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At the close of the workday on Thursday the twenty-fourth of January, 1822, Prue Winship sat down at the large desk in the countinghouse of Winship Daughters Gin to write a letter to her daughter, Recompense. The power train had been sprung free of the windmill for the night, and the machines of the distillery sat quiet, the embers of its great fires still smoldering. Prue could hear the low horn of the steam ferry as it approached the Brooklyn landing. Her sister, Tem, with whom she ran the distillery, had retired an hour since to the Liberty Tavern, and had said she’d be home for supper; their overseer, Isaiah Horsfield, had gone home to his family. He’d left a stack of papers on his section of the desk, and would no doubt see to them first thing in the morning.
Prue’s husband and fourteen-year-old son awaited her return, but she did not wish to put off writing the letter another day. In honor of Prue’s fiftieth birthday, her daughter had sent her a lavish gift: a magnificent paisley shawl Recompense’s father-in-law had brought back from a journey to Kashmir. Prue had opened the packet the evening before, and had delighted in the shawl’s softness and its jewel-like shades of blue and green. When she’d wrapped it around herself in the kitchen, her son, Matty, had clapped in admiration and proclaimed her “the very queen of the Gypsies.” Tem had shaken her head.
Prue might have dispatched her thanks in a quick note, had Recompense not enclosed a letter with the parcel. After wishing her mother a happy birthday, she had written the good news that she was with child. Should no ill befall her, she expected to deliver in the autumn. In light of this disclosure, and of the obvious adulthood it bestowed on its bestower, Recompense asked her mother to tell her about the bridgeworks, which she knew had caused her parents both happiness and misfortune, but about whose history she knew little. Recompense had never, until that moment, gathered herself to ask either of her parents about that chapter in their lives. The distillery had consumed most of her mother’s time and energy, and Recompense had always feared importuning her with questions that might spoil her for business. As for Recompense’s father, he was too good-natured and self-effacing to be much of a storyteller, and she found it difficult to cast him in her imagination as an actor in any sort of drama. Yet she wished to know the story of the bridge, if her mother had the time and inclination to entrust it to her.
Prue was discomfited by the request. She had always loved her daughter, but had given most of her adult life to keeping Winship Daughters Gin solvent enough to repay the high cost of insurance and her own significant debts. The distillery was the legacy her father had bequeathed her, and she had slaved to make it profitable enough to pass on to her own son and daughter. The children themselves had been, she admitted now, of secondary importance. And after placid Recompense had declined a third time to be trained in the family business, Prue had felt herself powerfully betrayed, and had wondered, with a flash of a coldheartedness she had not experienced in some time, if she would ever again have use for such a daughter. Jonas Sutler, the son of a man in the whaling trade at Hudson, had come soon after to ask for Recompense’s hand; and as her husband had given his warm consent, Prue had sat wondering why anyone would want such an unadventurous creature and why she herself was too hard-hearted to feel any of the emotions appropriate to the occasion. Yet when the August wedding day had arrived, Prue had felt a terrible, wrenching ache at the thought of her daughter leaving. She’d wished she could say she had never known such an ache before, but its pain had been so poignant because of its familiarity. It had reminded her in an instant of every loss she had ever suffered; and as Mr. and Mrs. Jonas Sutler had departed for their wedding tour of the Upper Hudson, Prue had stood on the landing of the New Ferry and wept into her husband’s coat.
