Apr/May 2012  •   Fiction

She Never Said No

by Edward Massey

Bishop Barber kept a look out his shop window across the street from the jail. About mid-morning Deputy John Willford Simms set his horse to the watering trough. Bishop Barber grabbed a hot towel and wrapped it around the face of the customer in the chair.

"You relax a few minutes," he told his customer. "We'll let your whiskers soften up a bit."

The Bishop put on his coat. Authority was needed.

John Willford had been taught hard work and respect for his elders. He taught the same to the son who came 18 years after this meeting. The Bishop was an Elder in every way. Older than the Deputy. When he wasn't called Bishop Barber, he was called Elder Barber.

A Deputy now seven years, John Willford's mountain-bred survival instinct had been honed to a fine edge by the Sheriff's insistence he size people up and make a judgment. Sheriff, even Deputy for that matter, in a frontier town in a territory not yet a state, was likely to be police, judge, jury, and executioner at any one time, even at the same time. Trust the judgment. You had to get used to being right.

Deputy John Willford judged this person standing in the doorway to be a big blowhard, Bishop or not.

"Brother Simms, I got to talk to you," said the Bishop. He took up a stance blocking the doorway, folded hands rested across his stomach in his best reverential posture.

"We got a problem here in town, and we need your help," the Bishop said in his deep, official voice. "We need to marry Elizabeth Tonsil."

John Willford kept his face a blank mask. Where did a deputy figure in marrying off one of the town's young girls?

The official voice continued.

"She arrived last September from England in that company of sick Saints."

John Willford had been the one to meet the wagon train when it arrived. He figured he didn't need to tell the man.

"Her mother died two weeks after they arrived," the Bishop continued without regard for any need the Deputy had to speak up. "Her father a week later. She was left an orphan, alone with no money. Don't get me wrong, she's no baby. She's 22 and in her prime. She's living under my roof, and we're not even kin. To be sure, Brother Simms, it's all virtuous; I'm just doing the Bishop's responsibility. It's time a husband took responsibility."

John Willford determined not to say a word.

"Well?" The Bishop held his arms at his side, shoulders pulled back, coat opened across his chest.

John Willford had a wife and a family.

"Send her out to get a job," he said. "She could meet a man."

"Now, Brother Simms," the official voice heavy with authority, "this little English and Scotch settlement is a haven for Saints who crossed an ocean and walked to this valley."

John Willford wondered was this man thinking or reciting?

"We protect our own. Especially our orphans and our women."

John Willford suspected he knew what was coming.

"You are on your way to becoming one of the leaders in this County. A man above all the rest, just like Elder Simms."

It took John Willford a moment to recognize Elder Simms was Luke Willford Simms, his father, Sheriff Simms to everyone else in the County. The words put him on his guard. His father was lean with praise, as he would be with his son. All three of them knew flattery for what it was: a flat out signal somebody wanted something.

"For Elizabeth Tonsil to be married is best for her. You are a born leader, and you should have a second wife. The doctrine of plural marriage is a divinely instituted obligation."

John Willford wasn't persuaded. The man wanted so much to be what he thought a Bishop should be, he had memorized his life.

"It's God's will."

Well, now, that made all the difference.

"And to boot, she's a good looking girl." The Bishop smiled and nodded his head toward John Willford, "You'd like that about her."

Damn the man. Deputy Simms was content to live the life of duty he lived. He had a regular marriage. To Elizabeth Jensen. He already knew young Elizabeth Tonsil was attractive. No feelings came with his knowledge. He simply knew she was attractive because he knew the names and faces of every person in the county.

Finding a way to say no to the Bishop was hard. When the Bishop told you, you had a calling, you had a calling. But what good would marrying Elizabeth Tonsil do him? No good. He hated rounding up husbands who strayed, crying wives, usually holding a child, pleading with him to find their man. He had two jobs and a wife and a fourth kid on the way. He had no inclination to do any straying, Church sanctioned or not.

The Bishop talked on while John Willford tried to figure a way to say no. Nothing could make a second family an attractive proposition to him. There was nothing in it but more obligation and more responsibility and more work. He wanted none of it. Truth to tell, he was not paying any attention to anything the Bishop said.

"I'll come by here on Sunday, after Church. I will take you to my home to meet Elizabeth Tonsil."

Damn the man. Buffoon, maybe, but this Bishop had skills John Willford did not possess.

