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The Hudson River Valley, 1769: A man mysteriously disappears without a trace, abandoning his wife and children on their farm at the foot of the Catskill Mountains. At first many believe that his wife, who has the reputation of being a scold, has driven her husband away, but as the strange circumstances of his disappearance circulate, a darker story unfolds. And as the lines between myth and reality fade in the wilderness, and an American nation struggles to emerge, the lost man’s wife embarks on a desperate ...
The Hudson River Valley, 1769: A man mysteriously disappears without a trace, abandoning his wife and children on their farm at the foot of the Catskill Mountains. At first many believe that his wife, who has the reputation of being a scold, has driven her husband away, but as the strange circumstances of his disappearance circulate, a darker story unfolds. And as the lines between myth and reality fade in the wilderness, and an American nation struggles to emerge, the lost man’s wife embarks on a desperate journey to find the means to ensure her family’s survival . . .
“A beautifully written tale that lives somewhere between landscape and memory, where regret becomes a prison, and a story told often enough becomes truth.”
"Christine Wade vividly recreates life on a Hudson Valley farm in the years before the American Revolution with this fascinating tale of a Dutch woman who struggles to survive with her two children when her husband mysteriously disappears. Lyrical descriptions and graceful narrative pacing will remind readers of Marilynne Robinson."
"The author gives spirited voices to the voiceless from the years just before the American Revolution, with deft, vigorous, and revelatory prose that penetrates the joys and uncertainties of the human heart."
“A tale both sensitive and clever…This is a remarkably persuasive story that gains power with each turned page to inspire meaningful reflection on the human condition. A poignant blend of the magical, mystical, and factual.
Hudson’s River Valley,
Als de maan vol is, schijnt zij overal.
“When the moon is full, it shines everywhere.”
THE LONGEST DAY of the year and a full moon. I read to the children for a long time. The boy’s breathing quickly deepened, and his gaze subsided into the depth and darkness of his pupils, but the girl’s eyes remained bright, and she continued to ask questions, not comprehending the story because of my own distraction. I could not answer her queries, as I was not listening to the words coming from my own mouth. My reading did not find the cadence in the tale, so absorbed was I within my internal heart. I had to backtrack in the text. Finally, I shut the book, kissed her again, snuffed the candle, and retreated from the bed, blowing her a kiss before I shut the door.
As I stepped toward my own enticing bed, the soles of my feet sucked up the coolness of the polished flooring, as if they were tasting something savory. The evening air too was honeyed, thick with summer. Lilies yawned around the house where I had planted bulbs in the autumn, and wafted their yellow dust, both spicy and sweet. My husband had scythed the grass in the yard of the house, which seemed a miracle in and of itself. The scent of maple pollen rode the wind toward the house from the woods, floating on the warm platform of the smell of the grass. Its golden dust settled on the sills of the windows.
I stood in the dark, drawing my breath up through the skin of my feet. Standing still with closed eyes, I could smell the salt of myself mingled with the odors of the night. I noticed the sensation of my ribs expanding and contracting, and I awakened to the rhythm of this. The breath rising and falling has its own sweetness if you attend to it. I pulled apart my thighs merely by shifting my stance, as the skin at their top was gently chafing. My breath ruffled the back of my throat.
Above the sound of my breathing in my ears, I could hear the high chirping of the tree frogs and the low burping of the bullfrogs, and knew exactly where he was. He lay on his back by the pond up the hill behind the house, watching the moon rise, swilling from a green glass bottle filled from a keg. The danger was that sleep would grab him and he would not awaken until the moon had crossed the sky, drawing the sun up in its wake. The back of his trousers and shirt would be soaked through by then. I inhaled deeply and, with my mind, called him to me. Life beckons you from your reverie. I am your wife. Rise up, Sir, and come to me.
I slid to the cupboard and removed my cap and then my clothes. I took my brush and pulled it through my hair. I smoothed my chapped hands with oil from a little glass cruet. I drew the porcelain bowl from under the bed and squatted. I patted myself dry. I donned my bed shift, slipped between the cool linens, a wedding gift now stained and worn but still quite a luxury. In the bed, I faced my own peril. The work of this day released from my hands, my neck, and my shoulders, but the work of the next day was listed in my mind and wore me out. If I slept now, I would be awakened by his snoring at dawn, and such a sound would fill me to overflow with regret. Could I face the particular dismay of yet another lonely night alongside the labors of the day? Surely I could. I had long learned to take refuge in discourse with my children, or even with the cat or the farm animals. But the assault of a rising ire could not be fended off in that moment when I first awoke to the coarse and dry disappointment of the sound of his rough breath rattling in the aftermath of too much juniper. I willed myself to wait for the creak of the kitchen door and the tread upon the step, no matter how long. I sat up listening. Frogs, breath, tread.
When I got up, the cow was lowing. I went to milk. It was late. The kitchen door, by far the portal most transgressed—plumb from its lintel but worn at its saddle—stepped out into a little fenced yard and flower garden. I grew the herbs there for season, for household, and for healing. Melissa, at the door for fragrance and good luck. Lavender, also for its sweet smell, easing of pain, and repelling of pests. Sage, to rub the skin of poultry and grouse. Dill, for pickling. Yarrow, to make an astringent for the skin. Cramp bark, for my monthlies. The wild rose bushes, for their sour hips. Marjoram, for sausages.
The house was in a clearing on a slope and encircled by sugar maples that had grown grand and stately since the pole saplings had been cut away. These were used to pen the pigs. The hardwoods beyond the maple sentinels were birch, sycamore, black cherry, sassafras, red oak, and horn-beam. The forest was not so thick with trees and vines that you could not find your way through it, but it was chock with stone as blue as water. The white foam of streams, which pushed the stones all together and then cut through or frothed over the boulders, always made it seem that the mountains were laughing at us. Ferns waved their verdance across the forest floor, and the sun spilt down through the canopy to touch the sway of their fronds.
The path through the garden led toward the fine Dutch beamed barn with its gambrel roof, wide planks, and wider doors. Its broad structure was built on the slope just below the house, and though as tall, we could look upon its fine roof from the upper windows.
The fence of the yard ended at the track, which was a sorry rutted thread that led to civilization. If we did not brave its puddles, we would see no one. The track led only one way: to us, so travelers did not pass by. My husband had picked the spot for its charm, seclusion, and its proximity to the mountain trails, and had discounted the prudence of living closer to our village. He was especially enamored of the knoll, as if it set us above our neighbors on the flatter plain below. The pond, surrounded by long-needled pine trees, gathered several streams together on the mossy rock shelf behind the house clearing. The water was clear and cold from the mountain runoff. Across from the track, we had a sheep pasture, bordered by stone farm walls wide enough to stop the sheep but not so very high. We grazed the cow in this meadow full of clover, butterweed, thistle, and vetch. Her milk was sweet enough.
One lone apple tree stood in our pasture like a beacon, silhouetted against the blue forests of the upslope at the edge of the fields. My husband and I had planted seven others in a circle we called our orchard on a rolling slope below the barn the first year we were here so that in spring the white blossoms would form a halo. One could feel blessed within such a circle. The deer would often come and help themselves to the low-hanging fruit of the laden branches. My husband would sometimes shoot a buck here for our stew pot, but, as often as not, let them eat, even as he complained when the cider barrels ran low.
Well into the morning, with the children fed a large breakfast and set to their tasks, I hear the footfall above the kitchen, and the pots hanging on the rafters gently sway. Then whistling, like a fife, that gladdens my heart. I had separated the coals on the hearth stone, for soon the day would be warm, but I now scraped them together and put up water in the heavy kettle. I have made flat cakes with Indian meal on a pallet, and we still have maple syrup, March’s harvest. I made a strong tea with the Dutch contraband (we did not drink English tea) in a pot, but when he came down, he went to the cider barrel and took a long draught. I could see I had mistaken the whistling for good humor. He was actually quite distracted and had a look on his face that let me know he would not speak to me. He did not touch or look at me either. Now what?
