Memoir: Montana, 1883

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Memoir

The Survivors’ City, Montana
Summer 1883 (give or take) 

I was walking on the outskirts of the main square of our tiny town. I looked out over the twenty-some-odd grey and red and faded yellow wooden houses that ran along narrow roads we’d cleared to the east of the main square, wondering whether this spot was as secluded as I’d hoped if I could still see the main square so clearly. I took a few more steps for added safety, and then I dropped to the ground. I was alone.

I had filed a piece of flint until it was sharp enough to carve into wood without my having to try. And then, on the back of a tree in a thick block of forest, I began making a list of all the questions I had about my life so far that no one would answer. The sun was warm on my skin as it crept through the breaks in the overgrown forest.

This was my sixteenth summer in my family’s town. This late in the afternoon, after we’d been let out of our lessons, most of the kids from my generation were running around the rugged terrain just outside the city walls, closely supervised by an elder from our family, one of the original Survivors. I relished being let even an inch outside the city walls, but I savored time alone even more.

Our lessons were monotonous. We studied passages from a Bible I was sure was outdated—its version of our language sounding different from our own—and we talked extensively about the evils of the outside world. On rare occasion, we’d discuss primitive mathematics and archaic scientific principles. We did this day in and day out, five days a week, for the last ten years of my life. I remembered every word I had ever heard and every sentence I’d ever read, so repeating these ideas over and over again grated on my nerves. I hoped that I would stop aging soon. Once we stopped aging, we didn’t have to go to lessons in the rotted-wood, flat-roofed room that functioned as our schoolhouse. By then our powers would be matured, our talents determined, and our futures set.

It would also be time to start building the next generation. This idea thrilled me less. From what I knew about it (at the time)—the whispers I had heard from my sisters and the quiet and polite sentiments I’d heard from Lizzie, the elder I was closest to—I knew it involved being extremely close to the boys in our generation. But I had always been unnerved by the touch of others, unable even to hug my family members without trepidation. As a Survivor, though, our fundamental principles were simple: praise God and continue our line so that we might do God’s work—an arbitrary purpose that was, as of yet, undefined. And I couldn’t argue with work I had been put on this Earth to do. At least, I couldn’t then.

We spent our Sundays, of course, in the small, dilapidated, chapel opposite the square from where I sat. It was the first building the elders had erected when they chose this pass as their homestead over 190 years before. They were waiting for the boys in my generation—only the third generation since they had settled—to grow old enough and strong enough to build a new church that would accommodate our growing village. We had seventy-eight family members spanning across three generations, and when the church was built, there were just the fourteen of them, though, if I counted correctly, Rebecca and John Surrey were already expecting their first child when they arrived in Montana.

I had been sitting quietly in the forest for some time, my list on the tree bark seeming paltry but still bolder than any words I had ever spoken aloud in my life.

My first question: Where did we come from?

The elders in my family believed that we had survived treacherous events that would have killed humans because God had willed us to. In our Bibles, there were stories of Abraham and Sarah welcoming a child into the world when they were each nearly 100 years old and of Noah taking over a century to build the ark. They referred to these stories to speak of instances in which God had done this in the past. And I didn’t doubt that it could happen so much that I doubted that it had. Hadn’t Abraham and Noah had special relationships with their Lord, special purposes to fulfill? We lived in an isolated town with walls erected to protect us from the outside world. What purpose were we fulfilling here? And why those fourteen Survivors? Twenty-six of them had been exiled from Salem so long ago. Why hadn’t God willed the other dozen of them to live? I couldn’t accept it the way they could, but to say this to them was a risk I could not take.

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