by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
A witch was believed to have animal familiars, or imps, who nourished themselves on her body, performed evil acts at her command, and were themselves supernatural beings. . . . A witch could also turn herself into an animal in order to carry out her evil deeds without being recognized. Or she could recruit real animals to do her bidding, or turn other people into animals if it suited her purpose.
–Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England
When Thomas’s hands began slapping at his own he knew all was done, but still strove for some time longer, blowing breath and fumbling for his yard, until at last Thomas threw him off the bed altogether and sat up. Michael fell to one knee and then staggered to his feet, hovering like a fool’s ghost. In the full moonlight he could see the serving-boy’s glare.
“You’ll never leave this devilish sin till you are hanged,” Thomas snapped. Michael’s chest clenched with the sight of him, moon-gilded and muddled from sleep. The serving-boy (who was no boy at all, but had twenty-two years and would be husband to Anne Smith come next spring, when his indenture was done) pushed blankets from his lap and sat with arms folded. “May the Lord forgive you your sinning, Goodman Clarke, but mind you even He may not forebear with ye much longer.”
There was little Michael could say to that. Instead he gathered himself to escape, and then his eyes fell on the cot’s other side, where the blankets had been rucked up but no one lay. His curiosity caught and kept him, frowning at Thomas. “Where is the new boy? Does he not sleep beside you?”
“Why? Would you have at him now that I’ve done with ye?” Michael’s expression must have been particularly stricken, however, because at last Thomas softened his edge. “I know not. Gone to the privy, I expect. He keeps strange hours and his own counsel.”
“Thomas,” Michael said, at last, and the serving-boy lay back down abruptly. Not with his back turned, though, he saw with sour amusement; young Thomas did not even wish to turn his back parts toward his master, out of fear of temptation.
“Nay, leave off, I pray you. Though I hate the sin in you you’re a good man else, and I’d not have to wake the household to drive you off. Go back to your wife and leave me to sleep, I pray.”
That month Thomas at last left his service, with his indenture yet incomplete, and did not scruple to tell the reason why when asked. Michael did not pursue the matter. In fact he asked in his prayers that all of it should pass quickly, and be gone from the minds of all his neighbors no sooner than it had come. These prayers were not answered, but he saw no reason why they should be. Indeed, Elder Winthrop came to speak with him soon after, and spoke most sternly; but in the face of Goodman Clarke’s most earnest promise of good behavior, he ruled that there should be no punishment, the young man in question being out of harm’s way in any case. He went his way in peace, but with a troubled expression Michael most misliked.
He attended to the pastor on the Sabbath as he spoke of impurity and vileness, and of the love of the divine bridegroom Christ, which penetrated the heart and poured forth sweet liquors into its waiting vial. In the bare pew beside his wife Michael closed his eyes and meditated on Christ, in his mind’s eye a young and lovely man of pale skin and sad eyes, who first hung naked on a cross, for him, then waited in a divine bedchamber with hands outstretched. Why did Michael so wound his heart with his sin? the young man’s sad eyes seemed to say. Could he not see the pain he caused one who loved him so?
And in his own heart, as he always did, Michael Clarke did repent.
He had some wealth of land from his father, and had made more trading on the river, all the way down to the bay. He had a good head for the shipping trade, and had a fine estate now on his family land, a place of respect in the community. He had married well, and Sarah had always run the household well, and served him in every respect. Well, all save one; their marriage continued childless, after nigh eleven years. But that was in the hands of God, their neighbors said, and no cause for shame for either husband or wife. Although some of them may have believed a different truth, this was the only one they spoke.
There had always been servants; women, some of them, but more young men, some little more than boys and many handsome of face, new to the colonies or only to Connecticut and needing to pay their passage. He had watched and admired them, had friended and flattered betimes, but had dared nothing until Thomas — Thomas of his half-lidded eyes and light, guileless smile, Thomas who at first had not minded being kissed or even touched, in a back pantry seldom used or in his night-dark cot when his bedmate could be made sure to be asleep. Thomas who had only begun to mind when he had been engaged to be married, and had heard what was said in town by people of no account themselves, about how Goodman Clarke chose to make use of his one particular servant.
In the months after Thomas had gone Michael thought of him often; he thought of laying atop him in the dark, as the boy who tended the stable slept on in aromatic silence at Thomas’s side, Thomas’s soft demurrals as he tried with catching breath to turn the lad’s breech to him to be entered. The fabric rumpling aside and Thomas’s breath and voice as Michael took hold of his yard, making it hard in his hand, Thomas’s hand warm and grasping and slightly sweat-slick when Michael had coaxed it to the vexing heat of his own member. He striving and reaching, and weary when it was done, as though something had gone out from him that could not be replaced. It had sated his fever of temptation but nothing more, and though he tried he could not think what else there was to be sated. He had crept back to his wife and lain awake in darkness. In time he had risen again and knelt to pray, and in the end wept as he did. He had never needed a servant boy to tell him he was damned.