Prue had struck up the correspondence to ease the intolerable pain of having a little-valued daughter vanish from sight. She herself had once passed the town of Hudson by boat, but not knowing she would ever wish to envision the particulars of its streets, she had committed nothing but its vaguest outline to memory. Now she peppered her daughter with questions, and learned the Sutlers had a tall house bounded by a fence, with a garden that continued to produce cabbage and chrysanthemums well into October. The household employed three Irish servants. Jonas had grown up in educated society, and the wives and sisters of his cousins and childhood friends were lively conversationalists, zealots for good books, the manumission of the few remaining local slaves, and politics. Yet for all this, Recompense confessed to missing Brooklyn, with its old Dutch houses scattered across the landscape despite a newly laid grid of regular streets. She was homesick; in addition to which she was spending the longest evenings of the year propped up on a sofa and trying to keep down salt biscuits and tea. Prue realized it was only natural her daughter should seek out the missing pieces of her family history. And though she herself had taken pains to conceal the story of the bridgeworks all this time—one evasion leading to the next until at last she had lost sight of the original reason for her reticence—her love for her far-off daughter, and her compunction at having ignored her before she’d moved away, made Prue believe she could change her course. It was thus that on the first full day of the sixth decade of her life, Prue Winship thanked her daughter for the beautiful shawl, expressed her delight at the prospect of a grandchild, and commenced in a roundabout way telling the story Recompense wished to hear. The correspondence would hold them both in its thrall the remainder of that winter and spring.
“There is much to tell you,” she wrote,
though of course if you were here I would brush off your questions and return to my gin as ever I have done. But distance changes much;—I have missed you with a pain very like that of yearning for the dead since you’ve been gone. And you were a decade since old enough to hear the whole of it. I would like to think only my busyness in the distillery has kept me from relating it, but this is not so. My silence on this matter has been partly due to bad character; which I hope at this late date I can emend.
You ask for the story of the bridgeworks, but if I am to give you not only the history of that matter but its justifications, I must begin by relating a metaphysickal crime I long ago committed against my sister Pearl. I laid a curse upon her when I was still a child. Perhaps you will think it peculiar of me to recall such a fancy now; but that tale itself unfolds from my twin obsessions, with Mannahata & with Death; and all three must stand in some wise as the founders of the bridge. To relate the story properly, dear one, I shall begin there.
I was born in January of 1772 and Pearl in July of 1778, which gave me six and one half years to grow accustomed to being my parents’ only child. This was more time than you had before Matty came along, but you must surely know what a long span it seemed. My parents, Matthias and Roxana Winship, were an odd lot. As I may not have hitherto told you, my father had escaped the seminary at Cambridge to jump on the Eliza Dymphna in Boston Harbour, and he set sail for the West Indies, slaves, and rum. To the chagrin of his father, a dissenting minister, Matty Winship,—your grandfather, that is,—realized what the colonies lacked was good, native-brewed strong drink, produced on a large scale; so he took his next passage to England & there apprenticed himself to a rectifier of distilled spirits. Eight years later he returned with a receipt for an excellent and most alcoholick geneva, and with my sharp-tongued mother, Roxana Parker (also a refugee from dissenting parents), in tow. They settled here in Brookland, where stood a derelict windmill, as old Mr. Joralemon had tried his inexpert hand at distilling once before, only to burn his operation to the ground. Here on the East River, Father reason’d, would also be easy shipping for the forthcoming gin. Father had no license to distill liquor,—none was granted at that era, as the Crown’s policy was to keep the colonies dependent on the mother country for finished goods,—but he resolved from the start to pay the inspectors handsomely; & there was no man among them so loyal he could not be tempted by a small gift of money and a monthly allotment of good gin. This, of course, until the colonies engaged in open rebellion, at which time the manufacture of goods in defiance of royal decree became an act both lucrative and patriotickal.
