As the sun continues its descent behind the mountains, John Quill lights a lantern, and I content myself watching the twilight silver banish the sun's flaming gold. I sit in silence, listening to the gentle shushing sound of the planer as he moves it over the wood. The coffins stacked against the wall are an odd comfort; I have the briefest thought that John Quill's hands could be the last on this earth to touch me.
I straighten my back and try to force away the flush creeping up my neck. The staunch celibacy of the commune makes me too aware of his body, and our closeness in this small refuge.
I bring up an unpleasant subject, to force my mind away from pleasurable pursuits. "When a person dies... do you bury them? Or do you just make the coffins?"
"It's me or Fred that does it." He shrugs his wide shoulders; muscles bunch and slide against his shirt. "Fred won't do children. It's a good thing they're light."
My chest hitches at the bluntness of his words. "You shouldn't say things like that. It's terrible for a child to die." When he offers no answer, I fling, "My brother died," at him, an accusation.
"My brother died, too." He doesn't raise his head, nor apologize for treading upon tender feelings. Perhaps he knows I don't need such consideration; perhaps he's seen my fortitude, and admires it.
I don't know the source of my desire to have him think well of me. He's certainly never given me a reason to think well of him. But I sense in him a kindred soul; he seems no happier in this place than I am.
"Mine died when I was seven years old, from Typhoid fever. We were twins." I stand and venture closer to John Quill. It feels as though I'm approaching a crumbling cliff face. I know I may fall to terrible consequences, but I must satiate my curiosity.
He makes a noise to acknowledge that I have spoken, but he doesn't offer his brother's tale. He doesn't say anything at all.
It's vulgar to ask him, but not knowing will keep me awake all night. "When did your brother die?"
His motions with the planer falter, then resume at pace. "When he deserted from the regiment."
My face flames with embarrassment. The war is a fresh scar, and I have picked at it. There is no way to heal the tear in our conversation. No power, be it from heaven or hell, will convince me to speak to him again tonight. But how can I stay in this room, in such proximity to him, without making at least an attempt at conversation? I was raised too well to tolerate silence.
The sound of the dwelling house bell makes my choice for me. Supper is over, and I can return to the safety of the women’s dormitory.
I move to the door, and he calls after me, "Where do you think you're going?"
A chill creeps up my spine, and I turn, still gripping the iron handle. I've trusted him, until now, as he comes toward me slowly, brushing wood dust from his hands.
"You can't go until the curfew bell. Someone will see you."
The thread of anxiety in my chest unspools at the realization that he will not make prey of me, the way Benjamin would. The way Robert had. Yet, I cannot express gratitude toward him, not for exceeding so low an expectation. "Why are you helping me?"
"I don't have to, if it's all the same to you." He stands close to me now, so close I should run from him. So close I should fear him, but I can't. My heart pounds in my chest. My palm grows damp around the door handle.
I am frozen beneath his stare, and the intensity in his gaze that explains his answer, his purpose where I am concerned, and a fathomless burden I cannot guess at. My voice quavers. "It isn't."
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...