Excerpt from Shaken in the Water, a novel


Agnes’ daughter, Huldah, was in Elder Fast’s east pasture when she saw a funnel cloud touch the earth and charge toward her on an otherwise clear day in January. The moment her feet left the ground, she felt the wind press a finger to her throat and curl itself around her, growing tighter as she rose higher, until she felt the throb of her heart on the outside of her body. Her last memory was the sky through the top of the finger. Its peaceful blue shocked her, as if nothing in the world was wrong.

Elder Fast’s son found Huldah lying in a shallow gulch near his father’s farm. Though her body was unbroken and unbruised, he turned his tiny face from what he saw, for every bit of clothing was gone and her hair fell in swirls around her naked body.

Huldah woke when she heard his feet brushing through the grass towards home; she felt the air wander over her thighs, stomach, breasts, throat and forehead with softened hands. But it was her hair that fascinated her. For the first time in seven years her hair lay open to the sun. When she’d joined the church it was banished from sight, rolled and pinned beneath the gauzy-white prison that held her purity with God.

The winds had brushed her hair clean. She decided she would never wear her head covering again, but let her hair hang free.

She knew the wind was from God; it had told her it wasn’t a sin to swing her brown-red mane as she sang on the women’s side the following Sunday.

There were angry mutterings throughout the service. Most Mennonites in the area had given up head coverings and plain dress a few years before, but Gnadenfeld Kirche would not be moved. There was talk of Meidung, though no one had been shunned since the village had left their Milk River on the Steppes of the Ukraine.

Agnes and Peter begged the elders to let their daughter’s actions be ignored. She is fe’rekjt, they said. Crazy!You know she has spells. Every spell makes her a little crazier!

The next Sunday Elder Fast pleaded with Huldah to obey the community’s demands.

Do you not understand this covering represents our separation from the world? he asked. That if we give this up we are one step closer to becoming like the Englische? We would no longer be Mennonite.

We have already become Englische, she said. We drive cars. We use harvesters and tractors.

The elders decided such things are not materialistic; they are needed, he argued. Horses are more expensive to maintain than vehicles. We share these new things among each other. The Englische way is selfish and worldly. They tout their cars freely. Enjoy standing out.

I understand. I’m not asking the Grossmuttern to bare their heads. Just me.

Elder Fast opened his Bible and swallowed several times before reading the words Huldah had memorized when she joined Gnadenfeld Kirche seven years before: So jemand zu euch kommt und bringt diese Lehre nicht, den nehmet nicht ins Haus und grüßet ihn auch nicht. Denn wer ihn grüßt, der macht sich teilhaftig seiner bösen Werke—If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.

Huldah only understood what she had chosen at breakfast on the morning following the pronouncement. She stopped short before her place at the table, now occupied by Gretta. Gretta’s neck grew scarlet as Huldah paused behind her.

Was machst du?

She looked at Momma. Her mother’s eyes remained on the floor, her mouth in a rigid line. Poppa’s were to the ceiling.

Was machst du?

She had never seen anyone shunned before. She had thought her family was exempt from the Elder’s command. Huldah saw the little table at the end of the long one. Set were a plate, utensils and glass; the milk poured, the eggs and toast arranged on the yellow plate she had loved as a child. A brown dishtowel served as a crooked table cloth. It was only an inch away from the family table, but as Huldah stepped towards it she felt she was crossing a field newly shorn, her bare feet cut by the stubble, miles from comfort.

Poppa began to pray. The family linked hands. Out of habit, Huldah reached out, only to see the circle close.

Christe, du Lamm Gottes—

Was machst du?

Poppa’s head remained bowed. Momma’s eyes were fixed on someone other than her daughter, the tendons in her neck standing out. The little ones hands struggled out of the older ones’ grasp, breathing into their fingers.

—der du tragst die Sund der Welt, erbarm dich unser—

Why are you doing this? She spoke in careful English. Why do you listen to the elders—do what they say to do about your own daughter. I am still your Dochta.

Raus! Poppa’s head rose and his eyes locked with hers. Raus! Leave this house; take your dirty Englische words with you! You are dead to us!

That evening she carried her things to a tiny house behind a trellis that would be covered in morning glories in the summer; Poppa had built this for his parents before she was born. She still ate her meals with the family, but always an inch away from their circle.

The Voice came as Huldah was leading the cows past the burned-out barn that had once belonged to her Grandpoppa Funk. An acid of fear on her tongue came first, followed by a foul smell that penetrated her nostrils, then the rain in her mind that came softly at first, crawling on each blade of grass with lightened feet before it became prickling hail, studding the dirty snow before her eyes. She lifted her face to the sky and saw a wall cloud tower over the earth, as if it were a humid afternoon in August.

The wall cloud crowded close, its insides swirling a single finger that pulsed within, ready to burst upon the earth.

Aufpausse, said the Voice. Wait.

She opened her eyes to see the barrel of a gun pointed at her head.

Aufpausse, the Voice growled, her breath hot on her face. Wait.

For what?

They need you. Just wait.

Then she heard a sound echo against her ears: the roar of a tiger.

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.