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Authors: Kathleen Kent

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“Sarah, you must not touch any part of Andrew now,” she said urgently. She softened her grasp and stroked my face. “By touching him you may become ill as well.” She moved me to a chair close to the fire and threw her shawl around my shoulders. She wrapped the rag on a broom handle and cleaned up the clouded water on the floor, then threw the rag into the fire. I fell asleep watching the dark shapes of the two women hovering above my brother’s grasping, restless form.

I opened my eyes to the sound of Father’s voice in the room. It was early morning, and though there was little light, I could see the drawn face of my mother in the gloom. They were speaking quietly but passionately and did not hear me pad on cold bare feet to stand next to my brother’s cot. I looked at the blanket covering him and saw the faint movement of breath. I bent closer to peer at him and could plainly see on his face and neck the slightly raised pustules of the plague, rosy pink to deep purplish red; a pretty color on the petals of a rose or carnation. I took two, then three, steps backwards from his cot, and the thudding of my quickening pulse sounded like the drumming of hussars on horseback, sabers flashing through the air coming to sever our heads from our bodies. Many were the stories of entire families waking together in the morning but by supper all lying dead on the floor, festering in their seeping flesh. He coughed suddenly and I raised my shift in alarm over my face and turned away in fear. The shame over my disgust at his contagion was not enough to stay me as I raced with all the strength in my legs back up the stairs and into the safety of the garret.

A
LTHOUGH IT WOULD
cost us dearly, Grandmother insisted on sending to town for Andover’s only physician. Richard went straightaway but it took him four hours to come back with the doctor, who stood a good distance from Andrew, careful not to touch anything in the room. Covering his face with a large handkerchief, he looked at Andrew for the space of three breaths, then made a rapid retreat through the front door. But not before being escorted out by my mother’s voice, braying, “You’re no better than a barber!” As he mounted his horse, he told Father that he would have to sound the alarm, post the Bill of Isolation for our family, and send the constable to read the bill to our neighbors. He said all this as he beat the ribs of his horse to ribbons making his escape. Grandmother did not let Richard back into the house but sent him away to stay for safekeeping with the Widow Johnson. As he had slept in the barn, there was a chance he would yet be free from contagion. He did not return that day, and we believed him to be in the home of at least one charitable Christian woman.

Grandmother, sitting at the common-room table, wrote a letter and called me over to her knee. She held my hands, saying, “Your father will be taking you and Hannah to your aunt Mary back in Billerica. You will stay there . . . perhaps for quite a while.” I must have stirred, for she quickly said, “You will be happy there with your cousin Margaret. And you will have Hannah to look after.” It had been years since I had seen my cousin, who lived in the northernmost part of Billerica, and my memory of her was of an odd, dark girl who would at times talk to an empty corner of a room.

“Can I take Tom as well?” I asked her, and my mother answered for her.

“No, Sarah. We need Tom to stay and help with the farm. Richard is gone and Andrew. . .” She paused, her meaning clear. Andrew would die soon or if he lived would be an invalid for months. It would be left to Tom and Father to carry all the weight of the fieldwork. Tom stood quietly by, regarding me with the eyes of someone falling down a hill made of powdered limestone. There came a hard knocking on the door, and a large, bristling man came in, announcing himself to be the constable. Holding the Bill of Isolation in one hand and a vinegar-soaked handkerchief in the other, he walked boldly to where Andrew lay groaning on his cot. His cratered face was as Andrew had described it and gave proof that some did survive the pox by the grace of God, or through protection by the Devil. He read aloud the posting that would be nailed on the meetinghouse door for all to see so that we should not “spread the distemper through wicked carelessness.” I looked about my grandmother’s neat little room and saw no carelessness, only order and sober tranquillity. As he left our house he said under his breath, “God grant mercy. . .”

I
SAT SHIVERING,
hidden in the frozen straw piled into the wagon, and held on tightly to a restless, struggling Hannah. We were leaving against the quarantine and so must sneak out in the dark of night like thieves. If we were caught, the entire family could go to the jailer. If any of us were left alive, that is, after the pox had spent its fire. Mother’s mouth was pinched tightly as she handed me a bundle of food and a few pieces of clothing. I had expected few words of comfort beyond caring for Hannah, but she straightened my cap with a firm grip, and her fingers lingered overly long at the laces.

