PART I: Massachusetts, 1824-1838
Chapter 1: Reading, Massachusetts, 1824
A small boy sat alone in a quiet house. His mother had wrapped him tight in a blanket, leaving his legs loose, and he kicked them slowly back and forth against the chair. His parents lay in the corners of the narrow room. “Someone will come for you,” his mother had said. The room was quiet now, and he kicked softly at the chair legs.
Down the hall in the kitchen lay a plate of biscuits and a cup of coffee and milk. “You eat when you’re hungry,” she told him. “Now let me wrap you in a blanket, then go and sit on the chair.” She lifted her hand to stroke his cheek, and he felt the cold of her fingers. Giving him a push, she sent him for the blanket, and as she held it alongside the bed, he turned, and turned, and turned into it.
Time had no meaning for him except the light was fading. Beyond the window lay fields of melting snow. “You must not try to light the lamp,” his mother said. “It is too dangerous. When it is dark, you go to bed.”
He thought about how two days ago his father had rubbed his scratchy cheek against the boy’s, and clasped the boy’s small hands in his big ones. That was all Jamie remembered until he woke up and found himself on the floor. The blanket was twisted on the chair, and he was cold. Struggling up, he pulled the blanket from the chair and tried to wrap himself in it. There was no use asking for help. His parents lay still in their beds. She had said they would be like that. His mother had covered his father, lain down herself, then lowered her blanket slowly over her head.
Padding quietly into the kitchen he sat at the table and ate the biscuits she’d left and drank the cold coffee and milk. The windows in the small room began to lighten. He watched the fields with their remains of snow. A single tree pointed at the sky.
Slowly the sky brightened. He went to the window and lay his fingers against the glass. It was cold. Between his fingers flew specks of birds, black against the snow. For a long time, he watched them rise and fall.
Eventually came a knock. A squashed pumpkin was peering through the small window in the door. The last time the boy had walked with his father in the snow, he’d stepped on a pumpkin. The squashed pumpkin looked like this.
The pumpkin drew back, and Mrs. Thompson came inside. “Now Jamie, you sit here and eat this,” she said. When she took off her shawl, a small potato stuck out from the back of her head. It was her hair. He began to spoon the warm, green soup into his mouth. The soup was warm, and he ate spoonful after spoonful. Mrs. Thompson lit a fire in the stove, and left the oven door open to warm the kitchen.
He heard her walking down the hall and into his parents’ room. She let out a little shriek. When she reappeared, she said, “You poor orphan child,” and wiped her eyes. “Did she tell you where you were to go?”
He scraped the spoon around the empty pan. “Momma pinned a note to her dressing gown,” he answered. Mrs. Thompson groaned and pushed back her chair with a jerk. In a few moments, she came back holding a note on blue paper.
“Says to write your Uncle Swain in New Bedford. He’ll send for you.” Jamie nodded. He knew about his Uncle Oliver and Aunt Amey and Cousin Libby. “Pray they don’t come down with this,” his mother had said as she wound him in the blanket. She meant the “fever.” If the Swains had the fever, he would have nowhere to go.