OBJECT: Dead Body
BODY OF WATER: Little Neck Bay
Her home lacks clocks.
But the woman knows what time it is, at least to the half-hour; she tracks its passage via programs on the living-room TV, her family’s focus, its jabbering blue hearth. And when Geraldo appears and her baby hasn’t, she knows that something is amiss, that He been beat up after school. Or maybe one a them Dominicans in they big cars, like a old Lincoln or something? With the windows open and they music turn all the way up, down from Washington Heights? Maybe they runned over my baby in the street like he nothing, the woman thinks, like he a animal.
The News 4 New York theme plays, the phone jangles in her kitchen, and when the woman lifts the receiver the little boy is somewhere crying and another voice wants half a million dollars in ransom money.
The kidnappers are, indeed, Dominicans. They are rivals of the child’s brother, a neighborhood entrepreneur who sells $50,000 worth of crack cocaine each week. (It’s the Nineties.) He has been arrested repeatedly, though convicted but twice: of drug possession in April five years ago and weapons possession the following November.
But it’s like yo, he ain’t got the money, a’ight? Know what he’s saying?
Spewing Spanglish and bile, the boy’s captors say to look for a coffee cup in the men’s room of the Mickey Dee’s on 125th, and on a December afternoon, brumal and bitterly cold, the dealer locates the cup atop a sweating urinal past the swinging sign there (MEN), past the How may I help you?s and Happy Meals. He peels the membraneous plastic lid from the foam container and sees an unlabeled audio cassette, a Maxell XL II 100-minute tape. Also what appears at first to be a broken stick of blackboard chalk, gray. It is a finger from his brother’s hand.
Outside the restaurant, the sticky steering wheel of his Nissan in a bear hug, the dealer plays the tape, punches the REWIND button, plays it again. The car’s windows remain obfuscated by his own humective breath, even though he has forced the lever that protrudes from the dashboard all the way across its slot to DEFROST.
They cutted my finger off, the child whimpers in stereo from his brother’s Canal Street-purchased loudspeakers. Please help me. Get the money. I love you, Mommie.
Three days later, on a steep sidestreet in upper Manhattan, a woman hands a folded sheet of pink paper to a girl in goldplated ram’s-head earrings and a goosedown coat. It is a flyer trumpeting Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, a handwritten message scrawled in blue ballpoint ink below its Chicago-typefaced announcement. The woman instructs the girl in goosedown to deliver it to her aunt, who lives in the neighborhood. The note reads,
Your boy “N” pain, he need a Dr.
Send money (the 1/2 Million $s) NOW!!
The dealer is last seen just after New Year’s, parking by payphones, huddled in doorways, gesturing. He is calling in debts.
The time: 1643. The place? A forest clearing in the Dutch New World, on the mainland northeast of Manhattan Island.
The Siwanoy Indians live along the nearby shore in summer, the water there bounteous and generally clement; they move inland for protection from the winds off Long Island Sound when the weather cools. Siwanoy homes provide ample shelter from all but the harshest of winter storms, wigwams and longhouses constructed of hickory saplings driven into the ground, their tops bound together to form a frame then covered with chestnut bark and insulated with cornstalks.
The fields of the tribe, cleared by strangling trees with dead vines, are tilled by women, the very young, and old men with hoes of stone or shell bound to wooden handles; in soil fertilized with fish carcasses, they raise corn, beans, and squash, also tobacco. Siwanoy men, who with hot stones singe off all the hair on their heads save a black brush, a kingfisher’s crest that terminates in a drooping forelock, fish and hunt and build the castle of palisaded logs contrived to protect their settlement from Iroquois attack. Blessed by plenty, the tribe is a peaceful one, but in these times of invasion from the north, defense is obligatory.
It has been nine years since Anne Hutchinson, second cousin of the poet John Dryden (I am as free as Nature first made man,/Ere the base laws of servitude began,/When wild in woods the noble savage ran), sailed from England to the town of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Though admired at first by the Puritans for the acuity of her thinking, soon Hutchinson was convoking extracurricular meetings of her parish’s goodwives and espousing theological positions deemed revolutionary. A former Governor of the Colony called Hutchinson a blasphemer. An ecclesiastical synod condemned her opinions. Hutchinson and her adherents were banished from Massachusetts Bay, for life.
They fled to Rhode Island (founded by fellow-outcast Roger Williams), but in an extraordinary measure, the Puritans threatened then to extend their control over the neighboring colony. So Hutchinson and her sixteen followers moved on, moved west — into New Netherland, where in 1642 they settled a fertile riverbed tract granted to that colony by the Siwanoy Indians two years earlier. The Dutch called this area Vredeland, Hutchinson learned, meaning Land of Peace.
