PRW Runner-Up Tour: Oddly Timed Bell by Felicia Anderson
The judge lowered his nose toward Bridget Bishop as she stood before him. Anne sat beside the judge on a lower pedestal, slipping into violent fits and stopping on occasion, just long enough to give her a triumphant smirk. Members of the jury and congregation stirred uneasily in their seats.
Bridget sighed. “I have made no contract with the Devil, your honor. I am as innocent as an unborn child.”
“We shall see, Goody Bishop. Clearly the afflicted is affected by your presence. Please approach the bench.”
With a heavier sigh, Bridget approached Anne for the inevitable.
“You may touch the tormented to prove your innocence.”
Commotion among the jurors and onlookers dropped. The whole room held its breath in anticipation, though the jurors already knew what would happen. Bridget reached forward and touched Anne on the arm, who ceased her fits of convulsion.
Gasps erupted from the court and the jurors looked to and from one another, nodding their guilty verdict. Of course, they expected it: no one came to a witch trial and left innocent.
“Your witchcraft has been verified through the touch test. You have been found guilty, Goody Bishop.”
Bridget’s mouth fell open in horror. She turned to face the judge.
“Your honor,” she pleaded desperately. “Can you not see that this woman has accused me wrongly and is pretending? I tell you, she is the true witch! I have seen the secrets with which she deals -”
Bridget closed her mouth, and tears began to form at the corners of her eyes.
“How dare you accuse the afflicted of witchcraft in your stead!”
The judge sat himself fully upright and addressed the room.
“I find this woman, Bridget Margaret Bishop guilty -”
Bridget’s heart sank. She turned to Anne, slamming her hands on the railing between them.
“How dare you!” she whispered harshly to her. “Why would you do this?”
A devious smile slid across Anne’s face. She leaned in to whisper back.
“Tell me, have you kept your daughter well hidden and never cut her hair?”
“Yes, as we agreed, but I -” Bridget’s eyes went wide. She wanted her daughter.
“- she will be sentenced to death by hanging!”
Cheers erupted in the court room and four men came forward and ripped Bridget from the railing, dragging her backward down the aisle.
“No!” she cried. “I’m innocent! My daughter! Someone needs to save my daughter!”
“You do not have a daughter, Goody Bishop. You have been a widow for ten years,” laughed the judge, and the jury joined him. “It appears the demon within is becoming violent. Carry out the execution immediately. Court adjourned!”
Rebecca sat in the arched window overlooking Salem’s eastern woods, singing hymns to herself and brushing out her long, ebony hair. The familiar view from the old church’s bell tower was cloudy and gray, with a threat of rain. She could see the roof pitches of the wooden town peeking out over the trees and glimpses of the North, South, and Wooleston Rivers that collected into Salem’s sound.
The silence began to overwhelm her. She put down her brush and rose from her seat to face the large, bronze bell in the center of the tower. The swirls of her hair twisted about on the floor, and she made a game of playing hopscotch around them. Her arms, strong for a twelve-year-old, wrenched the thick cord downward, swinging the bell back and forth. Its brazen song echoed through the woods, a haunting melody that pulsed through the abandoned church below.
“You know the townsfolk think this place is haunted, because you ring that bell whenever you fancy.”
Rebecca jumped, turning around to face the voice’s owner. She didn’t hear her guardian push through the locked hatch in the floor over the bell song.
“I’m very sorry, Miss Anne.” She curtseyed in her presence.
She waved it away as if she were just kidding.
“I brought you an apple, my dear,” she replied instead, pulling the fruit from her satchel.
Rebecca’s face brightened. “Thank you, Miss Anne!” Taking the apple, she bit into it, savoring the sweet flesh and smiling brightly. Her freckles crinkled on her pale cheeks.
“It’s pretty extraordinary, right?” Rebecca asked.
“What?” replied Anne. “My child, it’s just an apple.”
“No, I mean my magic. The magic that makes me live without being hungry.”
“Oh,” Anne smiled. “Yes, yes, my child.”
“Please, tell me again the story of how I am a special child.”
Rebecca seated herself at Anne’s feet, pouting and softening her wide, hazel eyes.
“Oh, very well,” she relented.
Anne dragged a chair over from Rebecca’s schooling desk. She hadn’t had lessons since her mother left and never came back more than a year ago. The desk was mostly cluttered with drawings of the village skyline and ink finger paintings. Anne sat on the floor and clapped her hands together.
