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Laurie Halse Anderson


  Laurie Halse Anderson

  Abigail Adams once described her husband, John, as

  “him whom my Heart esteems above all earthly things.”

  I understand that feeling.

  That’s why this book is dedicated to my

  beloved husband, Scot.


  Part I

  Chapter I Monday, May 27, 1776

  Chapter II Monday, May 27, 1776

  Chapter III Monday, May 27, 1776

  Chapter IV Monday, May 27–Wednesday, May 29, 1776

  Chapter V Wednesday, May 29, 1776

  Chapter VI Wednesday, May 29, 1776

  Chapter VII Wednesday, May 29, 1776

  Chapter VIII Wednesday, May 29–Thursday, June 6, 1776

  Chapter IX Thursday, June 6, 1776

  Chapter X Thursday, June 6, 1776

  Chapter XI Friday, June 7, 1776

  Chapter XII Friday, June 7, 1776

  Chapter XIII Saturday, June 8–Friday, June 21, 1776

  Chapter XIV Saturday, June 22, 1776

  Chapter XV Saturday, June 22, 1776

  Chapter XVI Sunday, June 23, 1776

  Chapter XVII Sunday, June 23–Friday, June 28, 1776

  Chapter XVIII Friday, June 28, 1776

  Chapter XIX Sunday, June 30–Monday, July 1, 1776

  Chapter XX Tuesday, July 2–Tuesday, July 9, 1776

  Chapter XXI Wednesday, July 10, 1776

  Chapter XXII Wednesday, July 10–Monday, July 15, 1776

  Chapter XXIII Monday, July 15, 1776

  Chapter XXIV Monday, July 15–Sunday, July 21, 1776

  Part II

  Chapter XXV Sunday, July 21–Tuesday, August 20, 1976

  Chapter XXVI Wednesday, August 21–Sunday, August 25, 1776

  Chapter XXVII Monday, August 26–Saturday, September 14, 1776

  Chapter XXVIII Sunday, September 15, 1776

  Chapter XXIX Sunday, September 15, 1776

  Chapter XXX Monday, September 16–Saturday, September 21, 1776

  Chapter XXXI Saturday, September 21–Sunday, September 22, 1776

  Chapter XXXII Sunday, September 22–Thursday, September 26, 1776

  Chapter XXXIII Friday, September 27–Saturday, November 16, 1776

  Chapter XXXIV Sunday, November 17–Sunday, November 24, 1776

  Chapter XXXV Monday, December 2, 1776

  Chapter XXXVI Tuesday, December 3–Friday, December 13, 1776

  Chapter XXXVII Saturday, December 14–Monday, December 23, 1776

  Chapter XXXVIII Tuesday, December 24–Wednesday, December 25, 1776

  Chapter XXXIX Thursday, December 26–Tuesday, December 31, 1776

  Chapter XL Wednesday, January 1–Tuesday, January 7, 1777

  Chapter XLI Tuesday, January 7–Wednesday, January 15, 1777

  Chapter XLII Thursday, January 16–Saturday, January 18, 1777

  Chapter XLIII Saturday, January 18, 1777

  Chapter XLIV Saturday, January 18, 1777

  Chapter XLV Saturday, January 18–Sunday, January 19, 1777



  Part I

  Chapter I

  Monday, May 27, 1776


  The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up. That’s when they can hear us true, Momma said. That’s when ghosts can answer us.

  The eastern sky was peach colored, but a handful of lazy stars still blinked in the west. It was almost time.

  “May I run ahead, sir?” I asked.

  Pastor Weeks sat at the front of his squeaky wagon with Old Ben next to him, the mules’ reins loose in his hands. The pine coffin that held Miss Mary Finch—wearing her best dress, with her hair washed clean and combed—bounced in the back when the wagon wheels hit a rut. My sister, Ruth, sat next to the coffin. Ruth was too big to carry, plus the pastor knew about her peculiar manner of being, so it was the wagon for her and the road for me.

  Old Ben looked to the east and gave me a little nod. He knew a few things about ghosts, too.