I asked him if he was well, which clearly annoyed him. He said he would go outside to smoke, which he did. And several hours later, after washing, grinding, chopping, boiling, frying, pouring, pressing, combing, sorting, folding, tending, singing, and answering questions, I called the children and him to dinner. He did not answer, so I went and looked to find him back against the hay, squinting at the sun, his hands clasped behind his head.
“Time for dinner, Sir.” I turned my back to his face as haughtily as I could and flounced away as quickly as I had come.
I served soup first, made with early potatoes and all the new spring greens. Meat then, a spring lamb, devoured by all, grease dripping on cloth. I loved my table, a great slab of oak. The children’s faces were alive above the dark wood of it, and their chatter spilled into the soup. He inquired of them and knew their world. I looked away from the food that stuck to his short, dark beard and dribbled on his shirt. He hunkered down at the table and over his pewter plate. I did not enjoy watching him eat the food I had prepared, with his elbows firmly planted on my table.
After cleaning up following the meal, I stalked out to find him and asked him, “What do you plan for the rest of the day?” I could not subvert the insinuation of my question. “A hundred things need attending. Hundreds,” I told him. A farm was like that. He thought for a moment before he replied with a curled lip, “As they always will.”
“And what is your meaning, Husband? That you will leave them to me because there are too many tasks that require attention? If you do not stack wood, there will be a cold supper.”
Not wishing to be beseeched by me, he fumbled to his pocket for the spall and tinder to light his pipe. Dutch men were always hiding in the crater of their pipes. “It is not so much that what you ask of me but that your tone implies that you are after me for more than stacking wood.” His eyes were cast down to the bowl at the long end of the pipe handle, as he drew repeatedly, his suck on the tobacco a whisper between us. He glanced up but briefly before he turned away from me, as to remove the catch of the flame from any wind.
“Sir! Don’t stride away! I have not done with our negotiation. What will you do today at the height of the summer? The blossoms and the berries, you hardly know to gather them. But where will sweetness come in winter? Surely you do not plan a forage in the glade from which you will return with nothing but the tale of your nap-cultivated dreams? What could that be worth? Our fields and livestock need cultivation, not your dreams!”
“You would be in my dreams if you would only enter them. Wife, I will do as I will, and your challenge is neither wanted nor womanly!”
“And how would I be a woman if I am but a drudge and you an idler?”
“Ah, you did not call me an idler last night. You cried out other noises, like an animal in the hay of her stall.”
“That service does not put food on the table, you bed-presser! And you are not so skilled a pleasuremonger as you now claim.”
I had insulted his manhood, and he now began to give me a mouthful of his own wind. “Termagent! Scold of a woman! Carp of a wife.” I lashed back, and soon we were at familiar odds, our voices rising over the garden and venomous words spewing from our mouths.
“Godverdomse Smeerlap! Bastard, you! Illegitimate son of a snail!”
“And you, despot of a wife, you will not decide what work will be done and when.”
I clenched my fists to my waist with my elbows behind me and inched my tormented face close to his. “Despot, am I?” I spat out. “If I shall not decide this, then who? A blunderheaded bedpresser? A wastrel?! He who gets up at noon and naps after dinner and nips through the night? Ikke, ikke en de rest kan stikken.” “Me, me, the rest can choke.”
And then we follow each other around the yard, tensing out from our clothing and leaning into each other’s faces, spittle on our lips and hatred in our speech. We circle, and cannot unlock. He calls me moronic, and I call him a cur, lower than the lowest pitiful, whimpering, wormy puppy. “Hond! Dog of a man! You cannot, will not, should not call me a scold for wanting the farmwork done and an orderly house! Klootzakken!”
His eyes widened at this, and his upper lip tremored with rage. He had not yet heard such vulgarity from me. I too was surprised that I could refer to a man’s anatomy. Those round and tender parts, vulnerable at the base of the triumverate—the son and holy ghost beneath the ruling father. I enjoyed the shock on his face, for he seemed truly dumbfounded. This final word seemed to deflate him. I saw him now stubbornly turn away from me, and I knew what was next. Flight.
The long-legged and lanky dog, Wolf, never very far from my husband, had kept at the perimeter of the storm with his head down, his eyes wary, and his tail only wanting to wag as if it were he that was being scolded for digging in the garden or chewing a harness. The dog was like his master in so many ways—good-looking enough but giddy and vagrant. Now sensing that my husband might be making an excursion on which he surely would be invited, he made a wide berth around me in order to follow my husband into the barn. I swung my leg and kicked out toward him so that he broke into a trot, and the dust of my wrath swirled and glimmered in the sunlight before it settled again in the dirt.
My husband emerged silently from the cavern of the barn. I saw the old gun used for turkeys and doves at his side. His back was toward me, and he looked not in my direction—his jacket hiked at his waist and his shirt trailing beneath it, with the dog circling at his heels. The dog looked back with his yellow eyes only once, hesitating but for a moment. My husband tapped his thigh and the animal settled into a trot at his side. His breeches were torn and sagging over his flat quarters. He was a man of modest build—not tall, not stout—a pipe in his shirt pocket and the hat that shaded more than his eyes. I watched him walk away down the road, saying nothing to his children and nothing to me.
I did not want him to go, for I faced a long afternoon of lonely work. Lonely and wearisome. But neither could I call out to him, so thick was my dismay. I turned toward the demands of my labor and squeezed back the salt in the corners of my eyes so that I could see my many tasks more clearly. I never once thought back to the tenderness we had expressed in the night.
The shadows fell upon the day of my labor. I let the children catch fireflies that twinkled at the edge of the fields where the black trunks of the tall trees cast their darkness over the ferns. When the long light finally faded, and the softness of evening became the inevitable night, I sent the children to their slumber. When there was not another task or duty to perform and he still had not returned, I bolted the kitchen door from the inside. Let him sleep off his drunkenness in the barn, as he had dozens of times. I heated water that I had drawn and carried from the pond earlier and poured it into my widest and lowest barrel. I crumbled petals of wild roses and lavender stalks that I pulled down from the kitchen rafters. I stood naked in my kitchen with the smell of the herbs rising on the steam from the water and mixing with my own fishy smell. Then I washed it all away with ashes.
Judith Wakes in the Night
I wake in my bed, but I do not call for her. I can hear my brother breathing into his pillow. I go to the open window and look past the barn and garden where the moonlight falls into the sheep meadow. I fold my elbows on the sill. That is when I first hear it. Someone calling my name. Choodhoo o hoo. And then a hissing whisper. I’m here, I answer in my heart without speaking. I stand on my toes and turn my ear on the quiet, which is forever. How do you know my name? It comes again. Choodhoo o hoo. And then the hissing. It comes from below me. I think it might be my Papa at the kitchen door, coming in from his wanderings. Perhaps he will come now and tell me a story. Once more. Choodhoo o hoo. Tsst. Tsst. And then suddenly a flapping shape flies out from the walls of the house just below me, over the yard, and crosses the road of light that comes from the moon. It is not my Papa, but it knows my name.
Our farm was tucked up toward the mountains offset and above the river plain and a distance from the village. My husband liked to view the river from afar and often climbed the hillsides behind the farm to do so. He said there could be no finer landscape in all the Americas. And no wonder that our forefathers would have returned to such a spectacular territory, once it had been observed and reported. For were not the Dutch in their homeland limited to a flat, dreary landscape that disappeared at a distant horizon, with nothing of note between the good people and the vanishing point? Endless flattened fields laid out on a chess board—monotonous polders of colorless dirt stretching into ashen skies—and the sea held back only by stubbornness.
Our neighbor’s pastures were spread like yellow butter amongst the slices and the rolls of the land of river silt below us. My husband said there was more blue stone than red earth in the foothills of these mountains, and that if we could eat rocks instead of potatoes, we would never be hungry. Yet the soil was rich enough, and our plantings thrived well enough. It was hard work. On that I would hand him no argument.
