About the Author

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is the author of two previous award-winning novels, Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding, as well as the memoir Swing Low: A Life. She contributes frequently to CBC Radio, National Public Radio, and the New York Times Magazine, and has received a gold medal in the National Magazine Awards for humour.

Books by this Author
A Boy of Good Breeding
Excerpt

one

Algren was Canada’s smallest town. It really was. Canada’s Smallest Town. It said so on a big old billboard right outside the town limits and Knute had checked with one of those government offices in the blue pages and they said fifteen hundred is what you need for a town. And that’s what Algren had. If it had one less it would be a village and if it had just one more it would be a bigger town. Like all the rest of the small towns. Being the smallest was its claim to fame.

Knute had come to Algren, from the city of Winnipeg, to look after her dad who’d had a heart attack. And to relieve her mom who said if she spent one more day in the house she’d go insane.

She was twenty-four years old. Her mother, Dory, had intended her name to be pronounced “Noot uh,” but nobody got it so it became just Knute, like “Noot.” Even her mom had given up on the “uh” part but did from time to time call her Knutie or sometimes, and she hated this, Knuter.

Knute had a daughter, Summer Feelin’, and Summer Feelin’ had a strange way of shaking when she was excited. She flapped her arms, and her fingers moved quickly as though she were typing to save her life, and sometimes her head went back and her mouth opened wide and sounds like aaah and uh-uh-uh came out of it.

When she first started doing it, Knute thought it was cute. Summer Feelin’ looked like she’d lift right off the ground. But then Knute started worrying about it and decided to take her to a specialist, a pediatric neurologist. He did a number of tests, including an encephalogram. Summer Feelin’ liked the wires and enjoyed the attention but told the doctor that flapping was just something she was born to do.

Eventually after all the results came in and the charts had been read and analyzed, he agreed with her. She was born to flap. There was no sign of strange electrical activity in her brain, no reason to do a CAT scan, and all accounts of her birth indicated no trauma had occurred, nothing untoward as she had made her way through Knute’s birth canal and into this world.

Every night Knute lay down with Summer Feelin’. That was the time S.F. told Knute stories and let her in on her big plans and Knute could feel her daughter’s body tremble with excitement. It quivered. It shook. It was out of her control. Knute would hold Summer Feelin’ until she stopped shaking, maybe a twitch or two or a shudder, and fell asleep. The specialist said S.F.’s condition, which wasn’t really a condition, was very rare but nothing to worry about. Then he’d added, in a thoughtful way, that the condition or lack of condition might be the precipitator to that rare phenomenon known as spontaneous combustion. So Knute worried, from time to time, about S.F. bursting into flames for no apparent reason. And that was the type of concern she couldn’t really explain to people, even close friends, without them asking her if she needed a nap or what she’d been reading lately or just plain laughing at her.

March was the month that Knute and Summer Feelin’ arrived in Algren. Tom had had a heart attack (or his heart attack, as Dory called it) in December. He’d been putting up the last decorations on the tree and BAM, it happened. He fell over, and because he was sort of clutching at the tree it fell on top of him. Ten days later, in the sterile intensive care ward of the hospital, nurses were still finding tiny pine needles in his hair and in the many creases of his skin. He picked up a nasty infection called septicemia in the hospital and, as a result, his lungs malfunctioned and he was put on a respirator. Of course, he couldn’t talk, but in his more lucid, pain-free moments he could write. Sort of. All he ever wrote, in a barely legible scrawl either stretched out over the whole page or sometimes scrunched up in the bottom corner, was “How is the tree?” Or “Is the tree okay?” Or “Is the tree up?” Or “I’m sorry about the tree.”

One day in the hospital Dory told him, “Tom, it’s Christmas Day today. Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”

His eyes were closed but he squeezed her hand. She said, “Do you remember Christmas, darling?”

And he opened his eyes and looked up at her and shook his head. Yet the next day, again, he wrote about the tree. He couldn’t remember Christmas, but he knew a tree should, for some reason, be erected in his living room.

Gradually he could remember a bit more and he could spell “world” backwards and count by sevens and all those things they’d asked him to do in the hospital when he was off the respirator and out of intensive care, but still he had a strange scattered memory, like, for instance, he knew he must, absolutely must, shave every morning, but he was unsure why. He reminded Dory to check the battery in the smoke detector, but when she said, “Oh, Tom, what’s the worst that can happen if our battery is dead for a day or two?” he didn’t have an answer. So he was caught in a bind where he was committed to doing what he’d always done but he couldn’t remember why he was doing it. His life, some might have said, had no purpose.

Neither did Knute’s, really. Summer Feelin’ was in a day care that she hated and Knute was working full time as a hostess in a busy downtown restaurant where everybody was used to seating themselves. She wasn’t aggressive enough to say, “Hey, can’t you read the sign? It says ‘wait to be seated,’” and so, pretty much, she just stood there all day smiling and feeling stupid. From time to time she moved the sign right in front of the door, but people would walk into it and then move it back out of their way. Sometimes the waitresses got mad at her because she wasn’t seating anybody in their sections or because everybody was sitting in their section and they were run off their feet trying to keep up with the orders. Then, for a while, Knute would try to keep people from walking past her and she’d say things like, “Please follow me,” or “A table will be ready in a minute,” or “How many of you are there?” Usually there would be two and when she asked how many of them there were, they’d look at each other like she was nuts, then they’d hold up two fingers or point at each other and say, “one, two,” in a loud voice.

“Two!” Knute would say, “okay, two, hmmm . . . two, you say,” like she was trying to figure out how to seat twelve. Then she’d meander around and around the restaurant with them behind her, suggesting possible tables, and she’d say, “Oh no, I think, well, no, well, yes, okay, sure, right here is fine. Wherever you want, really, I guess.”

Her boss’s wife and all the waitresses and the dishwasher and the two cooks kept telling him to fire her, but her boss kept giving her more chances. He told Knute she’d get the hang of it in a while, just get in their faces and make them wait. “They’re like pigs at the trough,” he said. “You gotta keep ’em under control.”

On her first day Knute had actually managed to lead an old couple to a table. But somehow they got their wires crossed, and Knute pulled a chair away from the table just as the man was going to sit on it. In slow motion he fell to the ground while Knute and his wife stared, horrified. As he fell, he knocked over the fake flower arrangement and the vase shattered.

close this panel
A Complicated Kindness
Excerpt

One

I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.

Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.

I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.

One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.

I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.

It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.

Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.

Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.

close this panel
Irma Voth
Excerpt

Jorge said he wasn’t coming back until I learned how to be a better wife. He said it’s okay to touch him with my arm or my leg or my foot, if it’s clean, when we’re sleeping but not to smother him like a second skin. I asked him how could that be, I hardly saw him any more and he said that’s a good thing for you. He said people always lie about their reasons for leaving and what difference does it make? I blocked the doorway so he wouldn’t leave and I begged him not to go. He put his hands on my shoulders and then he rubbed my arms like he was trying to warm me up and I put my hands on his waist.
 
