It is not uncommon, when one is young, to think that life is simple. In my case, I reasoned, it would require little besides discipline and effort. If I labored well, worshipped, confessed, and shunned all carnal desire, my soul would find sure and brilliant its path to Zion. And if I held faith as the brightest star in my firmament — and thus the easiest by which to chart my course — the universe would fall into order. Order, after all, means everything to a Shaker, and a Shaker is what I am.
But if we are to be sincere, then we know that we are not made for perfection. However we may try to fit the pattern, it pulls and bunches like a poorly sewn waistcoat and we exhaust ourselves with the fruitless smoothing of seams. I know something of this struggle, and now that I am old, I realize that my youthful presumptions about the way forward were based on a fundamental misunderstanding: I thought life was simple because I thought I was simple. On both counts, I was mistaken.
What I could not know was that, even in societies as steady as my own, life-changing tumult can be born of a single happening. And though, when first I heard of it, the event may have felt as unconnected to my daily existence as a sigh breathed in a distant land, it transpired that nothing would be the same after the day in August of 1837 when six young sisters received signs from the world beyond.
The communication took place in a settlement far from my own, after the resident schoolteacher had died of a sudden ague. My caretaker, Elder Sister Agnes, who had once lived and taught in the enclave, was summoned north while community elders searched for a permanent replacement. She was gone several months, and as she had been the one who raised me from birth, I missed her. I was barely ten years old at the time, and Elder Sister Agnes was the closest thing to a mother I had ever known.
A child will despise anything that deprives her of her beloved's attention, and I viewed the miracle of divine contact — for that is what it was — as an interloper and a thief. Once I had won my eldress back, I was determined to banish from my thoughts the cause of her absence. Perhaps that is why the import of what she had witnessed was lost on me until later. Certainly, I understand now how foolish the passions of a child truly are, how such willful blindness cannot last.
Yet, however little I allowed the remarkable day to mean to me at the time, the story threaded through and bound us all as believers, passing from community to community until there was no one who did not know of it. My eldress told me the account herself as though it were a parable from the Bible whose lessons she had yet to discover. She glowed as she recalled even the smallest details of the wondrous day. How faint breezes blew the smell of tomato vines through the open windows and carried songs sung by the brethren as they brought in the last of the summer hay. How the girls in the schoolhouse — young as ten, old as fourteen — struggled with penmanship that day. How their ears rang with my eldress's exhortations to keep their letters evenly spaced, cleanly drawn, pure and unadorned as the beliefs we are taught to hold dear. I knew how the studious sisters must have felt, listless and hypnotized by the droning of flies in the late-afternoon heat, for I, too, was a schoolgirl.
From this most ordinary of scenes erupted an episode the likes of which had never before been experienced. For all of a sudden, as my eldress described it, the girls' fidgeting ceased — a moment of calm before the room rang with the sound of furniture scraping the wooden floor, a crash, the crack of a desk toppling, and then, once more, silence. Virgie Thompson, one day shy of her eleventh year, jumped to her feet and began to sway. What Virgie saw my eldress could not say, but her blue eyes were fixed hard on a point in the distance directly in front of her. She made no sound at first, yet her lips moved ceaselessly, forming strange syllables that seemed to stream from her mouth. Her hands fluttered and twitched by her side as her head cocked from shoulder to shoulder, quickening until her hair had loosed itself into a tangle and it seemed her thin neck might snap.
"Virgie?" my eldress asked. "Are you all right, child?" The others were afraid to look, eyes glued to their careful writing. Do All Your Work, the lines read, As Though It Were To Last 1,000 Years And You Were To Die Tomorrow. I knew the saying well — indeed, I had copied it countless times myself. It was one of many left to us by our Beloved Mother Ann Lee — founder of all that we believe, equal in Heaven to the Lord Jesus Christ, sufferer at the savage hands of the World's people. Dead more than half a century at the time, Mother was yet as powerful from the beyond as she was when she walked this Earth, and my eldress had asked that the girls scratch her words over and over onto the pages before them, in the same blue-black ink with the same tidy hand.
The rattle of wood on wood, louder and louder as Virgie's feet trembled against the leg of her tumbled chair, filled the room. Her narrow hips began to jerk while her arms shook and went limp, sounds now issuing forth from her mouth full and loud. They began deep in her throat and recalled no utterance made by human voice, but rather a deep growling that rose to a moan and then to the high-pitched keening of an eagle, her eyes wild, expressions of bliss and terror, woe and relief passing across her features, my el-dress said, like the flicker of shadows in candlelight.
From The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart. Copyright 2013 by Rachel Urquhart. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.