At first, glancing out the living room window, Mary Kingsley thought it was ashes falling from the sky, delicate black flakes sifting down through the winter grayness, landing softly on pure white snow. Ashes? Falling from the sky? Who would be lighting a fire outdoors in January? She gazed toward the barn but caught no sight of her husband Nathan. Then she peered upward into the bare limbs of the maple tree, retracing the path of the descending flakes. She could see nothing, yet the ashes continued to fall, curling in an elegant dance. A movement in the topmost branches caught her eye, a huge crow. He seemed to be preening himself with his beak, and when Mary gazed downward again she recognized the black objects on the snow as feathers. But the dark plumes kept dropping, each clump growing larger—too many; the crow would strip itself bare. Suddenly three bright red splotches hit the snow. Mary gasped and started back, then pressed forward to stare through the pane. In the treetop, the crow continued its stroking movements, only now she realized it wasn’t preening, no. It was tearing at something pinned to the branch beneath its claws, some poor small bird. The feathers fluttered down in deathly quiet, while Mary stared, aghast, at the crimson-splattered snow.
“Stop that! Stop that!” She pounded on the pane with her fist, but the crow, high in the tree, paid her no heed, and already she knew it was too late.
Mary turned from the window with a shiver. Death was a daily occurrence on a farm, chickens slaughtered for Sunday dinner, rabbits shot and skinned for the stew pot and to provide fur for mittens and muffs, cows and hogs butchered for meat and hides. But at home her father and stepbrothers had seen to that work, and since her marriage, Nathan, though he laughingly chided her tenderheartedness, had taken over the job of wringing the chickens’ necks.
“I must take extra good care of you now,” he had promised, kissing her.
Mary smiled. Even in this frosty cold, Nathan was out in the barn, smoothing planks for a cradle that would not be needed for another six months. Hadn’t she married a good, hard-working man? And this new house he had built, all for her, his bride—Mary glanced happily over the rooms. As yet, the furnishings were sparse: a horsehair sofa, a doily-covered table, a few straight-backed chairs. But that was only to be expected at the start, and come spring she would have pretty wallpaper, vases of flowers, a rag rug on the pegged wood floor. Really, it was one of the finest houses in Livonia Township, and Mary loved the sense of order and rightness that defined every room.
She went to the small shelf Nathan had made for the wall and ran her finger over the spines of their three books. If it were Sunday, she would have to choose the Bible, and although she tried to select the most exciting stories—David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah—she and Nathan both exhaled a little sigh of relief when this duty was done. But this being midweek, Mary’s finger skipped quickly to the second and third volumes, a book of fairy tales and a collection of poetry, and she tapped back and forth between them. Both were well worn, treasured from the lonely days after her mother’s death when her grief-stricken father Solomon had pulled his five-year-old daughter onto his lap and taught her to read to assuage his own sense of emptiness. Her stepmother Hannah, however, considered such reading matter conducive to dillydallying and was glad to have Mary take the books with her when she had married Nathan in November.
Mary’s finger settled on the poetry, and she carried it back to the kitchen. In winter, the best place to stay warm was beside the big wood-burning stove, and after dinner, with Nathan’s arms curled around her, they would sit by the stove’s heat and she would read aloud to him. But first she had the meal to cook, and she smoothed her apron over the full skirt of her plum-colored dress. A cornbread was already baking in the oven. Now she poured a little water from the wood bucket beside the sink and began scrubbing potatoes to go in the roasting pan with the beef. At home Hannah had her own strict way of doing things, and whatever Mary’s efforts—washing the clothes, mending, cooking, churning butter, cleaning, spinning, weaving, making candles and soap—there was always some flaw to be found in the method, the result or both. Meanwhile, Martha Kingsley, her new mother-in-law, was equally adamant about how each household chore should be accomplished. The problem was that where Hannah said, “Do it this way,” Martha said, “Do it that,” so that Mary often felt buffeted between two opposing gusts of wind.