The following February, New Amsterdam Director General Willem Kieft dispatched his soldiers across the North River one night to slaughter eighty Indian men, women, and children in their sleep, displaying the heads of many atop poles at the foot of Broad Way the next day. One captive was castrated, skinned alive, and forced to eat his own flesh as Kieft looked on, laughing. The action was ostensibly in response to the murder in ’41 of a Dutch wheelwright by a local tribesman, who in turn was acting to avenge the death of his uncle at the hands of whites sixteen years before.
Area Indians retaliated with raids on European homes throughout southern New Netherland, sparing only a handful of the forty-odd bouweries in the vicinity of the region’s capital. Houses were torched, livestock was slaughtered. Settlers were slaughtered.
And still a decommissioned British army officer, Captain James Sands, begins construction on a Vredeland house for Hutchinson, his great aunt-by-marriage. Shoulders soaking with perspiration, the Captain labors at his saw-goat; no longer in combat trim, he gasps and wheezes with the effort.
Five Siwanoy Indians stalk from the woods in deerskin loincloths, their greased coxcombs like the reflection of night in still water, their tawny skin glinting with bearfat bug repellant. Wordlessly, they hoist Captain Sands’s tools — his polless broadaxe; his draft shave and bowl gouge, his carpenter’s adze; the Captain’s wide-eyed rabbet and his twibil; his burl hammer and stock knife — to their shoulders. They file mutely toward the trees at the southern edge of the clearing, backwards-glancing as they go.
The Siwanoy reprise their performance from the beginning, dumbshow and threat at the same time, then lay down the foreign implements and retreat. The next day Captain Sands flees his Aunt Anne’s settlement forever. The others, however, remain.
And late in August, the Vredeland settlement is eradicated in a midnight tempest of fire and flesh. Afterward, no trace remains of Hutchinson, six members of her family including a son and a son-in-law, and their two servants. No trace remains of eighteen neighbors. No trace but their smoldering homes, their burned barns — and Hutchinson’s eight-year-old granddaughter Susannah, borne by the Siwanoy to their seaside summer encampment.
As custom dictates, the Siwanoy sachem Wampage takes the name of his enemy’s vanquished chief, at least to the extent that he can pronounce it; henceforth he will be called, variously, Ann Hutch, Ann Hoeck, Ann Hook and Anhook, with the spit of land his clan inhabits going by the name Ann Hook’s Neck. Wampage is an appropriator. The short, ectomorphic man also wears a belt of bearclaws and a ragged neck-frill once belonging to a local burger, as talismans.
By the terms of a later treaty with the Dutch, Susannah is “restored” to those of her race in a ceremony at the New Amsterdam fortress four years after the raid, the proceedings conducted by a bald and breastplated man standing on one leg and one dowl of South American mahogany banded with silver: the colony’s new Director General, Peter Stuyvesant. Attired in a buckskin dress, the girl is barefoot and filthy, and her waist-length sunbleached hair is a matted, flaxen tangle; yowling, flailing, she resists her return to Civilization with all her strength. Stuyvesant shrugs his sloping shoulders, pivots on his pegleg, and hobbles from the Indian delegation without a word.
Bidding a final farewell to the town’s windmills and Dutch-gabled houses and New Amsterdam’s lone church spire, the girl embarks among a flotilla of birch canoes for the return trip to the mainland, where she’ll live and die a Siwanoy. In fact, Wampage — Anhook — has already taken Susannah Hutchinson as his wife, though she is only twelve years old. She will bear him nine children.
Fin de siecle: The residents of City Island cast their ballots in a referendum on the future of their home south of Ann Hook’s Neck. By nine votes, they elect to secede from the village of Pelham Manor and merge with the borough of the Bronx in New York City — an unnecessary step, it turns out, since all territory south of the middle of the channel between Hunter’s and Locust Island soon will be annexed by the City anyway.
Vacation mansions once owned by Iselins, De Lanceys, and Roosevelts will be razed to clear land for a park by the Sound, planned as the largest on City property. Nature is cherished in these last years of the nineteenth century. A word, conservationist, is even coined to denote those who value natural resources, and it is affixed to the big-game hunter who will be President of the United States soon, the very man whose Walloon forebears settled Harlem and summered here on the Pelham Manor shore.
And so the Anthropologist — another term newly-minted, to describe practitioners of another new discipline — inquires of his friend the Commodore, Can you bring one of these Esqimaux you tell of back from the Arctic to be interviewed, examined and measured? Back to the Museum at Manhattan Square — in the name of Science? Generous almost to a fault in matters such as this, the Commodore returns to the City in October of 1897 with not one but six Esquimaux: three men, two women, and a young boy. Before being transported uptown to the Museum via omnibus, they are “exhibited” to paying customers aboard the Commodore’s ship, the Hope, moored alongside a pier in the North River, and the New York Times reports that
The unfortunate little savages have caught cold or warmth, they do not know which, but assuming it was the latter, their sole endeavor yesterday was to keep cool. Their efforts in this direction were a source of amusement to several scores of visitors.
