Issue No. 7, Winter 2013

Exaltation
Sarah Rakel Orton

Covered from neck to ankle in a heavy cotton dress, my hand on my father’s elbow, I approached the prophet and knelt before him. He lay ancient, polka-dotted hands on my head and recited a blessing I cannot remember. All I could see was his son standing beside him, smiling at me. Sun damage sprinkled his cheeks, and a few, almost invisible grey hairs strayed from his thinning, tightly combed hair.

I remembered my mother and father’s words; that it was an honor to be chosen as a wife for the prophet’s son. They were delighted at the announcement. At least, they claimed to be. The night after the ceremony, I lay in the bed I shared with two sisters, plagued by fears for my future with a man older than my father. In the stillness of my thoughts, I could hear my mother, sobbing quietly in the kitchen—in the bedroom, my father snored, oblivious to her absence.  I knew I would never see her sorrow; I would only hear it surreptitiously. Listening to her stifled cries, I fell asleep and dreamed of my baptism from years ago, white-gowned and immersed in cold water. I sunk beneath the prophet’s grasp, and he continued his braying prayers, even as I vanished like a stone flung into a well.

***

I waited for the wedding date like a condemned prisoner anticipating the swinging blade of the executioner. I tried to remind myself of the honor bestowed upon me, imagining the babies I would provide to our eternal family.  I told myself I was selfish to think only of myself; that fear was a manifestation of sin and selfish pride. My marriage was a gateway to heaven. I was born to be an obedient wife and fertile mother. Determined to bury my wicked reluctance, I attended Service every week, my posture a straight line to the sky.  I couldn’t help staring at my future husband’s wives—my future sister wives who sat before the congregation, displayed like a row of motley flowers.

There were seven, and they sat in order from youngest to oldest. Each had long hair pinned in braids, and downcast, solemn eyes. The oldest wife’s face was lined and rigid from years of devotion and labor. I’d heard rumors of her heated bouts of jealousy, even violence toward the younger wives—people whispered she’d been locked in a barn for weeks for disobeying her husband.

The youngest, Miriam, had been my best friend. Since her marriage at thirteen, two years ago, she was sequestered in the prophet’s home like a beautiful princess in a neglected tower. Every time I saw her, her husband’s hand gripped her arm or shoulder. I hadn’t seen her smile since we used to play in the fields beyond the complex with my brother Jacob, running with our hair free, pretending to take flight like the hawks who hunted for mice with shiny eyes and thick claws, the old family dog, Daisy, desperate to keep up.  We used to pick wild flowers and give them proudly to our birth mothers while Jacob sneaked a piece of warm bread. Like me, Miriam avoided her father’s other wives—they endorsed only their own broods, competing for my father’s attention like squabbling hens, their downy-haired children multiplying like a virus. Jacob had been my favorite sibling, the only one I could really talk to, the only one who’d kept my secrets, the only one who really looked like me.  I hadn’t seen him in over a year—not since the elders thought he’d shown too much interest in Miriam, for daring to speak to her in the company of older, eligible men. One summer night, I remember him walking her home, his head bowed shyly. The next day, he was gone. My parents never spoke of him after that.

***

The night before her wedding, Miriam knocked on our door after the family prayer.  My father told her it was too late for a visit, but she begged, and he relented, not wanting to possibly offend the prophet’s son.  I met her outside. Her face was tear-stained, her cheeks red.  She grasped me into a tight hug, her tears pressing against my forehead.  She whispered a plea in my ears, only slightly louder than the crickets that sang the same piercing song every night.   My heart sunk at her repeated words: please, let’s go. We can go to the city. We’ll find Jacob.

Stunned by her blasphemous appeal, I could only look at her and shake my head, though I ached to see my brother again—inwardly, I knew I would never see him again, not even in the heavenly kingdom.

