Alis - By Naomi Rich


Alis stood nervously in the doorway. She wondered why she was wanted. Her parents had been much troubled of late, and several times she had caught her father gazing at her unhappily. She did not think she had done anything wrong, but it was easy enough to sin without knowing it, and the Minister was there with her parents.

Of course, Minister Galin came very often to discuss Community matters with her mother, who was the Senior Elder of their Community, but these days Alis tried to be busy elsewhere. More than once, lately, he had suggested that it was time Alis behaved more soberly, or hinted that she was too much inclined to question, when she should simply obey.

The shutters were closed against the winter afternoon. An oil lamp, burning steadily on the table, cast shadows on whitewashed walls and struck gleams from the polished wood of the bookcase where the precious volumes were kept. A small fire struggled in the hearth. In black lettering above the door lintel ran the words Praised be the Maker who created us all and in whom we trust.

Her parents sat at opposite ends of the bare table, her mother’s face pale above the gray of her dress. The Minister, in his usual dark coat and breeches, was standing with his back to the window, beyond which, Alis knew, snow was falling.

“Sit down, Alis.”

It was the Minister who spoke. Puzzled, she saw her mother’s eyes close briefly as if in distress. She sat down on one of the hard wooden chairs. The Minister was examining her, as if seeing her for the first time. He had a pale, rather melancholy face with dark eyes.

“You will be fifteen soon, will you not?” His dry voice gave nothing away.

“In five months, Minister Galin, at the start of summer.”

He nodded slowly. Was he going to rebuke her for giggling with Elzbet when they were taking their turn to clean the prayer house? She knew he had heard, for she had seen him watching them. Perhaps it would be as well to ask his pardon.

“Minister Galin, if I did wrong by laughing yesterday . . .”

He frowned, puzzled. “Yesterday?” Then his expression cleared. “Oh, no.” He smiled his wintry smile. “It is not a sin to laugh, even in the prayer house.” The smile faded and he hesitated. “Alis, your parents have something to tell you that concerns us both.”

Alis looked at her mother, but to her amazement she saw that Hannah had turned toward her husband, as if he were the one who must speak. He cleared his throat twice and then said huskily, “Well, Alis?”

In the silence, Alis became aware that her father, a master carpenter, was not dressed for work: he had on the clothes of stiff, dark material he wore only when there had been a death, as was the custom among them. Forgetting that in front of Minister Galin it was better not to speak until spoken to, Alis said, “Has someone died? Is it Aunt—?”

Her father interrupted her hurriedly. “No, no, child. No one has died. This is something . . . quite different.” He gave his wife an anguished look and went on. “Minister Galin has done us . . . has done you . . . a great honor.”

Alis stiffened. Surely her parents would not send her to work as a servant in the Minister’s house. That was for other girls. She could read and write better than anyone: she wanted to be a powerful woman in the Community like her mother, not a drudge whom the Minister could punish at will and whose life would be one long round of dreary duties.

“Are you sending me to serve him, Mother?” she asked fearfully. But once more, though Hannah usually took the lead in matters of importance, it was Alis’s father who spoke.

“No, daughter, no indeed. We would not want you to be a servant.” Again he hesitated. “My dear, you are to be . . . a wife.”

A wife? In horror she stared at the Minister. A wife? His wife! She turned first to her mother, then to her father. Her mother’s expression was stony; her father looked away. They had agreed!

Minister Galin departed awkwardly, leaving Alis to her parents.

“But he is old!” she cried, aghast. “I cannot marry him.”

“It is not for you to say what you will and will not do,” Hannah said stiffly. “A child’s part is to obey.”

“But you always said there would be plenty of time.