By February, the savage known as Qisuk has succumbed to tuberculosis in a ward at Bellevue. The others, coughing blood, are transferred by the Museum to an upstate farm to convalesce, but three more expire soon, and the last surviving adult, Uisaakassak, is repatriated to Greenland via boat. Qisuk’s six-year-old son Minik, however, remains behind, as alone now as an albatross migrating or a polar bear adrift on a solitary iceberg, its coat matted and yellow.
He is “given” to the Superintendant in charge of construction on the Museum’s burly new south wing — the man who, unknown to Minik, processed and bleached the bones of his father and the others in a Westchester macerating plant before returning them to the Museum for study. For display. For taking kickbacks from contractors, the Museum soon dismisses the Superintendant from his post. He retains custody of the boy.
The Superintendant and his wife raise Minik alongside their own son in an apartment on West Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. The boy was born among hunters and fishermen, active pursuers of life’s necessities, but in his new home, everything is delivered, brought to the family’s very doorstep by the coal truck, the milk man. The ice man.
Minik attends school and Sunday school nearby, where he is known as Mene Peary Wallace, and presently the boy announces his desire to attend college someday as well. His adoptive father approves, suggesting part-time work to raise the necessary funds.
And so each afternoon when school is done, Minik boards a trolley, migrating miles to his job at the Pelham Country Club. There he is known as Chink-of-the-Links, or just Chink.
– Chink, my boy, be so good as to handle my clubs today, won’t you? There’s a handsome tip in it for you.
– Look alive, Chink!
– Poor Chink-of-the-Links, covered with brambles and no ball to show for it. Shame, isn’t it?
Recently introduced to Westchester and thus to America by the Scotsman Alastair Reid, the game of golf is wildly popular, and the prodigious courses required for playing it are metastasizing, multiplying throughout the area like a land-borne virus, an epidemic of groomed grass.
The land is changing. Daily, Minik/Mene/Chink-of-the-Links traverses acres of what were Northeast climax woods, lately transformed to ape the hillscape of the Scottish highlands — an idealized, abstracted geography, and a foreign one at that. Sometimes, toting a rattling oblong bag across the greens’ clean carpet, he hears voices rising towards him from beneath the turf, voices no one else apprehends. The language these voices speak is unfamiliar to him — Greek to me, Minik thinks (the Superintendant’s phrase), though in fact it is Algonkin.
The walrus-whiskered President — the Progressive, the Conservationist — presents the Commodore with a gold medal for his achievements to date. Minik visits the Museum on his day off. Wandering down a looming gantlet of totem poles into the Hall of North American Indians, he stops to examine the mounted contents, shellacked and pinned, of a wood-and-glass case. It takes him only moments to realize he is looking at the bones of his father.
A New York World feature called “Give Me My Father’s Body” describes Minik’s fight to possess Qisuk’s remains, and for the next two years, articles are published around the country — around the world — describing Minik’s plight as well as the Museum’s bored boilerplate refutation of his charges. It is the Golden Age of Muckraking, after all. Called by one paper the first Eskimo to go to college in any country, Minik enters Manhattan College to study civil engineering. Estranged from the Superintendant and his wife, he lives in a roominghouse and pays his first semester tuition with money earned in Pelham Manor, on the murmuring links.
Shortly thereafter, Minik retains a press agent, who calls his client suicidal, then reports his disappearance. The Press Agent threatens the Commodore with the following statement released to the papers:
Mene is as you know somewhat of an Indian, so he can hate, and I do not think he has too much love for Commodore Peary. Bearing that in mind I am not so sure but that he has some scheme in mind to try and defeat Peary in his hunt for the North Pole.
Commodore Peary reaches the Pole, the first white man to do so, and becomes the most famous human of any color on the planet. Fearful that the Commodore’s affair with a married Eskimo woman who has borne him two children will somehow come to light in the ensuing media maelstrom, Peary’s wife offers Minik a one-way trip to Greenland aboard the ship of another explorer, in exchange for the boy’s promise never to return. Before boarding ship, the son of Qisuk calls a press conference.
You’re a race of scientific criminals, Minik reads from a prepared text, the North River slapping at pier pilings behind him.
What’s that, boy? a reporter for the Herald-Tribune calls out over the waterfront bustle: the tramp of stevedores’ boots against damp wood, the hoot of tugboats. The yelping of gulls disputing scraps of trash.
