January 2, 1761
Lyddie Berry heard the clatter of the geese and knew something was coming -- Cousin Betsey, Grandson Nate, another wolf, or, knowing those fool birds, a good gust of wind -- but when she heard the door snap hard against the clapboards she discounted all four of them; she whirled with the wind already in her skirts to see the Indian, Sam Cowett, just ducking beneath the lintel. He had the height and width to crowd a room, and the black eyes – what was it about a pair of eyes you couldn’t see through? She took a step back and was sorry she’d done it, but he’d not have noticed; already he’d looked past her, calling into the empty doorway behind, “Blackfish in the bay!” The words had been known to clear every man out of town meeting so Lyddie wasn’t surprised to hear the instant echo of Edward’s boots or see the great sweep of arm that took up his coat and cap along with his breakfast. The bread went to pocket and the beer to mouth; he set back the mug and smiled at her; never mind it was a smile full of whales, not wife -- she answered it, or would have if he’d stayed to see it -- he was gone before her skirts had settled.
Lyddie ate her bread and drained her beer and stepped into her day, scouring down the pewter, building up the fire for the wash, shaving the soap into the kettle. At the first trip to the well she looked up at the trees and noted the wind, coming up brisk but constant in direction; by the fourth trip it had turned fickle, angling in first from the north, then the east, then the west, sometimes in a great gust and sometimes in a whisper. She went back inside and pounded out the shirts and shifts, tossing them into the pot to boil, all the while listening to the wind. She descended the ladder into the cellar to fetch the vegetables for the stew and even there in the hollow dark she caught the echo; she climbed out and chopped turnips and listened, put the salt fish to soak and listened, trimmed and set the candles and listened, smoothed the bed feathers and listened. Once she’d hung the stew pot, poked the fire and stirred up the clothes, she grabbed her cloak and cap off the peg and went out.
The winter had begun mild and the ruts were deep and soft in the landing road; Lyddie was muddied to the tops of her boots by the time she took the rise at Robbin’s hill and saw the ash-colored bay spotted all over with boats and foam. She leaned into the wind and soon had a clear view of the beach, blackened as far as her eye could see by the whales, driven ashore by the men’s oars beating against the water. It was a rich sight and one not seen in the bay for some years; Lyddie stood on the bluff wrapped tight in her cloak and gloried in the view, but she made no peace with the wind. It worried her around the ears, it heeled over the boats and slapped them back; it herded the waves far up the beach and left them to die among the whales. She looked for Edward’s whaleboat, but they all looked the same, although she thought she picked out the great shape of the Indian. At length she gave up and let the wind push and pull her home.
On her return she put out her mid-day dinner of the stew and bread and beer. They’d finished the old loaf at breakfast and she set out the new one with her usual satisfaction at the symmetry of its shape, the tight seal of the crust blocking out the petrifying air. She had only one moment of unease, that she should waste a fresh cut into a new loaf without Edward home to share, but the minute she’d heard the word blackfish she’d expected to take the mid-day meal alone and it didn’t trouble her long, wouldn’t have troubled her, if it weren’t for that wind. She hastened through the meal and put away the remains, wrapping the bread in the cloth with care. She washed her plate, hung the clothes in front of the fire, swept up the pieces of bark and dried leaves and pine needles that trailed everywhere on the heels of the firewood, scoured the floor with sand, watched the darkness lie down, and listened to the wind.
When was it that the sense of trouble grew to fear, the fear to certainty? When she sat down to another solitary supper of bread and beer and pickled cucumber? When she heard the second sounding of the geese? Or had she known that morning when she stepped outside and felt the wind? Might as well say she knew it when Edward took his first whaling trip to the Canada River, or when they married, or when, as a young girl, she stood on the beach and watched Edward bring about his father’s boat in the Point of Rock channel. Whatever its begetting, when Edward’s cousin Shubael Hopkins and his wife Betsey came through the door, they brought her no new grief, but an old acquaintance.
Shubael spoke. Lyddie heard that Edward’s boat had gone over, that the four men with him had been fished out alive, that they had searched till dark but had found no sign of Edward; after that Lyddie heard nothing until she realized there was nothing to hear, that the three of them now stood in silence, that the candle had lost an inch of height.
She looked at Shubael. His coat was crusted with salt, his hair glued dark and wet below his cap.
“You were near when it happened?”
He dropped his eyes, shook his head. “’Twas Sam Cowett got there first. He recovered them. All but --"
“How many hours past?”
Husband and wife exchanged glances. “’Twould be four, now. With the cold, and the heaviness of the sea –”
Lyddie waved away the remainder of his words. Every wife in the village knew a man didn’t survive four hours in a winter sea. She felt her cousins’ expectation heavy in the air around her. They would have her weep or rail, but she felt no inclination to do either. She felt nothing but lightness and calm; her oldest fear had befallen her and now it was over.
Cousin Betsey stepped up to Lyddie, wrapped her in her arms and pulled her into her splayed bosom. “Take heart, Cousin, take heart in God’s plan. Edward’s at a greater place; he’s answered the call made direct to him to come away; let us pray for your dear husband’s soul to find a quick safe route to his Master.” She dropped to her knees, bending her head. Lyddie looked at her cousin’s malleable neck, the thinning hair tucked into her cap, the dry lips moving in easy prayer -- this cousin whose own husband still lived and breathed beside her -- and felt her calmness leave her. Her hands wouldn’t fold in prayer. They itched to reach out and slap Betsey’s mouth closed. Who was she to hasten Edward away, to hand him over to God without a minute’s quarrel?
Widow's War - The Story Behind the Story
Widow's War - Reading Guide
Widow's War - Illustrated Tour of Lyddie Berry's Satucket
Widow's War - An Excerpt From Thomas Clarke's Last Will and Testament