It was low tide and Jacob stumbled down the white dune, staggering stiffly toward the lapping surf on the New England coast. Bubbly froth lazed forward and withdrew, then lazed forward again, tumbling planks and splinters of wood and other flotsam in its playful foam. Jacob hobbled with his arms raised for balance as the dune finally plateaued onto the white beach. His backside still stung from yesterday, when his father had whipped him so hard with a leather strap that he could not sleep all night long. He had shoved his little sister. As atonement— in the eyes of his parents and of his God—he was to collect mussels from their clusters among the seaside stones on the beach, or catch crabs, or harvest whatever else God would provide since the Natives had retreated further inland with the advent of Autumn. His father said that the Natives helped the previous Winter only because God had inspired in them His love, but that the pilgrims could not rely on the Natives now. There would be no more help from the heathens, he said. Jacob wondered why.
Jacob was grateful to be away from his family. He was angry, but was too young to understand much more than he was tired of his sister following him incessantly and betraying him whenever he attempted to do anything besides chores. Susan was a little Judas, he thought, and he wished for no more flagellations on her behalf. He had only wanted to walk by the creek, alone, and catch frogs, perhaps, or skip stones. But Susan was stubborn as his shadow, and clung to his trail as steadfastly on her short little legs. Losing his temper, he baptized her in the creek with an abrupt shove of his hands. Yes, she almost drowned, but he saved her, drawing her small body up from the hole he had not seen in the creek. Weeping, but still breathing, she clung to him as he carried her back to their village. Her dress was drenched through and she had nearly drowned herself again in tears by their arrival in their drab stick-and-wattle house.
Jacob hated Susan as he walked along the shore, aching at the seam of his britches. It was his tenth Autumn and the seventh since crossing the Atlantic to the New World. He could not remember the voyage except vaguely— impressions of dark, dank cabins cramped with other pilgrims seeking new lives away from England. Within the shadowy, fetid ship he had felt it sway back and forth upon the grumbling sea and it seemed as if they were in the belly of the Leviathan. His sister had not known the Hell of floating upon the sea. His mother had tried to comfort him with kisses and caresses, and his father had tried to comfort his mother with the Word. But a toddler knows when his parents are lying to themselves. It was evident upon their faces, which he remembered most vividly of all. Their faces were like the damned, and they shuddered as he did at the endless roar of the godless sea.
Seagulls cawed shrilly above, drifting sideways with their white wings lifted aloft, suspended almost magically on the salty winds. Jacob wondered if angels possessed such wings, and if they flew in the same manner in the firmament. The seagulls’ voices reminded him of Susan’s as she cried, and so they infuriated him. He stooped down to pick up a shell or pebble to throw at the birds, but his hand happened upon something strange on the shore. Brushing aside the sand, he found a little doll made of withe and decorated with a pale blue ribbon. Picking it up, he dusted it off. The face of the doll had been painted, but the smile was erased by brine and sand. It reminded him of his sister. He glanced about, and saw more things upon the beach, tumbling languidly to and fro in the lethargic waves. They were remnants of what had been a ship. It had been a large ship, he knew; not unlike the ship which he and his mother and father boarded years ago to come to this wondrous and terrifying world.
The pain in his backside had kept Jacob from sleeping last night, but so, too, did the storm that raged distantly at sea. The winds bellowed like demons and the thunder boomed like pagan gods in a terrible war. Rain leaked in through the roof of their house and pooled in the village square. Not even the stone church was spared flooding. Now that the storm had passed, the sky was crowded with pillars of white clouds through which the sun gazed wanly. The sea had calmed itself, though the wind still hissed uneasily, as if resentful; its grudges not yet relinquished.
It was easier to believe in pagan gods than his father’s God in this New World. His father had said that the New World would be a new Jerusalem; a paradise on earth, born in the belief and the devotion to their God. It would be different than the Old World and all of its iniquities.
The seagulls cried overhead, like angels in agony, and Jacob felt a deep sadness. He untied the blue ribbon from the doll, then hobbled up the dunes and onto the wind-blasted, rain-flooded New England grass. Using a stone, he dug a small hole in the muddy earth and set the doll within it, covering it over. He then used the ribbon to bind two sticks together and propped them up above the small grave. He tried to say a little prayer, but it died on his lips. His eyes burned, but not from the chill, briny wind.
Collecting up an armful of mussels, Jacob hobbled home and gave them to his father. He then apologized to his sister and spent time with her, watching her as if she was the most precious miracle in the world. All throughout the week he never spoke a cross word to her, nor lost his temper with her. And if he became angry, he remembered the drowned doll that had washed ashore.
Susan saw him cry only once—a few tears while he fed the chickens—and asked him what was wrong.
“The world,” he said. “Old and New, it’s all wrong.”