The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
Sisterwives: The Order Things Took
Lynne Butler Oaks
He can see me from where he is standing, off down the row along with his dogs. I know, because I can see him too. And from where I am, I’m seeing and thinking how he is keeping his eyes on us new kids. We’re in from Garden City and Laketown with some, like me, even thumbing it up the canyon from Logan to earn our next-year’s school clothes, us all lying about our ages and saying we’ve picked berries before. I am the first to get caught in my lie. He sees me resting my flat on one arm, dropping berries into it from my other hand, and he comes up the row hot-neck hollering.
“You’re breaking the berries into bits doing it like that,” Reuben Powers shouts. “You want nothing but bruises?”
[p.162]I let the flat fall.
He moves in, a big man standing so close I can smell the soil on his skin. He says, “It’s like slipping off a shoe.”
At that, Reuben unbuckles the leather belt I have around my waist. He slips it out of the pant loops. He hangs it around my neck so the buckle and stitched ends lay down in front like a field snake-its tail and its head. These ends Reuben hooks onto one of the wire-handled Crisco cans that litter the ground. He makes with it a makeshift bucket that falls down to where I am just becoming breasted. So now I’m holding nothing. I watch while Reuben lifts my two hands up. He wraps one set of my fingers around the thorny stem of the bush, holds them there tight till I get stinging little cuts. He takes my other hand then, the fingers of it, and places them, very lightly, around the berry. And then it is us, together, sliding the berry off its bulb.
“It’s like slipping off a shoe,” Reuben Powers says again. “Both hands,” he says, “always both hands.”
I now hold mine up to his face. I fly my fingers about like a Flamenco dancer, showing him they are free, me saying how really sorry I am over and over and laughing. Reuben Powers, not even watching me anymore, picks up my flat and drops it halfway up the row so I’ll be moving toward it.
“Never laugh around adults or men,” the girl across from me says. “Big, big mistake,” she says. Then she reaches through the bush and tweaks my nipple where [p.163]it shows through the cloth of my cotton t-shirt and goes back to her own picking. The girl’s name is Libby.
Libby is again here with me now. Some time has passed. We’re underground, in Reuben’s raspberry cellar, on the far side of his fields.
“Get that blanket up on your head,” Libby says to me. “It keeps the blood hot in your skull,” she is saying. I’ve just been baptized. I’m now dripping a puddle onto the roughed up cement floor. It is cool here and I hop back and forth, making small splashes, warming my toes. Libby unbuttons the buttoned front of my soaked-through shirt. It is white, this shirt, and one of Reuben’s. A white shirt like the white shirts he wears every day.
Here’s the way it went for my baptism. “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ,” Reuben said, “And in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost I baptize you, Evie Powers.” And Reuben, his arm under my back, plunged me under then, laying me down backwards, my knees bending, him pushing my body down all the way into the Bear Lake water, me holding my stomach in tight so it did not pop up, did not break the water line, null-and-voiding it all.
But my baptism isn’t all there is today. Now Libby and me twirl and dance undone the wound-tight blanket from my head. Libby helps me slip the very nearly satin dress over my dripping hair. My dress is all eggshell [p.164]cream except for ribbons falling down like fringe from the sleeves. I’ve ribbons of every color—yellow, blue, and even deep pink—these ribbons being Libby’s idea, her saying pure white makes us women look too dangerous for words. Libby ties colored ribbons also in my hair. I am shivering and almost ready.
Except for Libby I am parted from my past here. And you will understand this, how that with me being just fifteen what I am thinking about now is my mother—-my mother who stayed in town, her pleading “no, no, no,” and please don’t call for my father to come. Her also saying that, in this religion of Reuben’s, Husbands-Fathers-God is like a Trinity, one and complete, so there is no point to taking or giving away, just the time of life you are in and who you belong to in it.
Libby says to me, “Don’t worry.” Do not worry. Libby says mothers all have something to hide, and that no is always a lie anyway, an escape hatch, a word to fall back on. Libby is a comfort to me, her knowing things and talking like she does in circles that come back around.
Libby knows things. Libby knows about mothers because her own mother has mothered seven. And she knows about Mormons because she stayed one up until last year when she turned thirteen. My mother is a Mormon, also, but she’s one of the up-to-date Mormons nobody’s really scared of. What scares my mother is what the up-to-date Mormons [p.165]call Reuben Powers, and will now call me too, which is a Fundamentalist, a splinter.
