Naomi Smith carefully leafed open the thin, refurbished journal. This was her time to write, to practice the English still so foreign to her. Nathaniel had given her the journal. He had advised
this. He thought it would her life among the Puritans would be easier if she could communicate with them. The truth is, she didn't want a life among Puritans at all. But Nathaniel was the best
friend a stranger like her could have, and he truly meant well, so she would humor him and spent an hour each night writing in English.
She thumbed until she found a clean page. Then she dipped her pen awkwardly into her inkwell, tickled her chin thoughtfully with the quill's soft end, sketched a picture of her entry in her mind, and then began.
Day 3 after first snow
It be a small settlement, on east edge of what they call 'Hudson' River. About halfway between coast and 'Mohawk' River. In middle are all houses all together like chicks under Rebecca's hen in a rainstorm. Spread around, like my quilt only land, are the fields. Each field only grows one food. That is stupid. Small port on river bring small trade, but they are farmers first. Love their fields most. Main road cuts north to south, perhaps twelve feet wide and neatly so. Slightly narrower road come in from port, join main road and stop. Spider web of small paths cover fields, touch main road. And all around this little is the forest. They hate it. It swallows up road both north and south. It come close to upon the boundaries by fields. It shows big and black across the river. It is the very horizon that bind their existence into the clearing that control it. The forest define their very lives, and the Puritans hate it, every last one of them.
Every—except James and Nathaniel Roue.
Then she carefully closed the book, blew out her candle, slid into her downy bed, and drifted off.
It was late in the afternoon, perhaps three or four. Pale winter sunlight fell from the windows on high down into the stuffy, buzzing courtroom. Two solitary figures sat up in front, hands platonically linked and affording them strength for the trial before them, a pace apart from the tumultuous crowds. They were well-known in town. It was the sheer enormity of the situation that made the room fall silent when the magistrates, bearers of that holy justice so specific to the community of God, reentered from their recess.
They were old, these magistrates, weighted with the dust and troubles of this wretched present world. Every wrinkle, every fold of flesh, every drooping eye that betaught of trials beyond comprehension, each stain upon the sanctified visages of these men, had been placed there by the Lord Almighty as a lesson in justice and how to deal fairly with such creatures as those before them. With a moaning sigh, such as a worn-out wind gives in wobbling through ancient pines’ tops, the oldest and saggiest man strode cautiously forward. Michael Respect, he was called. He always dealt the rulings.
Slowly he sank into the enormous chair allotted him, spread the records book over the heavy oaken desk, cleared his throat, and looked up. Every eye was on him, hanging off the silence’s edge in anticipation of his words. He sought out Nathaniel Roue, the first offender, locked gaze with the boy before the desk, and spoke to him carefully.
“Thou art a friend to Naomi Smith, art thou not?"
"Thou wast there the night whence Oliver Swain wast slain, wast thou not?"
"Thou p--" Michael's voice caught suddenly; a great clearing of phlegm gave him excuse to bow his head away from the prying eyes of the crowd. Some wondered why he had not requested leave in dealing this verdict. The dead boy, after all, was his own nephew, and Michael had raised him like a son. But Michael was old, and dignified, and stubborn; and so he dealt this verdict. "Thou p-pushed him against the branch that staked him through his stomach, did thou not?"
The boy shook his head wearily.
“Nay, I pulled him off Naomi--he attacked her--and he tripped on the ring of stones around the fire. He fell upon the sharp dead branch of his own accord.”
The courtroom tittered at that.
“Nathaniel Roue, thy insolence shalt proveth of no avail here,” the old man barked harshly. “Thou standest where thou dost for murder, aiding a witch, and forming party to horse theft. Dost thou deny it?”
“I am here for these accusations; but I played no part in horse theft or witchcraft and the death was accidental. I am innocent.”
Michael bowed his head abruptly; then he turned back to Nathaniel with—Nathaniel started. Michael had tears in his eyes. Great, grief-struck, heart-torn ones. The man’s verdict croaked out in the silence.
“Thou shalt hang at high noon tomorrow for the death of Oliver Swain.”
He quickly moved on to the girl of sixteen beside the condemned before the crowd flew beyond any control short of sticks.
Nathaniel he loved: but Naomi he hated. This ruling gave him the greatest of pleasure in dealing.
"Thou art a recent addition to our midst, rescued from the evil Indians that kept thou captive ten years back from late August last. Perhaps their dark demon-masters corrupted thee so: by testimony of Frideswide Swain," --here he nodded to that girl, in the very front of the crowd-- "thou stolest a horse for unholy rituals to those savage gods that thou wast forced to serve in thy captivity. Horse theft is a crime above all others, the only hanging offense other than murder. Thou shalt hang with Nathaniel Roue." He struck the desk with his gavel and rose. "Go, and the peace of God go with ye all."
At the fullstop, two rough-cut farmers stepped forth and seized the condemned. They reached Nathaniel first. Naomi whirled around, searching frantically for James Roue, fear (such a rare thing on her) filling her sand-colored eyes. She saw him running out from the crowd and towards her. She ran to him; they were two paces apart when the arresters reached Naomi. The two sprinters stretched out desperately towards each other. For a moment their fingers brushed, locked; then she was ripped away and dragged out of the courtroom. James ran after them.
They went across the street, to the town jail. It was not a proper jail, only the house of Old Benjamin. However, he always played host to the criminals and drunkards that occasionally plagued the town. James watched as Naomi disappeared through its door, directly behind Nathaniel. He tried to follow them in, but the farmers blocked his way. Still, he heard clanking of iron on iron: iron chains and iron doors with iron locks, and their matching iron keys at Old Benjamin's waist. Heartsick, James stepped back.
Only an act of God could save them now.
She felt him watching her. She had felt him watching her for almost an hour. It was slowly driving her insane, his glittery green eyes constantly on her back, ready to avert the moment she tried to catch him. Finally, Naomi decided that she might truly hate her jailer.
Ben was a rough old man, hardened by all the people he had seen pass both ways through his door. He stood staunch in all his beliefs: never drink on Mondays; only lie when you won't get caught; read the Bible because the minister somehow knows when you don't; and avoid witches at all cost. This last belief stemmed from a crippling fear. When he was five, Ben's mother had suddenly fallen ill. Then she had begun chanting in the night. At long last, she was found dead in the road, clutching a twisted doll with hair that looked exactly like hers. The late Elizabeth Swain, the testifying Frideswide's aunt, had sidled up to Ben at the funeral and whispered in a hoarse, crackling voice that she was not sorry, that she'd do it again in a heartbeat, and that she could do it to Benjamin too, just like she did to his mother. It had terrified him at the time, and it terrified him now. This was why he stared at Naomi: he did not want to go like that. It was the worst way he could go as far as he knew.
He snapped around at the sound. Nathaniel leaned against the bars casually, face as amicable as it always was.
"Prithee, go seek out my brother, James, and bringest him here. Should God will this night my last, I desire a farewell to the last shred of family I possess in this world." Suddenly his voice cracked, and Naomi realized that he was crying. Ben realized this too, and shuffled out the door after a brief obliging grunt.
When he came back, Naomi could have slapped him for raising Nathaniel's hopes like that. The man wouldn't even treat Nathaniel like he had a heart; he only mumbled about how he hadn't renounced so he could receive no mercy or grace and sat back down by the window. Naomi didn't stare at her friend, but she knew that he was crying. The tears, though, fell so soft that perhaps even the mice at his feet did not notice them except when they splashed against their heads.
Nathaniel managed to keep his crying down low enough that the old jailer, being as deaf as he was, did not notice. However, Naomi's heart burned at the sight, and her will would prove another force to be reckoned with. She hailed her captor.
“Behnameen!” she called. Her English still was rough.
The old jailer turned around sharply from the window, much in the manner of a startled mutt on the street. He squinted for a moment until he discerned the young female face at the door-bars.
“What ye want?” he spat apprehensively, pushing back what few touches of hair his spotted-leather head still sported. His eyes darted back and forth around the room, like he was trying to avoid hers. Her brows creased in anger as she put her request.
“Go seek ye out the Perringworths, the dead Swain's twin, and James Roue. Bring them nigh to me; I want to say goodbye.”
At the last name the old man spluttered.
“Now hark ye here, missy, I may go for the most of them, but the last cannot come for the same reason as before. Ye surely hath the mind enough to know that without a telling.”
Her light eyes darkened at the insult, and she spoke with a tongue of lightning and voice of thunder.
“Now hear here, kenr:ken! I die tomorrow and all I have left in world lies in cell and house and wood-cabin if ye be half near kind as ya’ claim then bring what I have in world that I bid goodbye and rest in peace or God curse your soul!”
The man understood nothing but the last four words; indeed, he needn’t understand any others.
“I—I—faith, miss, I go ye search now—” his scuffed leather boots were on the threshold “—I bring thee all but thy last request—I canno’ bring him for—” motioned, “him, but I bring ye all the others—pray stay thy witchen’ pow’rs a spell while I bring ye what ye want!”
