The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker Page 9

by Cynthia DeFelice

  When daylight touched his eyelids, he awoke. He was lying still, looking around the cabin and trying to remember where he was and how he’d come to be there, when Moll Garfield walked through the door. She filled a pot with water, carried it over to where Lucas lay by the hearth, and began poking the ashes to life.

  Turning to Lucas, she smiled, her face creasing into deeper wrinkles. “Sleep well, did you?” she asked.

  Lucas yawned and stretched. It was the deepest, most peaceful sleep he’d had in a long time. Since before Mama died, he realized. “Yes, ma’am,” he answered.

  Moll glanced at him from the corners of her eyes. “Moll will do, thank you kindly,” she said. She fed some small sticks to the embers and blew on them to coax a flame to life. Lucas studied her as she added larger sticks and, finally, three logs to the fire. Her features revealed her Pequot ancestry, but he couldn’t say that he saw anything witchlike about her.

  As to her health and how she’d fared over the winter, Lucas thought, Doc could set his mind at ease. Moll looked strong and sprightly as she moved about the room, preparing food for their breakfast. She turned to Lucas, nodding with satisfaction, and said, “Camomile, motherwort, skullcap, and lady’s slipper.”

  Lucas was confused. “Beg your pardon?”

  “The tea,” Moll answered. “It helped you to sleep.”

  Lucas remembered the sweet, strong taste of the drink Moll had given him. He looked around at all the herbs and plants, and wondered at their uses. At the same time he kept an eye out, as Doc had told him to do, for anything amiss, but the little cabin appeared snug and sound.

  “Would you show me how to make it?” Lucas asked shyly. “Doc said to ask if you’d teach me things.”

  Moll took a taste from the pot she was stirring. “First,” she said, “you must eat.”

  At the mention of food, Lucas’s stomach rumbled loudly. Moll laughed, a startling sound like the cawing of a crow. She filled two dishes, handed one to Lucas, and began eating, smacking her lips with satisfaction.

  When they finished, Moll took him deep into the woods, where she showed him where to look for the mosses, barks, and tender sprouts that could be gathered in early spring. As they walked along, she pointed out places where, later in the season, leaves and flowers and berries of healing plants would appear in abundance.

  Lucas loved hearing their names: cocklebur, sticklewort, coltsfoot, knitbone, blowball, feverfew, bearberry, toadflax, heart’s ease. He repeated them to himself, trying to remember which ones Moll used for cough, or fever, which for toothache, or burns, or wounds.

  Later, while Moll prepared the evening meal, Lucas looked around. There was a large, neatly stacked supply of firewood, and a patch of new shingles on the roof. Moll did, indeed, appear to be doing just fine by herself.

  As they sat by the hearth eating, Lucas said, “Moll?” At first he had felt odd calling her by the familiar name, but he’d soon become used to it. “What do you know about—consumption?”

  Moll grunted and spat into the fire. Looking at Lucas from under her hooded eyelids, she said, “I know that after the white man’s ships came, many, many of my mother’s people died from it. From red spot. And from other diseases.” Her voice grew bitter. “My mother knew the remedies for illness. She learned them from her mother and she taught them to me. But there was no remedy for the white man’s sicknesses.”

  “Your mother’s people,” repeated Lucas. “The Pequots.”

  Moll looked surprised. “Yes,” she said. Her eyes looked somewhere far away, somewhere Lucas couldn’t see.

  Finally, he said, “Moll, there is a cure for consumption.”

  Moll’s face lost its look of sad remembrance and she gave a snort of laughter. “What has that old gray fox Beecher been telling you, child?”

  “Doc didn’t tell me,” said Lucas.

  Moll lifted her eyebrows. Again he had the feeling she was seeing past his face and into the hidden places inside. That made it easy to tell her about the deaths of his family, about digging up Thomas Stukeley’s grave and putting him to rest so that Sarah would live, and about the curing ceremony he had attended at the town square.

  While he talked, Moll filled her pipe with tobacco and lit it. When Lucas finished, she peered at him through the smoke. “Ah, but how does this story end?” she asked.

