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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1

Fiction

 

John Bennion

Quilting Bee


John Bennion (Ph.D., Brigham Young University) is Associate Professor at BYU and the author of Breeding Leah and Other Stories.  He has published in Ascent, Dialogue: A Journal for Mormon Thought, Utah Holiday, and Sunstone. He has two novels in progress, Water Killing and Desert Women.

 

Stephen threads a needle, knots one end, and jabs into the quilt. "One hand on top, one below," says the bishop's wife; she tugs his knot inside the taut layers of cloth and batting. "You feel your way like a blind person. Hold the needle flat and barely nick the fabric, top and bottom." She shows him, rippling the quilt between her thumb and underside fingers. She's left handed, and Stephen has trouble reversing. "Miss nicking and you've quilted nothing. Angle too sharply and it'll pucker." The six women—the entire Purgatory, Utah, Relief Society—glance side-eyed at Stephen, a wild-assed maverick pinching a needle. He feels hapless as a fatted calf.

"Pink," he says. A cluster of roses blooms in each corner of the baby-sized quilt. "What if it's a boy?"

"Rachael's had an ultrasound," says Raynelle Sharp, aunt to the unborn child. "I thought you knew." Stephen's needle misses, scratches, then snags the underside cloth.

Raynelle says, "Good you showed your face."

Fool to show it, Stephen thinks. That morning on the phone the bishop's wife used obligation like Jerry Lewis working a telethon. We've already pieced the fabric, she said. The least you can do is walk down.

"I had to show my face," he says to Raynelle. "Mary hid the car keys." He's alone with these women and Raynelle, who he's known his life-long, is in her sniper mood. The quilting frame is in the middle of the gym floor in a church in the middle of an alkali flat, fifty miles from the closest Utah town and over a hundred from Ely, Nevada, and he feels as exposed as an antelope on a flat-topped butte. " I knew you Sisters wouldn't rest until I'd marred this quilt with my crooked stitching." Mary Durfin, his lover of three years, had that morning been cool as a boulder; she told him to face his trouble or pack his clothing.

"Stephen," says Little Belle Smith, Relief Society President, "it will mean worlds to Rachael that something of you is in this quilt."

"Means worlds to her that something of you is in her belly," says Big Belle Turner, mother to Little Belle. She has a man's height and shoulders, but her voice is shrill as a child's.

"Mary wanted to come," Stephen says, "but Alma's clipped the fence and let his cattle into the refoliation area. Again."

"He don't like government intervention," says Big Belle, sister to Alma.

"Mary's a tolerant woman," says Raynelle.

"She learned tolerance at forestry school," says Stephen. "She sucked it at her mother's non-Mormon breast."

Raynelle jerks her underside hand and sucks on her finger. She spits a bead of saliva, which she rubs up under the quilt. "Sometimes tolerance is ill-advised," she says.

"Ain't no difference in that re-foliation area after three years," says Big Belle. "Still just cheat grass and greasewood."

"But it's thick cheat grass and greasewood," says the bishop's wife. She's nearly as tall as Big Belle, with an angular face and a Swedish-blonde braid that hangs past her butt when she walks.

"Anyways," says More-Precious-Than-Rubies Fish, daughter to the bishop's wife, "after ten years with no kids and a husband always off chasing desert mustangs, Libby started treating her dogs like children." Stephen's disoriented, listening for clues, but the women are all nodding and stitching. Then Ruby's going on about a barren woman rattling like a lone pea inside a cabin and about dogs with napkins tied around their necks trained to sit up at the dinner table.

"I've seen the monument to those dogs," says Stephen. "A mile off the Hamblin road. A rock-walled cemetery, filled with tumbleweeds. A Rockwood, wasn't she?"

"Libby Rockwood Fish," says Ruby. "Monte's barren great-grandmother."

"How could she be Monte's great-grandmother if she was barren?" asks Stephen.

"That's the story," says Ruby.

"It was a miracle," says Big Belle. "Miracles are common as headaches with the Fishes." She and Ruby are in-laws through her first marriage. Stephen views his hometown, Purgatory, Utah, as a spider web of relations.

Ruby looks blank-faced at Big Belle. Then she's off on a tangent about rattling around alone in her new double-wide and Raynelle's saying that Ruby's double-wide will shrink fast enough once children come and Ruby's saying that they can't come soon enough. She hushes her voice, watching her mother, and confesses she's had spiritual reassurance of pregnancy only a half-month after her wedding and Big Belle says that Ruby's was the last non-incestuous marriage possible in Purgatory, and Eliza McPhearson Cannon says it's bad luck to share sacred impressions publicly, that her cousin felt the Holy Ghost move through her at conception and bore testimony of it in Church. "Third month, she miscarried," says Eliza.

"Accidental words change nothing," says the bishop's wife.

The needle slips in Stephen's fingers; Little Belle hands him a rubber disc, which he finds difficult to manipulate. The church in which they quilt is not white and wooden; as Stephen shoves his needle through the batting, he can't smell varnish on the hardwood floors and portable benches, pushed back against the wall. In the former building, the chapel of his childhood, he smelled all those; in this new red brick one he smells only the women, their perfume and sweat. He looks under the quilt at his work; one stitch is a half-inch long, the next, a dot in the fabric. His awkwardness is as many-layered as an onion. He says, "I'm all thumbs."

Big Belle raises her huge thumb toward him as if she flips him off. Everyone is quiet, except for Raynelle, who snorts and leans forward against the frame, her shoulders shaking. Belle's is the most obscene thumb Stephen has seen; he knows he has blushed newlywed pink. The newlywed, More-Precious-than-Rubies, watches him, unblushing.

"Mother," whispers Little Belle, "have some respect."

"Respect for who?" says Eliza. "The Bible says if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors." Her hair flames red, her face is sprinkled with strawberry freckles.

"I'm convinced of the law," says Big Belle, watching Stephen. "The law of Moses, eye for eye and tooth for tooth."

"That law is dead to us," says Little Belle. "After Christ we've moved beyond." Stephen works with her husband, Almond Joseph Smith, on the county road crew. Al once said that Little Belle was grooming him for the bishopric. He clutched Stephen's arm and said, "I just ain't got it in me."

"Some of us have moved beyond the Law," says Raynelle.

Triple fool for walking down, thinks Stephen. I could be in Ely instead.

"We're a fourth done," murmurs the bishop's wife, bent over her stitching, as if crossed boards, saw horses, C-clamps, thumbtacked material and batting can redeem them, make them all saints. "Libby Rockwood Fish and her dogs."

"Yes," says Ruby. "Once Josephine was sick, nearly to death. There was no vet anywhere around so Libby telegraphed the doctor in Tooele. 'Josephine is dying, come quick.' She put nothing in about Josephine being a dog. Back then there was no highway between Tooele and Hamblin and it was springtime, so the doctor drove his buggy through forty miles of mud. Nearly killed his horse. Took him most of a day to get to town and another hour to get out to the ranch. Libby had Josephine laid up in her own bed. When the doctor saw that the patient was non-human, he was so angry that he filled a syringe with strychnine, told Libby it was penicillin, and injected Josephine. The dog died before he left, but he still charged Libby $200."

"Couldn't have been penicillin," says Raynelle. "Penicillin wasn't invented then."

"What a cruel man," says Little Belle.

"Finally Libby left Horace, who all those years had blamed her for not having children. Ran away to St. George with a Fish from Eureka. She had three children in five years, and then she was too old to have any more. All those years it was her husband's fault.

"All men are perverse," says Raynelle. "Their perversity is deep as the ocean."

"You leave me no defense," says Stephen. "I'm a lone man in this den of sisters."

"Raynelle," says the bishop's wife, "you must be pregnant. You're always out of sorts when you're first pregnant."

