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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 12, Number 4, December 2018
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Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan, USA


The Trial of Dorothy Talbye, 1638

Is this the City of Peace then, with a shore cold and stony enough to harbor a Puritan predisposition? Call this Salem—the wild and unexplored interior at your back, the icy brine of the sea in your hair, in your teeth.

here comes a dour man
in buckler and broad hat
and black homespun
and a woman in russet
who flies up behind him

For the poverty of your lot, Dorothy Talbye, let Salem console you. Why must you grieve? Are you not respected for piety and embraced by your church? Are you not wife to the good man, John, and has he not blessed you with children? For counsel, visit the Elders and commune with the congregation. Be not melancholy but let us pray, Dorothy, and you shall heal bye and bye.

But the private revelations of God drown out a sister's comfort, a brother's advice. Your jousting with neighbors is pronounced and frequent. The Court summons you for an alleged attack upon your husband. You neglect to appear. Questioned by the Church Elders, you affirm that God daily instructs you to starve your husband and children, daily forbids you to spare your own person.

You, Dorothy Talbye, are not quite yourself but house a spirit or several. Will you, Dorothy Talbye, banish this demon and be freed of his bonds? You will not? Then be henceforth cast from this Church.

they are your judges
and they are men, the Elders,
in their fine doublets
white ruffs and white cuffs
righteous and portly

they are your judges
dour in bucklers and broad hats
and black homespun
the ones who glare from the bench
while you rain curses upon them

You stand accused of mischief against your husband, Dorothy Talbye, and of incivilities to your neighbors, and you are summoned to this Court, and yet, good mistress, you are haughty and do not appear. You say you are directed by God but this Court says otherwise—that you be bound and chained to the post in the Commons, that you, this July in the Year of Our Lord 1638, be whipped publicly lest Pride persevere.

how many lashes
may the woman bear
how many lashes
before, good sir, all
turn, turn to ashes?

And so you spend some weeks quietly, duly chastised and outwardly conforming, until now, in October, in a secluded grove, Difficult, your three-year-old daughter, is discovered cold and breathless.

Apprehended and questioned, you freely admit that your hand broke the neck of Difficult, your darling. Was this not mercy, you ask, to spare the child a future misery? Eloquence does not follow you to Court, however, where you stand "mute for a space" and will not plead. Governor Winthrop, to loosen your tongue, threatens to place you under peine forte et dure. You mumble at last, Guilty, with your world hanging by that thread, but repent you will not.

why deplore the voice
that guides your every step
and whose purpose is
to rain commands upon you?
relent God will not

To the Commons, again, where your fellow pilgrims and your gallows wait. You will not walk, Dorothy, and so you are dragged. You will not stand and so you are lifted and supported.

Will you repent then, good woman?

Nay, nay, it shall not be so.

When the hood is placed on your head, you tear the hood off. The noose is tightened about your neck—and this, too, you would remove—but the hangman is a quick one and tires of your tricks.

Even there, at the end of the rope, you try your last to steady your helter-skelter world. You swing out and back. You reach for the gallows' ladder, but you pass and win from your townsmen a final gasp.


Author's Note: Early common law permitted the punishment of peine forte et dure—the placing of heavy weights on the chest—for persons accused of a felony who refused to enter a plea. Weights were added incrementally until a plea was extracted or the accused suffocated.

"The Trial of Dorothy Talbye, 1638" was first published in Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1 (June 2009).

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