After the service, Sister Anne does not give me another chance for escape. She folds me into the line of girls who follow her from the meeting house to the dwelling house. Her judgment bores into me with every step.
“Thou art never to go to the barn,” she admonishes. “I thought I made that clear.”
I do not answer, but shuffle along dutifully after her. We trudge up three flights of stairs, my stomach complaining loudly all the way. “I suppose I’ve missed supper, then?”
Sister Anne pauses on the staircase and glowers down at me in the light from her candle lantern. “Thou will be hungry for breakfast.”
She marches on, each floor seeming darker than the next, until she brings me to a small room where two young women stand beside their beds, undressing to don their nightgowns. A third stands before a small mirror over the wash stand, twining a lock of her pale blonde hair around her index finger.
“Vanity, Iris,” Sister Anne warns, and the two other girls quickly turn away from their shy scrutiny of me.
“This is Evelyn,” Sister Anne says, not bothering to raise her voice, as all the attention in the room is sharply focused on her. “She will learn from you all. I expect that you will set an example.”
We all hold our breath until the grim footsteps of Sister Anne recede down the nearby staircase. I breathe again when I reach up to unbutton my collar. Despite my misgivings, my trunk waits for me beside the bed, and I open it to retrieve my nightgown.
The blonde girl sits at the end of my bed. “You have such pretty things. It’s a pity they won’t let you keep them. You’ll have to sew a new a new dress, one like ours.”
I lift an eyebrow, examining the boring shape of the little linen caps hanging from the pegs on the wall. “I don’t know how to sew.”
“You’ll learn,” the girl says, chipper as a bird. As if it should please me to learn to sew plain clothes and live the same, muted existence she does.
“I hope you don’t mind that I looked through your trunk. I’m always interested in the fashions from outside,” she titters on. “I’m Iris.”
I take her hand and shake it, like a man. I don’t know what impulse drives me to do it, and when our hands come apart, we both laugh.
“It looks as though Iris has made a friend,” one of the other girls says. Her tone is not kind.
Iris ignores her, and I wonder if she is a frequent target of their snide behavior. “I just came here from the children’s house,” she confides with quiet pride. “For the last year, I’ve been waiting to leave. It’s so difficult, some nights, when the newest children cry. I feel for them, the little dears, I know it’s so hard.”
I haven’t considered the ages of the children coming to the Shakers. “How young?”
“All ages. Some unfortunate women come to birth their children here. Most leave without them, but some… some stay on, at least for a time.” Iris sighs, and I wonder if she told me her own tale in those words. She gives no further clue. “The ones who are older… it’s harder for them. They miss their parents.”
My own homesickness lodges in my throat, and I watch as her eyes grow bigger. “Oh, I’m so sorry. You must miss your parents.”
“My father is dead,” I say. I no longer have to force the tears from my voice. My grief is a hard ball, embedded in the wound my father left with his passing.
“I’m terribly sorry.” Iris apologizes too much, but her concern is genuine, and I cannot bear to think ill of her. “We should go to bed. Sister Anne will be around soon to check on us.”
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...