Sarah Alexander didn’t know what was waiting for her in Salem, Massachusetts. She had moved there to escape the smog and the smugness of Los Angeles, craving the dulcet tones of a small town, seeking a less complicated life. Her first hint of the supernatural world came the day she moved into her rented brick house near the historic part of town, close to the museums about the witch trial days, not far from the easy, wind-blown bay. As the heavy-set men hauled her furniture inside, her landlady leaned close and told her to beware.
“If you hear sounds in the night it’s ghosts,” the landlady whispered, glancing around to be sure no one, human or shadow, could hear. “The spirits of the innocent victims of the witch hunts still haunt us. I can feel them stirring now. God rest them.”
Sarah didn’t know what to say. She had never been warned about ghosts before. The landlady peered at her, squinting to see her better.
“You’re a pretty girl,” the old woman said. “Such dark curls you have.” She still spoke as if she were telling a secret, and Sarah had to strain to hear. “You’re from California?”
“I moved there after I got married,” Sarah said.
“Where’s your husband?”
“I’m divorced now.”
“And your family is here?”
“In Boston. I wanted to live close to my family, but I didn’t want to move back to the city. I’ve always wanted to visit Salem, so I thought I’d live here awhile.”
The landlady nodded. “Boston,” she said. “Some victims of the witch trials were jailed in Boston.”
The landlady was so bent and weak looking, her fragile face lined like tree rings, that Sarah thought the old woman had experienced the hysteria in Salem during the seventeenth century. But that was silly, Sarah reminded herself. The Salem Witch Trials happened over three hundred years ago. There was no one alive now who had experienced that terror first hand. Sarah wanted to tell the landlady how she believed she had an ancestor who died as a victim of the witch hunts, but she didn’t say anything then.
“Yes, they’re here,” the landlady said, staring with time-faded eyes at the air above their heads, as if she saw something no one else could see. “Beware, Sarah. The ghosts are here. And they always come out at night.”
The landlady shook as if she were cold, though it was early autumn and summer humidity still flushed the air. When Sarah put her arm around the old woman to comfort her, she felt her skin spark like static. She rubbed her hands together, feeling the numbness even after the old woman pulled away.
“It’s all right,” Sarah said. “I won’t be frightened by paranormal beings. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
The landlady laughed. “Salem may cure you of that.”
For a moment Sarah wondered if she made a mistake moving there, but she decided she wouldn’t let a superstitious old woman scare her away. She thought about her new job in the library at Salem State College—Humanities I liaison, go-to person for English studies, well worth the move across the country. She saw the tree-lined, old-fashioned neighborhood and the comforting sky. She heard the lull of bird songs and the distant whisper of the sea kissing the shore. She felt a rising tranquility, like the tide of the ocean waves at noon, wash over her. It was a contentment she had never known before, not in Boston, never in Los Angeles. She was fascinated by Salem, looking forward to knowing it better, certain she was exactly where she needed to be, whatever may come.
Sarah’s first days in the library were hectic since it was the start of an autumn term. She spent her shifts on the main floor, an open, industrial-style space of bright lights, overhead beams, and windows that let in white from the sun and green from the trees abundant everywhere on campus. Across from the librarians’ desk, a combined circulation and reference area, was a lounge of comfortable chairs in soothing grays and blues where some students socialized using their inside voices while others stalked like eagle-eyed hunters, searching the stacks or the databases.
By Wednesday afternoon, as she saw the short-tempered rain clouds march across the Salem sky, Sarah thought she would have to buy a car soon. After driving and dodging in nail-biting Los Angeles traffic for ten years, she liked the freedom of walking the quiet roads from home to work, watching in wonder as the leaves turned from summer green to an autumn fade of red, rust, and gold. But she had been living in the sunshine on the west coast for ten years, and she had forgotten about the sudden anger of New England thunderstorms. They could appear just like that, a crack of noise overhead, then a gray flannel blanket covered the sky as fast as you could blink your eyes, water splashing all around, wetting you when you did not want to be wet, and she was caught unprepared. She held out her hand and shook her head when she felt the drops splash her palm. Jennifer Mandel’s voice sang out behind her.
“Need a lift?”
Sarah wiped her palm on her skirt, grateful once again for Jennifer’s assistance. Jennifer had been the head librarian at the college for five years, and she had taken Sarah under her wing, showing her where everything was, introducing her to the rest of the staff, answering her questions. There was something almost odd about Jennifer’s intuition—she always seemed to know when Sarah needed her, like a clairvoyant magic trick. They sprinted to the parking lot, trying to avoid the sudden splats of rain soaking their thin blouses through, and they clambered into Jennifer’s white Toyota, laughing like schoolgirls jumping in puddles. Jennifer drove the curve around Loring Avenue to Lafayette Street, the main road to and from the college.
“Where were you before you came here?” Jennifer asked. “You’re obviously not used to the rain.”
“I worked at UCLA.”
“A small town like Salem must seem dreary after living in the big city.”
