Sunday, November 16, 2014

White Roses and Paper Cranes: Symbols of Beauty and the Horror Within

Walking down the cobblestone streets of Salem, Mass., I was both intrigued and a bit spooked. In every other window, witch paraphernalia was displayed – ouija boards, spell candles, black cats. The Salem Witch Museum is in an old church with the glass windows lit in red. It is dusk and the perfect setting for my visit.

Turning a corner, we walked by a historic home, graveyard and a group of tourists being led by a man dressed vaguely as a pilgrim. My friend tells me to look down. I see a row of stones, engraved with words in capital letters. Some of the stones are cracked. Yellow leaves obscure parts of the text. But I see phrases: “I am innocent” . . . She tells me these are the last words of the men and women hanged after being accused of witchcraft. It takes my breath away.

When I look up, I notice a small courtyard – again surrounded by a stone wall. There are small stone platforms jutting out of the wall – about 20 of them – encircling the courtyard. I thought they were benches, then noticed that on each one is a single white rose.

These too represent those who died, accused of being witches. One after another, silently, I walk by and read their names, the date of their death, and their method of execution: “hanged,” “pressed.” 

Some names I recognize from literature, many I do not. I want to run my finger along the words. I long to whisper a silent apology and offer a prayer, but the night has grown chilly and it is getting darker.

In only one other place have I encountered such sadness, such a clear representation of our unfathomable human ability to harm one another.

My husband, daughter, and I traveled to Okinawa, Japan, in 2007. I was supervising a trip with my college students. They were filming a video to promote a Christian school. Our trip was fascinating and we soaked in the Japanese culture, eating sushi, collecting coral and seashells, walking through rice fields and carefully avoiding slithering Habu.

On one of the first outings, our hosts took us to the World War II Peace Museum. Row after row of headstones engraved with the names of the American and Japanese soldiers who lost their lives. The monuments stretched on past our vision. We walked through a museum containing mementos from both the Japanese and the American soldiers. The museum was a visual plea for peace.

But perhaps the most overwhelming moment for me was our next stop at the Himeyuri Peace Museum, a cave where 17 Japanese nurses and 194 school girls hid under orders to never surrender. Knowing they would soon die, they left letters, speaking of their sorrow to part with the men and families left behind. Of the more than 200 women, only 5 survived. They were young, so young.

Outside the caves was a tree, covered with multi-colored paper cranes. One thousand cranes, they say, grants one wish. Visitors bring these every day as a memorial to these young nurses and there are thousands of them – so many that they weigh down the tree and make it look vibrant and alive in an other-worldly way. Pink, green, turquoise, red, yellow, orange. In another pile were yellow flowers, stacks of them.

Intensely alive and a way for those who are living to touch the past and say, “We will never forget.”

It is hard to believe we are capable of these things. We don’t want to be. We visit sites and cry and feel the pit in our stomach that people can inflict such pain on others.

And so I walk away from that Salem memorial – the memory of a faded white rose in my mind and heart.

Were they witches? Were they evil?

Or were we?