The kills run down the mountains through birch and hemlock, ash and maple. They stutter and roll, cutting through the rocky chasms and pressing boulders forward and away and finally flowing around them and falling off cliffs, in the white froth of brides’ veils to reach the river plain. After the horse race of the scuttle and run down the rock faces, the kills widen and meander through our lush meadows and undulating pastures, and gather in our ponds. But these waters do not fool us that they will abide with us. No, they push on through the marshes and join the mighty ebb and flow of Hudson’s River and leave us well behind on our well-watered farms.
I fetched the day’s water. I had not found him in the barn when I went to milk. Another day elaborated itself with work, and by nightfall I was spent. As the dark of the evening descended at the end of the long day, my son called in the woods to the dog, but he did not come. My daughter would not go to the edge of the trees with her brother but stared anxiously after him, standing outside in her nightdress listening, a little waif in bare feet with the June glow bugs blinking about her. If the dog had come, I would have known, and so would they, that their father was nearby, perhaps lying on his back, elbows folded to cradle his head, and gazing at the summer moon. I called them inside and importuned them toward their beds. I insisted that the boy tell a story to his sister, for I was too tired to read one, but he did not wish to. “No story, then,” I said. I coddled them not at all, for to do so would signal them that there was something amiss. I went to bed and slept soundly enough.
On the morning after the second night, fear welled in me, lodging in the lower belly and quelling any hunger I had for food. I kept extremely busy by making a large dinner for the children with the new abundance of the garden food. I felt unsettled when I glanced at the woodpile. I expected him to walk in, and my resentments toward him were like a wall around my heart. He had ne’er been absent this long before. If he were to appear suddenly, I might be overcome by not only a vicious cant but also by an unbecoming—no, no, far beyond unbecoming—in fact, a dissolute violence. My eyes flickered to the road, the pasture gate. I checked the pond. But when he did not come, I began to doubt. Worse than fear, I began to feel the humiliation that all abandoned women feel. It was never only loss. The actual loss could be measured out in spoons: he would not replenish the woodpile, warm the bed, bring the game. I was uncertain, besides the wood and game, what his absence could mean. Would I miss him? I was fairly certain I could manage with my garden and my dairy. They were fruitful, and I produced enough for trade.
I was not afraid of hard work, or even loneliness, for surely I had been lonely enough, in spite of the occasional full-moon tryst in the marriage bed. Yet, while in the abundance of summer managing was not my worry, a seed of shame had sprouted in the earth of my feeling and was growing fast. It filled my throat and lingered just behind my eyes, where I knew it would be spotted if I managed to raise them to look into another’s. I was short with the children and worked them hard. When I had enjoined them enough, I told them to leave me alone and sent them away to amuse themselves.
I must use the axe, as much as I hated to. Why must I? Because the time had come. I needed wood and would as soon sink its blade into my husband, were he to walk heedlessly into the yard. He would have forgotten the bile between us, and would hail me and ask cheerfully for supper. Such forgetfulness is a privilege, as are his midday dreams and jenever-soaked stories. So entitled is he in these boons that he wears them like his hat on his head. At the same time, he can hardly admit them for what they are—an escape from our world. An escape from me.
I could wait no longer. I was forsaken and ashamed, and I could no longer bear it. A black cloud had filled my brain. I knew that using a dull axe blade is dangerous, and the axe that was wedged in the splitting stump was certainly dull. The felling axe is a large tool for the cutting of upright and living trees. Its thin blade and long handle make it ideal for striking power. In order to perform its best, an axe needs to be properly cared for and sharpened, and its proportions must match the man. My shorter, lighter tool had been misplaced. I had looked but could find it nowhere. Now I must care for a tool that I could barely lift. And wield it with precision. Would the challenge to my spirit never end? Would ease ever, ever come?
I fetched a whetstone, water, and oil. There is no one way to sharpen a mistreated instrument, and all can be done in a short amount of time. I inspected the axe blade carefully and noticed it was badly chipped. Sharpening a dirty blade could cause an even greater damage, so I cleaned it completely, removing an oily grit. I then supported it on a block atop my oak table. I poured water over the whetstone and started with the medium-grain side against the blade, using long, smooth strokes at an angle and away from my body. I ran my finger along the edge and checked the grade, adjusting the stone accordingly. For every ten strokes away from the body, I stroked once to the other side.
It had not taken long. But it should not be me who sharpened the blade and pondered the dark days ahead. If I were to wait until my husband returned home, the kingdom would have already come. And because of this, we would all be angels in the firmament, and we would hover above him while he cowered below, unaware that the cloud that blocked his sun was the wings of his unprotected wife and children. Lost to him. His absence was senseless and wicked. And if he walked through the door at this moment, I would take the axe, dull or sharp, to the wood of his pate.
As this sinister thought bubbled in my addled mind, which had not sharpened regardless of my performance at my task, a shadow crossed my worktable, and I started. Looking up, I saw my son gazing at me with an expression of penetrating curiosity. “What, boy? What?” But if he had a question, he did not put it forth.
“Come, you will have to learn this now. And in your father’s absence, I will have to teach you. Listen to me, your mother, that which you should learn from your father.” He was reluctant, wary of my mood, which, while usually generous to him, had been foul. He tried to get away, but I ordered him remain with such a severity it made him pause.
Now that the blade was true, I moved to a smoother-grained whetting stone to encourage a very fine edge. I then showed the boy how to wipe the delicious extremity cautiously with an oiled rag. Suddenly I could see that my industry had caught his interest. Never mind that the axe was rather too heavy for either of us to lift, and that soon we would be needing wood, which would require an endless labor, more than either of us would ever want to perform. With a great effort, the boy raised the axe high over his head and landed the glinting blade in its stump. The handle had a perfect arc. He looked to me to see if I approved. And I suppose, in spite of everything, I did.
Our village, an hour’s walk on a winding track, was not unlike any other along Hudson’s River. The hamlet had come to be more than a hundred years ago as a settlement of trappers’ huts amid the kills and falls that ran down from the mountains. Evidently a Dutchman, small in stature but large in reputation, and known only by the double diminutive of klein sagertje, or little sawyer, had once built a mill here, perhaps providing boards and beams to erect the grand estate houses across the river. So the place of our little bracket of a dozen houses was sometimes called the Sager’s Killetje. Now, with its stone houses, it was steeped in its own traditions. We celebrated Kerstydt, Nieuw Jaar, Paas, and Pinxter. In the larger town of Kingston to the south lived carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, tailors, weavers, shoemakers, brick makers, sloep builders, sailmakers, and tanners. But in our little neck of the woods, almost all the families did a little of everything and took up what in the case of my husband is ironically called husbandry—that is, extracting from the land, and not without considerable effort, sustenance, and larder.
I did not wish to walk down to the village with my shame-filled eyes. I forced myself, leaving the children alone at the farm. I decided to visit Nicholas Vedder purposefully and in the morning in order to avoid the tavern crowd, which gathered just prior to the afternoon meal. He was my choice over our parish dominie, who might serve me a sermon and, besides, who was here only on Sundays when his services were required—while a brewmaster did daily service in even a village as small as ours. I considered that the tavern keeper would have the ear of the men, while a churchman would have the ear of the women, and it was true that if you gained the women’s sympathy, the men would follow. But I took my chances with the men because I thought the women’s kindness might be out of reach. I did not want their pity, and I could not think how to approach them. I seemed to have had the double misfortune of not gaining the hearts and minds of other women, and the men had me pegged as the embodiment of all that they could suffer from their wives. By that I mean that the men could chastise me instead of the wife on whom they depended, and thereby a man could mark for her the boundary over which she must not cross.
Our village was one street with a dozen or more freestanding stone houses, lined up neat as a pin, and much alike in size and shape, with a stone church at one end and a crossroad, the King’s Highway, at the other. Don’t let the word Highway with the King’s title before it fool you. The highway was a mud track much like the one that led to our farm, and not a penny of it was paid for by the King. The sloeps on the river, with their wide planks and high quarter-decks, were the most reliable means of transportation. The roads between towns were but rocky ditches, and cargoes were hardly ever transported along them. A well-made Dutch sloep had a high forward mast and lovely sheets, and could carry upward of a hundred tons upon her decks. And this is how our goods came to us—when the river wasn’t iced over. In those winter months, we had no goods at all.