I asked him how I was supposed to develop the skills to be a wife if I didn’t have a husband to practise with and he said that was the type of question that contributed to my loneliness. I asked him why he was trying to blindside me with answers that attempted only to categorize my questions and I asked him why he was acting so strange lately and where his problem with the way I slept with my leg over his leg had come from and why he kept going away and why he was trying so hard to be a tough guy instead of just Jorge and then he pulled me close to him and he asked me to please stop talking, to stop shivering, to stop blocking the door, to stop crying and to stop loving him.
 
I asked him how I was supposed to do that and he said no, Irma, we’re not kids anymore, don’t say anything else. I wanted to ask him what loving him had to do with being childish but I did what he told me to do and I kept my mouth shut. He looked so sad, his eyes were empty, they were half closed, and he kissed me and he left. But before he drove off he gave me a new flashlight with triple C batteries and I’m grateful for it because this is a very dark, pitch-black part of the world.
 
The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure.
 
But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo. Maybe it was the pure adrenalin rush of being away from the farm that made me feel bold but I noticed Jorge sitting there by himself, watching intently, and kind of moving his body subtly in a way that matched the movements of the real cowboys, and I thought it was funny, and so I decided to go up to him and say hello.
 
Are you pretending to be a cowboy? I asked him in Spanish.
 
He smiled, he was a little embarrassed, I think. Are you pretending to be a Mennonitzcha? he said.
 
No, I really am, I said.
 
He asked me if I wanted to sit next to him and I said yes, but only for a minute because I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
 
We had a conversation in broken English and Spanish but it wasn’t much of one because as soon as I sat down beside him my boldness evaporated and my knees started to shake from nervousness. I was worried that somebody would see me talking to a Mexican boy and tell my father. Jorge told me he was in town buying something, I can’t remember what, for his mother who lived in Chihuahua city. He told me that he had a job delivering cars over the U.S. border from Juárez to El Paso and that he got paid forty American dollars a car and he didn’t ask questions.
 
Questions about what? I asked him.
 
Anything, he said.
 
But about what? I said.
 
About what’s in the cars or who’s paying me or when or just anything. I don’t ask, he said. He seemed a little nervous, so we both looked around at the people in the stands for a minute without saying much.
 
Some people are staring at us, he said.
 
No they’re not, I said.
 
Well, actually they are. Look at that guy over there. He was about to lift his arm and point but I said no, please, don’t.
 
He told me he thought it was strange that a Mennonite girl was at a rodeo and I told him that yeah it was. I tried to explain the rules my father had but that he was out of town and my mother was tired and all that and then we started talking about mothers and fathers and eventually he told me this story about his dad.
 
All I really understood was that his father had left his mother when he was a little boy and that one day his mother had told him he was going to meet him for the first time and he better look sharp and behave himself. She said she was going to drop him off on this corner by their house and his dad would be there waiting for him and then they could have a conversation, maybe get a meal together, and then the dad would drop him back off on that corner when they were done. So Jorge, he was five years old, decided he had better clean up his sneakers, especially if he wanted to look sharp for his dad. He washed them in the bathtub with shampoo and then he put them in the sun to dry. When it was time to go, his mom dropped him off at the corner and said goodbye and left and Jorge stood there for a long time, waiting. The sky got darker and darker. Finally it started to rain and Jorge started to worry. Where was his dad? Some men in cars drove past him but nobody stopped to pick him up. It started to rain harder. Then Jorge looked down at his shoes and noticed that they were foaming. Bubbles were floating around by his shoes and he didn’t know what was going on. He was too young to understand that he hadn’t rinsed his sneakers when he washed them with shampoo and now the rain was rinsing them for him and the soap was bubbling out of them and making them foam. Jorge felt like a fool. Like a clown. He was mortified. He was just about to take them off and rub them in the dirt on the sidewalk to try to make them stop foaming when a car pulled up and a man got out and introduced himself to Jorge as his father. He asked Jorge what was going on with his sneakers and Jorge told him that he didn’t know. That they had just strangely started foaming like that and his father looked at him and told him that shoes didn’t normally do that. Jorge had wanted to tell him that he had only been trying to look good and clean for his dad but he didn’t really know how to say that and so he just started crying out of shame.
 
And then what happened? I asked Jorge.
 
My father told me that he loved my shoes that way, that they were great, that he wanted a pair just like them, said Jorge. That made me feel a lot better. And then we went and had some shrimp cocktail. Afterwards he dropped me back off at the corner and I never saw him again.
 
Oh, I said. Where did he go?
 
I don’t know, said Jorge. But I was sure it was because of my stupid shoes that he never came back. I realized that he had lied to me. Obviously he didn’t want a pair of shoes that foamed up. Who would want that? So eventually I made this decision not to act like an idiot in life.
 
But you weren’t trying to be a clown, I said. You just wanted to have clean shoes to meet your dad. Your mom had told you to.
 
I know, he said, maybe it’s not rational. But after that I decided I would try to be a cooler boy and not try so hard for things.
 
I told Jorge that I was sorry about that but that I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
 
I guess I’ll never see you again either, he said. He was smiling. He told me it was nice meeting me and I said he could visit me in our field, maybe, beside the broken cropduster that had crashed in it, and I gave him directions and told him to wait there later that evening.
 
Make sure you look sharp and behave yourself, I told him. But I didn’t really say it correctly in Spanish so he didn’t get the little joke which wasn’t funny anyway and he just nodded and said he’d wait all night and all year if he had to. And I wasn’t used to that kind of romantic speaking so I said no, it wouldn’t take that long. I wanted to tell him that I had tried most of my life to do things that would make people stay too, and that none of them had worked out, but then I thought that if I said that our relationship would always be defined by failure.
 
Jorge came to visit me a few times, secretly, on his way between El Paso and Chihuahua city. We would lie in the back of his truck and count the number of seconds it took for jet streams to evaporate. If you happened to fly over this place you’d see three houses in a row and nothing else for miles but cornfields and desert. Mine and Jorge’s in the middle and on one side of us my parents’ house and on the other side an empty house where my cousins used to live, the space between them approximately the size of a soccer pitch or a cemetery. On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time. It’s comforting. There are a few little villages around here. Some are Mexican and some are Mennonite, we’re sorted like buttons, and we’re expected to stay where we’re put.
 
If Jorge visited in the evening he and I would lie in the back of his truck and stare at the stars and trace the shapes of various constellations and touch each other’s bodies very gently like we were burn victims. Jorge told me that I didn’t have to be so nervous. Don’t you want to leave this place? he said.
 
