Faith and Fidelity, part two of two
In midspring of that year, when the plum trees were fully swollen, a knock was sounded throughout the Linmoor house. It sounded like a man’s: they would have been surprised to see what bony knuckles made it.
“Paul,” called Mrs. Linmoor, her hands full of bread dough, “Can you get the door?”
“I can’t, I’m only passing through - I’ve got a sick lamb outside. Fidelity, you?”
“I can’t, I’m hanging up flowers. Skenan?”
“Yes,” said Skenan, taking her hands out of the hot dish water and rubbing the suds off on her apron. She went to the front.
She opened the door and came face-to-face with - herself. Standing on the steps was her replica: smaller, thinner, and in a frayed green jacket. A slim oval face, tapered eyes, arched brows, a raspberry puckered mouth - which pursed into a smile to say: “Skenandoa, do you know me?”
Skenan stepped backwards into the hall, putting her hand out against the wall. It grasped coats. “No - yes?”
The mirror walked towards her, unrelenting. “It’s Orenda. Orenda, your sister. You gone do know me - we was together years ago. You know me. You got my letter.”
“I don’t think I did,” said Skenan faintly. “My sister?”
“Don’t go looking at me like you’re seeing a ghost. You were five when I was taken out of the orphanage. You always knew I existed.”
“I almost never thought of it - no, not that I had forgotten…it was just so blurry.” Skenan felt stupid, like her brain had slowed - a frozen icicle dripping. “…Orenda?” She wanted to touch the thinness before her saying it was her sister, but she thought it would dissipate like smoke.
“So let me refresh your memory -” And then something solid ran into Skenan’s arms and hit her full-force with an embrace, burrowing her head on her shoulder. Skenan froze for a moment, and then her hand cupped the back of her sister’s hair, tightly. Orenda spoke into her shoulder:
“I knew you were alive. I always knew you still was.” Her voice became muffled by Skenan’s shirtfront. “I was adopted when I was three but I ran away when I could. I looked for you in the orphanage a few years ago, but they said you were taken away by a family - not adopted, just taken by some family you got along with who you met in the park. They didn’t leave a record or take yours. ”
“True,” said Skenan. “The Linmoors. They were pinicking in the city. We all were Catholic and I was an orphan…”
“Were they good to you?”
“Yes. Yes, they were.”
“Well, what jolly people, then,” said Orenda.
“Sure,” said Skenan. “Yes, they are.”
“It’s taken me forever to hunt you down. I found you only because an old maid at the orphanage gone and remembered the mother’s name. Can I meet them?”
“Of course. Of course.” Then she took Orenda’s face in hers and kissed it rapidly and pressed her cheek against hers. She felt giddy, breathless. “I’m sorry, I just don’t even know what to say. Where have you been all these years?”
“In the city, till I ran away. That family treated me like a scullery maid. Ground my bones to dust!”
“Oh, Orenda - !” Her heart broke.
“Naw, I kicked their mud off my feet long ago.”
“Where are you now?”
“In Lowell, in a mill.”
“In a room with six Irish girls. A garret of a tenement.”
“It’s more space than most. But, no, it ain’t good when there’s pneumonia, no.”
“Well, see, now I found you I thought I’d stay a spell.”
“Of course you can! Of course! I’d never let you go, now I’ve got you. I know they’ll let you stay.” She experienced a rush to her head at that. She’d make things work. This girl was rail-thin, her bones as delicate as bird’s under her hands. “Come walk with me first,” she said, looping her arm through her sister’s. Her sister’s! The possessive article was exhilarating. “I want you to myself for a bit, before I introduce you.”
They stepped outside, and onto the stone steps. The path skimmed along through a garden abloom with white anemone and purple foxglove, and then broke into an oak copse.
“Orenda. Do you know anything about our past?” Skenan asked once they stepped under the green canopy. “We’re Iroquois, aren’t we?” as if she could not have spoken that greasy word in the Linmoor’s abode.
She looked up at her with surprise. “Yes, of course. And French. Didn’t you know?”
“Didn’t you never wonder who your parents were?”
“The question never really occur to me.”
“So…wait. You done never asked the Linmoors?”
“No. Well, no. I mean, I felt I belonged to them.”
“That must have created a lot of problems for you.”
Skenan stopped short and thought within herself. “Yes…yes, it has.”
