by Susan Scott
News of the vision came on the eve of my high school graduation. All along there had been visions—it was enthralling, the boy’s likeness to young Joseph Smith—but this vision was different. The prophet Elijah had appeared, told the boy that he and I should marry. We were “meant to be” is what was said.
We related best, the boy and I, through long hand-written letters which I burned so my mother wouldn’t find them, but this one I jammed beneath the pillow. Thus saith Elijah … so this was a proposal? The message read more like a script for a Book of Mormon pageant, and I dared not question the pronouncement. Questioning would be a lack of faith. Yet if this were meant to be, why did I feel numb? What I felt was numb. This was not the fairy tale ending I’d envisioned.
I mean, running off together I could picture.
Hitchhiking-for-Jesus I could picture.
What I could not picture was being someone’s wife.
I had fallen for the boy at church camp the summer that I turned 16, all lonely and hormonal, and he, in Mom’s words, on the prowl.
“Forget about that boy,” she said, rifling through no-name jeans at K-Mart. I had wanted Levi’s, but that was not to be. This was August, on the heels of camp. Here we go, I thought. There was always some informant, some nosy cook or counsellor who reported back to Mom.
“What boy?” I feigned indifference.
“Don’t play dumb with me. You know I mean that long-haired kook. I don’t like the look of him, he looks like he does drugs.”
“He does not do drugs,” I muttered, but not so as she’d hear it. You could not talk back and expect to be left standing.
“You are not to see him, that’s my point. He’s an instigator, that one.” Instigator was the former store detective’s word for the longhaired-slash-suspicious.
“His dad’s an elder,” I murmured. Descended from the missionary who’d baptized Dad’s people in the 1890s—another thrilling detail I kept to myself. Mom disliked mention of her in-laws’ spiritual advancement.
“I don’t care if he’s the Queen of Sheba. I wouldn’t trust that boy as far as I could throw him.” She went on to tell him so herself, at the Labour Day potluck at church, where he’d hitchhiked some forty miles to see me—hauled him off to the nursery, where a fist in his face drove home the message: Leave us alone, and don’t look back.
That sealed the attraction. I needed rescuing, and he was game to play the prince.
And a fair prince he was. Wispy blond hair brushed his collarbone. Wire-rim glasses and flannel shirts gave him the air of a working intellectual, someone who knew his way around a toolbox. A cross whittled out of some soft wood swung from a leather thong looped about his neck. He was restless, the kind of youth who masters the guitar—our very own Stephen Stills was the buzz at youth camp—and with a hint of arrogance that made him seem precocious. “Principled” he’d say, not put off by the establishment or overbearing mothers.
“Unjust rules were meant to be broken,” he wrote after being roughed up in the nursery. I fell for that, too, and for two years we met in secret, in the bush behind my dull suburban high school, where he’d woo me with yogurt or granola (I had never tasted either) along with news about the great wide world. “I just felt you needed this,” he’d say, and out of his backpack would tumble some cassette (Dylan, mostly) and high-minded reads to set me on the path to liberation. Thoreau and Emerson, Rilke, Castenada, Rolling Stone. Whatever rules Mom laid down for my “own good” could not compete with the high romance of cutting class to walk and talk and kiss in the little woodlot, exchanging ardent letters. I sighed a lot, and he consoled. “You’re not meant to live this way,” he’d say. He was right on that score. The more Mom called the principal or read my diary, the greater my righteous indignation. At the end of my senior year and the height of bad behaviour, she finally called in Dad, who weighed in with a solemn “Listen to your mother.” I tossed my long dark horsetail hair and smirked.
“That’s it,” Mom snapped. “I’ve had it, girl. I’m sending you to a psychologist.”
“Good,” I piped. Finally, an adult who might listen.
Sadly, the offer was rescinded. So there I was, about to graduate and face the heartbreaking choice of to marry or to burn and yes, the call to wed depressed me, but it just felt wrong to doubt the vision. Visions were a first class nod from the Holy Ghost, a sign of spiritual elevation. I was lucky just to have a boyfriend, let alone someone so evolved. To my discerning teenage brain, a wet dream misremembered eclipsed the still, small voice of common sense.
