Excerpt from "They Speak of Houses"

Context: A winter storm shrouds the county surrounding Ulysses, Kansas with ice. Hywel Groening sees an unfinished mosaic of blue stones in the back pasture just as the sun begins to set. When he and his sister, Sophie, find a letter written in German after their father dies, they ask their Oma Abiah for an explanation. They learn that their great-grandfather, Georg Groening, returned to Ulysses after a twenty-year prison sentence. The following sections of the novel share Georg's discovery of the mosaic and why he was in prison.

October, 1898

Georg was well into his eleventh year of prison when he received the letter. The sound the letter made when it slipped through the narrow rectangle in the metal doorway was violent. Shocked, he simply stared at the envelope that was a shade of brown he'd not seen since his youth. It is nearly golden, he thought to himself, the gold of almost-harvest. Georg's hands tingled with long-smoothed callouses as they remembered wielding the scythe. His ears echoed the swoosh! between each swing of the scythe and the creak of the cradle as it gathered its harvest. His nose caught the scent of sweat and severed wheat stalk as his arms would rise and fall over and again.

He made no move towards the envelope. Prison had curtailed the impulsive behavior of the boy who had entered a decade ago. Now he considered all options before moving, thinking, breathing, even. He knew another instance of contact wouldn't come again until his meal arrived in the evening. Confession wasn't due for another three days. He was in the silent prison of Leavenworth, Kansas, where no one was allowed conversation or contact beyond a weekly visit of a priest. Georg wasn't Catholic, but he confessed anyway. He knew men were inches from him; the walls were thin enough to hear their pacing, urinating, and defecating in the bucket that was emptied every other day by a tight-lipped guard. He had tried to speak to the guards and other prisoners when he first arrived. The scars on his back silenced him soon enough. Even talking to oneself was prohibited; the punishment for that was a metal helmet that covered the face and stank of the sweat of thousands of voices. It was better in some ways, he had reflected during the first half of that decade, than the first prison to which he'd been sent. There were twenty men to a cell in Wichita, and Georg's youth and stature made a quick decision in each of the other nineteen minds. But now, in year eleven, he wondered. Perhaps he was treated better at Leavenworth, but you had endless contact with other humans in Wichita.

Georg took note of the envelope's irregular shape and the way the flashes of sunlight from the tiny window embedded fifteen feet above intermittently revealed its rough texture. The envelope had landed face-down, and seemed to have a landscape of its own, rising and falling with inexplicable order. He wondered who it could be from. His momma couldn't read or write in German or English; it wasn't time for Poppa's yearly epistle, and even if Dirk could've pieced a few decent sentences together, he certainly wouldn't bother.

Still he waited to pick up the envelope. One morning after the first five years, when the scars had healed and weren't replaced by more, and the helmet had retreated to a memory that seeded his nightmares, Georg woke up early and for the first time considered his situation.

I'm in prison, he whispered to himself, his lips barely moving. His voice seemed to echo from within. I will be here at least fifteen more years. I could continue to be like the animal they called me during my trial. Eating. Shitting. Eating. Shitting. They've silenced my body. But they can't silence my mind. Even animals must live. Even animals must think beyond their bodies.

Georg wondered where these thoughts originated. He had few distinct memories before that morning, but he remembered each following day with vibrant clarity. It was as if someone had lit a forgotten wick in his mind. Perhaps they'd always been there. They just were so covered by his fear of prison and grief over Ebba's death that they took a while to root themselves before rising above the topsoil. He liked that image of his mind working. He liked seeing his thoughts as tiny, wary plants forcing each particle of dust aside bit by bit, until sunlight finally pierced through the darkness.

Georg continued to be silent. His body followed the rules the prison set for him, but everything within his body changed. He began to spend entire mornings staring at the ceiling, noting each crevice and crack until they were as familiar as his own hands and feet. He listened to the shuffle of the feet of his neighbors; how each breathed, snored, defecated differently from the others. Eventually, he paid attention to the sounds of the guards—how they walked, paused, delivered food or mail—until he could ascertain which guard was about to present himself briefly at Georg's door when the guard was still several yards away.

