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The Age of Flesh and Fire, by Norman Lock

 

“More bird, Goodman Page?” asked the stout Master Buxton as he sawed a leg from a goose sitting, solemn and headless, on a silver platter. Evidently, the Buxtons stood too high in Salem society for plain pewter.

Isaac chewed on a thigh and anticipated—his mind growing torpid—a good night’s sleep on a mattress stuffed with feathers having once belonged to the goose’s kith or kin.

John Buxton was not one of those stringy Christians whose scowling faces could spoil meat and sour milk. Though he had a seat in the meetinghouse proportionate to his girth (his rotund goodwife had another) and knew the Bay Psalm Book front to back, he believed in a Jovian religion of the flesh and would gladly have made one with the jolly crew at Merry Mount had it not long ago been dispersed by killjoys. An admirable fellow, he bore, without complaint, the gout and other maladies common to those who would not show ingratitude to the Almighty by ignoring the plenty He set before them by refusing the smallest crumb. “God would not have given me an appetite if He had not intended for me to satisfy it” was a thing Master Buxton often said in the company of his corpulent brethren.

To say that Mistress Buxton was plump was not to do her justice. Her figure, which, in her youth, had verged on voluptuousness, had achieved the perfection that fruit does just before it falls and rots.

Neither husband nor wife appeared any the worse for a famishing winter or the recent aggression of the Indians. The pair of them was as well padded as the goose whose juices were beginning to thicken around the carrots.

“Did you suffer much in Rhode Island, Goodman Page?” asked Goody Buxton. “They say the winters be perishing cold there.”

“No colder than Massachusetts’s,” rumbled the provider of the feast, who was zealous in matters pertaining to his province’s reputation.

“I can never remember if Providence is north or south of Boston.”

“Providence is everywhere for God’s elect. All others be damned,” said Hannah.

“Hannah, do be quiet!” admonished the mistress of the house, shaking her finger at the flippant servant. Though lacking in volition, her three chins also shook, as if they had a mind of their own. “Get into the kitchen, where you belong, girl!”

“Massachusetts winters are intended to mortify us and make us worthy of Divine favor,” said Buxton, who wore a dimity waistcoat and a fleck of mashed potato on his cheek. “Is it not so, Elizabeth?”

Her eyes riveted on a buttered biscuit, Elizabeth made no reply.

Isaac’s attention was caught by a shaft of evening light burnishing silver cups and platters and by the oak wainscoting made glorious by coats of beeswax applied, doubtless, by Hannah, whose indentured status was somewhat higher than a slave’s. As in the case of a slave, a servant could be beaten at and for the master’s pleasure; unlike the slave, the servant’s back could not be flayed with impunity—in theory at least. “You’ve many fine things,” said Isaac, a hint of disapproval in his voice.

Buxton received the remark as a compliment and reflected on the exquisite nature of his conscience. “The poor are luckier to have nothing that will give them pangs of guilt for breaking sumptuary laws. I assure you, I have qualms, Goodman Page, and they trouble me constantly.”

“Poverty is its own reward,” said Isaac with an irony that went unnoticed.

“Jesus said the same in the Sermon on the Mount,” assented the mistress, who delivered herself of a polite belch, which caused her wattle to wobble.

“‘They that will be rich fall into many temptations and snares,’” intoned Buxton gravely. Immediately, he shouted, “More goose!” as he wiped sweat from a bald head that reminded Isaac of the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, which he had once seen on a rainy day in Rome.

Hannah returned from the kitchen, where she had been worrying over the jam tarts. Slyly smiling at Isaac, she carved more bird and heaped the master’s plate with meat. His mouth full of peas and potato, he pointed toward Isaac’s with his knife, and before his guest could swallow his claret, Hannah had served him likewise.

“Excellent goose, my dear!” Buxton mumbled to his wife, who had not fed it, beheaded it, cooked it, or put it on the table, though she would suck the bones of marrow before Hannah took them to the midden heap.