"I'm naming her Omega Sharp," says Raynelle. "There's been no joy in this one."

"There will be," says Little Belle. "There always is."

"Where I grew up in Roosevelt," says the bishop's wife, "there was a woman as far from barren as you can get. Sister Ruttledge. She and her husband lived in a pretty yellow house on the end of the street. Grew the most beautiful tulips I've seen. Their children were grown and gone, but every month her husband would stand in Fast and Testimony meeting and warn the Saints against sins of the flesh. Every month he'd testify he never had carnal knowledge of his wife unless it was to procreate with God. He'd tell the congregation he'd been with his wife only eight times and they'd had seven children."

More-Precious-Than-Rubies stares at her mother as if she is a stranger.

"Damned efficient studhorse," says Big Belle.

Little Belle pats Stephen on the hand. "You're doing better and better," she says.

"One misfire," says Raynelle. "I'll bet that rankled."

"Well, finally his wife stood up in the middle of his testimony. 'You think it's to your credit?' she shouted."

The women look at each other, their needles at rest.

"Was she confessing?" says Ruby. "Was someone else the father?"

"She was railing on her husband because the old bastard never give her pleasure," says Big Belle.

"She never knew there was pleasure connected," says Raynelle.

"I've thought about it for years," says the bishop's wife, "and I don't know what she meant."

"Maybe she just wanted him to stop talking," says Eliza.

"He was too pious," says Stephen. He bends over the chalk line where it curves around a pink rose.

"He was damned stingy with what God give him," says Big Belle.

"Or not stingy enough," says Raynelle.

"I've come to believe that God gave men the Priesthood as compensation," says the bishop's wife.

"Compensation for what?" says Stephen.

"I knew a woman," says Raynelle, "whose husband believed she was an alien. He thought that she was communicating with other aliens through the telegraphic blinking of her eyes."

"Pitiful," says Stephen. "A pitiful man married to a pitiful woman." He wants to tell Raynelle that all men aren't sons of bitches but decides it would be imprudent.

"What a tenuous net holds us together," says the bishop's wife.

"When I was a sophomore at BYU—" says Eliza.

"I didn't know you went to BYU," says Big Belle. "I thought you were a polygamist when you were young."

"Many members of the father church go to BYU. I felt like a secret agent, infiltrating the mother church, helping to prepare the way for the millennium when there will be a remarriage between the father and mother."

"The mother church," says Little Belle. "Give me a break."

Eliza stares at her. "I don't believe in polygamy now."

"When you were a sophomore spy," says the bishop's wife.

"In my ward at BYU were three sisters, each more beautiful than the next."

"You're making it sound like a fairy tale," says Raynelle.

"They were beautiful then," says Eliza. "They had blazing hair and light freckles."

"Strawberry freckles," says Stephen.

"Still beautiful," says the bishop's wife.

"Every brother in the ward was in love with one or another of these sisters. But the sisters denied every one of them—premed, prelaw, MBA—it didn't matter. There was one man—elders' quorum president, pre-law, and quarterback on the BYU football team—all the women drooled and babbled in his presence. He asked the middle sister for a date. She was pre-law like him, and they had a class together. She told him she'd rather die. After her rejection, stories started—these three sisters had unnatural affection for one another; they were waiting for triplet missionaries; they were vain beyond words. But no one guessed the truth."

"That they were polygamists," says Stephen.

"Members of the father church," says Eliza. Little Belle rethreads her needle, biting off the thread. Her lips are two thin lines. "They had an unusual love for each other, even for sisters, and they couldn't stand the thought of being separated by marriage. They'd made a covenant to hold themselves for marriage to the one man, someone mighty and strong. Well, the next fall a man from New Jersey moved into the ward. He was slender and tall, his hair absolutely black, and he had a distant, intense look to his eyes. Nathanael Finch.

"The youngest sister swooned for him. The oldest one had a dream in which the four of them were strapped into seats in a space capsule on top of a massive rocket. The engines shook below them."

