Later I’ll blame it all on the heat.
It’s the middle of one of the worst March heat waves this part of the state has ever seen. When the sun sets, I know the heat will disappear so quick from the dust that the kids will have to use the quilts Mother and I spent a year making for six little beds. But now, in the height of the afternoon, it’s making a wavy haze of the grove of mesquite trees as I tear through the underbrush. My lungs are burning from the effort, but I don’t stop running. I need to get away from the compound before I start to cry. I can feel the tears building in the back of my throat, and I don’t want anyone to see.
I’m deep into the woods, a half a mile from the nearest house, before I slow down. I wipe a long cotton sleeve across my forehead, and soon I’m mopping at tears. I sink down onto the ground and bury my face into my hands as the tears rush up my throat, almost choking me as they fight their way out.
I don’t know why I snapped. I was making spaghetti for the kids’ dinner, stirring the sauce so it wouldn’t bubble and make a mess I’d have to clean up later, when Elijah started to cry and Constance began asking me questions. Where was Father, when would he be home, would he help her with her kite this weekend like he'd promised? Somewhere between trying to keep the sauce moving, answering Constance’s barrage of questions, sending Esther to comfort Elijah and spotting Miriam pulling at a thread in the carpet from the corner of my eye, something inside of me broke down. I thrust the sauce spoon at Esther and fled the house.
The shame of it is almost as thick and hot as the air around me.
Please God, give me patience and strength. Give me gratitude for all your blessings.
I feel nothing as I think the words. I go so far as to whisper them out loud, and they disappear into the trees as though I'd never said them. God has left me.
I cry until there's nothing left inside of me. The emptiness is almost a relief. I stand and take a deep breath, brushing the dirt off of my dress. With a pang, I picture Esther, the next oldest after me, trying to clean up the mess I left her with, but I can't go back yet. Just the idea seems to close my lungs again.
Shamed by my selfishness, I begin walk deeper into the woods.
I’ve never been this far before; I must be at least a mile south of town by now. It’s surprisingly beautiful out here. The landscape of New Canaan is nothing but hot orange dust that coats everything, turning the houses and girls’ aprons and men's cotton shirts the same parched color. Except for the fields we irrigate with water from the Pecos, there's hardly any green in town. Just the scraggly bushes that crop up on the community's outskirts and the sad little marigolds Sister Moore struggles to grow in her window boxes.
Even in the shade of the trees, it's scorching hot. I can feel beads of sweat starting under my headscarf, gathering momentum as they roll down my scalp and under the neck of my dress. More than anything I want to take it off, but I've already been such a disappointment to my family today. I can't disobey my Church as well.
There's a traitorous voice that whispers inside of me, though, wondering if it's really a sin if there's no one to see.
It may be the Devil, but I must admit it has a good point. I'm alone for miles, and the feel of sweat plastering my hair to my head is maddening. In one swift motion, before I have time to rethink, I pull off the blue scarf and shake out my damp curls. I stuff my guilt down deep. A cool breeze kicks up and blows through my hair, and I shiver. I can’t remember the last time I felt anything like it.
(Except, yes, I can. I was seven years old, and I took off my scarf while running in the sprinklers with Mercy and Zarah. An older girl told Brother Owens on me, and he sat me down in his cool, dark office for a talk. His rebuke was kind, but I cried the entire time.)
Hopefully this time, so far at the back of the Children's property, my little rebellion will be safe.
No sooner do I have the thought than I step out of the copse of trees to find Jonah Quinn lying in the grass by the river.
I freeze like an animal in the gaze of a predator. Jonah and I were good friends once. He'd always come up with the best games, imagining vivid scenarios where we were warriors battling among ourselves or angels who had to cross town without being seen. But as we grew older, I saw less of him. Boys and girls are educated separately, and when my mother died I stopped going to school entirely so that I could take care of my younger siblings. I didn’t even see him in the chapel because of the gauze curtain that separated the women from the men.
And I’ve certainly never seen him like this. He’s taken off his shirt and tossed it into the grass nearby, and his bare arms are folded under his head as he dozes in the sun, revealing what seems like an impossibly vast expanse of golden skin. I swallow. He’ll be in even worse trouble than me if anyone else sees this, and if they find out I did? I don’t even like to think about it. Even little boys at the height of the summer don’t dare to take off their shirts. I’ve never seen anyone older than my brother Elijah, who’s four, in this state of nakedness before.
I feel the surge of warmth burn my cheeks even in the blistering heat. A fluttering panic starts beneath my skin as I try to retreat the way I came, back into the safe cover of the woods, but my limbs are suddenly heavy and clumsy. I crash through the underbrush like an animal and watch with horror as Jonah’s eyes open and fly to me.
We’re both motionless, staring at each other. Jonah’s blue eyes, still familiar to me, are wide with surprise as he looks at me, and I remember, with a sensation like a stone dropping into my stomach, that my hair is uncovered.
Shame crashes over me and tastes bitter at the back of my dry throat. I've done everything wrong today. I grab at my hair and back into the trees, keeping my gaze firmly averted from Jonah's knowing eyes and his sun-tinged skin.
“Hey,” he calls after me. “Wait!”
But I don’t look back.