Pure in Their Own Eyes
by James Krehbiel
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2, 3
Sarah Neufeld stands peering into her closet wondering what one wears to an execution. She dreads this day, and yet she is relieved by its arrival. No more depositions. No more listening to witnesses fabricating truths. No more appeals and no more stays of execution.
She chooses the burgundy taffeta dress she’s owned for years, one she hopes will be remembered. One last memory of a time that held possibilities, a moment of untouched bliss. A fond memory with which to be put to death.
The occasional lost tourist might refer to the landscape as desolate: miles of farmland with the pungent scent of freshly tilled soil. Simple country. Just like the folks that called this piece of Pretty Prairie, Kansas, home. Daniel had always thought the name was deceiving.
They’d missed the bus home and, rather than hitch a ride, they walked — only a few miles. The late afternoon sun dipped towards the horizon, the relentless heat abated. Daniel and Sarah ambled along as if time had no meaning. Their gait matched the predictability of their lives.
“Mr. Burke wants us to make a family tree as part of our final,” Daniel explained. A bead of sweat trickled down and lodged itself in one of his sideburns. “I’m not sure whether I should put my mother on it or ours.”
“Well, what was the assignment? Did he say it should be specific to bloodlines?” Sarah shifted her book bag from one hand to the other.
“Not sure, I wasn’t really paying attention. He might have said something about bloodlines.”
“Daydreaming again? Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.” She looked at her brother, grinning. “What about this time — walking the Great Wall of China or seeing the Pyramids?” Sarah was used to her brother’s dreams. Even as a child, Danny possessed an insatiable thirst for adventure.
Her mind drifted back to when he was seven years old, she a year younger and he’d taken off headed for the county fairgrounds. The allure of the traveling carnival had tugged at Daniel that day — the lights, the sound of the carnies’ voices, the smell of fried dough, the rides and the adventure of it all. It was all he talked about for weeks afterwards — said when he was old enough, he’d join up and see the world. “Well, if he did say it was specific to bloodlines, then you have no choice. You’ll have to put your mother on it.”
“You know I don’t know much about her. It’s like she’s some weird secret, and no one wants to talk about it.”
Sarah and her brother knew that Maria was Mennonite like everyone else in Pretty Prairie. And they knew that Maria had lived some twenty miles away, although, after all these years, Sarah couldn’t remember the name of the town.
Joseph and Maria had met at a Bible study in Maria’s home town. When he was little, Daniel constantly pestered Joseph about his real mother, always wanting to know more, the same questions over and over. And, with each question, Joseph offered less and less. Sarah remembered Danny going to Anna, too, hoping she’d be able to tell him about his mother, but she just kept saying, “Go ask your father,” as if anything about Maria should come from Joseph.
Sarah slung her book bag over her shoulder. “It? You make her sound like she wasn’t a person.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Well, you’re going to have to sit Daddy down and ask him. Tell him it’s for school.”
Daniel kicked a stone in his path. It tumbled off into a ditch by the side of the road. “You make it sound easy.”
Sarah knew the task facing Daniel. Had it been anyone other than Daniel asking, there would have been potential. It seemed as though there’d been some rift that had scarred their relationship. But it went beyond that.
Had it started when Daniel was a toddler, wanting to sit in his father’s lap, hoping for a bedtime story? Or perhaps when Daniel started bringing homework home, asking his father for help? More likely, it was within moments of Daniel’s first breath.
“You know we’re talking about Dad here, right?”
They walked on in silence. Overhead you could hear the nagging call of one crow to another and off in the distance, a cry of what sounded like a wounded animal. Daniel yanked his sweatshirt off and tied it around his waist.
“You know, now that you mention it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Daddy talk about your mom.”
“I know.” Daniel paused. “I’ve given up asking.”
They strolled along, Daniel watching puffs of dry earth from each of his steps. And off in the distance, as the sun dipped lower, a haze settled over them, as though a muted veil had been tossed from the sky and gently floated down over the landscape.