Sarah looked at Jennifer, saw the compassion in her eyes, the understanding smile, so she said just enough to make herself understood. “I’m recently divorced.”
Jennifer held up her hand. “You don’t need to explain. I have two ex-husbands myself.”
They drove quietly, letting the sound of the car’s accelerator and the rain tapping the windshield fill the space. As Sarah watched the small-town scene drift past, she thought it might not be so bad to drive in Salem. Everything back east, the roads, the shops, the homes, was built on an old-time scale, narrower and smaller than they were out west. But here people slowed when you wanted to merge into their lane and they stopped at stop signs, so different from L.A. where they’d run you over sooner than let you pass.
“Why don’t you come over tomorrow night?” Jennifer asked. “We’re having a get-together at my mother’s shop.” She leaned closer to Sarah and whispered though they were alone in the car. “I should probably tell you, and I’ll understand if you think this is too weird, but my mother and I are witches.”
Sarah studied Jennifer, her hazel eyes, her long auburn hair, her friendly smile. “You don’t look like a witch,” she said.
“You mean the kind with black hair and a nose wart that fly around on broomsticks? We’re not that kind of witch.”
“Yes, I practice the Wiccan religion, among other things. I’m the high priestess of my coven. I’m also licensed to perform weddings here in Massachusetts, in case you ever need someone to preside over a wedding for you.”
Sarah laughed. “I just got divorced. I won’t be getting married again any time soon.” She paused to watch the drizzle slip and slide on the windows. “I’m surprised there really are witches in Salem.”
“Ironic, isn’t it? The city known for hanging witches is now a haven for mystics.” Jennifer shook her head, her expression tight. “Is this too much information? I don’t usually tell someone a few days after I’ve met her that I’m Wiccan, but you have a positive energy. You don’t seem like someone who’s going to assume I’m a Satanist who loves human sacrifices.”
“I don’t mind. I’m just surprised. I’ve never known a witch before.”
“There are all sorts of interesting people you could meet around here.” Jennifer nudged Sarah with her elbow. “So will you come tomorrow night?”
“I don’t know, Jennifer.”
“You don’t need to participate in the rituals. Come make some friends. I think you’ll like the other witches in my coven. They’re good people.”
A Wiccan ceremony did sound odd, Sarah thought, but she had always been fascinated by different religions and cultures. Librarians had to keep learning—a healthy curiosity was a job necessity. And it would be nice to know some people in Salem, even if they were witches.
As they continued down Lafayette Street, Sarah saw the sign for Pioneer Village and she added it to her mental to-do list. “I haven’t had a chance to see much of this part of town since I’ve been here,” she said.
“How about a quick tour then?”
“What about the rain?”
Jennifer turned right down Derby Street. “I’ve lived here my whole life. A little water doesn’t bother me.”
Jennifer drove down one tree-lined street, then down another street, and another until Sarah didn’t know where she was. Though Witch City was small, Sarah was still learning her way around. She tried to gauge her surroundings and saw the tall, white lines of the Peabody-Essex Museum close to the brick, colonial-looking Salem Maritime National Historic Site. As she watched the history flip past, like a stack of photographs from time gone by, she noticed a house she thought she knew though she was sure she hadn’t been down that way before. The house had wooden clapboards, diamond-paned casement windows, and two gables on the roof. It was old, though it didn’t seem to be a museum as the other old buildings were.
“What is that house?” she asked. “It looks familiar.”
“James Wentworth lives there.”
“Do you know him?”
Jennifer’s answer was stilted, as if she considered each word, weighed it, measured it, decided yes or no about it, before she let it drop from her lips. “He teaches at the college. He—his family—has owned this house for generations. It’s over three hundred years old, one of the oldest standing homes in Salem.”
Jennifer slowed the car so they could get a better look as she drove past. “Does it still look familiar?”
“Yes. Even that crooked oak tree in front seems right. I can picture the man I dream about standing in front there kissing me.”
“What dreams?” Jennifer gripped the steering wheel more tightly and her eyes brightened. “My mother’s friend Martha is great at dream interpretation. She’s done a world of good for me.” She winked at Sarah. “And you dream about a man? Is he a good looking man?”
Sarah pulled her arms around her chest, wishing she could take back her casual reference, afraid she had already said too much.
“Do you have a lot of dreams?”
“Yes,” Sarah said. But that was all she could manage. When Jennifer had waited long enough and Sarah had to offer something more, all she could say was, “It’s not a big deal. I just thought I knew the house from somewhere.”
“A lot of houses around here look the same,” Jennifer said.
Sarah looked at the houses, the tall, Federal-style ones, the Victorian ones, the brick ones, the modern-looking ones. Suddenly, as they drove around the green of Salem Common, the rain cleared, the sun brightened, and the clouds flittered away across the bay.
“That must be it,” she said.
She lowered the car window so she could smell the wet air. Though she missed the rain when she lived in Los Angeles, at that moment she was glad to see the serene blue reflection of the northeastern sky again.
They drove the rest of the way in silence.