  Pastor Weeks turned around to talk to Mr. Robert Finch, who rode his horse a few lengths behind the wagon.

  “The child wants to run ahead,” Pastor explained to him. “She has kin buried there. Do you give leave for a quick visit?”

  Mr. Robert’s mouth tightened like a rope pulled taut. He had showed up a few weeks earlier to visit Miss Mary Finch, his aunt and only living relation. He looked around her tidy farm, listened to her ragged, wet cough, and moved in. Miss Mary wasn’t even cold on her deathbed when he helped himself to the coins in her strongbox. He hurried along her burying, too, most improper. He didn’t care that the neighbors would want to come around with cakes and platters of cold meat, and drink ale to the rememory of Miss Mary Finch of Tew, Rhode Island. He had to get on with things, he said.

  I stole a look backward. Mr. Robert Finch was filled up with trouble from his dirty boots to the brim of his scraggly hat.

  “Please, sir,” I said.

  “Go then,” he said. “But don’t tarry. I’ve much business today.”

  I ran as fast as I could.

  I hurried past the stone fence that surrounded the white graveyard, to the split-rail fence that marked our ground, and stopped outside the gate to pick a handful of chilly violets, wet with dew. The morning mist twisted and hung low over the field. No ghosts yet, just ash trees and maples lined up in a mournful row.

  I entered.

  Momma was buried in the back, her feet to the east, her head to the west. Someday I would pay the stone carver for a proper marker with her name on it: Dinah, wife of Cuffe, mother of Isabel and Ruth. For now, there was a wooden cross and a gray rock the size of a dinner plate lying flat on the ground in front of it.

  We had buried her the year before, when the first roses bloomed.

  “Smallpox is tricky,” Miss Mary Finch said to me when Momma died. “There’s no telling who it’ll take.” The pox had left Ruth and me with scars like tiny stars scattered on our skin. It took Momma home to Our Maker.

  I looked back at the road. Old Ben had slowed the mules to give me time. I knelt down and set the violets on the grave. “It’s here, Momma,” I whispered. “The day you promised. But I need your help. Can you please cross back over for just a little bit?”

  I stared without blinking at the mist, looking for the curve of her back or the silhouette of her head wrapped in a pretty kerchief. A small flock of robins swooped out of the maple trees.

  “I don’t have much time,” I told the grass-covered grave. “Where do you want us to go? What should we do?”

  The mist swirled between the tall grass and the low-hanging branches. Two black butterflies danced through a cloud of bugs and disappeared. Chickadees and barn swallows called overhead.

  “Whoa.” Old Ben stopped the wagon next to the open hole near the iron fence, then climbed down and walked to where Nehemiah the gravedigger was waiting. The two men reached for the coffin.

  “Please, Momma,” I whispered urgently. “I need your help.” I squinted into the ash grove, where the mist was heaviest.

  No ghosts. Nothing.

  I’d been making like this for near a year. No matter what I said, or where the sun and the moon and the stars hung, Momma never answered. Maybe she was angry because I’d buried her wrong. I’d heard stories of old country burials with singers and dancers, but I wasn’t sure what to do, so we just dug a hole and said a passel of prayers. Maybe Momma’s ghost was lost and wandering because I didn’t send her home the right way.

  The men set Miss Mary’s coffin on the ground. Mr. Robert got off his horse and said something I couldn’
t hear. Ruth stayed in the wagon, her bare feet curled up under her skirt and her thumb in her mouth.

  I reached in the pocket under my apron and took out the oatcake. It was in two pieces, with honey smeared between them. The smell made my stomach rumble, but I didn’t dare nibble. I picked up the flat rock in front of the cross and set the offering in the hollow under it. Then I put the rock back and sat still, my eyes closed tight to keep the tears inside my head where they belonged.

  I could smell the honey that had dripped on my hands, the damp ground under me, and the salt of the ocean. I could hear cows mooing in a far pasture and bees buzzing in a nearby clover patch.

  If she would just say my name, just once …

  “Girl!” Mr. Robert shouted. “You there, girl!”

