I'm wearing the boots I wore to my father's funeral.
"Sit up straight, Evie," mother jabs me with her sharp elbow. Everything about her is sharp. Her cheekbones, the shoulders of her severe black mourning gown, the tips of her gloved fingers like satin knives. I think I remember a time she was kind to me, but it was long ago.
"There's no one out here to see," I mutter under my breath, and deepen my slouch as much as my stays will allow. I look down the road, a stripe of wet brown earth through the waving green grass. In the distance, a mountain stands sentinel, its top resembling a swayback mare. I don’t know the direction the wagon will come from, nor the way it will carry me off to my new life.
"Don't be such a child, Evie." Mother sighs her long-suffering sigh and folds her hands. Beneath the black silk on her left hand, she wears a simple gold band. Though I cannot see it, I know it is there; I feel its weight upon my heart.
"You've done this to yourself," she repeats, an endless litany I’ve grown tired of hearing since we departed from Boston. On the train, then the stagecoach, I’ve heard those damning words. Now, on this hard wooden bench, outside this shuttered post office, I hear them again. I hate them, for although I know they aren’t true, a part of me suspects they might be.
A dark stain glimmers on the horizon. It's the wagon, and it won't reach us for some time, but mother declares breathlessly, "Finally, it's here."
She’s eager to be rid of me. Like the evidence of a crime, she wishes to wipe me from memory, so that she can live without guilt. My daily presence would be a reminder of her loveless marriage to my father, and a condemnation of how quickly she wed his brother. My father wasn’t in the ground a full month before she remarried, and I wasn’t in the house a full day after that.
Perhaps I remind her too much of my father in looks. Mother prides herself on her sleek golden hair and porcelain complexion. She often remarks on my "Italian" appearance; my ecru-tinted skin and black eyes offend her, though she must have found them handsome on my father when they first met.
I don’t know what caused them to fall out. It no longer matters.
That last exclamation–"Finally, it's here,"– is all my mother has left to say. Now that she has seen her salvation approaching on the road, she’s finished with me. In front of this worn building with its peeling paint, on the side of the road in Bannock, New York, my mother will surrender me to the Shakers.
When the wagon arrives, mother and I are both surprised to see a woman driving it. She wears dour black from the heels of her sensible boots to the point of the long, stiff bib of her collar. Her hair is dull brown, her ungloved hands calloused. The only brightness about her is her starched white bonnet.
"Art thou Evelyn Whitney?" Every line on the woman's face is a well of scorn.
"This is Evie." Mother is already on her feet, her chin thrust upward to compete with the righteousness in the wagon-woman's tone.
"I am Sister Anne Barker. Thou may address me as Sister Anne. There is no impertinence in using familiar names among the family." Her cold blue eyes fall on my mother. "I haven't got all day. Load her things into the wagon."
My mother's already ramrod posture straightens further. It's a wonder she can breathe, drawn up as tall as she is. But Sister Anne's fearsome gaze does not waver, and I watch in open-mouthed shock as my mother, who has never lifted anything heavier than a lace fan, clumsily bends and takes my case by the handle. She is all graceless angles as she pulls it down the two wooden steps from the post office porch, like a starving cat dragging a particularly heavy rat across the floor. And I stand, too surprised to laugh at her, and watch with a mixture of horror and elation to see my mother so humiliated.
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...