Saturday, October 17, 2015

story Tree of Knowledge in Folklore Magazine

The following story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Folklore Magazine published by the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society.
Tree of Knowledge
By Elma (Martens) Schemenauer
It was a warm afternoon, and Mother was cross with my little brother Wally and me. She was ironing that afternoon. She had made a fire in the kitchen stove to heat the tugboat-shaped irons. She would use one iron till it cooled, set it back on the stove, and pick up another with the clip-on handle.
I guess Wally and I had been naughty, or perhaps simply whiny. Probably contributing to Mother's bad temper were the unwelcome but necessary heat of the stove, the pile of ironing that needed doing, and the wind moaning around our tall farmhouse. Like many houses on the Saskatchewan prairie in the 1940s, it was unsheltered by trees.
"It's not fun here," I said to Wally. "Come on. Let's go for a walk."
My brother's face brightened. He hitched the straps of his overall shorts higher on his shoulders, and we trundled out through the screen door, Mother calling after us, "Don't go past The Tree."
The Tree was a caragana that struggled for survival about a quarter mile west along the road toward Elbow, our nearest village. Wally and I, like six- and four-year-old Vikings, had undertaken many journeys to visit this scraggly landmark.
The Tree fascinated me. It seemed to exist beyond the bounds of time and space, springing alone out of the dry ground, its origin obscure. I half expected to see Adam and Eve in the weedy ditch beside The Tree. Perhaps Adam would throw a stick for a young wolf, which would yelp with glee and snatch the stick in its slobbering jaws.
Wally and I had learned about Adam and Eve from children's stories told in our country Mennonite church. Apparently our first parents had lived in perfect harmony with wild animals in the Garden of Eden before Sin entered the world.
This information was borne out by brightly coloured, flannel-backed pictures on a flannel-board. These pictures showed the happy pair with their arms around wolves, bears, and lions. Adam and Eve's hair was wonderful in the pictures, long and brown and bouncy, conspiring with shrubs to cover the private parts of their naked bodies.
I sometimes wondered if, in the cool of the day, the Lord God Himself walked along the fence near The Tree, just as He had walked in the Garden of Eden long ago.
A more mundane attraction of The Tree was the possibility of making caragana whistles. Our cousin Eldon Janzen had showed Wally and me how to pick a ripe pod off a caragana tree, strip out the seeds, and slit it to make a whistle. Wally and I loved the sounds these whistles made. They were like squeaky wheels turning or demented roosters crowing.
We didn't yet have the trick of making caragana whistles, but we were working on it. When we reached The Tree, we began plucking off pods one after another, blowing till our cheeks hurt, throwing pods away, picking more, blowing till spots floated in front of our eyes. Occasionally a faint squawk rewarded us, but it was nothing compared to what Eldon could produce.
"Let's go and see him," I said to Wally. Eldon's parents had a whole hedge of caraganas on their farm. My brother and I had never visited the Janzens on foot, but I was pretty sure I knew the way. Just pass The Tree and turn at the next road. Then keep going till you see the Janzens' yellow house and red barn.
Wally's cheerful personality had earned him the nickname Sonny. However, uncertainty now clouded his blue eyes.
"Come on." I grabbed his solid little hand. "Let's go."
"We're not 'sposed to." Wally twisted his hand out of mine. At age four he was a head shorter than I but strong. He was an idealistic child, setting a lot of store by keeping the rules.
I was more of a rationalizer. "Mother's mad at us," I reminded him. "She probably won't even care if we go to Eldon's."
"I don't want to go." Wally dug his heels into the earth.
"What a baby!" I exploded. "OK, if you're not coming, I'm leaving you here alone." I gave him a casual wave and strolled past The Tree, half expecting a restraining order from Heaven or at least a roll of thunder.
All I heard was the wind.
"I'm going to tell on you," Wally called.
"I don't care, Baby. Go ahead and tell."
He gazed along the road ahead of us, his lower lip trembling. Then he turned back toward our house.
"Bye, bye," I called. "Have a nice walk. Don't let the coyotes get you."
My brother gave a little whimper. He glanced over his shoulder at me once, twice. Then he hitched his overall straps higher on his shoulders and proceeded past The Tree, picking up his feet and setting them down as if walking a gangplank.
What a sense of adventure I felt as he and I trudged into the unknown. Walking this road alone was far more exciting than travelling by car, as we had often done with our parents.
A crow landed on a nearby fencepost, croaked, and took off again, flapping away in the direction of our house. Wally stopped in his tracks and watched the bird till it disappeared from sight. "I'm not going to Eldon's," he announced. "It's too far."
"No, it's not," I said. "We'll just turn at the next road. Soon we'll see his house."
My reluctant brother accompanied me to the next road. There we turned the corner and passed a slough with ducks swimming on its navy-blue water. We plodded up a rise in the road and down the other side. However, we still didn't see the Janzens' yellow house.    
"Let's go back," Wally said. "It's too far." Though idealistic, he was also practical and may have been a better judge of distance than I.
I laid a big-sisterly hand on his shoulder. "Maybe Eldon's mother will give us cookies. Maybe she'll have puffed wheat cake."
"But I'm afraid," Wally whimpered. He pulled away from me and plopped himself down on the weedy shoulder of the road, choosing a spot well out of the way of any traffic, just as Mother had taught us.
My brother hung his head, clutched his hands around his knees, and began to wail. Tears dribbled down the front of his carefully ironed shirt and overall shorts.
I shuffled my feet, beginning to regret what I had done. I knew deep down that disobeying Mother was wrong, no matter how cross she was. Even worse, I had led my brother to betray his tender conscience.
So should we go back? It was a long way. Maybe we were now closer to Eldon's house than our own.
As I stood wondering what to do, I saw a cloud of dust approaching along the road ahead. Moments later a blue ton truck roared up beside us.
I recognized a man and woman from church. They may have been Pete and Anne Dahl or some others of the Dahl family.
The woman leaned out the window. "What are you children doing so far from home?" she shouted over the rumble of the engine.
I said nothing, feeling guilty. Wally scrambled to his feet, wiping his eyes on his shirtsleeve.
"We're looking for our bull," the man hollered. "He broke out of the pasture."
The woman opened the door. "Get in. We'll take you home. You shouldn't be walking on the road with a bull loose."
On our way home, we passed The Tree. Nobody else seemed to pay any attention to it. But the sight made me sad. I craned my neck to stare at it, watching till it disappeared in a haze of dust.
Years later this incident and others from my prairie childhood inspired my 1940s-era novel Consider the Sunflowers. The novel is set in a fictional community like the one where I spent my early years. Published by Borealis Press, it's a story of family, Mennonites, faith, betrayal, and ultimately hope.
Consider the Sunflowers is loosely, very loosely, based on my own family. It’s available from Chapters Indigo or the publisher, Borealis Press . Or ask for it in a bookstore or library. More information can be found at .

Elma Schemenauer CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS: 1940s-era novel about love, Mennonites, faith, & family. Set in Vancouver & rural Saskatchewan. Order from Chapters online or Borealis Press  . More info at  .

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