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Authors: Kathleen Kent

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BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
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The needle hidden under the doll’s skirt must have pricked her skin, for she yelped and suddenly thrust the doll back to me. “Not near so bad as being knocked over the head.” She abruptly turned from me and fell to sleep. I moved away from the unpleasant smell of her body and studied the doll to make certain she had not split the seams. I stroked the red cloth and wondered if Margaret was even then thinking of me as well.

was to my cousin as a grackle is to a dove, she did have her winning ways. At times she seemed cumbersome and plodding on her feet, but at other times she would appear behind me without having made the slightest bit of noise. I would turn to find her standing at arm’s length, studying me in a way that made me want to cover the tender part of my belly. She did her chores well enough, for she was strong and never complained, but there was an air about her as though she submitted to her labors only because it suited her to do so. She had been with us a short time when she pulled a face behind my mother’s back. Mother had given her a chore to do in her usual cast-iron manner, and when she turned around, Mercy puckered her lips up in a mocking way. I clapped my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing, feeling at last that I had an ally. She soon made a habit of being compliant to my mother’s face while making fun of her when she was out of the room.

One night after supper I told the story of Uncle’s battle with the Narragansetts. I had hoped to grease the spokes of Mercy’s memory so that she would tell me something of her captivity. When I had finished, I was startled to hear the rumbling voice of my father coming from the far corner of the room. He had been braiding rope, and while he talked he twisted the strands sharply together. “The village attacked by General Winslow’s men had women and old people in it. The braves had gone into the woods for hunting. They had never once attacked an Englisher. But their children were all butchered as fawns are butchered in a pen. Their bodies left to the crows and the wolves. The Narragansetts fought then with King Philip, and there was bloody murder on both sides before it ended.”

“But I saw the scar he got fighting a brave . . . ,” I said, thinking him to be jealous of Uncle’s courage.

Father wound the finished rope between his elbow and hand, making neat coils, saying, “That scar he sports was made by a squaw who split him open with a troweling knife before her head was hacked from her body.”

I heard Mercy snigger as she turned away to bank the fire. I felt bruised that she should laugh at my expense, but she shrugged her shoulders when I caught her eye.

The days passed and we planted the acres of wheat and corn and hay easterly in the direction of Ladle Meadow. Even Hannah was given a small sack with seed, and she helped broadcast the kernels into the ground, her little legs tripping over dirt clods and the hem of her newly lengthened shift. We made slow progress, as the ground was heavy with rocks, but the weather was fair with a few good rains. Mercy proved to have as strong a back as any youth, and she easily pulled from the ground stones the size of a calf’s head.

I would have thought she would not be eager for such hard labor, preferring instead to cook at the hearth. But wherever the men were working, there she was content to be. At times Robert Russell would come to help us with the planting. His homestead was southeast of ours, between Ladle Meadow and Gibbet Plain. He was tall and well seasoned and had come with Father from the old England many years before. Robert was the only man that my father took hunting, and when they left for the woods together, we knew them gone for days. The first day Robert appeared in the fields, Mercy jabbed me sharply with her elbow and whispered loudly, “Has that man a wife?”

I answered, rubbing my bruised ribs, “No, but he lives with a niece named Elizabeth.”

“How old is she?”

“About fourteen or fifteen, I should think.”

She put on a knowing face but beat a ragged path to Robert, bringing him water at every opportunity. He wasn’t the only man to receive fair treatment from her hands. She had started shadowing Richard about, offering to do his chores in the barn and serving him larger portions of meat at the table, until Mother finally took Richard’s plate away and gave it to Father.

week of May, Mercy and I were doing the washing together. We had added lye to the boiling water and were placing shirts in the pot with long sticks. The cast iron smelled of bear even though we had worked for most of an hour scrubbing it with sand to clean it. She was still maddeningly thick to my questions about her life with the Wabanakis and was unimpressed with Uncle’s stories. Father and my brothers were out in the fields broadcasting seeds from their sack aprons, and Mercy would often raise her head from the steam to look at them.

“Mercy, I have heard that Indians are devils. And that Lucifer himself appears as a brown man.”