The new boy came to replace Thomas in his duties that summer. He was not really very new — he had served for some few months when Thomas took his leave — but he always seemed new, indeed keeping his own counsels. Michael had never so much as learned his name; it was Jan, he discovered in time, but discovered little else. He looked younger than Thomas had been, perhaps not yet twenty, with a softness of cheek and mouth and a stormy brow that suggested a youth’s untried will. He was tall and lean, with a spill of dark hair and darker eyes beneath it, brown as a savage from the sun even in the winter months. It was said he had been some months in the wild lands to the west, where he had spent some time as a solitary woodsman, trapping and trading with the French and Indians, and there was an odd cadence to his speech that seemed to corroborate this tale. At times, when he had no other work in the house, he would still go out to the river alone and somehow catch fine large fish, or disappear into the woodland close at hand and return with a plump rabbit or a deer over his shoulder. Michael’s lady wife disliked the boy; she said he was insolent, and although he never spoke so Michael could see what she had found in his eyes to suggest insolence. He had a bold stare by his nature, almost a madman’s look, or an animal’s.
He did not replace Thomas in Michael’s thoughts, however — not at first. Those lingered on the few sweet times he had spent with the serving-boy, and puzzled over how such a sin could, even to its owner, still seem so sweet.
One afternoon it came to pass that Michael, strolling the bank of the river where it touched his property and dwelling on his long thoughts of young Thomas, came upon Jan drying himself from a swim, lying naked on the grass. His clothes were folded into a careless pile beneath his head, and his body was damp and bronzed from tip to toes, Michael saw through the reeling of his mind. He stood staring for he knew not how long before the boy’s eyes cracked open, and the smirk that flowered on Jan’s lips nearly drove him back a step.
“Is there something you want of me, Goodman Clarke?” he inquired. He had a lazy, insouciant voice, drawling with the faint gutturals that barely whispered of New World French. Confronted by so bold and bald a question — a seeming invitation — Michael was bowled over; words fled his mouth, and he even felt a passing urge to flee.
But it was passing, and his need was too great.
“Will you be still and let me lie with you?” Michael asked him, in a voice slightly cracked and shaking. It was a glutton’s voice in a hall of feasting, and it seemed he always hungered. “An you will, you’ll have a charge of powder, and — and an extra shilling to your week’s wages.”
This was absurd — a king’s ransom — and Jan’s smirk cracked into a broad and easy smile that said he knew it. “As you will, Goodman,” he said, lifting one of his narrow shoulders in a shrug. He rolled onto his belly, and lay still and content, his arms still folded under his chin.
Again Michael was struck numb and dumb — so easy? After so long, so easy? Only bribery at last, and the courage to ask? Or was it something more? Was it Jan who had made it so?
He cared little, or not at all. For now the boy was willing, and Michael could not see past when he would spend himself in having him. He stood straddling him with a boot on either side, his breath blowing and panting in his ears again, a detestable noise. He knelt over Jan and opened his trews, taking out his yard and pressing down over the boy, placing his yard between the boy’s cheeks; Jan stirred, but without protest, pressing his breech instead up into the hardest part of his master. Michael groaned and pushed back, rubbing himself down and up again the crack. He did not enter the boy, having nothing with which to ease the way, but merely moved in the same manner, firm flesh pressed around his member and setting him afire. The sun was bright and warm on his back, making the cloth of his fine shirt and coat hot against his skin. Wind soughed through the grass and the river poured by with a low roar, and he grunted and strove atop Jan until he seemed all alight, every nerve and sinew, his yard pulsing with the sparks of want that would soon catch in the tinder below it and end in righteous fire.
He cried out as he spent his seed within the furrow of Jan’s breech, and the boy sighed and arched against him, pressing up his back parts to speed Michael’s passage. Michael was left gasping, propped upon one hand and staring down unseeing on his sagging yard and milky leavings. As if in a dream he pushed himself up again, and fastening his clothing again went away from Jan, who never moved, not once. Even to clean himself of Michael’s seed, he waited until Michael had gone.