Each physical day was similar to the others, until the day of the unexpected letter.

The shift of sunlight through the tiny window finally moved him to action. It was early fall; darkness came quickly, and prisoners weren't allowed a candle. The only light came from a heavily meshed gaslight in the hall. The light would stream through the rectangle in each cell door, but it was weak, and Georg wouldn't be able to read anything. He rose and bent to pick up the letter, which was strangely light for its size. He could feel something slim and hard within the folds. He looked at the seal—it was unbroken. Poppa's letters were opened, perused, and stuffed back into the envelope haphazardly, often with the pages out of order. No one had opened this letter. He studied the seal, and saw that it had been pasted together. The entire envelope was several pieces of castoff paper that were glued together. He could tell that some of it was faded newsprint with scraps of English he could barely decipher: Panic, Boxer Rebellion, Pandemic, Influenza, Proclamation. Other parts were torn pages of the Bible, the thick Germanic letters so mired together that all Georg could read with certainty were Verdammnis and Teufel.

Georg realized he'd stopped breathing. He turned the letter over. This letter had no postage; no return address. His name and prisoner number, the address of the prison were clearly printed on the front, in a childish handwriting he knew all too well. He lifted the letter and smelled the paste. Georg closed his eyes, and let himself briefly see Ebba stirring the pot while he stood in the doorway of the soddy, watching out for Momma or Dirk. He would scan the farmyard for a several minutes, then duck his head inside, allowing his eyes adjust to the stuffy dimness. For a brief moment he felt blind, which continually fascinated him—then searched out his sister, who was stirring a cupful of flour into a simmering pot. The scent of that preciously stolen flour coated the envelope.

His fingers trembled as he tried to unseal the letter. He now regretted the time he'd spent examining it from afar. A rush of wind funneled through the cellblock; the light from the window flickered and faded. The soft rumble of thunder purred gently—an autumnal storm was approaching. Georg had noted how heavy the chilled air had seemed earlier. Finally, the envelope opened, and a slim stone slipped out. He caught it just before it landed on the floor.

It was blue. A sharp blue.

Wind began to ram against the window that was sealed shut. Georg knew the storm would soon drown the cell in darkness. He opened the letter: Lieber Georg Ich bin nicht tot Die Steine werden mich finden Ich höre Stimmen Sie sprechen von Häusern Liebe Ebba. Dear Georg I am not dead The stones will find me I hear voices They speak of houses Love Ebba.

July, 1887

Georg saw the mosaic when he was fourteen. He and Poppa had managed to save the claim from prairie fire by hurriedly plowing six furrows around the sod house and the barn—the land lay so flat around their acreage they saw what was coming hours before it reached them. For the longest of moments, the fire had raged all around them. It seemed as though Hell had tired of waiting for lost souls and decided to claim her own. The heat was so intense, the plaster melted off the inside of the soddy walls. Georg had broken away from his screaming momma and praying poppa and scrambled up the windmill to get a grander view.

He wasn't afraid of Hell. The ideas of Heaven his father had drummed into his head seemed boring and a worse punishment than Hell could ever be. He wanted to experience all that Hell could offer him, so he climbed rung after rung of the windmill. He finally reached the deck and gasped at what he saw. The world was truly on fire. The world was how it must have been at the very beginning. Clinging to the windmill because the wind was strong and could have easily taken him off—even for his size—Georg twisted around and around. He saw his family so far away; he saw the creek surrounded by flames that licked the stunted trees that surrounded it; he saw the heat waves that searched for feed as though Hell could not get enough of the usual fodder.

It was then he saw a circle of stones, long hidden by the thick prairie grass that reached a man's shoulder in high summer. The circle seemed to be part blue and part red, and thin, black stripes with small circles populated the red and even the blue. He stared at the circle, wondering at its size, since from his perspective it was at least a quarter mile in circumference. Georg felt a physical twist in his chest, as if his heart wanted to leap towards this circle, leaving his cumbersome body behind, to join what the body had always lacked.

