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Hannah Duston's Sister

This novel is based on the true story of Hannah Duston, who, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl, was taken captive by Indians, in 1697. Her baby was brained against a tree and she was marched north in the snow. Some weeks later, with the help of a white boy who had been adopted by the Indians, Hannah and her midwife, who had also been captured, killed her captors with a hatchet and escaped back to Haverhill, Massachusetts in a canoe, on the Merrimack River. She brought with her the scalps taken from the heads of the slain Indians.

Hannah Duston became a heroine of colonial Massachusetts. Cotton Mather met her and recorded the details of her ordeal. She was the first woman in the United States to have a statue erected in her honor. Descendants today still honor her name, but do not tell the story of her sister, Elizabeth, who was hanged, on Boston Common, in 1693, along with a black slave woman. Both were convicted of infanticide. Elizabeth had given birth to twins in a trundle bed in her parents bedroom, but both said they had not woken, and knew nothing of it. Elizabeth said the babies were stillborn.

A search of the archives reveals tantalizing clues to secrets hidden in the frayed cloak of history. The author, a descendent of the Haverhill Emersons, weaves a novel out of the stark facts that remain.


Order Hannah Duston's Sister at:
book.orders@iuniverse.com or www.iuniverse.com

Order the movie based on Sybil Smith's book,
My Mother's Early Lover's at www.offthegridproductions.com



Preview - Chapter 1

Elizabeth
They Die In Their Youth
June, 1693

‘Tis sunny the day I die.
Sukey and I are brought to the church in a wagon. Billy, the warden, is driving. The people in the street stare, and some follow us.

I did Sukey’s hair the way she likes it, in many little twisted locks greased with lard and decorated with the beads that Billy gave her. Before I’d used pieces of lace from my petticoat, but Billy had wanted to please her, and when he found out she liked beads he bought her some. The beads were the kind traders used to get furs and such from Indians, simple balls in red, yellow and blue. I had to push several up over each twist of hair till she had so many her head clicked when she moved, and she liked that so well she did a dance she remembered from her youth in Africa and as much as I loved her it looked right savage to me for she stamped as if she were putting out the fires of hell. I laughed and she was affronted and stopped but I soothed her by saying I only laughed because I was glad for her.

“Glad why?” she asked, and I said, “Glad because how many people dance the day of their death?” Then Sukey said in Africa many danced on the day of their death because before warriors went to war they danced and it was only in this horrid, gloomy land that people rarely danced at all. She did not say horrid and gloomy, she said “here,” and then stood stiff as a board and turned down her lips, for that was how we talked often. Such a mime she was!

Truth be told it got so she needed barely to speak at all and I could tell what she was feeling for if you put two women in a cell together for two years they will grow to know each other to the very marrow. At night when it was cold we lay together for warmth and sometimes I lay with my head on her chest so I could hear her heart, especially on those long nights when I could not sleep because I was thinking of my poor child Dorothy alone without me in the world. The sounds of her heart became many things, waves upon a shore, a blacksmith’s bellows, the switch of a cow’s tail, and I imagined each in succession, counting, always counting; until the fearful thoughts in my mind went away.

I glance over at her now and see from her face that she is not frightened. She is angry. She wishes she knew a spell that would melt her leg irons and turn her into a gargoyle so she could fly over this jeering crowd and rip a few of these people to pieces. There is a red flush under her ebony skin that only I can see. I reach out under the cover of my skirt and touch her leg and it is hard with the readiness to leap free. She turns to me and finally her face softens.
“Is not the sun lovely?” I ask.
She reaches her hand back and takes mine. I use my thumb to press its pink soft palm, to soothe her. “’Tis the world’s last kiss,” I whisper. She smiles at this and all of her seems to exhale as the tension leaves her body.

The wagon rumbles on, the horse’s haunches gleam in the sun, there is a soft breeze which wraps us like a shawl. I look for a moment at each face that passes; old men with yellowed beards and blackened teeth; laughing boys with their clothes askew; shy girls with their faces flushed pink and as yet unshadowed by knowledge of the pain in store for them; women with their hair done up in braids, from which wisps escape to tickle their faces; some handsome, some plain; all still pale from winters grip. In fall they will be rosy-brown from work in the fields and gardens. In fall the apples will redden, the pumpkins will swell bright in the fields, the mountains will dress in scarlet like the whore they say I am. Though their lives may be hard, today they can love the world for the simple fact that they are not the ones in the wagon. This is the gift of the condemned. Yet I still cannot imagine that I will be really gone. It is a hard thing to fit inside ones mind.