Because he’d not been born to the business of distilling, in those first years my father often asked my mother’s advice on the savour of the finished product (this though she knew little about gin, though she did have her fair measure of sense); as a result of which, in my early childhood I was largely left to do as I pleased, so long as I kept within the bounds of our stone fence. I was forbidden to wander the distillery lest my hand be smashed in the herb press, and forbidden to run out in the road lest, Mother told me, some officer with wrist frills try to offer me a pear. I had only a hazy notion what the war meant beyond the movement of troops, the building & toppling of forts, and the occasional fusillade of artillery fire, which sent the slaves & housewives running to gather the children indoors and left me quaking with fear for my Daddy, who would not leave the distillery to come up the hill and check on us until the gunfire had subsided. I saw men both in uniform and ordinary cloaths limping about town with bandages on & leaning on crutches; and there was a sad autumnal funeral in which the children of the Sands family bawled their eyes dry because they’d lost their father in the fighting. As their mother had died the previous year, they were hastily removed to their grandparents’ property east of Bergen’s Hill, a location which at that time seemed so far distant, I feared I would never see them more. Thus I gathered early on that soldiers, even those who dressed neatly, were not to be trusted, though the local boys seemed to find them congenial company. I was also denied free access to our kitchen, but only because our slave, Johanna, was blind and half deaf with age, and likely to stumble over me or set me on fire. She was a gruff old woman; you would’n’t have liked her. All these rules were my mother’s, by the bye; it had been Father’s original notion to fit me out with a pint-sized firearm and set me loose upon the neighbourhood;—which, when he suggested it (rather, I should add, to my pleasure), resulted in my mother huffing up the front stairs to reappear only well past sunset with her lips pursed shut. Johanna, meanwhile, tisked and muttered much of the afternoon, which gave me to understand she could hear well enough, were the topick sufficiently juicy.
Because of this lack of direction I was often lonely and bored; but it was my solace the long leg of our fence ran along the crest of Clover Hill, uninterrupted that quarter mile. I paced its length in all kinds of weather, looking north-westward across our manufactory, the port, and the river, to the great city on the far shore. Just past dawn and right before dusk, when no fires were lit at our distillery or the Schermerhorn ropewalk, I could see clearly all the way to Mannahata.
As I’m sure you well remember from your own childhood, the booming straits was a feast for the eye of a watchful girl. There were no steamboats then; everything on the river was powered by wind or by oar. Packets from the far continents discharged drab passengers along with barrels and bright fruits. Losee van Nostrand plied the only ferryboat between his landing and Fly Market, loudly crying,—Over! each time he returned. Pointy-tipped wherries and flat-bottomed dories wove among the hulking ships, and in winter dodged the flotillas of ice that hugged both shores. When barges set out for New-York, they hung low in the water with timber, vegetables, rope, or my father’s gin; and when they returned they rode high & empty on the grey waves.
I could see best by standing atop the tumbledown fence, though I could do so only when safely beyond your grandmother’s purview. —Mannahata! I’d whisper to the city, straining ever northward against her dense forest, and —Scheyichibi! to the green hummocks of Jersey, stretched out before me in a broad, flat band. —Ihpetonga! I’d think passionately, feeling the resonating power of the rocky Heights on which I stood as I called it by its ancient name. The natives of the place had been driven east into Nassau and Suffolk generations before my parents had arrived (though, on occasion, I dug one of their arrowheads, or a wampum shell, or a shard of pot from the soil of our yard), but I still liked to let their words roll round my mouth, like smooth river stones. These were clearly the names by which the places knew themselves. I felt them respond to my call, however quietly I voiced it; and I half expected the ground to tremble and send forth some spirit, either to squash me like a bug or to do my bidding.
I kept an eye trained ever on New-York, to learn what I could of that foreign place. The spire of her largest church rose higher than her trees, and her three- and four-story buildings,—veritable exaltations of window glass,—stood ranked up each morning to reflect the rising sun and the broad dome of sky. Yet the windows never opened, and I could neither see nor imagine families stacked one atop the other within. The bluffs of Clover Hill sang with birds and nickering horses, but no sound but the booming of ships’ guns came from across the river. The scents of ripe corn, horse dung, & my father’s juniper berries tickled my nose in summer, but though the westerly wind blew fierce, New-York had no smell but brine. All the life I could see was of people and horses in the immediate vicinity of the docks. Some other child would have thought nothing of these circumstances, but it was by these signs,—fueled, I admit, by that same natively dark imagination that later jumped to conclude, whenever you or Matty were tardy for supper, that you’d been drown’d in the millpond or run down by the stage; and woefully unchecked by parental intervention,—that I came to believe the Isle of Mannahata was, in fact, the City of the Dead. Once I had chanced upon this notion,—which another might have tossed out, but which I, made nervous by the sights & sounds of the war & by my mother’s weird rules governing my ingress and egress, determined could be nothing but the dark truth the world strove to hide from children,—everything I saw across the water added to New-York’s sepulchral mystery. All those goods that travelled thither were offerings to appease the shades; and it was a grim but necessary duty my father fulfilled when he loaded his barge with libations. That he bore the task so lightly & returned each time with the same blithe expression on his brow, I took for the mark of his good character and valour.
