Henry Smith. John Fleet. Their names meant little to my mother and so she would comingle them, if she even bothered to call them anything. Her apathy was echoed in the maps they made. My home has been recorded in English as, variously, Nacotchtank, Nacothtant, Nacostine, Anacostine, Anaquashtank. We could be any of these, or none. My father was the second of these sapless, drained looking men to visit us. “Englishmanâ€ he taught us. “British.â€ I could feel the damp of his home whistling through my teeth. “Ish.â€
His brothers paid his ransom in axes and hoes, cloth and beads, combs and mirrors, and always of course whiskey. He went home again, to Eng-Ish-Land, Britain, after five long or short years with us, our captive. They had bought him back on the cusp of my reputable memory, the hazy age between unsure remembrance and authoritative recollection, and there is little else I can call to mind. I don’t know whether he went back to his family for that last time, if his parents were still alive. I do know that he had returned for more capital. Pounds, wampum are beside the point here: the currencies do not translate, only goods. Whatever else he did there, he gathered up European value to bring back in exchange for ours: land, pelts.
I forget how young he was, younger than I am now, when the men of my home captured him and brought him back with them, so he could become a part of the place he once razed, replace the bodies he himself felled. He must have been like a baby then: gormy, pale and hungry as a grub. My mother was almost a decade older than him, and temperamentally suited to neither kill nor spoil our new captive, and so he was given to her, and I was born. It’s true there was a dullness to her that made her a good warden but I must believe it was that of a blade worn down. My aunt had told me stories of my mother young, full of care, bright with love and hate, but I suppose that broke with the blisters on her husband’s body, the husband who had been years dead when the Englishman came to stay. To think she was always like that, tough and bitter like uncooked roots, is too much to bear.
I do not look like him. I look like a watered down version of my mother, her face and form worn smooth like a river stone. No one knows the difference in my face. Who is to say Weakehnap or Awetchshay isn’t my father? But I don’t look like either Weakehnap or Henry-John-Smith-Fleet. I just look like my mother, but less.
Five years after he had left, a galley appeared on the river again. Whatever evils lie in the hull, British men or liquor, these crafts they’ve made are beautiful. The sails looked like a flock of white birds coming slowly northward and it glided up the river like a fat swan. We saw him in the distance that morning, saw him arrive in the afternoon. In the time it took for the anchor to lower, nearly the entire town had gathered at the front gateway, staying to the inside of the palisades so the doors could be swung shut if necessary. My mother and I stood at the lip of the gate, my nine-year-old hand folded into her older one. They parked their vessel in the river’s deep center, and clam-colored men scurried atop it like an anthill.
We are the farthest north the English can go, at least by this route. Here, three islands lace across the river’s surface, and their boats are too large to eke around them. The three, sisters, lie downstream of the falls, which none of their crafts can ascend. They seem to guard everything above them. Before I was born we numbered more than 300. Our fields stretched out southwest, along the course of our river till it meets the greater, the Cohongarooton (which the English, in error, call after the Patawomeke), and due south almost until it turns westward on its course to the bay, looping back towards the ocean. When this boat appeared, our crops went no further than where the two rivers meet, and several longhouses already lay empty, crumpling in upon themselves. So many people had already died.
“Who is it?â€ I asked my mother. We knew by now that all sailing ships contained Englishmen, though not all Englishmen are contained by such ships. Our first of them, the Captain from their Jamestown, alit in his beat-up bark just south of the Three Sisters and traversed our shores on his long spindly legs like a visiting egret, harmless if strange, to look for food and ore. The second, my father, came on foot and he carried fire and fusils alongside the roughneck Patawomeke he was allied with. Together they killed 18 of us, set our houses aflame. Our men found him, a few months later, in a ship not so far south, and they took him. They burned his vessel and killed his men, but they brought him back to graft him to the place he tried to destroy. The third and fourth Englishmen, his two brothers, sailed upriver five years later to negotiate and eventually pay our captive’s ransom. There had not been an Englishman, or a ship, on our river since.
