Eden Springsby Laura Kasischke
In 1903, a preacher named Benjamin Purnell and five followers founded a colony called the House of David in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where they prepared for eternal life by creating a heaven on earth. Housed in rambling mansions and surrounded by lush orchards and vineyards, the colony added a thousand followers to its fold within a few years, along with a zoo,… See more details below
In 1903, a preacher named Benjamin Purnell and five followers founded a colony called the House of David in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where they prepared for eternal life by creating a heaven on earth. Housed in rambling mansions and surrounded by lush orchards and vineyards, the colony added a thousand followers to its fold within a few years, along with a zoo, extensive gardens, and an amusement park. The sprawling complex, called Eden Springs, was a major tourist attraction of the Midwest. The colonists, who were drawn from far and wide by the magnetic "King Ben," were told to keep their bodies pure by not cutting their hair, eating meat, or engaging in sexual relations. Yet accounts of life within the colony do not reflect such an austere atmosphere, as the handsome, charming founder is described as loving music, dancing, a good joke, and in particular, the company of his attractive female followers.
In Eden Springs, award-winning Michigan author Laura Kasischke imagines life inside the House of David, in chapters framed by real newspaper clippings, legal documents, and accounts of former colonists. Told from the perspective of the young women who were closest to Benjamin Purnell, the novella follows a growing scandal within the colony’s walls. A gravedigger has seen something suspicious in a recently buried casket, a loyal assistant to Benjamin is plotting a cover-up, talk is swirling about unmarried girls having babies, and a rebellious girl named Lena is ready to tell the truth. In flashbacks and first-person narrative mixed with historical artifacts, Kasischke leads readers through the unraveling mystery in a lyrical patchwork as enticing and satisfying as the story itself.
Eden Springs lets readers inside the enchanting and eerie House of David, with an intimate look at its hedonistic highs and eventual collapse. This novella will appeal to all readers of fiction, as well as those with an interest in Michigan history.
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Eden SpringsA Novella
By Laura Kasischke
Wayne State University PressCopyright © 2010 Wayne State University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHEY ARE COMING FROM AUSTRALIA, ENGLAND, IRELAND AND SCOTLAND BY FAMILIES
Are you satisfied to be a spirit-an angel-when you die, or do you want a material body? If you have a choice, the members of the "House of David," who have a colony at Benton Harbor, Mich., on a fine fruit farm of 800 acres, and are traveling over the world gathering converts, will instruct you.
Carriage No. 5, with Lulu, Grace, Frank, Myrtle and John, passed this way on an evangelizing tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Their faith, epitomized, is: "The end of the world is not far distant." Also, they say, if you let your body go down to the grave, then the best you can hope for in eternity is to be a flimsy, floating spirit, but those who have not died by the time of the second coming "shall return to the days of their youth, and their flesh shall become fresher than that of a child's."
(Cleveland Press, May 21. 1922)
It was always a problem, what to do with a body. Cora Moon did the paperwork, but it was hard on her eyes. The pen shook in her hand and splattered ink all over the paper. There was something wrong with Cora, something recent, and related, most likely, to aging (anyone could see that she wasn't what she'd been even the summer before: she could hear the young girls giggle that morning when, pouring tea, she splashed it on the table), and it shouldn't have come as such a surprise. You couldn't even drink a cup of milk you'd left on the table overnight. Or eat an egg. Things spoiled. They decayed.
But Benjamin didn't want anything to do with that, and they all listened to Benjamin, so the body was still out in the orchard, and Benjamin forbade anyone to go near it.
"Let the dead bury the dead," he always said, taking it as a personal affront, death among the converts.
But he never told anyone how the dead could bury the dead.
They were supposed to live forever.
This was, after all, his paradise. He'd made promises concerning eternal life and committed those promises to writing.
When a boy came back to the house and said he'd been watching "a sky so full of vultures over the orchard that it was like night," Cora said something had to be done or they were going to get in trouble with the state, and Benjamin said, "Okay, okay, old lady," and finally sent Paul Baushke out there with a wagon and some pine boards and a handful of nails.
Baushke built the coffin right around the body and then drove it over to the cemetery for the gravedigger to take.
But that, Cora knew, would not simply be the end of that. There would be questions and paperwork and who knew what else, and Cora was the one who was going to have to worry about that.
Lena McFarlane watched out of the corner of her eye as Cora's hand shook over the paper and splattered ink at the edge of it, and even on the table.
"What are you going to write down there, how she died?" Lena asked, trying to make it sound like she didn't, herself, care one way or the other.
Cora didn't say anything, so Lena stood up and looked over the old woman's shoulder.
"Struck by lightning!" Lena clapped a hand over her mouth and laughed out loud.
Cora put the pen down and made her hand into a fist-partly out of anger but also because the hand was so tired. There was a dull ache in the center of her palm. She turned around to frown at Lena, but the girl was already gone, just the swish-swish of her long skirts as she hurried out of the office and into the hall.
