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The White

Mary had loved the family axe as a glittering extension of her own arm. Her father had sharpened it the morning they were taken, and she had been splitting wood, cutting the thick white oak with ease, cleaving filamented piece from piece for the sake of chilly evenings and for cooking. She imagined the flames tentative at first and then thrusting up, spending themselves in the foreign air for the comfort of her family.

And then for what seemed like no reason at all (because her father had said they could make it on their own until late spring, when the closest fort would send a militia to fend off Indian raiding parties), she saw feet in moccasins not far from the woodpile at the base of a shagbark hickory. She lifted her eyes to the impassive eyes and sculpted planes of what she would later learn was not an "Indian's" face but that of a Shawnee.

She spoke no word at this time, though a rage started up within her. So. Feet in moccasins.

So, feet in moccasins were now pressing into the very ground that belonged to her family, and she wondered how Father would explain them away.

How could he, how could he have left them as prey to what after all had hurtled across the horizon, to what with sureness had crept through their fields? No, he had actually led his family. How could he? How could he have led them, as it is written in Scripture, like "sheep to the slaughter"?

Was it for this that she had been conceived?

And born Mary, for so she had been born and named in the yellow air below-decks of the ship Mary William, out of Ireland, bound for Philadelphia. Thomas Jemison and the pregnant Jane Erwin Jemison had sailed out onto the loose, flecked fields of the Atlantic, preferring the clear American wilderness to the Irish civilization of the day. Away from Ireland, they would feel free to want something that was actually obtainable. They wanted a farm.

They landed; they moved straight on out of Philadelphia to a tract of land not far from what would become the town of Gettysburg. What they marked out as their farm lay on the tangled banks of a creek named Marsh. Later they moved to larger fields, on one of which stood a good house and a log barn, and it was here now where Thomas had let them all fall into the hands of six Shawnee and four Frenchmen and where his mouth had been suddenly stopped of his stories, of his resonant Irish jests.

This is how in April of 1758 a Shawnee came to be wearing her mother's indigo shawl; this is why Mary found herself watching a Frenchman pocket the family coins; why another Shawnee packed with great precision yesterday's corn cakes into a sling-like bag which he hoisted to his shoulder as they all took off across her beloved fields.

They just left, then, for somewhere that must have been north and west.

Mary was in the grip of a Shawnee. She was not dead yet, but she knew that if she didn't move fast enough he could simply cut her down and away. His companions would understand what he meant them to know by means of a mere flashing of his eyes in her direction: too much trouble, those eyes would signal; too much trouble, the white girl, too slow.

She closed her own eyes then and stumbled along, deciding to give her captor that trouble. He felt it; he jerked her and then jerked her hard again, as if she were a snag on his fishing line. She didn't care.

Let him jerk her, let him jerk her arm until it hung loose at her shoulder, and then dressed as he was in her mother's shawl he could shoot her or split her skull with his hatchet.

She heard her father's voice: "Mary."

"Mary," he said. "Open your eyes. Watch where you are being led."

Then the young Irishwoman opened her eyes and saw them all–her parents; her brothers, Robert and Matthew; her sister, Betsey; the neighbor and her three children. Then it was not so easy for her to be stubborn, to ask for death; to see them moving far off ahead of her now into the woods she had named for her cow: Boss's Wood.

Besides, if she was to die she didn't want Father's back to her, she wanted him to see her die, to see: let him see and behold where all his good cheer, where his cracked optimism had got them.

Captured by the Shawnee raiding party and headed out across her family's fields.

The fields stood in the mild April sun looking just as they did before her capture.

Mary stared: how could they look as they did? And she answered her own thought: because, the fields are just themselves.

At the time of the French and Indian War the south-central Pennsylvania fields sometimes curved halfway up hillsides. With the unseen roots of a thousand things–Queen Anne's lace, wild garlic, common grass, the corn and flaxseed her father had sown–the soil was held close to the gray shale that made up the sweepings of land. From beneath the rock, the earth's pull kept the heavy red clay from flying up into a sky marked by scuddings of clouds.

Before her capture, Mary had begun to think that although some things of fields–lilies, vines, choking patches of weeds–are mentioned in Scripture, yet they are not Scripture. The things of the fields are themselves. As Scripture is itself and holds only a partial account of the murderous, of good will, and of their frequent twinings.

God, she had ventured to think, may have given her the New World fields to balance the Scriptures and as a perfect refuge from the Presbyterian catechism.

"Consider the lilies how they grow": the Scripture said, "they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." And the lily lives just as it did in Israel, even though it has never brushed up against so much as one page of Scripture. That alone could keep her from going mad.

The lily in a field was a fact. For, she had thought, not even Scripture–in all its glory–was arrayed as one of those.

Excerpted from The White © Copyright 2003 by Deborah Larsen. Reprinted with permission by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The White
by by Deborah Larsen

  • paperback: 219 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375712895
  • ISBN-13: 9780375712890