I think so, I said.
 
So even if your father finds out about us the worst thing that can happen is we go away.
 
I know, but, I said. But then we can’t come back, really.
 
So, he said. Why would you want to?
 
Well, I said. I would miss my mother and my sister and— But Irma, he said, you could visit them secretly just like what we’re doing right now.
 
I don’t know, I said.
 
But you and I are in love, he said. We’re eighteen now. We don’t need our mothers so much.
 
He told me that it was like a star museum out here, there were so many of them, every different kind from all the ages, stored right here in my campo for safekeeping. He said I could be the curator of the star museum.
 
I’d rather not.
 
I was just saying stuff.
 
I know, I said, but I’m not good at keeping things safe.
 
I know, he said, I didn’t mean it for real, it was just a thing to say.
 
I know, I said, but I can’t be the curator of anything.
 
Okay, Irma. I understand. You don’t have to take care of the stars, okay? That was just stuff to say. It was stupid. I had meant to tell him, again, that I wasn’t good at keeping promises or secrets or people from leaving. I kept meaning to tell Jorge things.
 
On our wedding day nobody came except the justice of the peace from the Registro Civil in Cuauhtémoc, who finished the ceremony in under a minute. He got lost trying to follow Jorge’s directions to our campo and it was dark by the time he finally showed up. Jorge had brought a candle with him and he lit it and put it next to the piece of paper we had to sign and when I leaned over to write my name, Irma Voth, my veil caught on fire and Jorge pulled it off my head and threw it onto the ground and stomped the fire out. We were in a sheltered grove near my parents’ farm. The justice of the peace told me I was a lucky girl and Jorge grabbed my hand and we took off, running. He wore a white shirt that was too big on him and hard plastic shoes.
 
We didn’t really know what to do but after a while we stopped running and we walked around for a long time and then we went to my house and told my parents that we had got married and my mother went to her bedroom and closed the door softly and my father slapped me in the face. Jorge pinned him to the wall of the kitchen and said he’d kill him if he did it again. I went into my mother’s bedroom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final. And then he left the house and my mother went into the kitchen and put some buns and cheese onto the table and a rhubarb platz that she cut up into small pieces.
 
Jorge and I sat down with her, on either side, and she held our hands and prayed for our happiness and for an everlasting love. She spoke quietly so the other kids wouldn’t wake up. After that she whispered congratulations to us in Low German and I told Jorge what she had said and they smiled at each other, I had forgotten how pretty her smile was. Jorge thanked her for the gift of me and she asked him to protect and cherish that gift. Then my father came back into the house and told us to get out and that we were no longer welcome in his home. Jorge and I walked down the road to our house and he took my hand and asked me if I believed what the justice of the peace had said, that I was a lucky girl. I looked west towards the Sierra Madre mountains but I couldn’t make them out in the darkness. Jorge’s hand was a little sweaty and I squeezed it and he was kind enough to let that be my answer.
 
We lived in the house for free but worked for my father for nothing. We looked after the cows so that he could work the fields and travel around from campo to campo imploring people to continue with old traditions even though the drought was killing us. The plan was that when my little brothers were older they would help him with the farm, and Jorge and I would be booted out of the house. Jorge said he wasn’t worried about that because he had other opportunities to make money and eventually he and I could follow our dream of living in a lighthouse. We didn’t know of one but he said he knew people in the Yucatán who would help us. I didn’t even really know exactly where the ocean was.
 
But none of that actually matters now and it’s embarrassing to talk about because Jorge is gone and I’m still here and there’s no lighthouse on my horizon as far as I can see. Jorge came and went all that year and I never knew when he’d show up but when he did it wasn’t for long so I really saw no one, except the cows.
 
One morning my little sister Aggie snuck over and gave me some news. She told me that filmmakers from Mexico City were moving into the empty house next to mine and our father said she wasn’t supposed to talk to them or in any way whatsoever to acknowledge them.
 
She also told me that she had a new dream of becoming a singer of canciones rancheras, which are ballads of love and infidelity and drunken husbands. She had new dreams every day.
 
I missed Aggie. I missed her big laugh and her little tricks. I missed listening to her practice her swearing deep under the blankets so our parents wouldn’t hear. She has white-blond hair and a brown face from the sun and blue eyes that are so light they’re almost translucent, like a wolf. She told me that the sun and the moon are the two eyes of God and when one disappears the other one pops up to keep spying on us. When we can see them both at the same time we’re in big trouble and all we can do is run. Since I married Jorge she hadn’t been allowed to talk to me, which is why she had to sneak over, but it wasn’t really sneaking, not entirely, because our mother usually knew when she was coming and sometimes sent things along.
 
According to my father, Jorge was more interested in searching for sensations in Chihuahua city than taking care of the cows and the corn in Campo 6.5. He had other reasons for not liking Jorge but the real reason was that I’d married a non-Mennonite. A long time ago, in the twenties, seven Mennonite men travelled from Manitoba to the Presidential Palace in Mexico City to make a deal. They’d been offered this land for cheap and they decided to accept the offer and move everyone from their colony in central Canada down to Mexico where they wouldn’t have to send their kids to regular school or teach them to speak English or dress them in normal clothing. Mennonites formed themselves in Holland five hundred years ago after a man named Menno Simons became so moved by hearing Anabaptist prisoners singing hymns before being executed by the Spanish Inquisition that he joined their cause and became their leader. Then they started to move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese. Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context. Our motto is from the “rebuke of wordliness,” which is from the Biblical book of James: Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
 
I once made the mistake of asking my father if it didn’t make sense that in all those years from then to now some Mennonite girl would fall for a Mexican boy and want to marry him. It’s called integration, Dad, it’s not a big deal. I mean if you accept their cheap offer of land . . . But he had stopped listening to me ages ago. The last real thing we talked about was the absurdity of life on earth. He was thinking about something he’d read in an old newspaper that had somehow managed to float into our field from El Paso or somewhere. We were in the truck on our way to Cuauhtémoc and he asked me how I thought it was possible that a crowd of people could stand on the street in front of a tall office building and cheer a suicidal man on to his death by encouraging him to jump. I was surprised by the question and said I didn’t know. What does that say about us? said my dad. That we’re cruel, I said. Then my dad said no, he didn’t think so, he thought it meant that we feel mocked, that we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous. And we want him to die immediately so that the pain of being confronted with our own fear and ignorance will also, mercifully, end. Would you agree with that? my dad asked. What? I said. I didn’t know what he was asking me. It’s a sin to commit suicide, I thought. I said no, I still think it means we’re cruel. My dad said no, it doesn’t mean we’re cruel. He got a little mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while and then as time passed never got back into the habit.
 
