One meets his destiny often in the road he takes to avoid it.— French Proverb
Gabriel’s Landing, Utah
She closed her eyes and let her senses absorb it all—the chirping of fat robins, the dizzying scent of lilacs, the feel of cool, prickly blades of grass under her fingers, and the dull thudding sound of a soccer ball being kicked from player to player, accompanied by words of encouragement, all under the kind warmth of the sun. Zina inhaled deeply, emptying her mind of algebra, English literature, P.E. and tomorrow’s history test, filling it instead with thoughts, sounds, and smells of spring.
She sensed a shadow between herself and the sun and opened her eyes. A man stood above her. Shading her eyes with her hand, she squinted at him. He was golden, she thought, automatically assigning him a color, for the sun behind him cast its rays on his light hair, fair skin, blue eyes, and tall, athletic build.
“Oh!” She sat up, pulling her long skirts modestly over her ankles. A deep blush crept up her cheeks. “I didn’t know anyone was here.”
“May I?” His voice was golden, too, rounded, smooth, and warm, as he gestured to the grass where she sat.
“You’re one of the Gabriel’s Landing students, aren’t you?” he asked, stretching his long legs in front of him, leaning back on his forearms.
“Now, why would you say that?” She glanced down at her gingham dress and ugly lace-up shoes. Mother had done her waist-length hair with extra care this morning, twisting it into heavy coils and securing them at the nape of her neck with a clip.
“Just a wild guess.” The man smiled.
Zina crossed her ankles primly. “Just because I’m left-handed,” she said, putting a wounded tone in her voice, “doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be treated like everybody else.”
The golden man laughed and she glowed at his reaction to her joke. His warm quiet chuckle was contagious. Zina giggled and blushed again. What a brazen thing to say! Surely it was flirtatious and completely inappropriate to engage in a conversation like this with a man. To be alone with a man at all—and a Gentile man at that—would probably gain her a firm scolding from her mother and aunts.
“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “That would be discrimination against left-handers, and the law doesn’t allow it.” He picked a dandelion and twirled the stem between his fingers. “What’s your name.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’m a teacher here.”
“Zina. Zina Martin.”
“I’m Mr. Stratton. Mark. I’ve only been here a month. I teach biology and chemistry. This is fabulous country. I really came here to bike, hike, and ski. Teaching will support my hobbies if I watch my budget. And,” he added, with a glance at the girls who were doing their warm-ups as directed by the team captain, “I coach girls’ soccer. Do you play any school sports?”
She shook her head. “Oh, no. Sports aren’t appropriate for girls. I mean . . . we, uh
. . . we go straight home after school. But our regular bus got a flat tire today and they’re waiting for another one to come. It’s such a nice day, I just wanted to stretch out in the sun by myself.”
He stood. “Well, then, I should leave you to your solitude.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that—”
He sat down again. “Let me guess. I don’t know too much about Gabriel’s Landing yet, but I suspect that all day you’re in a crowded school with hundreds of other students, and when you get home to your big family, you probably don’t have much time or space that’s just for you.”
“Something like that,” she admitted. Then her father’s words echoed in her mind, Do not talk about your family or our way of life to anyone at school. They’re outsiders and they don’t understand. They could pass this information to the law and the law would prosecute us. Never, ever, tell anyone anything about yourself. It’s a privilege to go to public school away from home, but there are risks. So keep to yourself, daughter. Understood?
As though he had read her mind, Mr. Stratton said, “Don’t worry, Zina, I won’t tell anyone we’ve had this conversation.” His voice was gentle. “Besides, don’t you think we all know Gabriel’s Landing is a polygamous community?”
She studied her shoes.
“The way you dress, well, you don’t exactly blend in with the other students.”
“I’ve noticed that,” she said, and then glanced up at him.
He smiled a kind, warm smile. “It doesn’t matter, really. To me you’re a student, just like any other. And I’ll bet you’re a good one. I hope you’ll be in some of my classes next year.”
“Next year . . .” she began.
Next year I’ll probably be married to a man more than twice my age, and if I don’t have a baby already, I’ll probably be pregnant. The sister wives will resent me because I’m younger and prettier and can give him more babies, if they’re getting too old to have them. And I’ll be another mother, or “aunt” to dozens of his other kids.
“Next year? You were saying?”
Zina’s thoughts returned to the present. “Sure. I’ll probably take biology.”
“But what’s your favorite subject?”
That answer required no hesitation or thought. “Art.”
Zina fiddled with the heavy clip that kept her hair under control. Suddenly it snapped open and her heavy locks tumbled over her shoulders and down her back. Oh, dear, this is wrong. A girl does not wear her hair loose. It provokes lustful thoughts in men. She ducked her head, her hair falling like a curtain over her face.
“It’s beautiful. Your hair is beautiful,” Mr. Stratton said, his voice soft as he slowly reached over and fingered the end of a strand.
Zina held her breath. She felt his touch up to the roots of her hair. She had never been touched by a man. Not like this. She didn’t dare to look at him.
Mr. Stratton stood up and stretched. “Well, soccer calls. Looks like your bus is pulling in. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Zina. Biology next year, right?”
She nodded from behind her mass of hair. Glancing through the dark strands, she watched his youthful, athletic figure as he turned and jogged to the soccer field.