Grandmother came with her knuckles pressed over her lips and, handing me a small bundle, said, “Now is the time to give you this.” I unwrapped the cloth and saw it was a poppet fully clothed, with strands of wool on its head dyed in reddish tint to match my own hair. The mouth was made from the tiniest stitches.

“But she has no buttons for eyes,” I said. Grandmother smiled and kissed my hands.

“I had not time to finish it. We shall sew some on when you are returned to us,” she whispered.

Tom waved with a weak hand as Father shook the reins and we started south, back towards Billerica. We had gone but a short distance when we heard Tom calling out to us. He ran to the wagon and pressed something into my palm, closing my fingers back again so I would not drop it. He then turned and ran back towards the house. I opened my fist to find two small white buttons torn from his only good shirt resting in my hand like twin pearls. I would often worry during that long, cold season that the wind was finding its way up his open sleeves, making him feel the bite of winter all the more.

CHAPTER TWO

December 1690–March 1691

T
HERE ARE WINTER
evenings in Massachusetts when there is no wind and the crust on the snow seems to hold in the cold. And if the moon is three-quarters full, its light adds a kind of warmth to the surrounding earth. The light was so sharp I could see the dark form of a hare rushing across the fields, braving the hooked death of an owl. The long, pitted barrel of Father’s flintlock lay across his knees and I wondered if he regretted missing the chance at bagging such a prize. I had heard Richard many times brag that Father could shoot with deadly measure up to eighty yards and could load and discharge four rounds in a minute’s time, whereas most men could load only three at best.

The silence of the countryside was absolute and we held our breath whenever passing a darkened house. The rattling of the horse’s trappings was fearfully loud, and Father let the horse go at a slackened pace to ease the quaking of the wagon. Hannah had fallen asleep cradled in my arms, and I prayed she would not waken and cry, as a baby’s mewling can travel a great distance in the night. We did not fear discovery once we had passed over the Shawshin bridge, for although the wagon jostled to wake the dead over the trestle, there were no settlers nearby to question us.

I lay back in the straw and watched the stars in a perfect black bowl, which made the sky look like curdled milk in Mother’s dye pot. The trip would take three hours, enough time for Father to deliver us, then turn straight around to reach Andover before dawn. I fell asleep after a time and dreamt I was floating in a little boat, carried in the strong current of a river, my hand trailing next to the hull. There were dark, dimly formed creatures gliding beneath the surface of the water, the bright sunlight masking what swam below. A creeping numbness started in all my limbs and I could not pull my hand from the water. There soon came the tug of grasping mouths at my fingertips, mouths filled with the buds of tiny sharp teeth. I waited to feel the first stabbing pains drawing blood but woke instead with a start to feel Hannah sucking hungrily upon my fingers.

In the near distance was the dark silhouette of a house, dim yellow light shining from its open doorway. Standing on the threshold was the form of a man, his voice calling out in warning, “Who are you, then?” In his hand was the curved shape of a small scythe. My father’s deep Welsh accent cut through the air like a bass viol. “Thomas Carrier. And I be carrying my two daughters with me, Sarah and Hannah.” At that moment a woman’s shape stood next to the man and she, pulling a cloak about her shoulders, walked out towards the wagon.

“Thomas, what is it? What has happened?” Without seeing her face I knew it was my aunt and could hear the fear in her voice. What else but misfortune would have brought her sister’s husband and two nieces to her doorstep so late of an evening? She drew close to the wagon, but Father said, “Mary, do not yet come so near. I have a letter from your mother. Best you read it first.” His long arm held out the parchment and Mary took it reluctantly, as though it were a serpent that could bite. She walked back to the light of the open door and read the letter, her fingers restless about her neck. She handed it to my uncle and waited for him to finish reading as she strained to see our faces through the darkness. Hannah, satisfied no longer with my fingers, began to cry in earnest. Her crying took on a queer jolting sound as I bounced her harder and harder upon my knees and we waited for a welcome or a turning-away.

Mary walked carefully back to the wagon, carrying a lighted taper, her every step dragging, like one following behind a funeral cart. She stood close by, looking at our white and shuddering forms, pinched from the cold and the late hour. I could see she was afraid, for in taking us into her house, she could well be bringing the means of destruction to her own family. But she held out her arms for Hannah and took her to her breast, covering her with the cloak. Then she said, “You must come in with me now, Sarah.” I climbed stiffly out of the straw, carrying my small bundle, and began to follow her inside. When I saw that Father was not following I stopped, uncertain whether to crawl back into the wagon or enter the strange house.