The tavern was at the turning from the village street north onto the highway. I kept my eyes low and hurried passed the houses. Much to my chagrin, Mr. Vedder was not yet up, and I found myself waiting on the bench beneath the grim portrait of George the Third. I had brought edging and worked my needle up close to my face so that while I nodded at any passersby, I quickly returned to my task, which kept them on the path of their morning’s errands. Finally, when the sun was hot, I heard the tread on the stairs and the inn maid scurrying to bring the keeper his mead or cider, and his mild cough when she told him that I was waiting to speak to him. Still I waited, and when he finally emerged through the inn’s door, he was tamping down his pipe. I was too tentative to express any annoyance by the wait, but he responded to the expected annoyance in me by being deliberately slow. After greeting me, he fumbled in his pocket for a flint to light it, as yet not ready to begin our conversation.
Eventually he asked about my family, and while I could not meet his eyes—for we were not exactly friends—I said outright that I had come to speak to him as to the whereabouts of my husband, which were unknown to me these past two days. Best to spill the flour on the table if one wants to bake a pie. He raised his eyebrows, gazing down his nose, drawing on the tobacco, and held the smoke in a bit. He was an ugly man with inflated pores in a sallow skin and patchy whiskers. But a man’s appearance does not diminish his self-importance. If you asked me, he looked both brazen faced and sick.
Mr. Vedder had not seen my husband since the day before yesterday, when he indeed had stopped on the benches in the tavern yard. Drawing on his pipe, he reflected, “Yes, yesterday, come to think on it, his absence had been remarked. But this is not so unusual.” The good Mr. Vedder ventured, seemingly without irony, that he had thought he might have spent the day working his farm. But I did not miss the tone of his speaking and what was not said.
Had my husband mentioned any pending journey? I asked the tavern keeper. I felt myself redden, as the question itself admitted the condition of my marriage. No, he had not.
I then told of how he had not returned to his bed two nights prior, after having set out in the afternoon through the woods alone with the dog. Mr. Vedder relit his pipe and then offered what little there was in assurance: “Your husband may have wandered too far in his search for game and, losing his way, ended in another village and stopped and visited awhile, and surely will arrive—footsore and primed with some new stories—sometime today. Water will come to the ditch.”
I nodded at this point of view, giving the impression that I believed it and that I was consoled by him, even as the poverty of his assurance annoyed me. What kind of man could not find his way to his own farm? I knew not whether I was irked more by such a man or by Mr. Vedder, who spoke as if such occurrences were ordinary, thereby suggesting that my concerns were not. I asked if he would kindly notify the other villagers as they arrived to his benches about my situation, in case anyone might know of my husband’s whereabouts. “If there were any news, would you kindly send someone out to my farm? Or tell my neighbors, who would surely come to me.” Curtsying, I could not get away soon enough.
I walked quickly, with my head down. When I arrived home, I greeted my children, who had played in the glorious morning without an argument, I could tell, but began to test each other as soon as I arrived. I set them to separate labors and went into the cool darkness of my kitchen to make dinner. Faced to the hearth with my back to the doorway, I sensed a specter at the portal and turned suddenly, experiencing the peculiar admixture of relief and rage when I saw the dog saunter in and flop under the big oak table. I ran to the door and called, and then scuttled to the barn and looked everywhere with efficiency. In less than a minute, it became apparent by the cascade of fear and shame that quickly resettled in my throat that the dog had come alone.
Judith Learns a Song
I am nearly eight years old, and my father has gone into the forest. I cry at night because my mother cannot tell a story like my Papa, and my brother refuses to read to me. When I cannot have a story—an old story—I shake with my tears. The day after the evening when my father did not return to his bed, I make a house of mud and sticks with a little bed where he could sleep, and I put an acorn in it. I act out the stories of the forest critters over and over. At home in the forest, the chipmunks and squirrels always seem to find food and friends. Food and friends in the forest.
I live in a stone house. I have a rope bed. My mother feeds me dinner and makes me pannekoeken with jam. My brother teaches me this song when he finds me crying in the hen house.
Barney Bodkin broke his nose,
Without feet we can’t have toes;
Crazy folks are always mad,
Want of money makes us sad.
It made me laugh.
My greatest and unspoken dread was to hear gossip that someone else was missing from our village. One of the young unmarried women, perhaps, or even a wife or, God forbid, a young mother. With most of my husband’s afternoons and occasional evenings unaccounted for over the years, who knew with whom he had struck up, to meet in a stand of hemlocks, on a mossy knoll amongst the fiddle-heads, near a cascade of rushing water that muffled the music of their singing, or even worse, their shared laughter. I knew he could be charming, and a picaresque world created with sweet talk and poetry was its own delicious contraband in a village where industry, modesty, moderation, and practicality were the agreed-upon currency. Philandering was not unheard of in our village but always seemed to happen elsewhere—in a French or German village, or among the British in the towns. And whether true or fantasy, such alliances flourished on the good wives’ tongues. No word came of my husband, however, or, for that matter, that anyone else was missing.
On the morning after the third night of my husband’s absence, I found myself preparing to return to the tavern, for I knew not where else to report. By this time, my children knew I was anxious and expressed their own worries with whiny behavior and disobedience. This vexed me terribly, and I was sharp with them. My son especially glared at me, and I could see his condemnation in a long, silent look. You drove him. He then wandered off, and the girl, sensing that she would be left alone by my departure, wailed and shrieked. When I still would not let her come with me, she struck me when I tried to comfort her, and I ended up turning my back to her as she threw herself upon the gate.
This time, when the innkeeper emerged from the door, I stood up quickly from the bench, catching the corner of the King’s portrait, which swung from side to side. He kept his eyes on the motion of this rather than meeting the intention in my distraught gaze. “My husband has not returned and must be searched for. Can you gather the men with their dogs? My husband’s dog has returned without him, and I have brought him with me. He should be set with the other dogs to find him.” I had tied Wolf to the bench, and he looked up at the sound of his name, as his tail thumped elliptical loops in the dust.
I started to define the territory of the search, but Mr. Vedder must have found this an assault on his authority, as he promptly interrupted me. He who does not find himself important must not be doing a good job. Patronizingly, he consoled me. Yes, he would gather the men and boys and ask them to bring their dogs; yes, he knew the territory to be searched; yes, he would set the dog Wolf to tracking; yes, all would be done immediately, with concerted effort and community spirit. Farmers from the fields, craftsmen from their workshops! All would be interrupted, roused, organized, and charged to the task. He was feeling important now, a citizen. Teams would be hitched to ride out to the clove trails, setting searchers afar to comb the upper woods back and down toward the village. They would work a grid with their dogs as best they could. They would take lanterns to continue the search in the dark, which would come very late, as the solstice had just passed. Surely they would end up back at the tavern in throng, quenching their thirst with drafts of his ale.
As Mr. Vedder set to go about the town, I went to the most influential woman I could think of—the fat and imperious Dame Van der Bogart. We were such a small village that there was no Burgermeister, but a stout merchant with the grandest and widest stone house served as a village advisor and settled disputes, and I sought his even stouter wife. I walked with firm footsteps and Godspeed, lest I lose my courage, to a wide, two-chimneyed house just off the King’s Highway. I approached the heavy oak door embedded with the ends of three green glass bottles like a ship’s portholes to let light through the entryway. Mounting three broad stone steps, I reached above the glass to a comely brass door knocker in the shape of lion’s head and, without hesitation, lifted the ring and rapped three brittle knocks.
The knocker sounded a sharp call that could not be mistaken in the quiet morning, and it soon became apparent that I had successfully summoned the mistress within by the sound of clogs on wide boards. The door swung, and the frame of it was completely filled by the girth of the great dame. Indeed, she was nearly as wide as she was tall, and I saw that I had interrupted her at baking. The hands she held high, framing her robust cheeks as red as apples, were pale with flour.
