I wake up in the winter dark to Jem stomping through the house, yelling, Whereís my Bible at? Whereís that Bible? Momma tells the other women to keep sleeping, and then she goes downstairs to show him where she set it next to Baby Jesus under the tree.
Where you off to? she says.
Damn heathens at it again, he says. And on the Lordís day.
Canít it wait?
Wife, he says. Always asking to wait.
He bangs the door shut. His boots crunching out across the snow. I listen for Momma to go back upstairs and then I put on my jumper and my boots and my coat and I step outside and follow Jemís footprints over the field to find out whatís the matter.
I come up the rise to see them two huge steers standing under the dead oak, moaning and humping away and Jem yelling and waving his Bible and hopping around like in some crazy dance. He goes to pull them steers apart and the one on top kicks out its hind leg and gets him square in the knee and he falls down hollering. Maybe I should have known better. But there I am on Christmas morning watching him cuss while he digs through the snow for his Bible and them two steers going at it like eternal companions. So I give a little laugh and then go to help him up. His hand is across my face before I can blink. He pushes me down on my hands and knees and heís on top of me pulling at my jumpers and whispering in my ear. You women are all the same, he says. Drive a man to sin with your waiting and your laughing and your never opening up. You think itís man himself who is abomination, nothing but a beast like these here animals. The world goes quiet, just the sound of his rough breathing. Then I hear a voice and itís Momma yelling at him to lay off and thumping him over the head with his Bible. My jumpers are torn and the snow is red where I lay.
Momma takes me in her arms and carries me to back to the house. I see Jemís dark figure stumbling out across the horizon. She takes me to the bathroom and locks the door. She fills up the tub and I take off my clothes and sit down in the hot water and she kneels at the side of the tub and takes my hand. Itís a long time before I can say anything. Momma, I finally say, Do you ever wish God was a woman? She takes a cloth and rubs it gentle across my shoulders.
No woman would have made this world.
The dark room plumb with bodystink. Teece steps out from behind the bedsheet curtain and blows into a golden horn. Hear ye, hear ye, he says, gather round to witness the tale of Jephthah, who had such faith in the Lord that he offered up his only child for sacrifice. The wives serve juice and tend to the children while the men gather round to watch, their forearms dark and hairy, necks and faces too. Jem says God built man up hard like the animals, else women would sacrifice their maidenhead long before being taken in marriage.
Teece sets down the horn and puts on a pair of sandals and wraps a leather belt around his head. The curtain opens to show a few men standing there in outfits just the same. Theyíre chanting a gibberish tongue and waving long curved swords that look like cardboard and tinfoil. Oh Lord, Teece cries, give me victory against these my mighty foes, and when I return home thou shalt have whatever thou desirest as a burnt offering, even the very first thing to tread across my doorstep. He fights with the men and they fall down dead. Oh Lord, thank you, he says. He walks across the stage and stands in front of a little wood house.
And now that I have returned safely home, take what is thine, Lord, he says. What will it be? He sets down and waits. A woman giggles and I hear Jem in the crowd whispering her to hush up. Now itís my turn to come on stage. I step out through the door of the house singing and shaking a tambourine. Some of the kids start clapping.
Hello, Father, I say.
Oh, my daughter, he cries. Why did it have to be you?
Well, I say, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. We are but tools in his mighty hands.
How wise you are, my child, he says, tying me down to a chair. One day the Lord will sacrifice his own beloved child, and we will have an end to sin and death. But until that day we can only do our best. By the way, he says, one last thing. You havenít been with any men, have you? My eyes flash out to Jem. No, Father, I say, my heart is pure as the whited snow.
Then you shall die a virgin, he shouts, and glory to your name. He lifts a gasoline can filled with water and pours it on me, then pretends to set me alight. I give my scream as the curtain closes and the crowd breaks into a holler.
After the show Jem walks up and gives me a slap on the back. Come on now, he says, pushing me up to Teece, letís put on our best face. Brother Teece, he says, Iím here to offer you Lily like you done asked about. Teeceís knobby skull gleaming with sweat. His face long and sunscoured.
Miss Lily, he says. Lovely name for a lovely girl.
Jem looks at me. Pipe up, he says.
Well, I say, taking Teeceís hand. Thank you.
