The road past Merciful is busy only during tourist season, when cars go by on their way to the resorts and lakes. I’m not supposed to go near the highway, but I keep going there anyway. Usually I like to walk by the road because it’s a good place to look for animals and birds, but today I’ve come here because I’ve got an idea I can’t get out of my head. If I really want to leave Merciful, all I would have to do is walk down to the shoulder of that road and stick out my thumb.
Right now I’m walking parallel to the road but a little away from it. I’m nervous about getting any closer to the road. I use two hands to keep the hem of my dress lifted slightly, so it won’t trail in the dirt when I step down into one of the hollows or gopher holes in the rough grass.
The turnoff onto the gravel road to Merciful is marked by big signs saying PRIVATE PROPERTY. DO NOT ENTER. I have to walk past these signs to get here and then I can walk out onto the small hills at the base of the mountain. In the early summer, like right now, the grass gets dry and starts turning brown. I’m going to get dust all over my black patent leather shoes.
If I ran away from Merciful, it would be the worst sin I could commit. The Prophet says we should have as little as possible to do with the Gentiles. If a Gentile tries to talk to me while I’m out walking, I’m supposed to turn around without a word and run away, showing him only the back of my long white dress.
But today I don’t have a choice. No matter what the Prophet says, I need the Gentiles’ help. I just turned fourteen, and that means I’m old enough to be a celestial wife. The Prophet left yesterday to go back to Utah, and he almost certainly left instructions with the file leader, Shem Filmore, about what should be done with girls like me. If so, today I will be told the name of the man I’m to marry.
But now that I’m down near the road, I’m afraid to take the step that would get me away from here. The wind ruffles my hair and I can smell the delicate, earthy scent of the grasses as the last of the dew dries off them. I look down toward the road, but can’t bring myself to go any closer, let alone start hitchhiking. What if someone picks me up and something awful happens? Again and again Elder Filmore has warned us about the evils of the Gentiles. But I don’t really want to go back to Merciful, either.
I don’t want to be a celestial wife. At least, not until I finish school. Maybe never.
Above me a hawk circles in the pale blue sky, watching out for hares, gophers, or mice. I squint from the sun, and can only make out the black and white markings on the hawk’s brown wings as he circles the sky, keeping watch.
When I was a little girl I looked forward to becoming a celestial wife. I thought it would be a wonderful thing to become the wife of a godly man. When I was six or seven, I asked God to let me become the celestial wife of Shem Filmore. How wonderful it would be to marry the file leader, I thought. But that was before I started walking by the highway.
The hawk must have seen something, because he’s started to circle lower. Beyond me, I notice two hares leaping down the slope toward the coolness of the ditch beside the road. They see me and stop, but they haven’t seen the hawk. I stop too, so I won’t scare them, and stand perfectly still so they’ll feel safe to keep going. After a moment they start moving again. I feel a momentary coolness even before I see the hawk’s shadow sweeping over the grass.
If I really have to marry someone, I’d like to marry Elder Filmore’s son, Hugh. He’s eighteen now and hasn’t been given a wife yet. I’ve seen him looking at me like he likes me. He’s sort of big and gangly and he has this wild red hair that sticks out from his head no matter how he combs it, but he’s not bad. Even so, what I really want to do is stay in school, because I love to learn things.
The hares sense the hawk closing in on them now. One of them stays still, while the other darts towards the highway. I’m afraid it might run in front of a car; but after it climbs up from the ditch onto the shoulder, it stops. A couple of cars rush by, and it doesn’t move. The hawk ignores it, and circles above the one left behind.
If I can just get to Cresthaven, I can try to find Auntie Ruth. She used to be one of us, but now she lives with the Gentiles. People say awful things about her, but I remember her when she was at Merciful. Before she left she was one of Elder Filmore’s celestial wives. I bet she’d help me stay in school. But would she take me in if I just showed up on her doorstep without any warning? I think I’d better send her a secret note. I wish I could telephone her but the only phone is at Daddy’s main house where everyone would be listening.
The hare by the road sees an opening and scampers across to the other side. In the same moment, the hawk strikes the one that stayed behind—plunging so quickly I didn’t even see it before it struck. The hare screams as the talons pierce her, and I let out a yelp of my own. For a moment the hawk and the dying hare are a frenzy of wings and fur and slashing beaks and claws. Then the hare lies still. I turn quickly away and look at the road.
Soon I see a car filled with Gentiles coming, a young family with two children in the back seat, enough room for me. I’m still too afraid to stick out my thumb. Instead I turn away and when the kids wave to me, I don’t wave back. I make up my mind to try to write a secret letter to Auntie Ruth before I run away from Merciful. I have to let her know what I’m planning.
While I’m walking along the gravel road, I go right past the two big signs, and later, I pass another sign made of white stones set in the dirt. This sign says KEEP SWEET, which means stay quiet, don’t complain, be happy. But I don’t think I can keep sweet anymore, not since the time I noticed Hugh looking at me. That’s when I started thinking I’d like to make up my own mind about the person I’ll marry.
