Prologue and Chapter One from Hannah Dustan

by Justin Watson


When I am well enough to go to meeting on Sabbath, I am honored still with a good seat among the women. But this token of respect is more for my seventy and eight years, and for my great-grandchildren, than for what I did one night in the wilderness near forty years ago.

As I rest by the fire in the noon-house, waiting for the long afternoon sermon to begin, the children of the parish stare at me and whisper one to another. They have heard my story. It is common lore in our town and, indeed, in all New England. But the children are unable to understand how I, a frightful and trembling crone, bent and ugly with years, once did things spoken of, even by the bravest of men, in hushed tones.

The children do not yet understand they will become, should the Lord suffer them to survive life’s many hardships, as I am now – a brittle remnant, a relic battered by loss, waiting only for the last darkness to fall. What God gives us is always taken back, taken until nothing remains. Thus does Scripture say, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return.”

I do not mind the stares of these children. They might remember me and tell my story to their children and their grandchildren. So the story—at least, the bare bones of it—and my name might not be lost. This pleases me.

Yes, this is Pride. And yes, Pride is Sin.

Chapter One

The worst day God ever gave me began well enough. The fifteenth of March in the year 1697, a Monday. I woke as dawn came on, and I remember hoping spring would not be far away. But a New England winter is an ill-mannered guest—slow to leave no matter that it has worn out its welcome. Through my window, I saw the bare trees shaking in a gusting wind, and patches of old snow still upon the ground.

I was in the bedchamber, still laying-in from the birth of my daughter, Martha, on the ninth of March—a day I will forever mark in my heart. My dear friend and neighbor, Goodwife Mary Neff, was there. She was nursing me and seeing to the care of the child. Thomas, my husband of twenty years, had long since been up and about his many employments. My eldest daughter was taking care of the household and her six younger brothers and sisters, the youngest but two years of age.

The first sign of the terror to come was the distant sound of a man crying out in pain. The dreadful cry went on and on until it was cut off by a gunshot. Close on this were inhuman whoops of rejoicing. I did not have to look out a window to know what this meant. Savages.

“Mother!” cried my eldest daughter. “What is —”

I did not wait for the question but shouted with all my might, “Savages! Flee! Go!”

This done, I thrust little Martha, who had been sucking at my breast, into Mary’s hands.

“Go,” I said. “Go now!”

“You need help. I must wait for you.”

“No! Save the child.”

Still, she did not move.

“I will follow,” I said. “You must go now. Please.”

The good woman said not another word. She took my Martha and fled out, holding the child close to her heart.

As I listened to the awful cries of my terrified children running from my home, I struggled out of bed and stood on trembling legs, wearing only a sleeping gown. I should have fled as I was but from a foolish modesty decided to dress myself. Though my heart was sounding as a drum from urgency, I could only move with an agony of slowness. I had just succeeded in pulling on my garments and my shoes, though not a cloak, when I heard it.

The front door banged against the wall. I heard their dreadful shouts as they rushed in. The enemy was in my house. I would soon be in their hands.

For a terrible moment, what little strength I had drained from me, and I fell to my knees. Before I could gather myself and rise, one of them came charging into my bedchamber. I had seen savages before but only from a distance, and only when they were peaceably among us, trading at market, traveling upon a road, or begging a drink outside a tavern. This one was so close his great stench near choked me. The first thing my eyes fixed upon was a large and terrible scar on the side of his face, close to his right eye. Some heavy blow must have fallen there years before. Would that it had killed him then.

Otherwise, his appearance, so singular to my eyes, proved typical of savage men. Rather than trousers, he wore leggings, made of hide, and a breechcloth, a kind of rough cloth apron covering his loins. His shirt was also of cloth and was filthy with dirt and grease. Across his breast was a leather strap, which held a musket upon his back. His face was painted a bright red, and his long black hair was tied in a knot atop his head. From his neck hung a silver Romanist cross – bearing the idolatrous image of Jesus Christ crucified.

He towered over me and raised a hatchet to strike me dead. But he stopped. We looked at one another for a long terrible moment. It was like gazing into the eyes of a wild beast fresh from the kill, hot blood dripping from its fangs. I cannot say what he saw in my eyes. To my surprise, he lowered the weapon and suffered me to live.