“My goose always turns out well,” she replied complacently, spilling her ruby-colored tipple down the purple front of her brocaded gown.

Isaac Page, he said to himself, you’ve stepped into an engraving by Hogarth, who, in five years, will be born in Bartholomew Close and will be laid to rest at Chiswick in St. Nicholas’s Churchyard forty years before you yourself have drawn your first breath, in a red clapboarded house, at 27 Hardy Street, in Salem. It is a thing to think upon and marvel at!

“Tell us, Goodman Page, if Rhode Island be the godless colony it was when Roger Williams and that obnoxious Hutchinson woman were banished there,” said Buxton. Without waiting for a reply, he continued: “The Siwanoy murdered her at Pelham Bay, along with her children, after the villain Kieft stirred up the tribe against the English in New Netherland. She ought to have remained in Providence, near her friends the Narragansett.” Buxton wiped his perspiring face on his sleeve, leaving behind a glister of goose grease. “Have no truck with Dutchmen; it is a wise saying, and true.” He picked a morsel from between his teeth with the point of his knife. “When he was dead and buried, Williams’s house fell down into its own cellar. We took it as a judgment of the Lord on his deluded soul.”

“Praise Him!” mumbled Goody Buxton, wetting her finger in the claret and then sucking on it delicately. “Hannah, where are the tarts?”

“The tarts are a disaster,” she announced, wiping floury hands on her apron. “The meal was weevily.”

“Bring them forthwith!” shouted the master in high resentment and disallowance. “I will eat the jam out of them.”

“I threw the lot out the back door for the squirrels.”

“Damn! It be a terrible sin to waste God’s bounty on squirrels!”

“It was done according to His will,” said Hannah, putting on a solemn face.

“What? Are my raspberry preserves lost?” asked the mistress in great distress, although she had not picked the berries, washed, mashed, boiled, or jarred them.

“There be some still in the jar.”

“Bring it, you careless wench!”

Hannah brought the stone jar to the table, and the couple stoically made do.

“God provides!” intoned Master Buxton, licking his apostle spoon.

“And to those of His elect, He giveth jam,” recited his goodwife.

“And to the damned, He giveth their just deserts!” said Hannah, wearing a smile for Isaac.

“It matters not at all to them if they be weeviled!” complained her mistress, thinking of the lost tarts.

“Sinners are not fussy,” replied Hannah with a toss of her pretty head.

“They are like the savages, who are content to gnaw on roots,” agreed her master. Having swallowed another draft of claret, Buxton showed his magnanimity toward his nearest fellow man by saying, “I inspected your workmanship, Goodman Page, and it were well done!”

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Isaac. “And I thank you for supper and a bed in the cowshed.”

The mistress of the house clapped her dimpled hands delightedly. “Why, Isaac Page, you made a rhyme! It must be a lovely thing to be a poet.”

“I hope you be not choosy, sir!” admonished the master of the house, trying to get a leg up on his high horse. But he was too wheezy. “It would be churlish to turn your nose up at a cowshed!”

“God provides for the dung beetle and the louse,” said Hannah. “Our guest would not ask for more.”

“Well said, Hannah! Goodman Page, the Lord loves you as much as He does the meanest of His creatures.”

“The cross would have been a pretty piece of joinery,” said Isaac, “seeing as how the Lord made it.”

Buxton gasped not by reason of Isaac’s impiety but from the weight of his lordly gut sitting on his lungs.

“My husband, who knows about stiles, said ours is one to admire,” said the mistress, her eyes glazed like the skin of the goose, which she was daintily nibbling.

Buxton pulled a thread from the Gospel of Matthew: “‘His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.’”

“It will give the carpenter joy if you’ll put a few talents in his pocket,” said the naughty Hannah.

Buxton turned to her and snarled a thread from the Book of Malice: “And as for you, Mistress Sloth, I say unto the Lord, ‘. . . cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ over the ruined tarts!”

Hannah filled the portly pair’s flagons to the brim. “I ought to have baked a witch cake,” she said, winking at Isaac. “For surely it was a witch who weeviled the flour.”

