Little Fanny was three months old when she died in 1861. When I was six in 1965, I discovered her grave in a falling-down cemetery in Durham, NH. She continues to haunt and amuse me to this day. Let me explain.
Fanny was born to Charles and Victoria Woodman, who are also buried in that same graveyard. Judging by the size of the size of the funereal phallus over Charles’ grave, the family was wealthy—and Charles was compensating for some part of his life with that granite obelisk pointing rigid toward the sky. Their family burying ground was surrounded by cast-iron rails barely held in place by eight granite hitching posts, and sat past the end of Woodman Avenue.
I discovered Fanny—or her grave at least—when I was exploring the territory near our new house on a new road—Beards Landing. To my seven-year-old mind, Fanny’s death 104 years before, placed her during the precolonial phase of Durham. After all, before television was “a long time ago,” so before electricity was one nugget of time, encompassing an ice age, the age of Indians, pre-revolutionary and revolutionary ages and the Civil War. After that, to a second grader, time became knowable, measurable. It became time instead of simply part of the olden days.
Over time, Little Fanny has appeared in my fiction in a bunch of ways, both implicit and explicit. If I’d never spent time turning Fanny’s death over and over in my head, I don’t think I’d be the man I am today. That an infant who died more than 150 years ago continues to have as much substance for me as many folks I’ve known in real life says something, although I’m not sure what.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
“Because James Beard was murdered,” said Jacob, in a soft, conspiratorial voice. “It was back in 1675 and he was a wealthy landowner. Down at the end of our street, where the Keesey’s house is, he had a fine wooden house. That’s exactly where his house stood. He lived there with his wife, Mary, a couple of servants, and the pride and joy of his life, his little nine-year-old girl, Fanny.”
Scott giggled at the word. Jacob ignored him, hypnotizing himself with the tale of long-ago evil. He felt closer to manhood than to snickering over fannies.
“One day in early November, he was coming home from hunting,” Jacob continued. “The sun was just starting to set and he wanted to be inside before dark on account of there had been rumors of Indian activity. James had killed a wolf on general principles but hadn’t seen a single deer. He walked down the strip of land that today bears his name and saw his house in flames. In those days, of course, there was no fire department. People just worried about getting as much of their stuff out of the building as they could before it collapsed. So James went running down the street, although it wasn’t a street then, of course. Maybe it wasn’t even a path. Still, he ran as fast as he could.
“When he got to his burning house,” Jacob continued, “though, he found an even worse surprise. Right down at the water’s edge was a war party of Indians, three of them still carrying the torches they had used to ignite James’ house. The Indians laughed when they saw James approach. He raised his musket to fire at them, but he saw they had Little Fanny. He didn’t want to risk shooting her.
“He searched the Indian band, looking for his wife, but she was nowhere to be seen. Then he looked up at the house. There was his lovely wife, face up in the dirt and naked from the waist down. Her wrists were tied together with a brown leather strap and it looked like gallons of blood was pouring out of her skull.
“Although people don’t talk about it much,” said Jacob, “in those days the Indians took a lot of white slaves, mainly young girls. Fearing Fanny was destined for slavery and surmising what the Indians had done to his wife, James wanted to do something. He wanted to hurt every single one of the 20 Indians now standing and laughing at him. He saw a group of them standing away from Fanny and decided to take aim.
“Before he could even raise his muzzle loader,” said Jacob, “an arrow got him through the heart. The Indian chief came over and cut off his head with a single tomahawk blow, just like Gary did with the catfish. In fact, ancestors of those crows we saw probably dined on James and Mary Beard’s remains that very afternoon. To add insult to injury, and probably as a warning to the other settlers, the Indians took James Beard’s head and literally posted it, sticking it on a post that was part of a primitive clothesline.”
“Wait a second,” said Scott. “I’m a little bit confused. If the mother and father were both killed, how do you know this story?”
“Fanny was taken north toward Montreal,” said Jacob. “She was freed when she was 14. She came back to tell her story and the story of her family. It’s one of a bunch of escaped slave narratives.”
“So, who told you about it?” asked Scott. “How did you find out?”
“I read the town history, dipshit!” said Jacob. “It’s all there.”
See, Little Fanny, birthed and deathed during the Civil War, became the victim of an Indian massacre and kidnapping almost 200 years before she didn’t even crawl the earth. It may be that Joyce Maynard, the novelist, essayist and Durham native, who lived, I believe, right up Woodman Avenue from the graveyard, visited Little Fanny for inspiration. Because I’ve always had a crush on Joyce, without having met her except when, I think, I was her paperboy, I’d be willing to share Little Fanny with her.
Or Little Fanny’s inspiration may be mine, all mine.