Mar 26, 2021
—June 6, 1790
Sunlight falls through the canopy of black birch, oak, and ash, and puddles on the moss-carpeted ground like pools of candlelit rain. Here and there on the lichen-spotted boulders lay the clustered tip-ends of spruce boughs, nipped-off by red squirrels in branches so high above her Annis did not know they were there, and can’t see them even when she grabs the pommel and tilts her head back to peer straight up. Her hood slips off her dark hair, but she doesn’t replace it, for the mist has stopped.
The nearest tree trunk, wide as a room, pierces a ceiling of birch leaves and travels on into the unseen sky beyond. Annis chides herself for not recognizing the tree at a glance. The thick gray bark of a red spruce is crafted of separate vertical strips of varying lengths and so different from the smooth, horizontally-lined skin of the black birch. Remember this, she tells herself, hearing Heinrich’s teasing voice calling her a dizzy girl, laughing at her intention to succeed as a pioneer wife, insisting she would be back home to Mamma in less than a month.
I’ll die trying before I let him be right.
Her gaze finds, then lingers on the diamond-patterned bark of an immense white ash. “Yggdrasil,” she whispers. She remembers Vati taking her hand in his, aligning his pointer finger along her own, and tracing the deep grooves that form the unique diamond shape. Vati taught her that the roots of this tree bind the three levels of the world into one. Its branches cradle the heavens. Nine realms exist between them, in which all of creation dwells. She looks up. A ray of sunlight pierces the canopy and meets her gaze, causes her to turn away, blinking. She hears Vati’s voice.
“Such is how the world begins and ends. With rays of light from Yggdrasil and a daughter born of the sun.”
She feels his hands cradle her jaw as he says it. She feels his lips press the top of her head. She feels the heat from the fire in his eyes.
“Vergessen Sie nie dies!”
Never forget this!
I won’t Vati. I promise, I won’t.
Soon they stop by a spring just off the trail, amid a stand of laurel, budded but not yet bloomed. Johannes waters the ox and horse while Annis pulls a meal of dried huckleberries and biscuits from the saddlebags.
While they eat, Johannes tells her they will make camp at the East Fork of the Greenbrier. This will put them just five miles out when they wake up, with plenty of daylight once they’re home.
Home. The word rings in her brain like a church bell.
Johannes taps his chest when he says it, indicating a warrant for 300 acres, given him by the Governor of Augusta as payment for military service. He carries the letter in a deerskin pouch he wears inside his shirt. When he’d first read it to her, she’d wondered aloud over the Governor’s granting the right to tomahawk the land, a mysterious phrase. It sounded to her ears both savage and thrilling, not unlike words out of one of Vati’s tall tales. Johannes had explained that it meant he had the right to stake his claim by means of hatchet marks on trees, and to defend it by whatever means necessary against all men who may dispute it.
She’d asked what mark he made.
“The mark of ein freier Mann,” he’d told her.
“Yes, a free man, but what does it look like?”
She imagined a fairy-symbol, a potent talisman with power enough to cause men to shrink in fear. Something similar to the strangest of the carvings in the corner cupboard. Something as wild and mysterious as the word tomahawk deserved.
He’d only shrugged and said she would see for herself soon enough.
She sucks on a huckleberry, remembering last summer’s picking parties. She starts to ask Johannes if there are huckleberries where they are going, then thinks better of it.
I will see for myself soon enough.
She sighs. Loneliness blows through her like a chill wind, although the day is warm and humid. Her shift sticks to her skin beneath the stays of her gown yet she has the urge to burrow under a stack of quilts, bury herself under a pile of skins. She rubs a bit of silk ribbon between her fingers, hoping for a return of the morning’s happy hopefulness. But not even the elegant fabric elevates her mood.
“Annis, Gehen wir.”
She rummages for a cap, Johannes gives her a leg up and they’re on their way.
Almost home soon enough, Annis thinks, nearly rousing a chuckle. She wishes for a fallen tree to block the trail, a washout, a landslide, anything to slow their progress. She even wishes for rain.
She watches her husband’s strong legs shifting beneath his breeches, his long arms swinging loosely at his sides. He is a virtual stranger to her, and yet she has left her father’s home to follow him to his. And all because he said that’s what he wanted.
Her eyes focused on the corner cupboard, her body moving in easy rhythm with the horse, she remembers.
