Almost all things by the Law are purged with blood, and without shedding of blood is no remission—Hebrews 9:22
Salisbury, Massachusetts, April 1656
The whip fell again and again across Unise Cole’s naked back. Dutiful, well-shaped, it was somewhat short in the handle, with a firm, leather-wrapped grip and three plaited thongs about the length of a man’s arm, their smart ends knotted and stained dark with the blood licked from the back of many a miscreant.
Eight! A dutiful voice from the crowd ticked off.
Every whip must have its post, and the one to which Unise was bound was tall, of hewn oak, and thrust into the well-churned mud of the Salisbury common like a red-painted finger pointing the way to hell. She silently writhed and twisted in the rope fetters that held her wrists as each raking lash of the whip brought more pain than the last. Her refusal to scream out annoyed the magistrates, and they urged the constable to lay on the stripes with more force, believing that her cries would demonstrate to the watching crowd her desire to repent of her evil ways, and, more importantly, to acknowledge their God-given right to punish her. William had warned her that her slanderous tongue would lead to this, but she rarely, if ever, heeded the old man’s words. Now she was paying the price for defying his will.
Who’s that poor old thing meetin’ the captain’s daughter? asked one of the bystanders, who wore the blouse and breeches of a seaman.
His jargon was familiar to the old man standing next to him, who had worked at a shipyard in London before coming to America.
She’s Goodwife Cole of Hampton, the old man answered. He gave a nervous chuckle and added, They say she’s a witch.
A witch? The seaman looked surprised. Why ain’t they hangin’ her, then? he said.
Pray, do you see a gallows round about? the old man grumbled. Witches are tried in Boston, just like murderers. She’s being whipped on account of she can’t keep her mouth shut. And what comes out of it is all vile and slander. The preachers have discoursed on it with her, but it does no good.
You sound as if you know the woman well, said the seaman.
Aye, said the old man, she’s my wife.
By the tenth stroke the blood from the lashes mingled freely with the blood that oozed from the fresh wound on her side, below the breast, where earlier she had wrung off a suspicious-looking growth with such force that it was as if she had torn off a finger or an ear. The constable discovered the “teat” as he stripped her to the waist to whip her, whereupon the magistrates hastily assembled a women’s jury to inspect it, along with other, more private, parts of her body.
Out of her wits with fear that they would name her a witch, Unise had torn the damning thing from her body and stuffed it in her mouth to hide it from their prying eyes. The constable hauled her to a room of the tavern that served as the county court, where she was made to undress and stand for the inspection. After the women had peered, poked, and pinched all the parts of her body, they informed the worried magistrates that they had, indeed, found signs of witchcraft. The constable returned her to the post and the whipping was allowed to proceed.
William stood by and watched, shame softening the grim, weathered lines of his face. He removed his hat and absently fingered its worn brim. An ancient man, well into his eighth decade, he had tried to correct his troublesome wife, but it would take more strength and courage than he possessed to master this woman, who was nearly half his age. He didn’t believe she was a witch, but, in truth, he had always wondered about that third nipple. He had first seen it on their wedding night, what was it? Twenty years ago? She had told him then what she told the magistrates today—that it was an old sore. He began to think ahead; they would put her on trial for witchcraft, of that he had no doubt. But who would take care of him if she was found guilty and hanged on a Boston gallows?
Again the whip struck her naked, bleeding flesh.
Twelve! the dutiful voice continued to count. Like two mighty rivers of pain, the agonies of lash and wound converged in Unise, washing her out to sea.
Thirteen! Like the language of crows when they talk among themselves, the sound carried no human meaning to her ears.
She floated on the surf, a bittersweet aftertaste of hopeful expectation clinging to the edges of her battered thoughts. A cold April wind laden with the tang of salt water and codfish blew down from the east, drawing her out and away from the horror that her life had become.
Beneath a cloudless sky, with sails billowing in the fresh salt air, the ship dipped and rose over the rippling sea road. The captain had ordered his cargo of one hundred immigrants and adventurers to come up on deck. He liked it best when they stayed below, out of his way, but the tempest of the last two days had been especially ferocious. Most of his passengers had been dreadfully seasick, adding to the already unbearable stink in the shuttered ship. They needed exercise and relief from the stench of enclosed living.
Unise followed William up the narrow ladder to the main deck. The steady hiss of the ship as it cut the smooth-swelled water was a welcome respite after days of a roaring sea and wind that shrieked in the rigging as icy water poured in through cracks in the juddering hull. Presaged by strange flames atop the main mast, the storm had tossed the ship through fearful mountains and valleys of water, so much so that she feared they would be swallowed up. But, as the preacher on board had remarked with relief, He who maketh the storm to cease, so that the waves thereof are still, had remembered us in his mercy. The storm passed with little damage to the ship or its cargo.
Squinting through bright sunlight, she moved unsteadily over the rolling deck, amid the snickering of those who had long ago got their sea legs. She aimed for a spot at the side of the ship where several children were laughing and pointing down at the water. Like a hungry bee to nectar, she had always been attracted to children, and she was now curious to see what held their interest. Peering over the side herself, she was delighted to see porpoises racing alongside the ship, as if they, too, were happy, laughing children.
Twenty and done, the dutiful voice announced to everyone but Unise. She was somewhere out on the vast ocean, aboard a ship that had left Blackwall in London, England two months earlier. As the constable unbound her wrists and she slumped from the whipping post, long-winged seabirds wheeled on the horizon, and she caught her first wonder-filled sight of the land that would be her new home: America.
Tears of gratitude wet her cheeks, and she thanked God that she and William had survived the long, arduous ocean voyage. She did not know where they would live, but she burst with joy, imagining the possibilities that lay before them. Would they stay in Boston, or go with other families to settle a new plantation? God willing, they would grow prosperous with land and cattle, and William would build a fine house for her to fill with children.
But God was not willing, and her life could not have turned out more differently.