Before lunch, Harold took a solitary walk across Salem Common, the collar of his coat turned up against the cold, his breath fluttering like smoke. All around the Common, the bare trees stood in winter's silent chill, like a gaggle of Salem witches, and the grass was silver-faced with dew. He went as far as the bandstand, with its cupola dome, and sat down on the stone steps, while a little way from him, two young children played on the grass, tumbling and running, leaving figure-eight tracks of green across the lawns. Two kids like his and Nancy's might've been: Nathaniel, the boy who'd perished in his mother's womb. What else could you call a boy who was going to be born within sight of the House of Seven Gables? And Ruth, the girl who was never even conceived.384Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡeBI9rKdpca
Harold was still sitting there when an old lady appeared in a bundled-up Thrift Store coat and a shapeless felt hat, carrying a threadbare carpet-bag and a red umbrella, which she inexplicably opened, and left beside the steps. She sat down only four or five feet away from him.
"Well, now," she said, as she opened a brown paper bag, and took out a liver-sausage sandwich.
Harold looked at her cautiously. She probably wasn't as old as she had first appeared to be. 51 or 56; but she was so shabbily dressed and her hair was so white and frayed that she could have been mistaken for 70. She began to eat her sandwich, with such neatness and gentility that he couldn't take her eyes off her.
That was how it was, for almost twenty minutes, on the steps of the cupola bandstand on Salem Common, on that cold March morning; the woman eating her sandwich and him covertly watching her, and people passing them by along the radial paths that crossed the Common, some strolling, some intent on business, but every one of them chilly, and every one of them accompanied by their own personal mouth-ghost of frozen breath.
At five before twelve, Harold decided it was time to leave. But before he went, he reached into his coat pocket and took out four quarters, and held them out to her, and said, "Please. Just do me a favor, will you?"
She stared at the money and then she stared at him. "People in your position shouldn't be giving silver to witches," she smiled.
"You're a witch?" he asked her, not very seriously.
"Don't I look like one?"
"I don't know," Harold smiled. "I've never seen a witch before. I always thought they carried broomsticks, and black cats on their shoulders."
"Oh, rubbish," the old lady said. "Well, I'll take your money, if you're not too worried about the consequences?"
"People in your position always have to suffer consequences."
"What position is that?"
The woman rummaged in her bag and eventually produced an apple, which she polished on the lapel of her coat. "Alone, aren't you?" she asked me, and then bit into it, chewing on one side of her mouth like a Disney chipmunk. "Not long alone, but alone nonetheless."
"Maybe," he said evasively. He was beginning to feel that this conversation was heavily laden with unspoken implications; as if this woman and he meeting on Salem Common was predestined, and that the people who walked all around them along the Common's radiating pathways were merely chess pieces. Anonymous, but there for a specific reason.
"Well, you know the best of that," the woman told him. She took another bite of apple. "But that's the way I see it, and I'm not often wrong. It's a mystic talent, some people say. But I don't see any harm in calling it for what it is, especially here in Salem. Good witch territory, Salem; best in the country. Maybe not a place to be alone, though."
"What do you mean by that?" he asked her.
She looked up at him. Her eyes were an odd pellucid blue, and there was a scar on her forehead like an arrow, or an upside-down crucifix, in the faintest glistening red.
"Everybody has to die sometime, that's what I mean by that," she said. "But it's the place you die, not the time, that makes the difference. There are spheres of influence; and sometimes you can die within them, and sometimes you can die without them."
Harold became scared. "What in the hell are you talking about?!"
"Salem is the root, heart, bowels, and belly. Salem is the witch's boiling-pot. What do you think those witch-trials were really all about? And why do you think they stopped so suddenly? Have you known anybody to show such remorse, so fast? I haven't. Not as fast as that. The influence came, and then the influence went; but there are days when I believe that it didn't flee for good and all. It depends."
"On what?" Harold wanted to know.
She smiled again, winked, and said, "All kinds of things." She raised her head to the sky, revealing a neck-band that looked as if it were made of braided hair, fastened with silver and turquoise. "The weather, the price of goose-fat, things like that."
