These children I love because they are children I love them. This girl, this boy, a safe haven in a cottage in New Amsterdam in the year of our Lord, 1650, thirteen of us together under a thatched roof. We came by sloop along the coast and then down the South River, a five day journey, setting out in the dead of a cold October night, frost settled on our shoulders, huddled in the bow for warmth, our small bundles stashed under the malodorous pelts. A few undergarments, knitted socks, shawls, dried fruit, some wampum. At anchor every night we did not venture ashore. We had no bibles. I attempted a prayer as we embarked but had forgotten the words. As promised, the pilot had not demanded payment other than a kiss from each of the children, in the Dutch manner. I knew of the New Netherlanders’ warmth and I was grateful. There was no force as we faltered onto the boat or a child cried with cold, only comfort and kindness. I was stooped with wounds and could not sit upright on the wooden bench. A knotted whipping rope had cut my flesh and put me to suffering. My servant had prepared a poultice which I wore strapped to my chest and back. Much had I learned from her those years in Plymouth colony.
That night of my escape, the owls cooed, then sunrise. I looked up and there it was: the blue canopy of Heaven.
In the end is the beginning and in the beginning is the end, Elizabeth had told me. It was the name I had given her the day she was baptized. We had traded tongues and she spoke English with ease. I studied her alphabet but could not construct her language adeptly. Still, I understood most of what she said to me. She loved the children as much as I, but could not travel with us to the land beyond the Fresh River, she said. Her own band would welcome her return after our departure. She led the way and then we parted.
One night, in the plotting time, she had led me into the dismal swamp beyond the palisades to meet the sachem. Thankfully, he remembered me well. He understood my plight and blessed me with a deep- throated song. We smoked a pipe. He knew a pilot, he said, a former privateer. Dutch in origin, he traded goods and guns for fur with all the tribes and then sold them to the whites—French, English, Dutch. His allegiance was to himself alone and to peace among our peoples.
We were on the ship crossing the vast and furious ocean—saints, sinners, strangers, adventurers, pilgrims. Subdued by hunger and illness, storms, the shift in seasons, spring to summer. Even our holy men became demented.
I said to my parents, Where is my gift? They had missed my tenth birthday. My beloved mother’s wound had not healed. There was a physician on board, but no leeches. Rotting flesh stenched the cabin. Our hammocks groaned.
We had boarded a smaller ship in Leiden where I was born. There were no good-byes or celebrations. Our community traveled as one whenever possible. Only the old and frail remained.
I had never seen the land of my ancestors until we approached the white cliffs where a larger ship was waiting for us. At anchor, broadside, we shifted from one to the other, never laying feet on our English mother’s soil. We set sail in the morning at high tide.
But let us talk no more of old things, my parents had always said. Let us dis-remember the harsh crossing, they might have said, the expectations, soon disappointed, of wondrous landfall in the new world, the sailors’ landfall cry, like a gull’s, watery graves, the joyous spouting whales as fermented bodies slipped gently out of their linen wraps onto the slanted plank and into the deep beyond.
The land was wooded to the brink of the sea. Strange creatures with painted faces and feathers in their hair, their upper bodies slick with grease, rode toward us in a fleet of narrow boats. In the stern of each vessel were men in floppy hats. Their once-pale skins were weather-worn and brown. Their clothes were dusty. Sticks held their vests in place instead of buttons.
Do not be alarmed, someone shouted from below.
They came aboard. They smelled like bear or deer.
So, child, Constance said, my first night in the colony. I was not the only orphan—there were five of us arrived that day—but she addressed us all as child, individually, standing us in a line in the middle of the log cabin.
You will stay here in this long house. This is your bed. This is your hook. Here is a bible to keepsake under your pillow. Say your prayers morning and night. The water buckets are there. Lucy will show you the outhouse and how to use it. The earth floor is damp, keep your boots on at all times. If you awake itching, let us know, and we will sweat the lice. I am your orphan mistress.
In Leiden my room had wooden floors, large windows, curtains. The voyage had obliterated all such comforts. Now there were twenty beds side by side with only a stretch of arm between them, no windows, a hole in the rounded roof to vent the fire’s smoke. It was to become my task to stoke it as I was one of the larger orphans.