My father had lost his family when he was a little kid, when they’d been driven off their farm near the Black Sea. His parents and his sisters had been slaughtered by soldiers on a road somewhere in Russia, beside trees, and buried quickly in the ditch. My father survived by singing some songs, German hymns I think, for the soldiers, who thought it was cute, this little blond boy, but eventually the novelty of that wore off and they foisted him onto some other fleeing Mennonite family who adopted him and brought him to Canada to help with the animals and baling. He hated his adopted family and ran away when he was twelve to work on some other farm where he met my mother and eventually married her. That’s all I know about that because by the time it occurred to me to ask him questions about it he had stopped talking to me. I tried to get more details from my mother but she said she didn’t know any more than that either.
 
We’d had fun, me and him, you know, typical farm fun, when I was young. He made me a swing that I could jump from into hay and he understood my grief when my favourite chicken died. He even brought me to the fabric store to buy some flannel to make a burial suit of little trousers and a vest and hat for my chicken and he let me bury it outside my bedroom window rather than tossing it into the rubble fire like the other dead ones. But it was colossal and swift like the sinking of the Titanic the way all that disappeared when he moved us overnight to Mexico.

close this panel
Summer of My Amazing Luck
Excerpt

One

Lish had been a lifer even before the trouble started with Serenity Place. She had four daughters, two of them with the same guy and the other two, twins, with a carefree street performer who had fallen in love with Lish’s hands. Perfect for balls, he’d said, juggling them that is. Now jugglers never make cracks about balls, Lish informed me, they just don’t. Lish knew a lot about the theatre, about working a room, drawing a crowd, about blocking and leading, about the superstitions of theatre people. She had always loved the stage. Or the street, or wherever it is that people perform. She had met the juggler in the hospitality suite of the hotel at which all the performers were staying. Volunteering, for Lish, was a good way to meet theatre people without violating welfare rules, and it was a nice break from the kids. This street performer, absent father of the twins, said he loved Lish and suggested that she join him on the road. He could teach her to eat fire, juggle knives, walk on stilts. He showed her a newspaper clipping of himself from The Miami Herald and the headline was “Magic, Music and Tomfoolery,” and then there was a photo of him breaking a chain with his ­chest.

Just like Zampano in “La Strada,” he’d said. Lish was giddy with the proposition and the free booze of the hospitality suite, and so she agreed to join him on the road, on the condition that she could bring her daughters, numbering two at the time. “Not a problem, not a problem,” he said, “they’ll bring in more cash,” and then he made a red handkerchief disappear up Lish’s nose. And, of course, reappear. Something he himself had failed to do after impregnating Lish in his hotel room that night, while her long beautiful hands caressed his oily back and the hot summer night got hotter. Lish found him irresistible with his sad eyes and his ­world-­weary bearing and silly jokes that in and of themselves weren’t funny at all, but when he said them seemed, at least to Lish, to define comedy. And Lish loved to laugh. What was funniest though to Lish was his utter seriousness about ­sex.

He didn’t say a word or crack a smile throughout, and Lish had to pretend that a snort of laughter she let escape while he focussed in on the homestretch was really an uncontrollable gasp of pleasure. She had hoped he’d think it was her unusual way of expressing herself while in the throes of passion. Snorting. But she wasn’t sure. In any case, it didn’t matter. The next morning while Lish slept sated and pregnant with not one but two of the busker’s babies, he made himself, along with Lish’s cotton purse, disappear for good. Lish said he had left a note that said “Catcha on the flip side.” Can you believe it? Lish said his juggling was much better than his ­writing.

For a while Lish wondered if her snorting had made him leave, but really she knew that it hadn’t been her, it had been the road, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it. Some people were just like that. All the road had to do was look up at them and they were gone. Poof. And so it was with the father of her twins. She wished she had found out what his name was, but hey . . . Lish was the kind of person who enjoyed telling this tale to people. It was romantic, reckless. And if the twins asked about their dad, she could build him up for them, make him a hero, a rogue, a poet, a jester. Once I pointed out to Lish that the twins might like more details, some fleshing out of the story, maybe an address or a present on their birthday, a postcard. Lish said, “Maybe. Maybe not.”

I know that Lish still kept a big silver spoon room service had brought up to the hotel room the night she and the busker got together, and the twins, when they were old enough, took turns using it to scoop the natural chunky peanut butter Lish bought at a health food ­co-­op. They’d say, “It’s my turn to use Dad’s spoon.” And Lish would smile and hand it over. Who knew what she was thinking. The older girls had a dad they saw fairly regularly and for a while were willing to let the twins use him as theirs, too. But the twins didn’t want him. They were happy enough with their ­own.

I should tell you right now how I got to where I am: single mother on the dole, public housing, all that. It wasn’t a goal of mine, certainly. As a child I never once dreamed, “I will be a poor mother.” I had fully intended to be a forest ranger. Now I realize there just isn’t enough human contact in that field for me. But then, look where human contact got me. They said I hadn’t grieved properly over my mother’s death. That was the reason I became promiscuous, they said. They said I snuck out of my bedroom window every night because I needed to forget. I needed to forget, they said, because I couldn’t bear the sadness of remembering. That’s what they meant by grieving properly: remembering. Remembering everything and reacting to it and releasing it. There was more to it, but I can’t remember what it was, ha ha. So I’m not proud of it or anything, but it happened. And it’s how I got to where I am. ­Half-­a-­Life Housing. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, city with the most hours of sunshine per year (that’s another thing they say).

––

Somewhere along the line I became pregnant. With Dill, my son who is now nine months old. His full name is Dillinger. I don’t know who his father is. Like Lish says, if you eat a whole can of beans, how do you know which one made you fart? I don’t think it’s the caretaker at my dad’s church, because Dill’s hands are very big. Those huge hands were the first thing I noticed about Dill. The caretaker, on the other hand, had very small hands. I remember, because after we’d had sex leaning up against the pulpit, he wandered over to the organ and started playing “Midnight Special.” I lay on top of the organ, naked as a cherub, and I remember peering down at the caretaker’s hands as he played. They were small and cupped and soft like a baby’s. So I’m quite sure he’s not Dill’s father. And, to tell you the truth, there were eight or nine other guys I was with at the time Dill was conceived, and most of them have faded from my memory. If I ever did know their names, I’ve just about forgotten them. At least I’ve tried to. And all this because I didn’t grieve ­properly.

close this panel
Swing Low

Swing Low

A Life
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

Prologue

"Nothing accomplished."

I don’t know what my father meant when he said it. I had asked him, the day before he took his own life, what he was thinking about, and that was his reply. Two hopeless words, spoken in a whisper by a man who felt he had failed on every level. This book is my attempt to prove my father wrong.

