Torn by God:
A Family's Struggle with Polygamy
Copyright 2009 by Zoe Murdock
All rights reserved.
ISBN - 13: 978-0-923178-06-2
Although this story is inspired by real events and is set in the landscape of the author's youth, the characters are fictitious. They should not be construed as real.
Without whom this book would not exist,
and without whom I would not exist.
Dedicated to Momma and Daddy,
I've journeyed far, but memory keeps bringing
me home. I want to understand.
I love you. I miss you.
I am deeply indebted to all those who provided valuable feedback as I worked through the various drafts of this novel. Many thanks to Elio Zarmati, Susan Hart Hellman, Elizabeth Welles, and Nancy Decker who read with such enthusiasm and attention to detail I was inspired to continue improving the manuscript. Nancy Kurland was one of the first to read the entire manuscript from beginning to end. She had many valuable insights, as did Douglas Hill. Many thanks to Janet Marietta, Joanne Anderson, Dianne Woolley, Pam Kirkpatrick, Julie Albright, and Paul Van Dam who read and responded to the completed manuscript in a way that let me know how the story would be seen by different readers. David Kranes encouraged me from my earliest days of writing in the creative writing program at the University of Utah. I am forever grateful for his influence, his friendship, and his kind assistance in helping me see this story in a new way. And I can't forget Tricia Dunn with whom I shared writing in that little coffee shop beneath the freeway. Last, but not least, my sincere appreciation goes out to the writers in the weekly writing workshop that Doc and I have taught over the past eight years. That includes Jon Myhre, Jeff Guenther, Arthur Braverman, Wendell Jones, Jann Correll, Elizabeth Grumette, David Matzke, Jeff Lawson, Susan Justice, Sharon Hall, John Souchak, Gail Bellenger, Neal Ortenberg, Teresa Rooney, Lisa Snider, Rosalind Warfield-Brown, Philips Patton and the three hundred or so others who have joined us at one time or another. Much of what I know about writing has been garnered from these writers, not only from the comments they provide on my work, but from the complex and interesting stories they present each week for examination and discussion.
Torn by God
The trouble started the day my dad saw God. It was a Saturday, a warm spring day in 1959. We'd just finished breakfast. Mom was doing the dishes and Dad was reading his Book of Mormon. He'd been doing that a lot lately and it was starting to get on Mom's nerves.
I was sitting across from Dad, playing solitaire, when Mikey popped up from under the kitchen table and grabbed one of my cards for the third time. I yelled, "Mom, tell Mikey to knock it off."
She threw her dishtowel on the counter and gave Dad an exasperated look. "Get your nose out of that book, Michael. Let's go for a drive or something."
Dad didn't even look up, but Mikey scrambled out from under the table and started jumping up and down. "Oh boy, oh boy. Let's go for a hike, Momma."
Twenty minutes later we were bouncing down our dirt road. Once we turned at the mailbox onto the highway, we picked up speed and I rolled down the window and hung my head out to feel the cool spring air on my cheeks.
Mikey got up on his knees and screamed, "Look, Bethy, look. There's little baby lamies." He leaned out so far Mom reached back and grabbed him by the seat of his pants. She laughed and said, "If you don't watch out, we'll find you bouncing down the road like a rubber ball."
She turned around and scooted a little closer to Dad. His window was open and the breeze sent her soft brown hair blowing out across the back of the seat. She looked so pretty.
Dad must have seen it too because he grinned and said, "What a beauty you are."
She laughed, but then turned away.
"Did I say something wrong?"
"Well, you've been spending so much time with your scriptures I thought maybe you'd forgotten about me."
Dad's face darkened. "I'm just studying the gospel. We're supposed to do that, aren't we?"
"I know, but you're so preoccupied all the time."
He frowned as if he thought she was criticizing him and she hurried and patted him on the leg and said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything."
After that, they stopped talking and I went back to looking for signs of spring as we headed up into the canyon. The snow was almost gone by then. Even up on the side of the mountain there were only a few dirty patches in the shade and one long streak of slush running down the middle of the sleigh-riding hill. The trees up that high were still grey, with only a hint of a green halo that showed they were getting ready to bud. I gazed over towards the far side of the canyon. There were little misty patches of fog floating down into the tops of the cottonwood trees alongside the creek. The feathery whiteness of the fog against the stark blue of the sky gave me a feeling that something magical could happen down there.
Dad pulled off the highway at a little campground in a grove of tall pines where we sometimes went for picnics in the summer. We all got out and I started to look around, but then Dad headed off on a muddy dirt road in the direction of the creek without saying a word. I ran to catch up and asked him why he didn't wait for Mom, but I guess he was too preoccupied to answer. He was walking fast and jumping the mud puddles as if he was in a big hurry to get somewhere. I looked back to see if Mom and Mikey were coming, but they were still over by the car. I yelled, "Mom, hurry up."
She waved and yelled something back, but I couldn't hear what it was.
Dad left the dirt road and took off across a big sagebrush field. I couldn't understand what was wrong with him. Why wouldn't he wait for me?
By the time I crossed the field and got to where the trail dipped down into the scrub oak, Dad was completely out of sight. It was kind of dark and eerie in the trees. With the fog sinking almost to the ground, it was hard to see more than a few feet ahead and the air was so musty with the smell of last year's fallen leaves, I could hardly breathe.
When I came to a place where the trees were so thick I could barely get through, I began to think I was going the wrong way, but I couldn't see a sign of any other trail. I stopped and looked around, listening for Dad. But he wasn't there. It was as if he'd disappeared into thin air. I yelled, "Dad, Dad, where are you?" but there was no response.
I pushed my way further into the trees and then I heard a deep roaring sound that seemed to be coming from somewhere up ahead. At first I couldn't figure out what it was, but then I realized it must be the creek. But why was it so loud?
I kept going and the creek got louder and louder until I could almost feel it vibrating in my chest. I was feeling a little scared and I wondered if I should go back and find Mom, but I forced myself to go on. Finally, I broke out into a little clearing and saw the water. I couldn't believe that huge roaring river was the same little creek that went through the ravine behind our house. We always played in that creek in the summer, but now it was really deep and all churned up and full of mud and foam. The water had spilled over the banks and was swirling wildly around the trunks of the giant cottonwood trees. But the scariest thing was the sound. How could water make so much noise?
