Matilda is Missing: Part 1
My Great Aunt Matilda has a passion for excitement that has led her around the world on countless adventures. Recently, her taste for thrills got even more daring. During a lecture at Cambridge University, she met a group of students with the extraordinary claim that they had built a machine to allow someone to not only travel around the world, but across time.
Aunt Matilda raved about the students' genius invention for weeks, telling stories of how they had managed to make journeys across timelines to different versions of the world. Some of these were almost imperceptibly shifted while others were filled with sights never considered before. That's when everything changed.
“Dinosaurs!” she said to me at tea. “Can you imagine visiting a world where they roamed in modern times?”
When the students asked for her help to map out these newly discovered worlds, she packed a bag and boarded the next train. After a few successful journeys, the machine malfunctioned and Aunt Matilda went missing.
Now it’s my turn to pack my bags and go find her. My only clue is the machine’s last setting: Salem, MA - 1692.
Okay, let me tell you something about time travel. If you’ve ever had jet lag, this is sort of like that, except you’ve landed in a culture so foreign that it feels like an alien world. The only thing that kept me sane for the first hour was the view of the harbor. It was late evening when I arrived, spring, a quiet unlike anything I’d known. The silence was jarring as it lacked the cacophony of modern cities. There was no drone of distant highways, no hum of electric heaters, only the sound was the creaking of the wooden ships as they rocked on the waves and tugged at their moorings and the occasional voices traveling up and down the docks.
My instincts told me that Aunt Matilda had come to investigate the infamous Witch Trials of this time, which left me in a delicate situation. How could I, a person strange in the habits of more than 300 years in the future, find and retrieve Aunt Matilda without myself being suspected of witchcraft?
I decided to sleep on the matter and found a small inn that would take what coins I had brought with me. I spoke with the innkeeper, passing my modern American accent off as British and posing as a traveling member of the church.
“I’ve come up through Boston,” I said. “Rumor has it there’s some unrest in the Salem congregations.”
The innkeeper sat in thought for a moment, as if deciding how much to reveal, then said, “Nay, our local congregation doth remain in harmony. However, yonder in Salem Village, their reverend Parris hath stirred unrest amongst the townsfolk with his notions of witches.”
“In Salem Village?” I echoed, “Whereabouts might that be found?” I asked, wincing at my impression of his accent.
“Salem Village lieth 'bout three hours by foot down the road yonder,” he said.
There are two Salems in the area and I was in the wrong one. I thanked the man and turned in for a good night's rest. In the morning, I would set out for Salem Village.
The walk from Salem Town to Salem Village did take about three hours. I was deeply grateful for the modern shoes I was wearing, designed to look authentic to the era. As I wandered over a few quaint bridges and past fields I considered what these lands would develop into - neighborhoods, shopping centers, highways. I thought of all the people who would live here between when I was now and my own time.
Salem Village was much larger by area and much smaller by population than Salem Town. There were a few shops along the main road, most of which seemed to serve as the trade point between Salem Town and Salem Village.
The most glaring difference between the two places was the residents. In stark contrast to the well-dressed and easygoing people I’d met this morning on my way out of town, the inhabitants of Salem Village were openly rude and distrusting of me. Each one I passed stopped what they were doing to gawk at me, and some threw their shutters closed to hide. If Aunt Matilda had been through here, I suspected she would have aroused even more suspicion than I had.
These people had been made afraid, and I knew who was sowing the seeds of fear within them. I set out for the local church to have a word with the Reverend Parris.
I arrived to find the church open, but empty, save for one woman sitting alone in prayer. Not wanting to bother her, I turned and headed for the door.
The woman spoke to me as I passed without looking up. “Thou art here seeking the witches, art thou?”
I froze where I stood. Then she risked a glance at me. As our eyes met, and I could tell she knew something more than the rest of the townsfolk.
“I beg your pardon?” I asked.
My mind raced for a way to handle this. I hadn’t expected time travel to throw so many delicate situations my way so quickly. I asked myself what would Aunt Matilda do and said, “What makes you think I’m seeking such things?”
“I know an outsider when I see one,” she said. Her accent was strange. It sounded almost British and lacked the complex formality of the townsfolk.
“I am seeking, you are correct about that,” I said. “The one I am seeking is no witch, though, merely an older woman traveling these parts.”
“Women who are not witches do not often wander these parts in solitude,” she said. Then she smirked at me. “This is a time of great mistrust. Be grateful you have found me here rather than Reverend Parris, else you might have found yourself accused of witchery as well.”
“And what about myself would arouse such suspicions?” I asked.
The woman glanced down the row to the back of the church before leaning toward me and whispering, “Your hat, dear friend, is made of pleather.”