At the age of seventeen, he was diagnosed as suffering from the mental illness known then as manic depression and today as bipolar disorder. His method of self-defence, along with the large amounts of medication he was prescribed, was silence. And maybe, for him, it worked. He managed, against the advice of his psychiatrist, to get married, to rear a family, and to teach elementary school for more than forty years. His psychiatrist warned him, way back in the early 1950s, that the odds of living a normal life were heavily stacked against him. In fact, Dad’s life fell into the typical pattern of our small town of Steinbach, Manitoba: an ordered existence of work, church, and family, with the occasional inevitable upsets along the way. His managing to live an ordinary life was an extraordinary accomplishment. It is a measure of his strength, his high (some would say impossibly high) personal standards, and his extreme self-discipline that he managed to stay sane, organized, and ordinary for so long.

A year or so after his retirement, my parents went out for a drive in the countryside around town. “Well,” said my father after they’d driven in silence for a while, “I did it.” “You’ve done many things, Mel,” said my mom. “What are you referring to?” “I did what they said I would never do,” answered my father.

And he did it exceptionally well. He became a much-loved and respected teacher, known especially for his kindness, exuberance, and booming voice, and at home my mother and my sister and I had everything we could possibly want or need. There was only one thing we missed, and that was hearing him speak. I have often wondered what he would have said about himself, if he had spoken. He never talked about his past, even his childhood, and often he simply didn’t speak at all. His whole world, it seemed, was in the classroom. And when there, he gave it his all. My sister and I, both students of his at one time, used to sit in class in absolute awe. Was this funny, energetic, outspoken man really our father? It must have been teaching, the daily ritual of stepping outside himself and into a vital role, that sustained him all those years.

Had we known then what we know now, we would have understood that the end of his teaching career would, essentially, mean the end of Mel. After his suicide, we were left with many questions. How could this have happened? we asked ourselves over and over. After all, other people have difficulty retiring, but they don’t necessarily kill themselves. I became obsessed with knowing all that I could about his life, searching, I suppose, for clues that would ultimately lead me to the cause of his death. With the help of my mother and my sister and Dad’s friends, colleagues, and relatives, I’ve managed to put a few pieces of the puzzle of his life together. But in spite of many theories and much speculation, there’s really only one answer, and that is depression. A clinical, profoundly inadequate word for deep despair.

At the end of his life, my father, in a rare conversation, asked me to write things down for him, words and sentences that would lead him out of his confusion and sadness to a place and time that he might understand. “You will be well again,” I wrote. “Please write that again,” he’d ask. I wrote many things over and over and over, and he would read each sentence, each declaration and piece of information out loud. Eventually, it stopped making sense to him. “You will be well again?” he’d ask me, and I’d say, “No, Dad, you will be well again.” “I will be well again?” he’d ask. “Yes,” I’d say. “I will be well again,” he’d repeat. “Please write that down.”

Soon I was filling up pages of yellow legal notepads with writing from his own point of view so he could understand it when he read it to himself. After his death, when I began writing this book, I continued to write in the same way. It was a natural extension of the writing I’d done for him in the hospital, and a way, though not a perfect one, of hearing what my father might have talked about if he’d ever allowed himself to. If he’d ever thought it would matter to anybody.

After his death, I read everything I could find on mental illness and suicide, poring over facts and statistics, survivors’ accounts, reasons, clues, anything at all that might help me to understand, or if not to understand then at least to accept, my father’s decision and to live with it. By dragging some of the awful details into the light of day, they became much less frightening. I have to admit, my father didn’t feel the same way, but he found a way to alleviate his pain, and so have I.

close this panel
The Flying Troutmans
Excerpt

one

yeah, so things have fallen apart. A few weeks ago I got a collect call from my niece, Thebes, in the middle of the night, asking me to please come back to help with Min. She told me she’d been trying to take care of things but it wasn’t working any more. Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn’t know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principal, the house was crumbling around them, the back screen door had blown off in the wind, a family of aggressive mice was living behind the piano, the neighbours were pissed off because of hatchets being thrown into their yard at all hours (again, confusing, something to do with Logan) . . . basically, things were out of control. And Thebes is only ­eleven.

I told her I’d be there as soon as I could. I had no choice. There was no question. Our parents are dead. Min didn’t have anybody else. And in just about every meaningful way, neither did I. Admittedly, I would have preferred to keep roaming around Paris pretending to be an artist with my moody, ­adjective-­hating boyfriend, Marc, but he was heading off to an ashram in India anyway and said we could communicate telepathically. I tried it a couple of days before he left. I love you, don’t go, I said silently, without moving my lips. He was standing next to me, trying to photograph a gargoyle. You’re a little in my way, he said. Can you move? No amount of telepathy worked with him, but maybe you have to be thousands of miles away from someone in order for your thoughts to work up the speed and velocity required to hit their ­target.

At the airport, Thebes came running over to me dressed entirely in royal blue terry cloth, short shorts and cropped top, and covered in some kind of candy necklace powder. The empty elastic was still around her throat. Or maybe she wore that thing all the time. She had fake tattoos all over her arms and her hair was intense purple, matted and wild, and she melted into me when I put my arms around her and tried to lift her off the ­ground.

Hey, you crazy kid, I said. How are you? She couldn’t talk because she was crying too hard. How are you, Thebie? I asked again. How are things? I didn’t have to ask her. I had a pretty good idea. I let her wrap herself around me and then I carried her over to a plastic airport chair, sat down with her sprawled in my lap, all arms and legs, like a baby giraffe, and let her cry.

How’s the songwriting going? I finally whispered in her ear. I really liked that line . . . take a verse, Mojo . . . you know? I said. She was always ­e-­mailing me her lyrics and cc’ing David Geffen on ­them.

She frowned. She wiped the snot off her face with the back of her hand, then onto her shorts. I’m more into martial arts now, and ­yo-­yoing, she said. I need to get out of my ­head.

Yeah, I said. Using your kung fu powers for ­good?

Well, she said, I feel good when I flip ­people.

Hey, I said, where’s your ­brother?

She told me he was outside waiting in the van because he didn’t know how to work the parking and also he didn’t actually have his driver’s licence, only his learner’s, he’s fifteen, he’s all jacked up on rebellion and whatever, he just wanted to wait in the van and listen to his ­music.

We headed for the exit and kind of stumbled around, falling over each other. Thebes kept her arm wrapped around my waist and tried to help me with my bag. All I had was one large backpack. I didn’t know how long I’d be staying but it didn’t really matter anyway. I’d lost my boyfriend and didn’t care about my job and there was no reason to go back to Paris. I didn’t own anything besides books, and Marc could keep those if he wanted ­to.

It was sunny and warm and the sky was a sharp, cartoony blue compared to the wet clay skies of Paris, and there was Logan sitting in their ­beat-­up van staring straight ahead at something, not us, music blasting from inside, like the van was a giant Marshall amp. Thebes ran up to the van and threw herself against the windshield. Logan snapped out of his rock ’n’ roll reverie for a second and smiled. Then he got out of the van and walked, glided, over to me and gave me a big hug with one arm and asked me how it was ­going.

