Once Upon a Time in Maryland

The times were far from happy, but they were stable and predictable in their badness, and that was almost good, in its own way.

Once Upon a Time in Maryland
Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral / Unsplash

by Emily Strempler

Well, here I was, shelling peas on my very own back step, and my grandson, the good boy that he is, comes out and sits down and asks me to tell him a story, that he might write it down. For practice, he says. And who knows, he says, maybe someday soon he will have children of his own, and I won’t live forever, and wouldn’t it be nice to have something he might read to them, to tell them about myself, the life I lived, and how I came to this place. Well, I don’t know about that. I have lived a rather un-grand life, without much in the way of adventure or intrigue. I have no grand stories. But I suppose I have seen a lot of change in my time, and, for my grandson, who is looking at me quite disappointed just now, I suppose I might be able to find at least one story worth the telling…

My grandson tells me this is the wrong way to start a story, that I should start with my name, and maybe a bit of a description of myself. He would know better than I, as I could never get the hang of reading, and besides, have never been much interested in the hearing and telling of stories. This story — the story I suppose I should tell, if I’m going to tell any story — took place in Maryland, not too far from here, in about the year 1655, when my name was still Mary Kelly, and I in about my seventeenth year, by the time the crossing from Ireland was over and done with. I was a plain girl and a bit stout, blessed for the Lord’s good work, as my mother liked to say, with strong hands and a straight back. My father was a laborer, and a soldier when the war came, a man of little work and many debts, who left nothing to my mother when he died in the last year of the fighting. There were nine of us children, and with me being near the oldest, at sixteen, old enough to make my own way, it was decided that I should sign a contract of indenture, take myself away to the new world, and there better my prospects.

I packed my few things and went away by cart to a city on the coast, and there boarded a merchant ship, along with twenty-three others. There were sixteen men aboard, bound for service on the plantations, six of us women and girls, for house work, and then there was Honora. Honora had her own cabin and a whole trunk of her own things besides. She was engaged, she wasted no time in telling us, to a fiancé who had gone over ahead of her. He was a man of substance, she said. He had been successful in the new world and was not only paying for her passage, but also for a maid to help around the house upon her arrival. She told us all of this to explain why she would not be eating dinner with the rest of us our first night aboard, as the captain had expressed she should. And, that said, she picked up her food and went away to her cabin to eat alone.

We made dreadful fun of her after she left. And she did deserve it some. She had been haughty and awful to us. But you should know that she was quite young to be getting married, only a little older than I was, and so very skinny. I think she was never as well off as she liked to pretend, and I felt a bit badly for her. And anyway, she was not at it long before we hit rough seas and the whole lot of us fell ill, Honora worse than most. It’s hard to put on much in the way of airs when you’re vomiting onto your skirts. The weather hardly let up the whole way across the Atlantic, the food ran low, and three of us, two of the men and one of the younger girls, died, and had to be thrown overboard.

We arrived thin and pale, having been blown far off course in our tribulations, which is to say much later than expected, to a little dock at what seemed to me to be the very end of the world. It was a small place, back then, a few houses and some scrappy farms, arranged around a wooden trading post that doubled as a bit of a fort, and an afterthought of a church, already in need of a new coat of whitewash. It was the middle of planting season, and, our arrival being unexpected and the men being busy with work, there was some confusion and no one to meet us. We sat out for some time in a cold drizzle before a kind man came down from the trading post and unlocked the church for us to shelter and wait in. Well, day’s end came and went and the church began to empty out, a few at a time aboard carts and wagons, until it was very late and only Honora and I were left. Which is how we came to discover we were bound to the same man, and that she was to become my mistress.

Our man was a Mr. Thomas Bolton, and he owned a piece of land far away up the river, which he worked with the help of a Nanticoke slave, who went by the Christian name of Samuel. It was Samuel who brought the cart down to pick us up. And it was Samuel who dropped us off, well into the middle of the night, with our bags, in front of the house, and left, presumably to stow the wagon and tend to the horses, though he didn’t say so at the time. The house was a single wooden story, with two glass windows and several empty ones. Some distance away, across the clearing, was a cluster of rude outbuildings — a wooden barn, several large drying sheds, and a general storage, plus a few animal pens. And Mr. Bolton, well, Mr. Bolton opened the door wearing a shirt barely fit to reach his thighs, and, without even a hello or a how are you doing, looked at Honora and said, “Well, come in then.” He was a tall man, slim but work-hard, with a mess of dark hair and a set of blue eyes sharp enough to bore right through a person. He must have been nearly thirty, though I didn’t learn his exact age until quite a lot later, and, being young, would have thought him a fair few years older, had I been asked. Honora looked aghast. “Samuel will carry your trunk,” He said, looked about and, realizing Samuel was gone, turned to me instead. “You’re the new help?” I nodded. “Good. You’ll carry it.”

