Thirty Years Ago
The feathers, teeny downy ones, clung to the rough wood of the coop and swirled across the yard like gray and tan snowflakes. Too many. Eight-year-old Mercy Asher hesitated, wind slapping her skirt against her bare calves hard enough to sting. The hens were quiet, not clucking and mumbling like usual. Egg-collecting basket slung in the crook of her elbow, Mercy poked the door with a tentative finger. It sighed inward. An explosion of flapping and wings pushed her back. A solitary white hen burst, squawking, from the coop. Its flurry stirred the slithery odors of chicken poo and blood. After a single glance at the shed’s interior, Mercy fled, crying for her parents, Noah, anyone.
Hunched under the kitchen table late that afternoon, Mercy ran a cloth over the baseboards, a task she usually resented. Today, for the first time, she was glad she was a girl so she hadn’t had to clean out the coop with her older brother and their father. The smell would have made her throw up. Just the thought made her reach for the pendant around her neck, the piece of obsidian her Uncle Fred, a missionary, had sent from Indonesia, on the other side of the world from Colorado. Sometimes when she clutched the stone she thought she could feel the volcanic heat, the shock of cold ocean water turning the lava to black glass. Today, the stone lay inert against her palm. “Why do the foxes kill all the chickens when they can’t eat them?” she asked her mother
“It’s their nature,” her mother said with the tch of annoyance that said she thought Mercy was being too curious or too nosy. Too. “Don’t forget to dust—”
Her father came through the door, bringing the musty odor of wet wool into the kitchen. He had been at the church, and an elders’ meeting, for more than an hour. His expression was grim, almost as dark as the time they got word Grandma Asher had died. Her mother looked up from scouring a pan, used her wrist to push hair off her forehead, and said, “Neil? What did the Community decide?”
Mercy’s father gave his wife a look and she bowed her head, as if it was suddenly too heavy for her neck to support. “May God forgive him and have mercy on him,” she whispered.
“What happened?” Mercy asked from under the table. Her long, mink-dark braids flopped over her shoulders and she flung them back impatiently. What she wouldn’t give to chop them off, but Jesus didn’t like women to cut their hair. Realizing her parents hadn’t heard her, she asked, “Did someone die?”
“Mercy?” Her father bent and peered under the table at her. His head’s funny angle made the pouches under his eyes sag sideways, showing reddened rims at the inner corners. His smile was more than usually sad. “I didn’t know you were here, punkin.”
Before Mercy could respond, her mother ordered her out from under the table. “That’s good enough for today, Mercy. You may be excused from the rest of your chores. Find your brother and the two of you spend the afternoon in your rooms, memorizing your Bible verses for this week.”
“But I want to know what happened. Why are you upset, Daddy?”
“It’s not a fit subject—” her father began .
“Young lady, did I tell you to do something?”
Reading imminent punishment in her mother’s eyes, Mercy curled her toes under inside her shoes and forced herself to say, “Yes, ma’am. I’m going.” She left the kitchen, torn between frustration at not hearing more about whatever was making her father sad, pleasure at not having to finish her chores, and resentment at being confined to her room.
An hour later, having spent three minutes reciting her Bible verses for Noah and the rest of the time trying to perfect a drawing of a horse, Mercy ditched her sketch pad and grabbed for her Bible at the sound of her parents’ voices in the hall.
“—of course Roger needs to be punished,” her mother said, passing Mercy’s barely open door.
Roger? Mercy didn’t know a Roger.
Her father mumbled something, but the only words she caught were “harsh” and “reckoning stones.” Holding her breath, she tiptoed to the door. Not daring to open it wider for fear her mother would catch her, she listened. “You stay home with the children, Marian,” her father said, “and I’ll go tonight.”
“Whatever you think best, Neil, but it feels like something we should do together.” Her words made it sound as if she was waiting for her husband’s approval, the way a wife should, but Mercy could tell she’d made up her mind to go. “Noah can keep an eye on Mercy for the short time we’ll be gone.”
The two-tone creak of the bedroom door told Mercy they’d gone into their room. Wanting to know more, she waited a beat and then eased her door open the slightest amount possible and slipped through it. Her bare feet made no noise as she crept down the carpeted hallway toward her parents’ room. She ghosted past Noah’s door, willing him not to look up from his studying and notice her, and let her breath out when she was safely by. When she had drawn within two feet, her father’s voice, much louder than she expected, startled her.