I wanted to get away from the deafening roar, but I couldn't leave without finding Dad. I was starting to worry that maybe he'd fallen in and been carried away. I didn't know what to do. Even if I found him, how would I be able to get him out of the water? I peered back through the trees and fog looking for Mom and Mikey, but they didn't seem to be coming. I'd have to find him myself.
I slowly worked my way downstream, climbing carefully over the rocks and scattered debris. Finally, I came around a bend and saw Dad. I couldn't believe my eyes. He was standing out in the middle of the creek without any clothes on. Had he gone crazy? The water was already over his knees, but he was wading in even deeper. He had something white in one hand, holding it high above his head, like he was trying to keep it from getting wet.
I hurried downstream, closer to where he was, and screamed for him to come out. But the water was so loud I didn't think he could hear me. He just kept going in deeper.
I scrambled over the rocks to the edge of the water and that's when I saw his clothes lying in a heap on the ground. Everything was there except his church underwear. That must have been what he was holding over his head. But why would he take his sacred temple garments out there?
There was nothing I could do but stand and watch in horror as he continued out into the water. Pretty soon it was all the way up to his chest. A huge branch came bouncing along the top of the rapids and I gasped when it crashed against his side and almost knocked him over. Somehow he kept his balance and pushed it away.
Then, I thought I heard some kind of low rumbling sound, mixed in with the roar of the water. I realized it was rocks. They must be tumbling and crashing together on the bottom of the creek. I yelled, "Get out, Dad, quick before your feet get smashed."
I jumped up and down at the edge of the water waving my arms and screaming, but I couldn't get his attention. Then, something seemed dreadfully wrong. Dad's face got all twisted up with fear and he started swatting at the air with his temple garments as if something was attacking him. But there wasn't anything there. It really scared me to see him like that and I was just about to go find Mom when a bright beam of light broke through the fog and shone right down on Dad's face. The light seemed to take away his fear and focus his attention on something high up in the top of the trees. He became so hypnotized he didn't seem to notice how the water was buffeting him around.
I stood there holding my breath and praying that God would protect him. Gradually the fog closed back in around him and the light began to melt away. I tried yelling at him again and this time he turned and looked in my direction. Then, he slowly started making his way out of the creek.
The icy cold water had turned his chest bright red and as he came out of the water I tried not to notice his private parts. It was embarrassing to see him naked like that.
When he finally climbed up on the rocks, I started laughing and crying at the same time. He smiled at me, but it was an odd smile that made me feel like he was seeing right through me. His eyes were glossy and his face glowed like some of that strange light was still shining on him.
I looked at his feet and legs to see if they'd been hurt by the tumbling rocks. There was a little river of blood running down from his knee to his foot. I pointed and said, "Dad, you're hurt."
He seemed to notice me for the first time. He quickly held up his temple garments to cover himself, and then he turned away and pulled them on. When he turned back, I saw that the blood had made a bright red stain on the white material of his sacred garments, but he didn't seem to notice.
I grabbed his arm. "Why did you do that, Dad? You could've drowned."
He gave me a peculiar look and said, "Did you see what happened, Beth? Did you see it?"
"It was . . . I had . . . a vision."
For a minute, I wasn't sure what he meant. Then I realized that the beam of light was the same as the light that appeared to the prophet, Joseph Smith, when he had his vision. I'd seen paintings of his vision all my life and they always showed the light coming down through the trees like that. Had Dad had that kind of vision? Did he see God like the prophet, Joseph Smith, did? Just thinking about it made me feel weird, and kind of excited.
I wanted to ask him what God said, but I heard Mom calling us over the roar of the water. Dad must have heard her too because he grabbed his pants and pulled them on real fast. He was still putting on his shirt when she and Mikey got down to where we were.
Mom took one look at Dad and said, "What in heaven's name have you been doing?"
I said, "He went out in the water, Mom. I was so scared. I thought he was going to drown."
She looked at the roaring river and then back at him and said, "That's crazy, Michael! Why would you do such a thing?"
He touched his finger to her lips. "Shhh, shhh, I'm okay."
She pushed his hand away and looked him over to see if he was alright. "Is that blood?"
The blood from his cut had soaked all the way through his pants, leaving a long red streak.
"It's nothing," he said. "Just a little cut." He wrapped his arms around her to try and calm her down. When she tried to push him away, he held her tighter, saying, "Shhh. Shhh."
The way Mom was acting must have scared Mikey or maybe it was the roaring sound of the water, but he grabbed them both around the legs and started howling. That terrible howl and the roaring creek made me feel like the world was splitting apart, like the water was going to rise higher and higher until we all drowned. I yelled, "Come on, Dad. Let's get out of here."
Dad took Mom and Mikey by the hand and helped them back up the trail over the rocks with me following behind. When we got away from the roaring sound of the water, the full impact of Dad's words hit me. Was it really possible he had a visit from God? Why would God talk to him?
When we got home, I stayed close to Dad. I wanted to ask him what it all meant, but he kept giving me a look that said to keep quiet. I decided he must be trying to figure out how to tell Mom.
That night, I stayed awake until I heard them go to bed, then I sneaked down the hall to the laundry room and crawled into the dirty-clothes cupboard. It was tight and smelly in there on top of the dirty clothes, but it was a place where I could listen through the wall to what they were saying in bed. I put my ear against the wall and heard Dad say, "Don't worry about that. Beth knows what happened. She was there. She saw everything."
"What did she see, Michael? The raging water? Her father about to be washed away?" Mom's voice was shrill.
Dad tried again. "None of that matters, honey. Something incredible happened to me today and I want to tell you about it."
There was silence behind the wall until Mom finally said, "All right, I'm sorry. I'm listening."
Dad told her about how he'd felt a strange excitement all day, but he didn't know what it was all about. Then, somehow, he'd ended up at the creek, almost without knowing how he got there. When he heard the roar of the water he thought somebody was calling him to come in. "I know. It sounds crazy," he said, "but the thing that's really crazy is that I knew it was Satan that called me. Yet I still had to go in."
I couldn't believe what he'd said. Satan? Why would he listen to Satan? I thought it was God he was listening to. I pushed my ear even harder against the wall.
He told Mom how he'd been terrified to go in the water, but then he'd realized that his temple garments would protect him.
"Are you telling me Beth saw you without your clothes?"
"I didn't know she was there, Sharon. I really wasn't thinking about that."