"You're making this up," says Raynelle.

"Only the dream," says Eliza. "The rest of it is true. He asked the middle sister out. She said no, but she was reluctant, he asked her again, a third time. The youngest sister called the middle sister a fool, and the three of them had the first fight of their lives.

"They decided to act. They invited him to their apartment for dinner, just the four of them. They cooked roast beef, potatoes, and cherry pie. They bought ice cream. After dinner, they sat him on the couch. 'We have something to tell you,' the oldest one said. 'We want to marry you.'

"'I dreamed it,' he said. 'I dreamed we were sitting in a enormous church and we were all husband and wives. All one happy commingling.'"

"I've never understood polygamy," says Little Belle. "How could any woman be happy with only a third of a man?"

They all look at Stephen; every needle waits. "I've considered it carefully myself," he says, "and I find it baffling."

"He who mocks shall mourn," says Raynelle.

"They took him to church up in south Salt Lake and introduced him to their father. Nathan said it was the same building as in his dream. The father was in favor of the triple marriage, but the brethren wanted this new brother to be in the true fold for a year before he could follow the celestial law."

"He had to pay his dues," says Stephen.

"'We don't have enough marriageable women as it is,' they told the father, 'and now you've given permission for them to marry an unproven man.' It turned out that several of the leaders had their eyes on the three sisters.

"The father told his daughters they couldn't marry until after a year of waiting. They weren't happy delaying their union with the man they'd discovered, but decided to obey. Nathan wasn't so quick to follow. Even though he had this distant gaze he knew what could happen in a year. 'Take me now or not at all,' he said to the sisters. The oldest one obeyed her father and the brethren, but the other two refused. The next week they met him at a grocery store and eloped with the shopping money. Now the three of them live in Portland, Oregon. They had to go into hiding because the father filed a kidnapping charge against Nathan for taking away the youngest, who was only seventeen."

"Well at least it ended happily for two of them," says Big Belle.

"It ended unhappily for all of them. How could that kind of tug of war turn out well for the women? The one who stayed wished she had gone with her sisters. She foolishly pined for that man and her sisters for six years before she left the father church and found a man she could have to herself. The middle one, the law student, couldn't enroll in any university because they were in hiding and then she was pregnant. The youngest still hates living so far from her family."

"I didn't know this," says the bishop's wife. "I've never known what caused you to leave your former church."

"I see my sisters once a year, if that. We were young and idealistic."

Stephen stitches the edge of a rosebud. The bishop's wife holds her fingers arched, like a pianist; her daughter sews straight-fingered.

"I knew a woman who had three husbands," says Big Belle. "She was the Wells Fargo driver when I was a child. In fact she replaced the driver that was killed by the bandit that Orrin Porter Rockwell captured in the sand dunes. Anyway that's a different story. She drove through Salt Lake, Purgatory, and Ely, Nevada, had a man all three those places—all three marriages done proper by the bishop in those towns. For years, even though she was having sex with three men, she had no child. Finally she delivered a boy, one of those Mongoloid babies. But she couldn't tell who fathered the misfortunate creature."

"Now they can do a DNA test to tell whose it was," says Raynelle.

"Would the test work on a baby with confused chromosomes?" asks Stephen.

"I don't know that," says Big Belle. "All I know is that she did a Solomon's test with the three men. Not the cutting-up part, she stayed with each man for one month. She married the only one of them that took to the child—the Purgatory husband. She divorced the others and set up house with him near Table Mountain."

"It's against nature for a woman to want more than one man," says Little Belle.

"It's nature for anybody to want more than they got," says Big Belle. "Those other two men never figured out why they lost a good wife."

Stephen stands and walks to the restroom. Standing at the urinal, he is beset by images of his mother quilting in the old church. He remembers sitting at a small table near the stage and eating tomato soup and saltine crackers sandwiched with honey. The other children set a place for a headless doll, laid soup and crackers before it. As if it was a child, or a dog.