“Roger, an adulterer. He’s the last man I’d have thought—”
Mercy’s eyes widened; she knew about adultery from the Ten Commandments. She inched closer. Wood smacked against wood, and Mercy jumped. Two steps down the hall toward her room, she realized her mother must have closed one of the dresser drawers. She let her breath out slowly, silently, fighting an urge to giggle. It wouldn’t be one bit funny if her parents caught her eavesdropping. Clapping a hand over her mouth, she moved toward their room, drawn by the lure of knowing. Her father was saying “Thank God the children aren’t called to witness the ritual.”
Something in the timbre of his voice as he pronounced the words made the hairs prickle on Mercy’s arms. What ritual? Her mother said something Mercy didn’t catch and she leaned in so her ear was almost pressed against the door. A soft thud jerked her head up and it took her a second to realize the noise came from behind her. She started to turn, but over-balanced and fell heavily against the door. Noah stared down at her, his brown hair sticking out on one side, a “gotcha” expression on his face. Before she could scramble to her feet, he yelled, “Mercy’s spying again! Mercy’s spying.”
Someone yanked the door inward and Mercy sprawled across the threshold on her back, looking up into her parents’ surprised and angry faces. She was in for it now.
Dark had fallen by the time Mercy could escape her brother’s surveillance and sneak out of the house. Her parents had left a full hour earlier; if she didn’t hurry she’d miss the whole thing, whatever it was. She’d had to wait until Noah went to take his bath, and she’d spent the time copying the first three chapters of John into her notebook, her punishment for eavesdropping. She flexed her fingers now inside her mittens; they were stiff from the cold and the writing exercise.
Snow sifted softly onto her uncovered head as she hurried toward the church, less than a half mile away. She steered clear of the houses by skirting the perimeter of the small town, sticking close to the forest that cupped the Community in a large horseshoe. Mercy looked around nervously as something rustled in the underbrush. Probably a mouse. It was a little spooky to be outside at night, by herself. The trees that edged the Community seemed taller, the spaces between them darker. Two inches of powdery snow muffled her footsteps. A break in the clouds let the moon shine through and it stenciled tree lace onto the snow. Mercy kept her eyes trained on the church where a yellow glow flickered through the windows.
Nearing the church, she felt exposed as she crossed the open expanse of lawn. She’d be grounded until Christmas if her parents came out now, but determination kept her moving. Her reason for coming had somehow changed from wanting to know about Roger and the reckoning stones to proving that her parents couldn’t stop her from knowing whatever she wanted to know. Mercy scurried the last few yards until she was pressed up against the church’s rough stone foundation. It snagged her scarf. She tried to peer in the nearest window, but it was set too high. Her mittened fingers barely reached the sill and she couldn’t get a good enough grip to pull herself up. Faint chanting filtered through the window. The cadence didn’t feel like a prayer she knew. The congregation intoned the unintelligible words slowly, with less familiarity and unison than they did the Lord’s prayer during worship services.
Without warning, the double doors opened wide and the congregation poured out, forty or fifty people. Their quiet was like the hens’ and Mercy’s stomach went all hollow. Candles cast long shadows that shuddered on the snow. Mercy froze. If anyone looked her way, they’d see her. No one did. They were all focused on the brown-robed man in the middle. He didn’t carry a candle, but a woman near him lifted hers so it illuminated the man’s face briefly and Mercy gasped. It was Mr. Carpenter, Seth and Luke’s dad. His face was scrunched up like he’d been crying, and Mercy looked down at her boots, somehow embarrassed.
When she raised her eyes, the congregation was straggling toward the woods, forming itself into a ragged column. No one spoke, not even Pastor Matt who led the way with a fat candle lifted high. Mercy let them get almost all the way into the trees before she moved to follow. She had taken three steps out of the church’s shadow and was as visible as a dot of ink on a white page when the last person in the line looked over her shoulder, as if wanting a final glimpse of the church. Mercy could tell the exact moment the woman spotted her because she lurched and had to look forward to regain her balance.
Not waiting to see if the woman raised an outcry, Mercy turned and ran as hard as she could for the woods. Her braids slapped her back. Thin branchlets whipped her face as she stumbled pell-mell through the snow and over roots. She didn’t hear any yelling, or sounds of pursuit, but that might have been because her labored breaths and the muffled thuds of her feet deafened her. She paused only once, risking a glance behind her. Faint pinpricks of light danced deep in the trees beyond the church, winter fireflies. A cry carried to her, deadened by the falling snow.
Putting her hands over her ears, she hurried on. By the time she reached the house and stood shivering in the mud room, stripping off her snow-sodden boots and tights, Mercy had convinced herself that what she’d heard was an animal, a rabbit maybe, falling prey to a fox or owl.