For as long as Sara could remember, she jolted awake every morning, startled to be alive. Whenever her father looked at her, she imagined him calculating the width of her neck and the degree of pressure he would have to exert in order to snap it. This preoccupation with her own demise had become a morbid distraction, preventing her from planning her life further ahead than minute by minute. Yet somehow those minutes had stacked up over the past fifteen years, propelling her to this day.
Waiting by her father’s dilapidated truck, Sara shivered despite stagnant desert air that had choked the valley for months. Swallowing hard, she fixed her gaze on the temple with its starchy white bell tower etched across the burnt umber of the foothills. It stood in reverent splendor and jarring contrast to the chalky aluminum meeting hall where Prophet Silver would soon decide whom she would marry.
Sara eyed movement behind the dirty mesh of the screen door leading into their home. Rachel emerged from the house with a bounce to her step. “Ready?”
Sara nodded, overwhelmed by Rachel’s beauty and excitement. If only she could borrow a little of both, then perhaps she wouldn’t feel so doomed.
Their father surged through the back door, followed by a swarm of women and children. He pecked the cheeks of the four women and ruffled the heads of the toddlers. Approaching the truck, he actually smiled. It was a big, toothy grin that split his cheeks in two like a cracked egg. He flung open the passenger door and the two sisters piled in.
“You girls need to pray,” he ordered, thrusting the truck into reverse and throwing an arm across the seat as he pivoted to look behind him. “Ready your hearts and minds to receive Prophet Silver’s words with humility.”
Sara closed her eyes to pray, but she was disturbed by her father’s presence. He smelled like skewered beef and heavy grease, the stench originating from the goop he applied to his hair every morning. Despite the gel, the hair behind his ears flipped outward, reminding Sara of the headgear on a ram.
The car shot forward on the gravel road.
Sara’s stomach pitched. This was it. She cast a glance toward her sister, who had immediately bowed her head and closed her eyes. Sara did the same, but not a single prayer came into her mind. It was rumored that the prophet could peer into a soul and pluck out the one thing a sinner was most intent on hiding. That alone should jump-start the prayers, but it didn’t. Sara pressed her leg against Rachel’s and was comforted by the reassuring pressure back. Maybe she wasn’t praying either.
Planters filled with an assortment of spiky cacti, some as big as bathtubs, marked the entrance to the meeting hall. Thin, gun slit–shaped windows straddled the doorway of the metal building.
Sara followed Rachel and her father on wobbly legs. The foyer was deserted and their steps echoed in the empty building as they made their way to the prophet’s office.
The prophet was an elderly man, yet he exuded a youthful energy and an intensity that seized Sara in the gut. Taller than her father’s six feet, he loomed large with his lumpy nose and square jaw. Hard, gray eyes were crosshatched with seventy years’ worth of wrinkles. She had never been this close to him. It felt both humbling and frightening. Sara wanted to bolt for the door.
“Good to see you again, Brother Abraham,” Silver said, briskly shaking their father’s hand.
“We’re honored to be here.”
Silver turned toward them. “It’s not every day my office is graced with such lovely young ladies.” Sara flushed at the moist palms she presented. His eyes barely brushed hers before moving to Rachel. Wrapping two massive hands around hers, he held them while soaking up her beauty. “You must be Rachel.”
“Yes, sir.” Rachel kept her head down. Sara watched in horror as the prophet wrenched her chin up with his forefinger, forcing her to maintain eye contact. He was the closest person to God that Sara had ever met, and yet all she wanted to do was shield Rachel from his penetrating gaze.
“You will look at me when I address you.”
Sara held her breath. She knew what an effort it was for Rachel to maintain eye contact with any adult, much less the Chosen One.
“Yes, sir,” Rachel whispered. She cleared her throat, and spoke louder. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Good girls submit and receive blessings. Willful girls rebel and are cursed,” the prophet said. “Do you choose total submission over rebellion, blessings over curses, the Celestial Kingdom over hell? Will you submit to the divine authority deeded to me by the heavenly Father in the Law of Placing?”
“I do,” said Rachel. He dropped his hands, turning to look at Sara.
She echoed Rachel’s proclamation, but the words rang hollow in her ears. She didn’t care who the prophet had chosen for her. Her future consisted of minute-by-minute survival, and that was all.
Still, a bubble of curiosity percolated in her chest.
“Good.” The prophet smiled paternally. “Please take your seats.”
Several maroon leather chairs were arranged in front of an enormous mahogany desk. Walking behind it, Prophet Silver took a seat and shuffled papers. Sara’s upper lip went numb as it did when she was frightened.
