The skin around the boy’s neck was bruised to black from the tightness of the iron collar. His eyes bulged and he had to open his mouth wide to capture a breath. Three poles were fastened to the collar, long enough so the men who held them were out of reach should the boy try to strike. His hands were too busy scrabbling at the restraint to lash out in his defense.
The guards moved the boy along the dirt lane at as steady a pace as their prisoner’s stumbling allowed. The people lined along the path didn’t condemn or judge the convicted. They watched with horror, some with faint compassion, others revulsion.
“Please,” the boy’s mother cried. “Spare him! Spare my son!” She wailed into a kerchief. It was all her husband could do to keep her standing, to console her while holding back his own grief.
They followed their captive son and dared not look at the destination, a crudely built dais around a beam erected a stone’s throw from the churchyard. Kindling waited at the base. Their only child would be tethered there and set aflame.
An intake of air and the boy’s body stiffened to the tips of his toes. His arms drew taunt and his hands constricted. The nails sliced gashes in his palms. His legs relaxed, useless. Briefly suspended by the gaolers, their strength was no match as the boy began to convulse. They dropped him and stared, half afraid.
The fit stopped, but the boy lay groggy in snot and urine. The gaolers maneuvered him with the poles until he sat upright on his knees. His eyes shown only the whites.
“The demon is upon him!” spread through the crowd. The spectators recoiled, murmured prayers, turned their children from the blasphemous on display.
The Reverend Simon Young descended the church steps. His deep eyes sunk into the wrinkled waves of his face. Grey locks hung beneath the broad brim of his hat which equaled the expanse of his shoulders.
“Do you see?” Young’s voice rumbled over the commotion. He raised his hand from the black folds of his cloak and pointed at the boy. “The devil that afflicts young Ethan Hinch is afraid of the Lord’s judgment!” He swung his finger to the pyre and the onlookers gasped.
Ethan’s mother threw herself at the Reverend’s feet. “Please, I beg you, have mercy.”
Young beheld her, his face as grave as the dark clouds static in the sky. “It is God’s sweet mercy that guides us,” he assured her.
She clung to his hand, kissed it. Her tears wet the tough skin. “There is no devil, sir, no devil. My son has suffered long with sickness.”
Reverend Young pried his hand free. He lifted her chin to bore her eyes with his. “Pray, Goody Hinch, he has suffered long. He is tormented mightily at the touch of Satan himself. Though he bare no mark upon his flesh, he bare the mark upon his soul. All glory be unto Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Your son’s soul shall yet be spared. His salvation is nigh.”
The boy moaned and mouthed a garbled “No.”
Reverend Young let the pleading woman slink in the dirt and directed the gaolers, with the bewildered boy, to the stake. He shackled the boys hands around the beam, latched his legs to it before disconnecting the poles.
“I am…no…corruption,” the boy said. Sweat clung to the beginning clues of stubble on his cheeks.
“Satan turns your tongue,” the Reverend said. He smoothed the boy’s hair. “No witch we have redeemed has released you from this foul demon’s clutches. Do you know who has conjured this devil to torture you? Or did you cast your lot with the Fiend and make a pact yourself? I command you, speak! We must deliver us from this infestation of evil.”
The boy’s head lolled. “I’ve made no pact…sir,” he rasped. “I’ve not sinned against God.”
The boy trembled, his jaw constricted. His teeth ground through his tongue and the severed portion plopped to the wood in a spurt of blood as he lost consciousness.
“Satan refuses to relinquish the boy!” Reverend Young announced to the wide-eyed onlookers. “You have witnessed the Devil’s craft! Bear witness to the Lord’s work!”
The gaolers surrounded the boy with more dry kindling. They brought torches lit from the smithy’s furnace. Once engulfed, seasoned timbers would be placed to ensure a hearty conflagration.
Reverend Young took a torch. “Elijah Hinch, behold your wife. Martha Hinch, behold your husband. Your son, young Ethan, shall be redeemed and remade anew. Reborn. Rejoice for him. Grace now, glory hereafter.”
“Nay!” Martha shrugged off her husband. “Stay your hand!” she shrieked at Young. “I am the witch. I afflict him!”
“Woman, no,” Elijah pulled her arm, but she fought him.
“Keep from me,” she hissed at Elijah. “I punish Ethan for his good character and his uprightness in God. I spoiled your harvests,” she told the staring faces. “I blight your lands. Jealousy moved my hand to sign a pact with the Evil One. I bring damnation to this place. I curse you all and your salvation! I damn you for your salvation!”
Furor rose in her neighbors, in the faces she had seen her entire life. A rock hurled through the air and struck Martha across the forehead. A gash opened and blood flowed freely as she staggered and was shunned.
Reverend Young commanded, “Burn her!”
The crowd took her up. Bones snapped in her arms as they pushed and pulled her to the stake.
“Burn her with the boy!” the Reverend ordered.
“No!” Martha screamed. She fought as they chained her to the beam. “He did nothing! My son did no wrong, he’s innocent!”
“Please, don’t do this,” Elijah sobbed. “Don’t take my family.”
The people discarded him, left him crumpled. “It’s to save us,” they said, “it’s to save you.”
Reverend Young touched the torch to the kindling. The wood crackled, the flames jumped to Martha’s dress. Ethan woke as the fire crawled up his back and sprouted on his scalp.
Elijah wept in the dust. His wife and only child were columns of orange heat. Their shrieks died before their skin blistered and popped.
“This is your salvation, too.” Reverend Young stood over him, the torch still in his hand. “Satan has been cast back to his depths, Brother Hinch. This is our time to rejoice. It is the Lord’s will.”
The Reverend left Elijah crying on the ground, curled like a baby. Young was lost in the crowd and didn’t hear the mourning man’s lamentations give to gleeful laughter.