HAT A STRANGE CREATURE MEMORY IS. Half a thing of dreams, half raw pulsing flesh. Half an enemy, half a friend. The enemy lurks like an Iroquois in the forest of the past to ambush the unwary wanderer. As she writhes in his grip, her lips feel the caress of kissesâand terror turns inexplicably into love.
I am writing this in my Louis Seize parlor looking out on the broad waters of the Hackensack River. Surrounding me is the furniture of wealth: robin's-egg-blue Queen Anne armchairs and couches, a lofty Sheraton secretary, a rose-red Aubusson rug. Opposite the window is a dignified portrait of me in middle age by my younger son, one of the best painters in America. The resolute mouth, the cold defiant eyes, win my reluctant approvalâuntil memory hurls imprecations at themâand silvery soprano voices fill the room with a song.
Ter roorches, ter roorches
She Mameche bucleche, broche
Ter roorches, ter roorches
As me mither le waffles she boxes
De butter la door de groches
Ter roorches, ter roorches
She Mameche buckle che boo.
I am back fifty years watching five-year-old Catalyntie Van Vorst sing that song. Beside me sits my favorite playmate, Clara, whose gleaming black hair is a lovely counterpoint to her creamy brown African skin. On the other side of the mahogany table looms a big grey-haired man with a hooked red nose and ruddy cheeks and a balloon of a belly bulging against his green waistcoat. He is my grandfather, Cornelius Van Vorst. He is singing the song too, beating time in the air with his long-stemmed clay pipe.
The song mixes English, Dutch, French, and Irish in its paeon of praise to
âhot waffles. What echoes of unfathomable love are in those silly buoyant rhymes! Love wound like an enigma into the facts,
the faces, the tongues of history.
was a New York song, redolent of the nations mingling on the noisy twisting streets of the little city at the tip of the island the Indians called Manahatta.
Now, fifty years later, in the next room I can hear my husband and my older son discussing the latest news from London.
Taxation. Taxation without representation
. The indignant words swirl through the house. The upheaval that I foresaw long ago, the revolution for which my Dutch blood has hungered for decades, is beginning. The arrogant men in London would continue to misjudge and misrule the Americans in the name of an idiot king and their own immeasurable greed.
I will play no part in this upheaval, nor will my husband, even though he might try. Revolutions are the property of the young. Already knowing how it will end, I can barely summon interest in the process. I prefer the company of memory, my half enemy, half friend.
How cruel memory isâand how wonderful. To compress a lifetime of love into a single word. Was the whole secret of the story in that word? Could an old man's love be unwound like a silver thread to stretch from this expensive room down the shining river to the tumultuous streets of New York and up the mighty Hudson to the silent forests and surging rivers of the virgin continent? Could that strand of love cleanse fifty years of wars and revolts, regrets and betrayals? Can it exorcise so much spilled blood, so much torment?
Clara's dusky voice whispered in my throbbing heart.
Perhaps it's time. You have my permission to speak for me. But I warn you, no one will believe it. God's purposes are too obscure for human hearts. Do you have the courage to tell the whole truthâespecially about yourself?
For a moment I was almost ready to surrender my role as memory's scribe. But I still possessed some of the flintiness of that cold-eyed woman on the wall. Memory also remained a creature with stony eyes and nerves of brass. The story began again, as insistent, as irresistible, as the river. I heard Cornelius Van Vorst's husky baritone teaching me about the onrush of the world's most ineluctable mystery, memory's wry collaborator, time.
Believe it not, Pettikin, when I was your age singing ter roorches to my dear mamma, there were barely a hundred houses on Manhattan. Now we have nine hundred in the city alone. There were scarcely a thousand people on the whole island. Now we have nine thousand in the city alone. Three hundred ships a year sail from our docks. Little did I think I would roam the five seas and see so much of the world when I sang ter roorches on our farm in Bloomingdale. Who knows what you may do or see in your day?
The scream leaps from memory to smash through fifty years. Its blare
annihilates Grandfather's voice and the town of Hackensack and the river of the same name, the peaceful fields of New Jersey, the winding streets of New York. It is 1721 again and I am five years old, staring sleepily at Clara. In the flickering candlelight my playmate clutched her mother's long cotton nightgown, which seemed doubly white against her black skin. My own mother stood in the doorway, a frown on her severe earnest face.
“What is it, sweet?” asked Clara's mother, Myrtle. “What's wrong?”
“I saw an Indian,” Clara sobbed. “I saw an Indian hurting you. I saw Indians hurting everyone. Master, Mistress, Catalyntie. Everyone!”
“It was only a dream, sweetness,” Myrtle said in her soft dark voice.
“No, it was real. It will happen! I don't want to go to the Mohawk country,” Clara sobbed.
“There's nothing to worry about, Clara,” I assured her with serene confidence. “The Mohawk Indians are Grandfather's friends.”
Clara sobbed and trembled until her mother gave her warm milk and honey and hummed her to sleep with a lullaby. I watched, a little envious. I almost wished I would have a bad dream so I could have some warm milk and my mother's arms around me.
