Stephen Perdene was fifteen years old, tall for his age, and confident of his strength. When he pushed against an obstacle, he expected it to give way. The back door resisted his shove this morning, caught against the damp-swollen sill, but he applied the manly new muscles of his shoulder, forced it open, and took off down the alley at a run. The London sky was charcoal gray, just beginning to lighten behind the fog. Wavering fingers of flame shone from the lanterns of the milk wagon and vegetable carts just creaking into motion. Dodging the carts and their owners, he swept on past tar-paper sheds and scrap-wood back rooms jutting out behind the brick and clapboard houses of his neighbors. Housewives were already sending foul odors and dust clouds into the air as they emptied chamber pots and coal scuttles. They called out greetings as he passed, his black curls springing out from under his cap, arms and legs jutting from too-short sleeves and trousers, increasing the speed of his overgrown feet. Daniel would be waiting. He turned a corner and slipped out of the housewives’ sight through a break in a fence.
Dashing on through the side streets, he ignored the glances and comments that his bulky frame drew from men who wanted to hire his labor for the day. His family needed every penny he could earn, but Stephen wasn’t ready to begin work yet. He slipped through the market, raising one hand to hail a friend unloading cabbages while his other skimmed two warm rolls off a pile into the deep pocket of his ragged coat. A dozen long strides later, he knocked twice on the wall of a blacksmith’s tool shed and dropped the fresh rolls on the sill of the unlatched window, barely slowing his pace. The grimy hand of his older brother reached out to scoop up the warm rolls—accompaniment for his cold porridge. Daniel was apprenticed to the blacksmith, a man so mean he might cuff a fellow just for being in arm’s reach, so Stephen was careful to stay out of his way.
Daniel would be well off in a few years, if he survived the blacksmith’s rages and learned his trade. Meanwhile, Stephen made his rounds each day to bargain his ready muscles and quick mind into cash. There was no money left in the family to set him up as an apprentice or outfit him as a soldier like his brother George.
He could easily get hired to shovel out a stable if he couldn’t find something better, but moving piles of manure-clotted hay led to nowhere but more of the same; the only advantage was being close to the horses. He felt in his pocket for the carrot he always carried there, in case he should need to coax a horse, saving it from the whip of an ignorant handler.
He crossed the street, drawn by the peppery smell of sawn wood at the cooper’s shop, where he’d worked for a few days when the apprentice was sick. Stephen had been proud to catch on so quickly, pleased to find strength enough to bend and hold the metal barrel staves. He’d needed to keep his wits engaged as well as his muscles to avoid being slashed by a sprung band of metal. And it was clean work.
The cooper’s apprentice came out through the door, his arms so loaded with wood that his eyes were barely visible above the pile.
“Mind your step,” Stephen called with a grin. “If you fall and break a leg, I might have to step into your place again and make some barrels.”
“You could make ’em for me and welcome,” the boy answered. “I need a rest.” He unfolded his arms, and the wooden slats slid down in a clatter next to the lathe. “But today I think you’ll have something more to your liking. Doc is looking for you.”
Stephen sprang into a run again, so he wouldn’t miss his chance. Assisting the animal surgeon was his favorite job. Horses seemed to trust him, and he had a way of settling them so Doc could do his work. He wondered if they would be curing sick horses today or loading them onto a ship. The demand for horses in the colonies had driven prices so high that Stephen greeted a neighbor on the street with teasing speculation: “Where’s your old Nell? Got your price, did ye? Poor girl’s pitchin’ about on a ship, bound for the plantations, ain’t she?” Stephen knew it was true because he’d helped to load the mare himself. Doc was often called to check the horses before they were shipped, to confirm that they were strong enough to handle the crossing.
Today Stephen found Doc’s room at the stable empty, so he charged straight to the crowded city docks. Winded by now, he sucked in deep breaths of salt air, sweat, and spices as he scanned the ships for one with a crane and belly harness. He heard Doc’s halloo from the pier just as he spotted the dark semi-circle of canvas sagging from its chains.
A sea breeze filled the sides of Doc’s open dark coat and made a flag of his white hair. Hurrying toward him, Stephen joined the jostling crowd of sailors and laborers streaming along the docks in the early morning light. He reached the end of the pier, crowded with barrels, boxes, and penned-in livestock, just in time. Six horses were bunched together, shifting uneasily, tossing their heads. The sailors were calling to the owner to “bring up the first.”
“I was counting on you,” Doc said, handing over two of the four lead straps he was holding. “These mares are going to the West Indian cane fields, and they’re none too happy about the prospect.” He had to yell over the horses’ whinnies and the squealing of a wagonload of pigs behind.
