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The yellow planes passed overhead swiftly and in thunder. Thom Wiens had heard their growing roar above the scrape of the plow on stones, but the trees hedged them from his sight. Then suddenly, as he twisted on the halted plow to look back, they were over the poplars, flying low and fast. The sense of the horses’ sweated trembling was in his rein-clenched hands as he stared the yellow planes out of sight to the north.
Fly, you heathen, he was thinking. Fly low, practise your dips and turns to terrify playing children and grandmothers gaunt in their rocking chairs. Practise your hawk-swoops, so you can gun down some equally godless German or bury a cowering family under the rubble of their home. To get paid for killing. To be trained to kill more efficiently. If you shoot down five Germans you get a medal. If you kill twenty at once, you get a Victoria Cross and the King himself shakes your hand. What will you do when all the Germans have been killed and the only work you know is shooting men? Acclaimed murderers everywhere!
They were gone, flying in a tight triangle like ducks going north for nesting. Thom slid to the earth and worked his short crow-bar under the stone which had staggered the plow just before the planes appeared. Loosened, it came easily and he walked across the plowing, holding the heavy stone against his stomach. The heap of rocks along the fence ground together as he dropped it. With the edge of his hand he knocked at the dust on the white-worn front of his overalls.
Before him the fence stretched tight over the humped land. He could see a third of a mile of it bordering the open field, every post belly-deep in stones. The planes passed so quickly and, standing there with his hand raised for a last brush, Thom suddenly experienced, like a water-bucket emptied over him, the weeks and months spent gathering rocks from the field and piling them, one by one, along the fence until only enough post showed for a top wire. To grow something took a long time, and the machines for it were slow. There were no machines to pick rocks. But the machines for death were wind-swift. For a moment he felt he had discovered a great truth, veiled until now: the long growing of life and the quick irrevocableness of death.
The heaped rocks recalled him, and he turned to stride rapidly towards the plow. To just stand, thinking! He glanced about, happy for the rugged world that had hidden his dreaming. Pulling his feet up hard with each step, he sensed within himself the strength of his forefathers who had plowed and subdued the earth before him. He, like them, was working out God’s promise that man would eat his bread in the sweat of his face, not pushing a button to watch a divine creation blaze to earth.
As the four horses moved under his urging, he settled his broad limbs to the jolting ride. He cringed then as, with a flare of conscience, he recalled Brother Goertzen’s clipped German phrases: “We are to follow Christ’s steps, but we do not have pride. By God’s Grace we understand what others do not. As we cannot imagine Him lifting a hand to defend himself physically, so we, His followers, conquer only by spiritual love and not by physical force. Always only love: for those who love us, for those indifferent to us, for those who hate us, for those who would kill us, which is the same thing; all are included when He says, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you.’”
Thom could not doubt such sermons. He had grown up hearing these statements and if someone had asked him when he had first known that Christ bade His disciples love their enemies, he could no more have answered than if he had been asked to consciously recollect his first breath. All week the stentorian voice had ruled the hushed church: “Have you not heard our country loudly proclaim that we must protect the innocent from the ‘trampling boots of tyranny’? The whole land is geared to destruction so that it will not be destroyed. The glorious end justifies any means we use to attain it. For the Christian, the righteous means are more essential than comfortable and apparently necessary ends. What do we gain if we retain our bodies here on earth an hour longer, but lose our everlasting souls? We can ignore the black power and his fiendish earthly workers who can destroy our bodies but cannot touch our souls.” There was no argument against that.
And truth necessitated following.
The horses were wheeling in their awkwardness at the corner of the field and stopped at his touch. Home was beyond the hill and a line of trees. Thom felt the ground warming with expectation, the ripeness of the earth’s belly pushing itself up against the steel of the shares. When he lay with his face in the sandy loam, arms and legs yearning, he was beyond himself. It seemed to Thom that every man must feel the smallness and the greatness, his face in the dirt when the clouds were sheep with their heads down in the sunshine of the open sky and the larks chanting from their post-perch and the burdened horses nodding their heads to earth with sweat black in straggles down their thighs. Lying there, he felt doubts settle in his mind like mud in the hollows of the spring-soaked land. He could not actually imagine that men should wish to kill one another; yet they must, for how else could they give themselves into the murder that was the Army? The earth holding him, he thought, If only there were enough trees and hills and rocks in all Saskatchewan or all Canada or even all the world to hide us from a Hitler who has tasted power like a boar’s first gulp of warm blood. But once a man has tasted power, you cannot pen up or dispose of him like a blooded boar, and he the greater danger. And Thom felt the persistent, recurring prick: sometimes you think you should help try, anyway.
