By James A. Michener
Random House Trade Copyright © 2003 James A. Michener
All right reserved. ISBN: 0812970438
VOYAGE ONE: 1583
FOR SOME TIME NOW THEY HAD BEEN SUSPICIOUS OF HIM. SPIES had monitored his movements, reporting to the priests, and in the tribal councils his advice against going to war with those beyond the bend had been ignored. Even more predictive, the family of the girl he had chosen to replace his dead wife had refused to accept the three lengths of roanoke he had offered as her purchase price.
Reluctantly he was coming to the conclusion that he must leave this tribe which had done everything but outlaw him publicly. As a child he had watched what happened to men declared outcasts, and he had no desire to experience what they had suffered: the isolation, the scorn, the bitter loneliness.
So now, as he fished along the great river or hunted in the meadows or merely sat in contemplation, always alone,, he felt he must go. But how? And where?
The trouble had started that day when he voiced his apprehension over a raid proposed by, the high chief. For more than a year now relations with tribes beyond the northern bend had been amicable, and during this interval the river had known prosperity, with more than normaltrade passing north and south. But the Susquehannocks of the middle section had never in Pentaquod's life been easy in times of peace; they felt intuitively that they should be on the warpath, proving their manhood. So it was within tradition for the high chief to devise justifications for sending his warriors forth: if they triumphed, their victory would redound on him; and if they lost, he would claim that he was merely protecting the boundaries of the tribe.
Pentaquod had argued, "Those of the northern bend have respected their promises. They have not stolen our beaver nor trespassed on our gardens, To fight them now, with no reason, would be infamous, and our warriors would go into battle knowing that the gods could not be with them."
His logic was rejected not only by the council of chiefs but also by the common warriors, who felt that for a Susquehannock to pass more than a year in peace would be disgraceful. If their great river had proved an excellent place to live, it must be because their tribe had always fought to protect it, and an old warrior predicted, "Pentaquod, when the day comes that we are afraid to fight, we lose the river."
He persisted in talking against a meaningless war, and since any who spoke for peace in the lands along this river would always be charged with treason, his opponents started the, rumor that he had been contaminated by the enemy and served as their spokesman. It was recalled that his wife had died young, which increased the likelihood that the gods rejected his arguments.
To charge him with cowardice was confusing, for he was one of the tallest Susquehannocks in a generation, and they were a tribe of giants. Towering above young men his age, he looked with steady gaze from his great, broad face, darker in color than normal, sure sign of a warrior. This contradiction perplexed children who listened to the accusations against him, and they began to mimic his diffident walk as he moved alone about the edges of the village; soon they would be taunting him openly.
It was one of these children who drove him to his decision. The little boy had been aping him behind his back, causing much merriment among onlookers, when Pentaquod suddenly turned and seized him, demanding to know why he was behaving so, and the child blurted out, "My father says the council is meeting to punish you" And when Pentaquod looked about the village he realized that the elders were missing, and he knew that the boy was speaking truth.
It took him only a few moments to reach that decision. The council would not act hastily; it never did. There would have to be long speeches, condemning him, but if this child's father had actually used the word punished much more serious penalty than outlawing might be in store. His enemies had grown so outspoken that some might even demand death; if they convinced themselves that he was indeed a spy for the northern tribes, this would be logical.
So without returning to his wigwam, where his mother and father would be sitting in the sun, and without any attempt to recover his weapons, for this would excite those designated to watch him, he moved quietly away from the long building in which the council was meeting and toward the bank of the river. He did not, however, approach the canoes, for he knew that this would evoke alarm. Instead he kept his back to them as if watching the village, but from time to, time he turned his head to follow the flight of some bird and in this manner was able to estimate the situation on the river.
The war canoe had everything in readiness for instant departure, but it was built of oak and was far too cumbersome for one man to handle, The plan he had in mind could succeed only if he could utilize a canoe light enough for him, to portage, and- one such stood close at hand; it looked trim and handsome, but he had helped build it and knew its limitations: it had never won a race. Others were tempting, but he rejected them as either too slow or too heavy.
There was, however, one small, swift canoe which he had helped build for one of the hunting chiefs; it had been made of rare white pine from the north, and once during construction, when the fires burning away the insides grew too strong, he had lifted the canoe by himself and plunged it into the river; where the fires were quenched. The chief to whom it belonged had painted it yellow; its sides were stout and it had been fitted with oaken struts. It had been well pointed at the bow and had done well in races. Best of all, it was always armed for hunting and fishing, and so perched beside the river that one man, with a sturdy shove, could launch it.
"The yellow," he muttered to himself; and left the river area and returned to the heart of the village, walking casually toward the council hall, where he observed with satisfaction that the. spies assigned to guard him were withdrawing so as to watch him more stealthily. This was essential to his plan, for he could not outfight them; they were four and valiant, but he could outrun them, for he was swift.