She sits across from Eva, on the floor by the hearth, plaiting onions into a braid.
Mamma answers the knock, hollow and resonant as a woodpecker’s drill on hard, dry wood—a certain quality of sound she’ll associate with Johannes for the rest of her life.
She turns and peers awkwardly over her shoulder. There he is—the last person she expects to find standing at the threshold, hat in hands. She flushes so she fears keeling over.
Why is he here?
Panic sparking in her eyes, she swivels around, reaches out a trembling hand and, hoping for ballast, grasps her sister’s. She knows she should rise, smooth her skirts, appear presentable, or at the very least something more than a child, sprawled on the hearthrug, doing childish chores. But the sight of him renders her limbs liquid, as if lightning has just that moment struck nearby.
“Frau Hohl.” She hears Johannes speak.
“Ah, Johannes, wilkommen. Come. Sit by the fire. It is too cool for May.”
Between where he stands and where she sits there are, perhaps, twelve feet.
Annis feels every foot shrink and collapse as he walks toward her.
“Herauf, herauf. Up, up,” Eva mutters, pulling on her.
Before Johannes reaches them, the girls manage to rise as one from the floor. Although Annis tries to maintain her grip, Eva shakes off her hand with the decisive flick used to rid oneself of a spider.
“Tochter, where are your manners? Captain Jeager has come to visit.”
She completes the expected curtsy and mumbles “Guten Abend.” But while Eva stands up straight and speaks of the weather and the status of the new lambs, Annis can do nothing but gaze at his mud-caked boots. Her mind is empty of every thought but Please. She repeats it like a prayer: please please please, until Eva’s voice is but the sound of a distant stream.
Annis can’t imagine what he sees when he looks at her—yet he seems to see something. She lives in terror of the movement, word, or expression that might ruin his vision. So, despite the unhappy heat of Susannah’s gaze upon the crown of her head and the lilting charm of Eva’s prattle, showing her a poor second-best with every syllable, Annis doesn’t raise her eyes to his. She doesn’t utter another word beyond Good evening. She doesn’t move. She barely breathes. She waits.
Finally, Johannes announces his intention to speak with “Oberst Hohl.”
Militia business, Annis thinks, noting his use of the term Colonel. That’s all it is, nothing more, you silly goat.
Mamma shooes she and Eva up the ladder and goes to retrieve Vati, napping in preparation for another late night with the ewes.
Lying on the loft floor, her head between the top rungs, Annis watches Vati enter the room and nod at Johannes. She watches her father walk slowly to the corner cupboard. As always, he touches his thumb to his lips and then to the eagle carved in the cornice. Then he reaches for his pipe and for a tin of tobacco on the top shelf.
She watches as Johannes waits with the familiar patience of a military man. Vati fills the pipe, lights it from an ember, and arranges himself in his rocker, puffing with his eyes closed.
Johannes doesn’t move. He waits.
A log breaks in two and rolls, hissing. In the house, there are no other sounds but the whispered tick of the mantle clock, the clicking of Mamma’s knitting needles, and the hesitant, stifled creak of Vati’s chair.
Annis is astonished to realize that her heartbeat, a braying donkey within her ears, is audible to no one else, not even to Eva lying so close beside her.
“Ja?” Vati seems still half-awake, staring into the fire.
“Ich liebe ihre Tochter, Annis.”
He confesses to love her, in her father’s beloved German, the language of her childhood, of her heart. Every muscle in her body tenses. The hair along her spine rises and tingles. Eva lifts her chin and presses it firmly into Annis’s scalp.
“Was ist dies?”
“It is a time of new beginnings, Oberst. I love your daughter.”
“Was ist dies?” Vati’s voice grows louder.
“I want to marry Annis. I want to take her uber dem berg.”
Her past and her future are compressed into the simple statement of his desire.
She dies and is reborn in the time it takes him to speak. In those few seconds,
Annis ceases to exist.
He loves me.
It feels like jumping out of the Varner’s hayloft—her stomach rising into her throat like a hundred butterflies roused from a stand of milkweed—except she never lands. She never feels the scratchy, earthbound comfort of straw against her skin, never smells the damp, cornshuck odor. Never laughs in terror and relief.
She just keeps falling, falling, falling.
Eva grabs her braid to keep her head from knocking against the ladder.