"You told a story about three women falling for one man," Raynelle says to Eliza as soon as Stephen returns; she's obviously been waiting for him. "I know a story about a man who fell in love with four of his daughters."

"I don't want to hear this kind of story," says Little Belle.

"That was Heber Cuthright," says the bishop's wife.

Big Belle nods her head vigorously. She says, "My Randy told me about him - ran an inn over the hot springs."

"That's right," says Raynelle. "But before that, he was in the army. His unit was stationed at White Springs in New Mexico. He married a young Mexican woman and brought her back to Purgatory." With a razor she slices her thread-end close to the fabric; she rethreads her needle.

"He built the inn right over the hot springs," says Big Belle, "so that passengers on the Wells Fargo could bathe in the mineral water."

"I haven't heard reference to him for twenty years," says the bishop's wife. She runs her fingers across her stitches, does the same underneath. Stephen watches the moving bulge. She says, "Maybe some stories should disappear."

"His wife bore him four daughters," says Raynelle. All of them had her hair, black as any Spanish dancer's. She had trouble in childbirth with the fourth and spent half a week trying to deliver the afterbirth. Heber Cuthright didn't believe in taking her to the doctor, just had the Priesthood in to give her a blessing. The mother died but the baby lived, another black-haired girl. Heber raised those girls himself. His work at the inn was flexible enough that he could get them ready for school, read to them at night. I imagine them all cooking, one child stirring a pot, the father and another child bent over homework on the lunch counter.

"Everything went smoothly, well as smoothly as could be expected with no mother, until the first girl turned eighteen. Heber noticed how beautiful she was, how much she favored her mother, not as the mother was at death—she was older and heavier then—but as she was when Heber first courted her."

"I don't want to hear this story," says Little Belle.

"All those years he'd stayed in love with the woman he'd married. Other women didn't interest him. At night his eighteen-year-old wife visited his dreams."

"Weak-brained, slimy son of a bitch," says Big Belle.

"Not that which goes in through the mouth defiles the body," says Little Belle.

"Giving someone his true name is not profanity," says Big Belle.

"When he recognized his dead wife in the face and body of his daughter, he developed what he knew was an unholy lust. He mortgaged the house and sent his daughter away to college at Brigham Young University where he knew she'd get married quick."

"Three-M U.," says Ruby. "The Mormon Marriage Market."

"Shrewd," says Big Belle. "Save his money that way. What'd it take her—six months?"

"Three months. Then over the next two years the second daughter slowly grew more and more like her mother at eighteen, as if they'd become possessed with the dead woman's spirit. He took out a second mortgage, sent his second daughter to BYU, a few months later there was another marriage. These were beautiful women, good cooks, and docile. The men at BYU thought they'd gone to heaven. Same thing happened with the third daughter, he shipped her off to school before she started looking too much like his wife. He couldn't get ahead, with a larger and larger mortgage every couple of years, but three of his daughters were married and he'd committed no sin.

"The last daughter was different. She'd gone without oxygen for nearly a half an hour during childbirth, the childbirth that killed her mother. She was as beautiful as the others, but she was incapable mentally. Heber knew men would marry that kind of woman even faster, but he also knew she wouldn't be admitted to any university. By the time she turned nineteen, she was even more beautiful than his memory of his wife."

"He should have remarried," said Eliza. "Should have remarried seven times. Better than to burn."

"Should have had hisself fixed," says Big Belle.

"No other woman attracted him. Finally he looked too long at his daughter and started thinking reincarnation. What if his wife's work was unfinished and God wanted to recycle her spirit? He'd heard stories about the spirit of a dead person suspended near their own body for a short time after death. He believed from his reading of the scriptures that an infant's spirit enters the body with its first breath. He decided that when his daughter sucked and wailed, she'd siphoned her mother's spirit right back into life.