“Good day, Dame Van der Bogart. I am sorry to call you from your hearth, but Mr. Vedder suggested that I call upon you. I was hoping that you might—”
“Well, indeed you have. I have bread and pastries rising, and my oven is near primed to a perfect temper. Do you have kaas? Sausage? Pickles?” She peered eagerly toward the basket hooked to my arm and resting on my hip among the folds of my petticoat.
“Oh, but I come not to trade, Dame Van der Bogart. I—”
“Then why have you come?” She pulled her eyes from the basket and finally squinted directly into my face and paused. Since I was two heads taller than she, it was a long gaze across a considerable distance, and as the sun was behind me, and my face in shadow, I was not certain that she recognized me.
I retreated to the beginning and started round again. I could not falter now. “Dame Van der Bogart, not only do I regret that I have nothing to offer you in trade, I come to your door because I have experienced a recent misfortune. Or perhaps it is not I who have suffered a misfortune . . . and if God is willing, perhaps, if God is willing, misfortune has befallen no one. But three days since, my husband—”
“What, no cheese? Your cow is dry. I always trade for cheese. To cull curds and whey, I was not made for such a task. And my ovens are always too hot. I do not have the patience required. No, my talent is to sift, to combine, to mix up, to sweeten, to knead, and to watch dough rise to heaven. Master Van der Bogart gets me a barrel of sugar and the grains ground twice or even thrice at the mill—no expense is spared for good cake—and I make an art of it. My cakes are demanded at all of the weddings.” She clapped her hands together, and flour billowed above her head, and between us, just before my face, in a cloud, and dusted through the sunshine that pierced the portal.
No longer modest in my approach, I plowed ahead, as if through wet snow. Somehow I had to wrest her attention from her appetite, from her hearth, and from the plans of her morning. “Dame Van der Bogart . . . ” I lifted my voice a little, forcing it from my throat to will my woe forth. I cut through the snow and the thrice-milled flour and every other obstacle that one must cut through in order to be known by another, so that they will finally let go of clinging to their own immediate concerns.
“Dame Van der Bogart, I must tell you that my husband is missing. He has not come to home these three days. At sundown today, it will be four. He left with his gun and with his dog, and remains removed from our bower at the foot of the clove. His dog, ever by his side, returned without him. And now I am beseeching the help of my neighbors. Of you. Of you, the good Dame Van der Bogart, and of the generous Master Van der Bogart, for I am in need. Mr. Vedder is walking through the village to gather the craftsmen, and I thought, as you are so well respected, much more so than the innkeeper—so very well respected, especially amongst the good women—that I could bid you to engage them, so that they would allow their good husbands to come in from the fields and all their good endeavors to mount a search amongst the wood and waterfalls?
“For my lost husband,” I added in case she did not remember where I had set out from. I was hoping she would not differentiate my husband and I from the goodness I had adorned on herself and all the citizens.
But could I be any more direct and abrupt?
I perceived her squint soften. Finally, she had placed me on my outlying farm and in partnership with my husband. Finally, she had awakened to my concern and called me by my name.
“Dame Van der Bogart,” I implored, “please call upon your neighbors, arouse all the good village women . . . who are wives themselves and who could not do without their good husbands. Apologize for taking the men from their work, for I know that every day of summer is precious. Please beg their understanding, as I beg yours.” I had seen how praise could be poured on the cogs of her wheels, and I continued to tip the jug. “You are well respected, you are a woman of stature, a woman of order, a woman of beneficence.” Her eyes widened a bit, no longer pushed tight by her cheeks, as her face opened to my petition.
She was wiping her doughy hands on her apron now. She was turning this way and that, the breadth of her skirts whirling the flour that had powdered the floorboards.
“Of course. Of course. What could have happened?” She clucked. “Is it three days, you say?”
“Four, as of today, it is. And in three long nights, his shadow has not darkened our door.”
“We shall find him, my child. Fear not. A man does not simply disappear, even in this wild land, and if ever he can be found, the good people of our stalwart settlement shall find him.” And, as if I might not have heard: “The good people of our settlement will seek him, and he shall be found.”
She puffed up and, unbelievably, grew rounder. I could count on her awakening to her importance, as I had counted on Mr. Vedder awakening to his. I was not so naïve that I did not understand how a society worked. She swelled with the charge, if that were possible. When it dawned on her that she could take a role and enjoin the women of the village and tell them what ought to be done, what must be done, and when and how all would be done, she continued to enlarge. There would surely be gossip and, more importantly, good food.
As I backed away from her doorway, thanking her profusely, I heard her muttering that she would punch down her bread once more and cool her oven. The dough would rise again, to be baked later, and never mind the spent fuel.
As I turned again along the road, I asked myself why I experienced such distaste for her. Why did I feel a shame about what I had said and how I had said it? Why was I uncertain that her motivations were kind toward me? She had tsked, “You mustn’t fret. He will be found.” She was amicable enough and willing to set aside her baking. What exactly did I anticipate? And what was my desire? Am I as thankless and peevish a wife as my husband suspected? Or did I not feel that he, nor perhaps I, deserved attention and aid? My eyes fluttered with doubt as I contemplated my discomfort. What sort of woman am I? Or am I right to be wary of the professed sympathies of the good Dame Van der Bogart? Am I right in thinking that there are those who lick before they bite?
The early hours of the morning had turned to a heated midday. I did not yet know that the day would be a dreadful one that stretched into a long, dreadful night. My agitation faded behind my endeavors. I walked apace to my farm to fetch my children, and I could feel their relief in finally being included in what the village’s call to action made clear as a flag run up a pole—and what they had known all along—that an event important and perhaps tragic had occurred at the center of their world. I packed as much bread and pickles, eggs, and my good cheese as I could carry, along with one of my husband’s blouses, and then forced a march with them to the village. I went from house to house and knocked at every door and asked if someone could be spared to search. It was just the end of the dinner hour, and most were at table. I stood awkwardly, my children wide-eyed at my side. The villagers were not likely to refuse. And not one of them did.
Collection and readiness did not take long, as Mr. Vedder and Dame Van der Bogart had aroused some before me, and many were ambling to a gathering before the church. Mr. Vedder had long, belabored talks with several men about the best approach to cover the most territory. They drew maps in the dirt of the road with their boots and marked pathways and directions with sticks. Mr. Vedder then made a great show of setting Wolf to the task, asking for my husband’s nightshirt, which he held to the dog’s nose. I looked on impassively, with a good effort to hide my doubt and scorn. Wolf was indeed excited by the commotion and pranced about with the other dogs, but anyone could see what I knew for sure—that he was ill trained and hardly obedient. While he had a good nose and flushed game, he did so rather whimsically, just as his master had hunted.
Four brigades of four to six good men each—fathers, sons, and brothers—were organized for all the compass points. Dogs and a few farm horses. The women would pack food baskets and ride out in carts to meet the men and feed them as they returned. The search would intensify with both men and women in the late dusk at the circumference of the village. Teams set off—cogs in a wheel of order, where all knew their tasks, their capacities, and their duties. If there was a chink in such a circle, someone would step forth to fill it in.
The women continued their household tasks through the afternoon and evening, and had little to say to me. I ambled down one cow path or another with my children, passing the new site of the schoolhouse, which was being erected in honor of the recruitment of a new schoolmaster who would join the village in the fall. Although I had just only heard of such a plan, the structure was already framed and had a roof. The children called along the road and into the ravines for their father, but I could not muster a sound from my throat.
Hours later, when the day had faded, the baying of the dogs became audible as they charged down from the ridges and trails that had been climbed quietly in the afternoon sun. The women drove out the wagons that had been left hitched by the men in the yards. The waning moon was rising and cast long shadows through the hemlock and birch stands. The ferns were trampled underfoot, and if cover grew too thick, its tangle was entered and explored. And now the men came from the upper woods to the meadows in the flood plain, and dogs grew eager for home and moved the men faster over the fields, where they finally emerged on the road to drink the cider the women had brought and to eat bread and cheese.