“But we’re not married yet,” Honora said, “I can’t sleep…”

“Fine. Sleep in the barn.” He started to close the door. “I don’t have time for this. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Honora paled. “The barn?”

“The help sleeps in the barn,” he said, “You can sleep with the help, or you can sleep in the house. Your choice. The door is unlocked.” And with that, he slammed it in our faces.

Honora was determined that she would be properly married to this man, so off to the barn we went, with me carrying her trunk and my own things besides. She ranted as she walked, fuming and throwing her arms about, how unfair it was that she, a decent girl from a decent family, should be expected to share her lodgings with a man nearly a stranger, just because he had paid her passage. She had not, she informed me, had relations with him, or anyone, before this, and she would not be having relations with anyone until the proper arrangements had been made, with God and the like.

The barn’s loft, which Samuel and I were to share, was drafty and barren. It would have provided little shelter, and certainly borne no comforts, had Samuel not taken it upon himself to make some improvements to the place, plugging the cracks in the wall and nailing up some cheap material, purchasing his own blankets and fashioning his own few pieces of bare furniture — a loosely stuffed mattress, a single shelf, a little round table, and a couple of stools. Honora could do well enough for herself. She had a big beautiful quilt folded into the top of her trunk, a selection of crisp new linens, and two good shawls. The trunk itself had to stay below, with the animals, as even Samuel and I working together were not strong enough to haul it up the ladder. I had nothing of the sort, and no spare clothes — excepting a shift and an old petticoat — that I wasn’t already wearing. I had my pride, though, and wasn’t about to ask for charity, at least not without trying to make do first, but Samuel saw me trying to settle down to sleep and came over with a blanket. “Keep it until you have your own,” he said, “It’s warm enough now, I don’t need it.” And in that way, for those first few days, we all made do.

Honora and Mr. Bolton were married in church, on the first Sunday following our arrival. Not one kind word had yet passed between them. That afternoon, Honora and her trunk moved into the house. She dragged it there herself, as it was mine and Samuel’s rightful day off, and Mr. Bolton had entrusted her no money with which to pay either of us for the work. Proximity did nothing to improve their relationship, and it was not two days before they were in a screaming fight, and Mr. Bolton, being quite drunk, had thrown his new wife out the door in the middle of the night and locked it behind her. Barefoot, and dressed only in her shift, Honora began pacing up and down in front of the house, throwing rocks and insults at the shuttered windows. Inside, as I understand it, Mr. Bolton went ahead and passed out, leaving her screaming and sobbing at no one in particular for over an hour before Samuel, sick of the racket, charged down and pried open a window so she could climb back in. We had a few days of relative quiet after that. But Honora was not practiced in silence, and Mr. Bolton was intolerable besides, so it was not long before they were back at it, the shouting and the crying and the name-calling, and, long as I knew them, they never did properly stop.

Mr. Bolton could not actually afford to have me working in the house, nor Honora for that matter. We would never have repaid our passage that way, he said. So, instead, we all worked together, felling trees, clearing and tilling, planting and tending and harvesting and hanging and packing tobacco, until I could hardly stand sight or smell of the stuff. After the day’s tasks were done, Honora and Mr. Bolton would take off to social calls, or to town, or the house, and Samuel and I would carry on with the rest of our work, for hire at nearby plantations, or for ourselves, our own errands, cleaning, cooking, and other chores. Samuel had a little land set aside for his own provision, and because I was in need of some things for myself, I struck a deal to help him with his crops in exchange for a small share of the profits. Soon, though I had no regular pay, I had my own sleeping mat and blanket, plus a sheet of cloth to hang up between Samuel’s part of the loft and mine, to afford me some privacy.

Samuel kept to himself. His two small children lived with his wife on the plantation next to ours, and often he would disappear without warning or explanation, riding off with one of the horses to see them. Sometimes, when he returned, Mr. Bolton would smack him around some, or threaten him with a musket, though I’m sure he knew it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. Samuel’s wife was African, of the Coromantee sort. She had made the crossing to Barbados in the arms of her mother, and had been sold away from her, some years later, to Maryland, as a punishment. He had dedicated six good years to the work of freeing her, and, by the terms of his agreement with her former owner, their future children as well. It was too late for the two already born, however, and his oldest, at the age of four, was expected to start work the season following next. Samuel wasn’t about to let this happen, and he planned to use the profits of a few good seasons, along with what work he could find and all his savings, to buy the girl’s freedom before this could happen.

