Heart Marsh

By Krystal Skwar 

Nantucket – 1715 A.D.

Upon waking, Eliza’s dark hair was salt-encrusted and tangled, piles of it matted to her pale cheeks in thick, sandy clumps. The briny taste on her lips told the seventeen-year-old Quaker girl that this was not a dream, that she was still alive. She blinked once, twice, three times, switching the scene from darkness to blinding glare, darkness to light, and finally darkness to a blue-smoke mist rising from the sea. A half moon sat low in the sky, and the sun yawned, peeping from underneath its blanket of waves. The September wind, which smelled of the ocean, whispered the truth: she had been left here to die. She remembered the marsh where the mud and grass had swallowed her baby’s body: blue, fragile, and the size of her palm.

She stood up. A few short breaths, and the fear set in. Her pale blue dress was blood-stained; her cape and cap were missing. Realizing she must reach home before Mother woke, she limped to the ocean to collect herself. A searing pain in her pelvis flung her down onto the damp sand. She splashed her head with cold water from a tide pool. Better. Then she stood, gazing out at the ocean. The memory of last night’s horror danced in blinking ribbons on the water, like the flicker of her mother’s candle when she roused Eliza for chores.

Eliza was her parents’ only child and a solid, uncomplaining worker. There had been nothing else to do on Nantucket until the day he came into her family’s shop.

Dear Lord,

Who is he, and why does he mean so much to me if I do not know his name?

-Eliza Browne, March 1, 1715.

She had written that on her seventeenth birthday, the day after the half-Wampanoag man met her in her family’s general store. It was a stormy day, and Eliza had been there alone, with no customers. As was usual in the winter, Eliza’s father was whaling, so she and her mother were responsible for running the shop. Tisquantum lingered, asking Eliza questions, and she was glad for the handsome company.

It was a brief, over-the-counter kiss. She smiled and leaned toward him when he paid for his flour and rice. His hand covered hers, and he carried it up to his lips for a peck. His eyes burned into her, and she smoldered. Eliza had meant only to graze his cheek, but at the last second he changed direction, or she did. Their lips did not linger, and neither blushed. They stared at each other afterward, half in awe of what had transpired. Then both looked around to make sure no one had seen. Tisquantum left the shop, sending a look over his shoulder that said, “You matter to me now”—and that, Eliza thought, was what had taken her heart.

One morning three months later, on a foggy beach at the edge of the marsh where no Quaker traveled, they found each other again. She was returning to him an anvil that was not his.

In his presence, she felt as if she could breathe for the first time—the sheer miracle of what they created together made her wonder why she ever waited for anything, why she did not live her whole life marveling at each flower, each grain of sand, each sunset. They would meet on their secret beach whenever they were able. She always convinced her mother that she had been gathering mussels, even bringing some back to fool her.

Now she realized that she would have to burn the pages she had written about him.

“There is one thing,” Tisquantum had whispered, when Eliza told him she was pregnant. “My grandmother, Naumke, can make a tea. To kill it.”  The aching in his voice stung her, but what else could they do? She could not have his child. Quakers preached equality, but Eliza knew of other Indian men who had hanged for relationships with English women.

A fire. Rivers of blood. A prayer in a strange tongue. Wet sand and clumps of grass pulling the lifeless body underneath the earth.

After it was over, Naumke said a prayer for the baby’s soul; Eliza promised she would meet it someday in God’s kingdom and then collapsed into heaving sobs. Naumke held the young woman, carried her inside, and laid her on a pile of woven mats and soft cushions. Then the old woman drizzled a thick, lemony liquid down the girl’s throat, lulling her into a deep sleep.

While she slept on the floor of the tidy wooden house, Eliza dreamed of flower petals falling onto a beach at sunrise. In bright streaks of pink, red, and blue, they rained from the sky and then changed into grains of sparkling sand that the ocean swept away. From this dream she wakened twice, gasping, and the old woman stroked her hair until she drifted back to sleep.

She woke the next morning on their beach, alone and shivering. Her lover’s grandmother must have put her there to send a message: I helped you. Now stay away from my grandson.

Perhaps Naumke hoped she would die. Eliza could not blame her. Tisquantum didn’t come to find her, and she didn’t blame him either. He could have been killed for it.

She felt her heart splitting open as she walked home in the dawn’s pink haze. Like an empty, rainless cloud she glided through everything, disappearing into the mist. The island’s six whaling vessels were at sea, carrying Mr. Browne and many of the other Nantucket men, but this failed to give her even a drop of relief, joy, or pain. Fishermen on distant docks stopped pulling their nets, gazing over at her for a second too long. Eliza walked past their stares, unblinking. People finding her with their eyes could not, in that moment, make her feel found.

Undiscovered, Eliza opened the back door of her shingled house and crept into her bed before Mother had stirred.

“I have a fever,” she mumbled, when Mother discovered her there.

One look, and Mother believed her. She told her to sleep in the other room, brought her some stew, and shut the door to keep the sickness away.

The next night, Eliza crept down to the hearth room with her journal. She fed the fire. With dry eyes she ripped the pages from her journal and flung them into the inferno. Then, her love story in ashes, she stared at a blank page. She went to her father’s desk and dipped the quill in ink.

God forgive me, she wrote. Last night, I buried my heart at the marsh.

Eliza Browne, September 20, 1715

Tisquantum left the island that month to find work on the mainland. He never returned. With each year that passed in Nantucket, Eliza buried her memory deeper beneath the earth. There it festered and remained, alive and unborn until her last sunset.


Krystal Skwar can be found leading the creative writing club and teaching American literature at a public high school in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine and Bustle. Find out more at krystalskwar.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @KrystalSkwar.

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