Grand Oak Plantation, Northeastern Maryland Colony: 1665
Deep in a dream, Stephen laid his winning cards on the table in a London alehouse. As the cards left his hand, the table tipped; the cards slid onto the floor and into an engulfing sea. As he opened his eyes, his head was still swimming in a dream of seawater, and his knee ached. He hoped it wasn’t a bad sign for his last day as an indentured servant.
He rolled over and looked toward the window. The shutters were closed, but pewter-colored light was leaking through the cracks. More rain, he thought glumly, watching the thin stream of water trickle from a bottom corner of the window to the floor. No matter how many times he’d tried to chink the corner with mud and straw, the window leaked every time it rained. There were only a few thin, rotting pieces of board beneath his corn husk mattress–not enough to defend his bed from a soaking when there was a hard rain. One night, awakened by thunder and lightning, he had dug a narrow trench to divert the water around his bed. He noticed with a little satisfaction that the rainwater was flowing in its channel toward the door, at least for now.
Once awake, he could never lie still for long. He pulled on his trousers and the discarded coat that Susannah, the girl he had pledged to marry, had got from the laundry. He closed his eyes against the dizziness for a second or two, then planted his good leg onto the floor first to assist his bad knee. He’d gone along as a militia man to fight the Indians several years ago. He got a hatchet wound in his knee, but he had also been promised a small plot of land at the end of his indenture to reward his service. Dipping his fingers into the stream of water, he flicked some icy drops into his friend Thomas’s sun-browned face.
“You wouldn’t want to be late,” he said grinning as Thomas jumped.
His grin faded as he ducked through the doorway, slapping a wool cap onto his wavy dark hair against the rain. He was remembering how Susie had left him last night, flushed red and shaking with desire, and run away back to the house.
“You mustn’t try me so, Stephen,” she whispered, leaking tears onto his cheek before she slipped out of his arms.
Stephen would be free tomorrow, but she was still bound for two more years. They were desperate to marry–almost afraid to touch for fear he would get her with child. Her father Matthias, who was working off his own indenture as a carpenter, had asked permission for her to marry. Nothing had come of that request in six months.
Odd that he should dream of London, Stephen considered, just as he was to become a yeoman farmer, bound to his own land, here, and probably never to go back. The rolling sea of his dissolving dream now divided him from his family and friends forever. Better for all, then, he shrugged. In England, owning two hundred acres would have been impossible for such as him. His family was well-satisfied with his success, which the impossible distance enabled him to embellish a little in his letters.
Still, he had no particular love of farming, and with no tools of his own, he would depend on the favors of his overseer George Cresswell and the plantation owner, Master Tomlinsen, just as before. Although Stephen’s assigned plot had looked like paradise when Stephen and Susannah gazed at it together through their dreams, he had learned enough about farming to know it was a poor piece of property. He did not confess this to Susannah.
He forced his stiff knee into a brisk dash across the open paddock and slipped under the eaves of the livestock barn, casting a longing look into the warmth and lantern light there. The streaming rain reminded him of how boggy his acres were on the creekside. It would flood again in the spring.
With a quick look around, he circled to the haypile in back of the barn and thrust his toe just under the pile until he felt the solid iron of the kettle he had found sitting empty by the spring and hidden to take to his homestead later. Satisfied, he moved on, adjusting his trousers as if he’d been relieving himself when two other workers came in sight.
He was to go straight to the tobacco barn this morning, but he didn’t, even though it was already near dawn. Everyone looked the other way as usual when he stopped by the laundry for a quick kiss and an exchange of the day’s luck with Susannah.
“Look under the haypile in back of the barn,” he whispered into the muslin cap covering her honey-colored hair.
“I’m sorry about last night,” she whispered back.
“No fault of yours, sweet. Have you seen your father, yet?”
“They had me hauling linens down at first light. He was feeling poorly yesterday.”
They dared not linger and risk annoying their accomplices in the laundry. But he could detour by the carpentry shed to see her father Matthias, he decided.
One of the other laundry girls passed by with a knowing smirk.
“You have a merry smile. It becomes you well,” Stephen said to her, hoping his insincere flattery seemed genuine so she might feel kindly disposed to Susannah if they needed a favor.
The newest bondsman was coming towards him, straining under a load of wet, blackened wood. Stephen leaned in confidentially.
“There’s a pile of dry split wood under the porch steps if you’re short on what you need,” Stephen murmured. “I’ll help you replace it tonight.”
And I might have to miss my supper to do it, he thought. My last as a bondsman. But Susannah is still bound. We depend on the goodwill of these fellows.
He was headed towards the carpentry shed to check on Matthias when another servant, his friend Charles, went by with an axe and a mallet, looking fierce enough to use them on somebody.
“That madman Cresswell has us out mending fence in this!” he said indignantly. “And you’d best be quick over to the tobacco barn, or you’ll be celebrating your last day in the mudbath with the rest of us.”
