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.