The following is from Brinda Charry's novel The East Indian. Charry came to the US from India as a graduate student in 1999 and has been living here since. She is a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist. A specialist in English Renaissance literature (Shakespeare and contemporaries), she has published a number of books and articles in that field. She currently lives in Keene, New Hampshire, with her husband and dog.
A witch was hanged from the yardarm of the ship on the fourth week of my voyage to America. Some days before, we had stopped at the isles called the Azores to load wood and fresh water and were well on our way to the New
World. They hanged the witch just before dusk. I was among those who gathered to watch as she was led up by two sailors, one on either side of her, her legs in chains although she could not have gone far even if she had tried to flee. Her name was Ann Brady. It was May, and the winds that filled our sails an-d blew the God’s Gift towards Virginia were still chilly, but the waters were quite tranquil.
Captain Coxe had conducted Mistress Brady’s trial and had been judge and all the jury. He had set up court on the deck with an eager crowd of sailors and Virginia voyagers pressing around him. Being among the youngest, Little Sammy Mason, Dick Hughes, and I were at the back of the crowd, straining to see and hear. The three of us were of the same age, or thereabouts—between ten and fifteen, with Sammy being the youngest, Dick being a bit older than I was. Sammy was a slight fellow, smaller even than me, and I was said to be small for my age. His eyes were the lightest I had seen, bluish gray, like the sky on a certain kind of day, his hair was a thatch of gold, and his face that of a girl. Sammy suffered from ulcers in his mouth through the journey. I recommended some of the medicinal powder I had filched from a London apothecary, but Sammy looked doubtful, and would sit with his mouth hanging open—just to air out the insides, he said, and Dick and I would keel over with laughter at how foolish he looked. We were boys and, in spite of our unfortunate lot, we could laugh at just about anything. Dick, for his part, was tall and gangly with brown hair and green eyes, his face sorely affiicted with spots—he was good at doing things the sailors asked him to do, things with ropes and such, and one of them said he should consider working on a ship. And then there was myself-the brown-skinned boy, the East Indian who went by the name of Tony.
“Where you hail from, lad?” the sailors asked me curiously. “Where your moor friend from?” they asked Sammy and Dick. “Tony is an Indian from East India, sir,” they explained.
The sailors always looked surprised at that. “East India is a long way off, even further than America,” one of them remarked.
It was dawn on that occasion. The ship, which never fully slept, was stirring to renewed life. The distant horizon silently bled red and pink.
“It is somewhere that-a-way, I think,” I said, pointing eastwards. “Somewhere there.”
Dick and Sammy squinted at the sky, trying to catch a glimpse of the land from where I had started.
“An East Indian . . .” the boatswain remarked, looking at me speculatively. “You are the first East Indian sailing to America, lad. Do not know of any who have gone before you.”
Not knowing whether to be proud at that or dismayed, I smiled uncertainly.
“What is Virginia like, sir?” Dick asked. He was not interested in talking about me.
“Wood and water,” the man replied. “Water and wood.”
And I imagined green forest and winding river, balanced on the outer edge of the world.
A man who had known Mistress Brady in England stepped up at the trial and told of how her presence had stopped the milk from creaming in the churn, how chickens had died after she visited a farmstead—first one or two and then by the dozens. The crowd sighed and murmured as if they had been there and seen it all with their own eyes—that unyielding cream, that souring milk, those dying fowl, that village.
I gathered that they were not trying her for ill deeds in England, but rather for the spells she had worked on the God’s Gift: one of the women on the ship had developed sores on her dugs—a slight chortle at that from us boys, quickly silenced by Captain Coxe. The sores had burst and yielded white pus that stank like rotten fish. The woman was now so sick that she was worn to the bone and could hardly walk. It was doubtless the doing of Mistress Brady, who had got into a quarrel with her, a petty dispute that had ended with Mistress Brady spitting and cursing.