What he had not been denied once, Michael was helpless not to crave again, and from thence forward he sought out Jan at every opportunity, in every secluded corner and every darkened doorway. He continued to offer rewards at first, and then found that when he forgot and simply had at Jan, the boy still did not seem to mind; he said “As you will, Goodman,” as he always had, and seemed content enough that Michael was able to give pleasure as well as take — which he had also craved. Ironically or perhaps not, although his obsession left him shaken and sickened, all but mortally afraid for the condition of his soul, it also left him less time for repentance, now that all his time was occupied in having Jan in every way he could imagine. He still prayed after every tryst, but without tears or even any real hope, listened to the Sabbath warnings and entreaties but with half an ear, the greater part of him thinking instead of the food for which his glutton’s belly rumbled.
However, the increasing frequency of his sportings with Jan also finally brought the boy’s absences to his notice. As often as not, if he should go to seek Jan in his servant’s cot at night, Michael was disappointed; if the moon were any more than a sliver and the sky unclouded enough to show her face at all, then Jan would be gone. To where, Michael knew not, and did not dare ask, even of a mere half-wild boy who was his own servant. Something about Jan frightened him, if he were to be honest with himself. Never in all the times he sought Jan out to take his pleasure in him did he ever feel as though he were entirely — or even mostly — in control of the encounter.
One night, as the colored sunset drew down to true dusk outside the storehouse where they lay, he chanced to ask Jan how old he was. Jan laughed, seeming to find the question utterly ridiculous.
“How old do I seem to be?” he asked, and sounded as much sincere as full of fun. Michael searched for his answer, and found it far more difficult than it should have been.
“Nineteen, I should say. Or perhaps eighteen if not.”
“Then that is how old I must be,” Jan replied, sounding gay. Michael frowned and drew back to look upon him.
“Which?” he asked, and Jan laughed again. When he did, he shewed his teeth, which were like none Michael had ever seen; bright white, all there and seeming to be too many, so that his mouth bristled, like a dog’s.
“Nineteen,” he said, and took Michael’s yard into his hand, driving most thoughts at once from his head. “Or eighteen, if not.”
He was mysterious, to be sure. But he seemed real, in a way scarcely anyone Michael had known ever had seemed before. As this time went on Sarah took, without a word, to sleeping apart, bedding down at night with her little maid. Michael found that he was glad.
The summer passed into harvest time, and out on the little farms to either side laborers began to bring in the crops. The air became crisp but remained pleasant out-of-doors. The year drew to a end, its passing marked by the usual leanness of trees and grass, and the calls of birds as they flew on to warmer climes.
In the darkest part of one night in early autumn, Michael, overcome with an unpleasant blending of mischief and frustration, found Jan not in his bed, and decided, this time, to wait for him. Still no other serving-boy shared his cot — the servants were odd in number as this year closed — and Michael lay down upon it, resting his head on the rough pillow and his stockinged feet up on the rumple of old blankets at the end. For some hours, he knew not how many, he dozed lightly, drifting in and out of strange dreams of the moon and a sliver of a grinning face, a hand that bled.
These dreams fed his disquiet when he awoke, and found Jan standing above him, a cut-out shadow edged in moonlight. He was naked again, his long lean body bare, and his feet stood bare upon the boards before the cot. There was more moonlight closer to the ground, a shaft of it that lay across the floor from the narrow window, and in it Michael could see those feet were caked in mud, wet splashes of it climbing up to where the darkness swallowed Jan’s legs again, almost at the hip. There was grass in it, grass under his dangling fingernails, an unevenness to the line of his hair that suggested twigs and leaves caught there. Michael tried to speak, but found he could not; Jan’s face was invisible in darkness, and he could not read its weather. And something else caught his eye, picked out in the low moonlight on the floor, just beyond where Jan’s muddy feet stood, trailing back toward the doorway and disappearing into shadows.
A line of pawprints, caked in mud on the floor. The animal that had made them must have been enormous; if Michael had placed his hand spread out on one of those muddy leavings, the tread would have contained it entirely.
He looked up at Jan again, and, so far as he could tell, Jan looked back down at him. It occurred to Michael to wonder if he might still be dreaming, but of course that was too easy, and rang false at any rate. He was a man of education, and of the world, and he attended to the words that others spoke, even of gossip. He knew the meaning of such things.
“Are you a witch, then?” he said, feeling the paper-dryness of his voice. “Is that it?” Jan moved at last; his head cocked on the side, slightly, as a dog listening to his master’s command — or a wolf to others’ howling.
“Am I?” Jan replied. He did not seem to be merely echoing Michael’s question, or mocking it; indeed, he still seemed to ask in earnest, curious of the response.