I could not find the words to respond. Inwardly, I prayed for Miriam, hoping she would return to her faith, realize her calling.  Never before had she revealed any desire to leave; she had been obedient and resilient in her belief. She held a hand to her throat, a choking sob rattling her chest.  I watched her run across the fields, her tangled braids trailing like a noose from her neck.

At the wedding, she was reverent and lovely: her white blonde hair was coiled on her head, her skin pink and flawless. She wore a simple white dress—plain but delicate, embroidered in tiny flowers along the hem. Dutifully, she vowed to be faithful, fruitful, respectful, unquestioning, and devoted to her husband’s every need. Her voice was steady, smooth as a memorized speech. Her husband beamed after he kissed her on her cheek. Everyone celebrated in the square, plates of food arranged on worn tables, white tablecloths fluttering in the breeze. The prophet’s son’s first wife marched toward the congregation with a layered white cake, flaked in coconut, a rare treat. Cheering met her arrival, but just as she reached the bride, her boot caught on a stone and she tripped, white cake and frosting spattering into the dust and weeds. An audible gasp followed, and I saw him turn violently red, thin lips drawn into a tight line. He pulled her up and muttered sharply into her ear; her eyes were fixed at the ruined cake.  I watched as he guided her to the house, his pace rapid and violent. His second wife returned attention to the party, urging everyone to enjoy the rest of the food. As the crowd intermingled, forgetting about the cake, I saw him slap the poor woman back and forth in the shadows of their porch, her expression unchanging, silent.

I turned away quickly. I looked up and met Miriam’s eyes. She stared at me, her eyes unrelenting. Blushing, I rushed to the tables and tried to console myself with the wedding feast.

***

We all knew the rewards for our obedience in this life.

Our husbands would be divinely powerful, creating entire worlds with their bare hands.   Wives were mothers to innumerable children, praising our husbands as infallible gods.  No pain, no hopelessness or jealousy—to be divinely perfect and exist forever, reveling in the glory of the Lord. We would be rewarded for serving our husbands, for providing them with one child each year.

I ached to believe all of it.

***

Days after my engagement, I stood in the backyard and hung wet laundry on the clothesline, beginning with stockings and ending with dresses. I was obsessive about sorting the clothing—mother hung them haphazardly, but I felt a strange tranquility by ordering them according to size. The task was time-consuming but I saw it as a break from the constant hectic atmosphere of the house. At my feet, Daisy sat sluggishly, resting her head on outstretched paws.

I heard a sinking sound among the gravel and turned to see Miriam quietly approaching me, a simple brown-papered box in her hands. One of my father’s shirts slipped from my grasp, fluttering to the dirt and rocks.  She looked up at me. Her blonde eyelashes shone nearly white in the sun.

“From the Future Prophet Abraham, as a token of his gratitude,” she said, extending the box to me. I took it, and examined her closely. A purple blot shone along her jaw.  Automatically I reached out to touch her face, gasping.

She jerked away, adjusting her bonnet over her face. She pivoted on her worn boots. I grabbed her hand.

“Miriam…”

She looked at me, her face impassive.  Her eyes were so wide and blue—but so empty and miserable.

“Please…” I started.  “Thank him for the gift.”

She nodded.  I slid my hand against her palm.

“And…tell him I am grateful as well, to become his wife.”

A pang of wise sorrow shifted her expression. She loosened her hand from mine. In a swift whisper, she bent to my ear.

“You don’t know what you are saying.”

Before I could reply, she began her walk home, a ruddy cloud of dust escaping with each step.  Daisy trotted to my side, whining as she watched Miriam leave.

I opened the box, my stomach churning. Inside, on a clean white handkerchief, sat a smooth length of red ribbon. I twisted my fingers around it, knowing he meant for me to wear it so he could see I enjoyed and appreciated his gift. None of us were supposed to wear red, as it was the Lord’s color, but I knew I had no choice.