The gravel road passes by the school and houses and ends in front of the main meeting hall. I’m walking past one of the houses of Elder Filmore and I see Florence and Bathsheba and some of their kids in the backyard. Flo and Beth are hanging up the wash on the clotheslines. It’s a fine day for hanging clothes out, with only a little wind and lots of heat. I wave and Flo waves back. She’s expecting another baby soon and so she moves awkwardly, her stomach bulging. That baby will be Elder Filmore’s nineteenth child.
It used to be the rule that girls didn’t get married until they were sixteen, but lately they’re marrying off girls younger than that. The elders like my looks—I’ve seen them looking—I’m tall for my age, and slender, with long blonde hair that I keep tied up at the back. I’ve got high cheekbones and delicate features. Some say I’m the prettiest of all the girls of marrying age. I wish I weren’t. Then maybe they’d let me stay in school.
I go to the house where my mother Rebekah and my celestial mother Leah and their children live. It’s a plain white two-storey house. There are other houses like it nearby clustered around a grassy area with a sandbox and a slide and some swings in the middle. When I get close to the house, Diana—that’s my sister, she’s twelve—runs right past me and we nearly bump into each other. At the sight of her I start worrying the Prophet might have left instructions about her marrying, too. But no, he wouldn’t do that, would he? She’s too young to be a celestial wife. Or is she?
“Hi, Tamar!” she yells, giving me a wave. She almost trips over a toy car one of the little boys left on the sidewalk. I grab her before she can fall and pull her up straight.
“Look where you’re going!” I scold, but I don’t really feel mad because she’s laughing her head off. Zach Filmore is chasing her for a joke and she’s taking him on a wild goose chase all over Merciful.
I let her go and she takes off again, yelling, “Bye, Tamar!” and heads for the road, with Zach laughing and following close behind.
I pick up the toy car, half-squished from Diana’s foot, and take it with me inside the house, because Daddy always gets angry if he sees toys lying around. “Mother, I’m back!” I shout into the house, but instead of hearing the voice of my mother answering, I hear Leah calling from out back. “Oh, there you are, Tamar. Where did you get to?”
I walk through the house to the back door and find her sitting in a lawn chair holding her baby, Hannah, in her lap. She has long black hair tied up at the back and is wearing a blue gingham dress with puffed-out shoulders. Hannah is sucking on a bottle with her eyes closed, staying quiet. I sit down next to her in a lawn chair and look out at the playground where a lot of the young kids are running around shouting at each other.
“I was out for a walk.”
“Not down by the highway again, I hope.”
“I was just walking.” I start to get up again.
“Sit down, Tamar,” she says sharply. I do. “The Prophet has chosen the man you’re going to marry. You need to prepare yourself.”
I scowl down at my feet in their dusty black leather shoes, sticking out in front of me on the lawn chair. “You’re not my real mother,” I tell her. “Where’s Sister Rebekah? She’s the one who should tell me this.”
“Rebekah’s gone to town with Hugh Filmore to pick up groceries for the families.” When she says the “families” she means all of my father’s five families. “Anyway, I’m also your mother in the eyes of God. There’s no call to be rude, Tamar.”
“Sorry. So who did the Prophet choose for my husband?” My father should be the one to tell me this, but he’s away in the field and I know Leah’s dying to tell me.
“Elder Shem Filmore. Tamar, you’re going to be the celestial wife of the file leader! You’ll have a wonderful place in heaven.” Leah is looking at me sideways. She’s trying to guess what I’m thinking. I’ll bet she has a pretty good idea. She says softly, “Don’t worry, Tamar. Before I was married, I was scared, too. When I was chosen to marry your father, I was a young girl not much older than you. But look how well everything’s worked out.”
I hear the sound of a van pulling up in front of the house. It must be Hugh bringing my mother back from Cresthaven with the groceries. Then I hear the sound of the van’s back doors opening and bags being unloaded. I run to help. Mother calls out to me from inside the van while she’s handing out the sacks: “Well, look who’s here! Miss Nature Lover’s paying us a visit! I could’ve used a hand at the grocery store, you know. Did you see anything interesting today?” She’s pretending to be mad but I can tell she isn’t really. Mother loves animals and birds, too. She likes to hear me talk about them.
“I saw a hawk today, and two hares,” I say, but then I stop. I don’t want to tell her that story. I quickly turn, carrying two sacks and almost bump into Hugh, who’s standing behind me holding open one of the van’s back doors.
“What’s the rush, Tammy?”
“Nothing, Hugh.” I duck under his arms and hurry toward the door.
“Here, let me take those bags.” He holds out his big hands to me.
“No, I’m fine. Get your own bags!” I dodge out of his reach. Hugh chuckles and follows me into the house with two more bags.
Mother’s voice comes from the back yard, saying something to Leah. She must be leaving it up to Hugh to unpack the groceries. Mother’s jealous of Leah because Daddy favors her, but she covers it up by trying to be extra nice to her. I can’t make out what they’re saying.
