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Authors: Kathleen Kent

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BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
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before the evening meal, Margaret and Henry and I would have lessons in reading and writing and history. This was done for the sole purpose of learning the Scriptures. I could write only a few words, and Uncle asked me if Mother had ever bothered to teach me. I told him she had not, although the truth was that my mother had tried to teach me to read and write but my defiance, and her lack of patience, had combined to keep me ignorant.

Margaret could read very difficult passages from the Bible. I would sit next to her, my chin resting in my hands, gazing at the movement of her lips as she pronounced the tantalizing and half-understood words of the prophets. The sound of her voice was like a gentle scarf being drawn across my ears. In the evenings, after the dishes and cups were wiped clean and the fire banked, Uncle would tell us stories of the first colonies and the time before, with the early troubles in old England. Soon, the shadows on the walls would become the murderous dancing of Indians who held aloft their bloody scalps. A falling branch upon the roof became the severed head of King Charles the First as it bounced down the scaffold steps at Whitehall-Gate. And with every telling Uncle’s tales grew larger and more expansive.

He knew all sorts of hand tricks as well. He could perform the secret manipulation of articles from one place to another, as well as the misdirection of our attentions so that these movements were not seen. He could cause a coin to disappear from his hand and make it reappear in a cup of cider at the far end of the table. He could pull a hen’s egg from the top of Henry’s head or a feather from the recesses of my ear. Once he clasped Margaret’s and my hand together and with a great flourish of his arms pulled from between our joined palms a piece of lace. It never occurred to me that Margaret might have assisted him by hiding the lace inside the fullness of her sleeve.

Uncle spent many hours with us through the storms of January. There was nothing about which he did not have a strong opinion. It took only a few well-chosen questions for him to speak at great length on some piece of ancient history, point of law, the nature of man, or the mysteries of the divine. But as the month of February began and the cold hardened the snow on the roads, there was a tautness and a tension that seemed to grow within the Toothaker house. Uncle’s usual good-naturedness was by turns taken over by impatience and moody silences. He would stand by the open door, shifting from foot to foot, until Aunt called to him to close the door again. He would pace restlessly about the common room, agitated and short-tempered with everyone.

Many mornings, Uncle left early astride Bucephalus and did not return until supper. At those times, after we had all retired to bed, the sound of Aunt’s weeping would work its way through the walls of our bedroom. I had, at first, imagined that her agony was over the fate of my mother and grandmother, as she had often prayed aloud for their deliverance from death. But soon I knew it was over Uncle’s continuing absences.

Aunt’s only comfort at those times was in holding Hannah, who would sit on Aunt’s knee and call her Mama. The smile on Aunt’s face made me long to share my sister’s place on her lap, being stroked and coddled and made much of. In the mornings Uncle would sleep far past cockcrow, and Aunt’s gentle sadness would deepen and solidify around her like a crust. Upon finishing her work, she would tightly wrap a shawl about her shoulders and sit and stare into the hearth for hours at a time.

Finally, in the first week of March, it seemed as though Uncle would not return at all. It was long past dark and we had shared a bleak and troublesome supper without him. When we had finished eating, Aunt perched at the edge of her chair, glaring at the door. Margaret, Henry, and I waited patiently for her to break her silence, sitting until our backs ached while trying our best to keep Hannah from fitful restlessness. The fire fell to embers before we heard the sound of Bucephalus shaking his harness as he approached the barn. Soon Uncle walked into the house and saw the garden of statues sitting at his table. His hair was lifted about his head as if he had ridden into a high wind and his clothes were stained with some dark liquid. He walked to the hearth like a man walking the deck of a rolling ship at sea, and the smell from his clothes was sickly sweet, like flowers rolled in spices. He drank deeply from the water bucket, spilling most of it onto his vest. He turned to face us and laughed, puffing air through a closed, dry mouth.

“It’s time for us all to be asleep. Mary . . . come now to bed.”

Aunt stood up and, taking Hannah by the hand, walked to her bedroom, closing the door behind her. The click of a bolt lock being slid into place sounded loud through the common room. The three of us, Margaret, Henry, and I, were left sitting at the table, speechless and tense. Uncle stood for a while, his head down, muttering to himself. He grasped the back of a chair as though he would fall without it, but after a time he lurched his way to the table and sat down heavily next to me. His breath smelled strong and sweet and the whites of his eyes were veined with red. Margaret and Henry sat staring at their hands, their heads bowed as though waiting for punishment. Until that time I had never seen Uncle other than smiling and in a good humor.

