They take you from school, tell you to leave your backpack at your desk.
They take you without warning, or they give you forty-five minutes to say goodbye.
They take you with the clothes on your back. They take you with your father's blessing. They take you young. They take you unwilling. They might take you alone.
They took me from a birthday party, three elders in business suits. I was bent over candy just fallen from the piñata. Hannah Rae had broken the piñata. They took her, too, on her birthday. She was twelve. Her mother had just announced Pin the Tail on the Donkey. She was holding a blindfold in her hand. My pockets were full with Junior Mints and Tootsie Rolls. Out the window behind us the mountains rose toward the sky. My father stood, watching. They shook his hand.
I am Hiram's fifth wife. Judith, Edith, Emma, Jolene, and me, Leah, I'm fifth. And Hannah Rae, she's sixth. They took us to the temple, and Walker Getty, the President, said repeat after me. I take thee, Hiram. To love and to serve. In sickness and in health. 'Till death we do part. The other wives stood as bridesmaids. Edith is a friend of my mother. Hiram slipped a ring on my fourth finger and shoved his tongue in my mouth. He grabbed my shoulder, hard, so I'd know not to move. Walker Getty said how since God ordained our true love, no man could tear it asunder.
Then I got in line to be a bridesmaid for Hannah Rae. Edith put her arm around me and pulled me close, which felt safe and good. She leaned down and whispered in my ear. "Remember this," she said. "You're fifth. I'm second. You'll do as I say from here on." Then she smiled and gave me a long hug, which felt ugly. At the altar, Walker Getty told Hiram he could kiss his bride, and he shoved his tongue into Hannah Rae's mouth. When she tried to pull away he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her to him to finish his kiss.
Walker Getty led us to the candle with thirteen flames, which he said symbolized our family. Twelve small candles circled and bowed to one large flame. Hiram lit the large flame with a butane lighter, and one by one we wives lit one small candle with his big candle. Six candles stayed unlit, Walker Getty said, until the Lord saw fit to bless Hiram with more.
Judith got us ready for the consummation. She leaned over us and dabbed our necks with perfume. Her skin was loose and pale. Her breath smelled of garlic, and her body of cornhusker's lotion. She told Hannah Rae that she must serve me, since she was sixth. She said I must choose who saw Hiram first, since I was fifth. I chose Hannah Rae.
I waited in the kitchen. Judith asked if I'd like a sandwich, and I said yes. She said I'd have to make it myself, and one for her, too. She scolded me for being slow. I couldn't find the bread because I didn't know to look in the refrigerator. From the other side of the house I heard Hannah Rae scream. I heard the sound of flesh striking flesh, a sound I knew from my father's rages. Hiram shouted at her to be quiet, but still I heard her wailing. Judith scolded me for putting too much mayonnaise on her sandwich.
When it was my turn Judith escorted me to Hiram's room. We passed Hannah Rae's new room. She was lying on a twin mattress on the floor, sobbing and curled into a ball. Judith closed the door as we passed and clucked her disapproval.
I remember these things: He said I love you. He was still wearing his shirt, and his tie. He was heavy. I hurt. It bled. When he got going he said fuck me, fuck me, fuck me, fuck me, sweet Jesus! He liked to lick the sweat from my forehead. His tongue was rough and scratchy. He grabbed my hip bones with his hands and shook me up and down. He said I was his favorite. He said he only had eyes for me. He said he didn't care if the others knew. He said he had made me a woman. He said we should do this more often. He cradled me in his arms like a baby and sang me a lullaby. He kissed my cheek softly and fondled my breast. Then he did it to me again. He said darling, darling. He said precious, precious. When he was done I went into my new room and threw up all over the floor. Edith came in with a wastebucket and a Brillo pad and some soap, and said, "Get scrubbing."
They take you to the thrift store. They give you ten dollars to shop for maternity clothes. They take you after hours to the office of Elder Byrum, a medical doctor. He spreads cold gel across your stomach and probes with a metal wand. He shows you an image, a black-and-white lizard with tiny human hands. He places your feet in stirrups and shoves his wrinkled knuckles inside you. He wraps a tape measure around your belly. He pokes and prods. He says praise God. He asks about Hiram. He gives you thick brown vitamins and writes on a yellow chart. He tousles your hair and calls you little momma.