"He sold his house, took his five hundred dollars equity and bought a barracks from Dugway Proving Ground, made from an old railroad car. He hauled it across the border into Nevada, where he homesteaded—somewhere down near Tonopah. He took that girl to town and married her. For all I know they had a happy life together. Finally he was carried off by a stroke.

"He never let her go to Tonopah with him because she wasn't smart enough to lie. Finally he died. After he started stinking, she laid him on the haystack and set fire to it. People saw the smoke and came out. Discovered her and three children—one had one eye, one was deaf, and one was apparently normal, later became a banker in Salt Lake."

"That's a horrible story," said Stephen.

"What good is telling something like that?" says Little Belle. "What possible good can come from it?"

"It happened," says Raynelle. "Your turn."

"I'll pass," says Stephen. "I'm no storyteller."

"Your turn," says Big Belle. "Tell us a true story."

All the women watch him, their needles ignored.

"Once in a ward in Salt Lake there was a good man who was bishop.

He managed the ward and interviewed the members for twelve or fourteen hours on Sunday and probably two or three more hours most nights during the week."

"Wrong story," says Raynelle.

"His wife was the good one," says Big Belle, "taking care of all the children he got her with."

"No doubt but that's the point," says the bishop's wife.

"There was a woman in his ward who was going through a long period of depression. Her children, teenagers, were giving her hell; her husband didn't get involved, didn't seem to care. He was a contractor and worked anytime it was light. This bishop helped her work through her problems, gave her a shoulder to cry on. Several hours a week they were together in his office, talking head to head. Late one Sunday night after everyone else had gone home, he was finishing a report when someone knocked. It was this woman, and she had on a long coat. When she opened it"

"A spy coat," says Ruby.

"A flasher coat," says Raynelle.

"she had nothing on underneath. He succumbed, right on the carpet in front of his desk."

"Poor, lonely woman," says the bishop's wife.

"Poor bishop," says Little Belle, "tempted like that."

"Just before my mission," says Stephen, "I went to a priesthood leadership meeting and the visiting general authority told that story. My whole mission I carried the image of that woman opening to that bishop. What kind of story is that to tell a new missionary, one who's trying to keep his thoughts pure?"

"You were too simple-minded," says Raynelle, "you had no defenses. But that wasn't the right story. That was a smoke screen."

"A red herring," says the bishop's wife. "We want to hear your version."

Stephen stands as if to leave, but they stare him back into his chair. He decides he has no refuge; he's keyless and stymied. He tells himself that it's not physical harm he fears from these women.

"There once was a girl, a young woman," says Stephen, "who worked at the cafe in a small town."

"Hamblin."

"Could be any desert town. She was naive and had no idea the effect she could have on a man."

"The effect—as if her appearance is like heat from a stove that he couldn't help feeling," says Raynelle.

Stephen lays down his needle. "Every day when this man came in for his evening cup of coffee"

"Why didn't he come in for a morning cup of coffee?" asks Raynelle. "Because she wasn't there in the morning, that's why, she was in school. This is nothing she caused alone."

"Of course she didn't cause it alone," says the bishop's wife. "Nobody claims she did."

"Every day when he came in for his cup of coffee she'd wipe down his table, and she'd lean forward so that he'd see right down into paradise."

"I don't want to hear this story either," says Little Belle. She leaves and Stephen sees her pacing the foyer.

"I'm trying to tell it the way he told it to himself," he says. "Even if it's twisted different now."

"Get on with it," says Raynelle.

"He thinks of his lover from Togus, Maine, who is the anchor of his life. Then he thinks about this perfect young woman. At night he's beset by images of her full breasts and her mouth."

"He thinks about her so much," says Raynelle, "that he names her breasts and lips. Pert and Peony. Languid and Rose. They don't seem like strangers to him."

"Once he asked her for a walk in the evening," says Stephen. 'You're married,' she said. 'You're already taken.'

"'Not really married,' he told her. 'And a walk is only a walk.'"

"Wide as an ocean," says Raynelle. "Deep as space. She could have had five more childless years and you stole them from her."

