Read Down from the Mountain Online

Authors: Elizabeth Fixmer

Down from the Mountain

Down From the Mountain
Elizabeth Fixmer

Albert Whitman & Company
Chicago, Illinois

For my father, Robert Kenneth Fixmer,

who had a deep faith, a great mind, and with whom I enjoyed wonderful philosophical discussions over the years.

He would have had a lot to say about Righteous Path.

I miss him every day.

October

One

My hands automatically form fists so no one will see my trembling fingers as I walk to the front of our little chapel. I try not to stare at the discipline paddle that hangs on the wall near the bare table we use as an altar. Fourteen swats if I mess up the Bible passage. One swat for every year of age.

I try to avoid looking at the pulpit because I know Reverend Ezekiel is standing behind the podium watching me. I don’t want to see his stern face and his dark, piercing eyes because they make me cringe.

Oh Lord, please help me recite my verse perfectly for Ezekiel. Thou art my shepherd; I shall not want. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
I know that the prayer refers to God’s rod and God’s staff, but sometimes I think that Ezekiel
is
God. Especially since God talks to Ezekiel and has given him the job of shepherding us to keep us pure. He commands us to follow God’s will and doles out rewards and punishments to keep us on the righteous path.

I slide into the first pew next to Jacob and Annie, who sit in front to support me. Jacob, right in front, just for me. He usually sneaks into the pew farthest back and keeps his head down to avoid being noticed, but not today. He flashes me a rare smile, letting the empty space show where his two front teeth used to be before the fight. And he quickly gives my hand a little squeeze. I control the tears that want to flow.

“You memorize real good,” Jacob reminded me when we were doing chores earlier. “You’re good at all that school stuff.”

Annie’s smile is nervous. She blew her verse the last time and got paddled.

Behind us is whisper, chatter, whisper. The mothers are probably talking about the rumor that Ezekiel plans to make a special announcement tonight. I heard Mother Cecelia say that someone might be with child. That would be great news! God promised Ezekiel a son years ago. But, though a few of the mothers have become pregnant, they always lose the baby in the first trimester. It’s because we haven’t been worthy. We haven’t prayed enough, repented enough, made enough sacrifices. But now we might have another chance. I hope it’s Rachel because she wants a baby so badly.

Ezekiel thumps his fist on the podium and the chapel is immediately silent. He begins the evening prayer. I’m tempted to turn my head and look for Mother Martha. Her face would light up and she’d nod her reassurance. But I don’t dare. She’s my birth mother, and we’ve been in trouble so many times for having a “special relationship.” You’d think that after ten years in Righteous Path, Mother and I would have accepted the rule. It’s hard because she
is
special to me. My rock. But I have to remember that
all
the women are my mothers.

“Eva, it’s time,” Ezekiel says.

I walk the few steps to the podium, grateful that my knees don’t buckle. The only sound I hear is my own ragged breathing—until I accidentally step on the one squeaky floorboard I thought had been fixed. The squeak just showed up last week. Ezekiel was furious because everything in God’s house has to be perfect to honor God.

We built this chapel with our own hands three years ago when we first moved here, using the pine trees from the compound. The chapel is small and modest, but we poured our hearts into building it. It’s built in the shape of a triangle—one wall each for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

We built it even before we bought trailers to sleep in or a kitchen or a proper dining room. God must always come first.

Thankfully, Ezekiel doesn’t respond to the squeak. He still stands at the podium, so close that I can still smell the sulfur from the wooden matches he always chews. His eyes are knives cutting into me. I stand taller to fight my fear.

“I hope you’re ready, Eva,” Ezekiel says.

I pull up confidence from some hidden place inside. “Yes, Reverend Ezekiel, I am.”

I look out at the people. Seventeen pairs of eyes look back at me. I clear my throat and begin.

“Saint … Saint Matthew, Chapter 13:3-9.” The words are coming back to me, but my throat is so dry it hurts to swallow.

“‘And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, ‘Behold, a sower went forth to sow; and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside, and the fowls came and devoured them up. Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth.’”

For some reason I can’t remember the next part and just stand there frozen. I wipe sweat off my forehead. I look for Mother’s face. When I catch her eye, she changes her expression from concerned to confident and sends me one of her sunshine smiles. As if by magic, the words come back to me. “‘And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up and choked them. But others fell into good ground and brought forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.’”

My breath is easy now, and when Reverend Ezekiel walks up to me, all smiles, relief floods my body.

“Very good, Eva. Now can you tell us what the parable means?” he asks.

