Graven Images, A Singular Village Mystery
05 July 1833
Adelaide’s sister jerked open the door to their cabin and rushed inside. Her chest heaving, she blurted out, “Now I know what I look like.”
Silhouetted by the sun, her body had filled out into rounded curves, and her skirt skimmed her ankles, too short for decency. For all of seeing her daily, Adelaide hadn’t noticed the change. When had she grown so?
“See, see!” Nellie thrust a small square of painted wood toward Adelaide. Nellie’s face—flat, stiff, and oddly oversized—stared up at her.
Summer sun spilled into the cabin from the open door, its hot glare adding to the stifling heat, though the morning had barely dawned. A musty smell rose from the thick-coated board, and Adelaide quelled her queasiness.
Below Nellie’s face, the girl wore a brilliant blue dress topped by a white lace collar and ruffled apron, the confection so unlike the plain gray dress and navy apron worn by Separatist girls.
Worry shot through her. The plain-living Separatists would never sanction such a frivolous fancy.
Her husband, Benjamin, stepped around the ladder to Nellie’s sleeping loft and snapped leather suspenders over his shoulders. “What is it?”
From her perch on Adelaide’s lap, Olivia reached for the painting, hands sticky with cornmeal mush.
Nellie snatched the painting out of Adelaide’s hands. “Don’t let her touch it.”
Adelaide lowered her infant onto the braided rag rug and stacked wooden blocks in front of her. Nellie will never be allowed to keep the painting, no matter how I wish it so.
“Sebastian gave it to me.” Nellie patted her flushed cheeks. “He said I’m beautiful.”
Olivia tumbled the blocks and squealed.
Benjamin bent to rebuild Olivia’s blocks. “You stay away from him,” he said, straightening. “He’s nothing but a traveling artist, dolling up every little girl around with his painted squares. Besides, how did you think you’d pay for it?”
“He said it was a gift for doing such good work.”
“I told you we shouldn’t let her work at the hotel,” Benjamin said to Adelaide, shoving tousled dark hair back with calloused fingers. “She should be training with you if she’s to become a healer.”
“Time enough for that once the hotel opens.” But she wasn’t so sure. Her sister had shown little interest in herbal medicines, despite being ordered to learn the work.
Benjamin stabbed a finger at the painting. “We have to get rid of it.”
Nellie shrank against the table, toppling a cup of cold cider. “No! It’s mine.” She clutched the portrait to her chest, her face resuming its usual pinched look.
Adelaide opened her mouth to reassure Nellie, but Benjamin interrupted. “It’s against our beliefs, you know that. No other images before God.”
Anger churned Adelaide’s stomach. She blotted the liquid with one hand and waved the other at her husband. How dare he frighten her sister after she’d been through so much? Hadn’t he seen her cower at a barely raised voice, her thoughts hidden behind a mask of silence? How could she deny her sister this simple pleasure? Working at the hotel seemed to bring her out of herself, a blessing for certain. But she couldn’t argue that in front of Nellie.
“Why else keep our walls bare?” Benjamin continued. His arm swept an arc around the tiny cabin, every item tucked into place. Like other log cabins in their village, the white-washed walls were kept plain, as clean as their thoughts.
She swallowed. “As long as she doesn’t parade it around, I see no harm in it.”
“Harm? Someone will know, and they’ll insist she be punished.”
“No one knows,” Nellie said, scowling.
Adelaide stepped between her husband and her sister. “I’ll take care of it,” she said, seizing the painting from Nellie. “Now, you hurry off. Take Olivia to Helga and go back to work. There’s much to do to ready the hotel for certain.”
Nellie stared at her sister for a moment, then picked up Olivia, who slapped sticky hands at her face. “I’m not the only one,” she said, shoving the baby’s hands away. “Brigit has one, too.” She swept back into the sunlight.
“Hear that?” Benjamin snorted. “Brigit Appelgate. Trouble, she is.” He stared out the door, his washed-blue shirt tight over rigid shoulders. “And Nellie, she’ll have to tell someone. You know those girls can’t keep anything under their tongues. You saw how proud she is.”
She spoke to his back. “Pride is no virtue, I’ll admit, but as a keepsake—”
He whirled. “No. You can’t keep it. You could be shamed.”
A flush spread up her neck. Shaming. Just short of shunning. A childhood memory surfaced. One September the women stitched dresses, using colorful calico fabric, for all the girls before the start of school. One by one the girls ran out of the Näh-Haus to dance around, swirling their skirts.
Finally, the head seamstress called her inside. They’d run out of calico fabric, she said, handing Adelaide her dress. It was red. Solid red.
“Redbird, redbird, fly away home,” the girls taunted, flapping their arms and running off.
Her face had flamed as red as the dress. She’d flung her apron over her head, but their chants still resounded in her ears, lo those many years ago.
She grabbed a cloth and scrubbed at Olivia’s fingerprints on the table. “She did nothing wrong,” she said as if she could convince herself. But she wasn’t so sure that mattered. Josef ruled too harshly. She’d lost many an argument with him.
A morsel of food caught in a groove of the table, and she dug at with her thumbnail. But this was her dear sister, who’d suffered those years because she’d been unable to save her, and she’d vowed to protect ever since.
“You’ve seen some of those paintings he’s done of the children staying at the hotel,” she said. “It’s natural that Nellie, and Brigit, too, would want one. They’re young.”
“Young? Nellie’s fourteen now and out of school.” He swiped black hair off his face. “And Brigit, she’s older by a year. Old enough to know the rules. You know what happens to people who disobey the rules.”
She knew. They’d punish Nellie. Force her to recount her sin. Shame her. At the least.
Benjamin pointed to the painting face down on the table. “So you’ll get rid of it.” He didn’t make it a question, nor did he wait for her reply. “I best return to work. I’ve cabinets to finish for the hotel. Someone important’s coming, Josef says.”
Relieved at the change of subject, she asked, “Who? When?”
“Don’t know, but it’s got Peter in a stir. Why Josef put him in charge, I don’t know.” He paused, his hand on the doorframe. “About Nellie’s painting.” His eyes roamed her face, searching for what she intended to do. He wouldn’t ask her. She knew that. He’d promised never to question her again, but he couldn’t hide the fear that was as apparent as the beads of sweat dotting his forehead.
“I told you I’d take care of it.”
With a vague shrug, he left.
She closed the cabin door and then leaned with her back against it for a moment. What had she done? Lied to her husband. Maybe not directly—she’d chosen her words carefully—but all the same, she’d let on as if she intended to destroy it when all the while she knew she wouldn’t.
She held the painting close, its image imprinted on her mind. Nellie in such finery that she’d never known, lustrous silk in whispering folds tucked around her legs, smooth-skin hands resting on a white, starched apron.
Once again, the familiar churning in her stomach had returned.