Orenda watched the line of a bird across the sky. “You want to know about our’n pa and ma now?”
“Yes!” said Skenan eagerly.
“See, I knowed because my adopted family took the records. They made no beans about it. Reminded me I was Injun often. Our ma’s name was Onatah. That means daughter of the earth and corn spirit. Beautiful, ain’t it? Our father was Arnaud Duquois. They were married, you know. Solid as gold. Don’t let nobody tell you different. A true sterling marriage. But they both died of a fever in a French fort. Trappers took us down to Boston but I guess their wives decided not to keep us when they saw them baby redskins…so’s we got dumped in the asylum. What a fairytale!”
“They were actually married? Our father white, our mother an Indian?”
“Yes. I guess they found a sympathetic priest. Maybe he thought Pa would convert our mother out of her paganism.” She snapped a twig.
“Well…that’s it. I worry about that. Unequally yoked, and all. It just doesn’t seem right - such a difference of cultural and religious backgrounds…”
“I wouldn’t want to be the man what marries you,” laughed her sister, throwing the leaf at her.
“Why not?” demanded Skenan with dignity.
“Because you’d look at me and say -” She pretended to hold out a sheet of paper and a quill - “My class: check! White color: check! Good money: check! Same religion: check! You’d love me because we had the same God and skin. You ain’t loving me for me. Oh,” she laughed a rasping laugh. “I pity the bloke.”
Skenan felt furious and was prepared to lash back a response at the feeble and mocking girl. She was shocked at the rush of malicious words that were so ready at hand like arrows, her quiver having been stocked from over the years: “And do you live by free love? How many men have you had? I bet your tastes are so low you don’t even have a checklist!” - then she was mortified and she stopped herself short. Related only a few minutes and already quarreling. She snorted at herself in disgust.
The sound was echoed by a wheezing in the thicket, and there was a crackle of bracken and the flick of a white flag of fear. A great beast crashed out of the trees and galloped away.
Probably down to the lake, to lap his hot tongue in the waters.
Skenan watched it. “’Tis strange: I have always felt like a deer, and wanted to be one.”
“Of course you do,” said Orenda, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“What does your name mean?”
“It means faith. Magic power.”
“Faith isn’t magic,” said Skenan absently.
“Of course it’s magic. It’s the biggest power we’ve got. P’raps the only.”
Skenan was now attentive. “What do you mean? Faith doesn’t come from within us. It is a gift from God.”
“Think what you will, then. I kindly disagree. I think it’s the power inside my heart,” she pounded her chest under the green jacket with a skeletal fist, “that done make it all happen in my life. See how I found you.”
“Well, yes and no. God led you to me. Even if you don’t think so, He did. He makes all good things possible.”
“My wanting made it possible. Believing I was going to get you in the end made it possible.”
“Alright, maybe it was both. But, either way, you’re dealing with a word that has a very strict definition. Really: faith is clinging to the tenets of God; standing by what He said.”
“Oh. Well,” laughed Orenda. “I’m not any Mr. Webster, but I’d call that something else.”
“Don’t know. I don’t have your big vocabulary, what.” She pouted her red lips mockingly and tossed a new twig at Skenan.
They had looped back to the house and garden and were standing by the front step.
As if on cue, the matron of the house entered the hall and filled the open door. Her fingers were ratted with bread dough, so that it looked like her skin was peeling off. “Who is this, dear?” she smiled.
“Mrs. Linmoor, this is my sister, Orenda. Orenda, this is Mrs. Linmoor.”
“How do ye do?” said her sister, dropping a crooked curtsy.
“Orenda was wondering if she could stay here for a bit. If that’s…alright.”
“Oh, well, we would love to keep her,” said Mrs. Linmoor with a smile, as if Orenda was not standing in front of her, “But we have no room.”
Orenda looked at Mrs. Linmoor. Then she said, with a self-assurance that hurt Skenan, “That’s alright; I’ll find somewhere else,” as if protecting Skenan was her duty, and not the other way around, and she shrugged her thin shoulders.
Skenan wished she could give her her bed; when on the verge of saying she herself would sleep in the barn, Mrs. Linmoor said, with seeming great kindness, “We will help you find a room. Come in to supper! Please do,” and, meaning to close the subject in a great rush, hustled them all inside, and Skenan felt her senses swept along into the tide of silence.
