A Thanksgiving Short Story by
A Thanksgiving Short Story by
As beautiful in death as she had been in life, Rachael lay in a patch of mud with an Indian arrow through her heart. Our only cow.
Three years ago my eleven brothers and I, Joseph Isaacson, along with our wives and children, had been banished to this relentless rock in the North Atlantic. Beyond the horizon lay the rest of Massachusetts Bay Colony. We had named our little chunk of wet rock Jacob's Home, after our father. It was our intention to bring him here to live out his last days with his children and grandchildren. Father scratched out a living on the family croft in Dorset. The land belonged to his older brother Esau, who had abandoned it for the counting houses of London.
Uncle Esau tried to convince us that he had chosen wisely when he petitioned the king for the deed to the island, but none of us had been too pleased when he loaded the whole family and four servants onto one of his ships and sent us into the unknown.
Father had objected to Uncle's high-handedness, saying that the outcome of such adventuring was surely death. Jacob's Home was unique in the new world, boasting a settlement which had not lost a single person in three years. In fact, in our time here we had added another four mouths to feed. It had taken us this long to establish a settlement. We may not have been thriving, but we were still here.
It was now autumn, and our women planned a celebration feast with prayers of thanks for our meager success, if you can call our bare bones existence a success, and prayers of supplication for the coming winter. We had invited everyone near enough to make the trip, the five members of the family from the island half a mile away.
Our first thought on finding our cow, named after our loving mother Rachael, was that we had an Indian uprising on our hands. As far as we knew there were no Indians within canoe distance of our island. At least we had never seen one. Even the natives shunned our barren rock.
She had been a good milker. Our tragedy was that she had birthed a bull calf the first summer. Finding breeding stock was not easy in the colonies, but we were able to breed her again when we found a functioning bull on the mainland. Getting her there and back in our two man dory was a story in itself. This spring she bore a second bull calf. We were now the only colony to have two bulls and no cow. And no milk.
My brothers shared my feeling that we faced more danger than we had since our first few months of our life here.
Since we had neither the time nor the materials to build a structure big enough for the whole community, we gathered around the table by the common fire and the oven to discuss the situation. The wind off the ocean was chill and the sky threatened rain. Perhaps our next project should be a meeting house.
The loss of Rachael was dire. One cow had not been enough to serve everyone on the island. By now we should have had three cows.
Levi, always the first to speak, called us to order. "We must make sure the cow is properly butchered. I have already asked my wife and some of the others to see to it."
We all nodded at his wisdom. She would give us leather for a few pair of shoes, horn for a plate or two and spoons, fat for a hand full of candles and soap, and enough meat for one good feast. But never again milk.
"Who could have done such a thing?" asked Judah. "We were made to believe it was Indians, but why would they come here now, kill our cow and leave with no other damage done. My wife counted the chickens when she let them out this morning and not one is missing."
"But there were two missing last week, remember?" said Judah's wife. "We thought the hawks got them."
We had long since given up the biblical admonition that women should keep silence. Our wives joined us, each standing behind her husband. They murmured their support but had no helpful suggestions. We were no closer to figuring out who had killed Rachael when the storm hit and sent us scurrying to our houses. Through the night we huddled with our families while the fragile houses shook and moaned. In my restless sleep, I dreamed of cows coming out of the sea, as though they had walked from Portsmouth under the ocean. None were as beautiful nor as well cared for as our Rachel.
My wife rose before me to lay the fire and begin breakfast. "What a lovely day. It's as though the rain washed everything clean."
All I could see when I looked through the tiny window was rivers of mud running toward the sea and ominous black branches, denuded of their colorful autumn leaves by the winds that swept the island in the night.
I was not anxious to put on the clothing that had been soaked through by the pelting rain, and smelled of mold. I sighed as I picked up my coat. It had been a deep chestnut brown when we arrived. It was now faded to a tan, and had so many patches, each of a different cloth, that it looked like the coat of many colors from the story of my namesake and his captivity in Egypt.
As my wife helped me into the damp wool garment she said, "It isn't so bad here, my dear. You and your brothers are looking at it all wrong. We have what we need and what we don't have has only made us stronger." She patted my shoulder and said, "Bring me back a fine fat bird for the feast."
I shook my head at her innocence and lack of understanding.
