They’re burning me now. Cheering the flames. The townsfolk wear their Sunday best to see it done. There’s Pastor James, who signed my fate, leaning against the well. The aldermen, upon whose heads the task of retribution fell, form a sombre line. They’re keen that all should see how heavily their justice weighs upon them.
Beside the Congregation Hall Lars Pierson sells hot buns and cordials to the thirsty crowd. Eldred Cole slouches nearby puffing on his pipe. It was he who first took the matter to the elders. His wife beside him, herding brats, wears the ruddy smile she wears on market day. The fire below me crackles in the straw and starts to lick.
Laura Cole heard the story from Lizbeth Holloway. She’s standing in the shade of the big elm. She’ll keep her cool. Lizbeth had the story first from Clementine Wilkes. Maddy Brown confirmed it soon after. Clementine and Maddy chat, as if about the weather, pausing only to crow and heckle as the skin peels from my shins. The pain is liquid white beyond imagination. Righteous cries ring out as my cotton dress flashes bright, turns to ash and drops away. My virgin skin, licked by the flames sends raptures through the square.
And there in the glow at the place where most recently my feet had been the Widow Pendlebury prostrates herself. It was she who, by her embellishment, condemned me. It was she whose innocence I invaded. I, the devil-taken girl, and she the hapless one. Yet in truth, if there is truth, they know her, all, to be a loose-tongued busy body. By my charity I am bound. Bound by the widow’s poison.The poison she’d described to Clementine Wilkes, which I’d made of the water in her jug. I cleared the empty pint-bottles from her hearth. I gave her water and I laid her to rest. Her twisted version got about. In the light of it she became more loved and pitied than she could ever have imagined. The lie became her.
The curls of my maiden hair flare to the crowd’s delight. Below me Widow Pendlebury writhes in sorrow. If she would have me evil then so be it. Perhaps there’s a flaw in the stake to which I’m bound. Perhaps the timber burns through more quickly there. Or could it be the harnessing of other forces. I know not. My final comprehension is of the pyre toppling. The widow looks my way, eyes so wide I see, in their reflection, my own eyes staring back, my pretty face half gone, ringed by the flaming mane that streams towards her as I fall.