The girls stand together, arm-in-arm, at the lip of the desecrated grave. The night before, as they lay in bed, they had listened to the wolves yelp and snarl over the corpse. As widows both before the age of twenty, they’d held each other until the noise died down. At dawn, they loaded their dead husband’s shotgun and hiked up the mountain to see what remained of him.
The girls had met two months earlier. The older had just arrived by handcart from the streets and textile mills of Manchester. The younger was the orphan of a Salt Lake City drunk whose wife had died one summer day in Wyoming. That afternoon, neither girl had known much about the man they were to marry by day’s end. When they buried him, he was little more than a stranger, a man they had failed to bring through a fever. His name was Henry. He stood six feet tall in his boots. His age, thirty-four, was equal to their ages combined.
The younger girl knew Henry from the home of her bishop, a man who had crossed the plains with Henry and Henry’s first wife. That night, Henry told her about his farm in Cache Valley, the solitude of the mountains, the peace of sunsets and sunrises. He told her about the death of his wife and children. She listened silently as he said that no man should live alone as he lived.
The older girl learned of Henry from his brother, Thomas, the missionary who taught her about Zion amid the squalor of her back alley home. You wouldn’t like him, Thomas said, laughing. He’s nothing like me. He never speaks except to pray or shout at his children.
Thomas loved the older girl. She had dark eyes and hair that reminded him of the wheat fields of his childhood in Illinois. They planned to marry in Zion, but he died on the voyage home. She held his hand until the time came to give his body to the ocean.
When Henry was alive, the girls passed each day and night in silence. Now, with their husband’s body lost to the desert and the bowels of wolves, they speak to each other with the shyness of a new friendship. The younger teaches the older songs she learned from her mother. The older tells stories of Manchester and England and the Atlantic Ocean. She talks about Thomas as a missionary but not as a lover. At evening, they sit outside and read from the Book of Mormon and the revelations of the Prophet, the only books in Henry’s house.
The nearest neighbor to the girls is three miles away. Their bishop is ten miles to the south. Horses make the girls nervous, so they rarely attend meetings. When they do, the younger drives the wagon. Food and water are always scarce. In their nightly prayers, the girls ask the Lord for preservation and guidance. Together they carry their dead husband’s babies.
Four months after Henry’s death, the girls wake from a noonday nap to find a man on horseback at their front door. He is dressed in a soiled cotton shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows, and a blue pair of army breeches. His hat covers his eyes and casts a shadow over his face. His neck, forearms, and hands are sunburned and striped with sweat. A pistol is holstered at his waist.
€”You women have food? he asks.
€”We ain’t, the older says.
€”No bread? the man asks.
€”No, says the younger. Try the next house. Please.
The man dismounts and enters the house. He removes his hat, unholsters his gun, and levels it at the head of the older girl. With his hat he points to a sack of flour perched on a barrel in the corner of the room.
€”What’s in there?
€”Get out, the older screams.
€”Tell me, the man shouts. He places his hat on his head and slowly makes his way across the room to the sack. The barrel of his gun remains aimed at the older girl’s head. She watches the unmoving tip of the barrel. When the man reaches for the sack of flour, she screams again and rushes the intruder. The gun fires and lead tears through the older girl’s left hand and lodges in her arm just above the elbow. She collapses to the floor, wide-eyed and strangely jerking.
Seeing blood pool on the packed-earth floor, the younger girl cries out. The man, indifferent to the gore, grabs the sack of flour and turns to leave. The younger girl meets him at the door with her husband’s shotgun. She shoves it weakly into his stomach and pulls the trigger. The piece misfires as the man clubs the girl across the face.
In the days that follow, the older girl loses her arm and her baby. The bishop, the man who took saw to flesh to save her life, tells her that she and the younger girl can live in his house, be a part of his family. He offers to marry them if they will have him. The girls whisper at night as the collective snores and nightsounds of the bishop, his five wives, and eighteen children settle over the homestead. In the morning, they tell him they will return to the wilderness, to their husband’s home, as soon as they are able. He does not argue with them.
A hard winter settles in as the younger girl’s belly swells with her dead husband’s child. The older girl, her sister in all but blood, tends now to the sheep, the cow, and even the horse. She splits wood one-handed and carries it into the house a few pieces at a time. When she is able, when her knees and ankles and back are not aching from the curse of Eve, the younger girl lights the fire and cooks the evening meal. At night, she reads scripture to her sister by lamplight.
Scott Hales does not usually write fiction, but when he does, he tries to keep it around 1000 words. He blogs at A Motley Vision, Dawning of a Brighter Day, and Modern Mormon Men. He also maintains a personal Mormon literature blog, The Low-Tech World. When he isn’t writing short short stories or blogging or parenting, he is writing his doctoral dissertation on the Mormon novel.
Photograph of the statue of a mourning woman by Mutter Erde.