Still fearing to do it — fearing the dark and Jan’s unseeable face — Michael pointed with his finger at the muddy marks made by paws on the floor. “A witch may alter his shape to better do the devil’s business.” His voice continued dry and hoarse. Jan nodded, the shape of his head dipping in the moonlight.
“Then it’s a witch I must be,” he said; “and about the devil’s business.” And now Michael thought he could hear a hint of a smile in his voice. “And you, Goodman Clarke? Will you tell the pastor? The elders? Will you send me hanged to save my soul?”
There were long moments when he could think nothing, speak nothing. At the end of them, slowly, Michael shook his head. “Not I,” he said in half a whisper. “What right has one damned soul to condemn another?”
The smile in Jan’s voice grew. “And if I should be the devil himself? Turning to a beast in the light of the moon, and serving my own purposes? Come to you in guise of a comely boy, to tempt your soul into sin?”
It was not, Michael had to confess, a thought that failed to cross his mind. “Then I am lost,” he said simply, without hesitation. “You need tempt no longer; my soul is already yours.”
At that Jan laughed — not the gay laughter of when Michael had asked him his age, but a softer, slower laugh, rich with promise. Saying nothing more, he knelt on the bed over Michael, a knee to either side of his hip, his bare flesh moonlight-sketched and warm on Michael’s clothed skin. He took hold of Michael’s nightshirt and thrust it above his head, stripping it off from his arms; then, faced with no protest, he seized the waist of Michael’s soft breeches as well and dragged them down and away, moving his body to let them pass by, away from his feet and to the floor. Even the stockings of Michael’s feet he took away and cast aside, leaving him as bare as the boy himself, and feeling near as wild. Jan straddled him again, and reached into a heap of cloth beneath the cot, finding something; after fussing with it for a moment, he took Michael’s yard in a wet slipping hand, and made it slick with whatever he had retrieved. It smelt faintly of herbs and oil. He knelt over Michael’s yard, and lowered himself on his knees so that Michael entered him, and their gasps were a music together.
With the boy atop him, Michael clamped down hands over either of Jan’s hips and held them fast, thrusting up into him in delirium and ecstasy. In time Jan pried one of his hands away and pressed it round his member, coaxing Michael to stroke, and he did in time with his own thrusting. The moonlight was bright in the corners of the room, Jan darkness above him in relief against it. He worked his hips in tight fast rhythm and thought damned, damned, damned, damned, on nearly every stroke, until the word had ceased to mean anything at all.
He spent himself inside the boy, Jan crying out and straining atop him also, and they scratched and then clutched at each other and hung still and shuddering until all was done, making the same sounds, falling into the same quiet after. Jan extracted him with a small hiss at last, and tumbled to his chest, resting in his arms in the darkness. When at last Michael went away from him and to his larger bed, he did so with regret.
In morning light he tried to believe that what had occurred in the night — what he had seen, and done — had been but a dream, but he could not. He knew the truth of it, and though it chilled his heart, he kept to his oath and spoke nothing of it. In the days that followed, however, he almost feared to meet Jan’s eyes; when he did, he was sure he saw laughter in them, mocking laughter and perhaps all the flames of Hell as well. He began to notice things that he had missed before, and that the rest of the household missed still: the way Jan’s grin bared all his too many teeth — the way his nose flared when he was addressed by a stranger, as though marking the man’s smell — the way the coneys he brought back from the woods bore no mark of trap or snare, but were neck-broken, and on closer view were marked by rings of red wounds like those made by teeth.
Perhaps two weeks later he woke in the night, startled out of sleep by some sound, and opened his eyes on darkness. A board creaked, and he thought he heard a sound of breath, but these were ordinary noises of the house at night, with so many servants sleeping close — and then he heard the sound, unmistakable, of a tread on the floor. A soft, heavy footfall. The step of a paw.
Hot, sour breath washed over his face, and he jerked, drawing up in his bed and away. There was a chuff across his cheek, a heavy growling breath eerily like a laugh — though a laugh from some large animal’s throat. Michael’s first drowsy thought — that some creature from the woods had crept in through an unlatched door and been drawn to where he slept — blew away like smoke. This was no badger or clever fox. It was larger — and it had laughed.
And before he could recover from the odd certainty of this idea, he found that it spoke as well.
“Good even, Goodman,” the beast said in a purring growling voice, like the sound of cloth being torn in two. “You smell frightened, but worry not. Most like you are only dreaming, and safe in your bed as you do.”
Michael did not argue, although he knew a greater truth. His breath had stopped in his throat.
