Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 5

🏴 Summer 1711 * Bath, North Carolina.

Forty-four years was hardly a lifetime, Brenna thought. At nineteen, she felt immortal. She’d thought her mother was as well. But, Aithne Reade left this world in 1711 at forty-four years old. Nothing in her mother’s arsenal of spells could rid her of the pestilence that plagued so many in the colony.

A dark cloud had settled over the sound. Smallpox and influenza seemed to strike at random, and the diseases seemed to target outsiders even more voraciously. Perhaps this explained why her mother succumbed, Brenna thought.

Chogan had arrived only minutes too late, accompanied by three tribesmen who waited outside. He entered the home and took Aithne’s hand, which was still warm, and began to chant an ancient incantation to the Great Spirit. When he completed the prayer, he turned to Brenna and said, “I could not save your mother. However, I can save you. It is time, little raven, to leave the nest.”

Brenna could not speak, but passively assented with a rather nervous nod. There are those who believe that the select few among us who are uncommonly in tune with the natural world are also the most accepting of its cruelties. And, there are others who believe that this group bears witness to such events with one hundred times the distress. Brenna’s face could have been interpreted in either way; even Chogan couldn’t fathom the girl’s pain.

Though her illness stuck and progressed quickly, her mother had time to make one item clear. Aithne’s wish was to be laid to rest on the island of the Wokokon, which had by then come to be known as Ocracoke Island. Her memories of the annual harvest festivals ranked among the fondest of her life.

Chogan called his three tribesmen inside to help Brenna assemble and pack her belongings into several shipping crates. He then wrapped Aithne in a cloth and carried her to the boat. In an hour, Brenna and the tribesmen walked out of the dwelling for the last time — and, interestingly, without hesitation. She agreed with Chogan; her mother’s spirit now roamed the shores of Ocracoke.

The prospect of leaving Bath came with little difficulty until Mr. Grellier saw them leaving. “Brenna, surely you don’t mean to take up permanent residence with the natives?”

“I mean to live among my family, Mr. Grellier,” she said. For a moment, he looked as though he planned to step toward her, indicating some sort of authoritative objection to this. However, the three tribesmen stepped between Brenna and Grellier, issued a fierce look of their own in return. They weren’t perhaps as patient as Chogan in terms of their ability to tolerate colonists.

Mr. Grellier understood; he wouldn’t interfere. However, he refused to let go completely. “I shall travel to look in on you in a year’s time then,” he said, always true to his naturally imposing disposition.

Still in a fog from her mother’s passing, she quietly nodded and turned to follow the tribesmen, who had already managed to secure her belongings, and her mother, into the boat. She briefly felt thankful that she did not witness the physical placement of her mother’s body in the boat, as this must have been somewhat awkward for the men to accomplish in a way that preserved her mother’s dignity.

Normally, the fifty mile trip was broken out among three rather leisurely days during their annual voyages in the fall. However, Chogan understood that the burial must take place as soon as possible. It was still summer, and the heat would take its toll on Aithne’s body before long. They rowed through the night, sleeping in shifts as though they’d practiced such a procedure in the past.

Brenna drifted off several times throughout the trip, although by the third period of sleep, she grew increasingly angry; each time she’d wake, there would be a period of several seconds without thinking of the events of the past few days. When the cool air and water became still at night, they ventured further out in order to make better time. The further out they traveled, the less likely they were to hug the shore’s contour, thus making the journey more direct.

She watched the dark shores in the distance; they’d occasionally pass a small colonial village or tribal site, some of which had open fires still burning from earlier in the evening. Had there been a moon out, she’d have perhaps been able to discern people moving about under the trees like shadows. Instead, she often looked to the countless constellations for comfort, recalling the mythical beasts and instruments and characters that populated the firmament.

The men rowed all through the following day, stopping only twice to rest, fish, and eat. During one stop early in the afternoon, Brenna and Chogan stood along the Pamlico and looked off into the distance. They were getting closer.

“Soon we will arrive at the village, your new home,” he said. “You need to understand all of the reasons you had to leave. This sickness and others far worse — diseases like smallpox — are decimating the tribes, our people are being captured and sold as slaves, the colonists are confiscating our land.”

“I understand, Chogan.”

“These offenses,” he said, “have taken place for far too long. The Tuscarora in particular have been affected severely in our area, as have the Pamplico, the Cores, and the Matamuskeet. I fear you would not be safe in Bath in the event of an uprising.”

Brenna accepted this reasoning. She’d known some Tuscarora as a child, long before the colonists brought so many problems into the new world. Bath had been quite an active trading port for some time, which her mother had increasingly appreciated for acquiring silks, plants, and other goods. While her own relationship with the natives had been rewarding, Brenna understood the issues causing so much distress. As the daughter of a colonist, she felt a certain responsibility; however, as someone who had been born in America, she also regarded this soil as her own native land.