But Lucius, standing nearby and shoeing Mr. Linmoor’s horse, his soft brown skin shining in the sun, heard the whole thing. He glowered.
She briefly excused herself after dinner and found him sitting by a bubbling brook; the sun was slipping like melted gold through the tender leaves rustling in the evening breeze, like fairy music.
He stood up when he saw her, lanky and clean and handsome, spinning the rim of his gray cap on his hand. “I heard your conversation by the barn today,” he said, without salutation. “I talked with my mam and she said, why doesn’t Orenda stay with us, then?”
Skenan, though she had gotten to know Lucius better and more personally and had many of her walls come down, froze with some of the age-old fear. It would never do. It wouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t be possible. She pictured a dingy room, a place utterly unfit for a girl…everything an eyesore and dark, wallpaper ripped, lice in the sofa. She saw all that was foreign and soiled. She shook her head.
“Thank you, but I don’t think it would work.”
“Why, Skenan?” he pressed, gently. “It would save her money and you’d know she was looked after, rather than having her alone at an inn. My mam’s a good cook and makes a killing gravy with biscuits.”
Skenan smiled in spite of herself. “I’m sure she does. It’s just - I don’t know if Orenda would…” She trailed off and realized she could not say the very phrase she wanted to. Even to her, it sounded too vicious in the open air.
Lucius caught her eyes with his own ironical gaze. “I wonder how much you know about your own sister.”
His question unsettled her. She turned and ripped up a leaf from a sapling. “I’ll ask, but…just, I expect she’ll end up at an inn. Don’t be offended if she does. Thank you so much for your offer.”
“Promise me you will ask.”
“I will, at least.”
She then looked as if to climb the path back up to the farmhouse.
“Are you leaving?” he called after her, disappointed.
“I left Orenda there; I have to go.”
She couldn’t quite explain why she felt her urgency. Faintly, she imagined her sister in danger.
She came back to find Orenda sitting at the kitchen table; Fidelity doing dishes with that pout on her face again; the little children staring at the various rocks and arrowheads Orenda was laying down on the table; and Mrs. Linmoor sitting there trying to look polite, but with straight lips, and a stiff face Skenan had come to know all too well.
It was difficult to surmise this atmosphere so she brought her own attention to Orenda and the objects.
“And this,” Orenda was saying tenderly - it was obvious she loved children - “Is one I found by a riverbank in Lowell.”
“Oh, boy! That’s bully!” yelped the six-year old boy.
“Mind your language,” said his mother.
Orenda ignored her and continued, in a voice as if she were a small boy herself, “’Tis so! ’Tis still sharp as it’d cut your finger!”
“Golly, let me try -”
“Orenda!” cut in Skenan, with some urgency. All eyes turned to her. She suddenly somehow had the whole audience of the kitchen. She didn’t mean for that to happen.
“Uh - I was just talking to L - Mr. Clarence -”
Upon hearing the name, Mr. Linmoor pulled up a chair and sat down to listen, with a graveness that frightened her.
Why hadn’t she decided to ask Orenda in private?
Skenan cleared her throat and tried to speak as if she were going to suggest a family competition of checkers. “He was the farrier by the barn when we were discussing where you were to board, and he couldn’t help overhearing and had a suggestion. He talked with his mother and she offered that you stay there, free of charge, for as long as you want.”
Mrs. Linmoor suddenly laughed out slightly. “Impossible.” Skenan turned to stone, unable to say more.
Mr. Linmoor did not laugh.
“Live with Clarence?” he said, in that even tone of voice which never sounded wrathful but still which inserted itself and wriggled its way under her skin.
She ducked her head slightly between her shoulders. “I think - maybe - it would give Mrs. Clarence some company,” she said meekly.
“Mrs. Clarence doesn’t need any company,” he responded sternly. “She has her son, and, though it may seem generous to an untutored mind, it is beyond indecent. Anyone with developed morality would recognize it as so: I am surprised Clarence would suggest it. I am surprised that you would entertain it. And I do not know what this says about your sister that he thinks she would accept it,” and he looked at Orenda as if she had devised the idea herself. Skenan gaped in horror but Orenda did not notice his expression - or if she did, she ignored it, for she swept her arrowheads and stones with one brush into a little beaded bag and said,
“But I do accept, Mr. Linmoor!” She laughed like a brook. “Don’t be alarmed; I done lived in much worse.” She stood up. “I won’t come to no harm.”