Sukey startles me. She turns on the seat so she can look into my eyes.
“Now I must tell you my name,” she says.
I do not know what to say. My mouth opens and closes. Finally I whisper, “Tis Sukey, my own dear Sukey.”
“That is my slave name. You do not know my Yoruba name.”
I prepare myself to receive her gift, the only thing she has to give me now, which is worth naught, and worth the world.
She looks in my eyes and whispers, “Abebi.”
“Abebi,” I repeat. “Ababy.” It sounds like the very thing that brought us to this pass, but Sukey does not seem to notice.
“It mean, ‘we ask and she come to us’,” Sukey says.
“Oh,” I whisper. I am quiet for a long time. Finally the right words come.
“I asked and you came to me,” I say.
She smiles at me, pure and radiant, with the knowledge that we are now truly sisters.
She is ready. She has told me that her people believe it is not good for the spirit to leave the body in frantic, angry way. Even in war one must try to gather oneself for a final calm breath so that this is what stays with the released spirit.

***

Sukey and I sit with our backs to Billy’s back. He told us to sit thus, to give us a measure of protection. No one notices that we are holding hands, except the guards riding at the back of the wagon, and they are used to us. It matters not to them.

Ever since I was a girl I have always counted when I was afraid. I do not know why. I think because when I first learned numbers they seemed magic and I thought they were a way of ordering the world. I was sad to find as I grew that knowing how many there were of a thing did not change it, but by then I was stuck with the habit. Now I count silently, adding up each squeak of the right front wheel. One. Two. Three. Four. I cannot help myself, I know each squeak brings me closer to my death. I think the axle needs greasing, and then realize this does not matter. Five. Six. It is not my wagon. Seven. Eight. It is not my horse, glossy and fat, whose hindquarters rise and fall, lit by the fingers of June sun.
Dumb beast, it knows not its errand.

***

June in Massachusetts is the best time of year, with cold still a fierce memory, with everything in bloom, the lilacs and apple trees, the corn just up in the fields, the animals glossy after the healing month of May.

Of course, I cannot see the fields here in Boston, but I can imagine them, in back of my father’s house in Haverhill. I can imagine the whipporwill calling as it did of an evening in early summer. Sometimes the whipporwill was Samuel, and then I knew to go to a place near the maples that marked my father’s boundary.

My father will not be there, at my death, nor my mother. I would not want it so. I will die with the truth inside me like a stone none can see until years hence when time has rotted the lies away.

But my sister Hannah will be there. She has promised she will come. She will stand under the grand old chestnut tree at the south corner of the common. Hard as it is, I want to look out at her face in the moment the trap opens and I fall. Hannah says they will put a hood on my head, but I will refuse it. When a person is moments from death their whims are granted.
And Samuel? He will not be there. I would like to think it is because he can not bear to see me die, but I must admit it is shame, not love that will keep him in Haverhill, far from this spectacle. They all know it was his babes I bore, it was his twins they found sewed up in linen, buried in the orchard. But he is not to be punished. It is I.

****

Billy gave us rum this morning. He is a kind man, though few really know him. Born with a hare lip, his words come out awry, all soft sounds, no hard ones. Perhaps that is why he understands us, having felt the pain of being kept apart.

And just as I am thinking how glad I am for the rum, and how it puts a haze on all this, an old man comes from a brick house along the cobbled street. Perhaps he is a servant, for he is dressed in poor clothes and is wearing a hat such as the Irish favor. He bows to Sukey and me, and sweeps his hat low. Then he takes from his coat a flute, or what some call a penny whistle. He falls in step behind the guards and plays a tune such as is hard to describe. It has no name I know of. But ‘tis sad, and seems to tell of woe, love, and longing.

Though the tune is beautiful and silences the crowd, it brings me no solace. I feel my first rush of fear. What if I go to Hell, that awful place of fire and endless pain? I have repented, just in case, but deep inside I doubt that what Reverend Mather says is true. And it is this doubt that makes me fear that the devil truly owns my soul. I have never been like the others who believed wholly what they heard in church and read in the Bible. It just never seemed real to me, never as real as the joy I felt when Samuel and I lay naked together. Not even as real as these soft notes playing now.