The prophet cleared his throat, picked up a pair of glasses and settled them low on his nose. “Now to business.”
He looked down at a sheet of paper on his desk, then back up, catching Sara and her sister under his penetrating stare. “The two of you will become the mothers of our future priesthood holders. Perhaps your own sons will be called to a position of great authority on the Ruling Council. That is an enormous responsibility, and one that I do not take lightly when placing girls in a blessed union. Normally, my role is straightforward. As a girl comes of age, a member of the community will come to me with a testimony asking for the hand of that girl. I then pray for guidance and will receive an answer from the Almighty.”
Sara sensed her father’s movement as he nodded in agreement with the prophet’s words.
Prophet Silver continued, “Sometimes, the Lord speaks to me immediately, and the couple becomes sealed for all eternity within weeks of the initial testimony of marriage. Other times, the Lord has different plans that may take months or even years before divine inspiration is received.”
Sara suppressed a nervous smile. She thought of a few of those girls whom no man had ever received a testimony to marry. There was Henny Reynolds, a woman well into her twenties, who had been born with a severe limb deformity that caused her arms to resemble two tiny chicken feet. Julia Walker, a friend of their mothers, had scaly skin that rose from the collar of her dress and wrapped around her neck like a reptilian choker. Several other girls came to mind, all suffering from some affliction or another and all of whom remained single.
Prophet Silver leaned back in his chair and plucked the glasses off his nose. Looking right at Rachel, he said, “You’re approaching your sixteenth year and still have not been placed. Sara is several months younger than you, but she must wait until you make your endowment before she too can be married.” The prophet stroked his chin. “However, a situation has developed that will further delay your endowment.”
Sara darted a quick look at Rachel, whose bottom lip had begun to tremble. She wanted to reach out and grasp Rachel’s hand to steady her.
“We’ve had sixteen testimonies from various members of the community.” The prophet leaned back.
Sara thought she might be sick. She pressed her index finger against her upper lip, testing its obedience.
“You mean to tell me,” Father said, “that sixteen men have received testimony for Rachel?”
“Correct,” Prophet Silver said. “And to complicate matters, several of these revelations have come from very holy men that sit on the Council.”
Father leaned forward. “Who are these brothers?”
“That is not your concern.” The prophet picked up the pages and slid them into a folder. “The problem is that you waited until your daughters were fifteen before seeking my guidance. Most men consult with me when their girls reach the age of preparedness at thirteen.”
“But the obligation only says I need to bring them no later than fifteen.”
“True, but not when you have a daughter such as Rachel who is exceptionally blessed.”
Dread settled in Sara’s stomach. Sara was a little surprised at his use of the word “blessed” to describe her sister’s beauty. Whenever a woman was called blessed, it was always in reference to her fertility.
Rachel’s beauty had impacted her own family all her life. She had thick chestnut hair, sea green eyes that blazed gold in certain lights and a sweet nature that inspired love and rage in equal parts from those who lived with her. The children all adored her, but the mothers occasionally treated Rachel as a threat. It was her father’s anger, however, that most concerned Sara. As Rachel’s beauty grew, so did their father’s rage.
Father cleared his throat. “What am I supposed to do?”
“The Lord has special plans for your daughter. I didn’t realize it until I saw her. I must pray about this before I make any decision.” Prophet Silver cleared his throat and turned to Rachel. “Obviously, there is something about you that has caused these men to confuse their desires for divine intercessions. Have you in some manner enticed these men?”
Rachel shook her head in a slow, ambiguous way.
“That remains to be seen.” Prophet Silver turned to their father. “I need to see Rachel privately in my office to discuss this matter further. Is this acceptable to you?”
“Of course.” Her father’s voice sounded defeated as he squirmed in his seat. “What about my younger girl? Don’t she have to wait ’til Rachel is placed?”
Sara held her breath. For the first time in weeks, she felt hope. Perhaps she would have time to finish school before making her marriage covenant.
“Walter Merrick has received the testimony for her hand. I prayed about it and God ordained that Sara will belong to Brother Walter.”
Sara clenched her teeth to bite back a scream. Suddenly the room seemed smaller and the air stingier. She grasped the arms of the chair as though readying herself for flight. Only there was nowhere to run.
“After Rachel is married, Sara will follow suit. In the meantime,” Prophet Silver turned to Sara, “consider yourself engaged.”
