Sunday, October 29, 2000

Haunted in Salem

We got lost, wending our way into Salem. The highways surrounding Boston (which were well marked... weren't they?) sent us spiraling deeper, deeper into the New England landscape. Gazing at the frost-encrusted granite and the shuddering white birches along the roadsides, it was no stretch to imagine that we were intersecting, late by more than a century and at inconsiderate speed, some well-trodden path favored by Henry David Thoreau in a search for berries, or Nathaniel Hawthorne on one of his solitary, melancholy constitutionals.

Weaving through Danvers (where the infamous witch trials actually took place, where slave Tituba spun supernatural tales for impressionable young girls), then Peabody, we at last landed in downtown Salem. The historical center is still a drowsy village huddled at the water's edge -- at least, as drowsy as the tourist trappings allow. My first view of the city was a narrow, cobbled street, lined on either side with shop windows displaying all manner of "witch" merchandise. It was as if the gift kiosk outside the Haunted Mansion at Disney World had spawned an entire town, or Anne Rice had spellbound and redecorated the French Quarter in her own image.

Perhaps due to familiar association, I was not immediately struck by the plethora of shore-side commercialism. Those of us who've seen decades pass on the Gulf Coast treasure our memories of unspoiled dunes as wave upon wave of developers now strike the beaches and ever-cresting condominium roofs pile toward the horizon. In that spirit, several Bostonians chided my excitement to see the town: "Walden? Salem? Those are tourist traps now, too commercial…" Still, I was like a person coming to the shoreline for the first time, having been landlocked for months in some cold climate, to be dazzled, despite the condos, by the glistening white sands, by the thump and rush of the waves, by the sunlight melting through the salt-flecked atmosphere. By those natural forces which exist -- and will continue to exist -- despite what man erects to exploit them.

Salem, maybe, has something humanely tangible to "exploit." There is a perpetual Halloween atmosphere, and the holiday itself is celebrated with as much intensity and verve as is Mardi Gras on Southern shores -- museums, shops, restaurants, even private homes are transformed into graveyards, haunted houses, spooky dungeons. But these surface clich├ęs belie an undercurrent of seriousness -- selling Witch City fridge magnets is the least they can do. Here, the supernatural is sincerely indulged; as if in penance for all the wrongs committed in the name of the Unseen, there is now not mere tolerance but actual liberty. The Witch Trials Memorial, a stone's throw from the central burying ground, was dedicated in 1992 by Holocaust historian Elie Wiesel. In a candleshop I overheard the word coven spoken without stigma, being used synonymously with congregation. Salem is home to Laurie Cabot, officially appointed in 1988 as State Witch. And farther towards the old seaport, the souvenir shops remain but take on a more underground flavor, and the windows become a little darker, a little more suggestive. There's a definite sense that all this isn't being done merely to attract tourists… though that's certainly the acceptable impression.

But I wouldn't be haunted, at least not by witches. Due to time constraints, I was unable to visit Concord, Thoreau's stomping grounds. (Though I did at least learn the correct pronunciation -- rhymes with conquered -- and anyone saying, as I always had, "CON-cord" would be looked upon with as much disdain as would a Yankee in these parts mouthing a word such as "MO-beel" when everyone knows it's properly pronounced "moe-BEEEEEL.") I was thus intent on getting an eyeful of the House of the Seven Gables.

At the dead end of Turner Street, the Pyncheon home (actually the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion) still overlooks the gull-infested north end of Salem Harbor. It is now part of a settlement association, and the grounds contain a collection of five other trucked-in structures, including Hawthorne's birthplace (which resembles a mini-Old Manse); all of these are on the National Register of Historic Places, thereby qualifying the site as its own historic district. The famed House of Seven Gables, built in 1668, is itself one of the oldest surviving 17th century wooden houses in New England. Painted a dark, dark gray, it is actually of humble size, though composed of odd, near-occult angles.