And with neither hat nor coat in hand or head, old Benjamin flew down the street in search of Naomi’s summoned. Naomi revelled openly at the panicked flight before her; it even coaxed a laugh out of Nathaniel. And verily, before the sun had sunk to touch the tips of the far-banked trees, a wheezing, red-cheeked Ben returned to the jail-house with the Perringworths and Swain girl in tow.
“Here,” he wheezed, “yonder stand ye thy friends—for love of goodness, call off thy curse! Pray to thy God ‘n’ revoke the curse thou placed upon my soul, for the love of all that’s dear—” He carried on in much a similar fashion. Not that Naomi—or any other—minded him much.
You see, Old Benjamin, while not exactly senile yet, possessed a remarkable ability to carry on with what was forefront in his mind whilst remaining utterly oblivious of his surrounding situation. So it was now. Naomi’s eyes were fixed on Samuel Perringworth; Rebecca Perringworth’s gaze danced between her husband and her former houseguest; Frideswide Swain, Oliver's twin and the testifier who sealed the condemned's fate, openly gaped at Naomi; and Nathaniel casually sat in his cell, remained silent, and watched the scene unfold.
Samuel looked like a dream, if there is a dream that favors such dark, silent, foreboding figures as he. Naomi, strong and fire-hardened as she was, quaked under his gaze. She, who had broken so many of his possessions!— She, who had yet to call him father though he had offered a surrogate adoption to her!— She, who had spited his wife and God and nearly gotten him killed or thrown out of town— She! The selfsame, who now had the audacity to call him on the eve of her departure from the world with the intent of saying goodbye— For good reason, it seemed, she quailed under his sight.
A fly buzzed up where none could place it. Wind blew down the street. Naomi suddenly sensed that her hands were shaking, and though she clenched them tight to white, they would not stop. Furious at this unforeseen weakness and suffocating in the stuffy silence, she broke into speech that could not be halted for any purpose.
“Mayhap ye all be wonder over wherefore I call thee here; allow, I will explain. Thou all be all I have left in world—the world, and I wish ye bid thee goodbye, mayhap thou shalt let me. But if ye care not or hate more than care, then I give thee leave to exit on mind that is free and bid me part at hang tomorrow. But by thy God and the God of Nathaniel, I pray thee fair and true—please! Give me rest that I may sleep at noon in peace. Please—”
Samuel had heard enough. In three wide strides he crossed the room, plunged his hands through the low window in Naomi’s cell door, and took hers in his.
“Hush, Naomi, hush! Thy tongue prattlest on unheeded as ever before. Mayhap one day soon we shall see the end of thy chatter.” There was a gentle teasing and a sadness to his words as he looked her in the eye. Naomi suddenly found herself crying, and was all the angrier and unhappier and more confused for it.
Samuel released a hand and procured a white cotton handkerchief, embroidered with a simple brown thrush in the corner, and passed it between the bars. Naomi took it and miserably held it to her eyes. More truthfully, she seemed intent on sending the tears back to their native land, by the force with which she pressed the cotton against her delicate optical organs. Only when she seemed fairly under control once more did Samuel address her.
“Naomi,” he said tenderly, pushing a stray wisp of hair back from her face, “art thou well?”
“Nay,” she said into the cotton. “Nay.”
“Dost thou know what could make thou well?”
“Aye, Samuel: to return to my home. I miss it, Samuel; I miss it so much.”
“In truth, my daughter, thou dost. Prithee tell: dost thou still have fight in thee? Can thou still intend to fight? Indeed, can thee fight for more?”
She whispered something into the handkerchief.
She leaned forward as he leaned in; by these he caught the words.
“Aye. Aye, I can fight yet.”
Samuel spoke as intensely as a fired arrow, and so far forward that his forehead bruised against the bars.
“Naomi, heed me carefully: thou must not fight.”
She looked at him, stunned. Did he really mean not to—?
He registered her look and spoke again, carving each word into the air.
“Thou must not fight. As God wills, so shall be done. For the final time I ask thee: shalt thou fight?”
His words waved white: his eyes were something else. Cracks of lightning clashed and sparked, roared of yet one last battle, whispered to the fated girl that she must not give up, the fight was not over, God had not yet left them, she above all must not give up. Out of all the things she trusted about Samuel, Naomi trusted his eyes the most. So she decided to trust them on this one.
“Aye,” she whispered in falsified tones. “Aye, I am beat. I am tired. I shall fight no more.”
A glimmer sparked in the eye of her beholder, and the faintest of victory-smiles creased the corners of his mouth.