“But this is my house,” she said aloud. “My house. My husband. My home.” She couldn’t help the smile that crossed her lips. Mary was just twenty and not a little proud of her new status. It did not hurt either to have brown doe eyes, auburn curls, dimpled cheeks, and just enough height to tuck her head beneath her husband’s chin. As she set the scrubbed potatoes in the pan, her mind leafed through the pages of the poetry book, mentally marking the sonnets that were Nathan’s favorites.
Footsteps sounded on the back porch, and she turned to greet her husband. But instantly her smile froze. Nathan’s left hand, swathed in a rag, dripped blood, and his face wore a grimace of pain.
“What happened? Are you cut?” She hurried toward him, wiping her hands on her apron. The rag was fast becoming blood soaked, and as Nathan unwrapped the cloth, she recoiled from the ugly gash in his palm.
“My fingers grew cold, and the plane slipped.” He tipped water from the bucket into a wash basin and began to bathe the wound. Already his tone sounded more irritated than hurt, as if the pain bothered him less than the interruption to his work.
“You must have a bandage.” Mary reached to the cupboard where they kept a small stock of medicinals—sarsaparilla, chamomile, licorice root, pennyroyal—along with a roll of clean white cloth. She sheared off a long strip, folded it into a pad, and pressed it against Nathan’s palm.
“Hold this,” she commanded. She cut another strip of cloth, wrapped it around the pad, and tied the ends of the bandage in a neat knot. “You must be careful, Nathan. Whatever would I do if you were hurt? I should be lost without you.” She gave him a pouting, half-worried smile, and with a laugh he cupped her chin and drew her toward him. His dark blue eyes in his sharp, handsome face glinted into hers.
“I will always take care of you. Now stay warm in your little nest while I go back to work.” He kissed her and headed for the back door. “Call me when dinner is ready.”
He left, and through the window Mary watched him crunch across the snow to the barn. Nathan was tall and lean and loved to work outdoors with his hands. She loved to watch him, imagining the lithe movement of muscles beneath his clothes. Her thoughts drifted back, recalling how diligently Nathan had labored throughout the hot summer to have the house ready for their November wedding. On several occasions, she and her family had traveled by buggy from their farm three miles distant to observe his progress. Her father Solomon approved of Nathan.
“Nothing sways him,” he remarked to Hannah as they watched the husband-to-be cut boards for the sturdy frame beginning to rise from the stone foundation. Solomon Lambert owned one hundred sixty acres, whereas Nathan’s farm, deeded to him by his father, encompassed only forty. But as Mary’s father gazed over the fields of corn and wheat, newly cleared from surrounding timber, he declared expansively that there was “plenty of room to grow.” Like most of the early settlers in Livonia, the Lamberts themselves had lived in a one-room log cabin for many years before they were finally able to afford sawed lumber and a frame house. So it was a matter of pride throughout the community whenever a fine new home like Nathan Kingsley’s was erected.
Hannah had her own reasons for approving of Mary’s fiancé. “The eldest of seven. He will be of some use when the babies arrive,” she averred through pursed lips. She retied her straw bonnet under her chin and lifted her arms for Solomon to help her down from the buggy.
Mary followed, blushing. Intent on his work, Nathan had not heard their approach along the dirt road. He wore old trousers, powdered in sawdust, and his shirt had been cast off in the July heat. Seeing the Lamberts, he grabbed it and hastily buttoned it on, but not before Mary took in the taut, bare chest, sun-browned skin, dark nipples, and thatch of black hair under each arm. She had never seen Nathan unclothed before, and the sudden sight, coupled with her stepmother’s casual remark about babies, made her cheeks burn. Nathan, too, seemed embarrassed, shaking Solomon’s hand and apologizing to the women for his untidy state. For several minutes, he and Mary avoided each other’s direct gaze, until the redness faded from her face.