“Physical harm is not what we worry about. I don’t know what kind of life you have led, but in this town, we do not act like…savages.”
Orenda flinched. At least, Skenan noticed her head jerked back, ever so slightly. But she gave no retort and that same smile kept spreading across her face. Skenan didn’t know if her sister was dull-witted or simply scornful of the family. She acknowledged that what Lucius said was true: she did not know her sister yet.
“We will find you respectable accommodations, Orenda,” said the head of household.
Fidelity by the sink seemed to glow with pride. She looked at the newcomer as if she expected Orenda to be indebted to her father.
Mrs. Linmoor added soothingly, “Don’t worry, dear. There are plenty of nice places to live.”
“Thankee, Mr. and Mrs. Linmoor. I don’t got any money, though, for accomma-what-you-call-it. I ain’t to be affording it and I expected to stay with - friends. I’d be ever so happy to take Mr. Clarence up on his offer.”
Mr. and Mrs. Linmoor looked at each other desperately, and then turned accusing eyes at Skenan.
Skenan wanted very much to melt into the floor. She hated this. She picked up a fouled plate and put it down in its place again. She did not want to take responsibility for Orenda’s choice and she did not want to accept the burden of the Linmoors’ scorn. But as she stood there helplessly, caught between the two figures of strength - the bright sturdiness of Orenda, who was as immovable as a rock, and the entire band of Linmoors, whose judgment was so palpable in the room that she could have sliced it with a knife and served it with jam - she somehow, inexplicably, felt that her sister’s strength was stronger.
“I’ll go and get your bags,” she murmured.
“No, no; I’ll get them,” Orenda said, moving quickly aside. “They’re in the other room.”
After she left, Skenan turned pleading eyes to the king and queen. “I’ll talk with her,” she placated, apologetically.
“I don’t know why you would suggest it in the first place,” shrugged Mrs. Linmoor, looking away with a very friendly smile.
Mr. Linmoor shook his head very seriously and spoke again, as if Skenan did not hear him the first time. “It would be indecent, living alone with a man…even if his mother was there.”
It was in that moment that Skenan realized a battle was raging inside of herself. She was used to taking this battering and belittling. It rankled her, it bit her, but she rarely stood up for herself. She just let it fester under her clothes. But now they were talking about her sister - ! Suddenly she was aware of a strong, protective surge over someone else for the first time in her life. She did not know what to do, because she had never learned how to be defensive. She certainly could not figure out how to do it now. But she swallowed, and somehow blood became thicker than debt.
“I - agree - but…I have lived here, with - with Paul, and…”
Everyone looked upon her in chilling silence, and Fidelity spoke up, holding a large spoon suspended and dripping in her hand. Her voice was soft and gentle as rain. “That is entirely different. You have practically grown up with him. Lucius is a stranger to Orenda, and she is so young. We don’t want to endanger her.”
“Yes, but -”
Then Skenan made a mistake.
“I know him, and he’s the honorable sort. He’s a gentleman, so we all don’t have to worry.”
The black storm cloud thickened on the roof of the kitchen.
“What do you mean, you ‘know him’?” asked Mr. Linmoor, eyes narrowing.
“I - I - I -”
She found her calamitous sister breezing back into the room to be salvific grace.
“Goodbye, everyone,” chirped Orenda. “Thanks awfully for the feast. Grand to meet you all!”
“What, you’re leaving now?” asked Mrs. Linmoor, standing up.
“I think I’d better!”
The matriarch appeared, for the first time, uneasy. But - “God bless you and keep you,” she concluded.
“He’s always done, ma’am. He’s always done.”
She breezed out the door, her back straight and her neat, shapely head up, black and lovely, holding both heavy bags in either hand, without looking back.
Skenan shot one last look at her family and ran after the girl out the door.
She panted to catch up.
“I don’t know - if the Clarences - are ready for us - to come now,” she said, strumming along to try to keep up with her sister’s fast pace.
“They probably ain’t, but we just had to get out of that stuffy place, didn’t we?” Then she recalled herself. “Oh, yes,” she laughed. “They’re your family.” Then she seemed almost angry. “I don’t know how you live with them.”
Skenan felt helpless, not knowing who to defend.
“They’re not usually like that,” she said.
