The Future Consequences of Present Actions
When a boy wakes, he must not make a sound. He must kneel beside his bed in silent prayer, like the others in the room, and feel the weight of two minutes. He must feel joy too. And gratitude. If such sensations do not arise, a boy must report this to his Caretaker. A boy must strip his bed. He must fold his bedclothes lengthwise and lay them flat across two chairs, a pillow on each seat. A boy must dress in trousers, a frock, a vest. The frock must be fashioned from coarse cotton and must be blue or white, never an extravagant color, especially not red. A boy must comb his hair. Clean his teeth. A boy must not spit on the floor, however, as this is a vulgar act. All spitting should be directed toward the spit box. A boy must take his turn carrying the slops from the sleeping quarters out into a morning still dark and trembling with the groans of milk-heavy cows. A boy must not spill. If a spill occurs, a boy must not make vulgar pronouncements. Vulgar pronouncements include “hang it” and “plague on it.” A boy must report all such phrases to his Caretaker. He must change into clean trousers, a clean frock and vest. The essentiality of cleanliness cannot be overstated. A boy must hurry to breakfast, for punctuality is likewise indispensable. At breakfast, he must kneel again in silence. Two minutes. A boy must eat with the other boys. His table must be one in a long row of tables, set with bone–white crockery, the dishes grouped by four to reduce the need for passing. A boy must first eat what appeals to him least—the thick porridge—and then proceed to tastier morsels—the apple slices—and he must completely clear his plate. A boy must remember the feeling of a stomach pitted hollow by hunger, fingers so cold they felt they would snap. A boy must sit still. He must not swivel his neck to search the faces of the others. He must not look for his father. If he finds himself doing so, he should report this to his Caretaker. A boy must be amenable. He must concede. He must not look for his father.
Charles Lane has always believed in the perfectibility of man. Always he has considered himself a voluntaryist, an abolitionist. He has abstained from meat, despite having butchers for brothers. An Englishman, aged a stately forty–six, he’d come to America because America—so hopeful and fertile and vast—seemed the place to start society anew.
This he tells the gray–eyed men in gray–blue shirts, the gray–eyed women in starched white dresses, who have gathered together to judge him.
“You are prepared,” says a man rising gravely from his place on a bench in the assembly hall, “to sever all your worldly ties?”
Charles Lane believes himself prepared. Already, he feels at home among the Shakers, their well–pruned orchards, the pastures ringed by fence posts planted deep as spears. What restraint these people show! What prudent innovation! Just beyond the assembly hall stands a stone barn built in concentric circles for ventilating hay. Lodgings with windows installed at an angle to welcome in more light. Each room swept clean. Everywhere the smell of bread. Everyone well rested and solemn. These people do not proselytize, and yet their numbers swell even in the absence of progeniture. Merchants, midwives, students, sea captains, soldiers now among them. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Jews.
“You have no wife?”
Charles Lane sits pinned by the gaze of a gray–eyed woman, her face shadowed by a plain white bonnet. He clears his throat. He is not a man of the flesh, he tells her, though he uses many more words—words that wander back to England, Greavesian ideology, his staunch belief in abstinence—before returning to the present moment: the little son beside him, back erect against a wooden chair, feet dangling above the polished floor. William Lane. His father’s greatest source of pride. His father’s greatest source of shame.
“It is with the utmost conviction,” says Charles Lane, addressing the whole assembly, “that I hold paternal love to have a deleterious effect on humanity’s pursuit of spiritual ascension.”
He trembles as he speaks. Two years already he has lived in America, years he squandered on a transcendental goose hunt, on a scrubby farm purchased with his assets, a communal catastrophe beset by freeloaders and halfwits, by a family—the Alcotts—who spoke of universal paradise yet could not see beyond themselves.
Fruitlands, they’d named the place. As if a ripe new Eden might have appeared in Massachusetts, born only of yearning.
“Beyond the narrow island of selfishness lies the continent of all–embracing love. . .”
Those were Bronson Alcott’s words, in the commune’s early days. The summer days when blackberries ornamented woodlands, and talk of Herodotus echoed through the gardens. The days when visitors came and spoke of staying. The days when such a geography still seemed reachable.
