Men wear hats outside. Black for the winter, brown for the summer. Hat brims are three inches wide. Once a man marries, he grows a beard but shaves his upper lip. Unmarried boys must be clean-shaven. When a man’s wife dies, he will not remarry, no matter how lonely. This is God’s Will.
Every morning, when the sun still rose, Jakob and I woke early, before the harsh blues of the day began to spread across our sprawling pastures, ours after the passing of Mother and Father and Elsie. This too, was God’s Will. We went out to the barns and poured measured buckets of grain mash for the dairy and spread grit in the compost for the laying hens. We ran hands through our sweaty hair and squinted under the wide brims of our hats and wondered where babies came from and which of us would grow the bigger beard.
Once we got started, my brother and I talked for hours on end. We talked about what heaven was like. We wondered what life was like outside of New Lancaster. We talked about the best way to button suspenders— for some reason Jakob just couldn’t see that one strap running over the right shoulder was superior. We argued over the best way to milk and who was the better singer of hymns, but we never questioned where the light came from, until we lost it.
It was cold that morning, on the day that the sun didn’t rise. Jakob noticed it faster than I did, pointing out our foggy breath.
“What do you think it means?” he asked.
I shrugged, filling a bucket with grain. “We should ask Bishop Yoder. He’ll know.”
After we finished the morning’s chores, we hitched up the buggy and rode out to Bishop Yoder’s house. The Bishop’d led me through my baptism and when Jakob was old enough he’d raise my brother up too, declare him a man and a faithful member of the church.
Bishop Yoder’s house had the same white-washed siding and solar panels as the rest of the houses in New Lancaster, but the inside was all warm brown and yellow and he gave us each a plate of snitz pie while we waited for him to tell us why the sun hadn’t yet risen.
“God’s Will,” he said.
“But why so sudden?” My brother had no patience.
“Gelassenheit, Jakob. I don’t know.” He shrugged and sighed. “Have either of you ever been outside the county?”
I shook my head. So did Jakob, a moment later.
“Good.” He tugged at his beard. “You know that leaving New Lancaster is grounds for excommunication. Only a young man who hasn’t yet joined the church can do such a thing.” He looked pointedly at Jakob. “It’s not my place to guide men of age who haven’t joined the church, though, so I’ll say no more on the matter.”
Jakob nodded slowly. I looked back and forth between the two of them.
“I’ll go,” I said.
They both turned to stare at me.
“It is forbidden, Ephraim. You will not go.”
“But I’m the eldest.”
The old man shook his head. “It is forbidden.”
My brother left in what would have been the afternoon. I sent him off with a backpack full of pickled vegetables and a few pork chops. He’d make do. I knew he would. We hadn’t said much when we’d got back from Bishop Yoder’s, no more questions about the absent sun— I still thought I ought to be the one to go, and Jakob knew it, but I wasn’t going to go against God’s Will.
So, for the first night in seventeen years, I ate alone. I cleaned the dishes alone. I said my evening prayers alone, kneeling at the side of my bed with my head bowed. It was strange to hear my voice alone in prayer, without my baby brother’s chorus.
The next day, I woke in darkness, broke my fast in darkness, and watered the livestock in darkness. The cows seemed spooked by the long night, but the chickens pecked blindly at grit and mash with their usual fervor. I wondered if the livestock could live without sunlight.
I wondered if I could.
Two days later, the sun rose, and I felt something inside me slowly crumble, some tangle of worry and fear. I smiled, and set about my chores. Jakob would be home soon.
Three days after the rising of the sun, I did our chores alone.
On the fourth day, I felt the knot tightening back upon itself
On the fifth, I hitched Susie to the buggy. She laid her ears flat and stared into my eyes. I thought maybe she missed Jakob, too.
Riding to Bishop Yoder’s house took longer than it had with Jakob. My brother was always in a rush, and even though I was the eldest, it seemed I was destined to be dragged along in his wake. There was the time when Jakob woke me in the middle of the night and we took out the buggy and raced along the empty paths of New Lancaster until sunrise. The scars on my knuckles made it hard to forget.
I arrived just as the sun began to set. Just like last time, it seemed as if the bishop was waiting for me. He sat on the front porch with a glass of milk, a lantern burning above him, illuminating the aged wood in flickering shadows. He’d always known, it seemed, when Jakob or I were coming.
