The Salem Legacy
By: A.P. Miller
I remember being in high school and learning about our town’s charter in Local History. At the time, I was having a real problem with being told what to do – I couldn’t stand my parents, the school administration didn’t have clue number one about how to herd the building full of teenage beasts that were called students, and there was no social respite from the patriarchy from the mouth-breathing social scene of backwoods Pennsylvania. I hated everything about that town and turned that energy towards undermining every single value that the town was formed on.
Upon scrutiny of the town’s charter, there was a recurring theme that reared its ugly head in just about every article, in some form or another. The town’s charter was remarkably religious, which is against just about everything the country was formed on (separation of Church and State, right?) – it felt like a giant load of fear mongering and it only made sense for Inbred Central Station to be formed on religion. Closer than that, however, was a lot of very specific-yet-veiled language against witchcraft. Odd things like “religious ceremony and worship may only be conducted inside of a building sanctified by a priest.” According to Mr. Woolworth, the founding families were Catholic – when Protestant denominations came into town, Catholic priests were still required to sanctify their churches under construction. The town’s charter forbade certain books from being within the borders, to prevent moral turpitude; only certain people could own certain animals (you guessed it: black cats were a no-no), only medical doctors could facilitate any sort of bloodletting, and a really strange, vivid clause about an immediate death penalty for heresy at the Town Elder’s discretion.
I found that document so odd that I’d read it over and over again. I got an A on that test – I imagine that’s how good grades are obtained, but that’s what the man wanted me to do, so they could go pound salt.
In the tenth grade, there was a transfer student by the name of Azalea Chalmers; she smiled a lot, kept to herself, read interesting looking books, and didn’t bother anyone. She was a free spirit, dressed like a contemporary hippy, talked more about getting peace from the trees instead of reminiscing about Catechism like the others our age. In hindsight, Azalea was one of many transfer students that we had. I couldn’t imagine how anyone found themselves in the middle of Cow Patty, Pennsylvania – we had a lot of students who would show up for the first day of school, get their picture in the yearbook, and then no one would ever see them again.
I can only remember one interaction with Azalea and it was a doozy. We were in study hall and she was reading a book called “The Spiral Dance” and she was approached by a few of the gothier students.
“You know the rules,” the taller male of the troupe spoke, “we can’t look after you here if you are so public about it.”
“I didn’t ask for this,” Azalea spat, it was the first act of aggression I, or anyone, had seen her commit to, “I can’t help who I am or what I believe in.”
“It’s almost time,” the only female in the goth gang offered, “you just need to lay low until after the season passes.”
“Fine.” Azalea slammed her book shut and threw it into her backpack. The goth brigade went off in their own way and Azalea looked agitated for the rest of the period. Eventually laying her head on the desk; I couldn’t be sure, but she might have been crying.
Right around the middle of October, Azalea’s attendance began to become a little slack. I only noticed because Azalea was so much different than the others who went to school with us. She was like a bright orange road cone in the middle of asphalt and yellow road lines. I noticed when she was gone and could tell when she was there.
On the last week of October, the students designated as “guidance runners,” or those who had studied hard enough to have time in their schedule when others of us (me) had to make up credits to be sure we’d graduate on time, were dropping off the attendance sheets. One teacher looked at the sheet and said “Azalea Chalmers? It is about that time, isn’t it?” and then crossed her name off the roll.
That night, I decided to take a walk past the house where Azalea had lived – when you live in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere, you keep mental note of who lives near you. Azalea was about a quarter mile away from my front door. The house was empty, it looked like it had never really been lived in. That was the last I’d think about Azalea Chalmers for a while.
* * *
Fast forward fifteen years, I still hate being told what to do, but I do it because the only thing I dislike more than authority is not collecting a paycheck. I live in a town that’s a thousand miles away, I go by my middle name (because it sounds more professional), and I keep a very low digital profile. I’ve spent a lot of time burying my experience, stuff that would make John Cougar Mellencamp cry nostalgic tears. I am proud to say that I’m so removed that I am one step away from my mother not being able to find me. I work as an investigative journalist for a well renowned publication and if all goes well, I’ll be accepting my Pulitzer any day now.
