My Name Is Resolute
By Nancy E. Turner
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Nancy E. Turner
All rights reserved.
Two Crowns Plantation, Jamaica — September 30, 1729, by the old reckoning
Never step over a lighted candle. If you do, the flame she rise and the Shush-shush come and take you. Gumboo. I used to laugh when my favorite person on this earth, Old Poe, furrowed her brow and whispered that like a singsong rhyme, then put her finger against her lips, saying, "Hush, now, child. Don' tease de devil, now, child." When I heard Ma say it just now across the supper table, all fine and glowing with porcelain and crystal, and me nowhere near a candle other than those high above in the chandelier, it made me run cold, deep in my bones. There were few things in the life of a young girl wearing her first long skirts more treacherous than a candle on the floor. I held a picture I had drawn in India ink on heavy paper. A drip had formed at the bottom edge, pulling the shoe on one of the figures to unnatural length. My eyes went from my drawing to Ma, to Uncle Rafe. He had just invited me to sit upon his knee and show it to him.
My sister Patience had called me to dinner many minutes earlier and I had ignored her summons to put some finishing touches on it that were now ruining the picture. It depicted two little girls, one white, one black, holding hands and running across the white-sand beach. Their faces smiled quite cunningly, I thought. The figure of my dear Allsy in the picture held up an apple, precious fruit shipped here from far away, the last apple we shared, the danger of it so like one of my favorite stories in which a princess sleeps for a thousand years after a single bite. I had drawn crowns over Allsy's and my heads, as if she and I were princesses.
Uncle Rafe slammed his tankard of rum on the table boards, and said, "Aye. A girl's petticoats catch fire soon enough. Tender as tinder." He laughed and winked at Ma, his face all bright and sweating in a way that made me push his cup and plate over into his lap. I stuck out my chin, thinking old Rafe did not know aught about a fiery petticoat. Uncle Rafe roared and hollered, "God's balls!"
I may have been ten years old but I knew Rafe was not my real uncle, and that Pa's voice got thin and Ma's hands trembled when he was in the house. I stood and stuck out my tongue just as Pa came into the dining room, buttoning his vest, with Patience and our brother, August, following him. He looked from Uncle Rafe to Ma and to the mess on Rafe's pants and me standing there with hellfire in my eyes.
I am old, now, wizened, some might say. I will tell you how I came to this place from that potent evening so long ago and so far across the oceans. The day after I was born my parents named me Resolute. Pa said it gave me an aspect of solemnity and perseverance, which are pretty things for a child with a sanguine humor. It was a good name for a girl, Ma always added, and there was nothing wrong with a girl being confident and ruddy. A boy could grow to "make a name for himself," but a girl needed a special one from birth.
I knew all about fire. I had been playing with Allsy when we were both but six years old and my family had been on the West Indies island of Jamaica for the same six years. Allsy and I had been hiding in the priest's hole, up the steps behind the fireplace. I brought two cakes and an apple for us to share and she carried a burning candle, placing it on the floor. I jumped over it. As I did, my petticoats made the flame bob and nearly go out. The edge of my skirt got a brown place and we held it between us, curious, as the spot grew and grew. A yellow tongue of flame suddenly burst from it, licked at us and burned my fingers. Allsy slapped her hands upon it and crushed out the flame. She winced, but made no sound; putting her hands over her mouth, she made the sign of the cross as long black shadows of us spun around in the stair tower like ghosts dancing.
We held our breaths. We laughed. Hand in hand, we climbed up to the widow's walk on the highest part of the house, where we could see far and wide across the ocean. In the distance, storms sometimes carried on all day, lightning dancing upon the water against a backdrop of gray roiling clouds like a silent mummer's play, never a stray wind ruffling our hair. We watched, hoping for the rise of a mast that might mean cloth or shoes or more of Ma's precious goblets made of real glass. After we got tired of mocking seagulls squealing at each other, we shared a cake and took turns eating the apple.
I had stepped over a candle and nothing had happened. I thought we were safe. But five days later, I took fever. The sixth day, Allsy did, too. The Shush-shush, Old Poe's name for the devil or death or something that you must not say out loud, something bad and haunted, he came whilst I lay afevered. I retched and I itched, covered with smallpox. I cried and Ma brought cold rags for my head, and after two weeks I got up. Allsy must have been too close to me in that stairway. As I jumped over that lit candle, the old devil reached for me and caught Allsy. While I was too sick to know, Pa and Old Poe wrapped her in white gauze and laid my heart's friend in a grave.
