Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 3

🏴 August 1695 * Among the Wokokon.

Aithne descended the gangplank from the Wokokon’s primary ship. This was nothing like the larger colonial ships, of course. But, it was an impressive vessel nonetheless, capable of excursions into the ocean and long-distance travels around the sound. Normally, they’d forgo the gangplank altogether. However, they became unusually friendly with a select few outsiders, such as Aithne, and extended certain courtesies.

For example, for the second consecutive year, she had accepted an invitation to accompany the Wokokon on a fifty-mile excursion to the outer islands for a late summer harvest celebration. The destination was a small island known by the tribal name, Wokokon. It had a charming harbor and wonderful beaches facing the Atlantic.

Aithne stood on the warm sand watching her three-year-old Brenna frolic in the wild waves at the ocean shore. Seagulls rode the warm salty thermals, pelicans patrolled the bank shallows, and a murder of enormous crows marched along dunes combing the beach for small rodents, shiny shell fragments, and other odd bits that seem to fascinate crows. She took in the pastoral beauty. And yet, peaceful days like this often brought out the melancholy. Zephan would have been overjoyed to watch his daughter, she thought. He’d have enjoyed knowing the turn of events that had brought their daughter into this world so far away from home.

Three years ago in Boston, Aithne had stepped from another boat fearing for her safety. She wondered how the Bostonians would treat an unaccompanied pregnant woman roaming the bustling docks inquiring about local taverns for lodging. She avoided the rough set of the merchant marines, the vagrants, and a number of lepers. And yet, was she not also a pariah? This thought gave her pause, and she began to focus her energies on finding a bit of safe rest.

Instinctively, she wandered a few blocks inland along a cobblestone street that followed a long, decorative garden path. The confusing ambiance of the docks faded into the distant background, and her nerves calmed a bit. Her awareness piqued slightly as she passed an elderly French woman on a street corner. Aithne recognized at once that she had something special in common with this woman. She approached her, intending to enlist the woman’s assistance. But, the old woman turned and spoke first.

“You have much in common with these specimens, friend,” she said, gesturing to the ornamental ground cover. “They’re called hostas, a new arrival from the same ships that bring the fragrant tea from the Far East. Like you they’re blooming late in the summer. Do you see how their thin flowery spikes desperately reach out toward the sky?”

“You understand my predicament,” Aithne replied.

“Of course. This is, after all, my own garden. Ornamental specimens along the lane, culinary and medicinal herbs everywhere else.” She offered a reassuring smile, which Aithne understood as the starting point of a special friendship. “I am Violette Bertrand. I am also at your service.”

Aithne regarded Violette as an angel of the highest order, one that could manifest goodness and purity with the simplest of gestures. However, it’s fair to say that both women needed and appreciated the other’s companionship. While Violette certainly had wiled the past few years away over pleasant interests and pursuits, a certain fallow emptiness seemed to linger among her general disposition. But that was to quickly vanish. Aithne delivered Brenna two weeks later in Violette’s home (without incident thanks to Violette’s midwiving experience and an infusion of something she called squawroot).

Before the hostas bloomed again, the three members of this new family, representing a generational continuum of their common secret endowment, ventured southward toward Virginia. Violette had family there — tobacco farmers — interested in settling a new Huguenot colony much further south along the Pamlico River in North Carolina. With the promise of a temperate climate, fertile soils, and access to the glorious variety of exotic plant specimens available in major port towns, Violette seemed unable to contain her enthusiasm for the move. Her intention centered on developing an unprecedented collection with which to hone her medicinal skills in the natural world and to facilitate her proficiency at channeling divine energies through botany. The mere thought filled her with a vigor she’d not experienced in twenty years.

During the extended journey, Violette seized this renewed interest and began to truly mentor Aithne in the old traditions. Of course, witches are born knowing (at least on some basic level) most of what they need to know. It’s all there from the beginning, awaiting discovery from within. But, a strong guide can help effect a particularly powerful harmony between these dormant forces and their bearer.

Violette passed away suddenly in the summer of 1694 — more than a year ago, Aithne recalled. She’d lived long enough to see Aithne through her crisis, to set her on the path toward peace, and to enjoy a full year of family that she’d missed for so long. The Wokokon, a tribe that frequently traded with the colony, had come to respect Violette deeply — not only as an elder, but as a human being uncommonly in tune with nature. The normally standoffish tribesmen warmed to her and, through Aithne’s natural capacity for communication, consulted her about herbal and medicinal matters.

