EMMA LEANED HER forehead against the windowpane, still scalding from the day’s heat, and thought of the open letter on the table behind her. Zion cut the generators after 10:30, and the whole town sank into a blackness thick as hot tar. Except for the Prophet’s house. It gleamed there on the hillside night and day, the windows flaming with the warm, golden glow of electric bulbs.
Her mother snapped a match in the shadows and lifted the glass encasing the lantern. The flame licked at the wick. Then it wavered, caught, and climbed down the blackened twine that was crumbling into ash. The woman waved the match in the dark until it flickered out. Then she slid the glass back over the lantern and twisted the knob.
Emma watched her mother’s face as she carried the lamp to the windowsill, but she couldn’t make out any feeling, any reaction to the news. The old grandfather clock marked their days minute by minute, a sentinel against the kitchen wall.
Her mother had already settled into her chair beside the window, licking a thread tip and prodding it through the eye of her needle. Emma tapped her fingers against the sill. “So what do we do?”
“About what?” Her mother looked up at her and blinked.
Emma’s eyes went to the kitchen table.
“Nothing,” Celie blurted out, and then she dropped her gaze back to her work. She pinned a tidy denim patch onto her husband’s overalls.
“Nothing?” Emma strode to the letter and raised it to the light. She began reading. “‘You shall atone for your sins. If it requires that your blood be made an offering unto the Lord, you shall atone.’” She tossed the letter back onto the table. “Sister Richardson trusted you with this. She wants your help.”
“Well if you’re so smart, what do you think we should do?”
“All they want to do is leave.” Emma spoke more softly. “I didn’t know we could leave.”
Celie laughed. “Who’s forcing you to stay?”
Emma turned back to the window. The Prophet’s house offered a kind of safety, conversations muffled by thick, heavy drapes and the Oriental carpets that Ruth had piled over the floorboards and electric light streaming out into space twenty-four hours a day. Here, the glare of their lantern burned so hot it would welt her thumb if she so much as grazed the glass. In fact, she’d once seen her brother try to pluck the flame like a blossom. He’d spent the night screaming while their mother pressed ice cubes to his fingertips. Her mother had sat up with him all night, her eyelids drooping with sleep.
But across the kitchen table in the light, her mother looked sharply alert tonight. Her mother glanced at her between the final pins and then punched the needle through the thick denim. “You know what it’s like on the outside. You know we burn if we leave.”
“Fine.” Emma said and took the chair across the table from her mother. She scooped a hand into the enamel bowl of fresh-picked peas from their work in the garden that morning. She selected one pod from the bowl and slitted it with her thumbnail. “I didn’t say I wanted to leave, did I?” The hard, tight peas tumbled out and ticked against the enamel.
“Good.” Celie didn’t look at her daughter. She tucked the end of her thread between her thumb and forefinger, rolled the tips of cut thread, and tugged. And just like that, she had a knot.
Emma glanced at her mother and took another pod from the bowl. “They told me I could have roses. And that I could marry the Prophet on Wednesday. If I want.” She folded back the green shell and peas rained into the bowl. “They said that I could have any color I want. For the roses, I mean.”
“That must be nice.” Celie pinned a patch of blue denim over a hole in her husband’s coveralls. She pinched the denim and poked the needle through. “To get everything you want.”
“I don’t want it.” Emma thought of the white gravestone up on the hillside, the paved highway far beyond the ridge, the dozens of things she wanted and couldn’t have. “I don’t want to marry the Prophet.”
Celie’s eyes flicked up at her. In the lantern light, they looked black as buttons. She frowned down at her stitches. “You’re fifteen years old. You’re old enough. And if the Prophet says you’re ready, then you’re ready. You shouldn’t make them wait.”
Emma ripped open another pod, and peas drummed against the bowl like raindrops. The enamel bowl always reminded her of her grandmother’s teeth, chipped and crusted with plaque. In the bowl, a yellow oval stained the enamel. “I won’t. I’ll tell them no tomorrow.”
Her mother’s hand shot across the table and grasped Emma’s wrist. She squeezed. “That’s the wrong answer.”
“But it’s the truth.”
“I don’t care what the truth is. When the Prophet asks you to do something, you do it. Do you want us to get a letter like that one?”
Emma had seen her mother depressed, sunken, decayed—even outraged. But she had never seen her terrified. Her eyes glittered with something between hatred and terror. “You’re hurting me.” Emma tried to pull away.
Celie let go and returned to her stitches. The needle dipped in and out of the denim. “I think you should pray about it.”
“That won’t change anything, Mom.” Emma was just stalling for time. “It’s not what I want.”
“It’s not about what you want. It’s about what your Heavenly Father wants.” Her mother seemed to have found her rhythm now, and the stitches zipped along with precision. “Do you really think the Prophet would have made you an offer if it wasn’t what the Lord wanted?”
Emma bit her lip and pulled another pod from the bowl. How could she explain to her mother that she didn’t want the same life she had? That she didn’t want anything her mother had? She wanted something outside Zion, beyond it. She even felt called to it. But she didn’t know what, and there was no way to make them believe she had to go, even if she tried to tell them. There was a kind of faith these people didn’t understand. Emma saw no point in trying to convince them. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You still believe he’s the Prophet, don’t you?”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
Celie sighed. She pulled the last stitch and then let the coveralls fall crumpled into her lap. Her eyes drifted closed, like she was exhausted beyond sleep, beyond even life. Like even her body was too much to carry. With the lantern’s white light full on her face, her mother looked washed out and faded.