Old Poe caught it and died, too, after two days of sickness. Cost Pa £15 to replace her. That meant nothing to me. Talk of pounds and crowns and sixpence went on all the time in Pa's office at the side of the good parlor. What mattered to me was that Old Poe knew how to make a lap for me to sit upon, knew more stories than I could ever remember — some of them including two fine wee girls just like Allsy and me — and knew how to wrap a sore finger with potash and brown paper and kisses.
I never told Ma or Pa that it was my fault Allsy died. I had escaped Old Scratch's claws. Ma said it is because I have something special to do. What is a girl going to do? Embroidery and arithmetic, that's what I get. I wondered someday if the devil might wake up and see he got the wrong girl, what will happen then?
All my days I had heard things about England where Pa was born. Even more about Scotland, Ma's homeland, the two of them united into one country by that time. I knew about how my brother, August, used to wait with Pa until a dark night and watch the farmers light gorse when the village had a festival. How Patience, my only sister and ten years older than I, had loved the son of a lord, a lord who faithfully waited on Anne the Queen's favor. Anne was a Stuart and a Tory through and through, and our father, being of both Tudor and Plantagenet lines with Radclyffe blood thrown in, made Patience a politically unsuitable bride for his son. So, on recommendation of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, Her Highness and His Lordship found that the Crown was in great need of Pa to mind a plantation in the Indies.
This is where I was born and all around us is all I have ever known, fields of sugarcane and coffee, slaves to tend the cane fields, and then, wearing starched white linen, to bring in the roast chicken at dinner, the smell of the sea and the soil and the perfume of flowers. Throughout the night, breezes off the mountains brought the rhythm of drums from the slave quarters. Sometimes if I kept quite still I heard singing. I imagined their happy world filled with music. I wished I could join them.
By day I did my lessons in the schoolroom on the top floor where the window blinds were all that kept a girl from dreaming of a home she had never known beyond the sea, for the wind off the ocean seemed to pine for England, to mourn her like a lost promise, the way Patience weeps at night for her lost love and lost future marriage. I pressed her to tell me how she could have threatened the son of a lord with marriage if she herself had been but ten years old. She told me that the path between our house and his was a common one, but a hedge had grown at a certain shady secluded point where they had used to meet together and play. He was two years older — a vision of manliness, she said — though I pictured a boy of twelve being spindle-legged and having great flopping feet. Such keen friends they had become that they spoke to each other of promises and everlasting love, and when he told his father, that was that. She kept a lock of his hair, near black as pitch, in a box along with a little paper he had written upon with their names entwined by something rather like a crow carrying a twig although Patience says it is a dove holding a ribbon.
For me a land called England was but a magical tale of far away and long ago. My own ma and pa would tell me fancy tales they must have fashioned in their own minds about some kingdom of gold and crowns and cold such as I could never imagine, a land without mountains, without snakes or cane fields. I did not believe in those things. To me, it was make-believe just like the fairy folk, brownies, and selkies. For myself, I believe in God and a few saints and of course duppies, the sprites that live here. Pa would laugh and say treacle ran in my veins.
Uncle Rafe stood, his back to the hearth and hellfire as big as mine in his eyes. Pa looked to Patience and said, "Daughter, fetch Uncle a new plate. Son," he said to August, "bring the tobacco box."
"But, sir," August said, and Pa raised his hand. He sat and opened his hands toward Rafe. Rough, broad hands that knew work. As if that were his only apology for a wayward bairn like me. After that Pa offered Rafe his new pipe and filled it himself with his best tobacco. Pa sent me to bed. As I left the room I made note that Uncle's wig was askew and smelled bad. Pa wore no periwig, just tied his hair in a lock at the back of his neck. Boiling-sugarcane odors clung to Pa like a coat. I had thought I loathed the smell of cane, but any horse in the barn smelled better than Uncle Rafe and I knew I loved the smell of Pa.
"Pa?" I whispered.
Pa made a squint sidelong at me. A string of thought came unspoken from his face, saying, "Try to obey this time," and, "I will explain later," mixed with, "You are two shakes away from getting a well-deserved walloping, girl." So I climbed the stairs to my room and listened from the doorway.
Rafe's voice grew loud as if he meant me to hear, saying, "Cocky little oyster. That'n needs to feel a boot. I'd give her a taste of Rafe MacAlister's hobnails."
"She is not grown. We will discipline her, sir," Ma said.
The air grew tight with silence and their voices lowered so I could not hear as well. I tiptoed down five steps. The sixth one always had a squeak so I stayed five from the top. I heard Rafe laughing and he said, "So, maybe you won't have to. I've waited all I'm about to wait. You've sworn a bargain. Be she ready?"
I stretched one leg as far as I could, stepping over the noisy stair to the one below.
"By no means," Pa's voice said. "Patience is still a child. And she's recently had smallpox and quinsy. You should have sent word you were coming."
"A delicate child," Ma added.
