Aboard the Dutch freighter, “Indian Mary” (as they called her) voyaged from the trading post up the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean, her invisible babe at her back. She had nursed him those first few months, and then switched him to corn pap before she left him.
Rocked on the roiling sea as a mother rocks her unborn infant, Mary paced the deck forever hungry and too sick with sorrow to eat. Restricted to small areas where she would not entangle the ropes or be otherwise a nuisance, she did not venture into the forecastle where the sailors lived or even into the galley, not until they knew her better.
In spirit, Mary remained among her beloved Abenakis, traveling with them as they abandoned the mission and journeyed south to Lake Champlain, devoutly believing themselves impervious to attacks by the Iroquois, who had, after all, heard of Pomola’s spectacular feats much magnified. Father Shield implored them to remain at the mission for the sake of their immortal souls, even threatening them with eternal damnation in burning detail.
The gratitude of the Abenakis to Mary was profound. She had given their dead Sagamore’s babe, Son of the Morning Star, to Bead Woman, who was still in black mourning for her beloved Awasosak and her youngest child, the lost little Shell Bead. They assembled their pelts and presented them to the Dutch freighter captain. And Mary was on her way.
It would have been too painful for her to stay and watch her baby reared by another, even her beloved Bead Woman.
As for Fr. LeClairois, no one had heard from or about him since he had gone out the mission gate months ago, too horribly disfigured by yellow fever to continue service. It was said that, in attempting to infect Pomola with the yellow fever blanket and thereby murder the rival of his most revered Jesus Christ, he had contracted the disease himself. The Ursuline nuns who cared for him assured everyone that this was impossible. If it were so, why was there no yellow fever epidemic within the mission walls? The belongings of those with yellow fever did not preserve their capacity to infect, as did those of small pox victims, which was why the latter were charred to ashes and the former, not. Perhaps guilt had made Fr. LeClairois a believer. An infected one.
Perhaps he was already martyred in the Canadian wilds and even now lived blissfully secure in his own Heaven.
When Mary set foot on Salem Town’s shore that spring morning of 1703, she was twenty-five years old. She did not disembark daintily, imitating ladies from the old country as she had seen others attempt to do many years before; rather she swung on to the boarding plank and thence to the wharf as easily as any man, with the balance and lithe movements long practiced on mountain boulders, primeval tree roots of mythic proportions, and wild rivers disgorged from caves.
The sights that greeted Mary were different from those that she had left eleven years before. There were more wharfs, more ships, schooners, ketches, and fishing shallops loading and unloading in the harbor. Warehouses had multiplied, some with lofts where workmen erected masts and mended sails; others where the workers twisted endless ropes for rigging by moving down the ropewalks in housing the length of the wharf. Outside, she saw sailors busy rolling barrels off and on to the sailing vessels, all of which activity required a deal of shouting and spitting.
The main street was little more than a rutted road, with an occasional planked walkway or short path of cobbled brick. Many of those strolling along it wore elegant clothing, the women in ruffled bodies or bodices and skirts. Some wore mantuas with material gathered from the shoulders like capes over matching petticoats. Frilled caps encircled their faces — all clothing impractical for anything except being seen. The men sported periwigs or “ramilies” with long black beribboned braids down their backs, and black tri-corner hats. Their waistcoats over satin shirts under hip-length jackets were fetchingly swept back over their hindquarters. Workmen dressed more plainly, of course.
The sources of these splendid accoutrements were not far to be found — stores outside which hung picture signs or symbols that indicated a hatter, a mantua-maker, or a wigmaker. Down that street, Mary also spotted the sign of the baker and that most important man, the apothecary, the picture of his mortar and pestle swinging in the wind. The tobacconist was as busy as ever with gentlemen meeting outside his shop to discuss the political news of the day, no doubt the more and more onerous taxes imposed by the mother country.
Farther along, farmers cried their produce directly from their wagons, and women walked about hawking fish or game or berries or charcoal burners, or brooms, or chimney-sweeping services — whatever was necessary to the season. Milkmen ladled their bounty from copper cans into customers’ metal pannikins, and grocers sold their great variety of foods to the housewives. Shops, set up inside homes and not always labeled, crafted pewter, fashioned shoes, or showed off a milliner’s wares. Barn-like structures boasted iron-works or smithies for shoeing horses.
As the object of sidelong glances from the beautiful, Mary felt her cheeks redden. Following Fr. Shield’s practical suggestion, she had traded her Indian garments for a skirt, apron, bodice, and cloak donated from France to the mission, and she felt miserable. Fortunately, the plain white cap hid most of her greasy braids.
Many of the fashionable ladies passed without seeing her. They might have feared she was a charity case. Eyes met and then flitted away lest they be committed to giving. One who carried a baby looked familiar, about her own age. Their eyes met briefly, and then fluttered back to their own worlds. A successfully married mother now, Mary thought, but she could not place her.
When you are self-consciously aware that you do not measure up, Mary would tell you to turn your eyes away from yourself and outward to those around you, remembering that their bad feelings about themselves are simply better hidden from almost everyone else. You can elevate their spirits, even if you cannot relieve your own sorrow. There is much to learn and much that, by your very difference, you can teach. Mary had impressed this on her younger charges these many years.
