I’m busy working on my second novel, but my first is still looking for a home. If you’re an agent, or if you’re from a publishing house (indy or regional) that doesn’t require an agent, please read through the first two chapters below. I’ll be happy to send you the entire manuscript upon request. Interested parties can contact me at my KarenGoltz at-gmail-dot-com account.
First the pitch:
Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. That’s what Hope was taught to believe, anyway. Even when her mother died in childbirth leaving her to care for ten younger siblings, Hope never questioned the strict patriarchy of her upbringing. Only after her family disintegrates on the altar of faith is she ready to escape. But how can she be independent when she’s only learned obedience?
Told from the perspective of Hope, her father, and the woman who becomes her stepmother for a short time, Virtuous Women reveals the darker side of patriarchal Christianity and the high price paid by women who have no choice but to be virtuous. It is complete at 109,000 words.
By Karen Goltz
“Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.”
The screaming began just before dawn. Hope burrowed deeper into her covers and pulled the pillow over her head, trying to stay asleep, but the sound pursued her and forced her into consciousness.
She reached out her hand to turn on a light. If her mother’s cries woke her up, they probably woke her siblings up, too. The thick yellow shade of the lamp bathed her room in its customary jaundiced tint, and Hope got out of bed, pulled on her shapeless, oversized bathrobe, and walked past the empty crib. Light from her bedroom spilled into the dark hallway as she opened the door.
Her parents’ bedroom door was open, making its own pool of light, and her father met her at the doorway when he saw Hope peeking in. Her mother lay on the bed behind him, bathed in sweat, her enormous belly pinning her to the mattress.
“She’s been laboring all night,” Michael told her wearily. “And there doesn’t seem to be much progress. I’m calling Aunt Libby soon.”
“OK,” Hope said. “Can I help?”
“We’ll see. Grandma can help with things downstairs, but there’s only so much she can do. If it works out that you can get away from your other duties for a little while, then maybe Aunt Libby can start training you in midwifery. But right now your duty is to your siblings.”
“Yes, Papa.” Hope tried to hide her disappointment. She always had ‘other duties’ interfering with what she wanted to do.
“Oh, and go make sure your grandmother’s not trying to get up those stairs to see what’s going on. Just tell her it’s your mother’s time and there’s nothing to worry about.” Hope nodded, and her father closed the door, wiping the puddle of light from the hallway floor.
She could hear sobbing coming from her sisters’ room, so she went to check on them first. When she opened the door she found the three of them huddled together in the darkness on Faith’s bed, Grace crying openly with her head buried in the six-year-old’s neck. Hope’s eyes had adjusted to the gloom enough for her to see that Faith was trying to appear brave, though her glassy eyes and wet cheeks belied her charade. Joy’s face was expressionless, her eyes dry.
“Are you three OK?” Hope asked, switching on the overhead light.
At the sound of Hope’s voice Grace lifted her head, squinting in the sudden brightness, and jumped off Faith’s lap. In an instant she was in her big sister’s arms, wetting the collar of her bathrobe with her tears.
Before either of the older two had a chance to answer her question, a piercing wail rose from their parents’ bedroom, then choked off into panting sobs.
“Is Mama OK?” Joy asked.
Hope shrugged. “Childbirth is never easy, and the last few have been harder and harder on her,” she answered. “This is the price we women have to pay for Eve’s transgression, and God will get her through it.” It felt odd referring to her sisters and herself as ‘we women;’ at fifteen Hope was barely deserving of the moniker, and Joy, the oldest of her sisters, was only seven.
“I didn’t ask about Eve,” Joy spat. “I asked about Mama!”
Hope took a deep breath, biting back her sharp retort. She tried to see the situation from Joy’s perspective, just as her mother had taught her.
“I know you’re worried about Mama,” Hope said, stroking Grace’s hair. The toddler’s crying had subsided, and her breathing was even and slow. “I know it’s scary being woken up by Mama’s screaming. But she’s being as brave as she can, and even though it hurts her, Mama’s happy to accept this pain because it means she gets to help God bring another blessing into the world. She hurts right now, but soon she’ll be holding a new baby—a new life—in her arms, and everything will be OK.”