“But the winds are not always propitious, and steam is only a recent invention.”
How quickly Bronson’s homely wife, Abigail, had begun favoring her own children, giving them treats, little poems of encouragement. And all at the commune’s expense. At his expense! Charles Lane would never act in such a manner; he would never undermine his son’s chance to participate in ventures greater than himself.
“Brother?” says the gray–eyed woman.
It was the Alcotts’ love for their own blood that spoiled the young utopia.
“Brother?” says the gray–eyed man.
Charles Lane gathers his thoughts, returns to the present moment: the assembly hall filled with unblinking faces, and beyond them—outside the polished windows—the lawns kept litterless even as maple trees shed their crimson autumn coats.
“I am prepared,” says Charles Lane, “to take upon myself the cross.”
The bonnets nod. The bearded give their chins a stroke.
“You have no debts?”
“You have no doubts?”
Charles Lane moves to sign the papers the gray–eyed men and women set before him. His eyes skim over “indentureship” and “William Lane” and “I will not take away the Said Children nor Control them.” His mind has plunged ahead to a life unburdened by cupidity, the prejudices of family ties. A life restrained and orderly, conducted in the spirit of a Universal Family. His spine tingles with the final whisk of the quill pen. He feels his past absolved: his future blooms. Thrumming with the buoyancy of the newly saved, he turns to clutch his son, kiss the boy’s forehead, but little William is being led away.
When entering a house, a boy must uncover his head and hang his hat on a peg and wipe his boots on the foot scraper. He must shut the door gently behind him. If the door is slammed, a boy must step back outside, reenter, and close the door again. A boy must fear God. A boy must learn the teachings of Mother Ann, God rest her soul. He must learn that God is both a man and a woman and that Mother Ann, God rest her soul, was the second coming of Christ in female form. He must recognize the inherent equality of the sexes. That celibacy is the path to eternity. Do all your work as if you had a thousand years to live. Industriousness is revelatory. And as if you knew you must die tomorrow. A boy must welcome other boys: the boys, like him, from foreign shores, the colored boys and orphans, the broke farmhands. A boy must be willing to share in all things. He must have no private property. Private property includes a marred daguerreotype of one’s mother, God rest her soul. Private property puts the devil in you.
“It would be wise, the construction of a preserve shop.”
“Indeed, Brother, it would be wise.”
“Such a bounty of apples this year.”
“Such a bounty.”
Elder Geary lets his body relax onto his cot. A clean white pillow welcomes his head, which is as bald and spotted as a farmyard egg. Around him, half a dozen Shaker Brethren have gathered to watch him die. The infirmary windows are open wide, despite the winter chill, to lesson his moribund stink. The Brethren are dry–eyed and thoughtful.
“I should like to see the children outfitted with new boots before winter,” says Elder Geary.
“New boots before winter,” echo the Brethren—except for one, who moves toward the window, pinching his nose.
For a moment, Elder Geary does not know the man: lean limbed, thin lipped, eyes as busy as mice. A stranger? An angel of death? Then he recalls the Englishman, joined some months ago, who had arrived with his single son.
“It would be wise. . .” Elder Geary falters on his words. He cannot help staring at the man—a Mr. Charles Lane, he now recalls—who had proven a satisfactory laborer, well behaved, but who had yet to bequeath the Shakers all his worldly goods.
He needed more time, Charles Lane had told them, to make arrangements.
A feeble excuse for a purported Believer.
“Brother?” The Brethren step a little closer, peer down into the old man’s cot.
Charles Lane creeps closer as well, mouth breathing. “Such an exemplary soul,” he says, his voice righteous and nasally. “He will be welcomed in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Elder Geary shudders. He feels the sweet drowsiness of death encroaching but cannot yet justify succumbing. What would Mother Ann think, witnessing her teachings so desecrated? Elder Geary had once followed the woman on her holy tour through Massachusetts—he’d heard her sing without words, heal without touch—and her principals of common property had galvanized his thumping heart. All Shakers, rich or poor, pooled their possessions so that all might aspire toward godliness. And yet this man, this Charles Lane—for all his voluble admiration of their Shaker customs—saw himself as an exception?