“But he’s my . . .” Sara’s heart pummeled against her chest. Her tongue tangled before she could get the rest of her protest out.
“Do you dare question the will of the Lord?”
“No, sir, no . . .” Even though it had been an hour since she’d eaten, Sara’s lunch crawled back up her throat. She looked at Rachel, whose features were clenched in a silent plea, imploring her not to challenge him. Suddenly the words her mother gave her came to her. “I . . . I’m filled with gratitude for my heavenly placement.”
“Good. You will be blessed in this union.”
She had no choice but to accept the dictates of the prophet. She would marry her father’s half-brother. Even death would offer her no reprieve, because once she became sealed to her uncle in the temple, the bond survived the grave. She would become her uncle’s wife for all eternity.
“Well,” the prophet said, brushing the folder aside, “I think we’ve had a very fortuitous meeting.” He seemed to be enjoying himself, as if destroying her life was entertainment. His head pivoted toward Rachel. “I’ll be in touch.” His eyes traveled from the tips of Rachel’s feet all the way up to her face. His expression troubled Sara. He didn’t seem concerned with her sister’s salvation, but with something else. Sara wrapped her arms around her middle. An incredible sense of loss welled in her, bleak and suffocating. Their childhoods were over.
Her father held the door open for the girls, allowing them to exit ahead of him. The gesture, full of innocence, waved a red flag in Sara’s brain. As they climbed into the truck, Sara pulled Rachel close to her side. Her entire body braced against the unspoken threat.
He closed the door, gently, and then spun around with hands that came out swinging. They connected with Rachel’s tender face, and his words were sharp and stinging like the needle teeth of a piranha. “You filthy whore!” He grabbed a fistful of hair and jerked her head back. “How dare you throw yourself around this community like a slut? Even the most holy of men have been tempted by your ways!”
“I’m sorry . . .” Rachel held up her arms in a defensive posture. “I didn’t mean anything.”
“You never mean nothing.” He released her hair, yanked the gearshift and threw the truck into reverse. It backed away from the parking spot, moving surprisingly slow considering all the rage flying around the interior of the cab. When they turned the corner, her father gunned the engine, causing the wheels to spin out and spit gravel. They shot down the road.
“I must look like a father who can’t control his own daughter. You’ve shamed this family, and dragged my good name through the filth!” He slammed a fist against the steering wheel.
Sara plastered herself against the door of the cab, pulling her sister as close to her as possible. She took both of Rachel’s hands, feeling the tremors course through her body. Sara knew she should say something to defend her, but she couldn’t. It was almost as though she was flying outside her body, riding shotgun with these two strange girls who were being screamed at. She pinched her arm hard, trying to bring herself back to the moment.
“You know what the prophet said back there?” His voice had that dangerous tone to it. The one that caused the air to settle around Sara’s feet like a sullen mist. “He was saying that I don’t have control over my hussy daughter who’s out there tempting the most holy of men.”
“Father, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? You’ll be sorry when I finish with you.”
THEY had arrived home to a festive dinner. An elaborate three-tier lemon cake that Sara’s mother, Anna, no doubt had baked, presided triumphantly in the middle of the table. Anna loved to bake, and it was one of the few times Sara would see a genuine smile pierce her mother’s thin lips. But there was no celebration. The mothers bustled about, their faces tightening with anxiety as Father refused to tell them anything about the meeting. They dared not press him. Pure torment gripped Sara as she waited for Rachel to reemerge from the whipping shed. It seemed incredible to her that life transpired within the household. Shouldn’t alarms be ringing or prayers rushed to heaven while Rachel was being beaten? Instead, the home pulsed with the electrified chatter of her mothers, the whinnies of small voices trickling down from the boys’ bedroom and the clatter of dishes that were shunted from table to sink where Sara worked.
Through Sara’s little window, she watched the sickle-shaped moon brighten as the sun bled into the night. It enraged Sara that nobody, not even nature itself, cared what was happening to Rachel.
“Sara Anne, I am speaking to you!”
Sara jumped, nearly losing hold of a dish. She turned to look at Mother Marylee, her father’s first wife, a broad-hipped, thick-lipped woman who birthed Rachel, along with Rowan, Russell and Rudy. Sara secretly called her the Queen since she threw her power around and actually considered herself to be the most blessed since she was his first wife. In Sara’s eyes, the Queen had just married misery before the other three wives did.
“I’m sorry, I was just daydreaming.”
“I know what you were doing.” Mother Marylee nodded in the direction of the woodshed. “And you better stop doing it and pay attention to those dishes before you break something. Understand?” She planted another stack of dessert dishes on the counter.