They were fine teams, stronger and more spirited than the dull nags Stephen had loaded before, and they rightly sensed a threat. Seeing them harnessed, winched slowly up, and dangled above the deck—eyes rolling, nostrils blowing, skin twitching all over—filled Stephen with apprehension. Their graceful legs looked as fragile as twigs up there, and if they were dropped wrong and a leg snapped, that was the end of ’em. He had seen it happen once and would never forget it. The crack of bone, the yelling and sudden shift of the men away from the horse’s thrashing as the poor creature tried to get up…and then the shot. He was sure the horse had died for lack of proper handling. Since then, he’d vowed to bend all his will toward giving them their best chance.
It would be bad enough for them even if they landed on the ship unhurt. Confined in a foul hold, an unfamiliar slippery surface rocking under their feet, they would feel seasick, Stephen imagined, just like people. He still had to fight the urge to unhitch them all and scatter them beyond the reach of cruel men in a mean world.
Doc understood; as soon as they got the horses settled on the pier, Stephen felt the old man’s reassuring arm around his shoulder. “Go ahead,” he urged, “take the first one up, and don’t be afraid to use the bridle to keep her facing the ship. She won’t run toward what she’s afraid of, so just keep her moving forward, slow as you need to. And talk to her, Stephen, right in her ear. You know how. Keep her calm, and she won’t get hurt.”
When the last horse was steadied on the deck of the ship, Stephen took his pennies from Doc and asked if he could stay on the ship until the mares were safely stowed.
“Got no more work for you until tomorrow, so do what you like. Just stay out of the way of the sailors. They don’t take kindly to landsmen if they look idle. They might cast you overboard just for fun. You can swim, can’t you?”
Stephen laughed at Doc’s comical white eyebrows, lifted high in mock concern. “Like a fish,” he said. “I’ll come by first thing tomorrow.”
His arm muscles ached from taking his turn at the winch, and his pale complexion had turned red from exertion, but he carried himself with confidence as he turned away from Doc to open the heavy wooden gate of the livestock pen.
He heard a rough voice call out above his head, just as he pushed the gate open: “Don’t get lost in there.” When he looked up, a seaman, balanced in the rigging, thrust out his thick forearm and released a heavy coil of rope to land with a thump behind Stephen’s heels. “We might have to feed and water you too.”
A skinny, scowling boy stepped forward to pick up the rope. Stephen felt his glare and caught his eye as he closed the gate. “You belong home with your mum,” the boy spat. He hoisted the coil of rope to his shoulder and moved on.
Jealous, thought Stephen, feeling proud that he hadn’t flinched at the thud of the rope. He nodded and smiled at two men who were loitering next to the livestock pen, traders by the look of their clean waistcoats. They smiled back and wished him good day, and Stephen turned to his business, sensing the men’s eyes on him, wondering if they had noticed his skill with the horses.
He moved into the makeshift stalls and bent to check the straps holding the horses secure in their places—loose enough so that they could shift their feet, tight enough to keep them upright as they got used to the swells. A few whispered words caught his ear, but he wasn’t really listening.
“Could be a stowaway…usual to the captain?”
“Or more…strong and quick…decent price on the other side if they don’t starve him on the ship.”
Stephen’s mind was engaged by then with the language of horses: soft slap of tail, whinny, stamp of hoof. The voices of the sailors rose and fell around him.
After ten minutes or so, he decided there was nothing more he could do for the mares. He slipped out of the gate and turned to close it, looking at the late-morning sun shining on the water and glowing through the thin skin of a horse’s pricked ears. He felt as if a window were opening onto his future work as he fastened the latch.
Then came a smashing blow to the back of his head, a pulse of bright light as his legs went liquid.
“Too busy petting the horsies,” he heard, in a voice from nightmares.
“Easy as swatting a fly on a windowsill,” a demon cackled.
Stephen slid down into darkness.
He woke with a deep headache and something mushy-wet pushing against his mouth and chin. As he opened his eyes, he recoiled from the stink of vomit and wet fur.
It was only a dog—not even a large one—nosing forward to lick his face again. The vomit was his own; there was some on his sleeve, and its rank smell brought back the urge to heave. He grabbed the dog with both hands, shoving its snout away to get some air. But the shove swung his whole body back, his head whirled, and everything tilted. Stephen screamed, and the dog barked.
“Baby’s awake and crying,” a rough voice yelled.
Laughter rumbled from above him and down on one side. Stephen’s head throbbed as he looked around in the dark, trying to locate the voices. It didn’t seem like a proper room; the wooden walls were oddly curved. A shaft of light revealed steps leading up and a head leaning down through a hole at the top.
“Where am I?” Stephen tried to shout, but the question came out as a shuddery croak.
