It's odd, the way people can collectively ignore their fears in silent agreement. The elders decree that what the family needs is distraction, and there is no better distraction than putting hands to work and hearts to God. So, we work harder. We bake more bread, we clean more diligently. When all the work seems done, we invent more for ourselves, mindless chores to push our unease to the backs of our minds. This is a terrible place for fears; it is there that they can catch you off guard, at the most surprising moments.
Though I don't believe in God, I thank him daily for my friendship with Iris. Lit by an inner light of joy and peace as she carries out her daily devotions, Iris seems to me a perfect complement to my darkness. When I complain, she soothes me, and somehow her gentle concern makes my troubles seem petty. Iris is more mother to me than sister and a far better maternal influence than my own mother was.
Sister Anne has surprised me with her acceptance of the bond between Iris and me. I thought, at first, she might discourage it, owing to the goodness of Iris when compared to my unchecked wickedness.
And I am wicked, undeniably. At night, when the others sleep, my hand strays, and where once my thoughts in such private moments were scattered, now I see only John Quill.
He is a figure of discussion among the women, on occasion. All the hired men are. The women who came to the commune as adults share sly jokes not meant for the rest of us to overhear. Most of the girls my age and a little younger know enough about men that these comments don't introduce new information. We all snicker or smile. All of us except Iris, who is entirely innocent.
That is a part of her charm. I hear holy serenity spoken of by Benjamin at the nightly meetings. He seems to believe he embodies it, but he doesn't shine the way Iris does. Of anyone I've ever met, Iris is the most unfailingly good-hearted. For a person so prickly as myself, it would seem an utter hell to be confronted with such a girl, and yet our differences are what make us such close confidants.
We spend the week tending the lavender beds, checking over plants that have been bothered by rabbits and moles.
"I have a secret," Iris whispers. "You cannot tell another soul."
"Who would I tell?" I whisper back with a wry twist of my lips. She knows as well as anyone how few friends I have in this place.
"It's terrible," she says, lifting her huge blue eyes to the group of hired men passing by us. One of them is Quill, walking with his head down beside another young man. That's who Iris is looking at.
She knows I've been watching her stare, and that transforms her briefly from a beacon of goodness and purity to a normal girl.
"I won't tell," I assure her. "Have you spoken to him?"
She turns away, vigorously patting the soil around one of the sprouts. That is the only answer I need from her.
"He's very handsome." If he is a day over twenty, I’d be quite shocked. His hair is gold, his skin freckled from the sun, and his lips wide and quick to smile as he walks with his fellows.
"I don't know what to do," Iris says suddenly. "He told me he wants me to leave with him. I turned eighteen last month; I can go if I want to."
If Iris leaves, I will be more alone than I was the very first night I came here. I'd only just decided the commune might be bearable, so long as Iris is present. Now, some boy plans to steal her away? I resolve to take a strong dislike to him. "What will he do? If you leave with him, they won't let him work here anymore."
"I know." She rubs the dirt from her palms. "We would have to go somewhere else."
"And you'd want to go with him?" I lower my voice considerably. "You know you'd have to... well, marry him, at least. And you'd have to..."
Her face flushes.
My stomach drops. "Have you already?"
She shoots to her feet, snatching up her watering can, and I practically have to chase her to the next row. Her cheeks are as pink as a sunburn. "Hush with that. We've kissed. That's all."
A shot rings across the field, pulling the attention of every man, woman and child in earshot to the meadow. Iris moves first, grabbing me by the hand and tugging me in the direction of the sound.
The five hired men stand in a semi-circle around a shape in the tall grass. The overgrown blades whisper where they brush my skirts, and the pounding of our running feet slow.
Quill holds the gun against his shoulder, the way a soldier might, with the barrel pointing at the sky behind him.The man beside him, a rail thin man with stringy brown hair hanging limply beneath his wide-brimmed straw hat, pulls a flask from his pocket.
"Put it away, Pete.” Quill looks at us then, and says, “Girls, go back to your garden. They're not going to like you out here."
It's too late, though. Most of the other Shakers have converged on the field, and among them, trying to cut a swath to the head of the pack, is Benjamin, his eyes as round as saucers in his sallow face.
"What is it, what's happened?" he calls, walking clumsily across the uneven ground. He tries to maintain his air of self-importance as he dances aside cattle dung, and I nearly have to cover my mouth against the laugh that threatens. From the corner of my eye, I see John Quill watching me.
The one Quill called Pete answers. He'd put his flask away, but his gaze falls on me nervously before darting back to Benjamin. "Mountain lion, we think. But we scared it off."
"It weren't a mountain lion. Just like it weren’t a mountain lion that got the chickens or the cows, or the dog that lived under the porch of the hired house," Iris's young man says, touching a grubby work glove to his forehead to wipe away the sweat. "It was something else, and we all know it."
"That's enough," Benjamin says sharply.
I look about me, and I see the first stirrings of true unease. I wish I could forget I saw it.
"Everyone, go back to your chores," cousin Benjamin says, with as much authority as a man can have in the face of growing dissatisfaction with his leadership. "You're perfectly safe. It seems unlikely that this mountain lion would attack us, with all the livestock we still have."
“But what will happen when the livestock is gone?” Iris asks. Her shoulders are trembling.
Benjamin’s gaze settles on her. He appears dumbstruck. He smooths down his shirtfront and repeats, “Go back to your chores.”
The people linger just a moment more, but disperse as they were bid. I look to Quill. He turns sharply away.
There is more to this than a mountain lion, I know. Iris knows, and the hired men know, as well. If I don’t find out what it is, I will surely go mad.
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...