Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia (named the Manitoba Colony, after the province in Canada from which the colonists had emigrated in the mid-1900s), hundreds of girls and women would wake up in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding, having been attacked in the night. The attacks were attributed to ghosts and demons. Some members of the community felt the women were being made to suffer by God or Satan as punishment for their sins; many accused the women of lying for attention or to cover up adultery; still others believed everything was the result of wild, female imagination. Eventually, it was revealed that eight men from the colony had been using an animal anaesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them. In 2011, these men were convicted in a Bolivian court and received lengthy prison sentences. However, in 2013, while the convicted men were still in jail, it was reported that similar assaults and other sexual abuses were continuing to take place in the colony. What follows is fiction.
We begin by washing each other’s feet. This takes time. We each wash the feet of the person sitting to our right. The foot-washing was a suggestion made by Agata Friesen (mother of Ona and Salome Friesen). It would be an appropriate symbolic act representing our service to each other, she said, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, knowing that his hour had come.
Four of the eight women are wearing plastic sandals with white socks, two are wearing sturdy leather shoes, scuffed (and in one case slit open at the side to allow for a growing bunion), with white socks, and the other two, the youngest, are wearing torn canvas running shoes, also with white socks. Socks are always worn by the women of Molotschna, and it appears to be a rule that the top of the socks must always reach the bottom hem of the dress.
The two youngest women, Autje and Neitje, the ones wearing running shoes, have rolled their socks down rebelliously (and stylishly) into little doughnuts that encircle their ankles. On them, a swatch of bare skin, several inches of skin, is visible between the rolled sock and the dress hem, and insect bites (probably black fly and chigger) dot the skin. Faint scars, from rope burns or from cuts, are also visible on the exposed parts of these women. Autje and Neitje, both sixteen, are having difficulty keeping straight faces during the foot-washing, murmuring to each other that it’s ticklish, and coming close to erupting in giggles when attempting to say God bless you to each other, in solemn voices, as their mothers, aunts and grandmothers have done following each washing.
Greta Loewen, the eldest of the Loewen women (although she was born a Penner) begins. She exudes a deep, melancholic dignity as she speaks of her horses, Ruth and Cheryl. She describes how when Ruth (who is blind in one eye and must always be harnessed to the left of Cheryl) and Cheryl are frightened by one or more of Dueck’s Rottweilers on the mile road that leads to church, their initial instinct is to bolt.
We have seen it happen, she says. (After these short, declarative sentences Greta has a habit of lifting her arms, dipping her head and widening her eyes as if to say, This is a fact, are you challenging me?)
Greta explains that these horses, upon being startled by Dueck’s stupid dog, don’t organize meetings to determine their next course of action. They run. And by so doing, evade the dog and potential harm.
Agata Friesen, the eldest of the Friesen women (although born a Loewen) laughs, as she does frequently and charmingly, and agrees. But Greta, she states, we are not animals.
Greta replies that we have been preyed upon like animals; perhaps we should respond in kind.
Do you mean we should run away? asks Ona.
Or kill our attackers? asks Salome.
(Mariche, Greta’s eldest, until now silent, makes a soft scoffing sound.)
Agata Friesen, unfazed by Salome’s outbursts (she has already referred to Ecclesiastes to describe Salome’s temper as nothing new under the sun, as the wind blows from the north, as all streams lead to the sea, etc. To which Salome responded that her opinions should not be slotted under hoary Old Testament headings, please, and wasn’t it preposterous that the women should compare themselves to animals, wind, sea, etc? Isn’t there a human precedent, some person in whom we can see ourselves reflected back to ourselves? To which Mejal, lighting up a smoke, responded, Yes, I’d like that, too, but what humans? Where?), states that in her lifetime she has seen horses, perhaps not Ruth or Cheryl, fair enough – in deference to Greta and her high regard for her horses – but others who, when charged by a dog or coyote or jaguar, have attempted to confront the animal and/or to stomp the creature to death. So it isn’t always the case that animals flee their attackers.
Greta acknowledges this: yes, she has seen similar behaviour in animals. She begins once again to talk of Ruth and Cheryl, but her anecdote is cut short by Agata.
Agata tells the group she has her own animal story, also featuring Dueck’s Rottweiler. She speaks quickly, often inserting asides and non sequiturs in a hushed, theatrical voice.
I am not able to hear or keep up with every detail, but I’ll attempt here to tell the story in her voice, and with as much accuracy as I am able.
