Feathers on the Wind
It was an unusually temperate day for early spring, and the delicious scent of new beginnings wafted through the open window, filling my body with pure joy. Instead of peering longingly out at the grass and budding crocuses, we were actually going to be allowed outside past our backyard.
While I waited impatiently for my seven siblings to gather to leave, I looked around the shadowy walkout basement we called home. The teak parquet flooring and matching wood paneling made it seem even smaller than it was. My mother had her own room, but the rest of us were stacked in bunk beds in every corner like sardines and forced to play musical beds every time another baby joined our family. My mother's swollen belly made it clear that we'd be moving beds again in just a few months. Drawers were built into the undersides of the bunk beds, and we each had one to fill with underwear, socks, and hand-me-down clothing.
Someone passing by our simple two-level redbrick home would likely never guess how many children lived in the basement alone. He would likely be shocked to learn that another large family lived upstairs; the only common denominator between the two families was one man who spent half his nights upstairs with his first wife and children, the other half downstairs with our mother — wife number two — and her children. This man was my father.
My bones always felt cold in this house, though the thermostat was set at a normal temperature. The eerie green fluorescent lights strained to brighten the darkest recesses of our rooms, tinting our skin and clothing with strange, shadowy hues. Light didn't seem able to fully penetrate the walls, as hope did not dwell long here.
Today, however, Mom promised time in the sun for all of us. Though she said we were headed for an "adventure," she kept the destination a secret. In my excitement, I danced in spinning circles around the room, nearly tripping over my worn, shin length blue skirt. Mom asked me to quiet down before slipping outside with my siblings, and we furtively piled into old Blue, our ancient station wagon.
As one of the younger children, I sat on the lap of my oldest sister, Christine. The seven of us watched the blocks roll past, as Mom drove us from our home on Cascade Way, in the Salt Lake City neighborhood of Mount Olympus, straight up into the green foothills of the awe-inspiring Wasatch Mountains.
Soon we all realized our adventure would take place on the grassy knolls behind my school, Eastwood Elementary. It was the same route we used when walking to school, but normally the trek would have been far too risky for all of us — and not because of the cars speeding by. We couldn't afford to draw too much attention to ourselves as a family. It wasn't just the honking, the stares, or the derogatory "Plygs!" bellowed out of windows. We were used to all of that. The danger lay in what the authorities would do if they discovered us. It was why I was a "Wilson" and not a "Wall" at my school, and why I could only rarely play with the sweet little girl across the street. If she learned the truth about me — about my brothers and sisters and our family living secretly in the walkout basement — we would risk being discovered.
The little girl was curious about us, though. Everyone was. It wasn't that it was unusual in this region to see large families. Salt Lake City was populated with a majority of prolific Mormons, and the small number of Catholic families often had many kids as well. Still, only a few thousand people in Salt Lake dressed even remotely like us. With the exception of July 24 every year, when the annual parade celebrated our state's Mormon pioneer history, we were highly conspicuous in our long-sleeved shirts, girls' long prairie dresses and skirts, and exceptionally long braids. Mom said we were special, but it wasn't until I went to kindergarten that I understood we represented a tiny fraction of the population around us. Mainstream Mormonism had given up polygamy in the late 1890s in order to secure statehood for Utah, so we were now the odd ones who hadn't fallen in line.
I hated how kids gawked at us, whispering loudly and pointing us out as if we were a tourist attraction. Sometimes the comments were innocent and simply curious. More often, though, they were intentionally demeaning, and it was frightening to wonder whom they would tell — and who might put my father in jail and split up our family. So we hid away from the prying eyes of the world.
That was also why our mother chose this place, on the edge of the mountain, where few would see us behind the empty school. We spilled out of the car and onto the grassy knoll, lush and vibrant from the melting snow. Our mother gathered us up on the top hill, where we could look down upon the Salt Lake Valley. Despite the warmth of the sun, I shivered as I looked in the direction of our home below, hidden amid the many houses of the Gentiles — the wicked people who did not believe in Joseph Smith or Jesus Christ. My mother's lap was full with her toddlers and her ever-expanding belly, but I squeezed in as close as I could. It was a rare treat to have her relaxing with us instead of cooking or cleaning or doing incessant laundry after a long day at work at HydraPak Seals, my father's manufacturing business. I scanned the city; to the north I picked out the capitol, towering on the hill above the downtown buildings that obscured the temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons who had fallen away from the Work. It was no longer our temple. A deep, unexplainable sadness filled me. We worshipped diligently at church, but our people did not have a temple of our own. Someday in the future, it was foretold, we would build one. But for now, we simply had to endure life. We had to suffer pain and sacrifice, because eternity was what mattered.
From The Witness Wore Red by Rebecca Musser. Copyright 2013 by Rebecca Musser. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.