This is the easy part. I know what the parable means because Reverend Ezekiel has told us before. “The seed is really the word of God, and people are the soil. Everywhere outside of Righteous Path, God’s word falls in stony places or on soil that isn’t deep enough because heathens don’t have ears to hear. But Reverend Ezekiel has ears to hear and so we are growing in good soil.”

“That’s right! Exactly right.” He walks over and lifts my chin so that we are looking eye to eye. “We are blessed to be chosen, Eva, to be the soil where the truth of God grows the strongest.”

I can feel the smiles of the whole congregation. It’s like a warm embrace on my insides, like hot chocolate on a cold day. I’m relieved to be done with my verse, but also grateful that I’m here at Righteous Path, where I have salvation. Ezekiel says that God is choosing only 444 people to survive Armageddon and live in the Kingdom of Heaven when we die. For some reason, I am one of them. It makes me glow inside when I think of it.

Ezekiel motions me to take my seat with a respectful nod instead of the flip of the wrist he uses when he wants one of us to disappear from his sight. I’m all lit up inside but I keep my smile dim so no one can say I have too much pride. I sneak a peek at Mother Martha. Her eyes sparkle and her cheeks glow, and that makes me especially happy. For weeks now she’s been looking puny.

When Ezekiel starts his sermon, I pray that it’s a short one. Now that I’m done with the recitation I’m suddenly exhausted. He’s in a great mood tonight, not angry or warning, which might mean that we’ll get a shorter sermon. Sometimes they go till midnight though, and that’s tough. Especially if you have to go to the bathroom and don’t dare leave.

Tonight he flits around the stage, on fire with God’s word. Finally he stops talking. He looks at something in the back corner. “Mother Martha, please stand.”

We all look to where she’s pulling herself up from the pew.

“It’s time to share the news God has blessed us with,” he says.

All eyes are on Mother Martha, searching her face, eagerly awaiting the news. I notice Mother Rachel who sits next to her. Her eyes get big and she bites her bottom lip. She’s nodding slightly as if she’s just figured out the mystery. The color has once again drained from Mother Martha’s face, and though she smiles, she looks sick like before.

“The Lord is fulfilling his promise to us. Is he not, Mother Martha?” Ezekiel says.

Mother Martha nods and smiles, but the sunshine is gone from her eyes.

Reverend Ezekiel seems unaware of this. He continues. “She carries my seed in her womb. She will bear a child in spring.”

I can’t believe what I’ve just heard. Electricity shoots through me as if I touched the fence that protects the compound from outsiders.

Mother Martha can’t have more children. She almost died when she had me, and the doctor told her she could never have another. That’s why she and Dad called me their miracle child. No one understands this. Everyone is clapping and making joyful sounds. But as the group moves toward Mother Martha to hug and congratulate her, Reverend Ezekiel holds out his hand to silence us.

“There will be time for congratulations later. But now let us give thanks to God through prayer.” Everyone stops wherever they’re standing, and we all bow heads. “Let us give Him our praise. Lord, we pray that you bless Mother Martha and the child she carries within her womb. Please do not punish us or test us by having her lose the baby.” A noisy sob escapes Rachel’s lips. “I vow that we will pray more, fast more, and keep our hearts pure during this pregnancy.”

He begins the end prayer. “We trust in you, oh God, and give You praise,” he says. He holds out an open hand signaling for us to repeat his words.

“We trust in You, oh God, and give you praise,” we repeat.

All my excitement drains out of me. I can’t focus on prayers when my brain is full of questions and concerns. Maybe God is giving us a miracle and everything will be okay. But what if Mother dies having this baby? I couldn’t bear it. If the baby lives, will I still be important to Mother? Will she continue to find special time for me, or will I shrink into the background?

It’s wrong to want her to be special just because she gave birth to me. I know this. I ask God to take away these selfish feelings, but they keep coming. I even feel jealous of the attention Ezekiel will give Mother and the new baby. He’ll love the baby more than us other kids because it’s his only real child. Mother will love the baby more because he’ll make Ezekiel happy. The baby might even be holy like Ezekiel.

“You, Lord, are our salvation,” Reverend Ezekiel says.

No, no, no. Stop this!
I silently command myself.

But I had Mother Martha first, for four whole years before we joined Righteous Path. And we look just alike. Even the heathens think that. Once when we still lived in Arizona and kids were allowed to go into town with the mothers for marketing, one of the clerks looked surprised when I referred to Mother Miriam as Mother. She looked at me and Mother Martha and said, “Oh, I thought
that
was your mother. You look so much alike with your wavy auburn hair and blue eyes. You even have the same smile.”

