Read the First Chapter!

Read the First Chapter of Spirit of the Turtle!

Chapter One

A Basket of Clams

                      
T
he boundaries of our reservation, Poospatuck, do not extend far. They enclose only a few acres of land on the southern coast of Paumanok, the Great Fish—what the English unimaginatively dubbed Long Island long ago. Of course, these boundaries I speak of are not real. No fences encircle Poospatuck. No lattice of wooden posts and rails separate us Unkechaugs from the lands beyond. But the boundaries are there all the same. Drawn up on a piece of paper by the English and filed away in a government office. And worse: embedded in the sandy soil of our minds. Over the years, these invisible boundaries have grown nearly impossible to budge.
            It wasn’t always that way. Not for Indians at least. Grandma and Grandpa said, once upon a time, we didn’t know about limitations. We Unkechaug moved around. We moved with the animals, we moved with the seasons, we moved when it was right. Even the sea was no barrier. Land ended but the world did not. Unkechaug hunters of old transformed at the sandy edges, becoming like fish, breathing water and wind, riding the waves into the blue, where there was neither tree, nor rock, nor windswept dune to mark the beginning or end of anything.
            But I was not born into a limitless world. I was born in the Year of Our Lord, 1834, when all things were sharply defined by fences of all kinds, seen and unseen, some low to the ground, some soaring, some easily traversed, some impenetrable. But for fourteen years I didn’t think about fences. They were of no concern to me. Not until the day the posts and rails of my enclosure grew so high they blocked the sun. Then I felt their closeness; I breathed the stale, heavy air; my mind spun in place.
            Yet that day had begun like any other. Grandma stood at the table by the fireplace. I sat on a chair, struggling to put on my shoes. Kneeling on the floor beside me, my little cousin, Liza, played with a cornhusk doll. My parents and Liza’s were gone by then. They’d died in a great sickness that had swept through our reservation four years earlier, when Liza was but a baby.
        My eyes fell upon the large bowl of cornmeal dough in front of Grandma as she added molasses.  Long thick streams formed smooth ribbons of brown across the sticky yellowness. Grandma plunged her hands in and began working it. Her fingers moved in a steady rhythm, up and down, as she rubbed and pressed the brown streaks, blending them into the golden mounds until they disappeared completely.
Samp,” said Grandma as she placed the balls of cornmeal into a small tin oven. Grandma’s speech was sprinkled with the occasional Unkechaug word, like “rungcump,” which she sometimes called me, pinching my cheek. But the truth was Grandma couldn’t speak the language anymore. “How could I?” she asked once, not waiting for a reply. “I was indentured to the Smiths when I was a little one, a yĂșnksquas, of only seven. How I cried on that day. What child doesn’t miss her mother? But like all the others, I learned English fast,” she said, with her familiar tranquility. “Fourteen years I lived with the Smiths. Fourteen long years. I only went home for June meetings.”
She placed her tin oven, a gift from Mrs. Smith at the conclusion of her indenture, on the hearth over the glowing mix of twig and ash. Few other homes in the village had a fireplace inside the house. Of this Grandma was proud. Most people had fire pits outside, but Grandpa knew how to build a good sturdy hearth of brick, with a tall chimney to take the smoke away. In the winter, the fire kept the house warm, our sturdy wood frame house, with two rooms for four people—me, Grandma, Grandpa, and Liza.
The door burst open and in the doorway stood Grandpa. His eyes sought Grandma’s. She shook her head. Grandpa swallowed and took a deep breath. Both sets of eyes then fell upon me. But as I looked from Grandma to Grandpa, they in turn looked away. Grandma picked up a jar of lard and placed it in the cupboard alongside containers of beach plum jam and wild grape preserves. Grandpa stepped into the house and took a seat at the table. They exchanged glances again, but said nothing to each other.
“Solomon.” Grandpa turned to me as I stood by the fire enjoying the warmth and the scent of the baking cornmeal and molasses. “It was a full moon last night.”
“I know.”
“Tide’s low.”
“I know.”