The beast leapt up upon his bed, an agile bulk in the darkness. Its heavy paw fell on his leg as it landed, another between his sprawling knees. It padded up to his chest, resting both its forepaws upon it, and panted its breath in his face again: sour as a dog’s, but not unpleasant. The dark shape of it was shaggy, also vaguely like a dog, and yet too large. A wolf, perhaps. A wolf, standing on his bedclothes, on his bed, atop his chest, leering down into his face. He put his hands up, trembling, into the dark, and felt for it until both his fists seized loose clutches of its fur. It was coarse, but soft, matted here and there with brambles or with twigs. He worked one loose, and the wolf made a low sound of approval.
“Be still and let me lie with you,” it said in its rumbling laughing voice, and in his shock he dropped his hands away. The wolf seized his nightshirt nimbly in its teeth, and turned him by the grip onto his front. His nightclothes were torn, his skin scratched, and it fell on him — he half expected to be eaten alive — but the thing mounted him like a heat-ready bitch, and he felt its hot breath across his ear…
He found the next morning that he had forgotten all that came after, and counted it as a blessing of sorts; he had no desire to remember, or at least thought he did not. He feared Jan’s eyes all the more after — and yet even this did not convince him to avoid the boy. Indeed, it seemed to increase his longing, and in daylight he continued to find Jan pleasant company even when he made no sport with the boy — increasingly, in walks and conversations, when Jan’s servant’s chores were done. The danger in his gaze was still there — all the worse, to be true — and yet it daunted Michael little. As he had said, if he were to be damned, it had already come to pass.
His neighbors in the town were not and had never been ignorant of his peculiarities. For his small flatteries and — after Thomas — occasional stolen touches, he had acquired an unhappy sort of reputation for the misuse of his servant boys. Twice in Thomas’s stay, when some overstep of Michael’s had finally caused the young man to speak out his outrage to his friends and family, the town elders — once Winthrop, and once both Winthrop and Elder Kingston — had personally rebuked him, and the second time both fined him the cost of reparations to Thomas, and threatened him with the stocks if he did not cease his abuses. He promised humbly that he would do so, and perhaps for a time even meant it. But his resistance to temptation had ever been poor.
Where there was gossip and ill reputation, however, there was also forgiveness; he was respected in the community, and his wealth afforded him some protection from its members, since it was so often spread among them and helped sustain their own farms and businesses. Wives greeted him with smiles in the street, husbands spoke soothingly to the elders to whom Thomas’s kin had complained, and they looked sidelong whenever Michael’s eye caught admiring on a well-looking lad. He was liked, and he was needed. He shuddered to imagine his condition, were it not so.
So far there had been no trouble with Jan, because Jan had never complained, nor indeed shewed any sign that he was displeased by any aspect of his station. He kept his own counsels as always, and no man could claim to know his mind. Townsfolk might have suspected what was amiss, and Sarah surely did, but as long as the serving-boy did not mind to be so used, where was the harm?
Well, naturally the harm was to Michael’s own soul, but that hardly needed be said. He attended church as faithfully as any of God’s elect, however, and none doubted he prayed forgiveness, and perhaps all might yet be put right with him. Or at least, this was what was said. Michael himself was less sure — was even, sneakingly, coming to be unsure of his own place in the choir of God’s elect, had doubted whether he had ever deserved to shine as a beacon of the “city on the hill” even before Satan’s hound itself had had its way with him, but of course he spoke of this to no man, least of all to the pastor. The pastor was a fine speaker but a forbidding man, stern-browed and narrow-lipped, not inviting of confidences bearing on fears for one’s immortal soul. Like Jan, Michael kept his own counsels that autumn.
In the end, though, it saved neither one. Michael was the first to know of Jan’s peculiarities, but it never crossed his mind that this hardly meant he would be the last. He went by coach to Hartford in late October, with the leaves all around falling golden from the trees, to discuss an arrangement with a large shipping concern there, Sexton and Smith, concerning several barges of lumber. When he returned after just over a fortnight, stepping down from the coach, he was met by John the stable-boy, not Jan as he would have expected. Frowning, fearing what John might think and yet stronger in his worry than his fear, he said, “Good even, John. I pray you, tell me why Jan does not serve?”
If John thought anything odd of the inquiry, he shewed nothing in his face; all that was there was a grim wedding of horror and embarrassment. “I beg your pardon, Goodman Clarke,” he said hesitatingly, twisting his horse-grimed hands, “but he’s been taken to be tested and tried. Accused as a witch, Goodman.”
Michael stared. John twisted quite a bit more under his huge blank eyes, but for a moment he could do little else. “By whom?” he asked, at last, forcing the words from his dry throat. “Who accuses him?”
