A shrieking cry sprang from the open doorway of the tiny weather-blown cottage.
Grace smoothed a loose strand of honey-blond hair back beneath a fold of her white linen cap. She dusted her hands off on her apron and grabbed the handle of the twisted wicker basket beside her. Tucking in the small vegetables she had dug up from their little garden, Grace turned and hurried back towards the house.
"Yes mother?" Grace said breathlessly as she entered the dark kitchen where her mother stood, bent over the cookfire. The older woman looked up at her daughter's approach.
"Grace, I need a basketful of wild blackberries this instant," she took the one Grace held and replaced it with another empty one. "If I'm to finish this pie in time for our guests this evening, I need those berries now." She then looked right into her eldest daughter's face. "Why are you still standing here? Make haste child!" she cried. Grace jumped and nodded quickly before turning and fleeing out the door.
"Grace!" Charity, the youngest of Grace's sister's cried out, pausing in her pursuit of a young turkey she was supposed to be feeding.
"Charity!" Grace cried in dismay when she realized her sibling's antics. "What are you doing? Stop this instant! You know you aren't supposed to play with the animals! Father will certainly punish you if you do not cease at once!" She reached out and grabbed her sister, pulling her away from the frenzied bird. Charity let out a cry of protest. "Grace! Stop, you're hurting me!" But Grace did not stop and only when they had reached the house did she relax her grip.
"Now, go inside and tell mother what you have done. Then you must kneel and pray for the sin you committed and ask for God's forgiveness. If you do not, God will surely punish you."
Charity's brown eyes turned to the size of saucers as her older sister wagged a finger in her pinched face. She then reached up and rubbed her eye as a single tear dribbled down along her dirty cheek.
But Grace's face didn't soften. "Now, go." She pointed towards the door and Charity quickly scurried inside.
Then, with shaky hands, Grace smoothed her skirts and hurried back towards the woods.
The pungent smell of pine trees overwhelmed Grace's senses as she walked deeper into the thick forest. The air was quiet and the only noise was the soft rustling of the leaves above her head. Grace paused for a moment in the stillness and closed her eyes, letting the warmth of the sun rays heat her skin.
She took two deep breaths and let the rawness of the surrounding woods calm her nervous mind.
Life in a puritan community was unsuitable for the weak of heart and limb. Indeed, since she was three years of age, Grace had been required to do housework, care for her younger siblings, and assist in field labor. Her hands were worn and callused and her skin was spotted in freckles from working under the scorching sun in order to grow food from the tough soil of this new land. However, it was not the work that was the most toilsome aspect of her life, but rather the intense, strict, and restrictive rules of her God-fearing society. Rules of propriety and holiness had dominated her every breath and thought to the point of suffocation. Yet, for the benefit of her family and for the keeping of the peace, Grace had followed each commandment with discipline and commitment. Thankfully, it had not all been for naught. In return for her actions, Grace's parents respected her, her peers praised her dedication, and the townspeople used her as an example for their own children. She should have been happy and content. She should have rejoiced at the achievements her abnegations had brought to herself and her family.
Nonetheless, Grace constantly felt as if something deep within her was not yet fulfilled; that there was a kind of lock residing within the darkest marrow of her bones, needing a key - a key the likes of which she could not begin to understand and one that even the most earnest of prayers could not reveal or purge from her spirit.
Finally Grace reached a small thicket where the tiny dark berries she sought were abundantly clustered and easy to pick. Setting down her small basket, Grace loosened the chin strings on her tight cap, knelt down on the grassy earth, and began to pick the berries. Juice seeped out from the swollen, inky globes, staining her fingers and creeping underneath the white crescents of her nails. She sighed, knowing that she would have to scrub till her knuckles were red in order to remove the signs of unseemliness and ungodliness from her wicked hands. Fortunately, she and her mother had made a small batch of lye soap only a few days prior that was more than ready to be put to use. Chaffed hands were a small price to pay in light of the lashing she would receive with blackened fingers.
Grace brought her hands up to her face and gave each an assessment of how long the washing would take, when suddenly a curious noise sounded from close by. Her violet-blue eyes shot up from her fingers and swiftly scanned the foliage around her – looking for anything amiss, any movement of shadow or light out of the ordinary.
Taking a deep, reassuring breath, Grace turned back to the task at hand, hurrying her motions in order to be done quicker and leave the place. Unfortunately, her shaking hands were no help and soon dark spots not only stained her hands, but her dress too. Grace choked back a wave of nausea as she envisioned the wrath her father would bring down upon her head for such carelessness.
Finally most of the berries had been plucked and more than enough for two pies filled her small basket. At least her mother should be pleased with this amount, despite the lamentable length the task had taken.
Just before she was about to rise and leave, Grace glimpsed one last berry, plumper than the rest, winking at her from deep within the bush. Loathe to leave the place without the sweet prize, Grace pursed her lips and nimbly stuck her small hand deep into the leaves to retrieve the hiding fruit.
She smiled when she pulled her clenched hand from the thicket, the glistening trophy resting delicately in her palm. She reached for her basket but dropped it instantly when another strange, rustling sound reached her ears.