  I sniffed, opened my eyes, and wiped my face on my sleeve. The sun had popped up in the east like a cork and was burning through the morning mist. The ghosts had all gone to ground. I wouldn’t see her today, either.

  He grabbed my arm and pulled me roughly to my feet. “I told you to move,” Mr. Robert snarled at me.

  “Apologies, sir,” I said, wincing with pain.

  He released me with a shove and pointed to the cemetery where they buried white people. “Go pray for her that owned you, girl.”

  Chapter II

  Monday, May 27, 1776


  “Amen,” we said together.

  Pastor Weeks closed his Bible, and the funeral was over.

  Nehemiah drove his shovel into the mound of dirt and pitched some into the open grave. The earth rattled and bounced on the coffin lid. Old Ben put on his hat and walked toward the mule team. Mr. Robert reached for coins to pay the pastor. Ruth drew a line in the dust with her toe.

  My belly flipped with worry. I was breathing hard as if I’d run all the way to the village and back. This was the moment we’d been waiting for, the one that Momma promised would come. It was up to me to take care of things, to find a place for us. I had to be bold.

  I stood up proper, the way I had been taught—chin up, eyes down—took Ruth by the hand, and walked over to the men.

  “Pardon me, Pastor Weeks, sir,” I said. “May I ask you something?”

  He set his hat on his head. “Certainly, Isabel.”

  I held Ruth’s hand tighter. “Where do you think we should go?”

  “What do you mean, child?”

  “I know I’ll find work, but I can’t figure where to sleep, me and Ruth. I thought you might know a place.”

  Pastor Weeks frowned. “I don’t understand what you’re saying, Isabel. You’re to return with Mr. Robert here. You and your sister belong to him now.”

  I spoke slowly, saying the words I had practiced in my head since Miss Mary Finch took her last breath, the words that would change everything. “Ruth and me are free, Pastor. Miss Finch freed us in her will. Momma, too, if she had lived. It was done up legal, on paper with wax seals.”

  Mr. Robert snorted. “That’s enough out of you, girl. Time for us to be on the road to Newport.”

  “Was there a will?” Pastor Weeks asked him.

  “She didn’t need one,” Mr. Robert replied. “I was Aunt Mary’s only relative.”

  I planted my feet firmly in the dirt and fought to keep my voice polite and proper. “I saw the will, sir. After the lawyer wrote it, Miss Mary had me read it out loud on account of her eyes being bad.”

  “Slaves don’t read,” Mr. Robert said. “I should beat you for lying, girl.”

  Pastor Weeks held up his hand. “It’s true. Your aunt had some odd notions. She taught the child herself. I disapproved, of course. Only leads to trouble.”

  I spoke up again. “We’re to be freed, sir. The lawyer, Mr. Cornell, he’ll tell you. Ruth and me, we’re going to get work and a place of our own to sleep.”

  “That’s enough.” Mr. Robert narrowed his eyes at me.

  “But Mr. Cornell—,” I started.

  “Shut your mouth!” he snapped.

  The pastor cleared his throat. “Perhaps we should inquire …”

  “Where is this Cornell?” Mr. Robert demanded. “Newport?”

  “He left for Boston before the blockade,” the pastor said. “Took his papers with him.”

  “The girl is lying, then,” Mr. Robert said. “She knows the lawyer is absent and her cause cannot be proved. The sooner I’m rid of her, the better.”

  “It’s the truth,” I blurted out. Ruth looked up at me anxiously and gripped my hand tighter.

  “I said, silence!” Mr. Robert yelled.

  “Isabel, remember your place.” Pastor Weeks fumbled with the latch on his Bible. “You and your sister belong to Mr. Robert now. He’ll be a good master to you.”

  My insides went cold, like I’d swallowed water straight from a deep, dark well. This couldn’t be happening. “Couldn’t you send a message to Boston, seeking Mr. Cornell?”

  “The matter is settled.” Mr. Robert pulled on his gloves. “If I might borrow your wagon and man for the drive to Newport, Pastor, I’d be grateful. These girls should bring a decent price at auction.”

