Imagined Encounters III: A Puritan Childhood

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.

shipShe 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.

05__3Wenham 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.

 

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Imagined Encounters II: On the Trail

One of the pleasures of 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. This passage imagines the experience of Wowaus (James Printer) as he accompanies other Nipmucs through their territory in the late winter of 1676, fleeing the English soldiers. (See Chapter Eleven in Flight of the Sparrow for Mary Rowlandson’s perspective on these events.)

He is hungry; they are all hungry. There are only scraps to eat; no one has had time to hunt, and they can carry only some of the few winter stores that are left. He knows this hunger well; it is familiar to him, familiar to all Nipmuc. That is the way of things – the great cycles of the seasons bring warmth and plenty and then famine and cold. He has learned – they have all learned – how to endure.

But the English are soft. They do not live according to the seasons but spend their days building up stores of grain for the winter. This is a way the Hassanamesit try to follow, a way that Mr. Eliot and his friend Mr. Gookin praise them for, but Wowaus and others worry that it will make them soft like the English.

Even as they walk, he feels his body grow hard like the trunk of a walnut tree that has lost its summer leaves and stands fast against the wind and snow. He helps to carry some of the old ones, who have become yet more feeble because of hunger. A grandmother rides on his back up a long hill through thick trees. At last they come to the Bacquag which is a tumble of ice and white water. He had hoped that it would be frozen, but should have known better. The past three days have been warm enough to melt snow and the river is often in a rage, even in winter.

He, along with other men, fells trees for rafts. There are hundreds who must be carried to the far side of the river, and their time is short. Though he knows Monoco has sent a party of warriors to cover their tracks, it is no assurance that the English will not stumble upon them by accident. He works in a fury, stopping only to drink from the icy river. The cold is a good thing, he knows. It fortifies him, makes him strong. He realizes as he sinks his hatchet deep into the trunk of a small maple, that he is very much enjoying being a Nipmuc again.

It takes them two days to ferry everyone over. The women build wigwams on the far shore and they rest warm for three days and nights. On the second morning, as he walks about the makeshift village he sees the captive woman sitting outside a wigwam, wrapped in a blanket, knitting stockings. Her eyes are red, as if she has been crying or is ill, and there is a bright bruise on her cheek – a slap mark. She has apparently raised the ire of Weetamoo. He smiles. She is a woman of spirit, perhaps too much spirit for her own good. He wonders what she has done.

He watches her from the far side of a wigwam; he sees her sense that she is being watched, sees her head come up and her eyes skitter over the people nearby, but she does not see him, he is certain.

He considers approaching her and decides not to. There is something very sweet in watching over her this way. As if he is like one of Mr. Eliot’s guardian spirits.
A gray dog comes up to him and sniffs his heel. He wonders when they will start eating the dogs. Food is very scarce. The day before, he watched his uncle butcher a horse taken from the English, the same horse he had arranged for the red haired captive to ride. It would be a starving winter, thanks to this war with the English.

The sun drops into the trough of trees on the far side of the ridge and he leaves his watch for another day. The captive Mary sits outside the wigwam, knitting and knitting.

On the fifth morning, just after dawn, the warriors fire the wigwams and flee north. For hours the air is thick with smoke and from the ridges, Wowaus can see flames licking up into the trees. By mid-day, scouts report that the English army has reached the Bacquag and it has stopped them, at least for a time. Apparently they cannot decide how best to cross. Monoco directs his warriors to take the people down out of the hills to a swamp.

Swamps have always been a place of safety; all tribes retreat to them when threatened. The boggy ground is dangerous, and it’s difficult to track people in the thick vines and thickets that run along the ground and reach out to grab a man’s leg or ankle.

They travel as quickly as possible but the trail is narrow and steep and there are hundreds of people, all weary and weak from lack of food. As they descend into a valley the trees open up to reveal a landscape of abandoned English fields. The yellow spikes of old corn stalks poke through the snow. They halt and Monoco sends scouts out over the fields and into the woods beyond. They soon return with the report that there are no English in the area.

The women fan out across the fields to glean what corn and wheat has been left from a long-ago harvest. Wowaus sees the red haired captive pick up a broken ear of corn and drop it into her pocket. She looks around, furtively, then – miraculously – finds another. He sees how tempted she is to eat it on the spot, but something stays her. She has an uncommon resolve for a woman. Later, he sees a young woman steal one of the ears and watches Mary’s outraged accusation. He knows she will not get it back. The young woman is as hungry as Mary, and has two children to feed as well. The other women gather around the captive, mocking her and laughing.

That night there is an expansive joy in camp, as the stewpots are augmented with grain and maize. For the first time since the Medfield attack, Wowaus feels satisfied after eating. He walks through camp, stopping to talk with friends. He does not acknowledge, even to himself, that part of his reason for walking is to locate the red haired captive. Yet when he comes on her, sitting with Weetamoo’s family by a cook fire, he feels a rush of excitement, a small thrill that begins deep in his belly and rises like sap up through his abdomen and chest.

Mary’s face is smeared red with grease and blood from the half-cooked piece of horse liver she is eating. She holds it, dripping, in both hands and tears at it with her teeth. Blood runs from the sides of her mouth and falls onto her apron. She is entirely absorbed in eating, and does not realize he’s watching. If it were not for her copper hair and the paleness of her skin, she could pass as a Nipmuc. He wonders if she realizes how quickly she has become an Indian.

He is certain she does not. The news would no doubt distress her. It has not escaped his notice that the English fear becoming an Indian even more than they fear being killed by one.

He walks on. He is aware of cold bubbles of happiness rising through his chest. He is glad she is becoming an Indian. She will make a good wife; she is strong and resilient and clever.

Imagined Encounters I: Entering the Experience

One of the pleasures of 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 usually do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book.  Here’s a sample, describing the experience of a young Nipmuc boy when he first encounters John Eliot, the 17th century Puritan missionary to the Indians.  This boy will grow up to become James Printer, who became a printer’s apprentice in Boston and helped Eliot translate and print his “Indian Bible.”

I was five when I first saw a coat man.  It was summer and my family had traveled east, following the fish and deer.  My mother built her wetu near a river and planted corn in the flat field behind.  There were other wetus, filled with aunts and cousins.  The camp was laid out in a circle, like a great hoop, protecting all the people.  In the center of the circle was a smaller circle of big stones the men placed there.

I thought the coat men very odd.  They covered their bodies covered in stiff black material, though it was summer when the sun made the earth warm and people did not wear skins.  The village dogs thought them odd, too; they swarmed them in excited circles, barking.

There were two coat men.  My cousin told me they were English, a word that I had never heard, an empty word that had no meaning inside it.

I soon learned that the coat men had other names – Ell-ye-yot and Goo-kin  – and I found comfort in this, even though they were also empty words that had no meaning I could fathom.  But they were proof that these two English were not alone in the world, that they had kin and friends somewhere.

The coat men gave gifts to my father: two knives, a blanket and a string of wampum.  I noticed that Eliot and Gookin were both shorter than my father and brothers.  The one called Eliot had hair the color of a muskrat pelt, not only on his head, but beneath his nose and chin.  He did not dress his hair, but let it fall untended in waves that reminded me of water after a storm.  The other man was younger and sadder.  All afternoon my father and my oldest brother sat with them under a big chestnut tree outside the circle of wetus.

I sat with my mother and helped her shell beans.  I asked her about the men.  They did not look friendly or happy in their strange black clothes.  My mother stroked my hair, which rose in black spikes at the crown.  “Do not worry, Anequsemes, my little chipmunk.  They live far away by the sea.  They are not our enemies.”

I did not ask how she knew.  My mother was wise and understood many things.  She had seen the sea once when she journeyed with her people – the Qunnipieuck – to a  feast hosted by the Pocasset sachem, Corbitant.  She had told me about the short, crooked pine trees of the forest in that place.  She had described the shore of brown sand and the pink and white shells she had collected there.  She explained how the sea was a great lake, a lake so large no one could see the other shore.  It had its own spirit, Paumpagussit.  I tried to imagine the sea but could not.

When I tired of shelling beans, I played with the dog, then wandered up the hill and lay in the grass near the talking men.  I listened to the strange words of the coat men and whispered them to myself.  They were sharp, spiky words.  They sat on my tongue like porcupine quills.  I whispered them slowly and carefully so that they would not cut my lips.

Eliot and Gookin talked with my father and brother late into the afternoon and even though it was not the people’s custom to eat together, all the men gathered around the stewpot and ate as one.  I watched them use pieces of baked noohkik to scoop the lumpy paste from the pot.  Once Eliot looked at me and smiled.   That night everyone slept in the wetu; I curled like a young rabbit against my mother’s back.

On the second day, Eliot began to tell tales of heroes and spirits.  He gathered all the people who would listen and I sat all afternoon with the other children, carving the figures of two small deer into a stick as I listened.  Eliot did not know many words of Nipmuc but made himself understood by signs and the words of the Massachuset and Wampangoag peoples.  He told of Jesus, a strong ahtuskou who lived many years ago in a distant land.  This ahtuskou would come, he said, and the people must be ready for him when he did.  He talked of Keihtan and a god named Jehovah and he said there was only one spirit, not many as we had been told.

The elders listened politely but I saw that most of them did not like the stories because their own were better.

Eliot and Gookin left on the third day and life went back to normal except the people did not stop talking about the two strangers.  The powauws dreamed of snakes and hawks and smoked many pipes of tobacco to cleanse the air.

But it was too late.  The strangers had infected the people.  Sokanonaske, Tuckapewillin’s wife, saw a white porcupine when she was hoeing squash, and Konkontusenump encountered a fire spirit when he walked at night by the river.  The people gathered around the fire and told their own stories to strengthen their hearts.  But they knew the strangers would return.