“It be very like a witch to bedevil a tart,” said the mistress of the house, suppressing yet another belch.

“Satan is the patron saint of tarts, drabs, and trollops!” said the plainly besotted master, pleased with himself.

“It be blasphemous to say Satan is a saint!” cried Hannah, looking to Heaven in mock consternation.

The mistress guffawed into her claret cup.

“Pray you, straighten the Delft,” said Master Buxton, pointing to a cockeyed ceramic plate hanging on the wall, by which token the little world of Salem knew him for a man who laid up treasures for the love of God.

Having done as bidden, Hannah furtively knocked awry a portrait of her mistress, whose youthful complexion resembled a dish of curds.

“I cannot draw breath!” gasped Goody Buxton. “Lord, save me, for I feel I am like to die of it!”

“You’re being strangled by your corset, Elizabeth! It’s too tightly cinched.”

“Hannah does it to spite me!” carped his goodwife, fanning her red face with a pudgy hand.

Hannah smiled serenely.

“Girl, fetch your mistress a cup of water!”

Hannah had not taken two steps when the master gave a second order: “And more wine!”

“Tomorrow you’ll be on your way again,” said Buxton in a tone that left Isaac uncertain whether he had spoken in the interrogative or the imperative. He was inclined to think the latter. Isaac was eager to be away from the fatuousness of the wife, the buffoonery of the husband, and the greediness of the pair of them. They were like rats in a pharaoh’s granary, eating themselves to death. If God be an indwelling spirit, as the Antinomians maintain, Isaac could not imagine Him sitting, serene and majestic, within the Buxtons’ lard-caked hearts.

Master “Rowley Powley” became fabulously sick. His great face, with its massive jowls, inclined dangerously toward his plate, where the goose’s remnant bones were embedded in the sauce. Hannah saved the plate in time, but the man’s profusely perspiring head fell hard against the table. Elizabeth Buxton stared, perplexed.

“Goodman, will you help me lug Lord Gut to bed?” asked Hannah.

“Aye,” said Isaac, and between them, they raised the beef-faced sot, dragged him over the doorsill of his chamber, and put him into bed, boots and all.

“Will he live?” asked Isaac, mopping his own face after having struggled with a grampus, which was presently snoring with the might and dignity befitting a landowner, slaveholder, and a covenanted member of Salem Village Church.

“I live in the hope he will not.” Then she sang a lilting air over the inert lump of flesh and sated appetite, as the Devil himself would have sung over the bloated corpse of a hypocrite:

Let such a hog

Lap whey like a dog,

While we drinke good Canary.

“Hannah, will you walk with me tonight?”

“I will.”

She led Isaac out the door. Goody Buxton, her extravagant headdress askew, had managed to get herself into a wing chair and was snoring in concert with her husband.

*

Isaac helped Hannah over the stile. His hand trembled when he freed the hem of her dress, which had caught on a splinter.

Teasing him, she sang:

O Hangman, stay thy hand,

And stay it for a while

For I fancy I see my true love

A coming across the yonder stile.

He took her arm, and they crossed the meadow. The sun was low in the sky, and to the east, on the other side of the Great River, black night draped over blacker Hathorne’s Hill. Near Thorndike Hill, William Dill lay like a dead man on his cot, having not the strength to light the Betty lamp. At the far side of the meadow, where the Buxton place bordered the Putnam family burying ground, Isaac once again saw the white horse.

“It’s a beautiful animal.”

“What is?”

“Buxton’s mare.”

“Molly’s in her box. I put her there myself before I made the supper.” She turned in the direction of his gaze. “There’s no horse there. It may be an apparition that you see.”

“I don’t believe in a spectral world, where wicked girls watch invisible spirits flit from the Devil’s consorts into the minds and bodies of their victims!” He had spoken emphatically, as one would have done whose resolve was loosening. Certainty is a two-stranded skein: thought and action. The former unravels first. (Many a time there is a third strand, called “doubt.”)