Did I feel sad? Was I reflective? Did I comprehend where I was? What had befallen me? Was God, as I understood Him, protecting me, guiding me, as the holy men always promised? I had no answer to these questions. And, in that moment, I missed my parents and siblings, all dead. Without a likeness of them in my satchel, I could not conjure their image. I was not alone, there were many others, but I felt alone. Children, once so sweet, once so loved and loving, we had arrived lost and miserable, and only had each other.
I was not accustomed to constant prayer. My parents were observant but not devout. This they had hidden from the elders and from me else they would not have been selected for the journey; they would have been cast out. So it was a surprise to me that so many in the colony were absorbed in prayer and injunctions. They had odd ideas about child rearing as a consequence. We were schooled in the mornings by Constance and Lucy, orphans themselves, and then set to work tidying our cabin, the outhouse and the grounds. Before supper, we went to the chapel to pray. Hunger gnawed at us as we were force-fed the scriptures. I resisted the commentaries; they made no sense to me. As for play, it was forbidden unless the game strengthened our bodies or our minds, and those only for a limited time every day. I had carried my collection of marbles with me and offered them to the other children, but they were soon confiscated. I was chastised for being frivolous. Indeed, chastisement was common currency in the colony.
That man I loved because he was a good man of sweet and pleasant countenance I loved him. His skin was the color of brass and he was comely to behold, very graceful and well formed with long black hair and well mannered. Others in the colony described him as tall, straight, muscular and well-proportioned, all this was true. He was not obese, neither was he deformed in any way. His cheekbones were high and prominent, the amber eyes widely separated, his white teeth gleaming and none were missing. His skin was shiny with fish oil or eagle fat, the odor at times disturbing. The bright red markings on his high forehead, temples and cheeks were meticulously rendered. I could not take my eyes away and plotted an encounter whenever possible. And then, one day, I met him in the strawberry field at dusk. We filled baskets and spoke in our hybrid tongue, English and Wampanoag words commingled. We had much else in common. He was always alone and so was I, the basket beside him his only companion. We lay down together in the furrow between the plants. Night fell over us.
Constance said, “What have you done, child?”
And I replied: “Ours is a most strict and sacred bond.”
And she said: “That is the way we speak of God. Gabrielle, I beseech you, look up to Heaven to quiet your spirit.”
That night I prayed. I had heard a profound sermon and prayed the sermon, prayed that it would sanctify me and guide me: We are all in all places strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners, most properly, having no dwelling but in this earthen tabernacle; our dwelling is but a wandering and our abiding but as a fleeting, and in a word our home is nowhere, but in the heavens.
Make no mistake, dear reader, no transgression in Plymouth colony was ever really set right. Far away now, I see the colony in my mind’s eye. Most of the original houses are wrecked and overgrown with grass and weeds. There is hardly any light except the shadowy, softly moving glow of departing sloops across the Inland Sound. How did this land appear to English sailors’ eyes, to the first pale-faced settlers? Its stolen trees, the trees that had made way for our houses and crops, had once answered only to others. And these others had become our friends and then, predictably, our enemies. I contemplated this fate and rejected it. In the vast obscurity of the receding woodland, a different future rolled out before me.
Reason rarely prevails in love, war, or religious revelation. There was an enterprise laid plain by the imperial nations, the rape of virgin continents. The priests were as brutal and greedy as the investors; once they arrived, the land became their greatest temptation. There was no respite from the violent ambience of those times, not even for a young orphan who spent her days in the garden or the nursery tending and nurturing. To my knowledge, only Catholic nuns led a secure, peaceful, contemplative life sequestered in their nunneries. But the history of that church also sickened me.
Vines everywhere, cherry trees, plum trees, and many others which we knew not on the other side of the world; many kinds of herbs, we found in winter, strawberries innumerable, sorrel, yarrow, carvel, brook-lime liver-wort, water-cresses, mint, great store of leeks, and onions, the best water that ever we drunk ( beer abandoned as daily liquid) and the brooks full of fish. Such bounty softens the soul. My lover encouraged me to bathe in all seasons, running water or frozen stream. In many ways, he cleansed me. Return to the putrid settlement was a shock, more so in the confines of the chapel where garments were stiffened with mud, urine and excrement. The dirt floor was dusted with cow’s blood and sawdust to absorb the release of human waste underfoot. I devised an antidote: small bouquets of herbs and flowers the Great Queen, twenty years gone, referred to as a nosegay. I considered my contribution useful. I sowed and planted, made bouquets beyond my own use and distributed them to others. I became so expert in their creation that others in the colony dubbed me “Queen Tusse,” and the bouquets “ tussie mussies.” Unfortunately, I was not indifferent to this recognition; I flaunted it.