“Well chosen, Naomi Smith.” His words belay a stroke of thunder. “Well chosen indeed. Now, this one–” he motioned to the Swain twin, “ –must be home before the day is out; hence it is best that thou biddest farewell to she first, and then to Rebecca and I.”
Frideswide shifted uncomfortably at this proposition, and endeavored to escape immediately.
“Prithee, sir,”—Samuel turned—“but tis growing late and my mother shall worry if we arrive home late so mayhap tis best if I take leave and go–”
Her words withered under Samuel’s knowing look. Where Oliver had bullied her skin into leather, Samuel could cow submission with one glance. The fair-haired shuffled nervously forward and prayed that it would be brief.
“Frideswide,” Naomi smiled. Her smile was that of a viper’s dripping with arsenic and honey. Her eyes glittered eerily with an unspoken knowledge. “Frideswide, thy people are bearers of truth on this earth. I only wish—”—here Samuel pushed her closer to the door—“—that the truth be revealed—”—now she stood mere inches away, with the weight of Samuel’s presence holding her there— “—and truly, I feel it has." Frideswide shifted and looked sick with fear. "I know, of course, that I have thee to thank for the reveal of the truth. And now—”—she suddenly seized the other girl's hands in an icy mockery of friendship— “—now I only bid thee farewell, and godspeed in thy life here.” With a final smile and a lethal squeeze, she released the free girl's hands and let her go scuttling back to the door. Her hand was on the iron knob when one last dagger popped into Naomi's head. “Oh, and Frideswide?” The girl stiffened. “Greet thy brother on my behalf.”
Frideswide practically bolted out the door. Her testimony had been lies stretched thin over a spindly framework of truth, and it grate her conscience to hear Naomi's veiled accusations. However, she hated the Indian captive; she did not know why, but she did. She had done what was necessary for getting rid of Naomi--true, it had cost her brother's life--but she would not change anything even if she could. Still, she was glad to get out of that jail.
Rebecca moved aside and let the terrified girl pass, then cautiously moved forward. At the sight of her face, Naomi suddenly felt tears on her cheeks. This startled her; she had been a white for five months and still she did not quite understand how to cry.
Rebecca hesitated: this was Naomi. Then she swept her trebitations aside, swept forward, and plunged her arms through the bars. Her hands wrapped around Naomi’s shoulders and pressed the girl against the iron in a tight, frantic embrace.
“Hush, child,” the woman said; “thy words seek a different time and place. Now tis the time for silence, and—...and love.”
The word struck the girl to her core and suddenly turned her into a sobbing, miserable wreck. Guilt vibrated in every fibre of her being. Here, this woman had given her a home, a trade, a dress—she had given Naomi a place to belong. And what had she given in return? Nothing! She had scorned her; she had terrified her; she had ridiculed her on every account possible. And still the woman dared to love her? Such a thing either couldn’t be, or else—or else, Naomi thought, was the most sacred mystery on earth.
She was so caught up in her thoughts that she did not notice the pins Rebecca was working into her dress’s waist. Ten, Rebecca counted, eleven, twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen; and...sixteen. There. She gently pulled away from the girl, wiping the gentle tears out of her own eyes. Naomi was like a raccoon; given the tools, she could escape anything she wanted. Those pins—Rebecca knew those pins could open prison doors, set captives free, innocently keep a devout wimple still during a service. Now, those pins were Naomi’s key to survival.
“Thy belt,” Rebecca whispered, softer than a mouse’s footfall. “Whence I be gone, be secret and check thy belt.” Then, louder, so all could hear, “Goodbye, Naomi. The good Lord be with thee.”
Then the woman turned away, tears streaming unstoppable down her cheeks. Samuel had to take her by the shoulders and guide her out the prison door. As they walked down the street, their footprints pressed into the dust for a fleeting moment before being wiped away by the wind’s fingers, Rebecca sobbed into her husband’s shoulder as if her heart was breaking.
Because, truly, it was.
Naomi waited until the fat full moon was a finger's width from the sky's zenith before daring to feel her waist. Lord, she thought, the moon be bright. 'Tis full. This troubled her: bright nights were not for stealing away. Dark nights were. But tonight was not a dark night. The god of Nathaniel was against her, as she had thought. But there were times and places for introspection, which were not here and now. This was the time for escape.
Carefully Naomi counted the hatpins in the fabric encircling her hips. Sixteen. One for each of the years she had weathered. This final act of caring from Rebecca brought tears to her eyes; she quickly and harshly brushed them away. Now was no time for any of that. Later, perhaps--but not now. Now was escape.
