This story was awarded first place in the Boar‘s 2014 short story competition.
Soon before I arrived in America, Smokey Hamblin had taken his fourth wife. “Each wife has been married to me by a special and sacred religious ceremony,” he explained. “They are all equally valid, under the eyes of the Lord.”
Under the eyes of the law, Smokey is only married to his first wife. Out in the desert, his family live where they cannot be found. Hamblinhaven, a huddle of scorched trailers in which all twenty-eight Hamblins live, generously described by Smokey as ‘the ranch’, is an eight hour round trip from Salt Lake City.
They had met me at the airport terminal, holding a sign with my name on it saying “The Lord Welcomes You to Utah!”. Smokey was wearing beige slacks with a peculiarly sharp crease down the front, and a light blue shirt, drawn taut over the fleshy unkempt stomach of a man in his sixties. His hair also betrayed his age, having completely disappeared from the top of his head. His shiny skull was circled by what remained, thin and dull brown. I have always thought this the worst hair possible. Just shave it all off if this happens. Better to be bald as if by choice, than to be clinging on to the inevitably fading. God knows I’ll shave it off when it happens to me.
He was flanked by a wife on either side. The eldest, Jenetta, was on his left. Jenetta, as I later found out, was thirty-seven. His latest wife Bridie, was on his right. As I rightly guessed, she was sixteen.
Smokey leapt toward me to shake my hand. Though clearly older than both the women stood next to him, there was something vital and young in his face that was absent from theirs. They kept close to him and constantly looked to his expression before they assembled their own. Otherwise they gazed ahead with vapid smiles.
Jenetta was a solid woman with broad shoulders. She had a soft, lineless face and her long hair was tied in a plait. The fleshy largeness of her arms and chest was smoothed out by an old-fashioned looking floral dress, which fell in pleats from the waist. Slender Bridie seemed lost in hers; it crinkled at her armpits and waist and billowed between her spindly legs. She was giggly and skittish and I did not know what I should say to her. As we left the terminal to walk out to the truck, and I silently obsessed on what a strange situation I was in, Bridie slipped her tiny hand into Smokey’s and held on to it.
In the truck, I was told the other two wives were at home, looking after the twenty three Hamblin children. The second wife Chrislynn, was thirty-one and then the third, Ruth, was thirty. They had been married to Smokey on the same day, fifteen years ago. Jenetta had married Smokey five years before that.
I asked Smokey why he had waited fifteen years before taking a fourth wife.
“Well sir, first of all we discussed it. And we decided together, that it was time for us to have a new wife. These are not just my wives, they are each other’s sister-wives. I’ll tell you a little story sir, and it begins, ‘In the Bible.’”
In the back, Jenetta and Bridie echoed “In the Bible!” and Bridie, laughing, let her head fall onto Jenetta’s shoulder.
“In the Bible, the Lord our God bestowed it upon men to have as many children as possible. That’s why you and I have the ability to produce children for much longer than the women can. See the biological facts are there as well if you need some convincin’. These are words direct from the Lord, from Genesis. ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ We are all rewarded with an elevated place in Heaven if we procreate accordin’ly. Well sir, my beautiful wives have given me many beautiful children but they are nearly too old to have anymore. The youngest of my current children is one an’ a half, that’s from Chrislynn. Ruth is eight months pregnant but they’re gettin’ close now, you see? So we had to take another wife, and Bridie has just fallen with the first of our children. We’re all delighted about that.”
I asked if there was ever any jealousy. They all laughed, like they knew something I didn’t.
“There’s no jealousy, we all love each other” says Smokey, “A relationship between sister-wives is sacred, it’s not how you understand husbands and wives to be. You have to realise, this is our religion sir. It’s what we know to be God’s will.”
“That’s right” says Jenetta.
And then Bridie says, “If there is any jealousy, we just remember that we all love Smokey and that we’re happy if he’s happy.” She looks to me and scrunches up her little face in a mock childish grin. I look away.
Eventually, we arrive at Hamblinhaven. The sun is monstrous. There’s nothing for as far as the eye sees, apart from the grey mountains that laze in the distance. The earth runs hot and flat in every direction, covered in spiky mud-coloured brush.
