To the North West of the quiet village of Shepfield is their water source and in order to avoid any more issues, the children would learn a song to keep them safe.
Shepfield’s River is for gathering water,
And the swimming hole is where we wash and play;
Be sure not to follow Shepfield’s stream for those who do are forgotten,
Their souls go away.
“That song is for babies,” twelve-year-old Temperance exclaimed, “I’ve been down past the stream and I’ve seen where it reaches the ocean.”
“Have not!” Temperance’s younger sister, Joy, rarely believed her sister’s stories, but she had been in the world two years longer than her. Maybe it was true.
“Hush, Temperance! It’s outbursts like that that will get a little girl’s mouth washed out.”
Harmony, the girls’ mother was still a girl herself, having been pregnant with Temperance less than a year after her first bleed. But this was what was done and always would be done in the solitary settlement of Shepfield.
“Best get to bed. Tomorrow, we have the Gathering.”
Harmony pulled the door closed of her daughters’ room. Their cabin was modest, like most of the cabins in Shepfield. One simple room had a wood burning stove to keep it warm and cook, a few cupboards for storage near a tiny ice box surrounding a rustic cedar table with four chairs and a seating area for stories and prayer.
It was a small community and the families never needed much, not even fathers, for they had the Fellowship of Protectors caring for them and tomorrow was the Gathering in their honour.
Garlands of autumn foliage covered the table using pumpkins and gourds to stabilize each strand. The colours were dancing in the candlelight giving the whole room a cozy feeling. A feeling of safety within their home.
Harmony peeked into her daughters’ room and watched them sleep a moment while a hint of fear washed across her face. She focused on her fiery first-born Temperance, knowing her first bleed could be any time now, praying they could make it through this Gathering without it. Because at this Gathering, those young girls of whom have bled are now groomed to be mothers themselves, just as Harmony had been and her mother before her as this was what was done and always would be done in the tiny settlement of Shepfield.
Harmony, Temperance and Joy donned white linen gowns, not practical for the time of year, but the attire that was worn for the Gathering.
“Once we reach the pavilion, the bonfire will keep us warm.” Harmony reassured her daughters. “Quickly, we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves by arriving late.”
“At least it’s sunny, mama!” Joy, as her name would attest, always found the silver lining.
Harmony ruffled her youngest daughter’s hair, “Aye, it is. And in a couple of hours, we’ll be back home enjoying hot apple cider.”
Temperance dragged her feet, “Why do we have to do this every year? We sing and dance for the Fellowship and give them the garlands, then we don’t see any of the friars again until the next Gathering.”
“Because this was what was done and always will be done.” Harmony replied.
Temperance rolled her eyes as they entered the pavilion. She, unlike her sister, did not honour her name as well.
Harmony stopped at the small benches with the other mothers, all quite close to her age. She straightened the seasonal crowns atop her children’s heads and kissed them each on the cheek. A dozen mothers were doing the same for a dozen daughters, all dressed in white linen.
“Sing the song. Dance your dances. Place the garlands at the feet of the Fellowship and we will return home.”
“We know!” Temperance grabbed her younger sister’s hand and stormed to the platform, where the Fellowship would be seated, to join the rest of the young girls. Joy waved back at her mother with a smile.
The platform had five large chairs made of dark branches, intertwined with thorns and backs reaching towards the sky like thrones. Temperance and Joy sat next to Serenity just as they did every year before.
“Blessed day, Serenity,” Temperance said, “did you bleed?” She added quietly.
Serenity was eleven, she shook her head no. “Did you?”
Temperance shook her head no as well.
Serenity smiled, “grateful for another year of purity.”
The girls quieted and turned their attention to the platform as a mandolin began to play.
Slowly and almost regally, one by one, the five members of the Fellowship of Protectors took the stage. Their faces were hidden behind androgynous white masks, shadowed by the hoods of their thick, brown robes. Each took their seat and the entire pavilion sat in dead air waiting for the annual address.