John looked more uncomfortable than ever, which was quite impressive. Stable or no, his boyhood was far behind him; he was a man past Michael’s age, with deep lines carved into his face, and in this state they all squeezed together and made him resemble a wrung cloth. “Why, Goodwife Clarke, Goodman,” he said, at last. “For ’twas she saw him in the dead of night, running naked’s the day he was born from the house, and turning himself to a running beast.” He looked a trifle faint as he said so, and at the same time avid, a look that might have been amusing on another day. “She told what she saw to the pastor, and he the elders, and the boy was taken.”
Michael turned toward the house, staring without seeing, thinking nothing. There was nothing he could do, of course. Nothing but profess ignorance, and perhaps save himself. He could not even fault his wife; she had simply done what any good Christian woman would, what any good Christian would, in the face of a familiar of the devil. It had been bound to happen all along. Jan had always been so lazy, so easy, never careful at all. What was there to do?
He handed his coat to the stable-boy without another word, and walked up the cobbled path to the house that had no puzzling, no unsettling, no lovely Jan within it.
He bid himself forget. All that could be done was to stand clear and let testing and trial take their course, which, it was certain, would end with Jan hanged. It could end no other way. He was a servant, a stranger, with no family and no protection, and long thought wild and uncanny even by those who might never even have imagined him a witch until hearing it by proxy from Goody Clarke. Moreover, he added to his thoughts almost offhandedly, Jan was guilty; Michael knew it for a fact. Even if he did nothing but stand away and let Jan be condemned, he would be lucky not to be tarred with the same brush; it was of some aid that his own wife had been the one to decry the boy, but not of much. A household that had harbored a witch as servant was never looked upon the same again, he knew. He had never seen it happen but had heard tales: the unfortunate were treated with mingled pity and dread, victims who could nonetheless never be fully innocent again. And if through some fever of madness he did try to speak in Jan’s defense… well, angry and frightened farmers and merchants might no longer forgive him the faults they had so long overlooked. Much ugly truth would most likely come to light, and it was truth that his standing could not easily survive.
And another thought intruded on him throughout, the one that at last decided him: that if Jan were indeed the witch he seemed to be (or the devil himself, Michael struggled not to add), then surely he could save himself from the noose.
So he did stand away — but forget he found he could not. Jan was kept in the gaol for many a day, while inquisitors investigated every inch of him for devil’s marks or teats at which he might suckle familiars (which was laughable, in a way; Jan was his own familiar), then tortured him with brands to attempt to elicit a confession that might speed matters on their way. On the third night, Michael came to the gaol furtively, under cover of darkness, and asked that he be allowed to speak with the boy. The young man who kept the gaol eyed him with suspicion, and asked why he should wish such a thing.
“He has injured my person and my house,” Michael said stiffly, looking past him already, to the crooked stairway that led down to where lay the earthen cells. “I wish to rebuke him myself before he is delivered to the greater retribution of Our Lord.”
This seemed to satisfy, at least provisionally; the young man laid hold of the keys to the cell, and led Michael down to where Jan was imprisoned. He unlocked the cell and gestured him inside, and then hovered outside at the foot of the stairs, watching with open curiosity. Michael thought to ask him to leave, but dared not. It would be taken most ill.
He bent over Jan, and looked upon the boy. Jan was crumpled in a heap, under the single cot rather than atop it, his garments ragged and knees drawn up to his slim chest. He was filthy and hurt, and Michael turned his eyes from the many burns laid on his skin. When for long Michael did not speak, Jan slowly raised his head, and saw the face of his visitor. A curious look came into his gaze: a weary, rueful one Michael had never seen there before. A look that made his eyes so sad.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said; “they’ll take you for a witch too, or worse.”
“I’ve come to renounce you for your wickedness,” Michael said by rote, “and to curse you for your abuses of my family and house.” But his eyes held on Jan, and he prayed that they held another truth, and one that Jan could see. And his prayer seemed heard; Jan’s lovely toothy mouth curved, sending him a raw and wild smile.
“Renounce me then,” he said, drawing himself up to his feet in a slow painful lumber, spreading his arms out wide. And Michael could say nothing at all.
Behind him, bored or unsettled he knew not, the gaolkeeper clumped back up the stairs. When he was fully gone at once Jan was upon him, thin arms clutching, face hot on his breast above his heart.
“You must go,” Jan whispered. “You must go or be hanged, you know it full well.”
