This Women’s History Month I have spread my wings just a little and there are some new people for you to meet. The first of them is Anna Belfrage, who is a UK writer with dreams of time travel. You can find more about her fiction and more about her by following the links (like following the yellow Brick Road, but when you give that big hop, you click on a link).
I’ve also given everyone their own choice of approach to history. Anna has chosen to give us a story, which is the perfect way to meet her writing. She gave me some notes on what inspired this story, so I’ve put them down the bottom for you to read afterwards. Gillian
The Sharing of a Husband, by Anna Belfrage
It was hot, a punishing heat that sucked all moisture from the air and caused Ellie Taylor’s head to throb. In the distance, the glare of the sun converted the salt flats into a dazzling expanse of white light that hurt her eyes. Ellie sighed and stepped further into the meagre shade offered by an oak.
“…and Rebecca says there are benefits,” one of the women beside her said, concluding a long monologue.
“Benefits?” Mrs Jones lowered her voice. “For whom? Not for us women.”
No, Ellie agreed silently. She threw a look at her husband, standing in his Sunday best among a knot of men just outside the Bowery. For months, the single subject of discussion whenever she met other wives was the Mormon Church’s determination to promote the doctrine of plural marriages. The elders preached the message whenever an opportunity arose, explaining over and over again that God willed it, He desired his people to multiply, and to do so a man had to take more than one wife, populate the world with healthy offspring raised within the faith.
“Shh.” Amy Vintner placed a gloved hand on Mrs Jones’ sleeve. “The elders know best.” Her elegant bonnet bobbed up and down as she nodded in agreement with her own words.
“The elders are all men.” Mrs Jones’ broad face crumpled together. “I could not bear it. Twenty years with my Thomas, and to be set aside?”
“Not set aside.” Amy patted her arm. “Look at Brother Brigham: he sets no one aside.”
“No, he just adds more to his collection,” Ellie said, shocked to hear herself say this out loud. She licked her dry lips, longing for a breeze, a rain shower – anything that would alleviate this pitiless heat.
“Ellie!” Amy frowned. “Remember your relative place – and that of our beloved Prophet, Brother Brigham.”
Dear Brother Brigham considered himself one among the heavenly host, Ellie thought snidely – but did not say so. Instead, she shrugged. “I find the whole concept disconcerting.”
“Hear, hear.” Mrs Jones shook her heavy skirts free of dust – out here in Deseret, everything was covered with a fine layer of dust. “What does Mr Taylor say?”
“He says no.” Ellie couldn’t quite suppress her smile, looking with pride at her husband. Joshua knew her thoughts on the matter, and scoffed at the notion of more wives.
The men broke up and made their way towards the waiting women. Some men walked off with two or three, the majority with only one, and Ellie slipped her hand under Joshua’s arm as he steered her down Main Street to where their horse and cart stood waiting.
“Good discussions?” she asked, waving their children over.
“Mmm?” Joshua slid her a look. “Oh, yes. Good, very good.” He gnawed his lip, seemed about to say something, but the moment was disrupted by their children, William complaining loudly that he was too old to have to stay with silly Lizzie and his baby brother.
“You do as you’re told, son.” Joshua adjusted William’s hat before stooping to pick up Simon, still in smocks. “Home?” he asked, leading the way to their horse.
“Home.” Ellie’s eyes strayed to the east. Home was over there, not here in this infernal, sun-baked place, dotted with sagebrush. But she didn’t say that, tugging her dark calico sleeves down over her forearms to shield her freckled skin from the sun.
Two weeks later, Ellie was in her vegetable garden squashing bugs when an unfamiliar horse and cart turned into their yard. An elderly man in black drove it, accompanied by an older woman and a young girl. Their daughter? The girl turned this way and that, studying the little house, the sturdy barn and the various sheds. Her mouth pursed, she leaned forward to say something to the man who nodded, no more.
Joshua emerged from the barn, and the young girl shone up. Something cold settled in Ellie’s stomach, even more so when she watched Joshua stride towards the cart, hands extended to grasp those of the young girl.
She straightened up, wiped her hands on her apron, and approached, tying her straw hat into place.
“…construction.” Joshua said, indicating the ground he had recently cleared across the yard from their house.
“Makes sense,” the older man said.
“What makes sense?” Ellie asked, and the four turned her way. Something flashed across Joshua’s face. “Good day,” she added. “I am Mrs Taylor.”
“My wife.” Joshua held out his hand to her.