“You believe, then, that they are wicked?” she asked seriously.

“I do!”

“I, too, have thought that they be wicked girls, who want only to do mischief.”

In Hannah, he saw the immature strain of a skepticism that, a century hence, would ripen into the Yankee temperament. He could not see so far as a barley­corn into her heart, however, to be certain of her motives.

“Then you don’t believe in the spectral evidence being used to condemn those they cry out?” Isaac could have been a magistrate examining a suspected witch instead of a man out for a country walk with a girl.

Hannah shook her head, signifying . . . What? he wondered. That she did not believe in an invisible world of malicious agents? She scoffed at the notion that they were apparent only to Annie Putnam and her claque? Or might it be that Hannah could go no further into the matter than to shake her head in uncertainty? Always, for as long as Young Goodman Brown lived, he would doubt the virtue of his once-dear wife, Faith. And so, too, would their author, Isaac Page, for his sins—no, for his great-great-grandfather’s sins.

“And yet the magistrates be godly men,” said Isaac. In just such a tone, Mark Antony had incited the Roman mob against the noble Brutus.

She gave no reply, and they walked on together in silence.

“My eyes ache,” said Isaac to change the subject. They did, in fact, pain him.

“Shall I send out my specter and heal them with a kiss?” asked Hannah, having recovered her good humor.

“When I first saw you, I took you for a witch,” he replied, only half in jest, because of a disconcerting sensation that he felt first on one eyelid, then on the other. “You turned my wits.”

“It’s a power the Devil gives to women to ensnare a man,” she said, smiling.

Turning his head sharply, Isaac saw the white horse and, where the last light of day was dying into night, a woman in the shape of Goody Buxton making haste toward a towering pine that could have been the very tree set blazing by Captain Standish when he subdued Comus and his crew at Merry Mount. Isaac could almost hear the pine shriek.

Frightened, he turned to Hannah. Her eyes were cold; her mouth seemed full of teeth.

He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and saw again the gaily smiling girl, her auburn hair peeking from her cap.

“Isaac, you look as though you’ve been bled! I thought the greedy fool had stuffed and swilled himself nearly to death, to have been made so sick, but perhaps the goose was spoiled. You’d better sit before you fall flat.”

So shaken was he, he let her help him sit.

“Rest your head in my lap.” She was all tenderness and solicitude.

As Isaac fought his rising gorge, he could not believe that, moments before, her pretty face had appeared bestial. Doubtless, his distempered fancy had betrayed him. Might he not have been mistaken in the white horse, in podgy Mistress Buxton’s phantom, and in the infernal tree? Surely, they’d been figments of an imagination inclined to morbidity, intensified by a rich dinner and the impression left with him by the master and the mistress that the world was turning helter-skelter! He shivered in momentary fear.

“You’re cold!” Hannah took off her shawl and covered him.

Yes, he told himself. Something I ate disagreed with me, or else the noxious air wafting from the kitchen midden has made me sick. The smell had been appalling.

“Shall I get Dr. Griggs to come?” she asked.

While preparing for the journey, Isaac had encountered Griggs in John Hale’s A Modest Enquiry. In Salem Town, on the afternoon that Isaac mended the stile, Roger Toothaker, one of the “cunning folk,” was being watched by William Griggs, the court’s physician, for evidence of diabolical operations and mischief. Griggs had previously declared that the accusing girls, who sniffed out witches like pigs do truffles, “were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way . . . so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any epileptic fits, or natural disease to effect.” In the doctor’s opinion, Abigail Williams and her sorority of spites were “sadly afflicted of they knew not what distempers” and likely “under an evil hand.” Griggs’s testimony was as good as a writ, and a writ a death warrant. Roger Toothaker would die in Boston jail on June 16—six days after Bridget Bishop flew.

“Dr. Griggs has often attended my mistress and master with physic and leeches.”

“Nay, I’m feeling better now.”

“You scared me, Isaac Page!”

And you, me, Hannah.

