How the Hex Was Won
By Virginia Carraway Stark
It was time to go into the market. Our colony was proud of how self-sufficient we had become. We had worked hard, that was what we did: Work hard.
Nevertheless, there were many things that we had to go to market for even now. The lands Catherine the Great had given our family in the south of Russia had been rich and fertile but had few people in it. She wanted someone she could trust to live there and farm it and make it even richer than it was naturally. Having known of the people of Menno Simon as a child growing up in Prussia and Pomerania, she had known of our ways and trusted the great swathe of land to us. She had trusted rightly and we had diligently worked to make the lands more fertile and to guard the southern flank of Russia from all ingress.
She had given the land to our forebears about a hundred and fifty years ago. The gift of the land, it was the greatest gift our people could be given. The gift of fertile farmland: We could only thank God for the woman who had given us everything.
What is being given everything if you do nothing with it? That was how we paid her back and did right by our creator: We planned, we farmed, we worked as a community and we used the latest technology to boost our lot into a cornucopia.
I don’t know the entire story of the planning and the work that went into making our land great but I remember what it was before it was destroyed and I remember what happens when jealousy and anger stir the demons inside of the Others.
I remember a lot but what I remember best is that day when we went to market. Our people had produce, livestock and the best silk, cotton and linen textiles in all of Russia. The Jacquard loom had been used to modernize our facilities and we had let the serfs go back to their own lands. With the help of the magnificent looms we could weave cloth, even the finest of cloth faster than we ever could with the help of the Outsiders. Now we not only did not have to pay them money, but we also did not have to work as hard on the fabrics ourselves and could spare more people for our other crops and animals.
Someone, thinking of our future, had planted the white mulberry trees and traveled to seek out the finest silk worms. Over the years, the trees had grown as had the number of our silk worms that had to be fed mulberry leaves that we traveled to bring to the little worms who made the amazing threads. Those trees and little worms had made our colony rich but what we wanted was not wealth: It was to be self sufficient. We did not want to have to depend on anyone for anything.
It wasn’t reasonable to expect, we had to interact with the Outsiders. Now it was market day and I was dressed in my town dress, made of silk and patterned. The Jacquard looms made such things something that we all possessed, although for everyday use we wore our cotton that was also grown, harvested, spun and woven all by our own people.
Once we had a great many serfs who worked the looms and the spinning wheels but it wasn’t necessary any more. We had thought that the Outsiders would be happy to return to their own business even though they would no longer receive money and other goods from us in return from their labors. They were Outsiders, if they had wanted to join our colony they could have. We welcomed any who truly wished in their heart to turn to the ways of peace and hard work as had been laid out by God and his son Jesus. If they had wanted to be part of our colony they could have simply asked.
I had asked my mother since I had been small, “Why do they stare at us? Why do they hate us?”
She shushed me, I had asked the question so often and she had explained it to me, “Marie, they have no desire to work hard and to live the way we live. They want drink and adhere to violence.”
She spoke quietly to me in low German. I asked too many questions. Papa didn’t mind, he let me follow him around and I asked him about everything, my hand in his or my hands helping him in his tasks. My brothers were all older than me and had married. One day soon I would marry too. Mama had said so and Papa had agreed. I wasn’t scared of marriage. I knew all the boys I might be married too and I was a faster runner than them and smarter as well. I would know how to manage a household, my mother had taught me all I had to know and I would still see my parents everyday. I would wake up in another bed, in another house that the community would build for me and my new husband each morning, but then my husband and I would weave silk and tend the worms and the trees together. That was what my family did and my parents wouldn’t marry me to a boy who did something different, it wouldn’t make any sense.
Since the looms had come and we only sometimes hired outsiders for harvesting our crops of cotton in the summer and our other crops in the autumn, they had come to despise us. I knew this from what I had heard the Elders say when it was our turn for the Elders to meet at our house, Papa was an Elder and so he took his turn at hosting the meetings the same as the others. Mama, myself and my little sister Elisabeth who was only now old enough to start to be more help than underfoot, would serve them tea and biscuits and pretend not to hear. I knew even Mama listened at the door sometimes to find out what they were saying. I caught her at it and she told me it was very wrong but the next time she caught me listening at the door she pretended not to notice. After that, if I saw her listening, or perhaps lingering as she tidied a bit too long I copied her and pretended not to notice as well.
One day she called me to her. I was too big to sit in her lap now but she held me in her lap all the same, “Marie, do you know the thing we do, you and I, that we never talk about? The thing I told you was wrong to do?”
“Yes, Mama,” I said contritely.
“It is wrong to do, but somethings are only wrong if you get caught, sometimes women must walk a fine line between what is wrong and what is being left in the dark. Do you understand?” She asked, holding my hands in hers.
“No, Mama, I thought wrong was wrong.”
She sighed heavily and put a loose strand of blonde hair behind her ear, “Sweetheart, it is right that the men handle matters, but all these matters effect our families. Men may think they are in charge, but their decisions can make big changes in the matters that I am in charge of and that one day, when you have your own household, you will be in charge of. Do you understand?”