  “You’re selling us?” The words flew out of my mouth before I could weigh them.

  “Hush, Isabel,” Pastor Weeks cautioned.

  The cold inside me snaked down to my feet and up around my neck. I shivered in the warm spring sunshine. Ruth bent down and picked up a shiny pebble. What if we were split up? Who would take care of her?

  I fought back the tears. “Pastor Weeks, please, sir.”

  Mr. Robert knocked the dust from his hat. “They should go quick. Your wagon will be back by nightfall.”

  The minister placed the Bible in his leather satchel and pulled it up over his shoulder. He studied the ground, his hands, Mr. Robert’s horse, and the clouds. He did not look at me. “You’ll be wanting to bring their shoes and blankets,” he finally said. “They’ll fetch a better price that way.”

  “True enough.”

  “I’ll have a word with Ben. Explain matters.”

  Pastor Weeks walked toward his own slave, keeping a hand on the satchel so it didn’t bump against his side.

  My heart wanted to force my feet to run, but I couldn’t feel them, couldn’t feel my hands, nor my arms, nor any part of myself. I had froze solid, sticking to the dirt. We were sold once before, back when Ruth was a tiny baby, not even baptized yet. They sold all of us from the plantation when old Mister Malbone run up his debts too high. His bankers wanted their pounds of flesh. Our flesh.

  One by one they dragged us forward, and a man shouted out prices to the crowd of likely buyers and baby Ruth cried, and Momma shook like the last leaf on a tree, and Poppa … and Poppa, he didn’t want them to bust up our family like we were sheep or hogs. “I am a man,” he shouted, and he was Momma’s husband and our father, and baby Ruth, she cried and cried, and I thought Momma would shatter like a bowl when it falls off a table. Poppa fought like a lion when they came for him, the strongest lion, roaring; it took five of them with hickory clubs, and then Momma fainted, and I caught baby Ruth just in time and there was lion’s blood on the ground mixed with the dust like the very earth was bleeding, and we left there, we three in Miss Mary Finch’s wagon, and everything in the whole world was froze in ice for near two years after that.

  I opened my mouth to roar, but not a sound escaped. I could not even mewl like a kitten.

  Chapter III

  Monday, May 27, 1776


  The snake took us to Miss Mary’s house to collect our blankets and too-small shoes but nothing else. We couldn’t take Momma’s shells, nor Ruth’s baby doll made of flannel bits and calico, nor the wooden bowl Poppa made for me. Nothing belonged to us.

  As I folded the blankets, Mr. Robert went out to the privy. There was no point in grabbing Ruth and running. He had a horse and a gun, and we were known to all. I looked around our small room, searching for a tiny piece of home I could hide in my pocket.

  What to take?


  On the hearth stood the jar of flower seeds that Momma had collected, seeds she never had a chance to put into the ground. I didn’t know what they’d grow into. I didn’t know if they’d grow at all. It was fanciful notion, but I uncorked the jar, snatched a handful, and buried it deep in my pocket just as the privy door creaked open.

  As the wagon drove us away, Ruth turned to see the little house disappear. I pulled her into my lap and stared straight ahead, afraid that if I looked back, I might break.

  By midday we were in Newport, following Mr. Robert up the steps of Sullivan’s Tavern. I had never been inside a tavern before. It was a large room, twice as big as Miss Mary’s house, with two wide fireplaces, one on each of the far walls. The room was crowded with tables and chairs and as many people as church on Easter Sunday, except church was never cloudy with tobacco smoke nor the smell of roast beef.

  Most of the customers were men, and a few had their wives with them. Some seemed like regular country folk, but others wore rich clothes not useful for muck shoveling. They made haste tucking into their dinners, playing cards, paging newspapers, and arguing loud about the British soldiers and their navy and taxes and a war.

  Ruth didn’t like the noise and covered her ears with her hands. I pulled her toward me and patted her on the back. Ruth was simpleminded and prone to fits, which spooked ignorant folk. Noise could bring them on, as well as a state of nervous excitement. She was in the middle of both.