn’t answer but squeezed her hands tighter, fingers folded and ghostly pale, a single drop of fresh blood trailing down the inside of her forearm. Seeing the blood once again, the young nun picked up the pace of her own praying, mouthing her silent Hail Marys in rapid succession, as if a speedy invocation could erase all that was happening here.
“I have a granddaughter about your age,” Dayle said, forcing a smile. “What are you, four maybe?”
“Five, huh? Five is a very grown-up age.”
The child stared at him. “I want Rose,” she said, starting to panic.
“Maybe I can help,” he said. “Can you tell me Rose’s last name?”
She nodded. “Rose Whelan.”
“And do you know where I could find this Rose Whelan?” he asked, smiling at her. “If I wanted to get her for you. Do you know where she lives?”
Once again she nodded.
“Will you tell me the name of the street where she lives?” He hated to play her this way, but he had to double-check.
“I live there, too,” she said, defensive.
“Can you tell me your address then?” Almost every child knew her address these days. It was one of the first things he’d made them teach his granddaughter.
As if reciting a rehearsed speech, she answered. “Sixty-two Daniels Street, Salem, Massachusetts, 01970.”
The doctor came in, ending any further chance at dialogue. Annoyed, Dayle stood and moved his chair out of the way.
“Let’s see this cut,” the doctor said.
The little girl looked unsure.
“It’s okay, you can let go now.” He touched her hands gently.
One by one, she released her fingers from their prayer clutch, and then they all saw what she’d been desperately holding on to.
Upside down, embedded in her palm, was a wooden symbol Dayle didn’t recognize: rounded and carved, with sharp ridges that dug deep into her hand. He didn’t know what it was, but it certainly wasn’t a crucifix.
Gently, using a scalpel to free the crusted edges, the doctor pried the wooden rosary free. It fell to the floor. Dayle reached down and picked it up.
It took a moment for the blood to find its way back into the girl’s palm. Slowly, it pooled, turning the wound from white to red as it filled each layered level, creating a scarlet image of the medallion Dayle now held in his hand: a perfect five-petaled rose.
October 31, 2014
There were no witches in Salem in 1692,
but they thrive here in great numbers now.
—ROSE WHELAN, The Witches of Salem
Rafferty had never seen so many trick-or-treaters on Chestnut Street. Nor had he ever been charged with escorting such a large Witches’ March up to Gallows Hill. There were at least 150 of them this year—Wiccans, Druids, Celts, nature mama hippies with psychic tendencies, pantheists and polytheists all—walking slowly behind his 1980 Crown Vic cruiser, the one he’d rescued from the junk pile. For safety reasons, several streets had been blocked off. Traffic was already backed up onto Highland Avenue as visitors streamed into town for the festivities.
He’d been living in Salem for almost twenty years now. Back in the nineties only summer and early fall were filled with tourists; by midsummer you couldn’t find a parking space anywhere downtown, which was a pain in the ass. But come November 1, you could park anywhere you wanted. Not so anymore. This was no longer a for- gotten seaport. No longer an aging industrial city. Salem had been discovered, and not just as a tourist destination but as the new hot place to live. These days, you were lucky to get a parking space in town at any time of year, which is why Rafferty always drove the cruiser, even on his day off. As chief of police, he could double-park anywhere. More often than not, a tourist would ask him to pose next to the cruiser so they could capture its Witch City logo: a police badge emblazoned with a flying witch on a broomstick wearing a pointed hat.
But all that was nothing compared to what happened here in October. The city had been dubbed the Halloween Capital of the World. That was no big surprise. But no one had expected it could turn into a monthlong celebration. Lately, it was even more than a month, which was great for the merchants: The population grew by at least 300,000 each October. Every year Salem imported extra police from Boston and Lynn and as far away as Connecticut, and each year they were still shorthanded.
The crowds tonight were something. Even here, in this residential neighborhood, the trick-or-treaters were waiting in long lines for their candy at the Federal mansions that were decorated for the occasion.
