“The Hills of Heaven” by Scott Hales

Ane Kristine knew Jakob was dead when the moon turn blood red over Utah Lake. Her fear was confirmed the following night when she saw his ghost standing along the creek just outside of camp. He was dressed in the same dark suit and black leather boots he always wore to the stone church in Onsøy. His hair was neatly trimmed and long around the ears. His face was pale.

Pregnant with another man’s child, Ane Kristine almost did not stay to speak to him. She had been married to Abraham for over a year, and she had not written to Jakob about her marriage. His last letter to her had convinced her he was no longer in love and would not follow her to the Valley.

Still, seeing her now, only weeks away from her confinement, would surely confuse him. In life, Jakob had never been a jealous man. But how would he be in death? Had he appeared at the creek to punish her for leaving him? Or did he come seeking forgiveness? Ane Kristine shivered in the warm night air. She wanted to run back to her tent and hide beneath her quilt. But then Jakob called her name.

“Why are you here?” she whispered back. She began walking towards him, almost against her will. Jakob held out his hands, and she reached for them. Her fingers intertwined with his, as they had always done in Norway, but this time she could not feel his touch. Startled, she pulled her hands away and looked into his gray eyes. He had no pupils.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

“What happened to you?” Ane Kristine asked.

“I died. After you left, I became sick.”

“Why are you here?”

“I came for you. Come with me.”

“I have a life here,” said Ane Kristine. “I’m going to have a baby.”

“I’ve been to the other side and seen the hills of heaven,” Jacob said. “Nothing here matters.”

“I can’t,” said Ane Kristine. “I won’t.”

“You will,” said Jakob. “Meet me here tomorrow night. I can take you there.”

***

Ane Kristine awoke the next morning to Diana shouting. Ma Smoot had said something to offend her, and now Diana was taking it out on Abraham. Ane Kristine was still in her tent, so she could not see what was happening. But she could hear everyone well enough. The camp was small, the quarters close, and no one in the family but Ane Kristine knew how to be discreet.

“I can’t live here,” Diana cried. “I’m going back to my mother.”

“Your mother won’t take you,” Abraham said, his voice weary. “She knows your home is here.”

“It ain’t my home,” Diana said. “I need—”

“What you need to do is pray,” said Abraham. “The Lord will help you.”

“I’ve tried to pray!” Diana said. “It don’t ever work!”

Ane Kristine heard shuffling outside her tent, and in a moment Diana burst in and sat down on the ground beside her. “Oh, Annie,” she said. “I can’t do it no more. I can’t.”

Ane Kristine placed her hand on Diana’s knee and patted it gently. She and Diana were around the same age, and they had become pregnant around the same time. But Ane Kristine did not have the same tenderness for Diana that she had for Ma Smoot and Emily, Abraham’s other wives. Diana only spoke to her when no one else would listen—and only then because she thought Ane Kristine did not know enough English to scold her.

***

Later that morning, Diana wrapped herself in a shawl and went to her mother’s tent in another part of camp. Ane Kristine remained in her bedroll, feigning sickness. She did not share Diana’s feelings about their husband or his other wives. They had given her a home and family when no one else would take her in. But now that Jakob had promised to bring her to the hills of heaven, she wondered if she too needed to leave. Seeing Jakob standing beside the creek, his face the shade of moonlight, had reminded her of evenings along the river in Onsøy. The memory hung on her like a shroud of gloom, and she felt as if her grave was already dug. She did not regret coming to Zion. But she did regret coming without Jakob.

An hour past sundown, Ane Kristine found Jakob beside the creek. He did not greet her when she approached him. Instead, he pointed to a rope that hung from a tree branch over the creek. Knowing what he wanted her to do, Ane Kristine removed her shoes and began climbing the tree. When she reached the rope, she pulled it up until she held its end in her hands. The rough cord felt as crisp and light as lace.

“What do I do next?” she asked.

“Make a loop,” he said, “and tie a knot.”

“How?”

“Your hands will show you.”

Ane Kristine formed a loop and watched as her hands twisted and pulled the rope into a tight noose.

“Like that?” she said, holding it out to Jakob.

“Yes,” he said. “Now put it around your neck.”

***

When Ane Kristine opened her eyes, she saw Diana kneeling over her, muddy water dripping from her hair and dress. Startled, Ane Kristine turned her face toward the creek. “Where’s Jakob?” she cried.

Diana placed a calloused hand over Ane Kristine’s mouth. “Hush,” she whispered. “I saw what you done, but don’t worry. I won’t tell no one.”

Ane Kristine shook her head. Let me go, she wanted to say. Nothing here matters. But the words felt heavy and shapeless on her tongue.

“I got so afraid when I saw you in that tree,” Diana said. “You’re all I have here, so I just prayed to God to break that branch.” A tear formed on her cheek, and she wiped it away with a filthy sleeve.

“And He heard me, Annie,” she said. “He finally heard me.”

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