Sharlett was led into the hall, and directed to sit on a small stool, her back pressed to a wall. Shorter than most, with wavy chestnut hair, farming and carpentry made her limbs muscled and her hands calloused. She had done well here, until recently. The woman in the Stead where she resided barely spoke to her now. Hopefully, the Circle of Eldresses would settle this matter once and for all.
They came in, all seven of them, sitting on the floor in a circle to symbolize that no one Eldress was above any other. An eighth woman entered with them, their Scrivener, who remained standing at a podium to the side, reading and taking records. She now began with the customary announcement:
“Since the coming of the Blue Plague, and the Fall of Men, the women of every Stead do heed the wisdom of their seven eldest members. So it is that this Circle does meet to consider all that may affect us, and to guide us in ways that preserve us. So it is today.”
The Scrivener then walked over to the other side of the room, where Sharlett was sitting, and gestured for her to stand. Sharlett did so, followed her into the center of the Circle, and remained standing there. When the Scrivener returned to her podium, one of the Eldresses began the proceedings:
“As you know, the stranger Etaam came among us last season. After our first meeting with him, we permitted him to live with the other men in the southeast corner of our Stead. He had behaved well, and been no threat to any woman here.” She paused as she gazed at Sharlett. “Until now.”
“He’s still done nothing wrong,” Sharlett insisted.
“That remains to be seen,” another Eldress intoned.
“It is why we have asked to meet you today,” said a third. “This request of yours, and the ramifications it could cause to our community, must be given careful consideration.”
“You do understand and appreciate this?” asked the first.
Sharlett took a deep, trembling breath. “I understand,” she responded, “that what I’m asking for is … unusual. But it is my free choice.”
A fourth Eldress now spoke up. Sharlett knew of her well. Despite the Law of Equality, it was clear to all in the Stead that her words carried greater weight. And even with her serene smile and gentle tone, those words fell harshly upon Sharlett: “The collective wisdom of all womanhood has shown that, in our interactions with men, what may seem like our own free choice is rarely so. Even with so few left since the Plague, we must remain vigilant against their desire to control us.”
Sharlett looked her squarely in the eye. “Etaam does not control me!”
The Eldress nodded subtly. “Then you have nothing to fear from our questions.”
“You do know,” the first Eldress insisted, “the method by which we beget?”
Sharlett recounted: “When a woman chooses to beget a child, she chooses a man from her Stead, with the guidance of the Circle. That man is given a carafe, in which to deposit his semen. A doula takes this from him, and transfers those contents to the woman, that she may beget a child.”
“And yet, you now presume to choose for yourself – ”
“I did not choose Etaam to beget!” she interrupted. The Scrivener knocked loudly on her podium as a warning. “Forgive me,” Sharlett said. “I did not mean to sound angry.”
“And I apologize,” the Eldress said, “if my query unwittingly provoked such.”
A fifth Eldress now joined the discussion. “Let us go to the beginning. How did you first meet Etaam?”
“I had gone to the well, to draw some water for washing. Etaam was there, and he offered to help with any chores where I lived.”
“He insisted on this?”
“No, he was very polite. He simply said that, if I needed help with something, to call upon him.”
“Women have lived for many generations now,” the fourth Eldress said, “without the help of men.”
“Except in begetting,” the sixth Eldress quipped, and the others giggled.
“Yes,” the fourth Eldress conceded, “there is that. But otherwise, we have little need of them. We allow them to live near us, in their own places, and call upon them to help us beget, but that is all. We need no further help from them.”
“But,” Sharlett posed, “if one offers to help, why should it be wrong to take it?”
The seventh Eldress, known to be most deferential to the fourth, answered: “That is the way it begins. The man offers to do this or that, and pleases the woman, then makes her believe that she somehow cannot live without him, and soon he has come to control her, all in the guise of helping her.”
“And,” the fourth added, “once he has controlled one, he then goes to control another, and another, and another. Do you see the pattern?”
Sharlett trembled. The thought of it frightened her. Indeed, it was the reason she waited so long to voice her desire to the Circle. Was she sure that this is what she wanted, that this man was not manipulating her? No. She was certain. She lifted her head high, looking down at the Eldress, and calmly insisted: “That is not the pattern here.”
“Tell us, then,” the third Eldress prompted, “in your own words, what did happen.”
Sharlett recounted the events to them: “The wood which I had stacked against my quarters had fallen over. I reckoned that the task would go faster if someone helped me, so I called upon Etaam to come and help. He followed my directions, we finished quickly, and I offered him a bowl of the stew I had cooked as thanks for his work. We sat and ate and talked, and when he was finished, he left.”