  What did Moll mean, Lucas wondered. What he’d been telling her wasn’t a story. It was true. And he had told her everything. It ended in Southwick, with the ceremony at the town square. It ended with Enoch Rood and Sarah Stukeley and Lavinia Sheldon, and all the others, cured. It ended with the end of consumption!

  “Sometimes,” Moll said, glancing slyly at Lucas, “you must go back to the beginning of the story to find out how it ends.”

  Lucas didn’t know how to respond. Maybe Moll wasn’t a witch, but she certainly had some strange ways about her, he thought.


  On days when a chilly spring rain was falling, Lucas and Moll spent their time indoors. Moll went through her stores of plants and explained their uses to Lucas, and how best to prepare them.

  When the weather was fair, they roamed the woods together. Lucas, who had spent his entire life in the Connecticut countryside, felt as if he were seeing it for the first time. Moll pointed out the dens of foxes and bears, the holes where woodchucks had slept the winter months away, the matted grassy spots where deer had bedded down, the places where their fawns had been born.

  Sometimes people stopped by for medicines or advice. Lucas watched and listened as Moll dispensed black walnut hulls for tapeworm, catnip for colic, angelica root for rheumatism, peppermint and ginger to ease stomach pain, thyme and spearmint to freshen the breath, honey to sweeten the disposition. One day Moll sent Lucas to gather cobwebs, which she used to bandage the wound on a young girl’s leg.

  Lucas noticed that the leaves and bark from the slippery elm were Moll’s favorite remedy for sore throats and cough. She even made ointments out of the sap, which she used for burns and cuts. Lucas tried to remember everything, so he could ask Doc about it when he returned.

  Lucas liked being with Moll. She didn’t speak unless she had something to say, and much of their time was spent in a companionable silence. Sometimes, with a guilty pang, Lucas thought that he should leave and go back to Doc’s. Moll was teaching him things, yes, which was partly why Doc had sent Lucas to her. But as for the rest, Lucas had seen from the start that Moll didn’t need any help from him. Still, for some reason Lucas couldn’t explain to himself, he wasn’t ready to return to Doc’s.

  He had a lot of time to reflect on all that had happened. Bothersome thoughts and questions buzzed around his head in the pesky manner of summer flies. They were distracting and annoying, and he couldn’t quite grasp them.

  He remembered the whispered remarks at the curing ceremony, and the way people were saying that Thomas Stukeley had sat up in the coffin, screaming, with blood pouring from his mouth. It was all wrong. Lucas kept hearing Doc’s words about the way tales got bigger as they were passed from one person to the next. How many mouths had passed the stories of the cure from Rhode Island and Vermont to far-off Connecticut, he wondered. How much had each of them shaped the story, changing what really happened?

  And it was disturbing that Moll had laughed when he’d told her there was a cure for consumption. True, she had listened as Lucas told her about it, but then she had asked how the story ended.

  Most of all, it bothered him that Doc thought the cure was nonsense. Doc was smart, and if Doc didn’t believe, well…Now that Lucas had time alone to think, he found himself questioning things that only a week before he had believed with all his heart.

  Buzzzz…Buzzzz…Buzzzz…The irksome questions swarmed about in his brain. He grew more and more restless, like a baby bird eager to peck its way out of the egg, or a snake itching to shed its winter skin.

  He had been with Moll a little over a week when he awakened one morning to a shrill cock-a-dood
le-doo! But, he thought groggily, Moll didn’t keep chickens. Still muddled with sleep, Lucas puzzled about it until he realized that he’d been dreaming.

  The dream made him think of Doc, and he tried to figure out why. Then he remembered. In his mind he heard Doc’s voice: “What you’re hearing is the rooster crowing, lad.”

  Lucas opened his eyes, fully awake. Doc had said those words when William Sheldon came to the house, right after Lucas insisted that he and the Stukeleys had cured Sarah.

  He lay still for a long time, pondering his dream and the meaning behind Doc’s words. He asked himself: Had he been fooled by the rooster’s crowing? Was Sarah Stukeley still well? Was Lavinia Sheldon feeling better? Did Enoch truly recover? He had to know.

  Moll came inside then, holding a basket filled with green stalks that curled delicately at the ends. She placed them in a pot of water and started them boiling over the fire. After just a few moments, she filled a dish from the pot and handed it to Lucas. He took a mouthful of the greens. They were tender and mild and the taste made him think of summer. Moll was watching him closely.