The times were far from happy, but they were stable and predictable in their badness, and that was almost good, in its own way. Honora and Mr. Bolton fought, Samuel worked, and I did my best to get by in the middle of it all. Then, one evening in late July, Mr. Bolton came back drunk from town with the wagon, and began bellowing for Honora. This was not, in itself, unusual. But this day, he made such an awful fool of himself that even Samuel stopped his work and came over to see what the fuss was about. We walked up to see Honora standing with a broom and her arms crossed, and Mr. Bolton stumbling down off the wagon bed dragging a man by the arm down after him. The man wore shackles and a sour expression. Mr. Bolton stood him up in front of us, giving him a hard slap across the back. “Look what I got us,” he crowed, “A real, proper slave!” He didn’t really say slave, but I would prefer not to repeat what he actually said, as it was quite crude.

The man was acting real obedient, but anyone with eyes could have told you that would be short lived. He had the rankled pride of freedom about him and, sure enough, when Mr. Bolton said his name was “Anthony” his head shot up, his eyes daggers into Mr. Bolton’s back. Mr. Bolton went on, oblivious, touting his own superior business smarts to Honora and belittling her as he did. Honora, for her part, took all this in uncharacteristic silence, quietly appraising our newcomer.

Later, after Mr. Bolton had passed out in the dirt in front of the house, the man introduced himself as Antonio Jorge da Costa, a Portuguese and a sailor. He had gotten mixed up in a bit of piracy in the Bahamas, he said, and it had all gone “to hell”, which is how he’d washed up in our unloved little corner of the world. He told all of us, then and there and Honora included, that he didn’t intend to be staying. He watched her as he said this, to see her reaction, and when she shrugged, he grinned widely. “I think we’re going to get along,” he said. Honora scoffed at this, and, ignoring his entreaties to let him free of his shackles, walked away to check on Mr. Bolton.

Now, normally, I wouldn’t be inclined to believe such a story just because it had been told to me, but there are a few things you should know about Antonio, what kind of man he was, if you are to understand him at all — was, for I am sure he is dead by now, the age he was then, and the rate he was going at life. He had the look of a sailor, strong for his height, and sunburned across the chest, the pale parts of his feet and hands, which were bare, stained with pitch and grease. His English was fair excellent, bearing a mixed and placeless accent. Appearance-wise, he was olive skinned and hazel eyed, with a head of soft black curls cropped to shoulder length and worn mostly tied back in the European manner. Whatever part African he was, it was not a large part, and indeed, were it not for the particular circumstances he had found himself in, it would hardly have mattered.

I’ll give him that, once he got down to it, he was good for an honest day’s work, and complained little while he was at it. But right from the beginning he was trouble, pestering both Samuel and I with questions about the lands surrounding the plantation. Were there bandits in the area? He asked. Fishermen? Maroons? Indians? I didn’t know, having been there barely more than a year, and having never thought to ask. Samuel, for his part, simply refused to answer. “Whatever you’re up to,” he said, “I’m not involved. I’ve got my own to worry about and I don’t need you messing things up.” Antonio laughed at our seriousness. He would find out himself, he said, and if we didn’t want to help, he didn’t have to take us with him when he left. He seemed to think we should be disappointed by this, as if our dearest wish was to risk life and limb and all we had worked for to that point to tromp off into an unforgiving wilderness.

For all his talk, he didn’t seem in much of a hurry to leave. He turned down Mr. Bolton’s offer of a plot for himself, and soon took to disappearing on Saturdays after his work was finished. Often, a musket would disappear with him, snatched off the hook by the door inside the house, for Mr. Bolton to notice hours or days later when he finally looked around himself with enough attention to realize it had gone missing. Honora, though she was usually home, always protested that she had been too busy to see anything and besides, was not much concerned with guns and had not even noticed it gone. It would reappear, like magic, whenever Antonio returned, late on Sunday or early Monday morning, freshly shined as if it had never been used. Sometimes, he returned with game slung over his shoulder, or some selection of trade goods — pots and pans, metal dishes, bullets, bottles of cheap rum and the like. Others, he returned with nothing, or less than nothing, his bags and his space in the loft emptied of all the items he’d acquired over the preceding weeks.

