Neither Iris nor I bring up the incident from the night before the chickens were found dead. I decide that we don't want to make it real, and our friendship continues with that unspoken confidence. My first week among the Shakers puts miles of hard work between me and that frightful experience, but I think of it often, and I don’t leave the dwelling house alone.
The Shaker life is, as Sister Anne promised, simple. On Monday, I work in the laundry, helping to stir the clothes in their boiling vats and lift their bulk from the water with a paddle. I carry them, too, in bushel baskets that make my arms ache under their weight, and hang them outside. Other women remove them and press them in a long, well-lit room equipped with several stoves for heating the irons.
In case of rain and in the winter, Iris informs me, lines will stretch the length of the room for drying. The oldest sisters among us work at mending and darning, complaining constantly about the light and their eyesight, which was once excellent and has now gone with their bones.
Bones, I soon learn, are a topic of much discussion among the elderly.
Tuesdays are spent in the kitchen, baking bread and preparing the daily meals. The commune is broken into two families, groups of men and women who adhere to varying schedules to keep everything running smoothly. Everything is arranged, every chore carefully orchestrated so the workers can move in efficient harmony. I fear I am always a beat behind, and my failure to fall into rhythm with them causes discord.
I am glad when Iris informs me on Friday morning that we will be working in the herb gardens. I've been curious about the wild tangles and interesting fragrances from the garden when I've passed it before.
"We're so lucky," Iris tells me as we walk. "We could be working in the orchard with the others."
As we draw nearer the little brown shed on the edge of the beds, I see no one else about, except for the huddled form of Eldress Jane as she bends over a pot of seedlings. There are many such pots, all lined on crude table made of boards over two sawhorses. Though it is barely after breakfast, her crumpled, clawed hands are stained with dirt.
Eldress Jane is nearly a hundred years old. Time has bent her into a small bundle, but she moves surprisingly well. She gives us a wave and a gummy smile as we approach.
"So these are my two new helpers." The old woman's chin works as though she is trying to hold back a mouthful of bees. "How long have you been in the garden?"
"I came out of the children's house last year," Iris says, and I think the hesitation in her voice must be her awe of Eldress Jane.
I hold no such awe. "I've never worked in the garden."
I suspect Eldress Jane sees my remark as the confrontation that it is, but she doesn't address it. Her expression barely flickers as she says, "Then I'll have the chance to teach you. What a blessing!"
I see that I must love Eldress Jane, for standing against her will only make her love me harder, until I eventually break.
There is precious little gardening to be done, as Eldress Jane works as tirelessly as ten men. Though her body appears frail, she is nimble. Still, she finds us enough to do. We pull weeds, pour water, work a truly disgusting mixture into the soil. Eldress Jane shows us where this particular concoction comes from, a tall, weather-stained box full of black earth, broken eggshells, and the discarded tops of carrots. Among the onion peels and coffee grounds, fat pink worms wriggle, fleeing the sunlight from the open top of their prison.
The earthy stench overwhelms me, and I pull my handkerchief from my sleeve to cover my nose. Eldress Jane is unaffected. She reaches down to hook a slimy red worm with her finger. She raises it in her wrinkled palm. "And how are you today, my fine fellow?" she asks, and waits for the worm to answer.
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...