I expected excommunication when I confessed my plan. I expected to be disowned. Instead Bishop Yoder closed his eyes, and opened them, and asked, “Can you bring him back?” We sat together on the porch, wrapped in blankets, though it wasn’t as cold as it had been during the long night.
“You could stay,” he said. “Let him live with the choice he’s made. He’s his own man.”
“I could stay,” I said, meaning I cannot.
“I’ve already lost one son. Don’t make it two.”
“The greatest loss in life is what dies inside us while we live.”
Bishop Yoder smiled ruefully. “I suppose I deserve a taste of my own medicine.” The smile faded. “What if he doesn’t want to come back? Will you drag him home, gagged and bound?”
He turned away from me as I stood to leave, his face dry. He had always been a strong man.
I packed a bag: three sets of trousers and suspenders, two white shirts. Then I emptied the bag and replaced it with a fifty foot length of rope and two pounds dried beef. This too, I emptied, and refilled with a collection of small knives Jakob and I had made together, as well as my battered copy of Es Nei Teshtament. What do you take with you when you leave home?
The answer, I supposed, was nothing. It’s not really leaving if you take home with you when you go. After one more day of chores, after I’d fed Susie and the dairy cows and the chickens and said my goodbyes, I followed Jakob’s path, empty-handed. I passed by white-washed houses, neat picket fences, and bearded men tending gardens in silence. They looked up as I walked by, but said nothing.
By nightfall, I was further from home than I’d ever been.
It was a stretch to say there was a road leading out of New Lancaster, or a path, or even a trail. There was a way, though. There was a certain sequence of houses to be passed, and a certain curve to the hills. The farther away I found myself, the more I noticed the small changes. Fences disappeared. Instead of cows, there were sheep. Then goats. Then no livestock at all, at least none that I could see, just empty pastures. Houses I passed began to sport strange eaves and splashes of color on the doors and porch posts.
My stomach had been groaning for some time before I resolved to stop at the next house and ask if the inhabitants might allow me to sleep in their barn for the night. I didn’t mind traveling at night, and I was well accquainted with hunger, but I missed the company. I’d been missing it since Jakob left. My brother had stood by my side since we’d sucked at our thumbs and stolen tastes of father’s wine. It felt like part of me had left with Jakob, to unravel the mystery of the missing sun.
I wondered if he’d stop for the night, if our positions had been reversed. If he’d knock at some stranger’s door, late in the evening, begging alms. If it had been me who left instead of my baby brother. If I hadn’t listened to the bishop and stayed quietly at home.
The house I chose was low and squat, and unadorned save for a small grove of pink blossomed trees that stood in front of the porch. It was less colorful than the other houses I’d passed, and smaller. More like home.
On the porch was a wooden swing, and sprawled along it was a young woman dressed in brown. Her black hair poked out of every corner of her bonnet with a curious insistency, as if each hair were somehow determined to be free from its cloth prison. She wasn’t a pretty girl— she had a long birthmark that ran down the side of her neck, and her forehead was dotted here and there with pimples. Still, I bowed low and asked her as politely as possible if I could stay the night.
Inside, the house was littered with broken crockery. Shards of clay and ceramic lay strewn about the kitchen, the dining room, and on into the den. They covered tables and chests and chairs and shelves.
“Can I get you anything? Some milk? Pickles?”
At the kitchen table, she cleared away piles of paper and fragmented stoneware. From a cupboard, she pulled two blue mugs, curiously unbattered. Mine was wound about with tendrils of shimmering gold, as if the Creator had taken broken pieces from around the house and rendered it whole again, illuminated in glittering spirit.
“It’s kintsugi,” she said, reading the impoliteness of my stare and anticipating my question.
“Do you … break these?”
She laughed, a curiously raspy chuckle. “I mend them. I take broken things and learn them and then make them more beautiful than they were before. Kintsugi.”
I traced the lines of gold along the mug. They grasped outward like roots, stretching out from a single point where the handle met the cup. Then I set it down and looked out at the debris strewn around the house.
“What about all this?” I gestured around us.