The older woman looked her up and down, turned to scrutinise the neat yard, the linen hanging from the washing line, the few potted plants by the door to the house. “A good housekeeper. And are there children?”
“Three,” Joshua replied. “More to come, I hope.”
Ellie ducked her head. What the Lord gave, one should happily receive, but Simon’s birth had been difficult, and she lived in fear of conceiving again – albeit that she knew it to be inevitable.
“Many more,” the older man said. “Once our Sarah has joined your family…”
The rest of what he said, Ellie did not hear. Instead, she turned to stare at Joshua. “What is he talking about?” But she knew, God, she knew, and it was as if someone had driven a six-inch nail through her heart, so much did it hurt.
“Have you not told her?” The older woman frowned. “You said she would happily welcome our Sarah.”
Ellie took a step away from them. In the cart, the girl shifted on her seat, hands clasped in her lap. A flash of dark eyes, of long lashes, of smooth skin and thick lustrous hair. A second wife. A younger wife. Ellie’s mouth filled with bile.
“She will.” Joshua had an arm round Ellie’s shoulders. “My wife knows her duty to God and the Church.” His fingers dug into her when she tried to wrest free, a wordless admonition that she hold her tongue.
There was more talk, words that Ellie scarcely registered, about money and separate houses, sealing ceremonies and future children. And then they were gone, a cloud of dust following them down the lane.
“You said you didn’t hold with more than one wife,” she said once they were alone.
“I don’t care about the elders!” Her throat burned with suppressed tears. “I’ve told you I cannot countenance sharing my home – or you – with another woman, and what have you done? Gone behind my back?”
“I’ve tried to tell you, sweetheart, but I knew you’d take it badly.” Joshua reached for her, and she slapped him. Slapped him! She, who had never raised her hand to anyone in her life before, and she had just hit her husband. He set a hand to his reddening cheek, and she gulped with shame – and anger.
“I cannot do it,” she repeated. “I will not share my husband.”
He shrugged. “It is required of us. Brother Brigham urges all of us to accept the doctrine of plural marriages, and I – we – will do as he asks.”
That night, she locked the bedroom door to him.
Weeks passed. As May became June, the heat built. Joshua talked and talked, attempting to make her understand why he had no choice, he had to obey the elders – as did she, by giving her consent. Never! He spoke of his desire to have many children, of the material benefits two new wives would bring…
“Two.” He did not meet her eyes, and she stood up, scraped the remains of her meal into the slop pail and escaped outside.
Joshua continued his endless sermons. She refused consent. He finished the new adobe house, with two rooms to house his future wives. She still refused to consent, filled with righteous anger. But when at night he slipped in to their bed and tried to love her, sometimes she let him, yearning for his proximity, for the words he whispered in her ear. Just as often she pushed him away, weeping inside at his betrayal.
One day, Elder Hiram showed up, dismounting stiffly from his mule. Ellie bobbed him a curtsey and made as if to leave the men to talk.
“It is you I’ve come to talk to,” Elder Hiram said. “Joshua tells me you are unsupportive of his desire to take more wives.”
Ellie looked at her husband who shuffled on his feet.
“It can be difficult for the first wife to accommodate new wives,” Elder Hiram said once they were seated at the kitchen table. “Jealousy is a poisonous emotion.”
Ellie waited until her children were out of the kitchen before responding. Three healthy children – but apparently they were not enough for Joshua, no, he needed more, many more.
“Jealousy?” She sat as far away from Joshua as she could. “The most beautiful thing in my life has been my relationship with my husband. Together, we’ve faced one hurdle after the other, we’ve supported and comforted each other. I have given him all I have to give, and now he tells me he plans to take more wives?” She cleared her throat: no tears, not now. “I thought he loved me. Instead, he has eviscerated me.”
Joshua groaned. “I don’t want to hurt you. But we must do as the Church bids, sweetheart.” He tried to take her hand, but she snatched it away.
“Sister Ellie, you must curb your possessiveness and learn to share.” Elder Hiram frowned. “You must consent. The Prophet demands it of you. We all have to make sacrifices for our faith.”
“I have made sacrifices. I have followed him halfway across the world, trudged endless days through mud and sleet to get here. I have left my parents, my home – for him and for our faith. But this…No, I cannot.” She inhaled. “If he goes through with this, I will never share my bed with him again.”
Joshua rose from his chair. “You don’t mean that!”