Since Stephen would be growing his own crop next year, Cresswell had agreed to show him how to check the curing tobacco for mold and choose which plants were ready to be laid carefully over the floor of the tobacco barn for further aging. He was hoping Cresswell would send him off with the gift of a tobacco knife of his own. He’d only been allowed to work in the fields before, but he needed to know what to do with the stuff if he did manage to grow it. And he might need Cresswell’s help to get his crop sold and shipped.
In the barn, he tried to concentrate on the difference between variations in the mottled greens and browns of the curing leaf and splotches of developing mold. The mold was supposed to be darker, but everything was nearly colorless in the dim light of the barn. He thought of Charles and his mates trying to grip slippery wet mallet handles in ankle deep mud, and willed his attention back to the less odious job of improving some English gentleman’s tobacco.
At noonday dinner, ravenous after missing his breakfast porridge, Stephen gulped glasses of milk with his meat and bread, thankful that the shed workers were better fed than field hands. He folded a piece of pork into a slice of bread and put it in his pocket with a couple of apples for Susannah’s father and walked over to the carpentry shed. He hadn’t yet kept his promise to check on the old man.
“Can’t stay but a minute,” he said to Matthias, who presented a gaunt gray face, almost the color of the wood dust that covered his clothes. “Got to get back to work before Cresswell figures out I’m not just taking a piss.”
He held out the bread and meat. “Susie said you were feeling poorly.”
“I am. I’m right sick to my stomach, and I’ll tell ye why. Cresswell says he talked to the master himself, and Tomlinsen said no.”
“Even if Susannah’s not free, we can still marry,” Stephen said hastily, tamping down his dismay.
“He said no to the marriage, too.”
“He can do that?” Stephen didn’t have to wait for the answer. He couldn’t enter into any contract himself without permission while he was bound, and neither could Susie. He knew that. But why did Tomlinson refuse?
“You didn’t tell Susie yet, did you?” Stephen was sure Matthias would put off telling such hard news. “Don’t fret about it. I’ll tell her tonight.”
As he turned to leave, Matthias reached for his arm. “Stephen?” The old man’s voice quavered. “Back of that pile of scrap iron by the forge? There’s a right passable axe-head. A little cracked, but it’ll stand sharpening and hold for a year or two. Fish it out and bring it to me like you’re havin’ it fixed for Cresswell, and I’ll put it to a handle and keep it close ‘til you can take it out to your place.”
“I’ll need to chop a lot of firewood to warm my cold bed for two more years, Father,” Stephen answered without humor. “But thank you.” He was already moving toward the door, pulling up the collar of his coat against the rain.
He entered the tobacco barn pulsing with frustration and disappointment, but was soon attending to his tobacco lessons more closely than before, just to keep his mind off their dismal situation. As the afternoon shadows deepened and everyone got cross with hunger, Cresswell strode through the barn impatiently, barking orders to lay down piles of tobacco. First he would urge haste, and then, when they hastened, he cursed them for carelessness.
Stephen’s eyes were burning with the strain. His arms and back ached with the effort of controlling his movements to lay bulky piles of tobacco leaf down as gently as babies into their cradles. He was too exhausted to think about his own future, about the consequences if his strength failed or he judged poorly. He wasn’t ready.
Cresswell, eyes active in an idle body, leaned against the wall across from him. Stephen kept his hands busy and thought of Matthias’s well-intentioned gift of an axehead. He thought of the iron kettle and pot hook he had hidden in the haystack to help Susie feed them when they claimed their home together. We haven’t enough of our own yet, he thought, and now we can’t even have each other. I’ve nothing to bargain with but my labor, and no tools but those I can find here at Grand Oak.
When it was definitely dark and time to leave off, he approached Cresswell and spoke to him in a carefully managed tone of deference. “This isn’t work a man can learn in a day or two,” he said, wondering if Cresswell even remembered that he was not bound to return to the barn tomorrow. His shoulders slumped and his eyes filled as he faced what must happen. It didn’t make him proud or happy, but he wasn’t prepared to walk four miles southeast to his homestead alone tomorrow and fend for himself with a makeshift axe. He looked around at the sturdy walls and racks of the drying shed he had helped build along with five other indentured men last winter. Cresswell stared at him and waited.
“You seem to need more helpers, Sir,” he said to Cresswell as respectfully as he could manage after being cursed and mocked all afternoon. He felt his face go red with embarrassment, but he soldiered on.
“Maybe Master Tomlinsen would agree to renew my contract for another year. With more time, I could be of more use to you, Sir . . .”
Cresswell saw where he was going and stole the advantage.
“You’d never be able to bring in a crop on your own, and you know it,” he crowed. “Come to the barn early tomorrow if you want your breakfast. I’ll speak to Tomlinson soon as I see him.” He turned abruptly and pointed. “These leaves you just laid down here are spoiled by the damp,” he added. “I’m surprised you didn’t see it.”
Shiela Pardee is a retired English instructor living in Oregon and dreaming her way back toward her family’s deep roots in the Delmarva Peninsula. She is working on a novel about settlers in the mid-Atlantic colonies.