Minik raises his voice. I said you’re criminals! He inhales deeply and returns to his notes, typewritten in brown ink on the custom-printed stationery bearing the Press Agent’s Park Row address. I know I’ll never get my father’s bones out of the American Museum of Natural History. I am glad enough to get away before they grab my brains and stuff them into a jar.
Arriving in the Greenland village of Qunaaq just as the Commodore is returning to Civilization, Minik learns eventually, as he has learned English and mathematics and the principles of elementary engineering, to hunt and fish and to speak the language of his people. Summers, he works as a guide. In the wake of the Commodore’s triumph, polar expeditions have grown popular.
D.W. Griffith is making motion pictures on City Island, awarded a bridge to the mainland upon its annexation by New York. Due north in the Sound, Locust Island Amusement Park is inundated each weekend with visitors who make the pilgrimage by steamer from as far as New Jersey. The park actually comprises five separate islets, each emulating a different foreign country, a different world culture: German Beer Garden, Castle in Spain, etc., etc. Popular interest in such things, in exotica, is keen these days. The islands have been joined together, concatenated, by landfill — that is, for the most part, garbage.
All the way from Greenland, Minik visits friends in New York City. Minik repeats his charges against the Museum in another press conference — this one sparsely attended, as Minik’s story is old news. He rides a train from the great new Terminal in the City, its vaulted ceiling a riot of painted constellations, to Pelham Manor one night in springtime and walks the Country Club golf course in the dark, listening. This time he hears nothing.
Minik’s life ends neither here nor there, so to speak, but in New Hampshire, south of Lake Winnepasukee, where, employed as a lumberjack, he sleeps in a shack he has built of woodscraps salvaged from a sawmill. Shortly before the Armistice that will end the Great War in Europe, Minik contracts the influenza virus during a worldwide pandemic of the disease. He dies, aged 28, to be buried not in his native Arctic but in the Granite State, beneath a small gravestone of that material.
The parkland has lain within the City limits for a hundred years now, since its annexation from Pelham Manor in the 1890s, but along its shore in summertime, hard by lapping Long Island Sound, you can still see bayberry, violet ironweed, yellow goldenrod. Further inland, black locust trees flourish alongside white oaks, white poplars, white pines. Indian grass is everywhere.
Recently, Park rangers have happened upon evidence of a variety of religious ceremonies in these East Bronx woods, including still-burning candles, and of animal sacrifices: chicken carcasses, and once, a freshly-slaughtered German shepherd. The West Harlem drug dealer’s corpse is found near the beach north of the NYPD firing range at Ann Hook’s Neck, on a thawing patch of ground beneath the now-bare and indifferent Park trees. The dealer has been shot several times in the head and chest, and wadded in the right front pocket of his capacious Hilfiger jeans is $2,239 in small bills.
An account of the case in the news includes the following:
There are a number of possible reasons why Pelham Bay Park has become such a popular area for disposing of human and animal remains. Sergeant Larkin said that the most important are isolation and location, near the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Bruckner Expressway and the New England Thruway….
But Officer Kozlow suggested a second theory: the place is haunted.
Three weeks later, a homeless man canvassing a cracked-asphalt bike path for aluminum cans to redeem discovers a Hefty trash bag scintillant with drops of snow-melt unevaporated by the sunshine of a January thaw.* Cars fly past him in gossiping clumps, and the wind off the Hutchinson Parkway is brisk. When the man pulls open the bag to peer inside, he falls backward as if struck, thinking — saying — Mary mother of Jesus.
With weatherblistered hands he folds back the black sack’s black lip to reveal the body of a boy, showing some evidence of decay but remarkably well-preserved by the long cold spell, knees against the front of his white shirt.
The homeless man can’t take his eyes off the child’s sneakers. They are boots, almost, and awesomely clean, refulgent as rural snow in the daylight of this New York City winter. So it is a moment before the man realizes that the otherwise-intact body is lacking one of the fingers on its right hand.
(Thanks to Donatella Lorch, Ian Fisher, and Michael T. Kaufman of The New York Times.)
Adam Reid Sexton's features, reviews, essays, and fiction have been published in the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Boston Phoenix, the Philadelphia City Paper, the Mississippi Review, the Bellevue Literary Review, and other publications, as well as on various websites. He also is the author, editor, or adapter of more than ten published books on subjects ranging from tennis to Madonna, which have been translated into Japanese, Indonesian, and Farsi. With a team of visual artists he adapted four of Shakespeare’s tragedies as manga (Japanese-style graphic novels), and his anthology Rap on Rap was acquired by Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research. He has been interviewed about teaching, writing, and literature by the New York Times, Time, the Washington Post, Poets & Writers, and npr.com. He teaches at Yale.