You can imagine my horror stopping by my mailbox and having to sign for a package addressed to my first name, from Hoedown, Pennsylvania. Is horror the right word? I didn’t like thinking that someone had my address from my hometown, but my mother is so diabetes sweet that maybe she gave it to someone – she knows how much distance I am trying to create, so maybe it was someone worth hearing from. Perhaps it was from Davey Hoffman, the kid I used to pal around with in eighth grade, it would be good to hear from him.
I stopped by the ABC store on the way home – if the package had anything to do with a reunion or an alumni association, I surely would want to be drunk.
On my coffee table, I sat my glass of wine down and began tearing into the package. It was about the size of a box that you’d expect to get a textbook in. The whole package smelled like gasoline and the way it rattled said that there was a lot of something inside the box. After finally getting the mummified box open, the odor of gasoline was even stronger. I’ve never put the theory to the test, but there is an urban legend that soaking letters or packages in gasoline will get rid of fingerprints. Inside the box was a bunch of yearbook pages, certain pictures circled in red, two maps, and a postcard with ransom note lettering that said “do you remember any of us?” The odor of the gasoline was making me light headed.
I took the pages of yearbook out of the box. Upon closer inspection, they were from my high school. The first picture circled was a kid named Corey Lyndon, the next was of Victoria Nodd, then Harrison Dell, and the last was Azalea Chalmers. All of them wore insincere smiles for their portraits, the only one I really remembered was Azalea, and her smile was always bright.
I didn’t recognize Corey, Victoria, or Harrison, but I certainly recognized everyone around them. When you go to a school that you have the same classmates year after year, you commit their names and faces to memory. Azalea was in our class when I was in tenth grade, so pictures would have been taken in 2000. Harrison’s picture was right beside Brandi Dewey, and her picture was the year she had that awful haircut before picture day, that was 1999. Kolin Lowell was wearing one of those surgical halos in his picture beside Corey Lyndon; Kolin got into that horrible ATV accident the summer before, so that puts the picture at 2001. Victoria Nodd’s picture was right beside mine – my senior year of high school. What we had was four kids that were hardly there; the only one that I had faint memory of was Azalea.
The maps were something else entirely. The maps were of the small town where I had lived – not the greater area where the school was located, but the small 200 population town where my post office was. One map had a red X on “Camp 54 Road,” the other had an X on “Ethel Guisewhite Street.” I remember Camp 54 Road, it was the street I lived on, and it was the single greatest pain in ExpressFederal’s backside. Ethel Guisewhite Street, now the name didn’t stick out to me, but the layout of the map did. I checked the copyright dates on the maps – the one with Camp 54 Road was dated 2003, the year I left high school; the one with Guisewhite Street was copyrighted last year. The sender was trying to tell me that the name of the street I’d lived on had changed, but why?
The red X’s were very specific where they were, not just arbitrary markings on a map. Both X’s were at a curve, just right at the curve, approximately a quarter mile away from my front door. It’s where Azalea lived, where I walked by when she had left town.
I looked at my phone, it was 3:05 PM; the post office would still be open. You have to love the freedom an investigative journalist has to work from home, right? A quick search and the phone number for the Sawmill Post Office later, the phone was ringing in my ear.
“Hello, Sawmill Post Office.” The voice was sweet on the other end.
“Hello, is Janice still the postmaster?” I asked.
“Heavens, no.” the cheer of the voice fell a little, “Janice has moved to be closer to her daughter. My name is Hannah, the new postmaster, I’d be happy to help.”
“Well, Hannah, my name is Dean North and I am trying to get some information regarding the street that I used to live on. I’m trying to send someone a package and I guess the whole thing is completely different now.” I lied; I had no idea if street numbers were the same or not. I needed confirmation, something concrete to begin my theories on.
“Okay, what’s your question?” Hannah’s cheer rose.
“I lived at 245 Camp 54 Road in Sawmill,” I began, “I’m trying to send something to 933 Camp 54 Road – can you tell me what that new address would be on Ethel Guisewhite Street?”