Faith’s tears had stopped, and she smiled weakly. “You sound like Mama,” she said.
Hope beamed at the compliment. “Thank you.”
“I hope it’s over soon,” Joy grumbled.
Hope walked over to the bed and tried to take Joy’s hand, but she pulled away, out of reach. “So do I, for Mama’s sake.” She moved her hand to Faith, who grasped it with both of hers. After a minute Hope freed herself, carried her youngest sister to her bed against the far wall, and tucked her in. Grace didn’t stir. Hope went back to the door and put her finger on the light switch.
“Try to get a little more sleep, if you can,” she told them. “It’s going to be a busy day, and Grandma’s going to need our help.”
Faith nodded, and Hope turned off the light. She pretended not to hear Joy’s put-upon sigh as she climbed up the ladder to her own bed.
Hope’s six brothers shared the room next door. She hovered for a moment, listening. Hearing nothing, she went to the stairs and was horrified to find her grandmother nearly a third of the way up. Hope silently cursed herself for not obeying her father immediately, the way she was supposed to.
“Grandma, you don’t need to come up here!”
Her grandmother squinted up at her. “I heard your mother screaming,” she said.
“It’s just labor pains,” Hope explained. “Her time has come.”
As if to punctuate her remark, another anguished shriek filled the hallway then trailed off.
“Does she have a bag packed for the hospital?”
Hope descended to where her grandmother stood. “You know we don’t do that, Grandma. Aunt Libby always delivers us at home.” She held out an arm to steady her grandmother as the frail woman turned and stepped down.
“Libby’s had no formal training,” she complained.
“Aunt Libby caught all ten of us without a problem, and dozens of other babies, too.”
Clara grunted, but said nothing as she concentrated on making it to the bottom stair.
“Do you want me to help you back to Papa’s office so you can go back to bed?”
Her grandmother stepped away from Hope and stood as tall as her stooped back would allow. “I admit that I have trouble with stairs,” she said. “But I can get around just fine by myself otherwise. I came here to help, and that’s what I’m going to do. You go back to bed. I’ll start breakfast.”
Hope smiled. “Let me get dressed and gather the eggs, at least.” It was kind of her grandmother to come and help while her mother was bedridden, but it wasn’t necessary. Hope knew how to cook breakfast and make sure everyone did their chores. She even knew how to put together a few suppers. Certainly enough to keep them fed until her mother recovered enough to come down and direct her efforts.
“I know how to gather eggs,” Clara protested. “I’ve lived my whole life on a farm, Hope. You think a few chickens are too much for me?”
Hope didn’t want her grandmother to feel useless, but she didn’t want to disobey her father, either. He’d only agreed to this visit out of respect for his mother, but he made it clear that she was to be treated as a guest, not an extra hand for chores. Clara had a different view of her role.
“I know you can get the eggs, Grandma,” Hope said. “But there’s that step off the back porch, and the hen house is on really uneven ground.” Her grandmother opened her mouth, but Hope forestalled her protest by laying a gentle hand on her arm. She glanced up the stairs and lowered her voice. “I know that wouldn’t stop you, and you’d be fine. But Papa would be furious with me if he found out I let you do that.”
Her grandmother pursed her lips and huffed.
“Please, Grandma?” Hope pleaded. “I’ll just get the eggs. You can do everything else. I promise.”
“Alright, Hope.” She smiled. “But you promised. I do everything else.” She began to make her way toward the kitchen.
“For breakfast!” Hope clarified, but her grandmother kept walking as though she hadn’t heard, her cane thumping on the wooden floor.