Mom got all worked up about me seeing him naked and wouldn't let him go on. While they were arguing, I started thinking about how special it was that I was there when Dad had his vision, but I wondered why I hadn't seen God or heard him speak. Maybe you had to have the priesthood to see God and only boys had the priesthood. Or maybe you had to be more righteous than I was. I wondered if Mom would have been able to see God if she had been there.
I kept my ear to the wall and when Mom finally calmed down, Dad told her about the strange light and what an amazing experience it was. "When the light broke through the fog and fell upon me, everything changed. I was in the presence of . . . of God."
"No, listen, Sharon. It's true. You've got to believe me. That heavenly light filled me with such an amazing sense of peace and serenity. It's what I've been looking for all my life."
"I don't know what you're trying to say."
"I received the Lord and now I have to change my life."
"Are you telling me you talked to God?"
I couldn't believe it. He really had talked to God, and I knew God didn't talk to just anyone. The only problem was that Mom didn't seem to believe it.
Dad's voice got louder. "Something incredible happened today. I need you to understand that my life has changed forever. I have to fast and pray so that the Lord will tell me what he wants me to do."
It was really quiet behind the wall, and then I heard the bed creak. Mom said, "I'm sorry, Michael. I don't know if I believe in . . . modern day visions. I'm not sure what happened to you today, but it frightens me. I don't think I can talk about it right now."
"Honey, please don't walk away."
I heard the door close and I knew Mom had left the bedroom. I stayed there on top of the dirty clothes for a long time, listening and waiting for her to come back. But she never did. Finally, I rolled onto my back and thought about their conversation. It disturbed me that Mom didn't believe Dad. If only she had been there like I was. If she could have seen the beam of heavenly light and how it shone down on him, she would have known he was telling the truth.
Dad had a study down the hall from the kitchen. It was where he kept track of the accounts for his carpentry business, but he also had a big collection of Church books in there. After his visit from God, he stayed in his study reciting the scriptures and praying whenever he wasn't at work. It sounded like a ghost muttering behind the door. If he ever came out, the only thing he'd talk about was what God wanted him to do. He was fasting a lot and getting so thin he could hardly keep his pants up. It worried me and I was also worried about how upset Mikey was all the time. He couldn't understand why Dad wouldn't play with him anymore, and there was no way I could explain it to him because I wasn't so sure I understood it myself.
One Saturday, Dad came out of his study and started wandering around the house mumbling to himself. Mikey got right in behind him and marched along, lifting his knees real high as if they were playing soldiers. When they got to the end of the hall, Dad turned around so fast he knocked Mikey down. He sat there staring up at Dad with a bewildered look on his face and his chin quivering. Dad hardly noticed. He just went back to pacing.
I was in the living room helping Mom fold the laundry, when Dad came back down the hall, looking mad. He stopped in front of us and yelled, "What do you think happens if a man has a visitation from God and denies it?"
Mom looked surprise. "Why . . . I don't know."
"Do you think God would ever forgive him?"
"It's an unpardonable sin, Sharon! If I don't follow through on this, I'll be damned for all eternity."
That was the first time he'd ever yelled at Mom like that and it scared me. It was as if his vision and all those scriptures he'd been reading had taken over his mind and turned him mean. I didn't understand how God could let that happen. Every night before I went to sleep, I prayed that He would tell Dad what to do so we could get back to our normal lives. But I don't think God was listening to me.
I was surprised at how gentle and patient Mom was, regardless of how unreasonable Dad got. She didn't believe he'd seen God, but I guess she could see how important it was for him to believe it. Then, one day, he got so agitated she decided she had to do something. She stood in front of him and took his hands in hers and said, "Maybe you should go talk to the Bishop, Michael. Maybe he can help you understand what happened and what you should do."
He gave her a quick look. "I don't know. What if he thinks I'm . . .?"
"That's what the Bishop is there for, love. If you can't talk to him, who can you talk to?"
It was true. The Bishop was the head of the Church in our town. He was the person who was closest to the prophet and closest to God. He was the one who made all the important decisions in the Ward. He decided if you were righteous enough to be baptized or to be married in the temple. He told you when you needed to pray for forgiveness and he told the boys when it was time for them to go on their missions. Surely, he could help Dad.
The next day we stayed after Sunday School, and I waited with Mikey and Mom on the wooden bench outside the Bishop's office while Dad went in to talk to him. It was strange being in the empty church with only the sound of murmuring voices coming out from under the door. The sunlight streamed down the hallways, reflecting off the polished white floors, reminding me of the heavenly light that shone down on Dad. I tried to imagine what the Bishop would say when Dad told him he had talked to God.
They were in there for so long I got bored and went to look at the photographs hanging along the wall. They were pictures of all the men who had been Bishops in our town since those early days when Brigham Young first came to the Promised Land with the pioneers. I looked closely at their faces, wondering if any of them had seen God like Dad had, but there was no way to tell. I thought it was more likely to have happened to the old-time Bishops because they were closer to Joseph Smith and had long hair and long beards like Brigham Young. Looking at those beards made me wonder why no one wore beards anymore. Then, I started wondering why there weren't any pictures of the woman and the children from the old pioneer days. I went back over to the bench and asked Mom.
She shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe it's because they were all polygamists back then. The Bishops had so many wives; I guess the women and children kind of got lost."
I knew all about polygamists. The prophet, Joseph Smith, was one and so were Brigham Young and a lot of the other men in the early days when the Saints first came to Utah. There were even a few people in our town who were still polygamists, but they didn't belong to our Church. They'd been excommunicated and all the kids made fun of them and called them weirdoes and perverts.
I sat back down on the bench. "What would it be like to be a polygamist, Mom? Could you ever do it?"
"Heavens no. We'd have to hide from the law. I don't think that would be a very nice life. Do you?"
"But I guess the early settlers had to deal with it. Your father's grandfather was a polygamist. In fact, he was the one who hid Brigham Young when the U.S. militia came to put everyone in jail for practicing polygamy. Did you know that?"
"Sure, Dad's told me about it lots of times. He's real proud of his grandfather. So, what happened to all his wives?"
"I don't really know. I guess he had to stop living with them after the Church banned polygamy."