“Sure, give me a moment.”
I pinched the phone between my ear and shoulder, scrambling or my pen and notebook.
“Okay,” Hannah continued, “933 Camp 54 Road is now 138 Ethel Guisewhite Street.”
“Great!” I replied, scrawling the information, “and maybe you can help me with one more thing?”
“I’ll be happy to try.”
“Wonderful! I’m the class of 2003 class president, and it’s my job to make sure that invitations to this year’s reunion get out in the mail soon. Can you tell me if you have forwarding addresses for the Chalmers family or the Nodd family?” I lied, “They weren’t our classmates long, but they are sure still in our hearts.”
“Let me look, I’m not sure how much I can help.”
“I appreciate it – I’ve tried looking on social media and I’m coming up empty. If they’ve got married, I have no idea to who.”
I could hear Hannah shuffling papers in the background, a few inaudible curses.
“…oh my.” Hannah gasped.
“Is that a good ‘oh my’?” I asked, reflexively.
“No, it’s not.” Hannah laid out flatly, “I’m not at liberty to discuss this anyways and I could get in a lot of trouble acknowledging anything. I’m very sorry.”
Hannah’s tone was worried, she had found something that had a lot of gravity to it.
“I see,” I replied, my interest piqued, “well, thank you very much for your help.”
Hannah didn’t bother with saying good-bye, she had just hung up.
A few days and my knees up to my throat on an economy class seat on a bad airline later and I was back in Sawmill.
My first real lead is the address that Azalea lived at. The street might have been called Ethel Guisewhite Street, but it was the same mozaic asphalt and despair of Camp 54 road. The houses on the street were more deteriorated than I remember – the house I’d grown up in was gone, the weeds were taller, and everything still smelled of sickly-sweet honeysuckle and the dirty smoke of old carburetors from lawn mowers and ATV’s. It was home.
The windows of Azalea’s house were dirty, the lawn needed all of the late October leaves raked, and either a good pressure washing or a house fire. Peering in the windows, I could see that nothing had changed; the dining room still had the antique wallpaper, the kitchen had the farm-style cabinets and counters, the lattice on the porch was broken, and the roof actually seemed to sag inward. Creeping around the side of the house, I saw the backyard. It had the traditional clothesline, the shed where the lawnmower would be kept, a screened in sunroom with the screens torn out. There was a large envelope, the kind you send important documents in, on the back door of the house.
Taking ginger steps on the rickety stairs, fearful of leaving my fingerprints on anything, I approached the back door. The envelope was addressed to “Jonathan D. North.” I hadn’t gone by Jonathan since I’d left, it had always been Dean to anyone I’d been introduced to. The letter wasn’t sealed – inside was old pieces of mail, from the early 2000’s. They looked like letters from the DMV notifying you that your vehicle registration was coming due. The first one was addressed to James & Constance Lyndon, the next to Bill and Janice Nodd, then Geoff and Sarah Dell, and finally Hank and Vivian Chalmers. The same family names as the kids in the yearbook pictures, all of them with the same address.
I was so wrapped up in thought that I didn’t hear the car and the truck approaching. I’d been startled out of my skin when a concerned voice interrupted my thought.
“Excuse me, Mr.,” the man was tall, muscular, traditional facial hair, and an endearing twang to his voice, “can I help you?”
“I’m sorry?” Was the only reply I could muster.
“We live here and I can’t help but to notice your presence on the porch.” His gaze was serious, steely even.
“Oh, of course!” I was freestyling a lie, “I knocked on the door and when no one answered, I started looking around for myself – I honestly thought I’d be done before you got here!”
I tramped down the stairs, my hand extended. The new occupant shook my hand in return, observing decorum.
“My name is Dean and I am with a publication called ‘Traditional Homes & Customs.’” I continued my ruse, “Next month we’re running a special on homes built during the Industrial Revolution and the Coal Boom. This house was one of my leads I was checking on.”
“I see.” the man’s expression didn’t betray his actual feelings, “What do you want to look at an old fixer’ upper’ like this one for a magazine? A good, strong wind is gonna knock it over.”