“I’ll be more careful.”
Sara turned back toward the sink and immersed her hands in the oily water, but Mother Marylee stayed put. Her voice turned light and conversational. “So, what happened at the meeting?”
Sara could feel hot stares on her. Her back pinged as though assaulted by a thousand needle pricks. She pulled her shoulders together as though readying herself for a thump on the back of her head.
“It was all so strange,” Mother Marylee continued. “Your father wouldn’t even so much as look at the celebratory cake we made special. What did that girl do to get his ire up?”
That girl, Sara wanted to say, is your daughter and she has a name. Instead, Sara swallowed her anger and turned around to face Mother Marylee. “Nothing. Rachel did absolutely nothing.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute.”
“It’s true. It just all got mixed up.” Sara turned back to the sink and dropped her hands into the oily water.
“What do you mean, mixed up?”
Sara blew air toward her eyes, trying to stop them from filling with tears.
“I’m . . . I belong to Uncle Walter.” Sara glanced at Mother Marylee. For a split second, only a small comma-shaped curve at the corner of Marylee’s mouth revealed her satisfaction.
She nodded. “He’s a good man. You should be grateful. We’ll plan an engagement party next year when he gets back from his mission.”
Murmurs of congratulations came from behind her. Her stomach rollicked and the tears welled up. They smelled of salt. She batted them back. At least her betrothed was out of town for a while. Reality sank to her stomach. She would become a mother to her cousins and a wife to her uncle.
“And Rachel?” Marylee asked.
“The prophet doesn’t know yet.”
“What? You mean you’re to marry before Rachel?”
“No. It’s just that sixteen men have received testimonies for celestial marriage with Rachel.”
Marylee’s eyes brightened a notch, but her features remained impassive. Sara continued, “Prophet Silver said that he needs to pray about it.”
“Sixteen?” Sara’s birth mother asked.
Shaking her hands off, Sara grabbed the dish towel and turned around to face her birth mother. “Yes. And several of the testimonies were from apostles.”
Mother Marylee plopped into a kitchen chair as though the weight of the situation had knocked her off her feet. “Oh my word.”
Twenty-one-year-old Mother Jane hoisted baby Alice onto her lap. The baby shoved the end of her mother’s thin brown braid into her mouth and chomped contentedly.
The newest mother, Esther, turned to Marylee and said, “What does this all mean?” Esther had been raised as a traditional Mormon. She was smart and funny but less attractive than the other mothers. She had told Sara that Father had been her “first love.” Esther had been driving home from work at the nearby Wal-Mart when her car broke down. Sara’s father helped fix her tire and within a month she was sealed in marriage to Abraham as his fourth wife.
Marylee paced the floor with beefy thighs that slapped together with each step. She stopped to rub both cheeks with the flats of her hands. “I don’t know. I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“That’s why Father’s taken her to the shed. He says that she’s being a whore.”
Marylee stopped pacing. Sara couldn’t make out her features because her back was to her. Sara continued, “It’s not fair. Rachel is so quiet and shy.”
“Do not question your father’s authority!” Marylee spun around to face her. “She must have done something to get this beating.”
“It’s because we kept them in that public school last year,” Sara’s mother said, propping her elbows out so that her hands were wedged on her waist. Anna was all bones and sharp angles, and her clipped voice mirrored her eaglelike appearance. She had also birthed Sara’s younger brothers, Seth and Sammy. Rachel’s full brothers were all given “R” names, and Mother Jane’s kids’ names started with “A.” Father created that naming system to remember which kid belonged to which mother.
“Rachel must have received too much attention from the boys at school and has learned the sin of vanity,” Marylee said. “And who knows what else from the godless.”
Esther pivoted to face her. “Sister Marylee, you know that the school is at least a third full of Blood of the Lamb members. It’s hardly godless.”
Mother Esther had been the one responsible for cobbling together another year of high school for Rachel and Sara. “Besides, Rachel never calls attention to herself.”
“I don’t care if that school was populated one hundred percent by the community kids,” Marylee continued. “School officials still would force them to park their beliefs at the door and learn about the history of the Gentiles.”
“It’s called separation of church and state. I’m not saying it’s right, but they have to obey the law,” Esther said.
“The only law our children have to obey is the Lord’s.” Marylee snuffled with righteousness.
“They do have to function in the real world, you know,” Esther said.
