SARAH

© 1985 Don Watson
The congregation stirred at the sound of the distant engine's whistle. The spur line had found its way across the prairie from Dodge City to Junctions two years before, yet the arrival of each train still stirred excitement, and townspeople always tried to meet it. Rev. Stacy quickened his delivery.

"If anyone present has reason to believe that this man and woman should not be joined in Holy wedlock, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."

Sarah Collins had a reason, but didn't voice it. She was the bride. She knew that voicing any objection would expose herself in ways that she could not tolerate--voicing any doubts about her marriage to Elijah Ware would jeopardize her wish to pacify her soul in the conventional way of women. She was mindful of the constraint that accompanied the role she was accepting. Wives were expected to submit to their husbands. Thus, her silence reflected submission and deflected criticism for unseemly conduct as a new bride in this new town. Besides, her objection occupied an inaccessible part of her soul.

As her silence stood guard, Rev. Stacy articulated with brutal clarity that her life would be changed forever. Of course she would lose her birth name; this couldn't be avoided. But why was she willing to relinquish her cherished free expression? What would she receive in return? She hadn't yet found an answer to these questions, but she knew she would receive something. Her life had always been a series of trade-offs--and tests of her strength. Many times, she had proven strong. And her marrying Elijah Ware would prove this once again.

Sarah was a poet. She experienced the world as a colorful, intricate carousel of music and discord, beauty and ugliness, tranquility and violence. As if she were entranced, helplessness cloaked her when she faced these reflections. She couldn't share the complexity of her carousel with ordinary persons, for it was lost when expressed as ordinary words in ordinary sentences. In fact, she rarely expressed herself plainly on any subject. Instead, she created ambiguity with metaphors, analogies, and peculiar words. And especially alliteration--solid streams of sound that stood as symbols of her spell.

At the orphanage in her home state of Pennsylvania, she had discovered that her poetry disarmed and scattered her tormenters, but it required a trade-off. While providing protection from the envious smirks of her schoolmates, it also isolated her from them. Perhaps they were less gifted than she, less beautiful and less creative, but they shared humanness--a sameness that Sarah had yearned for throughout her childhood.

Sarah had entertained many suitors, each wishing for the chance to wear her beauty on his arm. Wishing for a love that would encompass all of her, she had nearly lost hope. Could it be the kind of love she sought existed only in poetry? Despairingly, she feared that reality was a relentless trickster.

Then, when she was twenty-one, without any portent, Michael stepped upon the stage of her life. He announced his presence by laughing aloud when she quietly let slip her commentary on an often watched, but rarely seen, irony concerning life and love: "Wives sell what whores rent."

Their love had commenced without romance. Without illusion, without declaring passion, and without putting forward a best foot, Sarah and Michael plunged directly into their life together--sharing reality, creating passion, and showing both feet.

They had crossed each other's paths synchronistically. They were soul mates given the opportunity to reacquaint themselves, to blend together, and to build on past meetings. But this reality was not their focus. They treasured this life, moment by cherished moment.

The love they shared proved that her dreams were based in sanity. And it reaffirmed her belief in God, for it was God's Archangel, Michael, who protected heaven from the darkness of Lucifer. And it was Sarah's Archangel, Michael, who protected her from the darkness of loneliness. Michael had answered her prayer to be loved just for herself, with her beauty fully appreciated--but not so much as to obscure his acceptance of her person.

After she found Michael, Sarah set aside poetry. She no longer needed her shield. In times of reflection, she was not sure whether she had released her art forever or whether her muse had only temporarily retreated beyond her hearing. In either case, Sarah had become too real to speak abstractly--or to wish to.

To Sarah's astonishment, Michael understood perfectly her language, whether poetic or plain, whether verbal or physical. And, to Michael's astonishment, Sarah's muse gathered him. He wrote,

Sarah blushed at Michael's sentiments and gently chided him for risking blasphemy. But she would always hold his verse in her heart. It had become a part of her.