She looked at me, squinting her eyes against the slanting light. She snorted air out through her nose and said, “An Indian is a man like any man.” She raised the long stick she was holding until it jutted straight out from her loins and said crudely, “And all men are designed in like fashion.” I laughed to show I understood her meaning but inwardly felt an uneasy clenching.

“Your brother Richard is a ready man. He will need a wife soon, I think.”

I had never thought of my brother as a man and no longer a boy. I had never given him much thought at all, except for the times he was being quarrelsome. Mercy walked away from the heat of the fire and laid herself down under the shade of an elm tree that threw its branches over the roof of the house. She picked up a blade of grass and, cupping it in her hand, made a high-pitched whistling noise through it. I sat next to her and, pretending to study the laces on my shoes, looked at her face and thought that Richard would never take such an ugly girl to wife.

After a few moments she said, “You asked about devils. Do you know what the Indians do to those trying to escape?”

I shook my head and she said, “There was a man from Salmon Falls who was taken captive to Canada with the rest of us. His name was Robert Rogers. He tried to escape but he was caught.” Here she looked at me and blew through the sliver of green held between her fingers, making it sound like the scream of a woman. “He was stripped naked, tied to a stake, and scorched with burning brands. This went on for some time. Then they pulled him from the stake and danced around him and cut pieces of his flesh from his naked body and threw the bloody pieces in his face. When he finally died, they tied him back to the stake and burned him until he was charred to a lump of coal.”

I felt my breakfast rising to meet my tongue.

“After that I was content to stay in Canada awhile.” She looked at the pot and said, “It’s time to stir, I think.” But as she made no move to stand, I hurried away and finished washing the shirts alone.

in my mother was the return to the rituals of the Sabbath. Grandmother, knowing she was soon to die, had made Mother promise to attend the meetinghouse faithfully once the ban had been lifted and all of us were well and whole. So on the
th day of May, we were dressed with all the grim haste of a garrison being fired upon by French troops. We were forced to scrub at our necks until they were scarlet and put on stiff aprons and shirts. This Sabbath exercise meant that Mercy and I were washing the whole of Saturday and our hands were chafed and raw from the lye.

That Sunday morning, Mercy had crawled into the cart with me until she saw that Richard would be walking behind us. She gave up her place to Andrew and walked next to Richard the whole way into town. I thought, uncharitably, that even with a fresh cap and apron she looked unkempt and not too very clean. Richard might as well have been walking alone, though, for all the attention he gave to her chattering mouth. After a few miles her breath gave out and they continued their walk in silence. Mother glanced over her shoulder a few times and, had her looks been barbed arrows, Mercy would have been dropped to the dust like a Norman at the hands of a Welsh bowman. I wondered what sparks would fly if Iron Bessie were applied to Mercy’s backside, as she was every bit as large as my mother. She told me once she would knock senseless anyone who mishandled her.

Walking into the meetinghouse was a cold and cheerless affair. The insistent buzzing and clacking about of our neighbors ceased the instant we passed from the sunlight of the yard into the dark of the sanctuary. I looked about and saw many pairs of eyes turned to us. The silence was so great I could hear the mourning doves nesting in the rafters. The Reverend Dane, sitting at the front, turned and with the briefest of nods bid us enter and be seated. I wondered if Mother would find a place in the back, but she walked with the pride of a queen to the place where her mother had sat for many years. At first the row of women would not yield. But my mother placed her foot in the pew and it was either part to give us a place or be sat upon.

The last time I had attended the Andover meetinghouse, I had heard the welcoming voice of the Reverend Dane. It was a different matter when the Reverend Barnard let loose his dark visions upon the people, for though his voice was like creek water over soapstone, his message was ominous. Friend to the great theologian Cotton Mather, he was a minister of ferocious and unshakable belief that God was as hard as bedrock. He often used Mather’s sermons, his favorite being the vengeful Deuteronomy: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” On that day he began with Joel, chapter 2, and the promise of “a day of darkness and gloom.”

He finished sweetening the sermon with the story of Job and his running sores. It would have taken a fool not to see the thread he was trying to weave. The suffering of Job and the horrors of smallpox. There were many, hearing these words, who threw hooded and disapproving looks in our direction, making my palms damp and chilled. A hunted rabbit, finding no warren or cover, will run itself to ground and die before a fox can catch and devour it. But, if the rabbit turns and faces the fox, the rabbit will become rigid with fear and die fully aware of the jaws closing around its head, the fox’s eyes doing the hunting before his teeth. I followed Mother’s lead and stared at a place on the wall above the minister’s head.

