Groton, September 1670
In the intervening year, Suzanne increased her practice. Of the fifty families now resident in Groton, most households had women of childbearing age. Her friend Abigail gave birth to Samuel junior in February, but made it clear she didn’t want to follow her mother’s example in the future. “If I have my way,” she’d told Suzanne, “I’ll have no more than six children.”
Suzanne kept on gathering herbs from the wilderness surrounding Groton both with and without Dancing Light. While she complied with Reverend Willard’s request that she be discrete, she knew he couldn’t know that some of those herbs were Abigail’s salvation.
In the first week of September, Dancing Light came with her digging stone and collecting sack to ask for company. “Time good to dig roots,” she said.
“Yes, wah dub. Wa-ni-ke wah-dub. Dig roots.”
Suzanne pulled her notebook from the mantel and added the new word. Bound to practicing her medical arts in dark, cramped domiciles most of her days, Suzanne longed for these forays into nature. She appreciated the open air, where she viewed nature without the limiting frames of doors and windows, the confining press of ceilings. She only hesitated long enough to consider her condition. She was seven months into her fourth pregnancy, but the baby had turned, which let her breathe easier.
“A moment!” She tied up her skirts and put on her moccasins, then strode to the yard, where Martha harvested summer squash and beans. Her helpers now, Suzie and Hester worked beside her, paying scant attention to their little brother Joseph, who was nearly three now.
“Martha, I’m going to be gathering herbs this morning. I’ll return this afternoon.”
Martha had come to enjoy the days both her master and mistress were gone. With the house to herself, she imagined she was herself a householder and ruled the children with a firm hand, extracting their obedience with zeal. “It's no trouble,” she answered. At that moment, little Joseph, her Standing Heron, headed for the woods at full speed on his long legs. “Joseph, you come back here.”
The boy didn’t stop, but Suzie took after him as was proper for the oldest child. She’d learned she was responsible for her younger siblings. She grabbed him around his middle and lifted him kicking and screaming. “You aren’t going anywhere!” she said.
Suzanne smiled, feeling more confidence at this display. “Joseph, you mind your sisters.”
The two women made their way through the forest along a familiar path, this one following the contour of the Nashau River. ‘Wa-ni-ke wah-dub’ she knew meant digging cohosh and goldenseal. Each fall they made their way to dig up the new year’s supply. These medicinal roots treated ailments more prevalent in winter, and they ran out before the spring. She would be restocking the tinctures and salves she’d mix from these roots. ‘Cohosh’ was Algonquin for “rough,” which described the rough black roots of the plant used to treat the aged for stomach disorders, rheumatism, and swollen joints. It also helped women with painful courses and change-of-life discomfort. Dancing Light told Suzanne that Nashua braves would sometimes ask for cohosh before battle because it made them fierce warriors; some called it ‘battleroot.’ Suzanne named it “black cohosh” in her journal and had noted its efficacy for two winters now. She only wished she could see Joanna again, to let her know about it.
The cohosh patch rested on the bank of a shallow valley. As the trail rounded the top of a hill, she could see the telltale white spikes of the flowers across the dell. They were nearly six feet tall, well established in the wild though mostly wilted and drooping by September.
“Baby come soon?” Dancing Light pointed at Suzanne’s bulging waist as they crossed the valley and climbed the slope to the cohosh.
“Two months. I’m thinking it’s a boy. Boys sit differently than my girls did.” Suzanne smoothed her skirt, revealing her belly’s contour.
“True. We always say the girls are here.” Dancing Light patted the top of her belly, then lowered her hand. “Boys low. Two moons. Good. Time before winter camp. I give baby blessing.”
Suzanne rolled up her sleeves and knelt before the plants, pawing through the rustling foliage to decide where to start digging in the loam. She wanted only the most mature plants. The cool leaves caressed her bare arms and she turned to Dancing Light. “I thank you forever for blessing my Standing Heron. He is loved by the Red God and the White God. But for my next baby, I can’t come to your blessing. Reverend Willard has forbidden it, and I must have his approval.
“Why he say no?” Dancing Light shook her head. “Great spirit not same God?”
“Well, there’s trouble. The Reverend tells us that white God is the only God. A just God. He’ll punish me for listening to another God.”
“Did your God come to you? Did he tell you?”
“No,” Suzanne laughed nervously. “Nothing like that. My God speaks to prophets and ministers, not to me. I would sin if I thought he talked to the likes of me.”
“Then how you know he punish you?” Dancing Light took another position on the bank and began to dig the roots, taking care to bury the flower for each plant she removed to reseed the patch. “Pa-gid-din-nahn” [plant a seed], she’d explained to Suzanne; they must replace the cohosh they removed, which could not grow back after they’d removed the roots. “Great Spirit send me dream. Then I know.”
“White God’s words are the Bible. In the good book, God tells us he doesn’t want his people to worship any God but Him. It is written as He has spoken. The words are written forever. He will not change.” She snipped off the flower and placed it in the cavity left by the cohosh she’d removed.
“Do these words speak here?” Dancing Light asked, pressing her heart.