Rafferty drove the wrong way up Chestnut Street to the corner of Flint.
“Hey, Rafferty,” yelled a man dressed as a pirate and known locally as Worms, “write yourself a ticket. This is a one-way street!”
Each year the pirate reenactors gathered at the Phillips House museum, the only historic home open to the public on Chestnut Street, to sing to the children, and maybe scare them a little, too.
“Scallywag!” his companion, Mickey Doherty, growled.
“Argh!” Rafferty shouted back at them.
“Them’s fighting words, John,” Mickey said, taking it as an invitation to approach the cruiser.
“Argh is only one word, Mickey,” Rafferty said. Mickey Doherty was more entrepreneurial than almost anyone in town. He owned two haunted houses on Derby Street and the pirate shop on the wharf, where he sold a bit of weed on the side. Since possession was a misdemeanor these days, and Mickey didn’t sell to kids, Rafferty looked the other way. “And if you don’t know that, you should lay off the Dark ’n Stormies. Isn’t this a kids’ party?”
Mickey laughed and pounded the cruiser with his fist. “This kind of fortification’s the only way I can stand the little demons!”
Rafferty shook his head.
“Hey, what’re the streets like?” Mickey wanted to know. “I spoke to Ann earlier, and she warned me. There’s a weird energy tonight.”
Ann Chase. Salem’s most famous present-day witch. “Well, if anyone should know . . .” Rafferty said, and Mickey laughed. “Actually, it seems pretty tame to me,” Rafferty said. It was true.
Fall had come late this year, but now the air was chilling, and the darkness felt pervasive. He nodded to Mickey, turned on his siren, and pulled out, blocking incoming cars on Essex Street, so the parade could cross the road. As the candlelight vigil moved on, a driver blasted his horn, and others joined in chorus to protest the delay. The witches walked in formation, as slowly as brides.
Once the last witch had crossed the road on the way up to Gallows Hill Park, Rafferty’s escort duties were over. He circled the city, checking on the rental cops and mounted police. A weird energy. He noticed that the Choate memorial statue at the corner of Essex and Boston Streets sported toilet paper streamers—nothing new or particularly weird there. Costumed children roamed more freely here, mostly without their parents: the little ones sugared up and bouncing, the older kids just looking for trouble. He spotted a few teens hanging out in the parking lot of an auto body shop on Boston Street. They scattered when they saw him coming—probably a drug deal. There’d been a lot of that lately in this area. He hoped the new senior center they were going to build here would turn the neighborhood around. That lot had been vacant too long.
He U-turned into the parking lot of the Dairy Witch and came back around when he got the call that there was some kind of disturbance in the Walgreens parking lot a few doors down. “I’ve got it,” he said, thinking it was probably the same kids. But as he pulled into the lot, the kids were nowhere to be seen. He drove around back and spotted the hearse parked at the side of Proctor’s Ledge. Hearse tours were big business in Salem; featured venues included everything from haunted houses to the apartment building over on Lafayette Street where the Boston Strangler had killed his only North Shore victim back in the early sixties. Salem entrepreneurs would go to any length to frighten the tourists, especially on Halloween, though the ghostly Fright Tours logo hand-painted on the side of the hearse looked far more like Casper than Jacob Marley.
Unless the neighbors had a legitimate complaint, the police did little to discourage the fright tours or anything that made a dollar for the people who relied on Halloween to make a living. But this wasn’t public property, it was private, and the manager of Walgreens as well as the neighbors up the hill resented the invasion of tourists. Especially lately, as the site of 1989’s still-unsolved murders had become Salem’s most popular tour.
He could see the candles from here. He recognized the voice of a local talent, someone they’d nicknamed Actor Bob, who’d made enough money with a voice-over commercial selling burials at sea to buy himself the old hearse and outfit it with cushy cutaway coffin seats lined with satin. Tonight, Actor Bob’s baritone was far less comforting than his oceanic funereal voice. Tonight his voice was raspy, haunted.
