Grace Unexpected By Gale Martin Sneak Peek – Chapter 1
Shaken and Stirred
I squinted through the muck on the windshield at the lane ahead. Then at the road map outstretched on my lap. I glanced back and forth between them: lane, map, lane, map. “Do all roads lead to mud?”
“That’s three in an hour,” Rae Ann said, white-knuckling the steering wheel. “There ought to be a law against slapping a route number on an old Indian trail.” She flipped on the windshield wipers, but nothing shot out to dissolve the mud. “We’re out of wiper fluid. And we’re lost.”
I had faith in maps. Together with dead shot compass skills, they’d lured me off the main roads onto paths uncharted by most tourists. That’s how I found a postcard-perfect salt lagoon behind a Mexican barrier beach, pure powder slopes in Patagonia, and a mountaintop waterfall in Japan begging for a moonlight tryst.
I pored over the map. “It says if we follow this road for three miles, it intersects with the road to Canterbury.”
“It says that, does it?” Rae Ann asked, her tone telegraphing her confidence in my navigation skills.
“You navigate. I’ll drive,” I offered. “Hop out.”
Rae Ann turned up her nose. “In this muck? These espadrilles are brand new.”
I glanced at her shoes—so clean they squeaked. “You don’t want to ruin those.” I grabbed a roll of paper towels off the back seat and toddled outside the truck. Mud oozed into my K-Swiss, formerly in virgin road-trip condition. I unwound some toweling and attacked the windshield, wiping clean an area the size of a bowling ball. Before climbing in on the driver’s side, I scraped the soles of my now mucked-up sneakers on the running board.
Rae Ann shimmied over to the passenger seat, her belly brimming with baby. “We’re stuck in Mudville, and it’s past lunchtime. My stomach is digesting itself.”
“Tell your stomach to relax. The only thing standing between us and Canterbury is a mud-coated, tree-lined goat path,” I said, flashing on a front-page news story about two female carcasses clad in Bermuda shorts clinging to a red SUV, one in childbirth, the other in midwifery, both fossilized in waves of mud.
“You better not mess up your brother’s truck.”
I clutched the gearstick. “And you better not go into labor.”
I threw the Explorer into drive. For the next four miles, it shuddered through wakes of ruts left by other vehicles, hydroplaning between gullies.
“Truck, Grace!” Rae Ann cried.
As a pickup barreled right at us, I cut the wheels hard, and we careened toward a stand of evergreens. Just before impact, I cranked the wheel to the left, and the truck skidded back onto the lane. When we arrived at the state road, the Explorer stopped shuddering, but Rae Ann hadn’t.
“Everybody okay?” I asked after I caught my breath.
She exhaled and patted her round tummy. “It pays to be a Savage, yes it does. You’d have made your mama proud.”
Gutsy driving wouldn’t have done it for Mom. I couldn’t conceive of anything that would impress my mother until I glanced in Rae Ann’s direction. “Yeah, maybe. If I looked like you.”
Now into her third trimester, my sister-in-law had that glow everyone ascribed to pregnant women. “Won’t she be shocked when I give birth to a ten-pound watermelon!” She pointed off to her right. “Look it. Out there. A double rainbow.”
Perfect parallel bows straddled the New Hampshire countryside. The lower one glowed and was well-defined; the upper was airy, almost translucent, though both sets of endpoints were visible. I’d never seen one up-close-and-personal before. It was the first time I realized their colors were reversed—the outer bow being the mirror image of the inner.
“A sign from on high, darlin’,” Rae Ann said, sounding tickled with herself, “interpreted for you heathens. We’ll be quakin’ with the Shakers in a jiff.”
“After this ride, I’ll see their quake, and I’ll raise them a shake,” I said. “That’s a poker reference, interpreted for you Southern Baptists.”
“You think we’re a bunch of killjoys?” She glared at me over the bridge of her horn-rimmed glasses and snapped her gum. “I’ve played penny poker.”
I blanched, my terror as genuine as a Botox pout. “And you haven’t been excommunicated by church elders?”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” She took out a tissue from her purse and blotted her face. “Who knew New Hampshire was this muggy?”
Like tourists to Brigadoon, plumes of mist beckoned us from the road ahead. I plowed through the pea soup for another half a mile and paused at a stop sign. “Which way?”
She waggled her right arm and sucked back a bubble the size of Rhode Island. “Shaker settlement at Canterbury. Turn left.”
As we rounded the corner, rolling hills like mounds of mint frosting came into view. First a mythical mist. Then a double rainbow. Now hills so green we could have inhaled their color. The stage was set. This Canterbury was going to be some kind of magical place.
Visiting Canterbury had been Rae Ann’s idea. An early birthday present. That was Rae for you, always scouring the Internet for wrapped-in-a-bow vacation spots. However, I wasn’t excited about visiting a place where people gave up sex for life, kind of like I once gave up Gummi bears for Lent, but less painful.
