Mar 26, 2021
From 1683 to 1776, some 100,000 Germans, most from the Rheinland-Palatinate, emigrate to the New World. Orphaned by the Reformation, they flee hopeless poverty and religious oppression to try their failing luck in a faraway land. They endure six weeks at best, six months at worst in crossing the Atlantic. Unable to pay for higher-class passage, they crowd into steerage, where the ceiling is but five feet overhead and personal space limited to that of a doormat. Crouched in the dark, thrown by the ship’s pitching, they bond over stories of the Rheinland and hopes for the future. Many die and more sicken. Those who survive never forget—not the passage, the past, nor each other. Hans Martin Hohl and his second wife, Susannah, are among them.
Annis, born November 12, 1771 in Crab Apple Bottom, Augusta County, Virginia, is their eleventh child.
—June 6, 1790
She rides sidesaddle, one leg hooked over the pommel beneath her petticoat, the hood of her light grey Brunswick gown raised to shield her hair from the early morning mist. She admires the red-and-white striped ribbons tied in great bows at the midpoints of her long sleeves and dips her chin to touch the bow at her neck.
Mamma had ordered the strips of silk from the milliner in Crab Apple Bottom who’d had them shipped from Paris. She’d sewn them in secret to the plain traveling costume Annis had worn since she’d reached her full growth some five years before.
Upon presenting the magically transformed gown, Mamma had said: “You can’t begin a woman’s life dressed as a child.”
Annis had stared at her mother.
A woman’s life.
Lightheaded with giddy pride, she sways in the saddle. She rubs her chin back-and-forth across the silk perfection at her neck.
I am a woman. Mamma said so.
She wishes all God’s creatures could know such happiness.
Ahead on the trail, Johannes walks next to the ox.
It pulls a sled made of black birch on which all of their possessions are tied with grape vine and hemp rope. Two long poles are lashed into a point, which digs into the exposed earth of the narrow footpath, leaving a mark that puts Annis in mind of the track of an immense snake, one that creeps behind the oblivious ox, patiently waiting to strike.
Neighbors in Crab Apple Bottom had made a fuss that it was the custom of savages to carry things in such a manner and Heinrich spread the rumor that Johannes meant for them to live in a tepee. When he called her a squaw she’d slapped him hard and Eva cheered.
Not that Johannes cares what people say, least of all her younger brother.
When she’d asked him about it he’d said, simply “The path is too steep for a wagon” as if that practicality explained everything. Johannes had a way of answering her questions that stole her tongue and hid it.
It makes an odd puzzle—all of these things jumbled together, creaking and bouncing. Bed ticking and quilts, a cast iron pot and frying pan, wooden bowls, pewter spoons, oak baskets. Kegs of salt, buckwheat flour and cider. Sacks of oats, corn, and dried apples. A braid of onions and one of wild leeks. An axe and a two-handled saw. A traveling chest containing Annis’ clothes. And in the center of it all, the walnut corner cupboard made by the hand of Vati’s own grandfather, Piotr, the only piece of furniture to survive ocean passage.
The cupboard was a marriage gift from Vati, with tears in his eyes. He’d bellowed like a bull until wedding day itself, then grabbed Johannes by the cheeks and cried “Mein sohn.”
Johannes had said nothing in reply.
Annis has come to believe that Johannes never credited Vati’s opinion of him any more than he did the gossips in town. He no longer lived in Crab Apple Bottom. Perhaps he never had.
His heart lived over the mountain.
“Uber dem Berg” he’d said, taking her hand, his blue eyes shining. “Ich werde Sie uber dem Berg nehmen.”
Uber dem berg. She’d imagined this place, a magical land. A land where schnitzels could be had without effort or blood and borscht dippered from streams like water. Where sugar tree sap tasted of honey and apples ripened year round. Where birds left the best berries for picking and thistle scented the air, even in winter, even indoors.
I’ll take you over the mountain.
Only a fool would resist such an invitation.
“Ja, ja bitte!” she’d breathed, all Mamma’s cautions about saying yes too quickly flown from her head like milkweed seeds from a sun-split pod.
“Make him work for you, Annis,” Mamma had said. “You follow him like a love-struck goat. Even the moon knows your feelings.”
“Why should I care who knows them?”
“Lieblingtochter, Annis.” Mamma had smiled sadly. “You must keep something for yourself.”
Annis hardly saw the point in that. Besides, her feelings were too much to be housed within her. They cried out to be shared. If she could, she would announce her love from the roof of the sky. She would soar and scream like a red-tailed hawk, and hide absolutely nothing.