Presently, he shouted in his barbarous tongue, and another savage ran into the chamber. This one did not bother to even glance at me but fell to with his companion and together they began to tear apart the room, laughing as they looked for things of value to carry away.

I left them to their thievery and crawled toward the doorway, hoping to escape. This was foolish, for I heard several of the heathen in the main chamber, smashing and tearing, and speaking one to another like a pack of distempered dogs, barking and snapping. I would have to pass among them.

Before I had reached the door, I was clouted on the side of the head. I fell to the floor and, confused and in pain from the blow, I gazed up at the first savage. He pointed at me with one hand and uttered with great force a single word. “Stay.”

I was much astonished by this. Not only did this murderous beast know something of English, he spoke to me as though I were a dog fit to be commanded. In that moment, I understood I was now chattel to be used, sold, or slaughtered as he saw fit.

This man I shall henceforth call my master. I name him thus for that was the nature of our practical relations for a time, not that his claim over me was in any way rightful.

And I shall call him my master because I do not wish to use his name, which I soon learned. I wish that name to be forgotten, to be blotted out of all memory, and never to be used again until God calls him forth at the Final Judgment to answer for his foul deeds, condemning him to eternal torment.

Perhaps you cannot credit such hatred. You may say, “He did spare your life.”

In truth, I would rather he took my life than what he did.

For a time, I remained on the floor, holding my painful head in my hands. Finally, my master seized me by the arm. He forced me to stand and drove me through the doorway, across the main chamber, and compelled me to sit at the hearth, almost in the ashes. He told me again, “Stay.” There he left me and joined his fellow demons in plundering the house.

I sat, downcast, unable to watch. As you would expect, my mind was clouded with fear for my dear children and husband. The savages might butcher them or, worse, carry them away as captives. My family was in peril, and I could do not a thing to help. I could only weep, cling forlornly to hope, and plead with God for their protection.

Yet this last was difficult. You see, I held in my heart a bitter accusation against God. Foolish and faithless, I wanted to call the Lord before my personal bar of justice and demand how He could permit this evil to fall upon us. How could a just God be so unjust?

Despair began to take me. Then I recalled the story of Job, an innocent man made to suffer. He too sat in the ashes of sorrow and loss, and said to those who counseled despair, “What? Shall we receive good at the hands of God, and shall we not receive evil?”

So I dried my tears on my sleeve and resolved to imitate Job, to remain steadfast and untroubled in the face of all hardship, to look upon all sorrow with faith in my heart.

This resolution was soon put to the test.

And I was found wanting.

Presently, there came the sound of gunshots. All the savages stopped and listened. Then my master shouted something in their tongue and led two of them, both whooping and brandishing their weapons, out of doors. (By this, I understood he was a man of authority among them.) The gunshots gave me much hope. Perhaps my husband and our neighbors were coming to drive away the heathen fiends. But soon these sounds of battle grew faint and distant. I understood. No rescue.

At length, my master came back in the house. He shouted, and the others took up their plunder and began to depart. One of them seized me roughly by the arm and compelled me toward the door. As we went, I beheld another savage snatch a burning brand from the hearth. He rushed to a pile of splintered furniture and set it afire. They meant to leave my home in ashes.

Outside, I beheld sights dreadful beyond imagination. As Scripture says, “Thou has shewed thy people hard things: thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment.” Indeed, I was astonished.

The houses of my nearest neighbors were already in flames. Immense clouds of smoke, blown this way and that by cold gusts of wind, were rising toward heaven and drifting through the trees and across the fields. Through the smoke, I caught glimpses of one poor man running to and fro and screaming in agony, blood pouring down his face from where a patch of scalp had been torn away. All about, the shouting savages drove before them a scattering of my neighbors – chiefly women and children – as a pack of baying wolves might drive frightened sheep. I saw one old man, feeble with years, stumble and fall to the ground. The savage running behind him stopped and began striking with a hatchet, striking until he left the old man still upon the earth. Then the fiend ran on, whooping with delight, his hatchet red.

All was confusion, alarms, and screams of terror, but I perceived the method of our enemies. They were driving the captives toward a body of woods through which they would flee unseen into the vast howling wilderness that lay to the north.

I remained firm in my resolution to show no fear or sorrow. I could do this only because my family was not among the captives I saw. I believed they had escaped.