Dueck had raccoons in his yard that he hated for a long time, and when the fattest raccoon suddenly had six babies, it was all that Dueck could stand. He tore his hair out. He told his Rottweiler to go kill them, and away the dog went, and the mother raccoon was surprised and tried to save her babies and get away from the dog, but the dog killed three of the babies and the mother raccoon could only save the other three. She took those babies and left Dueck’s yard. Dueck was fairly happy about that. He drank his instant coffee, and thought, praise be to God, no more raccoons. But a few days later, he looked into his yard and saw the three baby raccoons sitting there, and he became angry once again. He told his Rottweiler again to attack and kill them. But this time the mother raccoon was waiting for the dog, and when he came running at the babies she jumped on him from a tree and bit into his neck and his stomach and then, with every muscle in her body straining, dragged him into the bushes. Dueck was so mad, and also sad. He wanted his dog back. He went into the bushes to find the dog, but he couldn’t, even after two days of searching. He cried. When he came back home he walked despondently to his door and there lay one leg from his dog, and also the dog’s head. With empty eye sockets.
The reaction to Agata’s story is mixed. Greta lifts her hands over her head and asks the other women: What are we supposed to make of this? Are we to leave our most vulnerable colony members exposed to further attack in order to lure the men to their deaths so they can be dismembered and delivered in parts to the doorstep of Peters, the bishop of our colony?
What the story proves is that animals can fight back and they can run away, Agata says. And so it doesn’t matter whether we are animals or not, or whether we have been treated like animals or not, or even if we can know the answer to that one way or the other. (She inhales all possible oxygen into her lungs and then releases it with the next sentence.) Either way, it’s a waste of time to try to establish whether we are animals or not, when the men will soon be returning from the city.
Mariche Loewen raises her hand. One of her fingers, her left index, has been bitten off at the knuckle. It is half as long as the middle finger next to it. She asserts that in her opinion, the more important question to ask is not whether the women are animals, but rather, should the women avenge the harm perpetrated against them? Or should they instead forgive the men and by doing so be allowed to enter the gates of Heaven? We will be forced to leave the colony, she says, if we don’t forgive the men and/or accept their apologies, and through the process of this excommunication we will forfeit our place in Heaven. (Note: this is true, I know, according to the rules of Molotschna.)
Mariche sees me looking at her and asks if I’m writing this down.
I nod, yes, I am.
Satisfied, Mariche asks the others a question about the rapture. How will the Lord, when He arrives, find all the women if we aren’t in Molotschna?
Salome cuts her off, disdainful. In a mocking voice, she begins to explain that if Jesus is able to return to life, live for thousands of years and then drop down to earth from heaven to scoop up his supporters, surely he’d also be able to locate a few women who –
But now Salome is silenced by her mother, Agata, with a quick gesture. We will return to that question later, Agata says kindly.
Mariche’s eyes dart around the room, perhaps searching for kinship on this subject, someone to share her fears. The others look away.
Salome is muttering: But if we’re animals, or even animal-like, perhaps there’s no chance anyway of entering the gates of Heaven – (she stands up and goes to the window) – unless animals are permitted. Although that doesn’t make sense because animals provide food and labour, and we will require neither of those things in Heaven. So perhaps, after all, Mennonite women will not be allowed into heaven because we fall into the category of animals, who will not be needed up there, where it’s always lalalalala . . . She ends her sentence in song syllables.
The other women, except Ona Friesen, her sister, ignore her. Ona smiles slightly, encouragingly, approvingly, although it’s also a smile that could serve as firm punctuation to Salome’s statement – that is, a silent request to end it. (The Friesen women have developed a mostly effective system of gestures and facial expressions to quiet Salome.)
Ona begins to speak now. She is reminded of a dream she had two nights ago: she found a hard candy in the dirt behind her home and had picked it up and taken it into her kitchen, planning to wash it and eat it. Before she could wash it, she was accosted by a very large 200-pound pig. She screamed, Get that pig off me! But it had her pinned against the wall.
That’s ridiculous, says Mariche. We don’t have hard candy in Molotschna.
Agata reaches over to touch Ona’s hand. You can tell us your dreams later, she says. When the meeting is over.
Several of the women speak up now, saying they are not able to forgive the men.
Precisely, says Mariche. She speaks succinctly, sure of herself again. Yet we want to enter the gates of Heaven when we die.
None of the women argue that point.
Mariche goes on to state that we should then not put ourselves in an unfortunate position, where we are forced to choose between forgiveness and eternal life.