“Oh, ain’t they?”
“No,” Skenan pleaded.
Orenda grinned ironically.
“- Only to me, then?”
Skenan blushed, covered with confusion.
Her sister kicked a stick and sent it scuttering. “I’ve been treated like that by factory managers. But by hostesses, proper people? Looking at me like I was mud in their kitchen.” She spat - actually spat in a public road.
Skenan hurried to speak. “It wasn’t right, their actions. I promise you, I believe that.” She felt like if she made enough noise with her voice, both she and her sister could forget the embarrassment of the spitting. “It wasn’t right; no, not at all. But going to stay with Lucius - I don’t know either if that’s the best -”
She stopped, and again found she couldn’t complete her sentence.
“- It’s just all confusing,” she ended lamely.
“There’s nothing confusing about it, Skenan. They’re d--- prigs.”
Skenan, whose heart had been warmed and torn for her sister, now found herself offended. She still considered herself on the Linmoors’ side, so to speak. She was a gentle soul, with delicate sensibilities cultivated into her, and she felt repulsed by her sister’s language and vehement feelings.
Orenda seemed to understand her sister’s silence, and Skenan felt her pull away from herself.
“There’s no need for you to come along,” said Orenda shortly.
Skenan stammered. “No - of - of course I’ll walk along.”
“You ain’t getting it. I don’t want you to,” she said forcefully.
Aghast, Skenan stopped short in her tracks, and watched her sister plough angrily ahead.
“You don’t know which - house,” called Skenan after her impotently.
“I’ll find it.” She raised her hand and waved it. “Sayonara, sister.”
Skenan watched her bony back under the green frayed coat and her brisk, bouncing walk, and she wanted to call out, “Please - I need you.” She wanted to call it out so desperately. “Please, come back! I don’t understand anything, anything at all, but I need you.”
But she only stood there and watched her sister’s steps and the robins bobbing overhead.
She hoped that Mr. Linmoor had forgotten the part of the episode where she had exposed her association with Lucius, but he of course had not. That head of the household cornered her the next morning while she was collecting eggs and said in his even, cool way,
“I don’t want you seeing Mr. Clarence again. He’s been an honest worker, but from what you’ve revealed to me, he’s not fit to be associated with ladies.”
She was determined not to give her usual acquiescence. She had decided, late last night in her bed, that enough had been enough. It was becoming too ridiculous for her not to own her soul in the Linmoor’s house as she did at the lake. She summoned what spirit of courage she could and said, “I do wish to see my sister,” rather thinly.
“You ought not to see her while she is with him.”
He was so implacable. Like a rock. The father and daughter were the same.
She felt the smooth eggshell, quivering, cupped in her palm. The weakness of her soul was like a bitter weed on her tongue. She peeled the mucky down off the pink shell and tried again.
“I wish to see Orenda, but I will attempt to…I mean, I might - but I will try not to… I mean, I won’t be able to help it if I do see him.”
Mr. Linmoor reluctantly accepted her compromise: he seemed pleased mainly with her subservient attitude.
“Right, then. I am not your father. I can’t make you do what I say -” She almost laughed at the falsity of that. “- But I can ask that you stay away from there, and order that you not bring him here. I do not want that sort of character around my girls. Aye, then, Skenan; I’d thank you for that. Good job with the - chickens.” He walked away, cap gripped in his hand.
Skenan was in pain because Mr. Linmoor reminded her of her orphanhood, and of the separation between herself and “his girls” - for she instinctively knew that, paternal as it may have sounded, he did not include Skenan in the phrase. She felt her anxiety increase, one that had always lingered, that she did not belong with the Linmoors. She was on the outside. - Maybe she did not fully belong anywhere and never would. And even if this was all true, Mr. Linmoor still delighted to exercise authority over her. It was all not fair. To not belong, and yet to be controlled.
Then Skenan felt angry. She felt very, very angry.
Mr. Linmoor had just done the worst thing. If she was not rebellious before, she was now. She was very, very angry. She would see Orenda this morning. Not only that - she would see Lucius. And she would not stop there.
To make a point, to confirm her feelings, to make it physical and real, even if just for herself to see, she had to do something wild - something violent, something shocking. For lack of a better thing to do, she took that egg - perfect, smooth, clean - so round and soft in her hands -
And threw it, as far as she could, into the distant briars where it broke and bled on a rock.