My eyes widened as I recognized the truth about her. “You’re a…”
She hushed me before I could finish. “Speak not of my nature. All the townsfolk shall hear is 'witch,' and I am already on shaky ground in their eyes.” She glanced to the back of the church again. “They have already charged one of my crew, who is being held awaiting trail.”
“How can I help?” I asked.
“Meet me an hour past twilight at the wooden bridge at the town's edge on Ipswich road.”
As she had promised, she was waiting just beyond the edge of town, near the wooden bridge. I followed her in silence for almost a mile until we came to the shore of a brook, where we met three others sitting around a fire under the canopy of a small grove of trees.
“I failed to introduce myself in the church. My name is Alice. This is Mary, John, and George." Each nodded a greeting as they were introduced. Then a black cat emerged from the darkness. “Oh, and of course, Soot.” The cat made a gesture with his paw and nodded his head.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “did your cat just wave at me?”
“I did,” Soot said. “I thought it would be less jarring than saying hi.”
I stared in awe until I heard Mary giggle. “It seems we hail from a bit further down the line than when you’re from,” she said.
“They’ve taken your friend?”
“Indeed!” Alice said. “They have Bridgette captive and intend to bring her to trial on the charges of witchcraft.”
“We came to study the witches, not to be mistaken as being witches,” George said.
“You seem to fit in a lot better than I do. I’ve only come here in search of my missing Aunt Matilda.”
“We do only because our attire is of the age and we were trained in archaic speech and manners. In our time, the records of this era have all but vanished. We have been trying to come up with a plan that causes no harm and disrupts the course of history as little as possible.”
I thought for a moment, reaching back to my college history courses for ways I might be able to help. Then it hit me. “I have an idea…”
I sat alone in the study of the man who would become the chief justice of the trials, should they proceed as they had in the history I grew up with. “Mister Stoughton, I have heard whispers, conveyed through Mister Phips, that he shall entrust you with the oversight of a tribunal to address the rumors of witchery spreading like wildfire in Salem Village. I have come to shed light upon the truth behind these rumors.”
“Indeed? I have not received tidings from Mister Phips.” Stoughton said. “I would greatly esteem your counsel on these affairs."
“I am familiar with your pursuits in the matters of land acquisition and progress. You seem to be a most prudent, God-fearing gentleman,” I said.
Stoughton smiled, but didn’t interrupt.
“It appears that a faction of fellow Puritans in Salem Village lack similar prudence and have strayed from the righteous path. They have become resolute in the belief that amassing any manner of means is unholy. We may indeed agree on the notion that the accumulation of wealth is ungodly, but they have started to abandon their own townsfolk for the hard-earned profits of their trades.”
Stoughton considered this for a moment. “Dost thou suggest that they are motivated by envy, and that they contrive these accusations as a political stratagem?”
“This is precisely what I propose. They attempt to fortify Puritan values by sowing dread amongst the populace, yet in truth, they weaken that very virtue within their own community. After all, how would we tend our lands without a blacksmith to mend our tools?”
The conversation went on for some time. In the end, I wasn’t sure I had convinced him, but he left me with encouraging words. “I do hold gratitude for thy discerning perspective on this matter.”
The morning after my meeting with Mister Stoughton, I walked down to the brook to report to my fellow time travelers. To my great surprise, Bridgette was sitting among them!
“Well, if it isn’t the history professor,” she said with a smile.
“So, my plan to get you released has worked!” I said.
“Maybe a little too well,” John said.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“He walked me back here personally,” Bridgette said. “The whole time he was on about how the people had lost their way to fear and needed to be reminded of fundamental values of hard work and strong community.”
“Seems there won’t be any witch trials on this timeline after all,” George said.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that. However, I am sorry to have spoiled your research trip,” I said
“That’s alright. We’re pretty confident that we’ve discovered the source of the rumors,” John said.
“Yeah. Ourselves,” Bridgette said. “We’re just glad no one got hurt. Say, the others mentioned you were looking for someone.”
“Indeed. I’m seeking my Aunt Matilda, who seems to have gotten lost traveling in time,” I said.
“Lost? Bridgette said, “I highly doubt that. Not if it’s the Aunt Matilda I know, anyway.”
“You’ve met Aunt Matilda?” I asked.
“I certainly have. Never seen her in these parts, though. The last time our paths crossed was about a thousand years from now,” Bridgette said.
“Into the future?” I asked.
“That’s right,” she said with a smile.
And so I set off in the other direction on a new adventure to find my Aunt Matilda.
If you've enjoyed this tale, sign up for our mailing list at the bottom of the page to follow the Adventures of Aunt Matilda!
Be sure to read Part 2