Once she had dressed and twisted her long brown hair up in its usual bun, Hope returned to the kitchen to see what her grandmother was up to. She found her cutting butter into a bowl of flour, a pot of coffee brewing on the counter behind her. Relieved, Hope stepped through the kitchen door into the cool autumn air to gather the eggs. Birds chirped in the trees around the house and yard, and a hawk screeched from deeper in the woods. The chickens clucked at her as she absconded with their eggs.
“Here, Grandma,” she said. “I’ll put a few aside for baking later, but you should probably scramble the rest.”
Her grandmother nodded as she poured last night’s goat milk into the batter, reminding Hope of another chore that she thought best not to mention aloud. But she decided to bring her father a cup of coffee before she saw to that. Being careful not to spill the steaming liquid or burn her hands on the hot ceramic, Hope carried her father’s large navy blue mug up the stairs to her parents’ closed bedroom door. Hearing nothing on the other side, she knocked as quietly as she could.
A moment later Michael opened the door with a scowl on his face. “What do you want?” he hissed. “You mother’s finally getting some sleep!”
Hope looked down in shame and held up the mug with both hands like a sacrificial offering. “I’m sorry, Papa,” she whispered. “I thought you’d want your coffee.”
He took the cup from her and put his calloused palm on her cheek. Hope looked up, surprised.
“I’m sorry, Hope,” he murmured. “It’s been a rough night. You’re a good girl. Thank you for my coffee.”
“You’re welcome, Papa,” Hope said, her voice hardly above a whisper. She didn’t want to disturb her mother. “Breakfast will be ready soon. Do you want me to bring it up to you?”
He removed his hand from her face and took a sip of the hot, dark liquid. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry right now. Save some for me, and maybe I’ll have it later.”
“OK.” She turned to leave, but Michael grabbed her arm to stop her.
“I’ve called your Aunt Libby, and she should be here soon. Watch for her so she won’t ring the bell, alright?”
“Sure,” she said.
“You may as well get your brothers and sisters up now. I’m not sure what today’s going to look like. I know your Aunt Libby can handle this—she’s been doing this for a long time—but I—I think I need to stay home today. I think your mother needs me.”
“OK, Papa,” Hope said, and he went back into the bedroom and closed the door, sipping his coffee. She headed toward her sisters’ room, a cold ball of fear growing in the pit of her stomach.
Just enough sunlight filtered through the pink-curtained windows for Hope to see that all three were still in their beds. Faith sat up as soon as the door opened. Neither Grace nor Joy stirred. Hope was pretty sure Grace was genuinely asleep, and Joy was faking.
“It’s time to get up,” Hope told the room in general. Faith tossed back her covers and stood up.
“Come on, Joy,” she said to the lump in the bunk just above her forehead. The lump groaned and rolled away towards the back wall, out of Faith’s sight but still in Hope’s view.
“Get up, Joy,” Hope commanded. “I have to milk the goats, so you two need to get Grace and Paul ready.”
The lump sat up and threw off her blankets. “Don’t tell me what to do!” she yelled. “It’s not my job to get the babies ready! It’s yours!”
Hope shut the door behind her, hoping her father hadn’t heard Joy’s outburst. “Be quiet, Mama’s sleeping!” she hissed. “She’s having a really hard time, and Papa’s staying home from work to stay with her. You know he’s never done that before! As for whose job it is, yes, it’s mine. But milking the goats in the morning is supposed to be Mama’s job, and she can’t do it so I am. We all have to help each other out because that’s what families do!”
Hope hadn’t realized her voice had risen from a hiss to a yell louder than Joy’s until she heard footsteps in the hall and a sharp rap on the door. Filled with dread, Hope opened it.
Michael stood on the other side. “Is there a problem in here?” His voice was soft and dangerously calm.
“I’m sorry, Papa,” Hope mumbled. Joy and Faith did too, though Faith had done nothing wrong. Grace was awake but lying very still, her eyes wide, watching the scene before her. Though hardly more than a baby, she knew what that tone of voice meant just as well as any of them.