The trailers are jumbled across a patch of land about fifty square feet wide. Thick metal poles, twisted by the heat, are lying amongst children’s trikes and stacks of old tyres and rusted farming tools. The ground is all ripped up and crumbly. Smokey says, “I tell ya, fighting back that sagebrush is like fighting back sin. You have to remain vigilant. Sometimes I think I spend my whole days diggin’ out that stuff and throwing it back to the desert. But the children need somewhere to play. One day soon we’re gonna get some real grass out here. There are ways of doin’ it, you can get plastic grass in Salt Lake. Looks real.”
Some children are hanging upside down on what appears to be a wooden climbing frame. They stare at me, plaits dangling, their tiny faces flushing red with blood. Another gaggle are hitting a dead rattlesnake with sticks and flinging the rubbery pieces that break off at one another, shrieking happily. One lone child, a little older, is crouched in the shade, peeling the paint from the side of the trailer off in long strips.
Several children bounce down the steps of different trailers towards us and scramble between their father’s legs. Jenetta lifts up a little boy of maybe three and kisses him. Smokey ruffles heads and swoops down to plant kisses and turns to me, “There’s a lotta love in this family.”
I am bustled toward a kitchen trailer, which I lurch into to get out of the sun. At a large rough wooden table sits a beautiful pale girl, hacking the tops off of dusty carrots. She seems older than Bridie, but she cannot be either Chrislynn or Ruth because she is too young. I stare at her perfect face, with her long wintery eyelashes, like an idiot. She looks straight back at me, stoically.
“This is Hannah”, says Jenetta, who has lumbered in behind me.
I clumsily point out that she looks older than her fourth mother.
Hannah returns to the carrot and says, “She don’t have any authority over me”.
Jenetta frowns a little. “Smokey is fair. He says that in the event of a young wife joining our family, if they’re older than some of the children they will have to respect them as siblings first. A young wife has to learn a lot.”
I turn back to Hannah. I want Jenetta to leave, but she pulls out a chair and starts combing Hannah’s long blonde hair through her fingers and begins to weave it into a plait. It looks incredibly soft and gleams white where the sun touches it, and I want to reach out and feel it. Hannah closes her eyes.
I ask her, “Hannah, can you tell me something about you?”
“Well, I’m here to learn about your family and I’m interested.”
“I know why you’re here, but you don’t want to know anything about me. I’m just Hannah.”
“I do want to know.”
Jenetta is looking intently at me. Hannah does not open her eyes.
“Well, I have bad dreams. Always.”
“Hannah love,” Jenetta says, “he don’t want to know about your dreams.”
She opens her eyes straight into mine. “See, I told you.”
Smokey appears and summons me for a tour. In his own trailer, ‘the sanctuary’, there is his metal frame bed – a double, unlike all the others – a desk with an open bible spread out on it, surrounded by frenzied notes, a cupboard bursting with tools and a wall lined with framed portraits of each Hamblin. The four wives are along the top, Jenetta first, then the middle two must be Chrislynn and Ruth, then Bridie. After Bridie are hung two empty frames. Below them, the portraits of the children take up the rest of the wall. These are in age order, and Hannah’s is first. Smokey tells me the names, ages and mothers of each child. Hannah is nineteen.
Chrislynn is hovering in the doorway watching us. When I notice her she suddenly nods to me, as if I startled her, with the same inane smile as Jenetta and Bridie and says, “How d’ya do?” and disappears back down the steps before I can reply. Then she reappears immediately, as if for the reason she came all along, and tells Smokey that Ruth is having a real hard time in her cot and could she come and rest in the sanctuary for the rest of the day? He says to me, “A pregnant wife is a sacred vessel, sir” and heads out to fetch her.
As the days pass, I find that I am expected to help with the domestic work. I rip up sagebrush and I fill the water tanks. In between I observe the family. There are so many things I long to ask but I can’t spit them out. They never ask me anything. I try to talk to Hannah Hamblin when I am helping in the kitchen. She evades me and I lose patience with stripping the pans, remind myself why I’m here and tell them I am going to my cot to write up some notes for the documentary. Then I sleep for hours, crammed against the paneled wall to get out of reach of the sun that pours in from the window above.
