They warned her. No one could say she hadn’t been warned.
They told her terrible things would happen if she touched herself that way.
“Terrible things will happen, Hester,” they said. They said it to all the girls in Pilgrims’ Hook. It was an old warning; it moved among other old warnings, because Pilgrims’ Hook was an old place. It was a place of few cars and many horses. It was a place of strict hair, black dresses, and burning eyes. The ghost of the Mayflower prowled its shore. The ghosts of Indians moved like smoke in the woods.
“Terrible things!” thundered Reverend Cromwell in the ancient stone church, his voice like cracking stone.
Hester did it anyway, the forbidden thing. Not until she was older, though, with a job at the train station ticket window. Not a very busy job, considering that no one ever bought a ticket. The train boomed out of the south tunnel, howling its diesel howl, throbbed past the village, and vanished into the north tunnel. Twice a day the train burst through, and it never stopped, not ever. Hester’s job was a lonely job, a boring job. The boredom often led her to indulge in daydreaming, which sometimes led to surprisingly improper fantasies. The improper fantasies led, eventually, to a wicked tingling between her legs.
One long October afternoon she did the thing she’d been warned not to do.
Nothing terrible happened, at least not right away. She felt, if anything, that she had made a delicious discovery. She whispered softly to herself all the way home, hands buried in her coat pockets against the chill.
“Taboo,” she whispered to herself.
“Taboo,” she whispered to the grocery and the gas station and the scarecrows in the fields. The next morning, Hester’s hair had become a nest of snakes.
Although this shocked her, Hester didn’t scream. She’d been warned, after all. No one could say she hadn’t been warned.
The snakes were surprisingly tame. They allowed themselves to be twisted into braids, tongues flicking at the hem of her woolen cap. By the time she’d walked halfway to the depot, between the churchyard and the hardware store, she’d forgotten about the snakes entirely. After a long morning reading magazines behind the ticket grate, she was on the verge of doing the forbidden thing again when Long Tom Hawthorn strolled up and leaned outside the window. She quickly hid the magazine—Reverend Cromwell frowned on magazines—and gave her cap a cautious adjustment.
“Good morning,” said Long Tom Hawthorn.
“Yes,” answered Hester, meeting his eyes. “Yes, it is.”
Long Tom stood looking down at her for a long time without speaking. Hester blushed, at first, mistaking his stare for flattery, but then her eyes narrowed. Something was wrong. Stumbling outside, she gave Long Tom a square kick in the knee. He didn’t budge. He’d been turned to stone.
The snakes beneath her cap gave a rattle.
“Oh, fuck!” cried Hester.
She toppled him into the grass and kicked a pile of dry leaves over him. Then she covered her eyes with her hands and ran home blind. She locked herself in her room, and put on a pair of very dark sunglasses.
Someone knocked at the door.
“Hester!” bellowed a voice on the other side. “Open up, girl, this instant!”
It was Latham Standish, who ran the hardware store and the train station. Latham Standish, her boss.
“Open up, girl!” he repeated, pounding. “There’s no one on duty at the depot!”
Hester opened the door, and delivered an expert curtsy.
“I’m not well,” she told him, trembling. “Begging pardon.”
“Not well!” he sneered. “‘Not well’ means lazy, that’s all!” He reached for her elbow and jerked her into the hall. Without thought, Hester whipped off her sunglasses and offered Standish a teary-eyed glare. An instant later he crashed down the stairs, a statue in a storekeeper’s apron.
“Well!” sighed Hester regretfully, fidgeting with her hands. But she didn’t fidget long; Pilgrims’ Hook people were strict-minded folk. They made decisions quickly, moved with conviction. Three minutes later, Hester was out the back door in an old black shawl, with a bundle of clothes and canned food on her back. She kept her sunglasses aimed at the ground, watching the cobblestone street pass by one hurried step at a time, straight as a ruler toward the woods.
“What will become of me?” she wondered.
The cobblestones fell into shadow. Two black boots appeared, boots with iron buckles. Reverend Cromwell towered over her, eyes burning the way ice burns in sunlight. He was a tall man, oddly built, as if a shipwreck had scraped itself together and creaked ashore in a black hat.