He did not want to meet this woman. Nothing against her, there simply wasn't any reason to make her acquaintance. Knowing his prey, the Bishop struck first. He made the one move that in this society made it impossible for the Deputy to say no. He invited the Deputy to his home.

"Missed you at Sunday School this morning," said the Bishop, back in the Deputy's doorway.

"Not much police work needed in church on Sunday," answered the Deputy.

"God's work."

The Deputy marked it a blowhard's response, something the Bishop had memorized.

The Deputy locked the office and asked himself how he had come to walk side by side toward the man's home on a mission the Bishop wanted and he wanted no part of. The man had will.

That man's will and John Willford's certainty he wanted to take on no more responsibility struggled with each other to the moment the Bishop introduced Elizabeth Tonsil.

She smiled. She said nothing.

He stood before her in the parlor, reviewing in his mind that she was one of the new arrivals coming into the County, maybe 200 in the past year alone. It was his job to know her story, right down to the detail of her mother and father becoming the 11th and 12th bodies to be buried in the graveyard.

She held out her hand and he shifted his hat, taken off when he entered the house, to his left hand. He took her hand and shook it. He did not let it go.

When next she saw him and held out her hand, it was in Church the day they were married. Once again, he took it and held it and did not let it go.

In the week it took to arrange the marriage, he bought a little lot with what money he had saved before the Bishop's visit. The Bishop rallied church members to help him build a one room house. After the marriage, he visited Elizabeth Tonsil, now Simms, at their house every day. Sometimes he stayed the night. He never moved in.

Elizabeth Jensen Simms tolerated the obligation of the second wife and the three daughters who survived birth in the first nine years. That was how they kept their society together, and she accepted it wasn't proper for him to stop living in the house with her and his first family. She never accepted the second family as family. After all, Elizabeth Tonsil had been an orphan, a ward of the Ward. Elizabeth Jensen never forgot that. She made sure no one else ever forgot it, either. So what if the orphan had come from England? After all, the meetings in England converting the orphan's parents were held at mother Jensen's house, her mother Jensen. Mother Jensen and Elizabeth Jensen had come to the Territory a full decade before the Tonsil family. They had arrived soon after her father-in-law, Luke Willford, took up his calling to settle the mission, even before he became Sheriff.

Who knew anything about her, really? There was no one to verify what she said about herself and her family. Maybe she had been a maid. Elizabeth Jensen offered Elizabeth Tonsil a job cleaning house. This transaction took place between the two women without a word to John Willford.

He learned his second wife was serving as maid to his first wife the day he put a stop to it.

That first time, when she smiled and he held her hand in his, she broke the silence with a startling directness.

"The Bishop tells me you are to be my husband."

"Told me the same thing," he said, still holding her hand.

"And how about that?" she asked.

He tried to concentrate on her accent, closer to the Sheriff's than to his. Concentration did not work. He was thinking about something else. Barely married four years to Elizabeth Jensen, the only truth he knew between husband and first wife was their intimacies were scarce, on the way to becoming rare.

"Ma'am, that's not for me to say," he answered.

It was not for him to think, let alone to say. He had to leave it all in a jumble. He dared not bring to mind the thought he so enjoyed in its formless state. Those shapeless clothes of awkward materials in homespun and muslin lay on her body in a single extra skin. He could feel this beautiful June day. He could feel a glow, but he knew it best to leave it in a jumble. To want more would be like peeling off that single extra skin.

"Well, the English aren't very romantic, either," she said.

Elizabeth Tonsil and John Willford never spoke their desire, hers as great as his. That day commenced a life of desire they did not speak and did not deny. She had power over him that was electricity and magnetism. He felt a constant need to be in her aura, to be connected. He was careful and caring but he never thought to ask what she felt. She never asked. She never said no. They shared an unspoken answer: she was as taken by him as he by her.

They were with each other pretty much every time he came to the house, even after she got pregnant. The first baby was still-born. They were convinced they had done it. Neither spoke a word of their feared guilt, but when Elizabeth Tonsil told him she was going to have another baby, he kissed her on the forehead and left. He remained outside the house until the day the new baby was born.

John Willford banished himself three times. Three beautiful little girls, age eight, six, and two, all born healthy as could be. They thought their family complete. The little house down at the corner of 50 East and 50 North glowed as bright as Elizabeth Tonsil Simms.