“We will follow you every day of our lives, in all that we say and do. Amen,” Ezekiel says.

I long for a private talk with Mother Martha right now.

I am selfish, selfish, selfish.
Dear God, help me to stop being so selfish
.

Mother Esther announces the ending song choice, “Nearer My God to Thee,” and uses her pitch pipe to get us on the right note. Usually singing’s my favorite part of Evening Service, but my voice is small tonight. As soon as it’s over, I make my way to Mother Martha to take my turn giving her a congratulatory hug. When she catches my eye, I try to look happy.

As I walk home, a cold wind suddenly whips up dirt and flings it in my face. Dirt hits my eyes and gets into my mouth. Some even settles in my hair. I hold my sweater out as a shield, rub my eyes, and spit several times. I sure hope this isn’t a sign that we’re headed for a rough winter.

Two

Annie hugs and hugs me when we get back to our room. She’s so happy for me that I remembered my passage. And she’s thrilled, like everyone else, about the baby news. She didn’t see what I saw on Mother Martha’s face. Maybe no one except me saw it.

That’s just the way it’s always been between Mother and me. We seem to see things in each other before others see them. But somehow I missed the pregnancy. Maybe because she’s been sort of hiding out lately.

When I wake up to go to the bathroom sometime late in the night, I can’t get back to sleep. I keep seeing Mother’s face and try to imagine what she’s thinking. Is she scared that God will let her die in childbirth? Is she afraid there won’t be enough food for us all like last winter?

Last winter was the first time Righteous Path was really and truly out of money. Before that, our money came from members. Like everyone else, Mother turned everything over to Ezekiel when she was chosen to be a member, though I was too young to understand. Soon after we’d moved into the Arizona compound, I remember begging Mother to take me home.

She held my face in her hands and shook her head. “Honey, this is our home. Our forever home. God needed us to sell our Chicago home so we could help Ezekiel collect souls. Saving souls is more important than having a nice house, don’t you think?”

By then I knew the term
collecting souls
. It was what Ezekiel did when he went into town. He would preach and help people let go of their worldly possessions. We were always told that he needed to collect 444 souls, the number God promised to save before the end days. But he hasn’t been fishing for quite some time. I think he only went once in the three years we’ve been in Colorado. That was shortly after our move here. He was gone for three months, and when he returned, he brought us Rachel but wouldn’t tell us what happened that kept him away so long. Whatever happened changed him. He seemed angry and skittish about anyone leaving the compound.

For the last two summers, many of us have worked as laborers for the ranch west of ours. It’s owned by a Greek family and they mostly do lambing. We tended the lambs, picked vegetables, removed stones from the field, and harvested hay. We each got paid two dollars an hour. The money went straight to Ezekiel, of course, and didn’t last through winter.

Dawn is here, and I watch Annie sleep. A couple of times she stirs. I long to wake her up, to talk to her about this, but it’s too dangerous. Annie seems to get asthma attacks whenever she’s worried or anxious, and lately they’ve been getting so bad that I find myself being really careful with what I say to her. I don’t dare talk to anyone else because if they thought Mother was anything but happy about the baby, or that I was having doubts, they’d report us at a Community Concerns Meeting and we’d be punished for not accepting God’s will.

From the edge of my bed, I enjoy the dancing aspen leaves that have scattered over the common area and as far as I can see down our driveway. The trees have been bare for weeks, of course, but thanks to a mild fall so far, they continue to blanket the compound. A strong breeze gives them new life. If I watch just a little longer, I’ll get to see them shimmer all golden and beautiful in the early morning sunlight.

Brother Paul’s grandparents planted the aspens fifty years ago. Otherwise we’d be looking at nothing but pine trees, pine trees, and more pine trees. They’re so thick that they hide us from the outside world, so thick you could actually get lost among them between here and the highway.

The door to the old house opens and I see Brother Paul hurry toward the barn to do the milking. That means it must be almost six a.m. He must be real quiet when he dresses in the morning because my friend, Jacob, his roommate, has trouble getting up for a seven a.m. breakfast.

Jacob and Paul are the only ones of our group to live in an actual house. It’s small and kind of dilapidated, especially the outside where the white paint has worn away and the wood is practically bare. The rest of us live in trailers—three for the women and children and a fancy one for Ezekiel.

