The stranger’s hand on my wrist and his dire warning bring every story of terror I can recall. I only realize that I’ve ceased blinking when it becomes painful. Finally, I stammer, “W-why? What’s wrong with the dark?”
“It’s full of mountain lions.” He releases me. A shaft of moonlight lies between us, and he steps from the shadow, revealing himself a piece at a time: first, the toes of his boots, then the navy of his sturdy trousers, the coarse white of his shirt. His face is fierce, serious, and gentle all at once, beneath mussed black curls that shine even in this dim illumination. His gaze catches mine and my breath twists from my body. He is my age, or a few years older, but there are ghosts in his eyes.
“We lost a foal two nights ago,” he continues. “You’re just about as helpless, I reckon.”
My stomach pitches. I don’t want to think about some poor baby animal being slashed apart. “You’re just trying to scare me.”
For a long moment he doesn’t say anything, just stares at me, as though he can see below my clothes, below my skin, to my innermost thoughts. When he’s finished sizing me up, he says, “You’ve never been scared of anything in your life.”
My eyes flare wide with my indignation. “Don’t presume to know me!”
“I know you’re going back to the meeting house.” He reaches for my arm again, and I fling myself backward. It’s a theatrical, unnecessary reaction. I fall onto the bale of straw, my arm flung over my eyes.
He waits a moment, just long enough that I give in to temptation and peek at him. He stands over me, arms crossed over his chest, and our eyes meet. I’m caught.
“Get up,” he orders. His patience with me has run out.
My dislike of him intensifies tenfold. I’ve never cared for people who saw through my machinations; I calculate my behavior to manipulate. When it doesn’t work, I feel a fool, as I do now.
“You can get up, or I can drag you,” he warns, and I take a moment to consider the two options. The first will be more dignified. The second will be memorable.
I do not wish to be remembered for my hysterics.
With as much pride as I can muster, I rise to my feet and straighten my dress. He gestures with one arm toward the doors, and I walk out with my nose lifted in the air.
The stranger doesn’t speak to me as we go, but remains behind me. He may as well have a gun barrel at my back.
I didn’t realize how far I ran to reach the barn, but I do now. The stage coach, the interminable wait, the wagon ride, every moment of my long day echoes in each tired step I take. We reach the meeting house, and I am too exhausted to fear the foreign terrors inside. The stranger gives me an impertinent little push, and I turn to glare at him before I go up the steps.
The people I see inside are not as strange as my shocked eyes first made them out to be. They look as normal as anyone I have ever seen, some faces plain, some pretty. All the women and girls are dressed like Sister Anne, with unadorned linen caps over their hair, white to match the large, pointed collars that cover the bodices of their dresses. Their clothing is bright, not Sister Anne’s dour black, but jewel colors of garnet, emerald, and sapphire. The men wear shirts of the same colors, and sturdy canvas trousers. Everyone is neat and tidy, if slightly flushed from the exertion of their dance. But they are not at all the whirling devils I thought I saw before I fled.
Their bodies crowd the long, low benches, with an aisle between the men and women. Every face is fixed on the elderly woman who stands before them, preaching from a pamphlet. How strange it is to me to see a woman leading the flock. This would not happen in the Anglican Church in Boston.
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...