Read Sins of a Shaker Summer Online
Authors: Deborah Woodworth
Patience closed her eyes and raised her face toward the ceiling. She stretched out her arms and turned, slowly at first, then faster into a twirl. She halted so suddenly that her billowing dress kept swirling back and forth around her. Her outstretched arm now pointed toward the brethren, apparently singling out Andrew and Wilhelm.
“And you!” Patience said, her voice deepening as if speaking now for a male angel. “You have sinned in deed.”
Patience's arms dropped to her side and hung limply. Her head slumped toward her chest as if a puppeteer had dropped the strings. “Patience, are you ill?” Rose asked. “Do you need help?” Patience shifted her gaze to Rose's face. Her eyes were dark as loam.
“Mother's angels would never harm me,” she said. “They know my strength. And they will use me to tell the truth.”
For Norm, with love
As always, my gratitude goes to my writers' group: Tom Rucker, Peter Hautman, Mary Logue, Becky Bohan, Marilyn Bos, and Larry Rogers; to my editor, Patricia Lande Grader; my agent, Barbara Gislason; and, of course, my family.
The North Homage Shaker village, the town and the county of Languor, Kentucky, and all their inhabitants are figments of the author's imagination. The characters live only in this book and represent no one, living or dead. By the 1930s, the period in which this story is told, no Shaker villages remained in Kentucky or anywhere else outside the northeastern United States. Today one small Shaker community survives, Sabbathday Lake, near Poland Springs, Maine. The Pleasant Hill Shaker community (near Harrodsburg, Kentucky) closed in 1910, but the village has been restored and is open to visitors who wish to see how Believers lived during the nineteenth century.
ETSY GRUMBLED, PLUNKING
her cracked white teacup on the ground. The melting heat of a Kentucky July edged her voice with irritation.
“If you are thirsty, then you must drink more tea,” said Nora, a whole year older, in the stern voice she reserved for younger children whose imaginations wavered. She lifted an invisible teapot and poured air into Betsy's cup. With prim concentration, she set the pot back on the moss under the sugar maple they had chosen for their tea-party canopy. “Mother Ann made the tea herself, you know. An angel kept it warm under his wing as he brought it down to me. So you just have to keep drinking it until you stop being thirsty.” She sat cross-legged and brushed a dusting of dry dirt from her loose-fitting, pale blue dress, a facsimile of an adult Shaker sister's work dress.
“But it isn't really real,” Betsy said. Her face scrunched into a pout. “I keep being thirsty 'cause this is just pretend tea.” She slapped the cup away. Soft brown curls fell across her flushed forehead, and she pushed them off with a swipe of her hand. Both girls had tossed aside the thin cotton caps that usually covered their hair.
From under her own dress, Betsy's stomach rumbled noisily. “My tummy hurts,” she said.
“Well, silly, then you must eat more of your magical salad.” With two hands, Nora lifted a blue flower from a
pile next to her and placed it on a broken white plate in front of Betsy. Next to the new flower sat a white one, with several bites missing, nestled in a bed of nibbled leaves. Nora licked her fingers as if savoring juices.
Betsy was not to be convinced. “The other flower tasted bad. I don't want any more.” She scooted back against a tree and pulled her knees up to her stomach.
Nora clucked her tongue with impatience. “I keep telling you, this is a magical salad, and it tastes wonderful. What's wrong with you, Betsy? You're not any fun at all today.”
“Nora, I want to go back now. My tummy really hurts. I want Sister Charlotte.” Her voice rose to a tearful wail. She hugged her knees tightly and began to rock. “We're not supposed to be here,” she added, her small voice starting to quiver. “Charlotte will be mad that we sneaked off.”
Nora frowned, but she sensed defeat, and her own stomach felt queasy, too. “All right,” she said, “but we have to clean up first.” Her insistence had less to do with neatness than with hiding evidence of their unsanctioned outing. She gathered the two cracked cups and the broken plate and slid them into their hiding place, a pile of leaves. The flowers they had used for their meal, she dropped into the nearby undergrowth. Betsy did not help her. She clutched her knees against her stomach as if the pressure was a relief, and beads of perspiration appeared on her pale forehead.
“Mama,” Betsy said, her voice soft and breathless. “Mama, the boys are pulling my pigtails.” She grabbed at her short hair. “Make them stop, make them stop.”
“What? Betsy, your mama is .Â .Â . She isn't here anymore, remember?” Nora clutched Betsy's shaking shoulders. The younger girl's mother, and father as well, had been dead for two years, which was why the Shakers were raising her. Nora slipped her arm around the smaller girl and urged her to her feet. “Come on, I'll get you home, don't worry.” Betsy shivered and moaned. Nora felt none too well herself, and she was close to panic. If they didn't get back, she thought, Sister Charlotte would blame her, and that would
be awful. All the children adored Charlotte; she was firm but kind. Sneaking off to the woods for a play tea party would earn her wrath.