I scan the trailers that surround our common area, looking for signs of life. Nothing, not even in the trailer Mother Martha shares with Mothers Cecelia, Rebecca, Helen, and MaryAnne. I wonder how Mother Martha slept last night and whether or not she’s awake yet. If only I could walk over there right now and check on her. But that’s not allowed, of course.

There’s no stirring in the trailer on the other side of Ezekiel’s house either. That’s where Mother Alice, Mother Miriam, Mother Esther, and Mother Rachel live. Mother Rose is the dorm mother in the kids’ trailer where the twins, David and Daniel, live and, of course, Annie and me as well.

Ezekiel’s is the biggest one—a double wide—even though he’s the only one who officially lives in it. Each night he chooses a woman to bed with him since they are all his wives. I don’t know how he decides who and how often, but I do know that his decisions cause tension and pain among the women. It’s not like the subject is ever discussed, but I’ve heard Mother Rebecca slam her trailer door, and somebody—I think Mother Helen—sobbed in her trailer once when Rachel was chosen for the fourth night in a row. You can also tell by facial expressions and moods. Several mothers have had to confess the sin of jealousy at Community Concerns.

A shadowy movement and then another from Ezekiel’s trailer make it clear that he and whichever wife is staying with him are up. It’s probably Rachel. She’s been his favorite for some time.

It’s getting much lighter out. The sky is several shades of gray and pink. The breeze turns into a sudden wind that blows the aspen leaves out into the fields, destroying the colorful blanket they had formed in the common area and driveway.

I hurry to get dressed. I figure that if I get to the dining room early, I’ll have a chance to talk to Mother Martha. She’s on kitchen duty this week, and it may be the perfect time to squeeze in a word with her before everyone else arrives.

Brother Paul rings the wake-up bell just as I lean over Annie to get her up. I’m dressed but I need her to button the back of my blouse. She sits up but takes her time with each button. Patience, I need to be patient. I wave good-bye to Annie, who’s stretching awake in bed, and run through the common area to the old house where the kitchen and dining room take up most of the first floor.

The dining room is empty except for Mother MaryAnne, who is placing a water pitcher on each table. We exchange “good mornings,” and I peek inside the kitchen. Mother Alice is the only other person working. When she sees me, she looks relieved.

“Oh, Eva, I’m glad you’re here early. Mother MaryAnne and I could sure use your help.”

I grab an apron from a hook on the wall and accept the spoon she hands me. She motions to a pot of oatmeal on the stove, and I take over the stirring while she begins to slice bread.

“Anything wrong?” I ask, not wanting to mention Mother Martha’s name.

“Mother Martha is sick this morning,” MaryAnne says.

I stop stirring the kettle. “Too sick to help?” Mother always works no matter what. Everybody always works. It’s the Righteous Path way.

“It’s nothing to worry about, dear,” Mother Maryanne says. “Women get morning sickness during pregnancy all the time.” She points the bread knife at the stove. “You can turn off the heat now.”

People are already bowing their heads for Morning Prayer when Jacob races in and plops down across from me. Annie and I exchange looks. Brother Paul shakes his head as if to say “typical.” Which it is. Jacob is always late. But he usually manages to avoid punishment by pulling stuff off at the last minute. Ten seconds later, and he wouldn’t be allowed to eat. Before the end of the prayer, I raise my eyes to see his scraggly blond hair. He must feel my gaze because he gives me a mischievous look.

At breakfast, the women are all talking about last night’s news.

“I hope it’s a boy, for Reverend Ezekiel’s sake,” Mother Rose says.

“I hope it’s a boy for the child’s sake,” Mother Cecelia adds.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the baby could be a girl. Of course it will be a boy. God promised Ezekiel a son.

“And to think she conceived when she’s over forty,” Mother Rachel says. The slight edge in her voice draws everyone’s attention. She blushes and quickly adds, “Praise God that she can still have a baby!”

It was only a year ago when Rachel lost the baby girl in her third month of pregnancy. She took it hard, harder even than Reverend Ezekiel. He thought that God was punishing us for some transgression. He stayed in his trailer for days, and we had to fast for weeks.

“Please pass the bread,” I say to break the sad silence. Mother Helen reaches for the basket. She lifts the cloth and shakes her head. “Last piece,” she says and passes it to me. “Would anyone like to share this with me?” I ask to be polite. A chorus of voices responds:

“No, you eat it.”

“No thanks.”

“I’ve had plenty.”

“Plenty” is a good word. It’s a word that sits comfortably in my stomach and takes away my anxiety over not enough. Our new relationship with the flea market may make “plenty” a more common word.

