Encountering Caleb

Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, graduated from Harvard College in 1665, the first Native American to earn an undergraduate degree there. This excerpt from Caleb’s Crossing, a new historical novel by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Geraldine Brooks, imagines Caleb’s first encounter with the book’s fictional young narrator, Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of an early Island minister.

He was standing in a thicket of tall beach grass, his bow slung over one shoulder and some kind of dead water fowl in the bag at his back. Something – perhaps the expression on my face, perhaps my frantic tugging at my skirt, which unfurled into the water to preserve my modesty at the cost of being soaked entirely – amused him, for he smiled. He was, I judged, and it later proved, a youth of my own age, some two or three years younger than the warriors at play upon the beach. Unlike them, he was clad for hunting, wearing a kind of deerskin breechclout tied with a belt fashioned of snake skins. To this was laced a pair of hide leggings. Around his upper arms were twines of beadwork, cunningly worked in purple and white. All else about him was open and naked, save for three glossy feathers tied into a sort of topknot in his thick, jetty hair, which was very long, the forelock pulled hard back from his coppery face and bound up as one might dress a horse’s mane. His smile was unguarded, his teeth very fine and white, and something in his expression made it impossible to fear him. Still, I thought it prudent to retrieve my mare and get away from this place, which seemed to be teeming with salvages of one sort or another. Who could say what outlandish person might next appear?

I gathered up my soaking skirt and made for the shoreline. Unfortunately in my haste I caught my toe in a thicket of eelgrass and tripped into the water, spilling the few clams I had gathered and soaking my sleeves and bodice to match my sodden skirt. He was beside me in a few long strides, a hard brown grip on my forearm as he pulled me out of the water.

In his own language, I asked him to let go. His hand dropped from my arm. I made my way, dripping, to shore. He stood where he was, fixed to the spot by his own astonishment. It was my turn, then, to struggle against a smile. I think it would not have surprised him more had my horse addressed him.

He followed me out of the water then and started to speak to me in a great rush of syllables, and I could not make out more than a word or two of it. My father had told me that they loved any person who could utter his mind in their tongue, and this boy kept exclaiming, to my discomfort, “Manitoo!” which is their word for a god, or something godlike, miraculous.

Slowly, in my simple words, I tried to make it plain that there was nothing so very extraordinary in my knowing some of his speech. I told him who I was, for all of the Wampanoag by that time had heard of the praying Indians and their minister, my father. I explained that I had learned something of his tongue by listening to the lessons of my father with Iacoomis.

He made a face at that, as if he had sucked on a gallnut. He hissed out the word they use for the product of the bowel, a vile or stinking thing, and it made me blush to hear him say such a thing of a helpful man so well beloved by my father.

He looked down then at my empty clamming basket.

“Poquauhock?” he asked. I nodded. He closed his fingers to his upturned palm, beckoning me, and turned back into the beach grass from which he had appeared.

I had a choice then, to follow or not. I wish I could say that it cost me more struggle. As I scrambled along trying to keep pace with his swift steps, I told myself that it would be a great thing to know of a better clamming place, so that I might do the chore with dispatch in future days and have more time for my own pursuits.

It was the first of many times I followed that feathered head through eelgrass and over sand dune, to clay pit and to kettle pond. He showed me where the wild strawberries sweetened and fattened in the sunshine, some of them above two inches around, and so numerous that I could gather a bushel in a forenoon. He taught me to see where the blueberry bushes dapple with fruit in summer and the cranberry bogs yield crimson gems come fall.

He walked through the woods like a young Adam, naming creation. I learned to shape my mouth to the words – sasumuneash for cranberry, tunockuquas for frog. So many things grew and lived here that were strange to us, because they had not been in England. We named the things of this place in reference to things that were not of this place – cat brier for the thickets of vine whose thorns were narrow and claw-like; lambkill for the low-growing laurel that had proved poisonous to some of our hard-got tegs. But there had been no cats or lambs here until we brought them. So when he named a plant or a creature, I felt that I heard the true name of the thing for the first time.

Always, we made a great pretense that we had met by chance, and feigned amazement that our tracks had crossed each other’s. And yet he was certain to let me know, in such a way as to make nothing of it, where he had a mind to be fishing or hunting at this or that phase of the moon, and such or so height of the sun. Every time, I would tell myself some falsehood as to why my day’s wanderings took me in that very direction at that very hour. Once I was in the general place, it was a small matter for him to track me: He told me, later, that I left a trail plainer than a herd of running deer.

I justified the hours with him in the baskets of delicacies that I carried home. It was my duty, was it not, to help provide for my family? As I watched the jars of preserves fill the shelf, the strings of drying cranberries crisscross the rafters, and the strips of smoked shellfish laid in against a hungry winter, I felt satisfied in my self-deception.

The truth, now, set down here, before God: I loved the hours I spent with him. I had never had such a friend before.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. from Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. Copyright © 2011 by Geraldine Brooks.