“I don’t know,â€ my mother said. But who else could it be?
Her hand tightened, just for a moment, when a large red figure emerged from the bowels of the ship. He swung himself into the small boat strung up along the ship’s side. He landed with a rough shudder, graceless, but with a kind of hard efficiency I recognized. He was fatter than I remembered, and wearing clothes beautiful and ludicrous-a scarlet rooster, shiny and stuffed. His beard had been replaced with a twitching triangle of hair, all corners pointing to and making larger his mouth. He stood on the boat as they lowered it down, and continued to stand as four of his men paddled him, wobbling, to shore. They ran the boat onto the sand and hopped out, pulling it far enough aground to allow our captive, returned, to step gingerly out without soaking his shoes. He was paler than the others, but they were all a piece, with those empty eyes, blue like a dog’s, mirroring from their lighter but still brown faces. In the years since I have seen some of their women and they are moon-white, snow-pale, like they have been drained of their vital fluids, tapped out. But out in the open air they brown like cakes and look almost like us but for those non-eyes, light hair.
He bowed before the Weroance (our mayor or king-whathaveyou) extending one rooster crook out to his side, clutching his rooster cape in the same hand, the fabric held out like a wing. His other hand he held out towards the Weroance, as if he expected a present. As he prostrated, his men struggled to extract a heavy chest from the boat, which they dropped with a wet smack at his side. He drew up again, and spoke.
“Honored leader, my friends, my people. I have returned to you from the land across the sea, my home. I have returned here, to the land of geese, which is also my home. To me you are like my family, and so I bring to you gifts,â€ here he paused to open the chest’s lid, “from a son, a brother of this place, to my mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. I hope that you have remembered my words about the skin of the beaver and have preserved them. I bring you gifts from across the sea to trade for the skin.â€ He lifted up from the chest to demonstrate: a cast iron pot, yards of bright cloth, jewelry. “Together we will make us strong and rich.â€
He spoke throughout in our language, though it was as if his mouth was full of shells, or his tongue was too big, or his pointy hair got in the way. He never had a way with words. The Weroance held still, circumspect. Now, drawing out the silence like a sap, he raised one hand and spoke, “Welcome, Englishman. Tonight you and I will eat together in the spirit of good faith. You can bring your men ashore and we will talk about trade tomorrow.â€
My rooster father bowed again. Two of our men ventured beyond the gate to pick up the crate and haul it inside. His crew started after it, but our ex-captive motioned for them to hold, to let the cargo be carried away. The Weroance turned back inside our palisade, the crate held aloft behind him. Everyone broke apart, moving out towards the shore to look at the boat, its men, or retreating back to their own lives, inside the world of our walls. My mother had not moved from the edge of the gate. My father had his back to us, speaking to his men in a low English. I leaned forward, craning towards him, but my mother’s hand in mine snapped rigid, held me back.
“No,â€ she said, and pulled me into the safe arms of our town.
My aunt, Nemuyeowass, was waiting at our door. She touched my shoulder, reassuring, as my mother pushed me in past the leather flap while she stood outside. “Get things ready for cakes, that’s what we’ll bring tonight,â€ she told me.
“Our Englishman’s back for furs,â€ my aunt said to her once I was inside.
My mother rested one hand inside the low loop of her beaded necklaces, like a sling. “I hope he brought guns. That’s what we really need.â€
“He said his ties to us were deep.â€ Her eyes sought me out behind the doorway, “I suspect too deep to give us any guns. Not from him.â€ She spit.
“Medicine, then,â€ my mother said.
“They have little to give us,â€ my aunt replied. “You see them die too. It burns through us faster. That’s all. We are drier tinder.â€
My mother’s husband died of the illness that began to fell men like tree rot, less swift and more pervasive then axes or guns. Every winter, people die. My father named it, in English, small pox. Such a strange phrase! And so difficult to translate: tiny curse, or curses? Can pox be plural? Henry-Smith-John probably wouldn’t know, he was not interested in such things. If he was, he would have stayed home in England, Ing-land, Ish-land. He was “a man of actionâ€ as it is said in nearly every language, or at least every language I know.
