I stop a minute to catch my breath. How can I hide in the woods wearing a white wedding dress? They’ll find me easily. I didn’t choose to wear this dress. What would any thirteen year old girl want with one? But I did choose to run into the woods. My only other choice was to go through with it. Maybe the elders will use the hunting dogs to search for me? I haven’t heard any barking since I headed for the trees. All I can hear are men’s voices off in the distance.
Some of the men are good trackers. They always return from their hunt dragging dead animals. What if they find my footprints or a branch I broke pushing it out of my way? My legs are bleeding where the thorns scratched them. Just a little spot of blood will tell them which way I went.
I make my way down the hill toward the faint sound of water. As I move toward it, the bubbling grows louder. I see some rocks.There must be a creek or maybe even a river nearby. A creek would be better. I’ll wade in it for a while and then come out on the opposite bank and brush over my footprints. If they try to track me, I’ll throw them off my trail. I remember seeing that done in an old cowboy movie once before I came to live at Living Waters Retreat.
When I reach the stream I sigh, not realizing I had been holding my breath as I ran the last few feet. The water looks just deep enough for me to wade in. Up close, it sparkles crisp and clear rather than brown and muddy. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was until I stopped running. Is the water safe to drink? How can I tell? I’m too thirsty to care. Kneeling, I gulp from the stream, slurping in a way the Sisters taught me never to do. They aren’t really my sisters, just bossy older girls and women.
My poor legs. I look down to see them scraped, bruised and covered with mud. They’re still stubby and short but I thank them for carrying me as far and as fast as they have. Stepping into the stream, I do my best to wash at least some of the mud off my legs. Splashing water on my face refreshes me a little too. I needed a drink but I guess it’s dumb to worry about washing. It changes nothing but at least I feel better doing something for myself.
Can I rest for a few minutes? At the top of the hill, men’s voices echo through the trees. “Which way did she go?” “Could she have gone down the hill?” “Jeanne, where are you. Come back.”
Oh, no. They aren’t far behind. I’ve got to start wading downstream. Maybe I can make it at least a few hundred yards before I head further into the woods. It’s hard stumbling over these pebbles. I wish I had sneakers on my feet rather than formal white shoes. At least they’re not high heels. The elders wouldn’t let thirteen year old girls wear them. I’d waddle like a duck and make the wedding ceremony look sillier than it already was. Anyway, they preach that only wayward women wear such shoes. What exactly is an elder and who put them in charge anyway?
After splashing along until my breath gives out, I climb out of the stream and up the bank, taking just a moment to listen to the woods. Trickling water provides the only sound other than my panting like a dog. Then an owl hoots. No voices. No barking. I need to catch my breath. I find a tree to lean against and some dried leaves which look softer than the rugged forest ground, all sticks, dirt and gravel.
How did I end up here? How could this happen to me? Four years ago when my parents brought me to what I thought was a camp, I enjoyed the adventure. I stayed in a cabin with the other nine and ten year old girls. That was fun, at least for a while. But every time I turned around, I found myself in church. I attended prayers before breakfast and more prayers before lunch. After supper everyone gathered in the church for a sermon, bible readings and still more prayers. A couple weeks later I finally asked my parents when we were going home. I still remember my father’s words “Why Jeanne, we live here now.” What a shock.
Classes met between prayer sessions but not for reading or math or anything else I remembered from my first few years in school back home. Just bible stories and lectures about how to be an obedient child. The adventure soon faded and I started to miss my old friends. One night I could see Daisy in the next bed was still awake and whispered to her. “Do you remember where you lived before you came here?”
“We lived in a blue house somewhere and I remember some of my dolls. It seems so long ago. But this is my home now.”
“Will you ever return to your old home?”
“I don’t think so. My parents told me we would always live here.”
“Don’t you ever wonder what our life will be like when we grow up?”
“No. Reverend Aaron will tell us what to do when the time comes for us.”
I started to feel like I was in a prison with no way out. I pretended to go along with it all, but I suspected something wasn’t right.
One Sunday just after I turned twelve, everyone gathered behind the church in the field next to the forest. Somebody had set up a white canopy on tent poles in the middle of the lawn and surrounded it with palms and flowers. The elders surrounded Reverend Aaron. Next to him in a white robe waited a man who must have been at least fifty, maybe even older.
I saw Daisy walking between her parents toward the canopy wearing a wedding dress. Revered Aaron and the elders were about to marry her to that man. How could they do that to her? Daisy was only a year older that I was. I would never want to marry an old man like that.
The community celebration that night was one of the few times I got to eat with my parents. When I thought no one was listening, I leaned over toward my mother. “Mom, isn’t Daisy a little young to get married?”
“Jeanne, Reverend Aaron and the elders know best. They decide when the time is right.”
“Will they decide for me too?”
“Of course, when the time is right for you.”
“But what if I don’t feel ready? I don’t even know what it means to be married.”
“That’s why they’re the elders. They know best.”
I could tell that conversation was going nowhere fast. After lights out one night, a new girl had taken over Daisy’s bed. I asked her about getting married. She whispered something about sex but I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. I just knew I would live with a man rather than with the other girls.
Now here I am a year later, expected to marry a man who looks about the same age as Daisy’s husband. I know only that his name is Evan. We have never spoken or been introduced. How can the elders expect me to marry him? I’m still not sure what it means to be married.
No one in the community would take my objections seriously, especially if I complain about getting married. I should be happy. Besides, questioning the elders is unheard of.
Right up to today, I tried to think of some way to get out of it but couldn’t come up with anything likely to work. I just couldn’t go through with it. At the last minute I broke from my parents and ran for the woods.
It won’t do to sit here the rest of the day trying to think of a plan. If I stay here much longer, they’ll find me. I’ve got to do something.
The sun will start lowering into the west by mid-afternoon. At least I know a little about the sky. At our morning walk, the sun rises in the east. By our afternoon walk, it’s heading west. But the dense forest blocks out the sun and the sky.
What if I follow the stream? It must go somewhere. That’s it. At last I have a plan. Pulling myself up from the leaves, I brush off my soiled dress and start walking downstream, ignoring the blisters on my feet and the scratches on my arms and legs, the mud all over me.
I must look a mess. Hopefully I won’t frighten anyone. Maybe a kindly woman will find me rather than a man. Even if a man does find me, I look a fright and too ugly for him to consider marrying me, regardless of what the elders might think.
I like it Joe, but I found myself wanting a little more at the end. It feels as if you cut it a bit short, as if you knew the start (excellent) and the middle, but were uncertain of the end. That's just my opinion, which, along with $2 will get you a cup of coffee. :)