“Are you going to sell jewelry at the flea market tomorrow?” I ask Rachel.

She sighs. “Yes, if we have enough stuff made to sell. But with Mother Martha sick, we haven’t made nearly enough necklaces and earrings. Plus I need more stock. We might have to skip this week—maybe go to the bead store instead.”

We’ve only been making and selling jewelry for the last two months, but it’s definitely helped bring in money. Rachel came up with the idea after she and Mother Rose went into town to get groceries and saw that Boulder had a flea market. We cannot defile ourselves by wearing jewelry, but Ezekiel said that it was okay to make and sell the stuff for outsiders since they were already lost to God. God wants us, his chosen people, to have enough money.

“It’s too bad you don’t have more time for making jewelry, Eva. You’re good at it.”

The compliment warms my insides and I smile. I love making jewelry. I especially love working with all the different colors, shapes, and sizes, and getting to create stuff. I secretly wish I could wear earrings and bracelets and necklaces. It’s shameful to feel that way, but I do so like pretty things.

When I see Mother Rebecca standing to begin morning announcements, I hurry to finish my oatmeal.

Lord, I need a chance to talk to Mother Martha. If it be your will, let her be well enough for chores and please let me work with her this week.

But it must not be God’s will because when Rebecca reads off the chore list, we’re nowhere near each other. Martha is assigned to the sewing room, and I have animal care and garden cleanup along with Jacob and Annie, as usual.

In the barn, Jacob calls dibs on feeding the cows.

“Fine,” Annie says, “but Eva and I get to take care of the horses.”

“Yeah, and don’t think you’re going to get out of shoveling manure or helping to collect eggs,” I add.

Annie and I don’t wait for a response. We head for the hayloft and throw several bales down the chute. It takes both of us to carry one bale to the horses. Annie, just ten, is so much smaller than me that the bale goes up to her chin when I carry it above my waist. I hear a sudden sneeze and she drops her side of the bale, making me drop the other. I laugh as another sneeze seizes her whole little frame.

“Sorry,” I say. “I meant to hold it lower.”

“Sure you did.” She frowns, but I know she’s not really mad. As long as Annie’s outside with the animals, she’s always happy and usually dirty.

I pick a piece of straw out of her braid and lift my side of the bale, this time holding it low. She smiles and we resume walking.

“Is something wrong today?” Annie asks. “You seem about a million miles away.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“I bet it’s about the baby.”

I drop the bale into Aspen’s stall. He immediately starts eating. Berthoud neighs in the next stall.

“We’ll get yours next, boy,” I assure him.

“You can share anything with me,” Annie says.

“I’m worried about Mother Martha,” I say, sighing. “She may not be able to carry another child.”

Annie looks puzzled. “Why would you worry about that? It’s all up to God. If she’s supposed to be okay carrying the baby, she will be. If God wants her home in heaven, she’ll return to heaven.”

“Right,” I say. Because she
is
right. If I had the appropriate distance from Mother, it would be easier, but I don’t. I love her so much. I think about her all the time.

It’s midafternoon before we finish garden cleanup and head to the classroom. Jacob is in a great mood.

“We won’t have to do much schoolwork today,” he says.

I don’t respond, so he starts in with his typical teasing.

“Don’t cry, Eva. You’ll still get some learnin’ in.”

“You’re just jealous because I’m better at math than you are,” I say.

“I’d say you’re crazy when it comes to math. Who does all the problems in a whole textbook when they don’t have to?”

I laugh. “Me, that’s who. It was fun.”

“Book learning doesn’t matter to salvation,” Jacob reminds me. “Look at Ezekiel. He only went to school through the ninth grade, and God chose him to lead us.”

“I know, but it’s fun to learn new things.”

Jacob shakes his head. “For
you
.” He kicks a pebble into a pile of leaves. “What was that book you cried over so hard when Ezekiel burned it?”

I feel my body stiffen. Jacob can’t know how painful that memory is for me. I say nothing.

“It was
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
,” Annie says.

“By C. S. Lewis,” I add. “Mother Grace only had that one, but she said there were six books about Narnia altogether.”

“I have to admit,” Jacob says, “I sure liked that teacher.”

My mind flashes back to the months when Mother Grace was our teacher, right before the Big Test. She brought books with her—even novels—when she joined Righteous Path. I read every single one of them. But we only had her for three months before Ezekiel decided to get rid of any heathen lies we were being taught. Now the only books we have besides the Bible are textbooks. And they have a lot of things blacked out or ripped out so we only learn God’s truth.

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