I visited at low tide on a cloudy day, seabirds invisible among the lower cumulus, their disembodied cries drifting eerily through the air. Hawthorne, the Alcotts, Ralph Waldo Emerson, all of whom knew this place, would doubtless have seen identical days, from identical standpoints. And here was I, in this age of cellphones and internet (not to mention the jet that had helped bring me to this spot), marveling at the "coincidence" -- though I have stood innumerable mornings on the concrete pier of my own small home town, and heard the same sorts of birds, smelled the same sort of brackish, salt-tuned air.

It is interesting how the mind seeks, even strains for, such associations -- definite, archetypal points in time, constructed of our environments -- for the purpose of deeper, familiar connection, either to ourselves or to those who have passed before us. Such is the purpose of the Civil War re-enactor, charging a rise which, at least for an afternoon, he believes to be Cemetery Ridge; or the pilgrim daring the desert sands, bent towards Mecca; or for that matter the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ritual of Transubstantiation -- these are our best efforts, our willful, faithful reconstructions of the Past into a new life, and a new memory.

I'd experienced the same heaviness of history the day before, in Boston, in the Old South Meeting House on Washington Street -- where Benjamin Franklin had been baptized, where George Washington had made one of the first speeches ("How dare they speak of the sanctity of their churches while they desecrate our own?") of the Revolutionary War -- as I listened to the plank flooring creak beneath my feet. And in the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street, walking past the resting places of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere. Slate gravestones from the 17th century rose from freshly fallen 21st century snow, bearing astonishing carvings of winged skulls and morose angels that were like visions delivered from the depths of Time.

A man and woman just up the path were remarking on the designs -- they seemed too weird and scary to her, too gothic, almost disrespectful by today's standards. I thought then of a retired old man I had once known who kept a geode shop in a converted garage, polishing and cutting into stones to reveal delicate layers of crystals, cragged ice-like geometric patterns, tiny secret caves lined with glistening rainbow-flecked minerals. Walking into his shop, folks never ceased to oooh and aaah at the contents of his display cases. "Whatever rock they pick," he would say, "always tells you something important about that person." He never explained this nugget of psychic-geomancy, but I always took it as that -- people would choose, knowingly or not, a stone that somehow revealed their inner composition, that spelled out the mysteries behind the human geology of their own faces, the crags time would eventually reveal.

There are moments of such recognition, when our souls ring, as a bell struck. I stared and stared at the House of Seven Gables, waiting for such a moment. I walked around it and counted the windows. I rested my hand on the front door-knocker. Eventually there did come a lonesome tolling -- from the church near the central burying ground, where we had parked our car. Merely a reminder that it was time to return to Boston.

Walking back, we followed the waterline, and I stopped to examine the reproduction of a pirate ship docked at the long, turfed protrusion of Derby Wharf. No doubt a souvenir boutique, I mused, allowing myself, after being surrounded by so much history yet not quite touched by it, a flash of cynicism. Which was the moment one of my traveling companions said, in the laconic manner of one simply marking the time: "Oh, there's the Customs House."

We'd already walked past it. It was as if it had chosen this instant to materialize, out of the past, just over my shoulder. Brick and granite and topped by a shining brass eagle, yet nearly unassuming -- essentially unchanged in the more than 150 years since Hawthorne described it lovingly, if bitterly, in the opening sketch of The Scarlet Letter. And as clearly as any cloud above or wave below, there, I swear, I could verily see the man, standing on the marble steps, one hand on the brass rail, coat tail fluttering in the ocean breeze -- seeing him as surely as others, long before me, had seen him of a morning, pausing for a pre-work chat, or to scan the sky for traces of impending rain. Yet, oddly, this figure, which I can still so clearly envision with my mind's eye, is nowhere in the photograph I snapped, not even a shadow…

As if the steely blue-eyed literati, Salem's favorite son, has forsaken my Kodak Moment, silver nitrate and all, just as he had eventually forsaken Salem itself: "My native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; it ceases to be a reality of my life. I am a citizen of somewhere els
e."

Originally published in the Mobile Register, October 29 2000

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