I tried to imagine my great grandfather in a big house with a bunch of wives and children. I thought it sounded kind of fun, but it wouldn't be fun going to jail or getting excommunicated. The excommunication part was what confused me; why was it okay with the Church for the early pioneers to be polygamists, if it was so bad now? I'd heard all my life that polygamy was one of God's Celestial laws. Somehow it didn't make sense that God would change his mind about one of his divine laws.
I heard loud voices from under the Bishop's door and a few minutes later, they came out. The Bishop patted Dad on the shoulder and said, "Fast and pray about this, Michael. God will answer your questions."
Dad frowned and shook his head. "That's all well and good, Bishop, but if He does, I expect you won't believe that either."
"Now, Michael, you know I'm only--"
"Sure, sure, Bishop, you're only trying to help."
I couldn't believe it when Dad turned his back on the Bishop and walked away. Doing that to the Bishop was almost like doing it to God or Jesus. How could Dad do that?
The Bishop gave Mom a grim look, and shook his head.
Mom seemed kind of ashamed. "I'm sorry, Bishop. He's having a hard time right now. Please forgive him." She turned and hurried after Dad.
I looked at the Bishop, wondering what he'd said that made Dad so mad. He obviously hadn't helped him, and if the Bishop couldn't help him, who could?
When the Bishop went back in his office, I grabbed Mikey's hand and dragged him out to the car. Dad started up the engine and began yelling as he pulled out onto the road. "He didn't believe a word I said, Sharon. He went so far as to tell me not to talk about it to anyone."
Mom's mouth was tight, but she spoke gently. "I'm sure it's just because he wasn't there and that sort of thing doesn't happen everyday. Naturally he's having trouble believing it."
"But that's the point, Sharon. There's never another person there when God appears to a man. No one was there when God appeared to Joseph Smith, but we believe it happened, don't we? We take it on faith."
I leaned forward from the back seat and said, "But I was there, Dad."
They both ignored me.
Mom said, "Well, yes. Of course, we believe in Joseph Smith's vision. But he was the prophet and it happened a long time ago."
"No, no, he wasn't the prophet. He was just a young boy praying in a grove of trees. And it wasn't all that long ago."
I realized Dad was driving too fast. I was afraid he was going to go off the road into the irrigation ditch. I'd never seen him drive like that, like he didn't care what happened to us.
Mom was focused on Dad and didn't seem to notice. "Yes, but God had a plan for Joseph Smith."
"Right. A plan. Are you saying he doesn't have a plan for me?"
"Well, maybe he does, but . . . Joseph Smith was told what he was supposed to do, wasn't he?"
He looked over at her and it was as if he was seeing her for the first time in weeks. "Oh, I see. So, you don't believe me either?"
"Yes, of course I believe you. It's just that--" She looked away.
"Just what?" He jerked the car towards the side of the road and we slid to a stop in a huge cloud of dust. He sat there glaring at her, but she wouldn't look back.
After what seemed like forever, she turned to him. "Look. I'm trying to believe you, Michael. But it's hard. You tell me God appeared to you. You say it like it's the most natural thing in the world. Then you start comparing yourself to the prophet, Joseph Smith. What would you think if I told you something like that?"
"Sharon, I didn't make this up. You can't let the Bishop's attitude sway you?" He grabbed her hands and held them to his chest. "We can't let this cause trouble between us, love. You have to believe me. We have to work together and try and understand what it means. Please, honey, don't turn against me."
"I'm not turning against you. I want to believe you, you know I do. It's just that . . . I wasn't there."
I leaned forward and tried again. "I was there, Mom. I saw it. It really did happen."
Neither of them even looked at me.
Dad held onto Mom's hands as if she was trying to get away. "I can't go on as if nothing happened," he said. "How can I do that?"
There were tears in Mom's eyes. "I wish I could have been with you, Michael. I feel like I'm standing in the dark. Like you've gone some place I can't follow."
Dad pleaded with her. "I wish you'd been there too, but you weren't. So, what should we do? We can't pretend it didn't happen."
Mikey started rolling the window up and down and up and down and making little whimpering sounds. I tried to stop him, but he put his fingers in his mouth and whimpered even louder.
Mom finally noticed us and warned Dad. "We'll talk about this later, Michael. Let's get the kids home."
Dad reluctantly let go of her hands and pulled back out onto the road. When we got home, Mom told Mikey and me to go to our room and change and to stay there until she called us for lunch. I went upstairs feeling very confused. I'd never seen Mom and Dad fight like that before and now Dad was having trouble with the Bishop, too. How could seeing God cause so much trouble?
I needed to talk to someone about it, but the Bishop had said that Dad wasn't supposed to tell anyone about his vision and I knew that meant I wasn't supposed to tell anyone either, but I decided I didn't care. I had to talk to my friend, Tommy Atkins. He had a different way of thinking about things that sometimes helped me understand people and I desperately needed that right now
By the time Mikey and I got to school the next day, most of the kids were already in the classrooms, but Tommy was waiting in the hall for me. I hurried up to him. Before I could say anything the Bishop's daughter, Karen, came by. She glared at me and stuck her nose in the air and moved to the other side of the hall like she didn't want to get too close to us.
Tommy said, "What's with her?"
"I don't know. Just being her usual self, I guess." But it still made me wonder what she was thinking. When she'd gone in the classroom, I said, "I've got to talk to you, Tommy, but I can't talk here"
He grinned. "Well, I've got something to show you. How about we meet at the cemetery after school?"
Tommy was supposed to be in the seventh grade, but he'd sluffed so many times he'd been held back a year to my combined fifth and sixth grade class. I asked him once if he missed being with the kids his age, but he said it didn't make any difference because nobody talked to him anyway. It was because he wasn't a member of the Mormon Church like the rest of us. His father smoked cigarettes and that got him labeled as bad because smoking was against the Word of Wisdom. Some kids were actually scared of Tommy's father. They'd cross to the other side of the road when they went past his house, afraid that he was the devil and he'd grab them if they got too close.
I'd always thought Tommy was cute. He had dark hair and shiny brown eyes that seemed to notice everything, but I'd never talked to him much either. Then one day he'd grabbed my arm and pulled me into the trees behind the school playground. I was scared of what he was going to do, but he only wanted to show me a hummingbird nest. He'd found it and wanted to share it with someone and decided on me. He told me how special it was to see the tiny eggs because hummingbirds always hid their nests where no one could find them. I liked how gentle he was with the eggs, and it made me want to know him better. Over time we became best friends, but we always met in secret places where we could talk freely away from the ridicule of the other kids.
