Monday, February 23, 2015

Consider the Sunflowers chapter 1

Here's the snowy first chapter of my 1940s-era Mennonite novel Consider the Sunflowers.

Copyright © Elma Schemenauer & Borealis Press 2014

Municipality of Coyote, Saskatchewan, March 1940

Tina felt like liverwurst in a sandwich, trapped in the stalled truck between her dad and the man he wanted her to marry. Rich, boring Roland Fast.

From the looks of things, she might not survive to marry anyone. Freezing to death seemed more likely. All she saw through the windshield was blowing snow. Occasionally she glimpsed the fence beside the ditch they were stuck in. Beyond the fence, only a wilderness of white glittering in the afternoon light: no Saskatchewan prairie, no horizon, not even a telephone pole.

She stamped her boots, trying to warm her icy feet. She should never have agreed to come along and sketch Roland's horses. She liked horses but getting stranded in a blizzard wasn't supposed to be part of the deal.

To be fair, she couldn't blame Roland and her dad. They weren't expecting this storm. It had howled in from the northeast with hardly a whimper of warning.

Her nostrils tingled with cold and the green-banana stench of Roland's hair oil. She pulled the collar of her jacket higher, nudging him with her elbow. "How about trying the ignition again?" If they got the truck going, they'd at least have some heat.

Roland slumped over the steering wheel, his apple-cheeked profile making him look younger than his twenty-eight years. "It's no use. This stupid truck isn't going to start."

"Don't blame the truck, Roland," Tina's dad said. "There's probably snow in the engine."

Roland's sigh puffed out white in the frigid air.

Tina almost felt sorry for him. According to Roland, his 1940 Ford was the most modern half-ton on the road. No other new model had such a powerful engine. But all that horsepower under the hood was useless without a spark to get it going.

Something like her and Roland. There wasn't any spark between them.

Her dad shifted on the seat, jostling her onto Roland's wide shoulder.

She edged away. "Could we brush the snow out of the engine?" she asked, sounding more hopeful than she felt.

Roland gave her a bleak smile, his face too close to hers. "I doubt it in these conditions."

"OK, I just thought I'd ask." She didn't know how Roland felt about her. He was awkward with women, but she sometimes caught him watching her with a certain softness in his eyes.

Whether he was interested or not, she should quit letting her parents throw them together every time she came home from Vancouver. She should simply tell her folks, "Look, I don't want you interfering in my life. I'm a grown woman; I've got a job in the city. Anyway I'm in love with someone else."

She shuddered to think of the avalanche of questions her parents would ask. She wasn't ready to answer them, not yet.

The wind whooped around the truck, rattling the windows.

Roland reached behind the seat, grabbed his hat, and plunked it over his blond curls. "I think we should walk to Frank's house. It's the closest."

Tina's heart jumped at the mention of the man she loved, but she kept her expression blank. She didn't want her dad or Roland guessing how she felt about Frank. They'd be shocked. Her dad would scold and rage. He wanted her to marry a church-going Mennonite, preferably the owner of this impotent truck.

She jerked her chin toward the bottle of pills in Roland's pocket. "What about your mare? I thought she needed that medicine."

"We'll get it to her as soon as we can, but we'll want someplace to get warm along the way." His voice reminded her of a radio announcer booming out news of Hitler's war.

Her dad rummaged under the seat, crowding her against Roland.

She moved away.

Her dad sat up, his head bobbing. "Roland, do you have any blankets? I think we should stay here till the storm lets up. It's too dangerous to walk in weather like this."

Roland shot him a narrow-eyed look. "Obrom, we've got no heat in here. We could freeze to death, even with blankets. This storm could last for days."

"We could freeze outside, too." Tina's dad pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and gave his nose a honk. "The snow's blowing too thick. We might get lost and wander around like drunkards."

"Not if we follow the pasture fence," Roland said. "It'll lead us right to Frank's." He raised his eyebrows at Tina. "What do you think?"