Four months later they were married, and now…the baby had happened so quickly, perhaps even on their wedding night. A little too much wine at the festive dinner following Reverend Swift’s marriage service. The gay talk of family and neighbors crowded into the new house. The glow of candles illuminating the rooms. Her pretty cream lace dress and kid leather shoes. Surrounded by a knot of pipe-smoking men, Nathan had talked exuberantly of his plans for the farm, pulling unconsciously at the stiff collar of his formal suit. Eyes shining, Mary received the attentions of her guests and sipped another glass of wine. The company departed late amidst a swell of congratulations, and the good feeling carried the newlyweds upstairs to the bedroom. Then the wine must have taken over and caused a blank, for the next sensation Mary felt was the awkward lump of white nightgown bunched at her waist, frigid sheets against her bare thighs, and Nathan plunging into her a part of his body she had never seen. She shocked awake then—every thrust seemed to fill and choke her—and all she could envision was her father’s black stallion, his huge maleness vividly erect, as he clambered to mount the roan mare. It went on and on, though she knew he never meant to hurt her, until finally he pulled out and her insides collapsed in relief. Nathan murmured awkwardly and kissed her, but the bed was wet and sticky, and they had to sleep on opposites sides. Repeat episodes had been less painful and more pleasurable, but they stopped altogether once her second monthly cycle had been missed and she confided her condition to her husband.
“Then we must not do anything that might harm the baby,” he said, as if stating a well-known fact, and from then on, he simply snuggled her against him, blew out the candle, and so they fell asleep. Mary would have liked to ask some woman if this were indeed true, that relations between her and Nathan must now cease, but she hardly dared pose such a question to Hannah or Martha, and since she had only stepbrothers and Nathan’s three sisters were but little girls, she was bereft of female advice. Still, Nathan, although only two years older than Mary, was always so sure of what must be done that she bit back her curiosity and trusted that he was right.
A warm smell of baking interrupted her thoughts, and she peeked into the oven. The cornbread had gone a rich golden color, and the edges had browned and pulled away from the sides of the pan—ha! Even Martha, who had passed on the recipe from her New England forebears, could not have done better. Mary drew out the pan and set it atop the stove to keep warm. She was turning toward the cellar, to fetch sweet apples to stew with cinnamon, when she saw out the window that Nathan had emerged from the barn and stood conferring with a man in a buggy. She recognized Old Bess, a big gray-white mare, then knew the hunched figure on the seat to be Reverend Swift. Mary stopped, puzzled. What was he doing out paying social calls on a Wednesday?
Mary pulled off her apron. She must open the parlor, heat cider, and then—she sighed—she and Nathan must sit and listen patiently while the good reverend declaimed about his latest crusade. Marcus Swift, one of the first Livonia settlers, was the circuit preacher for the township, and since no one had gotten around to building a church yet, he delivered his holy message in homes, barns, schoolhouses or wherever else space could be found. A thin, pinched-nose man of fifty, he was tireless in his duties and admirable in all his beliefs, but so long-winded. Nothing could be said or done without a Biblical reference, and at Mary’s wedding he had droned interminably about the marriage at Cana when it was her own happy future about which she wanted to hear. Afterward, at the festive dinner, he had spoken long and passionately for the abolition of slavery, his favorite cause. And always there was a new mission to pursue, an evil to defeat, a heavenly edict to uphold. The other townspeople, Mary noticed, endured his sermons with the same fortitude they exhibited during blizzards or drought. Religion and morals were necessary to a fledgling community, but Reverend Swift did tend to flagellate his congregation with the whip of perpetual goodness.
But now, she saw, Reverend Swift was gesturing toward Nathan’s parents’ house, a half mile down the road. He seemed agitated, and Mary frowned. Father Kingsley, also named Nathan, had been ill this past week, running a high fever and coughing spasmodically, but though still weak, he had seemed to be recovering. Could his health have turned poorly again?