One night, I caught Smokey alone with a pipe. The window of his trailer was wide open under the brightest and fullest moon I had ever seen. It was the same sickly yellow of the desert under the sun. The cicadas sang like maniacs.
He had his slacks rolled up and was inspecting the joint at the ankle of his wooden leg.
“Don’t look so surprised sir, we ain’t all physically perfect but that don’t matter. The soul is intact.”
I asked him what happened.
“I got knocked down by a cop car. This were back in Wyoming when I was a younger man, back before I converted. Cop was drunk and they wanted to keep it quiet you know, I got a lot. You don’t think I support this family on selling those magazines up in Salt Lake do you? No, sir. We’re often lucky to sell one subscription a week. Too many people out there got their hearts and souls barricaded to God, this is the test. Yes, sir.”
I asked him how much he got.
He said, “Enough to feed a rapidly growing family for 20 years, sir. We don’t ask for pretty things. We don’t ask for modern things, like that there camera you got, or your wireless phone you have. Don’t need ‘em. We got each other, and though a big family like this is not without sacrifices it has to be like that. Because it is unjust to reap the benefits of something so greatly, like we do, and not have to pay for it somehow. And the babies drink from their mothers for their first three years anyway, best thing for ’em.”
“You say you converted?”
“Oh yeah. Yeah, I converted. I had to. I was born into the protestant faith. I didn’t never see my parents again after that, they was real devoted. I told them, you’re mislead, you’re on the wrong side of God, they didn’t wanna hear it. I moved into a community down in Arizona.”
“The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints?”
“Oh yeah. Me and Jenetta met there first. Then a couple years later, Chrislynn and Ruth chose me. God helped them with that choice, it was a blessing unto me. But they chose me. Because I know what you’re thinking, sir. Ohhh, old Smokey he moved down into that wackjob place in Arizona that everybody’s heard about, that they tell ya’ll about on the news programs, where that crazy man’s leadin’ it from prison cos he’s in there for molestin’, an’ Old Smokey he loaded himself up with his wives and then he bust on out of there. Hid out in the desert.”
“I wasn’t thinking that.”
“You was. But that’s ok, we left there pretty soon at any rate.”
“Well, we jus’ ran into some trouble down there is all. They’re not godly people, they’re not right. They ain’t doin’ it right, not by God’s word.” He pointed a finger to the sky.
“So you don’t consider yourself member of the fundamentalist latter day saints anymore?”
“No sir, I’m a Mormon under God an’ I know I’m on the right side.”
“How do you know that? Have you ever spoken to God?”
“I speak to God every day sir. You interrupted our holy conversin’ just then when you came in here as matter of fact. If you’ll excuse me now, I got his guidance to pass on. This family don’t run itself.”
“One last thing, I’ve got to ask – I thought Mormons weren’t aloud to smoke?”
“I think you thought a lot of things about Mormons. You were all the expert on Mormons where you come from where there aren’t many, and that’s why you’re here to film us an’ ask us. So why you tellin’ not askin’? I think you know nothin’ at all and you never will.”
And he rolled down his slacks, snuffed out his pipe and left me alone under the hideous moon.
Allegra Scales is a third year English Literature and Creative Writing Student. She likes to write about unfamiliar and strangely endearing ways of life. “The Hamblins” was inspired by a reality TV show on a channel nobody watches about a family of hyper modern polygamists who haul around their twenty kids in a convoy of glistening SUVs and live in a luxury condo in Nevada.
Her life’s ambition is to articulate in novels the strange and corrupt state that humanity is eternally in, but also to capture the diverse and complex beauty of a world so truly enormous as ours.
Image Credits: Header (Flickr/Bruno Monginoux), Image 1 (Flickr/Zach Dischner), Image 2 (Flickr/Buzz Andersen), Image 3 (Flickr/Paul O’Rear), Image 4 (Flickr/Slworking2), Image 5 (Flickr/Bettina Woolbright).