Reuben wears white for the wedding too. Even his shoes. Reuben wears what he has baptized me in, him just letting it all sun dry for the covenants, adding only a green colored tie, the leaf of Adam. Now we two are standing together, Reuben and me in front, my two sisterwives, these being Reuben’s first wives, are back behind. And we vow our vows, solemn and sacred, on Reuben’s back porch and in view of his fields.
“God, god, god,” Libby says when I’m married. “You look just fme. Almost absolutely safe.” She says, “Nothing showing.”
Libby strips a ribbon from my hair. God is the last word most Mormons will ever say. She says, “I’ll visit.” Libby knows I am even now carrying a baby. Libby is the one I told.
After the wedding I wait for Reuben. I’m thinking he will lead me into our new bedroom. I am thinking he’ll lead me there to do what we did first in that same dug-out cellar where I was earlier changing. That cellar with its heavy metal door lifting up like a lid from the ground, its cement steps going down. I picture him coming in now and saying something like, “This, Evie, this is not for God” (so much of this day having been for God). I picture him saying, “This, Evie, is for love.”
[p.166]And then I’m waiting and thinking how silent and sad Reuben was all through that first love. That love being our only love together, my first love at all—it being painless—just smooth stretching muscles and damp. That love being simple, after all, being as easy, really, as Reuben laying me out over a pile of stiff wool blankets, the hairy linseed scent of them mixing with the innocent wet-sand smell of water seeping in from the walls, water coming up through the floor. And it was Reuben rubbing my breasts and my face, with his hands soft and rough, like dirt-covered berries on your tongue, him pushing inside me, saying nothing at all, me saying nothing either, only breathing, and me watching his face block then unblock the sight of the bare light bulb up over our heads.
So now Libby is on her way down the canyon and I am up here watching the door for Reuben to come through it and be close with me again. While I wait I light candles from the Antique and Rock Shop—apricot scented, and plum. I put some near the old green army bed that takes up most of the bedroom. I move one of the lit candles to the kitchen table. I sit with a cup of hot lemon water, the lemon tasting like the smell of Bear Lake in the morning.
The door opens and it isn’t Reuben. It is Willa, the oldest of my sisterwives. Willa is carrying a plastic bag of underdeveloped cucumbers.
[p.167]“Where’s Reuben?” I say.
Willa takes my elbow, says, “Evie, I want you to know we’re all pleased. But, well, circumstances.”
“Where’s Reuben?” I say.
“Reuben’s covenant with God … is … you understand.” Willa starts up again, speaking slowly and handing me the cucumbers. “Well, it means that he can have relations only to replenish the earth.” She keeps speaking but I stop hearing.
I say, “Where’s Reuben?”
Willa says, “Do you understand? Exactly, then? What I mean?” I say, “Where’s Reuben?”
“I mean sexual,” she says. Willa talks on. Reuben, I find out from her, will spend three nights in the small house which is because, Willa says, it is simply not necessary that everyone know that there was already one coming. Reuben having repented, she said, there was no need at all for them to start wagging their tongues.
After the three days she, Willa, will move back to the main house with him, Willa says. For now though, she will stay with us, Reuben having asked her to. Reuben saying, or so Willa says, that my voice is trouble for him, a temptation, it being low and raspy from a bad tonsillectomy.
When Reuben comes into the house, 1 run to him and hold him so my belly with Baby in it is pressed against his belt buckle. My arms 1 wrap tight. Reuben has his dogs along, Blue Tic hounds he calls Sundance and Kid. Sun-[p.168]dance is still on the porch, pushing in at the screen, yelping. Reuben pulls me in close and hugs me back. “Go ahead and let Sundance in,” Willa says, and I am not surprised. Everyone had been told by Reuben about Willa keeping Sundance always at her side due to what it was that happened with her own baby. It’s the first story I heard about Willa, and Reuben always lets her tell it herself for its message. It is one of those stories you carry around and can’t put down.
The story about Willa’s own baby is this: that one day when she was out picking berries, being maybe three months carrying, she began to feel pains. At first she thought she just maybe had to water so she went behind a tree and lifted her skirt. But as she slid her underpants down to her knees, a pulpy clot fell out of her onto the ground. Willa struggled to get out of her underpants, she said. She wanted to use them, you see, to wrap around her baby, which was just this clot but, still, her baby. But before Willa could get her feet loose-and here is the part with the message-before Willa could get her feet loose from her underpants, Sundance bounded up and ate what it was that was lying there in the field at Willa’s feet.