The diphtheria came to the valley in the first week of March, 1879. Like unseen waves it bounced off the low foothills blocking the entrance to the north and back to the Wasatch Mountains in the south. It caromed off the Uintahs in the east, looking for an outlet to the west down into the Great Salt Lake. The freezing cold weather keeping the winter's deep snow piled high long into the spring also kept the diphtheria trapped in the little valley.

Mother and daughters were quarantined. No one could go out. No one could come in. No Doctors. Medicine was boiled ragweed and bitterroot.

John Willford did the best he knew how. It changed nothing. He was helpless. A helpless man is useless. Deputy. Ha! Empty calling. Worthless star. It gave him no power to stop the sickness and death. Not for his family, not for all those other settlers living a black end to ten years of hard struggle in a dry hot cold place. He could not go in the house to comfort his daughters and his wife. What house? It was nothing but a little cabin with broken chink and drafty walls surrounding one small room. In that one small room slept all three daughters in the same bed dying in the face of his uselessness.

God's will brought the day when John Willford had more important work to do than observing the quarantine. He had a responsibility greater than the County could confer. He went to the little house, opened the door closed to protect the community outside, and walked to the bed in the one room. Each daughter had died in her own time. One on the third, one on the fourth, and the last on the ninth. Man and wife had not discussed the details of the first death or the second. They had simply talked to each other through the window and decided to wait to bury all three together.

He picked up his daughters, one by one. Elizabeth had made each little girl a clean white dress. After dressing her, she had wrapped each issue of her womb in a clean sheet. He held each little white bundle in his arms and carried it to the window. He opened the window and handed the two-year-old out the opening to the Sexton who was collecting bodies for the town. He closed the window. Again. For the six-year-old. And again. For the eight-year-old.

The Sexton laid each girl out in a little pine box. He carefully positioned a fitted plank on the top of each box and nailed it shut.

All the life created by Elizabeth Tonsil and John Willford Simms was given up to fever. Burned out.

John Willford stepped back from the window to his wife. He bent his head toward her to kiss her before he left the house. She shook her head no, saying nothing. His hands holding her arms below the shoulders told him through the thin fabric that her skin was warm and damp.

Father buried daughters with a prayer, no Bishop Barber to perform the ceremony. He laid each sealed pine box in the family plot next to Grandma and Grandpa, the pioneers who had brought their mother to this merciless place.

Elizabeth Tonsil passed her 33rd birthday, mother of four children, mother of no children. Diphtheria. Death. Work every day. Five years of sickness shrouded the glow of this bright spirited woman. They had only each other and she had only him. The passion remained, but he was ever mindful of her weakness. Their lovemaking became very careful. Often just a holding, sometimes locked together almost motionless. He feared the risk they were taking with each coupling. He did not know what to think about her having another baby. This too they never discussed. He just held her. She just held him. Often he would leave before the holding became intimate. She never asked. She never said no.

Now really a house, no longer a one-room cabin called the little house on the corner. Despite their childlessness, or because of it, he continued to add to it. In four years he built three bedrooms and a kitchen, turning the one room where all life and death took place into a little parlor. It would be forever the living room, never again a bedroom, a death room.

Elizabeth Tonsil started to feel better, get stronger. She noticed it. He noticed it. She became pregnant again. Six years after the diphtheria epidemic, two years after his father was killed and Deputy Simms became the second Sheriff Simms, life forced its will on them again.

John Willford rejoiced in the first pregnancy. They could have a family again. Still, 39 was a dangerous age for a woman to endure the difficult task of having children. A new, beautiful little girl, Clara, brought only joy to them.

The second pregnancy brought concern. John Willford thought this woman who made his life glow because he could hold her would die from his touch.

She told him she was pregnant with their sixth child while lying in bed together on her 41st birthday.

Fear grew in him.

"Jesus, woman," he exclaimed at the news. "How can you be pregnant again?"

"Well," she said with the humor lining the facts up just so, "you were a party to that party."

"Damn it, I know that," he said. "But this has to stop."

She said nothing.

He looked at her. What he felt inside was like rage. It was not rage at her and he had to hold it inside. He made a decision.

"I love you, woman," he said.

She caught her breath. From the Bishop's parlor to that day, he had never used those words. She stood before him dreading what would come.

"This has to stop."

She never asked. She never said no.

She had a little difficulty with the birth of the boy, Mark Willford, but not enough to stop her from living 37 more birthdays in the little house without a single visit from John Willford.