He suddenly felt like a total tourist. Here he was, letting some half-demented woman string him along with stories about "spheres of influence" and witches, and actually taking her seriously. She was probably going to offer to tell his fortune next, if the price was right. In Salem, where the local Chamber of Commerce enthusiastically exploits the witch-trials of 1692 as a major commercial attraction ("Stop by for a Spell," they entreat out-of-staters) it was hardly surprising that even the panhandlers could use witchcraft as a selling-point.
"Okay," Harold told the woman, "I think I'm through listening to you. I'll just be moving on now."
"You're not leaving, are you?" she asked him.
"Look, lady, I've heard what you had to say and it's been interesting. But, I'm a busy man and I've got things I have to do, so goodbye."
"Don't you believe me?"
"Sure, I believe you," said Harold. "The weather, the price of goose fat. By the way, what is the price of goose fat?"
She ignored his facetious question and stood up, brushing the crumbs off her worn-out coat with a blue-veined hand. "You think that I'm insane?" she demanded. "Is that it? You think I'm mentally ill?"
"I don't know. Are you?"
A passerby stopped to watch them as if he could sense that an interesting conversation was about to develop. Then two more stopped, one of them a woman, her curly hair turned into a radiant halo by the winter sun.384Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡsNdClUB0hF
"I will tell you two things," the woman said, in a trembly voice. "I shouldn't tell you either, but I will. You will have to decide for yourself if they are warnings or riddles or nothing but nonsense. You cannot be helped, you know; for the life we lead on this earth is a life without help."
Harold said nothing, but stood warily watching her, trying to decide if she was a simple lunatic or a not-so-simple con-artist.
"The first thing is," she said, "you are not alone, the way you think yourself to be, and you will never be alone, not ever, although you will pray to God sometimes to release you from your companionship. The second thing is, you must stay away from the place where no birds fly."384Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡwPDcRnpUXJ
The passersby, seeing that nothing particularly exciting was going to happen, started to disperse. The woman said, "You walk me to Washington Square, if you care to. You are going that way?"384Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡJGuoncIFAA
"Yes," he said. Then, "Come along, then."
She gathered up her bag and folded her red umbrella and then walked beside him to the west side of the Common. The Common was enclosed with decorative iron railings, which threw spoked shadows across the grass.384Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡDsxA4cZO0E
"I'm sorry that you thought I was talking nonsense," the woman said, as they emerged on to the sidewalk of Washington Square West. Across the square stood the Witch Museum, which commemorates the hanging of Salem's twenty witches in 1692, one of the fiercest witch-hunts in all human history. In front of the museum was the statue of Salem's founder, Roger Conant, in his heavy Puritan cloak, his shoulders glittering with dew.
"This is an old city, you know," the woman told me. "Old cities have their own ways of doing things, their own mysteries. Didn't you begin to sense it, just a little, back there on the Common? The feeling that life in Salem is a puzzle of kinds, a witch-puzzle? Full of meanings, but no explanations?"384Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡr6VlKSXH8I
Harold looked away from her, across the square. On the opposite sidewalk, among the crowds of tourists and pedestrians, he glimpsed a pretty dark-haired girl in a sheepskin jacket and tight denim jeans, a stack of text books held against her chest. In a moment, she was jumbled up in the crowd, but he felt a funny catch at his heart because the girl had looked so much like Nancy. He guessed a lot of girls did, and always would. Harold was definitely suffering from Rosen's Syndrome.384Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡPrI5dbZb7U
The woman said, "I have to go this way. It's been an odd pleasure to talk to you. It's not often that men will listen, not the way you do."
Harold gave her a half-hearted smile, and raised his hand.
"You'll want to know my name, of course," she said. Harold wasn't sure if that was a question or a statement, but he gave her a nod that could have meant yes and could just as easily have meant that he didn't give a tinker's damn.
"Cotton Mather," she said. "Named for Cotton Mather."
"Well, Cotton," he told her. "Just make sure you take care of yourself."
"You too," she said, and then she walked off at a surprisingly fast pace until she was lost from sight.
For some reason, Harold found himself thinking of the words that Nancy used to read to him from the Ode to Melancholy. "She dwells with Beauty---Beauty that must die; and Joy, whos hand is ever at his lips, bidding adieu...."384Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡg9ma1i5OxC
Harold turned up his collar against the cold, pushed his hands deep into his pockets, and went in search of a decent lunch.
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