“Naw,’” I laughed, “It’s vintage, a passion project! Besides, it’s not the actual house we’re looking at, but the neighborhood.”
“Sure, the neighborhood!” I was laying it on thick, “Did you know that this street was one of the biggest coal operations during the Civil War?”
“I did not.” If this man wasn’t a professional poker player, he’d missed his calling in life.
“One of the biggest,” I pointed over in a random direction, “the vein of coal that they had found here was one that supplied the Union with a bounty of coal that not only kept the rail system running, but helped forge cannonballs, musket balls, and the other facets of industry that helped the Union Army keep strongholds over the Confederates.”
“Yes sir. This street doesn’t look like much, but its got history like you wouldn’t believe!”
The man stared at me for a long second and then called for his wife, insisting that I repeat the story that I had just told. Thank God I paid attention during Mr. Woolworth’s Local History and retained what he’d taught. It could have possibly saved my life.
I shook their hands, wished them well, and then stopped when I’d noticed something about the man’s wife. She was dressed very odd for the area: lots of quartz jewelry, flowy and colorful patterns, and she smelled very earthy. What caught my eye was the book that was hanging out of her purse: “The Spiral Dance.” It was the same book that Azalea was reading when the Goth kids approached her in study hall.
“Say,” I stopped, “I couldn’t help but notice your book. I knew a girl that had read it.”
“Oh?” the woman replied, “She was Wiccan?”
“Wiccan?” I repeated.
“Sure, it’s a book about rituals and spells, all related to the Wiccan religion. My daughter and I are very active in the practice. Your friend must have been a witch.”
“A witch.” I blinked, blindsided by the concept, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“She might have just been curious,” the woman smiled, she was charming, “but maybe a witch.”
“Anything is possible.” I returned the smile, “I am very sorry to have alarmed you and it was lovely meeting you both.
A witch? What are the odds that someone who practiced an alternative religion would end up in the one town that was actually built on keeping them out? Even better, what are the odds that it would happen twice?
I stopped for lunch at the only surviving restaurant in the area; it was still as popular now as it was then. I’d run into a lot of people that I’d known back then; teachers, parents, classmates. They weren’t nearly the knuckle draggers that I’d remembered. They would ask me how I was, with genuine concern, brag about their children, acknowledge what they did for a living, and demonstrated a pride of small town life. They were proud of their legacy and for the first time in fifteen years, I couldn’t find a single fault in any of them. It was apparent, at that moment, that the problem had always been with me. Had I chosen to reach out socially, I would have made more friends and been involved with a young life. I mourned, for a moment, for all of those years that were wasted being miserable.
“I hope you enjoyed your lunch,” the waitress, with whom I was wholly unfamiliar with, “someone thought enough of you to pay for it.”
The waitress handed me the check, marked paid, and smiled. I fished a twenty out of my pocket, grateful for my luncheon benefactor, and laid it on the table. The check itself had an address scrawled on it that I barely remembered. If memory served, the street was one of the back roads that had been named for the only family that lived on it. Another lead, perhaps? Accompanying the address was a time – nine-fifteen, PM. It might as well have been midnight and asked me to bring a black cat.
The modern marvel of a GPS doesn’t go out of its way to scout Bum Eff’ed Egypt very well; at least it got me on the street that I was supposed to be on. When a road is that deep in the woods and the only inhabitant is a family of dairy farmers, street numbers are an unnecessary effort. I had to hope that something unusual jumped out at me, and it did: a road horse that had a section of plywood nailed to it and a bright orange arrow directing me to take a right turn.
The road, if you could call it that in good conscience, stopped being a road and more of a test of how much I trusted the suspension in the rental car. The moon had been bright that night and it only made the tall figure, carved out of shadow, that much more ominous. I pulled the car in park.
“Hello?” I asked carefully, getting out of the car, “I hope to not get murdered.”
“Thank you for coming, Jonathan.” the figure’s voice was deep and certain.
I hated being called Jonathan, but being alone on a road that 911 couldn’t get to, is probably not the best time to fuss about what name someone calls you.