“And now we come to Proctor’s Ledge. Though some will tell you otherwise, many believe this place, not Gallows Hill, is where Salem executed nineteen accused witches back in 1692. This is also the place where, back on Halloween in 1989, three beautiful young women were brutally murdered: Olivia Cahill, Cheryl Cassella, and Susan Symms, whose ghostly white hair and skin were cut from her body to be used for some kind of Satanic ritual.”
The crowd murmured, shocked.
Rafferty had heard Actor Bob lead the tour on several occasions. He always played to the crowd, changing and embellishing the story for effect, but this last part had been added recently—and embellished beyond belief.
“Remember their names. And remember the nickname the towns-people gave them. These young women were so beautiful and so be- witching, everyone called them the Goddesses.”
More murmurs from the crowd.
“Neighbors on Boston Street and along the North River could hear their screams that night, but no one called for help until the next morning. It was as if a spell had been cast across the entire city of Salem, and no one could break it. For what the girls were doing that Halloween had been forbidden, way back in 1692. They were trying to consecrate the mass grave of their ancestors, five of the women who had been executed during that dark time—for signing the devil’s book.”
Bob paused again.
“The ritual the Goddesses were performing that Halloween night in 1989 had been against Puritan law in 1692. To consecrate the ground where one of the Salem witches was buried was once an offense punishable by death. Which, ironically, is exactly what happened to those beautiful young women in 1989. Someone, or something, decided to punish them.
“Strangely, the bodies of all those executed in 1692 had disappeared shortly after the hangings, never to be found again. This is one of Salem’s greatest mysteries. But the bodies of the Goddesses were left for all to see. Their throats were slashed, their corpses pushed into the same mass grave where their ancestors had once been buried.”
Another lie, Rafferty thought. The bodies of the Goddesses had never been put on display. Where did Bob come up with this nonsense? “There were only two survivors that night in 1989, a middle-aged woman and a young girl. The woman was found in Broad Street Cemetery, covered with the blood of the victims, ranting about the unearthly creature who, she claimed, had killed the girls. Most think the woman was the guilty one. A once-respected historian and scholar, she lost her mind that night and has never recovered. To this day, you can see her wandering the streets of Salem, predicting the death of everyone she meets. She has never been charged. No one could ever prove who the guilty party really was. Some think it was the crazy woman. Others believe the killer is a far more sinister creature, a screaming spirit of ancient powers who returns every Halloween to claim new victims.”
On cue, a high-pitched scream pierced the air just behind Rafferty.
The group gasped.
Rafferty spun around in time to see Actor Bob’s accomplice run from the woods. “You’d better run,” Rafferty said under his breath. He pushed through the brambles, swearing as a branch snapped back, slapping him on the side of his face.
“What about the little girl?” one of the tourists asked. “What happened to her?”
“No one knows,” Bob replied, pausing once more for effect. “The little girl disappeared shortly after the murders. No one has seen or heard from her since.”
At the sound of Rafferty’s uncontrolled groan, the now terrified tourists reeled around. Even Actor Bob held his breath until he spotted Rafferty coming through the brambles.
“Are we just about done?” Rafferty asked. “Or is there more to this ridiculous story you’re trying to sell these poor people? Bob, you know you’re not allowed to do this here.”
Rafferty hated that the still-unsolved case had become fodder for fright tours and tourist dollars, taking on mythical and paranormal proportions and embellished with exaggerated details that simply weren’t true. The murders had taken place years before he arrived in Salem, but, to Rafferty’s mind, the lack of closure was a stain on the police department that he now ran.
Rafferty escorted the tourists back to the hearse, then led the car out of the parking lot and onto Boston Street, turning left at the intersection and continuing downtown to the far end of Essex Street, which was party central.
As always, the pedestrian-only walkway was full of revelers: pirates, sexy witches, monsters, and zombies. Lots of zombies. The un-dead outnumbered the pirates and witches about ten to one. From the middle of the crowd, he could hear the amplified voices of the evangelists preaching fire and brimstone to the revelers, damning their souls to Hell unless they repented and stopped partying. They had added drums this year and cymbals that clanged each time a preacher mentioned Hell. The partiers were laughing and applauding. It didn’t seem like there would be any confrontations between the groups tonight.