I was slow to take the full measure of the trouble that was brewing. I was young, after all, and I had my own self to look out for. Antonio had kept his head down for a fair while, and I was naive enough to believe that meant he had changed his mind, until one day, I overheard, quite by accident, him telling Honora a story, about his time with the traders in the Ports of Africa. Samuel and Mr. Bolton were far down the other end of the field, and I suppose I had snuck up on them, bent and focused on my pruning. Honora was sitting back on her heels. “If you did leave,” she said, “would you go back to Africa?”

“God no, I’ve had enough of the colonies for one lifetime. I would make, straight away, for Portugal, find some decent work and a good woman. I’d settle near my mother, God willing she still lives. Or my brothers.”

“That sounds real lovely…” she said. With a glance toward Mr. Bolton, she picked up her knife and went back to work. She didn’t say anything else, and when I looked up, I saw he was watching her. His expression was unsettling to me, full of a strange and determined intensity. I knew then that we had been set on a collision course with ruin, though I did not yet know what shape it would take, or what, if anything, it would mean for me.

They disappeared, with horse and gun, on a Saturday morning, as Samuel and I were getting ready to go out into the fields. It was getting into harvest season by then, and the tobacco crop was coming in excellently, so that not just on our plantation, but all throughout the region, all hands that could work were needed for long hours in the fields and drying sheds. Rates soared, and I was making a good bit of hire money working evenings and Sundays, when I should have been off. But Samuel, Samuel worked like a man possessed. He split his time between hire shifts, Mr. Bolton’s plants, and his own. He had bought some raw coffee beans and took to chewing them when he began to lag. He barely slept. This particular morning he got to it early, with a glazed look that had become familiar in his eye, loading up the wagon with sacks for tobacco, bundles of tools and twine, and hooking up the horses. We both had plans to work the evening on a neighboring plantation once our work for Mr. Bolton was done. He was eager to get going and be done with it, and so was I. Well, we might well have saved ourselves the effort, and a fair amount of sitting around as well, because it was nigh on eight o’clock before Mr. Bolton came storming out of the house with his shirt untucked and a musket slung over his shoulder. “Damn woman…” he muttered, hauling himself into the driver’s seat of the wagon before glancing back at us. “Where the hell is Anthony?”

We were all used to Antonio’s absences by then. He was slippery by nature, quick and smart with his excuses, as good at wiggling out of consequences as he was at wiggling out of work when the mood took him. Samuel scowled. “Haven’t seen him.”

“Figures…” Mr. Bolton grumbled. “Well get in, then.”

“Where’s the lady?”

“Off to town for some nonsense. She’ll be back for noon if she knows what’s good for her. What are you waiting for? Get on.”

With Honora gone, Antonio’s absence was easily explained. She had taken to calling on him when she needed things, help with some chore or a ride to town, and off they would go together, sometimes for hours. They would reappear just in time to evade the brunt of Mr. Bolton’s anger, with excuses and bribes of ale or baked goods for the rest of us, and some errand done, which even Mr. Bolton could agree was a good thing. Not this day. This day, noon came and went without sight or sound of them. Roused to suspicion, Mr. Bolton took the cart and musket and set off for town.

He didn’t come back. I’m fair certain he forgot about us, because it began to grow dark, and we were far from the house, Samuel and I, with a load of tobacco, no wagon to carry it, and not one weapon besides our work knives for our protection on the road. We carried on working, though we took turns keeping watch, until it was well dark, and growing cold, and I found myself tricked by the growing shadows, imagining movement or eyes in the underbrush, the distant howling of wolves in the wind. Even Samuel seemed skittish, his head darting up at the slightest sound. We were discussing what to do about the tobacco, hefting up bags to see how much we could carry, when Antonio and Honora emerged from the trees. They were sharing a horse and, when Antonio saw us, he pulled up short on the reigns. “Where’s Tom?”

“Looking for his wife last I saw,” Samuel said, swinging his bags back down onto the ground, “What the hell were you thinking?”

“She was determined to get away. What was I supposed to do? Let her go alone?”

“Give me the gun.”

“Calm down. I’ll take her to the house, tell him I found her lost in the woods on my way back in. It’ll be fine.”

Honora sat on the back of the horse, staring off toward the woods. Her cheeks were flushed and pink, her hair askew, her dress streaked with dirt. It wasn’t hard to imagine she’d been in the woods all day, though lost seemed a stretch.

“Give me the gun,” Samuel said, “and when you’re done at the house, come back here with the cart and help us load up so we can get out of here.”

