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  • Mj Pettengill

One Hundred and Forty-Three Years Ago Today


Down From the Tree, Image CCO
Down From the Tree, Image CCO

June 27, 1878 Samuel Hodgdon II

I listened. I waited. I lay silent in our sack. Where did her heartbeat end? Where did mine begin? Such questions pressed down upon me, as I doubted all that I thought I knew, includin’ whether or not we would experience the birth of a new day. Every part of me begged for the call of a rooster. It mattered not which one. Perhaps a fox had found its way into the coop. The silence churned in my stomach. Tho’ I knew that mornin’ had indeed arrived, its general nature had gone wrong. Even the sun—a band of simple white light— hesitated before peerin’ cautiously over the ridge. The typical racket in the kitchen and gentle wakin’ sounds of the animals were somehow delayed. There were no songs left to be created from the moans of the house or the weakened and weary. I had been afraid to move, afraid that if I fell asleep, somethin’ awful might happen. I waited for whatever it was that frightened me, ready to face it. But it never came. Or perhaps it had, and I had drifted so far away, I’d have to wait until I knew if we had somehow ended up in another world.

When I mentioned other worlds to Mamma, she dismissed them as a part of my vivid imagination. She encouraged me to go to those places but warned against stayin’. While Agnes claimed to want to know more, she never really paid attention. Bent on findin’ our way, I traced my thoughts back through the night. Rememberin’ was hard. I was uncertain if we were lost or misplaced. Influenced by the terrors of the night, I continued to swirl around in my head. It was durin’ those times, while in there, that I usually ended up in a tizzy. It took a long time to figure out that too much thinkin’ never helped. It was the same thing as runnin’ off in an unknown direction. Stoppin’ was the only way out. I drew my breaths from deep inside my belly instead of my chest like Dolly May said to do when I panicked. And, as I should have known, I returned straight away to my quiet, clear place.

With a good amount of air comin’ in and out, a head full of fear could be tamed. I remembered. We were hot—everyone, everywhere. My throat hurt from tryin’ not to scream. Maybe it was a different kind of fire, the kind that I imagined to be the Hell that the minister spoke of in his sermons. Or, where Miss Noyes was apt to go if she didn’t mend her ways. Which got me to wonderin’, was it possible to have gone there and come back? Or had it come to us?

All possibilities fluttered away with the first strains of the bird chorus. Like everything else, it was different on that day, not a quiet, gentle song, but loud shriekin’ from every corner of the sky. At first, I gasped, unsure if of whether or not it was a warnin’ of sorts. I squeezed my eyes shut and reminded myself to breathe from the belly. Dear God, Let me be brave. Let me be brave. All of the fire, birds, darkness, and things that scare me, I give back to you. Let me be brave. Please? Show me how. I choose somethin’ else. I promise to be a good boy. I will be forever good, Amen. I didn’t know how, but a chill emerged. Maybe God had listened because the birds simmered down. The curtain that previously whipped against the sill had stopped. Tho’ my heart continued to beat hard within the walls of my chest, it wasn’t so bad. I smiled because all of the things that had threatened us before had been oddly whisked away. If I wanted good, I could get good. It was up to me, and of course, as a last resort, it was up to God too. But when I asked Him, I was really just tellin’ myself that it was fine, that whatever it was that I wanted was here, and it always had been. God wanted me to know that. Mamma’s sweat no longer poured over us, nor did she radiate heat as before. I decided that if it was Hell, God chased it away. Maybe that’s what the angels did. Had the flames not turned to embers and ash, we may have perished. I needed to find the strength to move, to pull Mamma to her feet. I sensed a stir. Was it her? Or did that old curtain act up again? I had all I could do to move, yet stayin’ frozen caused a particular ache inside. I reached behind me and felt Hope. My breath stopped. The swirlin’ resumed. Where was Mamma? How could I have lost her? I swore that I had not closed my eyes, not for a second, not even when we were engulfed in flames. Yet, she was gone. Ready to scream, I bolted upright. But there she was, in her freshly-torn day dress, lyin’ on the bare floor with her hair matted and disheveled. I had only lost her a little. When the rooster crowed, it didn’t matter. I crawled to her side and took her hand. “Mamma, you rolled out of the sack. Come here.” I tugged at her. “Stop all that nonsense,” Mariah French called out from across the room. She was one of the few who slept in a bed, while most of us chose a sack because we could make them soft and pleasant.

She rose up, walked over, and pushed at Mamma with her foot. Most women were scared of Mariah French because it was said that she killed her own mother. Mamma said that they never proved or disproved it, so we looked upon her with caution. I wasn’t afraid, especially when she treated people the way she did. She relied on their fear. “Leave her alone.” I gave her a cold, hard stare before gently takin’ ahold of Mamma’s shoulders to shake her out of slumber. “To the Devil with you!” She waved her crooked finger at me and marched towards the door. “And to you as well, old woman!” I shouted, immediately regrettin’ that I had lost my temper. The grandmothers usually did not get such looks or words from me. I saved them for those times when there was nothin’ else left. I didn’t want folks to think that I was generally harsh or displeasin’. Mamma and I were kind and forgivin’, but we didn’t accept bad manners or torment. Mamma sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Oh, dear, I think I overslept.” The rooster kept on crowin’ while the breakfast bell rang. “Mamma,” I said. “You slept on the floor. You musta’ been uncomfortable.” She looked puzzled, almost as if she didn’t hear me. She had two yellow dresses, and she did her best to keep them clean. The one that she had the longest, she kept tidy and mended. The other, a spare, wasn’t nearly as nice. She tried not to wear it often because it was worn by another whose sins she could never wash away and did not wish to carry.