He rose quickly and the horses heaved in unison. He knew the shape of every tree along the rock-heaped fence without lifting his eyes from Jerry’s hocks treading the furrow. Why must something as remote as being required to kill another human become as forcibly real as the plow’s hump against stone beneath him. But it had become so. Could he but know himself strong, like Peter Block! To stand alone before the judge in a courtroom crowded with gimlet-eyed women whose husbands and lovers and sons were flying like yellow hawks, somewhere over the bend of the world, and to say clearly, “It is against my conscience.” Never having considered even for an instant that there might be another way. If he could but know himself strong!
The whoop behind him perked the horses’ ears. As Thom turned on the iron seat, the tow-headed “Indian” transformed himself into a small fighter-plane, and with arms outstretched, lunch-pail rattling, bare feet flashing in the turned earth, came soaring in gasps to trip and sprawl beside the slow plow. The boy was up even as he rolled.
“The planes–we saw ’em, Thom! Three big ones flyin’ low and makin’ the biggest noise! Boy, they were ’way longer than Wapiti School–longer than Beaver even–and they were bangin’ like anythin’. Maybe they’ll bang apart, huh? When I’m real big I’ll fly some–wow!”
Thom looked down on Hal walking in the following furrow. He said, brotherly casual, “Why do you want to fly one if it might bang apart?”
“Oh. I’d get one that goes smooth, like brrrsssh–” and the small boy spread his arms, made several rolling swoops with the upper part of his body, and then, to avoid running into the plow, threw himself beside it as he tipped forward.
“You’ll spread your nose all over the plow-wheel if you don’t watch. You were to wear shoes to school.”
Hal was up and behind the plow again. He rattled his battered syrup-pail. “It’s too hard walkin’. An’ the Indians came past today–I saw ’em first through the big window, even before Jackie Labret, and I put up my hand real fast an’ Mr. Dueck saw it even before Jackie raised his hand–”
“Were the Indians packed for the summer?” interrupted Thom.
“Uh-huh. Mr. Dueck said, ‘All right, Helmut,’ before he saw the wagons an’ I went out an’ all the other kids had to sit down again to read their books an’ Jackie was real mad after school ’cause he got hardly one look an’ almost–”
“Who was moving?”
“Ol’ Two Poles. An’ Hankey was there on the wagon. He waved. There were lotsa squaws an’ more wagons. But Ol’ Two Poles an’ his pinto were on the front wagon goin’ to the Point.”
“The pinto wasn’t on the wagon, it was hitched to it, not? Fishing will be good if they move this early.”
“Uh-huh. Jackie said the muskrats have been real good. We would ha’ followed their trail back but they just use the main road now an’ don’t go on the trails like they used to–Jackie says they’re mostly fenced shut anyhows an’ we were comin’ home by Martens an’ we saw the planes goin’ north like hell Jackie sa–”
Thom swung round on his seat. “Don’t you say that or I’ll trim you. Not once more!”
The little boy’s eyes dilated with sham innocence. “But I didn’t. Jac–”
“Okay, okay! Never mind that. And tell Jackie he needn’t talk like that. It’s bad–for him as well as you. If you say that again, you’ll walk home by yourself from school. You’re not going to swear like a half-breed.”
“Half-breed” to Hal was merely a species of being that did certain things he himself was not allowed to do because they were “bad.” Usually when talking near his elders, he was careful to avoid phrases that might catch a sensitive adult ear but then he always forgot what they had termed “bad” before. Puzzling now, no really good method of describing the thunder of the planes struck him–except Jackie’s way, with a pleasurable push on the “bad” word. The furrow was cool to his toes. He curled them as he walked, leaving bunched ridges of sand behind the scoops where his toes had been. He stopped and lifted one foot carefully. Like a row of tiny pigs sucking. He ran to catch up.