“Yer rockin’ in yer new cradle,” said the voice above.
Laughter circled him again. The dog went scrambling up the steps.
He tried to plant his elbows under him; it just started him rocking again. But the creaking sounds above were opening a door in his mind. The mast, the winch, the horses… His nausea returned as his body tilted again, and he spotted a bucket just in time.
When he looked up from retching, a hand had stopped his hammock. A bony, ragged youth, about as old and tall as himself, was looking at him with solemn dark eyes.
“Can you help me,” Stephen asked urgently, “so I can get off the ship before it sails?”
The fellow held out his hand without smiling. “Bad news, my friend. It will be some time before you get off this ship. You belong to the captain now, same as me.”
Stephen swallowed hard to control the spasm in his gut, while he tried to attach some sense to the youth’s words. “How belong? I’m…”
He had to pause, searching his addled memory for his own name. He blinked and stared at the stranger in wretched disbelief.
“C’mon, you’ll do better on your feet.”
The youth was still holding out his dirty hand. His words—“Same as me”—echoed ominously in Stephen’s sore head.
“I’m Stephen Perdene.” The name came to him as he caught hold of the extended hand and gave himself to its reassuring strength. “I belong to no one except my father and mother. How do I find myself still on the ship? And who are you?”
“I’m Charles. We must be men now, so get your feet under you.”
Charles put his other hand under Stephen’s legs to free him from the stiff canvas of the hammock and set his feet on the floor. Stephen closed his eyes as his vision blurred. He reached around to touch the back of his throbbing head and found the tender, crusted swelling there.
“The horses. I was seeing to the horses.”
Charles smiled. “The horses are in better shape than you right now. You need some air.”
He pulled Stephen to his feet and supported him with an encircling arm. “You’re going to follow me up that ladder and take a look at the ocean that’s been sloshing your stomach around like a slop pail. Never been out before, have you? Nor had I before I left Liverpool a week ago. I wasn’t knocked over the head and sold like you, but we’re both on our way to the colonies.”
Stephen clutched at the rough boards of the hull, bludgeoned by a word that collected all his dread into a dark comprehension: colonies. The ship lurched, and he bumped his forehead against a step, setting off sparkling lights behind his eyes. The whispers of the merchants came swirling back. There’d been warnings, but he had been heedless. Full of pride. Too busy playing with the horsies, the demon voice hissed.
His thighs trembled as he pushed himself up to the next step, following the boot-heels of his new companion. At last he hoisted himself through the opening onto the deck and stood up to the hurrahs of a few sailors, while Charles bowed and extended his hand as if he were announcing a dignitary. The absurd little dog was barking, leaning forward onto its front legs, then bouncing backward.
Stephen teetered with the next roll of the ship and clutched Charles’s extended hand. Then he gritted his teeth, took a few lurching steps to the rail, and dumped the last useless bits of his English breakfast into the vast expanse of the sea.
The character of Stephen Perdene is based on two brief entries about my eighth-great grandfather in the Maryland archives from the 1600s. Stephen arrived in Maryland sometime around 1655. He was transported, either as a criminal or as an indentured laborer. He appears in a long list of men who were paid in tobacco, the ready cash of the early colonial period, for his service in fighting the Nanticoke natives. Land records show that his probable son, also Stephen, was a landowner, and his later descendants increased and clung to land in Delaware from before the Revolutionary War until now.
I didn’t learn any of this from my family, although my father was also Stephen Pardee and the children of my brother, yet another Stephen Pardee, still live in the same county in Delaware. When I was a child, I performed with my schoolmates in colonial-day celebrations on the town green and listened to guides with historic names that I have since found in the records alongside my own, less illustrious ancestors. I wrote this novel to reimagine the ordinary lives of those indentured servants and small landholders, whose names are recorded with no mention of their nation-building deeds of strength and perseverance because they could serve their own ambitions only by making themselves useful to those with greater power.
Branches and Bones follows Stephen as he builds his skills and lends his strength to enterprises that promise advancement. It is a tale of compromise and dubious moral choices, of battle, smuggling, murder, and misdirected revenge. Ultimately the consequences of his choices escape his good intentions, affecting not only Stephen but his wife, Susannah, their children, the story’s Nanticoke native characters, and the soul of a new nation.
Shiela Pardee lived in Delaware for fifty years, where she raised a family, worked in state museums and historic sites, and taught high-school and undergrad English. She completed her graduate work at the University of Delaware while working in the university library. After teaching for nine years at Southeast Missouri State University, she followed her daughter west. Long Oregon winters and a pandemic provided ideal writing conditions for finishing her first novel, Branches and Bones.
Embark, Issue 15, October 2021