Sara could have heard a pin drop in the kitchen. Turning back to the sink, she covered up the silence by rattling some silverware. She was grateful for Mother Esther’s defense of public school, but by doing so she had made a bad situation worse.
Mother Esther didn’t grow up a fundamentalist Mormon, and even though she converted, the other mothers never really trusted her. They had been taught all their lives that outsiders such as non-fundamentalist Mormons and Gentiles belonged to Satan.
Mother Marylee stood up. “How dare you! You’re responsible for this mess to begin with.”
“Responsible? How could I be responsible that men desire Rachel?” Esther sounded brave but had taken several steps away from Marylee.
“How dare you insult the intentions of these holy men!”
Esther snorted. “Holy? Horny is more like it.”
Sara didn’t know what “horny” meant. Mother Jane strode over to Mother Esther and slapped her solidly across the face. “How dare you!”
Mother Esther cupped her face, gaping at her sister-wives in shocked silence.
“Sara, get out of the kitchen now!” Mother Marylee screeched.
“But the dishes . . .”
Sara slapped her hands on the towel and rushed out the door.
Ignoring her brothers’ pleas to come and play, Sara continued up the stairs that led to the room she shared with Rachel. The attic was dark, with only thin cracks of evening light spilling around the towel that hung over the small window. Sara crouched to her knees and pushed the towel aside. With a quick swipe from her sleeve, Sara removed the condensation that gauzed the attic window: a product of a swamp cooler that was overburdened in the August heat.
She scrutinized the whipping shed. Clusters of pine trees towered above it, and a gust of wind fanned the evergreens, moving their needles like streamers across the metal rooftop.
The roar from a lone car echoing off the foothills pierced the whir of the swamp cooler fan. Sara wished she were in that car. She didn’t care with whom or where they were going, but it had to be better than here.
The condensation was filming the window again. As she lifted her sleeve to wipe it, she noticed the door to the shed had swung open. Sara released the towel, careful not to draw his attention up to her window.
Sara’s ears pricked from the rasp of the door latch moving stealthily across its cradle. Soft steps climbed the stairs. Their eyes met briefly in the dark before Rachel eased herself onto the mattress.
“Are you okay? Can I get you something?”
Rachel buried her face in the mattress. Sara wanted to reach out and cradle her sister, but she was afraid to. Instead, she studied her, looking for any exposed flesh that would indicate the degree of hurt. Her long skirt was pulled down to the top of her feet, which were clad in thick gray stockings. One loafer was partially suspended from her foot, the other lay on the floor.
Sara couldn’t find a single thing to say that would comfort her. A surge of anger quickened her pulse and curled her fingers into knotted fists. It was a sin to question the decisions of the priesthood holder in the family, but the way he treated Rachel didn’t make sense.
She suddenly felt sorry for herself. “How come you get sixteen proposals, and I get Uncle Walter?”
Rachel sucked air, shaking her head. “I don’t know . . .”
“Why couldn’t I look like you?”
Rachel’s head tilted in disbelief. “Why would you ever want to? You’re much prettier than I am.”
“Come on, I look like a horse.”
Everything about Sara was too long including her legs, arms and face. Being razor-blade thin didn’t exactly enhance her looks. She knew that she was not the beauty in the family, and even though she was grateful that she at least had a brain in good working order, she wished it was housed in a more attractive package.
She longed to be petite. Instead, she was only an inch shorter than her father and slid her feet into size-eleven shoes that clomped around, attracting unwanted attention. Although they made nearly all their own clothes, the community’s dry goods store didn’t stock women’s shoes that large, and her family refused to patronize the town’s Gentile-run shoe stores. Sara was forced to wear men’s shoes. She cringed at the absurd combination of prairie dresses and black lace-up work boots.
Her sister, on the other hand, was put together with a symmetry that bordered on the divine.
Sara sighed. “Is today for real? Or is this all a dream?”
“It was all too real.”
“I can’t believe I have to marry Uncle Walter.”
“You need to pray for acceptance,” Rachel said automatically. “This is a divine order from God.”
“So how do you explain the fact that there are currently sixteen divine orders from God, all of them contradicting the previous one, and all claiming a testimony for a celestial marriage to you?”
Rachel was silent for a moment. “I don’t know.”
“I do. Just watch. Prophet Silver will get his own revelation, and you’ll end up his wife, which would make you a mother to hundreds before you even turn sixteen.”
“That’s not going to happen.” Rachel’s voice pitched with rising panic. “If I was to become his wife, it seems to me he would have received a testimony by now.”