"I sent word before and you'd sent her on an errand to the parish convent. Our deal was your safekeeping on this island in return for a wife. You've no dowry for her, no legacy except for the boy, there. Two wenches who'll be nothing but a drain on Her Majesty's profits for the length of their lives. You've put me off long enough. I'll see her home."
"Mistress Talbot," said Pa, in a voice he used during their most formal balls when something more needed saying, "will you speak to Miss Patience? Explain the situation."
I knew then that more danger was afoot. When slaves had come from Benderidge Plantation, carrying forks and fence posts and wanting food, Pa had said we had a "situation." When two boys waylaid August in Kingston, that was a situation, too, and it took him two weeks to get up from his bed. Ma nearly bumped me over in the stairway, rushing with her hand on Patience's arm, their faces dreadful, their eyes gleaming, even in the darkness of the staircase.
I heard Rafe saying, "I'll take the two of them off your hands. There's room enough for the second one and you'll be freed of both."
"Where is August?" I began, but I said no more. Ma grabbed my shoulder so tightly it hurt, and bustled me along with them. In Patience's room, Ma let go of me and took Patey by both shoulders, frowning.
"Move the armoire," she said. "Help me, lasses." Ma pushed the heavy furniture from its nook. Patience took hold, too.
I started to ask why we were moving it, but the moving cabinet came toward me as if Ma had grown the strength of five men. Instead, I asked, "Ma, why do you let that awful Uncle into our parlor if all he wants is to steal Patey?"
"Sometimes you have to befriend those you do not like, my bairny, to keep away others you like even less. Rafe is a powerful man."
"He hates Pa," I said. "I can see it in his eyes. I think he loves you."
"It's not love you see in him, lass, but something else not so grand. Now, help us push. You'll be safe in here."
Patience's room overlooked the bay. From my windows I could see only cane fields. There had been work done in Patience's room, part of fixing the house for a new waterwheel system besides the one that crushed cane all day. We had kept out of the way for nine long weeks as men tore through the wall to add the wheel and its gears, pounding, banging from morning until night. I remember because Patience slept in my bed with me and the nights had passed intolerably crowded. She tossed around, she smelled like a grown-up, and she constantly put my counterpane off the end of the bed though I asked for it. She said girls should not sleep so warm at night but did not tell me why. After they restored her room and Ma put back the bedding there seemed not a speck of difference except that the stones in the niche were a newly cut color and the armoire stood taller.
The armoire rolled on cannonball legs away from the wall where they had bolted the side of it with a door hinge of worked iron. A passageway as narrow as one stone opened behind it. Patience and I looked at each other, astonished that it was there, and I was doubly puzzled that she had not inspected her own room. From the dark opening we heard a soft whistling like a garden bird. "Go," Ma said, and pushed Patience to the opening. "Down the stairs inside, and when you get to the bottom, hide."
To my horror I was next, pressed through the slot in the wall by hands from which I had never felt pain, shoved in like a sack. The armoire swung into place, crushing my protest in the thump of the tight-fitting frame. My hand lay at the corner. If one finger had lain in the spot where the hinge slammed, that finger could have been crushed and Ma would not have known. I whimpered, not from pain but from the possibility of it. "Oh, la, Patience. What are we to do? It is so dark."
"Shush," whispered Patience. "You had n'a cry out now. Reach for my hand. I am below you on the steps." The bird called again. "That is August," Patience said. "My hand is before you. Take it and feel the side for the rope."
A palpable, clinging blackness enveloped me and for a moment it cut out all sounds, too. I found my sister's hand as I touched the walls, wet as if rain had fallen upon them, and felt with my feet for the steep stairs. "If Rafe MacAlister is pretending to be our uncle, why would he want to marry you?"
"He doesn't. Not really. His family fought against our pa though they were but yeomen on our estate back in England. They were devious to the last, stealing, poaching. He thinks Ma and Pa owe him a woman, for his wife died. It was none of our doing, but she died. He pretends to court me, but I'd not have him if I had to hang myself first."
"Patey! But if they were only farmers, why have we aught to do with him now?"
"He sallies with every picaroon in the Carribbean Sea, and keeps them from our door. Stop talking and come this way." The stairway of short, narrow stone took us down into night that grew ever darker with air so damp it pushed against our every movement. A ship's mooring rope, latched to the wall on one side, hung loose in its channel bolts. Slipping off a stair I fell upon Patience. The rope gave with my weight like a loose stitch in a fabric of stone. I hung from it by one hand, flailing for her lost grip until I found her hands. She whispered, "Be caresome, Ressie." (Continues...)
Excerpted from My Name Is Resolute by Nancy E. Turner. Copyright © 2014 Nancy E. Turner. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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