When school was over that day, I made sure nobody was around and I snuck out the side door. I hurried across the playground and took the narrow trail through the scrub oak and across the lumpy sagebrush field to the old pioneer cemetery where the original Mormon settlers had buried their dead. Tommy was already there, leaning back against a headstone, looking forlorn.
I plopped down into the wild grass beside him. "How come you look so sad?"
He shrugged. "Matt joined the Army yesterday."
"Your brother? Why'd he do that?"
He flipped a rock through the air and it pinged against another headstone. "He said it was his only ticket out of this stupid Mo-mo town. And besides if he didn't go, he would've got drafted anyway."
"Really, I don't know any boys who've been drafted."
"That's because you only know Mormon boys."
"Don't they have to go in the army?"
He frowned and spoke in a whiny baby voice, "No, they've got to go on their missions instead."
I didn't understand why it made him so mad. If the Church called them on a mission, it wasn't their fault. It was a calling from God, and they had to do it. "Maybe they'll go in the Army when they get back."
"Maybe. I guess some of them do. Matt told me about one Mormon guy in the Army. They made fun of him because he was scared to go swimming. He had some crazy idea that Satan ruled the water. Finally, they made him go in, but he kept his magic underwear on for protection."
"You know. His church garments."
"Really? That's what my dad did."
"He took his garments into the water for protection."
Tommy stared at me. "What are you talking about?"
I told him about Dad's vision. He rolled his eyes and said, "That's ridiculous. Why don't you tell me another one."
"No, really," I said. "He had a vision from God."
When I told him what had happened, he shook his head in disbelief. Then he flopped back on the ground and put his arm over his eyes. He didn't say a word for a long time. I worried about what he was thinking. We'd been through some arguments about the Church before. Usually, he said it was all a bunch of religious crap.
This time he didn't say anything about the Church or the stupid Mos and I wondered why. I lay down next to him and stared up at the wispy little clouds sailing across the pale blue sky. When he ignored me like that, it made me feel especially lonely and confused. Finally, I whispered, "Really, Tommy, don't you think people can have visions?" I rolled over onto my stomach and looked at him. "The scriptures say that God talks to people, so why wouldn't He talk to my dad?"
Tommy stayed silent and I thought maybe he'd gone to sleep. I nudged him once and he didn't move, so I nudged him again. He took away his arm and opened one eye. "Look, maybe God would talk to your dad. But I don't believe in that kind of stuff."
"Don't you believe in anything?"
"Sure, I believe in lots of things. But I don't believe what the Mormons say."
"But I'm a Mormon."
"You're different. The rest of them think they're better than everyone else. The only time they talk to you is if they're trying to convert you. What a bunch of crap." He sat up and started throwing rocks again. They bounced back at us and we had to duck to keep from getting hit, but Tommy didn't seem to care. I could tell he didn't want to talk about it anymore, but he was the only one I could talk to. Everyone else would tell the Bishop.
"I'm really worried, Tommy. What if nobody believes my dad had a vision, but he keeps believing it? What do you think they'll do?"
"They'll think he's crazy. But they're the crazy ones. Matt says that some people think Mormons are like cults that do voodoo."
"You know, where you stick pins in a doll that looks like somebody and it makes them sick."
"That's ridiculous. It's more likely we'd try to heal them."
"That's what I'm talking about. Mormons think they can heal people by rubbing magic oil in their hair."
"That's not magic. It's just a blessing. The Bishop gave Mikey a blessing like that when he was a baby. The doctor said he was going to go deaf from his ear infections, but the Bishop and my dad blessed him and he got better."
"That's what I said, magic."
I shook my head in frustration and Tommy went silent again. He was obviously fed up with me. "Okay," I said, "we don't have to talk about that stuff anymore. I thought you had something to show me?"
He frowned. "I don't think it's a good time. You'll just get mad."
"No, I won't. Come on." I reached under his shirt to tickle him and change the mood and that's when I felt something.
I tried to pull it out, but he pushed my hands away and laughed. "No, no, you can't see it. It belongs to Matt. I don't want you ruining it."
"Come on. You said you'd show me."
We wrestled over it a little longer and then he said, "Okay, okay."
He pulled out a picture, but before I could get a good look at it he tucked it in the back of his pants. I tried to grab it, but he held my arms and grinned. "Poor little Mormon girl. Thinks her Daddy had a vision."
It hurt my feelings, and I jerked my arms away. "Why are you being so mean? I thought we were friends."
"'I'm not mean. I'm just telling you your head's full of manure." He put his hands over my ears and rocked my head from side-to-side.
I pushed him away. "You're just trying to get out of showing me the picture. Now, come on, you can trust me."
He frowned. "Okay, but it's not my fault if you get mad."
"I won't. I won't ever get mad at you. I promise."
He handed me the picture. It was such a shock; it caused a kind of swirling sensation in my stomach. It was a photograph of a black woman. Her hair was pulled up on her head in smooth shiny curls and she was wearing nothing but Church garments and sparkly red high-heeled shoes. She had bright red lipstick and she was licking her little finger with a tongue that was so pink it almost didn't seem real. I couldn't stop staring at her.
When I finally looked at Tommy, he had a funny expression on his face. "Do you like her? How about those magic underwear?"
"Why would they take a picture like that? Are they making fun of Mormons? It's not very nice."
Tommy laughed. "What's wrong? She's all covered up from her neck to her knees."
"Maybe so, but you're not supposed to show your Church garments. And besides, I don't think black people are even supposed to be wearing them. They can't hold the priesthood or go to the temple."
"Yeah, I know. And why don't you tell me why that is?"
"Because of God's curse on Cain. You know, he turned him black for killing his brother, Abel."
"You just believe whatever nonsense you're told, don't you? You never stop to think it might be a bunch of baloney."
"What do you mean? Everybody knows about that. It's in the Bible."
"More likely the Church just doesn't want black people around. They blame God so they won't be blamed for hating them."
"The Church doesn't hate people. They tell us to love everyone."
"Yeah, like they love me."
I had to stop and think about that. "It's only because you're not in the Church. People think you're going to hell if you're not a member of the Church. It's not because they don't like you. They're just . . . worried about you."
"Oh right. So, I guess you think it's okay for them to treat me like they do?"