The story goes that Willa did not scream. Did not cry. Willa just started singing about grace and she sang all day long. Sundance began having seizures after that, though. Seizures that cause his eyes to fix and roll upwards and [p.169]his nose to foam, giving the dog spasms that even to this day send stuff spewing out of his mouth.
“Come on in, Sun,” Reuben says, opening the door. Sundance bounds straight for Willa. Willa scratches behind his ears and hugs his neck, touching the collar she’s leather-burned for him. The collar that says “God’s Light.”
Later, Reuben sits us down across the table where we are eating potato pancakes fixed by Willa. He says to me, “When I am not here you should make the house appear absolutely empty. No lights after dusk,” he says. “Curtains drawn.”
“Are we hiding?” I say.
“We don’t want to draw attention,” Reuben says.
“We have broken the law. Man’s.”
I don’t want to hide. It is something Libby, and probably even my mother, would refuse to do. But mostly I don’t want Reuben on the floor with my heart while Willa’s too-strong-and-solid body is lying in the bed next to me and my raspy voice, which is what I almost say. But before I do speak up, Reuben pats my head, kisses me on the cheek and kneels with us. We kneel down, then, and hear Reuben pray a prayer to God for sanctillcation-his, mine, and Willa’s—Reuben holding our hands, Sundance circling around.
I see Willa often, and most times she comes with Dawn, my second sister wife. As is usual for them, they come for these visits carrying jam or dried fruit or books [p.170]in chapter and verse. As is also usual, it is from these books that I learn about the wine cup of God’s fury, about His wars and rumors, about His love.
“There will come a day when none of us can hide even the smallest act,” Dawn says as often as she says anything. Dawn saying that in heaven our private times and flaws will be shown big-screen to precisely those people we most don’t want to see them.
Dawn likes me less than Willa. Dawn never raises her voice. Libby would say Dawn is one of those people who feels most powerful when she gets friends to betray each other out of kindness.
Libby would say: “Watch your back.” But here’s what I would say to Libby. I would say that I am not afraid of anyone who really and truly includes me in, and I could prove it too, and would. I would and could make her understand the weight and comfort of belonging.
Willa, Dawn, and all of us meet almost daily in the big house. It is we three and also many other wives and children belonging to the Church of the Lamb. Reuben has eight children, this being a great pride, many quivering arrows. We first hold the devotional, the singing and scriptures. Today Dawn teaches the lessons. The young sons draw pictures of Abraham and the ram that was just for show and also Isaac, Abraham’s real sacrifice to his father, this drama proving all about obedience being the [p.171]first and largest of all possible laws. Could you give up your own child for God? the boys are asked.
For our young girls, Dawn asks me to pass around a fresh orchid or rose, telling them to handle it, to press and rub the petals with their fingers, showing how things get spotted and bruised if they let themselves get touched too early and in the wrong way. It goes of course without saying, no one says it, that I myself am the living example of this, the unspoken object lesson for the other girls, the very truth of it all, capital T.
Our lessons all learned, we start our worthy work. The oldest woman here, Jenna, makes loaves of dough that we freeze. Willa woodburns names into the caskets of God’s true saints, children who die before they tum eight, too worthy for this world. Me, I hand letter labels for the jam we’ll sell in gift shops and raspberry shake stands around town. I drop one jar for every ten I put labels on though. I drop the jars, regular as a tithe, and listen to them break, break, breaking. I see for myself how the jam spills out, turns to oxblood, makes dark ribbon streaks on the hardwood floor. Willa and Dawn often catch me at my game. When they frown over my direction I shrug my shoulders and smile back—like what I’m saying is that being pregnant makes you a clutz, so there, it does. I smile, eyes up, until I’ve made them smile back, which I know they always will.
Reuben makes our extra money fighting fires in the [p.172]nearby hills. On days like today, when Reuben visits me, he comes in through the back door smelling of smoke, an old smell, like spent bullet casings. Even on these days he’s wearing a clean, white shirt and he carries in his breast pocket a vial of consecrated oil. We talk a little. He holds my hand.