For shame, Zina, she thought. She had been so brazen, so forward with him! It felt exciting, although forbidden. Flirting and romance had no role within the Principle.
Zina and her sisters had speculated about men and sex. Among them, following some furtive glances at encyclopedias in the public library and their mothers’ midwifery books, they had come up with a fairly accurate understanding of the process.
Sex education wasn’t part of the public school curriculum, but Zina had overheard students talking about it in the hallways.
What made the act so glorious, so spiritual, and so sacred, when the drawings and whispered conversations made it seem so ridiculous? And how soon would she have a baby after enduring it? Zina had never been as enamored with babies as some of her friends, many of whom now had one or even two babies of their own.
Zina knew what her own role was supposed to be. Everyone agreed she painted and drew very nice pictures, pretty ones, indeed; though her calling, her highest honor and aspiration in life, her celestial destiny, would be that glorious appointment as a wife and mother, submissive to her husband’s every desire and command.
Secretly, during Sunday services, she and her sisters used to study the men in the congregation. In their late-night giggling conversations, they speculated frankly about the advantages and disadvantages of each as a potential husband. The first characteristic they considered was the man’s age. Though it was common for men in their fifties and sixties to marry girls not yet out of their teens, if a girl had her choice, wouldn’t she prefer a younger man? Yes, definitely.
Looks couldn’t be discounted, and the girls observed several handsome men in their congregation. How a man treated his wife and family was the final test. Not too old, nice looking and kind, that’s what they’d choose if they had a choice. Hank Smart was first on Zina’s list, if she could ever imagine herself actually married, which she preferred not to do. Hank’s wives seemed to love him very much. He was, by all accounts, a kind husband and the sort of father who wrestled with his boys, praised his daughters’ domestic skills, and read the Bible to them at night. Still, though Hank was a fine man, she could never envision herself having romantic feelings for him.
A few weeks before Zina’s sixteenth birthday, Cyrus Hamilton began visiting in the evenings. After polite small talk with the aunts, he and Father would disappear into the study for quiet conversations. Cyrus was in his forties and already a grandfather, making him one of the first men Zina and Louisa had crossed off their hypothetical lists. His sizeable paunch suggested that at least one of his wives was a good cook, and he had abandoned belts; he wore suspenders to hold up his trousers.
If Zina could assign a color to Cyrus, as she often did with people, he would be gray. His thinning gray hair was slicked back with some sort of greasy tonic. His skin, teeth, and eyes were gray. There was always a dark line of dirt under his fingernails, which he cleaned with a pocketknife every Sunday during church services. Even the white sheets on his family’s clotheslines didn’t stay white after a few washings. Zina’s mother said his wives had not been taught to do laundry properly, and that was a shame.
Cyrus was known as a studious and solemn person, upright and obedient to the Principle. He performed many acts of generosity that few people knew about; boxes of potatoes, carrots and apples, and clothes that just happened to fit the children of a particular family would often appear on doorsteps of households in need. Cyrus was Joshua’s oldest friend, and Zina suspected that her father sometimes shared his own worries with Cyrus instead of burdening his wives.
Before these unannounced visits, her mother would suggest that Zina change her dress and “freshen up.” The sister wives would exchange knowing looks they thought she didn’t notice, but one night Zina realized with a start what was happening. Cyrus Hamilton was asking her father if he could court her. Courtship in Gabriel’s Landing was not a time for dating, to become acquainted and decide if a couple loved each other or were even compatible; it was a mere formality consisting of a few awkward, supervised visits between the man and his prospective bride before the inevitable arranged marriage.
To Zina, Cyrus was a loyal family friend; an “honorary uncle,” he sometimes called himself in jest, and she could not think of him in any other way. No matter how kind and good and wise Cyrus was, Zina knew she could not marry him. She could not share his bed and the duties that went with it.
One day after school, Joshua called her into his study and Zina was certain he would tell her of her upcoming courtship and marriage to Cyrus. She could not summon the courage to look into her father’s eyes. Her heart pounded and she felt a thin trickle of sweat between her shoulder blades. She knew Joshua was searching her face, which she would not turn upward, lest he guess her true feelings from her expression.
“Father, I have a big history test tomorrow. May I go upstairs now?” she asked.
Joshua sighed. “We will talk later, then.”
At sunset that night, Zina sat alone under the sturdy old apple tree which she had often climbed as a child. Its leaves were small and green; the delicate white and pink buds promised a good year for Jonathans, provided there wasn’t a late spring frost or an early one in the fall. The scent of the blossoms was dizzying, and she inhaled it deeply. This lovely tree had complied with all the scriptural exhortations to multiply and replenish the earth, year after year, just as women were expected to do, and it seemed contented to fulfill its Biblical destiny.
I’m promised to a man. When she became the fifth Mrs. Cyrus, her childhood and formal education would come to an abrupt end. No more classes about literature, music, art, or even math. She would be tied forever to her new family and responsibilities.
She envied her older sister Louisa who would not be married young. She was in medical school, working hard to become Gabriel’s Landing’s doctor. Being away at school allowed her to have many experiences beyond the confines of her upbringing. How Zina missed her. They had always been close even though they were six years apart.
Zina realized that darkness had fallen. With a sigh, she headed for the house.