My mother’s mouth twisted up into something sour. “They are nothing but trouble. Causing nothing but trouble for the Powhatan.â€
“You know they took one of his daughters back with them?â€
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they fell over the edge of the horizon. Or crawled under it, they look like worms. She’s as good as dead, if she isn’t already.â€
My aunt cooed, “Alawunimun, how can you say that?â€
My mother shrugged. She said it like she said most things: even, measured, without investment. “Nothing good can come from them.â€ I looked up from where I sat and saw her looking at me, her face mostly empty, a little sad.
“Will you speak to him?â€ my aunt asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t really care, Nemu.â€
She hadn’t cared to speak to him even after he learned how to listen. “I preferred him mute,â€ she would say, “easier to feed.â€ And so he spoke to me, his only natural ally, and found a place to rest his mind in my half English voice, half English ears. It was slow and painful, a hangnail of a process, but he learned her, our, tongue. I learned both of theirs. It would have been easy to forget it all after he left, but my mother recognized in it a tool. She was right and shrewd to insist I keep it, hold the language close.
My aunt exhaled audibly, and then came inside to squat next to me. She smoothed my hair down. “Be good to your mother, Whyinguaque.â€
I nodded maybe too eagerly. “Of course, auntie.â€
“Good,â€ she said, “I’ll see you tonight.â€ Her hand dropped away. With a heave, she was up and gone.
When my mother had had enough of me over the fire and sent me out, I went looking for English: none by where the fish were gutted, none by where the rabbits were relieved of their skins, none where mats were rolled, none where the wood was being piled for tonight’s meal. I found it, them, outside the walls. I stood at the gate and watched them. They looked at me in passing but seemed used to curiosity like mine, the act of being observed by now well practiced, even natural.
“Naked as a bird,â€ one said.
“Birds got feathers.â€
“What do they do in winter?â€
“Wrap â€˜emselves in blankets. You’ll see for yourself soon enough.â€
“Lord, I’m starving. I’d eat a blanket.â€
“What do you think they’ll feed us tonight?â€
“Fish, fish, always fish.â€
“I heard stories they like the taste of men. Rare delicacy.â€
“You know, skin â€˜em and eat â€˜em here. Their enemies.â€
“God willing we’ll be lucky to never find out.â€
It was enough. I went home again, my arms wrapped around my body.
“When can I wear a smock like yours, mother?â€
“You know the answer to that. In a few years. It will happen soon enough regardless.â€ She squeezed my arm as she leaned in closer, and drew her brush down against my skin. “Why don’t you enjoy how you are now? Being a child never happens again.â€
She frowned, her eyes still trained to where paint met flesh. “Eventually you’ll see I’m right. Nothing is ever easy, Whyingueque. It only gets less so.â€
I set my jaw and tried to look grave.
“Here, other arm.â€ She turned me about. “Hold it up, you don’t want it to smear.â€
I murmured a yes, looking at my raised upper arm to see the delicate lattice she had painted over me, limbs decorated in celebration or mourning.
I chewed my free hand’s worth of fingernails while she hummed beside me, her whole body vibrating. She started, “Once there were three sisters.â€
“Yes, and they were all very beautiful. They were their parents’ first children, born from love and youth.â€ She dabbed the brush on her tongue before switching to a new color of paint. “They came one after the other less than a year apart, and they all loved to swim. They were like fish. They would swim out longer and farther than any of the men. There was no small pox and everyone was beautiful, smooth smooth skin like yours, and we all wore soft leather instead of ugly foreign cloth. They were the daughters of the Weroance. The sisters loved each other more than anything, and they were their mother’s greatest joy. Every day as she brushed her daughters’ hair she asked them, â€˜When will you leave here, daughter?’ And each would say â€˜I will never leave my sisters.’â€ Over my shoulder I looked at the part in my mother’s hair, straight as a stem, her head bowed over my arm.
