For thou hast possessed my reins:
thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise thee;
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
marvelous are thy works;
and that my soul knoweth right well.
-Psalm 139:13-14 KJV
I am not a woman.
I repeat those words to myself again and again as I walk the cobbled street toward the general store, and I get nothing but stares and glares from those I pass along the way. A group of ladies walking the opposite way down the lane spot me, and they move over as I get closer, their dresses whispering across the stone path and their parasols bumping together as they try to give me as wide a berth as possible. One of them huffs in disgust, her eyes sliding up and down my outfit as her lip curls.
I’m wearing a pair of my father’s old riding boots and pants as well as a shirt and vest set I made myself since my father’s are never big enough in the chest for me. When I left the house not an hour ago, my mother had a fit when she realized I was headed into the village.
“Evangeline,” she hissed between gritted teeth. “Go change that outfit this instant!”
“I’m far beyond the age where you can tell me what to wear, Mother,” I replied. “And my name is Evan today.”
She huffed. “Keep it up, girl. There are already far too many whispers in the village about your behavior as of late. What will you do if they decide you’re a witch or some other evil spirit sent by the devil to torment us all? Do you want to end up sent with The Offering?”
“They don’t send women with The Offering,” I said with a roll of my eyes.
“Aren’t you the one claiming you’re anything but a woman? You can’t have it both ways.”
She had a point.
I meet the eyes of the lady who huffed at me and give her a smile.
“Mornin’,” I say in the deepest voice I can manage.
I’ve been practicing masculine mannerisms in the mirror for days like today, days when it makes my skin itch to wear any of my dresses or to fuss over my hair. My long, dark brown locks are currently twisted up under a cap I stole from my best friend last summer. I tip it at the ladies as I stroll past.
The huffy one looks like she was just asked to swallow a frog, and I can’t get the smile off my face for the rest of my walk to the store.
A bell tinkles as I walk in, and the shop owner’s son—my best friend, Will—looks up from a book he’s reading behind the counter and grins.
“Good morning,” he greets. He quickly assesses my outfit, his eyes moving up and down my body in much the same way the lady’s did out on the street. His face is much warmer than hers, though, as he asks, “It’s Evan today then?”
I smile and nod.
Will has been my closest friend since we started school, and we’ve been practically inseparable since, much to the dismay of both our families. ‘It’s not right for a boy and a girl to spend so much time together’, they always argued. ‘Girls shouldn’t be climbing trees and playing in muck, and boys shouldn’t be attending tea parties and playing with dolls.’ And yet, despite their protests, they never outright barred us from seeing each other, probably because they knew we’d simply sneak around and do it anyway. By allowing it, at least they knew what we were up to… most of the time, anyway.
Will was the first person I told when I realized I was not a girl. He’d listened and asked questions then immediately started calling me by my chosen names: Evan on my masculine days, Eve on my feminine ones, and Evangeline on the days when that still fit me best. He was the one who came up with referring to me as they/them instead of she/her or he/him. I loved the idea and loved him even more for the respect and understanding he showed me when I needed it most. Even now, two years later, no one else is as considerate of my feelings as Will, except maybe my father, who’s my only other source of support.
“I came to pick up my mother’s order,” I say.
“I figured as much. It’s perfect timing.” Will leans closer and lowers his voice even though we’re the only two in the store. “Those items you ordered came in yesterday.”
My heart skips a beat. “Really?”
Will winks and disappears into the back room, coming back with two parcels wrapped in brown paper and my mother’s basket filled with her monthly order. The packages are larger than I expected. I’ll have to make two trips to get everything to my cart on the other side of the village.
“You know your mother will have a thing or two to say about these,” Will says as he pushes the parcels toward me across the counter.
“My mother always has something to say,” I reply. “I may as well give her something new to complain about.”
Will chuckles. “Want some help carrying these?”
“Can you leave the store right now?”
“My father is due back any minute. Can you wait?”
“For you? Eh, I suppose.” I slide my arms across the counter and gaze up at him. “Give me a sweet for my trouble?”
Will rolls his eyes and reaches to the shelf behind him where they keep the hard candies. He fishes a peppermint sweet from a jar and hands it to me.
I pop it in my mouth. “You’re the best.”
“Hurry up and get it gone by the time my father gets back, would you? He’ll make me pay for it if he sees me slipping you sweets.”
I smile at him with the candy stuck between my teeth.