“He’s never seen you before today.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Sara shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Well, I’m keeping my heart open to the will of the Almighty.”
Sara wished she could have the faith that Rachel had. “Well, let’s hope God keeps quiet so we can have a chance to finish high school.” Sara paced the room, trying to dislodge the dread that was pitching its tent in her gut. “I’ll die without school.”
Rachel exhaled impatiently. “No, you won’t. I’m actually looking forward to getting married and having babies.” Rolling onto her stomach, Rachel tucked the pillow under her chin and looked thoughtful. “Maybe I’ll be a first wife.”
“Betting is a sin. Why not? Why can’t I become a first wife?”
“Because some of the testimonies came from the apostles, several of whom are ancient relics from the Stone Age.”
“Back before cutlery was invented.”
Rachel stared blankly at her.
Sara shook her head. “Forget it. The point I’m trying to make is that the apostles always get the pick of the litter and that’s you.”
“That’s not true. You’re much smarter than me and—”
“Men don’t want brains, they want . . .” Sara caught Rachel’s eyes for a moment as fear passed behind them. She fumbled for the right words. “They want . . . spiritual purity. A wonderful helpmate here and in the afterlife.”
“But that’s you.”
“No.” It bothered Sara that the apostles and the wealthier members always married the most beautiful girls. If marriage was supposed to be divinely ordained, why did this happen? The sacred tenets of the true Mormon faith required a man to have three wives in order to attain the “fullness of exaltation in the afterlife.” But they never seemed to stop there. The prophet had at least fifty wives. Sara chewed her lip saying a quick prayer of forgiveness. She needed to stop questioning the choices of the most righteous. Questioning them was no different from questioning God.
Sara glanced at her sister. Rachel looked as troubled as Sara felt. She cleared her throat. “Oh, who knows what kind of man the Lord has in mind for you. Maybe you’ll be a first wife.”
Rachel was slow to react. “You just said . . .”
“I know what I just said.” Grabbing a hairbrush off her nightstand, Sara methodically brushed her hair. “I’m to be cleaved for all eternity to Uncle Walter. What do I call him now? Uncle? Wally? Walt?” She lowered her head, letting the hair tumble across her face. Her strokes became harsher, and the pulling and pinching on her scalp was strangely comforting. “Do you think he’s mean like Father?”
“No, of course he’s not as mean as Father.” Rachel sucked in her breath as she realized what she had just admitted. “Father’s not mean. It’s just . . . he’s got a lot of responsibility. Our salvation rests on his shoulders.”
Sara couldn’t believe her sister could defend their father after a beating. Whenever Sara returned from a trip to the whipping shed, she cursed him in her pillow. She pounded the bed with her fists, imagining it was his face. Of course, she always prayed for forgiveness afterward. It endangered her soul to harbor such hateful thoughts toward her father.
Rachel wrapped her arms around her middle as though trying to keep herself from splitting in two. Sara swallowed the guilty knot that suddenly fisted in her throat. “Maybe your husband will be good looking and young.”
Sara averted her gaze as she lied. “Uh-huh. Think of the benefits of being the first wife. He’ll adore you and your children more than the other wives and kids. You can give thumbs-up or down to your husband’s future wife choices.” She hesitated, knowing the “Right of Sarah” was really more fiction than fact. It created the illusion that the first wife had a say in who would become a sister-wife, but to Sara’s knowledge, no wife had ever challenged her husband’s testimony. “And you’ll get to take his last name, which will keep you safe from any prosecution.”
Never far from anyone’s mind was the thought that the authorities might finally catch up with the families and their unlawful practices. When Sara was very young she had once told her mother, “I want to be the first wife when I grow up.” Her mother had slapped her across the mouth hard. Anna told her that harboring those thoughts was selfish and wicked. She warned her that if she didn’t watch it, God would punish her by placing her in the worst possible marriage: a union maligned with poverty and too many sister-wives. At first Anna’s reaction had stunned her, but eventually she suspected that her mother’s anger had to do with not being the first wife.
Rachel sat up. “Prayer time. We need to head downstairs for that.”
“Sometimes I hate prayer time.”
“Please don’t talk like that.”
Sara rocked on the milk crate. “It’s just . . . everything’s so confusing.”
Rachel shook her head. “You know this is our trial.”
“I know. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it.” The crate slipped away and Sara slammed hard on the floor. The sharp stab at the base of her tailbone was satisfying.
“What’s not worth it?”
“Going to the Celestial Kingdom, where all the wives will still live together, and you know what that means.” Sara lifted herself off the floor and walked to the swamp cooler and stood in front of it. “Endless fights.”