At a gathering on the corner, Rafferty saw a family wearing homemade costumes that featured bloody stumps where their limbs should have been. They were pulling a little red wagon full of body parts. He watched another man who stood on the sidelines dressed as an oven, complete with burners that turned off and on. A very convincing set of duct-taped Siamese twin dogs ran in front of his cruiser, nipping at each other’s faces, frustrated by their unnatural confinement. The usuals were present and accounted for, too, the Frankensteins and the mummies posing for photos at their regular posts by the Peabody Essex Museum, out-of-touch vampires still sporting sparkling glitter in homage to Twilight. They’ll be zombies next year, Rafferty thought. Vampires had been passé in Salem for quite a while now.
He felt sorry for some of the store owners, the ones who paid rent for shops no one could get to through these crowds. It happened every year. Dozens of fortune-tellers set up their booths on Essex Street right in front of the year-round shops that were vying for the same customers. The competition between the resident and visiting psychics had been a big problem a few years back. As a result, Salem now licensed its psychics before allowing them to set up their temporary booths in October.
“How the hell do you license a psychic?” Rafferty had asked when he’d heard about the plan. “I mean, do you have them do a reading and then just wait a few months to see if any of their predictions come true?”
“We’ll follow San Francisco’s lead,” the town clerk had told him. “We’re going to use their psychic licensing standards.”
“Of course we are.” Rafferty had laughed, relieved he didn’t have to figure out how to do something so ridiculous. It turned out that all they had to do was check criminal backgrounds before granting licenses. Anyone without a past could now read the future.
From Essex Street, Rafferty drove over to Pickering Wharf. Traffic was bumper to bumper. Some partiers were heading out of the city before the fireworks at the end of the evening, but many were still trying to get in. He was happy to see that the group down by the harbor was fairly docile. He rolled down his window to speak to a patrolman who’d come up from Jamaica Plain.
“Just stick around long enough for the traffic to die down, then either head home or over to the party at the Hawthorne. Best Hal- loween party in town.”
“Will do, thanks.”
The Hawthorne Hotel hosted the famous Witches Ball annually, a few nights before Halloween. Tonight would be their more traditional costume party, with prizes given for the best creations; a few years back, Rafferty and his wife, Towner, had been judges.
He parked his car by Bunghole Liquors and walked over to the wharf.
Ann Chase was locking up her Shop of Shadows early tonight.
Six feet tall with thick red hair free-falling halfway down her back, and a “grey witch” by her own admission, Ann practiced neither white nor black magic but something in between. Tonight, she was wearing her traditional black witch’s robe. It moved with her stride like a flock of blackbirds, making her look even more magical than usual, if that was possible.
People claimed Ann had a magnetic charge that defied normal boundaries. Depending on your own polarity, you generally found yourself standing either too close to or too far away from Ann Chase. Rafferty intentionally placed himself into the latter category—as much as he wished it weren’t true, their history meant he kept her at arm’s length whenever possible.
Ann had once explained to him why it was her choice to practice grey magic instead of the more common “white magic” that most Salem witches were into. A black magic witch—the bad, menacing kind you saw on television or in The Wizard of Oz—was an unnuanced caricature no self-respecting Salem witch would embrace. Besides, any witch worth her salt knew that every “black” spell you performed came back to you threefold.
“So why don’t you stick with the love potions and lottery ticket enhancers that most witches sell around here?” he’d asked.
“The world is too messed up to be a bliss ninny, Rafferty. Sometimes you need to fight back. You of all people should know that.”
Ann normally played the good witch, selling everything from herbal remedies to lace. But sometimes, when she got bored with the tourists, she liked to scare them. Especially on Halloween.
“Had enough of the tourists, have you?” Rafferty laughed.
“That’s an understatement.”
