Authors: Amy Belding Brown
“How kindly thought,” Mary says, though she is reluctant to take it. The only birds she knows how to care for are ducks and chickens. And she is certain that Joseph will object, for he will see the gift as frivolous, of no practical use.
“’Tis a singing sparrow,” Edmund says. “To gladden your heart.” His smile is so wide and Mary is so touched by his generosity that she cannot refuse. She holds out her hands and takes the cage.
The bird is russet and gray with a white breast; there is a dark triangle under its bill. It cocks its head at her, hops off the stick, and flutters briefly upward before returning to its perch.
“Bird!” cries Sarah again, clapping her tiny hands.
“May we keep it, Mother?” Marie puts Sarah down and brushes her skirts into place. “Will not Father complain?”
Mary smiles down at her daughters. “How can he complain?” she says. “Did not our Lord Himself promise that no bird is outside the Father’s care?”
• • •
ary hangs the cage on a peg by the window. She studies the cleverly made door, which latches with a hook and swings back on tiny pegged hinges. She sprinkles flax seeds and bits of bread in the bottom of the cage, and sets a saucer of water there, too. Throughout the afternoon she finds herself crossing the room to reassure herself that the sparrow is well. By the time Joseph comes
in from the field with Joss that evening, the sun has gone down and the cage is in shadow. Her husband is weary and out of temper; even his prayer is short and bitter. They eat in silence, and when the meal is over, they retire to their bedstead and draw the curtains.
They are wakened at first light by birdsong.
As Mary expected, Joseph condemns Edmund’s gift as foolish and worldly. When she reminds him of the many passages in Scripture relating God’s concern for the birds of the air, he is not persuaded. He insists she must return it.
She looks at the cage, where the sparrow is now making chipping sounds. She is sure it is hungry. “But surely it is unwise to give rumormongers reason to think your wife has been ungracious toward a parishioner,” she says, knowing his weak point is his reputation. When he doesn’t reply, she presses her advantage. “Even though Goodman Parker is of lowly estate, a minister must still be mindful of the good name of his family. Have you not said so yourself many times?”
When Joseph acknowledges her point with a grunt, she knows that she has won. He will let her keep the sparrow and cage. But he warns her again that she must not visit Bess. “Goodman Parker’s gift is recompense for your mercy, not a license to contaminate yourself.”
Mary nods, though she has no intention of curtailing her visits to Bess.
• • •
ary’s sisters Hannah and Elizabeth are charmed by the sparrow. Whenever they visit, they bring a biscuit and break it into crumbs to sprinkle in the bottom of the cage. They like to sit near it, hoping to hear the sparrow sing.
“I have heard of birds caged in great houses in England, but not here,” Hannah says one late summer afternoon as the women sit spinning flax onto their distaffs. “I am surprised your husband
sanctions it.” Her son, Josiah, who was born only twelve days after Sarah, sits at her feet rocking his infant brother, William, in Sarah’s old cradle. Mary smiles, remembering the summer of 1669 when Hannah, Elizabeth, and she were all with child.
“Joseph complains it sometimes disturbs his studies,” she says. “Yet I think the truth of it is that he has grown to delight in the song.”
Joss, who is eight and solemn like his father, warns Mary that the sparrow will die. “’Tis a wild creature,” he says. “Not meant to be clapped in a cage.”
“It seems happy enough,” Mary says. “Look how it sings.”
“What choice has it?” he asks. “A captive may sing but still perish.”
But the sparrow does not die. It seems to thrive on the food and attention Mary shows it. Marie tries to imitate the song, trilling high, sweet notes as she does her chores. Sarah finds worms and beetles in the kitchen garden, and pokes them one after another into the cage with fierce earnestness. Because she cannot yet say the word “sparrow,” she calls it Row, which quickly becomes the bird’s name.
• • •
ary visits Bess when she is able, bringing food and the comforts of prayer and Scripture. On her fifth visit, as they sit in the dooryard sewing while the babe sleeps, Bess talks about her child’s father, who languishes in the Boston jail. His name is Silvanus Warro. He was born on a plantation in the colony of Maryland, and brought north to the Bay Colony by his master, Daniel Gookin. He lived in Cambridge for many years and was treated well. Then Mr. Gookin hired him out to Deacon Park.