Michael had experienced many liaisons. Though Sarah's attraction to the outside world was her physical beauty, Michael's lure was his family's wealth. He knew well that he was not the prize sought by the ambitious ladies of Pennsylvania. His power and wealth were far more seductive than Michael himself. So he experienced the same kind of loneliness as did Sarah. When he found that Sarah loved him for himself, he allowed himself, for the first time, to love and be loved.

Michael had found it curious that Sarah's beauty had not attracted him. He was wary of beautiful women with their proffered exchanges of sex for power, and he did not want Sarah to resemble them in any way. To him, Sarah's beauty was Sarah herself, and her abode was beautiful because it belonged to her.

Sarah had never felt as complete as when she was with Michael. His love was a mirror, and his embrace empowered her to risk looking into herself. All her doubts about her wholeness were quieted while, in his arms, she could feel her mind and body coexist. As their bodies spoke directly without a single utterance, their lovemaking flowed into the undivided space shared by their souls.

The moment of collapse that had always followed their lovemaking was one that Sarah would have gratefully died for. She had long expected death to precede heavenly rewards. With their passion spent and their energy dissipated, they had soaked in their adoration of one other. To Sarah, their lovemaking had affirmed her carousel of images. And she knew she shared these images with Michael.

Michael's devotion to Sarah outraged his father, and ugly battles, verbal and sometimes physical, often displaced their discussions of business. Michael's father had expanded by tenfold the milling business he had inherited, solidifying their family's importance to this small community. He did not believe in relinquishing control of anything to anybody--especially to an impoverished girl with rich words so arcane that nobody could understand them. He vowed that he and his son would perish together before he would allow such a woman to become a part of his family.

Then one balmy summer evening during a moonlit stroll, Michael invited Sarah to make love outside, under the sky, among the fireflies, on a hillside that granted them privacy without obscuring their moonlight. And with the moon in one hand and the stars in the other, they held each other and made love. Michael attended closely as each movement brought him deeper into her body and closer to her soul. Sarah's carousel piped 'round and 'round. Michael knew this and he was pleased, for he wanted this lovemaking to abide forever in her memory.

But suddenly the carousel stopped. Sarah knew that, for the first time, their souls had parted during their passion. She sensed Michael's turmoil before he spoke a word, for his soul had cried out to hers that the rapturous time of melting, melding, bonding had departed forever.

Michael's heart was breaking as he slowly lifted his chest from Sarah's breasts. The tearing of the moist bond between them was an inescapable symbol. He turned away and faced the meadow, directing his words to a distant tree. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done, Sarah . . . to tell you this, I mean. I must marry Elizabeth Conroy."

Sarah gasped. Her voice was lost. Her life, too, was lost, turning to dust and ashes.

For a decade after Michael left her, Sarah tried to mend her life. Responding to her ancient, familiar, unfathomable loneliness, her muse returned.

She took a job teaching school. And she continued to write poetry, though no one seemed to understand her words. The distance she placed between herself and others rekindled the isolation of an earlier time. The days in the orphanage frequented her thoughts as did the vision of the man who had rescued her, loved her, then set her aside.

Unlike women who boasted of trading their feminine charms for marital security, Sarah had never used her physical beauty as a bartering chip. Compared with sharing her soul, her beauty would bring a cheap prize. So she searched in vain for another soul mate like Michael, entertaining and rejecting many suitors. Exhausted, disheartened, and betrayed by her muse, she concluded,

Sarah had not wanted to be unresponsive. Her smile captivated men, but her embraces were hollow. She had tried to warm to men, especially to the few whose sensitivities resembled Michael's. But she was enchanted. There existed for her a perpetual, unseen gulf--a moat that isolated her soul.

As he tore his body from hers, Michael captured a part of her soul, leaving an empty space. He created the vacancy so quietly that Sarah was held in ignorance. Thus she did not know, while being courted by other men, that she was still possessed by Michael--that her soul was held hostage. Without understanding what had occured, Sarah could not free herself. She eventually conceded defeat.

