Gods of the Guiltless
The only light some see is at the end of the tunnel...
Massachusetts Friday, August 4, 1684
Mary stood ankles deep in the marshy growth behind an old oak far from the Glanvil cottage. She could hear her uncle’s angry bellowing and the muffled echoes of other townspeople in the distance. The cold, clear water that trickled off the mossy earth onto her calves eased the hot throbbing of her newest bruises. Mary wondered why she’d waited so long to discover the nurturing coolness of the black marshy forest; it had been behind the Glanvil property forever, and she’d always wanted to disappear into its dank branches. She looked out from the dark wood with sorrowful eyes, but she didn’t feel anything – she was altogether empty. The shouting grew louder and less muffled, Mary could make out the words now: ‘Prints in the mud! She’s this way!’ Mary pulled a foot out from the mud and turned to flee deeper into the wood. She took only a couple steps before falling flat on her face in the swamp. She lay there motionless as sandy droplets rolled across her lips. She opened her mouth to let the earth touch her tongue. The sublimity of cold earthy mud grinding on her teeth and cheeks made her gasp, and white teary streams parted the mud on her cheeks. She swallowed the mud and chewed before quavering to her feet, blood now trickling down her legs from under her tattered dress. She flinched at the memory of her aunt Margaret swatting her between the legs with a sharp twig only hours before her escape. The shouting grew closer. Mary bit her lip and pressed on wearily into the darkness.
‘She won’t survive in the marsh, she’s too stupid. The dogs will eat her.’ Thomas Glanvil stood in the clearing before the cottage as the veiled sunlight slithered behind gloomy trees. ‘So that’s it then?’ asked Mr. Starkey, an old townsman; ‘We leave her to the dogs?’ He struggled to hide the disturbed look on his face and attempted to stand as comfortably as the other men so as to seem less unnerved. The men in his company were a hostile bunch, and Thomas Glanvil was known for throwing wild punches at random when he was angry, which was often enough. Jed Starkey was the oldest man in the search party and one of the first settlers in Salemtown. He briefly remembered giving Mary and the other children some bread as they passed his home just last week. The remaining light vanished and the wind breathed angrily kicking up dry leaves as if to herald the arrival of night. As the last fingers of light receded and the tired orange of dusk turned purple and pitch, shrill chirps and yelps emanated from deep in the woods.
‘Like church bells,’ said Thomas as he turned his back on the forest and started back towards Salemtown. ‘May God have mercy on your little, filthy soul.’ The other men looked hesitantly at the foreboding forest mouth; its black streams oozing gently like black blood from an old corpse. The forest's presence was always felt by the superstitious people of Salemtown, but at night its ominous personality seemed to wake; the forest was a nocturnal beast that sang a bone-chilling song after light. When the men turned their backs on the forest to follow Thomas, a cold wind rushed through them; they shielded their eyes and rooted their feet into the moist earth to avoid being blown over. The gust reminded Mr. Starkey of Jonah’s encounter with the Fish; he felt as if the forest was sucking him and his party into its mighty gut to be punished. The howling winds carried the unholy cacophony of hungry moans into the night air, and the search party fled back to Salemtown.
Mary B. deGrey was barely a year old when she was forced into the Glanvils’ lives. Richard Danforth, the old preacher from Ipswich, entrusted Mary and her brother, Josephiah, to Margaret Glanvil, their aunt. Mary’s and Josephiah’s parents were killed when their home was set ablaze. Many suspected murder, for the deGrey house had many enemies. Others thought God himself raised His hand to smite the evildoers. In actuality, Mrs. deGrey left sage burning on her mantelpiece – as she often did – and forgot about it whilst making love to her husband. The two fell asleep in each other's arms as the cinders took their house. Richard Danforth, Salemtown's old priest, braved the inferno with a white-wooden cross in hand as he retrieved the deGrey's screaming children inside. Only a week after his brave deeds, Richard died of a snake bite – but the Glanvils did not attend his funeral.
At the unfortunate age of five, Josephiah met his end when his older cousin, Ann Glanvil, accidentally dropped him in Bears Lake when she tripped on beach wood...or that was her story anyway. It didn’t matter if Ann’s story was farfetched and preposterous; nobody asked questions and nobody cared. Some folks were actually gleeful that the Glanvils’ burdens were lessened and that there was one less deGrey in Salemtown. The deGrey children had hardly lived with the Glanvils for six months when Josephiah died and there was no sympathy for Mary.
