A brilliant story from Emma Donoghue's new collection, Astray.
He’s fifteen, or thereabouts. He thought he would be home by Christmas. That was what they were told when they were given their red coats and shipped across the ocean to put down the rebs: that it wouldn’t take more than a couple of months. But it’s December already, and in New Jersey the snows are as dense as cake, and he thinks now that every soldier is told that: home soon. He wonders whether it’s ever been true.
If the boy were in a German regiment, he could speak his own tongue at least. None of the English have even heard of Anhalt-Zerbst, let alone his village. He’s never been to Hesse but his bunkmate says you Hessians anyway, or you Bosch bastards. Another points out that he’s a foot or two short of a full one, so they settle on Half-Bosch.
Not soon, then, but how much longer? The redcoats took hard losses at Fort Mercer but cleaned out Fort Lee at the end of November. The rats are in retreat, and it’s this regiment’s job to squeeze them out of New Jersey. There’s a line of the men of Hopewell outside the garrison every morning, wanting to sign allegiance papers—not that it proves much. Washington’s reb army couldn’t have held together on its flight to Pennsylvania if this countryside weren’t riddled with traitors, making muskets and shot for the rebs, supplying them with cloth for their backs and salt for their meat.
Some of this regiment have wives near their time, others say their wives are too pretty to leave alone; they all gripe about the endlessness of this campaign. The boy has only his mother. In the night, under the blanket, he thinks of his bed at home in his village in Anhalt-Zerbst and the way the fir tips tap against his window, and he weeps till he shakes. His bunkmate mutters, “Give that little worm of yours a rest.”
Filthy talk is how they pass the time. In the freezing rains of December there’s nothing to do but wait.
Then one day the skies clear. The land around Hopewell is as hard as a drum. “Good hunting weather,” somebody says.
So the hunt is what they call it. The major isn’t happy, but the captain only shakes his head and tells him, The men must have a bit of fun.
Houghton and Byrne and Williams and the boy start at a farmhouse on the edge of town. Muskets at the ready in case they flush out any rebs. The boy’s stomach is tight, as on the verge of battle. Nobody answers the door until Byrne smashes the fanlight with his bayonet. Then they hear running feet, and the bar lifting. Byrne grabs the maid by her skirts but Williams says, “Hold hard, man. Where’s your mistress, eh? Where’s everybody hiding?”
She shakes her head, already sobbing.
The boy edges to one side.
“Where are you off to, Half-Bosch?”
“Search the house?”
“That’s a lad,” says Houghton, undoing his buttons one by one.
Upstairs the corridors are silent, except for the creakings his steps make. Far below him he can hear dull voices, then screaming that stops all at once. The boy peers into each room, taking his time. What will he do if he finds the ladies? Yankee whores, reb whores.
He goes down the back stairs. In the kitchen he eats a pickle from a jar; it’s weaker than his mother’s, it hardly tastes at all. He strokes the grain of an old settle, reads a sampler on the wall: Her Price Is Above Rubies.
Something clinks. He follows the small sound into the pantry, which seems to be empty, until he opens a small door and finds a girl crouching in the meat safe. Her hands fly to her ears.
“Monkey,” he says under his breath.
“That’s hardly civil!”
He points. “Hands on ears? Like the monkey in the picture.”
She lowers her hands reluctantly. “Which picture?” Pale ears jut through her gleaming hair.
Like a pixie, he thinks. “Hear no bad.”
“Oh, hear no evil, I see.” She’s crawling out and standing up, taller than he was expecting. A shiny apron, the kind that’s just for show; a locket on a ribbon. “You’re not English,” she says accusingly.
“Nein.” He only slips when he’s flustered.
“A mercenary!” Like something rotten in her mouth. The boy must be looking blank, because she explains: “You serve for pay, for money.”
“No money,” he tells her. “I get my coat. Boots. Rations.”
Which reminds him to examine the shelves. He finds a basket, grabs some jars, a cake in paper, the first dark bottle his hand falls on.
“Then, what brings you all the way to New Jersey?” she asks, close behind him.
“My prince sold me. To the redcoats.” He crams three more bottles in on top of the cake.
“How could he sell you, when you’re as white as me?” scoffs the girl. And then, “That’s my aunt’s best cherry brandy you’re stealing.”
