Early the next morning, we wake to screams.
Iris and I fight our way down the stairs ahead of the rest of the sisters and brothers. We are the first to reach the door, which slams nearly off its hinges. One of the sisters, whom I recognize as the short, red-haired woman who often helps to tend the milk cows, stands in the grass, alternately sobbing and gulping for air. Her hands and dress are smeared with blood, and in her hysterics, she stammers “the milkhouse!”
A crowd of men are already gathered at the small building. The worn path in the grass is muddy with blood. I halt on my heels at the sight of Benjamin emerging from the door.
This is the first time I’ve been this close to him since our disastrous dinner. Though his gaze does not fall upon me, I feel a chill at the sight of him. A pervasive sense of danger threatens me, though I know he will not attempt to touch me or speak to me in anger in front of the others.
Still, I’d rather face whatever horror lies inside the milkhouse than speak with or be spoken to by Benjamin.
“There is no reason to panic,” he assures us, despite his odd shade of green and the handkerchief he periodically presses to his lips. “It seems the predator that has been stalking our livestock struck again in the night.”
I think of the chickens torn apart, their feathers clumped in the grass. I remember the night before, when Iris and I fled into the dwelling house in fear.
“There will be no milk today,” Benjamin says, blotting his lips. “But we have managed without it before.”
“We’re not safe here,” one of the brothers shouts, and a murmur of agreement rises from some of the others.
“We are perfectly safe.” At once, Benjamin’s commanding calm returns to him. “When the Lord spoke to Brother Jacob sixty years ago, He promised him that his flock would be safe in the shadow of this mountain. I do not think the Lord imposes a limit upon His protection.”
And there it is, the key to his power over them. I feel a fool for not seeing it sooner. He sways all of them with the threat of cosmic retribution. While I fear the end I will come to if Benjamin is displeased with my actions in the commune. The Shakers in his charge fear for their souls in the next world, and he wields that uncertainty against them.
He raises his hands and tilts his face to the heavens. “Let us pray that we may surrender our keeping unto our Lord, and trust that His holy presence among us will keep us safe and strong.”
A few scattered “Amen”s sound through the assembly, and at once, they retreat, cowed by my cousin’s recrimination disguised as a blessing.
I turn to Iris, and she to me. Wordlessly, she takes my hand in hers and holds onto it until we reach the dwelling house.
Breakfast bears the scars of the morning’s turmoil, but once work begins, routine dulls our minds. It is too difficult to concentrate on both the laundry and our horror a whatever is happening in the night. Only one of those things would result in clean undergarments.
Once again, I’m nuisance enough to the more experienced women that they banish me outside to hang linens. It is a pleasant enough day, so I don’t complain.
As I haul a heavy basket full of wet nightshirts, I see Quill go by. His face is grim, his shirt wet with perspiration and smears of red. His sleeves are rolled up past his elbows, yet still they are splattered with the gore that stains his skin down to his fingertips. His bloody knuckles grip the handle of a tin bucket I don’t wish to know the contents of.
In the now empty pasture, the hired men have started a fire, and they carry out pieces of the cows, the poor, mangled creatures, in buckets and tarps to burn them.
I weigh my frightened curiosity against my wariness of Benjamin and what he might do to me if I misbehave further. Perhaps he will send me away. It seems far safer than living amongst prey.
Everyone is paying a peculiarly focused attention to their everyday tasks, and that gives me a bit more confidence. Are they so caught up in their work and their silent prayers that they won’t notice a transgression before their very eyes? Probably not.
Still, I take my chance, and follow Quill toward the pasture, hurrying my steps to catch up to him.
“What happened to the milk cows?” I ask, breathless as I reach his side.
“What are you doing?” he growls through gritted teeth. “You can’t approach me in front of everyone.”
“I want to see them.” My gaze falls to the contents of the bucket, bits of bone and wet, muddy, red fur, clinging to torn strips of pale white flesh. I taste my breakfast at the back of my tongue.
“There, you’ve seen them.” Quill scowls at me and shakes the bucket. “Now get.”
“I want to see them,” I demand stubbornly.
Quill drops the pail and points toward the milkhouse. I march ahead of him. A few other sisters stand near the trampled red path. They watch me as I approach the door and stick my head inside.
“They all came in here,” Quill says, pushing past me into the room. “They cornered themselves, and it ripped them to pieces. We have to burn the bodies. If the animal was rabid, or otherwise sick, the meat could kill us.”
I can’t bear to step down into the pit of manure and blood and entrails. The milkhouse is a sturdy block building beside the barn and adjacent to the pasture. Before the cows are put away and fed at night, or let out to graze in the morning, they must file through to be milked. There is room for three, perhaps four of the beasts inside at a time, but it looks as though all thirty had crammed into the space trying to evade the predator. It seems unthinkable that a single mountain lion created this carnage.
Blood is splashed across the white-washed bricks, higher than Quill’s head. The animals lay ripped in two, in quarters, in pieces. A leg here, a length of stomach there. The stench is worse than anything I’ve ever smelled before. My gorge rises, and I turn from the door. I don’t make it three steps before the vomit creeps into my mouth, and I double over retching.
The women waiting near the fence titter at me. I am already an oddity, and news of my misbehavior has likely spread; though gossip is a sin, it’s one of the few indulged unremarked upon.
As though it isn’t embarrassing enough that I’ve lost my stomach in front of them, Quill comes to stand in the milkhouse door to watch me spill my breakfast onto the grass. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and spit to clear the rancid taste. I don’t want to look at him, but my eyes refuse to listen; As I lift my head I catch his gaze wholly without warning. His expression holds such pity for me that I would almost prefer derision. I find none, and that makes shame burn hotter in my face. I judged him too harshly for judgment he has no intention of casting upon me.
He nods to me, just once, and it is more comfort than any word that has been said to me since my arrival.
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...