I’d like to think that if I’d been home, they would have told me he was coming. Or that they didn’t know he was coming and that’s why I didn’t know either. I’d like to believe that my family wouldn’t ambush me like that, but after everything that’s happened, believing such things is just about impossible. I’m sure now that they did know, and whether I had been home or not, whether he surprised them or not, it doesn’t matter. Wouldn’t have mattered. I still would have run, and nothing would be different.
I walked up into the yard of the compound that late afternoon without the slightest idea that anything had changed. It was early summer, and I had a bucket brimming with the first ripe blackberries and sweet dewberries, an old cloth sack full of odds and ends I’d found, plus my blanket roll, which I always took now that I was allowed to sleep out in the woods. I could go farther that way, find new things to see and maybe bring back. It wasn’t like there were too many people around to do me harm, and those woods were my home—I knew them better than any stranger ever could. It was too early in the season to be real hot yet, and I was singing and galloping along like a silly little girl, and then I looked up and everyone was standing real still watching me. I take that back; the man was watching me, and Ruth was, but Papa was watching the man.
He was not as old as either of them but a lot older than me. I guessed he was about the age my mama would be now. My mother got me in sin, with one of the last of the travelers to ever come down the hi-way, but since almost no one could have babies anymore, the ways of thinking on that had changed. Now, Papa argued, it would be a bigger sin not to try to plant more children on God’s still-green earth, and if there was not a suitable husband for a woman who was able, then he guessed the Lord would send her a chance some other way. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he would say, “that is not always for us to understand.” Papa Solomon had a lot of ideas about the ways things have changed and the messages God is sending to us by way of those changes. He said since Jesus has not come back and the Rapture has not occurred, that is how we know that God means for us to keep on struggling in His name. He will let us know when it’s time to lay down our weary load, and until then ours is not to wonder why. Our job is to read the signs He is sending and try to do His will. I wonder now if Papa wasn’t confusing God’s will with his own, but back then it didn’t occur to me that he might not be right about everything. I was raised to question the world but never Papa.
Anyway, this man was about the age my father might have been, but I knew he was not my father the second I laid eyes on him. I didn’t know who he was, but as soon as I saw him, the understanding of why he was there flew all over me like an awful swarm of gnats. I closed my eyes and mouth and held my breath against the knowledge, hoping I could make that swarm move on if I didn’t let them in, but I knew I couldn’t. In the best case, he was there to marry me, and failing that, if we didn’t spark to each other in that way, he was there to put his seed in me while everyone prayed it would find fertile ground. Because I was the last hope, and if I could not have a baby, the bloodline would die out. According to Papa, we were some of the last living people in the former state of Alabama and probably some of the last godly people on earth. Since my mama was able to have me, there was a chance I was also immune to the sickness that had left most women barren. It was down to me to bring new life into the world, and instead of facing up to it like the godly woman I was raised to be, all I wanted to do was run away like a little girl.
I guess deep down, I had known this was coming, or something like it. In a way, I had spent my whole life being made ready for it. This was my purpose, they told me. Even my name came from the Hebrew word for mother. But I wasn’t ready. Not for that! It’s one thing to be talked to about such things, but it is something else altogether to just come home one day and find your possible husband standing in the yard like he has every right to be there.
“Ami,” Ruth said, her voice kind and quiet like always, but also sounding a little bit strange. “There you are, child. We was about to send out the search parties.” This was a little joke, since we scarcely had enough people to scrape together a single search party, much less parties. I didn’t say anything, since I knew as well as she did that she had not been expecting me back any sooner. Also, I did not want to open my mouth at all. It felt real important to hold all of myself in, even my voice.
“Cat got ’er tongue?” the man asked Papa with a little laugh. I saw right then how it was. He did not ask me if the cat had my tongue, and he did not address Ruth although she stood closer to him. This was men’s business. It didn’t matter if the cat had my tongue, because I would have no say in the things about to happen.
“Well now,” Papa said, “she is prolly just surprised is all. We don’t get too much company out here these days. She ain’t used to strangers.” Papa said everything real slow and deliberate, no matter who he was talking to or what the subject was. He knew that he was the final authority at Heavenly Shepherd, and that meant he did not have to bother with raising his voice or explaining himself any more than he ever felt like. As he spoke these words to the stranger in his same patient way, he looked at me and the message was clear. I had better get my tongue back real fast. I’d been taught manners, and I’d better act like it.
“Hey,” I said stupidly. It was all I could think of. I cast my eyes to the ground but saw the full berry bucket and cloth sack still in my hands, so I held them out to Ruth and stepped forward. “Berries are just comin’ ripe, but I still found plenty. Queen’s lace was bloomin’, so I dug some of the carrots for you too.” I handed it all to Ruth without looking up.