Then I beheld the most terrible sight of all: Mary Neff clutching my infant Martha to her breast, trying to shield her from the storm of evil raging all about them. A savage pushed at her back with his hatchet to drive her toward my master. He stood a little distance from my house, next to an old apple tree, his thick arms crossed upon his chest. There was a great smile upon his face and a wicked light in his eyes as he surveyed the suffering of so many Christian souls.

I could only stand and watch, held fast by one of the savages, as poor Mary and my dear child drew closer. When Mary was but a step away, my master struck her aside the head and began to rip the helpless infant from her arms. She turned this way and that, crying out in her distress and trying to keep hold of Martha. My master’s strength was too great and soon he had my precious baby.

For a moment, he looked upon the face of my child, only six days in this world. She began to wail, frightened, perhaps knowing in her heart the evil that held her in its power. My master frowned, displeased. After stripping away the cloth in which she was wrapped, he grasped the child by one tiny leg.

Then he swung the wailing innocent at the length of his long arm until her head struck the trunk of the nearby tree.

The world went silent as her head burst open, pouring red.

He dropped her limp body into the dirt.

I cannot remember what happened then. I have only images like unto a series of paintings upon a wall. There is her blood, bright in the sun, upon the tree. There is my house, flames and smoke in every window, the roof ablaze. There is also Martha’s torn and crumpled form almost at my feet. I see my hand reaching out to her.

Then I am upon the ground looking up at a savage reaching forth to seize me, to make me stand again. Behind him and above us both were the sky, its pure blue tainted by floating ash and smoke, and the barren branches of that tree of sorrow.

Through all, there is the memory of sound pouring forth from my throat, a wordless cry like that of a beast in pain.

Mary told me later I screamed and turned and jumped. I struggled forward, dragging the savage who held me toward my murdered baby until, at last, he struck me to the ground. She told me I was as near to madness as she had ever seen anyone become.

Excepting those that remained mad.

I once saw a madman who lived in the woods near our town. He wore filthy rags and raved, shouting nonsense to beings visible to him alone. I shuddered gazing upon him, and could not understand how the demons of madness had so entered and possessed him.

On the fifteenth day of March in 1697, I understood, or began to. Perhaps that poor man had been struck such a blow, had lost so much so quickly, a crack opened in him—much as the flawed metal of a kettle will crack if struck in the weakest place. I was dealt such a blow that day. It is only by the grace of God I did not break open and descend into madness forever.

God preserved me, as you will see, for other work.

At length, I came to myself. I was walking. My hands were tightly bound by a cord of leather. Mary was a few steps in front of me, her clothing soiled with dirt and ashes and blood. She was walking with an urgency I matched step for step. It was strange to find myself that way, as if waking from a dream, walking forward rather than abed.

Yet in truth, I was not waking but entering a dream, dark and terrible.

On either side of us were savages. Both were brandishing their hatchets and shouting commands in their strange tongue. I could not understand the words, yet what they wanted was clear. Make haste.

I looked about me. We were passing the first few scattered trees on the edge of the wood, going into the tangled forest, down a path to unknown perils. And the milk, which my murdered child had so lately been drawing from me, still seeped forth from my breast.

Justin Watson grew up on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans and has been a salesman, a deckhand on a fishing boat, a security guard, and a computer systems manager. In 1996, he earned a doctorate in Religion at Florida State University and taught at several schools, including Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He is the author of two non-fiction books: The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition (St. Martin’s, 1997) and The Martyrs of Columbine: Faith and the Politics of Tragedy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). Since moving to Asheville in 2004, he has been writing fiction.

About Hannah Dustan — While doing research on “captivity narratives,” I came across the story of Hannah Dustan (1657–1736) and was immediately fascinated by the sheer extremity of it. To tell her story, I decided to adopt the conventions of such narratives and push them to a similar, and morally ambiguous, extreme. Or as a friend who read an early draft said, “I guess what you're going for is Arthur Miller's Crucible meets Clint Eastwood's “Unforgiven.” Though Dustan's deeds are accepted as historically true, and I do my best to remain faithful to the known facts, what I have written is not history but interpretation, a meditation upon the dark power of grief and the continuing costs of vengeance. Through this story, I hope to explore the potential for both courage and cruelty within all of us.