Still handsome in her thirty-third year, she capitulated to hiding her subtle gifts and trading on her obvious ones. The bartering that had previously repulsed her now fired her with hope and enthusiasm. She read an advertisement placed by a homesteader out west on the plains who was "seeking a good wife, dowry not required." Sensing another seeker, the prospect of a blind journey tantalized her. She wrote,

I, too, am a seeker.
I search for a similar soul--
Not entirely gripped by romanticism, she calculated that regardless of its outcome, moving to the prairie would prove preferable to her present circumstance. She soon thereafter boarded the train that removed her forever from Pennsylvania.

Not even on this day, the day of her wedding, could Sarah erase the image of the last time she and Michael had evoked her carousel. It flashed before her, unseen to Rev. Stacy and the invited wedding guests. And Elijah couldn't have seen the carousel--even if it whirled directly before him, bellowing mechanical music and scattering the laughter of children.

To his neighbors as to himself, Elijah appeared a good man, proud and kind. He was proud to work hard, ask little, and expect less. He was kind to his animals and he worshipped regularly. Elijah Ware had nothing to hide from God or man.

The months following her marriage to Elijah wore hard on Sarah. At first he had been patient with her and showed understanding for her period of adjustment. He knew it would take time for Sarah to transition from, as she put it, "Pennsylvania poet to pioneer peasant."

Sarah's slow, clumsy ways of doing her chores made him impatient, and he sometimes wondered if this woman was worth the trouble. Still, he found amusement in ordering her to demonstrate the obedience she had promised him on their wedding day. His favorite diversion was commanding her to remove her clothes. Sarah was nice to look at, especially when she worked naked--practicing a ritual that was performed frequently. She remained obedient, obliging her husband's wishes and denying him no pleasure.

Elijah had Sarah in bed as often as he could manage to enter her body. And he chose whatever entrance suited him. On the whole, Elijah decided, he had been wise to marry an old maid. She desperately sought to please him.

As the months went by, his demands grew louder and Sarah found herself searching for a place alone where she could cry without his finding out. "Oh, please, dear God," she often wailed to the God of Love. And just as often, that God ignored her. These moments alone were stolen, and if her thievery were to be discovered she would be chastised. So she would compose herself swiftly and head back to face Elijah and the chores he had planned for the day.

Elijah had hoped that he would never be forced to discipline her--that his taking sexual pleasure from her would keep pace with his growing impatience. But one afternoon, the duties of the homestead outweighing the frivolities of the mind, Elijah had to take her firmly in hand.

"Stop your moonin' now, and strip down!" he yelled.

Sarah obeyed, hesitating only to record an unaccustomed tone in his voice. With a slender branch he had cut from a tamarack, he started slashing at her legs and arms and back.

He took pleasure in watching her writhe at each stroke and in listening to her moan and whimper in response to him. And when she pleaded for him to stop he accelerated his assault. He was energized, relishing his power. She had never responded this much in bed. Any thoughts to stop beating her were themselves beaten down.

Away from bed, Elijah seldom indulged himself in the pursuit of pleasure--there was always too much work to do--but this time he was generous with himself. He continued to hit her even as she fell to the ground in a faint. He could rationalize that he maintained control because he carefully spared her face, breasts, buttocks, and belly. She should express gratitude for his restraint.

"Next time I say git, woman--Git!" Elijah emphasized his point by poking her in the ribs with the toe of his boot. Watching her bleeding body twitch, he sincerely hoped she would learn well from this lesson. His energy spent, he didn't have the appetite to repeat it. But she soon gave him no choice, and he did not shrink from his duty. And he employed a more suitable staff--a stiff branch of oak.