The next morning, before Service, I wove the ribbon into my long French braid, tying it into a perfect bow at the bottom. I felt his gaze during the Prophet’s speech—I looked up and nearly shivered at his wide smile. My eyes shifted to the row of women beside him. None of his wives wore anything in their hair. Their clothes were plain and clean, their faces dour. Miriam sat rigidly, eyes cast to the floor, twisting her mottled face away from the gathering, the unblemished side of her jaw fair and trembling.

***

The wedding was only two months away. My mother sewed in the kitchen, waiting for bread to rise, as she embroidered the hem of a dress she had worn as a young girl. My mother insisted I watch her closely as she cooked dinners and starched my father’s shirts. I knew all of this already, but she told me I had to be perfect for the future prophet. I represented the family, and I had to think of my future in heaven. Didn’t I want to please him as a wife, bring him cherubic, healthy children? With a stiff smile, she promised that as a mother and wife, my place in the afterlife was secure.

My betrothed visited our home but did not speak to me directly. He spoke only to my father. Sometimes I would watch from the upstairs window, my father holding his hat in his hands, nervously twisting the brim. He nodded constantly, a deferential smile pasted on his face. My eyes sunk to the floor, weakness firing down my spine, and I prayed I could talk to Jacob, confident that he could have given me the strength I needed so badly, even with just his crooked, reassuring smile.

***

My mother asked me to bring a jar of jam to my older sister, Sariah. She lived across the settlement, the fourth wife to a handsome young man, a rare match. He was a first cousin to the Prophet, and quite excited about my upcoming wedding. Father patted my arm and told me to be obedient to my elders, avoiding my eyes. I nodded, wondering at his stiff expression, and began the journey to my sister’s home.

After repeated conversations of the holiness of marriage and the unending responsibilities of motherhood, the sky darkened to twilight. My sister yawned in the middle of a story about my youngest nephew. The children were asleep, so I seized my chance.

“What happened to Jacob?” I whispered. I’d never been brave enough to ask her before. Sariah stiffened and avoided my eyes.

“He is a topic not to be discussed,” she answered, smoothing her ankle-length dress over her lap. I leaned forward and took her hand, forcing her to look at me.

“Please.”

She sighed, cleared her throat.

“He was deemed as unworthy competition to the elder men,” she said.

I blanched, but was not entirely surprised. I knew of other boys who had disappeared. I’d hoped he had run away on his own. Before I could speak, Sariah fixed with me with a grim stare.

“I don’t know where he is, so no more questions.”

I kissed her head and promised to visit her soon.

I passed through my sister’s fruit orchard, orbs of peaches and apples bobbing lightly in the evening breeze. I walked leisurely between them, plucking a plump peach from an overhanding branch. A memory of Jacob’s insatiable love for mother’s pies made me smile in the shadow of the fruit trees, and I took a languid bite, letting juice collect on my chin as I thought of him begging for just one more slice.

A shape rushed in front of me, pushing me against the trunk of the tree, peaches tumbling at my feet. I gasped, my eyes caught against fabric, bark sharp against my back. I struggled, panic groping my heart, until I heard his voice. My body sagged in resignation. He lifted my skirts, rubbed his jaw against my knotting braids. I heard him call me his bride. Beneath his boots dozens of peaches burst, leaking sticky nectar into the ground, the scent of ripe, crushed flesh pungent in the dark.

I trudged home, a new gift of ribbon curled in my fist.  Daisy ran to me, sniffing at my dress, growling softly. I cleaned my legs with the remnants of washing water from the library tub behind the house. Rivulets of blood oozed into the dirt, glowing scornfully, an adamant stain. With the toe of my boot I mixed a grave of blood and peach juice.

***

Afterward, my father avoided me. I crept around the house like a forgotten phantom. No one noticed a difference. Perhaps they assumed my thoughts were occupied with the approaching wedding. Which was true…yet now I was filled with revulsion and terror, not resigned acceptance.  I wanted to creep into the cellar, hide in the dark with the jars of berry preserves and pickled vegetables.