“Mickey tells me you started a rumor that there’s some weird energy out there tonight.” His tone was dismissive. He looked at the wharf again. Nothing seemed amiss. People were now watching the fireworks exploding over the harbor, illuminating the docked replica of the Friendship. Looking at the great sailing ship, he imagined himself— for an instant—back in the early 1800s, when hundreds of the huge vessels still sailed from Salem, once the richest port in the New World.
“You doubt me, do you?” Ann’s expression was one of amusement. “Wouldn’t dare.” He laughed again, in spite of himself.
“It’s the blood moon,” she insisted, “and the eclipses.” She gestured to the sky. The clouds had lifted, and now the waxing quarter-moon shone with no remaining trace of red. The lunar eclipse a few weeks ago had occurred during the day and wasn’t visible from the East Coast, but that night, the full “blood moon” had been the color of rust.
Rafferty knew the lore. His Irish American grandmother had called it a hunter’s moon, but the Pagans had coined this more ominous phrase. It was simply October’s full moon. “The blood moon rose a couple of weeks ago,” Rafferty said. “So I doubt that’s the culprit.”
“It’s the tetrad, Rafferty.” Ann sighed as if explaining to a child. “Four lunar eclipses. This weird energy you don’t believe in isn’t going to end until September of next year.”
As if to prove Ann right, a wind suddenly gusted around them, creating a screeching sound that would fit right in at the haunted houses on Derby Street. It stopped as quickly as it had started.
“You doing parlor tricks again?” Rafferty asked.
“Hey, I didn’t do that. That one came from the other side.”
More Pagan lore. Halloween and its Pagan predecessor, Samhain, were the time of year when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was supposed to be at its thinnest. The things Raffert had learned since moving here! He didn’t buy any of it, of course. “You think it’s some kind of warning?”
“I think it’s more like a preamble.” She stared at him as she spoke. She was serious.
Despite his skepticism, Rafferty shivered.
The fireworks had ended, and the witches were gone. Rose Whelan settled her cart under the only oak left standing at the top of Gallows Hill, not far from the pavilion, with its caving roof and urine stench. The banshee music was in her ears tonight, and death was everywhere. Each fall, the leaves looked exhausted before they began to reveal the true colors that lay beneath their green masks. Every year, as they felt fall’s inescapable death pull, they turned the reds and oranges and yellows that drew tourists to New England. The maples, whose leaves were always the first to turn, were naked now, their webbed branches sweeping the dark sky like witches’ brooms. Only the oaks still held their scarlet flames.
Rose was exhausted, too. She greeted the tree as she sat down under it. Then she spoke to the pigeons; she was simply going to join them for the one night, she explained. Soon, she was drifting off, moving in and out of consciousness, dreaming a recurring nightmare from her stay at the state hospital. In it, the witches’ hanging tree was chopped down, and then its massive trunk was floated along the North River toward open ocean, like a Viking ship carrying the souls of the dead to Valhalla. The dream woke her up, as it did every time she had it. Though she’d been dozing for only a short while, it took her a moment to get her bearings. It was the cooing of the pigeons that reminded her: Gallows Hill, a misleadingly named park that had nothing to do with what really happened here.
“If it weren’t for me,” Rose told the birds, “historians would still claim Salem built a gallows to execute them. On this very spot.” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t be living here if they had. You wouldn’t build your nests where any such thing had happened, would you? Of course not.
The hanging spot, on Proctor’s Ledge, sat unmarked, abandoned, and overgrown next to the Walgreens parking lot just below. The hanging tree, on which the condemned had been executed, had vanished long ago, and even the crevasse that had served as their mass grave was barely visible now, but Rose could still feel it there, unsanctified and cursing the whole area with bad luck. The Great Salem Fire had started right across the street in 1914, destroying hundreds of houses and leaving half the population homeless. To this day, there was crime, violence, and a darkness the neighborhood couldn’t shake. The only way to stop it was to finish the blessing they had started that night on Proctor’s Ledge, the night her girls were murdered.
