Happy #FridayReads! This week’s excerpt comes from The Virtue of Sin by Shannon Schuren, a compelling novel about speaking out, standing up, and breaking free, and perfect for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale!
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The girls never get a choice.
Recite your Prayers, report for Lessons, respect your Elders. Do unto others and as you are told. Keep your hair tidy and your thoughts to yourself. There is no choosing—not of intentions, not of words, not of spouses. This has always been our way in New Jerusalem.
Sixteen years ago, my father chose my mother at the first Matrimony, on a spring night just like this where the Elders were paired as husband and wife. I know this because it’s part of our community’s historical record, not because they told me. My parents would never speak of anything so personal. That’s between them and God. Well, and Daniel.
Even now, as my mother and I swelter in the Communal Kitchen to finish last-minute preparations for tonight’s feast, I know that whatever questions I have about tonight will go unanswered. I know only this: At some point during the night, one of the boys will call my name, announcing our union. That will be my cue to leave the bonfire and head toward the opening of the lava caves at the foot of the mountain. As a woman, it will be the one and only time I’ll be allowed in the Marriage Cave. Afterward, I will be forbidden to talk about anything that happens inside. I can’t imagine why. I can only suppose the proceedings are too sacred to speak of, or too profane. My own father is the only man I know well enough to ask the reason behind all the secrecy, but I doubt he’d tell me. If I even see him between now and tonight’s ceremony; he only steps foot inside a kitchen if he needs something. Though our Leader says there are no menial tasks, it often seems like the women get stuck with the less noble jobs.
Like the chores I’ve been assigned today. Soak the beans. Seed the peppers. Wash and peel the potatoes. Tend the fire in the wide oven wall, where the goat has been slowly roasting for the past twelve hours. Bite my tongue and don’t complain about the temperature, which has been steadily climbing throughout the day in this long, airless room.
Our eyes meet, and my mother reads something in my expression, because she looks away first, scraping the juicy jalapeño pulp across the surface of the carving table with the dull edge of her knife. “Not now, Miriam.” She turns to pull a tray from the bank of ovens that span the width of the room. A tendril of steam escapes a crack in the top of the perfectly browned corn bread.
I’ve spent the past ten days eating nothing but vegetables and drinking nothing but water, as is our custom before a celebration of this magnitude. Yesterday, I would have clawed someone’s eyes out for a piece of that bread, but now the stifling heat and the smell of the charred goat turns my stomach, and all I can think about is the row of windows that tops the tiled walls and how I’d begged to tilt them open, even a fraction. But Mother says the dust will spoil the food.
“Are Rachel and Delilah as nervous as you?” She dumps the bread onto a cooling rack beside the stove, then uses the back of her wrist to wipe sweat from her forehead.
“I’m not nervous.”
My mother raises an eyebrow.
Even if she doesn’t believe me, it’s not a lie. I’m curious and excited, but I’m not nervous. Delilah and Rachel, though, are terrified. They know just as little as I do about tonight, but perhaps they have more to lose. I have no reason to share their fear. I know which boy is going to call my name tonight, which boy is about to become my husband.
My husband. In just a few hours, I’ll be allowed to speak those words aloud. My skin prickles into gooseflesh at the thought.
“My husband.” I can’t resist. I say it low, under the wet slice of the potato peeler, but my mother still hears.
“I don’t know who it will be. And even if I did, I couldn’t say,” she whispers, though the room is empty aside from us. The others have already left to set up Outside. Only my mother has volunteered us to stay behind to finish up, to avoid leaving the safety of the city for as long as possible. She grew up Outside, without our Leader’s guidance, in a faraway place called San Diego. Whatever happened to her there left her tight-lipped and afraid, and more than willing to sacrifice a few moments of freedom for the stifling confines of the Kitchen. Just the few steps she will take through the gates tonight, to witness my marriage, have had her worried and fearful for weeks.
Unlike me, she and the other Elders have been on the other side of the fence, many times. They used to hold all kinds of celebrations in the sacred tunnels as well as out in the middle of the desert. But that was before one of Daniel’s Children betrayed their faith and broke their trust.
She once told me that being on the other side made her feel exposed. Actually, the word she used was naked. What I didn’t tell her was that I’ve yearned for that same feeling. That secretly, I think I might like it. That I would never say aloud. Like many of my thoughts, it’s unsuitable and liable to earn me a punishment. The Elders say I’m incapable of keeping anything to myself, but sometimes I manage. Still, it’s impossible for me to keep entirely quiet, especially on a day this special.
