Though Iris’s infirmity must be obvious to everyone, they choose to ignore it. Her return to the dwelling house is to them a return to normalcy. It seems only I can see the cracks, both in Iris and in the community itself.
Everyone is afraid. No one walks alone. The children no longer play outside freely, but are confined to the yard around their house. They are constantly watched by the sisters who care for them.
The sky is gray, so we don’t hang the washing out on the lines. Instead, we struggle with our baskets through the hot, crowded ironing room. Every stove is lit, and the additional bodies in the long, narrow space makes the heat unbearable. I dread winter, when we’ll have to hang the wash there every week.
Though Iris is with us in the laundry, nothing is expected from her. She sits beside one of the windows with her frighteningly serene smile, watching the occasional spatter of raindrops on the thick, whorled glass. My heart aches to see her that way; Iris wailing over the hired man’s body had still been Iris, this person is not. She’s some copy of Iris, badly made. I want to go to her, to shake her and remind her that Ross is dead, that she is alone, that all of her plans have been ruined, and she is now as stuck and afraid as all the rest of us are, just to see a change in her. Just to have some sign that she is aware of what’s happening around us.
I don’t try, because I’m afraid it won’t work.
When I return from hanging a basket of shirts, my arms and neck ache. I check on Iris as an excuse to take a break from my work, though I feel dreadfully guilty using her so. Of course, if Iris were herself at the moment, she would gladly aid me in shirking my chores for a spell.
I leave my basket where it won’t be underfoot and seek out the corner where she’d been sitting, but her chair is empty. I find no sign of her in the ironing room, so I go to the room where our linens and underthings are boiled in the vats. The moment I enter, I see her, standing atop one of the step stools beside the second huge cauldron, peering down into the noxious steam.
“Iris?” I ask as I draw closer.
Another sister looks up, and, clucking her tongue as though Iris is a willfully disobedient child, orders, “Get down from there, those aren’t ready to come out yet.”
But it’s my voice Iris responds to. She looks at me, and her vacant mask disappears, replaced by sadness and fear.
“He comes to me, Evie.” She rolls back her sleeves to the elbows and holds out her arms. Where healthy pink flesh once cloaked Iris’s slender limbs, now pale, putrid skin seems to hang from her bones. Every inch is mottled with raw, red wounds.
Bites. My feverish mind recalls the milk cows and the horse that killed Ross.
The other woman in the room runs, calling for help all the way. I stay in my place. My gaze flicks to the water boiling in the vat, and the moment I look back to her face, I know what Iris means to do. I know, too, that I cannot stop her.
But I must try.
I take my first step toward her, and she falls, displaced water sluicing over the sides of the vat to hiss and pop on the coals below. I move with speed I have never matched before and reach the top of the step stool in time to catch her boot. But the heated copper lip of the pot touches my wrist, and I let go.
I let go of Iris.
Unthinking, I reach in after her, but the moment my arms submerge, I pull them out, shrieking and tearing at my sleeves.
Something knocks me aside; I am dizzy and stunned, sprawled on my back on the dirt floor without experiencing the sensation of falling. I look up to see Quill there, with one of the long paddles we use to stir the vats and retrieve the clothes. He pulls it up with a grimace of exertion, then reaches into the water, his face contorting in pain as he hauls Iris’s steaming body from the cauldron.
“No, no, no!” The wail of denial comes from me, though I don’t feel it tearing from my throat.
Quill staggers down the steps, falling to his knees. He blocks my view, hunching his broad shoulders to shelter Iris’s limp form. One of her arms flops down. It’s as red as a boiled ham.
“Don’t look at her,” Quill orders, a note of panic in his voice.
I don’t have a chance to, anyhow. There are suddenly people all around us. Several hands help me to my feet. A few of the women fuss over my arms. There are shocked wails and urgent orders, but purposeful calm dominates the scene, as if to say there have been accidents before, and more to come. They take Iris from Quill, shouting directions to each other. As they trundle me off, my feet like lead, the pain of my burns only now waking, I look over my shoulder at Quill, kneeling on the ground, forgotten, his blistered hands stretching out helpless and empty.
YOU ARE READING
After her father’s death and her mother’s hasty remarriage, Evelyn Whitney is handed over to the Shaker commune of Bannock, New York, into a life she has little chance of escaping. When the dead become monsters and community loyalties fracture, Evel...