Rose had been wrong that night, taking the girls up there. Not because the place didn’t need to be consecrated, but because the remains of the executed from 1692 were no longer there. Shortly after the hysteria ended, the bodies had begun to disappear from the crevasse into which they had been thrown. Two of the bodies had been taken by their families and buried properly, but the remains of the others executed that dark year had simply vanished. What in the world had happened to them?
“Find the hanging tree, and you will solve the mystery,” the oak trees had told Rose over and over, and she had come to believe them. “Find the tree and finish the blessing. For it is not just the wrongly executed who need God’s mercy, but the tree itself for the part it was forced to play.”
Rose had listened carefully when the trees began to speak. The oaks had saved her that horrible night in 1989, and she owed them a debt of gratitude. Finding the hanging tree had become Rose’s sole purpose in life.
The birds appeared unimpressed, and Rose closed her eyes again, sighing. “There was a hanging tree,” she mumbled, her speech slowing as she grew sleepier. “That is true. Down there.” She pointed toward Proctor’s Ledge. Rose hadn’t been back to the spot since that night. This was as close as she dared get.
“The hanging tree disappeared . . . everything disappeared. The tree, the remains of the nineteen people they executed as witches, and even the young women I used to know.” Rose began to doze. “You’ll disappear one day, too,” she murmured to the birds, her voice slowing even more. “You don’t know that, but it’s true. Everything disappears. The banshee takes them all . . .” Her head dropped to her chest, and she became silent.
“Hey, grandma, the witches all went home.”
Rose’s eyes snapped open. There were three boys standing too close in front of her. The one who’d spoken couldn’t be more than fifteen. Low-riding baggy jeans and heavy boots made him look younger than the OG tattoo on his arm.
“I’m not a witch.”
He moved even closer, smirking, his blue eyes in stark contrast to the dark look he focused on Rose. “I know exactly who you are. And I know what you did.”
“Keep your distance from me,” Rose warned.
“Good idea,” he said, fanning his face. “You got a real stink there, grandma. When’s the last time you took a shower?”
“Go home,” the second kid said, shoving her.
“She doesn’t have a home, do you, grandma?” OG laughed.
“Keep your hands off me,” Rose said, pressing her back against the tree, hearing her pulse in her ears. “I’m not afraid of you.”
“You should be,” the second kid said, laughing.
“You’re the one who should be afraid,” Rose countered.
“Yeah? Why’s that?” the second kid taunted. “You planning to kill me the same way you killed the rest of them? By screaming?”
“Screaming?” OG started to laugh. “She didn’t kill them by screaming. That’s just what she told the cops. She slashed their throats.”
“I know,” the second kid said.
“I don’t want to kill anyone.” Rose hoped she wouldn’t have to. She thought of Olivia, Susan, and Cheryl.
“She’s crazy,” the third kid said. “Let’s go.”
Rose liked this one. His eyes were still soft. She spoke directly to him. “It’s her you have to be afraid of. Not me.”
“Who?” Soft Eyes asked, looking around.
She turned back to OG. “She could kill you right now and no one could stop her.”
“Did you hear that? She said she could kill me.” OG pulled a knife out of his pocket. “Seems like I’m the one holding the blade tonight. Be afraid, grandma. Be very afraid.” With a quick slash, he drew the dull side of the blade across her neck.
Rose scrambled to her feet.
“I didn’t say you could leave,” OG said.
“He did.” Soft Eyes turned to the second kid. “He told her to go.”
“Well, I didn’t,” OG said. “Sit back down.” He pushed hard, slamming her back against the tree, knocking the wind out of her.
“You’re the one who needs to sit down,” Rose choked. “If you don’t, you’re going to die.”
OG laughed. “How’s that?”
“You’re in mortal danger. From the banshee.”
“The What-she? Bee-she?” Soft Eyes said.
“You know the story,” the second kid said. “She’s the one who killed all those girls. Said a banshee did it. By screaming.”
“That’s right,” Rose said. “She could kill you, too.”
