She knew no balm for oddness

Kristen Jensen, Spill with Handle. 2011, porcelain with celadon glaze. Courtesy of the artist.

She was named Miriam before anyone could intervene. Rising from his plate of hamburg pie, two days after Easter 1963, her father asked the Brotherhood to welcome Miriam Della Barth; they did without hesitation. Later that night, Esther Barth told her husband it was the limpest biblical name she knew.

God, Jesus, her mother, all of her dead relatives in heaven: Miriam knew that each could read her mind, though knowing this only provoked her imp. It scampered down to hell and returned with sacks of obscenity: her parents dying, the private parts of cavemen and Egyptians in the children’s encyclopedia, the words shit and sex. She hoped that those with access only tuned in occasionally, when alerted, and in that hope was at all times in ardent imitation of a child whose soul required no monitor.

Growing up, Miriam surmised, was the process by which one became opaque to God, and this was why nobody could read her mother’s mind, or the elders’. Miriam thought of egg whites clouding in a frying pan, and wondered whether she would still have evil thoughts when no one else could see them.

There was only one document of her mother’s early life in the Colony, displayed below the photograph of her wedding day, and above David’s careful and menacing watercolor of Mary clutching the baby Jesus. All three pictures hung behind her father’s head on the wall that Miriam faced at the breakfast table. By closing one eye she could see through him, to the black-and-white portrait of seven grim Kleinsassers posed beside a ditch.

The men all looked like Abraham Lincoln, and all the women, even her mother, like rats in kerchiefs. Miriam had memorized the chevron and invoked them under her breath every morning before grace: James, Jeremiah, Hardy, Else, Esther, Sharon, Rachel.

Her mother was 13 years old in the photograph and 17 when she ran away; the other six remained in black-and-white in South Dakota. Miriam knew that chanting their names would, by the power of prayer, make them aware of her, and was inconsolable when her father became annoyed with her squinting and made her switch seats with Jacob.

Miriam’s grandparents were not in the photograph, and her mother would say only that they were named Olfetter and Ankele and came from the old order.

Further confusing child Miriam was a second mythical pair of ancestors, Opa and Oma. Unlike her mother’s parents, Opa and Oma were public knowledge; they were invoked in Brotherhood decisions, their health and guidance daily prayed for. If God protected them as often as He was asked to, Miriam’s own curious ambivalence couldn’t do any harm. She imagined them as an anthropomorphized knife and spoon. She deduced that they lived overseas, perhaps in Europe or Germany, and that they shared responsibility for the Brotherhood with God Himself.

From beneath their purview, Miriam had no reason to fear Opa and Oma, so she didn’t. Later, she would need to get through them to get to God, but as they were commanded they let the little children come and go freely.

Esther spoke to Miriam in Hutterische at home, and consequently Miriam never learned whether the language had application beyond scolding. The soft Colony pidgin was full of words for dumplings, mucus, and foolishness.

Esther often accused Miriam of buddling, a singular sin from the Colonies. To buddle was to waste time on little jobs; to fuss, to fiddle, to sit in a corner skinning twigs with the edge of a spoon instead of tidying up.

Buddling connoted no mischief, only diversion. As with lactation, boys would or could not buddle.

Should children pray? The Brotherhood argued: It either killed or quickened reverence. Rote prayer forced sentiment that should never be forced, said Art Wiser. Tobias Warren concurred: Prayer created a barrier between children and God. Johann Zimmerman questioned that grace could be freely chosen. From the back row, a feeble voice began the Manx Fisherman’s Evening Hymn, and almost everyone was glad to join in; after a few more songs, contrition and humility prevailed. The Brotherhood came on their knees and prayed for unity.

Miriam, who could say the Lord’s Prayer quickly but not slowly, learned the Apostle’s Creed as she learned cursive handwriting: in secret, by crude, misunderstanding mimicry.

On New Year’s Eve, the Brotherhood gathered to pray and sing in anticipation of 1972. From the third floor of the Woodcrest house, where they moved after Ruth Ellen, Miriam watched the procession of grown-ups tramp through the snow toward the Rhon. She picked out her mother’s pigeon step and her father’s high Astrakhan hat; her brothers, just that year old enough to attend the meeting, flanked their parents, no doubt feigning solemnity. The Deacon scanned for latecomers and bolted the cedar doors against the cold.