The second Eldress sounded shocked: “You let him into your home?”
“We ate outside, Eldress. I know better than that.”
The Eldress nodded and smiled approvingly. “Go on, then, Sharlett.”
“We did not encounter one another for many days. Next was at the well again, and a few days after that, I saw him chopping wood for himself and the other men. He was always pleasant, respectful, and never forced himself upon me. And I found myself wanting to know more of him, of how he came to be so different from how men usually are. So, one day, when we met at the well, I asked him to sit with me and talk, to tell me where he came from, and how he came to be here.”
“What story did he tell you?” the seventh Eldress asked her.
“He was raised by two women, who lived alone in the mountains. He knew no others besides them, nor how they managed to beget him. About four years ago, one of the women became very sick. He and her companion did their best to care for her, but she succumbed. Soon, the second woman also fell ill and died. Etaam continued on at the cabin, but the loneliness became too great. So, he gathered what he needed, and sojourned to find others, until he came to our Stead.”
“And now,” the fifth Eldress spoke, “he wishes to take you from us, back to that lonely mountain house of his.”
“No,” Sharlett replied. “Etaam wishes to remain with us.”
“With you,” the sixth Eldress clarified.
“It is I who asked that he live with me. It is my desire that he live in my house. The more I’ve come to know Etaam, the more I trust and admire him, and the more I want to be with him.”
“So you say now,” said the fourth Eldress. “But what happens when he wants more power for himself?”
“He is not like that.”
“What happens when he finds another woman to be with?”
“He’s made it clear, he wants only to be with me.”
“What happens when that changes, hm? It always does with men. Our collective wisdom – ”
“Enough!” Sharlett cut her off, and again the Scrivener knocked to warn her. She stood there, her breath audible to all in the room, hands now tightened into fists, as the fourth Eldress leaned closer towards her.
“See what he’s done to you already, Sharlett? How he’s prompted you to be angry with us?”
Tempering her tone, she answered through clenched teeth: “That is not his doing. It is yours.” The Eldress was taken aback. “I can understand turning to the Circle for guidance in matters that affect us all. But if I wish to live with Etaam, that affects me and Etaam, and no other. Why can’t you just let us live our lives as we wish?”
The seventh Eldress addressed her: “Do you really wish to risk being controlled by this man?”
“You talk about men like him controlling women. What about you? Why are you trying to control me in this matter? Yes, it is you who are controlling, dominating, trying to mislead. It is you behaving as you accuse men of being. Can’t you see how you’ve become the very thing you fear?”
The first Eldress now intervened: “Sharlett! I understand your frustration. Truly, I do. I once was drawn to a man who came to the Stead where I lived in my youth. And I stood in the center of the Circle, as you do now. The Eldresses there showed me that no relationship is isolated from any other, hence the need for caution. And I am so very grateful to them that they showed me this, for my life would not be as it is.”
Sharlett turned, and looked intently into her eyes. “Can you honestly tell me that it was not painful? That it is still not painful to miss his voice, and his smell, and his touch? Can you tell us all truthfully that not one morsel of regret remains?”
The Eldress shuddered, her eyes wide. She turned her head away for a moment, closed her eyes and took a breath. Looking back at Sharlett, she managed to utter: “I have learned to be content.”
Sharlett leaned towards her, hands on her knees, voice earnest: “But are you happy? Not just content. Are you happy about being denied your choice to be with him?”
The Eldress quaked at the question, and restrained her anger. “You, young one, do not get to say what makes me happy!”
The others in the Circle voiced wordless assent, and Sharlett stood straight in the center of the Circle. “Neither do you,” she asserted. “Neither do any of you.”
With that, she turned to the door and walked out, ignoring the protestations of the others. She had already packed some things in preparation for this moment, and went back to her cottage to retrieve it. No one else in the Stead spoke to her, and she said nothing to them.
She walked to the southeast corner, and called for Etaam. He smiled upon seeing her, but the sight of her backpack bewildered him. “What’s happened?”
“I can’t stay here anymore.”
“They – the Circle banished you? Because of me?”
She shook her head. “My choice. Will you come with me?”
Etaam’s mouth dropped open, and then he grinned. “Let me get my things.”
She smiled as she watched him pack his belongings into a large sack. “That cabin in the mountains. Maybe we could go there.”
He looked up at her. “It will need some fixing.”
“We’ll do it together.”
Etaam straightened up, smiled, and nodded. They left together along the trail. Sharlett reached over and took his hand, weaving her fingers with his.