Here is an excerpt from my novella A Christmas Promise.
December 23, 1773, Schoenbrunn Village, Ohio
Anna Brunner kneaded dough while she tried not to notice it was almost dusk. Her husband still wasn’t home. She wiped her hands on her apron and glanced out the six-pane window. The last glint of sunlight blazed the horizon gleaming on the dirt path. No trace of him.
After scooping some sugar, she worked it into the dough and strove to reflect on the Christmas Eve Lovefeast and all the work she had ahead. She’d been honored with the mission of making the sweet buns and would be one of the Dieners serving the meal at their newly built church.
It did no good to fret about what was going on at the meeting down the road. She’d find out soon enough. She released her anxiety on the dough as she squeezed her fingers through and pounded it into shape.
After living in this village for over a year, celebrating the yuletide with all the fanfare it deserved would make up for everything.
The children giggled as they finished a game of jackstraws. Belinda, eight years old, failed to remove a straw without touching the others, and Lisel, the round faced six-year-old, smirked as she shouted out in triumph. Three-year-old Katrina’s brown curls bounced as she clapped for Lisel. She hadn’t managed to win any rounds, but Belinda insisted they let her play until a winner had been declared.
“Let’s get the tree ready,” Belinda said.
The girls threw the wheat straws in a basket and dashed to the wooden pyramid frame their father had built. Large boughs were stacked in the corner of the room. Earlier today, before John was beckoned, he’d cut them from the pine trees that lined God’s Acre, the village cemetery.
Moravians didn’t cut down trees and drag them into houses the way some did. By using the frame built from wood, and boughs cut from limbs, they still managed to build a nice Christmas tree.
Once all the limbs were in place, the girls would decorate it with pieces of paper with Scripture verses written on them, and pure white beeswax candles with red ribbons tied around them to represent Jesus, the light of the world, who shed his blood on the cross.
Maybe this year will be better.
Anna’s thoughts drifted to when her husband announced his decision to move to the Ohio wilderness. She had been livid. Many Lenni Lenape were forced to move west, but that didn’t mean the missionaries from the Moravian Church needed to follow those Delaware Indians, at least, not the missionaries with families. There were still plenty of natives in Pennsylvania.
John had gazed at her with his steel blue eyes. “Anna, we learned to speak Lenape and taught it to our children for this reason, to share the Gospel with the natives.”
“We’re already doing that. Think of the danger.” She delivered a daunting glower of her own, meant to dissuade him. “We have children to consider.”
For days, she’d tried to change his mind by pointing out they didn’t need to leave their family and friends in Bethlehem to serve God. He promised her they’d be safe, that the girls would be protected, but she told him he should stop making promises he couldn’t keep.
“We have our duty as missionaries to the natives.” His voice was calm as if his statement settled the matter.
“I won’t go.” The declaration had shocked her as much as it did her husband.
Anna glanced out the window. Dark clouds had blown in obscuring the rising full moon.
John should have been home eating his supper by now.
Earlier, she’d arrived from walking the girls home from school to find John huddled around the fire in discussion with Brother Luke, a village elder. Luke had been a Moravian for so long, she sometimes forgot he was Lenape.
“We can’t let him face them by himself.” John’s furrowed brow wrinkled his normally pleasant face.
When Anna closed the door, the conversation abruptly stopped.
Luke stood. “Forgive the interruption, Sister Brunner. The elders have need of your husband’s wisdom.”
John had grabbed his coat and kissed her on the cheek.
Anna placed a hand over her stomach. “When will you be home?”
“I don’t know, but it’ll be in time to sup with you and the children. I promise.” He closed the door behind him before she could say more.
That was four hours ago.
Lisel attached another bough to the tree and scooted next to Anna pulling on her skirt. “Mama, when do we eat? I’m hungry.”
Anna reached down and gave Lisel a hug. “Soon, child. Help Belinda and Katrina with the tree.” She grabbed the copper ladle hanging on the wall next to the fireplace and stirred the stew she kept warm on the embers. The aroma of pieces of roast pig, overdone potatoes, and turnips made her stomach rumble. If he took much longer, she’d feed the children without him.
