June 1740, Northampton, Massachusetts.
This is an excerpt from a novel, SPIDER IN A TREE. Saul and Leah are enslaved in the household of eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards.
Saul and Leah started bundling. They didn’t do it openly, in the manner of some English families, with the visiting suitor and the daughter of the house sewn with only their heads free into cambric sleeping sacks by the young woman’s mother, indulgence and watchfulness tightening every stitch. Saul and Leah were not visitors, and they were not under the care and protection of their parents. No matter what was said about ethical slavery among the sentimental, an owner was neither mother nor father.
Leah and Saul practiced bundling alone and in secret.
One night when it was very late and the main house was dark, Leah climbed the ladder to Saul’s loft. Should they be caught, it might have been easier to explain why Saul was downstairs rather than why Leah was up, but she chose when to join him, so it was she who climbed. Also, she wanted that, wanted to feel her nightshirt brush against the wood as she used the strength in her arms to balance out her weak leg. She liked that she had to make a physical effort to bring herself to him. She knew that he understood the worth of that kind of work, even when it was only a woman with a stiff leg climbing a ladder. He saw the gift in it.
He didn’t hide the bundling board, but kept it in a stack with other wood against the wall in one corner of the loft. When he heard her coming, he lifted it from the stack and slid it into place on his mattress stuffed with straw. It was a clean board cut from one of the trees so big that by law they were to be saved for the use of the King of England, but the King was very far from the Hampshire County woods, and so pantries and back rooms of buildings up and down the valley were built from wide planks. The bundling board was wide but also thick, so that it would rest solidly on the mattress. Saul pulled the blanket over the board and lay still beside it for the time it took Leah to make her way over the top of the ladder. Bent beneath the low rafters, she eased under the blanket on the other side of the board.
Saul had his mattress lined up east to west so as not to sleep crossways with the world. They turned their faces to each other, the rough cut end of the bundling board just under their chins, smoothed and muffled by the blanket. She greeted him formally, saying his name. He greeted her, too. His hands were open on his own thighs, and his eyes gathered everything they could from the nearness of her face in the fingers of light from gaps between the slats of the wall.
Pressing against the board between them, they breathed together, lips not touching at first, but then the breath opened their mouths. The sound of breath passing from one to another was like a wind troubling the woods. Air blew out the edges of their lips and the corners of their mouths, and pulled back in again to keep the two of them caught and resting in the same lung-married, life-bound, board-edged rhythm until they dizzied and had to gulp separate air.
Leah had chosen this, first hinted and then flat-out asked for it not long after it became clear to her that, because of her knee, she had become slow to dance. She swam, still, with strength and pleasure, but stroking hard through a traveling river did not bring her any closer to touching Saul. Now, she pulled her arms inside her nightshirt, and, shielded by the linen, pressed her palms hard against the board. Her breasts pressed, too, against the backs of her hands. She had wanted the restraint (and so he had agreed to it), wanted this covert custom of the culture that was claiming her, wanted to be righteous and also to know her desire, wanted no children, ever, to be born in shame. She felt that there was virtue and protection in staying on the other side of the board.
Oh, she could smell him. She could eat his breath. She looked at him above the edge of the board, which he was against, too. She could make out the shape of his arm, the textures of his face. She kept breathing back at him, her breath in his throat, his in hers.
Her hands were in fists against the board. Their feet met beneath it. His toe found a hole in her stocking, small opening of skin on skin. There was a catch in her breath.
Like a board nailed behind the pulpit by a skillful builder, the one tilting between them on the mattress amplified everything so that each one’s breath and hushed voice echoed deep in the other. She wanted him wildly. He was desire, was love, was distance, so perilously close to grace. He forgot the distinction between wanting and getting, forgot everything except the dissipation of one more amplified breath.
They never crossed the board, but kissed and whispered until they felt approached by morning.