Friar Adam rose from the centre throne and approached the front of the platform. He raised his arms toward the sky ceremoniously and brought his palms together. Instinctively, the mass of girls and women bowed their heads.
“Blessed day, sweet souls of Shepfield. Our Gathering is an annual rite of passage for girls who have transition to the next, most sacred stage of womanhood. Any female having bled since the last gathering is now blessed with the honour of carrying the next generation. You must come forward by the event’s completion or endure the most terrible consequences. This was what was done and always will be done. Please rise, sweet youth of Shepfield and sing us our song.”
The young girls, dressed in white linen, stood simultaneously and began their melody.
Shepfield’s River is for gathering water,
And the swimming hole is where we wash and play;
Be sure not to follow Shepfield’s stream for those who do are forgotten,
Their souls go away.
By the end of the event, no girl approached the stage to offer them self to the Fellowship. Though their faces were hidden, the general displeasure of the Friars sat heavy on everyone’s shoulders.
“It is unfortunate that none of you have transitioned. This a most sad day for our community.” Said Friar Adam solemnly. “Return home, sweet souls and know our disappointment.”
The women rose to receive their girls, all slowly exiting the pavilion.
“WAIT!” Bellowed Friar Adam. “You.” He pointed into the crowd of white linen.
The girls looked at each other confused until their gazes lowered. A small, red stain polluted an otherwise spotless gown.
“Approach.” Friar Adam ordered.
Temperance held on to her younger sister in disbelief.
“No.” She whispered, both her and Joy froze with fear.
Harmony joined her children, holding them close, while the other females looked on, slowly inching away from the chosen.
“This was what was done and always will be done.” Friar Adam continued. “Joy. You are blessed to carry the next generation.”
Joy clutched her stained dress with tears streaming down her face.
“She is not of age!” Temperance yelled, hugging her sister close.
“She has bled. Nature has granted her womanhood. Once her time has paused, she will have the honour of the entire Fellowship sharing their seed.” Informed Friar Adam plainly.
Harmony gasped. “The entire Fellowship? That has never been done. She is too young.”
“This was what was done and always will be done.”
“The entire Fellowship has NEVER been done!” Temperance stood between her family and the platform. “You cannot change this already barbaric ritual. I’m not afraid of you.”
“You have the week. When the moon is full, Joy’s bleeding will be done and she will become the next mother. Or you all will suffer the consequences.” The Fellowship exited the pavilion, leaving the women and children more terrified than before.
“She won’t!” Protested Temperance, looking to the others for support, but she, her mother and Joy were now alone.
Serenity was cleaning the communal garden shed when Temperance burst through the door still enraged over the morning’s events.
“They are not protectors! We are not safe here! Not while masked men make the decisions for our bodies.”
She was slamming around clay pots, stacking them roughly and moving them from the counter to some shelves while Serenity was sweeping, listening to her friend’s anger.
“Joy is ten. TEN!” Temperance kicked the shelves.
“This was what was done and always will be done.” Serenity offered and immediately regretted once Temperance shot daggers at her.
“I will scream if I hear that cow shit aphorism one more time.”
Serenity continued her sweeping, avoiding the confrontation brewing.
“Do YOU agree with it?” Temperance prodded.
“If you hold your tongue you are part of the problem, Serenity.” Temperance pushed, kicking the shelves again, this time causing a clear jar to rock and fall towards the ground. Serenity whirled around and caught the jar.
“OF COURSE NOT!”
Temperance had pushed Serenity out of her comfort zone and she no longer spoke with the gentle nature her name would suggest.
“But you’re acting like an ox. THIS jar contains Strychnine, a toxic pesticide. If this broke and we inhaled the fumes, we’d both be dead, writhing in pain from respiratory failure and this conversation wouldn’t matter.” She put the jar back on the shelf and calmed herself.
Temperance offered her hand to Serenity in peace. The women and girls of Shepfield were raised to be reserved, quiet and always act with grace; she knew this would be hard to fight, but that was not Serenity’s fault.