Will shakes his head and replaces the jar.
The front door dings again as someone else comes into the shop.
Will looks past me and stiffens. “Good morning, Pastor.”
I quickly turn toward the shelves to the left of the counter and stare at the displays of watercolors and paintbrushes to hide my face.
Pastor Elias IV has been the head of our local church for three decades now. His son, Elias V, is slated to take his father’s place when he retires. Ever since I came out as… not a girl, both of them have been absolute thorns in my backside, and I don’t feel like dealing with that today. Not that I ever do.
“Good morning, young man,” Pastor Elias greets Will. “Don’t tell me your father has you stuck in here all day.”
“No, Pastor. Just for this morning while he runs a few errands.”
“That’s good. It’s too fine a day for someone so young to be cooped up out of the sun.”
I roll my eyes at the tins of pastels. Pastor Elias treats anyone who’s unmarried as if they’re still teenagers. Will is twenty, like me, but until he takes a wife, Pastor Elias will talk to him as if he’s barely more than a child.
“I’ll be running along to help my brother mend fences as soon as my father gets back,” Will replies.
I almost laugh. Will doesn’t plan to do any such thing. As the youngest of four brothers, he gets away with just about anything, and avoiding any form of physical labor is Will’s number one priority. That’s why he’s here taking care of the store this morning, I bet. He likely volunteered, knowing he’d be free to go about his day after his father returned while his brothers are stuck working on fences.
“You be sure to do that,” the pastor says sternly. “In the meantime, be a good lad and fetch my wife some sugar, coffee, and two candles.”
“Coming right up.”
Pastor Elias holds out a small basket, and Will takes it as he steps around the counter. I have to move to give him room to squeeze past me, and that’s enough to make the pastor notice me.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he asks.
I squeeze my eyes shut. “Sure is,” I answer, praying my voice is deep enough he won’t recognize it.
Will side-eyes me as he reaches for the candles on the next set of shelves. “How’s your wife, Pastor?”
Thank you, I mouth as the pastor focuses again on Will instead of me.
“Oh, she’s fine. Just fine. She’s been teaching our youngest to sew.” He chuckles. “Poor girl is struggling something fierce, but her mother won’t let her give up. ‘You’ll need to know how to mend your husband’s clothes someday, girl’, she says. ‘Every decent wife does’.”
The two men chat back and forth until Will sets the basket of goods on the counter and gives the pastor the total. When the pastor pays and picks up the basket, I think I might’ve gotten away with avoiding him, but my hope shatters when he turns his attention back to me.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” he says. “Are you new around here, young man?”
I slam my teeth together, say a prayer, and turn around.
Pastor Elias sucks in a breath. “Evangeline,” he utters in horror.
I force myself not to grimace at the name.
“What on earth are you wearing?” he demands to know, but then he shakes his head as if no answer I give him could ever excuse such behavior. “It’s no wonder your mother worries you’ll never find a husband.”
I raise my chin and straighten my back. “It’s a good thing I don’t want one of those then, isn’t it?”
I expect another horrified gasp or perhaps for him to go red in the face in anger, but he surprises me instead by raising a single brow. The smile he gives me makes me take an uncertain step back.
“We’ll see,” he says simply, then he turns and leaves the store without another word.
“What do you think he meant by that?” I ask.
“I have no idea,” Will replies. “But knowing him…”
“It can’t be good.”
Will’s father walks in while we’re still staring at the door. When he sees me, he pauses, his brows furrowing even more than usual. Will’s father has had a permanent scowl on his face since Will’s mother died years ago, but whenever I’m around, that scowl turns downright deadly.
“Evangeline,” Will’s father greets me cautiously.
“Good morning, sir,” I say cheerfully. I’m always as pleasant as possible with Will’s family. I want to keep our friendship and don’t want to give them any more reasons to forbid him from seeing me.
Will gathers my parcels from the counter. “I was going to help them carry these things to their cart. You don’t need me anymore, right?”
Will’s father flicks his eyes between us a couple of times. “I’d like you to help me reorganize the storage room, Will.”
Will shrugs. “I’ll just carry these to the cart and come right back then.”
Defeat settles in Will’s father’s eyes. Coming up with some other reason why Will can’t walk with me would make it obvious he’s lying to keep us apart, and he knows it. He grunts and walks past us.
I gather my mother’s basket.
Behind the counter, Will’s father falls into a coughing fit. It’s a wet, hacking sound that makes me pause.