Such a motion, strange and unusual and large and irrational and indecent and undutiful, was similar to her to running through the snow in the woods.
As she turned to go, suddenly the farmyard was the lake. Even the cramped, severe Shaker-shaped house spread out like a vast whiteness, aglow with orange, large and clear in her eyes, limpid, because of the freedom she felt.
She could, and would, do anything: anything.
But first, she had to speak with herself. She locked herself in the attic.
“Your desires will not lead you wrong,” she said to herself in the mirror. And as she said that she felt frightened, suspicious. The shadow of herself rose above her body and said eerily, ominously, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”
She shivered and shrank within herself, and whispered aloud,
The import of these two words seemed to shake the rafters in the room.
“What?” asked the Voice, with a crackle of fire and mortal peril behind it.
She swallowed. “I disagree.”
This went against the pattern that had been ingrained in her for the past seven years. Her words were like sticking a pick into ice, which shuddered at the blow, and slowly began to crack, sending spider-lines across the glassy surface.
But her shadow redoubled its strength. “Eccl. 9:3: ‘...The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.’”
“I do not believe this,” she whispered. “My heart is full of goodness and life. And my heart’s wishes are pure and vital!”
“You are being swayed by the world. Only the worldly man ‘boasts of the cravings of his heart.’ Ps. 10:2.”
“My heart’s cravings are my true self.”
“No; your heart is false. Your heart is sick - without faith to cure it and make it new.”
“‘Heart’ is just a word, an image - a symbol for myself. And I am not sick: I am good. I am whole. I am pure. I am love. I am beautiful. I don’t need to be made new: I just need to remember that I really am these things. And remember it again and again.”
“No. No! You are none of those things. You are nothing without faith.”
“Yes! Yes! For what is faith? To me it is the magic of belief. Belief in everything good. I believe in goodness. The goodness of my heart, the goodness of the world. Oh, yes, I have this magic power of faith.”
“Your heart is not good; neither are the hearts of all mankind. They are full of deceitful desires and beyond cure.”
“I need no cure but to be truly myself. To be honestly, wholly myself. That is why I will follow my heart…follow myself, rather.”
“Eph. 4:22: ‘You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.’”
“I no longer believe in these words. They are telling me my heart is bad and broken, which I do not feel to be true. I am not bad. I am not corrupted; I am not false and deceitful - and I never was. I am not perfect - but I am good. I am very, very good.”
“But then you are denying that the Scriptures are the Word of God. 2 Tim 3:16: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ God-breathed, Skenan. God-breathed.”
She looked up at her face in the mirror and her brow contracted. Could she go against words written by men hundreds of years ago, and held by millions of human beings to be true for so long? Even worse - could she go against what man had said the highest Power of the universe breathed?
While thinking this, her thoughts ran along another train of thought, irrelevantly: she saw that her eyes were very beautiful, like starbursts of brown radiating from the pupil and ringed with gold.
“I am so sorry,” she said, to no one in particular. “And I am afraid; believe me, I am. But I think those words were written by men. Maybe some of it was inspired, but I do not believe it all was…only that man needs surety, needs solid references, and so has backed up some men’s words with the authority of the divine. I no longer believe this.”
“‘These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts.’ Jude 3:19. Natural instincts are wicked and meager, not grand and holy. You will go so, so wrong.”
“No, I am right. I am in God and God is in me. God is everything, and I am made out of the same essence that God is. I am the essence of love. I am more than that: I am.”
And with a shriek at that blasphemy, the shadow died.
“Oh, Skenan. You’ll be hurt if you try this,” he said, with a tender voice she had not heard yet. It went into her heart and nestled there. But she laughed.
She softly whispered to herself,
“’You’re going to break
And you’re going to bleed.’
‘…Alas, yes, my love,
But at last I’ll be free.’”
“Nothing,” she said and folded her last shift and put it in her suitcase. She was packing in the stables while the family was away at a church picnic. She had pleaded a slight sore throat and Mrs. Linmoor had given her flannel for her neck. Lucius was there, delivering a fixed bridle.
“Are you scared, then?” he asked, covering her hand with his.
“Of course, yes,” she smiled. “Dreadfully. My stomach was sick all last night.”