All right, I said, how about ­you?

Mmmm, he said. He ­shrugged.

Hey, what’s this? I asked him. I grabbed his arm and squeezed his ­bicep.

Yeah, right, said ­Thebes.

And, dude, your pants! I said. Did you steal them from Andre the Giant? I snapped the elastic band on his boxers. Logan opened the door to the van and threw my stuff ­in.

How was Paris? he ­asked.

What? I ­said. Oh, Paris?

Yeah, he said. How was ­it?

Thebes turned down the volume on the music. Then she told me I should drive instead of Logan. She said she’d been planning her funeral on the way ­there.

I got dumped, I ­said.

No way! said ­Logan.

Well, yeah, I ­said.

You can’t get dumped in Paris, said Logan. Isn’t it supposed to be all–
By a guy or a girl? asked ­Thebes.

A guy, I ­said.

Logan stared hard at Thebes for a few seconds. He said you were gay, she ­said.

No I didn’t, said ­Logan.

You totally did! said ­Thebes.

Okay, Thebes, listen, said Logan. I didn’t–

Hey, I said. It’s okay. It really doesn’t matter. Really. But it was a ­guy.

But you’re not that old, said Thebes, right? You can still find someone if you look hard. How old are ­you?
Twenty-­eight, I ­said.

Okay, ­twenty-­eight, she said. She thought for a second. You have like two years, she said. Maybe you should dress up more, ­though.

Logan ended up driving back to their house because I didn’t know how to tell him not to and because he hadn’t seemed interested in relinquishing control of the wheel anyway. Logan and Thebes yelled at each other all the way back, the music cranked the whole ­time.

Thebes: Stay in your lane, moron!

Logan: Don’t lose your fucking shit, man!

Thebes: I don’t want to die, loser! Use two hands!

Logan: Do NOT grab the steering wheel!

Then Thebes went into this strange kind of commentary thing she does, quoting the imaginary people in her head. This time it was a funeral director, I think. She said: With an impact this severe there is not a hope of reconstructing this kid’s face. She banged the back window with her ­fist.

What was that? I asked ­her.

The lid of my coffin slamming down, she said. Closed casket. I’ll be unrecognizable ­anyway.
It was great to see the kids again. They’d changed a bit, especially Logan. He was a young man now, not a child. More on his mind, maybe, but with less compulsion to share it. Thebes was more manic than the last time I’d seen her. I knew what that was about. It’s hard not to get a little hysterical when you’re trying desperately to keep somebody you love alive, especially when the person you’re trying to save is ambivalent about being saved. Thebes reminded me of myself when I was her age, rushing home from school ahead of Min so I could create the right vibe, a mood of happiness and fun that would sustain her for another day, or so I thought. I’d mentally rehearse what I thought were amusing anecdotes to entertain her, make her laugh. I didn’t know then that all my ridiculous efforts only brought her further down. Sometimes she would laugh or applaud ­half-­heartedly, but it was always with an expression that said, yeah, whatever, Hattie, nice try, but everything is ­bullshit.

––

My birth triggered a seismic shift in my sister’s life. The day I was born she put her dress on backwards and ran away towards a brighter future, or possibly towards a brighter past. Our parents found her in a tree next door. Had she been planning to jump? She’s been doing that ever since, travelling in two opposite directions at once, towards infancy and death. I don’t know exactly what it was about me. By all accounts before I existed Min was a normal little girl, normal enough. She could pick a direction and stick with it. Our family photo albums are filled, halfway, with shots of Min laughing and smiling and enjoying life. And then, suddenly, I’m in the picture and Min’s joy evaporates. I’ve spent hours staring at those photos trying to understand my sister. Even in the ones in which I don’t appear it’s easy to see by Min’s expression that I am just beyond the lens, somewhere nearby.

Min’s had good days, some inexplicable breaks from the madness, periods of time where she functions beautifully and life is as smooth as glass, almost. The thing I remember most clearly about Cherkis, Thebes’s and Logan’s dad, is how nuts he was about Min and how excited he’d get when Min was on the ­up-­and-­up, taking care of business and acting normal. I liked that about him, but it also broke my heart because he had no idea of the amount of shit that was about to fly. Eventually, though, he did come to understand, and he did what I did, and what so many others in her life have ­done.

He ­left.

Min had a vague notion of where he’d gone. At first it was Tokyo, about as far away as you can get from here without being on your way back. He moved around the Pacific Rim, and then Europe for a while, South America, and then South Dakota. He’d call sometimes to see how the kids were doing, how Min was doing, if she wanted him to come back. No, she didn’t, she said, every time. And if he tried to take the kids she’d kill herself for real. We didn’t know whether this was a bluff or not, but nobody wanted to challenge it. They were all she had, she told him. Cherkis wasn’t the type of guy to hire a lawyer and fight for custody. He told Min he’d wait until the kids were old enough to decide for themselves and take things from there. He didn’t want to rock Min’s boat. He didn’t want anybody getting ­hurt.

I moved to Paris, fled Min’s dark planet for the City of Lights. I didn’t want to leave her and the kids but the truth is she scared me and I thought she might be better off without me, too. Especially if I was the embodiment of her particular anguish. It had been hard to know whether to stay or go.

It’s impossible to move through the stages of grief when a person is both dead and alive, the way Min is. It’s like she’s living permanently in an airport terminal, moving from one departure lounge to another but never getting on a plane. Sometimes I tell myself that I’d do anything for Min. That I’d do whatever was necessary for her to be happy. Except that I’m not entirely sure what that would ­be.

So the next best thing to being dead was being far away, at least as far as Paris. I had a boyfriend, Marc, and a job in a bookstore, and occasionally I’d go home, back to Manitoba, to Min and Thebes and Logan, for Christmas or the odd birthday, or to help with Min if she was in a really bad patch, but of course that was complicated because I never knew whether I should be there or ­not.

I wanted to be an artist, in Paris, or a psychiatrist. Sometimes I’d haul a giant pad of sketch paper and some charcoal pencils to the square in front of the Louvre or wherever the tourists were and I’d offer to sketch them for free. I didn’t feel right about charging anybody, because I wasn’t really doing a good job. In every sketch, it didn’t matter if I was drawing the face of a man or a woman or a kid, I’d include a detail from Min’s face, from what I could remember at that precise moment. Sometimes it was the shape of her eyebrows, or her wide lips, or a constellation of tiny freckles, or even just a shadow beneath the cheekbone. The people I sketched were always slightly confused and disappointed when I showed them my work, I could tell, but most of them were kind, especially because I didn’t expect any ­payment.

