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Authors: Jodi Daynard

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16

SPRING, 1776.
IT had now been one
full year since my beloved Jeb had been killed. And, while I knew I should never forget him and doubted whether I should ever discover a man I liked half so well, I had in that time healed my heart sufficiently to be grateful for my lot. I was at ease in my soul and had won over enough families to find a means of support for myself, without which I don’t know how we should have survived the war.

In July, Abigail and her children removed to Boston to take the smallpox inoculation. She would not return to Braintree until September. What with her children’s illnesses, she was much occupied and wrote us infrequently. Left to ourselves, Martha and I did our best to farm the land, dry the herbs, and pick the flax. We worked quietly and companionably, avoiding the increasingly urgent questions of the day or any talk of her brother.

Then, that same month, a most exciting event occurred: news reached us of a Declaration of Independency. Parson Wibird read out the broadside at meeting, but when we heard that this declaration would be read from the Town House, I told Martha I would go.
That
I would not miss, not for anything in the world!

What’s more, the time had come to affect my long-dreamed-of plan. I would go, but not as myself. I would go in relative safety—as a man.

After hearing my intentions, Martha said, “You can’t be serious.”

“But I’m perfectly serious.”

I thought she’d objected out of a sense of decorum. In those early days, before I truly knew Martha, I believed that I was the more radical. And, for the longest time, she let me think so. I thought her indifferent to the Cause at best, and that idea made me more obstinate.

Still muttering her disapprobation, Martha helped me place a crate board across my breasts and wind a cloth about me. Among Jeb’s clothing beneath my bed, I found breeches, stockings, a vest, and a cap. The cap still smelled of my Jeb’s hair, bringing to me a stabbing pain as fresh as it had been one year earlier.

When I was dressed, stifling the tears his scent had brought, I looked at myself in my small looking glass, the one with the painted edging that had been my mother’s. I could not help but smile: I looked quite like a boy.

“My hair is a bit long. Help me cut it, Martha.”

Martha rolled her eyes but found a knife.

“Not too much,” I said. “Enough to make three tolerable passes of the plait.”

She cut about four inches, which made me sad. But having tied it with a fine piece of linen, it looked correct.

“You make a handsome lad.” She smirked. “Though you do realize that when you return, I will send for the men from the madhouse.”

“You may do so, Martha,” I concurred, “once I’ve heard the Declaration with my own ears.”

My experience will be hard to fathom for ladies who have not had the sensation of riding a horse in leather breeches rather than petticoats. Suffice it to say it is a most pleasant experience. The legs are warm and protected, the seat is comfortable, and one is not obliged to be forever rearranging one’s skirts for modesty’s sake. It was to be my first such disguised outing, but by no means my last.

At Boston Neck I suffered a moment of panic when the guards required me to show them a pock scar, and it was only at the last moment that I recalled a tiny one at the nape of my neck. I lifted up my braid to show them and remembered to keep my voice low. I was waved through at last, to my great relief.

When I arrived at the Town House, there was such a crowd that I thought it safer to remain on Star. This position afforded me a good view of women with their babes, and soldiers, guards, and officers of the Continental Army standing with their muskets. They looked disciplined, not like the boys who had questioned me in Roxbury one year earlier. Their costumes were bright blue and neat, if not entirely clean, and their arms were at the ready. I kept a healthy distance from them, for while I did not believe they would ever fire upon us, it was easy enough to imagine the crowd becoming rowdy or even violent at the reading of this document.

At last, Colonel Crafts emerged on the balcony holding a broadside. The crowd quieted at once. Only the cry of babies and the scuffling of horses’ hooves intruded upon the expectant silence.

Looking to my left, I saw a small woman and her four children and someone who looked like Richard Cranch. It
was
Mr. Cranch! With him were Mary and Will, Abigail, Nabby, Charlie, Tommy, and Johnny. Abigail’s face revealed little as she waited for the momentous words to be read. Few knew that this little woman, dwarfed in the crowd, was the wife of the man who, along with Mr. Jefferson, had created this Declaration.