As Mary moved along the main streets, past the cordwainer with the sign of the shoe outside his shop, past the wigmaker and the dressmaker, she knew no one. In years past, she would have greeted many. She found herself thinking in the Abenaki language and translating her thoughts into English.
She peered into the cooper’s shop to see if Hannah’s Paul and his father were there. His father was not, and it took her more than a minute to recognize Paul, filled out into manhood as he was. His eyes flickered to her. Did he remember watching his near-betrothed Hannah hanged that day on Gallows Hill? Did he remember Hannah’s sister? His eyes darted away unseeing to the bevels of different sizes on his shelves, and then to his task of bending hoops around wooden barrel staves of various widths, while another man rolled the casks out onto the wharf. The merchants sorely needed them to hold their rum, their “sacred cod,” their hides and corn.
The main street was built up with many storefronts she did not remember, and others she had missed — the tannery, soap-maker, and glazier, the tailor, hatter and mantua maker who specialized in fancy dress, the butcher, grocer, and, her favorite, the baker.
Before Mary knew it, she was walking along Proctor Street, tracing the route that her dear sister Hannah’s cart had followed to Gallows Hill. The hill was more overgrown with bushes and scrub, now. A few older children played among the rocks near the top, and Mary shuddered to think what their game might be. The dead had surely been long removed, but where to?
Mary headed for home, past the North Fields and the Iron Works and over the bridge. Was her home still there? Would she find all her family, her father married to someone else, perhaps? A single man without a helpmeet’s labor was at a disadvantage, and men seldom remained single for long.
She doubted that her younger sister, Letty, would greet her at the door. Twenty, now, she was probably married, perhaps with children of her own. With the exception of her one true love affair and the invisible babe at her back, Mary had missed that passage in her own life. They would call her an “old maid” or a “spinster,” because that was what old maids had time for — spinning. Was she an aunt? Would Letty acknowledge her as such? Their Brother, Baby James, was about twelve and no longer “Baby.” He’d probably resent it if she called him by his infant name. He might still live there.
Would they take her in? If what Fr. LeClairois at the mission had told her was true, they knew that those convicted and hanged as witches were innocent, and therefore that Mary was innocent as well. They might welcome her home, even perhaps regretting that they had chased her and little Ephraim out of town into Indian captivity, erroneously believing it to be as horrific as it was when she and her brother were first taken. They might let her stay until she decided what she was going to do. At least, they’d give her food to eat. Her store of peas, corn, and dried venison was long gone on the ship, and she had nothing. The berries were not yet ripe although there were other growing things to nibble.
It was over this same rutted route that she had wheeled her beloved Hannah’s dead body in the moonlight, her hideously distorted face still partly hidden by that thin white cotton hood. Every once in a while, Mary had stopped to balance the body with the shovel, so that the wheelbarrow would not tip over and spill out its precious contents. It was here that she had heard the clopping of the horse and the clatter of the cart and rushed her burden off the road, trying to hide. Here, she and dear Martha Corey with her valiant husband, Giles, little dreaming that their own ends would be so hideous, had lifted her precious load onto their cart and invited her to ride. It had always seemed amazing to her that they knew just where to stop.
Mary reached Salem Village, an offshoot of Salem Town, with its houses surrounding the common that was no longer green but brown with over-grazing. There stood a brand new meeting house with a bell tower on the roof that would have been deemed popish on the old. Had no one been horrified? No bell hung inside it, perhaps a compromise. In front of it still stood the old pillory that had bound Goody Gray’s wrists, bloody with splinters from the crude wooden holes. Mary had wiped the face of poor madwoman, wiped it clean of the rotten food that others hurled at her.
First, she would visit Hannah in the burying place.
As she went in at the wooden gate, a brief glance told her that there were many more gravestones than there had been; the dead had multiplied, and this was not counting those buried by their loving family members on their own estates. Mary wanted to linger among them and learn the history of the town in the eleven years since she and Ephraim had fled, but she must get “home” before dark. If “home” it was still.
Instead, she went straight to the lilac bush, beautifully grown to ten feet of multiple slender trunks and branches, drooping with fragrantly abundant purple blossoms. It had spread outwards so far that Mary thought Hannah’s beloved body must be beneath it now, nourishing it into bloom. Around them, stones etched with winged skulls marked new gravesites but not over the spot Mary thought must be Hannah’s. She could no longer be sure. It had been such a trauma of haste. The lilac had protected her sister from being dug up.
Mary bowed her head over Hannah’s still unmarked grave, thanking her for all the wisdom whispered down the years. The whispers had grown fewer, so she prayed once again for her continued guidance. Did she imagine it, or was Ephraim’s little hand stealing into hers as the voices of Letty’s afflicted began to scream? On her back, in the cradleboard so decoratively carved by his brother Sun Bear, the invisible Son of the Morning Star stretched and squirmed.
With her sharpened Indian sensibility, Mary felt the presence before she saw it, a young ministerial figure in the black coat and soft white neck cloth of his calling.
That old fear that Hannah would be discovered made her start, as she had eleven years ago.
Daughter of the Morning Star
Paperback: 304 pages