None of us, adults or children, gave a moment's thought to the possibility that Clara's dream might come true.
GODDAMN. GODDAMN-GODDAMN-GODDAMN! GODDAMN!
The curses flew from the lips of the captain of the broad-beamed sloop my father, Hendryk Van Vorst, had hired to carry us up the Hudson River the next morning with our furniture and barrels full of meat and vegetables and boxes full of trade goods. The captain was scolding his crew for not loading the ship fast enough to catch the incoming tide.
“Do you want to take a year and a bloody day to get to Albany?” he roared. He was a chunky red-bearded man with a wooden stump where his right leg had been until it was torn off by a French cannonball a long time ago. He was one of Grandfather's best friends.
Finally Grandfather swept me up on his big chest and kissed me three times for luck. He kissed Clara and my brother Peter and my sister Eva too. He gave my mother a briefer kiss and hugged my father. “God be with you, son,” he said. “I hope to visit you in six months' time.”
“We'll have a feast worthy of the burghers of Amsterdam,” my father said. “We'll turn you into a
Although I spoke English most of the time, I knew
meant farmer and
meant city dweller in Dutch. My father and grandfather had been joking about
“I may convert for the chance to see my Pettikin every day,” Grandfather said, sweeping me up for another kiss.
The captain began goddamning his crew again because they were not casting off the lines fast enough. Out onto the broad rippling river the sloop glided. The Africans whom Grandfather had bought to work the land in the Mohawk Valley were in another sloop behind us under the stern eye of Clara's father, Joshua, who was almost as big and fat as Grandfather. With more goddamns from the captain, the sloop's crew raised a wide dirty white mainsail and we began cruising up the river, faster and faster with a brisk wind and a favorable tide until New York was only a few church steeples in the distance.
Eva cried and Peter looked like he might cry too. For the first time I felt sad about leaving New York. I realized I would not see Grandfather for six months. That sounded like a long time to go without hot waffles.
. The word whispered loving reassurance in my mind. Peter and Eva got out their arithmetic books and began working on lessons Father assigned them. Mother let Clara and me go out on deck and play at being
. We chattered to our dolls about planting vegetables and picking apples and riding ponies. We watched the scenery along the river slide past. Great high cliffs at first and then big rounded mountains covered with thousands of green trees. Other sloops passed us and called out greetings.
We ate in the cabin with the captain while Father talked about how happy and healthy we were all going to be in the Mohawk country, where the air was pure and the water was clean. Never again would we have to worry about yellow fever and smallpox, those terrible diseases that killed so many people in New York. We were also going to get rich, trading with the Indians. Grandfather had dealt fairly with the Mohawks. He had given them cloth and guns and jewelry worth a thousand English pounds for their land. In return their chiefs had promised Father a rich share of the trade in beaver skins and other furs. They were sure the Van Vorsts would not cheat them like the merchants in Albany.
I did not especially care whether we got rich. But I loved to hear Father talk about it. He looked so strong and brave and handsome when he described how the Van Vorsts would soon be more powerful than the Livingstons and the Van Rensselaers and the other great landowners living along the Hudson River.
, the Dutch called them. The Van Vorsts might even make the English bow down to them as they did to
Governor Peter Stuyvesant when the Dutch owned New York City and it was called
Der Colonie Nieu Netherlander.
After five days and nights we reached Albany, where almost everyone spoke Dutch and some houses were as big and fine as Grandfather's house in New York. Nearly all the Albany houses had heavy wooden stoops with seats at their doors. The main street was very wide and led up a hill to a fort. We stayed overnight at an inn with huge fireplaces and a dining room where everyone ate at long tables. We children all slept in one bed and Peter and Eva complained about bugs biting them. In the morning we went to the First Church on Pearl Street and heard a tall thin minister with a face like an axhead preach in Dutch about the importance of obeying God.
During the night our furniture and food had been hauled from the sloops to six big wagons, each pulled by two horses. For most of the day we jolted over a rough road to the town of Schenectady, on the Mohawk River. There the wagoners transferred the goods to flat-bottomed boats called bateaux. Each one had six long oars, pulled by white men with dirty faces and soiled leather coats and breeches. They rowed us up the Mohawk River, past grassy meadows and tall thick trees, until nightfall. We slept in the open around a great fire, while wolves howled in the forest around us. Clara and I were frightened but Father showed us his gun and said he would shoot any wolf that tried to hurt us.
Late the following afternoon we reached a bend in the river and saw our house. It looked like a fortress in a fairy tale, two stories high, made of fat grey stones. It was surrounded by a meadow a hundred times as big as New York's Bowling Green. Giant trees stood silently on three sides. Inside, the rooms were twice as big as the ones in our New York house.
While Mother and Father and Myrtle talked about where to put the furniture and trade goods the men were unloading from the bateaux, we children began exploring our new home. Peter and Eva dashed upstairs to the second floor. Clara and I ran down a hall to the kitchen, a dark cavern at the back of the house.
Braving the shadows, we tiptoed across the stone floor and peered into the empty fireplace and oven beside it. Soon a fire would be lit and porridge would be bubbling and bread rising. Maybe hot waffles would sizzle on Myrtle's black iron griddle.