Serenity took Temperance’s hand and pulled her in for a hug as she began to weep, “I just don’t know what to do. I’m scared what will happen to us, especially because I don’t know what happened in the past.”
Temperance’s eyes lit up, “But maybe I can find out.”
“Tell me everything!” Temperance demanded from her mother.
They resided in the safety of their cabin. Harmony and Joy sat together in the seating area; both faces fresh with tears while Temperance paced by the table.
“THIS is not what has always been done. THEY are changing the rules. We are expected to continue loyally following - tell me the old stories, Mother, we cannot continue to be blind.” Temperance sat with her mother and sister.
Harmony took a deep breath, “we are the Fellowship’s nest of purity. This was what was done and always will be done. Mother to daughter and mother again.”
Temperance scowled, “stop reciting the teachings and tell me what has happened? What of the sons?”
“There are no males born.”
“That is impossible! The Fellowship can’t control the fetus’ gender. And they shouldn’t have control of our bodies in general.”
“This was what was done and-“
“ENOUGH!” Temperance felt like she was losing her mind. “I can’t be the only one questioning this way of living. WHY?”
Joy nuzzled Harmony, “Please mommy. I don’t want to be a mother.”
Harmony took a deep breath. All mothers were taught not to share the past with their daughters. She finally spoke.
“I mothered a son. After Temperance and before my Joy. But males cannot create life and are cleansed at birth. My heart broke and a piece has always been missing. In the time before I was a mother, there were tall tales of girls challenging the Fellowship that no one believed, but I did witness one.”
Temperance and Joy waited eagerly to hear their possible opportunity out.
“She ran away. Followed the stream. The Fellowship returned her skeleton a moon cycle later. No one else denied their protection after that. They keep us safe from the beyond and we give them daughters.” Harmony sighed heavily.
“But how do you know it was that girl’s remains? A skeleton could be any body.”
“We did not question. We were,” Harmony considered her words a moment. “We are scared.”
“I’m not. We should follow the stream.” Temperance pleaded with her mother and sister. “At this point, what have we got to lose?”
“Our lives!” Harmony could not even stomach the idea of losing her children.
“But we are barely living here!” Temperance stormed into her room and began packing. Harmony and Joy joined her.
“I’m leaving. With or without you.” She looked to her younger sister, “I hope it is with you.”
Under the cover of darkness, Temperance, Harmony and Joy moved swiftly and silently through the forest to the watering hole. The crescent moon danced on the surface helping illuminate the mouth of the stream. They continued South, past the “Do Not Follow” signs, under the barbed wire fence. There was no turning back now.
The women stayed quiet, letting the sound of the stream guide them. The night was dark, but shadows casted by the sliver of moon danced in the trees, causing Joy to stick tight to her fearless older sister.
It felt like hours had passed while the little family continued downstream.
“Is there really an ocean?” Joy squeaked.
“I don’t know,” Temperance admitted, “but whatever there is must be better than where we were.”
A branch broke near them and they froze, listening to any follow up sounds. They crouched behind some nearby shrubs and waited.
Through the dancing shadows, a robed form crossed in the distance, barely distinguishable from the surroundings, but Temperance saw it. It was one of the Friars!
They never knew where the Fellowship resided. The conception cabins and pavilion were the only places any maidens had ever seen the Friars.
Temperance followed where the Friar was headed with her gaze and briefly returned to her trembling family.
“I’m going to follow him.” She announced.
Harmony grabbed Temperance’s hand, “my daughter, we are already on a perilous trek, why challenge it further?”
“Because maybe I can save more than just our family. Stay here, hidden. I will return.”
She kissed her mother and sister and took off into the night.
Temperance kept a fair distance behind the Friar in an effort to stay unseen. While he was heavy footed through the underbrush, her footprints were silent along the soft earth.