There was a sudden and eerie silence. The fire had passed. There was no birdsong, no blades of grass to rustle in the wind that seemed to blow even harder. He looked down. His family now stood in a circle similar to the one he'd just discovered. His poppa was on his knees, shouting words to God that Georg knew all too well.

He climbed down. He tried to walk out to where the old circle lay, but discovered the ground was too hot for his bare feet, so he went to his family instead, knelt down, and waited while his poppa continued to shout.

The next day it rained, but he still clambered the windmill and scanned the horizon that had become a desperate sea of mud. For a moment he thought it had disappeared. He wondered if he had imagined it, for the clear blues and reds he had seen after the flames had ripped off their shroud of grass were no more. But then the sun broke through the rushing, low lying clouds, and glinted off a series of blue stones here, a circle of red stones there.

It was still there! Georg wanted to dive off the windmill deck into the sea of stone he was sure really lay there, waiting for him. It was real! It belonged to him! He relaxed his grip on the windmill.

It was a sea, like the one the family had crossed when he was a small boy. His memories of the crossing were tenuous—he remembered the sound the ocean made more than the sight of the ocean itself. The rush of the wind was similar to the rush of the prairie wind, only more hollow, since the breath of each gust had to cross so many more miles. The crash of the water against the ship's sides fascinated Georg. In their home village, the largest body of water was nothing more than a humble creek that tinkled and ran, but never crashed. He'd never known that water could crash upon anything with such violence. And now he was the possessor of a sea within the prairie. His fingers dropped their hold upon the windmill. He shuffled his overlarge feet to the edge, until his sun-browned toes touched air. It was his. It was waiting for him. He needed to join the sea.

His momma's voice drifted through the crash of wind: Georg! Georg! Frühstück!

Georg's stomach rumbled. He frowned and rubbed his belly.

Later, he said to his sea. I'll see you later.

After the fire, summer flowed over the prairie like an unstoppable flood. The green that flushed over the blackened earth grew and swelled until it was as if fire had never touched a blade of grass. Weeds and their flowers sprung out of the carcasses of their parents like ungrateful children and pushed the bodies away for their important moment of life. It was only the trees that remembered what had occurred. Trees that were stripped of their leaves produced few new leaves. Fruits that had been pulsing shriveled and rattled where they hung.

Georg knew that the grasses and weeds would soon return and smother the stones. As often as he was able, he scrambled to the top and stared at the circle as if he could somehow solidify it into memory. One day, Ebba followed him.

At first, he didn't worry. She had never been able to scale the ladder alone before, and when he realized the shivering of the windmill was something heavier than wind, then saw the bearer of the weight, he shook his head and turned back to his circle. But the weight kept coming up and up and up. Georg tried to shut everything but the circle from his mind, but the up and up and up continued to invade his consciousness. He finally turned and poked his head out to watch his sister's ascent.

What are you doing?


Why are you climbing?

I want to see whatever it is you stare at each day.



Yes, nothing.

I don't think so. You see something and I want to see it too!

Momma won't like it that you're climbing.

Let her come get me, then.

Georg laughed in spite of his divided worry about his sister and his circle. It wasn't that he hadn't considered telling Ebba about the circle—he was afraid she would tell Dirk or even Poppa. Dirk or Poppa wouldn't just sit and examine the circle with awe like Georg. Dirk or Poppa would need to do something about it.

Ebba had stopped climbing.

What's wrong? Georg leaned a little further out.

Ebba's breathing was uneven. I'm scared, she finally panted.

Go back down.

I'm scared to go back down. I'm scared. I'm scared. I'm scared.

Okay. Ebba?

I'm scared.

I know.

Georg told her his plan.

So you'll let me see what you're looking at?


Her breathing was still fast, but not as shallow. Okay, she gulped.

Georg swung down the other side of the ladder and began to descend from his perch. Within a few seconds, he was face to face with his sister, whose nose was flowing with mucus.

Hello, he said, as if this was a normal meeting.


I'm going to go below you now and then come up behind you.

Then we'll go up?


What's up there?

Why would I spoil it for you? After all your bravery.