Not much of a talker, he says. Thatís all right. He shows us to a small round table where Jem and I wait and he comes back with cookies and beverage for the three of us. I sit with my hands folded while he and Jem talk out my wedding plans. When theyíre finished they shake hands and Jem gives us a minute alone. Teece puts his arm around me. The Lord helps those that help themselves, he says. What I mean is, Iím glad you still got your flower. Such a blessing is a worth higher than rubies.
I go out to the truck where Jemís waiting with Momma and Mother Eliza in the backseat. At least he let her bring along her favorite. Besides Momma, sheís my favorite too. I try to find Mommaís eyes in the rearview mirror but she wonít look at me. I watch the black church spire getting smaller in the distance. I look out at the passing spreads and the bloodred sun going down into the dark ripe earth eager for seed.
After the wedding we have the one day at Seven Falls. We walk the trails all around and come down with night setting in, the colored lights flashing on the water. Teece says itís seven falls for seven days, the last one is Sunday, and he takes my head in his arms and pushes his crotch on me and I know heís not going to show me where the Indians used to live on the cliffside like he promised. He takes me back to the room and starts grabbing on me and I ask him to wait a minute. I go into the bathroom and lock the door and take off my clothes and stand in front of the mirror. Daughter, I say, putting my hand over my belly, I know you werenít brought into this world how you wanted, but youíre here now and thatís all I can ask. My heart is a garden to keep you inside, and no man will ever lay his hands on you, his mouth or his appendage neither. My momma wasnít strong enough to say such a thing. But from me itís a promise.
I go back into the room where heís spread out naked on the bed. Iíve wanted you so long, he says. I let him hump my leg a little. He goes to put it in and I reach down and work him in my hand instead. After heís finished heís done tore out and I help him get into his underwear. Maybe you ought to work off that potbelly of yours, he says. I watch him drift into sleep.
The longer I keep it from him the meaner he gets. None of the other sisterwives sit by me in church or talk to me at the house because he wonít lay with them until heís solved me. This morning after Easter ham he caught Sister Eve in the pantry whisking her privates and beat her good. At dusk he comes in my room smelling of beast and manure. I tell him to shower first and I wait in bed with the lamp on. He walks in and kisses on me and I let him take off my clothes and I tickle the gray sponge of his bush. Then he says one or two and I say two, like always. I get on my hands and knees and he says, Next time better be a one if you know whatís best. I nod my head and he turns off the lamp and reaches out for my backside and I let him have his way with me there. He whimpers a little and tells me he loves me. After heís through he tells me to kneel down and pray forgiveness for what I done.
Itís not natural, he says. A man laying with his wife like a man. You ought to lay under me regular like every other woman.
Well, I tell him. You donít never seem to mind what I give you.
I ainít no faggot, he says, and shoves me onto the floor. I stand up to grab the lamp and he comes at me and I break the bulb over his head. He falls into me and we hit the floor together, his head wet with blood against my thigh. The sisterwives come in running and pull him off me. Sister Eve sees the lump in my belly and points at me, screaming, Some will hearken and some will not. Adulterer.
I take my robe and wrap it around me.
You bitchwhore, he says. I knew you was spoiled goods. That ainít no son of mine.
Youíre right, I tell him. Itís a daughter, and she isnít yours. She isnít none but my very own.
She ainít nothing at all, he says, and he runs at me and brings his fist down on my belly.
In the stilldark I stand on the porch and look in at the lighted house. They set around tending to his head, waiting for the doctor to come. Old Sister Theone brings out a satchel of food and two metal canteens. She opens one of the canteens and pours the cold springwater onto a cloth and presses the cloth against my swollen cried out eyes. Youíd better go before he gains some sense, she says. She walks the roan horse up from the barn and I give her the shoebox to hold while I tie on the satchel. Take care of this, she says, giving the box back to me, and I take it in my arms.
I ride until morning of the third day, when in a stand of scrub oak I come across a fire pit circled by white rocks and in it the blackened form of a doe, its arms and legs stretched out on metal stakes, its chest cut open and the heart gone. I free the body and stack armfuls of kindling at the spot where it lay. I set the wood alight and step back, the dry wood crackling and then bursting into flame, rippling across my face like tiny fingers in the early morning cold. I set down with the shoebox by the fire and pull off the lid and lift out the small newspapered body, so light it weighs nothing.
Daughter, I say to her. Letís be together again in some other world. I set her in the fire. The newspaper shrivels into ash, and I watch the smoke rising out into the blue spring morning. It lifts away from me, farther and farther.
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