I lay beside Quill in the silent darkness of his room. The commune is in chaos, with so many packing to leave with Eldress Jane. No one will miss me, and I no longer care if they do.
Eldress Jane's announcement diminished Benjamin's role in the commune; the people abide his rule, but he is young and less commanding a figure than she. If Eldress Jane doubts his leadership, it won't be long before others share that doubt.
"Maybe we should go with them," I whisper, dancing my fingers over Quill's chest. "Everyone else seems to be."
His voice rumbles beneath my ear. "If I leave, who will look after the ones who stay?"
I shift onto my side to lean over him. "Does it matter?"
"Doesn't it matter to you?" He is shocked, I think, by my callousness. "If I go, innocent people will die."
"Innocent? Like Benjamin?" I demand.
Quill sits up and pushes himself back to lean on the plain headboard. "Benjamin can't protect the people who stay behind. Now, them that go out on the road, that's their chance to take. I hope they know the risk. If they don't, they'll learn."
"You think they'll die on the road." It isn't a question.
"If they stay here, they've got buildings, strong, brick buildings we can easily fortify. There's clean water in the cistern, and stores of food. They're not going to have that on the road."
"But when they reach town–"
"Do you think Bannock has faired much better? Have you ever been there?"
I think of the shuttered post office, the scattering of farms I'd seen from the stage coach.
"Whatever's happening here is happening there, too. Do you think anyone will take them in?"
"If you're certain they're doomed, why haven't you said so?"
He scoffs. "They wouldn't listen to me. Most of them don't even see me."
I almost argue that it isn't true; any of the recent horrors that have taken place have been resolved by Quill's intervention. Then my memories pitch, and from a new perspective I see what he has known all along. The hired men are hardly acknowledged beyond the strict warnings that women stay away from them. Quill is practically invisible to the commune.
"Those people are going to die out there, Evie," he warns. "Don't be so eager to follow them into death."
* * * *
The next morning, Eldress Jane's refugees assemble at the meeting house. Quill and Pete hitched the wagons for them at first light; Benjamin has magnanimously agreed that the defectors may take two. They loaded one with supplies–far fewer than they'll need–and the other will carry the elderly and infirm, none of whom are fit to make a dangerous journey. I watch them and remember what Quill told me last night.
The second wagon might as well be a hearse.
I spy Sister Anne, dressed in black and grim-faced, emerging from the Dwelling House. I hurry across the dew-wet grass to reach her.
"Evelyn," she greets me. Any trace of warmth she's ever displayed toward me is gone, now. Her purpose hardens her, and I realize that she knows what Quill already believes. "Art thou joining us?"
"You can't let them do this," I say, wringing my skirt in my hands.
Sister Anne's thin chest lifts, as does her chin. "Benjamin may have forgotten the true purpose of our family, but Eldress Jane has not. Neither can I."
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...