My own shame is enough. I don’t need to be cloaked in the sins of others as well, she’d say when resortin’ to the other yellow dress. That night she hadn’t changed into her nightdress, and her favored yellow dress was quite soiled. There she sat on the floor, cloaked in another’s sins, weak and unsightly. Tho’ I knew of nothin’ else, I heard that we inmates were what those on the other side of the fence considered to be foul and unkempt. I once overheard Mrs. Blake say that we were nothin’ but unruly, filthy vagabonds. When I asked Mamma what she meant by it, I was told that it was Mrs. Blake who was filthy, filthy of mind and spirit, and to dismiss such vile nonsense. Even so, Mamma took pride in takin’ care. I secretly thought it was because she wanted Silas to notice, but she told me that bein’ clean was a reflection of her spirit. “Mamma, let’s go to the pump. Let’s wash up and have breakfast before chores,” I said. When I helped her stand, she wobbled in unusual silence. I struggled with the weight of her when she leaned into me, shakin’, threatenin’ to bring us both down. Together, we walked towards the door when it flew open, and there stood Bella. “Good mornin’.” Even on the darkest day, Bella had a way of bringin’ a sense of sunshine. “I was up and about early. I didn’t want to wake you—” “—Bella,” I said. “I’m so glad you’re here. Mamma is wicked tired this mornin’. We could use your help.” Tears threatened to spill. I knew by Bella’s expression that Mamma was in trouble. “Come here, Abigail; let’s wash up and get some food.” “Oh hello, Bella,” Mamma said, smilin’ weakly. I raced to the corner and changed into my shirt and trousers. “We can go clean her up. She has another yellow dress somewhere,” I said. “Never mind. She’ll be fine,” Bella said. “But she hates that one.” “It will do for now,” she said. We followed the line of women down the hallway and walked carefully down the stairs. It appeared as if Mamma gained strength as we got closer to the pump. When the water splashed on her skin, she waved her arms wildly. “What’s the matter?” Bella asked. “Don’t you want to get washed up?” “No, I’m sorry. I don’t know. The water’s so cold. And I am not a child. I can take care of myself,” she said, pushin’ us both away. I laughed. Seein’ her stubbornness filled me with hope. Bella and I watched as she soaked her hair and with a gasp, splashed the icy water on her face. “Samuel,” she said. “What?” She pulled me to her and whispered, “Get the box. I need my ring.” “What? I don’t know what you mean,” I said. “Excuse us, Bella,” she said. “Of course.” Bella moved away from the pump. “In the loft, in the treasure chest, is a small box. I never showed it to you before; it’s wrapped in a handkerchief, tucked in the bottom corner. It has letters and numbers carved into it,” she said. “It’s the only small box in there.” I gave it some thought. “There’s no time to fuss. I’ll explain later,” she said. I opened my mouth to speak, but she had already turned her attention to Bella. “There, now I’m hungry. I’ve been workin’ so hard. Even cold porridge sounds good right now…” She stopped abruptly and looked into Bella’s eyes. Once again, everything changed. “What? What is it?” Bella asked. “It’s Mary. Mary has died.” She whimpered.

“I know. I was there, remember?” Bella placed her hands on Mamma’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. “It’s too hard. I can’t do this,” Mamma said. “Of course, we can and will do it. And, yes, it’s hard,” Bella said. “You’re so calm. Doesn’t it tear into your heart?” Mamma wailed. “Who will be next?” They collapsed into each other and sobbed. I glanced towards the barn in time to catch sight of George and Billy Peavy strugglin’ with another body, headin’ for the barn. I paused to sort it out. Mary— neither matron nor inmate—was helpful most of the time. When those deemed important were nearby, she pretended to be mean, but not too mean. She was always kind to me. She’d be planted in the stone garden with Dolly May, but maybe comin’ back if Dolly found a way. I wondered what it meant and if her absence would be final. “Let’s go inside,” Bella said. It seemed as if an hour had passed before she spoke. But I couldn’t remember how long we were out by the pump. Carelessly hitched together—not a one of us any good without the other—we passed by the usual head-shakers and made our way to the house. Steeped in silence, Mamma clung to Bella, and we entered the dinin’ room. It was almost empty, but we were late, and so many had fallen ill. “Sit down, and I’ll get your porridge,” Bella said. “Come, Samuel.” We went to fill our bowls. The few people present were quieter than usual. Word had gotten out about Mary’s death. She was loved by all. It was harder than most losses because we weren’t divided. “It’s so tragic… poor Mary,” Bella said. Polly scraped the remains of the crusty porridge from the sides of the pot before lookin’ up.

“Ayuh, she was a good one,” she said, awkward in her softness. “What in blazes is she doin?” Miss Noyes approached, lookin’ past us. Together we turned to see Mamma, sittin’ in her chair with her cheek laid on the table. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a right spirit within me.” Bella rushed to Mamma’s side and placed her hand on her shoulder. Mamma kept on. I just listened. There was somethin’ wrong, but somethin’ right too. It wasn’t up to us to stop her from prayin’. She was over-worked and had lost her health durin’ the previous week.

Lookin’ back, I could see that all she ever wanted was to make things right with God. She told me that her prayers were not intended to excuse her from her sins. No. Fully accountable—she was a heaven-ripenin’ angel. There was no need to ever find that yellow dress again. Excerpt: Down from the Tree Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series, Book Three