“Anyway, we’re gonna fly ’round in yellow planes when we’re real big an’ just fly an’ fly. Why don’t you fly, Thom?”
The difficulty Thom found in answering his brother’s simple questions always reflected to him his unstable faith. Like his elders, he believed life’s answers explainable to a child; even if the answer grew more complicated as the child grew, it could never basically change, for the basic answers were known. So he said, on his confident level, “Because the people that fly those planes do nothing good with them. They fly in the war and try to kill as many people as they can. And remember what you learned in Sunday School? How the Lord Jesus said we weren’t to bother anyone, but love them all, like you love Mom? We are to do good, not hurt.”
“Why do they want to hurt and kill people?”
“I suppose because the others are trying to do it to them first.”
So Thom explained as he had known it himself since he was a child, working the religious idea, among Mennonites always expressed in High German, into the unaccustomed suit of work-day English. Somehow, while he was plowing, he could not suddenly speak to his small brother in the smooth German of the church, not even regarding non-resistance. “The Bible says that when men live in sin they do sinful things. They do not love but hate. They don’t trust each other. They turn around quickly and hurt you when you’re not looking because they care only for themselves and wish to get all they can without working for it. Finally, if they can’t get away with their evil any other way, they try to kill the other person.”
“Why don’t the police get ’em?”
What next! Yet why not? A long-submerged argument rose in his searching mind. He spoke before he thought, sensing his deviation only as he proceeded: “Because there are whole countries of these people, and the police are few. So other countries feel they have to join together to kill those who are doing bad, so that they themselves and their families won’t be hurt and killed–”
Hal did not sense his hesitation. “Does Hank Unger fly a plane to kill people so we won’t be hurt and killed?”
The horses began their turn at the corner where, through the white stems of the poplars, the house looked south and east. Hank Unger. Thom pulled out his watch.
“What with snooping after Indians and watching planes and gabbing, you’re late for the cows before you get to the house from school. Now move.”
“Is Nance in the barn?” The question broke across Hal’s serious face.
“I got her in at noon.”
“Oh boy!” the lad fled over the plowed land. “An’ maybe it’ll rain tomorrow so I can ride to school!” He was out of hearing among the trees.
The sky was empty as a tipped cup. As the horses eased their pull edging down a small ridge, over their backs Thom could see hills of poplar and birch, with coned pines among the willows along the creek between them. There was no longer enough bush between themselves and the world. There had once been, for during the first nine years of their settlement at Wapiti when, as the English were bought out and moved away, as the breeds settled back farther into the wilderness, only an occasional rcmp officer, coming the thirty miles of dirt road from Hainy to check their passports or eventually to bring their naturalization papers, had even reminded them of the world. But now into weather and crop reports the radio blurted statistics of people killed. Children could not walk home barefoot from school without a plane shadow crossing their faces, and people like Hank Unger sent pictures of themselves casual against fighter planes with the level waste of Africa beyond and left the faith of their fathers to do–what?
There was a point of thought beyond which Thom could not go. Since Joseph Dueck had come to teach at Wapiti School the fall before, his friendship with Thom had unlocked new thought possibilities of which Thom had formerly had no conception. He had been astonished to find that, with arduous effort, he could follow most of Joseph’s thinking. On a winter Sunday afternoon, as the heater glowed red and the peaceful sounds of Pa’s afternoon sleeping drifted through the curtain of the bedroom door, Thom had stumbled after Joseph’s rambles regarding the meaning of existence, the nature of Christianity, the Christian’s relationship to his fellow men. During the week, while cleaning the cow-barn or hauling hay to the stock, he would grope through the newly discovered labyrinth of his mind, alternately enchanted and intimidated, but, despite the varying paths he chose, he always arrived at the same ultimate point. He could no more have denied what he held to be the basic tenets of his belief than he could have straddled the sun. He was at that point again: he had been told the truth. The church–the Deacon–they knew. Believe; questions were often simplest if not answered. When the plow jerked in the earth you could truly know, but when a man went his way, the surmise of whether for good or evil, if perhaps correct, told little of why. And Joseph said the “why” was most important. But why not leave simple at the simplest? Must he always wonder and try to explain? Why not accept like Pete Block? It was probably better not to know, not to have to think about it. Perhaps no one could know, anyway. Joseph! “Leave it to the fathers,” he said abruptly in German. He kicked the plow-frame and flexed his cramped legs forward so that they dangled nearly to the ground. It was sheerest comfort.