“I know you used to think about her a lot,” she said. “Do you still?”
It wasn’t until Daniel was ten years old or so that he learned the truth. And even then, the story had to be pried from their father. Maybe it was the years of pestering that forced Joseph to let his guard down. Or perhaps Joseph felt Daniel was finally old enough to understand.
Sarah remembered the exact moment Daniel had told her. He was eleven; she, ten years old, and they were sitting by the pond that was sheltered by the only trees in sight. A beaten-down path led to the pond that was set back a half mile or so behind their house. The serenity of the pond, the cattails protruding up through the water or the occasional wood duck floating by on the rippled surface was a place where if felt safe to share. It felt private.
Daniel’s mother, Maria, had died in childbirth. Daniel’s birth. And all those years ago, as they sat shoulder to shoulder at the water’s edge and Daniel was telling his story, Sarah remembered sadness in his voice. Not sad that he missed her. After all, he had never known her. It was more a wistfulness about how things might have been.
“I wonder what she was like. And I wonder if I’m like her. You know what I mean?”
“I do,” Sarah said.
“And I wish Dad would have told me more about her. He must have his reasons.”
Their father had never voiced it. He was enough of a parent to know better. But Sarah witnessed the distance, the annoyance, the feeling of being kept at bay like the gnat that keeps flying into your face and the more you swat it away, the more irritating it becomes until finally you crush it between your hands. But there’s always another gnat, another question, another reminder.
They continued walking, their feet scuffing the dirt road, the last few rays of sun casting a hue of crimson just above the haze. Sarah was lost in thought. She tried to remember when they were kids, Danny’s relationship with their dad. Was it ever better?
Off in the distance, barreling towards them, a blur of legs, ears flapping and a tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth like a long thin slab of salami, Rusty, their retriever-hound mix approached.
Daniel knelt down, arms spread wide. “Rusty! Come here boy.”
Rusty plowed into Daniel, paws up on Daniel’s shoulders, his tongue lapping at Daniel’s face; Daniel pressed his nose into Rusty’s ruff. “How’s my good boy?” Rusty squirmed, his tail flailing in circles, trying to find something, anything to lick. Daniel stood up and rearranged his backpack. “Come on, boy, let’s go!”
The three of them walked the half mile home, Rusty ran ahead, nose to the ground, then ran back and looked up at Daniel and Sarah, as if to say, Come on you guys, hurry up and, once again, scent-bound in search of some animal that had passed by hours ago.
Nothing more was said about Daniel’s mother and the circumstances of her death. Rusty had pulled them from the moment, but Sarah’s mind clung to Daniel’s words. He must have his reasons. An unforeseen tragedy, she thought, and an unfair sense of blame.
* * *
“Lord, bless this food and grant that we may thankful for thy mercies be. Teach us to know by whom we’re fed. Bless us with Christ, the living bread. Let us pause before we eat and think about the ones in need of food and shelter and of love, please bless us all, dear God above. Amen.”
How many times over the years had Sarah listened to her father recite that same blessing? It must have been passed down through the generations and, although Joseph and his family had stepped timidly into a more forgiving world, certain customs remained a fixture in their lives.
Sarah and Daniel sat across from each other, Anna and Joseph sat at the ends of their kitchen table. On weekends, their main meal came in the early afternoon. The dinnerware was simple, white, unadorned dishes that were used for all meals. They were the only dishes they owned or needed. Their lives were simple, devoted to serving the Lord and their brethren. Sarah could hear those exact words coming from her daddy’s mother. Devout and firmly entrenched in the “old ways,” she and her husband had raised Joseph and his sister with a strict but fair hand.
As with all meals, Joseph opened the conversation.
“Daniel, I need you to help me later with the chicken coop. We lost another laying hen last night. We need to find out how the fox is getting in.”
Daniel passed the meatloaf to his sister after filling his plate. “Can it wait?” he asked. “Finals start the week after next. And I’ve got a couple of papers due this week, too.”