“If you go, I will follow you.” His voice was suddenly intense and low. “I don’t know how we’ll make our fortunes, but we will. They need farriers in Lowell, don’t they? It seems the whole world is open to us. We don’t even need to stay there if we don’t want to. So - go, and I’ll come. Not right away, but in a year, two years, I will come. I promise.”
She bowed her head. “No, I need more than that,” she whispered, and clicked her suitcase shut. “Even my parents…”
“What? Even your parents what?”
“Sorry. I need to go see if Fidelity is home.”
“Skenan. What more do you want?” asked Lucius.
“What more can I give you? I will.”
She muttered, “There are some things that are impossible.” She didn’t really want to say it.
“Fine. Believe that if you want. Believe in impossibility. And your life will show it.” He walked out.
Later in the afternoon, when the family had returned, Fidelity retired to her room with a headache from consuming too many sweets. Skenan went in to talk to her.
“I’m leaving with my sister when she goes,” she said gently. “My bag is in the barn. Please say goodbye to your parents for me. I can’t bear it.”
“Leaving? No. Skenan, you can’t be serious. No. That won’t do. You belong here. You’re too young. What about your education? What about my brother Paul?”
“What about him?”
“Well, nothing, but - Skenan. Look. Darling. I need to tell you this. I am telling you because I love you. I see you going down a path that is destructive. Dark. Twisted. And that’s not what you were made for. You were meant for so much more. Such a higher calling!”
Her voice had the tone of granite. The tone of a gramophone, hollow. It was just rote noises. Skenan turned. “I wish you had more faith in me,” she whispered.
“I’m just saying this because I love you,” said Fidelity. “Love is -”
“No. You don’t want my good,” Skenan interrupted. “You want me to become good.”
“That is wanting someone’s good,” Fidelity pleaded, distressed. “Helping you become who you were meant to be!”
“I don’t know. I never felt…” began Skenan, while standing at the window, playing with the curtains. There was so much she wanted to say. She wanted to say,
“But how do you know who I was meant to be? I never felt you never believed I was good. Or you hoped that I was, but you watched for my slip-up at every turn, and then gutted me whenever you saw it. More than that: I never felt you loved me for me. You wanted to love someone so much you didn’t care who it was. You always said grandiose things like, ‘Even if you spurn me, I’ll still love you.’ You were telling me I have no cause or effect upon your liking me, and instead of relaxing me, it makes me tense. It made me feel small, indebted. Trapped. Why did you choose me for this heavy burden? ‘Love without the need to be requited,’ you say. ‘The greatest love of all.’ Your ‘sacrificial’ love. Well, the deepest, most eternal love, you think, but I say it is superficial. I bet you could not name ten things you like about me - that you naturally like. How is this real love? Oh, I’m sure it adds to your grand idea of it all, that love is worthier when you consider the person you’re loving rather nasty and distasteful. Well, I have a more basic understanding of it - a definition perhaps less grand. It took me so long to figure out, however simple it is: loving is liking something very, very much. To love is to be happy with. And you being delighted with me, interested in me, is something I never felt. You didn’t love me; you loved the fact that you loved. I always felt that when you said ‘I love you,’ the emphasis was on the ‘I’, not the ‘you’.”
But she confessed none of this.
Instead she said, blandly, “I never felt like I belonged.”
“Well, I was always on the outside of things. Perhaps it was my fault,” and picked up her bag to go.
To Skenan’s shock, Fidelity said, “I feel like that, too,” quietly. Then she put a hand up to her ear, briefly touched it, and put it down like she had touched a live coal.
In the tumult of her decision to leave, Skenan did not want to make sense of this admission - not right now: she had no energy to spare for understanding, or for compassion for Fidelity. Her brain only comprised a broad surface understanding: her friend often failed in connections with people. Skenan harshly surmised that this was merely because of Fidelity’s judgmental attitude, her expectations instead of her acceptances, and her visions for how people should be rather than who they are. In this way she cut people off. Skenan had no extra energy to take pity or look deeper; she was throwing all of her effort into the greatest movement of walking out the door. So, rather superficially, she made her voice cheerful.
“Well, hopefully we’ll both…” she struggled for charity, “Hopefully we’ll both find what we’re looking for. I believe we will. And…I will come back and visit. Yes? God bless you, Fi.”
Fidelity turned around in a burst of passion. She brought her hands up near her chest, curling her slim fingers in intensity, and Skenan was frightened to see her shaking.