She peered out into the arctic blankness. If they stayed here, they'd probably freeze unless someone came along and helped them—not likely. If they braved the blizzard, they'd either reach shelter or die trying. "We can't be far from Frank's," she said. She remembered passing his neighbour's granaries before the storm hit.

"It's about a quarter-mile," Roland said.

Tina sucked in a chilly breath. "We can make it." It was better to face danger head-on than wait around to see what would happen, wasn't it? She reached into her pocket for her fuzzy woolen cap and tugged it down over her ears.

Her dad's brow puckered like it did when he was deep in thought. With all her heart Tina hoped she and Roland were making the right decision.

Her father sighed, then glanced from her to Roland like they were a couple. "I guess you young people are right." He put on his cap and lowered the earflaps. Tina helped him tie his scarf over his nose and mouth. Then he opened the passenger door and she plunged out after him.

The wind hit her hard, whistling through her cap and making her ears smart. She pulled her scarf from under her jacket. Fighting the wind, she tied it over her cap.

Her dad motioned for her to follow Roland, who was ploughing through the ditch toward the fence. She struggled along in his footsteps with her father close behind. Snow spilled into her boots, shocking her with coldness.

The drifts were shallower on the pasture side of the ditch. Strands of barbed-wire appeared and disappeared between blasts of snow. God willing, that elusive fence would lead the three of them to her boyfriend's house. Tina dared to smile. The good Lord must have a sense of humor.

"We'll walk in the pasture, away from the ditch," Roland bellowed above the yowling wind. He set one boot on the lower wire of the fence, held it down, and lifted the upper one, creating a gap for Tina to climb through. She scrambled between the wires, careful not to catch her jacket on the barbs, then stepped aside as her dad and Roland ducked through.

"Come on," Roland called, heading along the fence. "Single file. Stay together."

Tina followed, admiring Roland's boldness in spite of herself. She knew why her parents wanted her to marry him. He was strong, worked hard, and came from a family who had owned an estate in the old country. Roland's ancestors had the same Dutch-German-Mennonite background as hers. According to her folks, that shared heritage would make a solid foundation for marriage and children.

But Roland was as boring as turnips compared with Frank. Her Frank was hot peppers, red cabbage, and wild mushrooms. He was adventure, music, and laughter. Some people said he didn't have the gumption to buckle down to farming, but they didn't know him like Tina did. He just needed a good woman to settle him down.

Her hands ached with cold, even in the coyote-skin mittens Frank had given her. She clenched and unclenched her fists, trying to get her circulation going, then peered over her shoulder to see how her dad was doing. His tall figure loomed through a whirling smoke of snow. The scarf over his nose and mouth was white with frost from his breath clouding into the air. She motioned for him to shift the icy patch away from his face and turned to follow Roland again.

She didn't see him. Where was Roland? She took a few steps forward, feeling like a ship without a rudder, and almost bumped into a lumpy snow-covered mound. It seemed big, wider than an outhouse though not as high.

"Tina!" Roland's shout came from ahead and to her right. "This way."

A bolt of relief shot through her as she spied Roland chugging along beyond the obstacle. She checked to make sure her father was still behind her, then followed Roland, grateful for the partial shelter offered by the mound of whatever it was.

A rock pile. Of course. Frank's father had picked tons of rocks off his land when he farmed here. This must be one of the places where he'd chosen to dump them. She fought the wind to the far side of the rocks. Once she was clear of them, she caught sight of the fence again and turned to wave to her dad.

He wasn't there.

Tina's heart fluttered like a bird caught in a fox's jaws. She drew a breath to call to Roland, then saw something long and dark slumped beside the rocks. "Roland," she shrieked, "Something's wrong with Dad." She stumbled toward her father, fell, picked herself up, and hurtled forward.

Elma Schemenauer CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS: 1940s-era novel about love, Mennonites, faith, & betrayal.  Info at   Order from Chapters online or Borealis Press

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