“I told you she was crazy,” Soft Eyes said. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“No way,” OG said, grinning at Rose. “I want to hear this. Tell my friend here about the banshee. It’s Halloween, grandma. I want to hear a scary story.” He held the point of the blade against her cheek.
She could see his life. There had already been violence in it, a lot of it. A string of brutality stretched out before him. She didn’t see his death the way she could with most people. What she saw when she looked into his empty eyes was the death of everyone around him.
“Tell him, or I’ll kill you right here. And no one can stop me. Tell him the same story you told the cops. About the banshee,” OG insisted.
She turned back to the one with the soft eyes. This was the one who would need to understand one day. She swallowed hard.
“Tell him!” OG ordered. “Once upon a time . . .” he prompted, pressing the knife harder against her skin.
“All right,” Rose said, taking a breath.
“When I was growing up, my Irish grandmother told me there was a sacred oak back in the old country called the Banshee Tree. It was a wild wreck of a thing struck by lightning years earlier.”
Soft Eyes just stared at her.
“Some believed the Gaelic goddess of life and death was imprisoned inside that same tree for many centuries before the storm, tricked by the Christian priests who had come to Ireland to convert the Celtic tribes and would tolerate no gods but their own, and certainly no goddesses. Theirs was the one and only God, they said to justify her capture. Some say it was the Cailleach they imprisoned, but some called her by other names. You see, there were many goddesses who dealt with life and death. The imprisonment changed the nature of the goddess, diminishing her to the size of the fairies who dwelt in the mounds. It was a tragedy of great magnitude.
“But the tree loved the imprisoned goddess and took pity on her. Not yet loyal to the priests who had newly arrived, the tree hatched a plan: to free the captive goddess, the oak tree courted the strike.”
The second kid snorted. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Shut up and she’ll tell you,” OG said.
“The storm that killed that oak was the worst in memory; the scream of the wailing wind circled the town once, twice, and then a third time, terrifying everyone. The lightning bolt vaporized the water in the wood, exploding its limbs and—some say—freeing the captive goddess. But freeing the goddess was the worst thing the tree could have done, for her imprisonment had changed her very nature, turning her from a goddess to a banshee, not the ones you’ve heard about, who only predict death, but one who actually kills.”
“A killer banshee.” The second kid laughed. “Right.”
“I thought a banshee was some kind of ATV,” Soft Eyes said.
“The tree should have left the goddess imprisoned, for freeing it would have consequences far beyond anything the oak could have imagined. The turning had made the goddess hate. Her size was still diminished, and her powers were no longer strong enough to determine life and death. She needed a host. Life no longer interested her; it was only death she craved now. Her sustenance became hate and fear, and where these baser emotions dwelled, the banshee goddess would always find a willing host.
“It was the tree that, perhaps, suffered the most, for it was forced to bear witness to the carnage it had unleashed. After the lightning strike that freed the turned goddess and forevermore, the tree’s sap has run red, as if it were bleeding.”
“Bleeding trees?” the second kid sneered. “Goddesses turning . . .”
Rose shuddered to remember just how that goddess had turned. That night in 1989, Rose had lost them all to the creature the goddess had become: the banshee. Those young women the banshee killed had been like her own daughters. On that horrible night, after it happened, after the shrieking stopped, the world had quieted and then disappeared. Rose had found herself staring into an eternal emptiness that stretched in every direction and went on forever. When the keening began, Rose had believed that the sound was coming from her own lips. Then she’d seen the tree limbs and branches start to move with the breath of the sound itself, their last leaves burning in the black sky like crackling paper. Then the trees had begun to speak. Come away now, the trees had said. Come away. Their mournful keen had jumped from one tree to another, and Rose had followed. But something had been unleashed by their ritual. What had been meant to consecrate had instead released something else, something that had jumped into Rose.
“You’re out of your mind, old lady,” OG said, enjoying the flash of his knife in the moonlight as he played the blade across her cheek, this time drawing blood.
It was the last thing he saw before the unearthly screeching began.