Michael looked at Hope. “Your mother’s awake,” he said, and guilt washed over her. He took a step closer to Joy’s bed. “You will do what your sister tells you to do because she is in charge while your mother’s sick. You will not argue; you will not hesitate. You will do what she says when she says it. Do you understand?” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, Papa,” Joy whispered.
All four of the girls studied the floor, unable to meet their father’s gaze, until he turned and left without another word. Joy and Hope glared at each other for a moment before Hope left to wake up her brothers, if they had somehow managed to sleep through all that.
Joshua, the oldest, opened his door a crack before his sister could knock. Seeing her in the hallway, he opened it further. “What did Papa say?”
Hope looked down at his feet. “I’m in charge while Mama’s sick.” The authority she had been given over her siblings sat heavily on her shoulders and bore a pain into her neck. “It’s time to get up.”
“I’ll get Paul,” he said, turning.
“Send him into the girls’ room, they’ll get him ready. I have to milk the goats.”
Hope went back downstairs, tears burning her eyes. How could she have been so stupid as to yell at Joy? She knew Mama needed her sleep! Disgusted by her own sinfulness and ashamed of the way she’d allowed the devil to incite her to anger so easily, she vowed to pray more.
But not right now. Right now she had to milk some goats.
Libby arrived just as Hope’s siblings were coming downstairs for breakfast. She didn’t stop to greet her nieces and nephews, or even her mother. Instead she went straight up the stairs to Michael and Lucy’s bedroom. Whether it was something Michael said on the phone or how he said it, Hope could see that Libby was concerned. Her stomach churned with worry, and she couldn’t eat the biscuits and eggs her grandmother had prepared.
Clara exploited Hope’s promise that she could do everything else, announcing that she had made up a chore schedule and would put together some lessons for homeschool. Rather than fight her on it, Hope let her. It occurred to her that this meant her ever-present ‘other duties’ were under control, and she could go upstairs and start learning midwifery from her aunt.
Michael sat slumped in the nursing chair on the far side of the room, dozing. Libby had pulled a folding chair next to the bed, and she sat leaning over her sister-in-law, bathing her forehead with a wet washcloth and murmuring encouragement. Lucy’s eyes were dark shadows in her pale face, her lips as white as her skin. She was panting out rasping breaths that were slowing as her contraction ended.
“Can I help?” Hope whispered to her aunt.
Libby looked up. “Yes, actually. Your mother’s getting close now, but she’s holding steady. Just hold her hand and wipe her forehead with a damp cloth for a few minutes while I take a break and get something to eat.”
“OK.” Hope took the seat her aunt vacated, grasped her mother’s hand, and replaced the washcloth on her forehead. The woman on the bed didn’t notice the change.
“It’s OK, Mama,” Hope whispered. “You’re going to be OK.”
Lucy didn’t respond. She just lay there, tears running down the side of her face and into her dark hair. Hope dipped the washcloth in the plastic bowl on the nightstand, wrung it out, and wiped her mother’s eyes and cheeks. “It’ll all be over soon,” Hope said.
“I know,” Lucy murmured. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK, Mama,” Hope assured her. “The kids are fine. Grandma and I have everything under control, and nothing’s getting missed.”
Lucy raised a hand toward Hope’s cheek. It wavered as her strength began to fail, and Hope took it and gently pulled it the rest of the way.
“My Hope,” Lucy said. “So young.” She grimaced and gasped in pain. “I’m sorry!” She pulled her hand from Hope’s face, grasped the sheet, and began to pant again. Only this time instead of exhaling raspy breaths, her gasps were punctuated by cries.
Michael jumped from his chair, and Libby’s footsteps pounded up the stairs. She burst through the door and pushed Hope out of the way.
“Stay here but step back!” she ordered. “I might need you to fetch things!”
“Oh God, Michael! Help me!” Lucy howled from the bed. Hope backed against the wall, horrorstruck. In all the homebirths she could remember, Hope had never heard her mother utter those words, or cry out in such despair.