“Come on, quickly,” Nora urged. By now, Betsy was gasping for air. The two girls staggered out of the woods, past the herb fields and the old cemetery. Betsy's legs wobbled, and she tripped over a tree root. Both girls fell to their knees. Nora struggled to her feet.
“Please, Betsy, please get up,” she begged. She hooked her elbows under Betsy's shoulders and yanked her upright. Nora felt her strength ebbing and wished she could curl up in a ball to soothe her own stomach. But the image of Charlotte's anger kept her going, especially when she thought about Charlotte telling Eldress Rose how disobedient they'd been. To be in the bad graces of both women was more than Nora could bear to contemplate. She tightened her grip on Betsy and forced her feet forward.
They cleared the herb fields, and the Center Family Dwelling House came into view. At least, she thought it was the dwelling house. It seemed to be moving, rippling like a lake in the wind. Betsy crumpled in Nora's arms. Whimpering with fear and her own pain, Nora let Betsy slide to the grass, then stumbled toward the building. The thick grass seemed to clutch at her feet, pulling her down. The sky began to twirl around her head, then turned green, and she was dimly aware that she had fallen. Her stomach lurched. She curled into a tight ball.
From somewhere nearby, Nora thought she heard a voice call her name. She lifted herself on one elbow but could push no higher. Through half-closed eyes, she looked toward the sound. She saw a movement, and the movement became an angel in flight. Voluminous robes billowed around the hovering figure. It was carrying something. More tea? Yea, it must be more magical tea, Nora thought. The tea. They shouldn't have sneaked away, shouldn't have had the tea. She squinted again at the creature, now leaning
over her, and saw that it was a devilâa monster with a huge head. Just like Janey had said. Nora cried out, flailed her arms, but the thing caught her in a viselike grip, and her struggling ended.
EST GET OVER HERE FAST
barked into the phone. “We've got two very sick little girls here at the Infirmary, and I'm not certain they'll make it.”
Rose Callahan, eldress of the dwindling North Homage Shaker community, dropped her notes for Sunday's homily and raced out the door of the Ministry House, stuffing errant red curls under her cap as she ran. She found Josie in one of the Infirmary's larger rooms, tending the girls in two adult-sized cradle beds. Josie scurried between the beds as fast as the heat and her plump, eighty-year-old body would let her.
“What happened? Any idea?” Rose asked. She grimaced at the rank smell of sickness in the room, but forced herself to concentrate. She bent over a narrow bed containing a pale girl who moaned and jerked as Rose touched her cheek; it felt clammy.
“Gretchen was carrying some clean laundry to the Trustees' Office when she found them lying in the grass. Betsy was barely conscious, and Nora seemed to be hallucinating before she passed out.”
“Have you alerted Wilhelm?”
“Nay, haven't had time. The girls came to long enough for me to give them some Ipecac to empty their stomachs and some valerian to calm their convulsions. I think they are done being sick for now, but I haven't dared leave them
alone.” Josie sloshed some rose water into a bowl to sweeten the air, but it did little good.
“I'll stay with them,” Rose said. “I can shout for you if there's a change for the worse.”
Josie nodded. “I'll call Brother Andrew, too.”
Rose tossed a questioning glance at her.
“I suspect they ate something they shouldn't have,” Josie said. “Andrew has studied pharmacy much more recently than I. He might have some ideas about what on earth we should do for these children. There's no point in calling to Languor for help, with Doc Irwin recovering from that heart attack, and it would take too long to get a doctor from another town.”
When Josie had left, Rose opened all the windows. Even a sticky breeze was better than the fetid, oppressive air in the hot room. A rocking chair with a faded woven seat waited in the corner for visitors. She placed it between the two cradle beds. She was just able to see over the sides of both beds, so she could watch for changes in the girls' conditions. She rocked herself and began to calm downâuntil Nora cried out. Rose hurried to her side. The child's body shivered and writhed, pulling loose the sheet Josie had tucked around her.
“Quiet, now, Nora. It's all right,” Rose said, placing a calming hand on the girl's chest. Nora muttered a few syllables, and Rose bent near her.
“Angel,” Nora whispered. “Bad angel .Â .Â .” Rose could hear the girl's shallow breathing and felt her neck for a pulse; it was weak. Nora's eyelids flew open, and her dilated pupils fixed Rose with a haunting stare. Just as suddenly, the girl's eyes closed, and her body convulsed.
Rose sensed someone behind her and turned. Brother Andrew Clark, North Homage's new trustee, stood a few feet from Nora's bed. His tall, thin body was motionless, shoulders hunched forward with tension. Damp and disheveled dark brown waves fell over his forehead as if he had just run through the wind. He muttered something under his
breath, stared briefly at the ceiling, then approached the shivering child.
“Wilhelm's out in the far fields,” Josie said from the doorway. “I've sent one of the boys for him. What has happened? Has Nora taken a turn for the worse?”