She remembered the astonishment in John’s eyes when she had told him she was staying in Bethlehem. He didn’t say anything, didn’t chide her, or tell her she was a disobedient wife. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her forehead.
She quivered under his touch.
He kissed her in a way that overpowered her objections as she melted against him. Pulling back, he said in a quiet voice, “Shall we deny the Lamb that was slain the reward of His suffering by refusing to go?”
A lump formed in her throat, and before he released her, tears rolled down her cheeks. What choice did she have?
So they set off with a group of twenty-eight Moravians, both white man and native, to settle the wilderness and preach the Gospel to the Lenape.
Anna hadn’t felt safe since. She punched the dough and set it on the bread board to rise.
Since they moved to Schoenbrunn Village, most Lenape welcomed the Moravians, but some looked upon them with suspicion even though most of the families in the group were natives. Then there were the Iroquois, Wyandot, and Shawnee, all warrior tribes leery of the settlers, and some of them hostile towards Lenape.
Looking out the window, she couldn’t see anyone coming down the path, only shadows of other cabins. She grabbed the flintlock on the mantle and lit the candles so they could see to eat their supper.
There’d even been an incident in Gnadenhutten, their sister village to the south, of some Wyandot marauding homes and stealing supplies. They didn’t hurt anyone, but they might next time. Or they might decide to pillage Schoenbrunn Village.
She rubbed her belly, hidden by the light blue apron that protected her blue and white striped wool dress. She’d sewn it last winter out of the material she’d bought before they left Pennsylvania.
New life growing inside helped keep her mind off the dangers. Maybe next year she could give John a son. That would make things the way they used to be. She would tell him the news on Christmas Day.
She set tin plates on the wooden table next to the wall where the children had decorated the tree. Many of the preparations for the celebration were already done. The tree took up too much space in their small cabin, but it was worth it.
They still had room for the rocking chair perched by the fireplace. John had made it for Anna last Christmas. Baskets, water carriers, a spinning wheel, and various other tools were hidden away on shelves in the corner to provide more room. A straw tick where the children slept was tucked under the rope bed.
Lisel reached up as far as she could to attach a bough to a higher wooden beam. Katrina only managed to reach the lower planks. Belinda moved the papers and ink bottle from the table where she’d been writing out Scriptures to hang on the branches.
Anna’s oldest daughter reminded her of her husband, not only because of her straight blond hair and ruddy complexion covered with freckles, but because of her devotion to God and courage in adversity, virtues Anna once had before…
The door flew open, and the burst of frigid air chilled the room and blew out one of the candles.
John stepped inside with a recent Lenape convert who had been baptized under the name Paul. Anna was glad the man had converted. Brother Paul was six feet tall and built like a tree.
Her husband was almost as tall and as broad across the shoulders, with a pleasant look that seemed to want to break into a smile at the slightest provocation. John’s strength helped her feel safe, as if being wrapped in a warm blanket. Even though she’d lived among Lenape most of her life, Brother Paul scared her.
Belinda and Lisel ran to their father and gave him a tight embrace. Katrina tugged on his trouser leg until he picked her up and ran a hand through her brown ringlets. Katrina was the only one of their children who favored Anna.
“Papa,” Belinda said. “I’m writing Scriptures to hang on the tree, and I helped Mama with the buns for the feast. We’re almost ready.”
John hugged his oldest girl. “You’re such a blessing to your mama.” He said the words in English, which was odd. They spoke Lenape when natives were around, especially ones who hadn’t learned English. John would normally remind the girls to speak Lenape when they had a guest.
“I helped, too.” Lisel allowed her lower lip to almost reach her chin.
“No sulking.” John patted Lisel’s head. “There’s enough work for everyone.”
“I help Mama,” Katrina said.
“Of course, you do.” John set Katrina on the dirt floor.
“Children.” Anna grabbed hold of Katrina’s hand. “Give your father an opportunity to settle. Why don’t you work on the Putz?”