A tinny laugh escaped her throat.

Georg continued down the ladder. When he passed his sister's trembling feet, he swung to the right side of the ladder and ascended until his chest grazed her back.

Hello again, he said. It's time to climb.

Several minutes later, a shaky Ebba stood on the deck. At first she wouldn't look at anything but her feet, solid on the wood. Then, her eyes began to dart here and there, hoping to latch on to whatever held her brother's curiosity. Georg decided to let her find it for herself. He knew when she saw it by the sudden stillness that overcame her shaking frame.

Georg! It's—

Beautiful, right?

What is it?

I don't really know. I saw it the day of the fire.

It's so huge! Oh, oh, oh. Ebba took a step towards the circle. Georg wondered if she was tempted to leap into it as he had been.

It's starting to fade, Ebba said softly, sadly.

I know.

We can't let it disappear! What are we going to do about it?

I'm memorizing it. Georg realized how silly that sounded in the open air.

Ebba chewed her lip and squished her eyes into tiny slits. I wish we had one of those cameras like the one we saw in Ulysses last summer. Oh! She turned and grabbed Georg's shoulder. I could draw it!

Georg nodded slowly, but his heart ached. It was going to belong to someone else. It was no longer his. He had to let her do it, but he wished she had not followed him today. Maybe tomorrow would've been okay. But not today.

He must have sighed, because Ebba peered into Georg's eyes. What's wrong?

I wish I could draw. I wish it could still be mine.

Ah! Ebba stroked Georg's shoulder.

The next few days dashed past as Georg and Ebba tried to capture as much of the circle as possible. One problem was that Ebba could draw with amazing speed and accuracy, but she was afraid to climb the windmill alone. Georg could swing to the windmill's summit quickly, but his drawings were little more than irregular circles and crooked lines. They had limited free time, so what could've taken a solid afternoon was breaking into mere moments. Ebba didn't have much paper to begin with. She used the entire book of drawing paper Poppa and Momma had bought her for Christmas with half of the mosaic unfinished. Georg began stealing the oldest, shabbiest sheets of newsprint from Poppa's stack of German papers, soaked them in water to dilute the ink, and dried them in the sun atop the windmill.

After two weeks, it was finished, which was lucky, since Ebba's drawing pencils were mere stubs. She made paste out of flour and an egg she stole when Momma was visiting a neighbor, coated some strips of newspaper and pasted each page together to form the whole circle. Ebba carefully folded the giant circle into a square small enough to put it in her apron pocket. It was too large to unfold on top of the windmill, but Georg found a small rise near the actual circle where they could look at the fading circle and Ebba's rendition simultaneously.

Thick, black stones edged the periphery of the circle. Then deep blue stones swept through the circle in swirls. Within the blue were brown and red stones that seemed to be people, but they were giants, even in this giant circle. Then green and a lighter brown lapped upon the blue as though the green and brown were invading the space of blue. As though the blue had once eaten all of the circle, only to be superseded by the green and brown. Each stone seemed to bleed among the others. Each stone had its own story that Georg didn't know. Each inch of dirt had been moved to nestle the stone more firmly within the earth.

Who did it? he breathed.

I guess the Indians, Ebba whispered.

But how did they know about the water? The ocean is so far away!

The wind suddenly began to blow harder than it had in days. Georg and Ebba stretched themselves over the drawing to keep it on the ground. As he lay upon the drawing, he wondered: Was this how God felt about the Earth? Did God need to cover the Earth with his entire body to save it? He looked at his sister. She was staring intently at something on the horizon.

What do you see?

I think it wasn't water, exactly, Ebba said. Maybe they were showing how the sky and the land touched. She motioned with her right hand. See how the land juts into the blue? Maybe that's what they wanted to show.

What are you doing? Dirk's shadow loomed over them. He bent down and pushed Ebba's arm away from the paper. What is this?

Nothing, Georg lied. You had to lie to Dirk about everything. He was not a person to be trusted with the truth. Even though Georg was the oldest, Dirk was unperturbed by his age, especially once Dirk's height began to chase Georg's.