“Are you alright?” I ask.
He waves away my concern. “Fine,” he wheezes. “Just fine. A lingering cold, nothing more.”
Will doesn’t seem worried, so I bid his father good day and follow him outside.
We walk up the street together, and where I was met with silent judgment on my way to the store, Will is greeted with happy hellos and waves on the way back to my cart. He jerks his chin, calling to various people and asking after others, his face never losing its bright smile. His hair is short, straight, and dark brown. He keeps it brushed back out of his face and swept to the side, but every now and again, a clump will fall forward over his left eye. He looks the most handsome that way, so handsome that many often wonder why he isn’t already married.
I’m the only one who knows why.
No one greets me as we walk or even looks my way. That’s one of the best things about being around Will. I’m a tiny shadow walking beside a beacon of light so bright no one ever sees me. And, in private, I return the favor by being the only one Will can trust with his darkness.
We make it back to my horse and cart where I left them tied to old man Oren’s fence without incident. Will plops my packages into the cart and takes the heavy basket from my arm to lower it in over the side for me as well.
“Thanks,” I say.
Will leans against the cart. “This month’s Offering list was sent out yesterday.”
I cock a brow at the troubled look on his face. “And?”
He avoids my eyes. “And I don’t know if it’s wise for you to be strutting around in men’s clothes right now.”
I cross my arms. “Not you too.”
“Don’t give me that look. You know I’m not like them.” He jerks his chin back toward main street. “I get it. I mean, I don’t get it, but I believe you feel what you say you feel, and I don’t care what clothes you wear or what name you ask me to call you. But you know they don’t understand. And what they don’t understand, they fear.” He leans toward me. “I don’t want to see you dragged out of the village at the next full moon.”
The fact that this is the second time today someone has cautioned me about this unnerves me a little, but I swallow it down. “You’re beginning to sound like my mother.”
“Maybe she knows what she’s talking about this time.”
Will sighs. “Look, I’m not telling you what to do. God knows you’re going to do what you want anyway. I’m just asking you to be careful until The Offering is over.”
“And then what?” I snap. “There will be another Offering next month, and the month after that, and the next one as well. Am I to hide my true self each time? Is that what you’d ask of me?”
Will is silent, but his eyes remain worried.
I force myself to dull the sharpness of my tongue. “I know you’re only saying these things to try and protect me,” I say more calmly. “And I know you’re not like the others. But hiding won’t change who I am. I won’t live a lie anymore. I just want to be me. These people will either accept me exactly as I am, or they’ll do what they feel they must.”
“You don’t mean that,” Will says in a panic, taking a step toward me. “You don’t mean that you’d rather be sent to The Deadwood than—”
“It was killing me, Will. Living as a woman was killing me from the inside. I can’t go back to that. I won’t. If it comes down to it, I’d rather die a quick death at the hands of the devil than a slow wasting one trying to earn these people’s approval.”
Will hangs his head.
“I’m sorry. That wasn’t a commentary on your life choices.”
“I’m not upset at you, Evan. I envy you.”
I blink in surprise. “Envy me? Why?”
“I wish I was brave enough to live my truth.”
I take both his hands in mine, my heart aching for my friend. “Choosing a life of peace over one of constant conflict and ridicule isn’t cowardly. I don’t blame you for it. People are cruel. We both deserve better.”
Will nods and squeezes my hands. “Yes, we do.”
The clearing of a throat nearby makes us both jump. Old man Oren is standing by his back gate, staring at us with a crooked, toothless grin.
“Don’t make me send word to your parents that you two need a chaperone in each other’s company,” he says sternly.
I drop Will’s hands as if they’ve suddenly become hot coals.
Will merely laughs. “You’d never tattle on me, Oren,” he says with confidence. “You like the extra chewing tobacco I slip into your deliveries far too much.”
Oren gives Will a pointed look, spits a stream of said tobacco on the grass, winks, and walks away.
I shake my head with a snort.
“He’s become a bit of a gossip since his son moved away, so maybe you should go,” Will says.
I nod and climb up into my cart.
Will smiles as I take up the reins. “My hat looks better on you than it ever did on me.”
I make a show of tugging the hat down more securely on my head. “Good, ‘cause I have no plans to give it back anytime soon.”
Will laughs as he steps back from the cart, and I click my tongue at my horse as we head off down the road back toward home.