“You forget your place,” Elder Hiram said. “You owe the Prophet your obedience, and you cannot deny your husband his marital rights.”
“No? If he wants them, he will have to force me.”
Joshua paled. “Ellie, sweetheart, I would never—”
“Good.” She cut him off. “Just so you know, it will be a huge loss for me as well.” Unbearable, really. “But I will not lower myself to be one of your concubines – not when I am your wife.”
“Concubines?” Elder Hiram scowled. “You would all be his wives.”
“I disagree.” Ellie turned to Joshua. “When we wed, you promised to hold yourself to me for the rest of our lives. Only to me. I always thought you were a man of your word.”
“Things change,” Joshua said. “The Prophet says—”
“This doesn’t change.” She held up her hand, touching her wedding ring. “Not the promises we make before God.”
He had the grace to look away.
After yet another month of constant nagging, of visits from the elders, she caved. She had nothing beyond the life here in Deseret, nothing to return to, nowhere to go. And so there were now three women in the house, and the unfamiliar voices and mannerisms of her so called sister wives grated on her nerves. She never spoke to them beyond the necessities, and as to Joshua, the moment he made for her, she fled, tongue-tied with anger at being trapped in this new and unwanted existence.
Every night, she wept herself to sleep. Every day, she escaped into a never-ending list of chores, tightening her corsets to hide the child that grew within her. Come Sunday, she rode in silence to church, claiming the seat beside Joshua. He tried to touch her, and she flinched. He spoke to her, and she turned a vacant expression his way, glad to see how his face tightened.
After the service, she slipped away and walked the long way home. Joshua berated her for placing herself so at risk, but she merely lifted her shoulders. What did it matter, if she lived or died?
“Ellie!” His voice shook. “You cannot say such!”
“Would you have me lie instead?” She ducked under his arm and walked outside. The sun beat down, the air scorching her lungs, the heat in the ground burning through the thin soles of her shoes. He called her name. She ignored his voice, hurried across their yard and strode along their fields, making for the distant shade offered by a stand of rustling cottonwood trees.
This was her special place – their place. An old log served as bench, offering a view of the distant Wasatch mountains. On the other side of the range, beyond the plains and the Mississippi, was home, and if she could, she’d leave him and take her children and go back. He would never see their unborn baby, and she would be free of this suffocating anger, this draining grief. She hugged herself. If wishes were horses… She had no money, she was stuck here – with him, and with his new wives.
“May I?” Joshua’s shadow fell over the log.
She moved aside. He sat down, extending a plucked rose to her. She did not take it. With a sigh, he placed it between them.
“I miss you, Ellie. I miss our conversations, the feel of you in my arms.”
I miss you too, she yelled inside, wanting nothing so much as to comb her fingers through his hair, set lips to the hollow at the base of his throat. She inhaled, and her gut tightened with loss – until she picked up the scent of rose-oil. Sarah’s perfume. Ellie turned to look at the fields.
“It will be a good harvest.” She crumbled an ear of wheat into fat kernels and chaff.
“It will.” He moved closer. “I want you back with me.”
“I am here, am I not?”
He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “You know what I mean. Must you make this so difficult?”
“Me? You’re the one who caused all this.” She kneaded her stomach, wishing there were no children to tie her to this accursed place, to this man she loved and who’d left her hurting inside out. But there were, and she owed them to try – had no choice but to try.
“It is too late to change things. Can’t we just make the best of it?” His fingers brushed her cheek.
“Please don’t,” she whispered. “I can’t stand it, that you touch me as if nothing has changed.”
“Nothing has changed. I’ve done as the Church demands, but it is you I love the best, Ellie.”
Tears blurred her vision, ran unchecked down her face. She was so tired of all this, of being strong and unrelenting, of being more alone than she’d ever been before. When he opened his arms, she succumbed, hating herself for doing so. But God help her, she loved him, no matter that she did so with a crushed and aching heart.
Note: Since several years back, Anna has a fascination for the Mormon Church – well, to be correct the Church of Latter Day Saints—and its early history. A dear friend in Salt Lake City loaned her a private biography about one of the founding members of the LDS Church. This man would end up with three wives, setting up separate homes for them. He then spent his life ambulating from one home to the other, fathering close to twenty-four children. He was extremely proud of all his children, and he did his best to be a devoted husband to all his wives but he only called one of them—his first wife—“my love”. All of this inspired The Sharing of a Husband, the story of a young couple in Deseret where the husband is under severe pressure by the elders of the church to take more wives…