Now the men fanned out again, and the women headed slowly back to the village on the roads, walking in front of the wagons and checking the ditches by lantern light. The women were fresh to the task, but the men were now squinting through the dusty sweat flowing over their brows, looking not so much for the man but trampling every glade to be able to say they had been thorough. The women hallooed out my husband’s name as the men had over the mountain, and if some injury had befallen him that left him fettered and unable to move, he could have roused and found in himself to answer. But the sound of the voices calling again and again in the shadowed night echoed what I knew to be true—that I had called to him repeatedly but ever more feebly over the years from my own heart, with less and less a chance of an answer.
As the dawn came forth from the other side of the river, the men and women returned weary to their beds. Since our farm lay on the outskirts, I was dropped off at the gate, and after rousing the sleeping children from the bed of the wagon, we stumbled toward the house. When the village made communal effort, it was well used to success—many a sheep had been sheared and many a roof had been raised with an economy and efficiency expected by all. The women had few words for me then—little to say in the face of a practical failure. What could be done of this evening had been done, and it would take full sunlight to interpret the events of the night and devise a new plan.
The dogs come fast and barking in a pack through the pitch. I am frightened. With all their noise and froth, still they do not find my Papa. And nor do I. I call so loudly for him through the black trees, until my throat aches with the calling, but still he does not come. Where could he be? I weep then for my Papa. Who would tell me a story tonight? My brother sees my tears and puts his arm across my shoulder. If I call for my Papa just one more time, I am sure he will come, but I am so very, very tired. My brother helps me climb up to the wagon bed, and one of the good wives wraps me in a sleeping quilt. I lay back and look up into the many stars, and ask one—not the very first one, but all of them; every one of them—for the wish that my Papa would come home again.
I awake in my own bed, with the bright sun in shapes on the floor across the room. I listen for a snore, but the house is silent. I put my feet to the floor and run into the other room, and part the curtains of the box bed to see my Papa sleeping, but there lay my mother alone, and she does not open her eyes. Perhaps wishes come true only for patient girls who pay attention to the wink of the very first star when it is just born into the night sky, and not for greedy girls like me, who wait until the sky is filled with thousands and then wish on every one.
What were his possible fates? He could have drowned in Hudson’s River, that great river of tides swinging from shore to shore, with its wide eddies and meanders carving through these hills, that was called after that British hero of Holland who had first anchored in these coves and brought the Dutch merchants to trade for beaver fur. Hudson’s River was known by the Dutch as the North River, and that is what we called it to this day. For who would want to name such a grand waterway after a Brit who sold himself to a Dutch company? Probably for cheap, knowing the Dutch. Or because he had failed his own king? And who never did find China and who ended up set adrift in a shallop, among the icebergs, to perish by his very own crew.
I had never known my husband to walk east toward the water. However, how could I know what such a man would do? He could have suddenly had the mind to climb aboard a sloep and sail up or down river. Who knows? More likely that he had headed west toward the mountains, where he had often roamed. He liked a view of the river from above, on the overhangs to the wide alluvial plain. There is nothing like this Kaaterskill landscape, he would tell me with the astonishment of those who had lived on Holland’s flats (although he never had), as square angled and dull as the eye could see. The rolling hills below and the blue forests above of stone and balsam that climbed toward the peaks were a spectacular sight. It was not only the land but also the way the light danced and tumbled between the river and the mountains.
Perhaps he had climbed a bit that day, lingered awhile in the glades, and then attempted to climb above them, finally standing upon a cliff above a dewy cascade. Then again, he could have lost himself among the maidenhairs and creepers and be living with wild people in the wild lands in a tight little clove between two mountains, where the water spills like laughter over the rocks and the mosses weep tears so that you don’t have to.
My eyes were dry, but worry was not an unfamiliar smudge upon my brow; I had felt its blemish almost every day since my children had been born. Now it lurked there constantly and began to shape my body. Yet I had not given over to the idea that some harm had befallen him, and still clung to the notion that he had abandoned me for something as trivial as a game of wager and a draught of mead. Yes, it was possible that he could have fallen from a cliff or into the Vly. He could have been mauled by a bear. He could have shot himself while cleaning his musket. He could have been struck by men of the tribes. Drowned? Captured? Ill? Wounded? Lost? It’s the devil that invents these questions, and no angel comes to answer them. I still find myself as much annoyed as saddened by whatever might have befallen him.
Sadness, however, filled me when I contemplated the faces of my children. The boy was silent; the girl, disconsolate. I set them to separate tasks to keep them from bickering. The boy would not tolerate my instruction. He thrust his tools at the dirt at the slightest vexation and stormed away. His sister watched him and cried out to him to return. Once she started weeping, she could not stop and beat her fists against her sides. I held her to me, but she found no comfort, and her brother would not be called back but lingered beyond the borders of the yard, sulking.
“Where is Papa?” she wailed, and her sobs pulled at me. My apron became damp with her tears, as she locked my legs with her arms and threw her hot body against me. When you are the mother of such a sweet child, you gather yourself. So I rallied my voice of assurance, “Ah, meidje, weep not. We can never know the future. Our life is like a book, a book that is locked. We have to find the key, or we cannot know what is on the next page. And we don’t know the end of the story until each page has been turned and the story has ended. But we can tell ourselves our hope and hope that it is true—that your father is safe and longing to make his way back to us. Your father may be lost, but he will return to you, one way or another.” It was the best I could do.
Now it became clear by their increasing distress that the children would bear the brunt of the loss—and, in their innocence, no possible responsibility. I was enraged in their defense. And I could not be so certain that I would be free of an accounting, which added to my shame. This simmering ire protected me from any concern for him. Deep inside me, I knew, was a kernel of love for him that was etched over and smoothed again, like a stone in a river, by the failure of our partnering. I was not used to disclosing such a sentiment, even to myself.
How was I to fondly remember the man who commonly, when he took the last log from the kitchen wood crib to add to the fire to warm his feet of an evening, would not think to fill it? So when I awoke to make the morning meal, first I must clean his cup, then remove his stockings from the floor before the hearth, then start the fire fresh because the coals had not been preserved, fill the wood crib myself, and then turn to my own work.
My son would often bring our farm tools from the distant field or yard or animal pen mud encrusted, rusted. Then someone must use cooking fat to clean them and scrape them down. I would set my children to this, for I needed those tools as tasks demanded, and a day could be wasted in the hunt for them or in their cleaning. Sometimes when I planned a task, I would hide the tools required, so I could find them again. When I thought to do this, I became aware of how rarely my husband actually asked for them.
And speaking of rusty tools, after my son was born, my husband did not want me in bed so very often. (The midwife said that women more commonly had another complaint.) Always he chose sleep, or warned of waking the baby, or came to bed quite drunk, or complained of how I spoke to him, or what I asked of him, or of what I did not speak. He was tired. He needed rest.
It was not that he never did what was asked. It’s that asking became a habit of mine that he despised. Once ired, he shut himself off, behind a bolted door, or hid himself by some other means, or stormed off to smoke. After years, I discerned a pattern: I saw he provoked me so he could be alone. I would hear the door clatter, his boots on the step, and then watch him from the kitchen window walk to the pond, bottle and pipe in hand.
Judith Churns Butter
Mother says Papa has gone to the woods and cannot yet come back to us. And we are not to think about the future but to tell our own true story. The future is a book we have not yet read. Once we find the key, we can turn the pages. And it will be soon enough. We can end the story as we like, and I will end it with my Papa returned. And then he will tell me a story at bedtime.
If it says bad things in the book, I will throw away the key and never read it again. I do not want to churn this butter. Dun wanna. My arms ache, and my brother doesn’t have to have a turn. He is bigger than me and should do it himself.
I am trying to remember a song that Mother taught me, but I can’t find the tune or the words, and she says she doesn’t remember which one I mean. The cat jumps upon the urn. I am stroking her, my face close to hers, when Mother comes to the back door and scolds me. “But Mama, my arms are tired, so, so tired, I can no longer lift them.” She calls my brother, who runs in, and she sets him to it. He makes a face at me, and perhaps I will pay later. But for now, I pause at the door and flounce both my hair and skirts back. “Come,” she says. I skip ahead to the garden gate. “Weed with me.” When I sit down in the plant rows, the words and tune come to me, and I am so happy I sing aloud.