As important as this issue was, Brenna’s mere existence seemed overwhelming during this time of sadness and uncertainty. “What’s to become of us, Chogan?” she asked.

He took one last sweeping scan of the horizon and then looked at her. “When we finish the work of today, we will understand our tasks for tomorrow,” he said.

Brenna understood his practical advice. It would have been irrational for her to have expected soothing words from Chogan while her mother lay dead in the boat only yards from where they stood. Practicality seemed prudent, though somewhat frustrating during this time of grieving. There would be time for rest, contemplation, and redirection in a matter of a few days.

The party reached the island harbor early that evening. The tribe members welcomed Brenna with food and shelter, which she found comforting.

Brenna had witnessed a funeral ceremony four years ago during a fall harvest festival. The Wokokon had not been spared the horrors of smallpox and influenza. New ceremonies had been invented out of necessity to accommodate the frequency with which the tribe was forced to celebrate the deaths of tribe members. Aithne would be sent off in the same manner.

The Indians had cut down several trees in order to construct a pyre situated over a large hole, which had been used regularly over the years for this purpose. Around the hole was a clearing for perhaps twenty-five feet, ringed by large stones and wooden benches. Not far from the hole on either side were two smaller fire pits. Chogan supervised the construction, which involved placing numerous logs across the hole, which was filled with all manner of combustible items — driftwood collected by the children, scraps of lumber from boats, branches and brush. He treated Aithne’s body with respect, gently covering her with additional logs and branches.

When it was time to light the fire, Chogan approached Brenna. “Return to your lodge and look through the belongings we brought here. You should place a representation of your mother’s possessions onto the pyre so that her spirit will have use of them.”

“What should I bring, Chogan?”

“Bring your mother’s finest dress,” he said. He turned and went to work building two separate and much smaller fires several feet away from Aithne’s body.

She found her worldly possessions stacked in several crates in a corner of her lodge. Her mother’s finest dress lay in one crate — its distinctive Vs looking more to her at this moment like seagulls riding the trade winds. Yes, this was the right thing to do, she thought. She bundled the dress into a ball and turned for the door. But then, she hesitated. This dress represented more than simple utilitarian clothing. It was a distinctive work of art, sewn during a period of grief in honor of her mother’s companion, Violette. She shouldn’t burn this dress, she thought. She should have it as a keepsake, and perhaps one day add her own distinctive elements to it as a tribute to her mother.

She repacked the dress in a crate and selected another of her mother’s creations, an equally beautiful dress in deep blue like the Pamlico Sound itself, with silk edging she’d obtained from the merchants in exchange for her medicinal remedies. While beautiful, this was a more practical choice for spirit-world apparel. He mother wore this more frequently, anyway, which meant it may have been more painful to keep than another dress that her mother truly cherished.

She returned with the dress, her mother’s shoes, and a wooden bowl her mother had used for serving food. These items seemed appropriate to Brenna and were relatively painless choices. Placing them onto the pyre that evening was by far the most difficult task of the past two days. She understood the general nature of life perhaps more deeply than any other young woman, but nothing could have prepared her for seeing her mother covered with large branches and brush. While Chogan and the others had certainly taken care to present Aithne in the least visually disturbing way, Brenna’s initial reaction was that her mother appeared trapped in the darkness within the pyre; her initial instinct was to clear the brush and rescue her mother.

She didn’t, of course. She ceremoniously placed the items she’d retrieved onto the pyre and stepped back. Others had strewn flowers and various grasses there. She could see the Wokokon chief, a large man called Machk, walking from the settlement carrying an unlit torch over his head. Machk had the look of a leader — a red and white feathered head dress, deer skin clothing, and elaborate bead work made from bones and antlers. He stood in the darkness in front of Aithne, illuminated only by the two small fires nearby. He offered a blessing in their language, and then gestured upward with the torch, followed by similar gestures to the north, south, east, and west.

A group of men off to one side began beating drums as an elder woman chanted a dirge. Machk then faced Brenna and bowed, and similarly paid respect to Aithne. He then slowly walked to one of the fires to light his torch and soon after lit the funeral pyre, sending it quickly into an aggressive fire that hissed wildly and sent sparks hundreds of feet into the air.

Most of those who attended stayed for two or three hours. Before the last of the men left, they gently added several large logs to ensure that Aithne’s remains would be fully reduced to ashes. They then respectfully bowed and left for the night. Brenna found herself alone with the fire and her thoughts. No one would have minded if she had walked away at this point. However, she decided to stay until morning, watching the fire and listening to the surf. A light breeze had blown through the night, which chilled her occasionally.