The solemn reading began. Abigail scanned the crowd, looked up and saw me with no recognition upon her countenance. She looked away, but suddenly her head swiveled back toward me and she stared—quite rudely, it would have been, had I in fact been a boy. With a mixture of embarrassment, surprise, and joy, she smiled her recognition. There were tears in her eyes, as there were in mine.

I raised my cap to salute her. She nodded, and then turned toward Colonel Crafts.

The words of our Declaration are commonplace now. Were you not there to hear them, you can have little notion of the effect of these ringing words, so true, so longed for. I repeat the first few here so that you might endeavor to hear them as we did, proclaimed from the Town House. Oh, what poetry to our ears!

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Not a sound was uttered. Not a wheel turned.

“God save our Colonies!” Colonel Crafts finally cried. Three cheers went up, followed by a din of ringing bells, shouts, and cannons firing from land and sea. The king’s arms were lifted off the Town House, torn apart, thrown in a pile, and lit on fire in the middle of the crowd.

Seeing the wild crowd and fearing an imminent auto-da-fé, I left at a canter and did not stop until I reached the Bull & Horn tavern in Milton. There I watered and oated Star and was obliged to use the men’s necessary, terrified at every moment lest some man with too much wine in him should discover me squatting upon the bowl. Oh, the mortal terror of that moment!

I was suddenly quite ravenously hungry, for in my excitement I had set off without a morsel that morning. In the tavern, filled with the smoke of pipes and the smell of stale cider and rummy breath, I ordered myself a cider and a plate of ham and biscuits. I was dining happily when I found myself stared at by a young, pretty girl sitting with her family at a table across from mine.

I smiled at her, and she blushed.

Oh, this would not do! I paid quickly and left, and was soon glad to be back in my soft woman’s body without the tight wrappings and heavy breeches.

That is a faithful account of my first hours as a man—which ruse I would have need of in the years to come, for a darker and more serious purpose.

17

IN MY MIND, I shall always link
together the day I first rode out as a man and the day I heard the Declaration from the Town House. It was a day of exultant hope for the future and for freedom, both personal and communal. This hope would have to serve as our food in the long months ahead.

By August, the price of goods had doubled yet again, and I knew Martha and I would have to be quite disciplined if we were to survive the winter. We got to work on the farm picking flax, making cheese, gathering fruit, storing wood, cleaning the stables and the necessary, gathering wool, mending fences and windows with the help of Thaxter—the list went on and on. My muscles grew so hard that I begged Martha to feel them: Were they not like those of a man?

To look at us working side by side in the blistering heat of an August afternoon, you’d think we were both indentured servants, not highborn ladies. Even the Quincys up the hill were obliged to practice frugality. They had far fewer dinner parties than before and parted tearfully with two very dear servants. Still, Mrs. Quincy continued to leave the occasional basket of provisions upon my stoop, for which I could repay her only in the occasional jar of preserves or basket of flowers.

Looking from a perch of relative security now, I find there to be a certain absolute beauty in the closeness that comes with shared suffering. Such beauty could not be spoken of, and was hardly perceived. But it was certainly felt among us in the North Parish. We looked upon one another with a kind of true and open love and gratitude that is hard to imagine in peacetime. This exquisite state of our souls disappeared after the war’s end, to be replaced by more comfortable, if more attenuated, emotions.

At the end of August, all of Braintree was abuzz with a horrible rumor that John Adams had been poisoned in New York. When I overheard this news at meeting, so great was my alarm that I immediately sent a message to Abigail in Boston. I was greatly relieved to receive a reply from her the next day:

The rumor is nonsense. I have heard from the victim himself, and apart from a slight indigestion due to overindulgence, he is alive and well in Philadelphia.

Soon after the Adamses and Cranches returned from Boston, we received crushing news that was no rumor: Washington had suffered a terrible defeat in New York. To make matters worse, the patriotic fever that had run through our boys in the beginning had, by the summer of ’76, died out. In its place came opportunism and greed. We now had an army of men who had been bribed by the offer of forty shillings a day.