Benjamin and I grabbed our nets; no sense in wasting what little gunpowder we had left, and headed toward the now naked forest to find turkeys.
Others would spend the day gathering mussels and lobsters on the arms of broken rock that reached out on either side of the beach.
How boring our diet was.
The beach was covered with the detritus washed up by the storm. We took a few minutes poking around in it to see if it had brought us any treats. A broken oar, an old shoe, and three dead fish that smelled to high heaven were our gifts from the sea. The sun was still low in the east and only a few beams reached the beach.
"What's that gleaming over there?" I pointed to a pile of dark seaweed with a bright spot in the middle.
"Looks like silver," Benjamin answered.
Sure enough it was a silver cup, somewhat battered. It bore the initials "EI" in ornate script. Our family name was Isaacson, but not one of us owned a silver cup, and none of us had a Christian name beginning with E. Uncle Esau was EI, but what could his cup be doing here?
"The lord taketh away and the lord givith," said Benjamin, slipping the cup into his sack. A silver cup for a cow seemed like a fair exchange.
One of the few joys of the new world was that we could hunt anything we wanted without our betters telling us we were breaking any law. I was sure no king ever set out for turkey using nets. By mid-afternoon we had bagged five cuts, one of them severe, two lost buttons, a torn sleeve a twisted ankle and three birds, one big enough to eat.
I'd like to tell you that the beauty of our island home made up for the poor showing. I was thinking no such thing as I hobbled into our tiny village hanging on to Benjamin's arm as he held a kerchief to his bloody hand.
On the morning of the feast, the sun rose out of the sea in the east, and the full moon set over the land beyond the horizon to the west. The women had been up and out for hours, preparing for the arrival of our guests. By mid morning our neighbors had arrived bearing pies of fruit and honey, and a bottle of wine they said had washed up on their shore a few months ago.
The table groaned with corn, potatoes, beef, turkey, lobster, ale from our own works, rye bread and one loaf of wheat bread, a rarity on an island that could not support a crop of wheat.
My wife had made a pudding of dried berries, honey, eggs and the last of the milk. The other wives had done amazing things with our scant stores.
How we longed for a good side of mutton.
Family and guests were gathered around the table. Levi had concluded a good half hour of prayers of thanksgiving as we consumed the food with our eyes, the wonderful odors rising like incense to heaven. We were about to take our seats and dig in when we heard shouting from the forest beyond the recently harvested field of Indian corn.
I looked around to see who was missing. We were all here.
The shout came again.
Zebulon and Asher, snatching up the blunderbuss, just in case, went to see who it was.
From so far away, we could tell only that the intruder was an Englishman, but not one of us. He was dressed in rags and leaning on a stick that could have been the other half of the broken oar we found on the beach. He had no hat and seemed to be wearing only one shoe.
Right away everyone began whispering that this stranger might very well be the killer of our cow. Gad's wife suggested it was an angel come to share our food, and we should welcome him lest more bad things befall us.
Zebulon and Asher stood talking to the stranger for some time before they turned and started back toward us.
It took forever for the three of them to traverse the stubbly corn field. Asher supported the man who seemed unable to bear weight on his left foot. In the middle of the cornfield they stopped while the stranger bent over and retrieved what must have been a few yellow kernels from the ground. He stood looking at them for some time while Zebulon and Asher showed their impatience by kicking at the soil. The stranger pocketed the corn and they resumed their trek across the field. The closer they came, the more familiar the stranger looked. He wore well tailored clothes that had suffered much from living wild. His hair hung limply to his shoulders. I could tell long before he came into my presence that he needed a bath.
Rubin leapt to his feet and cried out, "Uncle Esau, when did you arrive in the New World?"
Uncle Esau fell into the offered seat and grabbed the nearest mug of ale and drank deeply.
"I landed in Boston in mid summer," he said. "Didn't your father write and tell you?"
"We have received no word from home since we landed here," I said.
"How did you get to the island?" asked Nepthali.
"My agent in Portsmouth provided me with a small boat. It broke apart in the recent storm; now I am stranded here."
As though it were the most natural thing in the world to hide out in the woods and spy on us, he continued, "I came to see if you fared well. It seems you have."
