The Plot of Despair - by Jack Thiessen © 1998

It was our neighbour's wife the men bore to the grave yesterday. I want to tell you why they carried the coffin like a man carries a pail of milk, as far away from his pants as possible, so that if it slops over it won't soil his pants and stink them up something dreadful. Yes, all six men carried the coffin like that with arms bent outwards to keep it away from themselves. These pallbearers were the walking shunning, so it appeared to me, and this is why.

A strange expression, a cross between an apologetic smile and an embarrassed grin marks neighbour John Wiebe's face whenever an idea hovers before the threshold of his mind. Then he wrinkles his brow, dilates his nostrils and displays a score of teeth in a crooked grimace. Now most people have teeth, of course, but John's are different, somehow. It always seems to me that they are waiting to grind and digest an idea which they haven't been fed yet.

John's primary characteristic is sitting on his haunches with his feet reading ten to two and his engineer's cap cocked on his protruding left ear. A piece of straw always strolls around the edge of his mouth as John attempts to disentangle many mysteries by scratching his head below the hairline and above his ear. Then he re-adjusts his cap, but as often as he does it, his left ear is left outside wanting in. Then John again shifts his cap before he sends his hands scurrying into his coveralls. There is always room for rent in his outfits because John is a skinny one.

There is little entertainment about John for the imagination but I always try. I keep some distance from him and watch this hunching arch-backed fellow scratching his head and working the straw around his toothy mouth. He is similar, I imagine, to a Russian worker sitting down somewhere behind a haystack to let Mother Nature have her way. That's the way I see him in person as he sits just by the stoop of the summer-kitchen door, and sometimes just in my mind.

John is a good young man and he is wrestling with something terrible, maybe what made him an orphan very early, at least so my mother used to tell me. If he ever tells his story, I'll be the first to listen, that much I know for sure.

Did I forget to tell you that John is Mennonite and speaks Low German with some High German turns once in a while? My father was quick to catch on to these and he says John has been swimming in the little milky Molotschna river because he could never have made it in the mighty Dnieper in the Old Country. Once I heard mother tell our father that he should keep some of his remarks caged in a little longer before allowing them to wander in the winds. When he said nothing to that, she added that he would hardly make a diplomat. And that got him started, "Not much chance of an offer anyway when you live at the edge of civilization." Then our father spat sending a little puff of dust up and away.

But back to John. One evening towards the end of spring this year, John's stance changed. His dress was the same but he managed to keep standing while he leaned against the framework of the summer kitchen door with one leg angled across the other.

"What's up?" asked my mother and John's grin shifted, halted and then shifted again into a perplexed smile.

"What's up?" he repeated and wound up, or rather, unwound himself, produced a hand and then another, giggled, adjusted his cap, scratched himself, rolled the straw several times in his mouth, hesitated a bit and spoke, "I'm in love and I'm getting married in June!" My mother was more than a little surprised and she waited a bit to let all the confusion of the sudden news settle down before she wiped her hands clean of bread dough. Then mother shook his hand which was already scurrying for cover. She asked him all the questions women ask about love and weddings, his home, his plans, but maybe not in that order.

As for me, I felt a little sorry that the order of his frequent visits would now come to an end. But I was excited a little too because weddings are not really routine and if there is one, you never know who will invite whom and why not. And mother was already planning to have a new dress sewn with Lisa's help.

Within a week John had a horse and a buggy and a bride-to-be. Our father engaged in his usual rough tomfoolery about bridal escapades and he overdid it like most other things and I felt somewhat sorry for John because he had no fences against trespassers like him. Also John's bride-to-be was embarrassed, I knew that from the way her cheeks became red and her eyes tried to escape.

But John's routine had changed and once or twice a week and always on Sunday, he made his way over our yard from across the creek about a mile away by horse and buggy and then on to Gnadenfeld or maybe to GrĂ¼nthal. The wedding came in three weeks and it was exciting. There was baloney and the women had baked double-decker buns and there were lots of sugar cubes for the guest's coffee and the children's pockets.

My mother had to have a word with our father about two weeks after the wedding since John had started taking a longer route with the buggy to avoid crossing our yard because our father had been teasing him again. I once heard him say, "When the hen squats, the rooster should jump and start crowing", and I was embarrassed at my understanding.

Last Friday after we had been in GrĂ¼nthal, my mother told our father that we were not in Russia and that some people can't make good sense out of his funny comments but our father only said that they should be fixed good.