Father’s voice came to me as deep as vibrating stones. “Be good, Sarah. Keep well.” There was a pause and then a shake of the reins, and without another word he pulled the horse around and rode away. I stood watching him follow his own newly made tracks back towards Andover. The moon had begun to set behind the trees, so the roof of the house could not be seen, only the small rectangle of yellow light in a wall of blackness. I locked tight both knees and planted my feet in the snow, clutching my belongings to my chest. A twig rustled and snapped somewhere in the forest beyond the yard as though something had pawed its way closer to the clearing. And still the door remained open and still I stood outside the house. After a long while, a girl came to stand at the door. She was wearing a white shift and cap, her dark hair spilling over her shoulders. A soft voice called out, “Sarah, come in now. It’s very cold.” But I could not move. The air had turned thick around me and my body had grown rigid and fixed, like a splinter of oak spun in glass. Like a wraith she moved towards me, barefoot in the snow, her hand out, feeling her way in the dark. I saw it was my cousin Margaret, and though she was two years older than I, she was exactly my height. Her hair was crow’s black and she was very slender with a pointed chin that gave her an elfin look. She did not smile or try to speak. She merely reached out for my clenched hands and pulled me gently, until we stumbled together over the threshold.

I stood inside the door, my skirt and shawl steaming in the warmth. Hannah had fallen to sleep in Aunt Mary’s arms, sucking on a rag that had been dipped into a bowl of sugar water. I hoped that they had a cow, for the baby would be wanting milk in the morning. A straw pallet had been set close to the fire, and Margaret led me over to the hearth, which had been newly filled with kindling. I was soon tucked tightly inside thick blankets with Hannah nestled beside me. Sleep came with the sound of my aunt’s voice whispering we would have to sleep and eat apart from the family for some days, until it was certain we did not carry sickness. She did not say what would become of us if we should show signs of the pox.

T
HE NEXT TWO
days Hannah and I lived a half life in the home of Mary and Roger Toothaker. We were given food and a place by the fire but we were kept at arm’s length. I tried to keep Hannah close by, even sharing with her my poppet, but she was restless and willful and would often test her legs in the greater household. In spite of her ban, Aunt would sometimes reach down to pat the top of her head, twining her fingers into the downy ringlets. And then would Hannah bounce about the room happy again. Her antics made Uncle laugh, and he would chuck her lightly under the chin before shooing her back to me.

As the day’s shadows deepened into evening, I sat in my dark corner like an invading spirit and followed their movements about the house. From under my lashes I watched my two cousins, Margaret and her brother, Henry, studying us in turn. Henry was thirteen, slender and dark. To my mind he was furtive and a sneak, and often when Aunt was not looking, he would poke at Hannah or cause her to fall. Once, when he thought we were alone, he crept up behind me and pulled hard at the tender hairs on the back of my neck. My eyes watered but I said nothing and waited. The next morning he found the piss barrel upended over his shoes.

My aunt was also dark, as dark as my mother, but her face likened to my grandmother’s. For where my mother’s eyes showed an unyielding defiance, Mary’s eyes showed, even in the midst of laughter, lines of sadness, giving her a softness and a sweet melancholy. Mother had said she had lost three babes in a row. They could not ripen in her womb and at the turning of the third month were washed away in blood and tears.

Uncle Roger was as unlike my father as any man could be. He was of average height, slender, with somewhat delicate hands for a farmer. He had a high forehead, the dome of which was prominent, for his hair was receding on top. He had more books and pamphlets than I had ever seen in one house. He had an old, well-thumbed Bible, works by Increase and Cotton Mather, almanacs for planting and sowing, and other tracts, printed on the thinnest parchment, telling of news of the colonies. He smiled often, which to me was notable. But the most remarkable thing about him was, where my father was silent, Roger Toothaker was ever talking. He talked from rising in the morning until he retired for bed. He talked through meals and around whatever chores he set his hands to doing through the long winter hours in the house. And it must be said that Uncle never seemed to sharpen an implement or tool a leather harness without handing it over to Henry to finish. It was as though the drudgery of handy-work crossed his ability to weave a story. I remembered watching my father split a cow’s hide and stitch it into the shape of a new plow harness in the time it took my uncle to fasten a buckle onto a brace.

BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
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