She sighed as she arranged a plate of pickles, cheeses, and preserves. “Sometimes the broken pieces don’t fit back in perfectly. Or I’m missing too much of the original.”
“Couldn’t you just make something new?” The gathering of refuse and disorder here was, I suspected, against God’s Will.
“Kintsugi is about acceptance. There is beauty even in imperfection.”
“My name is Ephraim.” To change the subject is rude, but to argue with a host in their own house … not even Jakob would be so bold.
She narrowed her eyes. “Johanna.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
On our third or fourth mug of milk, I began to acclimate to the debris around the house. Johanna was right. It was comforting, in a way, as if the breaking of order drew tension from the air, holding strict rules at bay through the breaking of things. We spoke about many things: she explained to me the philosophies behind kintsugi, the constant striving and acceptance inherent in paradise. I asked her if she’d seen Jakob, but she had not. She was curious about how we milked in New Lancaster, and I had many questions about her own community. Most of our time was spent discussing the sun.
She laughed when I told her about the long night. She said there hadn’t been a sun in six hundred years, since we left.
“Left what?” I asked her.
She just laughed more and led me upstairs. It was dark and she said she was running low on candles. Beeswax had been getting harder to come by. We crawled into the tiny bed, separated only by an old maple courtship board.
“What did we leave, Johanna?”
She said nothing for a time, and her breathing was slow and even. She might have been asleep, but then I heard her whisper.
In the morning, Johanna rose early and made breakfast. I stayed in bed. Several times throughout the course of the night I had woken to my brother’s name, whispered.
Over dried apples and pancakes, she told me many things. She told me about the sun. She told me about the Journey. She told me about how our ancestors agreed to gather together the best of the communities, the most virtuous and sustainable cultures of humanity, and board a massive interstellar vessel, bound for nowhere but offering respite from the increasing oppression of ignorant neighbors. She told me she pitied me. She told me that the sun was controlled from the end of the vessel, farther along the path I walked, towards the end of the world. She told me that, in fact, Jakob had come through before me and stayed several days in bed. When I asked her why she had lied, she looked away.
I didn’t stay for supper.
The shifting landscape only grew stranger as I drew away from Johanna’s house. The way itself had widened, a true path now, and along the sides there stood tall iron posts, tiny spheres like tulip bulbs embedded therein. At night, they came alive like fireflies and lit the road before me, casting my journey in the clean white light of the Creator. The houses too began to change: where before I had passed by simple wooden homes, I began to pass by places where the buildings seemed to erupt out of the earth, structures of colored stone, or still more exotic materials that glittered in the light of the lying sun.
Birds sang off-key here, when they sang at all, their music atonal, irrhythmic. Flowers had begun to spring up along the edges of the path, petals shifting rapidly between vivid hues of orange and indigo. The air here was sweeter, and wilder somehow, caressing the ends of my hair, threatening to pull my hat from my head with grasping fingers. The further I traveled from New Lancaster, the less improbable Johanna’s stories seemed to me.
Was all of this God’s Will?
For the first time in my life, I began to imagine a life outside New Lancaster. Jakob, too, must have felt this. He must have tasted this air, heard these songs. He must have realized, too.
Where we come from matters less than where we’re going.
I needed to find Jakob.
The flowers grew thicker as I traveled, creeping farther and farther over the edges of the path until they began to brush up against my ankles and feet and I began to trod upon them and finally the path itself was swallowed up in lawless color.
I kept walking until my legs were golden with pollen. The world around me shrank into a sea of flowers. My breath came hot and heavy and a loud buzzing sounded far in the distance. A low black thundercloud hanging over the fields of flowers began to drift toward me, and the drone increased in volume until I thought I might be deafened by it.
“Get down, idiot!” yelled a flower to my right, barely audible over the chaos of the buzzing cloud. At the end of the world, everything starts to speak to you.
Then a hand reached out and grabbed my ankle, pulling my feet out from under me and spilling me down onto the fragrant bed of flora. I was face to face with a woman dressed all in prismatic camouflage. Her cheekbones were framed by thick goggles, and she wore a net around her head.
“You got a death wish, country boy?” As she shifted around, I lost track of her for a moment in the riot of color.
I opened my mouth to tell her that I did not, in fact, want to die here, but she shook her head and put her hand on my lips. She handed me a pair of goggles. “Mouth closed. And put these on.”
