Three months after Isobel’s husband stopped making love to her, she bought a bonnet.
It was grand and black and white. Lined in matte cream linen with a grain of taupe thread, covered in opalescent pure black. It stood on its own, without support. Isobel suspected there was a hard shell beneath the fabric, but when she felt for a form—delicately, her thumb and index finger curved like pincers—the bonnet bent in her hands.
In all light the bonnet shone darkly, like water at night.
Its shape reminded Isobel of a covered wagon: a little Conestoga rolled right into her living room. Her childhood love of pioneers come back to her. Nestled among unlabeled CDs, neon paperclips, and the smiley face mug of pens on her messy desk, the bonnet looked judgmental and uncomfortable. Isobel adored it.
The bonnet’s ties were not made of ribbon, as Isobel had originally thought, but from the same heavy fabric as the bonnet. At first she was disappointed: she had imagined two long, shining strands that she would leave loose, like tiny twin scarves. But when she felt the ties between her fingers, the rich fabric rebuked her.
The bonnet has history, Isobel thought. What do I have?
Every morning after her husband left she took the bonnet in her hands and stood with it in front of the bathroom mirror.
“The purpose of the bonnet is to be Plain,” she said to her reflection.
“It is not an item of beauty but necessity.
“It will keep my face from the sun and hide my hair.
“In the bonnet, when I am hurt by unkindness, I can turn from the one who hurt me and be shielded from his eyes.
“’The bonnet will remind me of the pitfalls of vanity, of earthly things.
“Of the limitations of this world and of the flesh.
“Of my flesh.
“Of my husband’s flesh.
“O God give me the power of this bonnet, let it come into me, let it guide my hand and my heart.”
By the time she stopped speaking her reflection had become strange to her. She felt outside of it, somewhere else, able to look without sentimentality at the pear-shaped woman in the mirror. Thin curls of muddy hair and strange gray eyes. She was a body only, not pretty or un-.
She had cribbed together her affirmation from things she found on the internet, where she had gone looking for information about the bonnet. She had wanted to know how old it was. Instead she found women who wore bonnets: women all over the United States and some overseas, who pulled bonnets over their hair every day and kept public diaries about bonnet life. Once she found these journals she read them, with a gnawing hunger behind her eyes. The bonneted women were different from the friends she followed online, whose news of babies and promotions hit Isobel in daggers of self-pity. They never complained, never posted needy, pouting photographs. Instead there were storybook pictures: simple, clean women in straw bonnets and gingham dresses, walking the borders of their property. They all owned property. Sometimes the women were pregnant beneath their old-fashioned dresses, and sometimes there were little girls in matching outfits. There were images of jarred fruit, needlework, intricate puzzles done on tables as weekend recreation. The women were intelligent, educated; Isobel didn’t understand half of what they wrote, even though she thought herself pretty smart. From them she learned the difference between plain and Plain. From them she received the gift of a seed of faith, glowing inside her like a promise.
Not faith in God—Isobel knew too much for that. God seemed as precious and unlikely as the angel she had prayed for when she was a little girl, a mauve-haired princess with rainbow wings who would appear in her bedroom and make her feel not safe but awed. That was what Isobel always wanted, not comfort but possibility. Magic. She had never had either. Now she was too far gone for God or angels. But Isobel believed in the bonnet, in the power it would give her.