blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



From the Letters of Mrs. Henrietta Shuck

These poems are inspired by Memoir of Mrs. Henrietta Shuck, The First American Female Missionary to China by J. B. Jeter, published 1846. Henrietta Shuck lived in Macao from 1836-1844 with her family. She died of complications following the birth of her fifth child, at Hong Kong, November 27, 1844, aged twenty-seven years.


May 12, 1835 Kilmarnock, Virginia
Dear S—
I live in the shadow of your wings. I tell no one. Unseemly I think it to love another so strong, even before Father and Mother. Love! The calling is great and yet—I go about my work with my mouth tucked tight so as not to burst open. What will you have me do? A war unfolds inside my hands. They hold the needle and knead the bread but are sore to write, sore to stroke your weary brow, sure to give me away. Mother looks closer. I scribble my ink and pretend to remember the wash drying out back. Time to fold. An iron heated and heavy smoothes most anything.

Your H—


June 3, 1835 Kilmarnock, Virginia
Dear S—

Are you still there? How do I convince dear Charlotte that it is time her soul awakes! Flies! Departs for the shining air where my own sighs with bliss. Someone is coming to take me away, I can feel it! What will you have me do? I have ribbons that I shredded for you, a dress I leave plain so as to better concentrate on the joy. Charlotte thinks me strange. She says a sister should be in league and not skulking about on my hands and knees. I will be more careful. I will get her to confide all her sins to me and then reveal the Great Forgiveness. She will sob with relief. Do you see me? Can you hear the silent words throbbing in my brain? A fever, I live inside a fever now, but it is a heat most purifying.

Your Henny


August 22, 1835 Kilmarnock, Virginia
Dear S—

Could not get the stains out. The Reverend Lewis Shuck has chosen me thus. This dress too shabby, but a dose of shame will do me good. China! I think you mean to kill me with joy. Mrs. Shuck, alas! I will keep aside the part of me that is yours and you will get me whole in the end. Earthly duties are always interfering. Father chides me for my handwriting (too unruly) and my disorganized thoughts (spattered across the page). (Also, he says, too much inclined to be poetic). I have tried to remember the flesh and the spirit may be friends. Will the Reverend touch me? I cannot talk to Mother or Charlotte anymore. I wish you would speak or stir a little. I would see a glimpse of you.



October 12, 1835 the Atlantic
Dear S—

A sea voyage is cloaked in misery for me. The fanged wave and the snarling bow fight and thrash at all hours. Dragonbreath dragoons! says the captain. I agree tho’ I am not certain Lewis would approve. I have tried to study Chinese but my head swims and my stomach turns and turns and indeed I hardly know what. Lewis is kind! He brings me tea. He is gentle at night and explains everything. And yet where are you when the seas swell and roughen and the ship tilts? My soul is a lantern. Other souls might glow tho’ not as bright for you as I! More pride but I cannot restrain my pen. It writes what it likes to read.

Most ever your—



February 5, 1836 Kedgeree, India
Dear S—

You are huge, stretching all the way across the continents and seas to find me here. Deckside the air is fresh for the first time in weeks. Your sweet breath the breeze touching the shore, my arms, my skin. A son is coming. I speak to you like this because you rob me of reason. This cabin is too tight, my seams burst. I call out. Lewis brings me oranges.

But I remain your,



May 19, 1841 Macao
Where is the rain? Those tiny feet? Little upstart precious downpour—baby sleeping at last. When I close my eyes lately I see only those black-strawed strokes Lewis scratches at night under lamplight. He is translating the Word into Chinese. Sometimes I think I can feel the brush moving across my back, spelling out heaven—do you think it strange? Baby flexes her fist. I am crawling over rocks and water to find you. There is so much work in the way, this heavy quilt, the sweeping left undone— please forgive my lazy love but this body never obeys the minister. Do you think you can you still love

Your Henri?


June 26, 1842 Macao
Dear S—

Last night an English gentleman came to call. It was delightful and then he told me he thought me a fanatic. Vile sinner. In all this earnest endeavor have I ever questioned you? I know you see me at night when I walk the narrow corridor. I am careful not to step on any of the open mouths. I pay attention. They speak in voices increasing strange but I understand—you mean for me to translate your goodness for all the heathen to heed. I know their tongue enough. I teach myself to pray in it. Now, if I feel a pain, I keep it to myself.

Your dearest,


August 7, 1844 Macao
Dear S—

The Bible flipped open anywhere each time says the same thing: the kingdom of heaven is children in a long line waiting to be fed, wiped, carried out of tears. This is another baby, oh another. Here, the devil dwells and often assaults me. I feel my mission failing. My limbs weaken, my resolve to be strong—the children swim about in tubs of water spilling over in the hot weather, their shrieks—let Lewis admonish—I bow to you in secret, beg. May the rain fall in syllables. May it slip through. May you take note of all our efforts—oh the children those plump things (going yellow in this climate like ugly chicks in the dirt yard). This vast land is gulping at my breast. Have enlisted for life, not to return. Ever.



October 26, 1844 Hong Kong
Dear S—

You have been so quiet. I keep trying to pray but then I remember you are probably busy. Sometimes I think you must be amused by heartache. Why would you favor me? Why let the heathen child die and not mine? Are miracles impossible then? Her head was crawling, her mother wouldn’t look. How come my four, their chubby smiles? If it didn't ache so. It is hard to write when I feel so ill. Sometimes I cry out in the dark but you never only Lewis comes.

Your loyal servant,
Henrietta Shuck


November 27, 1844 Hong Kong
Dear S—

Tired today. Just the new baby. Just me. The lamp chimney blackened so the light looks hungry. I sway with hunger but it is too much to close my mouth around bread. The work gets in the way. Ah Loo’s pineapple pie. I pummel my brain to remember: the yellow sky heaped, long afternoons echoing with sounds: kong meaning to speak, tallo where? A scuffle of prayers in the hallway.

I am faint. I am kindly. Cut with reason. The salt and the lemon and the tea in the cup drained away. Who will tie me down when the wind rises and the night air touches my forehead? My hair frays into hundreds of small, flimsy ropes then little fists unfolding against the light, flexing their cries. Squirming. A mess of work left. All my efforts swallowed.

The very small sound babies make. They look up. The same sound when I put my ear to the pillow. A coverlet of sea-finned waves rushes to. You are beckoning something awful for me to come out. May I? Shutters pried open and light enters and I am bathed with great care.

Dusk falling, the air hot about my temples. Wherein the bells. My head full of kindred beauties. A tongue of fire touching the glass. This and this will break—I reach—you stop me. I see you rumpled on the bed. Souls little wicks—the children, the Chinese. Mother. Me a flame to them. Oh. Lewis at last. Long arms muffle my breath. My heart is being ladled out. I taste it now.  

return to top