I was born during a Frolic--brought on, Mama still laughs, by the Dutch clogging dance she did to my daddy's fiddle tune.
Hard labor fills our harvesting weeks, but so does dancing, visiting, and the wonderful Kermis festival. It's then that far flung neighbors gather at our usually quiet village--from as far north as Albany and from down the Hudson River toward Poughkeepsie town. We farmers trade or sell our best apples, herbs, yard-goods, and sundries. Fortune tellers and jugglers come hawking. I even saw a dancing bear once, trapped and trained right here in these Catskill mountains. It all begins with theFrolic. But the Harvest Frolic of 1804 did not start off very well.
That was Asher Woods's doing. He put snakes in the cider, which gave Rebecca Chase the vapors, sending her fainting into the bowl, then onto the floorboards of Community House. Asher was gone by the time Rebecca's father and two brothers came thrashing after him. Long gone. And he was the only boy at the Frolic taller than me.
"Lost your partner, what'll you do?" Rebecca taunted me in her smallest, meanest voice. Then another of Asher's snakes wound by. I rescued the poor creature out from under her. "Look! Ginny Rockwell touches the evil serpent!" she wailed, before she fell to swooning again.
"It's only a garter snake--"
I started to show it to the crowd gathering around, but felt Mama's hands on my shoulders.
"Fetch us a little water, Ginny." She turned me to the door.
"Devil's instrument, Devil's boy ..." I heard Rebecca Chase moan behind me.
Those words iced up my blood. Not with fear of him, mind. I had never feared Asher Woods. Some called him evil and ungrateful to the Chases, who took him in when his own family went west. A Christian deed, folkssaid--none more than the Chases themselves. But even Mama once remarked on how it appeared the Chases took Asher Woods more to their plow than their hearts. And we might know, since our small farm bordered the Chase's spread.
I don't remember his people at all. Seems to me Asher always had the wild, feary eyes of an orphan. Folks say they were part Indian, because they didn't know how to make yeast bread or build themselves a proper house. They lived like gypsies, camping up and down Batavia Kill, weaving baskets and making brooms.
They were weaving more than baskets, the Chases held. They wove spells, and their child might grow to do the same. Our neighbors are good and simple farmers, but Sam Chase was the biggest landowner and almost every mother's son owed him something. So whenever the crops failed, or a cow died, or a barn burned, folks wondered along with the Chases where and what Asher Woods was doing at the time.
I didn't wonder. I knew a different Asher Woods. One set apart from the Chase's wrath, the town's fears of a family they didn't understand. Asher was stealthy, yes, and certainly quick to anger. But even when he argued with Mr. Steenwyck our schoolmaster, his eyeswere bright with the love of learning. After my daddy died, Mama had to sell our best winter wheat field to the Chases to keep us on the land. It was Asher who guarded our sheep from mountain wolves and wildcats while we worked to wall in our diminished twelve acres.
When I remarked on how Mama was going short on her healing salve, Asher took me climbing on the highest mountain of the range that encircles our valley. We call it High Peak; he calls it Middle Sister; and it's where the balsams grow. He showed me the mighty Hudson from the summit. "The river which flows both ways--Muhheahkkunnuck." He laughed when I tried to work the strange sounds through my voice, but said it over once, then twice again, until I'd mastered it myself. Asher swore there was salt in the Hudson from the great Atlantic. I thought he was funning then, but when I asked Mr. Steenwyck, he said it's so.
That day was the first I'd seen our valley from above, like a bird in flight. It took on a measureless beauty of rolling greens, sparkling waters, and rising mists. The piney woods' scent made me feel spirited off the earth itself. I opened my arms wide.
"It's like heaven!"
"What do you know of heaven?" he scoffed at me.
"Only what Mama and I speak of together and what we listen for at church," I began, but could feel his anger strengthening at the very mention of church. The Chases called him godless, unredeemable. I suddenly wanted to know the truth of it.
"What is your heaven like, Asher?" I asked him quietly.
He frowned. "Your ma's wearing down the floorboards." He loaded the branches over his shoulder.
Asher was right. Mama was pacing, fretful and angry, when I returned. That is, until I put the balsam boughs in her arms and told her I was in Asher's company. Then she brought out our Bible and laid one hand on my head, the other over the names of her babies that died, and prayed softly for Asher's deliverance. She attached Asher to those two little boys, asking them to look after him in the ways we could not.
I prayed for Asher's deliverance as I walked around the wagons drawn up to Community House--his deliverance from the hands of the Chases, for I saw Asher growing mean under the burden of their expectations. Even Mama and Mr. Steenwyck had spoken lately in hushed, worried tones of Asher's wildness, his open scorn of religion, and his solitary waysthat made more than one farmer look askance at his approach.
I was almost at my destination when I saw him. He'd climbed on a rain barrel and was peering through the wavy green glass window of Community House. He started to sing, catching the tune from the fiddle inside. I'd never heard Asher Woods sing before.