So when he had teased them into moving as far from the river as practical, he turned suddenly and leaped with deerlike speed back toward the river. When he reached the bank he did not rush immediately to the canoe of his choice; instead he dashed along to the war canoe, taking all the paddles. Next he jumped to any lesser canoe showing paddles, and collected them, too. Only then did he turn to his target.
With a cry that echoed through the village, he tossed the armful of paddles into the yellow canoe, gave its stern a mighty shove, then chased it into the muddy waters of the river, climbed aboard and started paddling vigorously downriver.
In spite of the fact that his life depended upon the alacrity of his escape, he could not refrain from looking back at his village. There were the wigwams built low to the ground; there was the home in which his parents would just now be hearing the news of his wild action; and there was the long wigwam from which the high chiefs were already running to man the war canoe in which they must overtake the criminal. He could not take his eyes off the old men as they came to the river and saw that they were powerless to pursue him. His last view of his community. showed a village in uproar, with stately chiefs running back and forth waving their arms and, he suspected, shouting at their underlings. He burst into laughter.
But now he was alone on the river, and to survive he must exercise every skill he had mastered in his twenty-five years. He would have to pass two Susquehannock villages to the south, and since they were subservient to his, he had to suppose that they would intercept him and hold him for questioning. Furthermore, the men from his tribe would shortly find other paddles with which to activate their canoes, and pursuit would be inevitable. Indeed, he suspected that already runners had been sent overland to alert the southern allies, so that his chances of final escape were not great.
But he was not without tactics of his own, and as soon as his stout strokes brought him near the first village, he chose a daring gambit. The runners can't have reached here yet, he reasoned, so I have one chance. He paddled boldly up to the shore, bellowing in a loud and agitated voice, "Friends! Have you seen a man and a woman go by in a canoe?"
They came to the foreshore of the western bank to call back,
"We saw no one."
"My wife!" Pentaquod shouted, and the people began to laugh, because around the world there is nothing funnier than a wronged husband trying to recapture his runaway wife.
"Which way did they go?' he bawled.
"Into the cornfield!" they taunted, and for as long as he remained in sight; paddling desperately, downriver, they stood on the shore, laughing at the grotesque figure he made, a husband paddling to overtake his wife and her lover.
It was dusk when he approached the second village, on the eastern bank this time, and he doubted that he could work the same stratagem again, for the runners would have offered rewards for his capture. This time he slipped among the trees on the western shore and waited till deep night had fallen. He knew that on this day the half-moon would not illuminate the river till near midnight, but he also knew that after the moon did rise well in the heavens, no passage of the river would be possible.
So when the village fires had subsided and the watchmen had been placed, he allowed his canoe to drift down the western bank, ever so slowly, ever so silently, moving within the deep protection of the trees that lined the shore. When the canoe reached a position directly opposite the sleeping village, the spot at which detection would be most likely, he scarcely breathed, and to his relief his passage made no sound, alerted no watchman. At dawn he was paddling furiously down the middle of the river, taking advantage of whatever current was then moving.
When the summer sun rose and he began to feel its oppressive heat, he wisely pulled into the mouth of a stream debouching from the west, and there, under the protection of overhanging trees, he slept most of the .day. At dusk he was back on the river, hungry and with tired muscles, but he paddled incessantly with those deep, rhythmic strokes which kept the canoe moving purposefully forward.
It was toward morning of the third night, when he had had only two small fish to eat in three days, that he came to those falls which his people called Conowingo, and here he faced the test which would determine the success of his escape. When he approached the white and leaping water he intended to drag his canoe ashore and portage it a long distance downhill, but as he paddled away from the middle of the river to the safety of the shore, he spotted a course of unbroken, swiftly moving water which twisted and curved over rocks, and in the flash of a paddle he elected to trust his fortunes in the river rather than on the shore.
He did so for a good reason: If I portage my canoe, the others may catch up. But if I go down this water, none will dare follow, and I shall be days ahead of them.
As if conducting a ritual, he threw overboard all but two of the paddles he had been carrying, dropping them into the swift waters one by one, to track their passage through the falls. "They follow the dark smooth water!" he cried. Then he lashed to the struts all hunting gear and one of his remaining paddles, against the chance that the one he was using might be swept away, and with the reassuring knowledge that he risked no more in going forward than he would in turning back, he drove his canoe into the turbulence.
"Hi-ya! Hi-ya!" he shouted as he felt the waters take command, pulling the canoe forward with frightening speed.
It was a stormy ride, with rocks visible on either side and white water piling into the log. His paddle, even when he used it with unaccustomed strength, accomplished little except to keep him preoccupied. At several points he felt sure that he must lose his canoe, and perhaps his life, too, but in the end the sturdy log bounced and chafed its way through the perilous rocks and the roaring water.