Instead I buried myself beneath the thin covers of the bed I shared with my sisters. I hissed at them to leave me alone.  I hid my face in my pillow, ignoring the pleas of my mother. Daisy barked in concern from the doorway, but mother shooed her away impatiently.

I feigned illness on the morning of Service. My mother tried to get me up, but I turned to the wall and wouldn’t speak. I couldn’t look at him.

Finally, the next morning, father pulled me from bed and marched me to the backyard. He took the switch from the storage shed. I hadn’t seen it in years, not since Jacob ruined his service clothing after playing in the mud from an unexpected storm.

“It is a sin to not listen to your elders,” he said, his voice shaky. He coughed. “You will honor your father and mothers.”

The switch cracked against my back. I was determined to hold back any reaction, but I screamed at the sting. Chained to a tree trunk in the yard, Daisy barked and howled, flipping like a fish plucked from the river.  He hit me seven times: six for each of my mothers, and one for him—the sharpest one, the only one that sprung rolling tears from my eyes.

***

The next morning mother said I had neglected laundry long enough and it was time to help. I buried my head in one of her bonnets and slinked outside. I kept my eyes forward, toward the walkway of the house. I picked up garments by random, hanging them indiscriminately along the line.

Nausea seized my stomach, and I grasped desperately onto the clothing line, clothes quivering against the sudden force. I clasped my belly and groaned. My body staggered forward, and I vomited on the sleeve of my father’s nicest shirt. I clasped my hand over my mouth and immediately ran the shirt to the water pump. Though my stomach threatened to betray me again, I pumped water against the shirt, clearing it of all debris. Exhaling slowly, I returned the shirt to the line, pinning it carefully.  I pretended to be well all evening, repeating blessings, helping my mothers with dinner, sweeping the kitchen floor of crumbs and dehydrated mud. After the evening meal I walked swiftly to the outhouse, retching and sweating into the fetid pit, a line of siblings forming, yelling at me to hurry up. I wiped my mouth with the corner of my apron and exited, ducking between squalling children.

***

I missed the next four weeks of service. This time I really was sick, clutching my stomach, a bucket close to the bed. Mother searched the cellar for rotten potatoes and onions, wondering if spoiled food was the culprit. But no one else felt ill, so she assumed I’d caught a sickness of castigation.  She asked if I had sinned, or possibly angered the Lord.  She made me promise to repent, which would surely speed my recovery. As she watched I knelt against the bed and asked the Lord for forgiveness. My father stood at the doorway, his stare shadowed and grim.

She urged the entire family to pray for my recovery. I listened to their whispered prayers through the bedroom wall, waves of nausea crashing against my belly. As “amens” echoed through the house, I gripped at the bucket, positive that I was drowning inside my own body. The Lord did not want to forgive me. Through tears I begged for atonement, asking the Lord to forgive my sin of enticement against the Prophet.

***

One warm evening, Miriam arrived at the house, bringing a loaf of freshly baked bread wrapped in a clean, white cloth. My mother beamed and led her outside when she asked to see me, the scent of warm bread wafting with her.

I sat on the upturned washing tub, the dog beside me, watching the evening sun sink into the mountains. Miriam sat beside me, smoothing her skirts beneath her thighs. Daisy gently rested her head on her knees, her tail wagging in joyful recognition.

“He would like to know why you have been absent,” she said.

I blinked against the twilight and looked down at the soil.

“You offend him with your nonattendance.”

I said nothing. I traced circles into the dirt with my boot. She extended the toe of her boot and drew intersecting circles into mine.

“Are you ill?” she asked.

I managed a feeble nod. “I have angered him,” I whispered.

She turned to face me. Her staring stirred the anxiety in my stomach.

“You mean Abe?” I winced at the word. It wasn’t proper to address him so familiarly, even as his wife.

I nodded grimly.

“How?” she asked.