In a green, green, green, green, turnip, turnip land
There were two little hares, sitting very smart.
And the one was blowing his flute, flute, flute,
And the other one was drumming.
Then came along a hunter, hunter man,
And he has shot the first one.
And the other, who I’m thinking of,
The other one died of sorrow.
For the next few days, the men still gathered in the afternoons and elaborated additional excursions. An afternoon was spent by the most diligent along the firm ground surrounding the clogged marshes east of the village toward the river. Another group walked the river’s banks to the south on late afternoons and early evenings. And yet another headed north. Of those they encountered, they asked. No lone man fitting my husband’s description had been noticed anywhere. Some stayed on to fish and brought back fine breakfast fare and extra for salting but saw no bloated body floating pale in the coves and inlets, nor washed up on the pebbled beaches. Gradually routines in the village returned to as they were. No one came to my farm to announce an end to such endeavors, and I simply stopped inquiring. No need to embarrass anyone. They had given what they could and failed.
And amongst the good people . . . who knew if my husband were even missed? Did anyone notice his absence? Mr. Vedder perhaps lacked one steady patron of stout and jenever, but surely any newcomer or a farmer’s son come of age could take my husband’s place on the tavern’s benches. My husband had been liked well enough by the men in the village. They were called to task often enough by their own wives to sympathize with him without too much scrutiny. Clear lines had always been drawn, and everyone knew that women’s expectations of an ordered world were beyond how men’s hands could shape it.
They had already stopped calling on him to raise buildings, for he was too often not to be found, and the trouble of finding him was hardly offset by the roughness of the masonry and carpentry he contributed. I can’t say that he could count these men as friends, exactly. The men were defined by their work, and my husband’s ideas about work were distinctive and peculiar. The common notion that work was a way to identify yourself, to get closer to God, or to come together with your neighbor (or, for God’s sake, with your wife) was beyond him.
Nor did he find work a channel to organize the chaos of the mind’s fire and the heart’s water. He would spend the better part of each morning organizing his mind’s fire and his heart’s water by lying in the sun, and if a chore or economy called to him, he would weigh each piece of work by its advantages and efforts with great elaboration before he determined to set to the task. The gains were made to seem of little consequence, even of no use, and the efforts were made to seem enormous and overbearing—so much so that a man’s body would be worn through by them. Not only that, it was perceived that there would be more work to be done at the conclusion of each and any task. Work well done would but lead to more work, until the end of a man’s life came upon him, abruptly, before he could take stock.
There is some truth in his view. Even I could see it. A man’s labors must be balanced by life’s pleasures and the world’s beauty.
In a week or so, women sent their husbands or sons with cuts of venison, or a rabbit, or a grouse, for the women were nothing if not dutiful. And a good roast was said to cure all ills. I dreaded these deliveries and often hid silently in the cottage rather than receive them in hand. Truth be told, I had more game during the aftermath of my husband’s strange evanescence than when he was bringing it to table. I observed with diligence who brought what and made sure to write a note of thanks to the woman behind the delivery. I often slid the note under the kitchen door or onto a window sill on a Sunday, when I knew the entire family would be at church, even as I regretted the expense of paper and ink.
Several weeks went by, and these offerings faded, as communal attention moved on to a stillborn baby, or a man’s hand slammed by his own pickaxe as he broke stone in his fields, or a barn burned by a lantern carelessly spilled. The shift in heed I considered a blessing.
I could not avoid all village banter, for certain. Commerce was necessary for survival. I had to market my cheeses, eggs, sausages, and wool. The market is where rumors unfolded and stories with underpinnings were told and retold. Women came together, as women do, to braid their tales. And these braided tales formed ropes for hauling secrets out of wells, for tethering all that is valuable to home. And, of course, for hanging.
When I approached such gatherings, I came upon abrupt silences followed sometimes by cold formalities. No matter. I came to ply my wares and exact my business. I readily turned back toward the Blauwberg. With my back to them and my footsteps on the road, I could hear their mirth but not make out their words, as the sounds of their commonweal wafted after me. What was so amusing about a bad marriage? Why did a scold engender scorn and comedy, and a lazy man tolerance and pity? Choosing a husband is often the only decision a woman can make to affect her fortune, and certainly the one with the most consequence. Perhaps they had chosen better than I—or were more skilled in enticing a husband to their biddings without injuring his pride.
At least no word came from the other villages that any young women were missing. Or no word that anyone dared say to me. In every encounter with my neighbors, however, no matter how ordinary and pleasant, I saw in their eyes a judgment: You drove him . . . You drove him. And in mine, I took that they saw my shame: He’s left me, he’s left me. And in all those summer days, he did not reappear.
Nothing rose in my mind or was occasioned by others to contradict my thinking, and I had very little to say to anyone. The children played, the livestock and garden thrived with my care. I swept the boards of my kitchen floor with vigor. At night, when the children were put to bed and I was too exhausted to perform any task, I would be drawn to his flask of jenever as he had been every evening, and the hot fire of the white liquor and the bittersweet of juniper would raise a heated but pleasant flush upon my breast, throat, and cheeks. I could hear his voice then, even as his face had become a shadow: “Drink without sorrow, your head won’t hurt ’til the morrow.” It was not too many evenings before I had emptied his stores and licked the last oily drops from my fingers.
My father’s grandfather Friso Dinkelager had served Peter Stuyvesant in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam as a ledger keeper and accountant, and then when the governor fell, moved to Staten Island to finish out his days. When the Dutch turned over their colony to the British, life had gone on much as before. Landowners kept their land, and worship of any Christian sect was not suppressed. Indeed, conditions of tolerance surpassed what existed in England. And ordinary citizens could arrive from the Old World as humble carpenters and become owners of massive tracts of land and influential men in the new colonial government, even as they retained their Dutch names and customs. Settling the colonies had, however, proved too daunting for many, and many had sailed back to their homelands. Now that the government was decidedly English, fewer and fewer Dutch came. The villages were insular. Our domain was fortunate, however, in that it did not suffer from Indian attacks the way the Dutch farmers did farther north and west, on the Mohawk River.
My grandfather, being the youngest of his brothers and sisters, had been adventurous enough to travel up the North River to New Paltz. And then west to the Stone Ridge, where he built four houses in the Dutch style in a village that was, in those days, Dutch in every respect. It was a little too far west for the times, but, without trouble from Indians, nothing much happened there at all. My grandfather died when my father was young, and he, by working ceaselessly, managed to build an import and export firm using the old family’s business connections, which supported him and his mother quite well. From his uncle he inherited a shipyard in the Highlands where sloeps were manufactured in the Dutch style with long tillers of local hardwoods. And it was there that he had boats skillfully made with false bottoms and high decks, so that he could smuggle goods and avoid paying taxes to a British king.
My father imported everything from cloth, to tea, to beer and brandy. He was known for an assortment of tiles. He was the sole local supplier of cast-iron triveted ovens with well-fitting lids with a coal lip, for which the Dutch were famous, and that came in several sizes. They baked more evenly and lighter than any known method, without coating the loaves or cakes with coals and ash. They were much in demand and sold short. My father shrewdly held some back, watching the prices rise, knowing that every household must have one or three. And indeed, there were traders that bought them by the dozen, though they were not easy to transport because of their bulk and weight.
My father did not marry young, and when he was older could not find himself a young wife. Although he had money, young women were scarce, and certainly few were inclined to live in a tiny, unprotected village. Through his shipping connections, he asked that a wife be sent to him from Amsterdam, and so she was, but she died on the hazardous voyage across the sea. As it was, there was a woman of a good age aboard the same ship who was asked to bring him the news, as she was on her way to her sisters in Wiltwyck. And so he found my mother, Margriet, a Dutch widow almost his age. She proved fertile, though, and immediately I came to be. I think my brother was unexpected eight years hence, and from the moment he was born generally favored over his sister.