As she stared into the embers alone, just before daybreak, she momentarily thought about the perfect representation she was witnessing of the elements. She sat in contact with the Earth, she watched the fire, she felt the wind, and she heard the surf churning over the banks. This of course, was no more special of an opportunity than could be had sitting by any fire in the evening along any beach. However, she would nonetheless always remember her awareness of these surroundings during this particular moment.

She decided to take a walk along the shore, intending to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic. She had a feeling that a certain old friend would be found there, although he may be a bit surprised to see her this early in the year.

A trail led from the settlement to several beaches on the island. Brenna followed one leading east through the grey pre-dawn and arrived as the sky had taken on a violet aspect near the horizon. She removed her shoes and strolled northward up the beach along the high water line. The stars began to fade as the violet spread out overhead and turned to pink over the ocean. Soon the seagulls could be seen riding the early winds and a shrill, raucous call from overhead let her know that a friend had come to visit.

She extended her right arm, holding her forearm high above her head, parallel with the ground. The distinctive call repeated and the large black bird swept down and perched. She lowered her arm and brought it to chest height to greet the crow face to face.

“How are you, my friend?” she said, stroking the crow’s feathers. “I realize I’ve come early this year, haven’t I? But, I’m staying for good this time.”

The bird couldn’t interact with Brenna in a traditional way, of course. However, she felt that it came to her for a reason. In past years, there was never any predicting how long it might stay at her side, or how many visits she would receive before heading back to Bath. But, within, Brenna always felt the duration and numbers of visits were just enough to offer adequate consolation and cheer. When the sun had risen enough to illuminate the coast line, Brenna sensed that the bird had other business to attend to. She raised her arm and he promptly disappeared into a nearby flock heading southward.

The sun had risen considerably by now, enough for her to notice a man approaching from the same trail she’d walked earlier. She sensed it was Chogan, and began walking back toward him, greeting him with a rather melancholy, diminutive wave.

She had learned many years ago that few Indian medicine men are actually witches like Chogan. The natives expected certain uncommon abilities, such as healing, from their medicine men. But, some highly unusual things had happened in Chogan’s presence over the years, which caused him to be considered a bit of an outcast among his own people. He was certainly respected, but also feared to a degree.

Brenna understood his difficult position. With her mother gone, he was the only other living soul she’d known of who shared their common abilities.

When she walked close enough so that her voice could be heard over the surf, she asked, “Do you always wake so early?”

“I was hunting,” he answered. When she made no response other than to nod slightly, Chogan tried to make light conversation. “Did you know that a good sized rabbit can feed six adults?”

She looked down at her bare feet digging at the sand. “I should like to become a rabbit, to burrow myself a home among the dune grass.”

“And what of the fox, the hawk, and the hunter?” he said.

“I do not fear death, Chogan. If I am to be hunted, I’ll submit knowing my purpose has been fulfilled.”

He placed his hands on her shoulders and said, “Your purpose is not to serve as nourishment for the island’s predators. Of this, I’m certain.”

“What is to become of us?” she asked him, echoing her question a day earlier when they still had her mothers funeral ceremony ahead of them.

He took a few steps ahead. “Walk with me,” he said.

She began to follow, the sun warming her skin.

Chogan reached down to pick up a few flat sea shells. He began throwing them one at a time out over the breaking waves.

“I assume your mother told you many stories about Violette?”

“Yes, so many,” she said, recalling countless evenings spent at the hearth listening to stories about Salem and Boston and their venture southward to North Carolina.

“Did she tell you about Mr. Daudet, then?” he asked, adding, “Violette’s teacher and mentor?”

“She never spoke of such a person.”

Chogan reached for several more shells and began recalling the history. “Violette hailed from Paris in the 1660s. She lived along a famous river known as the Seine, not far from a magnificent palace for Le Roi Soleil — the Sun King — and other royalty before him. This despot, known as Louis the Fourteenth, sought to force Catholicism on the entire country. He rules that country to this day, in fact. Violette had become involved with a philosopher named Florian Daudet, a sorcerer living secretly among the Huguenots.”

“Prior to his involvement with Violette, Florian had taken up affections with a beautiful though penniless woman of society named Françoise d’Aubigné. But, Françoise was married to a writer named Paul Scarron, a man twenty five years her senior and physically deformed by advanced rheumatism. In fact, Scarron’s life was fraught with intense agony, rendering Françoise more of a nurse than a wife; and rendering Paul more of a patient than a husband. Françoise was grateful for his charity, but she also felt a certain loneliness, which Florian was able to address. He comforted her during Paul’s life and for many years after the man’s death.”

“In time, Florian’s attentions drifted away from his lover, which angered her considerably. In 1685, she married Louis the Fourteenth and, partly out of anger toward Florian, she coerced the monarch into issuing a cruel law known then as the Edict of Fontainebleau, which drove the Huguenots from France.”

