The Spirit Keeper: A Novel

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9780142180334: The Spirit Keeper: A Novel



This is the account of Katie O'Toole, late of Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania, removed from her family by savages on March the 2nd in the year of our Lord 1747

On the day of a brutal attack on her frontier home, seventeen-year-old Katie is saved from certain death by two strange Indians who insist she is the subject of a Holyman's Vision, destined to bring a great gift to their people. Dismissing this wild story as superstitious nonsense, Katie decides to play along rather than return to her abusive family of Irish immigrants. Only then does she discover that in order to fulfill the Holyman's Vision, she must first become something they call his Spirit Keeper a step which sends her on an epic journey across a continent unknown to the Western world.

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About the Author:

K.B. Laugheed wrote The Spirit Keeper as part penance for the sins of her family's pioneer past, part tribute to all our ancestors, and part reminder to modern Americans of the grim price we paid for the life we take for granted today.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

This is the account of Katie O’Toole, late of Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania, removed from her family by savages on March the 2nd in the year of Our Lord 1747.

I wish I could say this is a true and honest account, but I see no way the likes of me can make such a claim. Still, I’ve no reason to lie in the pages of this ledger and plenty of reason to unburden my guilty soul. Mine is such a surpassing strange story. I honestly hope by writing it all down I’ll somehow see the truth of it.

I feared at first I might disremember how to write, especially in a language I no longer speak, but now that I’ve begun, I find my fears unfounded, as fears so oft prove to be. I wonder—?­what use is fear in a world where the worst catastrophes are those you ne’er see coming?

Ah, well—?­I’m too practiced a storyteller to fall prey to my own impatience. I’ll tell my tale apace, withholding my conclusions ’til the end.

I was the thirteenth child my mother conceived—?­a circumstance of some significance for her, I believe, as she took great pleasure in reminding me thirteen was the number of Christ’s betrayer. Her belief that I was an unlucky child was routinely cited as justification for beatings, and I grew to envy those children of hers who ne’er breathed air, believing they were, indeed, the lucky ones. Our home was always too full for comfort and there was ne’er enough of ­nothing—?­food nor clothing nor compassion—?­to go ’round.

By the time I reached my seventeenth year, my elder siblings had all married, thereby adding more children and chaos to our already o’erflowing household. On the morning of the attack, I was in the loft with a mob of children, readying them for the day. I cannot recall how many children were with me nor e’en which ones they were, but I recall with crystal clarity the shrill scream we heard in the distance.

At that moment all feuding and fussing stopt, and we stared at one another in stunned silence.

I peeked through the shutters and saw savages everywhere. Now I knew why various of our countrymen had warned against settling in this territory, the proprietorship of which is still in dis­pute, but no one ne’er could tell my father nothing, especially when he was liquored up, which he was, alas, every day I knew him.

When I was small, my gran told tales of how Father had been the son of a lord back in Ireland, how rich he was, and wanton, due to inherit the earth or such like. In trembling whispers, Gran de­scribed how her comely daughter schemed to advance herself by catching the young nobleman’s eye, only to cause the ruin of them both. Instead of becoming gentrified, Gran suddenly found herself the hapless chaperon of the exiled couple as they struggled to find a place for themselves in the crude colonies across the sea.

Gran was truly happy only when recounting the many miser­able failures of my father’s life. Unfit for any sort of honest labor, he had, she complained, worn out his welcome in at least a dozen em­ployments in three different colonies, eventually dragging us all into the wilderness of the Pennsylvania frontier. This, he said, was where he would at last restore his fame and fortune. For my part, I ne’er stopt longing to return to Philadelphia, where my brother James remained with his wife and children. I determined to find my way back there at the first opportunity.

Throughout my childhood, I listened wistfully to Gran’s tales of the Old World—?­the ancient cities with stone castles, shining cathe­drals, and cobblestone streets—?­but the only world I knew was filled with filth and toil and strife and turmoil. We siblings fought furi­ously o’er every scrap of food or cloth, except during those occasions when Father had a notion to school us. Then we must all sit together, boys and girls, reading as he instructed from the Bible or other books. No matter how poor we were, we always had piles of books. We soon memorized Father’s favorite passages, for if any of us made a mistake, he would deny supper to us all and drink himself to sleep, grumbling o’er our shortcomings as saliva dribbled from his lips.