Suddenly Clara was screaming and pointing at the window. An Indian was peering through the glass at us. He had streaks of red and yellow and blue paint on his face and brass rings that dangled from his ears and nose.
I had often seen Indians at Grandfather's house. In Dutch they were called
They came down the river to visit Grandfather. When he was a young man he had lived in their country, trading with them. I
was used to their scanty clothes and strange haircuts with the sides shaved and a narrow ridge of black hair standing up straight in the middle. Grandfather's visitors had sat me on their knees and let me play with the beads and chains they wore around their necks.
But this Indian was not one of Grandfather's friends. He glared at us as if we had done something bad. Raising a big black stick with a round head on the end of it, he smashed out all the glass in the window and jumped into the kitchen. His body cast an oily gleam in the half light. It was streaked with the same red, yellow, and blue as his face. From his mouth burst the most terrifying sound I had ever heardâa howl that repeated itself again and again. Outside it was answered by other howls followed by the smash of more glass.
. Somehow the word no longer protected me. I joined Clara in a scream of terror. The Indian had gotten out of Clara's dream. He was going to hurt us.
Pounding footsteps in the hall. Father rushed into the kitchen, his face chalky white, his mouth twisted. “What do you think you're doing?” he shouted. “Get out of my house!”
The Indian hurtled across the room, his club raised, the worst howl yet bursting from his mouth. Father ducked to one side and the club smashed into the wall. But in his other hand the Indian had a hatchet. The shining steel edge sank into Father's head and he fell against the wall with an awful cry.
“FATHER!” I screamed but it did not stop the Indian. His hatchet flashed through the dim air again and my father fell to the floor, his yellow hair stained with blood, his eyes bulging with dread.
The Indian drew a knife from his shell-encrusted belt and grabbed Father's long hair. Grunting, howling, he cut off the hair and part of the top of Father's head and raised the whole thing in the air to admire it. Blood dripped from the scalp onto Father's face.
“FATHER!” I screamed again. Even now, fifty years, eighteen thousand nights and days later, I cannot hear that word without pain. I flung myself on top of dying Hendryk Van Vorst, frantically trying to clutch his life in my small arms.
The Indian tore me away and hoisted me on his hip like a sack of corn. I squirmed, clawed, spit at him, but I could not break his grip.
The word was slipping and sliding into mockery, horror. In the next room Mother lay on the floor already scalped, blood pouring from a gaping cut in her throat. Clara's mother, Myrtle, was lying beside her and another Indian was cutting off her black hair. Clara was screaming and kicking and hitting the Indian.
Impervious to her rage, the Indian picked up Clara and smiled at her, as if she were a pretty toy he had discovered in the white man's house.
When Clara tried to hit him, he laughed and said something to the other Indians, who laughed too, their white teeth flashing in their paint-streaked faces. The sound swirled through the house like the crash of drums.
Outside, Peter and Eva were sobbing and wailing. The Indians had tied leather ropes around their necks as if they were dogs. They did the same thing to me and Clara. Down on the riverbank, other Indians were fighting Joshua and the Africans and the white men who had brought us to this terrible place. They killed everyone except a few white men who jumped into one of the bateaux and escaped downstream.
Clara and I screamed and screamed and finally clung to each other, our eyes closed, trying to escape into darkness, blankness.
When we opened our eyes again the Indians had dragged the furniture from the bateaux to the house and shoved it through the front door and windows and set everything on fire. Flames began crackling and roaring inside the house; smoke gushed from the smashed windows.
“FATHER!” I screamed one last time. For the next eighteen thousand days and nights of my life I would never speak that word again.
Seizing the leather ropes around our necks, the Indians trotted into the forest. In minutes we went from sunlight to shadow. The great trees loomed around us, their leaves so thick the blue sky was lost. Looking back, I saw tongues of fire leaping from the windows of the house, making it look as if it were full of devils. Mother had told me that devils breathed fire from their mouths and noses and eyes. I wondered if the Indians were devils and were taking us to hell.
Clara and I and Peter and Eva had to run to keep up with the Indians. If we fell down we were dragged along the ground until we managed to scramble to our feet again. Soon our hands and elbows and knees and feet were cut and bleeding. No one seemed to care.
I could not understand why Grandfather's friends, the Mohawks, did not help us. Why did these Indians hate us? Were Father and Mother and Joshua and Myrtle killed because they had broken God's law?
When we finally stopped for the night, the Indians flung themselves on the ground and slept. No one lit a fire or had anything to eat. A cold wind swept through the gloomy forest, rustling the leaves of the great trees. Somewhere an owl hooted, a wolf howled. Clara and I clung together, whimpering and trembling.
I wondered if what had happened in the house was a bad dream, like Clara's. Maybe I would wake up soon and Mother would give me warm milk and honey and I would forget the whole thing. I wanted to forget it. I wanted to stop feeling cold and numb and afraid. I wanted to be happy again.
. The word no longer meant anything. Memory had become an enemy.