“Where are you going, sister Hester?” he rumbled. “Your chair at the depot is empty, and I’ve not seen Tom Hawthorn today. I’ve not seen Goodman Standish today. Where are you going?”
With a sorrowful sigh, Hester allowed her glasses to slip. She gazed her horrible gaze, but quick as a horsewhip Cromwell tucked a pair of mirrored spectacles onto his nose. He smiled thinly, revealing yellow teeth.
Hester growled in frustration and darted around him, up the street. Behind her, he raised his knobby walking stick high in the air and shook it after her.
“Terrible things!” he roared, then creaked off, tall and crooked, toward the church.
* * * * *
The woods enfolded Hester. Deep she went, over stony creeks and giant roots. October brushed at her in flurries of dead leaves. Indian ghosts planted ghost corn in her footsteps.
She built a lean-to in the shadow of a black oak tree, opened a can of bacon and beans, and ate and shivered and ate. The moon poured down through the October branches. By and by, near midnight, voices approached her lean-to. Excited voices, voices she knew. Fearfully, angrily, Hester stood and faced the dark. Removing her glasses, she stared her horrid stare at the ring of torches which burned through the forest, surrounding her.
“Careful!” whispered the voices. “Easy, sister!” The voices were gentle but urgent. They were the voices of women, old and young.
“My!” said Hester, slipping her glasses on. She let her woolen cap fall to the ground. She undid her braids and the snakes rose proudly, stylishly, in the moonlight.
“Teach us,” breathed the women, jack-o-lantern faces in firelight. They crowded closer. Hester told them what little she knew, and the forbidden things which were done by the black oak that night were secret beyond secrecy.
* * * * *
On a gray morning in early November, a train boomed out of the south tunnel, howling its diesel howl, and huffed to a stop in front of the abandoned depot. A single woman waited on the platform. A single woman in a black shawl, wearing sunglasses. The cap on her head writhed strangely. A crow perched on her shoulder.
“Pilgrims’ Hook?” asked the cargomaster, stepping down from the train in a cloud of steam.
“Yes,” the woman replied.
The cargomaster unloaded a pile of packages. The packages were wrapped in brown paper. They appeared anonymous, confidential, the sort of packages which might be ordered from the backs of magazines. The peculiar woman signed for the packages with a quick scrawl, and the cargomaster hopped aboard as the train heaved away.
He shivered as he surveyed the passing village, the silent village, where the figures of men stood as if frozen in arrested stride or flight. They stood in the shadows of the hardware store, the gas station, the church. It was a village of statues and unraked leaves, and when the train vanished into the north tunnel the cargomaster breathed more easily.
* * * * *
Long after nightfall, Reverend Cromwell stood at the rectory window, stroking his Bible with white knuckles. His eyes burned with a thing which, in another man, would have been desire.
He waited, and it came. An unfamiliar hum, rising in the mist, in the dark of the new moon. A New World sound, a great battery-operated buzzing, a great sigh, a warm groan behind many dark, dark windows.
“Taboo,” muttered Cromwell, weakening, changing. The thing in his eyes which would have been desire became desire after all.
They had warned him. No one could say he hadn’t been warned.
Shadows writhed behind windows. Lone shadows with rolling shoulders, open mouths, arching backs.
“Terrible things will happen if you touch yourself that way,” they had said, down the long years. “Terrible things!”
He did it anyway. He couldn’t help it.
* * * * *
In the cold and the dark of early November, the rectory door creaked open. A snake crawled down the steps and into the churchyard, a snake in a sober black hat, burrowing among dead leaves and old roots. It curled among the roots, eyes burning the way foxfire burns, the way moonlight burns on dark water.
Here and there in the straight, sensible houses, a pot banged or a pan clattered. A train boomed out of the south tunnel, slithered past the village, and vanished into the north tunnel, leaving an echo like the ghost of an Indian drum. The village, in its wake, gave voice to a sleek, electric hiss.