The elders of the commune reside in a small dwelling apart from the main house. It is a long, low clapboard cottage with a black roof and a small porch two steps from the ground. My boots strike hollow on the wood as I cross it to the door.
Benjamin is waiting—lurking, my uncharitable mind names it—and I don’t have to knock. He ushers me through the door, his expression too eager. “Sister. It is so good to receive you.”
Inside, the rooms are caught between hot darkness and dying sunlight. Motes swim in the shafts of light from the windows, and the house is silent but for the creaks of the floorboards as we walk down the narrow center hall.
Unease catches my breath, and it will not shake loose easily. Two elders are assigned to each family, a man and woman for each, like a mother and father. They all live together in this house, and though it is supper time, the other three are not present.
“My brother and sisters have been so kind. They have left us the dining room that we may speak in private.” He directs me into another room, as oppressive and stuffy as the hall, crammed too close with a table and chairs. The table is set with two china plates and gleaming silver. A scarred pewter candlestick stands in the center, flame dancing atop the plan beeswax. It seems as out of place beside the plates and silver as the silver and china seem out of place within the room.
He holds a chair for me. I sit and grit my teeth as he tries to gallantly push it in. I opt to hop the chair forward a bit. Closer to the plate now, I note the familiar design of lacy red ringing the little church painted at the center.
“I thought grandmother’s dishes might cheer you.” He takes the head of the table, leaving me seated at his right.
“That’s very kind of you,” I manage, though I taste bile on the back of my tongue. He waits patiently for me to speak, and I must think of something, but I can’t imagine a single conversation I’d like to have with him. I try flattery first. “In fact... you’ve been very kind by taking me in. And then a fine meal. I-I would have never presumed to ask—“
“Of course you wouldn’t have,” he interrupts me. An indulgent smile slides across his face, and I credit that to my put-on stammer. “I understand it’s been difficult for you to adopt our way of life.”
“Oh?” I smile as convincingly as I can manage, though I fear my disgust towards him taints the expression against my best efforts. “I haven’t found it difficult.”
“You’ve done...very little to adapt, from what Sister Anne tells me.” The gentleness with which he corrects me sets my skin prickling; it is his father’s tone.
“I do try.” Still simpering, still wearing my disguise of innocence and sweetness, I add, “I’ve made friends with Iris.”
He nods with a benevolent smile that fades as he speaks. “Iris is a good and virtuous girl.” He pauses. “And you are not.”
A wounded animal claws inside my chest. It is my heart, a throbbing insistence which urges me to run. His hand moves toward mine where it rests on the table, and somehow I can’t will my arm to avoid him no matter how my mind recoils. His palm is moist with perspiration, and droplets shine on his nose. He covers my hand and squeezes my fingers with opportunistic sympathy. All I feel is Lettie’s husband’s hand around my wrist.
“My sister informed me of what happened in Boston. I don’t know what evil spirit possessed you, nor poor Robert. When I heard, I thought to myself, well, my dear cousin has grown into the temptress in the garden. I very much wish to save you from that path.” Now there was something genuine in his smile, but it only made his offer of help that much more frightening. How did he believe he could cleanse me of my wicked ways? Burning at the stake? Beheading? Pressed to death under stones?
I pull my hand back. “Perhaps, my cousin, your sister, has a somewhat different recollection of the events than I.”
Benjamin sits up straighter, all kindness leeching from his expression. It wasn’t true kindness, anyway. “I can be patient. It was perhaps optimistic of me to expect you to come round to an understanding of your wrong doings. So often, young ladies are unaware of the consequences of their actions in situations such as these. But with time and patience, I’m certain you can examine your conscience and take responsibility.”
“Responsibility f-for what?” I stutter in disbelief. I can’t keep pretending to be meek and mannerly anymore. I’m too angry.
“For your wickedness,” he says easily. It is all too apparent that in his eyes, I am a challenge. A sinful temptress whose soul must be redeemed through penance.
I shoot to my feet. “I will go to your ridiculous worship. I will wash your clothes and hoe your gardens if it’ll cleanse me of my ‘wickedness.’ I can think of no better purgatory than this life. But I will not atone for sins I have not committed!”
My tears blinding me, I knock my chair back and run from the room. I’m winded by the time I reach the door, and my limbs seem held back by my fear of a hand catching my wrist. Whether it is Benjamin’s or Robert’s, my mind can’t tell the difference.
I burst across the porch, propelled on numb legs, driven by my own desperation. My chest aches under the weight of my breath. Where could I run? The dwelling house, where I would be returned to my cousin’s loving attentions? The road, where I could wander blindly all night, and be prey for the mountain lion everyone in the commune feared? Every inhalation stabs my ribs, and I aim my path at the big white barn. I hid there successfully once before—for a while, at least—so why can’t I do it again?
What I do not think of, until it is too late, is that there are still men at work in the barn, hired men doing the evening milking and feeding the animals. I hear their voices the moment my feet cross the threshold, before I leave the slant of light on the floor. Their conversation halts, and I spin on my heel, only to collide with an immovable obstacle.
It is John Quill, and he is out of breath himself. Has he been pursuing me?
“Don’t be stupid,” he greets me, confirming my suspicion. “Your brother will look here, first.”
“My cousin. Let him find me.” I step back and hold my arms out to my sides. “Let him find me in the company of hired men. It’ll validate his opinion of my character.”
John Quill glowers down at me and reaches up to scratch his forehead beneath the wide brim of his weather-beaten hat. “You use a lot of words to say not much at all.”
My jaw drops, and for once I am not calculating my response. There isn’t an ounce of a good soul in him. Not that I would suggest anyone else here had more.
Guilt nags me with a reminder of Iris. She is possibly the truest person I have ever known. I can’t allow myself to damn her with the rest of them.
But John Quill, I am certain, is just as bad as Benjamin, as Sister Anne. He sees me, a helpless young woman, standing before him in mortal terror, and he criticizes me?
He looks over his shoulder, toward the elders’ house, then nods grimly to the left of the barn. “Come on. No one will find you down there.”
The steep shoulder of the elevated path creates a triangle of shadow where it meets the lower level of the barn. The darkness, made deeper by the unpainted gray stone of the barn’s foundation, would have been enough, but a small shed, seemingly an afterthought to the original construction, stands in the join of the hill and the building, and it is into this space that John Quill ushers me.
A square window in the door throws useless light over the interior. As my eyes adjust to the dimness, I see the purpose of the shed. Coffins, sized for adults, children, babies, stand waiting against the wall. Sawdust covers the floor; the smell of it mingles with the wet earth scent from the moist corners and dirt floor.
“No one will bother you here.” He goes to a workbench and takes up a planer.
A shiver rises from my knees to the base of my spine. He knows his way around this lightless shed and how to work in it.
Everyone in the commune has a job, and this is his. He doesn’t just help tend the fields and guard the flock.
John Quill is the gravedigger.
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...