“Hear me!” Elder Geary sits bolt upright.
The attending Brethren step back from his cot in surprise.
“We have an unbeliever among us.” Elder Geary lifts a shaking hand to point at Charles Lane.
The Englishman pales, but he offers the Brethren a creaky smile. “Elder Geary is delirious,” he says. “The deathbed muddle, I fear. For I am as pious as—”
“We have a task before us.” Elder Geary’s voice rings far louder than it has in years, loud enough to escape the open window and to infuse the lightly falling snow. Throughout the village, fellow Shakers pause their daily chores. Drop brooms and wash buckets. Look toward the sky. “Our sacred order, our blessed order, must create two classes,” says Elder Geary. He thinks again of Mother Ann, that blue-eyed woman so small in stature, yet limitless in spirit. “We have a task before us: we must separate the true believers from those who live their lives in sin.”
With those words, Elder Geary falls back upon his cot, too weary to rise again. The room begins to darken. His senses fade. Yet even as Elder Geary drifts away, he hears the echo of his words:
“. . .from those who live their lives in sin.”
A boy must remember it is a privilege to be brought up among people of God, that beyond these grounds are the beggarly elements. The ravages of Babylon. To secure salvation, a boy must put his hands to work. His heart to God. He must learn to fashion brooms from bales of straw, and sieves from beechwood planks, and large oak casks to store molasses. He must learn to plant seeds. Pick apples. Dry sweet corn for winter. He must learn to drive a team of oxen, but he must not give an ox a human name, as this leads to wickedness. If a boy does give an ox a human name—Louisa perhaps—and kisses its snout and addresses it like a confidante, despite all instructions otherwise, he must discover that he will not be struck by rod or cane. He must discover, only, the disappointment of his fellow Shakers. Their heart–wrung sighs. Eyes cast to heaven, their prayers for his soul. He must remember his father’s bidding. He must remember that this is what his father chose.
“You are in need of assistance?” The voice belongs to a woman, a schoolteacher, a Miss Sophia Foord. She bids her driver slow his horses, pause beside a man flagging them from the bank of a waterlogged road. Not far beyond she sees his coach in muddy disarray: axle splintered, reins tangled where the horses bolted free.
“My sincerest thank you,” says the man—wide-eyed and effusive—as if rescued from the bowels of a beasty wilderness and not merely poor luck on an otherwise fine spring day. A reaction made even odder, thinks Miss Foord, by the looming bulk of a Shaker stone barn about a mile to the west. Walking distance, no doubt.
Normally, Miss Foord would avoid such stops, but the day is crisp and bright and vernal, sky–blue puddles jeweling the road, and she feels plucky, venturesome, and wild.
“Sincerely grateful,” says the man again, even bowing slightly. “My coachman ran off.” He points toward a ridge, nut–brown and raw from winter, the horse and human tracks braiding up its side. “I suspect—”
“Why, sir,” interrupts Miss Foord, leaning from her coach window to study his face, “are you not an associate of that good man Bronson Alcott?”
Charles Lane sheds his grateful pretense. He looks at the sky, mutters, “I suppose you could say that.”
Miss Foord is too excited to notice. “How propitious!” She claps her hands. Her driver coughs, loudly, but Miss Foord ignores him. “I heard your lecture in Boston—such wonderful ideas—the commune, what was it called? Berryfield? Fruitfarm? Fruitlands! I very nearly joined the whole endeavor!”
Charles Lane’s scowl begins to melt. He stands a little straighter. “Ah yes,” he says, “Bronson and I were on our Penniless Pilgrimage. We—”
“But where are you headed?” She nods at the broken coach, its cabin shuttered by curtains. “The Alcotts have set up a lovely little cottage. I’m on my way to teach his daughters. You must come as well—with your son of course.”
At “son,” Charles Lane stiffens.
“Well that’s settled then. You and your son will ride with me. There’s plenty of room.” Miss Foord says this brightly. If she has learned one thing as a woman, it is that sanguineness—when adequately applied—can prove a formidable force. She smiles at Charles Lane standing tense as a sapling beside the muddy road. Men and their pride, she thinks. She is not one to flirt, but today she feels a touch mischievous. Lowering her voice, so that the driver cannot hear, she says, “If there exists bad blood between you and the Shaker people, we will all understand. They are such dreary company.”