This role won Aithne and her daughter a rare acceptance and trust among the tribe. She welcomed this relationship, feeling that the Indians were much closer to her in their general philosophy than the colonial settlers (who were largely French Protestants) would ever be. And, though it was purely coincidence, she felt a degree of comfort about their name; Wokokon had a familiar ring to it. It reminded her a great deal of an Old English word that she had known from her study of language. Wicca, in that language, was a word indicating a male witch. And, this reminded her of Zephan. So, in some strange way, she felt at home on this barrier island, among this tribe.

“Are you having fun, my child?” Aithne shouted over the din of the waves.

“Yes, mother,” she replied. Brenna had buried her legs in the sand. Occasionally, a larger wave would break on the shore and the cool frothy water would wash over her. Aithne stood close by — close enough to watch over her daughter and close enough so that Brenna knew her mother was near, but also far enough to offer the child a taste of independence.

Aithne sat on the beach, her warm new dress gathered around her legs, and continued remembering Violette’s warmth and friendship. After she’d passed, nothing could replace her company. Aithne had lost another cherished soul and, were it not for the blessing of her daughter, she doubted whether she’d have the will to continue on this plain of existence.

She continued her work in botany, and also became interested in decorative sewing. In Violette’s honor, she had set out to celebrate this fall’s harvest with the Wokokon by wearing an entirely new dress. She’d acquired some impressively lustrous Japanese silk, in vibrant green, which she applied as border material and accents to a green linen dress she’d made earlier in the year. Along the bottom, she’d sewn a row of large quilted Vs as a tribute to Violette.

The small girl washed the sand from herself, shook off her frock, and pulled it onto herself. She then ran up the beach past her mother. After spooking a group of gulls, she slowly approached the crows, holding out her arm as though she were an experienced falconer summoning her raptor to perch. Brenna froze in this position and seemed to be concentrating. The birds paid her no mind for quite some time but then one large crow cautiously approached. Its feathers matched Brenna’s hair perfectly in stark contrast to the light brown sand. The two appeared to stare at one another for a moment and then, as if on cue, the bird jumped up onto the girl’s arm. She reached up to stroke it, but never made contact.

A large, clumsy bearded man carrying what looked like a small trunk and a number of large sticks was walking toward them and shouted “Brenna!”

The crow squeezed the girl’s arm tightly and took flight. She screamed and ran to her mother.

“Is the child harmed?” said the man, rushing toward them and finally kneeling before the girl. “I feared that crow meant to carry you away for supper.”

“She’s unharmed, Hervé,” said Aithne.

The Wokokon had allowed one other white colonist — a parson named Hervé Grellier — to accompany the tribe to the harvest celebration. Mr. Grellier wasn’t actively invited, though. Rather, he imposed his presence on the group, citing something about offering assistance related to Aithne’s involvement. He presented this argument to the Wokokon’s priest as though the idea had some grounding in moral righteousness. They allowed his company rather reluctantly, partially out of respect as the man’s designation as a liturgical representative. However, the respect ended there, as the tribesmen had no interest in participating in the man’s chorales, which he sang frequently.

Grellier had secular interests as well, a few of which might have been considered a little too worldly had anyone ever discovered them. On the more innocent side, though, he enjoyed painting. Rural colonial life offered precious little time for such pursuits, of course. So, he stole these opportunities as the rare chances presented themselves.

“It is my intention this day, Mrs. Reade, to make a painting of this island. I was hoping that you and your daughter would pose for me.”

Brenna wanted no part in it. However, her mother acquiesced on their behalf before the child could protest. “How shall we pose, parson?”

“Not this day, Mrs. Reade. Today, I’ll attempt to capture the background scenery, and tomorrow we’ll return to this spot for the two foreground subjects, yourself and your daughter. What say you?”

“We would be honored to be immortalized on this fabric.”

“‘Honored’ may be an inappropriate description, madam. For, I’m but a student in these arts.”

“Don’t be foolish, parson. Your pastime is well respected in the colony. I daresay the Wokokon may recruit you in decorating their fishing boats.”

Hervé laughed. “Do you suppose they’d realize the symbolism were I to adorn each vessel with the ichthys form — that is to say, the graph of a fish that represents our faith?”

“I don’t suppose they would, although the form does have a primitive appeal.”

“It is primitive, Mrs. Reade. It began because the ancient Christians required a means of identifying one another. Here, let me show you. Brenna, would you hand me that stick?” He pointed to a slender piece of driftwood not far away. The girl looked up at her mother, who nodded, indicating that she should retrieve the stick.