He was of the snipe clan and resembled that marsh bird in its entirety—long limbed, fleet, alert, industrious and helpful to his own people and to mine. And it is strange to possess those in the colony in that way, to voice “mine.” Apart from the children in my care I had no sense of belonging. My lover. That is correct. My lover. After a harsh winter and many deaths, he was sent to us as an emissary of good fortune and good will. At first, we called to him by his nickname, Bird, a translation of his native name, too difficult to pronounce. His attention to our well-being never faltered. If a house was felled in a storm, he righted it, or built a stronger shelter nearby. He dug the fields and harvested crops. He fed the swine and kept the coops clean. He never expected recompense and when wampum was left on the transom of his house, he returned it. Was he a saint? Was he an angel? That was the extent of our biblical mythology to explain his seemingly selfless actions.
And so he was intertwined in our daily lives from the time he was twelve moons or so. This was how he described his age, in lunar years, as signified by the markings on a turtle’s back.
We had set sail in a prosperous wind. The sloop moved hastily and we were not pursued. A good store of turkeys on shore and dried fruit and fish on board provided sustenance. We had casks of fresh water. The captain remained constant in his kindness yet I was shy of him, distracted by my sorrow. As the children were sleeping, mine eyes were weeping.
My lover’s English name was William. It was I who named him after the great bard as his speech was equally poetical. And he called me Of the Sea in his language because of my green eyes and the manner in which I had surfaced into his world.
For as the sun is daily new and old
He is my love still telling what is told.
Sonnet 76, dear reader.
“This is a love crush,” Constance said. “End it before you are discovered.”
Once I took him to our chapel to pray his own prayers between the whitewashed walls. Devoid of any ornament, their very austerity was threatening, and he left before the sermon was over. He had nothing to say about the Englishman’s chapel when next we met, or ever after, but I saw it most clearly through his eyes for the first time: the hard battle-ready pews, the naked dirt floors, the stern pulpit and our preacher in his somber black robe. “These heathens among us,” he began. There were perhaps ten natives in the congregation that day seated in the back pews. In truth, they had never been among us and never would be in Plymouth Colony.
“We are the chosen people divinely anointed,” Constance told me that day.
“Why then are we deprived of all pleasure?” I asked.
Outside the lush landscape beckoned to me. This land I loved because of its fecundity, I loved it.
“Where do you keep?” I asked William one day. But he did not understand the word “keep.” I was curious to witness his dwelling. Where did he reside when he left our fields to return to the forest?
For many moons he refused to take me there. His reluctance referred to my safety alone and the integrity of the treaty between our tribes. My defiance worried him greatly as his foresight and wisdom were larger than my own. But after much badgering, he led me to his weetu beyond the first swamp. It was one of several of varying sizes, a small village. Each house had a vegetable patch in front or back or to the side, capturing the sun’s angle. His own was not very large as he shared it only with his widowed mother. It was extremely clean and tidy. We sat cross legged on the matted floor and ate and spoke. My stomach swelled, I knew I was with child.
Perhaps my life would have been different if I had remained in William’s weetu that day. I wanted to stay, most assuredly, but William insisted otherwise.
Soon enough, I was called to account in front of the elders. They demanded full disclosure of my sinning, where it had transpired and with whom. Their accusations against me were predictable. Had I been raped by one of the recently arrived lustful young strangers? Or been tempted by him? If I had been raped against my will, I need only point to the perpetrator and I would be saved.
“There is no perpetrator,” I said.
It was Constance who betrayed me. The ferocity of the elders’ interrogations was too great for her fragility. “No doubt William is a spy,” she said, “and Gabrielle complicit in his deception.”
The next morning, my lover’s head was on a pike outside the palisade.
My punishment was shunning. No one was permitted to speak to me or of me. Only Elizabeth remained steadfast and courageous on my behalf.