Charles Lane rubs a hand through his thin hair. “It’s not—”
“And if you’re worried about your son’s education, fear not!” Miss Foord blushes with excitement: her role in reuniting two distinguished men. “I’ll be instructing the Alcott daughters in manifold subjects. Such savvy creatures—Louisa especially—and your son can join. Remind me, what is his name?”
Charles Lane stares at her blankly.
Miss Foord feels her excitement grow a little heavy. She looks again at the broken coach, then cocks her head. “Sir?”
“My son’s name is William,” says Charles Lane, avoiding her eyes.
Miss Foord nods. Her driver coughs again, rustles the horses’ reins. “Well, go fetch him,” she says. “And we’ll be off.”
If a boy leaves the house to attend school, or meals, or meetings, he must go with a Brother, and they must walk two abreast and synchronized, always starting with their right feet first. Neither may speak. They must move across the grounds like a cloud. A boy must not visit a Sister’s quarters, except for errands—and then only for fifteen minutes. When speaking with Sisters, a boy must say “agreeable things about nothing.” He must not, under any circumstances, bring up the idea of departure. He must not bring up reasons why others have departed—others including his father—whom he must not consider his father but rather a man beset by sin. If a boy remains uncertain what to say, silence is best. During his allotted free time, a boy may roll trucks in the courtyard, but then he must only whisper.
Louisa May curls in the softness of a threadbare settee, a book held before her face like a parlor lady’s fan. Pilgrim’s Progress. Usually an engrossing read, but today Louisa May finds herself distracted by Mr. Lane—her parents’ newest guest—ever pacing, pacing, back and forth across their cottage. Floorboards creak and squall. Around him: a flurry of bodies, speculation. The cottage, these past few days, has been especially cacophonous. Mr. Lane, Mr. Emerson, Mr. Thoreau, Miss Foord. They gather and talk. Come and go. Dust, stirred into the air like writhing apparitions, resettles on bookshelves already raucous with desiccated butterflies, wilting daisies, cobwebs, bits of ribbon. It’s this clutter that often makes Mr. Lane scowl, and Miss Foord laugh, and allows the stealthy Mr. Emerson to “mislay” money for her ever–needy family.
“My son,” says Mr. Lane, pausing his pacing to voice a coherent thought. “The Shakers won’t return him. They won’t even let me see him.”
To Louisa May, this news is disappointing. She does not care for Mr. Lane. He is nothing like her much–adored Mr. Thoreau: almost a child himself, appreciative of the daisies she’s started leaving on his doorstep. Mr. Lane has no interest in daisies. When they lived together at Fruitlands—his family and hers—she’d come to hate his chore charts and lessons on essential virtues (Obedience, Self–denial, Industry, Silence). But, at Fruitlands, Mr. Lane’s son—William—had been her playmate.
Not that there had been much time for playing.
“I asked and asked to see my boy. I demanded.” Mr. Lane half sits, half trips on a seesawing rocking chair. He steadies himself, rubs his hands across his cheeks, his skin as coarse as granite. Eyes cold as coal. “But those people, they just hold up the contract. Point to my signature. ‘He’s indentured,’ they say.”
Louisa May’s mother offers Mr. Lane a lumpy pear.
Louisa May’s father offers up recollections of old times: the summer nights spent philosophizing and singing and sharing at Fruitlands—leaving out the lesser bits: the calloused hands and arguments, the infirmities and empty bellies. The exodus.
“What else can I do?”
Mr. Lane chokes on his words, and Louisa May feels the heat of impending surrender: this man who once scorned her family for its bonds, now aching for his only son. From behind her book, she hears a sob escape his throat like the scraping grind of a millstone.
She waits for a sense of victory, but all she feels is sympathy.
She’s never had a gift for grudges.
“Remind me,” says Louisa May’s mother in a manner that suggests she already knows, “why you couldn’t stay among them, the Shakers. In your letters you made their way of life sound wonderful.”
