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The Lion Walketh Among Us

written by: Keith Hoerner

@KeithHoerner

 

The pain and tingling in 13-year-old Martha Goodwin’s limbs had been a cause of concern to her family for some time now. Nearing harvest, her mother believed it would be good for her health to take the longer walk to the far field and gather a basket of rye for the evening meal. Martha didn’t mind the urging; it was a sun-filled summer day, ideal for the task at hand. After all, anything would be better than the harsh, cold winter and rain-drenched spring they had thus far in this, the year of our Lord, 1692.

When Martha reached the field, the dense, brown crop seemed sinister in the way the wind thrashed it forward, then back. Rippling in her mind’s eye, the rye’s movement mimicked the incoming waves of the sea. She could hear it crashing; sense it bearing down on her. A tingling in her right leg intensified to the stinging of a hundred little needle pricks: piercingly sharp, as if trying to make the break through the thick elasticity of her skin. Pain and fright flowed over her. Martha knew not the cause of this sudden onset. Then, as quickly as it seemed to materialize, the hurt subsided; the sun glinted in her eye; and she could feel the goodness of the day again.

The warmth of the sun soothed Martha’s sensitive skin and aching muscles. The heat wove through her dress, made of a lighter cotton than she had become accustomed … home stitched especially by Martha’s mother to keep the girl cooler – for she was ailing.

Martha pulled the sickle from her side and took a first pass. The rye fell swiftly as if stick men cut off at the knees for some unconscionable, evil act. Husks flew about her head like gnats – buzzing a mystifying, intoxicating tune. As she swung, she began falling under some kind of influence. Was it the beauty of the day? Her new and cooler dress? ... or was there something sordid she did not understand happening here? As a Puritan, Martha knew her sensations to be somehow sinful. She was not to feel in this self-gratifying, pleasing manner.

Dizzy and confused, Martha dropped to her knees ... the rye seeming to mock her, drawing her in – even while her soul fought to save itself.

She caught her breath after a bit, feeling a little better.

Having rested briefly – sitting blankly amongst the rye, propped-up on one arm – Martha could not comprehend what she was experiencing.

The sun seemed hotter now and sweat showed through her dress collar and waistband.

Nature held its breath and was silent.

Suddenly feeling the pang of hunger, Martha reached for a cluster of stalks raking her face in the breeze.
She grabbed the rye, separating the shaft by rubbing it in her hands with a vigorous motion. Then, ensuring all that remained were whole kernels, she popped them in her mouth as she had done since childhood. It tasted fresh and crunched between her teeth as she remembered, but still there was something unique in its rawness; something she did not quite recall ... almost sweet. Martha did not notice the pollen-like substance clinging to her palms. She consumed much, and in turn, found herself moving from sitting to lying on her back.

The rye moved above her head like townsfolk doing a traditional prayer circle. Then one stalk would dart, and Martha’s mind would call out “Sinner, back in line! Ye shall be punished for your desire to be individualized!” A patchwork of clouds against a backdrop of brook-water blue made her heart palpitate with excitement. Beauty. Sin. The Creator’s handiwork. Punishable pleasure. The struggle of God’s law battling Satan’s temptations became unbearable in her mind.

With the sickness she had been feeling over past months, not to mention the strangeness of today, Martha started wondering if someone had a poppet, an effigy of her, and was enticing ill will.

Martha recalled sadly the past day’s argument between herself and the family’s hired laundress Goody Glover. Admittedly, she didn’t appreciate the lack of care Goody seemed to take with Martha’s new cotton dresses. Her mother made them special … out of material that was thinner, more fragile … sent from her aunt in the old country. “Why,” Martha asked Goody, “Do you wash them as harshly as you would my woolens?”

“Washin’ is washin’,” Goody had responded. Martha took this as utter dis-concern. She knew well and good, thought Martha, that cloth such as this was hard to come by.

It was at that very moment that Martha saw the shadowy figure of Goody Glover standing atop her in the field, the eclipsing silhouette of Goody’s fists placed sternly on her rounded hips. Martha could not read her face for the sun beat down directly from behind Goody’s broad shoulders. Guilt bolted through Martha as though the laundress had heard everything she was thinking and had come to reprimand. Then, as soon as she appeared, Goody was gone. Martha jumped to her knees as if in prayer and scanned the field, but Goody was nowhere to be found. The sky began to darken, and Goody reappeared suddenly, although – this time – in the freakish, deformed shape of a lion with human face. She slowly paced the rye field roaring with laughter, startling Martha out of her very wits.

Martha nervously shouted aloud the dictate handed down by St. Peter: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

Her childish faith stayed steadfast in a hope that these holiest of words would transform her sickle into the celestial sword of the Archangel Michael … again casting Lucifer into the pit fires of eternal damnation. However, Martha’s lessening vision caught sight not of a long, gold-gilded blade, but her father’s sad, rusted, old farming tool – and a fast-approaching gallop in the stalks making its way directly toward her. Acting quickly, Martha threw her hand basket in the path of the hellish apparition in a feeble attempt to appease its hunger. Lunging sideways, she fell in petrifying fear, not knowing where to hide, but down deep in the rye.

