Not Hawthorne

The Path Over Many Histories


If you were born in a certain place and time, and underwent a certain kind of education, you know Hawthorne’s story of a letter, and a forbidden love. He told an excerpt of two lovers’ lives, in their period of interweaving; in the way a cartographer might chart a section of a river, beginning at the point where two tributaries meet.

But what occurred in each life before then, he does not say. Did the man, for instance, sail from England with a group of fellow seekers, hoping for freedom in the New World? Or alone as a fugitive, fearing the discovery of some secret crime? Or at the wish of a young wife, perhaps, devout but sickly, who was called home to God while still at sea. Documentation is entirely lacking; any of these, and more, are possible, when we look back.

When the sources do begin, they are fragmentary, and even, sometimes, conflict. It is difficult to know what is true; we must piece things together as best we can. But that a tragedy occurred, there is no doubt.

“Thank you,” said the young man as he drank from the bowl. His pale face was beaded with sweat: he was wearing too many clothes. The young woman with the long sable braids looked at him with eyes that were dark as pitch, but sparkled merrily. She watched the movement of the man’s lips and the muscles of his throat as the water slaked his thirst. Her little boy clung to her leg, peering at the stranger from behind her thigh. That was the first day.

Her name has been lost. But it is known that she was the widow of a great warrior, a youth cut down in a battle with another tribe. A man so beloved by his fellows that they could not bear, for a long time, to look upon his son and see his father’s eyes. So she had borne her loss alone. She moved through the village slowly, going about her daily tasks with their gaze upon her. She felt their thoughts, full of pain, and knew they were struck silent and immobile with grief.

Then the stranger came. A man no older than her husband had been, but pale-skinned, with oddly pocked cheeks and a chin full of whiskers. He had brown eyes and brown hair, and he seemed nervous and afraid. He was driven by some urgency related to an object that he carried, clutching it often to his heart. A rectangular thing, covered in thick hides, with many thinner layers of hides within, all covered with rows of black marks. They pitied him, and wondered what it was that he was struggling to say. They had heard before of white men, but he was the first one they had seen.

She taught him their language, and found him a quick study. She learned some of his words, too, though they felt strange in her mouth: flower and sun. Horse, fire, sleep. He helped cut wood, and sweep, and carry water, and together they laughed as each made mistakes in the other’s tongue.  Sometimes, at the end of the laughter, their eyes met, and held.

The boy was better at the English, and showed the man where to fish. How to set a trap for rabbits, and where wild strawberries grew. Sometimes, in the evening, the three of them walked together along the river.

When he could speak like them, they understood that his hide-bundle held stories the Great Spirit had told his people. He wanted them to believe, and they said they did. In exchange, they told him the stories the Great Spirit had told their ancestors long ago, and the white man, it is said, believed them too.

But in the night-time, the man was wracked with evil dreams. They shook him so that he sweated and cried out. His own father rose before him in the moonlight, holding a switch. Did I not teach you to hate wickedness? You will burn in eternal fire! You must bring these heathens to God.

But it was the heathens that brought him—where? To another world, unlike the one in which he’d been raised, but strangely like his inner one. You are a changeling, his mother had joked when he was little, seeing his strangeness. He was very young when he stopped telling anyone the things he saw and sensed. Like the little man who led him home through the woods once when he was lost, and then vanished among the trees. Or the whinnying sound, and the smell of warm horseflesh, that rushed through his room the night his beloved pony died.

Among these savages, as his mother would have called them, things of this kind were commonplace. They happened and were met with a nod, or a smile. The man felt as though he were falling, and at the same time, ascending; he felt dizzy, all his bearings lost.

Was his sojourn here a visit to Eden, he wondered, or a temptation sent to test his soul? For in matters of the flesh, they knew little shame. Love was needed, she let him know one evening, placing her palm upon his chest; his breath quickened at her closeness, and he felt a swelling in his loins. There lies damnation! cried his father’s voice, and he thrust her from him, turning sharply away. Neither of them, that evening, saw the other’s tears.

But there came many other days, and nights. Seasons waxed and waned, and the man’s arms grew strong with work. A few times in the year, he traveled to the trading post, and was proud to bargain well on her people’s behalf. In the evenings, he read from the hide-bundle the songs of David, an ancient king, and he listened to the woman as she sang her boy to sleep.

One night while the child lay dreaming, the man sat for a long time beside the woman as they stared into the fire. Then his hand sought hers, and held it; their eyes met next, and then their lips.  In the current of heat that flowed between them, the man heard God speak with Solomon’s words: How beautiful are your sandaled feet, oh maiden; the curves of your hips are like jewels. He stood and drew her after him, to a place where they could be alone. Arise, my beloved, and come away.