“Will you rest awhile longer?”

“Help me up. The grass is wet with the evening dew.” After she had done as he asked, he said, “Let’s walk on.”

“If you’re able.”

“Aye, a walk will do me good.”

She laid a palm on his brow. “You are too warm, I think.”

“The cool night air will soon fix that.”

“What way shall we take?” she asked.

“There where the tall pine tree stands like a finger pointing heavenward.”

“It does seem a finger, now you say it.”

“Does it enjoin us to look to God, or does it accuse Him?”

“You mustn’t say so, Isaac!” she whispered. “There be people abroad in the woods at night. You need take care not to be misconstrued.”

“What sort of people go abroad in the forest after dark?”

“They are not all like us.”

“And do they dance?” he asked slyly.

“Aye, there be some girls who like to dance among themselves.”

“Do you like to go dancing in the woods, Hannah?”

“Sometimes.” She had hesitated in answering him. Had she seen the tall pine burst into golden flame? Had she seen the birds fall like torches from their burning nests? Did she hear, as he did now, the fire roaring? Did she smell its acrid smoke?

“Aren’t you afraid of meeting the Devil when you dance?” he asked, helpless not to cast a look over his shoulder.

“He’s shy of dancing girls—afraid that we’ll step on his tail in our merry reels.” She had made light of the Devil, but Isaac sensed that her bold words were shadowed by apprehension. Suddenly, she took his hand and cried, “Oh, Isaac, I saw the awful fear on Mary Warren’s face when the imps stopped her mouth as she tried to tell the truth! She swore to the magistrates that they threatened to burn her with ‘hot tongs . . . to drown her and make her run naked through the hedges!’”

“Mary Warren,” said Isaac, as though she had stepped out of the forest and curtsied to him. “Mary Warren,” he repeated like a man who had become stupefied or entranced.

He knew the story of the Proctors’ hired girl from his past—that is, his future—research into the trials of the witches. Racked by the magistrates’ relentless examining, Mary had come to believe, as they declared, that having confessed to shamming and then recanted, she’d given the Devil license to assume her form and torment the afflicted who cried out on her in court. Mary must make one with the girls again, she knew, or be destroyed.

And was she herself not mocked and hurt by the apparition of Alice Parker, who had killed Mary’s mother and stricken her sister deaf and dumb? Mary was caught in a tightening noose, whose braided strands were fear and vengeance, so that she must cry out more witches. Among those Mary had condemned were John and Elizabeth Proctor, who had tried to compel her silence to save themselves from hanging—or so Mary Warren claimed and, in time, came to believe. Who can know the truth where liars reign?

“It was the Devil’s book, my master Proctor brought me,” Mary had sworn to John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, who beamed on her, leaned back smugly in their chairs, and flounced their neck cloths complacently.

That great pine tree, Hannah; say it does not burn!

She did not reply. Had he spoken aloud or only in his mind?

Isaac and Hannah walked into the woods. Now and then, he would turn his head sharply, wanting—and at the same time dreading—to see a phantasm beyond the periphery of his vision. As a child, he had believed that another world existed just out of sight; whether it meant him good or ill, he could not have guessed. He would gaze into a mirror in the hope of glimpsing in a corner of the reflected room a face not his own. God’s face. He’d search the looking glass until his eyes pained him. More and more, his eyes hurt him now, as if he were keeping watch.

 

Watch Norman Lock reading “The Age of Flesh and Fire,” which will be published in Tooth of the Covenant (Bellevue Literary Press, 2021), the eighth stand-alone book in the American Novels series.

 

Norman Lock is the award-winning author of novels, short fiction, and poetry, as well as stage, radio, and screenplays. His many books include The Wreckage of Eden, A Fugitive in Walden Woods, The Port-Wine Stain, American Meteor, The Boy in His Winter, Love Among the Particles, American Follies, Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions, Shadowplay, The King of Sweden, The Long Rowing Unto Morning, A History of the Imagination, and Grim Tales. He lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

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