“Why? You paying?”

Samuel gave him a look of hard disapproval, and, after a moment, Antonio slung the musket down off his shoulder and handed it over. “I suppose I might owe you one. I didn’t expect we’d be gone so long.”

I heard later that Mr. Bolton, having gone everywhere that came immediately to mind in search of his wife, had washed up at the tavern and begun ranting about the “savages” who had taken her, and the revenge he would bring down on them for it, driven, well sloshed, back to the house, and was there, nursing a mug of ale in his usual chair, when Antonio came riding up. I don’t know what happened after that, except that Honora barely left Mr. Bolton’s side for several weeks afterwards, and that he must have believed Antonio’s story in the end, because, for his trouble in rescuing her, Antonio got a small cask of rum as a reward, which he shared with us in the evenings that followed. For those few days, he was uncommon kind to us, even helping out extra with our chores and things.

Then, without warning or fanfare, he was gone. He made his start early on a Saturday afternoon and, with Honora covering for him and being that he was not expected back until Monday morning, he got a good few days and into Tuesday for a head start before Mr. Bolton got wind and raised the alarm. A search was mounted, with the notices and the dogs and the patrols. Slaves and servants throughout the area were questioned. No one had seen him. Or, if they had, they wouldn’t say. This went on for some weeks before search efforts dwindled and even Mr. Bolton had to admit Antonio wouldn’t be coming back.

I was relieved when life returned to normal. There was work to do, a lot of it, and a large payout to look forward to, from my weeks of extra work, when the merchant ships came and the tobacco went out. I did feel for Honora. She grew quiet in Antonio’s absence, drifting through her tasks, shrugging off Mr. Bolton’s barbs, and I thought her heartbroken. Mr. Bolton, of course, saw nothing at all suspicious in his wife behaving as he supposed came naturally to women. He mused, in his self-satisfied manner, that her worse urges had perhaps been tamed by pregnancy, and suggested she see a midwife. As it turned out, we were both wrong. She was simply biding her time, waiting for some signal, or the right moment.

Whatever it was, it came on a Tuesday, when the tobacco was curing in the sheds, and we were meant to spend the day clearing trees and brush for the next season’s planting. As Samuel and I readied the cart and Mr. Bolton came out with the guns, Honora hung back in the doorway, wrapped in a shawl. “I told you, I’m not feeling well. I think I need to go see a woman about it…”

“Lie down, then!” Mr. Bolton snapped “Lord! Samuel will take you tomorrow. I need him today.” He shoved a musket into Samuel’s hands, grumbling. “Women, what are they good for? Can’t do a thing without making a damn fuss about it…”

Honora was already back inside the house with the door closed tightly behind her. The rest of us, Mr. Bolton, Samuel, and I rode out to the patch we had staked out the evening before and got to clearing brush. We were at it for a good few hours, and it was almost noon by the time Samuel glanced up and sniffed the breeze. “Is someone smoking?” None of us were, but he was right, there was a sting of tobacco in the air. We were surrounded by bush and trees, the year’s crop long pulled up from the fields. A great cloud of grey and black smoke drifted over the treetops.

“The tobacco…” Mr. Bolton was off and swearing and we were close behind, throwing aside our tools and running for the horses, grazing near the wagon. Mr. Bolton swung himself up onto the nearest, taking off at a bareback gallop toward the house. Then Samuel was beside me, astride the other and offering a hand up, and we too were away and flying through the trees.

I smelled it before I saw it, burning hardwood, the bite of singed hair and animal hide, and over all, the stench of a whole season’s worth of packed tobacco lit up at once. Great plumes of smoke poured from the drying sheds. The house and the barn and the pens, everything was ablaze. Samuel threw himself down, bellowing and cursing, casting about for something he could use to fight the flames. The horse, with me still on top, grasping for the reins, galloped a few long strides closer to the burning barn before its eyes and nose filled with smoke. It reared, and it was all I could do to grab onto its neck before it bolted away towards the trees. I thought for sure I was going to die right there, hanging and on and praying as I was. And what a way to go. When it came to a stop, at the edge of the forest, I eased myself, legs shaking, to the ground, and started walking back with a notion in my mind to help.

Mr. Bolton was slumped in the dirt in front of the house, beating the ground and screaming unrepeatable things. Samuel had taken a bucket from the trough and was flinging load after load of water into the flames. The effort was wasted, and he slung the last bucket, half full, wholly into the fire. He stared after it, a man defeated, his arms hanging limp at his sides.

