The Piedmont, North Carolina, 1828
He put out a hand to grab her wrist and pull her back to the bed with him but she easily eluded his grasp.
“Be patient,” she said. “I’m not going far.” She knelt by his side where he lay, sated and drowsy on a pile of animal skins. Tilting her head with its full, curled lips and raised eyebrows as if asking a question, she removed a small wooden box from the chest by the side of the bed. The box was studded with bits of river glass on its sides. A bird in flight was carved into its lid, the bird’s long brass beak formed its latch. Sticking a stone pipe in her mouth, she opened the box, then waved it around the close room so that the air filled with the sweet scent of wild tobacco. She filled her pipe and lit it with a thin bundle of twined straw she stuck in and out of the oil lamp’s center. She inhaled, exhaled, raised her big black merry eyes to the heavens while muttering some kind of incantation, then passed the pipe to her chosen lover of the moment, Abrahan Sassaporta, a peddler who had wandered by her cabin offering packets of seeds, scraps of lace, and tin utensils.
Abrahan puffed on the pipe in a fog of wonder. He could not believe his good luck. Four hours ago, they’d been strangers. Abrahan was a fresh immigrant on his virgin sales expedition for his uncle’s business. After he left the mainstay of his wares at Micah’s Trading Post, to which he’d return for resupply as needed, he’d traveled on foot, a pack on his back, to five of the farms on the list and map given him. He’d made a wrong turn at a fork along the beaten path.
The path he’d chosen narrowed until he found himself aimless, wandering between trees, unable to locate the way back. He’d begun to imagine himself forever lost, starving to death in the forest, facing down strange, wild beasts and savage men when out of a verdant chaos of trees and roots and vines, the clearing appeared, a grassy hillock crowned by a log cabin with an open door. A native woman leaned against the doorway with crossed arms and a determined expression. She was dressed in a red cotton shirt and deerskin britches.
As he approached, he saw that her face was a pleasing assembly of angles and light, her skin as dark as his own but lit with golden copper as if from the very blood beneath it. Her eyes were almond-shaped and heavy-lidded, which lent them a sly look. She’d a strong nose, a big gorgeous mouth. From beneath a blue bandana slung low over her brow, her black hair, straight and thick like the mane of a horse, hung well past her clavicle to brush the tips of her breasts. He marveled at how very strong she looked. He felt excited and a bit afraid. A thin, hot wire inside his chest vibrated from his toes to his scalp. Despite his anxiety, he managed to introduce himself and show her his wares.
“Seeds?” she’d said, mocking him. “Seeds? When I cannot make my own seeds for growing, I’ll drown myself and give my flesh to the Earth, who will surely make better use of it.”
The lace she also discounted. But there was a large fork she could find use for, along with two sizes of spoons. He produced a pouch of gunpowder from his pack and her eyes danced. She grabbed his arm and pulled him into the cabin. “Here,” she said, slapping four coins on the wooden table that stood in the center of the room. “I’ll take as much of that powder as I can get.”
Abrahan looked around, buying time. He saw the quiver of arrows near the door, the longbow as tall as he was beside it, the half-size hunting bow next to that. Opposite the door a variety of knives were mounted against the wall. The largest might have been a kind of broadsword, the shortest was narrow with a hooked tip. There were firearms also. A flintlock pistol, a rifle, and a shotgun hung by leather straps above the fireplace. There were no additional decorations on the walls. Weaponry alone graced the raw, unmilled timber as if the entire structure was built solely as a monument to defense. For a moment, Abrahan wondered if he’d stumbled upon some private armory. Flustered, he looked down at her coins.
“You won’t get much with that,” he said.
“Then take back your fork and spoons.”
“I still can’t give you more than half an ounce. I only have four to spare. The rest I carry to fill long-standing orders. And my rounds are not half done.”