Our father died in a drowning accident in Acapulco when Min and I were kids. He drowned trying to save us. We’d been racing and had swum out farther than we should have and Min had started panicking, screaming for help. The current was strong and we couldn’t get back to the shore no matter how hard we pushed against the water. I remember yelling at Min to move sideways and to let go of me. After that, my memory of events is blurry. I have a feeling that Min was pushing me down, under water. I think that I remember her hand on my head, or on my shoulder, but maybe I’m wrong. Our mother told us that Dad had heard our screams and had swum out to get us, but that he too had got caught in the undertow and disappeared. They said it was a riptide. Other people on the beach eventually grabbed a boat from somewhere and rescued us, but by then Dad was gone. Min was fifteen and I was nine. They left us lying in the sun on the beach, crying and vomiting up salt water, while they searched for ­him.

close this panel
Women Talking
Excerpt

 
The meetings have been organized hastily by Agata Friesen and Greta Loewen in response to the strange attacks that have haunted the women of Molotschna for the past sev­eral years. Since 2005, nearly every girl and woman has been raped by what many in the colony believed to be ghosts, or Satan, supposedly as punishment for their sins. The attacks occurred at night. As their families slept, the girls and women were made unconscious with a spray of the anesthetic used on our farm animals, made from the belladonna plant. The next morning, they would wake up in pain, groggy and often bleeding, and not understand why. Recently, the eight demons responsible for the attacks turned out to be real men from Molotschna, many of whom are the close relatives—brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews—of the women.

I recognized one of the men, barely. He and I had played together when we were children. He knew the names of all the planets, or he made them up anyway. His nickname for me was Froag, which in our language meant “question.” I remember that I had wanted to say goodbye to this boy before I left the colony with my parents, but my mother told me that he was having difficulty with his twelve-year-old molars, and had contracted an infection and was confined to his bedroom. I’m not sure, now, if that was true. In any case, neither this boy nor anybody from the colony said goodbye before we left.

The other perpetrators are much younger than me and hadn’t been born, or were babies or toddlers, when I left with my parents, and I have no recollection of them.

Molotschna, like all our colonies, is self-policed. Initially Peters planned to lock the men in a shed (similar to the one I live in) for several decades, but it soon became apparent that the men’s lives were in danger. Ona’s younger sister, Salome, attacked one of the men with a scythe; and another man was hanged by a group of drunk and angry colonists, male relatives of the victims, from a tree branch by his hands. He died there, forgotten apparently, when the drunk and angry men passed out in the sorghum field next to the tree. After this, Peters, together with the elders, decided to call in the police and have the men arrested— for their own safety, presumably—and taken to the city.

The remaining men of the colony (except for the senile or decrepit, and myself, for humiliating reasons) have gone to the city to post bail for the imprisoned attackers in the hope that they will be able to return to Molotschna while they await trial. And when the perpe­trators return, the women of Molotschna will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven. If the women don’t forgive the men, says Peters, the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know noth­ing. The women have very little time, only two days, to organize their response.

Yesterday, as I have been told by Ona, the women of Molotschna voted. There were three options on the ballot.

1. Do Nothing.
2. Stay and Fight.
3. Leave.

Each option was accompanied by an illustration of its meaning, because the women do not read. (Note: It’s not my intention to constantly point out that the women do not read—only when it’s necessary to explain certain actions.)

Neitje Friesen, age sixteen, daughter of the late Mina Friesen and now permanent ward of her aunt Salome Friesen (Neitje’s father, Balthasar, was sent by Peters to the remote southwest corner of the country some years ago to purchase twelve yearlings and still has not returned), created the illustrations:

“Do Nothing” was accompanied by an empty hori­zon. (Although I think, but did not say, that this could be used to illustrate the option of leaving as well.)

“Stay and Fight” was accompanied by a drawing of two colony members engaged in a bloody knife duel. (Deemed too violent by the others, but the meaning is clear.)

And the option of “Leave” was accompanied by a draw­ing of the rear end of a horse. (Again I thought, but did not say, that this implies the women are watching others leave.)

The vote was a deadlock between numbers two and three, bloody knife duel and back of horse. The Friesen women, predominantly, want to stay and fight. The Loewens prefer to leave, although evidence of shifting convictions exists in both camps.

There are also some women in Molotschna who voted to do nothing, to leave things in the hands of the Lord, but they will not be in attendance today. The most vocal of the Do Nothing women is Scarface Janz, a stalwart member of the colony, the resident bonesetter, and also a woman known for having an excellent eye for measuring distances. She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was con­vince herself that she wanted very little.

Ona has informed me that Salome Friesen, a formi­dable iconoclast, had indicated in yesterday’s meeting that “Do Nothing” was in reality not an option, but that allowing women to vote for “Do Nothing” would at least be empowering. Mejal (meaning “girl” in Plautdietsch) Loewen, a friendly chain-smoker with two yellow finger­tips and what I suspect must be a secret life, had agreed. But, Ona told me, Mejal also pointed out that Salome Friesen had not been anointed as the person who can declare what constitutes reality or what the options are. The other Loewen women had apparently nodded their heads at this while the Friesen women had expressed impatience with quick, dismissive gestures. This type of minor conflict well illustrates the timbre of the debate between the two groups, the Friesens and the Loewens. However, because time is short and the need for a decision urgent, the women of Molotschna have agreed collectively to allow these two families to debate the pros and cons of each option—excluding the Do Nothing option, which most of the women in the colony dismiss as “dummheit”— and to decide which is suitable, and finally to choose how best to implement that option.

A translation note: The women are speaking in Plautdietsch, or Low German, the only language they know, and the language spoken by all members of the Molotschna Colony—although the boys of Molotschna are now taught rudimentary English in school, and the men also speak some Spanish. Plautdietsch is an unwritten medieval language, moribund, a mishmash of German, Dutch, Pomeranian and Frisian. Very few people in the world speak Plautdietsch, and everyone who does is Mennonite. I mention this to explain that before I can transcribe the minutes of the meetings I must translate (quickly, in my mind) what the women are saying into English, so that it may be written down.

And one more note, again irrelevant to the women’s debate, but necessary to explain in this document why I am able to read, write and understand English: I learned English in England, where my parents went to live after being excommunicated by the bishop of Molotschna at the time, Peters Senior, father of Peters, the current bishop of Molotschna.

While in my fourth year of university there, I suffered a nervous breakdown (Narfa) and became involved in cer­tain political activities for which I was eventually expelled and imprisoned for a period of time. During my imprison­ment, my mother died. My father had disappeared years before. I have no siblings because my mother’s uterus was removed following my birth. In short, I had no one and nothing in England, although I had managed, while serving time in prison, to complete my teaching degree through correspondence. In dire straits, homeless and half-mad—or fully mad—I made a decision to commit suicide.

