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January 30, 2023

Silence of the Damned

By B Shawn Clark

June 7, 1663
Niew Dorp
New Amsterdam

More than three-and-a-half centuries ago, there was a boy who came to live among the Esopus, a people who were relentlessly ravaged to the point of extinction by The Dutch East India Company, which had designs on the land then occupied by indigenous peoples such as the Esopus.

This boy was a Huguenot, a people who themselves were persecuted because of who they were and what they believed. They had become the victims of ethnic cleansing, driven out of their homeland inside France in a pogrom that was gathering steam in the middle part of the 17th century.

In their native homeland the Huguenots were obliged to keep their beliefs under wraps or risk being detected by those who wished to do violence to them (and their ideas). They prayed in hushed tones within the confines of secreted places where no one could hear them or see what they were doing. Only late at night would they dare to congregate by candlelight to quietly give voice to their hymns in a near whisper of chant-like melodies derived from the words in which they sought refuge found in the Book of Psalms.

The boy, his two younger brothers, and their mother went to live among the Esopus, not knowing what to expect.

There were fears that their faces would be painted or that they would be shorn of their hair (if not scalped) or maybe burned at the stake. As Huguenots they came to expect that sort of treatment from those people back in their home country who were presumably less savage than the Esopus.

These fears proved to be unfounded. Technically they were hostages in the eyes of the Dutch, but they were not treated that way by the Esopus, who welcomed them into their tribe if they chose to stay and live among them.

During his time among the Esopus, the boy learned many things about their ways. He learned to speak their language, literally and figuratively, in the manner children of tender years tend to be more susceptible, and amenable, to learning new things and new ways.

The Huguenot guests of the Esopus were expected to contribute to the community. Part of their contribution took the form of sharing with the tribe the songs that they had previously only been able to give voice to in hushed tones, hidden away, along with the other things of the heart and soul they had to offer to those around them.

Their words -- from the 137th Psalm -- sung in French, were delivered in a slow, plaintive chant, in the minor mode, as was the sacred music heard in French Protestant churches:

Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept:
When we remembered Zion
In the midst of the Willows we hung up our instruments
For there, those who led us into captivity
Required of us the words of our songs.
They carried us away and said to us:
Sing us a hymn of the songs of Zion.

But how could we sing songs of our God
In a strange land?
In a foreign land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand be forgotten
Let my tongue cleave to my jaws
If I do not remember thee
If I do not make Jerusalem
The beginning of my joy

October 7, 1731
New Paltz, NY

The boy who lived among the Esopus was returned to his own tribe where he soon took up where he had left off, continuing his education in the ways of the transplanted Huguenots, who now lived on the land taken away from the Esopus and given to him, his father, his brother, and nine other patentees in a place now called New Paltz, New York.

There the boy turned into a man, and lived out the rest of his days toiling on soil where the Esopus once did likewise, before being displaced by the boy and his kind. He came to rest along with the other Huguenots who believed so strongly that the path they had chosen to the new world was a righteous one.

How many times had that point been reinforced in the minds and spirits of the Huguenots as one after another became one with the purloined earth where they came to rest, each reciting that familiar Psalm for the one that went before, until there were no more Huguenots left standing to sing that song?

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul:
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
For thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou have prepared a table before me
In the presence of mine enemies.
Thou anoint my head with oil.

My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life, and
I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

July 22, 2019
Huguenot Street
New Paltz, NY

Nearly 300 years after the boy who lived among the Esopus had breathed his last, a man who was his ancestor came to the cemetery where what was left of the boy's skeletal remains lay buried under a weather-beaten stone, the oldest of those standing on the site.

A small group of pilgrims filed into the small church at the cemetery. They sought refuge from the blistering summer heat in the cool confines of the little chapel. The pilgrims sat in pews while the docent delivered a dissertation on Calvinism as practiced by the Huguenots.

The man seeking his ancestry was among them.

Later on, when those who had assembled in the chapel went back outside, the man stood with the other pilgrims in the cemetery. He cast about in what seemed to have become a hopeless task of finding the remains of his long-dead ancestor who had lived among the long-dead peoples known as the Esopus.

To him the names on the headstones were inscrutable.

"Is there someone in particular you are looking for?" asked the docent, who approached him, a searching look of his own on his face.

"I am looking for Abraham DuBois. I was told by the research assistant in the reference library that I could find him here. I guess I need a divining rod of some sort. I can't seem to make out the names on half the tombstones," he said, looking around in mock helplessness.

"Come with me," said the docent.

He was brought by the docent to a headstone jutting up from the ground at an angle, tilted to one side. The edges were well worn and, while there were lichens obscuring the text engraved into the 288-year-old stone, the markings clearly indicated that this was the site where, a few feet below ground, the bones of his ancestor could be found.

The night before he had wandered around the cemetery for nearly an hour, silently beseeching his ancestor to reveal himself.