Stealthily she wiggled two pins out and inserted them into the lock on her cell. It took her longer than it might have otherwise because she needed a silent picking and iron locks are not nesseccarily conducive to this. However, by removing her petticoat (which she still didn't like after five months of wearing) and wrapping it around her work, she managed to quiet most of the clicks and clangs that could possibly raise the dead in startlement. Once she was out, she tremblingly slid over to Nathaniel's cell. Another nerve-wracking few minutes, another telling click, and Nathaniel's door opened. Rather than fight the locks on his shackles, she yanked them unanchored out of the wall and slid her petticoat over his head and neck.
"Keepest quiet as so," she whipsered, softer than a mouse's cough. He obeyed. Then she led Nathaniel out of the jail (after she picked the door's lock, of course).
"Come," she whispered once outside. "By Goody Swain's house we shalt shed thy final chains, and then tis simply north, east, and then down south to peace and family. All we have to do is--"
"Naomi." He pulled away from her tuggings. "We must return for it."
"For what?" she snapped impatiently. "The night grows old; we can waste no time!"
"Nay!" he hissed. "'Tis my journal."
At that Naomi silenced. Nathaniel could very well die without his journal, of heartache if nothing else. She looked up at the stars to see if they had an answer, but she only saw a compass, a calendar, and all those stories told by the fires in the homes belonging to the People of the Flint. She was, therefore, alone in deciding.
After a very long silence of thought, Naomi said,
"We go to Goody Swain."
"Hush! Tread light."
"I try, Naomi! But tis no easy task; I am not an Indian."
"Quiet and movest thou."
The fugitives crept through the forest. They had headed east, entered the forest, then curved back up and around to the north and west towards the cabin. Towards the book.
Naomi's hand flew out suddenly and caught Nathaniel in the chest, bidding him be still. He froze instantly. His big brown eyes fixed on the forest before them, searching for what Naomi saw. After a moment, Naomi began creeping to the left, towards the town again. Nathaniel slipped his shoes off and followed in stockings.
Now he saw where they were: at the trailhead leading to the Roue cabin. The trail itself was just off in front, but Naomi turned and peeped out the forest wall. Nothing. Motioning to Nathaniel, she pushed her way out, all the while looking around. Still nothing. Nathaniel followed, lumbering like a drunken bear. And the nothing remained unbroken. Now she was more confident. The white Indian led her accomplice forward on one final raid. They were going for that book.
"Looking for this?"
They spun around and beheld James, a silhouette in the white moon, with cocked pistol in one hand and Nathaniel's book in the other. Moonlight glinted on the barrel of the gun and the clasps of the book, highlighted the broad shoulders and the white shirt that covered them, ran silver fingers through his long loose hair. His face hid deep in shadow. The gun was aimed at Nathaniel.
For a long time, no one--not even the wind--dared to draw a breath. Then, very slowly, the end of the gun sank a notch, the shoulders lost their tautness, the book was gripped more lightly, and the naked foot slid forward through the snowy dust.
James walked toward them; then Naomi realized he was walking toward Nathaniel. When brother reached brother there was a brief moment of tension, like two dogs meeting, and then James held the book out. Nathaniel's hands shook in the moonlight as he took it and clutched it to his chest, rendered speechless by it all. Next James held out the pistol; Nathaniel took it with great care. Finally James reached into his belt and pulled out a small, worn, leather-covered thing. Nathaniel gasped.
"Thy Bible? But--"
"Peace, boy, take it," James said. "I have the one here, it shall do."
After a great hesitation, Nathaniel took the Bible. Although he tried to brush them away, the moonlight refracted in the fine trails of tears on his cheeks. He tried to verbalize what he felt.
"Hush, no time. The both of ye, go. Placeth as great a span as ye can betwix thyselves and this wretched place. And--and may the Lord God guard thy souls."
He embraced Nathaniel tightly and felt his own tears fall in the boy's hair. Then he turned to Naomi with a measure of trepidation. No words were needed, though; the embrace sufficed and surpassed all that insufficient words could have said about the passion, the pain, and the promise that stood between them. Then he remembered the urgency and let her go.
A final tear, a twirl in the moonlight, one last whisper, and then the forest swallowed them up.
"Goodbye," James whispered hoarsely, staring long and hard into the darkness where they had vanished. "Goodbye."
In the morning, they found an almost-frozen James sitting, stony-faced, tears streaming, on the threshold of his cabin's open door, surrounded by an unusually bright winter sun and the waking song of the lark; but they never found their condemned heretic or the captive white Indian.
© Copyright 2016 Iskah E Shirah. All rights reserved.
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