When the passage was concluded he was exhausted, and that day slept soundly under the trees. Cool water came down a rivulet, and when he rose he drank copiously. Also, he found a field of strawberries on which he gorged, and with the gear he had saved he caught two more small fish. Reassured in mind and replenished in sinew, he resumed his night paddling down the great river, and next morning decided not to sleep through the day, for ahead lay the vast body of water which he had heard of as a child and which was now his target.
"It lies to the south," the old seer of his village had said, "the river of rivers in which the fish of fish abound. To paddle down it would take even the god of rivers many days, and its shores are cut with a hundred places to hide. On this river of rivers a storm lasts for nine days, and fish are so big, one can feed a village. But it is beautiful. It is so beautiful that if you are good and make your arrows straight and tend the yams, you may one day see it. I have never seen it, but it's down there and maybe you will be the fortunate one."
And there it was, the Chesapeake! In Pentaquod's language the name meant: the great river in which fish with hard shell coverings abound, and each village along the Susquehanna possessed precious lengths of roanoke made from these white shells gathered from the Chesapeake. With enough roanoke a man could purchase even a chieftain's daughter.
The Chesapeake! The name was:familiar to all children, for on this great water strange things occurred. This was the magical place where the waters became even wider than those of the Susquehanna, where storms of enormous magnitude churned up waves of frightening power. This was the river of rivers, where the fish wore precious shells,
Pentaquod leaned forward with his paddle across his knees, content to allow his yellow canoe to drift quietly into the bay, and with each length that the log moved forward, he saw some new revelation: the immensity of this water, the way the fish jumped as if they were eager to be caught and tasted, the constant movement of birds back and forth, the majestic trees lining the shore, and overall, the arching sky more blue than any he had seen before.
For the whole day he drifted south in wonder, now close to one shore, now venturing out into the terrifying yet consoling middle. It was even bigger than the old seer had been able to convey; it was more beautiful than a lifetime along an inland river would have intimated. From the moment he saw this magnificent body of water he lost all regret at having left his village on the river, for he had exchanged that collection of waffled wigwams for a greater majesty.
He spent two days on the bay, enchanted each hour with some new brilliance: he loved the movement of the fish and the feeding of the birds, the way the sun rose enormous and red from the waters, or went to sleep in flashes of gold.
"Oh, what a universe!" he cried when his joy was greatest. To express this thought he used a Susquehannock word meaning: all that is seen on earth and unseen in the heavens, and he never doubted that this word had been invented so that a man like him could describe this new world which he had been allowed to enter.
It had been his intention from the first moment he fled his village to find this legendary bay and take shelter in some likely haven on its western shore, for in his youth the shells his people had treasured had been brought to them by a stalwart tribe of people called the Potomacs, and he remembered that they lived along some river to the west. They were a warlike tribe, and in the years when they did not come in peace to trade, they came in war canoes to ravage. He would seek to join these Potomacs, reasoning that since he was much taller than most men and broader of shoulder, he would be welcomed.
But now as he drifted down this peaceful body of water, so different from the constricted river he had known, so infinitely grander, he realized that he had no desire to join those warlike Potomacs, among whom he would be forced to serve as warrior. He was surfeited with fighting and with the old men who encouraged it. He wanted refuge in some tribe more placid than the ones he had known along the Susquehanna, more peaceful than the shell-trading Potomacs. So he refrained from paddling to the western shore.
As a child he had been told that along the eastern shore of the bay lived other tribes of lesser breed who accomplished nothing in arms; they were not even brave enough to venture north in trade. Occasionally bands of Susquehannocks had penetrated south to fight them, finding them ridiculously easy to subdue.
"It's hardly fair to call them enemies," a warrior from beyond the bend had reported to Pentaquod's village. "They have few arrows and small canoes. Not many surplus shells for making roanoke, and no desirable women. Believe me, they aren't Potomacs. Those Potomacs know how to fight."
Each disparagement of the eastern tribes that Pentaquod could now remember made them more attractive. If they were unlike the Susquehannocks, that was good; if they differed from the Potomacs, that was better. And now, as if to exemplify this judgment, there appeared on the eastern shore the opening of a broad and congenial river, guarded by a low island burdened with magnificent trees. The river was spacious, inviting, peaceful and glowing with birds.
And so, in the middle of the Chesapeake' Pentaquod, the Susquehannock who was tired of war, turned his log canoe not to the turbulent western shore, as he had intended, but to the quieter eastern shore, and that simple choice made all the difference.
Excerpted from Chesapeake by James A. Michener Copyright © 2003 by James A. Michener. Excerpted by permission.
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