One of the things I like best about writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place. As I’m shaping a novel, I do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book. Here’s a sample in which I explored Mary Rowlandson’s childhood, combining the limited biographical information about her with research I did on the experience of Massachusetts Bay Puritans.
She remembered the crossing as a haze of bright sunshine and black water, dirty white sails slapping at the sky, and darkness. The images hung on the walls of her mind like portraits in a great hall. She was not certain they were memories – perhaps she had been told of light and bright square sails and a black sea and lying beside her mother below decks, encased in the creaking, rocking hull. Perhaps she dreamt it. She was two years old.
In Salem, her father’s land was six miles from the harbor, surrounded by fields and woods through which their cattle wandered. The house was a sturdy two-room box wrapped in fresh-milled clapboards, large enough to shelter all the family and servants. At night Mary slept in the loft on a pallet between her older sisters, listening to the forest sounds. Owl screams and wolf howls made her shiver and burrow against her sisters’ warm bodies. Sometimes the wind shrieked and rain beat on the roof but her father had built the house well and she felt safe.
Once Mary, pulling weeds in the kitchen garden at her mother’s direction, was struck in the shoulder by the hoof of a stray cow, and the wound festered so she lay fevered in her parents’ great bed for a week. She remembered watching morning light trickle through the oiled paper of the room’s single window. She remembered her mother stroking her brow with a wet rag. She remembered thinking that illness was a luxury to be savored. Later she learned that such thoughts were sinful. Indolence was a particular evil, a devil’s trap she must work hard to avoid.
On her fourth birthday, as she stood in the great fireplace tending a roasting fowl, repeatedly twisting the cords so that the goose spun slowly, its fat splattered up onto her face instead of into the chipped dish she’d carefully set beneath it. Her mother made a poultice of cooling herbs that eased the pain, but Mary would not go near the fire again for weeks. Her mother set her to other tasks. Her chin and left cheek carried three dark red scars that slowly faded to white.
Saturdays were a flurry of flour and heat; her mother opened and shut the wooden oven door again and again, as she waited for the fire to make it hot enough for baking. Finally, when black soot flaked away from the ceiling bricks and the whole interior shone with pale brown light, it was time. Mary would watch her mother scrape coal chips out with the long oven peel. They fell gently as snow into the bucket. Then it was Mary’s task to pass the food to her mother: loaves of brown rye bread, wheat flour drop cakes, meat pies, fat brown potatoes, and great crocks of beans sweetened with maple sugar.
Mary was seven when her father moved the family north to help incorporate the town of Wenham. The children huddled together under blankets in a rocking wagon drawn by the family’s two oxen. Mary tended her infant sister, Sarah, between feedings. It was not until they settled into the new house that she apprehended that her mother’s sadness was not a part of her nature, but a consequence of the loneliness she had experienced in Salem. Physical isolation from other women was too heavy a burden to bear.
Wenham was all mud and half-built houses, swine and fowl and goats clotting the streets. But living there, close to neighbors, her mother became bright and strong. Like a plant; responding to the summer light, she seemed to grow taller and more vigorous. “This be civilization,” she declared on a rainy Sabbath morning as the family joined others picking their way through deep muck to the meeting house. She was smiling, though her skirts dripped with mud to her knees.
Mary remembered sitting on the hard family pew on a Sabbath morning in February while her mother wept beside her. Wept over the power of God’s grace, which she told Mary later had touched her heart like a burning coal. “Sin flayed me like a knife,” she said that evening, the words trembling on her tongue as the firelight glimmered. Mary’s feet and hands were still numb with cold. She leaned into her mother’s skirts, seeking warmth, but her mother pushed her gently away. Mary saw that her mother was devoted utterly to God, that she loved Him more than husband or children. She understood that God demanded she do the same, that she must model herself after her mother. But her mother’s godliness was a mountain she could not climb. Mary heard the story of her mother’s conversion so many times that it became a gospel of its own, a sacred if unwritten scripture, as familiar as the psalms.
From the moment she joined the church, Mary’s mother mounted a vigilant watch over her children’s souls. Her daughters especially, for it was well established that females were easily drawn to pagan ways. Their graceful habits often hid untamed passions. They must be guided with particular severity lest they stumble on the path of Christian virtue. Thus, she endeavored to break their wills, that her children might cleave to God.