“Requisitioning,” he says, tripping over the English syllables.
“Half-Bosch!” The voice is Byrne’s, faint but getting nearer.
The boy shoots out of the pantry with his basket. “Drink,” he roars, “I found drink.” He doesn’t have time to look back.
He thinks about her, though. That night, in the barracks, when men are swapping dirty stories, and Williams and Houghton and Byrne are going on and on about the maid at the deserted farm—the boy pretends the brandy has put him to sleep. He squeezes his eyes shut and thinks of those pearly, sticking-out ears.
There’s a rumor going round that Washington’s reb army will melt away on New Year’s Day, when the terms of service for most of his recruits come to an end. The boy tries to imagine being home for the spring planting.
The next day the hunt is on again. The redcoats trawl through Hopewell. There are scarlet ribbons on almost every door by now, but ribbon’s cheap; it says loyalty without proving it. They knock on every door, and shout, “Bring out your females!” The boy stands guard outside the surgery while the others are inside with the doctor’s wife and daughter. After half an hour, Williams sticks his head out the window to say, “Come on it, Half-Bosch, time we made a man of you.”
He pulls a face. “Still sick from the damn brandy.”
Williams grins and bangs the window shut so hard that an icicle falls like a spear.
“Let’s go back to the farm,” Houghton proposes that night. “I hate the thought of leaving a single maidenhead in the fucking State of New Jersey.”
Williams laughs so hard he coughs.
In morning the fields crack like glass under the soldiers’ boots. The boy doesn’t want to be walking this way again, and he wants it more than anything. They get there in half an hour, and this time they go round to the back door: a stealth attack.
But the place is deserted; no sign of the maid even. The three Englishmen troop upstairs, and the boy heads for the pantry.
The girl’s there, as he knew she’d be. She has some cheese for him; it’s surprisingly strong. He finds himself telling her about the day he cut a purse from a gentleman’s belt, back in Anhalt-Zerbst.
“I knew you were a thief.”
He shrugs. “You’re a reb.”
“I am not!” Too loud for the narrow pantry. “I’m as loyal as you like. I never asked to come to this nest of traitors.” Her hands shoot up to cup her ears.
Two feet away, he watches the tears brim along her lashes.
“My father was in the cavalry,” she tells him. “So the rebs confiscated our farm in Pennsylvania, turned us out with only bedding and a plate each. Said my little brother had to stay to join their Patriot Army.” Her voice skids. “Mamma sent us three elder girls off to relations, to be safe. She didn’t know my aunt in Hopewell was a turncoat. And my cousins,” she says, almost spitting, “they treat me like a rag to wipe their fingers on. They grudge me my dinner, won’t lend me so much as a petticoat—”
His heart thumps dully in his chest. “Where are they hiding? Your aunt and cousins?”
Her pupils contract. “I don’t know. A long way away,” she says, without conviction.
“When did they leave?”
She shrugs. Her hands creep up through her hair.
He shocks himself by taking them in his. “Pretty ears. Don’t cover them.”
“You’re making fun.”
He shakes his head fervently. “Beautiful.”
She finds him an apple. A knife to peel it. A slice for him, a slice for her. When he tries to kiss her, she pulls away, but slowly. Should he have asked first? Should he have insisted?
“Tell me where they are, these cousins who treat you so badly,” he says, instead.
“It’s just the elder girl, really.”
“The men—the others in my company—they want women.” He flushes, absurdly.
Her fingertips are pressing her ears to her head again, as if to stop them flying away.
“I must bring some women. You understand? Not you.”
He thought she might weep, but she only looks into her lap. She says something, very low.
“In the hayloft,” she says, still whispering.
What he tells Williams and Houghton and Byrne, when he finds them upstairs filling their packs with silver plate, is that he heard voices in the barn. Williams whacks him on the back so hard it hurts. “We’ve got ourselves a good little hunting dog,” he tells the others. “Bosch bloodhounds can’t be beat.”
In the barn, the boy is the last up the ladder. A child wails in the lap of a graying lady; a tall girl shrinks behind her. “Well, well, well,” cries Houghton, rubbing his hands like some villain on a stage.
The aunt straightens up. “If it please you, sir—”
“Oh, you’re going to please me well enough, madam, you’re going to please every one of us.”