“Yeah,” I stammered, “It’s my pleasure. What can I do for you?”
“It’s the season,” the shadowy mass of a man answered, “and I need you to do what you do best.”
“I have a lot of talents, friend, can you be more specific?”
“I need you to tell the truth.” the figure waved for me to follow him.
“You need me to tell the truth?” I chased after him, “What kind of truth?”
“The truth that you stumbled on in Mr. Woolworth’s Local History class, when we were in high school.”
Having gained enough ground on the shadowy man, and the moon being as bright as it was, I got a good look at him. Now, I never claimed to be a man of the people when I was in school, but I was usually very good with names and faces. The man that had called me out there was one of the edgier goth kids in the grade before me. If memory serves, he didn’t want to be bothered with anyone outside of his circle, that’s why I didn’t recall him being in my history class. He was as much as a shadow, an apparition, then as he was in the woods. I struggled with the recall, especially since I wasn’t used to the ankle breaking prospects of backwoods Pennsylvania like I had been, but we might have even had a study hall.
“What truth was that? I remember being kind of mouthy in that class.” I asked.
“You took the town charter and dissected it, pointing out that the town had rules against witches and magic.” He replied, curtly.
“I was trying to get a rise out of a teacher by taking details out of context — that was it.”
“But you were right.” My reformed goth chaperone stopped us both in our tracks, “You were right the entire time. I knew it then and now I need you to blow the lid on it, in your magazine.”
“You could have saved yourself a lot of time and started a blog, or posted something on Facebook if you wanted to share some theories about one town’s historic crusade about witchcraft.”
“You have a good reputation and people respect you. When you write, people listen. This needs to stop.”
Our trek through the woods ended up being a mile or better. It took a lot of prodding, but I eventually got something of a story out of him. His name was Delaney and he got my new address by asking my mom for it, telling her the same story about my history class. Mom might as well have driven him to my apartment, with all of the information that she had given him.
Delaney and his goth friends didn’t believe in worshipping the devil or sacrificing animals, they just wanted to be different from everyone else, like I did; they were just much more extreme in their approach. According to Delaney: Azalea had approached him and his friends about being scared, that she thought she was being stalked by our more pious classmates, and so she ran around with his circle. One night, that September, they had gone to a party where alcohol was in high supply. After getting a good drunk on, Azalea had opened up about her religion and the rituals she practiced. When they didn’t believe her, Azalea had conjured up some magic that had gone very wrong — Delaney’s friend Jared would be harassed by a being every day, up to his suicide. Azalea’s parents had moved to the area because her stepfather had been offered big money to work at the sewage plant as a supervisor — the sewing circles in town were harassing Azalea’s mother and the sewing circle heiresses that were in our grade were harassing Azalea. Delaney said he’d keep looking out for her, but she couldn’t be so public about being a witch.
“Okay, so Azalea was a witch, did she leave town because she was being harassed?”
“Azalea never left town.” Delaney’s answer was blunt.
“Never left town? But she left the house.”
“Yep. So did the other kids who lived there, all of them were in to magic and witchcraft in one form or another.”
“So all of these witches and wizards lived in the same house? And they didn’t live there long, so what happened to them?” My curiosity was extremely piqued.
“Did you pull the deed on the house?” Delaney asked.
“No, I was going to the courthouse tomorrow.”
“Let me save you a trip,” Delaney said, angrily tearing down a branch, “the house has had the same owner for decades: the County. It was bought as special housing for their supervisors.”
“…so the County puts up these families just to give them static for being witches?” I was lost.
“The head of the County serves on the school board, he’s the brother of the township supervisor. They offer the supervisor job to parents of young witches so they have access to them.” Delaney filled in the detail.
“How do they find these families to do such things? It sounds like an incredible coincidence that every witch in the country has a parent with those particular set of skills.” I asked.
“It used to be big city phone books, looking up Pagan and Wiccan spiritual centers and then they’d go offer the job to the first person they could find. Now it’s the internet. They always said something like ‘it’s an easy job, we’re just trying to get people into town to increase the population for funding and it’s a great place to raise your kids.’ That usually came along with a big check for moving expenses and compensation for the trouble.”