Hugh walks past me into the kitchen and starts unpacking the groceries. “I can take care of that, Hugh,” I tell him. “You’ve got more important things to do.”
He shrugs and keeps on putting them away. “Not right now. They’ve given me the van for the whole afternoon. How’d you like to go into town for ice cream?”
I stare at him, amazed. He must have heard the news. It would be improper at any time for him to take me into town unless we were going with a group of people. But now that the Prophet has decided I’m supposed to marry his father, it’s out of the question.
“You know the Prophet has chosen me to marry your father, right?”
“Yeah, I know.” He makes a face. “Congratulations.”
“Hugh! Aren’t you scared of getting into trouble?”
He walks over to me so he can speak very softly without being overheard.
“Listen, Tammy. Your mother and Leah are busy out back. If we drive into town right now, you can do what you have to do.”
So he knows I want to get away. And if he knows, who else knows? But if Hugh takes me to Cresthaven, I could phone Auntie Ruth from the store.
“Okay, let me finish this up and then I’ll go.”
Hugh waves as if to say, drop that. “Let’s get while the getting’s good.”
We get in and he backs the old panel van down the driveway. Soon we pass the KEEP SWEET sign, and then the bigger ones to keep away the Gentiles. We’re in town in fifteen minutes. It’s not a long drive.
Hugh cruises down the full length of the main drag. It takes maybe five minutes to do this, and then he asks, “You want to go for ice cream right away or maybe just drive around a bit?” I know he wants to keep driving so I tell him to go right ahead and he goes back out onto the highway again. We get going a really good speed, just like the tourists, as if we were heading to Castlegar. The sun is baking the countryside and it’s dry and stark, like everything is standing out in sharp relief. I crank down the window and rest my right arm on the door. The mountains are going by and I’m trying to spot coyotes or deer out the window, but all I can make out is the skittering of ground squirrels through the dry grass. Far away to the west I can see a couple of eagles high in the sky.
“You know what I’m thinking?” Hugh looks over at me for a moment, then back at the road.
“What?” I’m trying to guess.
“I’m thinking we should just forget about Merciful and keep on driving.”
“Where would we go?”
“Vancouver? What for?”
“Just to get away. To get lost. I’ve got some money.”
“What would we do?”
“Look. You don’t want to marry Dad, right?”
I don’t answer.
“You don’t have to say. Anyway, listen, Tammy. I made a big mistake last week. Big, big mistake.” He slaps the dashboard with his right hand.
“Mistake? What did you do?”
“I told Dad that now that I’m old enough, I want to marry you.”
I clasp my hands in my lap and look down at them. I feel both pleased and ashamed. I don’t want to marry either of them. I want to stay in school. Finally I ask, “So what did he say?”
Hugh waves his hand, but doesn’t say anything for a moment. We’re going faster than the speed limit and I wonder if I should mention it. “He told me I was speaking out of my proper place and he’s going to ask the Prophet to send me on a mission to straighten out my attitude.”
“A mission? Like to Utah or Arizona or something?”
“Arizona. I’m supposed to leave tomorrow. But here’s what I think. He’s just getting rid of me so he can have you. The same thing happened to Simon Cartwright, remember? When he was old enough to get married, they sent him away, too.”
“He was the one that wanted to marry Esther, right?”
“Right. But Elder Thornton wanted Esther.”
Hugh keeps driving west.
I consider Hugh’s offer. Hugh notices how fast he’s driving and slows down a little. I think about what would happen if I say yes. It probably wouldn’t even work. How far would we get before they called the police? Could we stay lost for long, with me under age? How would we explain it?
On the other hand, what did I have to lose? If I try to call Auntie Ruth, she might not be able to take me in, since she lives so close to Merciful. The elders could give her a lot of trouble. And how could I repay her, if I just showed up on her doorstep? That might not work either.
“I’ve got to warn you, though,” Hugh says after a while.
I look up.
“If you run away, they might just replace you with somebody else. Somebody younger, if you know what I mean.”
I gasp. “Diana? You mean Diana! Oh, my God, Hugh! They wouldn’t do that, would they?”
Hugh shrugs. “I’ve heard father saying that the Prophet wants to start marrying off girls before they get rebellious.”
Diana. One time when she was little, she was crying because she was scared of a thunderstorm, and I hugged her and promised her I would protect her forever. I want to keep that promise. But how can I?
“Hugh, can we just sneak back and grab Diana and take her with us?”
“Tammy, there’s no time! If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to go now.”
I sit for a moment, thinking. If I run off with Hugh and it doesn’t work out and I go back to Merciful, I’ll be punished severely. But if we go back, I’ll have to leave school so I can marry Shem Fillmore and have babies. I don’t think I can face that. But I’m afraid of leaving, too.
Finally I wave my hand at the road ahead. “O.K., Hugh. Let’s go. Let’s get lost.”
About the Author
K. Gordon Neufeld
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Alplaus, NY 12008
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