“Where should I begin?”
“From the beginning,” Rebecca begged, snapping another chunk of flesh from her apple with a juicy crunch.
Anne cleared her throat. “Your mother came to me thirteen years ago, asking for miracle. She and your father tried but could not have any children of their own. I told her that I had what she was looking for. I gave her a potion of Lamb’s Lettuce that would help her bear a child.”
“But not just any child,” Rebecca interrupted. “A special child.”
“Yes, dear. A special child. I told her that once she had you, she was to keep you hidden away, because you were going to be such a magical child. And we wouldn’t want anyone to try to take you away from her.”
Rebecca shook her head.
“I also told her that she could never cut your beautiful hair, because then you wouldn’t be a special child anymore.”
Rebecca nodded, brushing her hands through her silky locks.
“Your mother kept her promise and kept you and your beautiful, long hair safe. And then, one day, she disappeared. No one knows where she went.”
Anne shrugged lightly with her hands up.
“But then you came to find me,” Rebecca smiled.
“Yes, child. I knew where your mother kept you, at your father’s old church in the bell tower. And I have taken care of you and kept you safe ever since.”
“Even when I got sick,” Rebecca added.
“Yes, my child, even when you were sick with fever last year. I nursed you back to health.”
Rebecca smiled again, nipping her apple as close to the core as she could get. Anne rose from her chair and moved it back to the desk. Then Rebecca watched her from the floor as she walked over to a door on the other side of the bell tower and slid a key into the lock. She glanced at Rebecca, then disappeared inside. With the apple in her mouth, Rebecca began to crawl across the floor toward the room. Too late. As quickly as she went in, Anne backed out of the room, closing the flap on her satchel and quickly shutting the door.
Rebecca froze in place on the floor. She didn’t want to get in trouble for peeking, but her curiosity began to overwhelm her. Anne slid the key back into the lock and it clicked again.
“Miss Anne, what do you keep in there?” she asked innocently.
“Adult things, my child,” she responded. “Certain ingredients of mine that would be… compromising… if I kept them in my own home.”
Rebecca nodded. Anne popped the floor hatch up and stepped through.
“Thank you for the apple, Miss Anne,” she blurted out.
“I promise to bring you a new doll when I visit tomorrow,” she added.
“Thank you!” Her eyes lit up. “I cannot wait! Goodbye, Miss Anne!”
“Goodbye, my child.”
With that, she closed the hatch over her and the familiar locking clicks followed. Rebecca was all alone again. Rushing to the window, she slid on her hair, catching herself on the sill. She watched as Anne appeared in the church’s courtyard, past the large angel statue and disappeared through the trees. Rebecca never called out to her from the window anymore. She wasn’t much higher than the second floor, but her little voice must not reach that far. Miss Anne never looked back.
She watched the sky fade from gray to darker gray, still no rain had fallen. She lit her lamp and hung it on the hook by the window. Rebecca sighed, rolling her apple core along the windowsill, bored.
A sound from below startled her, and she hung her head out the window for a better look. Three young men, probably in their late teens, were laughing and trying to kick over the courtyard angel.
“Oy!” She called. “What do you dandy prats think you are doing?”
The teens stopped dead and turned to look up at the tower, their faces aghast. She could see them clearly. A dark-haired man with brown eyes stood to the left of a blonde with brown eyes. Another blonde was on the right, his foot up on the angel’s thigh.
“I told you this place was haunted.” The dark-haired man nudged the middle blonde.
“Get your boot off of the angel,” she shouted, throwing the apple core as hard as she could at the second blonde.
Petrified, he didn’t move, and the core hit him squarely in the face.
“AH!” he yelled, doubling over. “I think my nose is broken!”
“Let’s get out of here!” the dark-haired man grabbed the bleeding blonde, and they dashed back through the trees, leaving the middle blonde behind.
He stood there, frozen, staring up at Rebecca. The shouts of his friends died out and he was truly alone. He took a few steps closer to the bell tower and craned his neck to get a good look at her. Rebecca withdrew herself back a few steps from the window. She’d never had this much contact with an outsider.
“Who are you?” he called up to her. His tone bore no signs of malice, but there was a hint of fear. Rebecca’s confidence grew, and she drew back to the window.
“My name is Rebecca. Rebecca Bishop. Do you have a name?”
Seeming pleased with her response, he called back, less afraid.