“Okay, here’s the million dollar question,” I exhaled, “why?”
“He’ll tell you.” Delaney nodded over the ridge we had approached.
I was so enthralled by Delaney’s story that I hadn’t noticed how long we had walked. We came to the ridge that overlooked the oldest church yard in town, it was the perfect hiding spot for throwing corn at cars as they drove by on Halloween night, though I can’t remember it ever being used as such.
Below the ridge was a long, wooden pole that had been driven into the ground; bales of hay were stacked around the base. Father Nicholas, the Catholic authority in town, was saying a prayer over a group of men that were huddled like they were waiting for the next play from the quarterback. The men wore suits, nice ones. As the prayer concluded, the men in suits crossed themselves and stood in a defensive position in front of the pole. I could recognize a few faces: the fire chief, the guy who owned the video store, and Mr. Woolworth, who had not aged gracefully.
“Every year, we come together on the same night, to try and put an end to a conflict that has been centuries in the making.” Mr. Woolworth was speaking towards an opening in the woods, a Bible in his folded hands, “When this town was founded, it was founded on a faith in the Good Lord, by people who carried an obligation to rid their new home of wickedness. That wickedness was a woman by the name of Esther Guisewhite, who burned at the stake for her heresy and sins against God. When her soul was welcome in neither heaven, nor hell, she took residence in these woods.”
The other men in suits crossed themselves again as Mr. Woolworth spoke.
“Esther, our founding fathers and brothers made you a promise: that we would continue executing your sisters in demonic practice until you agree to leave. One hundred and seventy-four young women have burned and we are prepared for one hundred and seventy-five.”
Two of the men in suits put out two poles with candles on them, sat them in front of the mouth of the woods.
“It’s the same arrangement it’s always been Esther,” Mr. Woolworth was incredibly calm for speaking to something he thought was a ghost, “Two candles — the one on the right is an indication that you will leave, the one of the left is an indication that you have no intent of leaving and that another innocent life will be lost. It’s your choice.”
The wind around us rose and had a sour smell to it. An eerie hum seemed to come from the trees, like someone had hit the lowest note on a broken pipe organ. I’ve been surprised before, alarmed even. I can’t describe to you what I’d felt when the wind swirled around Mr. Woolworth and a spark emitted from the left candle, erupting the wick in flame.
“So be it.” Mr. Woolworth shook her head in disappointment, “Bring her out.”
The two men that had delivered the candles fetched something out of a van that was parked nearby. It was a girl and she looked just like the woman I’d spoken to at Azalea’s old house, it must have been her daughter. According to the Mom, both she and her daughter were witches. The men fastened her to the pole and began dousing her and the hay bales with some sort of accelerant.
“We’ve got to do something!” I began to jump up. Delaney shoved me back down to the ground.
“And do what?!” Delaney whisper-hissed near my ear, “They are killing for the most dangerous reason of all: in the name of religion! They will kill you too and sleep like babies!”
I wrestled out of Delaney’s grip and I ran through the woods, hoping I remembered where I had been enough to get back to the car. My stomach wretched and heaved, my legs were like rubber. It felt like days, but I’d finally made it back to my car — everything I had eaten that day was now mixing with the dirt and gravel of the dirt road. When I looked up, I could see the big plume of black smoke rising in the moonlight. I couldn’t tell if the wailing was the poor girl that had just been lit ablaze or if it were Esther Guisewhite.
I left town the next day and didn’t speak to anyone on the flight. I tried to forget it for a little bit, but what I had seen and what I had always known wouldn’t rest. I wrote the article, just like Delaney had asked me to. The townsfolk, especially those in charge, vehemently denied all of my testimony. The police wouldn’t do anything about it because they were all in the know. I lost my job at the magazine and I couldn’t even get people to read my blog.
I am making one last effort to get this story out, I am emailing it to my favorite author in hopes that he will post it on his blog.
The Salem Legacy
© 2018 – A.P. Miller