Today the oil is for me. This oil he puts in my hair, laying on his hands and blessing my body, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, that it might deliver a healthy servant of God, valiant seed, Amen. Reuben lifts his hands from the crown of my head and leaves for the main house. I’m alone and I start up with touching the oily place there in my hair. It feels slick and sticky and warm and it’s making my mind flash back to that clot, it’s making me think and see, too, that bloody clot falling out of Willa, it’s causing me to picture that clot now being bloody up there on my head. And then when I’m touching it I can’t help myself. I can’t help myself from yelping high and sharp and on and on until soon I’m suddenly howling like a dog, which no one, praise Jesus, hears me do.
The hills where Reuben fights fires are the same hills where Reuben’s brother died in the worthiest of all possible ways. At first we’d wanted to believe he had died in the fire, the fire he and Reuben were fighting. But then it came out when they studied him that Reuben’s brother perished a martyr after all, cut under the throat from ear to ear by some false prophet. Reuben, after this, [p.173]became our newest prophet and revelator. It was his calling, everyone agreed. Reuben now says to his congregation that it was through his older brother that he learned about love. Reuben tells how his mother once tied the boys’ suspenders together, once strung them up over the clothesline out back. How there she pulled old socks up over their fists, and made them box, arms flying, legs dangling. She’d made them box until they had tears, then she’d lowered them down and hugged them to each other so they could say “Love you” and “Love you, too.”
This true parable from his life has insights without number, Reuben says. For instance, that violent things should never be done with meanness, and did we understand the distinction?
Reuben grows a beard to look like his brother. Reuben marries his brother’s wives, Shen and Claire and Vicki Powers, to take care of them. Being our leader meant Reuben had other tests, too. Fasting twenty-four hours, then forty-eight, then 96. Laying on hands. Prophecies. Weeping.
Some weekends Libby still comes up the canyon to see me. “Don’t knock,” I say. “It’s supposed to be empty.” So Libby walks right in. Today she finds me naked on the bed, me with my enormous stomach. “God, god, god,” Libby says at the sight.
Libby later says, “So when can you finally be with him again,” her slurring out the word be like it’s dirty. [p.74]And what does he do at night up in those hills she wants to know.
I say he loves me, he does, and Libby shakes her head like I’ve spent my whole penny.
“It’s impossible to want what you already have,” Libby says. “Especially for men but for women, too.” Libby traces the stretch marks that are beginning to ribbon my stomach pale pink and white.
“We’re just waiting until after,” I say. And after, I tell her, I’ll cover these marks up with the strawberry silk slip I’ve saved from my mother.
“Grow up,” Libby says. She says, “Buy peppermint mouthwash and learn to swallow it, touch a little of it down there on your name-it-not.”
Libby leaves and after I think about time with Reuben, time after Baby. I’ll take a long bath in this unlit house, I’m thinking, a bath with bubbles from vanilla shampoo. I’ll rinse my hair in eggs.
It’s late spring, the day I move to the main house for my birthing. There is frost. For my sake, Willa makes Sundance stay out in the yard. When the pains begin seizing me, I move to a room where I am surrounded by women I know from devotional.
There is haze sometimes. There is even, eventually, me singing children’s songs, “Row, Row, Row” and “Old McDonald,” and me begging the women to come up with strange and difficult animals so my mind will have to [p.175]leave the pain to find the right voice. There’s pain going out and pain returning. Pain and then the absence of pain and always there’s water, or something like water, seeping away. Through it, the women talk quietly, birds through a closed window. Outside in the yard the dogs, or black shadows of them, move in and out of the trees.
When he is born, Baby stays silent. Slapping him makes him start, but not cry. And Willa, the one who has pulled him out, gets carried away. Finally, I say for the slapping to stop. Willa hands Baby to Dawn, who nurses him, him going on and living after all, me falling asleep.
Six weeks pass by and Baby still sleeps most of the time. I move back to the house at the edge of the field to rest with him. Libby hitchhikes up to see Baby and to hold him and say “God, god, god.”
“Truckers,” she says as she lowers Baby back onto the bed. “They keep asking you to get them the map off the dash so they can see your you-know-whats when you lean forward.”
I don’t laugh and Libby acts up like she’s getting angry. “What’s wrong?” she says. “Is it something?” She says, “Tell me, tell me, tell me, Evie, just what the hell is the matter with you?”
The matter is that Baby, even asleep, surrounds me. That is, at least, what I’m supposing the matter is. I watch Baby’s chest rise and fall. I take him often into the cooling cellar. I keep it dark, so his breath will show, like smoke. [p.176]Then I drum other noises out of my ears and listen for strangled throat sounds. “Don’t forget about the dog,” is what I say to myself.
