Under the shade of an aspen, I waited to be summoned. Bees buzzed from flower to flower feeding on sweet pollen. Free to fly, those bees. In the quiet of the warm afternoon, I imagined the sound of their tiny wings. But no, it was more likely the buzz from the electric fence that surrounded the compound.
I drew my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. Sweat trailed down the small of my back, dampening the rough material of my grey dress. I glanced behind me at the double doors of the Elder’s building. When would they come to fetch me? What did the elders do before the girls were presented on Promise Day? Shine the floors? Feast on a meal of roast beef and potatoes?
The Elder’s building was our finest. White paint and pillars, perched atop the only elevation on the entire compound. Aspens in a line like soldiers protected it from wind and hedge perfectly trimmed by the groundskeepers. Small windows like narrowed eyes, seeing everything. It had been built in the Georgian tradition, Martha, my dad’s first wife had mentioned to me once, pride in her voice. She’d not been born in here. She knew of the outside world.
Inside the white building, the elders had their private quarters. I’d never seen one of these residences. I would soon though. On my wedding night, I would have the privilege of spending my first night with Elder Ryan. I’d only been in the hall where they gathered as a council to make big decisions. And the location of Promise Days.
The crude buildings where the women and children spent most of our time matched the color of the dirt paths that ran between the cafeteria and schoolhouse. Each set of wives had a house. The order of which was kept sacred by the first wife. The lucky one.
I would be a sixth wife to Elder Ryan. If he found nothing wrong with me today, that is. What if he did? What would happen to me then? There had been a few girls in the past few years who had been rejected. They’d been given menial jobs and sent to live in the house at the farthest end of the property. Shamed outcasts instead of beloved wives.
Matthew. The boy I loved but could not have. He was an underling, a stray they’d found on the streets. A runaway, he’d told me, from a bad situation. Here he was fed and clothed and had a bed to sleep in. No one touched him here. He’d accepted the society as it was. Perhaps had even been grateful. Until he fell in love with me. Now we knew what was missing. What we would miss once I married Elder Ryan.
I tightened my arms around my knees, holding myself, trying not to weep from fright. Waiting and waiting. The last month had raced by, days of my innocence waning away one by one until it was today. I could no longer hide. Everything would be bared before them.
I tilted my head back until I could feel the bark on my scalp. Light filtered through the leaves. Such a blue. One I didn’t have a name for because it was the only sky I’d ever seen. My father said it was the kind of sky that only existed in Colorado. I had to take him at his word, on that and everything else. If there were other shades of blue I wouldn’t know.
Who knew what horror awaited me? I’d learned in the sixteen years of my life to take in the beauty of my surroundings whenever they presented. Soon enough, invariably, I would witness the opposite of beauty. That was life within the electric fence of the compound.
Out of curiosity, I’d recently looked up the word beauty in the thesaurus to find the antonym. It was nothing but the word ugliness. Which I found limiting. There were many ways in which the opposite of beauty manifested and thus as many words. All was equal in that way, this balance of beauty and ugly. As far as I knew anyway. Was it different out there? I’d probably never know.
Still, this was all mine to contemplate. They couldn’t take my thoughts from me. My thoughts were as free and vast as the sky itself. Someday, my soul would be free. For now, I must accept my fate, as all the girls here did. As long as they remained inside my mind and not uttered from my mouth, I could think and think and think. My mother had not been as discreet. She’d died rebelling. What good had come of that? A motherless girl? Surely not.
A sheet on the line swayed gently in the breeze. An ant wandered lazily onto my big toe. On a branch, somewhere unseen, a bird sang. These juxtapositions might have fascinated me if I hadn’t been terrified. Today marked one month until it was my turn to be married. As much as I wished they weren’t, these days raced by, folding one after the other, bringing me closer to the time when he would call me to his bed. In a month’s time, I would be Elder Ryan’s sixth wife.
We all wore the same long skirt and long-sleeved dress. I had been trained specifically to be one of the dressmakers. My fingers were nimble and careful, the perfect combination. I could whip up a dress faster than the other two seamstresses. This should have been a source of pride but made me ashamed instead. If I’d been brave like my mother, I would throw the material at their faces and let them shoot me trying to climb over the electric fence.
Today, exactly a month before our marriage, I would be presented to Elder Ryan one last time. During this inspection, I would be stripped completely of clothes so that he could inspect me carefully. The elders said it was only fair. They should be able to see if anything amiss had happened in the two years since the first inspection. We couldn’t expect them to marry a girl with flaws.
The first presentation to the elders came when we turned fourteen. On that day, we were paraded in front of all the elders in their private room. Women were allowed into this room only twice in our lifetimes. Once at fourteen and the other thirty days before our weddings.
I’d trembled violently as I walked before them. They’d sat at a long table, elevated onto a platform, to judge all of the girls in my age group. There were only three of us, as we were the first of the batch of girls actually born within the compound. They’d had to recruit the early wives from the outside world.