“Alden Scott. Son of the Governor, Hiram Scott.”
“What are you doing, Alden Scott, defacing church property?”
“Forgive me, Rebecca,” he bowed low. “I meant no harm. I will admonish my brother when I see him again for committing such an act. We merely meant to investigate this abandoned church. We heard it was haunted.”
She scowled at him.
“Well, then, I forgive you. But I should not soon forgive your brother.”
“Are you the one who rings the bells?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Yes,” she answered. “Would you like to hear?”
He nodded again.
Rebecca doubled back to the large, bronze bell, gripped the thick cord and pulled. The evening air always seemed to make the resounding knell echo more loudly, like it would wake the dead. She returned to the window to find Alden still there with his hands clamped over his ears.
“Did you enjoy that?” she teased, once the sound faded and he dropped his hands.
He nodded. “How old are you, Rebecca?”
“Twelve. I shall be thirteen next month.”
“So you’re the ghost who haunts this church. How long have you been dead?” he asked.
Rebecca wrinkled her face.
“Ghost? I am not a ghost, I am a girl!” she called back.
He looked at her, puzzled.
“Can I come in to see you?”
She stepped back from the window, pulling her hair to her chest and nervously running her hands through the strands.
“Don’t be scared,” he called up to her gently. “I promise, I mean you no harm.”
Rebecca stepped forward, the lamplight falling across her in the window.
She nodded. “But I don’t know how you can get up here. The door is locked.”
He stopped and thought for a second, then he contemplated the stone exterior of the church.
“I can climb,” he shouted up, grabbing onto the stone and trying to find a foothold.
Rebecca watched curiously as he tried several times to support his weight on the stone. She stepped back and began to look around the tower for something that might help him. She had a blanket on her bed, but it was not long enough to reach him. There were also a scattering of toys, dolls, and ink-stained papers. Nothing useful.
She sighed, turning back to the window. It would’ve been nice to have a friend. She kicked her hair in frustration and watched it coil at her feet. Her eyes widened when she realized it, then she scrambled over to the window, examining it. When she saw the lamp hook, she took down the oil lamp and placed it carefully to the side. Then, she pulled about five feet of hair from her head and wrapped it around the hook. Alden was still clumsily trying to climb as she lowered the rest of her hair down to him.
He looked up at her, shocked, when he saw the length of dark hair being lowered down to him dangling in front of him. Rebecca watched her hair glow ethereally purple as he took it in his hand. In awe, he slid his hand down the hair and watched the purple glow follow it.
“What is this magic?” he breathed, looking up at her.
She waved him up impatiently. Alden grabbed a firm hold and scaled the side of the tower, finally climbing in through the open window. Rebecca unwrapped her hair, which faded back to its dark color, from the hook. Then she took a couple steps back to distance herself from the newcomer as he dusted himself off. The lamplight cast a gold sheen over his blonde hair and he lifted his dark eyes to her.
“You don’t know you’re dead?” he asked her.
Her face scrunched into a scowl.
“That’s because I’m not,” she whined.
He took slow, careful steps toward her, and she couldn’t decide whether to back away from him or let him come closer. He brought with him the fresh scents of chopped wood and lemongrass, smells that only reached her on warm spring days when the dew evaporated in the early morning sun.
She braced herself and looked away as he stepped close enough to touch her. His hand rose from his side, and she winced as he reached for her arm. He could touch her, unlike the ghosts he heard about in stories. She was very solid, like a human, but there was something strange. Rebecca looked closely at where his hand rested gently upon her arm and saw the purple luminance which emanated from her skin and white dress. She looked up at Alden questioningly, and his dark eyes found hers.
“Does this mean I’m a ghost?”
He nodded. “I think so. Normal people do not glow when you touch them.”
“Is that why I am special?” she asked him. “Why Miss Anne says I’m special?”
“Who is Miss Anne?” he looked at her, perplexed.
“The woman who looks after me ever since my mother left a year ago.”
“Who was your mother?”
“Bridget. Bridget Bishop.”
“Bridget Bishop?” he asked “But she didn’t…”
He stopped himself, looking at her sad eyes.
“How often does Miss Anne come by?” he asked instead.
“Everyday,” she sighed, seating herself on the wooden ledge surrounding the bell. “She brings me a present, then she goes into that room over there.”
She pointed and Alden followed her finger to the locked door.