I turned to her, solemn.

“Enticement.”

Miriam drew in a sharp breath. She took my hand in her own. The strange formality of our relationship collapsed, and suddenly she was my best friend again, pressing my head against her chest, her fingers smoothing my hair.

“Now you know,” she said. I lifted my head, my heart drumming in my ears. She looked at me sadly.

I stammered, my mouth too dry to form words.

“I am a sinner,” I managed.

She stroked her burgeoning belly.

“It’s a girl,” she said. “I can feel her grief already.” She paused, orange light reflecting in her eyes. “How can I bring her into this place?”

I stiffened at her admission. Fear trickled down my spine, pooling into cold sweat at my lower back. We lived the righteous life—we could not question the moral path.  I thought of the Spirit Children waiting to be born—surely they wanted to be among us? To live under the guidance of the true Prophet? But how would I survive, feeling his clammy skin and boasting gaze for eternity?

I said nothing. We watched the light drain from the sky, until I felt her gaze on my face.

“No one will know before the wedding,” she said abruptly, glancing furtively at my midsection. “It’s early enough to be born in matrimony.”

I stared at her, incredulous, trying to suppress an amalgam of anger and sorrow. I was sure my heart would burst through my chest.

Miriam sighed, surprisingly loud in the violet dusk.

“I must go,” she said.

I listened to her retreating footsteps, digging my heels into the dirt until every drawn circle was buried beneath my feet

***

Seated beside my family, I pretended to listen to the Prophet’s words. His son grinned at me. I looked to his side—Miriam was not there.

My father drew me to his side and approached the prophet’s son. He shook his hand excitedly and gushed how thrilled they were about the impending wedding. I did not hear the reply. I searched the room for Miriam’s blonde braids. We were the same now, like timid sheep guarded by an indefatigable dog.

“Perhaps your daughter will sit with me at service today?”

Father agreed enthusiastically. I knew I would be sitting in Miriam’s seat. No one mentioned her absence.

At dinner, we ate silently, my father singularly focused on his plate. He ate half a loaf of bread, his wives passing him a piece each time the previous one was consumed. Mother turned to me.

“Fetch another loaf from the pantry for your father.”

I nodded and walked through the kitchen, stepping into the pantry. I wrapped a brown loaf into a clean cloth, turning sharply. My toe jammed on a floor seam, and the loaf rolled away, stopping beneath the last shelf. Quickly I lowered myself to the floor, reaching for the bread I prayed was still edible. Instead, my fingers slipped against a stack of papers. I frowned, surprised, and pushed them toward me, tucking the bread safely in my arm.

A stack of letters, all stamped and sealed, addressed to my parents in awkward, uneven handwriting. My stomach stirred dangerously.

Jacob’s name was written in the corner, a city address printed clearly beneath it. I stifled a cry, counting the stack. Twenty-three letters, all unacknowledged. My heart sunk, drowning inside my rib cage How could they keep him from us?

I returned to the table with the bread, my eyes watering despite my inner pleas to silence any reaction to my discovery. No one noticed or spoke. I could only hear my father’s continuous chewing, and the clean slice of the knife through the bread as he consumed the entire loaf.

***

 

The next morning, on the front porch, I shelled the peas my siblings had picked earlier from the garden. Mother was visiting Sariah—she had asked me to join her, but I startled her in my firm refusal.

I heard the flapping sound of heavy skirts swirling against each other. I looked up. My mother was rushing toward the house, a basket of bruised peaches swinging at her elbow. She caught her breath when she saw me.

“A great sin has been committed,” she wheezed. I rose from my chair, the bucket of peas still in my arms, waiting for her to continue, my skin tingling beneath my dress.

“It’s…it’s Miriam.”

She looked behind me. Father’s heavy boots sounded behind me.

“What has happened?” he asked, his voice eerily calm.

She held her gaze to my father’s, dodging my eyes.

