*originally published in Rhubarb Magazine, March 2012 – guest edited by Governor’s General award-winning author Rudy Wiebe (The Temptations of Big Bear, A Discovery of Strangers)
His Own Country
“Do we have to leave?” I almost whisper, as I pull the long weeds from our garden.
Daddy squeezes his finger around the shovel handle and stands up tall and quiet. I reach for another clump of weeds, and break away the dirt. I wait. And then he says, “For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet hath no honour in his own country.”
I know he is quoting a verse because he said it in is his preacher voice. The voice he uses on Sundays and at breakfast and dinner when he asks God to please bless this meal.
I want to say, where is our country? Will we always have to wander, like the Israelites? Instead I nod my head and close my teeth, feel them fit together tight.
Daddy stabs at the ground again and turns over the dirt. I collect the weeds and began to walk to the barn.
“Come in and clean up right after you feed the cow,” says Daddy. “You need to finish packing your room.”
I hold out the clump of tough dead-nettle and chickweed to our Holstein, and she licks them up into her mouth, covering my hands in wet drool. I pat her head as she chews. I know that if I honour my father and my mother, I will live long in the land the Lord our God is giving us. But my left knee trembles as I think about what tomorrow brings.
I wipe my hands on my pants and watch as Daddy heads to the pump to wash his hands. Inside Momma is putting the last of the extra linens and cooking tins into boxes, and Anna is helping. In the morning Mr. Eitzen will come with his farm truck pulling the trailer he is lending us. We will load up all of our boxes and the kitchen table and the chairs and the chickens in their cages and the boxes of books from Daddy’s study.
The family will pile into our Ford, Daddy behind the wheel. And he will follow God’s calling, and drive south.
“Is Busby on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation the land the Lord is giving us?” I ask aloud. “Who has He promised our land to?”
The cow does not answer with anything but a low, satisfied moo.
I look over the small barn one last time. Everything is tidy as a fox. Boxes of tools and rope and rags are stacked in a tower at the door. I pull an old rug down from a hook by the cow pen and catch a cloud of dust. I roll it up and take some twine from my shirt pocket to tie it. I lean the rug against the side of the barn by the door.
“Goodbye cow,” I say, as I walk to the house.
Anna is in the living room, which is looking bare like a field in early winter cause everything is in boxes like bails of hay. She is reading her book. I come and sit beside her.
“Jonathan,” she says without looking up. “You are blocking the light.”
“Can you read to me?”
“Don’t you have to pack?” She looks at me, with a suspicious sort of scrunched-up face. “Momma said we need to be ready before bed-time. There’ll be no time in the morning.”
I can feel my face get hot, so I look away. I don’t want to fight. I count to five in my head, beginning with zero.
“Please. Just read me your favourite part, and I’ll go straight to my room and finish.”
She looks at me as if she is going to scold me like Momma, but then looks back down at her book. She flips through the pages and finds the one she wants. I can see her eyes change as she starts to read. They shimmer like a candle in glass.
I stare at her as she reads. When she finishes I close my eyes and see two flames burning bright.
I lie in my bed under the covers, looking out the window up at the clouds and the moon. I set my mind on things above, not on earthly things. Which is a Bible verse but I cannot remember from which book. Daddy would know.
Daddy is outside, I can hear his boots crunchy on the gravel by the station wagon. The backdoor slams, he must be loading some boxes for tomorrow. I can hear Momma leave Anna’s room down the hall.
“Thank you for packing all by yourself Jonathan,” Momma says. She is leaning on the door frame and looking in at my room, clean and bare.
I smile, glad to help Momma. I know she is tired. Moving is hard work and she has been working all day. She comes and sits on my bed.
“Good night Jonathan. Sleep well.” She kisses my forehead and leaves the room. I close my eyes and feel the warmth on my brow, let the wet from her lips stay there. Evaporating like the rain.
I don’t hear Daddy come into the house. I don’t hear him when he sits beside me. It is the weight of his body rocking the bed that wakes me.
I rub the sleep from eyes. Daddy’s face is lit by the moon. I look at the reddish brown of his beard, the line at the edges of his lips, the ones that cross his forehead. Trying to memorize every detail.
“Thank you for all your hard work today son,” he says. “I know it isn’t easy to leave Lustre.”
My face is warm, and I can feel the tears about to break. I squeeze my eyes shut, but I can feel them seep out, still. Like bathwater down my cheeks. Daddy sits there silently then I feel his rough hand on mine.
“Your Momma and I have prayed and we know that this is where God is leading us.”
I open my eyes and nod.
“Goodnight Jonathan.” He squeezes my hand in his and leaves. I bring my hands to my wet face and breathe in the smells of him. The warm smell of oats and coffee in the morning, the sharp smell of grease and exhaust from the tractor, the dusty smell of the onion skin pages of his Bible.
My bag is sitting at the foot of my bed. Stuffed full like a toy bear, with all my things. Shirts, pants, socks and underwear, all smelling fresh like lemons. My bible. A mason jar with the twist of snake-skin Zachary Baergen and I found by the church last summer. The postcard from Oma from Canada, showing the town of Black Creek where I was born. My pocket knife that Daddy gave me for my eighth birthday. A roll of twine. My junior camper compass and canteen, filled with water from the tap. Some jerky. Two apples. Some oats in a jar. The map I made to the fort I dug into the hill by the stream. The letter I wrote saying goodbye.
I wait in bed, listening for the sound of Daddy’s snoring. Eventually it comes, low and rumbling. I get out from under the covers, dressed in my coveralls. I stand there by the bed and look out the window at Kliever’s golden fields of grain, reflecting the beauty of the heavens. I think of the sweet crunch of carrots from our garden I planted myself and the soft mooing of the cow when I milk her in the mornings. I think of my sister Anna and the time we caught a snake in an apple box. I think of Momma and her hugs and the sweet taste of her plum platz fresh from the oven. I think of Daddy and his quiet face as he prays in church, holding up his hands to bless the congregation. I swell with a feeling like drowning in my heart.
I straighten the blanket across my bed. I lay the letter on my pillow and pick up my bag and tiptoe into the hallway. I walk quietly to the door, and step outside, knowing I am home.