Margaret Glanvil tormented her helpless niece daily. When Mary was an infant, Margaret would leave her to baste in filth as she cried out for love and affection. She savagely beat the child at any chance she could justify, and since only old man Starkey cared for her, Margaret beat her niece in the privacy of her cottage. Mary wasn't given privacy, she wasn't given food, and she never received affection from her guardians. She shared the dog's bed and ate the food he didn't finish - so she seldom ate at all.
It was a hazy Friday morning in Salemtown. Leaves were turning a drab, fall orange but looked grey umber behind the veil of mists that never seemed to leave the small town. Mary was awakened by the low grumbling of Bo, who growled almost every morning to let her know she’d overstayed her welcome in his bed. Mary arose to find that she was the only one in the cottage. She peered out of the little square window above Bo’s bed and saw nobody in the town. Through the fog she couldn’t even see the houses across the street. She pushed her nappy hair aside and pressed her ear to the wall and listened for a while. This was her chance! She slipped on Ann’s shoes and hurried out of the back door, hiding for a moment in the crunchy bushes. Closing her eyes, she listened for a moment longer. When she was sure that all was clear, she leapt from the bushes and sprinted across the back yard into the neighboring yard of the Burroughs. Quietly, doing her best not to lose Ann’s giant shoes, Mary snuck into the Burroughs’ storage room and closed the wooden door behind her.
The warm scent of stale bread and old wine filled Mary’s lungs as she crept past the rusty farm tools that hung pendulously at the shed’s entrance. Her heart raced and her mouth watered. A sliver of light leaked through a crack at the back of the shed which illuminated the chest she was after.
‘Leave,’ said a windy whisper in her mind. Mary closed her eyes and pursed her lips, swallowing the viscous saliva that accumulated around her crooked teeth. ‘Not safe,’ came the voice. She gripped at her hollow belly with dirty fingers and paused for a moment; the guilt she felt made her nauseous. Mary was afraid of God and His cruel angels, the Glanvils: they’d taught her that every urge, every desire, was sinful – and sin meant pain and damnation. But instinct trumps conditioning. It had been two weeks since she’d had a chance to visit the Burroughs’ food stores, two whole weeks since she’d eaten any real food. Gripping her concave belly, she pressed on to the back of the shed.
‘Leave!’ hissed the voice.
‘No!’ replied Mary, and she ran to the food chest, recklessly knocking into the hanging tools. She was so eager to sink her teeth into the rock-like bread that she didn’t notice the new cuts on her arms – or the footsteps right outside the shed. She fidgeted with the clasp on the chest with her shaking, muddy fingers and pushed with both hands to lift the heavy wooden lid. It swung back and hit the wall with a clunk. Mary gasped when the stale air from the chest washed over her. She hurriedly reached in to grab a hard chunk of bread. As she lifted it to her quivering chapped lips, the shed door swung open and flooded the room with hazy light. Mary turned quickly enough to see a menacing silhouette overtake her vision, then, with a solid blow, her hearing fuzzed and she hit the ground.
Mary was numb and delirious. The drowning sensation that plugged her nose reminded her of purple and made her stomach tense up. Her nose was bleeding and one of her eyes swelled into a glossy, brown protuberance. She was definitely being dragged; she could make out the passing shapes of branches that reached out like crooked fingers. Suddenly the dragging ceased and the hot hand around her ankle released its tight grip. The familiar smell of musty sweetness interrupted the drowning purple in Mary’s nose – she was home.
As she lay there on Bo’s piss-covered bed, Mary feverishly imagined that she was walking with her cousin Jon and skipping rocks on the crystal waters of Dead Man’s Creek. The gaggle of Salemtown youths that played by the creek once found a swollen Wampanoag corpse face down in the water, hence the name “Dead Man’s Creek”. Mary remembered that Jon gave her a black feather that one of the children took off the corpse and gave to him before it was taken away by the townsmen. Jon was the only Glanvil that wasn’t cruel to Mary. To him, she was just another kid who played by the creek; and they were both eight years old. Mary revisited several memories of her beloved cousin Jon as she slipped in and out of consciousness.
Mary painfully opened her bruised eyes, both of which had swelled into little pudgy mounds. She turned her head slowly towards the fading light of the little square window by Bo’s bed. The clouds were darker than before and tossed about threateningly.
‘Mary,’ whispered a soft, slightly panicked voice, ‘they’ll be back any second now. You must hide. Mother is angrier than ever!’ Mary didn’t answer, nor could she; her senses were still stifled by the attack in the shed, and she was too busy dreaming of angry clouds. Everything in the Glanvil cottage always seemed so angry – except Jon. Slowly she peeled her gaze from the rolling clouds and turned her fragile neck to look at the brown-eyed boy sitting at her side. Jon put his hand on Mary’s matted hair and kindly pulled a crusty blade of grass from it. ‘You have to hide!’ Jon turned to look at the door. As he turned, Mary was overwhelmed by the dreadful thought of Jon leaving her side: she reached up with her dirty fingers, grabbed Jon by the shoulders, and pulled him to her face with all of her strength. Their lips touched. The purple drowning sensation in Mary’s nose spread to her eyes as Jon’s face smashed into hers.