As autumn harvest turned to winter, our spirits sank as low as they had been exalted at the reading of the Declaration. Men who had not enlisted for the ready cash had gone off privateering, leaving us a parish of women and old men. It had now been two years since I had seen my brother off for parts unknown. I was certain Harry was dead, for I had received not a single letter from him in all that time.

I did receive a perfunctory letter from Mr. Boylston, however, to inform me that they were well, under the circumstances, and installed in Portsmouth at the house of Mrs. Boylston’s brother, Robert Chase. Mr. Boylston inquired after my health. He said nothing about Star, nor did he renew that invitation to join them that had been so repulsive to me.

I tore up the letter in disgust. And while I had not the luxury of tearing up the five-pound note—it was by then worth two days’ hired labor—I would have heartily liked to.

“Oh, those people!” I fretted aloud.

Martha, who had been spinning on the little flax wheel by the fire, stopped her work. “Who was it?” she inquired gently, not wishing to intrude.

“Mr. Boylston. It is not a Christian sentiment, but I should like to think that those who hold themselves superior get their comeuppance sooner rather than later.”

“No doubt they will,” Martha replied calmly, returning to her spinning, a mysterious smile playing across her face. Of all our chores, Martha liked spinning best. It seemed to calm her, to set her mind free to wander. At such times, she reminded me of Klotho, the old woman of Greek lore, spinning fate.

“You believe in an eye for an eye, Martha?” I asked uneasily.

She answered, “I believe that we are called upon to do things in this life that we would not do in an ideal life. I believe that to reach that ideal, one must be prepared to sacrifice.”

“So, in essence, you are saying that the end justifies the means.”

“Yes. Not in every age, but in some. In ours.”

“Well, then, you would make a very bad”—I paused, then added—“Quaker.”

We both smiled. I would have liked to discuss the issue further, for we had scrupulously avoided the topic of the war and politics. I now found myself wanting to sound Martha out, to know her true thoughts. What particular ends did she have in mind? I believed that to sin for good and to sin for evil were equal in God’s eyes. By what means could I support this Cause, in which men on both sides died every day? And if war itself were sinful, Jeb would have died committing a sin. He would have died for nothing—worse than nothing. Here, my thoughts came to an impasse.

Martha suddenly stopped her spinning and said, “I’m hungry. Have we any of that pie left from yesterday?”
So much for philosophy
, I thought.

Soon winter was upon us, and a very hard one it was. It was so cold on certain nights that we were even obliged to bring the chickens and hogs indoors. My poor, clean kitchen became a menagerie. One night we awoke to a horrible, almost human-sounding cry. We rushed down to find that a hog had licked the door frame and gotten its tongue stuck—it was frozen to the frame! We raced for water in order to unfreeze him, but by the time we had filled the pitcher, he had pulled himself loose, leaving part of his bloodied tongue on the door.

It was so cold I actually feared for Star, and one night I gave in to my fears and brought him clomping into the kitchen. Normally horses are creatures of habit; they do not relish going where they have never been before. But such was Star’s trust in me that he stepped inside my side door almost daintily, with no prodding on my part. He took a cheese for his troubles during the night, and I did not begrudge him.

On Christmas Eve I rode out to the Adamses, but this time I knew I would not enter. Standing before that house once more and seeing it lit from within, I found myself suddenly understanding that I was not alone in wanting things beyond my reach. Perhaps the pain of wanting what I could never have held a lesson for me: Was it not human to suffer so? What is nobler, in the end, than to tilt at windmills? What more hopeful than to believe that the two parallel lines of desire and its fulfillment will eventually meet in one moment of pure joy?

It was with such hope in my heart that I returned home that night unseen by Abigail, who was much preoccupied with her beautiful family. Instead of pitying myself, I pitied the poor chicken whose neck I broke the next morning and served for Christmas dinner—stuffed, roasted, and delicious, with a glass of wine for my dear Martha and me.

BOOK: The Midwife's Revolt
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