Just then, the buzzing reached a crescendo and the sky grew black as the cloud drifted over us. I put on the goggles.
As soon as I did, my world exploded. Blues popped and crackled with a new intensity. Yellows and reds burned, flickering at the edges. Light and dark stood out in stark contrast against each other, and I saw that it was no ordinary cloud blocking out the sun, but instead a massive swarm of bees, wings thrumming in unison as they spun through the air in dizzying spirals.
The goggles revealed a beautiful wake of pollen trailing behind the cloud of bees.
Turquoise, teal, viridian, and violet.
Colors beyond the ken of man, colors for which there are no words— these drifted and mingled in the currents left behind, whorls of chromatic particles spinning around each other like fireflies in a twilight marsh.
Almost as soon as it had begun, the storm of buzzing color ceased.
“That was a good one, huh?” the woman said. “Constance, by the way.”
I stared at the woman. She was as fair as Johanna had been dark.
“My name. Constance. What’s yours?”
She screwed up her nose and pushed the goggles up to her forehead. “Weird.”
I took my own goggles off and stared at them. “What are these?”
“Chromaweaver lenses. My god,” She pushed my hat off and ran her fingers through my hair. Her hands felt cool and soft against my scalp. “You really are clueless.”
“I’m a traveler, not an idiot.” It was the first time I’d described myself thus. I took her hand away from my head. “Anyway, I’m learning.”
“Learning, huh?” She lifted the goggles up. “These let you see a wider spectrum of light: ultraviolet, infrared, and a bit of microwave. I use them for my art.” She spread her arms wide, encompassing the fields around us. “Pretty cool, eh?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t seem very practical.”
“Practical? What about our life on this ship seems practical to you?”
“Well, if you eat the crops that you’ve worked yourself and give the leftovers to the livesto—”
Constance pushed me down. “Enough. You hungry, country boy?”
“Good. Me, too.”
She unhooked a satchel from around her shoulders and dug around, coming up with several soft containers of gold.
“Open wide, Ephraim.”
I leaned back, and she squeezed the sticky liquid into my mouth, letting the lion’s share of it dribble down my lips and into my beard.
“Oh no. That won’t do at all,” she said, and then I felt the Holy Spirit rise in me, as it had with Elsie in the night, and Constance began to lick the sweetness off my lips and then she began to kiss my neck and down to my chest and stomach until she reached the hairs of my belly and she pulled my trousers free, letting the sun graze my pale flesh and the Spirit grew in me until finally I gasped the Creator’s name and the Spirit left me.
Constance licked her lips.
Constance lived outside amongst the flowers. She fed me dying bees and together we drank deeply of their honey. At the end of the world, she said, we could do whatever we wanted. I could live shirtless, hatless, clean-shaven. We could be married by whatever words I chose and I could give up to her the Holy Spirit that I held inside me and feel blessed emptiness whenever I wanted.
She named for me the colors I’d never seen and counted them out in kisses on my brow. She showed me the dancing steps of the bees in courtship, and the geometries they wove in the walls of their massive earthbound hives. She was lonely.
Still, I left in the morning, crossing her chromawoven fields; for the end of the world was not the end of my journey. There was so much more to learn.
I needed to talk to my brother.
I’d come far enough that I felt no surprise when the flower fields ended in a smooth wall of steel and synthetic polymer. The Wall stretched out to my left and right, as far as my eyes could see, rising up to meet the sky at a sharp right angle. I pushed my goggles up to my forehead. Somewhere beyond the Wall, Constance said, there was a chamber which held the controls for the ship, the controls for the sun, and, I suspected, my brother.
My skin bronzed as I paced the length and breadth of the Wall, searching for an entrance: a door, a portal, anything. I found it easily enough, right where Constance said it would be, at the border of two warring hives of bees, a swinging metal hatchway limned in blinking neon. When I stepped up to it, the door opened with a grudging hiss.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim light of the chamber, a smaller room than I’d expected from Constance’s stories. There was a single chair in the center, lined all around with flickering screens. In it sat my brother.
I ran to him. Wires snaked up from the ground and wound around his legs, wrapping him in dull greys and reds and greens. He was naked, clean-shaven, his eyes caked shut with sandy yellow grime. He wore nothing on his head, and I would have wept to see him so if my body had the water to spare.