“Why does everything about tonight have to be a secret? It’s in the Bible. ‘He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.’ Proverbs 18:22.” I’m allowed to quote Scripture; sometimes it feels as if that’s all I’m allowed. For mainly this reason I’ve retained a great many of the passages we’ve studied in the classroom, a skill that both delights and frustrates my mother. “And anyway, I don’t need you to tell me who he is. I already know.”
“What?” She holds her knife aloft, the newly skinned potatoes lying forgotten in front of her. “There’s no way you could possibly know that. Unless—” She narrows her eyes. “Has one of the boys tried to speak to you?”
My mother has always possessed the ability to look past my babble and straight into my heart. “Of course not,” I say, the words tumbling out in my haste to explain. “No one’s spoken to anyone.” This is not a lie, and so hopefully will pass her scrutiny. “I just . . . I dreamt of him. There was music, and a bonfire. And we were in the cave—”
Her eyes widen, and she drops the knife to grip my hands. “Who told you this?”
“No one.” I shake loose. “I told you, I dreamt it.”
Her face relaxes into a smile, and she presses her forehead to mine. “I knew it,” she whispers. “I knew you had a gift. He’ll be so proud.”
Her declaration sends a thrill through me that’s almost as good as a gust of cool air. As the reincarnation of the Prophet, our Leader has always been the one to interpret the messages we receive from the Lord in our dreams. But I’d always secretly hoped that one day, God might choose to communicate with me directly. “Who will be proud? Father? Or Daniel?”
“Yes. Both. They both will.” My mother wipes her hands on her apron, moves the clasp on her crucifix to the back of her neck, and adjusts her head scarf, checking for loose hairs with a practiced finger. There aren’t any, of course.
“Did you love him?” I ask.
Her hands still. Her face changes. “Who are you talking about?”
I’ve spent years studying her every expression. She’s taught me to interpret the faintest sign of displeasure, but I don’t need any lessons to read the annoyance in her face.
“Father must have loved you,” I say. “Because he chose you. But on that night, did you know—”
She presses her lips together. “Stop. Do you want to risk a Shaming?”
“Surely you can tell me something. In a few hours, I’ll be a woman, too. What will a few details matter now?”
She turns away to tend the meat, so I can no longer see her face. I watch her hands instead, their choppy quick movements as she uses the poker to stir the coals. “The less you expect, the better,” she says. “Marriage should feel like a gift, not an obligation.”
“After sixteen years, what’s one more obligation?” I toss the potatoes into a bowl, angry at myself as much as her. What did I expect? She lives to obey; in this regard she’s exactly like Rachel. Or Rachel is like her. This may be the one thing the Bible has gotten wrong. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Sometimes it breeds likeness. After Rachel’s mother left New Jerusalem, my family took Rachel in and raised her. And though they have no blood ties, my best friend is more my mother’s daughter than I am.
Rachel comes in just then, as if I’ve summoned her with my disloyal thoughts. And behind her, my father, trailed by a passel of small children. None of them are his; younger kids just always seem drawn to Father, despite his complete indifference to their adoration. I think it’s his bald head they find unusual.
“What’s taking so long?” He wrinkles his nose as he surveys the necessary chaos that comes from preparing a meal for over one hundred people. “The men are getting hungry.”
“The music has started!” Rachel says, darting over to me. “Can you believe it? It’s finally happening.” She fans herself, sweat already beading on her upper lip. In a few more minutes, her dark hair will be as frizzy as mine. “Whew. It’s hot in here,” she says. “What can I do to help? The faster we finish, the sooner we can go Outside.”
My mother turns pale.
“Ruth. You look tired,” says Father.
Why is it men never curb their tongues? Of course she’s tired. We’ve been cooking in this furnace for the past six hours. Personally, I think Father looks stiff and uncomfortable, the lines on his face more pronounced today. It could be the heat, or the unfamiliarity of the kitchen. Either way, I keep this to myself.
“Miriam. Haven’t you been helping your mother?” He takes a step toward me and trips over Delilah’s youngest brother. “Damnation, Ezekiel! Why are you always underfoot?”
“I’m Zacharias. And I’m small.” He bursts into tears and dives under the table, upending the bowl of potatoes.
Mother holds the platter of meat high, stepping carefully around the errant vegetables rolling across the floor. “Everything’s fine, Boaz. Miriam’s been a big help. In fact, I’m pleased to see how much she’s improving. She’s going to make someone a wonderful wife.”