Williams whoops at that.
“And anyone who puts up a fuss will get her ears cut off.”
The boy hangs back. Mutters something about going for drink.
“Come, now, for the glory of the regiment,” says Byrne, grabbing him by the elbow. “Fire away! Which d’you fancy—fresh meat or well aged?”
The older lady’s eyes are as gray as his mother’s. He wrenches himself out of Byrne’s grasp, almost falls as he scrambles down the ladder.
The thing seems to go on for hours. He waits at the door of the barn, shivering in his thin red jacket.
That night he’s the butt of the whole barracks. The captain puts his thumb on the boy’s collarbone. “What’s this I hear? Can’t raise the regimental colors for the glory of King George?”
The boy doesn’t know what the right answer is.
“Last chance, Half-Bosch,” announces Houghton. “Tomorrow, the Major’s off to Princeton for three days, so we’re going to bring the tastiest fillies in Hopewell back to the garrison. If you don’t produce some manner of female and show us you know how to put her through her paces...”
“The point is,” says the captain, leaning in, breath fragrant with gin, “are you a girl or a man?” His grip shifts from collarbone to throat. “No two ways about it, Half-Bosch. Man or girl.”
“I had one already,” says the boy, pulling away in a fury of terror. “At the farm. I found her the first day. Much prettiest.”
“Ooh, keeping the best for yourself, you rat!” Byrne cackles and smacks his shoulder. “Well, bring her back tomorrow and show us what you’re made of.”
What he’s made of? It’s not a phrase the boy has heard before; it makes him think of the gingerbread boy, who ran and ran until the fox snapped him up.
He wakes before dawn and lies like a corpse. He can’t feel his feet. He finds himself thinking of his mother’s softly creased hands, setting down a bowl of borscht before him. He shoves the memory away. His mother would not know him. He sees as clear as lightning that he will never go home.
By noon he’s kneeling beside the girl in the pantry, holding on to her hands. He tries not to hear the shouting in the distance.
“They hate me,” she says again.
“How do they know it was—”
“They don’t, they hated me before. But now they hate me because I wasn’t in the hayloft. My aunt’s demented.” Her pupils are huge and dark. “The little one’s not twelve. I never thought—”
The distant voices are rising. Clarity seizes him. “You come with me now,” he says, jerking his head in the direction of the fields.
“Run away with you? Are you mad? I couldn’t dream of it,” she says, but her face is bright.
She’s misunderstood him, but he sees his chance; he leans in and kisses her. It’s not what he was expecting; lighter, more feathery. “You’re my girl,” he says then in a deep voice.
“I barely know you,” she says.
She’s smiling so widely that he knows he’s won, and something sinks in his chest. “I won’t go without you,” he says.
“But my aunt, my—Where are you going?”
He hesitates. “Who knows?”
“They’ll catch you. Won’t they?”
He manages a shrug. He gets to his feet, not letting go of her hand.
“Let me run upstairs and pack my trunk...”
The boy shakes his head, alarmed at the thought of having to carry such a thing. “No time, little monkey. Just your coat.”
Outside, panting from the hurry, she’s daunted by the icy fields. “Don’t you have anything for me to ride?”
“I’ll lift you over the puddles,” he offers.
The girl laughs. “I can jump them.”
And for a moment, as they set off across the meadow hand in hand like children, he lets himself believe that they are running away. That he is man enough to be a deserter. That there’s anywhere he could take this girl without being tracked down and sent back to Hopewell in chains and hanged in front of his company. That he could bring her all the way home with him to taste his mother’s borscht.
But all the while he knows how it’s going to be. He will lead her into the barracks that must be already filling up with other girls, girls with torn sleeves and bloody noses and scalps, reb girls and loyal, girls whose eyes will tell this girl all she needs to know. When the captain claps and orders Half-Bosch to fire away, this girl will start to scream, and the boy will reach down with frozen fingers and undo his buttons one by one.
Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (2006) documents the moment in 1776 when British and German troops in New Jersey and Staten Island started systematically attacking the female population. A cavalry commander named Lord Rawdon quipped, “The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation, a girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished.” Sixteen girls from Hopewell were held for days on end in a garrison; the rest is my invention.