“Ephraim.” A disembodied voice rang out from the flickering images around me. Jakob’s eyes remained shut. “Disconnect me from the ship.”
“The wires. First the red, then the grey. Leave the green.”
I pulled my brother free of his constraints, the colored lines sliding out of this skin without much resistance, the slight popping sound of their release enough to make my gorge rise.
After I’d pulled the wires free of my brother’s sallow flesh, his eyes fluttered open.
“Thank God! I’d hoped you’d come. I feared I might be trapped: hugging the walls of the ship, crawling the vents, in the rising sun, gazing forever into the emptiness of space.” Jakob began pulling out the green wires, and he laughed, tears leaking out of his crusty eyes.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“These—” he pulled up the wires, limp and empty of life. “They connect you to the ship. Your mind, I mean. There’s more to it than making the sun rise. That’s nothing. Easy. There’s a whole other world out there. A whole universe, Ephraim! There are other places that dwarf our ship. There are animals and places and people that we’ll never see, never understand. It’s so much bigger than we realized.”
He dropped the wires. “The whole ship was mine from that seat, but I was powerless here. I couldn’t free myself from the machine.” He stood and grasped me in a hug. His arms felt weak. “Let’s go home.”
“Home?” I asked, surprised. This was the last thing I expected my brother to say. “I can’t go home.”
“Nonsense. Bishop Yoder will take you back. He’s always had a soft spot for you, and we saved New Lancaster.” He paused and grabbed my shoulders. “We made the sun rise, Ephraim. We’re heroes. We can marry whoever we want, our pick of the litter.”
“I can’t remarry, Jakob.” Elsie’s face came to mind, mixed now with Johanna and Constance, and I felt a pang of regret. “Don’t you want to stay here?”
My brother smiled for a moment, then the grin melted away, replaced by a look of incredulity.
He shook his head.
“You know why I left, Ephraim? So that I could come back. So I could go home and see everything anew, see everything differently, with fresh eyes. And people back home will see me differently, too. Going back home is the end of the journey.”
I nodded slowly. “Can you make it back, do you think?”
He smiled. “Of course. We might need to make a couple stops on the way— I haven’t eaten solid food in days, but yes, we’ll make it back just fine.”
“Bishop Yoder will be glad to see you.”
“Ha! I can’t wait for the look on the old man’s face.”
“Me, either,” I said.
“Let’s go then.”
“Lead the way, brother.”
He did. Without a second thought, he stepped out into the bright light of the chromawoven fields, into the flowers and pollen and mass of wild scent and color, the first step back home.
I watched him for a moment before closing and barring the door. The sound of it echoed just once. Strange, that such a simple mechanism would end my journey, a single length of metal, out of all the strange things I’d seen. I’d come all this way to save Jakob, and then when I got here, I found that he wasn’t the one who needed saving. I was. It wasn’t enough to live in New Lancaster, not without Elsie. It wasn’t enough to eat with Johanna, or make love to Constance. It had never been enough. I needed more. And now I’d found it.
I watched the chair in silence for a moment, waiting, perhaps for the sound of my brother at the door. There was nothing. Either he knew I wouldn’t go, or he still didn’t know I hadn’t followed. Then I sat and began sliding the sharp ends of the wires into my wrists, my arms, my ankles, and my legs.
My vision began to blur around the edges, and when next I breathed in, I felt the air flowing over the tops of flowers, kissing the fine hairs on the legs of bees, tickling Constance, pushing and pulling Johanna on her swing, guttering the flame of Bishop Yoder’s lantern. The blinking of my eyes was day and night. When I breathed out, I felt myself rush into stygian vastness outside the ship. I knew colors that Constance never could. I coursed out over the contours of my domain and tasted the wavelengths of stars so distant that even a thousand, a hundred thousand generations from now, my people could never know their light. I knew hydrogen and helium and ionized metals. The ship filled me, and I felt tears stream down my cheeks.
My journey was far from over. The whole of the universe stretched out before me, untasted and unexplored. I was becoming something greater than myself. The ship was expanding me, teaching me the secret language of the stars, the boundless palette of the universe. This, finally, was God’s Will.