‘Bitch!’ the cottage door slammed open and Margaret poured into the house, tripping over Bo. Jon jerked away from the kiss and glanced timidly at the door. His nose and mouth were sprinkled with dots of bright, pinkish blood. Margaret gasped and grasped her horrified face with a trembling, bony hand. Ann walked through the door with a large river rock in hand and stormed over to Bo’s bed. She pushed Jon out of the way and grabbed Mary by the leg; her hand fit snugly in the finger-shaped bruises that wrapped the ankle. Margaret brandished a long, dry twig and grabbed Mary’s other ankle.
Jed Starkey never detested the children in Salemtown. He enjoyed playing the role of the elderly neighbor that they visited to receive various foods and treats. Sometimes Mr. Starkey would tell them stories about his youth and they’d sit at his feet and listen. He didn’t understand the disdain others had for the youths of Salemtown; they weren’t as conniving and mischievous as the kids in Salem. In a way, he was the only mentor any of the children had, and certainly the only one they cared for.
Mr. Starkey stood at the edge of the forest, ax in hand, attempting to peer into the dense murk beyond the trees. As he stood at the forest’s gaping maw, it seemed as though he was being repelled by an unseen, menacing force. The forest didn’t have a name. Even the Wampanoags didn’t cross into the eerie dark: not for food, not for supplies, and not for shelter. Mr. Starkey recalled the tale he’d heard as a child about the muskana ontoquas, or “bone wolf”: he remembered the fear in the Wampanoag man’s eyes as he spoke of how vicious the bone wolf’s attacks were. The storyteller teared up as he told of the various champions that braved the forest to slay the bone wolf, only to fall victim to its ghostly claws. Though Mr. Starkey respected the native men and their traditions, he always thought their superstitions to be quite primitive and silly – but he never dismissed their fears. Jed had a child to save, or to recover. He swallowed and breathed the putrid marsh air, then entered the maw.
It was impossible to tell from the pitch darkness of the wood that it was noon beyond the canopy of fusty leaves. Mr. Starkey had been searching hours, or so it seemed, and his will was sapped. He reminded himself several times that he had to find Mary, and also that he couldn’t’ fall asleep in the forsaken wood. Though Jed didn’t believe in bone wolves, he knew for a fact that wolves and wild dogs dwelled in the forest. He pressed on, wary of his footing in the marsh. The hot air continued to press down on him as he trudged hopelessly deeper and deeper into the woods.
Mr. Starkey jolted from a deep slumber. ‘How long have I been out?’ he asked himself as he desperately searched the wicked darkness.
‘Leave now...!’ came a low, almost inaudible grumble. Mr. Starkey’s skin crawled, even though he was certain that the voice was merely the marshy fumes plaguing his senses. Though the air was muggy and sticky, Jed trembled and pulled his coat closed; he felt an empty coldness closing in around him – observing him. He swatted at the air as if to ward off gnats. His face dripping with cold sweat, Jed gripped his ax and bolted into the dark, indifferent to his direction or the perils of the marsh. He ran until he was winded and stopped to catch his breath. As he rested limply on a slimy tree, Mr. Starkey saw what looked to him like the eerie glow of misty daylight far off in the distance. He was spooked, and he resolved to leave the haunted pit he’d traversed for what seemed like days. As he made for the creamy haze, he was overcome by guilt and began to cry, concluding that no little girl could possibly survive in the hellish woodlands.
The closer Jed got to the dim light, the more he could make out the faint sound of cheerful humming and the pitter-patter of feet splashing about the mud. With each step he became less certain that he was walking towards the opening of the forest; each step taking his breath away and weighing heavily on his old bones until finally he came upon the clearing. What he saw crippled him with terror.
Jed Starkey had not been walking back towards Salemtown. Instead – in his delirium – he’d managed to wander into the heart of the forest: a canopied glade lit by glowing mushrooms and flowers, its floor a clear pool with gentle grasses, all encircled by smooth, black boulders. Dancing amidst fluttering butterflies to the rhythmic chirping of crickets was a glowing little girl with clean hair and scarred, white skin. She wore nothing save for a woven crown of roots and berry vines and caked mud almost up to her knees. The girl danced with whimsical steps as if she’d never danced before but was overwhelmed by the urge to do so. More precise and skilled were the steps of the wolves that danced along with her; they stood upright and gracefully sailed in circles around the angelic child. Scattered about the heavenly glade were several wolves who were either sleeping, conversing, or eating. And at the back, watching the party fixedly, was a colossal black wolf with thick, raised tufts of matted fur like spines that lined its back and fiery red eyes that stared on without ever blinking.
