“A lie was hard to swallow. The truth impossible.” A fictional telling of a young woman’s coercion into accepting a plural marriage in order to find heaven…
by: Kelly L. Simmons
Mary didn’t recognize the girl at first. Her appearance was ghostly white against the surrounding darkness. Up close, she saw it was Martha, the plump pretty girl from England. She and her family were recent converts to the Latter Day Saints. Mary had noticed the girl’s brightness, shining with the joyful glow new members often wore. Mary may have appeared that way once herself, but tonight, the girl’s face was pale and gaunt. Her light hair, disheveled, was backlit by the moon.
“Are you unwell?” Mary asked.
The girl could not speak. Sobs shook her body. Martha motioned her into the shadows.
Mary unwrapped her shawl and wound it around Martha’s shoulders. It was too long and fell below her knees. The girl, barely sixteen, already had the full figure of a woman. Her broad forehead and upturned nose were like an open question mark to a beauty blossoming.
The girl panted, staring up at the building. She managed to choke out between sobs, “That room. In there. Brother Joseph. Brigham.”
Mary was instantly alert, her heart pounding. “Tell me.”
Martha lifted her wet face and set her shoulders. Tears blurred her large eyes, intent upon Mary’s face.
“This evening, Brother Brigham asked if I was willing to do everything the prophet requires.” Martha clasped her hands as though in prayer. “I answered yes. For surely the prophet would require only righteousness.”
Mary slumped back against the building’s rough stone. The lamplighters walked the street, touching their glowing flames to blackened wicks. Shadows crawled back from the light as if they were hiding something. Soon, the bobbing of lights disappeared. “Go on,” she said.
Martha searched Mary’s eyes each time for permission before trusting her. Mary knew the risks they both took. Mary kept a steady gaze.
“Brigham asked if I was ready to take counsel and I said yes.” The words tumbled out, her rounded chest heaving. “I’d been chasing after my sisters, and all I could think was I wish I’d washed my face and hands.” Martha blinked and tears splashed her full cheeks. “He brought me here, to the Brick Store.” Her eyes darted to the building and then back. “We climbed the back steps, to a small room.” The girl hung her head. “Joseph met us there.”
Mary glanced up to see the lights still burned inside the building. Lights that had welcomed her now shone sinister and mocking. She knew. She’d always known. “What happened?” she asked.
“At first, I was excited and a little nervous. I’d never met the prophet, personally, and I felt I was about to hear something very important.” Martha paused. “They said I must hold my tongue and tell no one. But I am telling you.”
Martha’s troubled look made Mary’s throat constrict. A lie was hard to swallow. The truth, impossible.
“I tried to tidy myself.” Martha’s hand instinctively flew to her hair, which had loosened from its braids. How many times had Mary’s hand strayed to her own hair when the prophet was near? Or pinched her cheeks for color?
“I stood ready for what they had to tell me.” Martha wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. “Brother Joseph locked the door.”
Mary held a hand to her mouth as Martha found her voice. “The room was dark except for two lighted candles. Joseph and Brigham laid their hands upon my head and down my back, and gave me a blessing.” Martha ran her hands along her sides. “They called it a once-in-a-lifetime patriarchal blessing. They said they could look into my future, and the kingdom would be revealed.”
Mary could picture the two men in her mind. A sacred rite performed for Martha alone. Mary thought back to her own ceremony. Joseph’s firm touch, his fingers pressing into her hair, his eyes only for her.
“There was a bed in there, Sister.” As the words spilled out Martha broke then, her body shaking.
Mary took Martha’s soft, damp hands. At the small gesture, Martha’s knees gave way. Mary held her up with a strength she hadn’t known she possessed.
Martha regained her balance, and Mary eased her grip. “I didn’t know if you’d believe me.” Martha’s relief was physical, a frantic eager release. She smiled through her tears. Her torn smile now held the appearance of uncertainty.
Mary stifled a cry and was glad the night hid her face. Shame crept up her neck and over her features, making her feel ugly. “You are not to blame,” she whispered. We are to blame, she thought.
A soft breeze picked up the scent of decaying apples from the enormous apple tree that grew near the temple grounds. The smell made Mary want to retch. She breathed into her hands. She was two months pregnant and did not yet show. It was still her secret.
Martha pulled her hands away and bit at her fingers. She would not look at the young girl.
“It is all right, child, it is all right.”
“No it is not.” Martha’s blanched face recoiled. “I, I was glad to be there.”
Mary touched her cheek, and Martha flinched as if she’d been struck. “No, no,” Martha said. “I wanted…I liked it. At first I did.” A moan escaped the girl. Her shawl had fallen away, exposing one shoulder and a tousled braid draped over her chest, rising and falling with her breath.