Mary listens, frowning as the sun warms her hair and scalp through her bonnet. She has heard of this Daniel Gookin somewhere before. Has her husband mentioned him? Has she met him somewhere? She remembers suddenly—he is the superintendent of
the Praying Indians. A tall man with a narrow face and pale blue eyes, she thinks.
Bess’s voice draws her back to the present. “Silvanus was exceeding kind to me when I first came to Deacon Park’s. He helped me when my chores were burdensome. He comforted me when I longed for home.” Bess’s voice thickens. “How could I not have loved him?”
Mary thinks of Bess in the arms of a black man, imagines their limbs entwined in an embrace. She finds it difficult to believe that a woman can love a man so different in appearance and background from herself—but it is plain that Bess and Silvanus have tasted the fullness of love.
“When I discovered I carried his child, he said we must wed,” Bess tells Mary. “I asked how that could be. I was under an indenture and he was a slave. But he kissed me and told me that he would find a way.” She hunches low over her stitching. “One night he told me to collect my belongings and tie them up in a napkin. He stole a horse from the stable and some money from the deacon’s strongbox. We fled but they caught us before we reached Plymouth.” She falls silent for a moment. “They arrested him and sent me back to my father. Silvanus was tried and sentenced to twenty lashes. He’s in jail until he can pay restitution.”
Mary looks up and sees the girl’s eyes glisten with tears. Instinctively she places her hand on Bess’s knee to comfort her. These visits have brought Mary an unexpected solace—a respite from the burdens of mutual watch, the relentless scrutiny of each other’s conduct required of all church members. Despite her youth, Bess has become a friend.
“’Tis said our true freedom is in Christ,” Bess says after a while. “But I warrant a person ought to be free from human bondage, as well.” She looks at Mary. “Would not Christ agree?”
Mary cannot think how to answer, for she has never considered this question before. Like all Puritans, she has been taught that the
world is ordered according to God’s will. Bondage is part of the human condition, recognized and authorized in Scripture. She thinks of her servants. Rebekah, just fifteen, who has been indentured for four years, and Peter, bound out from Duxbury, to help Joseph with the farmwork. She remembers Timothy, the son of a Nashaway sachem, whom they took in as a slave when he was orphaned. He stayed three years before running away. Mary never understood why he left a civilized English household with all its goods and godliness to return to the wilderness. At the time, she blamed herself for not properly schooling him in the Christian faith. Now, she wonders if there is another reason, a deeper need for freedom she did not recognize.
“We cannot know the mind of Christ,” Mary says, though her voice lacks a forceful conviction.
“Nay, I think we can!” Bess says.
“’Tis a dangerous thought, Bess. I’m sure you know what befell Mistress Anne Hutchinson for such heresy.”
Mary is shocked when Bess shakes her head. Is not every young girl raised on these tales whispered in the corners of dark rooms as warning to stay humble and mind the authorities? It occurs to her that the death of Bess’s mother put her at grave risk, for it seems the girl has been raised in ignorance. “Mistress Hutchinson believed she had visions from the Lord,” Mary explains. “People flocked to hear her revelations, though they were heresies. She was reprimanded by her betters, but she would not listen and persisted in her rebellious ways. She was tried and banished from the Bay Colony. Yet the Lord Himself continued to chasten her.”
“How?” Bess whispers, plainly frightened.
“She suffered a monstrous birth after a long and torturous labor,” Mary says. “The child in her womb was rank and misshapen. No one could even determine its sex. It died quickly. A mercy,” she adds. “Later she and all but one of her living children were slain by
Indians. ’Tis a warning to all of us not to venture into realms which properly belong to men.” Even as she speaks, Mary remembers her mother reciting the terrible curse Mistress Hutchinson spoke at her trial:
God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.
She does not repeat the words to Bess, but she is suddenly struck by how similar the words are to her husband’s pronouncements. Was Anne Hutchinson a prophet after all?
Bess is silent, bending to her stitching. Mary hopes the girl grasped her admonition. She has told the story so many times to Marie and Sarah, they both know it by heart.