“Uncle, what is wrong?” I finally asked. “What has happened?”

He faced me, his head swiveling ominously on his neck like a falling capstone, and said, “Magic, Sarah. I’ve been practicing magic again.” His words were indistinct and run together, as though his lips had lost their shape. He leaned towards me, putting one finger up to my mouth. “Husssshhhh . . . I’ll tell you a secret, shall I . . . Sarah? I’ve been trying to . . .
.” The word at the last was all but lost in his soured breath.

I looked to Margaret but her eyes were down-turned, and Uncle tapped me on my head to mind his words. “I’ve been trying to vanish, but as you can see, I’m still here. Still here in Billerica. This desert of yeomen and yeomen’s wives and their brats and pigs and dogs . . . I am a man of
Sarah! I served with Captain Gardner as his
. . .”

He paused for a moment, his voice rising towards anger. His unsteady gaze searched the room as he sighed and slumped farther into his chair. I studied Margaret’s still, passive face and was comforted by her calm. But it was Henry’s face that set me to pity. From under his lowered lashes, tears streamed and scalded his sallow face to pink. His lips quivered and shuddered and, for all of his bullying of Hannah and me, for all of his cruelty, he was still a boy who lived and died on his father’s good words. Uncle reached for me, fumbling for my hand, and said, “You are still Margaret’s twin, are you not?” I nodded and he nodded in kind, painfully squeezing my fingers. “You are as much of a Toothaker as any of us. I’ll be father to you now . . . a better father than ever a man with blood on his hands could be. . .”

Margaret stood suddenly, saying, “Father, it’s time for us to go to bed.” She grabbed at my apron and pulled me after her to our room. Very soon after came Henry, scratching at the door, asking to sleep on the floor next to us. For a long while we heard Uncle moving roughly about the common room, until with a groan he bedded down on the floor close to the hearth. I slept only fitfully that night, partnered with dreams of carnage. In my night visions I saw Father approach a hog’s pen, his timber axe balanced over one shoulder. He picked out a grown, bristled hog, dwarfed in size next to his towering height, and dragged it screaming like a man into the shadow of the barn. There was a hidden scuffle, a sweep of whistling air, and then the slapping, meaty sound of metal severing flesh.

week of March, Margaret and I sat knee to knee, buried deep in the straw next to the sow’s pen. The air was thick with a pungent smell like melted copper and something else. Like cured meat left too long in hanging. The wind outside blew hard against the planks, causing errant wisps of snow to filter in through the walls. The sow had just given birth to her piglets, and we were watching them suck noisily against the swollen teats, pushing one another away with their snouts. There were six piglets in all and we had made a game naming them after villains of the Bible. The fattest gray piglet we named Goliath. The greediest, a little spotted one, we named Judas. Then came Pi-lot, Herod, and Pharaoh. The last was a handsome banded female. We sat quietly together, my head resting on Margaret’s shoulder, my fingers playing lazily with a strand of her hair fallen from her cap.

“I wish your father were here. He would know a proper name for the piglet.”

Uncle had regained his more gentle spirits and had not returned to the house in a rage, though he still often traveled out at night, coming back with the odor of strong ale on his breath. Margaret’s face remained thoughtful, but she didn’t speak. To fill the silence I asked, “Where does your father go when he leaves us?”

I felt Margaret stiffen beneath my cheek and was readily sorry for my curiosity. She said, “Father goes to town to treat the sick.” I knew by the way her eyes studied her shoes and not my face that she was not telling the truth.

“What about naming the piglet Harlot?” I ventured. I had heard the name from the Bible readings at night and thought it a dangerous name, like a rare perfume made of musk and lilies from the land of Ur. It made me smile to think of naming a pig in such an extravagant way. But Margaret frowned and pulled away, saying, “That’s not a proper name. ‘Harlot’ is a kind of woman.”

“What kind of woman?” I asked, sensing a new secret at hand.

