Crossing over the Shawshin River bridge, we entered the Boston Way Road, which would lead us north to Andover. We passed the houses of our new neighbors, the Osgoods, the Ballards, and the Chandlers, all to the west of us. And there, just ahead to the east, was the town's southern garrison. The garrison was a stout two- storied house with provisions and ammunition kept on the second floor. The stockades were of great necessity, as there were still violent Indian raids in the surrounds. Only the year before had there been a deadly raid on Dover. Twenty-three were killed. Twenty-nine children were captured to be kept or traded back to their families. We hailed the guard, but as the windows were frosted, the man posted on the lookout did not see us and so he did not raise his hand to us as we passed by.
Just north of the garrison, set off from the main road, was my grandmother's house. It was smaller than I had remembered and more homely, with a steeply pitched roof and an iron- cladded door. But when the door opened and Richard came to greet us, I remembered well the old woman who followed him out. It had been two years or more since our last visit. Her bones did not like to travel to Billerica by cart, she had said. And she told my mother she would not imperil her daughter's immortal soul by having us travel to Andover until my parents had started going to the meeting house on each and every Sabbath. We could be captured and killed by Indians on the way, or waylaid by path robbers, or fall into a sinkhole and drown, she had said. And then would our souls be lost forever. The years of separation from Grandmother were testament in equal parts to my mother's obstinacy and her great dislike for sitting in a pew.
The old lady lifted Hannah at once from my mother and welcomed us into a house warmed by a great fire and the smell of a cooking pot, reminding us that we had eaten only a few hard biscuits at dawn. I walked through the house, sucking my stinging fingers, looking at the things my grandfather had made. He had died some years before I was born and so I had never met him, though I had heard Richard say he was so alike my mother that bringing them together was like throwing oil onto a burning brand. The house had one common room with a hearth, a table hand- rubbed and smelling of beeswax, butter, and ashes, a few rush chairs, and one fine carved sidepiece for storing plates. I ran my fingers lightly over the designs, wondering at the cunning workmanship. Our house in Billerica had only benches and a rude trestle table with no pretty patterns to please the eye or the hand. The Andover house had one small bedchamber off the main room and a stairway that led up to a garret room filled with a lifetime of crates and jars and wooden trunks.
My parents, with Hannah, were given Grandmother's room and bed, while she took a cot next to the hearth in the common room. Andrew, Tom, and I would sleep in the garret, while Richard would have to make his rest with the ox and the horse in the barn close behind the house. He could stand the cold better than most, and Mother said it was because his inner heat was not diminished by an open mouth and a loose tongue. He was handed most of the blankets, as he would have no way of making a useful fire in the hay. Grandmother found for the rest of us a few old relics of batting for our covers against the freezing air.
The first night, the house was filled with the sounds of the walls settling against the layering snow and the warm animal smells of my brothers. I was used to sleeping in an alcove with Hannah at my chest as a warming stone. I lay on my pallet shivering in the cold, and when I closed my eyes I could yet feel the movement of the wagon. The straw worked its way out of the ticking and pricked the skin on my back, making me restless. There was no candle to light our room, and I could not see where my brothers lay sleeping only a few feet away. At long last a shaft of moonlight worked its way in between the boards at the window, and the long-necked jars made shadows of headless ghost-soldiers on the rough timbers, marching as though in battle with the moon shafts traveling across the walls. I threw off the batting and crawled across the splintered planks, feeling along with my hands until I reached my brothers' pallet and crawled in close to Tom. I was too old to be sleeping with my brothers and would be punished in the morning if caught, but I pressed myself close to his huddled form and, taking in his good warmth, closed my eyes.
Copyright © 2008 by Kathleen Kent
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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