His head hung, dulled from plowing all day alone with his mind. On the last round, when the horses moved with the knowledge of coming rest, he liked the earth as it unfolded itself like the roll of a filleted fish to a thin knife. Packed by the snows, it twisted free and lay open, crumbling at the edges, intruding no questions, offering itself and its power of life to the man who proved his belief with his calloused hand. And the believers went on turning its page, while round the world it was wounded to death by slashing heathen tank-tracks. Plowing, he watched the furrows turn and settle.
The best of the day for Thom was when he drove the unhitched horses towards home and, above the jingling of harness and shuffling of feet, heard the last birds chirp themselves to rest on their branches. Faintly the sounds of the world shutting itself away for another day, a dog barking, the call of a boy to his cows, a calf bawling, the slam of a screen-door, drifted on a breeze now warm on the hillock, now cool in the coulee. He turned the corner of the hay-yard with the worked horses and looked north past the edge of the barn to the house facing him on the knoll. To the right stood the summer-kitchen; tin milk-pails blinked on the points of the slab fence separating the two buildings from the yard. As he closed the wire gate behind him, he could hear the pigs oinking to be fed in their huge pen. When he stopped the horses by the horse-barn, he was already in the smooth groove that was “doing chores.”
For the past five springs, since he had finished grade eight, Thom Wiens had followed the same evening pattern of unharnessing the horses, watering them, stacking their manger with hay, dumping chop into their boxes, filling the trough for the coming cattle. Every spring he knew his bare arms and the drip drip of the rising bucket. Except for more land to plow each year, there were few changes. Across the well-mouth, Thom could now see the bent figure of his father re-shovelling a heap of grain, his face half-covered with a red handkerchief against the formaldehyde. Thom dumped the bucket over into the trough, gripped by the consciousness that his family was carrying on their ancestors’ great tradition of building homes where only brute nature had couched. Saskatchewan, in the spiraling heat of the Depression, had acted wisely in opening up this rock-strewn northern bush to the Russian Mennonites.
He caught back the bucket with about a cupful of water left, lifted it, and drank without dripping as his older brothers had taught him years before. The water tasted pure as ice.
“Thom.” He turned to see his mother outside the kitchen. “We need some water.”
His mother watched him a moment as he came towards her; then she turned back into the log kitchen. He was her son. To her, despite the fact that she had four sons, tall dark Thom was different and, somehow, more important at this moment than the others. She had first known this feeling of special importance with young David, when coming to Canada on the crammed ship. Then it had been Ernst in the early back-breaking years in the Wapiti district. Now David was in India, across more oceans than she could imagine, Ernst was married and had his own farm two miles away, but Thom was at that age. And she felt more than ever that she was helpless before new manhood’s unshackling of itself. Thom, stooping wide-shouldered to enter the door, reaching for the water pails on the wash-stand, had little notion of the prayers breathed for him in the heat of the kitchen wood-stove. He saw the fresh bread and dropped the pail-handle, eyes searching for the knife.
“Cut the cooler one–this will burn you.”
He cut a chunk carefully. “What did Carlo bark about just after dinner?” They talked in Low German. The peculiar Russian Mennonite use of three languages caused no difficulties for there were inviolable, though unstated, conventions as to when each was spoken. High German was always used when speaking of religious matters and as a gesture of politeness towards strangers; a Low German dialect was spoken in the mundane matters of everyday living; the young people spoke English almost exclusively among themselves. Thought and tongue slipped unhesitantly from one language to the other. Now, as the pale butter melted into the bread and its warm aroma rose to Thom’s head, his teeth crunched through the crust as his mother answered.
“Mr. Block came to collect for that new church in Alberta. Even in the busy season he always does church work first.”
“We haven’t anything to give now.”
“We promised when the hogs go. We have to help, others helped us. And you know Mr. Block; he would never leave his farm now except for the church.”