Her mouth twisted. The air between them went hot and humid, full of scent. They could hear each other breathe. He did not know why but something in him longed to please her. Maybe it was fate calling to him, with finger crooked and eyes sparkling. Whatever it was, it came from a place so deep in him he made a rash decision.
“But I could give you credit,” he said. As soon as the words flew out of his mouth, he regretted them. He had no authority to back them up. But there they were, on the table, beside the two spoons, fork, and coin.
The great black eyes blinked with surprise. She leaned backward, tilting her head while she folded her arms across her chest and studied him. Now, here, her posture seemed to say, was a new creature under the sun. He blushed under her scrutiny.
“Well, that’s settled then,” he mumbled. He reached into his pack for the gunpowder and she was on him, her mouth hot on his neck. When she pulled back and saw the alarm on his face, saw the wide eyes, the open, dry mouth, she grinned.
Four hours later, the sun had begun its daily descent behind a distant ridge of smoky-blue mountains, and the air had grown cool. He puffed again on the pipe and drew one of the skins over his naked limbs.
She got up. Her bare backside was to him as she crouched at the hearth and placed the night’s logs in the fireplace. He marveled that while he’d begun to feel numb at his toes from the deepening chill of twilight, she’d not raised so much as a goose bump. Then he fell to admiring the slope of her hip.
“Marian,” he called out sweetly so that she’d turn in his direction. He used the name she’d given him, although he was certain she’d another meaningful one, a tribal name. He had more than one name himself. His full name was Abrahan Bento Sassaporta Naggar, but that was too much for the London gutter weeds with whom he’d grown up and from whom he’d escaped as soon as Uncle Isadore had been convinced to accept him as apprentice in America. He’d stopped using his name in full when he was ten to avoid torment by the others, although when he needed to encourage or remonstrate himself, he’d still say in a voice remarkably like his mother’s, Abrahan Bento Sassaporta Naggar! You are a coward, a fool! Get up and do your job! At the moment, all his emotion was directed outward, and with great warmth he said to the woman regarding him, “Marian, you are beautiful.”
She laughed, then stood before him with her arms raised, her legs spread, unashamed.
“You think so, Mr. Peddler?” She laughed again and struck the pouty pose of some whorehouse vixen, the kind who advertised her goods from window frames in London’s East End, where he’d grown up. It was a pose so unnatural to her as to be both witty and ridiculous, so he laughed also. She strutted the room and continued.
“You should have seen me twenty years ago! When I did not have this!”
She slapped her right flank, then grabbed a handful of extra flesh and shook it.
“When I had these!”
She cupped her breasts and held them up high.
“How proud they stood—like soldiers at attention!”
She fell back in the bed next to him. Her eyes no longer laughed.
“Twenty years ago, you would have killed another man, or yourself, out of love for me. I’m not lying when I say both things happened. Twenty years ago.”
“Is that why you live alone here? Away from your people?”
Her eyes were guarded as he gathered her in, pulling her under the deerskin blanket with him. She put a hand through his tangle of black curls and tugged at the back of his head, then rode her hand slowly around his neck to the under part of his beard.
“Yes, my bear. It is exactly why.”
“Tell me more.”
Over the three and one half days he spent with her, she told him many stories about herself. She told him about her childhood in the house of her father, a great chief. He was proud and distant and mostly ordered people about, herself included. She’d been taught many skills by her mother, her aunts, and her mother’s slaves—kitchen skills, gardening skills, both the spinning of cotton and the making of garments from skins and hats from various reeds. She told him of her first pony, who was called Bright Star for a mark on his forehead. Without seeming to brag, she told him she was also expert in the skills of warriors. She told him of her ability to launch arrows from Bright Star’s back at full gallop, striking her mark often enough to win competitions ahead of any man. She was so skillful at this and also with knives that her father would not allow her on the hunt or his warriors would be consumed by jealousy and despair. She told him that at sixteen, her father sent her to London so that on her return she might attract his grandest hope for her—the son of a wealthy white man as her husband. He was convinced along with many others that adoption of settler ways and alliance through marriage was essential for his people to survive the wave of whites flooding the land. “Even a shopkeeper like you would do,” Marian of the foothills told him, laughing at her inflation of Abrahan’s humble profession, “any man who was of European blood and had a little property.” But no one ever asked her what she wanted, and she had her own ideas.