He makes a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat and crosses his arms. Mother glances at his gleaming white linen shirt and pants and then looks for somewhere else to set her tray, while I kneel to gather the spilled food, the back of my neck prickling under the weight of Father’s stare.
Rachel goes around to the other side of the table to coax Zacharias out. She crosses her pale eyes and wiggles her thick eyebrows, and he giggles through his tears. “I want my mommy,” he says, as he crawls into Rachel’s outstretched arms.
We all have our talents. Rachel’s is mothering. Mother’s is cooking. Mine isn’t either one. I’m also not going to make just someone a wonderful wife. He has a name. But like any woman here, my mother never really says what she means.
“I’ll get this,” she says. Mother pulls a potato from my grasp and waves me off. “We’re nearly done here anyway. Go and help Rachel with the children. It’s too hot in here for them, and there’s no one in the Medical Shed to treat heatstroke today.” Like my mother, the other nurse has been temporarily relieved of her Vocational Duties to help prepare for tonight’s festivities.
I hesitate, but freedom tugs at me like the devil’s hand. Besides, she’s used to cleaning up our messes. It’s how she shows her love.
I stand and brush off my skirt, then Rachel hoists Zacharias onto her hip, and I grab the tray of vegetables and corn bread my mother has carefully arranged. Father holds the back door, and as we step out I’m rewarded with a rush of fresh air that cools my heated skin so quickly it makes me shiver.
“Straight to the feasting tables. No dawdling,” Father says to me, then turns to the other children. “I need to move the benches from Chapel out to the bonfires. Who wants to help me?”
Some of the older children raise their hands and follow him toward the city center, while the rest scatter, leaving Rachel and me to deliver Zacharias and the rest of the food.
The sun is slipping low in the sky, hovering above the mountain ahead and blinding us, so that we have to make our way to the front gate almost by memory. We cut through the welcome shade of the Pavilion, the open-air shelter where most of our communal Gatherings take place, including our yearly Last Supper and the Epiphany Festival. This used to be as near to the sacred tunnels as we ever got. But tonight, because it is the most important of all our celebrations, Daniel has decreed that the Matrimony will actually take place inside them.
It won’t be the first Matrimony—that was the marriage of my parents and the other Elders of the First Generation—but it will be the biggest. This is the first time God has spoken to any of the Second Generation, and the first time He’s spoken to so many at once. And most important, at least to me, it’s the first time He’s spoken my name.
My heart sings with excitement as our feet lead us down the path and through the gates stretched wide to allow the men through as they carry out the tables and benches and other equipment needed for tonight’s celebration. Once we cross Zzyzx Road, we are officially Outside for the first time in our lives. I am overcome by a feelingI struggle to name. This road that stretches on forever, the endless expanse of desert and sky, unblemished by gate or guard—these are the things the Elders have warned against, and yet, here I am. Untethered. Free. At least for one night.
Rachel grabs my arm and points to the flags waving in the distance, stark white against the dark rock of the mountain to mark the entrance. “There it is! The Marriage Cave!” She raises her voice to be heard above the rhythmic blend of harp, reed, and bells streaming from big speakers into the open air—the same sound system that in just a few hours will be used to announce our futures.
We hurry past the girls’ bonfire, skirting a cluster of younger girls playing hopscotch in the sand, and over to the feasting tables. The lavish buffet I helped my mother prepare will soon be set out; until then, the rest of the women straighten tablecloths and arrange bread and sweets into piles. Delilah is here, too, moving a plate from one side of the table to the other and then back again as her mother, Chloe, supervises.
Zacharias bursts into tears at the sight of his mother and squirms to be put down. When Rachel releases him, he runs to Chloe and buries his face in her skirt.
“There you are! Your sister and I have been looking everywhere for you!”
Delilah rolls her eyes heavenward. “I told you he was with Rachel, Mother.”
“And I told you to keep an eye on him,” Chloe says, but she sounds only mildly exasperated.
Normally, Delilah is tasked with wrangling her many brothers and sisters. But today is a special occasion. With no Lessons, and the Elders preoccupied with Celebration preparations, it’s expected that the children should also get a chance to enjoy this tiny taste of freedom. Plus, it’s her wedding day.
As Rachel and I hand over the trays of vegetables and bread, another mother, Judith, slips the crying boy a cookie, and his tears immediately evaporate.
“Delilah, move those cookies to make room,” Chloe orders.
Delilah wrinkles her nose as she sticks her tongue out at us, her freckles blurring into one sandy cluster, but she does as she’s told. Until we serve our husbands, we must serve our parents.