Nathan broke off talking and came quickly toward the back door. He blew in, bringing a gust of cold air that made her clasp her arms to warm her chest.
“Some work needs doing at Garrett Jasper’s place, Mary. Reverend Swift has asked the neighbors to ride over and help.” He took his hat and scarf from a peg on the wall, his bandaged hand moving stiffly as he wound the wool muffler around his neck.
“Work? What work? How long will you be gone?”
“A few hours, no more.”
“But you will miss your dinner.” Mary caught his arm as he stepped toward the door. “Should you not eat first?”
“There is no time, Mary. I must go now.” Nathan placed his hands firmly on her shoulders, a gesture that both stopped her forward movement and set her irrevocably in her place. He pressed his lips, as if more words urged to be spoken, then a tender look softened his face. “There is no cause for you to worry, dearest. Stay here and you will be safe until I return.”
He strode out the door, leaving Mary perplexed. What could be so urgent? Although Nathan was better acquainted, she hardly knew Garrett and Lucretia Jasper, a prim Quaker couple who thee’d and thou’d her whenever they met. And, several hours, Nathan had said. What a topsy-turvy turn the day had taken. She had planned such a lovely dinner. She had worn her plum-colored dress, which Nathan, usually indifferent to clothes, had actually complimented her on during their courtship. And their special time together…Mary glanced ruefully at the waiting poetry book, then bucked herself up. In a pioneer community people must stick together and help one another, and perhaps their evening together would be more special for the wait. She recalled Nathan’s tender look and his protectiveness toward her and the baby, and her glance went to the warm cornbread. Nathan would get hungry, and Reverend Swift as well. She cut two thick squares of the yellow bread, wrapped each in a blue cloth, and took her cloak from its peg. She swirled it on and checked out the window just as Nathan appeared from the barn leading their brown horse Jake. In his good hand, he gripped his shotgun.
For a second she stood disconcerted, hardly realizing she had spoken aloud. Nathan used the gun to hunt wild turkeys, rabbits, deer in the woods. Why would he need it at the Jaspers’ farm? And what else had he said? Stay here and you will be safe. Safe from what? Mary snatched up the cornbread and hurried out the door.
“Nathan!” Her voice vaporized, thin and ineffectual in the cold winter air. Reverend Swift slapped the reins on Old Bess, and the big mare bolted off smartly. Nathan had already mounted, and a kick of his heels sent Jake snorting after the buggy. His back was toward her, and Mary called again, louder, but to no avail. Then because she could not shout and run at the same time, she gave up calling and plunged after the departing men. Her cloak dragged in the snow, and her high-laced boots threatened to slip on hidden patches of ice. Indians! It must be Indians! Though the few red men left in these parts acted peacefully, she had heard stories of their atrocities elsewhere. Who knew what horror might be brewing?
This time she screamed it, and at that instant her heel caught in the hem of her cloak, the cord jerked back around her neck, and she pitched, choking, into the snow beneath the maple tree. It took several seconds for her to lift her face from the prickling frost and grope to a sitting position, her left arm instinctively covering her belly. She closed her eyes and swallowed painfully, massaging her throat, to reassure herself she could still breathe. When her gaze refocused, she saw the receding figure of her husband, galloping away down the road. Then she saw something else, tufts of soft, bloody feathers, clinging to the front of her dress.
Mary scrambled up and frantically brushed and shook herself clean. But a nameless fear had embraced her, a chill like ice on her spine. Something was wrong! Nathan was riding into danger! She must go after him, but how? The Jaspers’ farm was several miles distant, and he had taken their only horse. Then she remembered the way Reverend Swift had gestured down the road to her in-laws’ house. They must know what was happening, they had extra horses, and there she could get Lij, Nathan’s brother Elijah, to help her.
Teeth chattering, Mary hiked up her cloak and began to run, two neat blue packages abandoned in the snow.