"WE'VE BEEN GIVEN a warning," said Andrew, his voice high and brittle. It was dark but we could feel our breaths mingled together as we talked. Tom and Andrew and I sat on the sleeping pallet, our knees touching, our heads covered with the batting to mask the sounds of our whispers. Grandmother had prepared for the Sabbath with lengthy readings from Scripture before supper and it was hours before we could climb the stairs to our garret room for sleep. And so in the dark of the attic Andrew told us of Father's progress north up Boston Way Road to the meeting house, the farmsteads lying along the frozen banks of the Shawshin as many as cones in a forest.
Approaching the village center, they came upon the meetinghouse, larger than the one in Billerica, with a full two stories with leaded- glass windows. It was the constable who unlocked the doors, letting them in to wait for the selectmen. The constable, John Ballard, had been positioned for fifteen years, though he was but thirty- two, and was a great bull of a man who lived less than half a mile from Grandmother's house. Andrew grabbed my elbow, saying, "Sarah, you should have seen this fellow. He had hair the color of brass and a face that looked like boiled wax. Surely the man was poxed to have such holes on his face."
It was another two hours before John Ballard returned with the selectmen, having left my father and brothers to shake off the cold below the drafty timbers. There were five patriarchs who finally gathered together in the meeting house, each wearing a thick woolen cape, none being turned or patched. They bore themselves with tight reserve and had names that were well known in Andover: Bradstreet, Chandler, Osgood, Barker, and Abbot. It was they who had the power to decide which families could stay and which families would be turned out. They sat together on benches facing my father, appearing as judges at a trial to which one was considered guilty until innocence could be proven. The most impressive, according to Andrew, was Lieutenant John Osgood, a severe and long- faced man who neither smiled nor made any words of greeting. The other men deferred to him in all things and it was he who asked most of the questions. A younger man, the town clerk, followed close by and made with quill and ink a record of the judgment.
Andrew said, leaning closer to me, "This Lieutenant Osgood shuffled a few papers about, then looked Father up and down and asked him if he knew of the smallpox in Billerica. Father answered him aye, he did know of it. Then he asked if any of us was brought to Andover ill, and Father answered no, that all of us were fit. The lieutenant squinted hard at Father, shaking his head, and I thought we were in for it. And then, what do you think happened? The door flew open and there, standing like the Angel of Light, was Reverend Dane. He stood next to us, facing those five men, and spoke of Grandmother and her long good standing in the town and asked to let us stay. I tell you, they were blown over by his words as foxglove is by a summer wind."
"Then, can we stay? Yes or no?" demanded Tom, gripping my hand.
Andrew paused, savoring our tension, and finally said, "We may stay but are given a caution. We must follow all the town's laws and attend prayer service or we will be sent back to Billerica." With that, a violent shudder passed through his body and he coughed a dry, rasping cough. I placed my palm over his forehead, and it was like placing it on a burning kiln.
"I'm very tired," he said, dropping back onto the pallet, his eyes like two burnt coals in a blanket. Tom and I lay down and followed Andrew into our own dreams. Sometime later in the night, I woke thinking I had fallen asleep next to the hearth. I reached out in the darkness and touched Andrew's neck. His skin felt hot and papery-dry, and his breath smelled sour and thick. I moved closer to Tom and fell quickly back to sleep.
Copyright © 2008 by Kathleen Kent
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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