At Uncle Esau's misjudgment of our situation, we all began to set him straight at once. The wives listed shortages of new cloth, cooking pots, soap, and fine lace. Some of us complained about the food we were able to scrounge from the island; others of the lack of gunpowder. One single entreaty could be heard above the din. "A cow; we need a cow."
"Why are you here at all?" asked Gad. "I though you would be in London counting your money, while father starved on the family croft."
"It was your father's choice to keep the croft," he said, some of his dignity returning.
He studied our group of houses huddled together on the lee side of the island. Then he looked into each of our faces as if to determine how we had weathered the hardship of wilderness living.
"I came to see in person my extensive holdings in this new land." Esau was silent for a time. "I thought by sending you here I would be rid of the lot of you. You weren’t supposed to prosper."
We looked at him in astonishment. "Prosper?" Levi almost shouted. "You call this prospering?"
It was Dan who realized the true import of his words. "You sent us here to die? You wanted the croft back enough to eliminate all the heirs of Jacob? Why? You have done far better in the counting houses in London."
For the first time Uncle Esau looked a bit repentant. Just a bit, mind you. But we sons of Jacob were wise in the ways of our devious uncle. Together we must have resembled the storm clouds that devastated his camp site two nights ago.
Esau took the corn out of his pocket and dropped it on the table. "This," he said.
Dan spoke next. "Indian corn? What's so special about Indian corn?"
Esau was silent, clearly weighing his options, before he went on. "There are so many crops here that we don't have in England. The climate isn't so different. The croft brought forth only hay when I left, not much of a money crop. But now the land could be turned to growing new world crops, tobacco, Indian corn, potatoes. The land could be valuable again." He paused again before admitting the reason for his deviousness. "If I had it back, I could become rich again."
"Again?" asked my wife. "When last we saw you, you could take baths in the coin you had."
"Most is gone, the rest I am using to recoup my losses."
"So, here you are on our island with no money and no way to get home?"
At last he seemed to realize he was at our mercy. He nodded.
Having drained the mug, he picked up a horn cup of ale and drank deeply.
At last he spoke again. "A fortnight ago I made a camp in the woods. When I saw how well you were doing I began to eliminate your resources. Dried corn from the crib, iron from the store house, tools. Eggs and even chickens. All things that would sustain me. All things that would impoverish you."
Judah ran for the store house to check Esau's story and came back shaking his head.
Esau was staring at the silver cup filled with late blooming purple asters that Benjamin's wife had set in the middle of the table. He grabbed it, flung the flowers aside and pocketed the cup.
"That's mine. I found it," said Benjamin. Uncle Esau shook his head, denying Benjamin's ownership of the cup and our foolishness at believing it was so.
"You shot our Rachael and made it look like Indians," said Dan.
"Rachael? I didn’t shoot anyone," replied Uncle Esau.
"Our cow," I cried. "You shot our cow."
"She was our only cow," said Simeon. His gentle voice belied the rage we were all feeling when our uncle admitted the crime.
"But she was with calf when you left and I was told in Portsmouth that you bred her again last year. Had you been wiser in your husbandry you should have three cows by now."
Levi's wife piped up. "It was your intention to kill us all? And now you expect us to take you in?"
Our invited guests sat watching the proceedings as though we were acting out the latest play on the boards of a London playhouse. I expected them to clap at any moment.
Levi summed up the situation quickly. "Now that your boat is gone, you are dependent on us for your survival."
Benjamin's young pretty wife said, "We could hold him for ransom until he paid for your father to join us here."
"Or we could kill him now and be done with all this," said Gad's wife. "Who would know?"
"Where is your Christian charity?" asked my own wife. I gazed at her open mouthed. Charity to a man who had treated us so?
She went on. "We are twelve households Surely we can watch him. He would be our guest, but he would also be our prisoner.
Uncle Esau gazed at her for a long time. Finally he drew himself up and looked each of us in the eye. "I have one thing I can offer you that none of you can afford to turn down."
"What might that be?" asked Levi.
"I have enough resources left that I can pay you for the privilege of staying alive in your company. I can start by getting you another cow."
As if to show how true this was, he removed the cup from his pocket and handed it to Benjamin.
Thus, the tiny community of Jacob's Home accepted a murderer into its midst.
© KB Inglee, 2014