As if lost on its way, Michael’s hand came up slow as could be, taking firm hold of Jan’s head and holding it near. “I’ll not leave you,” he murmured, at once forgetting all his promises in the sweat tangle of Jan’s hair. “Let me be hanged, but I’ll remain.”
Incredibly, Jan laughed, his many-toothed and gay old laugh, and planted his palms in Michael’s chest to push away and look upon him. “That serves neither of us,” he remarked, and touched Michael’s mouth. Something had been done to the nails of his fingers that Michael misliked to imagine. “I’ve done all that I can for you, Goodman Clarke, and now I must ask that you do this for me: go free and forget me.”
“I never will,” Michael said at once. “Ask whatever else ye may, but not that.” Truth struck him as impulse, and he blurted: “You’re all that’s ever made me glad.”
And Jan smiled, smiled in a way that dazzled, but spoke nothing. In the faint light of the lamps the gaolkeeper had lit, he seemed fairly to glow with that smile.
“What are you, Jan?” Michael asked after his silence. “I can no longer think ye a witch, nor the devil either; for neither such creature was ever pleased to bring joy to any man.” He was in fact less sure of this than he would like to be, and saw the same in Jan’s smile, but pushed on nonetheless. “I pray you tell me: what are you? What manner of thing are you that’s been sent to me?”
Jan’s smile grew, spreading across his face; showing those teeth huge in his head, like a wolf’s or even a lion’s. “What if I said I were Christ himself?” he asked, at long last, shocking and yet sending chills coursing all through Michael. “Come as a wolf that lies down with the lamb? Come to save your very soul?”
Michael thought long on his response. This was blasphemy, surely, and yet… seemed nothing of the kind. As always Jan did not seem to tease; seemed merely, with all true honesty, to ask.
“Then I would say what I have said before,” Michael said at last. “My soul is yours; you need save it no more than you already have.”
And Jan smiled, and kissed him, and at last sent him away.
Two nights later Michael had a dream, or vision; he had no way of telling which. In it the inquisitors — men he knew from Sunday mornings in ordinary times, but now made faceless shadow figures by the borders of his sight — tortured his serving-boy; they touched hot brands to his skin and he cried out as his flesh boiled; they pricked him with pins, cut him with knives, ducked him in water until he thrashed and could not breathe. They laughed at his struggles and his hurts, and asked if he would confess, if he would repent. They lashed him. They spat upon him. And he kept his silence.
Of all the characters in this seeing, only Jan could see Michael as well; even when his eyes grew hazy, when they lost their focus, they fixed on him all the while, every time his head was raised. They were sad, so sad, those eyes, suffering the madness of these men. Not asking him — making him ask himself — how he could inflict such pain on one he loved, and on one who loved him in return. Who loved him enough to suffer and die for him, and whose only crime had been making men with small minds afraid. They were the eyes he had always imagined, and the face turned to the one he had envisioned, and the hands that stretched out to nothing the inquisitors could see — these bled from their palms, from holes in their palms, where they had been wounded out of love for him.
He woke gasping, weeping, glad that Sarah slept now with her maid; they had spoken little since she had made her accusation, but he felt if she were close by him now he would not be able to contain his fury. He sat breathing with his hands clasped to his face, breathing, waiting for the horror of the vision to pass and his heart to calm. But neither did.
The week was agony: neighbors avoiding his eyes in the streets, his wife and most of the servants avoiding his presence, thoughts of Jan tormenting him always. He wandered like a ghost through his business affairs, cancelling two shipments out of simple pique. He sat in church beside his wife on Sunday feeling made of the same wood as the pew, listening to the pastor thunder invective against all the agents of the devil. The town elders declared, with unheard-of speed, that Jan had proved a witch and should be put to death.
And Michael thought of sad eyes and outstretched hands, and without even knowing he was doing so, he made his decision.
In the dead dark of night he saddled his horse, padded and tied down every flap and buckle that could jingle or snap, and made himself take the beast slow enough for stealth all the way to the gaol. He dismounted, crept inside, found the young gaolkeeper sleeping as he had hoped he might, secure in the knowledge that no sane man or woman would take it in mind to rescue a convicted witch. He muffled the cell keys in his gloved palm before taking them up in his other hand.
He edged down the stairs to one side to lessen their creaking, relaxed when he touched the earthen floor. He unlocked the cell where Jan lay asleep with his back turned, and left the door ajar. Returned the keys, returned to his horse, returned home unseen and unchallenged.
He had done what he could do. The rest must needs care for itself.
Mere days before he was set to be hanged, Michael’s serving-boy disappeared.
