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Cotton and Strawberries

By M.R. Lehman Wiens

The world is color, but we exist in black and white. Black wool on white wool, even in the summer heat. Papa’s beard is black streaked with hints of white, a gray hair for each year of one of his children’s lives. He laughs when he says it, each hair a treasured prize.

Mama’s bonnet is white on her brown hair, and she tells me that the world is watching. The colorful world is watching, and we must be separate. No dancing, no cars, no TV. Our buggies, our horses, the lanterns that fill our house with light, let the world know we are different. The Bishop’s rules come down in rigid black and white, and they are everything.

But the boy. The boy calls to me from the back pasture, climbing over fences from his home on the other side of the hill. He talks to me, laughs with me, and tells me of things that I do not dare to believe. He says that he has been in the air, has flown like a bird above the fields and the forests of Ohio, across the oceans to worlds beyond my imagining. It is July, and I pull off my bonnet to fill it with the last strawberries from the patch behind our house. Grinning, lips already stained with juice, we sneak off into the cornfield. I walk carefully, leaving stalks unbent, leaves unbroken. He has no such compunctions.

It is a bumper crop, the corn stretching high above us, even so early in the season. Lying there, he tells me about the places his parents took him to, about France, and Spain, and Milwaukee, and Cleveland. I know Cleveland is just an hour by car, but in a buggy? A day. Two days, even. Another world.

We lie there most of the afternoon, stretched out side by side on our own furrow between the corn, the bonnet full of berries lying in between us. Our mouths and fingers stain with juice and sweetness and summer, and for the first time in my life, I consider that boys may have their merits. His fingers leave light red trails on my wrists and palms.

That is where Papa finds us, following the trail of broken corn stalks and discarded strawberry stems. That is where the dream ends, where Papa pulls that poor English boy to his feet in a stream of Low German cursing, sends him hurtling down the corn rows with a few swift kicks. He pulls me back to the house, already pulling off his belt.

That night, I lay on the straw mattress I share with my older sisters, careful not to roll onto my still-smarting bottom. In the morning, I look at my bonnet, sitting on top of my dress on a chair next to the bed. It is no longer white; little red spots dot it, breaking the pure blank slate. Little dots of color, seeping through.


M.R. Lehman Wiens is a writer and stay-at-home dad living in Kansas. His work has previously appeared in The First Line Literary Journal and Anabaptist World.


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