AT BATAVIA CREEK
At first I took the voices at Batavia Creek for some early-spring childishness. But the taunts--"Heathen!" and "Ugly savage!" were not childish. My sister's howl of defiance made me come running.
Four boys held Susannah down while Sam Younger painted across her nose and cheeks with red creek-bed mud. I hauled him off first, ripping his coat sleeve at the shoulder. Then I yanked the smaller ones back. I grabbed the oak branch lying in the creek. I swung it once over my head, so angry I couldn't speak. But it was not as they said later. I would not have brought that branch down on any. Not without further provocation. None dared provide it. They all ran.
Sam Younger had an ounce more spirit than the rest, for he stood still long enough to shout, "Dirty savages!" before he followed them. They disappeared behind the Chase gristmill. The branch felt suddenly heavy to me. I put it down and returned to my sister.
She was on her knees at the creek bed. Her gown was torn and her hair, loosened from its bonds and braids, flew about her face and shoulders like black raven wings. Strands were stuck to the mud on her cheeks. But Susannah paid none of it heed. She was groping in the icy waters for the red glass beads she'd worn so proudly to the schoolhouse that day.
"They're shiny, Josh," she said. "Help me."
"Never mind them. Come out of there."
"No. Help me find the beads."
"Damn the beads! Damn Daddy for letting you wear them!"
She finally stopped, shocked, I think, at my language. I was never disposed toward cursing or blasphemy. Not that I hadn't heard any, because of our father's unfortunate habit. Susannah let me help her out of the water. Still her eyes searched. "It's not the beads did this, Josh," she said quietly.
"I know, I know that." My voice tripped out, squawking and clumsy over the words.
"Then help me."
I managed to find three beads shining amid the rush of water tumbling over blue stone. They were small, worthless trinkets, beads white men traded to Indians for things of real value. Susannah placed them with the others in her hand and counted carefully, as if they were rubies. There had been nine beads woven into each of the three plaits in her hair. Although we only counted twenty-six, she seemed satisfied.
"You're still short," I told her.
"No. I gave one to Gilbert."
"He was here. Before them. Josh, the beads have power. They brought Mama and Daddy together. They helped Gilbert to finally kiss me."
"A month we've been meeting here, talking. He asked to see my hair unbound, Josh. When I loosened my braids hepressed his face in the strands, imagine that? It felt wonderful--I never felt with my hair before. Then I took one of the beads out, put it in his hand. That's when he kissed me. That felt--"
"He has no business in your hair! Or kissing you!"
"Don't you dare say a word, Joshua Woods! My hair and kisses are my own; I will do as I please with them!"
"'Them' is it now?" I half teased as I soaked my handkerchief in the creek's flow and wiped my sister's forearms, then her face. I adjusted her red cloak about her shoulders. She smiled a fragile smile, then locked her eyes on mine. There was nothing fragile about her eyes, black and deep as a pool in a cave.
"Don't you see, Josh? I am used to being different, stared at because I favor Daddy. From the others it's disdain. With Gilbert, it's from wonder, I know it now."
"He's half a head shorter than you, Susannah."
She smiled. "He's daily growing." Her hand bridged over to my shoulder and she tickled my ear. "You'll understand soon."
I frowned. Susannah and I were both nearly fifteen in that early spring of 1824. But my twin had been born three minutes before me, and had been ahead of me in everything since, as she was often pointing out.
"I'll be marrying Gilbert, Josh."
I stammered into speechlessness.
"Don't you like him?" she asked.
"I--'Course I do, but--"
She giggled. "Not tomorrow! Not for years. I just know it from today on."
"Oh." I sighed out my relief. She wasn't that far ahead of me.
She laughed, which made me glad at first, even if she was laughing at me, just so she laughed. Then tears came.
"I was so afraid," she whispered. "Imagine that? Of children?But through them I felt the hatred between our families growing stronger."
Susannah shivered so hard the chill went through me as well. She was talking about the Chases, and the people who chose to follow them, who have been feuding with our family for decades.
"It wasn't because I wore Daddy's beads in my hair," she said. "They hurt me because Gilbert is one of their own, and he loves me."
I held her then, and rocked her. I closed my eyes and returned clear back to our first remembrances--Mama's hair turning gold in the summer sun, her laughing eyes, the sweet smell of her. And Daddy was the earth itself--dark, mysterious, a mountain of sweat and hard limbs for us to tumble about at the close of the day. We'd talked about it, Susannah and I, and discovered our first images of them were twinned, like us, though we two were now as different as Mama and Daddy, our own night and day. That memory was from before we found out that not all reveled in our family's differences.
We don't even look like brother and sister, much less twins. I favor our mother, a tall Dutch-Yankee mix, fair with brown eyes and hair. Susannah has the cheekbones, high-bridged nose, the blue-black hair and eyes of our father. He is not of the stock common to Stony Clove. His people were French Huguenots who married with the Wekagjock Indian people of the Hudson River Valley before they took to these mountains, then married into Mohican lines as well. My father has no kin left but us. He seems bound only to the distant, forgotten past.
Susannah and I were no longer children. She was growing into her mysterious womanhood, and I was behind, angry and alone. Not at her. At my father, who would not try harder to belong, if not for his own, for her sake. As I held her I feltI was holding myself. Her tears were the ones I kept inside me, freed.
Susannah wiped her cheeks with the back of her hands.
"Sam Younger's going to catch hell's bells for his ripped coat sleeve," she said, grinning. "You were breathing fire, Josh."
I had felt righteous and alive, defending my sister there by the creek. But I did not want to spoil it with the sin of pride, so I hid my smile. "Well, I'll need help in the future. Tell Gilbert to grow faster."
"Charlie and Ross would have helped. I miss them."
I pictured the happy, beaming faces of the uncles with whom we'd been raised.
"So do I."
"But you'll have them again, when you go to university. And I'll still be missing them, and you as well."
"If I go to university," I corrected her. "That's far from decided."