I look at Baby and say, “Watch for foam at his nose.”
I’ve told Libby her visits are making me tired and she has stopped coming, which is just as well, now that I have Baby, who I am aware cannot know what Libby’s profanity means (I’m not crazy) but whose brain might be storing up its own little record of the time after time I after time that Libby takes the Lord’s name in vain.
Also, I stop going to devotional. Instead, I draw the borders on the jam labels in the cooling cellar until my fingers turn blue. Even alone, I let some jars drop to the floor, smiling just to myself. No one says for me to stop.
No one begs for me to come back to devotional either. But after barely two months it’s raspberry season again and Reuben needs his cellar for newly picked berries.
“How’s my lamb?” he says when he comes down to visit. He says, “You need to stop spending so much time down here.” He says snakes. Today Reuben reaches up and twists the overhead bulb tighter into its socket, making it bright.
“I think I could do it again,” I say. “I think I could conceive.” I stand up from the wool blankets and stretch my torso so that the pink lace of my slip slips out above my skirt to rest on the bare skin of my hipbone.
[p.177]Reuben kisses the top of my head, then he kisses the top of Baby’s head.
I get Reuben’s meaning. Reuben Powers means no more babies for now and for me to stop living in the cellar.
I move out of spending my days underground, but still I refuse to pick berries. The most I can do, I tell my sisterwives, is to watch their children along with Baby while they work the fields. When I say this Willa and Dawn look at each other like they are a couple, like a mother and father even, and I am the child. Reuben later stands up for me, though, and they go along. He says for them to bring their children to me the night before picking, what with them having to be in the fields by dawn.
“A fire’s started up in the hills,” Willa says when she brings her five. “All that fasting come to naught.”
I get out of bed, where I have stayed buried today, half-awake, listening to the new pickers and all their languages checking in. I go out onto the porch to look at the fire with Willa. It has started like they always do, at the edges. Soon it will send sparks flying inside, starting new little blazes that will grow, making fires as pretty as sunsets. As pretty as paintings of sunsets. What this hillfire means is that Reuben will go, that the women will have to bring the berries in alone.
Willa and Dawn pretend not to notice the state of my [p.178]house, my slept-in shirt. They warm milk for the children and put cinnamon in it. They go back to their own houses to sleep until morning. The milk stays on the counter getting cold.
When it gets late, the children lie down. Soon the sound of them gets softer, then silent. I go back to bed, too, but I don’t sleep. Around midnight I take Baby from the dresser drawer full of pillows. I take Baby down into the cooling cellar and lay him on the wool blankets. The light is so weak I can barely see, and it is cold, too, which makes Baby cry, the sound of him reaching my ears like underwater.
“We need our own fire,” I say to Baby. “Fire to get warm is just what we need.” I tear one blanket into strips. I pick up the kerosene lamp, light it for its flame. “Wait for me,” I say.
I circle Reuben’s fields with the lighted strips of wool. I dance them around, Maypole ribbons on the first day of May. I dance and the fire begins to make its music. A soft hiss in the distance. The echo of drums coming.
Only when the sound of the fire I have started is too loud to bear do I start back down into the cellar. I hold the heavy lid up, stand on the top of the cellar steps, watching and listening for as long as I can. I can see everything from here. The hill fire, far off, making its pictures, and now the field fire, too. Reuben’s fields growing bright with light, rows of light leaning toward [p.179]the hills, toward the houses. Light surely warming mine and all the sleeping children.
When the acid smell of the smoke makes it hard to breathe, I lower the tin lid. I hold Baby in my arms, in the dark, and soon we can hear Sundance, his wild barks ricocheting from above the ground, first near, then farther off, then directly overhead. Mixed with the sound of his barking and the roar of the fire is the smaller sound of drumming, rain-like drumming on the lid of the cellar. Beating fists? Running feet? Children’s voices? Or maybe just the crying sound of eager birds.
“We mustn’t worry,” is what I say to Baby. “We just must not worry.” What burns is purified and becomes the purest of all things, I am saying. What burns is bathed in gold, and after, when what is burned is only smoke, it is the whitest smoke. It is the whitest smoke, I am saying to Baby. It is the purest white. All of it drifting and curling and rising like beautiful writing toward the highest circle of heaven.