“I love you, Skenan. I wish you knew that. I love you so much.” Her chest heaved, and tremors seemed to spread across the surface of her skin.
Harsh memories flashed through Skenan’s mind and she doubted this. But she felt that Fidelity’s need to be believed was greater than her own need to be avenged. So she went up to her and put her arms around her and lied. “I know you do, Fidelity. I know you do. I felt it. Always. And I love you, too.”
Fidelity buried her face in Skenan’s shoulder and sobbed, wetting the material through. Skenan didn’t know anyone could cry like that, but she felt great and big in this moment. She was suddenly the superior one. Finally she, when it was always Fidelity, was being generous and magnanimous. She held her until Fidelity quieted, and then Fidelity pulled away. She was surprised to see that the girl’s face was shining like the sun after an April rain. Her need to be perfectly loving like Christ, and her assurance that she had not failed in this regard, was all too obvious. Skenan somehow no longer felt great or big.
Fidelity turned to the window tremulously and plucked one of her daisies out of the jar.
“Here. Take a little flower to remember me by, and - make sure you come home, soon.”
“I will, Fidelity.” She kissed her cheek, wrung her hand, took up her bag, and walked out the door.
It was only when she entered the sunshine of the leafy lane that a revelation burst upon her: Fidelity would always be a part of her, for better or for worse. She tucked the daisy in behind her ear and was surprised to see Lucius Clarence at the gate. He was leaning over it, dark, eager.
“I’m not asking you to marry me, Skenan. I know you don’t know me that well…but I feel a connection to you, and I think you feel it, too. I will come to Lowell, and I will see if I can make you feel it more, so much that…eventually…you’d consider being my wife.”
She turned away, her nostrils quivering. She looked down at the grass growing in the cracks between the stones. “I can’t believe you think that’s…possible.”
“It is possible. Anything is possible. Your parents did it.”
“Yes, and look what happened to their children.”
“Exactly,” he said fervidly. “Look what happened to their children,” in joy. He leaned over the old wooden gate and kissed her cheek softly. The morning glories bloomed in response. “Now run and find your sister. She’s with my mam.”
“No, wait,” said Skenandoa, and not caring who saw, in the farmyard or the lane or the Shaker-shaped house, she took his finely structured jaw, the bones so delicate under her fingertips, so exquisite, and drew him towards her and planted three kisses deeply into his field-colored lips. “And now I’ll go.”
It was the first time she had ever stepped foot in the fishing village. Crooked shanties lined the lake, dogs tumbled about in the dust, and half-naked children screamed, chasing each other with sticks. A heron flapped silently overhead.
She found her sister in the last shanty. It was a well-kept hut, with pansies in the window and a swept front step. A shelf overflowing with books was in one corner. There was a scrubbed pine table, set with steaming stew. Orenda was there, laughing with a fat woman, uproariously. Both stopped when Skenan entered, and the woman got up quickly and left, after a polite nod. She had seen the look on Skenan’s face.
She went immediately to her sister and stood before her, taut with restrained emotion, her hand rigid on the handle of her bag. She spoke rapidly.
“I do not need to belong to a race of people, Orenda, but I need to belong to myself, and I was too afraid…I did not have the courage to do it in their house. When I was forbidden to see you, that was the last straw, and I knew I would do anything." She paused. "I want to join you in Lowell. I’m going home with you.”
“To Lowell? No,” she said. “That town ain’t a good place for you.” Her younger sister’s care for herself was too much. Skenan had never felt so close to anyone. So this is what it felt like to have the same cells, the same blood, the same bones: the pure tenderness of it ached.
“If it’s good for you, then it’s better than enough for me. I can’t let you go back alone,” said Skenan. She put up her head and swelled her shoulders back, because she must be an older sister: bigger and stronger. She felt ravenously protective of Orenda.
“Then come if you will,” she said, her eyes flashing and boring into Skenan’s soul, “But just know this - you hear? - I don’t need you.”
Skenandoa Duquois realized this was true, to her horror. It made her face a soul-shuddering reality: if she went, it would be necessarily to live for herself, and not for Orenda. Her sister would not let her. Her own soul would not let her. But she did not know how to do this, how to live for herself. She had never done it before. Then she was filled with the intoxicating trial of it all, the sweetness of the attempt.
She put her bag down. She was ready to try.