In the days to come, I find myself seeking out John Quill more and more. We do not speak, but I put myself in his path whenever I can. Only our eyes meet, and every time, I have the bizarre feeling that we are the only two people who understand things in the commune, that we both see the people here as they are, for better or worse. What his gaze communicated to me in the pasture was fear and pity, and I do not like being away from him. It is only when I know he is near that I feel any sense of peace or rest.
Dinner is taken nightly in the dwelling house, with men at one side of the long dining hall and women at the other. Even our entrances are ruled by separate doorways. The Shakers seem to live in such mortal terror of mingling the sexes that I wonder if they are forcing illicit interaction between them by the very act of separation. Knowing what I do about Iris and her hired man, I begin to suspect everyone. If a man and a woman pass in the hall and their clothes brush, I imagine clandestine meetings and secret, unspoken passion. Yet, if they can leave of their own volition, it seems utterly illogical for anyone to carry on in such a way.
Though Sister Anne is the last person with whom I would choose to divulge a secret, I seek her out one night, while the other girls get ready for bed.
I find Sister Anne in the room she shares with six other sisters on the first floor of the tall house. They are stationed there, I have been told, because they are the most senior women in the commune, and climbing many stairs becomes difficult as they grow older. That does not prevent Sister Anne from coming up them to worry at us and scold us constantly, so I think of her presence there, at the very top of that first staircase, as a preventative measure against any of us sneaking out and making mischief.
"Evelyn?" she looks up at me when I knock softly on the half-open door. I have interrupted her brushing her hair; the long, heavy mass of it hangs free to her waist, glistening chestnut and silver. I'd often heard my mother remark on other women, "she must have been a beauty, when she was young," but I'd never seen the traces of attractiveness my mother picked out of lined faces and graying hair. I see it now, in Sister Anne. At my age, had she been pretty? Had that beauty led her to temptation, the way it did some girls? Perhaps that's why she is so mistrustful of the young girls in her charge.
"I need to speak with you about something another girl said." I cast my gaze about the room and see that two of the ancient sisters sleep already. Where the remaining four are, I do not know or care, so long as they keep far from the conversation I wish to have.
"If thou has come to me to mediate in a catty dispute–" she begins in a warning tone.
I am quick to put that notion to rest. "No. Another girl, she said that when she turns eighteen, she plans to leave the Shakers. Are we allowed to? To leave?"
Sister Anne sets her brush aside and pins me with her glittering black gaze. "Art thou thinking of leaving us, Evelyn Whitney?"
I am unable to answer readily. I want nothing more than to leave the Shakers, but where would I go? Whether I am cast out, set free, or run away, I still have no destination in mind, so the means of my freedom matters little. "No. I only wanted–"
"I think thy cousin, Elder Benjamin, would be interested to hear thy thoughts on leaving. Should I share them with him?" She sighs, unable to keep her threat for longer than a blink. She knows, as do I, that my cousin is not to be trusted with the girls of the commune. "If thou are feeling restless, I suppose concessions can be made. Thou may walk, for a half hour before dinner each evening. Thou mustn't stray from the safety of the buildings nor approach the road. If it doesn't cure thy wanderlust, perhaps it will exhaust thee beyond such thoughts of leaving."
My heart swells with joy, eclipsing my original reason for coming to her.
"But be always aware of thy behavior, Evelyn." She turns back to her brushing. "This is a privilege, and it can be revoked."
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...