He wouldn't talk after that, and I didn't know what to say either. He was too upset to reason with. All I could say was, "I'm sorry people treat you bad. I wish they weren't like that."
"What in the hell do I care? I'm getting out of this stupid town as soon as I can. I'm going to join the Army, like Matt." He jumped to his feet. "Come on, let's get the hell out of here."
He hurried across the field with me trying to catch up. When we came out of the scrub oak into the schoolyard, I said, "Don't be mad at me, Tommy. It's not my fault what people do."
"I'm not mad. I'm just fed up with people telling me what to believe. Why don't they worry about themselves?"
"Do you think the Church is all wrong about everything?"
"What do I care? They can make up any dumb thing they want. I just wish they'd stop trying to convince everyone else to believe it." He squeezed my arm and tried to smile. "Look, I've gotta go." He hurried away without looking back.
The things Tommy said were spinning around in my head as I walked home. I hadn't ever questioned the Church before, but he'd got me thinking about things that scared me. Did people in other places really think Mormons did voodoo? Did they make fun of our temple garments and think the only reason black people couldn't hold the priesthood was because we didn't like them?
I closed my eyes, trying to escape the confusion, but I couldn't get away from that image of the black woman in her temple garments. I didn't know if I was more upset about someone taking that picture or about the Church not allowing black people to hold the priesthood because of something that happened a long time ago.
I was still upset about it the next day as I was walking to the church house for Primary after school. When I got there, I asked my teacher, Sister Andrews, why God wouldn't forgive the black people. She wrinkled up her nose like she smelled something bad and said, "What on earth are you talking about, dear?"
"We're always talking about forgiveness, so why doesn't God forgive them so they can be full members of the Church?"
She plopped down into her chair and frowned at me. "Well, sweetie, maybe someday He will."
I should have let it go at that, but there were other things I wanted to know. "Why were they punished in the first place? They weren't the ones that killed Abel. And what about the Indians? Why were they cursed with red skin?"
"Oh, Beth. Where do you come up with all these questions?"
Then, I made the mistake of telling her about the picture of the black woman in temple garments. She grabbed my shoulders and shook me. "What picture? Where did you see it?"
I knew if she found out it was Tommy's he'd be in big trouble, so I didn't say anything, but then she threatened to tell my parents and the Bishop. That's the last thing I wanted her to do. It wouldn't only get Tommy in trouble it would get me in trouble too and maybe even Dad. Finally I mumbled, "Tommy."
"Tommy? Tommy who?"
"You know. Tommy Atkins."
"That boy? What did he do, chase you down after school and make you look at it?"
I tried to keep from rolling my eyes. "Why would he do that? He's my friend."
She stood up. "Beth, I want you to stay away from that boy. Do you hear me? He's a bad influence."
"I thought we were supposed to be nice to people who aren't in the Church. I thought we were all supposed to be missionaries."
"I think you'd better let the real missionaries take care of people like that."
I wanted to tell her I wasn't going to stay away from Tommy no matter what she said, but that would have been another mistake, so I kept quiet.
She hadn't resolved any of my questions; she'd just proved that Tommy was right. I was beginning to wonder if maybe the Church really didn't like certain people. Maybe they didn't want us to have anything to do with them. But what about loving everybody? And what about trying to be a missionary?
I sat there going over it until I heard Sister Andrews say something about our annual daddy-daughter-date and I perked up my ears. It was a day we were supposed to spend with our fathers as a kind of training for how to act when we were old enough to start dating. Maybe it would give me a chance to ask Dad some of the questions that were flying around in my head. And I thought, maybe, just maybe, if I got him alone, I could convince him to stop worrying about his vision all the time and let us get back to living a normal life.
That night, I planned to talk to Dad about our date, but I didn't have a chance. As soon as he got home from work, he stormed into the kitchen and threw his lunch sack on the table and started pacing with a scowl on his face.
Mom came in and saw him. "What's wrong, Michael? Has something happened?"
"He goads me into talking. Then when I do, he tells me to get out." He pulled his sweatshirt over his head and threw it on the chair.
"What do you mean? Who told you to get out?"
"Brother Ellison. He told me he didn't want me working for him anymore."
Mom looked shocked. "Why would he do that?"
"He asked me outright. Put his arm around my shoulder, all buddy-buddy, and asked me to tell him what I saw, like he really wanted to know."
"He asked about the vision? How did he know about that?"
"I don't know. I guess the Bishop told him. I don't know who else it could have been, unless . . ." He spun around and glared at me. "Did you tell someone, Beth?"
"No, Dad." I felt bad saying that. I don't think I'd ever lied to him before, but I'd already been through the experience with Sister Andrews and I didn't want anyone else telling me to stay away from Tommy. Besides, I knew Tommy wouldn't have told anyone. Nobody ever even talked to him.
Mom must have believed me because she turned her attention back to Dad. "But why would the Bishop have told him?"
"I don't know, Sharon." Dad's face was grim and he was looking at Mom as if she was to blame.
"So, what did you say to Brother Ellison?"
"What do you think I said? I told him."
"You told him what, Michael?" Mom's eyes took on that dark green shade that only happened when she was really upset. Dad must have seen it too, because he turned away and wouldn't answer her.
She stepped closer to him with her hands on her hips. "Oh, honey, you didn't tell him you had a visit from God, did you?"
"Why wouldn't I? Is it something I should be ashamed of?"
"No, Michael. I don't think it is, but if someone doesn't believe you, it's just going to get them riled up. What if he tells other people?"
Dad sank down into a kitchen chair and put his head in his hands.
Mom sat next to him and softened her voice. "Well, let's think about this. You just barely started framing his new study, didn't you? Is he going to leave it half finished? No, he wouldn't do that."
Dad just sat there with his hands over his face.
Mom scooted closer and put her arm around his shoulder. She told him he'd just have to call Brother Ellison in a few days when he'd had time to simmer down.
He looked at her in disbelief. "You're saying I should apologize?"
"No, no. Just give him a chance to say he's sorry. You know how he is. He gets all worked up about things. He's probably already feeling bad about it." She patted his arm. "Come on, Michael. Don't worry about it. Go take your shower. You'll feel better."
After a few minutes, he stood up and slowly went upstairs. Mom looked at me and let out a big sigh. She'd told Dad not to worry, but she looked really worried herself. And I was worried too. Work always got kind of slow for Dad in the winter and he needed all the jobs he could get when it was warm. Why were all these terrible things happening?