Michael knelt beside her, gripped her hand, and began praying in a low voice. Several times Libby demanded more rags. When they ran out of clean ones, she handed Hope a bowl of dirty ones to rinse out. There wasn’t time to wash them properly in the washing machine. She tried not to notice how red the water was as she dumped them into the bathroom sink and turned on the faucet. There hadn’t been this much blood at the other homebirths.
Hope had no idea how long it went on. Was the time that she ran back and forth between the bedroom and bathroom measured in minutes or hours? She didn’t know. She only knew that she couldn’t stop her mother’s pain or escape the sounds of her screams, but she could rinse out bloody rags.
“Hope, replace these with the cleaner ones!” Libby snapped. Hope stepped forward, grabbed the bowl, and almost collided with her grandmother as she ran out the door.
“Grandma! What are you doing up here?”
Libby didn’t look up from her work, but Michael lifted his head.
“Momma, you shouldn’t have come up here!”
“Michael, she’s in trouble! Call an ambulance!”
“Hope, I need those rags!” Libby yelled, her voice carrying above Lucy’s wails.
Hope dashed to the closest bathroom, dumped the bloody rags in the basin of clean water she’d prepared last time, and grabbed the rags that were drying over the shower rod. She returned to the room to find Michael standing in front of his mother, towering over her. Hope squeezed around them and returned the bowl to her aunt.
“Faith in God is fine, Michael, but Lucy’s life at stake! You need to get her to a hospital!”
Libby raised her voice, still not taking her attention away from Lucy’s bent and spread legs. “Women have been delivering babies since the beginning of time without hospitals, Momma. I can catch this baby just as well as any doctor.” Lucy grunted out her pain between gasping breaths.
Clara took a step back. “I saw the telephone in your office,” she told Michael. “I’m calling 911.”
“Momma, don’t do that! My faith is in God, not in hospitals!”
“Is your faith more important than Lucy’s life?”
Michael’s mouth worked, but no sound came out.
“No hospital!” Lucy gasped from the bed. “Don’t interfere with God’s will!”
Michael turned away from his mother and resumed his place at his wife’s side.
“God’s will be done,” he said to her, and she smiled.
Clara took another step back. “You’re crazy,” she said, tears leaking out of her wide eyes. “You’re all crazy.”
“Hope, help your grandmother downstairs,” Michael ordered. “And see that she respects your mother’s decision. I’ll rinse out the rags.”
Hope didn’t want to leave her mother, and she certainly didn’t want to babysit her grandmother. But her father was to be obeyed, promptly and cheerfully. She couldn’t manage to be cheerful right now, but she could at least be prompt.
“Come on, Grandma,” Hope said, leading her grandmother out the door. “I’ll help you down the stairs.”
Lucy’s cries followed them down the stairs and filled Hope’s ears. The air on the first floor was surprisingly fresh compared to the stench of sweat and blood that had permeated her parents’ bedroom. The shock and terror she hadn’t allowed herself to feel before gripped her now, and she slid to the ground and wept.
Her grandmother leaned heavily on her cane and lowered herself until she could sit on the bottom step. She put a bony arm around Hope’s shoulders and pulled her close.
The two sat clutching each other in the silent downstairs, listening to the agony on the second floor.
“Where is everybody?” Hope hiccupped.
“I sent them all outside to play,” her grandmother answered.
Hope nodded and said nothing more as Lucy’s gasping cries continued to punctuate the air.
Suddenly there was one long, guttural groan, followed by a baby’s cry. The groan faded out, then a brief silence, then Michael’s anguished, “Lucy, no! Lucy!”
“Stay with me,” Libby yelled. “You did it! The hard part’s over! Just stay with me, Lucy. Stay with me!”
The baby’s cry continued, and Clara lowered her head.