If liquor made our father sloppy, endless labors and disappoint­ments made our mother cruel. I remember not a single gentle word from her lips, and the abundance of babies with which she had been blessed merely provided her with targets for her frustrations and rage. We girls were set to work from infancy, cooking, sewing, and tending to the younger ones. If we spilt a drop of stew or dropt a stitch or allowed a child to cry in Mother’s presence, she immedi­ately reached for her switch. Once when I let the cook-­fire die, I ended up curled in a ball on the floor, blood seeping from the switch-­cuts on my back and arms. Gran finally grabbed my moth­er’s hand and shouted, “D’ye mean to kill that child?” But e’en with that intervention, I must still wash the blood from my shift and sew it back together myself.

After Gran died, I oft dreamt of running away to the Old World and living amongst the castles and cathedrals, but I had no means to achieve such a purpose. Instead, once my monthlies were establisht, my parents bade me follow in the footsteps of my sisters and find a husband who could save them the trouble of providing for me. The very suggestion made me shudder. Having been ill-­used by men in the past, I desired no further dalliance, and e’en if I could stomach the notion of being pawed and slobbered o’er by a grunting lout, the pickings were slim in our remote community. My father spoke of wedding me off to a backwoodsman, in hopes of expanding trade opportunities for himself, but the fellow was ’round too rarely for arrangements to be made. My mother was much more interested in the bid offered by an innkeeper downriver who required a new wife to share the household burdens of his daughters, both of whom were older than I.

Determined not to be enslaved at a frontier trading post for the rest of my days, I tucked my few possessions into a leather bag, strapt a wool blanket beneath, hid this bundle under one of the beds in the loft, and prepared to run for Philadelphia upon the spring thaw. But before I could accomplish my flight, the children and I heard the aforementioned scream, and the long-­feared Indian at­tack was under way.

Through the crackt shutter of the loft, I saw a savage knock my father on the head with a stone club and fall upon him to rip off his ragged scalp. I had not a moment to mourn because I could hear my mother and sisters struggling to secure the doors and windows down below. Encouraged thus to prepare my own defense, I latcht the shutter and snatcht the boys’ musket from its hook. The weapon was useless, being old and missing several mechanisms, but I hoped it might serve ’til I could find something better. I then reached un­der the bed for my pack, but e’en as I drew the leather strap ’round my head and shoulder, I heard thuds from down below—?­wood splintering, screams, and scuffling. When whimpering children crowded ’round me, I pushed them into the darkest corner, hissing at them to be absolutely still or they would surely die. All grew quiet below as everyone was dragged outside. A long moment passed be­fore we heard another round of scuffling, a muffled cry, another thud. The children and I waited and waited in breathless silence.

Then we heard the creak of a riser on the stairs.

I raised the musket to my shoulder as I had seen the boys do a hundred times, but my trembling disallowed me to hold the barrel steady. A shadow at the top of the stairs became a savage slowly ris­ing into the ray of light from a crack in the shutter. He appeared to be about my age, and the fact that he was nigh naked unsettled me, but the thing that drew and held my eye was the long, sharp stone blade he held in his hand. It was dripping red with blood.

When the savage saw my musket pointed at his bare chest, he stopt cold and said something rapidly to someone behind him. His black eyes shifted from the gun to my face. He glared at me as I stared at him along the wavering barrel of the weapon.

I know not what I would have done had the savaged lunged at me, but before he could, his companion on the stairs pushed up beside him and lightly touched the hand holding the menacing knife. This second savage, more than a full head shorter than the first and perhaps a bit older, spoke with an urgency that surprised both me and my attacker. The first heathen lowered his blade, look­ing at his shorter companion in shock, and for a moment the chil­dren and I were forgotten as the Indians gabbled at one another in their strange tongue. Finally they both turned their eyes to me.

The short one smiled.

He spoke to me then, still smiling, as if trying to explain some­thing very important. Of course I understood naught, so I just scowled at him, pretending I was about to shoot. The short savage extended his hand, causing me to take a step backwards. In doing so, I stumbled on a child’s foot and would have fallen had not the short savage leapt to grab my arm. At that, the taller one shouted and the children screamed, but rather than molesting me in any way, the short savage was trying only to preserve me. His friend reached for my gun, but the short man stopped him with a sharp word. He then asked me something, but I was so distracted by his touch, his close­ness, and his uncanny smile that the only thing I could comprehend at that moment was that I was very likely to be very dead very soon.