Well, early last week John appeared alone at our place and then our father's teasing stopped while my mother started to worry, first a bit and then more.

And then last Sunday (it was now June and the days were already very hot and heavy in the early mornings) we had just finished milking and my mother was fixing breakfast, when she looked out of the summer kitchen door to the south and there came John running and screaming and yelling and ranting at great speed and volume.

My mother quickly shunted us children into the house while our father, butcher knife in hand, retraced John's steps but in the opposite direction. John was running after him but our father was much faster and I saw John falling down twice. Then he got up and once ran in the wrong direction before turning around and running home. My mother stood by the summer kitchen door and prayed so hard it was as if holy smoke rose from her mouth. Then our dog Karo also set out after the men and mother told him to come back, but her words were almost inaudible and he hardly heard it.

Nothing could be reversed or prayed into different tracks and on Wednesday afternoon, Anjuscha, John's wife, was buried. I already said how the men carried the coffin like it contained something very offensive. They left it outside the church and it looked very, very lonely and sad and I saw many black clouds before my eyes that day. And it was not only I that saw them; I asked my mother and she saw them too.

John was half- led and half-carried into church and I heard him crying with a sound that was in and outside of himself. It was almost like an animal or a sound that was never meant to be. Then I so much wanted to replay those days of a short while ago again and have him sit by the summer kitchen door and scratch himself and grin and talk about many things which interested him but now all that little happiness seemed so far away, even farther away than the home by the Dnieper my parents talked about every day.

I knew that mother wanted to explain all the questions I had but she didn't know how to choose the right words, and I felt sorry for her not being able to speak, and for her shame. She was embarrassed for the grown-ups to which she belonged after a fashion.

The Mennonite tradition is loudest and packs the biggest punch in the untold and unspoken avenues of its actions. And one of these unspoken rules demands that the dead are to be buried with the head to the west and the feet to the east in the coffin. This way the body of the departed spirit can face the morning and the hope and the resurrection more easily.

But John's wife? She, Anjuscha, was buried the other way around in accordance with a stern command spoken by the elders who were from my parent's village way back in Russia. They buried Anjuscha south of the regular cemetery in a special plot reserved for those who had taken their own lives. Anjuscha now shares the plot of despair with two other occupants who also took their ultimate destiny into their own hands.

One of them was a very rough scoundrel who had more schnaps than brains in his system, they say. While the other one, an overbearing roughneck who was all talk and little work, came from the Crimea back home. He had been party to a beating of a Russian boy who later died. To run away from the scene of a crime is one thing, to run away from your conscience is another matter, he was to find out. With such spirits, Anjuscha has to lie and wait for Judgement Day. When I think of how happy Anjuscha looked on her wedding day and how shyly she said "Guten Morgen" just five days ago and how shyly she smiled, I become so very confused with God and with time and with people.

A barbed wire fence surrounds the main cemetery and a barbed wire fence surrounds the plot of the cursed only a few feet away. A few feet - and yet an eternity's distance.

In the last few weeks, or even days, John has divorced himself from everything that reminded him of his short happiness. His horse and buggy are gone and John now walks again on foot and the time of his walk is still ten to two.

Last week John came over - that was two days after the funeral - and he asked for something my mother gladly gave him permission to borrow. He then went to the tool shed and slipped a pair of fencing pliers into his coveralls and then he headed into the dusk towards the cemeteries an hour away. There were no witnesses as John snipped six strands of barbed wire, three from the cursed plot and three from the respectable cemetery. Having done this, John spliced the broken strands together.

He had now incorporated the lonely and the damned section in which his poor Anjuscha lay into the body of respectability and hope. But only for one day. The stern command of an unnamed and unnameable source saw to it that the sustained damage was repaired the next night.

John and his holy opponent kept repairing damages for six nights running and then, John, defeated, terminated his interference with the authorities.

John Wiebe again sat down by the threshold of our summer kitchen door. His straw was gone. Tears flowed in nightly profusion while I kept my anxious distance and my mother talked endlessly to him in quiet language so that no one will catch language too serious for young ears, who sense everything but are meant to know little or nothing.

Yes, there sits John evening after evening and long after the crickets have chirped the world and me to disturbed slumber in their melancholy way.

© 1998,2007 Jack Thiessen
[A similar story in Plautdietsch is Noba Jasch Wiens.]