It did not help that your dry-witted grandparents spoke often of the Other Side, that life to which each of us was doomed or blessed, according to his merits, to go when this one expired. (I was too young to understand these references as sarcastickal, or to know I was living in a house of non-believers, who’d named me as much to mark their freedom from the strictures under which they’d been raised as because they thought it pretty.) Viz., my father once said, through the fug of tobacco smoke that surrounded him of an evening,—Let’s sleep late on Sunday, Roxy. The hell with church.
I shouted,—Hooray! as Domine Syrtis spoke half the time in Dutch, some of the time in German, and muttered the rest, which made my skin itch as if I’d rolled in poison sumac.
—Mind your tongue, Reverend, Mother answered, with her particular roll of the Rs and a flare of the nostrils she often directed at him. Like yours and mine, her hair was russet as a winter apple and kinked as a piglet’s tail, and it rendered her already extravagant expressions even more so. The humour of his epithet was lost upon me, as it was only later, and by driblets, I learned of his escape from godliness.—If she says that in front of Johanna, she’ll get her mouth warshed.
I looked to see what Johanna was doing. She’d fallen asleep in the rocking chair by the hearth, her silver head thrown back, her pulse flickering in the velvety patch of cream-in-the-coffee skin beneath her jawbone.—Not my Prue, Father answered. She knows one only says the hell with church in pitickular company. She knows it’s our secret. He puffed on his pipe and widened his grey eyes at me encouragingly.
But I was mighty confused, & had a fleeting realization that if I’d been born to the Livingstons across the way, my life would have been duller, but I’d likely have understood, in such situations, what was wanted of me.—But I should’n’t give a tinker’s damn if Johanna heard me say the hell with church, I told them. Would’n’t it be a miracle if she heard annithing?
—Hey, now, Johanna is my dearest friend. You see? Mother asked, trying in vain to purse her lips; but she and Father were both laughing. She leaned over & kissed him full on the mouth. Marty Winship, you’ll have some talking to do when you reach t’Other Side, that’s all I’ll say.
—It depends what part of the place I hope to inhabit. The Devil’ll have me in his quarter, no questions asked.
—You’ll change your tune if he comes for ye tomorrow, she countered.
—Well, if he does, I’ll shout for your help straightaway. He pulled her down into his lap, and kissed the side of her throat, where I knew the skin was particularly soft. Roxy, you could talk the Devil out of his best cloven shoes.
—Daddy, I said, you’re not going to the Devil, are you?
They both laughed at me.—Not if the domine can help it. But we’ll show him, wo’n’t we, who’ll be more welcome in Satan’s house? That is, if Satan even has a house; which I sorely doubt.
As an adult, I recognize the foregoing as, first off, the banter of two people in love, and second, of two people with no earthly notion how their words might influence the mind of a suggestible child. At the time, I could be nothing but shocked & terrified. These were, after all, the two most important of the dozen adult persons who made up the known world, and I took what they said for uninflected truth. In one breath, Father had condemned the domine and his church to Hell, and in the next claimed no such place existed; and I further deduced not only that my father’s death was nigh, but that both my parents were doomed to punishment for thinking this such a laughing matter. I did not believe I could express my foreboding without eliciting their scorn, so I betook myself to my room,—which, when later I came to share it with my sisters, would seem strait enough, but at the time was a vast savanna on which my fears might frolick,—and there worried that every tap of a branch against the windowpane was the bony fingers of Death, come knocking. I kept watch most of the night, and shivered each time I heard the wind, the clatter of carriage wheels, or soldiers out singing their sad barroom songs on the Ferry Road.