The short Indian released my arm and repeated his question, his breath hot upon my cheek. I looked into his dark eyes, mere inches from mine. I wanted to tell him I could not understand him, but I could not for the life of me remember how to talk. I could scarce remember how to breathe. As if in a dream, I tipt up the bar­rel of the musket and held it out, hoping this would move him off me. He did step back, but only because his companion grabbed the gun. The taller heathen examined the musket, smelled it, and looked at me with a flash of vexation. He said something as he tossed the weapon aside, clearly telling his companion the gun was useless. At that, the short savage actually laughed. He turned back to me and grinned—?­a broad, bright, thoroughly irresistible grin. He held out his hand.

I took it.

And that is the account, as true as I can tell the tale, of how I came to be a captive of the Indians.

2

As to the events during and after the time the children and I were removed from the loft and escorted through the farm­yard, my memory is mostly darkness and terror. I clearly remember stepping o’er the body of a beastly looking savage at the bottom of the stairs, his red blood pooling across the floorboards. Outside was mayhem and I believe my two escorts were hard-­presst to protect me from the madness and murder taking place all ’round.

I have an all-­too-­vivid memory of my brother Thomas attempt­ing to douse the fire an arrow had establisht in a hay pile by the barn. Tom struck down every savage who beset him, swatting them aside like bothersome bees at a picnic. E’en when a flying toma­hawk finally knockt him into the fire, he continued flailing, trying to put out the flames. To no avail. His clothes caught fire and soon his twitching body helpt to feed the very flames he had been trying to extinguish. As the inferno rose to engulf the barn and flames shot thirty or forty feet in the air, I could hear Tom’s wife and children shrieking from their hiding place in the loft.

In the meantime, my captors directed me to sit beside the well, where my mother and sister Eliza huddled beside my fifteen-­year-­old brother William, who had been knockt in the head but was not dead. A few of Liza’s children were there, tho’ I do not recall now if they were some who came with me. I do know some of the chil­dren who had been in the loft ran off as soon as we stept outside, and at least one was grabbed by a savage and had his brains dasht out against a tree. But the fate of most of my family members will forever be unknown to me.

Tho’ the particulars of my removal are vague now, I distinctly recall my two captors making it abundantly clear to their comrades-­in-­arms that I belonged to them and was not to be molested in any way. Whilst they suffered me to be tied with a leather strap to my sister and mother, they permitted no one to push or prod me. My brother William, wounded as he was with a great gash on his head, was forced to carry a large load of goods looted from our farm, as were both Liza and my poor mother. But I carried naught save my own pack.

I saw immediately how unlike the others were the two men who had taken me from the loft. The few Indians I had seen heretofore were uniformly savage and vile, with heads plucked bald save for a tuft atop, and odd bones and stones woven through ears or noses or lips. Most were tattooed or painted with garish designs, and all sav­ages I had e’er seen were capable of understanding English if they did not, in fact, speak it as well as me. But the two who laid claim to me not only understood no English but clearly did not speak the same language as the others. They communicated with the main body of marauders only through an elaborate language of gestures, accompa­nied by grunts, groans, and a wide range of facial expressions.

Whilst we captives were marched through the woods like prize cattle, my two guardians remained always at my side. I quickly noted their peculiarities. Tho’ they, like all the savages, wore only breechclouts, they carried large packs which the others did not. Their skin was several shades darker than the others, neither wore paint (tho’ the short one did have a small tattoo on the side of his face), and both wore their long black hair in a single braid down their backs. E’en at a glance I could see the muscles of their arms, shoulders, and backs bulged disproportionately, making them ap­pear top-­heavy. Their faces were wider, rounder, plumper, and, in short, everything about them was quite unlike the others. As we stumbled through the forest, I passed many silent hours wondering about these two odd fellows—?­who they were, where they came from, and why they had taken such a particular interest in me.

Because there was no doubt about it. My mother and sister, bound to me at the wrist, immediately saw my situation. At first Mother hoped we might benefit from the keen interest, and it was certainly true I wanted for nothing. But when I tried to share the choice bits of food my guardians gave me, they intervened, making clear my family members were dependent upon the goodwill of the other savages. As the other savages were a monstrous bunch, my relatives suffered and blamed me for it.

I remember my sister questioning me about what happened in the loft and how it came to be I had time to gather provisions. I did not want to reveal I had long hoped to run away, but when I failed to explain my preparedness, she accused me of somehow knowing my captors and scheming with them to plan this event, which was such a bizarre accusation I could find no words to respond. William dismissed the idea as absurd and told Liza to stop lashing out.

Still, the intense favoritism of my guardians did little to dispel my sister’s jealousy and suspicions, and because I myself did not understand their interest, I suffered a great unease as the short sav­age worked to win me over. On the first night after our remove, for example, when Mother snatcht my wool blanket, the short man shyly o...

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