“They grew up to be tall and graceful, each one as beautiful as the other. All the men who came here to trade looked upon them and wanted one for a wife. All of the great leaders came to our Weroance and asked for a daughter. And still every night their mother asked them â€˜When will you leave here, daughters?’ And every night they said â€˜We will never leave our sisters.’
“Their father considered all of the suitors very carefully, and chose for each of his daughters the three most powerful men in the land. To the Iroquois in the north he gave his eldest daughter. To the Piscataway in the east he gave his middle daughter. To the Powhatan in the south he gave his youngest daughter. The night before they were to part like seeds across the land, their mother asked each, â€˜When will you leave here daughter?’ And they each said â€˜I will never leave my sisters.’â€ She sighed, tired with herself. “That morning they kissed their mother. They kissed their father. They kissed their day-old husbands. They said, â€˜We will kiss the river too, one last time.’ And their father nodded, proud to see his beautiful girls swim one last time. And their mother smiled, happy to see her daughters together one last time. And their husbands shone, eager to bring home their wives for the very first time. And the sisters ran themselves into the river. First the one, then the other two after her, all subsumed. They did not come up again.â€
“Didn’t their mother know?â€
“No. All of the men in the village swam after them. The Weroance. Their husbands. Their cousins and uncles. But none could swim as far or as fast. Each one came up with empty arms.â€
“Where did they go?â€
She slapped my arm lightly, and I could feel her radiating exhaustion. “The next morning there were three islands in the river, sisters, each close enough to the others to join hands, and have never left or been apart again.â€ She leaned back a little from my arm, the hand holding the brush dropped. “There, you are done. Hold it up,â€ and I raised it, letting my other arm fall-the color now stiff-back against my body. “Now there. Let it dry.â€
In his last year with us, Johnry Sleet, maybe anxious to shake off the company of women-the dim and smoky shadow of our house-had sidled out through the door flaps with the language we had given him and took up with the men to smoke and laugh and learn how to hunt properly. It is generally agreed that he is also Ahmitonqua’s father, four years my junior. Who knows how many else. But my mother still fed him, and he was still obliged to her. She pressed his bricks of vellum into his hands (he had a copy of the Bible, and a collection of Songes and Sonettes, among his possessions when we took him), pressed that I learn his scratchings, his printed marks.
“This,â€ he said, tracing the name of Thomas Wyatt, “is my great grandfather.â€
He frowned and said nothing, underlining the next title with his finger.
I repeated more from memory than from reading it on the page, “The lover compareth his state to a ship in perilous storm tossed on the sea.â€ He nodded, moving to the next line. “My galley charged with forgetfulness.â€ I read, and his finger slid from word to word as my mouth rounded around the lettered contours, pebbles of meaning. He murmured with me, “‘Tween rock, and rock: and eke my foe (alas).â€ This was his favorite thing to read, though he didn’t much like to do it. The books he had carried this far were more for decoration than anything else, but my mother’s edict forced him to return again and again to their pages, dipping into them as if pouches of tobacco. Some passages he would read so intensely it’d cease to be a lesson. They would be all him, him all them. Job, the captivity in Babylon in Jeremiah and Daniel, this poem: he stopped noticing I was there at all, sitting beneath the crook of his arm. His voice would drop to a near-whisper, and he’d continue by himself. “A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain / Have done the wearied cords great hindrance, / Wreathed with error, and with ignorance.â€
He drew a ship in the dirt with his finger, a crude half moon with sticks coming up out of its belly, the lines connecting one stick to another. “These are the cords, the ropes. They hold up the canvas, the sails, and you use them to adjust it all.â€ He named the parts of the ship: foremast, mainmast, mizzen, gaff, boom, yard.
