(the fourth chapter of Shell Games)
The Rev. Walpole Albright had suggested the universe wished to snuff out dozens, hundreds, or even more of its own creations. Most of the universe’s creations who heard this dire pronouncement met it with a shrug.
Yet the promise of eminent destruction lingered with a few of the more thoughtful. One spry mind belonged to 13-year old Molly Connors, who had been sitting in the third row with her family. Fascinated by such a great mystery, she began to instantly ponder who would soon be righteously cut down.
Understandably, her first instinct was to hope the hex might somehow benefit her. For example, she at first reasoned if it had to be anyone, it would be Grace Knox, who regularly yanked her braided hair when the headmaster wasn’t looking. But she was instantly sorry for this thought, and quickly began to think of other likely damned. Perhaps Silas Putnam was a marked soul for overcharging his dry goods. Or it could be careless Peter Hawkins, who once burned down his father’s entire rye crop. But none of her guesses seemed quite right. She was puzzled—no one Molly Connors knew deserved the death that was coming.
Molly Connors was enjoying her game very much however, so much that she had not even considered her own mortality before the meeting ended. Surely she was safe. After all, her eldest brother Cornelius was to march out with Captain Danielson in the morning. A quick, earnest prayer was said anyway, to be safe.
Her thoughts began to range free and wide of other possible targets of God’s wrath during the short ride home. The Connors family was a mile outside of Blandis when she struck upon an answer that satisfied her very much.
The “who” had been so interesting to Molly Connors that she never once considered the “why” of such a terrible thing happening.
What Cousin Elsie and a People Far Away Have in Common
Not much later, as a pair of horses pulled a shuddering, second-hand break down a dusty rut known as Happenstance Road, Glass Connors’ wife broke the silence.
“When we return home, husband, shall we prepare for our end, or is it better I mend your breeches?”
Glass Connors considered this for only a blink of time. The breeches would be needed in the fields in six hours. Then, from the back of the break came the light, shy voice of young Molly Connors.
“There is nothing to fear,” she said to her hands more than to her parents. As Molly Connors rarely cared to speak, her family rarely took any notice of her.
Molly Connors’ five wispy words passed by almost entirely unheard. Her mother was lost in thought, fretting about whether her best Sunday dress would burn easily, while Glass Connors considered if four rows of survivor peas could be in the ground within the day. Cornelius Connors sat next to his sister in silence, dreaming of being a hero for the pretty girls of Boston. Only Abner Connors’ mind had remained in the break to catch the soft utterance.
“Did you speak, sister?” he asked Molly Connors. She nodded slightly in reply.
“I said that there is nothing to fear,” she repeated her prophesy, no louder than the first.
“How came you to this belief?”
“When the Rev. Albright read from 1 Samuel, it made me think of Cousin Elsie. Do you remember two summers ago, when the schoolmaster caught her skinny dipping with Hannah Wallington and Macie Stone?”
Abner did. He considered the wicked-eyed Macie Stone the most beautiful girl in Blandis, a belief shared by many. Cousin Elsie, for her part, had been confined to her home, not to be seen again until Christmas.
“What does the Bible have to do with sin, sister?” Abner wanted to know. Molly kept her eyes on her thin thumbs.
“Verse 33 says only that family will die by the sword, but there are many definitions of this word, Abner” the girl whispered kindly with growing excitement. “Consider that nothing happened to you or I when Cousin Elsie removed her slip before jumping into Peckham Pond.”
Abner looked down at his sister’s face. Molly Connors eyes were blazing with hope and possibility, bending the rules of her game into secure knots until she and everyone else she loved were sure to win. She was a frightful, electric figure of beauty.
“We have family outside of Blandis, in all parts of the world, in fact. In Russia, and in the West Indies. Everyone is family under heaven, are they not?”
“This is true enough,” Abner had to admit, slightly perplexed.
“But who is more our relation than England?” Molly Connors beamed, emitting a victorious squeak born of breaking a riddle. “Can another be more rightly named?”
“I am not sure I follow. Are you suggesting that the Rev. Albright meant, as with Cousin Elsie’s rashness, that the British are plunging their fleet naked and unafraid into the Atlantic—”
“Yes, yes, now you see it now too! You–we–are safe. A piece of our great family tree will be swiftly lopped off by God, dear brother,” she murmured in dazed adulation. “And the bloody branches fallen to the ground will be our cousins from across the sea.”
Molly Connors, at heart, was an optimist.