Well, seeing me approaching, Mr. Bolton stumbled to his feet, gun in hand, nursing a maniacal rage. I was close, and he was on me in a moment, grabbing and hauling me by the cloth of my dress. “Where did they go? You know, don’t you! You servants… always whispering… It was that Anthony, wasn’t it? I knew he was no good…” Samuel, seeing what had come over Mr. Bolton, was coming up behind him to my aid. He had barely opened his mouth before Mr. Bolton turned on him, brandishing the musket. “Or was it you?” he growled, “Can’t trust a savage, they say… Don’t know the meaning of loyalty…”

Backing away, Samuel raised his hands. “What’s wrong with you? Why would I want to destroy my own tobacco?” He pointed toward the sheds, which were far gone by then. “Look. Everything I had… it’s all gone. It was in there. With yours.”

Mr. Bolton either didn’t hear or didn’t care. He wasn’t right in the head, maybe not ever, but certainly not then. He closed on Samuel with the musket, and, not wanting to see Samuel shot dead, I closed my eyes. “My wife was in there!” Mr. Bolton screamed, “My wife! And now she’s dead, or she would have come to warn us… Your people did this! Do you know what she cost me? Do you?” I heard the smack of the musket as it came down across Samuel’s body and opened my eyes to see him warding off blows with his raised hands, his head turned away to protect his face. Mr. Bolton was beating him down the yard with it, venting a pointless fury as his kingdom burned to ash around him.

Now, I don’t know what came over me in that moment, but Samuel was a good man, and there was Samuel’s musket, sitting on the ground not six steps away. I’d never fired a gun before, and thinking back, I believe it was the first time I’d ever properly held one. But of course, Mr. Bolton didn’t know that, so I picked it up, raised it to my shoulder just like I’d seen the men do, looked down the barrel, and shouted his name, his full name, loud as I could. Mr. Bolton looked up sharply and, seeing me, he stumbled. And that must have been enough, because right away Samuel had Mr. Bolton knocked to the ground and the musket away from him.

Taking Mr. Bolton firmly by the collar, Samuel dragged him, kicking and screaming, to the horse trough, and there plunged his head into the water, with such a righteous anger I half-believed he meant to drown him right then and there. I do think he thought about it, just for a moment, before he let up, and let Mr. Bolton up for air, gasping and swearing. Back under he went, several times more, before Samuel released him to cough and wretch in the dirt. He gave me a look to get ready, and I brought back up the musket as he crouched down by Mr. Bolton’s side. “Enough,” he said, “It’s gone. There’s no saving it now.”

“This is your doing…” Mr. Bolton sputtered. “You… You bastards…”

“No. It isn’t. You know it isn’t. Even if it was, what are you going to do about it? Shoot me? Hang me? Who would help you plant next year’s tobacco? The girl?” He gestured to me. “You can’t afford the dirt you’re sitting in.” Straightening up, he shouldered the gun. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll forget this whole conversation ever happened.” With that, he turned, and began to walk away across the singed grass.

Mr. Bolton gazed after him, mouth agape. “Where are you going?”

“Was thinking to start building us a camp out there by the trees,” he pointed off across the property, to a decent plot of land not far from the still burning house. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy spending the night out under the stars.” He kept on walking, and, not wanting to be left alone with Mr. Bolton, I ran to catch up with him, still holding the musket in my hands.

When I looked back, Mr. Bolton was kneeling in the dirt, staring into the fire. The air was choked with smoke. Through it, over the rise, I could just barely make out the soft grey stripe of the river. In a few months, that water would be dotted with ships, merchants, sailing in search of tobacco. I thought about all Mr. Bolton owed Samuel, owed me, owed everyone it seemed, how little we had, and how little we would have to trade. I thought of Samuel, and his family, and the consequences that might come to him for what he had done, humiliating Mr. Bolton like that, deserved as it was. I thought, selfishly, of my own empty stomach, my fear of the woods and the dark. And I thought of Honora, and Antonio, wherever they were, wherever they were going, looking out on that same land, that same water, not with dread, but with hope.

I can’t say I knew quite how to feel about that.

Emily Strempler (she/her) is a queer, (White) German-Canadian, ex-fundamentalist writer of inconvenient fiction. Raised in a deeply conservative prairie community, she married at eighteen before leaving the church and moving out west to the Rockies. Her work is informed by her intersectional-feminist, anti-colonial, anti-fascist, and anti-racist views, and rooted in a lived experience of marginalization, gender-based violence, abuse, immigrant-identity, and working poverty.