Grace jerked her head up and stifled a scream with one hand as her own widened eyes came face to face with another, darker pair – set in the brown-skinned visage of an Indian native. Grace's heart began to pound as she sat – still as possible – desperately praying she would not be killed.
The man above her was leaning over the thicket and watching her intently but silently. Grace felt all the blood drain from her cheeks and lips as she realized he surely had been standing less than a few feet from her own nose, gazing for who knew how long upon her unknowing form. The small hairs at the top of her head stood on end as she remembered a dried scalp she had once seen as a child, hanging from the leather belt of a slayed savage whose bloodied form had been paraded through the town commons as warning. It's puckered skin and knotted length of hair, sheared from a local farmer her father had spoken with a month before, had haunted her dreams for many weeks to follow.
Grace swallowed, willing the image away and watched as the man's dark eyes scanned her colorless face, her dark homespun dress, the forgotten basket of berries. Suddenly the native took a step closer and bent down. Grace steeled herself for a killing blow, but instead of bringing a length of sharp metal to her rigid neck, his hand reached out empty, lightly lifting a strand of her yellow hair from her cheek. She held her breath as he gently rubbed it between two fingers.
It seemed an eternity passed as the man stroked the tiny strands so unlike his own thick black mane. Grace soon felt her breathing return, and though shallow, she soon began to entertain the idea that perhaps the man meant her no immediate harm.
Fervently praying she was not mistaking the intent of his tender attentions, Grace closed her eyes and mustered up the grain of quivering strength she was clinging to within herself. "Please…If you don't mind, sir. I…I wish to be left alone." She said directly but with a trembling voice she immediately regretted even as it left her lips. The native obviously didn't understand what she was saying, but surprisingly he seemed to sense her discomfort and respectfully let his hand drop back to his side.
Grace opened her eyes once more, hope that he might let her escape blooming within her chest like a meadow rose."Th…thank you." She whispered hoarsely. The native merely stared.
Grace remained as still and steadfast as a stone, wondering she should do next. Run? Continue to speak to him? Scream?
However, if she did scream, who knew if there were others standing close by waiting for this man's signal to attack? He had been calm and merely inquisitive thus far, but a scream could perhaps startle and shatter his concentration, resulting in a swift hatchet to her skull. No, even if it meant a few moments longer in the presence of this strange individual, she could not scream.
She looked back up and carefully met his eyes, feeling akin to a young doe meeting the unyielding gaze of a majestic yet deadly wolf. The man's brown orbs glimmered in the sunlight that slanted through the tree branches overhead and Grace instantly noticed the amount of gold that streamed in curving lines from the tiny black iris at the center of his left eye, unequal to that of his right.
Suddenly a cardinal's high-pitched chirp sounded from nearby and Grace nearly lost her balance as their locked gazes were quickly broken. The man's eyes darted to the place the cry had sprung from, narrowing to seek out the exact position of the crimson bird.
Unwilling to unfetter her own gaze from his yet-threatening form, Grace swiftly took in the full length of the distracted native. His skin, she noticed, was a reddish brown but in certain areas like his shoulders, arms and across the lower part of his face, the skin was painted in different, darker pigments. His hair was also dark and glossy but was shaved on one side of his head and separated only by a thick mohawk that ran down the center of his bronzed crown. On the other side, the rest of the long hair was secured back by a length of soft leather and from it hung two large eagle feathers that fluttered in the soft breeze. His tinkling necklace also caught her attention and with a barely-suppressed gasp she realized it was made up of sharp ivory teeth. Their bleached color stood in stark contrast to the honeyed copper of his chest which was hairless and taught with lithe muscle.
With a start, Grace realized her gaze had been lingering overlong on the sinewy lines of his stomach, shoulders, and forearms. A flood of embarrassed heat crept up from her chest along her throat, spilling into her cheeks and forehead.
Suddenly the man above her moved, as if he sensed her discomfort, and her eyes snapped back to his face. He paused and looked at her one last time before turning away and silently escaping back into the deep forest.
Grace's mouth opened in surprise and, to her complete confusion, protest. Yet the man had already disappeared leaving the space his tall form had occupied not moments before as untouched as when he had arrived.
Grace waited, unmoving for the length of a handful of breaths, abstractly wondering if the native would return and, though it baffled and unsettled her, half-hoping he would. Yet he did not. Still keeping her eyes locked on the trees before her, Grace let out a shaky sigh of relief and reached up to her fluttering collar, smoothing it in the breeze that had begun to blow more strongly. She felt the frantic thump of her heart beneath her palm and tried desperately to quiet it. It would not slow.
Finally she broke her gaze with the woods and with fingers still quivering, Grace leaned forward to pick up her basket of berries. She marveled then at how the task she had found so consuming mere minutes ago now seemed somehow so insignificant.
Gingerly Grace hoisted herself up from the ground, her legs feeling weak and numb beneath her. She smoothed her skirts and threaded her arms through the basket's handle, then finally turned to leave the thicket. It took more than a few steps until all the feeling returned to her feet as they carried her back towards the settlement.
As her well-worn leather boots left light prints in the soil, a fly-away strand of hair flew across her face but for the first time Grace made no move to restrain it. Instead, she let it curl and twist freely in the breeze, tickling her cheek, all the while remembering how the painted man had held it so very gently between his fingers.