“Uh-huh.” With his mouth full, he heard the cow bells nearing; he picked up the pails and went out. Deacon Peter Block had been the first Mennonite to come to Wapiti: he cleared the way for the others. When he had come, the wilderness, now thinned every winter for firewood and better grazing, stood as forest, and the only settlers were several Englishmen grubbing a few acres from the fastness. The Wiens family came three years later, in 1930, and together with Block and the others who followed, formed the Wapiti Mennonite Church. Swinging the pails to his stride, Thom thought of the good land that was left. The hamlet of Calder was only twelve miles south of the church, but to the highway on the east, Poplar Lake on the west, and to the Indian reservation across the Wapiti River to the north, all around the Mennonite settlement lay virgin sections, heavily wooded, enough for children’s children. And there would be more, when the last breeds were bought out.
“How much left?” his father asked, passing towards the kitchen.
“Half a day maybe. Is the disc ready to take out tomorrow morning?”
“You’ll have to use the hitch from the plow–I haven’t fixed the other.”
A grimace flicked over Thom’s face, but David Wiens had already walked beyond hearing. Forty years before, Wiens had been Thom’s age, unstooped and husky, serenely at ease in the Mennonite community life of Central Russia. The upheavals of Russian life after 1917 that drove him to America with his family had wrenched him from his roots. He had lived his lifetime in Russia: his sons built the farm in Canada. For him, the Canadian bush disrupted the whole order of things, for though one could succeed with some Russian Mennonite farming methods, most past standards seemed barely authoritative. Farming villages were impossible, married children had to settle far and farther from their parents, the family was splintered, the English language intruded itself. Yet if practical difficulties alone had been involved, Wiens might have regained himself. There was more, however. In Russia behaviour for him, the last of eight boys, had always been clear: right was right and wrong was wrong. Any situation could be quickly placed into one or the other category. Here, the people scattered in the Canadian bush lived, according to accepted Mennonite standards, such nonchalantly sinful lives that when Wiens was among them, even on his infrequent visits to Calder, he felt as if the foundation of all morality was sliced from beneath him.
For Wiens, as for his third son, there was one rock in the whirlpool of the Canadian world. They were both thinking of him at the same time. Deacon Peter Block. Where even the middle-aged Pastor Lepp was at a loss, the Deacon held the church community solidly on the path of their fathers. He seemed to understand how the newness of Canada must be approached. It was at his insistence that they had bought out all the English years before, despite the deeper debt it forced upon them, that they might have a district of Mennonites. Now, there were only four breed families left, and war prices had almost cleared them of their debt.
The first cattle ambled through the gate as Thom turned with the brimming pails. He glanced at the trough. With the cattle drinking at the full sloughs, there should be enough. He walked up the path, and then he heard the rumble of approaching planes, coming from the north-east this time. There were only two, and they came roaring directly over the yard, the tiny figures of the men, one behind the other, bumped in each plane, the motors hammering. The whole yard burst into a chaos of squealing pigs, flying squawking chickens, Carlo barking, Hal screaming “Bang! Bang!” and the cattle stampeding, milk jetting from swinging udders, towards the safety of the barn to crash against its closed door in a convulsion of bodies. Wiens, Mrs Wiens, Margret before the summer-kitchen, Hal astride Nance by the gate, Thom on the well-path: they could only stare in apprehension as the cattle bunched against the cracking door. In a minute the rumble had died over the flickering poplars to the south, and then Boss, her lead-bell clanging, broke through the bunching and galloped to the trough, circling crazily as she over-ran her mark. Others followed, one by one, to drink in gasps of slurping water. Wiens, shouting Carlo to silence, strode down the path to the few still strained against the cracking door, his wife behind him, both soothing with voice and then hand. From where Thom stood, one cow looked very bad.
Godless heathen, he thought. With all the sky to fly in, to come messing here twice on one day! He could see Pa feeling Nellie slowly. Her calf would be dead after that. Nowhere was there peace from them; after you were nineteen you could be sure it was coming. Pete Block’s came when he was twenty. The judge would not feel that his staying home would be necessary: they did not have enough land. But to Thom’s thinking that aspect of war was of no significance at the moment. He thought, If it comes on Friday, I will go to court on the day and say with the same conviction as Deacon Block’s son, “It is against my conscience!” In the spirit and in the faith of the fathers. Murdering heathen!
Excerpted from Peace Shall Destroy Many by Rudy Wiebe
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