“What’s in there?” He strode over to take a closer look.
“She never says. Just that it’s potion ingredients that she cannot keep at home.”
“Potion ingredients? Is she a doctor?”
Rebecca shrugged. “She did nurse me back to health once.”
Alden reached for the knob and tried to turn it. Locked. He reached into his pockets and pulled out a gold hair pin.
“What is that?” Rebecca asked, getting back to her feet.
“I sto… borrowed this from my mother. It is a gold hair pin.” He dropped his voice to a mumble. “We were going to use it to break into the church.”
Alden pushed the pin into the lock and worked it for a few seconds until there was a click. Slowly, he pulled the door open and peered inside.
“Ugh!” he coughed, pulling his hand up over his mouth.
“What?” Rebecca moved closer cautiously, still keeping her distance.
He turned around and closed the door behind him, leaning against it.
“How long have you been dead?” he asked her.
“I… I don’t know,” she answered. “By your words, I have only just discovered that I am a ghost… why?”
“You’re in here,” he said. “Your body.”
Shock flitted through her eyes.
“How do you know it is mine?”
“Well, I cannot imagine there are many girls with hair as long as yours.”
She was not expecting that answer. She wanted to say something back to him, but the words caught in her throat as she moved to the door. He stepped aside, letting her take a look for herself. She opened it, and the tears filled her eyes.
The body of a young girl, with her same pale face and freckles, lay peacefully on a bed, covered in a transparent, purple glow. Her hair draped to the floor and coiled in a massive heap, the ends trailing out to the middle of the floor.
Alden followed in behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“I stayed in this room when I was sick, shortly after my mother left. I… died here?”
He patted her back in comfort. Suddenly, he stopped.
“Look.” He pointed at the ends on the floor. He stepped around Rebecca and knelt on the floor, lifting a handful of hair for a closer look. The ends were riddled with short, straight cuts at varying intervals.
“It appears Miss Anne has been cutting your hair a little at a time. She must be a witch.”
Alden stood up and moved to the bedside. Rebecca watched anxiously. He turned to her and smiled, withdrawing a knife from his belt.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“I’m going to set you free.”
“The witch has kept your body this way because she needs your hair – it must be special. If I sever the hair from your head, the witch will not be able to use it anymore. Then she will have no reason to keep you like this, will she? ”
Rebecca shrugged. Alden turned and drew the knife through dead girl’s hair, cutting it at the shoulders. He tucked it under her head to look as if nothing had been disturbed.
“Will she be angry?”
“It will not matter if she is. She cannot hurt you.”
Alden ushered her back through the door and closed it behind him, tinkering with the lock until it clicked again.
“Will you play with me?” she asked, her eyes pleading with him.
“Play?” he asked. “Of…of course.”
Her face glowed with joy and she ran to fetch a small wooden horse with a missing leg and dusty doll, the colors fading on its burgundy dress. He graciously took the horse and followed her every whim until the moon had risen high.
“I need to get home now, or my brother might think I was eaten by the ghost of Bishop Church.” He smiled.
She blushed. “Will you come back to see me?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Tomorrow. I promise.”
“Will you be my big brother?”
She grinned even wider when he responded.
After wrapping her hair around the hook again, Rebecca helped Alden through the window, and he climbed down from the tower. She watched him go, waving at him ceaselessly. He turned and gave a her a final smile and a wave before fading into the trees.
The following day, Anne arrived, bestowing a new doll on a very excited Rebecca. Then, she ducked into the locked room, cut apiece of hair, and left through the trap door in the floor.
Rebecca waited eagerly by the window for Alden’s arrival. As the sun dipped, she lit the lamp and hoisted it into the window frame, remaining vigilant in her watch. Then he materialized from the trees as the sun vanished on the horizon. Rebecca jumped, clapping, a grin spreading across her face. She threw her hair over the hook and lowered it down to him. He climbed up faster than the previous night and hoisted himself into the window.
“Thank you for coming back to visit me!” she threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around him in a purple glow.
“It gets so lonely being here all the time by myself. Miss Anne never stays long.”
“Speaking of Miss Anne,” he pulled himself from her. “Did she come back?”
Rebecca nodded. “She went into the room and came back out, like nothing was wrong.”
Alden chuckled to himself.
“You have to see my new doll!”
She ran over to her bed and plucked the new doll and the wooden horse from the bed top. Again, he followed her lead until she asked him what he wanted to play. Alden taught her about parties, and the idea fascinated her.