There was much discontent and uproar in the town because of it, and though several mobs of searchers marched out with torches, no trace of him was ever found. Michael imagined many suspected him of interfering, but none were ever able to prove it of him; he had left no trace that would lead back to himself. Nor could he be accused of aught else in place of freeing a prisoner. He was not pursuing any of his servants now, after all.
He had hoped a little, deep within his breast, that Jan might come to him, but was not disappointed when the boy did not. It would not have been safe, and Michael supposed in truth he had never believed that it would happen. He was glad the boy had gone free, and tried to believe that it was enough for him, nearly shunned though he was now by all and feared by many.
Dreams followed him as he drifted into late autumn, however; bright and dark dreams at once, powerful and stunning. In them Jan came to him, bare as he had been on the grass beneath the sun and on the boards beneath the moon, a wild and gorgeous thing. Jan fell upon him and covered him in kisses, covered him in warmth and love and sweetness, in temptation and the voluptuous call of all things ill. In his dreams Jan became the devil, laughing, tempting him; then he became Christ his savior, loving him, forgiving him, calling him home. He was the monster, the secret lover, the fear and desperation, and he was the bridegroom, the true lover, the hope and peace, and always, either way, he was the wolf, the wolf, which neither saved nor damned but came instead to set him free. He teased and embraced, harmed and healed, and it was all one, it was all the same, he did it all at once and did not hesitate. In this dream he knew, and was soothed by the knowledge — that Jan was, had always been, both things, all things, in one.
And as the first breath of snow began to enter the air, one night he woke from this dream again in a dark room, and knew that he was not alone.
Hot breath spilled across his face; a second’s pause, and then coarse fur touched his arm. As his eyes grew stronger, dim moonlight caught around its shape. He sat up abed, nerves all alight, waiting breathless for the silence to speak.
It was the same voice, and his heart rejoiced at it: low and rumbling, slow and sly. “Do you renounce me?” it asked him, a soft growl in the darkness that nonetheless filled the whole world. “Will you renounce me, and my damnation?” And, in the same breath, although a rather different tone: “Will you renounce me, and my salvation?”
“No,” Michael said, and now he did not hesitate. “I will renounce neither, no part of you, for I need every one. I say to you a third time what I have said twice before: you have my soul. Save it or damn it, it’s all one to me. It’s yours, to do with as you will.”
And now the wolf was silent, as though surprised to hear these words.
Then it laughed, and its hot chuffing breath made him close his eyes again in surrender. “Then I give it to you again, set free,” it said. “If you will not renounce me, Michael Clarke, then renounce yourself. Shed your winter coat, and follow.”
And after only a moment’s pause to consider, Michael did.
In the forests that stood strong, well outside the swelling curve of towns built by sons of Englishmen, two large and handsome wolves came to dwell by a small creek that cut its way between the trees. They hunted nights in each other’s company, howled their greetings to the moon, and took their kills to sleep in the cool of a cave, below a tiny waterfall where the water tumbled down a shelf of rock. There were few trappers and tribesmen in that part of the woods even then, but the few who spotted the wolves were impressed by them, and wondered; but in the end all of them, understanding to some degree, went away and let them be.
Michael Clarke is fictional, but based loosely — very loosely — on Nicholas Sension, a wealthy occupant of Windsor, Connecticut in the middle of the seventeenth century. Sension’s fascinating case is outlined in greater detail in Richard Godbeer’s Sexual Revolution in Early America (p. 45-50). I’ve done quite a bit, of course, to soften the edges of his story and make it more palatable to a modern reader (a little less with the imbalance/abuse of power between master and servant IF YOU PLEASE LOL). The real Sension was eventually sentenced to whipping and public shaming for “attempted sodomy,” since insufficient witnesses could be produced to convict him of the capital crime of actual sodomy, and finished his life with the entirety of his property “in bond for his good behavior,” as Godbeer puts it. I confess I like my ending for him better.
YES, I HAVE AN ACADEMIC BASIS FOR MY BL STORY. OBVIOUSLY I AM UNCLEAR ON THE CONCEPT. orz
You get no cookies at all for guessing what Jan is short for.
Naturally I’ve also played sort of fast and loose with seventeenth-century New England life and theology, but honestly less so than I expected. And remember, if you enjoyed this story, please do consider voting for it in the 2006 category of Best Use Of ‘Yard’ As A Penis Euphemism And Of The Word ‘Shew’ In A Work Of Pornographic Short Fiction.
I’m finding I missed a whole slew of good stories from back in the day, somehow?!?!? This is so fun, I love all the ye olde 17th century speak and porn slang, so excellent. Also a great atmosphere overall.