“The worst kind. How can you not know what a harlot is?” She stood up and brushed the hay from her legs in a brusque manner. “A harlot is a woman who goes with men she is not married to.” When I shook my head, mystified, she continued, “A woman who lies down with a man in sin.”

“What kind of sin?” I silently ticked off the sins I knew of, gluttony, laziness, untruthfulness . . .

She leaned in close and whispered each syllable harshly, “For-ni-ca-tion. Do you know what that means?”

Margaret formed a circle with one hand and plunged a finger of her other hand back and forth through the circle in a gesture that even I could understand. I blushed, only just then realizing that what I had often seen done between the animals of the barn was being done between a man and woman.

She sat down again, pulling my ear close to her mouth, and asked, “Shall I tell you a secret? Do you know what these harlots are called?” She laughed bitterly as I shook my head. “Whores,” she breathed suddenly. Formed with a sharp exhalation of breath, the word sounded ominous and final. “They live in taverns and keep vigil in inns and wayside hostelries to trap men. They press drink on the men and wear shameful colors, without a scarf on their bodice to cover their bosoms. They paint their mouths to match their cunnies and drench themselves in scent.”

I thought of Uncle, his coat reeking of some sweet foreign fragrance, staggering about the common room, and blushed again to think of him in such places. I could not imagine where Margaret could have gotten such knowledge, certainly not from Aunt. I asked gently, “Is that where Uncle goes of an evening?”

She idly plucked a strand of straw from my skirt and was quiet for a moment, as though doubtful of revealing more. Finally she said, “I followed him out one night. It was an evening last summer. I heard him leave long after Mother had gone to bed. They had argued about his absences. They thought Henry and I were sleeping, but I could not sleep. I heard Mother say to him that if he could not be a decent husband, he should go and live with his whores and be done with it.”

A deep crease had formed between her brows, making her seem suddenly much older. “It is but two miles to the tavern, and when I crept up and peered through the shutters, I saw him. I saw Father at his cups and there was a woman seated with him. She was coarse, with rolls of fat and hair the color of old copper. . . . I heard things. . .” Two bright spots of pink showed through the opaque white of her cheeks but her eyes were vacant and staring. “Father would never have done such things, or said the things he has said, if the woman had not entranced him. So I set a curse on her that she would die before the year was finished.” She turned to me then, her lips parted and unsmiling. “She caught the pox last November and died.”

How often had I heard Uncle claim to work contrary magic on a witch. He had once said, “To kill a witch with conjuration is a service for the good.” But the thing Margaret had claimed to do, even towards saving her father, made a trembling start up in my middle and I clutched at my own shoulders for comfort. If it was so, that the copper-haired woman had bewitched Uncle, her enchantment crept past the grave, for what else could explain his continuing slide into vice? Margaret reached out and I let her pull me into her warmth. She said softly, “You must promise me, Sarah, that you will not let Mother hear you ask where Father goes. It upsets her so.”

She rocked me like a babe, my head on her shoulder, until my fearful quivering had stopped. That she had entrusted me with such a secret made me love her all the more. And if I in that moment also feared her, it only worked to add to her mystery and wonderful strangeness. By the time we had shut up the barn to return to the house, we had agreed to name the last piglet Jezebel.

March is often the cruelest time in the year, as the air will of a sudden turn warm and moist and bring a promise of a great thaw. And no sooner are the doors opened and the heavy cloaks and woolen wrappings laid by than the cold, killing winds prick cruelly and drown the world again in snow. It was during such a false spring that Uncle announced we were to have as a guest the Reverend Nason of Billerica. The Reverend, so he said, was a man of great respectability and no mean intellect. He was to come in two days’ time. Hannah and I were to be hidden in Margaret’s room, where we would take our supper. The sight of us would bring too many questions.

Aunt was not a little anxious about the preparations. Between the frenzied movement of furniture and the airing out of linens, Margaret and I were put out a dozen times to collect water from the ice for cleaning and cooking. On the day the Reverend was to attend us, I was sent for roots for the pot. I sat in the cold-cellar, sorting through a basket of apples, my face long and dark. The open trap allowed only a little light into the hollowed space, the far walls receding into murky vapors.

BOOK: The Heretic's Daughter
3.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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