"The next week he asked her if they could go for a drive. 'My parents won't approve,' she said. He told her that they didn't want her to have experience. That they wanted to keep her a child."

"He told her lies."

"Everything he said was true. He knew her parents, and they wanted those things."

"But in his mouth they became lies."

He shrugged his shoulders. "I can't judge that."

"Of course you can," says the bishop's wife. "Of course you can judge."

"They held hands across the seat, then she slid over against him."

"Such a sweet romance," says Raynelle. "She was seventeen and he was thirty-five. That changes the story."

"Not for her," says the bishop's wife. "Her head was filled with soap operas. She learned everything she knows from T.V."

More-Precious-Than-Rubies looks across at her mother, her lids low, half-aware. Eliza sticks her needle into the pine of the frame, sticks it in again.

"This man drove with one hand and dallied with the other in the tangled hair at the base of her neck. Dallied on her cheek, the soft underside of her throat. They parked and his body melted when they kissed."

"I don't want to hear this either," says Raynelle. "I don't want to hear bullshit for a story."

"You're making it beautiful," says More-Precious-Than-Rubies.

"It was beautiful," says Stephen. "The next week he asked her to go with him for a weekend in Ely. She could tell her parents she was going to stay with her friend in Purgatorya girl she'd met in high school. She said they'd never believe it. He said he wasn't sure he loved her."

"Trusting a man is like carrying snakes to church," says Big Belle. "You never know when the bastards'll turn on you."

"Yes," Stephen says. "You never know. He met her in front of the cafe one night. She had her backpack, but she wouldn't get in the car. 'We've gone too far now,' he said to her and she climbed in."

"In the hotel she said no," says Raynelle.

"You shouldn't even be here, Stephen," says Little Belle, reentering the gymnasium. "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out."

"Then we'd all be plucked," says the bishop's wife.

"His eye ain't what offended," says Big Belle.

Little Belle rests both palms on the edge of the frame. "You don't care who hears what you say," she says.

"Yes," says Raynelle. "Pluck it out. That's the solution. Teach you never to use any woman like you did."

Eliza sews angrily, and then unthreads her needle and pulls out the stitches with the eye-end. She starts again more slowly.

"She said yes seven times seventy. I asked her every mile if she still wanted to go with me to Ely. She said yes."

"She is still young," says More-Precious-than-Rubies.

"Soap operas and romance novels," says the bishop's wife.

"She said yes, she was sure, when I paid for the room."

"Who'd have thought she needed warnings?" says the bishop's wife.

"She said yes in the room. She was sure she wanted to continue. I took a shower and she said no."

"No," says Raynelle. "She said No."

"You waited until she was eighteen," says the bishop's wife. "It was a calculated act."

"I couldn't listen to her," he says. "She'd come after me, flirting for five months."

"She said no."

"How much can a man endure?"

"She made you take her home from Ely early the morning after, well before dawn. That evening she drove out to the reservoir in Hamblin," said Raynelle. "Who knows what she was going to do? All her friends, the ones not at college, followed her. They parked their cars four-square and sat in the headlights. Like circling the wagons. They felt what they couldn't have said—that the fabric of community had been rent. She sat on the hood of her car and they touched her hair and shoulders with their fingertips."

Big Belle stands, towering over Stephen. "You've spewed out sentimental rubbish," she says. "I have two opposite daydreams. One is that I've got you down, Stephen, one foot on the inside of your thigh, holding your legs apart while Raynelle here doctors you with her razor. The other is that we hug you as if you were some poor fool lost in the desert and right then Purgatory is lifted up to heaven like the City of Enoch."

"Which seems real?" says Raynelle. "Which is true?"

"Afterward," Stephen says, "I turned to ashes inside."

The door to the gymnasium opens and in walks the Forest Ranger. She pulls upa chair oppostie her lover. "Well, where are we?" she says.

The bishop's wife touches Stephen on the arm. "Your hands are shaking," she says.

 

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