"At High Noon"
The courtroom was silent. One could hear a sewing needle drop on the floor in the absolute stillness. The witnesses didn’t dare make a sound as the head jury member, a rather powerful man in the community named Paige Hart, stood up from his chair. His seat scrapped across the wooden floor, the screeching noise causing some of the men and women sitting behind the defendant jump. However, the woman on trial did not even flinch. She simply stared ahead.
Caroline stood as still as a statue, her eyes focused on the man with the power to control her fate. Judge Bowen was known to be cold hearted and severe with his sentences. Rumor has it that he even sentenced a child to jail for stealing some coins from a shop keeper in the neighboring town. Now he only judged specialty cases, such as Caroline’s.
Her heart beat rapidly in her chest, her mouth dry with anxiety as she wrung the fabric of her skirt in her hands. Despite her anxiety, she refused to show it. Her gaze flickered over to Paige, staring intently at him. She knew him well, far better than anyone else in this courtroom. She silently prayed that he had found some mercy in his heart and had managed to sway the jury. But the look on his face, the cold conviction and lack of remorse, told her otherwise.
As he stood there mute, waiting for the perfect moment to permit or deny her innocence, anger boiled within her. Oh, how she now despised his beady stare and upturned nose that looked down on her as if she was nothing more than a wicked wench. To think that she had ever trusted him, befriended him, cared for him, loved him.
Paige cleared his throat, adjusted the cufflinks on his jacket, and looked at Judge Bowen. He didn’t even give her one glance. It broke her heart. She had given him everything, and now he was about to betray her. She hated how he could still hurt her.
“Have you come to a decision?” Judge Bowen asked, his elderly deep voice echoing against the walls. Caroline thought it felt like a dream, a nightmare actually. Could this truly be happening to her? Was her life really about to be ripped away from her?
The man Caroline once called her husband proclaimed with conviction, “We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of witchcraft.”
In an instant, the room began to fill with the hushed murmur of voices. They meshed and blended together into a deafening buzz in Caroline’s ears. She felt her knees grow weak and nearly collapsed to the floor, but she held herself up. She refused to show any of these scoundrels that she was weak. If they were to call her a witch, then she would be as strong willed as one.
Her eyes went back to the judge. That pudgy, balding, pug-faced excuse of a man would be deciding her ultimate fate. However, she knew what it would be. It was always the same for those who were labeled as a witch.
Judge Bowen leaned forward in his chair, the wood creaking against his hulking weight as he rose to his feet. His black robes - those of a grim reaper’s - billowed around him as he grasped his gavel with his meaty hands. For the first time, he looked at Caroline, as if he was no longer afraid that she would curse him, but it was only for a brief moment. She scowled at him. Oh, if only she were a witch.
“The witch has been found guilty,” he said, speaking to everyone else in the room. He spoke of her as if she were not even human, as if she wasn’t important enough to have an identity. “She will be held in jail for the night, and tomorrow she will be publicly executed for her crimes. Court is now adjourned.”
Two guards came up and took Caroline by the wrists, forcing them behind her back as they tied them with ropes. She looked over at her attorney. He looked away, unable to look at her. She knew he didn’t try to save her. He believed she was a witch too. They always did.
Before she was forced out of the courtroom, she looked back for her husband, but he wasn’t there. The guards pushed her forward, leading her out of the courthouse and into the streets where all of the townsfolk gathered. They shouted and chanted and hollered at her.
“Drown her in the lake!”
“Free us from her misery!”
As she walked by them, they threw stones and molding fruits at her. She winced as the sharp edges of rocks bruised and cut her flesh, but she still kept her head up high. How dare they condemn her? Some of the women stoning her were her friends and neighbors. Would a conviction of witchcraft really destroy years of friendship? They could all go to hell. They won’t see her there.
Her cell was cold and damp. Caroline’s bones were aching from the weather. It had been raining nonstop ever since she was found guilty. She was thankful for the roof over her head, but the barred window did not keep out the chilling breeze. She was denied any blankets and was forced to sleep on the hard ground. The only thing protecting her from the cold was the thin black gown she was given. It was reserved for convicted witches, a symbol of the evil that lurked within her soul.
She had no visitors. No one wanted to come see the witch. Not even her traitor of a husband. All she had for company was her own thoughts. However, even her thoughts were silent. What on earth was there to think about? How betrayed she felt by her community? How lonely she was inside? How in a matter of hours, she would be burned, or hanged, or drowned? Caroline fell to her knees and clasped her hands together, pointing her fingertips toward the sky and bent her head.
“Lord, if I am to die, please make my death quick,” she prayed. That’s all she could pray for. She knew they wouldn’t release her. Praying for freedom was useless now. Praying for peace was the best she could do.
No response came. No response ever came. However, her faith to Christ was still as strong as ever. She laughed bitterly to herself. A devout Christian like herself being accused of witchcraft. For what? Making home remedies for her aching bones? For caring for the stray cat that begged for leftovers by the window? All of the charges against her were preposterous, yet the jury believed them. The whole town believed them. It was easier to let an innocent woman die than to speak up against a crowd.
Caroline laid down on her side, her stomach growling in protest. Her last meal was nothing more than a single slice of bread. It was only meant to tie her over until the next day where she would be hung at high noon. That was in twelve hours.
