Martha Dustin

“On March 15, 1697, the salvages made a descent upon the skirts of Haverhill, murdering and captivating about thirty-nine persons, and burning about half a dozen houses.” – the opening line of Hannah Dustin’s story as told by the Rev. Cotton Mather in Magnalia Christi Americana (1702)

“Hush, little Martha, hush,”
you whispered, frantic,
“Don’t fuss.”
Jerked from crib to trembling arms,
strangers all around,
chaos and confusion.
I didn’t mean to cry, momma, I didn’t.
Full of fright, only a week old
when the Abenaki descended
that mid March morn
in the waning months
of King William’s War.
A score and seven died that day.
Momma Hannah, nurse Mary, and I
made a baker’s dozen carried away.

“Hush, little Martha, hush,”
you begged over and over
but I couldn’t stop.
It made no sense to march
through woods when I could
nap next to warm hearth.
I heard their demands for quiet,
their demands for speed.
They yelled when you fell behind,
trudging through spring mud
and clinging clumps of snow.
Instead of walking you despaired
at my unhappiness
and I only cried
all the harder.
“Hush, little Martha, hush.
Your brothers and sisters are safe,”
you assured, “led to soldiers’ protection
by your father strong and brave.”
And finally I was quiet,
after the man tore me
from your grasp
and dashed my head
against that apple tree.
I didn’t mean to cry, momma, I didn’t.
Now you can walk faster and quieter, momma.
See, I’m a good little girl now.

Although my body lay beneath the apple tree
I, dutiful daughter, follow wherever you go.
Deep into the woods toward Canada
where they gave you to an Abenaki family,
two men, three women, seven children,
a new home for you, Mary and the boy Samuel
who had spent already eighteen months here,
slave or son it isn’t clear.
I saw you stop on an island
as I hovered near
where the Contoocook and Merrimack meet.

I marveled the night you three arose
to escape while your captors slept.
Stolen tomahawks rose and fell
with the cracks of splitting skulls.
Two Abenaki men would not awake again.
Two Abenaki women into eternity with them.
Momma, did the six children
have to die as well,
like me, never to grow old,
never to have children of their own?
Did you murder them for me, momma?
I didn’t ask for vengeance,
only that you be safe,
that you be loved.
I was glad you were free,
but I wasn’t sad to see
the last woman and child flee.

Back to father, brothers and sisters we went.
But, momma, why did you turn the stolen canoe
back to that little island one more time?
Were those ten flaps of skin and hair
so important for your revenge?
Fifty dollars for each scalp,
you and young Samuel split.
An act of bravery or cruelty
were those gruesome receipts of death?

Ten generations later, no one remembers me,
momma, but tourists commemorate
your deadly feats with “Mother’s Revenge”
bobbleheads from the local historical society
and descendants sometimes pilgrimage
to Dustin Island, stand beneath your statue,
and read the proud Latin proclaiming
“Heroic deeds of righteous faith.”
I too still visit the scene of your escape,
momma, and I still hear you whisper,
“Hush, little Martha, Hush.”

©2017 Kenneth W. Arthur