Mary removed a wet strand of hair from Martha’s girl’s face. “I know, I know.” Her words were so soft she wasn’t sure she had spoken them.
“The prophet wanted to speak with me. Brother Brigham too. What had I done to receive such favor?” Martha offered a small smile. “Joseph was kind. His shirt was worn at the cuffs; humble, like my father.” Her voice cracked, but she managed to continue. “We sat on the bed and Brother Joseph told me I was pretty.” Martha played with a mangled plait, a soft curve to her smooth lips.
All it took was a simple compliment. A touch. A smile. How easily deceived and how easily taken were the innocent, Mary thought. “I want to please God,” Martha said, suddenly dry-eyed. “Joseph told me about the revelation as in the days of Abraham, when men had more than one wife, and said it was the only way for me to reach the Celestial Kingdom.”
Mary felt a shudder and wasn’t sure if was hers or one they shared.
“Joseph said he would step out, and that I must speak with Brigham alone.” Martha pulled back then as if the words needed space of their own. “I thought I’d done something wrong. That I’d be punished.” Her voice dropped. “But Brigham was gentle. He sat beside me and took my hand. ‘This is our private room,’ he said. ‘Will you not tell’?”
The heavy autumn air, with its stench of dead fruit was almost too much. It circled Mary and held her down. Did even the air obey Joseph?
“Brigham moved closer until our shoulders touched.” Martha winced. “He asked: ‘What are your feelings towards me’?” Martha lifted her chin, illuminating the whiteness of her neck. “Well, I answered, just the same as they were before.”
Mary allowed herself a little smile.
“His neck was thick and damp, and he sat so close. I wished only to be home.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “He told me we could be married right then and that my parents needn’t know anything about it.” She looked at Mary. “The bed. He wanted…”
Mary again glanced up. The room in the building above was now dark. “We must move.” she whispered. She gripped Martha’s arm and the two of them backed farther behind the store. Two women came out of the door and made their way to the Mansion House; one was Mary Ann, Brigham’s wife, then heavy with child.
Martha blinked, her eyes widening. “I wish to be an honorable girl, Sister.”
“I know,” said Mary.
“I said I needed time. I asked to speak with Joseph again before deciding.” Martha’s voice caught. “Brigham told me to wait on the bed while he went to get him. I could not.”
Her voice raised and she covered her mouth. But no one was about to hear.
Mary pictured Martha pacing the room. What was the girl waiting for? Her savior?
“Joseph returned. I felt sure I’d misunderstood, that all would be well. I would do anything for the Lord.” She paused, gathering any remains of dignity she could find. “But, when I told Joseph my misgivings about marrying Brother Brigham, he laughed at me.”
Martha tugged at the cloak. “He told me Brother Brigham was the best man for a plural husband, except for himself. And the marriage had his blessing.”
Mary swallowed her bile, her stomach roiling. Was this a game? A contest?
“They said I would go to hell if I denied God.”
Martha’s words echoed as if at a distance. Words Mary had heard often.
“I said I must pray on it. Joseph said the room was not always free, and told me to hurry up with my prayers.” The girl curved her shoulders inward as if awaiting another blow. “I do not wish it.” Her tears flowed freely. “Am I a sinner, Sister Mary?”
Mary snapped back to life. She hugged Martha, not wanting to let go. Martha’s arms were strong yet soft and supple, of youth and purity that those men would stain.
“No, no,” Mary whispered. She breathed in the flowery scent of the girl’s hair.
Mary pulled away. It was not too late. “Don’t speak of this to anyone. Go straight home. Tell your parents the truth of what has happened.”
“What will they do to us?”
Mary didn’t know what would happen. What would the papers run? And what might happen to Joseph? And her husband, what would he do after he discovered her betrayal? She would be shunned. But would she also be damned? Would they take her child? “I do not know, Martha. But you must leave.”
Martha looked to Mary. The color had returned to her cheeks, and a blush of scarlet marked her white neck as a sacrifice not given. She then turned and fled. Mary leaned against the building, shivering uncontrollably. She remained until she felt her legs. Squaring her shoulders, she stared overhead to the stars. “I’ve done it,” she said to the night. “Do what you will to me.”
Kelly L. Simmons has completed her first novel, The Wives of Billie’s Mountain, and is in the last editing throes of a prequel. Her stories have been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Dimeshow Review, Prick of the Spindle, and more. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and has had one of her short stories adapted and performed for the stage. She is also writing a screenplay about a true Montana murder. Kelly received her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, NC.