Mary knew that her mother considered her particularly wild, cursed with a spirit of independence and determination. Sometimes she said it was because of Mary’s flame-bright hair; sometimes she whispered that some corruption that had overtaken her while Mary was still in the womb. Mary knew that she often taxed her mother beyond patience. Yet gradually she came to understand that the challenges she presented created the very paste that bound them.
There had been a particular moment of humiliation when, at eleven, Mary had presented her mother with a collar she had worked. “This is monstrous!” Her mother had held the collar at arm’s length, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger as if the linen were covered in offal and not her daughter’s painstaking stitches. “Did I not set you at your sewing when you were four, just as I did your sisters? Did I not show you with my own fingers how to make neat and regular stitches? Did I not tell you to make more care in your stitching than in anything you do? Have I not made it plain that a sturdy-made seam is the chief sign of a diligent woman? And a well-proportioned embroidery her crown?”
Mary bowed her head, though a rebellious flush crept up her neck to her cheeks and she had to clench the stool seat with her fingers, lest she fly off like an infuriated hawk, all wings and feathers and sharp cries.
“This is slovenly work.” Her mother peered more closely at the offending scrap, before tossing it back into Mary’s lap. “Slovenly. I want you to tear it out – every stitch – and begin again.”
Mary snatched the cloth before it slid to the floor and stared down at her work. As if she could see anything through the burning blur in her eyes. “Every stitch?”
“Mary.” Her mother placed a firm hand under Mary’s chin and forced it upward so Mary had no choice but to look into her eyes. They were the same soft gray they had always been, deceptively gentle. But Mary knew that her mother reserved her tenderness for infants and young animals. When it came to everyone else, she was the Lord’s task mistress.
“Mary, you are a woman near grown. There is no excuse for slovenliness. You shame me.” Shame. Her mother used the word again, surely knowing that it was as cruel as a knife plunged into the flesh, that it reduced her to a trembling, fear-struck babe.
“I’m sorry,” Mary whispered. “I had not the time.”
“There is always time, Mary. God provides for what needs be done.” Her mother finally released her, and Mary’s head dropped to her chest. Anger battled regret. She did not look at her mother, though she was aware of her movements at the hearth, heard her fussing with the porridge, stirring up the fire, checking the corn cakes in the oven.
“Does God need embroidery, Mother?” Mary regretted her words as soon as they were out. She had been whipped for less.
“Need embroidery?” Her mother turned in a swish of apron and skirts and petticoats. “Now you would blaspheme His word? Is it not written that the good wife sews fine cloth without destroying it? That a woman must be a crown to her husband?”
Mary longed to stop her ears. She had heard the lecture so many times she could recite it. It took all her willpower to stay on the stool and let her mother’s voice wash over her, like a sea in flood. Mary set her teeth and tongue so that she would not respond again in haste and anger. Yet even as she waited for the tirade to end, she was forming objections in her mind, promising herself that when she was married and mistress of her own house she would never sew, except from necessity. She would hire a girl to do the fancy work; she would barter clothes-making with her sisters and friends, exchange food for mending tasks. And she would never ask a daughter of her own to embroider anything.
“Look ye, daughter.” Mary raised her head and saw her mother reach into her pocket and draw out her scissors. The small silver pair that Mary’s father had brought from England after his journey to settle their financial affairs. They were her mother’s most treasured possession; she never lent them to anyone, yet now she was holding them out to Mary. “Take them. Take out your stitches and start again.”
When Mary didn’t move, her mother reached down, pried opened her hand and firmly placed the scissors in her palm. Mary’s throat clenched. She saw something in her mother’s face that she’d never seen before, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it was. Sorrow? Regret? Some dark and nameless need? Mary looked down at her hand. The scissors glinted in the firelight. She picked them up and cut away her careful stitches, one by one.
That night, Mary lay on her pallet in the loft between her sisters, pretending that she was her mother’s favorite. She imagined that some bright morning her mother would tell her to put aside her churning and they would walk down to the river, just the two of them, alone. Her mother would confide that she had struggled against her feeling for years, but could no longer deny her preference, that she was helplessly captive in her bond to Mary, that they were two souls so attuned to each other that it was impossible to know where one left off and the other began.