  “Good,” he said, taking another mouthful.

  “They’re the first new shoots of fiddlehead fern,” Moll informed him. “Found ’em this morning. And that means winter’s back is broken.”

  Could the long, cold winter be ending at last, Lucas wondered. He stood up, opened the door, stepped out into the clearing, and sniffed the air. Beneath the morning chill, he could feel a touch of warmth in the pale sunlight, and he could smell the wormy, rich aroma of earth.

  With surprise, Lucas realized that March had turned to April. Some knowledge deep in their roots had told the ferns it was time to poke their delicate heads up through the damp, soft earth. It struck Lucas as a brave and reckless thing to do, and he smiled at the notion.

  As he and Moll ate their morning meal, he told her he’d be leaving that day, and thanked her for allowing him to stay. She nodded, then helped him to wrap up the supplies Doc had asked for.

  When he was ready to go, she walked with him to the edge of the clearing. Lucas swallowed. “You said that sometimes a person has to go back to the beginning of a story to find out how it ends,” he said.

  Moll nodded and reached out to touch his shoulder. Then she turned back to the little cabin, and Lucas headed off through the woods. Not south to town, but north, toward his family’s farm.


  It was late, and very dark, when Lucas knocked at the door of the Roods’ farmhouse. There were murmurs of surprise and confusion as the family awakened from sleep. Soon a candle was lit and Lucas heard footsteps approaching.

  Oliver Rood spoke through the door. “Who’s that?”

  “It’s me, Mr. Rood. Lucas Whitaker.”

  “Lucas!” The door flew open. Mr. Rood stood in his long johns, thrusting the candle into Lucas’s face. “By God, it is you.” He stared at Lucas, his eyes wide, his face pale, as if he saw a ghost. “Mary!” he called. “It’s Lucas Whitaker, as I live and breathe.”

  Mrs. Rood came to the door in her nightdress, her face showing the same startled expression as her husband’s. “Lord be praised, Lucas,” she said wonderingly. “We’d given you up for lost. Thank God you’re here and well!”

  Sleepy voices called from the back room, and Mrs. Rood went to soothe the children. Lucas and Mr. Rood sat at the table, and soon Mrs. Rood returned to join them.

  “We worried so about you, Lucas,” she said. “Where have you been?”

  Lucas felt ashamed. He’d never thought to send word to the Roods to tell them where he was, or that he was alive. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I never thought—I’ve been living in Southwick—”

  “Southwick!” exclaimed Mrs. Rood. “Why?”

  “I found work there,” said Lucas. A note of pride entered his voice as he explained. “I stay with Dr. Uriah Beecher. I’m his apprentice.”

  “Well, that’s fine, Lucas,” said Mr. Rood slowly. “We did kindly wonder where you’d got to. We’ve been in a muddle about what to do with the farm and all.”

  “I was glad to know you had the use of the animals,” said Lucas.

  Mrs. Rood said, “That Ruth’s a real good milker.”

  Quietly, Lucas asked, “Barnabas and Reuben and Rachel, have they been working hard for Enoch?”

  In the strained silence that followed, Lucas felt his heart sink. Mr. and Mrs. Rood exchanged uneasy glances. At last Mr. Rood said, “Enoch passed away, Lucas.” His expression tightened with grief. “He died not long after you left.”

  It was what Lucas had come to find out. It was what he’d feared he would discover. Nevertheless, there was a plunging feeling in his stomach, and he had to struggle to breathe.

  “He was better, Lucas,” said Mrs. Rood. Tears filled her eyes in a sudden rush. “We were so sure. And then he took a turn for the worse. It happened so fast—”

  “Something went amiss with his cure,” said Mr. Rood. “It was working so good and then—”

  “We sent word to my kinfolk in Rhode Island, asking what to do,” said Mrs. Rood, “but we haven’t heard back yet.” In the light from the candle her face was lined and careworn. “I pray they hasten with their reply…in time to save Matthew.”

  From the back room came the sound of coughing. “Mama?” a voice called weakly. Mrs. Rood stood up. “I’ll go see to him,” she said. “Lucas, Mr. Rood will show you where to sleep.” She smiled. “We’re glad to have you.”