When she returned, he said, “In the Roman Empire, there were times during which the pagans ruled when it was unsafe to declare one’s identity as a Christian. So, the faithful devised ways to continue in secrecy. Thus, I would draw an arc in the sand like this…” He drew a long curve in the sand with the stick. “And, you would return the gesture with your staff, starting at the same point and curving around the other way, thus completing the symbol of the fish. Here you are.”

Hervé handed the stick to Aithne, subtly requesting that she follow through by completing the mark on the sand. She understood the implicit meaning underlying Mr. Grellier’s request. What had begun as an innocence conversation had encroached upon something that filled her mind with memories of Salem. She never expected the atmosphere in Bath to take such a turn, of course, but she also had never regularly attended the parson’s congregations, a lack of participation that drew vocal criticisms from a number of parishioners.

Aithne made eye contact with Brenna, who snatched the stick and ran away down the beach, almost as though she were told to do this. “I’m afraid, Mr. Grellier, that a child’s impulse to run from a history lesson has proven difficult to restrict without the benefit of school house walls. I hope you won’t take her rejection personally.”

“Not at all, Mrs. Reade. In fact, I should let you follow her now or I’ll not have time to capture the atmosphere of this beach.” With that, Aithne followed Brenna further down the shore. It was nearly time to begin preparing for the Wokokon harvest ceremony.

Aithne and Brenna walked a path back to the camp site much further down the beach. She helped the women prepare stews and breads as the young men gathered firewood and prepared a large circular area around the fire for sitting and dancing. A number of older men attended to their flutes, drums, and other percussive instruments. The festivities had already begun for the younger tribe members. They held races, wrestling matches, and archery contests, with fancy garlands awarded to the winners.

At twilight, the chief said a few words in their language, and then lit the bonfire to mark the beginning of the ceremony. He wore a traditional dress made up of numerous shells, feathers, beads, and red and black face paint. His seat and those of the other elders had been decorated with corn husks. Soon the drums began and the braves performed tomahawk dances, acted out hunting scenes, chanted harvest songs, and paid tribute to the moon and stars. The music continued through the evening as the feast ensued.

Aithne and Brenna had taken a seat near the fire to relax. They’d brought a small blanket as well. An Indian man they’d not met before sat down beside them. He could speak English, as many of the tribe could. He spoke slowly, but also quite clearly.

“Aithne Reade, I am Chogan,” he said. “I am the medicine man for this tribe.”

“We’re delighted to meet you, Chogan,” Aithne replied.

Brenna stood up to greet Chogan. Like her mother, she recognized something in this man that pleased her.

“And you, raven charmer. Were you upset when the crow took flight?”

She nodded.

“Don’t worry about the black bird, little one.” He smiled at her. “He’ll return to visit you again and again.”

They stared at the roaring fire. There was much, much more to be said. But, for now, they relaxed and listened to the drums pound out intoxicating rhythms that seemed to reverberate one’s own heartbeat a hundred-fold in volume, the flutes that echoed the spirit’s plaintive longing for deeper meaning, the chanted melodies that articulated a continuum of lyrical memories. They drifted off to sleep with these sounds fresh in their minds, informing their dreams in ways that each found meaningful.

The next day, Aithne recalled her conversation with Mr. Grellier. He’d attended the festival as well, although he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it quite as much as the others. There’s nothing like a good painting session, he thought, to calm the nerves after a night of pagan ritualism — especially for a protestant minister.

Brenna was in no mood to comply. She clung to her mother the whole time, looking rather impassioned — a quality the parson captured rather well, especially in her eyes, which seemed piercing. The painting showed Aithne standing just above the shoreline, her spectacular dress adorned with the quilted Vs, and the young raven-like Brenna standing by her side dressed in all black with her flowing black hair blown in the wind.

Aithne’s visions were not always fully formed. She was always an excellent judge of character, and her initial impressions generally guided her well in deciding how close she could become with another person. With Mr. Grellier, she didn’t sense danger. However, she certainly picked up on her daughter’s hesitation around the man. She feared the girl’s ability exceeded her own and that the child’s actions around the man portended something dreadful looming in the distance. Whatever that could be, she couldn’t guess, for it was surely a long way off.

Having returned to Bath, Grellier delayed finishing his painting for a few days. Then, one weekday night, he sat up unable to sleep and decided to pull his supplies from their case. He believed he’d captured fairly well the glint of sunshine reflecting on the untamed surf, the beauty he saw in Aithne, and the child’s dark mystery. He’d even included a number of crows to commemorate the unusual incident he’d witnessed. After applying the finishing touches, he signed the lower right corner and sat back to reflect upon his feelings by candle light.


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☠️ Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various Medium.com publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. “Chapter number” background photo atop piece is adapted from “Light Reading” by Martin (Flickr, Creative Commons).