Authors: Jolina Petersheim
Tags: #FICTION / Contemporary Women, #FICTION / Christian / Romance
“However, to protect our community from disease, we will not allow them to come past the Beilers’
, which—from this day until a new day dawns—will be transformed into a hospital to the best of our available knowledge and supplies. Though firearms may be used for intimidation and control of outsiders who wish us or our assets harm,
will agree not to fire the weapons unless fired upon first.” Jabil stops and looks up, scanning
the assembly. “If anyone shoots an unarmed person, he will be expelled from the community without delay.”
The Mennonites peer across at the
who are lined against the side of the schoolhouse like they’re expecting a firing squad to materialize in a place where no one takes up arms. Counting Sean, the
who’s been working with Jabil’s crew, and the pilot, Moses, there are five altogether: four men and the sole woman from Colorado. There are over a hundred of us Mennonites, and almost half are children. I struggle to comprehend how such a small group can provide protection for us at these different locations. It’s impossible; I can see that already. The only way any of this is going to work is if some of the Mennonites can act as watchmen, who—if they see anything amiss—can notify the
to defend the land.
But if a Mennonite is aiding in the callous taking of another man’s life, even if he does not pull the trigger himself, does that mean he has still adhered to his nonresistant ideals? I think not. So that only leaves us with the option of taking in more
—more refugees who are going to need housing and food, despite our not knowing how we are going to feed ourselves once our storehouse of canned goods and dried goods runs out. And how are we supposed to trust these outsiders around our families and our homes? We have no idea of their life history, and yet we are placing in their hands the means—albeit cheap hunting rifles—to
take us over instead of offering us protection. Are we going to have to protect ourselves from the ones in the alliance who are supposed to protect
I must not be the only one mulling over these questions. Neither side rejoices nor protests, but it’s obvious that both feel trapped by this arrangement that might change not only our future, but our daily lives. The children seem subdued as well, standing beside their schoolhouse yard, which for once cannot provide amusement. They quietly play with floral chains made from entwined red clover and tussocks of orchard grass, and do not bicker among themselves when Anna, my sister, takes Jane Stoner’s chain from her lap and drapes it over her own braided hair like a crown. My brother, Seth, turns and studies me with perturbed brown eyes, as if asking,
Why aren’t you watching her?
Adolescence has made him concerned with what other people think of him and of our family. So I am comforted that he’s been oblivious to the community’s opinion of us until now. We are the only orphaned home in Mt. Hebron, and we were the only broken home before our
died. Therefore, whatever attention we have garnered has been sympathy at best.
Acknowledging Seth with a nod, I move from beneath the pines and clasp the back of my sister’s elbow. She wrenches away and gasps, “No!”
The sound stuns the group from silence.
Charlie says, “Let me get this straight:
we’re supposed to protect the property, but you’re telling me that we can only walk around here like robot rent-a-cops while we got people with sawed-off shotguns wanting to kill us and take everything we got?”
He exchanges glances with the older man in the floppy hat—whose name I still don’t know—and Sean. I’m startled to recall that, just this morning, like so many other mornings, Jabil was cutting timber beneath the pavilion, and I was standing at the sink, spooning fruit from a jar of last year’s peaches, the juice running down my hand. And now here we are, compromising our ideals because our lives may be in danger.
I look over at Jabil and see the pigment has all but drained from his face, drawing attention to the small pink scar dividing the cleft of his chin. I am proud of him for maintaining his composure, even if I know it is a front. “Now, listen—” Rifling in his pocket, Jabil extracts the edict again and reads: “Though firearms may be used for intimidation and control of outsiders who wish us or our assets harm,
will agree not to fire the weapons unless fired upon first.”
He holds the paper at the top and taps the crease with the fingers of his opposite hand. “All I’m saying, Charlie, is I don’t want innocent people, who are only trying to find help, killed because they happen upon your perimeter. There will simply be
firing unless fired upon.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
The man in the floppy hat grunts in agreement with Charlie, flicking his cigarette to the ground. With his shoe, he scuffs the lit end in the dirt. I look over at the pilot, Moses, who is still sitting on the swing. His face is twisted with repugnance. But I am not sure if it is directed toward Charlie’s insolent manner, or if he is as irritated as the rest of the
Jabil’s shoulders square, and though his expression remains impassive, his voice is far from it as he says, “Another ordinance you must obey, in order to live under the protection of the community, is to attend the Sunday services at the schoolhouse. Also, everyone who is able-bodied must work on every day but the Lord’s Day, or else they won’t eat. This goes for both
and Mennonites alike. Trust in our Savior, patience with one another, and a hard work ethic are the tools we need to survive.”
“Sounds like Jamestown,” someone quips.
I turn toward the voice and see that Moses has made his way over to the schoolhouse and is leaning against the siding with his foot resting lightly on the middle step. We stare at each other, and then he lowers his gaze, his brows furrowed. Whatever kinship we established earlier today—when we were standing close together along our back porch railing, staring at the smoking carnage of his plane—has all but disappeared. I miss how it felt to have him speak to me like an equal, as if I had a say in the matter. A mind and a will of my own.
The man in the floppy hat lights another cigarette. Holding the smoke for a second, he expels it through his nose and says in a graveled voice, “I’d rather starve than live like this.”