“Florian had arranged passage for himself and Violette on a ship bound for the colonies, which was an action that represented a considerable risk for the couple. When Françoise learned of their plans, she ordered the couple executed.”

Brenna interrupted. “But Violette made it out alive,” she said.

He sat on the sand and threw his last shell into a wave breaking on the shore. Dozens more could be seen tumbling in the shallows only to be returned to the ocean in a rip current. “Violette escaped with her life, just as your mother had escaped with hers. Florian, much like your father, was not as fortunate.”

She took a seat beside him, burying her feet. “Is there no end to the persecution, Chogan? Is there nothing our kind can do to stop such treatment?”

“I’m afraid our power over nature cannot compare to man’s desire for power over man.”

“And what of our power over nature, Chogan? Do I understand these gifts fully? Summoning birds from the sky, conjuring rain and fog, walking unseen among men…”

“You have learned a great deal, Brenna. And, yet, you have much to learn yet.”

She nodded quietly as he continued.

“Just as Violette learned from Florian, your mother learned from Violette.”

Brenna was beginning to see Chogan’s point. She was not alone, and she would have guidance from someone who understood and cared for her.

“Mentoring is our tradition,” he said. “This seems to be one of the fundamental truths about our kind.” After a moment, he added, “I also had a teacher. He was a great a medicine man from the Lumbee tribe. His clan mother was a celebrated woman of English descent; his father a Lumbee warrior.”

“So,” she said, “you can teach me how to harness nature in ways I currently cannot?”

He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I do not intend to teach you the hows, little raven, but rather I will help you understand the whys. If you understand the whys, the hows will fall into place naturally.”

This made sense to Brenna. She nodded as Chogan continued.

“The complex spells and incantations… Those who are not our kind imagine them to be standardized as though simply uttering the correct words could bring about the desired effect. Of course, the words themselves are important; but they need not be written down or memorized. In fact, they originate from within. If the spell is to be effective, it must come from a place that is in accordance with the virtues of our kind.”

“I understand,” said Brenna. “Are the virtues of our kind uniform?”

“They are not. In most cases, they’re ruled by the human conscience, to which our kind is particularly sensitive. For the most part, the human conscience taps into a consistent energy present throughout everything in existence. But, our conscience is also informed by influences such as our upbringing, our social interactions with others, and our other unique experiences within the natural world. Given these variables, for example, it is possible to develop a conscience that is not sensitive to evil — that may not see an evil act the same way as a majority of others do. This is unlikely, of course. Normally, it is only very subtle differences in our human conscience that creates such an interesting diversity of perspectives. But, nature is complicated and it does create natural atrocities and wickedness.”

“But, you believe I’m fundamentally good?” Brenna asked.

“Of course,” he said.

“Then, I could not commit an evil act toward another? … I’m incapable?”

“I do not believe you could commit an act that you believe is evil or even wrong at the time of its execution. However, the conscience is a kinetic force permeating the celestial expanse. You could become enraged; you could act from a place of desperation, of passion… You could, in fact, commit an act that you may live to regret. For regret is not defined solely as an act against one’s conscience. It may also be defined as an act against one’s judgment.”

“So, you do believe that I’m fundamentally good?”

“I have no doubt that you’re fundamentally good, Brenna.”

“But what about matters of revenge?” she asked. “Would my mother have caused harm to those who murdered my father? Would Violette have caused harm to this Françoise d’Aubigné who murdered her lover?”

“Your mother did not speak often of Salem, as that memory had been terribly painful for her. Violette took another approach; instead of focusing on revenge, she endeavored to summon her lover back through an incantation — a manifestation of such power that no one of our kind has ever accomplished.”

“Do you mean to say that she was working on such a spell?”

“She began the pursuit upon learning of Mr. Daudet’s murder. Your mother assisted her for years before Violette passed away.”

“What did the spell involve?” Brenna asked.

“Many fields of study,” Chogan answered, “although it depended on botany to a large extent.”

“She always extolled the benefits of living in port towns,” Brenna noted.

“Yes, it was more than the fine silks that drew her to this region,” Chogan explained. “Violette accessed specimens from around the world, and other botanicals known to few men. She cultivated the jessamine and the smilax vine, she collected mosses and ferns, she’d even dispatched men across the Pamlico Sound into the Neuse River to search for carnivorous bog plants.”

“I never knew her motives, but I certainly saw all of the plants,” Brenna said. “I’m sorry she never accomplished her goal.”

Sensing a bit of interest was a good sign, Chogan thought. “Perhaps we’ll return to Bath for her samples should you become interested.”

For one brief moment, Brenna actually laughed. “Chogan, do you realize how many botanical samples Violette had?!”

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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).