Suzanne stared at the plant she’d pulled roots and all, then added it to her sack. “No. But He speaks clearly. I know that He wants me to have a christening so He can protect my baby.”
“Christening?” Dancing Light pronounced the three syllables slowly.
“Making my child Christ’s child. Christ-en-ning. A second birth. We bathe the baby in Holy water to clean his sins. God will protect him then.”
Dancing Light sat back on her heels, pondering. “Born two times. Yes. My baby blessing is same. Me ask Great Spirit take the mother’s birth cord, become sky mother, protect him.”
“Very like, but the white God is our father, not our mother. Have you ever thought of becoming Christian?” Suzanne didn’t say it aloud, but the idea popped into her head: she wanted to invite Dancing Light to her baby’s christening.
“When I am girl, Reverend Elliott come to tell about white God. Jesus. But he not come back. We are too far.”
“Jesus. Yes. He is Christ. Did Reverend Willard talk to your people?”
“Yes. He is good man.” Dancing Light nodded and smoothed the soil with her hand.
“But you do not pray with him?”
“Trouble. White man want adopt red man in his tribe. The red man know this.” She stopped to hack at the earth, then continued her complaint with a story about a red man who’d become a Puritan. “Man move to Christian town. Take wife, children. All move away. Leave tribe empty.”
“Yes, I can see that is a problem.”
“Red man loses brother or sister, son or daughter, great spirit helps us heal heart.” Dancing Light patted her bosom. “We take prisoner. Worthy prisoner, we adopt, teach our ways, teach our tongue. White man, same. White man want adopt red man. Same.”
“But prisoners are forced!” Suzanne stopped to face her friend; her forehead creased. She found her friend’s acceptance of abduction repugnant.
“Yes. They fight, but soon see Great Spirit way is good.”
“But Christian Indians choose to come to a Christian town.”
Dancing Light turned to her frowning and grabbed her wrist to stress her words. “Christian Indian make Red tribe weak, make white tribe strong.”
“I see.” Her friend was so adamant that Suzanne gave up pushing her argument farther. Dancing Light’s objection to Christian conversion surprised her. She hadn’t realized that the powwow saw the capture and kidnapping of souls as allowable in her faith. Nor had she realized that her friend considered the act of converting tribal people to the Puritan faith comparable to these abductions. She needed another approach before she could speak to her friend again on the subject. She had filled half her sack, saving room for the next stop. “Finished?” Suzanne rose.
“Yes. Plenty now.” Dancing Light performed her ritual to thank the cohosh for its sacrifice and stood.
The two women descended the bank to reconnect with the trail and followed it another mile to a low patch of golden seal. This plant received its name from its bright yellow rhizome, which when broken, appeared very like a wax seal. The palm shaped leaves spread out in a wide patch, each leaf sporting a red berry that looked like a raspberry, and each rhizome sprouted yellow roots. They ignored the berries, which weren’t tasty and had no medicinal properties that anyone knew. Dancing Light had explained to Suzanne the Indian used these roots for a yellow dye as well as for a tea and a salve. She’d shown Suzanne how to mix golden seal with bear fat to keep bugs off in summer. That was responsible for the colonist’s insistence the Indians smelled bad, though the Indians bathed daily, and the settlers rarely did. In winter, she’d used it for respiratory and digestive problems. Again, gathering the roots, they had no way to avoid killing the host plants, but Dancing Light had shown her that she could replace these precious herbs by planting one rhizome for every one she removed. They were easily divided, but the new plantings would not mature for seven years. That made replanting necessary and conservation doubly important.
Dancing Light knelt and plied her digging stone and lifted a plant. She turned to Suzanne. “Bible say Red spirit not bless baby? Pastor say too?”
“Yes,” Suzanne confessed. She plopped to her knees near the patch. “That’s the other reason I can’t attend the blessing. My pastor tells me that my neighbors are talking about me. They say I am practicing magic.”
“Magic. All medicine is magic.” Dancing Light gave an extra shake to remove the dirt from a root and placed the plant in her bag.
“No! If my neighbors think that, they will say I do the devil’s work, call me a witch. Only God can heal people.”
Dancing Light tapped her chest. “Some call me ‘witch’?”
“True. That’s why my neighbors complain. If they call me ‘witch,’ the magistrates in Boston can hang me dead.”
Standing Light sat back on her heels in shock. “Will they hang me?”
“No,” Suzanne reassured her. “You are an Indian. If you were a Puritan, they could. They would.”
“Then me not ever Christian.” She drove her stone into the soil with vigor, jabbed in the rhizome, and patted earth over the root.
“But you do not practice magic. Cohosh and golden seal are not magic.” She didn’t want to give up on the possibility she could invite her friend to the christening.
Dancing Light again, doggedly, pronounced: “Medicine is spirit. Spirit magic.” She reached into her sack and removed a tobacco pouch. Sprinkling tobacco on the new plantings, she murmured words to them in Algonquin. Suzanne knew that she was thanking the golden seals’ spirits for their sacrifice. Perhaps she’s right, she thought. In her world, every living thing is a spirit.
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