“There’ll be no strife in the Celestial Kingdom. You know that, Sara.”
“Do you sometimes wish we could pick our own husbands?”
“Why would I want that burden? What if I didn’t understand God’s intentions and made the wrong choice?”
Sara almost asked: what made Uncle Walter better qualified to know what God wanted for her life? But she bit back her words. She had no choice but to obey.
SARA woke up, scrubbing the sleep from her eyes. Her head was heavy with the weight of bad dreams. She cracked her lids and glanced toward the attic window where sunlight gilded the edges of the towel. She was alone. Rachel must have dressed and slipped downstairs without waking her.
Her future had been handed off torchlike from father to prophet at the meeting yesterday. Her conscious mind had not allowed her to grasp the fact that she would be marrying Uncle Walter; she just couldn’t bear to think about it.
Uncle Walter possessed powerful hands that were similar to her father’s. Her father’s hands terrified her. The thought of those hands jolted her awake many nights, causing her to claw at the air as though it was some elusive substance that she had to catch. She didn’t know if these dreams were premonitions or paranoia. Maybe it had been Uncle Walter’s hands around her neck all those nights. She rolled out of bed, trying to remember how many wives her fiancé had. Three or four. It didn’t matter.
She was the girl with no future.
Downstairs, Mother Esther was at the sink sniffling and Mother Marylee stormed about the kitchen as though the devil himself were nipping at her heels.
“Good morning,” Sara said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help with breakfast.”
No one acknowledged her. Sara pulled a chair out as Rudy spilled his milk. She lunged for some napkins to stop the spillage from leaking onto the floor. Mother Marylee yanked Rudy from his chair and shook him so hard that his head snapped back and forth like a marionette puppet.
“You clumsy idiot!” Marylee screamed.
“Leave him alone!” Esther said. “It was an accident.”
Sara sopped up the milk with a thin, ineffective napkin. Rachel jumped up, snatched a dishrag from the sink and returned to help.
“You! You have no business interfering with the way I discipline my child!” Marylee propelled Rudy away from the table before releasing him.
“Go! Get out of here.” Mother Marylee pushed his left shoulder. “All you kids go!”
Jane jumped up to usher her own children away. Sara knew she removed them to shield them from Marylee’s hands, rather than the situation. She was the most protective of the mothers. Unfortunately, that protection only extended to her biological children.
Chairs scraped the linoleum as children darted from the room.
“It was not your night last night, yet you took it anyway,” Marylee said to Esther.
Sara carried the soaked napkin to the trash. After depositing it, she turned to leave.
“It wasn’t my idea, you know,” Esther said.
Mother Marylee shot a look of pure hatred at Esther. “You’re lying!”
Sara sucked in a gasp, glancing at Rachel. With a dripping dishrag in her fist, Rachel stood transfixed. Marylee no longer seemed to notice they were there, and if she didn’t move a muscle, maybe she and Rachel would remain undetected.
Esther shrugged. “Just ask him.” The slightest hint of a smile threatened her show of ambivalence.
“It was my night,” Marylee said, spitting the words out like a bad taste.
Sara’s mother stepped into the hornet’s nest. “Sister Esther, I know you’re still new here. But you just can’t go taking another wife’s night with Abraham.”
“I know what the rules are, Anna. Maybe you should save the lesson for Abe.”
For the second time in two days, Esther had challenged her sister-wives. Sara was astonished by her newfound brazenness. Over the months, her other mothers had whittled the newest wife down to a mere shadow of her former self. Esther had once been outspoken, and she had even worn heavy makeup, probably to cover the pockmarks that dotted her face. She initially resisted wearing the ugly dresses, even appearing in pants to the first family dinner after she and Father were sealed. Eventually, Esther gave up her makeup and the clothes of a “wanton woman” and became quiet.
Anna raised her eyebrows in her scolding way. “Oh, I’ll give him a lesson all right. And it will be all about what you are really like.” She wagged her finger in front of Esther. “You haven’t fooled me one bit.”
Esther’s shoulders began to sag under wavering confidence. Sara stifled the urge to cheer Esther on, surprised at the total absence of loyalty toward her own mother.
“What the heck are you good for anyway?” said Mother Jane. “It’s been a year, and you’re still not pregnant.” She rubbed her soft abdomen proudly. “I was with child by the end of our honeymoon.”
Esther’s face brightened. “Abe invited me to his room last night. If you girls have a problem with that then you need to take it up with him.”