When Dad came back down for supper, he seemed to be feeling a little better. He even managed a smile when Mikey made a face on his hamburger patty with the ketchup. I decided to ask him about the daddy-daughter-date. At first he didn't seem interested, but I kept after him and he said we could go up to Pioneer Village on Saturday if I wanted to. It was kind of a kid place to go, but I thought maybe we could do something fun afterwards, maybe go for a hike in the mountains or have a picnic at Liberty Park. At least it would give me a chance to talk to him.
Just as Dad and I were about to leave the house for our date on Saturday morning the telephone rang. Dad answered it. He looked at Mom and shrugged, like he didn't know who he was talking to. Then he said, "Oh, yes, of course, I remember you. You haven't been gone from the Church that long." He put his hand over the receiver and said, "Jacob Reuben."
Mom looked surprised and I was surprised, too. He was Laura and Aaron Reuben's father and they hadn't been in school for a long time. In fact, I thought they'd moved away until I heard the kids talking about how Brother Reuben had become a polygamist and didn't want his kids coming to school anymore. After that, if anyone talked about them it was just to make fun of their weird clothes or to joke about how many wives could get in Brother Reuben's bed before it would break.
Dad nodded. "Sure Jacob. I'd be happy to discuss it with you. I'm just heading out for a day with my daughter, but I could stop by on the way. . . Okay, I'll see you in a bit." He hung up the phone and looked at Mom.
She said, "Jacob Reuben? We haven't seen anything of him since he got excommunicated. What does he want?"
He shrugged. "He wants me to do some work."
"Really? That's strange. But come to think of it, he could use some help with that beat up old house of his. I've heard it's falling apart. Still, it surprises me. Those polygamists generally stick to themselves."
"Guess I'm the only carpenter he knows. I'll stop by and see what he needs done. I could use the work."
He frowned and Mom said, "Now don't start thinking about Brother Ellison again. You'll find other work. Just go with Beth and have a good time."
We didn't talk much on the way up to the mouth of the canyon. Now that we were alone, I felt a little uncomfortable. Dad had been reading scriptures and praying and fasting for so long it seemed hard to have a regular conversation with him. And I wasn't so sure I should ask him my questions. If he found out about my conversation with Tommy, he might have the same reaction as Sister Andrews.
Dad turned up a steep dirt road on the side of the mountain. The truck bounced so hard from the ruts we both started laughing. Dad said, "I think he needs a road builder as much as a carpenter."
"Yeah," I giggled, "I almost hit my head on the ceiling with that last one."
At the top of the hill, we pulled up in front of an old dilapidated house. There was nothing in the yard but a half-dead tree with a couple of squawking crows perched high up in the bare branches. There wasn't any grass or flowers or anything, just the bare dirt yard with an old brown car parked on the side of the house next to some kind of fenced-in wooden pen. Before Dad had even turned off the engine, Mr. Reuben came out of the house, hurried down the rickety wooden stairs, and ran across the yard towards us. I was surprised by how different he looked from the last time I'd seen him. He'd grown a wild looking beard and his hair had gotten long and seemed like it was full of knots. He reminded me of one of those old pioneer bishops on the wall at the church.
When we got out of the truck, Mr. Reuben grabbed Dads hand and started shaking it vigorously. "I'm very happy to see you, Brother Sterling. You don't know how glad I am that you've come." He kept shaking Dad's hand like he was never going to let it go.
"Well, thank you. It's good to see you, too, Jacob." Dad glanced over at me and raised an eyebrow and that's when Mr. Reuben noticed I was there.
"Well, now, who is this lovely young lady?"
Dad pulled me forward. "You remember Beth."
"Yes, I think I do. She was just a little bit of a thing when I last saw her. How do you do, Sister Elizabeth? You certainly have grown up."
He looked at me with such piercing eyes it made me nervous, but I thought I should try to be nice if he was going to give Dad work. I smiled and he smiled back, still looking into my eyes like he was trying to see deep inside me.
Finally, he stopped staring and turned back to Dad and slapped him on the back. "Brother, you're probably wondering why I asked you to come up here. Well, I'll tell you. We want you to build us a church."
This time Dad raised both eyebrows. "A church?"
"Yes. I think it's time."
"Do you have enough people for that? I mean--"
Mister Reuben laughed and said, "Yes, well, we're still small, but the saints are gathering."
Dad leaned back against the hood of the truck to think about it, and Mr. Reuben glanced back at me and winked. I didn't understand why he kept looking at me like that. The way his eyes moved up and down my body made me feel like he could see through my clothes. No grownup had ever looked at me like that before. I stared at the ground trying to get away from his eyes.
Dad didn't seem to notice what Mr. Reuben was doing. He said, "I don't know. A church is quite a big project. I generally do smaller things. You know remodels, cabinets, or maybe a room addition now and then. I'm really a carpenter more than a builder."
Mr. Reuben slapped him on the back again. "But that's exactly what we need. A carpenter. It's not going to be a big church, just a place for us to gather and give praise to the Lord. You can do it, Brother. I know you can. I've seen your work."
"But why me? Don't you have someone within your group?"
I wondered why Dad was resisting. Was he worried about working for the polygamists? Was he afraid of what people would say?
It was obvious Mr. Reuben didn't want to take no for an answer. He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "And there are other reasons we want you to help us." He looked around as if he thought someone might be listening and then he said, "I've heard things, Brother Michael. Maybe things I wasn't supposed to hear, but . . . let's just say it tells me there may be a place for you with us."
"I'm not sure what you mean, Jacob."
"Please. Call me Brother. Just because I'm not part of your church anymore it doesn't mean we're not still brothers. Maybe I'm more of a brother to you than you think, more of a brother than the men in your church." He glanced back at me and winked again.
I watched as Dad and Mr. Reuben exchanged looks. It was like they were having some kind of silent conversation. I felt excluded and looked over at Mr. Reuben's rickety old house with its curtained windows. I wondered if his wives and kids were inside. Mom had told me polygamy was against the law, so maybe that was the reason he didn't invite us inside the house. Maybe he didn't want us to see them.
I couldn't remember having seen the original Mrs. Reuben at all since they became polygamists and I wondered if she still lived in that house and if the other wives lived there too. And what about their kids, Laura and Aaron? Were they stuck inside that little house all the time, unable to attend school? If, so how were they ever going to learn anything about the world? I felt sorry for them and knew I'd never want to live like that.