They take all the girls to the ammunition chamber. They say this is a twenty-two, this is a forty-five, this is a Glock, this is a three-fifty-seven Magnum. They show you the knives, the daggers, the Samurai swords. They kneel you down in a long line, press the shotgun shells to your palms, speak of when they come to get us, and yes they are coming. We are in the world but not of it. They take you to the test range and teach you to fire into paper shaped like a man. They say, “Semiautomatic, praise Jesus.”
They take you to the tabernacle on Sunday. They tell you to walk in a single file line behind your husband, then veer off toward the balcony to sit with the other wives. The men sit up front. Only men are allowed entry to the area behind the veil, the Holy of Holies. Men are priests. Women are for childbearing. Mornings, you puke. Rhododendron grows beneath the skylight. Walker Getty says God is loving and wrathful, too. He tells the story of a great exodus from Egypt and into the promised land. Next to you, Hannah Rae is smiling. She only smiles now. Walker Getty says true happiness can only be found in submission. Look at Hannah Rae, they say. She is truly happy.
Daddy used to tell stories about the world beyond the mountains. There, he said, people do not share things in common, but they hoard selfishly. They are consumed by covetousness. They think they possess things, but their things possess them. They call themselves consumers. Wives sleep with the husbands of other women. Sexual immorality is rampant. Women dance naked on tabletops for money. There is no regard for God. Children do not honor their mothers and fathers. The races cohabit and interbreed and produce bastard mongrel children. Gangs of teenagers drive through neighborhoods and blanket them with automatic gunfire. We are in hiding, he said. The world hates us. If they find us they will try to kill us, because we follow the ways of God.
Jolene is haunted by the mountains. Jolene is Hiram's fourth wife. She rises every morning at to pray. I've seen her through the window. She wanders to the edge of the valley and becomes a tiny speck beneath the old redwood. I've seen her weeping there, perhaps because Hiram loves her less than the rest of us, perhaps because of the long scars that run the length of her left cheek. As a child she pulled a pot of boiling water from the stove and ruined her beauty. Hannah Rae's mother said she was cursed for her disobedience, that Jolene was a stubborn and willful girl.
Some mornings a blue haze ascends from the tallest peaks, then settles and disappears as the sun rises. I've seen Jolene's eyes follow the dimming haze until her head is sunken to the ground. She is eighteen and has borne no children. I can feel mine kicking inside my skin.
Tuesday morning Hannah Rae rose early and scrambled eggs and fried bacon. She brought trays to our beds and plates of eggs and bacon and glasses of milk. She filled mop pails with soap and water and washed our feet as we ate. She kissed us each on the cheek. She whispered in my ear: "I love you, Leah." She dried our feet with good towels, and when we had finished eating she took our trays away and washed them in the kitchen sink.
They found Hannah Rae Tuesday evening. Jolene found her first. She was hanging in the closet, swinging limp from Hiram's black belt. Her left eye had popped loose from the socket, and her swollen tongue rested against her chin. Elliot, her brown teddy bear, lay at her feet. She had been holding him when she kicked the footstool away. Her lips were upturned, her teeth showing. She was still smiling.
They took her to Elder Jeffers, the coroner. They drained her blood and pumped her with fluids. They lay her in an open pine box, on a flatbed truck, and paraded her through the streets. They assembled us, all the people of God, on the lawn of the tabernacle. Walker Getty said that some sins were graver than others. He said murder and disobedience were worst of all, and that Hannah Rae had chosen by these deeds to separate herself from the congregation of the saints. He said she had chosen the way of death, and so eternal death and separation would be her lot. He said as she'd turned her back on us, so we must turn our backs to her.