Time ceased to exist as Hope listened to her aunt try to coax her mother back to consciousness. Then there was only the sound of the baby’s cry. Finally the door opened and Libby called down to Hope. Sobbing, Hope met her at the top of the stairs. Clara stood and watched from the bottom, though Libby was careful to not look down at her. Her eyes were red and tired as she handed the fifteen-year-old the tiny bundle wrapped in a towel. “Your mother’s gone home to receive her reward,” she said quietly. “It’s up to you now.”
The day was too pretty for a funeral. The thick cover of green over north central Massachusetts was beginning to yield to orange and gold, shifting and swaying in the cool breeze but not yet falling. The sun filtered through the foliage, making patterns like lace on the church lawn.
Inside the restored classic New England church, Hope saw several women who had brought covered dishes and loaves of fresh-baked bread to their house in the days following Lucy’s death, feeding the family with their kindness and generosity. Her grandmother had been grateful to have fewer meals to cook, and Hope was too busy caring for her new brother, Benjamin, to help. Her younger sisters hadn’t yet learned.
Once seated, Michael reached over to take Benjamin from his eldest daughter. He’d never shown much interest in the babies before, preferring to wait until his sons were old enough for him to teach them how to be men, but he couldn’t get enough of Benjamin. It was as though he was trying to hold onto his wife through the life she had given up her own to bring forth. The infant stirred slightly as he was passed from one set of arms to another, then sighed and settled his head against Michael’s elbow. He had a thick shock of brown hair the exact shade of Lucy’s.
Hope sat at one end of the pew, her grandmother and father at the other, with the rest of her siblings in between. There were the toddlers, Grace, Timothy, and Paul, being watched over by six-year-old Faith and seven-year-old Joy. The younger boys were usually well behaved, depending on which older brother they emulated that day. Nine-year-old Amos and eleven-year-old Samuel didn’t often set a good example, though John and Joshua, both in their early teens, worked hard to follow their father’s lead. Lucy used to sit between Michael and Joshua, and the twelve of them filled the pew completely. Just last week Amos had joked that there wouldn’t be room for the new baby, and the memory of that quip made Hope sick to her stomach.
Grace saw that Hope’s lap was free, and she wiggled away from Faith and ran over to her biggest sister. Hope picked her up, looked at the sister Grace had just abandoned, and motioned Faith over, too. Joy remained where she was, sitting just as stoically as her older brothers. Faith rested her head on Hope’s shoulder and let the tears flow. Hope put an arm around her, but didn’t try to shush her. She wished that she could cry that freely, too.
Instead, Hope stared straight ahead at the open casket that sat in the front of the church. What she saw frightened her. Hope had been taught that death was God calling his people home to their reward, and for the faithful like them it was a beautiful and peaceful experience. Yet she couldn’t help but remember her mother’s screaming before she died, how sick and miserable she’d been on that last day, and now how fake she looked in her coffin. Michael had given the funeral home Lucy’s best floral dress and white lace head covering, but they had curled her hair and left it down resting on her shoulders, not tied up in her customary bun. Her cheeks were artificially rosy, her lips an unnatural shade of pink that matched the nail polish gleaming from her folded hands. Her closed eyelids clearly displayed eye shadow and mascara. Hope had never seen her mother wear make-up in life, and wearing it in death only emphasized that she was really gone. Mama would never allow herself to be made up like that. Mama wasn’t there to stop it.
The rustling of bodies, the whispers of families, and the sniffling of those who were already crying became more pronounced as the pews filled in behind them. Hope’s Uncle Joseph arrived and sat next to Clara, Michael and the children pressing against each other to make room in the already crowded pew. Paul got squeezed out and Joy grudgingly took him on her lap, glowering at Faith, Hope, and Grace as she did so.
Pastor Kinsley walked out to stand in front of the casket. The sounds of the congregation quieted down immediately, except for the sniffling.
He opened his Bible and began to read the familiar words of Proverbs 31:10-31. “‘Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.’” Hope knew it by heart, and silently recited it along with him, all the way to the end. “‘She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised. Give her the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.’”