Benjamin is of medium height, rather slenderly built and has an extremely fine face. His hair hangs down on his shoulders in long silken curls ... His features are aquiline and well formed. His manner is gentle. His hands are white. Every movement is of a man at peace with himself and the whole world. He teaches and preaches gentleness. His followers listen to his voice as though it were the voice of a deity ... (The Detroit News, April 2, 1905)
Myrtle Sassman was sewing a baby bonnet in the shade when Lena ran past laughing about something, holding her skirts up over her ankles as she ran.
It was spring, and all at once for a while everything was in bloom at the same time-the lilacs and the dogwood and the orchards.
Mile after mile of perfume and light.
Soon there would be serious work to be done-long afternoons on ladders in the sun-but now things were just beginning again, starting out slow and luminous, the way they'd always begun.
Myrtle could see that Lena wasn't wearing shoes, just running over the grass in her stocking feet.
Lately Lena was always laughing about something. Sly little laughs. High, small cacklings. She was the prettiest girl in the Colony at the moment (and how briefly those moments came and went-the children growing, spring, the dogs out back of the kitchen devouring the scraps like wolves, the prettier girls growing older every day), and Lena knew it. All that shiny hair. Her pale skin.
It was a surprise, that beauty. Most of them remembered when Lena had been born, dark blue and reeking of wine. They'd locked Lena's mother in the attic while she was pregnant, to keep her from getting drunk and falling down the stairs, but she'd found her way to the wine anyway,
Not long after that, Lena's mother died, and they all expected the infant Lena to slip away, too, because she wouldn't take another nurse and was too stubborn to drink from a bottle or a spoon.
"She's used to the wine in her mother's milk-" Cora Moon finally understood, and they started to mix a bit of the communion wine with her milk, or wine and water mixed into a thin sweet gruel.
And she didn't die.
After she turned five, she wasn't even cross-eyed.
It was as if life had gotten a grip on that girl and turned her into a prize. They took to calling her the Sunshine Child around the Colony because of her flaxen hair.
Now she was running down the slope toward the amusement park, probably on her way to spread some gossip or to tell a lie. Because she was so pretty and had been sickly, because she was so lazy and slow and no good at anything, Lena didn't have to work like the other girls did. Her leisure was a dangerous thing.
Myrtle inspected the tiny white stitches under her hands-a perfect silky row, smooth against the cotton. Two months left to sew booties and bonnets. When the baby kicked her hard in the ribs, Myrtle gasped.
The band was playing, and Benjamin came walking toward us all dressed in white. I thought I was entering paradise ...
(H. Pritchard, convert )
Benjamin loved girls.
To him, we were like fruit. To us, he was like God. He told us if we believed in him we would live forever-not just in spirit but in the flesh. When the end came, we'd have our young bodies back again, exactly as they were. Slim, unfreckled, fragrant. And it seemed more than possible. It seemed likely. As likely as the life that we were living then.
Those years, those days, the sky was always blue above the orchards-and the abundance! There was so much, even the jays didn't argue about the cherries. Instead, they darted in and out of the branches overhead as if they were sewing an intricate curtain of lace in the air between their nests. Or a bright wedding dress that floated on the breeze. The end seemed very near, as tangible as light, and we sang hymns as we worked.
Every afternoon he'd come to visit us in the orchard just as the sunlight was whitest, pouring itself into the air like milk into a glass of water, floating in fluid strands, weightless as hair. We could hear the hooves of his horse before he reached us-the ground shaking as if something under it were being born-and by the time he got to us we'd have our aprons straightened, the bows of our sun hats tied neatly beneath our chins.
We wore white because it was cool, soothing to the bees, and because the wearing of black was forbidden.
He taught us what to wear, what to eat, how to walk across the grass, between the trees, as softly as God walked on the earth, taking only what was needed or most desired, not even leaving a footprint behind us in the dust.
So the bees didn't sting, they only circled the sweetness to smell it, and the sound of them was like the low drone of bright tiny angels in our hair, and when Benjamin, our leader, smiled, the hard work seemed easy. He laughed at the palms of our hands stained red, and that white horse he rode bareback would paw impatiently at the ground.
Even as a tiny child Benjamin was given to religious matters. I would watch him out back when he thought no one could see him, and he'd be preaching to the trees.
(Elizabeth Purnell, mother)
Cora Moon gave the certificate to Benjamin to sign. She'd changed cause of death to "Apoplexy" and age of deceased to "68" after Lena laughed out loud at "Struck by Lightning."
He was sitting by the window in his room, holding a book with tiny print up to the light to read it, and when she took the paper from him he smiled shyly.
He must think I know he's scared, she thought.
Scared of the state. Scared of the dead. Scared, she supposed, of her, of what she might know.
And her failing eyesight and trembling hands probably scared him, too. The skin loose on her neck. The whiskers she couldn't see well enough to pluck out of her chin. Everybody knew that "Never Grow Old" was Benjamin Purnell's favorite hymn. He liked to sing it and accompany himself on a Hawaiian mandolin.
What must he think of her now?
Benjamin took charge of his face. "Thank you, Cora," he said. "I 'preciate your taking care of things."
It was his kind way of asking her to go away. "Miss Moon?" the boy, Benjamin, so long ago, asked.