"Madame I will give you silver, I will give you house and land, I will give you ships on the ocean, All of these at your command."
He stopped, spun around. "Go 'way with your spying on me!" His voice lashed out.
He looked frightfully ragged in his handed-down linsey-woolsey shirt and britches. The Chases kept his hair hacked close to his scalp, but its prickles were shiny as a crow's feather in the moonlight. His black eyes lit into me.
"I came out for water is all!" I answered their taunt.
"Go on and get it then," he said, then went red faced on account of the way the words came out. He'd about clean given up talking lately, his creaky voice mortified him so. Even Mr. Steenwyck couldn't spark him into "lively debate" over President Jefferson buyingthe Louisiana Territory without asking the people who live there, or talking emancipation without freeing his own slaves.
When I asked Mama about Asher's broken-up voice, she said it was him coming into his manhood, and not to tease him. It was the last thing I'd do. Seemed there was an unspoken promise between Asher and me. He never joined in the taunts about Mama and me working our farm as best we could without a man around, about our poverty of material wealth and resulting appearance. And I never called him "lying savage" after he told his ghost stories. I liked Asher's ghost stories and wished he would have used his imagination and energy to tell more of them lately instead of courting the wrath of the Chases.
I pulled the yellow-green snake from my pocket and handed it to him. He let it wind up his arm.
"Hey, did you get any of the ginger cake?" I tried.
"You must be starving!"
"My stomach thinks my throat's been cut," he answered, miserable. I was moved to laugh. A damp laugh echoed back at us as I lowered the bucket into the stone well.
"You ought to plan your mischief after you help yourself to the food," I said.
"That's the trouble of it. Don't plan. I just get these ... ideas. Aww, give me that rope now!" He pulled up the full bucket with easy, graceful movements, the way he did the dance steps I'd taught him at the Jenkins' barn raising two summers past.
"Maybe I am the Devil's boy, like they say."
"'Where there's life, there's hope for salvation,' so my mama's sampler says."
Well, that soft breath of piety turned him to spitting nails fury.
"You trying to save my black soul too then?" he squawked out, then shoved the water bucket against my middle. It didn't hurt, only splashed up water on my bodice and skirts. A regretful look passed over his face, quick as a sigh. "Get on out of here," he fairly whispered.
I put down the bucket and felt into my pocket. "Ginger cake's wet. You still want it?"
"If I do, you'll want something back. I'm not making bargains with a patchwork ganglin' girl nobody wants to dance with."
Now Asher'd been calling me ganglin' since I could remember; it was the closest he'd gotten to an endearment. But the rest came near breaking our promise. I felt my cheeks get hot. Still I kept down my angry thoughts, a whole parcel of them about hisown general appearance and sour pig mash smell. I tried to favor Mama and think instead on the hurt inside him so big that he took pleasure in making even me feel small.
"No bargains. Here," I offered.
He took the cake from my hand, scared and crafty, like a wild thing would. It was past his lips and gone. Not a crumb to bargain for a single dance step. I spoke up then.
"Tell me what you will be doing tonight? What's better than dancing and pies and cakes and bowls of cream set out for the taking?"
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Kintacoy's not so lively as in years gone." His saying that was meant to compliment my daddy, who had been the best fiddler in the valley. Asher remembered the older, Indian name for Frolic--Kintacoy. Did he remember my daddy well? Better than I did? I was about to ask his favorite of Daddy's tunes when mischief sparked his eyes.
"I was thinking of strolling on by the Sutherland place," he said.
"After dark? With the harvest moon high?" I breathed.
"You ever been before?"
"Sure. Plenty of times."
"Seen William Sutherland? Seen the ghosts?"
"Saw blood dripping from the endless flowingwound in William Sutherland's neck. And Sally Hamilton nearly grabbed me with her bony fingers as I tried to cut her loose from that ghost horse of hers!"
"Lord almighty! And you're going back?"
"Hush up with your questions--"
"Could I come with you?"
I'd accomplished catching Asher Woods off guard for the first time in my life. It was almost worth the price that night was to take.
"Course you can't come!" he sputtered out. "No crybaby girl's going to spoil my ghost hunting!"
"I turn twelve next month Asher Woods; that makes me just three years shy of you. And I bet my ganglin' legs run faster than yours!"
"Thinking of running away before we even get there yet!" He laughed.
"That right? Would you take me if I beat you running to that lone oak yonder?"
I made straight for the tree, while he was gloating. When I reached it, Asher was still some feet behind my skirts. He came crashing into the trunk, then slid down, scowling and panting hard.
"Folks will come looking for you."
"No. They'll be dancing for hours yet. I'll bring my mama the water and--"
He took my arm.
"You have to keep up," he warned.
"And no whining, no matter what you see."
"I won't," I promised.
It was a promise we were both to break.