I thought carefully before nodding, “You want to make sure that they are making the right decisions.”
“Yes, and also that I am prepared if there is a big change. Perhaps it is for the best but if I’m not ready when they tell us about it I could make a mistake. I don’t listen because I don’t trust them. Your Papa has always done his best for us and we have always been very happy, have we not?”
“I love you, Mama,” I said, wrapping my arms around her neck and kissing her soft cheek as my emphatic response.
“I love you, Little Marie,” She said. She often called me ‘Little Marie’ that as I was named the same as her. I was the second baby named for her. The first one had been born and lived only a day before being returned to the earth. Papa said that sometimes us mortals had to try more than once to make something as perfect as God’s design intended. He would tweak my nose then and hold me tight. The Lord let each couple try to perfect his design three times. If the third baby given the name died, then the couple would know that the Lord did not want that soul in the world at this time and would never name a baby that name ever again.
I knew that my parents both still sorrowed for every child that they had lost. Elisabeth, the youngest, was the third of her name and laying the two little babies who had born her name before into the ground had hurt everyone as badly as if it was the first one each time. When the third baby was born their had been a sense of futility to it. Elisabeth had been weak and small but she had lived and was now six and old enough to be past the time of greatest danger to children. It seemed the Lord wanted a Marie and an Elisabeth but he had rejected our brother Aron from the world. I was barely able to remember when the third of his name had be placed in the ground and how my mother had wept and wailed. She pulled at her chest as though her heart hurt her too much and she must claw it out of her rather than bear the pain of it beating.
Papa and my Uncles had carried her back to the house after she had fallen asleep, weeping on the fresh earth even in her sleep. My Uncles had helped Papa gather her up and one of my Uncles had carried me home as well, clutching me as if I was more precious than ever before as we walked though the misting rain that had started with dusk.
Mama stayed in bed for a week and Papa or one of my brothers brought her meals to her. She didn’t want to eat and Papa told me to go and sit with her and to never mind about my chores. I had been a bit younger than Elisabeth was now and the ferocity with which Mama held me scared me a little but not as much as her tears scared me.
One morning I woke up and Mama had dressed and was putting up her hair.
After that there had been two Elisabeths one after another and each time my Mama grew paler and more still as the small body was put into the ground. Papa too grew quiet and when Mama told him in hushed tones that she was going to have another baby it was said with sorrow instead of joy. She felt from the start it was Elisabeth again and she feared that she and Papa had chosen wrongly in their choice of soul names. They discussed choosing another but when Papa prayed he came from his solitude looking ashen and said that Elisabeth was the correct name and that the baby would be a girl.
Sometimes The Lord could seem cruel, it wasn’t something you were supposed to think, but sometimes, when I thought of the three Arons and the two Elisabeths and all the babies who had been laid to rest and only their names and dates of death in the family bible were what we had to remember them by. But The Lord shone his continence upon us and brought us peace in the soul of Elisabeth. In those last days there were only the three of us women, Mama, me and little Elisabeth and we overheard some of one of the last meetings of the Elders.
Three spying women. We were listening at the door, even Elisabeth who crept over to where we stood with our ears to the cracks in the oak door. I put my finger to my lips and she nodded, she knew to be quiet. That was how we women-folk heard them talking about the people in town and the trip that must be made the next day.
“There is growing unrest. The Outsiders are being turned against us. They say we have too much and that they have too little. They have read a book by a man named ‘Marx’ and he tells that that everyone should have the same,” I recognized the voice of Abraham, he was the leader of the Elders. He was the oldest and the others listened to his word. Papa said Abraham always listened for the voice of God and had no avarice in him. Hearing the frightening words coming from Abraham Martin made me more afraid than if even Papa had said them.
There was a murmur of general confusion and outrage in the kitchen, Papa spoke next. “People work and they get back as much as they work and as much as the Lord allows. Sometimes The Lord sees fit to give a good harvest and sometimes a poor one, but it is in our hands to work and his hands to decide the harvest we glean. What right does this Marx have to say his word is above The Lord’s works and deeds?”
“They say he doesn’t believe in God at all,” Replied Johann.
There was another murmur, louder this time. “Then what does he believe in?”
“Stealing from those who have worked and doing violence to get what they want,” Abraham’s voice was somber.
Papa called for Mama to bring them more bread and Elisabeth and I scurried away. That was why I was scared the day we went into town, because of a man named Marx who told everyone to steal from anyone who had more than them. A man named Marx who said it was OK to take even a man’s life if he committed the crime of having more.
I couldn’t believe that even Outsiders could believe such foolishness and take it to heart but I didn’t understand then that people believe any lie if it echoes sweetly in their ear. The Outsiders coveted what we had built and they wanted it. One forceful man telling them that it was their right to take it was enough to change everything.
We had a new loom arriving that day and no choice but to put the horses in harness and go into town.
“Don’t take Little Marie with you, Jacob,” My mother plead with my father.