My mother viewed the Netherlands and its capital as a civilization, hardly comparable to this village on the fringes of a wilderness. She went on often and at great length about her wish to return to Amsterdam, her wish to die there. It was clear she did not consider these shores her home. Her sisters had abruptly returned not long after she arrived, forsaking her now that she was bound to a New World husband. My mother did not complain with my father present. However, what with the Stone Ridge being quite far off the river where most business occurred, he was hardly ever so. She had plenty of opportunity to complain to me, and I became the audience for her discontent. Although she did not want of goods, she often despaired of the quality found here and spoke much of the limited choices available. My father never seemed able to get her the right thing, and the food at our dinner table was flavored with disappointment.
Through her peevish musings, I learned of a wider world; an entire continent of flourishing societies beyond our ken. I begged her to tell me of Old World cities and their riches. Life in the Netherlands when she grew up there had been pleasant enough. Dutch ships had encircled the world in the previous hundred years and had traded for fine goods and novelties on every continent.
She described the tall, fine houses with crowstepped gables and common walls built around the canal ring in the great city, not just for rich merchants but for any common citizen. Amsterdam was the prosperous center of European banking and the heart of the world’s diamond trade, thanks to its tolerance of Jews, who flocked there and brought their gems with them in velvet purses. The city had grown rich on its commerce and the interest on loans to the rulers of Britain and France for the finance of their wars. The abundance of its great economy had benefited the many who built canal house after canal house with gabled façades, elegant stairways, imposing parlors, and long corridors lined with tapestries and paintings. Such houses were often five stories high, and the views from their upper floor windows were a marvel across the vast and carefully planned city intersected by the glimmer of waterways shining like the chains of a metallurgist—elegantly forged to lace neck after neck of beautiful women.
My mother would stand a tinderbox on end and my father’s snuff box next to it on the table, and surround it with her garnet necklace to show me the design of a great city encircled by the grand canals. She called it a bootjesketting—a chain of little boats—and while I saw the deep-wine-colored gems of the necklace representing the dark green waters of the canals, I knew that she had conjured the sparkle of her former life as a young beauty and that she was lost within it. The dullness of our pastimes and the roughness of this colonial town could not compare.
I knew my mother found herself at loose ends, especially after her sisters were no longer in the next town to augment her society. I had no inkling about what had drawn her over the oceans—for she hardly seemed an adventurer. Her compunctions seemed to mount over the years into a cold resignation. And the chill of them spilled into her relations with me, as it was not clear at all that her many threats to return to Europe included plans to take me with her. She seemed to think she had alighted temporarily and could sail off as if in a dream—that we belonged here with our feet in the sod of the New World, but she did not.
A child accepts what she is born to, and only when it is too late for her own good does she speculate and understand how the decisions of her parents’ lives were made. I was not an overly curious child, was given what I was given, knew what I knew, accepted what she told me. I did not ponder until much later that she had somehow fallen in her former life probably because of her first husband’s death. He had not left her secure. And not being well connected to his or her own family, she found herself adrift. A woman without a husband or a father is a woman at risk, even in Holland, where wives and daughters could inherit and own property. It was then that she had booked passage and come to the New World, probably because her life had fallen down around her, and there was no reward to widowhood. I was most likely the product of a pragmatic Dutch forbearance rather than a fortuitous passion born on the winds of adventure. My parents’ marriage was opaque to me, and I thought not too much about it. I only knew that I wished for something different and was sure, as every young dreamer always is, that I would have it.
Today I absolutely resolve to have a better attitude, to be a better mother to my children, to do my duty as God would want. I cannot spend the whole day in a bitter cloud. I must enjoy my work and find a cause for thanks in each hour of the day.
In all the farms I had come to know, the husband and wife must have a partnership, or all was lost. My husband said that a marriage was not shared work but something else. Certainly confidence and intimacy do not—indeed, cannot—exist apart from duty and consequence, I countered. He lectured me in lofty terms, with a harsh voice that seemed not his, saying that he valued another view of partnership and that I must barter with him to have my way. And what a bargain! We could not come to terms. He would mutter, “O cursed marriage! That we can call these delicate creatures ours and not their appetites.” But who was delicate? Me? So often accused of indelicacy, if convenient? Was he not delicate, he who was so wounded by the questions I put to him? “Will you mow?” “Where is the wood that assures our warmth?” “Can you mend my barrel?” And to what did he refer in my appetites? Did he know the hunger of my soul? And the food that could satisfy it? I think he did not know all that he claimed, and his rough excitement indicated fear and not certainty.
I cannot, especially now, be captive to the times when anger would sit on my chest like a boar rooting in the dirt of my heart. I remember how I would not necessarily know the beast was there, but then it would charge out from underneath my collar, and I would experience a blackening of the mind that could be expelled only by a torrent through my mouth. I detested him then. Waves of rage would well up, and I would go and find him to discharge all my bitter words. He did not seem to want success for our farm. He treated his dog better than me. He spoke to Wolf with kinder words and more consistently. He gave him morsels from the plate. But sometimes cant did not suffice, and I found my rage move from my mouth to my fingers, which I would point close to his nose. Eventually my fingers would curl into a fist, and I would pound upon his chest.
He would shove me hard away from him and disappear. More and more he made it clear that he wished to be left alone, unapproached and unaddressed. And that was the single message of all his actions. I would search him out, for his silence was a violence too. And we would go at it. The children heard the bile between us, and the great shame of destroying their innocence enveloped my heart.
No sooner had I had an outburst than he would pick up his gun, whistle for the dog, search one of his hiding places for the jenever, and be off. Without a word. If I ran after him—my heart pounding in my chest, my bonnet fallen back, and my hair in my face, voice raised—through the gate, he would shake his fist at me, and the dog would cower. He would return who knows when. Undoubtedly at night and surreptitiously, perhaps sleeping in the barn under the horse blanket or even on the kitchen table, which was long enough to lay out flat. If the latter, I would bang the milk pail with a purpose in the morning, the spite ringing out and signaling the cow to begin lowing. When I reentered from the barn with the milk sloshing in the pail, he would have crawled up to my bed of linens, which were steaming with my body’s warmth, generated alone all through the night. I resented his advantage. He stole the profit of my body—my boots and bonnet, so to speak—wherever he could. I would carry on banging pots and shouting loudly and cheerfully to the children, fooling no one.
What is the use of such remembrances? My days cannot be shrouded in them. And as for him? Perhaps a certain man feels shame in being beckoned and called by a woman. Perhaps it is put forth by certain men as a man’s shame. But it is not practical and need not be so. Nou breekt mijn klomp. “That breaks my shoe,” as well as my heart.
Posted January 3, 2013
Seven Locks is an emotionally heart-wrenching story of a woman in 1700’s America who is abandoned by her husband and left alone to run the farm and raise her children. At first, the townfolk believe he left her because she was a scold, but soon, the rumors turn more sinister and they believe she killed him. She is shunned, with no help or sympathy from her neighbours. This novel tells a dark, painful tail of hardship and determination to overcome adversity. This story of survival depicts the hardships of life, and life, often doesn’t have a happy ending.
As I read along, I could not help but feel the desperation of the characters, each harmed by the father’s disappearance; the mother’s fatigue as she must work the land to feed her children; and how her children resent her and turn away from her when they grow into adults. The mother, although not always likeable for the decisions she makes, must make hard decisions to survive. She clings to her dutch background, while her children adopt their American homeland.
Lucious prose and a tale heavy with strife and struggle makes for a fascinating, engaging read. The author uses vivid detail and strong introspection to draw you into the despair of the characters. The story is haunting and real, a wonderful read that stands out from other novels in the historical fiction because of it’s uniqueness.
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Posted May 5, 2013
Early American farm life is portrayed from the perspective of a Dutch community. Descriptions of Dutch sayings and traditions were a treat to read.
I liked how this story is told with an aura of fairy tale -- almost magical in some parts.
Posted January 31, 2013
I was very disappointed in this novel. Set in the mid-18th century and categorized as historical fiction,
it fell in the categories that I seek when searching for reading material. However, it was so negative and
depressing, not to mention extremely slow, I was not even able to finish the book.