And there was fear—fear so rank I could smell it. Fear of making my way in the world, alone. A sullen, bookish girl was fit for what exactly? I had touched a boy, the sap was flowing. Dear God, I prayed, please send a sign.
My sign came sans Jesus or the prophets when the long-faced Rapunzel made her presence felt. Night after night, I lay tossing on my narrow bed while the spectre hovered by the window, toying with her ropey hair.
The sky in these reveries was starless. This starless state, I realized, was mine.
Deception had bought a little breathing space, but at a cost. I had lost the moral high ground. I had lost all clarity of thought.
The horizon that had lit up briefly with the hope of counterculture freedom had gone dark.
“Sister,” the sad Rapunzel shook her ghostly locks. Hers was a voice I recognized, the voice I took to heart.
Think: When have you betrayed yourself, denied what your gut said was crazy foolish? Think: What did you tell yourself to make it all okay?
I told myself that what I felt had no bearing on what was meant to be.
I had turned 18 right out of high school and by September the boy and I had fled, backpack and guitar in tow, to see our camp directors, Mike and Dar, in the religious commune they were founding in the Carolinas. The winsome Dar, mother of three, doubled as a nurse; her husband, Mike, a social worker, also served as an elder in the church. Our plan, such as it was, was for Mike to marry the boy and me. Come winter we’d be home again, awaiting another revelation.
Was the plan god-given? I assumed it was. We left Niagara Falls without explaining why the journey south—that is, without a word about eloping.
The owly lights of the old VW van bobbed on the wheezy climb up Piney Mountain. Dar reached back and squeezed my hand. “What a blessing you could join us,” she smiled. After lurching up the steep farm road that emptied into fields, Mike killed the engine and all at once, we tumbled out into the fragrant southern night, into moonlight pooling on three small sheds ringed by a stand of whistling softwoods. I spied a chicken coop and outhouse on either side of what looked like an overgrown shed. “Welcome to our humble cabin,” Dar undid the latch, and the stiff pine door slid open. We stepped into a small dark room with table, stove and dry sink. “Make yourself at home,” she nudged us up the stairs, towards cold wood stove, pullout couch and rocker. A ladder led to the little loft where the family slept. This room too was dark, save for moonlight stealing through a small square pane.
This was homesteading in tobacco country. No neighbours within shouting distance. No water, power or insulation. Just coons and fox and possum, which spooked the family dog, a big old yellow mutt that whined a lot. Cry Baby scuttled underfoot while we unpacked the van, and Mike carried dozing children off to bed.
“You know,” Dar shushed the dog, “we’re building our cabin using wood from an abandoned factory.” Cry Baby settled once her mistress lit the oil lamp, and light bloomed in the musty kitchen. Dar cocked her head. “We sure could use your help.”
“Of course,” I enthused, “that’s why we’re here.” Could the false note be detected?
“You’re not afraid of vultures, are you? They skulk about the place, but they’re curious is all.”
“So this is not your land?”
“No,” she said. “It’s a ways from here, you’ll see.”
What I saw that autumn was grit coupled with imagination. There were homey touches, yes—Dar’s merry cross-stitch brightening the barn board; waking up to fresh baked bread—but these were exceptions, up there with bacon and Velveeta sandwiches, or cornmeal griddle cakes lathered with peach jam. Weekly showers at the high school were the real treat, thanks to a laconic shop teacher by the name of Wes who smuggled us into the locker rooms on Friday nights. The kids—ages three, five and seven—bathed old-school back on the hill, in a washtub in the kitchen.
“It’s like camping,” their lanky dad would say. How long could they live in an old tobacco barn? Again, the boyish grin. “No more than a few years we hope.”
Hope was the watchword for this back-to-the-land living that charmed, inspired—unless you were put off by poverty and dirt, or bloody fox raids that enraged the hens, wings flapping in a mad show of indignation at the loss of another of their sisters.