By the time I turned my attention back to Dad and Mr. Reuben, they were shaking hands as if they had come to some kind of agreement. Dad smiled and said, "Okay, then. I'll give you a call in a few days."
Mr. Reuben patted him on the shoulder like they were old friends. "Good. We're not quite ready to start the church, but we can get started on the planning process."
Dad opened the truck door for me and Mr. Reuben leaned down close to my face and said, "See you later, little sister."
I felt so uncomfortable with his closeness that I just turned away, but Dad gave me a nudge so I said, "Goodbye, Mr. Reuben."
He quickly grabbed my hand and held it tight against his chest. "Please, little sister, call me Brother. We are all brothers and sisters under God."
I jerked my hand away and got in the car, but Mr. Reuben didn't want to let us go. He held onto Dad's arm and gave him that piercing look. "Don't let them convince you that God has turned silent, Brother. They can't take that away from you."
Dad didn't respond for a second, and when he did his voice cracked. "Thank you, Brother. Thank you for that."
Dad's eyes glistened with tears as we bumped back down the dirt road to the highway. At first, I didn't understand why he was crying, but then I realized they were tears of joy because Mr. Rueben believed in his vision. That must have been what Mr. Reuben meant when he said, "they can't take that away from you." I was relieved to see Dad happy for a change, but I was nervous about what people would think if he started spending time with the polygamists. It wasn't something people did in our town. Still, it would give him some work and he needed to make money. I tried to be optimistic. "I'm glad you're going to build their church, Dad. I'm sure you'll do a good job."
He shook his head. "I don't know. I may be biting off more than I can chew."
"But Mister . . . I mean Brother Reuben thinks you can do it."
"That's good of him. He's very kind."
I wasn't so sure Brother Reuben was kind. His smile seemed kind of phony to me, like it wasn't really coming from his heart. But I couldn't tell Dad that. I didn't want to take away his happiness. "I'm glad somebody finally believes in your vision."
He looked at me. "You believe. Don't you, Beth? You were there."
"Yes. Of course I do." I said the words, but, I was becoming less sure about it. If God really did talk to Dad, why didn't He reveal his plan for him, like he did with Joseph Smith?
"Now if only your mother could believe."
The happiness drained from his eyes when he thought about Mom and I hurried and said, "I'm sure she wants to believe, Dad. It's just that she wasn't there. It must be hard to imagine that kind of thing, if you didn't see it for yourself."
"A person has to have faith in those situations."
"Maybe you should tell her what God said and what he looks like, then she'd know you saw him."
"It wouldn't help, honey. It's not the kind of thing you can describe with words."
"Our human eyes are not used to seeing heavenly beings. The light was blinding."
"But you heard His voice, didn't you?"
"Yes, yes, I did. I heard it clearly."
"What did He say, Dad?" It was something I'd wanted to ask for a long time. I held my breath waiting for his answer.
He shook his head. "It's sacred, Beth. It's not something I want to speak of."
"But you've told Mom what he said, haven't you?"
"I'm telling you, she needs to fast and pray. Then God will tell her what he wants her to know."
"Are you saying God would speak to her, too?"
"You know what I'm talking about, Beth. The Holy Ghost. The scriptures say, 'I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.'"
He was right, I did know about the Holy Ghost. I received the Holy Ghost when I was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church when I turned eight. The Holy Ghost was supposed to be the comforter, the one who whispered in your ear, telling you the answer to your questions. But why wouldn't Dad tell me what God said? I was there. Surely it would be okay with God for me to know.
Dad grew silent, and I started thinking about Brother Reuben and wondering what made him decide to become a polygamist. Why was he willing to get excommunicated when everybody knew that was the worse thing that could happen to you? I touched Dad's arm to bring him back from his thoughts. "Dad," I said, "do you think Brother Reuben stopped believing in the gospel? Is that why he was willing to be excommunicated?"
"Oh, no. I'm certain he still believes what we believe, but he thinks the Church has changed too much. He thinks we should be living the original doctrine, the Celestial Laws that were practiced during the time of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young."
"You mean doctrine like polygamy?"
"Yes, that and other things."
"Like what else?"
"Like the Law of Consecration. And it's obvious from what Brother Reuben said that they still believe in personal revelation."
"What's the Law of Consecration?"
Dad looked over at me in surprise. "Aren't they teaching you anything in Sunday School?"
"It's where everybody pools their money and then the Bishops give back what the people need. It makes everyone equal. Right?"
"That's right. That's what the scriptures say we should do."
"So, why did we stop doing it?"
"I guess the saints weren't willing to give up their hard earned dollars even for a place with God in the Celestial Kingdom. When the Lord saw the people weren't able to do it He rescinded the law until a future time. We pay tithing now, and make fast offerings, and we give money to build new churches."
"Do you think God's mad about it? I mean when the people won't do what he wants them to do?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. Sometimes I wonder." He got a far away look in his eyes and went back inside his head.
I looked out the window and realized we were halfway to Pioneer Village. Our whole day was going by and all we were doing was thinking and talking about church things like always. I tried to find something that might attract Dad's attention, but I didn't think he'd care much about the sunlight shimmering in the trees alongside the road or the piles of amazingly white clouds towering high over the mountains. It made me feel sad that we never got to focus on that kind of thing anymore. We hadn't really had any fun since Dad had his vision.
I noticed a falling-down barn beside the road with an old organ sitting outside it. I thought it was funny. "Look, Dad, there's an old organ. Do you think the farmer keeps it out there so he can play music for his chickens?"
He just mumbled, "Chickens?" and didn't even look where I was pointing. He was too absorbed with something in his mind to pay attention to anything in the real world.
As we pulled into the parking lot at Pioneer Village, I said, "Come on, Dad, it's too boring thinking about church stuff all the time. Let's go have some fun for a change?"
He shook his head as if he was trying to clear it. "Life is not all fun and games, Beth. There are things a man must do on earth if he's to become a god? Things I must do to make sure we can all be together as an eternal family."
I wondered what he meant by becoming a god. How could a person be a god?
-- Continued in Chapter 5 --
Torn by God: A Family's Struggle with Polygamy by Zoe Murdock- Paperback Version
Torn by God: A Family's Struggle with Polygamy by Zoe Murdock - Kindle Version