As they approached a clearing, Temperance lay low with some bushes, watching the Friar continue through a garden towards a supply shed. She looked past the shed to a large, well-kept farmhouse; all the upstairs windows were dark, but there was a warm light from a large bay window cascading on to the porch. She saw the silhouette of the Friar climb the steps and enter the home.
As if it was her cue, Temperance raced through the garden and into the supply shed. Shelves of preserves, root vegetables and grains made the air smell like a pantry and the hanging tools were an excellent selection for protection. She grabbed a heavy hoe between a rake and shovel, making sure not to spill the bottles of pesticides, before easing the shed door open.
There was another door to the farmhouse, less conspicuous than the front door lit by the bay window. She snuck along the house and up the stairs, turning the knob slowly, it was unlocked.
Temperance opened the door just enough to squeeze through with her weapon, leaving the door slightly ajar for a quick escape. She turned and rose the hoe to attack as she stood face to mask, swallowing her scream, the Friar was standing there motionless.
Her heart was caught in her throat, until she realized this robe and mask were hung like the way they hung their wet coats by the door. And it wasn’t just one, there were four matching robes and masks.
Grasping her weapon tightly, Temperance tiptoed through what she recognized as a kitchen, but this home was much bigger than her humble cabin. She followed a dim hallway towards the room she assumed was lighting the front porch.
It was a grand parlour, with an elegant fireplace presenting a roaring fire and decorated with five tall, leather chairs, four of which were occupied by sleeping Friars. Without their masks and robes, their true forms were exposed; withered and frail old men sat slumped over in each chair, appearing much less menacing than when in their robes and masks. Temperance looked at her hoe and back at the Friars. She couldn’t use it in fear of others waking during an attack of one of their own. And where was the fifth one?
She stood baffled for a moment until she remembered the garden shed. She placed her tool by the rear door and silently exited outside.
Once in the shed, she looked through the bottles of pesticide, quickly scanning each label until she found, Strychnine. Temperance slipped out of the shed, stopping in the shadows briefly when she thought she heard a sound. She scanned the tree line and around the house, waiting until she could confirm the coast was clear.
As fast as her legs could carry her, she was up and inside the house again. The Friars were still sleeping. She carefully inched her way to the fireplace, keeping a watchful eye on the vulnerable Friars. Temperance grabbed the bottle of Strychnine and tossed it into the fire.
Success surged through Temperance’s body! She snuck from the parlour safely, continued down the hallway with the back door in view. She was almost free. They were all almost free.
A hand came down hard on her shoulder just before reaching the door, gripping painfully. It was the fifth Friar. He spun her around, bringing her face to face with his awful white mask. He tossed Temperance around like a rag doll, landing her on the countertop forcefully. He moved his other hand to her throat and pressed firmly.
Temperance’s eyes began to roll back as her breathing became laboured, too tired to fight back. She shut her eyes accepting her fate until there was a heavy thud and the pressure stopped. Temperance slowly opened her eyes.
Harmony and Joy stood in front of her, the Friar dead at their feet, the hoe sticking out from his neck. Temperance regained her surroundings and ushered her mother and sister outside and into the safety of the woods. They hid along the tree line and would wait until daybreak to make sure their work was done.
The women of Shepfield, dressed in linen, lined the platform for another annual Gathering and waited for the Friars to arrive.
A year had passed and at this Gathering, Serenity would be one of half a dozen girls who had bled that year. She looked to the empty space next to her, wondering what had happened to her ambitious friend and her ill fated younger sister.
Three Friars took the stage and brought their palms together. The females all bowed because this was what was done and always would be done in the tiny settlement of Shepfield.
“Blessed day, sweet souls of Shepfield. Our Gathering is an annual rite of passage for girls who have transition to the next, most sacred stage of womanhood.” One of the Friars began, but it did not sound like Friar Adam. “Until now. For today, we take back our bodies and our freedom.”
Harmony, Temperance and Joy removed their white masks and robes.
“Sweet souls of Shepfield, know today and forever that Harmony, Temperance and Joy conquered the patriarchal Fellowship.”
And they tossed five skulls into the bonfire.