“Shaker Village offers ‘renewal of the human spirit’,” Rae Ann had said after I agreed to make the trip. “All that stress from that nasty old job, including that nasty old boss? Z-zzzp!” she said, buzzing my temple with her index finger. “Better than electroshock therapy.”
Not to burst her Bubble Yum, but I had two bad bosses. Anything that allowed me to forget either one of them was worth the trip. For sheer stress relief, I’d prefer caving in the White Mountains. Not Rae, not even in LBP times—Life Before Pregnancy.
She wasn’t much of a tomboy. Not exactly a Southern belle either. Much too practical. But quite the looker nonetheless. My brother, Glen, got transferred to Georgia where pretty girls grow on trees, met Rae Ann, and plucked her, so to speak. Even in her last trimester, though she swore she might be confused for a Beluga whale, she still turned heads with her Snow White countenance and coloring.
Though Shaker Village was hardly my first choice for a vacation spot, if Rae Ann saw it as a cheap ticket to a couple hours of serenity, who was I to complain, considering her swollen ankles and constant heartburn? We’d be home by Saturday, plenty of time for my thirty-fifth birthday celebration with Christian. I had a premonition I’d be getting something, oh, unforgettable from him on Sunday.
By the time Rae Ann and I pulled into the parking lot, we were weary, muddy, mystified, battle-tested, and hankering for food. Our last sustenance had been around nine o’clock. Deep fried chocolate cake stuffed with Twinkies and ice cream in Grafton. Breakfast must have done a number on her blood sugar. “Want to hit the café?” I asked.
“I really want to do the Dwelling House tour. Last one of the day starts in five minutes. I can hang in there. I’ve chewed this gum so long I’m putting flavor back into it.”
Minutes later, we were staring down the most imposing building at Canterbury, the Dwelling House. It towered stories higher than the rest of the settlement, its distinctive L-shape jutting into a colony of rectangular houses with triangle roofs in the same design as the houses of my childhood drawings.
I pointed to a Goliath of a man approaching. “That might be our guide now.”
“Afternoon, folks,” he said brightly. He had a barrel chest and a full head of hair pushing gray. “I assume y’all are here for the Home Tour.”
A Southern expert on the Canterbury settlement? What a disappointment. I had been in New England three days and had yet to hear one yokel declare, “You can’t get they-ah from he-ah.”
“Where y’all from?” People shared their home states, and he yupped his approval. Virginia, Florida, Ohio.
“Pennsylvania,” I called out.
“Georgia,” Rae Ann offered, and the guide tipped his hat to her.
One man from Texas had embarked on the extreme Shaker circuit that summer, having visited his first settlement in Kentucky last week, with plans to travel on to Maine after today’s stop. He must have been an expert compared to me. All I knew was that Shakers made chairs with clean lines, hung them on walls, and never took rolls in the hay.
Our guide ushered fifteen of us up the landing and into a small room on the first floor. “The Shakers were actually Quakers who danced and shook in worship to purge the sins from their body. Since 1792, the Canterbury Shakers committed themselves to making a heaven on earth by practicing common ownership, pacifism, sexual equality, and celibacy.”
Celibacy leads to utopia? Who knew?
“By 1840, the Shakers numbered around 6,000 full members in eighteen major communities in eight states, making them the most successful utopian society in America.”
How could a bunch of people who never had sex possibly know what they’re missing?
The guide was saying the Shaker population at Canterbury swelled between 1793 and 1837.
“Rae,” I whispered. “How do you swell the population in a celibate community?”
“Child adoption and converts. They must’ve corralled some nineteenth-century streetwalkers and said, ‘Go live with those Shakers, or you’re doing time in the clink.’”
The guide indicated some floor models of the Dwelling House under glass, in various stages of expansion, and waved us on into the next room. “All dwelling spaces were divided so that men and women did everything separately. As we head into the hall, we’re going to be Shakers. Brothers, take the right-hand staircase up to the living quarters. Sisters, head to your left.”
All the “Sisters” climbed one flight of steps via separate-but-equal staircases and entered a common sleeping area. A half-dozen twin beds with white coverlets were lined up against white-washed walls. I felt a tightness in my chest and a twinge in my abdomen. “How could grown women live like this? Absolutely no privacy.”
“What’d they need privacy for?” Rae Ann said. “All they did was work, worship, and sleep.”
“Look, Harv,” one of the women in our group said. “All those small beds in a row. Doesn’t it look like a dollhouse?”
More like a nuthouse, I thought.
“Now that you’ve seen their sleeping quarters, let’s talk about Shaker industry,” the guide said. “The Shakers were praised for their culture of work. It was their daily calling. They designed simple furniture with care. Their devotion to the idea of work led to the invention of the circular saw, the clothespin, the flat broom, a wheel-driven washing machine, even fashion. Follow me, folks.”
“The clothespin?” I said, not realizing it had been invented. “I’m impressed.”