As a child, Emma’s recurring nightmare had been that her mother would disappear. One minute, she was sitting by her bed, with her palm resting over Emma’s heart, and then, in the dream, the next minute she began to flicker. Her mother went on gazing down at Emma even as her body wavered, like heat waves off macadam. And finally, she would just vanish. Evaporate. Even the weight of her hand from where it had rested on the quilt was gone. Emma always woke up in a terror. Now, at the kitchen table, she had the sense this was happening in front of her. Her mother opened her eyes and stared at the Prophet’s house for a long, long time. Then she straightened in her chair and raised the denim up to the light and squinted at her chain of stitches.
“You need to think about this some more, Emma.” Celie drew another patch from her pile and moved on to the next hole in the coveralls.
Emma dropped another empty husk onto the towel. She didn’t look at her mother. “I could just not get married.”
Celie leaned toward the lantern and inspected the new patch under the light.
“Or I could leave.”
Her mother shook out the pair of coveralls and went on pinning down the new patch.
Emma took the letter from the table between them, folded it, and smoothed it against the tablecloth with a flat palm. Beside her on the sill, the flame faltered against the black windowpane.
Celie still didn’t look at her. “Do you want us to get a letter like that one?”
“But we could all leave.”
“And go where?” Celie took up her needle and punched it through the denim, up and down, with the perfect obedience of a machine. “Just what do you think is out there? Cotton candy and butterflies? You know there’s nothing better than Zion. You know it because I told you so, and I grew up out there. I know. And it’s hell. There are wars and rumors of wars. But here, the Lord protects us through the Prophet. We owe him something for that.”
“So I’m supposed to pay him back by marrying him?”
Celie snatched the letter from her and shuffled again into the kitchen. She opened a drawer, tucked the letter under the silverware tray, and slammed it. “You think if you leave, God follows you?”
“Why not? He can go anywhere.”
“Not out there. People die, and their souls go with Satan. Everything we have is because of the Prophet.”
The front door banged shut, and Jed stomped his boots on the mat. Clods of dirt shook off onto the linoleum.
“What a night,” he said. He unzipped his navy blue coveralls and stepped out of them like a snake shedding its skin. Underneath, he wore a thin white T-shirt and a pair of oversized cotton shorts. “Joseph’s cattle won’t so much as go near the slaughterhouse. Had to teach him all over again how to do a clean kill.”
Celie rushed over and took his baseball cap and his steel toolbox. She set them carefully beside the folded step-stool by the front door. When she gathered the balled-up coveralls and stood, Jed kissed her on the forehead. “How about some dinner, Ceecee?”
She shuffled double-time into the hallway and dropped the coveralls into the hamper, and then she pulled a sandwich she’d packed in the icebox and set it on a plate for him. Jed went on talking about how to kill cattle, about how you had to make sure they suspected nothing and give them love, a Christ-like love, right up to the last moment. He took Celie’s chair at the kitchen table and eyed Emma’s work as he ate.
“You’re looking a little slow with the peas there, Emma.”
She looked down into her bowl. It was true. She’d shelled only about half. The wad of empty pods on the towel looked insignificant.
“Better learn to hustle if you want to impress a new husband.” He winked at her and then bit into his sandwich.
Emma glared at him. She picked up a peapod and gouged it with her thumbnail.
In the kitchen, Celie’s shoulders rolled forward, and she slumped over the countertop. “Your daughter is planning to leave Zion. She doesn’t want to get married.”
“Doesn’t want to?” Jed grinned, his left cheek bulging with turkey sandwich. “What sort of girl doesn’t want to get married?”
“This one,” Emma said.
Jed laughed. “But you could have angel food cake every morning for breakfast. Just think of it, Emmy. Every morning. They always have angel food up at the big house.”
“First, Mom threatened me. And now you’re bribing me? With cake? What do you think I am—ten?”
“Even the wives are excited to have you. Usually they’re off put by a new wife, but they really like you.” Jed polished off his sandwich and leaned back in his chair.
“You just want me to go, so you can get a second wife. It’s a trade, isn’t it? A wife for a wife?”
In the kitchen, Celie coughed delicately. Jed’s eyes narrowed.
“You better apologize for speaking to your father that way.”
He only spoke of himself in the third-person when he was nearing the edge of an explosion. Emma decided to nudge him into the abyss. “You’ve always wanted another wife more than you wanted me. Ever since Daniel died.”
His face flushed. His mouth opened and closed.
Emma shoved her chair back, and she stormed out of the dining room. She could feel his eyes follow her. Panic flooded up out her chest and constricted her throat. If she could just get to the hallway, pitch-black and safe where the wall would block her father’s view of her.
“Emma.” Jed barked at her. Her father’s voice had shifted gears. All the jovial brightness gone, it had lowered and deepened. Threat shimmered sharp as steel at the edges of her name. “Get back in here.”
She turned on her heel and faced him. But she did not go back. She simply leaned against the living room wall with her hands tucked behind her and glared at him through the shadows. Now that he had turned away from the lantern, his face was a gray smudge in the flickering light, unreadable.
“The Prophet is being very generous with us. I expect you to show him the gratitude you owe him.”
Celie, whose primary purpose in life for the last six years had been to prevent irreparable family rifts, gripped the back of the sofa and leaned toward her daughter. “Keep sweet.” She whispered to Emma. “Just please keep sweet.”
Emma did not break her gaze from her father for a moment. “You mean I have to.”
“I mean for once you should think about your future. Your mother and I can’t afford to keep you here forever. This is the best opportunity you’ll ever have. Any woman in Zion would feel blessed to be in your shoes.”
Celie nodded from the shadows.
Emma turned her back on them and strode down the hallway, her sock feet slipping a little on the waxed floorboards. She felt almost like a ghost herself in the darkness. On the edge of reality, about to fall off and vanish entirely, she reached a hand out to the wall. The cool, satiny plaster was a comfort. She dragged a finger down the length of the hallway, tracing the eggshell texture of the wall to the end of the line. And then she shut her door.