The ailing woman was brought forward. She looked very ill indeed, with her weary, hollow face and gaunt frame. The sores had started on her breasts like small, ugly fruit, she claimed, a mere week after the quarrel. The captain had already had her examined by his wife, who had testified to the eruptions on her.
“And who else has had an encounter with the witch?” he asked. He had already judged her to be a witch, knew she was one.
There were also confused accounts of how a child had caused Mistress Brady offense, how he had perished after a bout of fever and vomiting, how his skin had turned a bright yellow, a sure sign of a witch’s malignance, how he had refused all food. There were several ill children on the ship. It was unclear to me which one they were describing.
“What have ye to say to this, mistress?” Captain Coxe asked, turning to her solemnly. She did not say a word, she did not raise her eyes. We waited.
It appeared that the captain had had enough. His hot grog awaited him in his cabin. It would be best to hang her and be done with it.
The God’s Gift was a small ship with just some hundred-odd souls in her, crew and migrants. There was a fair chance of meeting the other passengers at least once in the course of the crossing. Sometimes even the two gentlemen on the ship, Master Warburton and Master Marlow, stopped us boys for a chat as we scampered across the deck doing chores for the sailors. They were elegant young men with pointed beards, falling lace collars, and slashed sleeves, although they were not as wealthy as they looked, so some of the sailors told us, being merely second sons. They were out to make their fortune in the New World. They too were curious about me.
“From where do you hail, you little tawny ape?” Master Marlow asked.
“He is a gypsy, I warrant, just like that woman—the witch,” Master Warburton ventured.
“The kind they used to call Egyptians. One of those who roam the countryside telling fortunes and swindling the folk, and such.”
“No, sire,” I said hastily. “I am no gypsy.” And I explained, once again, that I was an Indian from East India.
Master Warburton then wistfully said he should have gone to East India instead of to Virginia, which was all swamp and sickness, from what he had heard. In India, he would have sailed to Soorat, met the mighty Moghol, and earned fat rubies just for paying his respects. I had no idea what he was talking about but feigned I did.
The witch and I had exchanged a few words one afternoon while on deck. The passengers were allowed to take the open air once every day or two in small groups, but no one wanted to be in Mistress Brady’s company, so she walked alone. I had been by myself too, looking over at the water, listening to the creak of the ropes, the groan of the wood, and the sound of the wind slapping against the sails. Mistress Brady had come to stand by my side. She had spoken first and asked me my name. I had told her that it was Tony.
Her gaze was unwavering. “What was it before that?” she had asked. “What did your mother call you, lad?”
But I would not tell her. I had lost that name somewhere on my earlier journey, the one that took me across two oceans to England. When she saw that a sullen silence was the only response she was going to get, she had not pressed me further. She had placed her hand beside where mine rested on the rail and I saw that it was nearly as dark as mine, the skin of it rough from labor. I had looked up at her countenance and seen that her eyes were a deep brown—also almost the color of my own. There were some streaks of gray on her dark head, but there was yet a look of youth about her. At that moment, a sailor had come up and roughly told her to shove off downstairs. She had thrust a piece of salted pork into my hand and ruffied my curls as if I were still a very small child, and then she was gone.
So, a witch was hanged four weeks into our voyage to Virginia. After it was over, they hauled the body down and flung it into the water. Captain Coxe trundled back to his cabin, and they shooed us down to the hold, which stank of stale food, sweat, and vomit, but which was at least rid of the witch’s envy and spite. We went on our way, breasting the gray—white waves, the ship moaning like a living beast, the winds pushing us briskly westwards.
It has been many years now since that crossing. But in my mind, she still stands there, forever looking out at the waters, forever asking me my name, forever failing to reach her journey’s end. And I, forever poised at the start of my own voyage.
It was the year of our Lord 1635, and I, Tony, the East Indian, was the first of my kind, so they say, to reach America.
Excerpted from The East Indian: A Novel by Brinda Charry. Excerpted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2023 by Brinda Charry.