CHAPTER 1: Bucket SEPTEMBER, 1678
The words woke Sarah with a start, her heart in her throat. The Indian girl knelt at her side.
“Is it Kitto? Has something happened?” Sarah bolted upright in the lean-to and looked over to where Kitto lay awash in pale moonlight. He lay on his back, the rise and fall of his chest smooth and steady. Sarah breathed again. She berated herself silently for having fallen asleep. She told him she would watch over him!
That morning Van had held the red-hot head of an ax to Kitto’s leg, where the shark had torn away his bent foot. Sarah had held Kitto down by sitting on his chest and pinning his arms to his sides. Van had set a stick in Kitto’s mouth to bear down upon to keep from biting his tongue when the pain hit. And had it ever hit. Sarah shivered at the memory.
“Quog quosh,” Ontoquas said and then translated. “We hurry.”
“Is there something wrong? What is it?”
Ontoquas shook her head. “I did not know you wawmauseu.” Ontoquas frowned, wishing her English allowed her to say it the way she could in the language of her own people. “I see you with him today. You are a good mother. Nitka.”
“I do not understand, Ontoquas.”
The Wampanoag girl’s brow knitted. She reached out for Sarah’s forearm and gave her a gentle tug. “You must come.”
“Where?” Sarah bit her lip. She looked over at Kitto. “I do not want to leave.”
“Please. He is not far.”
“Is there someone else on this island? Is there a ship?”
Ontoquas shook her head. “Please come.” Sarah pushed herself slowly to her feet. This native girl was such a puzzle to her. Who was she? How had she come to live alone on this forsaken island? And was she truly alone? Sarah swore that she could sense some other presence, some other life, lurking in the dense jungle. All that day the girl had disappeared for stretches of time, sometimes returning with a freshly killed turtle or a split coconut or a bucket of fresh water, but other times with nothing at all save for a worried look.
From habit Sarah ran her hands along the front of her shift as if to smooth it, but the tattered and sun-bleached material was long past such ministrations. The
dress that once covered it had been lost to the sea during the hurricane that nearly killed them all.
“For a moment, then,” Sarah said, and followed the girl out of the lean-to.
It was a primitive domed structure, made by Ontoquas’s own hands from woven tree limbs skillfully tied together with reeds, and broad palm leaves covering the frame and providing protection from the rains. Van slept on a pallet of palm leaves at one end of the dwelling, snoring lightly. Sarah stole one last look at Kitto. Were his cheeks truly that pale, or was it the moonlight? He looked peaceful enough. She turned back to the native girl.
Ontoquas led her along a narrow path that carved its way through thick foliage, heading deeper into the island. The way was slow going, with fallen tree trunks and patches where the thick undergrowth forced the path into wide sweeps. After a few hundred yards the ground rose up beneath them in a gentle hill.
How much farther? Sarah wondered. She stopped and looked back in the direction they had come. As she had since they first set foot on the island, Sarah felt now the eerie sense that somewhere in the dark wood there were eyes watching her. She turned back and chided herself. The girl had disappeared around a bend in the rising trail. Sarah was just about to call to her to say she could not go farther on, when Ontoquas came back around the bend. She beckoned to Sarah with urgency. Sarah pursed her lips, but made her way up the last several yards, surprised to see a flash of
teeth on the Indian girl when she reached her.
She is smiling! Sarah drew closer. The look on Ontoquas’s face was more than just a smile. The girl’s face beamed with love and joy and pride so radiantly that it brought Sarah to a shocked standstill. The girl pointed toward the ground just a few feet ahead. There lay a tiny clearing in the wood, a circle bordered with stones, fallen logs, and brush shrouded in dark shadow.
Sarah peered toward the circle. In the middle of it, bathed in pale moonlight, slept a baby, a tiny African infant. The baby slept on his back, his arms up by his head. His stomach gently rising and falling with his breath. Sarah gasped when she understood what she was seeing.
“A baby! What is an infant . . . where did . . . is the baby yours?” Ontoquas held a finger to her lips. She knew the baby would be very angry if awoken in the middle of the night.
Now Sarah was even more confused. How did this baby come to be here? The girl was too young to be a mother, and even in the dim light Sarah could see that the two could not be directly related. The girl’s lighter skin, her straight hair—she had to have been a native of the Americas. But the baby was much darker, with a thin layer of curly black hair and a wide nose that flared with each breath.
He was beautiful.
Ontoquas watched the wompey woman step over the barrier she had built to make sure the baby could not escape—not yet necessary since he did not crawl,
but she could not bear to leave him in the open woods, even if this island had no animals that would show an interest. Sarah squatted down and scooped the child up expertly. The baby gave a startled jerk and his eyes shot open, but Sarah immediately rose and began to bob him up and down and run the tips of her fingers over his tiny black curls. The child’s eyes drooped, then shut again.
“He is beautiful,” Sarah whispered.
Ontoquas nodded. “Weneikinne.” Sarah stepped about the enclosure with the child in her arms, bouncing gently with each rhythmic step. Ontoquas felt a pang in her stomach as she watched and knew it to be jealousy. Whether the jealousy was aimed at the baby or the woman she did not know. She felt pride, too. Without her, the tiny one would be at the bottom of the sea.
When she looked up again at the woman, she could see her cheeks were wet with tears. Ontoquas said nothing, but let the woman walk her little one around the circle, bobbing as she went. She knew the wompey nitka was thinking of the other child, the son of hers who they had said was somewhere lost out on the sea.
Finally the woman wiped the tears away and stepped close so as not to wake the baby. “He is so young. How have you fed him?”
Ontoquas shrugged. “I chew turtle in teeth,” she said, pantomiming the words. “Then I . . . I kiss it to Bucket.”
“Bucket? That is his name?” Sarah smiled.
“A bucket saved his life. And me.”
Sarah looked back at the shining baby in her arms. “You have done so well, Ontoquas. He looks quite healthy. I would never have thought a girl of your age . . .”
Again silence won out.
“I helped my mother with my netchaw, my . . . brother. Before.”
Before. Sarah nodded, wondering what horrors this child had faced. “Your mother taught you well. But I must know, Ontoquas, how did it come about that you and this baby are here together on this tiny island with no other soul in sight?”
Ontoquas sighed and lowered herself to a fallen log that formed one barrier of the pen. She puzzled, staring hard at the floor of matted palm fronds.
“It is long, our story. And my English . . .”
“Your English is excellent, young lady. Astonishing. You should be proud of it.” Sarah looked back down the rise in the direction they had come. “Kitto is asleep and will stay that way long enough.”
“You do not need to go back?”
“Tell me your story, Ontoquas.”