And so I left Plymouth Colony behind. I knew that the Dutch colony—its houses, taverns, and shops—would in some respects resemble Leiden. I knew the language ; it had always doubled with the English tongue. We would be welcome in a safe haven as our families had been so many years ago when they fled from England to The Netherlands. We would not be shunned or punished.
We were taken at once to the Beverwijck Orphanage, the orphanmaster, Johan, in attendance. The house was far from the landing, north into the growing fields overlooking the river. We traveled by horse and cart over Beaver’s Path, a rough road carved out of forest and fields. Children ran freely everywhere and the streets and hillocks echoed with their laughter and play. I was reminded of my own happy childhood in Leiden and collapsed into a contentment I had not known in many months. Even the elders of the Dutch Church were amiable in a gruff, wry way. I was with child out of wedlock and therefore required guidance and protection, they said. And what did they mean by this? That though I was no longer young, I was still in many ways innocent. I had little education beyond the scriptures and there was more, so much more, for a woman to learn. Had I read Spinoza? Had I read Descartes, committed the verse of Shakespeare to memory? No, I had not.
And so the schoolhouse became my cathedral.
My son and my daughter were born in November under clear, cool skies. The stars were propitious, Venus ascendant. My waters broke at dawn as I was sweeping the flagstone porch. I was calm. I woke Johan and he sent for the midwife. Soon all the orphans were up and about, drawing water, preparing the birthing chair and the bed with fresh linens for lying-in, holding my hand, walking me in the garden as distraction from the labor. And what an apt word that is for woman’s work. It took twelve hours to release my children into the world.
Non anse, a sucking child. Muckquachuckquemese, a little boy. Squasese, a little girl. Tackqiuwock, twins. Dear William, please forgive me. I will, for convenience, give our children English names: John after Johan, the gentle orphanmaster here, and Ariel for our spritely little girl.
The children required a new teacher. I was unschooled and had argued this often. I reiterated what the church elders had said to me. I did not know enough to educate others. But my master did not heed my argument. I became a teacher.
In New Netherland, the weather was hotter in August and September than in Plymouth colony and fevers more prevalent. Its influence upon all of us, animal and vegetable, are worthy of notice as I write. Moschetoes abounded, as always in sickly seasons; grasshoppers covered the ground, worse when the weather cooled and then heated again in late autumn. Death turned every corner, day and night, and took the youngest children away most quickly. The appearance of a white frost as the leaves began to turn was most welcome. Its effects upon the fever were obvious and general. It declined, in every part of the colony.
And so the next ten years passed peacefully without molestation for my transgressions or that of others. Only scoundrels and thieves were punished in New Amsterdam. Those that survived the epidemics grew old together. I was not coerced in my religion. The children were schooled properly. The wars with the tribes subsided; soldiers and Lenape entered the colony again with their families, their skills, their herbs and corn, their hand-crafted baskets and clothes, their wisdom. The markets expanded to include more traders and the slavers multiplied. And though the colony became rougher because of them, and the taverns bawdier, this did not affect the contentedness of our daily lives. Representatives from New England met with representatives from New Amsterdam and there was peace between our colonies. Ships arrived from Brazil with refugees from the Inquisition. There were now Jews in the colony, Germans, Swedes, and many other nationalities, all living together, working together and marrying one another. It was not a life I could have foreseen in my youth in Plymouth colony with its cold, constricted opinions of right and wrong, its unbendingness.
When the English took over the colony they assured everyone we would not be molested, that we could work and live together as one. Their prognostication was well-meaning, but also conditional. Everything was dependent on our will which, long ago, I had learned was both wavering and corrupt. A man’s greed is like a mirror that swallows its own tongue.
Carol Bergman’s articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Salon.com. Her essay, “Objects of Desire,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize; her short stories have appeared in many literary magazines. She is the author of biographies of Mae West and Sidney Poitier, a memoir, Searching for Fritzi, and two books of novellas, Sitting for Klimt and Water Baby, two novels, Say Nothing and What Returns to Us and The Nomads Trilogy, a collection of flash fiction. She compiled and edited Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories, nominated for Columbia University’s J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. She lives in New Paltz, NY and teaches writing at New York University.