Don't look like nothing, Dirk countered.

Just a drawing, Dirk, Ebba said. Go away.


This is our drawing.

What's the drawing of?

Nothing, Georg lied again.

What's the drawing of, Ebba?

Dirk knew Ebba was terrified of Hell. He knew she could not lie.

Just some rocks Georg found. We're trying to figure out what they are.

Let me see the whole thing. Maybe I can help.

Dirk knew Ebba had studied the parts of the Bible where it said women had to obey men. Georg had tried to convince Ebba otherwise, but she was convinced by what she read.

Ebba rolled away. Georg stayed where he was. Dirk crouched beside him. Let me see the rest.

The wind will blow it away.

Dirk's hand shot out to grab the drawing. Georg caught Dirk's wrist just as his fingers brushed the pasted pages; he rolled on top of his brother. Ebba! he shouted. Take it! Run!

Georg had his brother pinned with his right hand beneath him. Georg heard his sister gather the drawing and run. She was fast; faster than either of them. He just needed to hold Dirk a little longer—

Georg had no idea where or when his brother had procured a knife. He only saw it a half of a second before Dirk, who was left-handed, sank it into Georg's shoulder. It was a long, rough blade, the hilt covered with twists of leather. It must've been made of fire, for the burn that rammed through Georg's body seemed impossible for a normal blade. Darkness descended after the thrust and twist. He heard Dirk's feet running away. He smelled the scent of small, tender blades of grass that had just begun to surface, mingled with the burned carcasses of the grass' ancestors. He needed to rise. He needed to keep Ebba and the drawing safe. The darkness began to recede, but the pain continued to howl in his shoulder. Georg pulled himself up into a sitting position. The world wobbled before him. He closed his eyes and waited for the world to still itself. When he reopened his eyes, he saw his sister had begun to climb the windmill. She knew Dirk was also afraid of heights. Georg silently cheered his sister on until he saw his brother follow suit, knife in hand. He jumped up, willfully ignoring his shoulder, and began to race towards the windmill, keeping his eyes on his sister. He kept tripping on roots and stones that had decided to rise up against him at this moment. His last fall seemed slower than any of the others. He lay on the ground, still forty feet from the windmill's base. Ebba had mounted the windmill. She unfurled the drawing in the wind, a shield against Dirk, who shouted something that a rush in Georg's ears wouldn't permit him privy to.

Ebba turned away from their brother and faced the sinking mosaic; she leaped into the empty air, the makeshift wings of the drawing flowing before her.

September, 1906

After that first letter, envelope after envelope appeared in the slim rectangle in the door that held Georg prisoner. The envelopes were always sealed. Untouched. They held nothing but small stones as blue as the first one. That was Ebba, Georg thought after the fourth envelope arrived without a note. Once she'd gotten her message through, any additional conversation was unnecessary. He hid the first letter and the following stones in a crevice he'd discovered years before in a corner often in shadow when the guards would raid the cells and remove anything they wanted.

Your poppa destroyed the circle, Momma had whispered to him during a visit to Ulysses' only cell after he'd been arrested for murdering his sister, according to Dirk's recount of events. Georg did not contradict him.

He's destroyed it all. He bought a hammer they use to build railroads with. He's shattered every single stone, spread each one far from the other, she said.

As Georg waited for his prison sentence to end, he pondered Ebba's words: Dear Georg I am not dead The stones will find me I hear voices They speak of houses Love Ebba.

He knew now why he needed to still his body. Obey the guards. Be released early. He needed to return the stones. He needed to rebuild the mosaic and find Ebba.

About the Author

Jessica Penner

Jessica Penner earned a BA from Eastern Mennonite University and an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work appears in Wordgathering, Bellevue Literary Review, Luna Luna, Necessary Fiction, The Fiddleback, Rhubarb, and the anthology Tongue Screws and Testimonies. She was nominated by BLR for a Pushcart Prize. Her first novel, Shaken in the Water (Foxhead Books), was named an Editors’ Choice by the Historical Novel Society. She lives in New York City.