“I’d rather fix it now, once and for all,” Joseph said. “You’ll have time to study later.”
Sarah glanced across the table at her brother. He sat still, his eyes fixed on his plate.
“How about if we just do a temporary fix for now?”
“I want it done right. It needs to be done today.”
Sarah nudged her brother’s foot under the table. Leave it, Danny.
Daniel turned to Joseph. “And we’ll spend hours out there?” Daniel asked.
Let it go, Danny. Just let it go.
“Did I mention that Sam Reimer has asked me to clean his house? He wants me to come weekly,” Anna said.
Typical Mama, Sarah thought, always trying to smooth things over. “I could help you, Daddy,” she offered.
“No, sweetie. It’s not your place to be fixing the chicken coop. It’s Daniel’s.”
“I feel so sorry for the poor man since his wife passed,” Anna interjected.
“I like Mr. Reimer,” Sarah added.
“So it’s okay with you if I go into finals unprepared?” Daniel asked. He shifted, turning back to his dinner. He picked at his meatloaf.
“Don’t assume, Daniel. I’m asking you to help me. I’d hope you feel some sense of pride in helping out around here.” There was an edge in Joseph’s voice
“I’ll help you study tomorrow, Danny,” Sarah said.
“These grades are important. They’ll determine what colleges I can get into.”
Come on, Danny. You know where this is headed. Just leave it.
Joseph froze in mid-bite, placed his napkin on the table. “I never went to college, and my parents never went to college. There was no reason to. We had everything we needed. Our mission on this earth is to serve the Lord, first; our family and our community, second. You don’t need a college education for that.”
Daniel’s lips pressed together. He set his fork down and looked up. “But maybe that’s not what I want,” Daniel said. “Don’t get me wrong. I love you guys and I love my community but can’t I serve them just as well if not better with an education?”
Joseph’s fork clanked as it hit his plate. He held Daniel’s eye. “What you want? Why is it always about you? Selfishness is not becoming. The world does not revolve around you.”
“More corn, Sarah?” Anna asked, as she held the bowl out. “You’ve hardly touched your dinner.”
Daniel shoved his plate away. “Why can’t it be about me some of the time? Why can’t it be about anyone who has a dream to do something other than stay in the same town, doing the same thing for the rest of their lives? Is it a crime to want something different?”
“Listen to yourself,” Joseph snapped. “We’ve brought you kids up to be loving, caring people. The Bible states that we are placed on this earth to serve the Lord. And we do that by caring for those around us, not by taking off for some fancy college degree and seeking greed.” Joseph turned back to his dinner. “This discussion is over,” he said.
“More meatloaf, Joseph?” Anna slid the platter in his direction.
“Who said anything about seeking greed?” Daniel bristled. “It’s not greedy to dream. It’s not greedy to want something different — Jesus,” Daniel said under his breath. “Unbelievable.”
“Daniel,” Anna said, “please, calm down.”
Joseph pushed back from the table. His jaw clamped; he glared at his son.
“Okay, fine,” Daniel blurted out. “I give up! Let’s go fix the damn chicken coop. Come on, Dad. Who cares if it takes all afternoon or, better yet, all night? Let’s spend the whole week out there! Okay, Dad?”
The sound of his chair scraping against the hard wood floor jarred Anna and Sarah. Daniel stood up and dropped his napkin on the table. “Come on, Dad. What are you waiting for? This has to be right now! Isn’t that what you want? Good thing you’re not being selfish, Dad.”
Daniel turned, his feet pounding the floor as he walked out of the room, and over his shoulder, “Sorry, Mom.”
For a moment, the three of them sat in silence.
“Go talk to your son, Joseph,” Anna said. “He needs you.”
“No,” Sarah said, “I’ll go.”
A horse unbroken becometh headstrong, and a child left to himself will be willful. Give him no liberty in his youth, and wink not at his follies.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by James Krehbiel