His voice came from behind her. She was erasing the chalkboard because the girl whose punishment it had been to erase it had run out the door after school before there was time to remind her. The reason for her punishment was that she could never remember to do anything unless she was reminded.
Cora saw that, despite all her teaching, some of the children-their stringy hair hanging over their eyes, tongues stuck out while they did their thinking-didn't know how to hold a pencil and wouldn't know how to hold a pencil by the time they were seventeen. It didn't matter what she did or didn't do. There were all those eyes and eyelashes, and she wanted to try, but she also knew she could only save a few, if she managed to save any at all. She knew, too, that the ones who would be saved-the ones who wouldn't die never having read a book from its beginning to its end or knowing how much change the manager of the General Store owed them-those ones could have been taught by any teacher.
The uppercase, the lowercase, the printing, and the cursive. The names of the presidents. The multiplication tables. The branches of government and the queens of England, only so they could be farmers like their fathers, suffer, maybe even die in childbirth like their mothers.
"Miss Moon?" Benjamin, the boy, asked again. "May I speak with you?"
"Benjamin," Cora said. "Of course, sit down, young man. You weren't in school again today."
In fact it had been weeks since she'd seen him, except to pass him in the street. She'd heard he'd taken to preaching about Jesus, that there'd been singing and fainting, and that he'd been baptizing folks from all over Fleming County in the creek. Such things were common as mud in Greenup, Kentucky. Travelers came through all the time with their Bibles and a few girls playing tambourines, and soon there were visions and prophecies, and half the county was seen at some point or other wading out into the creek with a preacher-although most gave up the faith by spring, until the fall, when another preacher would come around.
Still, it was unusual to have one of your own people turn to preaching right in his own place. Usually, if a preacher wanted to find an audience, he had to leave his town where everybody knew him just as the son of the drunkard, or the boy who used to snitch things from the General Store, or the grandson of Old Joe Fogarty who hanged himself in his barn. But the gossip in Greenup-that breezy scarf that wound round and round them all, sewn out of boredom and fear-said that Benjamin Purnell had been hammered directly on the head by God.
(That boy's been set afire.)
(That boy's got a message from the Lord.)
You had to hear what he had to say for yourself.
"I'm fine, Miss Moon," Benjamin said. His hair had grown longer since she'd last seen him, and in the dim light of the schoolroom it looked redder than it had been, too. There was a veil of chalk between his face and hers, hanging and shining in the air.
He said, "I'd like to tell you something."
Cora could smell sweat on him, sweet and salty. What was he now-sixteen?
He was growing into his body, and it was easy to imagine the younger girls and the lonely older ones-the widows and the spinsters and the disappointed brides-throwing themselves into the Old Town Creek with him, their hair dripping down their backs. It was easy to imagine the crayfish, the sharp rocks, the rusty water rolling over their feet and up their ankles like cold silk stockings, and him making the sign of the cross on their foreheads with his fingers.
Cora had seen plenty of such preachers, but she had not, herself, followed into any water after them.
Being a teacher meant always keeping an eye out for cheaters, for tricks. Having dedicated herself to coaxing others out of their ignorance, she was naturally suspicious, and hard to make a fool of, and she didn't, anyway, go following men anymore. She'd come to Greenup, Kentucky, from the larger town of Eveleen after her mother had died and the man she was intended to marry, Morris McDonald, had announced his engagement to Mabeline Bowen, the prettiest girl in town.
And now Cora was forty-three-seven years older than her mother had been when she died-and despite her strong limbs and narrow waist and gold hair that refused to go gray, she was considered a very old woman who would never marry and certainly never have a child. Already pretty Mabeline Bowen was dead and gone, along with Morris McDonald and their two daughters, buried somewhere together on a grassy hill in Eveleen (the sun shifting itself over them all and the breeze making shady waves in the green and only a few crows cawing through the silence from tree to tree). One bad winter over a decade ago took them all together of a lung disease while, for Cora Moon, life went on and on.
As Benjamin sat down across from her, Cora waved a hand in the chalk-dusty air between them so she could see him better, and he sneezed.
"God bless you," she said.
He took out a very clean handkerchief and blew his nose. It gave her a chance to look at his hands, which were the hands now of a man, but, like his handkerchief, very clean. Trimmed nails. Knuckles scrubbed clean. He had to be the cleanest young man she'd ever seen. Perhaps the only clean young man she'd ever seen in Greenup, Kentucky.
Yes, she could see it clearly-how easily the girls of Fleming County, the pretty along with the homely in their white baptismal robes, would be guided into the cold ankle-deep water of the Old Town Creek by his hand, and how the first bone-chill of that water would come as a terrible surprise, but then the lying back, and the deafness under it, and then the being raised back up sputtering into his arms, the sign of the cross made slowly on your damp forehead by that clean hand.
"God bless you, too," Benjamin said and tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket.
"What did you wish to discuss?" she asked.
Benjamin took a deep breath then, and for a moment Cora was afraid that he might start to sing, but instead he spoke to her in such a soft voice she had to lean forward in her seat to hear him.
Excerpted from Eden Springs by Laura Kasischke Copyright © 2010 by Wayne State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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