Jabil stares at him, jaw working, and then addresses the entire community so the older man does not feel singled out. “It is easy to say you want to leave when you are well fed, but there is a benefit to being shielded within the community. You can help offer us protection, yes, for which we are grateful. And in exchange, we can teach you all how to live without the modern conveniences to which you are accustomed. We can teach you all how to preserve meat and vegetables, gather seeds for the next harvest, sew, can, bake, prepare tallow for candles and soap, and a thousand other skills that most
forgot generations ago.
“Some of these practices, even we Mennonites have forgotten due to the convenience of purchasing items ready-made. But there are no convenience stores now. Or according to the pilot, they soon will be destroyed by looting. Moreover, if this EMP truly exists—” Jabil halts midsentence. My stomach clenches at the touch of his eyes upon my skin. “If this is what we think it is . . . then we are going to need to cultivate a whole new way of life. So I would think carefully before anyone says he will not agree to the community’s edict. Without the community, you all
will probably not survive. That being said, we must all get along and work together, even if we come—”
Charlie interrupts, his face reddening. “And without us protecting
hides, you all’d be dead the first time someone comes up that lane with a gun.”
Moses pushes off the side of the schoolhouse and tries to use his body as a barrier between Charlie and Jabil. But I am not sure, in his condition, what he could do if a defense were needed. Jabil holds up his hand and shakes his head, letting Moses know he’s all right. And I find it odd that such disparate men are—for the time being, at least—functioning as a team.
“Charlie,” Jabil intones, “as Bishop Lowell mentioned before, you are free to walk away right now. But if you decide to stay, then we must maintain a civil tone with each other.”
Charlie doesn’t say anything more. Taking his cue, the rest of the
men also remain silent. Perhaps we will need Charlie’s considerable size as a scare tactic when faced with the people who wish to devour our land. But I do have to wonder if he’s going to be more trouble to our community than his brawn is worth.
Jabil concludes his oration and holds up the edict, upon which everything he has said was no doubt written beforehand by the bishop and deacons, who are inside the schoolhouse, almost cowardly awaiting how their words will be received.
“If you agree to this edict,” he says, “you can come back into the schoolhouse and sign the paper before the administrators of Mt. Hebron Community. This will hold you accountable to all our rules and stipulations. If you are discovered to have disobeyed any of them, no matter how insignificant they might seem to you, you will be expelled from the community with nothing but what you had when you arrived. This goes for both
and those who have been lifelong members of the community. Our lives must be ruled justly so that—in a time of war—we can be the last modicum of peace.”
Jabil turns and walks back into the schoolhouse, holding the community’s declaration by the edges like a gentleman, although his hands are calloused and he wears a laborer’s shoes. I watch him go, my own thoughts blocked by his words, which were far more eloquent than any the bishop or deacons could have penned. I am astounded by the fact that, though I have seen him oversee his logging crew, I have never seen him lead our people like this. He is no longer just his powerful uncle’s mouthpiece, but a stalwart young man with the wisdom to foresee what is coming and, hopefully, protect us from harm.
The whole ride down the lane, Melinda—the
from Colorado—perches on the seat between my sister,
Anna, and me. Her elbows are tucked in close to her rail-thin body. Her purse and rolling briefcase, which she fetched from her vehicle, are stacked in her lap. She looked so forlorn when she exited the schoolhouse after signing the edict that I saw myself in her and felt it was my duty to invite her home with us. She seemed as hesitant to accept my invitation as I was to give it, but I don’t see that she has any other choice.
Five years ago, when I was in the same awkward, peer-consumed stage Seth is in now, I also found myself stranded in a community where the cliques were established, making it next to impossible to fit in. The girls, led by the lovely yet puerile Ellen Mast, made an effort to welcome me by striking up conversation whenever our paths crossed during the community’s frequent events. Despite this, I feared they knew why my family had fled to Mt. Hebron and were simply befriending me in an effort to obtain more gossip, so I was averse to participating in the exchange of confidences required in female relationships. No doubt this fear came across as snobbery, and soon the girls did not attempt to draw me into their circle, and I remained on the fringe, telling myself friendship was impossible with those who believe life is filled with light simply because they’ve never witnessed its darkness. But deep down, I know this is not true. Anna’s innocence causes her to approach each day with her arms flung open to the light, and she and
I are as close as we can be, considering she can offer neither confidence nor conversation.
The instant I pull the reins back on the horse in preparation to tie it to the hitching post, Anna scrambles out of the buggy and sprints, barefoot, toward our garden. She glances over her shoulder and smiles—one long braid flapping over the front of her flowered dress—watching to see if the stranger will follow her. Which, of course, Melinda doesn’t. She is too busy studying her surroundings. And I imagine I can see her features morph into a sneer behind her oversize sunglasses. She climbs out primly, carrying her purse, and there’s no hint of her earlier disheveled manner. I secure the horse and pick up Melinda’s briefcase, left behind on the seat like I’m nothing but a country bellhop.
Melinda picks her way across the barnyard, the heels of her sandals stabbing themselves into the muck. Her tailored clothes and showy jewelry, not to mention that Mercedes SUV stranded at Field to Table, reveal her financial standing. I feel embarrassed to open the front door and let her maneuver around me into our home, whose organization and spotlessness cannot conceal our pitiable state.
I tell her, “You’re welcome to set down your purse.” She glances at the floor, where Seth left his work boots, whose soles are clotted with dirt. Her lips tighten. Her purse remains where it is. Melinda takes off her sunglasses and spears the stems through the sprayed top of her hair.
“I appreciate you letting me stay,” she says. “But I’m sure it’s only temporary.”