Pure in Their Own Eyes
by James Krehbiel
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2, 3
Daniel sat on the ground, his back pressed against the chicken coop and his head angled down, supported by his hands. A sliver of the moon hung in the sky above him although the sun had not yet dipped below the horizon. The murmur of fluttering wings filled the air.
Sarah walked over to her brother and stood looking down at him. “You okay?”
Daniel looked up, his eyes puffy. “Is he coming out?”
“I don’t think so.” Sarah sat down next to her older brother. She leaned against him and touched her head to his shoulder. She felt the presence of a little boy and remembered the motherless toddler who had followed his father’s every step, absorbed every word spoken and looked up in awe.
“Why should I have expected anything else?” Daniel looked out over the sweep of farmland. “Was I unreasonable?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah said. “I can see it from both sides.” She watched a pair of crows playing a game of tag, one following the other, swooping across the late afternoon sky. “Daddy is old-school. Those traditions — or, maybe, they’re just habits — are tough to break.”
“But we’re not living in the past anymore, are we?”
“No, you and I aren’t. Mama is stuck somewhere in between but Daddy? He’s still there listening to his mom and dad and well... You know how they were. Since the accident, I think he feels an even stronger obligation to them, to their ways.”
They’d already been burnt beyond recognition by the time Joseph arrived. A kerosene lantern knocked over by the cat, the couch on fire, the entire house an inferno. It had burned like the Bible’s description of hell: A furnace of fire — the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Beside her, Sarah heard a long drawn-out sigh. The tightness in Daniel’s shoulders eased. He stretched his legs out and lifted his head to the sky. “I guess Dad’s had it pretty rough.”
“He’s lost both his parents and his first wife,” Sarah said.
“You think I should cut him some slack, don’t you?”
“I think you both should.” Sarah stood up and reached her hand out to her brother. “Come on, I’ll help you study.”
* * *
Later that evening, well after Anna and Joseph had gone to bed, Daniel walked down the hallway to his room. Sarah’s door was cracked open, the light on. He paused outside her door and tapped lightly. “You still up?” he half-whispered.
“Yeah, I’m up. Come on in.” Sarah sat upright in bed, her back against the wall.
Daniel walked in nudging the door closed behind him. “What are you doing?”
Sarah looked up. “Just writing in my diary.”
“Again? How many of those things have you filled?”
“I’m on my third.”
“What do you write about? There isn’t that much going on around here. It’s boring.”
“I don’t know. I write about school, my friends, Mama and Daddy. And us.” Sarah turned back to her diary.
“Will I ever get to read it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe someday. Depends.”
“Depends? On what?”
“I guess on if f I feel like sharing it with you!” Sarah chuckled. “It’s Daddy I’d never show it to.”
Daniel smiled. “I hope you have a good hiding place. Hey, while I’m thinking about it, can you help me with something?”
“I’m on Ancestry. com,” he said. “I’m trying to find out about my mother. I can’t figure it out. I’m getting nowhere.”
“Let me finish up here; I’ll be down in a minute.” Sarah completed her entry, lifted the corner of her mattress and slid the green cloth bound diary underneath. She pushed it in as far as her arm reached and then went to join her brother.
Sarah stood looking over Daniel’s shoulder. “Let me see,” she said, as she pulled a chair over next to him, her knee brushing his as she sat down. She slid over for more space. “I think you have to click on these little leaves,” she said. “And then you get more information about that person.”
For the next few minutes, they sat next to each other, clicking on leaves; they talked about Mr. Burke’s assignment and submersed themselves in discovery. Maria Goertz, Joseph’s first wife, was of Swiss Mennonite heritage. Her parents had immigrated from Germany to the United States, then headed westward. They only made it as far as Pretty Prairie.
Finally, Sarah slid her chair back, stood up and mentioned that she was tired and heading to bed. “Do you think you have enough for your tree?” she asked.
“It’s going to have to be,” Daniel said. “I wish you didn’t have to pay to go back farther. Dad sure wouldn’t cough up the money, and I can only go back as far as Maria’s parents. I feel I still need more on her side. Anyways, thanks.”
“No problem.” And then, as Sarah was about to open the door to leave, she stopped, turned and looked at her brother. “You know,” she said, “I realize you feel responsible for your mom’s death. I never knew her, and it’s tragic.” She paused. “But as awful as this may sound, I’m glad you were born when you were.”
* * *
“Stop moving,” Anna said. “I’ll never get this hem right.”
Sarah stood on a chair out in the summer kitchen. Rusty lounged on the floor under the window. He groaned, stretched his front paws out, yawned and drifted off to sleep.
Anna worked her way around the hem of Sarah’s dress, a mouth full of pins sticking out looking like a walrus in need of dental care. “Do you have a date for the dance?” she asked.
“Not yet, no one has asked me.”
“What about a ride? Do you need me or your father to drive you?”
“I’m sure Mr. Reimer will give me a lift. He’s chaperoning,” Sarah said.
“I see.” And then under her breath, “I don’t know why you picked this material. It’s so difficult to work with.” She kept pinning, unpinning and leaned back every so often to get a better perspective. “What about that Jackson boy? He’s a nice boy. Maybe he’d take you.”
“I think he’s going with Miriam,” Sarah explained. “Besides, he’s not really my type.”
“Well, for Pete’s sake, he doesn’t have to be your type. You’re not going to marry the boy! It’s just a dance.”