Perhaps Mamma had been a woman too long.
The dappled light and the lulling motion of the horse have made her sleepy. Her chin drops and her head nods. She jerks herself upright, grips the reins. Fearing she might slip off her saddle, she focuses her gaze on the cupboard. Francis & Ann had been the name of the ship. 1741. A fire had claimed lives as well as goods. Vati told her he’d never been so afraid. Yet, the cupboard—against all odds, survived. When he saw it among the ashes, a monument, unscathed, he knew he’d made the right choice.
“Ein gutes Zeichen.”
A good sign.
The survival of the cupboard was the sign he needed in the midst of so much loss. He’d made the right choice, coming to the New World. Staying for a time in Pennsylvania and then moving on to settle at last in the valley where bluegrass shimmered in the summer sun like the ocean he’d crossed to get here. Augusta the English called it. Everything about it reminded him of home.
Ein gutes Zeichen, he’d repeated throughout her childhood, as the crops grew, the ewes birthed, and the herds multiplied along with the land whose deeds he held. Countless nights, she’d watched him take tobacco from within the cupboard and fill his pipe. She’d watched him lean against the cupboard, tracked his hand as it caressed the intricately carved wood. She’d felt his smile heat the room.
“Ein gutes Zeichen, Annis. Die neue Welt.”
Ja, Vati. Ja.
The new world. A new life.
But what if the cupboard’s magic is spent, Vati? What then?
She watches it, lashed and bound, coated in dust. Carved wood joined together, nothing more nor less than this. The cupboard shakes and bounces. It rattles like a beech leaf as it’s pulled down the trail. Annis draws no comfort from it.
Last night they’d slept on a bluff above the Little River, fully clothed and wrapped in two of Susannah’s quilts. They lay on a bed of spruce boughs intended to lift them if but slightly above the damp. Spooned together, Johannes’s mouth aligned near Annis’s ear, his upper arm lay across her chest and his elbow pressed gently against her belly. Annis listened to the still unfamiliar sound of her husband’s breathing, memorizing its melody long after he had fallen asleep. An owl hooted loudly and an unseen animal made skittering, scratchy noises in the brush.
It was the first night she’d ever spent outdoors.
As she snuggled back against Johannes, she wasn’t afraid. Yet, she couldn’t sleep, her mind too busy wondering what signs and portents of her future were contained in this day. What messages she might decipher were she clever enough.
The omens Vati taught her sang in her mind, like the daybreak call of a phoebe, impossible to ignore.
When a Rooster crows as he goes to bed, he will get up with a wet head. Frost is expected six weeks after the first Goldenrod blooms. If a bird flies into the house, it’s a sign of death in the family. When a cat washes its face, someone will come to visit. A horse with four white feet is a good horse.
When asked about owls, whose hoots were a constant midnight accompaniment in Crab Apple Bottom, Vati would only cup one hand over each of her ears. Mamma dismissed Vati’s superstitions as “Black Forest nonsense.” His people had come from the far southeast end of the Jura Mountains, where they still believed that wolves chased the sun and moon across the sky. She shrugged and shook her head, clucking. Although he had been born in Oppenheim, Vati clung to the old stories he learned from his grandfather.
Annis loved every one. Mamma said she had no use for a past that old.
When they awoke this morning, Johannes schooled her in the art of toileting in the woods. Horrified at the thought, she had hoped to have no need of it until they reached the homestead. He informed her that constipation was the source of more bodily ills than any disease. Then acquainted her with a striped maple leaf, pointed her in the direction of a fallen log, and instructed her to go. Gehen sie! Go and sit!
And she is glad of it now, hours later, the embarrassment past. She wonders if that in itself, is an omen of some sort. She only wishes she had drunk more water before they moved away from the river and began the ascent.
“Ein neues Leben.”
A new life.
That’s where they are going. To a new life. Neues Leben. Words Johannes says as if they indicate a life utterly unrecognizable in all lives that have come before. Johannes speaks of a new life in the same way her father has always spoken of a new world.
They both get the same glittery-eyed expression. As if they are viewing, far in the distance, the location of a life not just new, no. They have in their sights a life so much better as to render all other ways of living as predictable and insignificant as that of a spittlebug on a stalk of jewel weed.
“Neus Leben,” Johannes told her, pointing to the mountain ahead. “Sie und mich. You and me.” His blue eyes sparkled in the morning sun slanting through the shagbark hickories.
That’s when, just this morning, the moment came to pass when she realized she has no idea, none whatsoever, what he means by those words.