Mr. Lane throws up his hands. “They aren’t serious enough,” he says, though Louisa May has guessed, as her mother has guessed, that Mr. Lane—for all his talk of the comradeship and selflessness—could not fully commit his worldly goods to a collective cause.
Was it not the same at Fruitlands?
”You know,“ says Charles Lane, nearly squealing with disbelief, “the Shakers claim to be spiritually informed, and yet more than half will dine on meat!”
Louisa May wonders what has really left Mr. Lane so unsettled. His unreachable indentured son? Or that he could not enact his espoused ideals of a universal family?
“And their schooling, just outrageous—”
She is studying the man so closely that she fails to notice her mother come to stand beside her. A hand brushes Louisa May’s hair, pats her shoulder.
“Perhaps,” says Mrs. Alcott, “you could make the love argument.” She glances at her husband, who has remained uncharacteristically quiet. Louisa May feels the grip on her shoulder tighten, the bruising press of her mother’s unwavering affection. “As I see it, you can either leave William and return to England or you can go before the Shakers and declare the preeminence of paternal affection. That blood trumps all other bonds.”
Charles Lane says nothing.
“You have tried that, haven’t you? Expressing your love for your son?”
A boy must remember his lessons: That impartiality is more important than prosperity. Good manners eclipse intelligence. That a speck of dust might seem of little weight within the wider cosmos, just as a drop of water might be lost in the sea, but a barrel of dust, like a barrel of droplets, amounts to something more. The earth is composed of dust and droplets. Indeed, every atom of our universe adds up to something greater, just as every gesture a man makes amounts to his character. From The Future Consequences of Present Actions, the Shaker schoolhouse guide: “A second is a short space of time, but without it there are no centuries.”
Aboard the Shenandoah, a packet ship bound for Liverpool, the chief mate makes his evening rounds. The air is whip sharp. The sea, purple–dark and fidgeting. Most passengers have retired below for their evening meals, though a solitary figure persists on the upper deck, staring west. A man as immobile as a foremast.
“Cold aren’t ye?” says the chief mate, approaching. He chuckles, eyeing the man’s thin linen shirt, wet with sea spray and nearly translucent. “Wouldn’t want to catch yer death, would ye, before we make our landing?”
The man, though visibly shivering, whirls around and sneers at the astonished sailor. “Weather,” he says, with pious authority, “cannot assault the human soul.””
Then he turns again to the horizon, as straight and thin as a pair of pursed lips.
A boy must think of the good times: the summer picnics, the nutting and the berrying, the swimming and the skating, the barn raisings and chopping frolics, the corn roasts. A boy must think of now and no other time. He must lie straight in his bed and strive to sleep in a manner that is unbroken and without dreams. If a boy has dreams, he must report them to his Caretaker. When entering the room to speak to his Caretaker, a boy must bow three times, kneel, then confess his every crooked step. Each wayward thought. He must then proceed to the meetinghouse for worship, taking care not to gaze out upon surrounding fields, grasses feathery in the dusk, or the sky, stacked with clouds like the surf of a purpling sea. He must not wonder. He must not yearn. A boy must enter the meetinghouse and form two lines with the other children. His hands must be folded with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand covering the left. He must not laugh. He must not glare. He must sing low. When the time comes to dance, a boy must not scuff his feet. He must step with the right foot first, and he must step carefully so as to avoid the shoes of those in front of him. He must not rub against the wall or drift out of line. He must feel ecstatic but not too ecstatic. He must stop when the song stops and file out into night without speaking. A boy must have his evening chores complete before dark. He must never make a fire in a stove without supervision. There must be no wood piled near the stove nor the spit box set beneath the stove. The stove must always be shut tight before all leave the room. A boy must return to his sleeping quarters by nine. If a door is locked, a boy must not go on rattling and knocking. It is not meant to be opened.
Allegra Hyde is the author of Of This New World (University of Iowa Press, 2016) which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Her stories and essays have been published in New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships and grants from the Jentel Artist Residency Program, the Lucas Artist Residency Program, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission. For more information, visit www.allegrahyde.com.
The Future Consequences of Present Actions appears in our Spring 2016 issue.