I wish I could look back at that time on Piney Mountain and see myself wrangling chicken wire or kneading dough at daybreak, anything that would ease the many burdens of our hosts. What I see is a spectre ambling the slopes, contemplating turns of phrase—how Thoreau might have eulogized the brazen kudzu, the pokeweed’s bloody juices purpling the fingers—a pastime that distracted me from dreary chores like writing home to say Dear Mom and Dad, Just so you know, I’m getting married. For the life of me I could not speak up, I could not bring myself to say the simple truth, that I was shutting down. The depression that had dogged my sorry youth had not lifted, as I’d hoped. If anything, it had only deepened.
Once I turned 18, I caught a bus (in defiance) to Niagara Falls, and in a curious twist the boy’s family took me in, which turned out to be a godsend—news soon came that Mom had sold my bed. And that was that: I was launched, a dark Rapunzel, free to seize her independence, or to follow the fair prince. And since the latter had been foretold by an erstwhile prophet, I fell into the age-old habit of simply following a man. Following had led me here, to fields I wandered in a pre-nuptial haze, girl from the North country, long hair “all down her breast,” clueless what to do with my so-called life.
Dar, to her credit, tried to reach me. In return, I was maddeningly evasive. “What will you do when you go back to Canada?” (Sorry, I have no idea.) “What’s your heart telling you to do?” (Ditto.) “Did you want to buy a veil?” (Hmm, would it go with the granny gown scrunched up in my backpack?) In truth, I couldn’t breathe when I thought about the wedding. But that was normal, right? Eloping casts a kind of spell. Travel casts another. I explained this was my first trip south, first sighting of hickory and hornbeam, first encounter with rhododendron-covered rocks and spillways. Magnolias were new to me. Sassafras was new. So was the sweet, sweet smell of dried tobacco. I’m lost, I laughed. That much was true. Smitten and confounded by the fog-wiped, painterly, impoverished and enchanted.
I came to at the wedding the first week of November, deep in R. J. Reynolds’s tobacco country, on a 30-acre parcel of spindly pine and oak brush that went by the name of Zion’s Depot.
You will not find that name on any map. Mike and Dar and the others who had bought the land in common had coined a name that did not suggest fanatics or an armoured compound, at least not to the like-minded souls flocking to the Tar Heel State, hoping for cheap land to buy and settle. And in that sense, other than Cry Baby in festive red bandanna, all eight wedding guests were older, seasoned versions of ourselves—dreamers, seekers, ersatz saints in the latter days of a hopeful era.
I’d first heard about Mike’s vision at that fateful church camp the summer that I turned 16, before news of it seeped north across the border and alarmed members of our sleepy congregation—people like my mother, who saw youth camp as a training ground for braless hippies.
“All this talk about a commune…” Mom clucked, hand on ample hip, presiding over a mess of sizzling onions. “That Mike’s an instigator.”
“Mom, read the Bible. Followers of Jesus held their goods in common.” I was preachy and obnoxious and I didn’t care. What I cared about was fleeing death-by-suburb.
“Don’t get smart with me. Communes are for you-know-what.”
I rolled my eyes, but not so as she’d notice. “Look, Mike’s an elder who’s doing what he thinks is right. Besides, you’ve never even met him.” I had just met Mike and the moon-faced Dar myself at the most amazing youth camp ever. Their van alone was proof that Jesus freaks could be real cool.
“I don’t go in for kooks,” Mom smirked. Cold potatoes hit the fry pan. “All this vision talk is nonsense.” The onions coiled and hissed.
Her attitude, as always, was unspeakably depressing. I thought of Emerson. To be great is to be misunderstood.
“Girl,” Mom shook her head. “If you go in for all that vision talk, you really are deluded.”
Deluded? Wow, I thought, who’s talking.
Living on the land, as I’d understood from all my reading—as I’d pictured it before setting foot in hard-scrabble Appalachia—would be hard, yes, a test of character that would purify the heart. Who could fail at this ennobling life if it were meant to be? Clearly Mike and Dar had been led to this death-wed mythic landscape for a reason.
And me? Why was I standing toe-to-toe with a groom I hardly spoke to under a twisty leafless oak on such a damn cold day?