Mother Marylee shook a frying pan at Esther. “You listen here.” Sara’s heart raced. Was she really going to hurt her? “I don’t believe for a minute that Abe invited you to the room. Sunday nights have always been mine. It’s the holiest day of the week, and it’s reserved for the first wife.”
“Looks like he cancelled holy day,” Esther said.
Sara watched helplessly as Marylee lunged at Esther, the frying pan swinging within inches of her head. In a split second, Anna darted behind Marylee, yanking the raised weapon out of Marylee’s fist. The force of Anna’s tug in the opposite direction sent the frying pan helicopter-like through the air. It crash-landed onto the massive oak table. A loose windowpane rattled in protest.
“Sister Marylee, we need to be sensible here,” Anna said, as if she were reminding her to slow cook the roast, instead of reprimanding her for attempted murder.
Mother Marylee exhaled explosively. The women settled into the kind of stunned silence that came with the realization that a major catastrophe was narrowly averted.
“What’s goin’ on down there?” Father bellowed, his voice snaking through the air ducts.
Mother Marylee tilted her head in the direction of the stairs, listening for Father’s descent. Anger lapped her features as she stepped near Esther. “If you ever pull a stunt like that again, I’ll have you thrown out of my home. Is that clear?”
“Crystal,” Esther answered, squeezing past Mother Marylee’s ponderous hips. Tossing the broom and dustpan into the wedge between the fridge and countertop, she made a beeline for the adjoining living room.
“Whoa, easy there,” Father said, rounding the corner into the kitchen as Esther raced out. He took a quick survey of the tension in the room, bracketing Mother Esther to him until he decided what to do next.
Sara pulled herself, chameleonlike, into the paneling, hoping he would ignore her.
“What’s goin’ on here?” He nudged Esther back into the kitchen.
Marylee hooked her forearm through his and pulled him toward the kitchen table. Esther slipped from his grasp and hung back in the doorway.
Anna grabbed the basket of her fresh-baked biscuits that only he would be allowed to eat. She stood there holding them out, waiting, no doubt, for the moment she could announce her gift.
“Abraham, come sit with us and have breakfast,” Marylee said, in that silky voice that was reserved only for him. She stroked his black hair with one hand, while sliding a plate of eggs, scrambled with fresh tomatoes from her personal garden, in front of him. Sara thought she would vomit.
“What was all that commotion I heard down here?” He looked at each of the wives before settling on Esther. Sara could tell her mother wanted to talk about the biscuits, but now was not the right time. Anna clutched them to her chest and remained silent.
“We were so busy feeding the kids that I dropped a frying pan,” Mother Marylee said.
“Is that right?” Father’s eyes never left Esther’s face. Esther gave him a lopsided smile that resembled a stroke victim. He seemed satisfied by it though.
Sara wanted to shake her and scream, You almost got killed!
He dissolved into his chair looking exhausted before he even started his workday. He closed his eyes and cracked his neck first on one side and then the other.
Stealing a glance at Rachel, Sara mouthed the words, “Let’s go.”
Rachel nodded, and as they inched their way nearer to the family room, Esther looked directly at them, saying, “Wait, girls.”
Sara’s heart sank. They had almost gotten out of there without anyone really taking notice of their presence.
Grabbing an empty juice glass from the counter and clanking it with a spoon, Mother Esther said, “I have an announcement to make.”
Sara inched next to Rachel, not sure what to expect.
Sara was certain Esther expected at least a token kind word, if not exactly jubilation. What she got instead was dead silence. Her smile wavered before completely dropping off her face. All eyes turned to Father. His eyes bulged and red traveled from his neck to his forehead.
“Esther! You . . . I . . . This was not the place!” Father stood up, bolted past everyone and wrenched the back door open. His steps hammered down the stairs. He was gone.
“What? Wait!” Esther wrung her hands, tears pooling in her eyes. “I don’t understand.” She turned to follow him and then spun back to the table where the sister-wives glowered at her.
“Congratulations,” Rachel whispered.
With that one word, Rachel had placed her neck on the chopping block. Sara wished she was that brave, but her own lips had dissolved into numbness.
Esther looked around the room then burst into tears. She pushed past them, stumbling out of the kitchen.
Sara quaked with fear. Esther had no idea that she just violated the Law of Chastity. The law forbade sexual acts while expecting. Father knew of course, but that didn’t stop him. Not to mention that the patriarch always announces the pending arrival of a new child.
This was war, only Esther didn’t know it.