Lisel clapped her hands together, and the girls gathered near the blazing fire where pinecones, cloth, and papers lay in a wicker basket. The children would make figures out of them depicting the Nativity, the wise men, and the Exodus from Egypt. John had already whittled a small manger. Katrina, as the youngest, would place the pinecone baby Jesus in it on Christmas Eve after the Lovefeast.
Anna tucked a stray curl into her Habba, turned to Paul, and spoke Lenape to welcome him. “Nulelìntàm èli paan. May I serve you anything—coffee, water?”
Brother Paul shook his head. He wore a grey shirt and trousers, a buckskin coat similar to her husband’s, and had shaved his Mohawk. But when he crossed his arms and leaned against the door post, he looked as intimidating as when he wore black and red paint around his eyes, and dressed like a warrior.
“We’ll need ashcakes.” John now spoke in Lenape. His Adam’s apple bulged as he grabbed the musket hanging on the wall over the fireplace. “And a couple canteens of water.”
Anna wrapped the cornmeal ashcakes in a cloth and poured water from the pitcher into the wooden canteens. “I kept some stew warm for you. Do you and Brother Paul have time to sup before your journey?”
“No, we must make haste.” John glanced out the window. “It’s already dark. We need to arrive at Gnadenhutten before it gets too late.”
She motioned John to the corner of the cabin, and whispered so the girls wouldn’t be alarmed. “Something’s wrong.”
“A delegation from a nearby Lenape tribe arrived at Gnadenhutten. They have requested to meet with leaders from both of our villages.” John touched her arm. “Don’t be troubled. They mean no harm. They only want to know more about what we’re preaching.”
Anna’s stomach knotted. “Is there any danger?”
“You fret too much.” A smile played with the edges of John’s mouth. But that’s all it did. “They only want to converse, nothing more.”
“How many will accompany you?”
“Brother Paul and Brother Luke.”
Her shoulders relaxed. Luke had been a trusted native helper to the Moravians since his youth. They’d known him for years in Pennsylvania. But Paul showed up at the village a few months ago.
“Why must you go?” Anna wrapped her arms around John. “You have responsibilities to your family. Let somebody without a wife and children take your place.”
John hugged her for a moment, and then pulled back to tilt her chin towards him. The lighthearted facade had been replaced by an intense gaze. “We came here to advance the Kingdom of God. Shall I pull back now?”
Anna wiped away the stray tear rolling down her cheek. “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering.” She said the words in Lenape to reassure him, but they didn’t make her feel any better.
“Amen.” Brother Paul stepped over to them and put a hand on John’s shoulder. “Brother, we must go now.”
Anna swallowed back the lump in her throat and spoke in English. It seemed too intimate a moment with her husband to let Paul understand her words. “Will you be home in time for the Lovefeast tomorrow night?”
John’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know.”
“You can’t miss the celebration of the birth of our Savior.”
“I’ll try to be back in time.” John’s jaw twitched. “I promise to be home for Christmas.”
Anna wanted to argue with him, tell him not to go, but it wouldn’t do any good. She forced her breathing to slow to a normal pace. “Then I’ll make it the best we ever had.”
“That won’t be hard,” John said. “Any Christmas with you and the girls is good.”
“Brother John.” Paul nodded towards the door. “They’re waiting.”
“I’ll meet you outside.”
The door made a thumping sound as Paul closed it on the way out.
“Children,” Anna said. “Papa’s going on a journey. Come say good-bye.”
The girls ran to their father and hugged him.
“When will you be back?” Belinda asked.
“Maybe tomorrow in time for the Lovefeast.” John wiped his hand across his neck. “If not, I’ll see you Christmas Day.”
John took Anna into his arms once again and kissed her. The heat of the moment swept through her as she leaned into the kiss with parted lips. He rested his mouth against her neck, and then pulled away. After strapping on his supplies and musket, he opened the door.
The blast of winter filled the cabin and sent a chill through her. She scampered to the fireplace, grabbed her ladle, and dished stew onto tin plates. “Children, come to the table to sup.” The door shut with a dull thud behind her.
John was gone.