After a time, Bess speaks again. “It may not be a revelation from the Lord, yet still I believe it is evil to hold another person enslaved.”
“’Tis the order of things,” Mary says. “Ordained by God. Does not Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians enjoin the slave to stay in his position and serve the Lord?”
“He says that we are bought with a price, and that we ought not to be servants of men,” Bess says quietly.
Mary turns to stare, surprised that the girl knows her Bible so well. She says nothing, knowing she should consult her husband for his greater knowledge of such matters. Knowing, too, that she will likely never trouble him with it.
• • •
n an afternoon in early September, Goody Cooper spies Mary carrying a loaf of bread to Bess and soon word spreads that the minister’s wife is associating with a harlot. Joseph is furious. He reminds her that she could be beaten for wifely disobedience. He tells her it is only God’s mercy that stays his hand. He forbids her to visit Bess again.
Mary protests, pointing out that Christ himself mingled with sinners, but Joseph will have none of it. “You are tainting my ministry!” he shouts. “You contaminate not only yourself but
children!” He reminds her that a woman must be subject to her husband
in all things. He warns that if she disobeys him again he will have her pilloried in front of the meetinghouse.
Mary’s visits end. But the gossip does not. Elizabeth tries to stanch it in public. But in private, she berates Mary for her foolishness.
“Bess Parker is no better than a strumpet,” Elizabeth says one afternoon the next spring, as they work side by side in Mary’s stillroom, making cheese. They are straining the whey from the curds and their arms are wet to the elbows. “Worse. She’s a jezebel who minds not who she lies with. Think on it—a Negro slave!” She shakes her head. “’Tis vile. She imperils us all.”
“How?” Mary asks. “What harm does she do
because she loves a slave?”
Elizabeth wipes her dripping hands on her apron. Bits of curd fall to the floor. “Mary, you cannot mean that!”
“But I do!” She feels a rush of blood to her cheeks and bends over the pan of curds. “Is it not for God to judge?”
Elizabeth is silent—but only for a moment. “God’s people may judge in His name.
judge. Else His wrath will destroy us all.” She frowns. “Do you not listen to your husband’s sermons?”
“I listen,” she says. “But I also pray for God to guide my actions. And I believe He does.”
Elizabeth sighs. “You have always had a rebellious nature, Mary.” She pushes her hands back into the curds. “I fear for your safety.” She slides a look at her. “For your well-being.”
Mary is tempted to tell her to see to her own well-being, but holds her tongue. Of all her sisters, she is most closely bound to Elizabeth, who is four years older. Elizabeth has always been her chief protector, has acted as a mother when their own mother was in her sickbed or overwrought in the fevers of conversion. She patiently taught Mary how to sew hems, spin flax, and gather roots and herbs for medicine. She taught her to read and helped her
memorize Scripture. She allowed Mary to sleep curled in the nest of her arms when she had been punished with the birch whip or wakened by terrifying dreams. Even now she looks to Elizabeth for counsel, though Mary’s status as minister’s wife is higher, for Elizabeth is only the wife of a yeoman soldier.
“Promise me you will strive to curb your inclinations,” Elizabeth pleads.
Is not compassion an inclination that should be followed?
Mary wants to ask, but instead she nods submissively and concentrates all her attention on her work.
• • •
n the winter of 1673 Mary’s father takes to his bed and dies the next May, just as the earth is greening. Joseph reminds her that she ought not to feel any sorrow, for surely her father was one of the elect. His wealth and influence in the community prove this, for God blesses the righteous with his favor. He instructs her to pray for God’s peace to fall upon her and she does. But she also seeks the counsel of her sisters, who share Mary’s feeling that the world has become a strange and alien land, now that both parents are gone.
A year later, when Bess Parker’s son is nearly two, news comes that the Court has determined the child rightfully belongs to Deacon Park. Mary can barely contain her outrage.
Joseph tries to reason with her, explaining that the Court’s decision is just and final. That Silvanus is the son of a slave, and thus a slave himself. He assures Mary this is for the best, pointing out that Edmund can barely support his own two children. How can he be expected to provide for the babe and raise him to adulthood?