“Where is the wearied cord? Which rope is it?â€
“Weary means tired, close to breaking.â€
He erased the drawing with a swipe of his hand.
The meal that night, the boozy inauguration of trading partnership, seemed to stretch on and on. Everyone tasted the rotted stuff sloshing around in the jugs the English brought ashore, and though none of my cousins or I wanted any more after that first bitter sip, our parents-after smacking their lips distastefully-returned again and again to the bottle’s mouth. They seemed to lose themselves, my mother’s arms wrapped around her sister’s neck, whispering loudly to each other, cawing loud bird laughs. They moved like they were swimming in sap. My mother would break off from this communion when food was passed around the circle, hovering over the bowl to tear of a strip of meat and offer it glistening to me. “Eat, Que, you have to eat.â€ Her hot prickly sour breath made my stomach want to turn, but I would take the morsel, whatever it was, and eat it silently as she smiled down at me, patting my cheek with her greasy hand. I kept watching for him, our captive, but my mother tugged me down each time I got up to look. “They’ll take you,â€ she said, holding one wavering finger in front of my face. “They’ll take you if you wander off. You have to stay with me.â€
The England of my mother’s imagination was a wormy country under the earth, a terrible place for a child. I trouble myself imagining it. An island, I know-crowded in places with people, in others with Wyatt’s deer. I wonder about a city such as London. It sounds like a stone net to scoop up whole schools of people with. And maybe it is subterranean, maybe they are all so much as moles, like my mother always believed. It would make me half mole, half blind, primed for burying, burial. My mother and aunt slid further into the mud the liquor made of their senses, their eyes growing cloudy and their mouths full of gum. All around the fire, children were leaving their too-viscous parents behind. One cousin grabbed my hand and up I went.
“Whyinguaque!â€ She snapped up.
I faltered, “Mother, I-”
“Let her go,â€ my aunt waved towards us. “She’ll be fine with them.â€
“Don’t go off on your own.â€ Her face set, for that moment composed again, herself.
“I won’t!â€ turning towards the darkness, “I won’t!â€ and spun off behind the trail of vanishing bodies.
We ran through the rows between houses, hiding and finding, racing and catching. We ran past where the nets were mended, where the traps were kept. We ran along the wall and behind the open gate. The moon was as big as an eye.
He was standing alone by the pile of pelts he had come to buy, his rooster comb gone and rooster breast opened to reveal human flesh. His garments seemed to sag on him. My cousins parted around him, scattering behind cover, and slowed down just for a moment to look back at the man in wilted red, before darting off again. I stopped, uncovered and half lit, where I saw him, like a hook in me had jumped, a line gone taut. He looked up at me and looked down again. I was just another child wearing too few clothes and too much paint. I twisted up the necklaces hanging down my front.
“Englishman?â€ I said in his language. I took a step forward. “Englishman?â€
His eyes narrowed, and he took a deep breath. “Winnie?â€ he said. Speaking my mother’s language, he went on, “I’m leaving soon.â€ He came closer, and hesitating, placed a hand on my head. It was large and warm, the rings heavy knots against my hair. “You look like your mother,â€ he said.
“I know,â€ responding to him in English. He frowned, his hand slipping off. “Are you coming back?â€
He turned back to the furs, running his palm over them. “It’s late,â€ he said, in English this time too.
“Are you a Captain now? Is that your boat?â€
“Yes.â€ He smiled to himself. “Your English is still good.â€
“Mother makes me-â€
“It’s too bad you were not a boy.â€ He looked back towards the fire-lit meal. “I should go back now.â€ He patted my head, his rings clunking down against my skull. “Be good, Winnie.â€ He grew smaller against the light till his baggy form became indiscriminate from all the others.
“Are you coming back?â€ I shouted “Englishman!â€ after him. He did not turn around, and I walked back to our empty longhouse to climb alone into bed.