At the end I walked out into the light and stood looking for Lieutenant Osgood’s little black slave. I did not see him but did spy Mercy whispering and tittering to another girl near her age. Their heads were close together, and when I approached, they pulled apart and looked at me with blank faces, as though I would not know they had been talking about me. The girl’s name was Mary Lacey, and within the space of minutes, she had told me of all the young men vying for her favor. I did not miss the look Mercy threw Richard, and when she told me in a bold and bossy way to leave, I planted my feet and locked eyes with her. With a shrug Mercy continued her gossiping, which had in the main to do with all the unmarried men in the village.

“Oh, look,” said Mary, averting her eyes suddenly. “There is Timothy Swan and his brothers.”

I saw a smallish man talking to three younger men. He was bowed at the shoulders with a sallow cast to his skin.

Mary said, “Robert Swan is married now, but Timothy and John are not. Timothy has been ill of late.” And here she bent to whisper something in Mercy’s ear. They covered their mouths to stop up their laughter, but the sound carried and several of the old women coming out of the meetinghouse frowned. I looked back at the men, and there stood Allen Toothaker among them. The look he gave me brought back the dank air of his father’s cold-cellar. Mary grabbed at Mercy’s sleeve and, lifting her chin back towards the men, said, “And there is Allen Toothaker, come from Billerica to live with the Swans until he can get his own homestead. He thought he had one” — and she looked pointedly at me — “but it seems someone got there first. He is your older first cousin, isn’t he, Sarah?”

I felt a tug at my elbow and heard Tom at my shoulder say, “It’s time to leave. Mother is waiting.” He pulled insistently at my arm until I followed him back to the cart. It took Mercy a while longer, for she had hoped that Allen would cross over to speak to her, but he had walked away through the sloping, clover-filled mounds of the burial grounds. On the way home Mercy walked close to Richard as before, but, trying a new tack, she feigned injuring first one ankle and then the other. Richard aided her by handing her a stout stick and a water skin and continued his wordless, dogged march behind the cart.

spring looked a continuous freshening color of green, as if it had been made from some vast limitless bolt of linsey-woolsey. The trees bloomed in delicate laces of pink and white, and ivy crept beyond the shadows of the hawthorn bushes. Wild violets bloomed on the banks of Roger’s Brook, and tall grasses bowed double in the wind. On such a morning Tom found me hoeing in the garden, and after he had tortured me for a time with his sighing and restless toe tapping, I asked him what the matter was. I knew something worrisome had been catching at his thoughts, but Tom often ruminated over little things far past the time of their usefulness.

He finally said, “Do you remember Sunday last when we were to town and Allen Toothaker was there?” I had remembered Allen’s skulking movements through the cemetery as he left the meetinghouse but thought it an attempt to keep from Mercy’s company. Tom moved closer as if wishing not to be overheard and said, “I’m afraid of him.” His face was pale, as though his breath had been pinched off. I tore loose some clods of dirt with my hoe and thought of Allen’s close-set, hateful eyes near mine when he said Father was to blame for bringing the pox. And of how we had usurped the Toothakers’ right to Grandmother’s house. I said carelessly, “Allen is a jackdaw, full of more swagger than sense.”

Tom shook his head, saying, “In March, when you were with Margaret, Allen came to us to speak to Mother. He said his mother, Mary, was the oldest of Grandmother’s children and by rights should own this homestead. But Mother accused him of laying claim to the house for himself.” Tom took the hoe from my hands and pulled me to hunker down in the rows of corn, not yet knee-high. The memory of the visit agitated and unnerved him to the point of tripping over his own words. I gave him the hem of my apron to wipe his face and calmed him for a moment before letting him continue. “There was a terrible row. Mother clapped her hands in front of his face and told him he would get nothing by it. And that he would get the house only over her corpse. Then Allen said, as angry as I’ve ever seen a man, ‘That may well be.’ ”

BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
12.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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