“Our Ami is a real good little forager,” Papa said. It was rare praise, and it should have made me feel good, but it didn’t. “Been raised to know what is safe and good to eat and what ain’t since she was a babe. Can hunt too.” This last was stretching the truth—I wasn’t much of a hunter at all, and Papa knew it.
“That right?” The stranger looked at me then, letting his eyes move from the top of my head to the tips of my toes like he was sizing me up and maybe didn’t like what he saw. But when those eyes met mine, he made his face blank. Now, I had never seen more of myself than could fit in my little round mirror with a lid that closed, which I kept hidden in a secret place in my room. So I knew only a little bit about how I looked, but I knew even less about what a man likes to see. My hair was coppery red and crazy curly, and pieces of it tended to pull loose from any braid or tie I could contrive. I wished I could cut it off, but Papa preached that it was ungodly for women to wear their hair short like a man’s. I was not allowed to wear pants for this same reason. I had on a long shift dress made of the same speckled muslin as all our clothes, but I had dyed it blue with spiderwort. My feet were bare as usual and dirty from the long walk. I thought of the way the little circle of my face looked in that pocket mirror, tanned by the sun and freckled all over, with goldy-green eyes set wide apart. I had no idea if any of that was good or bad, so I decided to try to focus on what I saw instead.
“Yessir, that is right,” Papa replied. “Knows how to set snares and fish too. Knows how to garden and put up what she grows. Her grandmother there has taught her all the ways of a godly woman in these strange times.” Ruth looked pleased at this, but I still could not feel good about anything Papa was saying.
“Who shall find a good woman?” the man replied, and I knew he was not asking a question. He was quoting the Proverbs, trying to get on Papa’s good side. For some reason, this made me mad enough to really look at him. I noticed right off that he was tall and bony. His hair and eyes were both real light, and he had a beard the same whitish-yellow as his hair. Maybe it was those light blue eyes, almost clear like ice, but it seemed to me that there was a coldness about him that I did not like. His pants and shirt were both a dusty gray, and he looked hungry. Ruth must have thought so too, or else she read my mind, because the next thing she did was ask him to come inside and eat.
“We was just about to eat supper, Mr. Johnson,” she said. “Won’t you join us?”
“It’s Ezekiel, ma’am, but please, call me Zeke,” he said. “I have not ate much since I left our property yesterday morning, if you’re sure there’s enough.” I could tell what it cost him to add that last politeness, and it softened me to him, just a little. I was lucky enough not to know what real hunger was. Ruth said the way we lived at Heavenly Shepherd was primitive compared to the way things once were, but that we had luxuries that plenty would kill for now. That was because my great-great-grandfather, Jedidiah Miles, went overboard on the planning and laying in supplies, and also because there ended up being nowhere near as many people on the compound as he planned.
One of the people who should have been there with us, enjoying all of Jed’s foresight and supplies, was my mama, forced to run away and leave me for her parents to raise. I thought of her as I stood there in the yard, looking up at that strange man, not of my choosing, who had been brought to make a baby with me. What would she think of that, I wondered, after all she had given up to keep me safe? She had to leave her home and her family to avoid being picked up and taken to a C-PAF—Center for the Preservation of the American Family—and bred to strangers. Was this really all that different? But no sooner had these thoughts flashed into my mind than I shooed them away. Of course it was, I told myself. This was God’s will, and I figured my mama would tell me that herself if she could. This man was not a monster; I just didn’t know him yet. We would have time, wouldn’t we, to talk and learn about each other? Please Lord, I prayed as I followed the three of them into the main house, just give me some time.
Ruth had gone all out for supper, so I knew then that she had been expecting company. She’d killed a chicken and stewed it in salty broth with the soft dumplings that were my favorite. I couldn’t decide if this was by way of apology or her sign to me that something special was about to happen. There was a big pot of young poke leaves, boiled in three changes of water and then scrambled with eggs from the henhouse. The first muskmelons were in, and she had cut one into neat cubes and put them with new blueberries in a clear glass bowl to show off their pretty colors. There were warm rolls of soft white bread and fresh-churned butter. That meal was a message to the man, and I read it loud and clear. This was my dowry, meant to sweeten the pot. Looking over the table spread with food like this man had probably never seen, a worried thought crossed my mind: How ugly am I, if it takes all this to entice a starving man?
I didn’t know where that thought came from, and I tried to send it away. I tore my eyes from the table and looked where everyone else was looking: at the man. His eyes were welling up with tears that did not quite spill over, and his hands shook. I knew he had probably never had white bread in his life, for starters. Most people hadn’t had the foresight to stockpile things like flour, salt, and sugar, at least not like Jed had. From the looks of him, this man, Zeke Johnson, had not seen food of any kind for more than just the day and a half he claimed it took him to get to our place. I tried to feel compassion for him, a hungry stranger who, after all, had not done me any wrong or harm. I was being selfish and mean-spirited, and I knew that if Ruth could read my thoughts, she would be ashamed of me.
Copyright © 2020 by Kristy Dallas Alley