It was then that Martha felt the moistness from her inner thighs, seeing the crimson fluid on the lap of her dress and running down her legs. It was the mark of Eve her mother had whispered about, but only under shade of night. Why now? she thought, horrified. She’ll smell … and the evil realization came to her. No, Goody did this; she needs the smell of blood! Oh, God protect His humble servant! Martha raked her memories, tossing the fragmented leaves of passed doings, trying desperately to uncover where she had sinned to deserve such retribution. “Forgiving Lord, Satan indeed walketh and has set his sights on me,” whimpered Martha, tears brimming her eyes, waiting to flood down, washing her clean of all this.

The growling laughter continued as the lioness raised her muzzle to the air, sniffing-out her victim.

Martha swore she heard the purring command from Goody to eat more rye. Although hunger oddly struck her again, she fought, not wanting to follow the beast’s instruction. However, the soothing effect of the rye as she had come to recognize outweighed her fears. Between sobs, Martha feverishly separated rye from shaft, consuming so much of the new crop that the girl soon fell to the ground in a spell of spasms, wildly threshing the stalks with her very body until losing consciousness.

***

Martha Goodwin was found later that evening dead from fright and loss of blood. At a tender 13 years of age, she was laid out for her wake on the dining room table – as was custom – in one of her favorite new summer dresses. Unusual to some, and as if to show her wishes to the contrary, a bouquet of rye had to be forced between her ever-tightening fingers.

Goody Glover, washer woman, was accused of being a witch by Martha’s mother, for causing the pain in her daughter’s limbs, plus the hallucinations and fits experienced over recent months. She was the only person anyone could surmise had issue with beautiful, sweet, young Martha.

Lead minister for the township of Salem, Massachusetts, Cotton Mather gave Goody Glover two private audiences to confess her kinship with the devil. Denying the charge and claiming her innocence, Goody Glover was made to hang by the neck until dead wearing the torn and bloodied cotton dress of Martha Goodwin. Curiously, many believed they heard strange, growl-like sounds emitting from Goody Glover with her last breaths of life.

***

The Story Within the Story

There are times when weather conditions are ripe for what is called ‘ergot’ to grow on the kernels of rye, wheat, and other cereal grasses, specifically after extremely cold winters, followed by warm, damp, rainy Springs or Summers.

In the northwestern part of the American Colonies in 1692, the seasons were just such, tainting crops of rye, the predominant food source for Puritans of the time. Many a person, including 13-year-old Martha Goodwin, fell victim to this infestation, exhibiting the physical maladies of limb pain, not to mention the mind-bending hallucinations and loss of muscle control demonstrated in the form of fits. For you see, ergot is a fungus from which the hallucinogenic drug LSD is derived! Could this be the answer to the age-old mystery of what really caused the impending, infamous Salem Witch Trials?

Walking the ‘straight line’ in defiance of the Devil Lion as put forth in the epistles of St. Peter, these illnesses preyed on the Puritans’ deepest superstitions and religious fears. Additionally, having virtually no understanding of diagnosing physiological conditions and disease, the practice of medicine at this time amounted to nothing but a ruse. Ironically, anything beyond common ailments (which could not be treated with base herbs or the ever-popular, but ineffective ‘bleeding’ of the patient by lancing) was attributed to witchcraft: the era’s catch-all for medical ignorance.

Goody Glover was, obviously, no witch. She was a simple laundress living in a time of unprecedented personal and social repression … a woman, who fell victim to the mores of the time and died for it. Martha Goodwin was a victim, too … the victim of a natural occurrence: unforeseen, yet deadly. Yeast was not yet known. Therefore, the manner by which the Puritans made their bread – setting it out for days in the open air to rise with the growth of natural bacteria – was a recipe for disaster. For this crude means of leavening allowed ergot the incubation period to multiply … an evil act of happenstance – no matter how you slice it.

Until identified, Europe and other nations had been effected similarly throughout history. Today, ergot fungus is monitored on the entire world’s food supply.

***

As the sun awoke a glorious, brazen orange, the morning dew steamed like smoke signals from the tips of tombstones in Salem Town’s only burial plot. A mound of moist, black dirt marked the place where Martha Goodwin lay. Overhead, a gaggle of geese flew in perfect formation as if to point the way to some impending doom. Soaring over a neatly sewn field, tidy barn, and framed house, their birds’ eye view caught sight of a young Betty Parris running blindly along a beaten path away from the homestead. Her chest heaved, while her lungs struggled to claim their rightful air. Suddenly stopping with only the whites of her eyes showing and fingers pointing to a nearby presence, her guttural screams pierced the thick air – breaking the alignment of the geese’s flight.

With a belly full of Harvest Loaf and a head awash in ergot, the poisonous accusations leading to the notorious Salem Witch Trials (and the brutal execution of 19 innocent, God-fearing townsfolk) were about to begin. For Betty, clearly under the influence of the fungus, would claim she could see Sarah Osborne – basket of rye in hand, walking aside a lion at the pasture’s edge.

 

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:

"The Lion Walketh Among Us" is the first in a planned Story-Within-a-Story Series of short fiction.

Keith Hoerner

Keith Hoerner

Keith Hoerner lives, teaches, and pushes words around in St. Louis, Missouri.
Keith Hoerner

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