And I wonder who will care for my first child, Dorothy. She is but eight years old. She lives with my parents, as did I, and all my father’s wrath comes down on her poor head.
And he may use her as he used me.
I sometimes think it would be better if she were dead, but I cannot imagine the world without her cunning face, her quick, white arms, and her lively eyes, how she takes everything in. How wise she is already. How she sings, with a voice like a mockingbird, how she can copy every note if she hears it but one time. I cannot imagine having lived without the times she pressed her wee body against mine with all that trust and affection, that I betrayed, though I did not mean to.

How I wish her love had been enough.
I begged Hannah to take her, but Hannah already has six of her own, and her husband, Thomas, did not want another. Especially a bastard girl.

Riding in a wagon with your back to the driver is something like life, I think. One knows not what will happen till it has begun to pass by, and ‘tis too late to make alterations. When I think of Dorothy I want to scream, to open my mouth and shriek and never stop. All that keeps me from it is Sukey’s hand and Dorothy’s baby tooth, hidden in my hem. I rub it now, and turn my eyes from the crowd, fixing them on my feet and the rough bed of the wagon.

***

By the time we reach Boston Common there is a large crowd. It spills out of the church. The man with the flute bows again, and slips away. We must pass the scaffold to get to the church and I see there is only one rope there. At first I cannot make myself understand what this means. Perhaps Cotton Mather has arranged my pardon as he hinted he might. Then I realize we are to be hung one at a time. I feel myself grow hot and then cold. Our feet are chained and we must be helped out of the wagon. I feel myself begin to sway. Frantic, I cry to Sukey, “Let me go first Sukey, let me go first.”
“That be fine. Yeah. That good.” Sukey says.
“Thank thee,” I whisper. “Thank thee Sukey.”
They have saved a place for us in front and we are led through the crowd and down the aisle of the church, while Reverend Mather waits at the pulpit. I can barely walk I am so frightened. The crowd presses closer. I hear one of them say “whore,” and a man spits at me. Sukey’s eyes dilate with hate, and Billy, in front of us spreads his arms to shield us. He shifts the tobacco in his cheek as if to spit back at them. He is a big man, and strong from beating those who mocked the way he spoke.

Finally we reach the front of the church, where two chairs have been placed so we must face the congregation. I pull at the warden’s shirt, still afraid. He looks down at me and I say, “I beg thee, Billy, let me go first. Please.” I can feel tears on my face and shrug my arm up to wipe them away. I had promised myself I would not cry.

“Hall tay cay of ih,” he says, in his deep slurry voice. I can understand him now, though it took time. “I will take care of it.”

I sink down near fainting. Sukey holds me up. Billy stands beside us. He spreads his legs and folds his arms. Reverend Mather pauses, and looks down at our little knot of noise and confusion. He glares at the muttering crowd. It falls silent. He begins his sermon.

He first reads from Job, “They die in their youth and their life is among the Unclean.” Then he continues; “You may this day in this congregation behold a very doleful commentary! You have before your eye a couple of malefactors whose murderous uncleanness has now in their youth brought them a most miserable death.” He pauses and stares at Sukey and me. I can feel his eyes on the back of my head. “May your hearts now give a profitable attention unto the use that should be made of such a dismal spectacle, and of the text now read, which has been dreadfully fulfilled in the spectacle. There are two persons in this assembly who shall never hear another sermon; their unclean life is within a few hours to be extinguished by the Justice of God; ere the clock that just now struck and the glass that now runs have done for about four more times they are to be gone before God the judge of all, and because they have been fools therefore their souls before this night shall be required of them."

Oh how he does go on! Suddenly anger replaces my fear. Mr. Blather, I used to call him, though Sukey did not understand my pun. "I suppose the circumstances of these will oblige them to entertain truths of God this afternoon with much agony of the soul, but I demand this from all the rest of you..."

Well he might demand it. Already the congregation has begun to shift about and to try to catch a look at us. I do not blame them. Who could listen? It is a stream of thick words with no light between them.

It is said he is going to read my supposed confession. I did not write it. Near the end he hinted I might be pardoned if I confessed and we haggled over the words he might say in such a document. I wanted to live. I wanted to take care of my living child. Till that time I had always said the babes were stillborn. He played with words and twisted everything I said. How did I know they were dead? Might one have them been alive and I did not detect it? I was not a doctor. Perhaps one of them was breathing lightly and I missed it in my pain and confusion. Perhaps when I wrapped it in linen I cut off its air and did kill it without meaning to do so. Truth be told, I got so sick of his harpingI told him this might be so. He asked me to write a confession and I told him to write it himself, as it would surely please him more that way.