Anna mumbled under her breath as she struggled with the hem. “Why won’t this lay properly?”
“I’m thinking of asking Danny to take me.”
Her mother looked up, her forehead etched. “Daniel? Your brother, Daniel?” she asked.
“Well, yes Mama. Do you know any other Daniels?”
“But he’s your brother. That doesn’t seem right. I’m sure there’s some nice young man that would take you.”
“Well, if there is, he’d better ask soon. The dance is only a week away. Besides, what’s so wrong with having Danny take me?”
“Well, I don’t know. It just seems wrong to me. He’s your brother!”
“I know that but, like you said, it’s just a dance. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Well, I would hope not!” Anna stood up, took a few steps back and assessed the hemline. “I still don’t think it’s right.”
“No. Daniel taking you to the dance.”
“Oh, Mama, you’re living in the Dark Ages. Things have changed. It’s not same as when you were my age.”
“Perhaps not. It’s a different world than the one I grew up in,” she said. “Okay, you can take that off now.”
Sarah slipped the dress up over her head and handed it to her mother.
“Promise me you’ll try to find someone else to take you to the dance before you ask your brother. I can’t imagine what your father would say.”
“Daddy’s more in the Dark Ages than you are.” Sarah pulled her jeans up and slid her t-shirt down over her head. “What is it with him and Danny?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. It seems like he always has some kind of gripe with Danny. Like, Danny can’t ever quite do things the way Daddy wants.”
Anna looked at her daughter for a moment. It seemed a question she wasn’t prepared to answer. “I guess your father is just strict, that’s all.”
“But he isn’t that strict with me. Why Danny and not me? We’re both his kids.”
“I know.” Anna paused for a moment. “Sometimes there is no explanation.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh my goodness, what happened to the time? I need to get dinner started. Go hang this up for me, okay?” She handed the dress to Sarah and, by the time Sarah had turned back around, her mother was gone.
She’d hit a nerve. Her mother knew why her father treated her and Daniel so differently. Daniel was his son. She was theirs. But that was only a piece of it. The more she thought about Daniel feeling responsible for his mother’s death, the more it made sense. What other reason could there be? Maybe Maria’s death was too fresh at the time, Joseph’s sense of loss too raw. But was it still?
And how many times over the years had she come to her brother’s rescue? Like the time when she was seven years old, Daniel eight, and he had picked a bouquet of flowers for his mother’s birthday. She remembered him handing the bouquet to his mother, all smiles — a wonderful surprise.
Joseph asked where he had gotten them, and Daniel said he picked them from Mr. and Mrs. Thielman’s garden on his way home from school. Joseph walked over, yanked the flowers out of the vase, ordered Daniel into the car and drove him the quarter of a mile down the road to the Thielmans’ house. He stood next to his son on their front porch with his hand firmly on Daniel’s shoulder. Tears streamed down Daniel’s face as he apologized and handed the flowers to Mrs. Thielman.
And only a day later, Sarah remembered going to her father. She wanted him to know that her older brother didn’t mean anything bad. The flowers were a present. But Joseph told his daughter that was no excuse. Daniel should have known better.
Sarah walked over to the window and looked out. She sat down; Rusty trotted over and stood on his hind legs with his front paws resting on the window sill, his nose twitching at whatever scent happen to float in. She scratched absently behind his ears.
Daniel was working in the back yard, nailing slats that had fallen off the back fence. The sun bore down and he worked shirtless. Sarah watched her brother — his black hair, the angular jawline, his toned back and the liquid way in which he moved as he labored. She watched him wipe his brow and guzzle water from a thermos in between slats. She listened through the open window to him whistling.
Sarah imagined herself standing next to him, handing him the thermos of water, wiping his brow for him and humming along while she kept him company.
* * *
Daniel fidgeted, shifting his weight back and forth, waiting. He pushed his hands deep in his pockets as the material soaked up the sweat from his palms. His jaw dropped, his eyes the size of tarnished silver dollars when Sarah rounded the corner and walked into the living room.
Sarah struck a pose, one she thought a famous Italian model might have taken showing off the burgundy dress her mother had made, a string of pearls, a pair of burgundy flats and an infectious smile. She faced her father, waiting and, after a moment or so of no reaction, she finally asked, “Well? How do I look?”
Joseph pulled himself from his newspaper. He took in her auburn hair pulled back with a white satin ribbon, the pearl necklace, the scooped neckline of her dress and matching shoes. “You look beautiful, sweetie,” he said.
He glanced at Daniel, who stood rigid, eyes bugged out and dressed in his finest black slacks, starched white shirt and tie, and his thick black hair neatly parted. Joseph’s sigh was inaudible but his chest rose, held for a moment and slowly receded. He glanced briefly at his son and went back to his paper.
Anna stood behind her daughter straightening her dress, brushing flecks of lint off. “I think she looks beautiful, too.”
“Well, Danny?” Sarah turned towards her brother.
She could see Daniel’s mind clicking — trying to figure out how effusive to be, or not. “I think you look great,” was all he could manage.
And then headlights blared in the front window, the horn honked. “Looks like Mr. Reimer is here. We’d better go,” Daniel said.
“Okay. Night, Mama,” Sarah said, as she leaned in and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek. “Night, Daddy.” Sarah walked over to her father. He set his newspaper in his lap and looked up at her.
“You really do look beautiful, sweetie,” he said. He took hold of her hand, smiled and then winked. “You have a nice time.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by James Krehbiel