“When will we see home again, Rosemary Elizabeth?” Isaac’s question pipes through the half-light of dawn, and not for the first time, either.
I’m about to say “Stop asking me what I can’t answer” when the oxcart’s right axle dips into a rut on the Harrodsburg Pike. Ma dips with it, as yielding as a rag doll. Baby Anne, in her arms, wakes with a wail.
“Hush, now,” Ma says. She shifts Baby Anne to her left arm. Baby Anne doesn’t stop wailing. Except for my sister’s cries and the squeaky axle, all is absolutely silent.
The sunrise sheds reddish light on Ma’s sad, bruised face.
Mr. Godfrey is fetching us up the Harrodsburg Pike to Pleasant Hill. We’re to find refuge there among the Shakers. The Shakertowns in New York, New England, Kentucky, and Ohio take in all comers, or so we’ve heard.
Mr. Godfrey told us the Shaker village of Pleasant Hill has been in Kentucky since before the War of 1812. That’s two wars ago, I reckon. Maybe more.
“I don’t know when we’ll see home again, Isaac,” I say. Maybe we’ll never see Pa again, and at this moment that feels like a blessing. “We left Lucy and her kittens.” Isaac turns toward Ma, his eyes as sad as hers. “Can we please go back for Lucy and her kittens?” “Don’t you worry about Lucy and her kittens, Isaac,” Mr. Godfrey replies. “As soon as I’ve taken my butter, milk, and cheese into Lexington, I’ll go to your place and fetch them. They’ll be warm in my main barn, and there’re lots of mice. They’ll do just fine.” “Thank you, Mr. Godfrey,” Ma says softly.
“You’re well rid of him,” Mr. Godfrey says, softer still, although not so soft that I don’t hear him. He leans toward Ma. She says nothing.
“From the frying pan into the fire, in my opinion,” Mr. Godfrey continues with a frown. “The Shakers believe in separateness, Mrs. Lipking. Wife separated from husband, sister separated from brother, mother separated from child. Any fool can see that’s not God’s plan. Mark my words: Those Shakers won’t last another generation.”
“Ma, I’ll be separated from you?” Isaac’s eyes turn bright in panic.
“Nonsense, Isaac.” Ma cups my brother’s face with her left hand. “We’ll be together and safe, every day for the rest of our lives.” She draws Baby Anne closer to her as the early-spring wind blows cold over the Harrodsburg Pike. “Ma, you’ll be separated from Pa?” I ask softly. “The Shakers will keep us safe?”
Ma doesn’t answer.
We ride in silence. I think my own thoughts, as does everyone else, I reckon. I think about Lucy, our sleek black cat, and her fuzzy kittens. Every morning I’d pour some of Mr. Godfrey’s new milk into an old pie tin. When I approached her, Lucy would lift her head. As her purring kittens kneaded her belly, Lucy licked the new milk daintily. Mr. Godfrey is a kind man, but he will never think to give Lucy new milk still warm from the cow, as we did.
In the weak winter sunshine, northeast Kentucky’s hills and dales rise and fall before us. As far into the distance as I can see, each blue hill is a shade lighter than the one before it. Ma once told me there’s a Cherokee word for that: cataloochee. It means unfolding hills, hollows, and mountains, the last one dissolving into sky.
Sloping pastureland on both sides of the Harrodsburg Pike is chock-a-block with cows and horses. Foals and calves cleave to their mothers just as we cleave to Ma.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Pleasant Hill Shakers. They sell brooms, packages of seeds, furniture, applesauce, wooden rakes, lemonade syrup, butter and cheese, homespun cloth, shawls, bonnets, and yarn. Their medicinal herb remedies actually cure a body. Everything Shaker is finely made. Everything Shaker is of the highest quality.
Everything Shaker is perfect. Or so Mrs. Godfrey says.
Mr. Godfrey gives the reins a shake. His horse doesn’t break stride as we ascend over a hill. “There’s confession, communality, and celibacy —known as the three Cs. Men and women live on opposite sides of everything, like a monastery. Popery right here in northern Kentucky! And they shake as they worship. They quake like beech leaves in a high wind. They roll on the floor. They shriek and holler out their own songs. And all at once, too.”
He winces. “The pagan and the Popish—from the frying pan into the fire, if you ask me.” Ma straightens up and shifts Baby Anne to her right arm again. I can almost hear her saying “Nobody asked you.” Baby Anne whimpers. Finally, the rocking of the oxcart lulls her to sleep.
The three Cs, I think. Confession, communality, and celi-bacy. All I can think about now is a safe place to live. I’ll worry about all that later.
It’s late morning when we reach Pleasant Hill. We pass through a whitewashed gate with well- tended whitewaaaaashed double fencing all round. You can always tell the quality of a farm by the quality of its fence; every Kentuckian knows that. This one is a plain and simple split rail, with not a weed in sight underneath the rails or around the fence posts.
In the Shaker pastures, fat short-horned cattle, horses, and sheep safely graze. The fields abound with livestock; each mother has a healthy calf, foal, or lamb, sometimes twins. Pleasant Hill looks placid, peaceful, and safe. Living here will be good for the Lipkings, I think. Pa will never think to look for us here.
Mr. Godfrey calls out to the first person we see, “Where to take a new family, ma’am?”
The woman, dressed all in white, walks on without glancing in his direction. She doesn’t even break her stride.
“Separate, Mr. Godfrey, separate,” Ma says. She hands Baby Anne to me, leaps off the wagon, and calls out, “We’ve come to Pleasant Hill to seek refuge, ma’am—myself and my three children.”
The woman immediately stops and turns to face her. “Yea. You’ll need to go to the Trustee’s Office; it’s that brick building on the right of the lane, next to the Ministry Workshop. Welcome to Sinai’s Holy Plain. Welcome to Heaven on Earth.”
With a grunt, Mr. Godfrey helps Ma climb back into the oxcart. “From the frying pan into the fire,” he repeats. “I won’t leave Pleasant Hill until I’m sure you’re safe.”
The Trustee’s Office is a large brick building, as plain as unbuttered brown bread except for above the double doors. The narrow windows in the casements reach out like sunbeams, the curved glass cut perfectly to size; they’re like footprints in the snow.
It’s the inside that makes me gasp. The hall floor is painted bright blue—as blue as the summer sky. The walls and ceiling are buttercup yellow. Blue rag rugs mark where we are to place our feet, like flagstones in a sunny garden. The hall is completely empty of furniture, just blue floors, yellow walls, and small blue rugs.
Yellow is a happy color, and blue is serene. Isaac smiles at me. I know what he’s thinking: We’re going to like it here at Pleasant Hill. The twin spiral staircases in the hall are a wonder.
The railings and stairs seem to float upward, like curls of smoke.
An older woman approaches us briskly. “I’m Eldress Mary.” She stands in the doorway and gracefully unfolds one arm toward the dining room. “Welcome ...