You will not find the name Rapunzel in the scriptures, but she’s there just the same— anytime there is push-pull over woman. Eve was one such woman, and what was said to Eve? “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow.”
God didn’t speak to me directly, but shame drove the message home. I was a failure. Girl, you are such a disappointment.
My family never spoke of the elopement. One aunt didn’t speak to me for 20 years, she was so put off by my counterculture nonsense.
The in-laws took another tack. “What about a ring?” My mother-in-law would offer up a plain gold band—a family heirloom, which I moodily declined. (Wedding rings are so conventional.) “Any pictures?” (Oh no, we’d never pose for pictures.) Our sole memento, the Stokes County marriage certificate with its quaint cameo of two clasped hands, aroused plenty of suspicion, as did the fact that I soon took back my maiden name. That was a real head shaker. Even so, most people made an effort to adapt to our playing man and wife. My home church would even throw a shower, which I swore up and down I didn’t want, but the women I had known since childhood insisted on the age-old rite of passage. When I walked into the old church hall, I was met by every piece of Tupperware known to humankind.
“Well, what did you expect?” Mom sounded battle-weary. “They asked me what you needed and I told them.”
Mom and I made up in other ways as well, most times without a fight. All fights now were inside the marriage.
He grew sullen, I grew loud. It was an adjustment.
There were moments, though. On the bitter cold December morning we arrived back in Niagara Falls, when my father-in-law met our Greyhound bus with “Welcome home, children, how about some breakfast?” (our first hot meal in days) and we used the diner’s pay phone to call about an ad for an apartment in a storied nineteenth-century mansion up on Lundy’s Lane—a place we took sight unseen, because it was a sign—I was flooded with a fleeting sense of promise. A big old funky place filled with drug-dealing misfits could inspire just the pluck we’d need, to emulate our heroes in the Carolina outback.
Sure enough, hardship worked its magic, distracted us from the fact that two kids fresh out of high school could not find work. Finally, when winter fell full force inside and out, when the unheated apartment grew so cold that the clothes laid out stiffened like cadavers, we finally got inventive—tossed our jeans and socks and mitts into the oven, long enough to toast them and get us up and out the door: he, to the unemployment office every morning, and me to the in-laws before plodding to the library to look up universities, or plunder cookbooks, scouting recipes for Mormon bread.
Time passed and winter deepened. Niagara Falls is an icy haze in winter, and with the bitter damp comes an eerie pall that tricks the senses. Friends who stayed over complained of a presence in the living room where they’d camped out on the floor. A big old house like this has ghosts, they murmured over breakfast. No, no ghosts, I countered.
Haunted, though, is how I felt when evenings fell, and my spouse lay down his fair guitar to lace up his hiking boots. “Don’t wait up,” he’d say. “I’m headed to the Falls.” Some nights it was the Rapids, or the Whirlpool, wild places that had been ours not so long ago.
Hour after hour, stiffening on the mattress on the hard cold floor, I’d listen for the door to open, staring at the frosted window, worrying my hair, wondering Where the hell was this Elijah? If the Almighty had something grand in store, now would be the time to show it.
Sad to say, no figures made their presence felt.
What was felt was a towering sense of loss.
Loss filled the awkward silence in an awkward marriage, a union in which neither party could speak up or bring ourselves to say the truth—that we were neither favoured nor appointed. We were not pioneering. We were simply keeping time. This pre-ordained joining of a boy and girl—this was conforming.
We’d conformed to someone else’s vision of how to live our lives. We had fallen for the powerful, alluring—what was not yet love.
Then suddenly it’s morning, and once again we’re hopping about a frigid kitchen, pulling on our roasted socks and jeans, and, well, there’s a kind of joy in that—joy in pushing back against the odds of failing, for the odds are overwhelming that you will. For now, all you can do is bundle up and go your separate ways: he to look for work, and you, to the holy precincts of the book stacks by way of the in-laws, where maybe, just maybe, you will set aside your sorrow long enough to lend a hand, or do the unexpected. Admit to your affection for the great wide world.
Susan Scott is nonfiction editor for The New Quarterly.