Hope took a deep breath, missing her mother, as Pastor Kinsley continued. “Our brother Michael was blessed to find a virtuous woman. Though not raised to know the ways of Christ, God led her to a righteous man who showed her the path of salvation. Lucy accepted Jesus as her Lord and Michael as her head, and embraced her God-given calling of helpmeet and mother.
“When Faith Fellowship held its first service sixteen years ago, Michael and Lucy Wagner were one of only four families in attendance. It’s partially through their efforts that this church has grown into what we are today. Michael is a capable elder and a solid example of godly living, and under his guidance Lucy was an inspiration for the other ladies of this church. She embodied the image of the virtuous woman we read about in Proverbs 31, committing her life to Christ by showing obedience to her husband. She excelled at being a helpmeet, encouraging her husband in his work and providing a clean, happy home full of the blessings of children, raising them all to be arrows for Christ, fighting to establish God’s kingdom on earth.
“It was in the bringing forth of one of these blessings that God saw fit to end Lucy’s time with us and bring her home. It’s not our right to question God’s reasons, and perhaps there’s a lesson we need to learn from this. Maybe God is testing someone’s faith, like Job. Or maybe there’s another reason entirely, and we’re simply not meant to understand the will of Almighty God.
“In any case, all we can do is trust in His goodness and rejoice in the time we had with Lucy. Her work will continue through her children, as they honor their mother’s memory through obedience to their father, and commit themselves to the tasks God has ordained for them.”
Hope let the rest of the service wash over her, numb even to the heavy softness of Grace on her lap and the wetness of Faith’s tears on her neck. All she could think about was what Pastor Kinsley had said about God taking her mother to test someone’s faith. She called to mind all the grumbling and complaining she’d done. Even on the day her mother died she’d grumbled to God about her ‘other duties’ standing in the way of her midwife training. She remembered how much she envied the time her mother spent helping some of the younger children while expecting Hope to do her chores without assistance. She thought of her resentment at having so many responsibilities and so little time to explore her own interests or be a child herself.
As Pastor Kinsley wrapped up the service Hope was certain that God had taken Lucy to test her faith, and she was failing that test.
* * * * *
A sleek hearse led the procession to the cemetery, followed by over a dozen twelve- or fifteen-passenger vans of varying vintage, and a few minivans and station wagons peppered throughout the larger array. Large families were common at Faith Fellowship—five to ten children were the norm, with a few families stretching up toward fifteen.
Many of those vans were empty but for the drivers. The men of the church were there to support Michael, along with a few women who had been particularly close to Lucy. The rest of the women had stayed behind to prepare the luncheon and watch the younger children. Only the Wagner family was there in its entirety. Hope was glad she didn’t have to stay behind and help with the lunch this time. She wanted to stay with her mother.
But all too soon the prayers were said, the casket was lowered into the ground, and it was time to go. Hope stood staring at the gleaming wood surrounded by dirt as the small crowd meandered back to their vehicles, Benjamin in her arms, Grace hugging her leg, Hope alone with her grief.
Her father touched her shoulder. “It’s time to go, Hope.”
“I’m not ready,” she whispered.
“Trust in God. He’ll see you through it. There’s nothing more to be done here.”
Hope cursed her weak faith. How could God see her through this?
Michael’s hand tightened painfully on her shoulder. “You need to obey me, Hope, especially today. Go get in the van.”
Hope’s eyes stung with unshed tears as she looked one last time at her mother’s casket lying in the cold earth. “Yes, Papa,” she said, and turned toward the dwindling row of vehicles parked along the lane. They walked back to the van silently, Grace never letting go of her skirt.
Lunch was ready when they returned to the church. They settled themselves at a table and, after Pastor Kinsley had offered a lengthy prayer of thanksgiving, were allowed to fill their plates first. For Hope that meant handing Benjamin off to one of the many sets of eagerly waiting arms belonging to the older ladies of the church while she went and filled plates with carefully selected items for Grace, Paul, and Timothy. Once they were settled Benjamin got fussy, so she prepared a bottle for him using some of the donated breast milk she kept in an insulated package in her diaper bag. She could do a lot of things for her mother’s children, but she couldn’t breastfeed them. Fortunately there were always a number of nursing mothers in the congregation, and they considered it a privilege to serve God by using their bodies to feed a motherless child.