When she was with Michael, Sarah had known the God of Love. Now, she knew the God of Retribution. She had learned two lessons concerning Him: First, that His only interest in her was to provide reliable punishment for her unwillingness to relinquish being herself. And that if God became too distracted or too preoccupied to administer the punishment, His faithful servant, Elijah Ware, would take up the task.

God showed Sarah only one mercy: She was barren.

Despite her burdens, Sarah remained a spirited woman. She still mooned and daydreamed about flying. She summoned up dusty fantasies about lovemaking and wrote poems to herself. She could force her body to work, but she could not force her mind to stop. Her inability--or as her husband saw it, her unwillingness--to quench this part of her, the part that wasted time, infuriated Elijah, fueling a dangerous fire.

As usual for a Tuesday afternoon, Elijah and Sarah arrived in town to purchase staples. While Sarah respectfully cast her gaze to the ground, Elijah exchanged greetings with the old codgers who were permanently attached to the bench outside the mercantile. Normally, after the wagon was loaded, Elijah would direct Sarah to "stay put" until he returned from the saloon. Passers-by would note approvingly his dutiful wife patiently sitting in the wagon, awaiting his return. But this day, Sarah would make a request that Elijah could not deny. Explaining to him that she wanted to pray and to seek from God better ways to serve him, Sarah created the opportunity to execute her radical poet's plan.

She felt a spark of defiance from remembering each incident of abuse that had successively stripped away the layers of her personal dignity. Collecting the fragments that remained, she proceeded to call on the preacher. She wanted him to teach her, if possible, how to find contentment as the other wives apparently had. But if he could not teach her, or if she could not learn, she had prepared an alternative plan.

She sat in the rectory waiting to be comforted. When Rev. Stacy saw his visitor, surprise and delight lit his face. "Sarah Ware! How happy I am to see you. How may I help you?"

Seduced by his authentic greeting and invitation, and ignoring his use of her hated, traded-for last name, Sarah proceeded without formalities. "Who am I? Why am I in this place?" she asked, looking up at him. Tears cascaded down her cheeks and fell into her handkerchief. This cotton, which had caught her tears so many times, was unable to still the quivering of her chin as she wept.

Warned by her directness, Rev. Stacy insulated himself from her humanness. He retreated into preaching. "Sarah, it was God who directed you here. And look how he has provided for you. Elijah loves and protects you. You have shelter. . . . And it is God's earth that provides you with food."

"But, Rev. Stacy, why has God forsaken me. Why has He cursed me with a fertile mind that I dare not use?"

"God shows you how to use your mind, Sarah. Listen to Him. It is your mind that can help you understand how to be a good wife. He gave you a fine mind so you can serve Him better. This is all that is needed to understand His divine plan for you."

Sarah drew in a long, deep breath. Rev. Stacy was kind in his words of comfort--like Elijah had been in the beginning. And, like Elijah, he was fully capable of turning on her without warning.

The pastor was certain that, once Sarah learned and accepted her womanly role, she would be happy. The women before her had validated this truth.

But she was relentless. "If I were a man, I could be a preacher, like you. I know the scriptures." Her posture changed to match her words and the tone in her voice. Standing, she waged her protest with growing anger. "I know how to teach lessons from the Holy Book."

The pastor was becoming more agitated with each word that came from Sarah's mouth. He could feel his facial muscles tighten, and he could imagine the trials Elijah Ware must endure with this woman as his wife. "Pride isn't becoming to a woman," the pastor chided. "If you know the scriptures as well as you profess, you will remember that pride cometh before a fall. Be cautious and heed God's warning."

"My God! Don't you see? I've already fallen as far as I can on this earth." She planted her feet firmly on the floor and leaned forward to fix her eyes on the pastor's. "Hell is the next fall for me!"

"Swear not! Please," begged the pastor. He feared for her. He had never been trapped by such a determined stare. And he knew that she demanded something from him that wasn't his to give. "Listen to me as you listen to God. Accept His plan for you and be redeemed. Learn, and beg God to forgive you."