“She has taken her own life, and worse, that of her child’s.”

A swarm of peas rolled down the porch steps, the muted echo of the empty bucket ringing in my ears.

***

There was no funeral—no acknowledgment would be made to a murderer.  Instead the Prophet warned of the everlasting effects of sin. We must live for the Lord.  Selfishness and greed would be punished for eternity. He repeated the phrase we’d all heard countless times: one child is worth ten of the mother.

Almost imperceptibly, a small bump arched covertly across my lower belly. I never saw anyone in my family unclothed—nakedness was a sin, a gateway to pride and lust.  Even when we bathed we wore our underclothes. My body’s secret was safe.

I thought of Miriam’s baby, the girl she had taken with her. Somehow, I knew I carried a girl too. I thought of her future. Of the man who would marry her, take her away from me.  And I would be powerless to protect her.

At moonlight I looked out at the field from the kitchen window, memories of Miriam and me mixed together like pooling watercolors. My shoulders slumped. I was a shell inside, the only living part the child that curled in my belly. Daisy pressed her body into my knees, looking up at me, her chocolate eyes anxious. I patted her head, and then she was leaping up at the window, barking madly at something outside. Afraid, I peered into the yard again, subconsciously holding my stomach.

“Daisy, quiet!” I hissed. If she woke up father she’d be tied outside the next day, no matter how oppressive the heat.  She jumped and barked insistently in reply. I buried my hand in her mane and led her outside, shutting the kitchen door silently. Her body went still, and she stared forward, her eyes unblinking, tail poised. I followed her gaze.

Just beyond the clothesline, next to the washing tub, something stirred, a bright shape fading into darkness.  Daisy shot forward, stopping at the tub, her tail wagging, bark changing from caution to enthusiasm.  Briefly, she looked back at me, beckoning me with raised brows. I crept to her, examining the dark with each step.  A white light shifted next to Daisy, and in a blink, absorbed into night. The dog whined, pacing where the light had been. I stooped beside her, waiting until she sat dejectedly.

***

My last basket of family laundry stood at my feet. Soon I would be scrubbing my new husband’s clothing. Like a lingering farewell, I hung each piece carefully and in order. I smoothed the wrinkles from my father’s work pants, pinning the waistband, just as a pale hand grasped at mine at the top of the clothesline. I jumped, automatically clutching my belly, then quickly recovered, moving my hand to my chest. I readied a lecture for one of my siblings for needlessly startling me.

A shimmer of blonde hair silenced my reproach. I inched my head to the side, just as the hand pulled at the pants, letting them plummet at my feet.

Miriam gazed at me, her eyes bluer that the sky glinting through her white face. I reached for her hand, shivering in her presence. Just as my fingers brushed hers, she disappeared.  A single strand of blonde hair curled around the clothesline.

I looked down at the pants, then to the house. I rolled them into a ball and hid them beneath my skirt, tucked in the waistband of my underwear. My father’s shirt, the cotton worn and familiar, I folded into my bodice.

Calmly, I finished my task, and walked steadily back to the house, the laundry fluttering like proud flags festooned against the dipping sun.

 

***

I waited until the sounds of heavy breathing rose from the bodies of my surrounding siblings. I wore the shirt and pants beneath my nightgown, the covers pulled taut to my chin.

Barefoot, I glided from the bedroom, down the stairs, and into the sharp night air. I hid in the shadows of the eaves, slipping off my nightgown. I draped it carefully against the porch railings. I picked up the pea-shelling bucket and searched beneath a mound of empty shells. The shears I had hidden before bed shone in the moonlight. In one motion I clipped off my braid, the steel blades cold against the nape of my neck. I laid the braid on top of my nightgown, slipped on my father’s jacket and a half-brother’s work boots, then crept away from the house like a rodent accustomed to the dark.