It was at this point, the most interesting point, the point at which the story of who had killed another man, who had killed himself out of love for her young, magnificent self might have been revealed, that Marian stopped talking when he again questioned her on it. “No,” she said. Abrahan, already in love for the first time in his life, pushed to convince her he was worthy of the tale. No. No. No. He continued to push. He wheedled a little. Suddenly her back was turned to him and her britches were laced. His appetite for her increased to the point of pain. He wooed her back to him by comparing derisive notes about the English. The ones he knew growing up were the filthy Jew-hating brutes of the street. Hers were privileged minor peers who felt that keeping a civilized Cherokee as houseguest was as droll as the antics of their little pugs and spaniels.
“Tell me about your people, these Jews of yours,” she said. “In England I heard of them, but you are the first I’ve known well enough to ask.”
He sighed, wondering how to explain such a long and complex subject to her.
“Once we were a great nation,” he said, “blessed by our God, who gave us a land of milk and honey and also many laws.”
She nodded solemnly.
“Giving laws. It’s what gods do,” she said. “I’ve noticed—how could I not?—you have your morning rituals, your forbidden foods. So do I. For every fringe on your undershirt, I have sacred feathers or beads of great meaning.”
Moved by her desire to seek out similarities between them, he kissed the top of her head and continued.
“Conquerors expelled us from our land and we became wanderers. Everywhere we went, we were treated with suspicion and envy. We are citizens wherever we rest, until our overlords decide we are not wanted anymore.”
“It was because you gave up the land.”
“We had no choice.”
She shrugged as if to say there is always a choice.
“My nation,” she said, “was also given our land by the Great Beings. We would never abandon it. Although now we have to share it with you English.”
At the word “English,” she punched his side playfully, but there was a darker intent behind her smile. Abrahan opened his mouth to expound on what he knew about Old Hickory and his proposals to drive her people west of the Mississippi, but all he really knew was whatever gossip other peddlers traded on cold nights over a bottle of spirits. Politics does not a cozy bedfellow make, he decided. The wording pleased him. He made a mental note to remember it for use another time when he wanted to impress someone.
“I’m not English. Not really. My poor, exiled tribe was driven to England from Portugal, where we found haven for many years. But our cousin tribesmen who were English never accepted us, even after generations. It’s they who sent our fathers here a hundred years ago, to get rid of us. Worthy paupers they called us, off to the New World for a better life. I’m the latest of that long chain.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “I think what I am now is an American. At least until they remind me that no, I am a Jew.”
She reached out and busied herself with his britches. “I see part of what I have heard is true. Mutilation is not unknown among my own people, but this . . . this shortening. Only the Creek do this. Our men say it is because they tried to lie with the Horned Snake and he bit them down to size. But they only say this to make sport of a rival. Maybe you can tell me. Truly, why there? Why that?” She gave his sex a warm tug and left her hand around it, caressing.
He winced. “I have no idea why the Creek do anything,” he said. “As for Jews, we cut ourselves because our God told us to so we would not damage the ladies with our greatness.” They both laughed. The pain of his desire was thereafter eased.
Before he left her, he learned from her his location, both in miles from Uncle Isadore’s camp town, which was approximately fifty, and by the stars she pointed out to him in the night. He wrote in his book: Marian of the foothills southwest of Tobias Milner’s farm, northeast of Micah’s Trading Post: one fork, two spoons, four ounces of gunpowder. He drew a star to the left of her name, as he did for all new customers he felt worth passing by again, then he drew a second star, which was completely unnecessary. Marian of the foothills was not someone he would forget.