The rot in our branches has sloughed off too many leaves, and in all the wrong season. There are maybe 70 of us now-I no longer want to count. The Weroance and his men decided that the town was sick, that the sickness lived in the empty houses like a vengeful ghost. And maybe it did, I don’t know. It is a kind of disease, I think: what good are walls with no one to man them, houses with no one to occupy them, fields with no one to tend them? Left fallow-all those acres of empty upturned dirt-they are like open sores. The Weroance said that we shouldn’t stay in a place we couldn’t protect, and we rattled about in that big vacant town like seeds in a dry gourd. It is not far, our new outcropping, just on the other tine of the river fork, the great mother island below the three, speck size sisters. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, leaving, but we fit this island better, our dimensions match. Anyway the men who make these decisions don’t ask me, and I don’t volunteer. I am too busy with our visitors, my sick.
The first freckling appeared on my aunt four days ago. Her shrinking body was now so hot, and she asked always all the time for water. Those terrible pustules covered her as if she had been rolled in crumbs, but they weren’t crumbs, and I couldn’t brush them off. Her mouth was always dry, she was always thirsty-I spent those days ferrying water from the river to our house (we, alone, lived together). I knew little else to do but give her water and lay a damp cloth across her hot forehead, now crowded with white. She felt the resignation of an animal, long caught in a trap, whose hunter had finally come to claim her. It would not be long now.
Nemuyeowass’s children fell away, two sons and three daughters, almost a decade ago. The scars also run up and down my arms and legs, spots earned in that same wave. We had both for so long lived in the country of the sick.
“Alawunimun?â€ she would say to me, “I’m thirsty.â€
“It’s me, auntie,â€ I would say, “Whyinguaque,â€ lifting the bowl of water to her lips, tilting it back slowly, slowly, the water spilling over the sides of her mouth, down her chin. She coughed, water spraying back out.
“I can’t see very well.â€
“Do you have more water?â€
“Yes, here,â€ and I would tip the bowl back again to her mouth. I could see the white burnished tips of her teeth below her knobby lip. Her skin was once so soft, now all over marred by the dimpled hills of swelling.
“Tell me your English stories, Que,â€ she said.
“The book stories?â€
“Do you want me to translate it? Tell you what it means?â€
“No,â€ she croaked, “no, too complicated. I like to hear you speak it. It sounds like you are reciting a spell, it sounds like you are casting a spell to cure me.â€ She smacked her lips together and laughed, dry and crackly.
I read to her the miraculous healing stories from the Gospels, then some Wyatt.
“Yes, I like these better,â€ she said, tapping out a rhyming line. “Nass, pass, lass. These sound like good spells.â€ She touched her cheek, as mealy as wet corn mash, and winced. “I expect it will cure me by tomorrow. I will be one of the lucky ones, my face will clear like the sky.â€
“You are one of the lucky ones.â€
“You know that isn’t true,â€ she frowned. “Is there more water?â€
“Yes,â€ I said.
“Your mother was unlucky. Now you are unlucky. Now I am unlucky.â€ I brought the bowl again to her mouth. “We should have never left each other.â€
“We haven’t,â€ I said.
She closed her eyes. “You’re wrong.â€
She would fall into a fitful sleep, and began more and more to wake up calling to her sister, my mother.
“It’s me, Whyinguaque.â€
“Be good to your mother, Que. She has had so much bitterness in her life.â€
“Don’t worry,â€ she would say then. “I will see her soon.â€ Touching my wrist she said, “Read the spells again. They will turn me into an island.â€
We had all picked up a little English here and there, as our ex-captive, now-captain’s visits for pelts became regular, and especially after the Jesuits started to arrive, as persistent as this disease, which they seem to relish as proof of our wickedness. Almost everyone can say “whiskeyâ€ and “English,â€ “shipâ€ and “gun,â€ “yes’sâ€ and “no’s.â€ But still, the language remains my province, and I will volley words back and forth when they need me, with the traders from St. Mary’s and their priests. Only my father was fine on his own, but he has been since he first left my mother’s longhouse, and it had been years now since he last came here. The Jesuits said he angered their Lord Baltimore. He might have been dead, I didn’t know.