“May I take your hand, young miss? The music is delightful this evening.”
“Of course you may. I hope your steps are as promising as your eyes.”
They laughed and moved the doll and horse around in dance.
The floor hatch slammed open, making them jump and scramble to their feet. Rebecca recognized Anne’s green hood, but not the face within it. She had never seen Anne’s face contorted in such anger. For a moment, she thought that was the reason it looked so strange.
Rebecca seized Alden’s hand and they slowly stepped backward toward the wall. Anne dropped her hood, and that’s when Rebecca realized something was very wrong. Her face was no longer fresh, taut and elegant. It was gaunt, sallow, sinking in under the cheek bones with dark purple patches under her eyes. Once thick, chestnut hair had become stringy and gray, frazzled and unkempt. She pointed toward Alden with her exceptionally boney hand, her skin pale and putrid with a tinge of gray. She looked like a standing corpse.
“You! You did this!” she screamed, hysterical. “How did you get up here?”
Fear faded from Rebecca’s face, and she stepped in front of Alden.
“I let him climb my hair. He’s my friend,” she said.
“What did you do?” she yelled.
“Why didn’t you tell me that I died?” Rebecca demanded back.
“You didn’t need to know. Your death was an accident. I miscalculated, but I was able to fix my mistake. Preserving your body was a simple matter.”
Alden and Rebecca exchanged puzzled glances.
“Why did you need my hair?” Rebecca asked.
“Is it not obvious?” she replied. “The potion I gave to your mother before you were born would indeed make her able to bear a child. But that child would possess hair that can be harvested for a more youthful appearance and I wanted it to extend my life.”
“I know who you are,” Alden exclaimed. “You convinced the town that Bridget Bishop was a witch. She was convicted and hanged.”
“I thought my mother left?” Her sad eyes filled with surprise as she turned them onto him.
Anne cackled and shook her head.
“You’re a smart boy.”
She turned to Rebecca.
“In order to get to you, I had to get rid of your mother, but I foolishly misinterpreted the spell. If the birth mother dies, so does the child. However, I was able to salvage my mistake.”
She drew a knife from her bag and pointed it at Alden.
“What did you do to the hair?” she asked aggressively.
“I cut it,” he spat back at her. “Only a monster would keep an innocent child imprisoned here.”
Rebecca took a step back next to Alden and pulled his shirt so he would lower his ear to her.
“When I move, run,” she hissed. He nodded.
Rebecca slammed herself into Anne, knocking her off balance. Alden dove toward the hatch, reaching for the handle. Anne pushed Rebecca away, and she rolled sideways into bell’s ledge. As Alden pulled the hatch open Anne flicked the knife from her hand and it plunged into his chest. He dropped to his knees and the hatch slammed shut. He wrenched the dagger from his ribs, cast it aside and crumpled to the floor.
“NO!” shrieked Rebecca. Panicking, Rebecca reached for the bell’s rope,ripping the cord down and jarring the bell into a resounding “BONG!” Anne ducked, covering her ears from the agonizing sound, the vibrations knocking her unsteady. Rebecca turned and pushed Anne as hard as she could. Unable to regain her balance, Anne fell backwards, slipping on Rebecca’s hair, against the window sill and toppled over the edge. Rebecca dashed to the window in time to watch Anne hit the ground where she remained, unmoving.
She peeled back from the window and raced over to Alden. Easing him onto his back, she felt the panic rise within her as his breathing became more ragged. He opened his eyes and looked into her sorrowful face. She began to glow as she held him. He smiled at her.
“At least-” he coughed. “At least you’re free now.”
“No, no, no…” she pleaded. “You can’t leave me! I don’t want to be alone!”
Tears began pouring from her in endless waves, and she threw herself over him, her hair covering him like a blanket. He ran his hands over her head and through her glowing purple hair.
He noticed his hand. He could see it through her hair. The hair was starting to fade, and it slowly grew more transparent.
“Rebecca,” he whispered.
She lifted her head to look at him, sniffling. He smiled, the bell now visible through her head. He coughed again, feeling the blood seeping into his chest. Talking was now impossible. Letting death come, he closed his eyes. Rebecca crumpled over him again, and her cries grew louder, but echoed, as if they were originating from another place. Alden placed his hand over her head again. It fell through nothing, landing on his chest, and he breathed his last.