Looking up out the window above her head, she felt the soft rain falling on her face like a gentle spray. Perhaps God was weeping at the idea of another innocent woman being proclaimed a witch. She stared up at the heavy rain clouds that never ceased to end. She longed to see the moon one last time. However, it was the start of a new cycle. Even if the skies were clear, there would be no moon to wish her a goodnight. The idea of it made her cry, finally breaking down her walls. She wept silently, burying her face in her hands as the weight of her fate crushed her.
The guards walked Caroline through the crowded streets. Her hands were tied behind her back and the ropes chaffed against her skin. She was barefoot, the soles of her feet aching and bleeding from walking on pebbles and twigs thrown onto the ground. A path has been cleared before them, but the road was covered in stones that were constantly being thrown at her. Armor protected the guards leading her to her sentence, but the stones continued to leave marks all over her body. Caroline stood tall and ignored the blood dripping down the side of her temple where a sharp rock had cut her.
Before they took her from the cell, they stripped her of her black gown. Normally, a woman may fear being raped, but not even the nastiest of guards wanted to touch a witch. They replaced her dress with another, this one symbolizing her fate. Although none of the choices were optimal, she was thankful she wasn’t given red or blue. She would prefer dying by hanging than burning or drowning. She wore the green dress proudly, still too stubborn to show her fear.
The gallows came into view after fifteen minutes of walking down the street. They were decorated with green ribbons around the pillars where the nooses hung across. Made of nothing but oak planks, it was beginning to rot from exposure to the elements. However, it still stood tall after years of executing witches.
Caroline was led around to the back of the gallows, forced to climb up the stairs slowly. Her balance wavered and a guard had to catch her before falling.
“Keep your balance,” he grunted as he pushed her up the rest of the way.
“If my hands weren’t tied, I’d be able to,” she said back in a sharp tone. She continued the rest of the way up, stopping at the top where the executioner waited. He was dressed in all white, much like the rest of the townsfolk. As if his task was truly a pure thing to do. He took the noose and wrapped it around her neck, the scratchy rope digging into her flesh. She swallowed, the weight of it chocking her slightly.
The church bell tolled, signaling high noon. The crowd grew silent, watching with sparkling eyes. She always wondered how people were able to watch someone die with such a gleeful expression. It sickened her.
A strangely gentle, yet forceful, nudge on her back signaled her to move forward onto the trap door. She stepped gently on it, afraid to fall to her death too soon. She wasn’t ready. She doubted anyone was ever ready to die. She was beginning to tremble, and tears built up in her eyes. Her own body betrayed her will to stay strong as she began to cry.
She looked out at the crowd of people. She saw friends and family watching her amongst the strangers. Caroline glared at all of them. She hated them. However, she hated her husband the most. He stood in the center of the crowd, watching her without an expression on his face. His hateful eyes almost seemed mournful as the executioner walked to the lever.
Her head looked up toward the sky, accepting her fate. The executioners hand grasped the lever and pulled it down. Her husband’s eyes looked up at the rope wrapped around the support beam.
In an instant, it was over.
“This proves it! This proves she’s a witch!”
A carpenter named John Archer shouted as he slammed his fists on the oak table. He was a family friend of the Hart’s. “How else could she have escaped?”
“The gallows were due for replacement. Didn’t you see how rotted the beams were? It’s no surprise that they snapped at her weight,” Paige replied as he took a drink from his flask. Unlike his colleagues, he showed no reaction other than apathy.
“A petite woman like her?” a man named Darl Levitt argued. He was the town doctor, the one who first suggested that Caroline may be a witch due to her declining physical health suddenly growing stronger without explanation. He walked up to Paige, resting his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “There is no way she could have broken that beam on her own!”
“Well, what else do you suspect?” Paige asked sharply, a hint of emotion in his voice.
“Witchcraft of course,” John replied as he sat down in his chair and took a long drag from his cigar.
Paige sighed and stood up from his seat to pace the room. He took a swig of his whiskey, mumbling, “Either way, it does not matter now. She’s gone for good. She will never return here.”
“Unless she seeks revenge! Witches are really nasty when it comes to getting back at people who crossed them. We should be wary,” John said sternly. He was certain that Caroline would come back for them.
Paige didn’t seem as convinced.
Darl walked over to the window and looked out to where the gallows now stood partially broken. “She shouldn’t have broken the beam,” he murmured to himself. Paige walked up beside him, staring out the window as well. The rain had stopped and the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds.
“She’s not the type of person to seek out revenge. We are safe,” Paige said.
“I’m surprised that you’re defending her, Paige,” Judge Bowen said as he walked into the room. He toddled over to the chair and sat down with a huff. “You sure seemed certain to convict her at the trial.”
The three men looked at Paige, eager to hear his response to the statement. He remained silent for a moment, tipping his flask back to finish his liquor. He sighed deeply, slipping his now empty flask into his pant pocket.
“I’m not defending her. Are you forgetting that I was the one who condemned her? All I’m saying is that based on our history, I know quite well that it’s not in her to harm another.”
“And if she does return?” Judge Bowen asked.
“I doubt she will,” Paige said. “Our job was to get rid of another witch. I think we’ve done just that.”Paige turned and headed out of the room, nodding his head to his colleagues as he dismissed himself. As he left the courthouse for the last time, he looked over to where the gallows stood. Rotting splinters of wood covered the ground where the main support beam holding Caroline had snapped. Her escape would forever remain a mystery, and he was intent on keeping it that way.