The next morning I saw a ship cleave east up the old river, where our now hollow town sat half ravaged. It appeared again a few hours later, turning back up the Cohongarooton, which we too call Patawomeke now so as not to confuse the ill-informed but persistent traders and priests. Men went down to the water to wave it in. Whoever it was didn’t know we had moved, probably not a Marylander. I heard talk outside the door that it was him, my father. Everyone seemed to have a stake in our former captive, all of us curious to know where he had been. After Nemuyeowass fell asleep, fitful but deep, I found him near the water’s edge, standing with the Weroance. He was a thinner man now, gaunt in the way that that all British are, winnowed down, if they stay here long enough. (There are no fat colonists-only fat visitors.) Maybe it is that the British in them is carved away and there is little left. Maybe the British in me will be whittled down, but certainly (certainly?) I must have more to remain myself with.
“Winnie!â€ he said.
I nodded to him, and pulled my shawl closer around me. “I won’t disturb you,â€ I said. I began to turn back.
“My, Winnie, it’s been so long,â€ he said in English. He turned to the Weroance, the pox-scarred third and, now, only son of the Weroance who had first captured, then held, then traded with our Englishman. “I have nothing left to say for now,â€ my father told him in our language, “We can talk again later.â€
The Weroance cut his eyes at me as they parted, tramping up to where our houses stood, while my father stepped up the rocky slope towards me. He said in English, “You look just like your mother, you know?â€
“I know,â€ I said, in English too. “You know she died.â€ Then, “Little surprise, really.â€
“Was it-?â€ he started.
“She fell sick. Not smallpox, a fever. Normal death, old fashioned.â€
“Oh,â€ he said, frowning. “When-?â€
“You have been gone for a long time.â€
“Yes.â€ He put a pale hand on my shoulder, perhaps an attempt towards comfort. “I’ve been in England.â€
“What have you brought back? You must see we have little to trade with now.â€
“Seeds,â€ he said. “Men. It’s time for me to set up an estate.â€ His shoulders squared. “A man must have a piece to call his own. Land.â€
“Well,â€ I said. “Does that make this a social visit?â€
“You saw what’s left of it?â€ I asked, “Our lost little city?â€
“It’s more like a village, maybe a town. Not a city, not really,â€ he paused, “But yes. I didn’t-â€
“They thought it would be a good idea to burn it all, purify the place. Us too, I suppose. But you must have seen?â€
“Yes, badly done. Like a horde had started to ravage the place but gave up halfway in. I wasn’t sure what’d happened.â€
I thought of the buildings he had burned once, a long time ago, and frowned. “I hate to look at it. It’s like an unburied body, something half cremated.â€
He grimaced too now.
“It’s good land,â€ I said.
“I know,â€ he replied.
“I think it will be taken up again soon, not by us. It seems only a matter of time.â€
“This is a fair spot. One of the fairest.â€ He turned back to look at the expanse of the river.
“Where is your new land? Where will you build your estate?â€
“South, south, closer to Jamestown. I want nothing to do with these goddamned Papists anymore.â€
“So,â€ I said, “This is a social visit?â€
“Business,â€ he said, “Some leftover business.â€
I learned later that he had found a proper English wife on this last trip, and brought her back to his empty plot in Virginia. He had come for a last time for pelts that might buy her some inaugural luxury: a new mirror, a set of glass door knobs, a starchy lace collar. He wanted to make her feel like a lady, down there in a swampy patch on the bay. He looked anxious when I saw him next with the Weroance, chewing down his nails to bloody stubs. We didn’t have enough men to collect the number of pelts he wanted anymore, and what we did gather together was not enough for him.