The tour group tramped behind the guide into the next room. “To your left are textiles Shakers used to generate wealth. That hooded cape,” he said, pointing to an elegant, floor-length wrap, “was conceived by a pair of sisters who used a train tour to promote sales up and down the East Coast.”
Rae Ann leaned in close and whispered, “Look how much people can get done when they give up sex, Sister Grace.”
But who’d want to make that trade-off? I thought. I’d never given up anything for sex.
The guide cleared his throat and turned to face the group. “In practicing common ownership of goods and equality of the sexes,” he said, “Shaker women had professional opportunities that married ladies from the same time period never had.”
“Even Shaker sisters knew women couldn’t have it all,” Rae Ann said, “long before our generation came to their senses.”
I scoffed. “Don’t give them too much credit. Maybe they were too chicken to venture outside their cozy utopia on earth to try life on their own.”
“Nothing wrong with wanting to be part of a community,” Rae Ann said. “It’s good for you.”
“Any questions, folks?” the guide asked.
A tall lady in front of me raised her hand, and the guide gave her a nod. “Isn’t celibacy another anti-woman stance perpetuated by men who wanted to distance themselves from women’s original sin?”
Don’t know if I’d have had the guts to ask that question in this setting, but her observation sounded reasonable to me. For hundreds of years, women have been blamed for the fall of mankind, incriminating themselves because of what Eve allegedly made Adam do in a mythical garden ages ago.
“I’m not here to change your views, religious or political,” the guide explained. “What I can tell you is that Shaker women were equal to men when it came to religious leadership. Unlike other religions practiced during the same time period, women participated fully in religious life because they were not distracted by childbearing.”
Rae Ann folded her hands across her big tummy, cradling it and the precious cargo inside. “I think I’m going to be somewhat distracted for the next, oh, eighteen or fifty years.”
Wait a minute. So men take us seriously as long as we deny our sexuality? “You don’t have to choose between being a whole person and being a mother.”
“What if I want to be a whole mother?”
I groaned too loudly. People turned around and stared. I lowered my voice. “You can be whatever you want. It’s 2012, not 1912.”
The guide waved us on. “For the last leg of the tour, we’ll head to the Meetinghouse, which was attached to the living quarters,” he explained. “Worship was as much a part of Shaker life as working and eating. Though they’re known for worship, they also wrote thousands of hymns, including a pretty famous one, ‘Simple Gifts’. Y’all know that one?”
People nodded vigorously.
“I love that song,” Rae Ann said, and started humming it.
“Ready, folks?” the guide asked. “There were men’s and women’s entrances into the Meetinghouse, too. I’m counting on y’all to take the proper one. We don’t want to rattle any Shaker ghosts.”
While Rae Ann continued on toward the Meetinghouse, I stopped to view a photographed portrait of a Shaker woman, taken around 1880. She was covered in a shoulder-to-toe charcoal cape dress. Her hair had been pulled off her face into a no-frills bonnet, and the only exposed flesh appeared deathly white. She was a study in pinched propriety down to her last epidermal cell. The guide was saying something about how the few Shakers alive today were cloistered in Maine. The sour Shaker lady locked eyes with me. Was she sneering?
Gallivanting across the back roads of New England had taken more out of me than I expected. And this trip was supposed to be my renewal? The more I learned about these Shakers, the more uncomfortable I became.
While I inspected the face in the photograph, the corners of her mouth turned downward ever so slightly. “Did you see that?” I whirled around, but everyone else had moved on to the Meetinghouse.
She was sneering at me! I glowered back, fanning myself, and gave her a piece of my mind:
You know why you’re all shriveled up? You lived without any earthly pleasures. Your bedroom looked like a sanitarium. I, on the other hand, made my own choices, better choices. And as for that myth that women can only cleanse themselves of their original sin by giving up sex and working ourselves to death, well, I don’t buy it. Women can be sexual creatures and be taken seriously. Go ahead and rattle whatever it is you rattle. I dare you.
I broke free from her icy scowl and followed the others into the Meetinghouse. The scent of mildewed wood overwhelmed my nostrils, and I couldn’t catch my breath. “I need some fresh air.” I hurried past Rae and the rest of the group, stalked through a Meetinghouse door—indifferent to whether it was for men or women—and plopped myself on the stoop outside.
Rae Ann waddled after me. “What’s wrong, darlin’?”
“I think I’ve had enough of Shaker Village for one day.”
“You left through the men’s exit,” she observed. “Shame, shame. You’re going to be haunted by Shaker spirits.”
“Now that you mention it,” I said, “I could go for some spirits. A double something with a splash of anything. Let’s find a watering hole. And a hamburger.”
Rae Ann lifted her purse strap onto her shoulder. “Onward. To find some beef.” She sang, “‘Tis a gift to be simple. ‘Tis a gift to be free. ‘Tis a gift to la, da, dum, de, dum, de, dah.’”
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