What position would that be? asks Ona Friesen.
That position would be staying behind to fight, Mariche says. Because the fight would be lost to the men, and we would be guilty of the sin of rebellion and of betraying our vow of pacifism and would finally be plunged deeper into submissiveness and vulnerability. Furthermore, we would be forced to forgive the men anyway, if we wanted God to forgive us and to allow us into His kingdom.
But is forgiveness that is coerced true forgiveness? asks Ona Friesen. And isn’t the lie of pretending to forgive with words but not with one’s heart a more grievous sin than to simply not forgive? Can’t there be a category of forgiveness that is up to God alone, a category that includes the perpetration of violence upon one’s children, an
act so impossible for a parent to forgive that God, in His wisdom, would take exclusively upon Himself the responsibility for such forgiveness?
Do you mean that God would allow the parent of the violated child to harbour just a tiny bit of hatred inside her heart? asks Salome. Just in order to survive?
A tiny bit of hate? asks Mejal. That’s ridiculous. And from tiny seeds of hate bigger –
It’s not ridiculous, says Salome. A very small amount of hate is a necessary ingredient to life.
To life? says Mejal. You mean to waging war. I’ve noticed how you come alive in the act of killing.
Salome rolls her eyes. Not war; survival. And let’s not call it hate –
Oh, you’d prefer to call it an ‘ingredient’, says Mejal.
When I must kill pigs, I hit the runts harder, says Salome, because it’s more humane to kill them with one swift blow than to torture them with tepid hacks, which your system . . .
I wasn’t talking about killing pigs, says Mejal.
During this exchange, Mejal’s daughter Autje has begun swinging from a rafter, a human pendulum, kicking at bales mid-swing and loosening the straw, a piece of which has landed in Salome’s hair. Mejal looks up, tells Autje to behave herself, can’t she hear the rafter creaking, does she want the roof to cave in? (I muse that perhaps she does.)
Mejal reaches for her pouch of tobacco but doesn’t roll a smoke, simply rests her hand lightly on the pouch as though it were a gear shift in an idling getaway car, and she is waiting, knowing it is there when she needs it because her hand is on it.
Salome doesn’t know about the straw in her hair. It sits above her ear, nestled in that space, like a librarian’s No. 2 pencil.
After a small silence, Greta returns to Ona’s question. Perhaps, yes, such a category exists, she says slowly. Except there’s no biblical precedent for this type of God-only forgiveness.
A brief observation about Ona Friesen: Ona is distinctive among these women for having her hair pulled back loosely rather than with the blunt force of a seemingly primitive tool. She is perceived by most of the colonists to have a gentle disposition and an inability to function in the real world (although in Molotschna that argument is a red herring). She is a spinster. And she is afforded a type of liberty to speak her mind because her thoughts and words are perceived as meaningless, although this didn’t prevent her from being attacked repeatedly. She was a reliable target because she slept alone in a room rather than with a husband, which she doesn’t have. Or want, it seems.
Earlier she had stated: When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are. Now she asks: Is it accurate to say that at this moment we women are asking ourselves what our priority is, and what is right – to protect our children or to enter the kingdom of Heaven?
Mejal Loewen says, No. That is not accurate. That is an exaggeration of what is truly being discussed. (Her hand still resting intimately on the pouch of tobacco.)
What, then, is truly being discussed? Ona asks.
Agata Friesen, Ona’s mother (and Mejal’s aunt), responds. We will burn that bridge when we come to it, she says (intentionally using this English expression incorrectly in order to leaven the proceedings). And Ona, indulgent of her mother, as she is of her sister, is content to let it be.
Greta Loewen pats Autje’s hand. Steady on. The knuckles on Greta’s hand stand out like knobs, like desert buttes on a cracked surface. Her false teeth are too big for her mouth, and painful. She removes them and sets them down on the plywood. They were given to her by a well-meaning traveller who had come to Molotschna with a first aid kit after hearing about the attacks on the women.
When Greta had cried out, the attacker covered her mouth with such force that nearly all her teeth, which were old and fragile, were crushed to dust. The traveller who gave Greta her false teeth was escorted out of Molotschna by Peters, who then forbade outside helpers from entering the colony.
The singing has ended. The women disperse.
Note: Salome Friesen left earlier, exasperated, after Ona asked if the women were discussing what was right, to protect the children or to enter the kingdom of Heaven, and if it wasn’t possible to do both. I hadn’t the time then to write down the details of her departure.