You may wonder it never occurred to me New-York might constitute not another realm but another place of habitation; I can tell you only, it did not. Death was everywhere, and the natural direction in which my mind turned. As you must recall from your own girlhood, our yard was littered in all seasons with the half-et corpses of birds, attacked by who knew what neighbourhood predators. On one occasion, I watched a dead squirrel sink in upon itself day by day, & slowly reveal its armature of chalky bone. I learned of my mother that when a woman grew large with child, then appeared about town slender, sad-eyed, and unencumbered, it meant her baby had gone straight from her womb to the churchyard, instead of stopping at the cradle prepared for it; and I heard Cornelis Luquer’s shrieks rise up from the noisy river when his brother Nicolaas was drowned in a boating accident. His father, also called Nicolaas, enlisted the aid of the New-York & Brookland fishermen, who dredged the river with nets until the small, red-headed body of Mr. Luquer’s namesake was found. It seemed I saw the dead as often as I saw the living: their mandibles bound to their skulls with strips of linen, their hands slack, their skin oaty as dishwater whether they’d been soldiers or widows, mothers or children, struck down by illness, injury, mishap, or age. Domine Syrtis mumbled over them and consigned them to the soil; beyond that, no one would entrust me with any but the vaguest explanation of where they went, once they’d cast off from these shores.
No, dear Recompense, I do not know how I could have done anything but what I did, which was to set myself with renewed vigour to uncover what part of the Other Side I regarded, across the water, that I might know if, with a suitable measure of trembling awe, I’d be able to spy my Daddy, once he went there for keeps. That I could’n’t tell what I look’d at,—whether it was Heaven or the other place, disquieted me, and I briefly nursed the awful suspicion that my parents had been correct, and all the dead, both good & evil, went to the same destination. But no theology I’d heard of supported such a theory. To entertain it felt as if I stood on the edge of a precipice, and I could not reckon how far I might plummet, therefrom. No, it had to be one or the other; and if Heaven was as free from want as the domine described it, then the New-Yorkers’ insatiable need of gin & fruit meant they were living in Hell. I could not guess where God resided, but I figured dead sinners slipped down to van Nostrand’s landing in the dark of night, paid off their grim ferryman in shells, boarded his Indian canoo, and made their whispering progress across the water. If I could muster the courage to wander out alone one night, I would see it with my own eyes.
While the mouse-brown Livingston daughters set traps for chipmunks & coddled their dolls, I stood watch on the fence each time my father set out on a barge to deliver his wares. He could not understand why I’d hug him so fiercely before he left, and he’d return home, inevitably, that same afternoon, with the scent of fried food and pipe smoke in his hair, and something stowed in his pocket for me;—some sweet, or fruit, or picture pamphlet. These gifts undid me, so great was my desire for them, and so equally great my fear of his truck with the shades. When I’d look at the peach with tears in my eyes, he’d rumple my hair, call me a silly little goat, and head over to the pump to wash. Any gift that was not perishable, I took to my room, where I lifted up the one loose plank on the floor, just as you did,—I know you thought without my knowledge,—when you were a girl; and tucked it in for safekeeping.
I observed the busy wharves of New-York with care. I reasoned the damned must have been travelling thither from everywhere around, the wampum grounds to the east and Pavonia to the west; why else should they have needed everything in such vast quantities? This convocation of the accursed also surely explained why so many ships were sunk in Henry Hudson’s River and up at Hell Gate, and children like Nicolaas swept off in the current of our own tidal straits. It only stood to reason that those eternally condemned would seek to churn up our waters; and this was the first thing made me think we wanted a bridge from here to there. If the living were blind to the spirit boats, they were much imperiled by them; & while I did not suppose one could cajole the dead to use some other mode of transport, it did seem possible to get my father, on his delivery trips, up out of harm’s way. If he could cross by bridge, I reckoned, he could avoid the danger of the water, and perhaps simply fling the goods over to the Other Side, never leaving so much as a hair or a footprint in the Land of the Shades. I could not think how he’d get past having to take their money.