Miriam found Stella Meier in the hallway their families shared. In nightgowns and snow boots they went down to the lake, whooping the one decipherable line of “Auld Lang Syne” over and over. Stella began chanting in a German accent that tipped into Cockney by the end of the Lord’s Prayer. It was dry snow, a gaspingly dry night, and performing insanity inured them to the cold.

It grew later and they louder. Neither heard when, in 1972, the Brotherhood reemerged from the Rhon to joyful bed, nor did they notice when a hooked silhouette appeared at the top of the hill. It cleared its throat and they startled to attention. It was old Asa Tribble, shaking his head once and announcing, in a speaking voice, “That’ll do.”

Though anticipation of Christ’s coming never grew old, to wait for worldly change was to live preoccupied. The community acted without warning, sparing its members the anxiety of any fixed future; nothing was certain but that they could rejoice in the Lord, always.

The elders spirited families from hof to hof with only a day’s warning, the better to induce gratitude for a life without private property to pack. No worldly algorithm predicted circulation between the hofs. Some families moved yearly, while others grew where they were planted.

The Brotherhood were enterprising in those years. They baked bread, brewed beer, and, to their own confusion, flew a chartered plane; for two years, Stores ordered name-brand ginger ale to stock the cabin mini-fridge.

No longer in involuntary poverty, the community had created a modest purse for proper sweets. Parsing the concept took several months and two global Brotherhoods, as so few trusted themselves to designate indulgence; lovers of licorice, dark chocolate, tapioca, and rice pudding all laid their preferences before the cross in hopes of peace and unity. They prayed through quorum to unanimity. Qualifying desserts, in order of rarity and appeal: ice cream, chocolate pie, fruit pie, iced sheet cake, puddings and Bavarian creams, nude sheet cake, stewed fruit with dumplings, gelatin molds, muesli.

In Woodcrest, Miriam’s father ran Stores, a role he accepted in holy obedience and frustration; while other men labored, he sourced vats of discount mustard and attended institutional trade shows. Miriam didn’t mind the fact or frequency of his absence, but suspected him of some vague filthy betrayal every time he came home.

Who wouldn’t struggle for purity in the stained Minoan halls of the Ramada? The plastic bedspreads and television channels horrified him; he came to impute vulgarity to even the off-white regulation plastic coffee carafes. The blankets. Returning to Esther after these trips, he thought often of the purity rituals of the Old Testament.

Suddenly, seismically, the Colonies absorbed the Brotherhood. Unity with the West brought polka-dotted kerchiefs, black Sunday jackets, German lessons, potato dumplings, and a cedar ark of historical sermons that emitted silverfish and had to be incinerated. Unity with the West took candles (accessories to fire worship), guitars (biblically unprecedented), and dolls (baals).

The doll ban was announced in a Brotherhood and enforced that same night; in doubt but holy obedience, Esther confiscated Miriam’s baby doll and replaced it with a swatch of buttercup terry cloth, knotted in one corner. Miriam, in the morning, was not even puzzled, having read of changelings in the encyclopedia.

The inner and the outer and whether either would matter in heavenvehemently they professed a Lord who heard their secret groans and saw through their human costumes. “Tomorrow we could all decide to wear bell bottoms,” said many people, many times, to illustrate just how little God minded appearance. And yet year after year they remained in costume.

The community often felt alone in trying to grasp the eely virtue of modesty. One by one, their staple garments disappeared from the catalogues. The sewing sisters simply worked evenings to supply the community with homemade underwear in the traditional cut.

It was a matter of protecting one another from desires, and men were not intrinsically beautiful. In exchange, they could show their boring bodies. Women had soft upper arms and bellies, bosoms, calves, none of which had anything to do with the selfless life in Christ. Miriam asked an older single sister prone to straight-speaking why they had received this beauty to hide. The woman kept scouring a plastic potty, the last of ten; they were both assigned to clean the baby house during Start. “Why did He make morning glories that go to heck as soon as I pick ’em?” Even at 14, Miriam rolled her eyes at the old chestnut of omniscience. “And to make your husband feel special.”

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