Judith hands us each a cookie and wipes her calloused hands on the apron tied over her dress. The women are all in nicer clothes tonight, the dresses they normally save for Chapel. Rachel and I and the other girls will wear white for the wedding, while Judith and the other Elders are dressed in traditional cream linen. “How are you girls feeling? Nervous? Excited?” she asks.
I’m tongue-tied all of a sudden, and to cover, I shove the cookie in my mouth. Judith is almost as good a cook as my mother, and she’s definitely a better baker. Not that she looks it. She’s thin and wiry, like she never eats. And maybe she doesn’t. With a husband and six sons, maybe the food never makes it to her plate.
“We’re excited and nervous,” Rachel answers for both of us.
Judith smiles. “The boys are the same,” she says, waving a hand toward the glow in the distance. “I finally sent Caleb and Marcus away. They were more hindrance than anything.”
“Oh, I can’t imagine Caleb being a hindrance. Can you, Miriam?” Delilah asks.
I choke on my cookie, and Rachel gives me a raised eyebrow and a tiny shake of her head. “What can we do to help?” she asks the women, too loudly.
“There’s still the meat—” Delilah’s mother says, but Judith interrupts.
“Let them go, Chloe. This is their special night.” Judith winks, and this time I’m sure it’s at me.
Delilah doesn’t give her mother time to reconsider. “Let’s go.” She crams the cookie in her mouth and links her arms through both Rachel’s and mine, pulling us away from the food and the fire and into the darkness of the night desert.
We walk, mostly because we can and everyone else is too busy to stop us, but we’re careful to keep Zzyzx Road and the city fence to our left, while the voices of the women and children fade at our backs. We weave our way slowly between scattered rocks and the spindly Joshua trees with their branches raised toward heaven in prayer, like their namesake at the Battle of Jericho. But what do these trees pray for?
Sometimes I imagine they were once people, like us, stuck out here so long they grew roots. A blasphemous thought, I know. I pluck one of the waxy blossoms sprouting from their outstretched arms like pale fingertips and tuck it behind my ear. Unlike other wildflowers, these don’t bloom every spring. Their appearance is the very reason we’re all out here tonight. It’s a sign God has finally called for another Matrimony.
Rachel finishes her cookie and dusts the crumbs from her face. Then she squints into the darkness. “It’s time to go back.”
I don’t ask how she knows. Rachel’s sense of duty is as inborn as the dent in the bridge of her nose, the one she rubs when she’s nervous.
“You two go on,” I say. “I’ll follow in a minute.”
“Or you could just come with us now. We still have to change out of our work dresses.”
I sigh. “I have to pee, Rachel.”
She wrinkles her nose, then massages the dent. “There’s no toilet out here. You can go at the house.”
“I can’t hold it that long. I’ll go behind this tree.”
Delilah’s eyes widen with glee; Rachel’s with shock. “You can’t,” Rachel says.
“Of course I can. The men do it all the time. I’ve seen them.”
At her gasp, I amend my words. “I don’t mean I’ve actually seen them. I mean, I’ve seen my father go off by himself, behind the Pavilion. So why can’t I?”
“Because you’re a girl?” Rachel counters.
“But it’s still pee,” Delilah says. “There’s no difference between male and female pee.”
Delilah has done enough diaper changing to know, and Rachel gives up the fight. “Even so, I’m not going to stand around while you pollute the desert. Come on, Delilah.”
“That’s why I told you to go ahead,” I call after their retreating backs. “And it’s not pollution if the animals all do it.” I don’t actually have to pee, but my argument is still valid.
I walk a bit more until I’m far enough away from the bonfire so that if I squint, the flames are hands holding up a column of climbing smoke as an offering. The sun has slipped all the way behind the mountain now, and above me, stars decorate the sky like thousands of candles lit in honor of tonight’s marriages. The magnitude of all this beauty, all this freedom, leaves me breathless. I know this is the same desert I see every day, but Out here, it’s wild and untended. Here, the ground is unswept, the sand coarse and rocky, the bunches of yucca and desert paintbrush scattered by God instead of gardener. The farther I go from New Jerusalem, the less evidence I see of any human hand.
I walk until I see the guards. I knew I’d run into them eventually, and that I’d have to stop before they caught me. We were told they would be patrolling during the celebration. Even Outside, there are still boundaries we can’t breach. But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve come far enough. I turn and duck behind one of the taller trees, my heart pounding in the stillness. For the first time tonight, I am afraid. Not of being chosen, but of being caught—here, at the boys’ fire. Tonight, of all nights, I shouldn’t risk this.
But I need to see him one more time.