While researching my various options at the public library nearest the park in which I made my home, I fell asleep. I slept for an extraordinarily long time and was eventually gently nudged by the librarian, who told me it was time for me to leave, the library was closing. Then the librarian, an older woman, noticed that I had been crying and that I appeared dishevelled and distraught. She asked me what was wrong. I told her the truth: I didn’t want to live anymore. She offered to buy me supper, and while we were dining at the small restaurant across the street from the library, she asked me where I had come from, what part of the world?

I replied that I came from a part of the world that had been established to be its own world, apart from the world. In a sense, I told her, my people (I remember drawing out the words “my people” ironically, and then immediately feeling ashamed and silently asking to be forgiven) don’t exist, or at least are supposed to be seen not to.

And perhaps it doesn’t take too long before you believe that you really don’t exist, she said. Or that your actual corporeal existence is a perversity.

I wasn’t sure what she meant and scratched my head furiously, like a dog with ticks.
And after that? she asked.

University, briefly, and then prison, I told her.

Ah, she said, perhaps the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I smiled stupidly. My foray into the world resulted in my removal from the world, I said.

Almost as though you were brought into existence not to exist, she said, laughing.

Singled out to conform. Yes, I said, trying to laugh with her. Born not to be.

I imagined my squalling infant self being removed from my mother’s womb and then the womb itself hastily yanked away from her and thrown out a window to pre­vent any other abominations from occurring—this birth, this boy, his nakedness, her shame, his shame, their shame.

I told the librarian that it was difficult to explain where I was from.

I met a traveller from an antique land, said the librar­ian, apparently quoting a poet she knew and loved.

Again I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I nodded. I explained that I was originally a Mennonite from the Molotschna Colony, and that when I was twelve years old my parents were excommunicated and we moved away, to England. Nobody said goodbye to us, I told the librarian (I live forever with the shame of having said such a piteous thing). For years I believed we were forced to leave Molotschna because I had been caught stealing pears from a farm in the neighbouring colony of Chortiza. In England, where I learned how to read and write, I spelled my name with rocks in a large green field so that God would find me quickly and my punishment would be complete. I also tried to spell the word “confession” with rocks from our garden fence but my mother, Monica, had noticed that the stone wall between our garden and the neighbours’ was disappearing. One day she followed me to my green field, along the narrow rut that the wheelbarrow had made in the dirt, and caught me in the act of surrendering myself to God, using the stones from the fence to signal my location, with huge letters. She sat me down on the ground and put her arms around me, and said nothing. After a while, she told me that the fence had to be put back. I asked if I could put the stones back after God had found me and punished me. I was so exhausted from anticipating punishment and I wanted to get it over with. She asked me what I thought God intended to punish me for, and I told her about the pears, and about my thoughts regarding girls, about my draw­ings, and my desire to win in sports and be strong. How I was vain and competitive and lustful. My mother laughed then, and hugged me again and apologized for laughing. She said that I was a normal boy, I was a child of God—a loving God, in spite of what anybody said—but that the neighbours were perturbed about the disappearing fence and I would have to return the stones.

All this I told to the librarian.

She responded that she could understand why my mother had said what she did, but that if she had been there, if she had been my mother, she would have said something else. She would have told me that I wasn’t normal—that I was innocent, yes, but that I had an unusually deep need to be forgiven, even though I had done nothing wrong. Most of us, she said, absolve our­selves of responsibility for change by sentimentalizing our pasts. And then we live freely, happily, or if not altogether happily, without tremendous anguish. The librarian laughed. She said that if she had been in that green field with me, she would have helped me to have that feeling of somehow being forgiven.

Forgiven for what, though, exactly? I asked her. Stealing pears, drawing pictures of naked girls?

No, no, said the librarian, forgiven for being alive, for being in the world. For the arrogance and the futility of remaining alive, the ridiculousness of it, the stench of it, the unreasonableness of it. That’s your feeling, she added, your internal logic. You’ve just explained that to me.

She went on to say that, in her opinion, doubt and uncertainty and questioning are inextricably bound together with faith. A rich existence, she said, a way of being in the world, wouldn’t you say?

I smiled. I scratched. The world, I said.

What do you remember of Molotschna?

Ona, I said. Ona Friesen.

And I began to tell her about Ona Friesen, a girl my age, the same woman who has now asked me to record the minutes of the meeting.

After a long conversation with the librarian, during which I talked mostly, though not entirely, about Ona— how we had played, how we had clocked the seasons by the tiny lengthening of light, how we had pretended to be rebellious disciples at first misunderstood by our leader, Jesus, and then posthumously hailed as heroes, how we had jousted on horses with fence posts (running full tilt, like knights, like Ona’s squirrel and rabbit), how we had kissed, how we’d fought—the librarian suggested that I return to Molotschna, to the place where life had made sense to me, even briefly, even in imaginary play in dying sunlight, and that I ask the bishop (Peters, the younger, who was the same age as my mother) to accept me into the colony as a member. (I did not tell the librarian that this would also mean asking Peters to forgive me the sins of my parents, sins pertaining to the storage of intellec­tual materials and to the dissemination and propagation of said materials, even though the materials were art books, photographs of paintings that my father had found in the garbage behind a school in the city, and even though he was guilty only of sharing the images with other colony members, as he was unable to read the text.) She also suggested that I offer to teach the Molotschnan boys English, a language they would need in order to conduct business outside the colony. And she said that I should become friends, once again, with Ona Friesen.

I had nothing to lose. I took this advice to heart.

The librarian asked her husband to give me a job driv­ing for his airport limousine service, and although I didn’t have a valid driver’s licence, I worked for him for three months to make enough money to purchase a ticket to Molotschna. During this time, I slept in the attic of a youth hostel. At night, when it felt as though my head was about to explode, I would will myself to lie as still as possible. Every night, in that hostel, as I lay motionless in my bed, I closed my eyes and heard very faint strains of piano music, heavy chords unaccompanied by voices. One morning I asked the man who cleaned the hostel, and who also slept there, if he had ever heard faint piano music with heavy chords at night. He said no, never. Eventually, I understood that the song I heard at night, when it felt as though my head was about to explode, was the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and that I was lis­tening to my own funeral.

Peters, who wears the same tall black boots his own father once wore, or at least similar ones, considered my request for re-admittance into the colony. He finally said he would allow me membership providing I renounced my parents (in spite of one being dead and the other miss­ing) before the elders and was baptized into the church and agreed to teach the boys basic English and simple math in return for shelter (the aforementioned shed) and three meals a day.

I told Peters I would be baptized and I would teach the boys, but that I wouldn’t renounce my parents. Peters, unhappy, but desperate to have the boys learn account­ing, or perhaps because my appearance unsettled him, as I looked so much like my father, agreed.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...