I could see the rusted farm gates ahead, flanked by two young men, second cousins of the Prophet, Samuel and Alma. I knew them from Service and wedding celebrations.  They leaned against the bars, apathetic, laughing at something I could not hear. Between them a miniature fireball bloomed and burned, passed to each other every few moments. Translucent smoke clouded each exhaling breath. Cigarettes were banned and considered a serious vice—we must keep our bodies clean of all temptations and pollutants, the Prophet proclaimed.  I wondered how they’d gotten them. I crept closer, ducking beneath drying brush.

“You heard about the blonde girl?” the taller one, Alma, asked between puffs.

“Of course I did. Everyone did,” Samuel scoffed.

“Bet you didn’t know my Pa and me dumped her out there,” Alma said, pointing to the outlying desert with the searing tip of the cigarette. He passed it to Samuel.

“You? I thought she was just unmarked in the churchyard?”

Alma laughed.

“Not a chance. Not for what she did. Burned her, too. Nothing but ash and bone left now.” He said, leaning against the gate.  Samuel moved next to him, silent. Their words pressed against my chest like a sudden, immovable weight. I didn’t want to believe it.

The unrelenting cries of an infant shattered their calm, accompanied by the shrill weeping of a woman.  They snapped upright and exchanged glances.

“That sounded close,” Alma said.  I could hear the tremor in his voice. I watched them walk cautiously toward the noises, shoulder to shoulder. The land was flat and nearly barren—nothing in sight.  Alma lit another cigarette, the miniature flame conjuring a white figure, standing only a few feet away. I squinted from the brush.

She wore a white nightgown, a long pale braid looping over her shoulder. In her arms, she held a tiny child, its fists curling, face pinched and red.

The boys were rooted in place, gawking at the woman and child.

She rocked the child, her gaze fixed at the boys, tears spilling onto her white cheeks. I could see a twisted imprint on her neck, swollen and purple. The infant’s cries pierced the dark like an ominous drum, mounting pitilessly in tempo.

Alma stepped forward, perspiration mushrooming beneath his already yellowed shirt.

“Are you alright?” he stammered, Samuel frozen behind him.  The girl did not answer. He stretched out his hand cautiously, as if reaching for a dangerous serpent. At his touch, her arm dissolved, a catalyst for the rest of her body, evaporating like dew against a scorching summer stone. Alma stumbled backwards with a mangled shout, his cigarette spinning from his fingers, berthing in a patch of crisp brush.  In moments, flames roared to life, bursting through the vegetation in blistering colors of yellow and orange.  The fire screamed into a wall, surging forward, an unbridled typhoon of perverse heat. Alma and Samuel ran like jackrabbits around the fire, shouting to rouse the settlement.

Entranced, I stood from my hiding place and watched the fire swell, the heat prickling my skin.

Miriam stepped through the flames, the baby in her arms sleeping peacefully. She walked toward the gates. I forced my attention from the fire and followed her. She filtered through the metal, and turned to me from the other side, waiting. I looked down at the padlock and chains. The metal had melted into a silver mass of dangling stalactites. I placed my hand on the top of the gate; the parallel bars were cool and solid, no sign of any temperature change.

At the touch of my palm, the gate swung open like a locket.

I walked forward, the sky vast and shining with stars.  My stomach churned at the enormity of the world, the capricious lure of any other future illuminated in the distant city lights.

A poultice to my hesitation, Miriam materialized again, like a firefly glowing at my side. She touched my shoulder, her fingers velvet on my skin. I rested my hand against my rising belly, full as the moon above us, and headed toward the city lights, Jacob’s face and address resounding in my mind like a sacred verse.


Sarah Rakel Orton is thirty-one years old and a graduate of the University of Utah’s MFA fiction program (2008). Her thesis, Black as Blood, Red as Apples, was a collection of retold fairy tales. Her work has appeared in The Harrow, Mytholog, Prick of the Spindle, and
The Summerset Review. In January 2010, The Sun Magazine published her short story “Scars and Scales.”