And so we did, all of us, turned as one, away from Hannah Rae and toward the tabernacle. As I turned I caught a glimpse of my mother and father, their hands to their hearts. We sang a hymn and waited for Elder Jeffers to drive her away to an unmarked grave in the mountains. Hiram touched each of us, all the wives, on the head, and spoke a quiet blessing. A yellow butterfly hovered above a blade of grass at my feet. We finished singing. Our ears filled with silence. When we turned again, she was gone.
I pushed and pushed. I threw up on the delivery table. I said, "I don't want to have this baby." I said, "Get it out, it's hurting me." I said, "I hate this baby." I said, "I love this baby."
It came out blue and bloody. Elder Byrum turned it upside down and slapped its back. He stuck his finger in its mouth. He called for oxygen and got it breathing. He said, "It's a beautiful baby boy."
Hiram rushed in and grabbed it and named it. He prophesied, saying, "I name you Moses, for you will lead our people out of Egypt." He kissed my mouth and called me blessed. He took Moses from the delivery room, holding him high for everyone to see.
We took him to the tabernacle. We dressed him in white garments. We sprinkled his head with water and stood together as a family, Hiram and all the wives and children. Walker Getty said how God giveth and God taketh away. Moses wailed, and Walker Getty said how the sound of a boy child was a balm to the heart of the Lord.
Moses sleeps with me in my bed. When he cries I comfort him and let him drink from my breast. His skin is smooth, the softest skin on earth. His eyes are a piercing blue. Sometimes he looks into my eyes and I think maybe Hiram was right in his prophecy. Maybe Moses, my Moses, is the chosen one Walker Getty speaks about. Moses, so soft, so warm, so beautiful.
In the mornings I sling him to my front. I sing to him as I do my chores, as I clean the kitchens and bathrooms in the mornings, and tend to the garden in the afternoons. I sing: Bye-oh, baby-oh, my own baby-oh. He touches the long part of my neck, the part Hiram likes. He does not like to fall asleep, and he fights and fights and cries until he is exhausted and closes his eyes and beats my breast with his tiny fists. I have seen the way the other mothers look at him. He is a special boy. They know.
I woke at four in the morning. Jolene was standing over my bed, holding my winter coat. She said, “Come pray with me.” Moses was still sleeping. I wrapped the sling around my shoulders and cradled him in it. She wrapped the coat around my shoulders and said to be very quiet.
She took me to the edge of the valley. She cleared a dry patch of ground and we crouched low and stared out at the mountains. I watched her lips move. She made no sound. She blinked, and a teardrop made a line down her cheek.
She shuddered with cold. Her lips stopped moving, and I asked her what she was praying. “For strength,” she said. “For courage.”
She looked at me and then I knew. She planned to run. She planned to cross the mountains. She planned to take me with her.
I stared at her. The tear had frozen along her scar.
I could have let her take me. I could have run with her then. I could have left Moses bundled in the bed. I could have taken him with me.
I thought of the words of the prophecy. I thought how Moses might one day take me, take all of us, over those mountains. I thought of leaving him, and I felt very wicked. I thought of leaving with him, I thought of leaving Hiram, and I felt very selfish. My boy. My man.
I took the holster. I took three bullets. I took the forty-five. I slung Moses to my chest and took him up the mountain Jolene was climbing. I called, “Jolene! Jolene!” I took my time climbing to her. I took a deep breath and then I took the gun from the holster. I raised it toward her face and then I took her face off. I took her by the feet and dragged her. I took the lid off the closed-up water well. I took her by the shoulders and dropped her in, head-first. I took off the holster and dropped it in the well, and then the forty-five.
I covered the mess with rocks and covered the rocks with snow.
I took Moses to the laundry room and washed my arms and hands and washed my clothes. I took him to the kitchen and peeled the potatoes while Hiram sounded the alarm. I took him to the wash room while they formed the search parties. I washed and rinsed the floors while the elders asked their questions. I killed the chicken and made the broth when the word came down that she had run off. I put Moses in his high chair and fed him his chicken soup. I took him to the tabernacle lawn, where they laid the empty casket. Walker Getty said, “Here lies wickedness. Here lies Jolene. May we never speak of her again.” We turned our backs. We sang a hymn.