"Learn . . ." Sarah's voice died as she rapidly lost her fervor. "My husband beats me when I don't learn quickly enough," she whispered. "And I never know how long `quickly' is." Sadness found its way to her eyes, filling them with tears that overflowed and extinguished the fire in her heart. Then, in flat tones, mostly to herself, she concluded her protest. "I want deliverance, not redemption."

The pastor, secretly ashamed of his withdrawal from this woman's misery, protected himself by retreating even further, hiding behind Biblical authority. "Your husband disciplines you as God disciplines all of us. In Ephesians, the Apostle wrote, `Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.'"

Now, the preacher was unrelenting. Knowing that there would be no trade-off, Sarah vowed never to consult him again. With her determination renewed, she would take these matters directly to God. She had nothing to lose.

Her course decided, she straightened herself. Without a parting glance at the preacher she walked nonchalantly from the church and toward the general store. Once out of Rev. Stacy's sight, glancing each way to ensure that she wasn't seen, she slipped between two buildings, ran to the back lot, and buried herself in a haystack behind the livery.

She waited peacefully, absorbing the pungent, friendly, freedom-laced aromas that surrounded her. She had given herself respite from the life that tormented her. From a distance, she heard her husband's voice demanding that she show herself "and do it fast." But this time she would not obey--and he would lose. The commotion caused by Sarah's absence and Elijah's useless searching died down as the townspeople lost interest in what was clearly Elijah's problem, not theirs.

When all but the saloon's lamps were extinguished for the night, Sarah walked out onto the prairie, her way lit by moonbeams and starlight, to confront God wherever she might find Him. An odd feeling came over her--that this was a journey without beginning or end. It was real yet not real. Indeed, this journey was to be her passage to the center of the universe--to the place where each of her poems had been written.

The next night, having walked without water for a night and a day, Sarah dropped in the darkness beneath a shrub. Despite her pain, exhaustion, and dehydration, she would not waver in her plan. This journey offered hope. Quickly, she fell into merciful hibernation.

Awakened by a strange sound, Sarah emerged partly from dehydration-induced delirium and partly from the dreamworld she visited every time she slumbered. She squinted as daylight assaulted her eyes, and she tried to focus on the familiar-looking silhouette that shielded her from the penetrating sunlight. As the figure before her took a more defined form, an ancient part of her mind came fully awake--the fantasy-rich part that had dominated her childhood.

Sarah thought that she had earned her audience with God and that the angel who stood over her would introduce her to Him. She couldn't think clearly enough to perceive that the angel smelled of sweat and leather, or that it had been his horse's whinny that had roused her. The traveler bent down, touched the top of her head, and took in her beauty.

"I'm Luke," he said. But Sarah didn't hear. Still in a fog, battling confusion, she continued to author her own enlightenment. It was not merely God's messenger before her--it was Michael, her Archangel, returning to her from another life.

Luke fondled her breast and leered at her thigh through the gash in her skirt. Perhaps realizing her insulated state, he graphically described the things he wanted to do to her. But Sarah didn't hear his coarse words. To her, his voice was music, a melody for a song she had absorbed years before. She heard Michael sing,

Holding his cup to her lips so she could drink, Luke cradled her head and caressed her shoulders. She rested in his arms, drifting to far-away places where she felt safe and loved. Within two hours, she was revived enough to receive the stranger into her body.

For three days they traveled together, Luke leading the horse and Sarah riding. And for three nights they slept together. On the fourth day, after delivering her to the cattle town of Redemption, he gave her several coins.

This day, she knew, God finally heard her and responded to her. She pieced together His message. The stranger had delivered her from evil. He had nurtured her. He had stirred her sensuality, propelling her desire to its peak and then satisfying it. And he had paid her.

With startling clarity, Sarah discerned her reason for being a woman, and she found her new vocation. She thanked God for His revelation and walked directly to the town's only saloon.