‘Since you will not leave, you will join,’ grumbled the black wolf, its eyes flashing as it showed its ferocious teeth and bright pink tongue. A howling gust pulled Jed into the opening, sending him face first into the mud. One of the dancing wolves started towards the weary man. Jed frantically stumbled to his feet, his chest and face covered in thick mud. He pointed the ax defensively at the approaching wolf, but it continued towards him with an unimpressed look on its face. ‘You don’t need that in a forest,’ growled the black wolf. Mr. Starkey’s grip tightened on the ax’s handle and POP! the handle shattered, forcing the old man back into the mud with a splash. The gentle grasses twisted around the broken ax shards, pulling them under the clear waters into the mud.
The little wolf helped Jed to his feet and brought him into the middle of the clearing where the others danced. The surrounding wolves didn’t seem to care much that there was an outsider in their midst; they kept on with their wolf business in the mild, cricketed ambiance. Mr. Starkey, all muddy and disturbed, was now in the middle of the dancing company of the little girl and her wolves.
‘Mary!’ he shouted as the little fairy circled about whimsically. She glanced at old man Starkey: her eyes were distant and her smile was alien – Mary never really had a smile on her face, nor was she ever clean. The glowing child frolicked over to one of the wolves, the two taking each other’s’ hands, and waltzed on to the monotonous chirping. The wolf that held Mr. Starkey knelt him down to the pristine waters and helped in wash his face, then it removed his clothes and went back to dancing.
‘Mary,’ whispered Mr. Starkey. The waltzing wolf casually spun the petite girl ending their dance and left to lay on a boulder. She pranced gracefully over to Jed, her splashes complimenting the cricket’s tunes. The child stood before him and extended a hand, as if to invite him to dance. He noticed purple scars striping her body from her arms down to her feet. Jed looked apprehensively at the monstrous wolf that sat at the back of the grotto, its red gaze piercing and its mouth agape with fangs like icicles. He shifted back to the little girl, her arm stretched; he paused, then took her hand.
Jed Starkey and the little glowing girl danced around the luminous glade gaily with carefree smiles painted on their clean faces. Their muddy footsteps left long, swooping trails of murky water in the glade. The cricket’s cheeping song gradually increased in tempo and the wolves’ howls and chirps were more frequent. As the song picked up, more wolves joined in the waltz until all of them were disturbing the waters with cheerful paws.
Mr. Starkey was entranced by the little girl’s radiant smile. It was to him as if God had granted his unspoken wish and cured the girl’s woes replacing her sorrows with cheer and wonder. He got lost in her smile. Nothing else mattered but the upbeat waltz and the sprightly fairy’s happy smile. The glade’s black, leafy canopy opened up to reveal the full moon wreathed in wispy clouds. The starlight twinkled in Jed’s eyes. Then the music stopped and the many dancing wolves sat facing the old man and the little girl.
‘Now we go,’ came the low grumble of the menacing black wolf. He slowly stood and stretched his mighty legs and back. As the behemoth wolf approached the two naked dancers in the center of the glade, the little girl looked up at the old man with big wet eyes and her smile turned into an open-mouthed grin. She released the man’s old, leathery hands and ran over to the wolf, never looking back at Jed. She gripped the wolf’s thick, black fur and buried her pristine face in it. The wolf howled a mighty howl, and all the lesser wolves joined in, filling the forest with their cries. The etheric cries that filled the air overwhelmed Mr. Starkey and he fell on his back. He opened his eyes to see the black wolf drifting away into the lofty clouds, the little girl comfortably attached to his matted mane. As the canopy closed, so did Jed’s teary eyes. The green grasses gently wrapped Jed Starkey’s naked body and slowly pulled him under the mud. The smile never left his face.
Jon awoke in Bo’s bed where he’d been asleep ever since Mary disappeared. The boy had been dreaming of listening to Mr. Starkey’s stories whilst sitting next to Mary and holding her hand. He still had week-old crusty blood in his nose from his cousin’s frantic kiss. He pulled himself up to look out of the square window. The moonlight illuminated everything with a silken blanket of blue and white. It was the first night in two weeks that wasn’t stormy, and the first in over a year that wasn’t foggy. Suddenly Jon was overcome by the dread of never seeing his beloved Mary again. He sunk down into the stink of Bo’s bed and drifted back into pleasant dreams.