At exactly that moment, some hundreds of miles distant, a servant was pouring three gentlemen more wine.

“They will all perish sooner or later,” said the one leaning on the mantelpiece.

“Of course—our security requires it,” answered the one sitting on the divan. We all agree on the end, his tone conveyed. All that is in question is the means.

“I don’t want to lose any more soldiers,” said the man in the armchair.  He was older and more dignified in appearance than his companions; he spoke with a commanding air.

“Certainly not, if it can be avoided the divan-sitter concurred. “But will your method be effective, sir?”

The discourse now grew mathematical. Exponential growth, the venerable armchair-occupant explained, was a phenomenon of truly amazing power; and hastening to the secretary that stood in the corner, he seized a quill and sheet of foolscap and began to calculate. In a few moments, the page was passed from hand to hand, and in three minds, a powerful logic unspooled.

It’s them or us, so better them, it started. But we are modern men of science, it went on.  Conclusion: best make it efficient, since it must be done.

“How long do you think—”

“A few months, perhaps.”

“Far better all round than years of fighting, isn’t it?”

The man in the armchair drained his glass. (The sensation of warmth that filled his belly was the ancestor of two very similar sensations that would arise, centuries later, in the guts of two other commanders, as they sealed with alcohol key insights of their own. For one, it would be the realization that mushroom clouds, rising into Japanese skies, could save thousands of American lives; for the other, it was a recognition that it really would be best, on the grounds of humanity, to order the painless gassing of the Jews. But we are not concerned here with the genealogy of sensations, nor of morals.)

Then the man rose from his chair feeling weary, as one does after a long day’s work. (All three of them, he guessed correctly, would sleep well.) He scribbled a brief note, standing at the desk:  two blankets was the request it contained. An envelope was found, addressed, sealed. The man rang for the valet.

“When can you deliver it?” The hour was already late.

“First thing tomorrow,” the man replied.

And so it transpired. The dawn light found the commander’s servant at the smallpox hospital’s gate.

It is here that the sources grow most scanty, and what evidence there is, most opaque. Historians, consequently, have argued about just how events unfolded, and why. There are some—they are a minority, to be sure, but a vocal one—who claim the missionary knew what he was about. Perhaps a night of drinking at the tavern near the trading post, in the company of some soldiers, had stoked his hidden hatred of the reds—and in particular of their men, who’d reminded him daily, with every glance and gesture, of his weakness, and their superior strength. Or perhaps it was a preacher he got drunk with, who waked his fear of hellfire for abandoning his Lord. Or perhaps it was a woman, who awakened in his soul some strange mix of lust and guilt that turned to rage. Whatever the reason, this theory goes, the man became an eager killer, bringing seeds of death to the camp.

But most of us doubt this. It seems far more likely that the man was surprised when the soldier pressed upon him the gifts from the commander to the tribe. Tokens of friendship, he must have deemed them, and of strengthened trade relations—signs of peace, that gladdened his heart with hope.

However it happened, it was he who brought them. The quilts made by some unknown Englishwoman’s hands: pretty in their patterned squares of linen, and their varied colors, alternating light and dark. And it was he—in thanks for all his kindness, and his service to the tribe—who was given the right to determine their first use. So of course it was to her and to her boy that he brought them. He watched their faces light with pleasure at the softness of the blankets, and at their warmth, as they nestled underneath. It was his hands that tucked them in to sleep.

When the soldiers found him, the next autumn, they did not think he was a man. The creature crouched among the trees, like something expecting to be hunted; its long dirty hair and beard nearly obscured its human eyes. It was some time before he would approach their fire, and even longer before he would speak.

But he was young, and strong of constitution. And perhaps, in actual fact, protected by some god.  So that he found himself, by springtime, being welcomed as Reverend in the town. Being helped to set up house by one of the older ladies, who hired out his washing, and sent her son to help him fix his roof. And who told him, one bright morning, that he must have new linens, and there was a seamstress in town as gifted as any in London, or Paris even! She was a young lady, apparently, quite remarkable, and not exactly a widow (at this the Reverend looked quizzical, and his informant hastened to explain) for her husband was presumed to be lost at sea. He hadn’t been home or even heard from in years, but the poor girl still held out hope. As for what she could do with her needle? Well, you really must see—

A knock interrupted the good lady’s chatter, and the clergyman opened the door. The young woman who stood there was demurely dressed, and held a basket in her hands.

“Good morning, Reverend Dimmesdale,” said she. Her brown eyes had a warm lustre, and there was an instant’s pause in his reply.

“Good morning.” He stepped aside as he gestured for her to enter. “Do come in,” he said, “Mrs.—”

“Prynne,” she said, passing close.

~ Kimberly Gladman ~