“The Lord says to take her,” He replied, getting his jacket and other town things together.
“Why? She’s a little girl and the Outsiders-”
My Papa looked at my Mama and smiled, waiting for her to reveal her forbidden knowledge. It was the first time I realized that Papa knew we listened at the door and that we all merely knew not to speak of it to each other. I learned then that there were bad things that weren’t bad, just not to be spoken of. When we went to town I would see that sometimes there are just bad things. The bad things came from The Outsiders.
I was already dressed and waiting. I loved going into town. Papa would let me take the reigns to the team of horses and I would see all sorts of things along the road. It was a beautiful day, warm but with a light wind blowing to keep us cool. Fluffy clouds danced across the sky, pushed by the gusting wind.
“The Lord has made our little Marie with special gifts, I would like to see through her eyes for this trip. I would like the council of our child to help me hear what The Lord would speak to me.”
My Mama shook her head and helped me to tie on my bonnet, “Be good and stay close to your Papa,” She said, kissing my forehead with a tenderness that frightened me. It was too similar to when The Lord had called back Aron to his bosom. She was scared and that made me scared too.
The loom we were going to get was very large. Papa explained it to me as we traveled, even though I had gone with him to pick up looms before. We were expanding despite the ill-omens and bought new looms in the colony at least once a year.
“They come in pieces, but they are very heavy and it is unkind of us to ask the horses to carry so much, so we take three carriages to make the load more light. One will carry a few supplies, Hymen’s tractor needs some parts and hopefully they will have arrived. He hasn’t been able to use it for a season and he isn’t the only one who depended on it.”
“Yes, Papa,” I agreed, my mind was running with the clouds. Papa’s voice was firm and strong but he only explained things more than once when he was nervous or upset and was trying to order his thoughts.
He glanced over at me, I was leaning out of the carriage looking at the clouds that had run past us, “You’re going to fall out of the carriage and lose your bonnet both if you keep on and then your mother will have us both paddled.”
I giggled at the image of Mama paddling Papa. He was much bigger than she was.
“What were you doing?” He asked.
“Watching the clouds and the waves of wind on the field,” I replied.
“And what do you see?”
“Buildings and silos being blown over in storm and mulberry trees with flames leaping from them, the tide fleeing from us. A ship, stranded on a sandbar. A woman who kneels and prays,” I replied, my voice dreamy and my eyes as cloudy as the sky.
Papa said nothing else to me on the trip but grabbed a tall stalk of wheat and chewed the end meditatively the rest of the way into the market. When we arrived at the unloading area where the things from ships were piled in a warehouse, waiting for their owners to pick them up, Papa spoke to me again for the first time since he had asked me what I saw in the clouds.
“Stay in the carriage. Don’t talk to any Outsiders, Marie. If anyone bothers you climb into the back and close the door.”
“Yes, Papa,” I agreed.
I was wishing Mama had prevailed in her will in keeping me at home. I had come to town many times before but I felt funny and the people looked different to me. They watched our wagons with their fresh paint and our well brushed horses and their eyes glowed like they had fires lit inside their heads. I expected fire to come out of their mouths when they spoke.
I heard them looking for the loom and the tractor parts for Papa and the others and I heard the anger in their voices, they hated us. It came to me as clear as anything I had ever known. They hated us so much they could barely bring themselves to to take Papa’s money. They wanted to hurt him. They wanted to hurt me even more. I didn’t understand that I was no different to them than the fine carriage we rode in or the loom we had come to buy. A finely dressed young lady in a silk dress and bonnet. I was a commodity to them, something to have and they coveted my virgin body shrouded under my modest dress and longed to do things to me. The wanted to unbind my hair, they wanted to hold me down by my blonde locks and spit in my blue eyes for daring to look at their faces while they-
I was trembling like a mulberry leaf in a windstorm, or on the edges of a firestorm.
I jumped when Papa poked his head around the side of the wagon, “You alright, Little Worm?”
He asked, I smiled a thin smile, at his pet name, it wasn’t an insult, it was a reference to the silk worms that he said I was even more precious than.
I saw my pallor and my shaking hands, “They’ll have it loaded in a few minutes, they are making sure all the pieces are accounted for.”
“Alright, Papa,” I replied, trying for a braver smile. The images in my head would not leave. I hid my head beneath my bonnet, grateful for the shade it cast over my features and tried not to look at the people. The people were so angry. How could they be so angry with me? They didn’t know me? How could they want to do such terrible things to me?
I glanced up past the edge of my bonnet and it was as though the fiery glow of their eyes had illuminated their faces as well into the faces of gargoyles and demons. There was fire, fire everywhere. I hid my face and could not speak, even when Papa had finished loading everything into the wagons and asked me if I wanted some rock candy for the way home. I just shook my head and hid my face in the shadows of my bonnet.
The Outsiders looked the same to me everywhere I looked. Papa pointed out clouds to me and turned my head from him. Darkness was everywhere.
To Be Continued