“God damn it!â€ he said, marching up and down beside the shallow pile of dark glistening fur. His first visit garnered him 800 weight of pelt, now we had 60 or 70 to offer him. The Weroance called me to their meeting in case I could glean any additional information from his ever more frequent English expletives.
“We want guns,â€ he was told.
“Don’t be ridiculous,â€ he said. “You know that will ruin the fur. Only the traps, it’s the only way they’re worth something.â€
“Guns we’ll use for food, it’ll free up more traps for your beavers.â€
“You know I don’t have that to offer.â€
“We are reasonable. We will take from your crew’s supply. They don’t have to be new. After all, we do not have much to trade for. We just want a few muskets.â€
He shook his head at this, pacing back and forth.
I left to bring more water to Nemuyeowass, and read to her until she slept again. Now she only wanted to hear Wyatt. She liked the drum beat rhythm I read with, and its orderly succession of rhymes. I liked its plain desolation. Over and again I read, “The stars be hid, that led me to this pain. / Drowned is reason that should be my comfort: / And I remain, despairing of the port.â€ It would be any day now.
All my aunt talked about was water. Drinking water, swimming in water, the coldness of water, the cleanness of it. “I am too hot now. I don’t want to be half burned like they half burned our town. Don’t let them, Que. I don’t want half of me to be left out to rot. Bring me down to the river. I need to be cold again. I want to scrub all these festers off. I want to be washed away.â€
I nodded, smoothing her hair down.
“Promise me, Que. Promise me. Your mother would want it.â€
And yes, I nodded, “Yes of course.â€
My father hadn’t left yet. He was still gnashing his teeth with the Weroance, desperate not to part with any guns. He offered, at last, a single musket, a measure of rope, whiskey, and a box of penny whistles. None of us wanted anything to do with his whistles. The Weroance would not accept less than five guns, and the haggling turned from one day to three.
Nemuyeowass had not recognized me for hours. She kept calling me by my mother’s name. “I’m so sorry, Alawunimun.â€
“Sorry for what?â€
“For our lives. It has been so hard.â€
“That isn’t your fault, Nemu.â€
“It is so hard.â€
“I know,â€ I said, replacing the wet cloth that had been draped over her forehead. She fell asleep again, and had gone before the moon rose. She was the last of her family, her husband and children all gone before her, and ours. I was alone.
I covered her with the biggest swath of cloth I had, English wool I’d dyed red, and tucked it beneath her feet and hands. When my mother died, my aunt had done the same thing for her, and the two of us sat up until morning when she had her sons begin to build a pyre. But now there was no one left but me, and she had already burned enough. I laid our largest mat out onto the floor, and lifted her tiny body from the bed to the ground. It seemed as if my whole world had shrunk to this task.
The walk down to the water was short, but I didn’t know what else to do but drag the mat and her on it down the tree-crowded slope. She floated in the water, and the corners of the blanket bloomed out around her, her long glossy hair spreading out like ink. I walked out from the reedy shallows with her in my arms. She had been right-it was so cold. As I pushed into the current I could feel her body rising out of my hands, feel the river pull both of us into itself. My legs stayed rigid, and I still kept my footing against the insistent course of the water. Her body, however, escaped me, and her legs sank out of sight. I imagined all of the fish nibbling away at her and hated myself. I imagined what she would become after a few days soak. I lost my footing and regained it, fighting down the sickness that had settled into my stomach, that now tried to move into my throat. It didn’t matter how she rejoined the world, through firewood or fish mouths. I trudged back towards the shore, my clothes feeling like stone. Just to the north I could see them, the Three Sisters, in the barest moonlight. I hoped we all became islands.
I rolled up the mat I had left at the riverbank when I noticed that the ship, which had loomed so large in the river’s center, was gone. It was too dark to see very far downstream, and I couldn’t tell how long ago it’d left. I lumbered up to our houses, wet and heavy, and saw the pelts were gone. Where they had been piled lay several hundred feet of rope, a box of penny whistles, nothing else.