I already had my shoes on, leather brogans that pinched my toes so much Grandpa had cut slits at the ends, allowing my big toes to peek out. We waited for Grandma to remove the hot journey cakes from the oven. She wrapped them in cloths and placed them in a woven bag with a long strap that I slung over my shoulder. Grandpa and I picked up two baskets by the door and set off. The path led us through a pine wood and past the earthen remains of an old sweat lodge nobody used anymore. When we emerged from the woods, a long mud flat stretched in front of us. Low tide had sucked the water out of Terrell River, exposing clumps of brown seaweed and stray horseshoe crabs that lumbered out towards the sea.
Digging for clams was one of my favorite activities: searching for the telltale bubbles, thrusting my spade into the soft mud, and unearthing the hidden treasures—large poquahocs tinged with purple. The shells have always been highly valued by the Unkechaug because we use them to make small beads: wampum. Some people in my village still make wampum by hand and string it to make belts, necklaces, and other jewelry. But I loved the poquahocs most not for their shells but for their slippery contents, the delicious flesh of the clam.
 Grandpa and I always ate a few while we worked, so when our baskets were nearly full I took out a knife and pried open one of the shells. But when I scooped out the meat and offered it to Grandpa, he declined.
“Solomon. I have something to say.”
 What Grandpa?”
He picked up his basket, nodding for me to follow, and headed towards the shore, across the tidal flats, which were now covered in a thin layer of water. He stopped at a large rock and leaned against it. I remembered the mysterious look he and Grandma had exchanged that morning.
“What Grandpa?” I asked again, putting my basket by the rock.
“You know what it means to be indentured, right?”
“Like Grandma was to the Smiths?”
“Yes, and I too, to the Gibbs.”
“Am I going to be indentured?”
Grandpa was silent. His eyes dampened. Turning away from me, he gazed off across the mud flats to the distant barrier beach. Then, with a deep breath, he turned back to me. “You know, Solomon, I’m getting old. I borrowed money to repair the roof on the house, to build the hearth, and I’m not as quick as I used to be. I get hired to do a job, to build a wall, or some other brick-laying work, but I can’t do it as fast as I used to. I can’t earn enough money to feed us all. And your grandma’s fingers are too stiff to make the baskets she once sold. She can still sell her herbal medicines, but white folks have less faith in them than they used to. Mistress Smith was the last one who believed in all your grandma’s treatments. Now, only the old folks here at Poospatuck call upon her, but they can’t offer anything in return. The white folks turn to Dr. Hardy these days.”
He looked at me to make sure I understood. I nodded to let him know I did.
“The Daytons offered us one hundred dollars up front, and some new clothes and shoes for you,” he said, eyeing my sliced brogans. “When you turn twenty-one you’ll be free to go and you’ll get an entire trunk of nice clothes, and another pair of new shoes, and maybe more. Grandma got that oven and—”
“Tin cups and a tea canister,” I mumbled.
Twenty-one. Seven years of work for a white family, seven years of being away from the reservation, being away from Grandma and Grandpa, seven years when I would have to live according to other people’s ways and could hardly feel and act like myself. But one hundred dollars would mean a lot to Grandma and Grandpa. It was more than most families gave for an indentured servant. My heart began to pound. Far more than families gave for one servant, but they might give that much for …
“And Liza?” I asked, turning to Grandpa.
He looked away again.
“Liza, too?” I repeated.
Grandpa’s voice shook. “Now, look here, Solomon. It’s not so bad. Liza won’t have to enter service for three years. That’s what we agreed on with the Daytons. Then they’ll teach her to read and write. She’ll get new clothes, too, and learn the white ways.”
“Three years? When she’s seven you mean? Liza will leave you and Grandma when she’s still little and live with strangers and have to be at their beck and call, and have to clean up their messes?”
“Solomon, what do you suggest? Your grandmother did it. I did it.”
“No,” I spluttered angrily, certain it was too late, knowing the papers had already been signed. I kicked aside my basket of clams and ran into the woods as fast as I could over the ground I knew so well. I ran and ran and ran until I could run no more, for I’d hit the limits, the barrier I couldn’t get beyond. I did it. Your grandmother did it. And so it would be for me. My world shrunk to the tiny space in and around me; the recesses of my heart and mind collapsed; the word indenture became the wood and the nails of the fence that enclosed me.
Panting, I made my way back to the tidal flats. Grandpa was gone. He’d lugged the two baskets of clams back to the house by himself.  He’d expected my help, and I’d let him down.

Buy the book!

No comments: