The tool plunged into the muddy earth again with a sucking sound that made her daughter giggle with glee, but her shoulder stung with the effort.
“You like that, little one?” Virginia cooed at the child. Young enough to be safe on a scrap of wool laid on the ground but old enough to begin crawling away every few minutes, the gourd rattle that had passed through her family was a useful distraction for Victoria.
She kept working and would until the dark brought the chill air that could sicken the child, but their garden was their survival. It couldn’t be neglected, and it could still yield food for them and cures to sell to neighbors long into the winter. Her mother’s ancient tricks for growing plants even in freezing temperatures was a boon most families didn’t have in this new world. Their knowledge of what wild plants could be cultivated and eaten added food to their table that others lacked. The skill to detect which flowers and seeds, oils and herbs could heal lent them a chance to earn money or trade goods. Her mother’s secret, shameful lineage — the daugher of a Micmak Indian and a Portuguese fisherman-settler from Conception Bay — was another mixed blessing their brethren didn’t have.
But Virginia no longer had a husband, so life dealt each a balanced hand. He’d drowned while fishing, likely also unsteady from his constant drink. Mourning, as it were, felt more like facing fears that were only more frightening than his being alive. Alive, he beat her and threatened to harm the child. Dead, he forced her to find an income and carry more of the daily burden of protecting her mother and child.
Virginia and her mother were no strangers to strife. Leaving Conception Bay, north of this region, to take up the efforts to settle the Maine Province of the Americas had drawn on every strength they had. Here the winters were a hint milder, the people were a little kinder, with none of those strict Puritans so wont to find poor widows guilty of witchcraft. The earth, unfortunately, was only harder. Rocks populated it as though they could grow, duplicating as rootless weeds, trolls hiding in the dirt to send a bruising percussion up the arm of an over-eager plowman.
That was why she wanted to make the most of this day after a stretch of rain. It was the perfect time to till garden rows before the fall closed into winter. Then she and her mother would plant seeds and create the shelters that kept out snow but could be folded back to let in sun. An old Portugal trick, Virginia assumed, or just as likely an Indian invention.
“Poor Virginia, and won’t you be sore the morrow?”
Virginia lifted her eyes to see her friend Mary Popham waddling towards them, her twin girls running circles ‘round her, hand on a nearly-due belly.
“Aye, won’t I? Not nearly as sore as you for walking all the way up the hill. But the ground was soft.”
Mary let out her soft, sweet laugh and paused to take a pained breath, then kept moving up the hill.
“It seemed wise to come to you rather than wait for Elias. As the babe’s about to arrive.”
Virginia’s eyes widened. “Mary! How long have you been laboring?”
“All afternoon. But after the twins, it hardly seems a twinge. You’ll see. I think the little one’s at the door,” she added with a wink, and gratefully took Virginia’s arm. Virginia sent out a low, hooting whistle that her mother had taught her, and Beatrice appeared at the door of their small cabin with a prescient, urgent expression. Virginia gestured her head to Victoria where she sat, still shaking her rattle on the rug. Beatrice understood at once and her skirts whispered about her ankles as she fetched the babe by the garden to hurry back inside.
“Will you teach me that owl whistle, Virginia? Or rather, teach it to my daughters —” Mary laughed, but ended on low moan cut through clenched teeth.
It was long past moon rise when Virginia emerged from the house again, nearly as exhausted as the mother nursing a kicking and mewling boy child inside. Mary’s childbirth had been easier than her last one, yet these moments were often an uneasy peace. Virginia’s experiences and her mother’s more extensive midwifery had seen many a surprise illness strike women after a safe delivery. Most midwives didn’t host mothers and their elder children within their own home, but Virginia rather liked this house full of women. She equally enjoyed not needing to jump on her horse to ride out in the frigid cold to help.
Yet she relished this quiet moment in the chilly night, the only sound that of a babe quieting, falling safely asleep in his mother’s arms on his first night outside the nurturing chamber of her womb.
The garden would be delayed. Mary wouldn’t be able to pay much, but she would share milk from their cows or goats. And Elias, Mary’s husband, was always willing to lend a hand to the poor widow on the hill that knew how to soothe his children’s fevers. Virginia sighed and worried, ran a hand through her long and curling tresses to let the cool air chill her damp brow. From her hill she could see the ocean, and she counted the spikes of boat masts in the shelter of the sound. A new one on the horizon stood out against the moon’s light.
“Come in and have some broth, get some rest,” she heard her mother say softly from the door. Virginia returned inside, and her weary smile was met with her mother’s knowing nod. “All are sleeping. You should sit and rest.”
Virginia sank into a wooden chair, massaged her fingers into aching eyelids.Their voices stayed at whispers to let the children and mother slumber.
“There’s a new ship in the port. Quite large.”
Beatrice’s head tipped, thoughtful.
“You should try again, Virginia.”
Virginia’s chin snapped up. A petite but fierce woman whose hair, though silver-streaked now, matched Virginia’s odd colors, her mother’s green eyes clashed with hers over the table.
“Now, mother?” She was tired of this pressure from the older woman, the weight of generations of Killigrews imploring her to embrace an inheritance that she wasn’t sure she had been bequeathed, or wanted.
Beatrice nodded. “You are tired. Your resistance, the locks, ehh...” she searched for a Portuguese term and then said, “. . . algemas em sua mente, won’t be as strong. Try. Close your eyes.”
Algemas em sua mente. The shackles on your mind.
A long-suffering sigh escaped her lips, but after a furtive glance at the sleeping denizens of the small house, Virginia closed her eyes. Beatrice coached her in soft whispers, held her hands over the table.
Virginia envisioned the world outside the four walls. Moonlit darkness, the soft touch of breezes over her skin. Beatrice urged her to forget everything, see the owl.
She was exhausted. Normally, she dreaded these attempts to explore her Micmak roots and join the spirit of the animal her mother taught her to know. She feared discovery, dreaded the hatred of her community, many of whom already regarded with slitted eyes the unusually colored Killigrew widows. Perhaps for a moment, she thought, she could indulge and feel as free as an owl on the sea winds.
As if falling asleep and waking in a dream, the feeling of breezes on her skin changed to the prickly elevation of feathers seated in her arms and hands. The moon, through her owl eyes, was almost bright as daylight. Her eyes couldn’t turn, but her head could. She could see fewer colors, but farther, even in the darkness. Virginia heard the rustle of mice in the woodstack. The whispers in the house beneath her talons. The jocular male laughter on a distant ship.
She tried to turn her head to the ship, but she wasn’t in control. The bird raised her arms — wings, Virginia realized. It gave a dismissive ruffle of its feathers and she landed back in her body, staring at her mother in glazed shock.
“I could see. I couldn’t — I had no ownership over its body.”
Beatrice smiled. “When you realize it is your body, you will be able to fly. No algemas em sua mente.” She grasped Virginia’s hand tightly. “Tomorrow I will deliver a message to their ship. We will inform them that any sick or ailing sailors need only crest the hill for remedies. For a fee.”
Virginia fretted her lower lip and glanced to her daughter, curled near the sleeping twins. “Be careful who sees you write it.”