His entreaties fell upon long-dead ears.

This despite how he had purposefully prepared himself for this very occasion a few months before coming to this place. He had been in attendance at the spiritualist camp in Cassadaga, Florida, during the regular Sunday afternoon open session. In the open session, mediums would call upon a person in the room who the adept could sense had a spirit beside them, tapping their shoulder, in a manner of speaking, with a message to deliver.

Afterward the man approached one of the mediums.

"I noticed that the spirits in attendance at these sorts of things always seem to be someone who just recently passed away. Do spirits who have been dead a very long time ever come to these types of meetings? I am planning a trip to a place where ancestors of mine have been dead for almost 300 years. Is there any chance I will be able to sense their presence or somehow hear their voices?"

The psychic regarded him for a brief moment before staring out into space in that way psychics do. "I had occasion not that long ago where I was visiting just that sort of place," the psychic said as if seeing the vision of himself getting off a plane and walking towards the place where the spirits he went to visit had been known to congregate. Then the psychic turned his gaze upon the man who had asked such a question.

"When you go there, make yourself receptive to the idea that there may be spirits there who will communicate to you. Maybe they will."

These words echoed in his mind as he stood in the New Paltz cemetery, trying his best to conjure up the spirit of his long-dead ancestor. He wanted to know what really happened, what it was like to live among the Esopus.

You were there, his mind called out. What happened to you? What happened when you were rescued, and you saw the children with whom you had been living for all that time laying face down on the side of the river?

He heard nothing in response, save for the songs of the birds in the trees and the rustling of the leaves in the wind.

He stood at the gravesite staring intently at the stone that bore the name of his ancestor. He knew that just beneath his feet, the bones of the boy who lived among the Esopus were there. He knew this within his mind but could not feel it in his own bones. The body of his ancestor had become one with the earth just as the bodies of the Esopus met the same fate on the side of the river on that day, centuries before, when his ancestor was recaptured and brought here to eventually die at New Paltz.

He did his best to be receptive to whatever his ancestor had to say, just like the psychic said. I must be on the wrong frequency or something, he thought to himself. There is nothing here but a cold slab of nothing.

"Do you hear it?"

The words came from a woman. He suddenly became aware that she was standing next to him. He heard her words but not those of which she spoke.

"Their whole reason for being, and for being here, was to exalt in the glory of their God. Now they lie here in stony silence, praying for someone to pray for them. Someone to pray for their lost souls."

These words drifted through him and lingered in the air long after she had turned on her heel and departed. He continued to stand there dumbfounded, staring at the stone, listening to the stony silence. He knelt down, lovingly brushing aside the lichens, digging out the sediment in the cracks of the inscription with a makeshift tool he had fashioned from nearby tree bark.

He could see nothing and could hear nothing more of what his ancestor had to say than the words engraved on the tombstone -- or did the song of the birds accompanied by the sound of the wind in the trees tell more about what the dead boy lying there had become, when he had become part Esopus?

He closed his eyes and listened ever more keenly to what surrounded him and his long-dead ancestor.

He could hear the sounds of the earth and could feel her all around him, whispering, just as she has whispered for thousands of years to all who cared to listen, both before the Esopus trod upon this land and long after they had been wiped off the face of the earth.

The irony in the plight of the Huguenot ghosts lying there in stony silence was no longer lost upon him. They had fled pogroms and persecution only to become the instruments by which the Esopus became extinct, their voices dispatched to the deepest, darkest recesses of the memories of their tormentors. Yet, unlike the ghosts still haunting the cemetery, the song of the Esopus still echoed among the sounds of the earth that could be so clearly heard above the silent din of their would-be conquerors.

Looking down upon the weathered and crumbling stones huddled on a small patch of land that the Esopus once called their own, he now understood that the message he hoped to receive by more direct means came instead through the conduit that were the words of the woman that had stood next to him.

The message was a plaintive cry, an entreaty for him to sing the praises of his long-dead ancestors.

He surprised himself that he could so easily recite the Lord's Prayer from memory after so many years, as he did so aloud for the benefit of the Huguenot ghosts. But they were not satisfied, and somehow he could sense that.

He turned his back on their graves and took his leave, unaware of the psalm they would have preferred him to recite, the one that came just after the old familiar one that had been sung over their dead bodies:

The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it,
The world, and its inhabitants, too.
Because God is the one who founded it upon the seas,
God set it firmly on the waters.

Who shall ascend the LORD's mountain?
Who shall stand in his holy sanctuary?

Only those with clean hands -- who are pure of heart.
Only those who have not made false promises.
Only those who have not sworn dishonestly.

That kind of person receives blessings from the LORD,
And righteousness from the God who saves.

That is how things are
With those generations that seek Him --
Those that seek the face

Of the God of Abraham

Image by Donna Kato

Article © B Shawn Clark. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-11-15
Image(s) © B Shawn Clark. All rights reserved.
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