  Mr. Rood was pacing the rough plank floor. “I’ve been talking to folks, Lucas. And I heard that it might be another one of the family coming back to bother Matthew. Mercy we put to rest, you know, but it could be one of the others. Maybe Enoch.”

  He stopped his pacing and turned to Lucas. “We’ve got to stop it.”

  “How do you mean to do that?” asked Lucas. But even as he asked, he knew.

  “I aim to dig up all their graves. We’ll find which one still lives. We’ll be able to tell, you know, by the signs. And we’ll end this for good and for all.”

  Lucas looked at Mr. Rood’s haggard face, his desperate, pleading eyes. He felt an enormous sadness for Mr. and Mrs. Rood. Their bewilderment, their fear, their belief in the cure even in the face of Enoch’s death—he understood it all.

  “It’s a blessing, you showing up like this, Lucas,” said Mr. Rood. “I can sure use a hand in the morning. So you get some sleep now, hear?”

  Mr. Rood returned to bed. Lucas sat down, holding his head in his hands. Enoch, his friend, was dead. And now Mr. Rood wanted Lucas’s help in digging up more graves, including Enoch’s. He tried to imagine working alongside Mr. Rood, pretending to believe that what they were doing would save Matthew.

  How he wished Doc were there, so he could ask him what to do. But he knew what Doc would do. Now he understood how Doc must have felt facing the Stukeleys and William Sheldon, how difficult it must have been to refuse to help with the “cure.” Doc had had the courage to tell the truth. And, cruel as it seemed to take away the Roods’ only hope for Matthew, Lucas knew he would have to summon the same courage come morning.

  He passed a fitful night by the hearth. When Mr. Rood awoke and came to stir the fire to life, Lucas sat up. “Mr. Rood?” he said.

  “Good morning, Lucas. Did you sleep well?”

  “Not so good, I guess,” said Lucas. “I was thinking about Matthew and what you aim to do today.”

  “I confess it occupied my thoughts most of the night, as well,” said Mr. Rood. “I’ll be glad to get on with it.”

  “Do you remember I said I was working for a doctor?” Lucas asked.

  “Uriah Beecher, did you say his name is?”


  Mr. Rood looked up with interest. “Has this Beecher told you anything about how to work the cure?”

  “No,” answered Lucas. He took a deep breath and went on. “In fact, he doesn’t hold to it. He says sometimes folks get cured of consumption, but not because of digging up grave
s or any of that. He says the dead can’t come back to hurt anybody.”

  Mr. Rood was listening intently. He thought for a moment, then asked eagerly, “These folks who do get well, how does he cure them?”

  Lucas squirmed uncomfortably. “Well, he gives them plasters and medicines—”

  “We’ve tried those things,” said Mr. Rood impatiently.

  “He says he doesn’t know why some people get better,” Lucas said softly. “And that anybody who says he knows isn’t telling the truth.”

  “Doesn’t sound like much of a doctor to me,” Mr. Rood said angrily. “You’re telling me he’d just stand by and do nothing?”

  Before Lucas could answer, Mr. Rood went on. “Well, I can’t do that, by God. I’ve got to at least try the only thing I know to do!”

  “I know, sir,” said Lucas. “I—”

  From the other room came the sounds of Mrs. Rood and the other children rising. Mr. Rood looked hard at Lucas. “Don’t say a word about this to Mrs. Rood, do you hear? She holds out hope for this cure. I won’t have you making her think she’s going to lose Matthew, too.”

  “Yes, sir,” said Lucas quietly.

  “I’m going out there now to do what I have to do, Lucas, and I’m sorry you can’t see your way to help out. I’m going to pray that you and that doctor of yours are wrong.”

  Lucas sat where he was. Mrs. Rood and the children soon joined him. While Mrs. Rood fixed biscuits, she and Lucas discussed arrangements for selling the farm. Lucas offered to sell the animals, too, and give the profit to the Roods in return for their caring for them over the winter. To his relief, Mrs. Rood said that Reuben, Rachel, Barnabas, and Ruth seemed like part of the family and she’d just as soon keep them.

  Before he left to begin the three-mile walk to his own family farm, Lucas joined Mrs. Rood in a heartfelt prayer for Matthew’s recovery.



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