Hope’s stomach rumbled while she fed Benjamin and her family ate around her. She tried to ignore it and instead remembered how many times her mother had suffered want for her sake, and how in her sinfulness Hope had never thanked her for it.
“I want more bread, please,” Timothy announced.
“I want mo’ bread, peez,” Paul repeated.
“Mo’ bed!” Grace echoed.
“You’re just going to have to wait,” Hope told them. “I have to finish feeding Benjamin.”
“I’ll get it,” said a kind voice behind Hope. “Did you want rolls or sliced bread?”
Hope looked up into the sympathetic face of another teenaged girl. She was holding a plate full of Hope’s favorite sandwiches, salads, and breads, which she put down in front of her. “I got you this before all the good stuff’s gone,” Carolyn said quietly.
“Thank you,” Hope said, her eyes beginning to leak again. With the baby in her arms she was powerless to stop them.
Carolyn picked up a paper napkin and gently wiped Hope’s tears. “I’ll go get them their rolls,” she said.
She returned a few minutes later and put the fresh rolls on Hope’s plate, replacing the ones Hope’s younger siblings had liberated in her absence. Several people around them had finished eating and were getting up. Carolyn grabbed a recently vacated chair and pulled it to the corner of their table, next to Hope.
“It looks like he’s done,” she said, reaching for Benjamin. “Let me burp him while you eat.”
Hope put the nearly empty bottle on the table and handed over her baby brother. Carolyn began burping him with a skill that came from much practice. Like Hope, Carolyn was fifteen and the eldest daughter in her family. She had one brother who was three years older, and five younger siblings between the ages of two and seven. Though Ted and Stacy Cook had planned to have only two children, they discovered shortly after they began attending Faith Fellowship that God had a different plan. Carolyn’s mother was pregnant with her eighth, and was one of the women serving as a wet nurse. The Cooks and the Wagners had been friends ever since Carolyn’s parents joined the church.
The girls sat in silence as Carolyn burped then rocked Benjamin and Hope wolfed down her sandwiches. All around them people were getting up from the tables, already finished with their food.
Carolyn’s four youngest siblings came over to their sister, petitioning to join the older children outside. Timothy, Paul, and Grace echoed the sentiment, adding their voices to a cacophony that grated on Hope’s raw nerves until she wanted to scream at them to shut up.
She pushed that thought down roughly. They’re just kids, she admonished herself. No wonder God had to take Mama to get me to see my sin! Hope contemplated whether or not a selfish, terrible person like her was already beyond redemption. She hoped not.
She stood up and forced herself to smile at the hopeful children. “I’m done eating,” she lied. “We can go outside and play now.”
Carolyn handed Benjamin back to her. “I’ll bring your plate to the kitchen and meet you out there.”
Hope nodded and led the seven young children out to the church’s large side lawn.
She sat on the grass with half a dozen other girls ranging in age from thirteen to their early twenties, some caring for infants or very young toddlers, all with half an eye on the chaotic mass of children running and playing in front of them. A few smiled at her weakly then looked away, embarrassed. No one knew what to say.
Hope watched the children as they played, envious of their ability to laugh and enjoy themselves. Her youngest siblings seemed to have forgotten why they were at the church that day. Even Joy and Faith had smiles on their faces, the first Hope had seen on them since their mother died. Being surrounded by the energy of their young peers in the fresh fall air had provided a healing balm not obtainable in their house of mourning. Children truly are a blessing from the Lord, she thought. Not just to their fathers, but to each other.
Carolyn came and sat down on the grass next to Hope.
“You’re going to be OK,” she said.
Hope nodded because she was supposed to, and was grateful when Carolyn didn’t say anything else.