Many say it is an honor that such a man should care about the likes of us. But he does not care about us, he cares about the crowd, filling the church and spilling out onto the common. He thinks this is yet more evidence of his Godliness and Wisdom, though really the people just want to see us die. It will feed some hunger in them.

I am sorry Sukey will have to watch me die, but a desperate selfishness has taken hold of me. I want it to be over now. Pain fills me like an empty cup. My body shakes violently, as if it is cold. I bow my head to keep from seeing the faces in front of me. Some are full of hate and some have the look of a man in the moment before he shoves his cock into a woman. Only on a few faces do I see something softer, as their hearts are pierced by what this really means. That we two women will swing from the scaffold today, will choke and die; that our still warm bodies will be put into the earth, where maggots will consume our sweetness.

"It is true that all Wickedness is called Uncleanness, in those Oracles of Truth which never miscalled any thing. Thus, the Wicked Nature which we were all born into the World withal, has that said of it in Job14.4. It is an Unclean thing. Thus, the Wicked person who does renounce God has that said of him, in Eccl. 9.2. He is Unclean. All our Sinfullness is called A Filthiness of Flesh and Spirit... Why? Because the most Loathsome, Dirty, Nasty Object in the World is not so Distasteful unto us, as all Wickedness is unto our God..." The words become like a cold rain, pattering down on me. They begin to run together as my mind goes its own way.

***

Sukey is lucky, she has no one. The child she killed at birth was the bastard of her master, and she had no other. It was a girl. Sukey had not wanted the poor thing to live in this lonely land where she’d be a slave, at the mercy of any man who owned her. She has different gods and they will not put her into fire or stick her with pins. At the worst she will be a shadow person, wandering here and there, trying to find the village of her birth. Her only fear is that her gods will never find her, lost as she is, across an ocean.

She said goodbye to Billy this morning. He did not know how to say the words, so he thrust the beads at her and reached out to touch her hair. She tied the beads in a scrap of cloth and turned back to him. She smiled and took his hand and brought it to her heart. He let it rest a moment and then turned quickly and left, for his eyes were full and he did not want her to see him cry. He had no name for what had passed between them. He may not have called it love if asked, but he had felt her heat and her soul and she his. They had gone to a place where many did not dare to go. Each had forgiven the other for what they were and had been and would be. When they lay together they both left the priosn for a moment, they left Boston, they left all the rulesbehind only to find them solidly in place when they returned from their journey.

But Sukey would live on in his mind till he himself was put in the cold ground. So Billy stood there and let her move his hand, from her heart to his own, till he could stand the silence no more and left as if pursued by the hounds of hell. He kept his head down as he locked the door for the last time.

***

Reverend Mather spent many hours trying to save our souls. Sukey ignored him, but he didn’t care. To him she was half beast, and barely worthy of his attention. But me, ah, I was a prize. To see me howl my repentance, he lived for such. I could see from his dour face he never knew lust. In my mind I had whispered, ‘Tis easy to forgo a thing you have not known.

I did not understand Sukey’s heathen gods, but I told her that if they had such power as is attributed to gods, no ocean could keep them hence. I do not know if Sukey believed me.

But she believed in the comfort we gave each other. She believed in my quick hands as they picked lice from her wooly hair, she believed in my arms when I held her on cold nights. ‘Tis blasphemous perhaps, but I sometimes think ‘twas God who put us together in that cell as we waited for death. Or at least, a God I could believe in.

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Order Hannah Duston's Sister at:
book.orders@iuniverse.com or www.iuniverse.com

Order the movie based on Sybil Smith's book,
My Mother's Early Lover's at www.offthegridproductions.com


 



Hannah Duston Statue
Haverhill



Hannah and Mary being taken prisoner by the Indians.



Hannah and Samuel Leonardson killing the Indians.



Hannah, Mary and Samuel in the canoe after their escape.


Hannah Duston Statue
Boscowen



This is a picture of me holding a hank of hair at the foot of the statue in Boscowen. I found it when I went there recently, and don't know why someone left it, or what it means, but I found it curious.



Thomas Duston protecting his children as they flee towards the Marsh Garrison.



Hannah Duston's Hatchet