As part of our commitment to promote fiction writing, Steel This Magazine presents an excerpt from the most recent offering from Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, Noah’s Raven. We met Jacob during his time at Penn State University. He holds Ph.D.’s in Astrobiology and Meteorology, has completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Rock Ethics Institute, and has published two science fiction books and more than a dozen scientific articles. He’s an editor for EARTH Magazine, and a founding member and research scientist at Blue Marble Space Institute of Science.
In his latest work, Noah’s Raven (Little Gray Books, 2016) Haqq-Misra presents us with two protagonists whose stories are set in the future, about sixty years apart from one another. Their respective chapters fluctuate back and forth regaling the tales of Maddie Scarlet, a drug dealing adventurer, and Ezra Miller, an Amish kid studying science at a university during his Rumspringa.
In this excerpt, we join Ezra as he travels home on his Thanksgiving break to spend time with his family. As he and the elders gather around the feast table, we’ll witness what transpires as the future of the clan’s agriculture, interpersonal relationships, and faith are discussed.
Noah’s Raven is available on Amazon.com and NoahsRaven.net
It was the brink of dawn when Ezra heard the unmistakable sound of hooves colliding with ground and stood outside to wait for the approaching carriage. As the horse with its drawn black buggy atop wooden spoked wheels became more visible and audible, other students began to peer out their windows and stream along the sidewalks in anticipation of this foreign sight. Ezra clenched his ﬁngers together and pressed his hands against his side, wishing that this spectacle would conclude without drawing more attention.
His cousin Eli has been tasked with the job of chauffeur, arriving at his school in morning’s earliest hours on the Monday before Thanksgiving. Eli and Ezra had been raised together as childhood friends because their mothers were sisters. Eli had lived only one year longer than Ezra, but he walked a life of matured outward perfection that made even the community elders envious with righteous delight. As they grew older and apart from one another, the fruits of their labors became fodder for analysis among their parents, and Father and Mother both reminded Ezra constantly of the miraculous achievements of their blessed nephew Eli.
The carriage drew closer, and the outline of Eli’s brimmed hat glinted as sunlight cast a patterned dance across the glass windowed door. More students had gathered now to observe, and Ezra could feel the burdensome load of their eyes upon his shoulders. Up to this point, most students had left Ezra alone or constrained their curiosity to mufﬂed laughs, surprised gestures, and awkward questions. He wore the same clothes he always did, and he knew he walked differently from most of the others, but he usually found solace in his studies and was left unbothered. Now, with the imminent approach of his cousin draped in full Sunday regalia, he could do nothing but stand frozen to the ﬂoor as the arrival of his most familiar mode of transportation kept onlookers transﬁxed with stares of wonder and bewilderment.
Eli pulled up to the curb in front of Ezra along a marked side lane reserved for cars, buses, and cabs. He remained in the carriage for several minutes, collecting himself after his long journey through the night, and he made clear through feigned disinterest that there would be no performance to appease the chorus of staring faces. He opened the door with a ﬁrm hand that kept pace with the life he embraced. “Good morning, brother Ezra,” he said, standing nearly six feet straight with lean shoulders squaring his stance.
The qualiﬁer was unnecessary, and Ezra’s simple reply, “Good morning, Eli,” would not be considered rude or worldly in their community. This had always been his preference even as a child, but he knew in this instance, from the slight movement in his cousin’s eyebrows, that he was already being cast as a wayward soul.
“Are you ready to come home, brother?” he asked with repetition. He spoke the way he moved, with each motion cast in an asserting glide.
Ezra breathed deep and looked toward the carriage. “Yes, I am ready.” He had no luggage with him, but he knew that anything he needed would be at the farm. His belongings here could stay until he returned. He resisted the temptation to survey his audience for signs of Trevor, knowing that his only friend was locked into a deep and impenetrable sleep.
Ezra, like most others raised in the Order, had developed a repertoire of strategies for dealing with outsiders who did not understand his way of life. In most instances he could effectively ignore any crass stares or provocative jeers from passersby, and in the worst cases he would exchange the minimal quantity of words required to extricate himself from unwanted attention.
Today the stares again were from gawking strangers, but the source of his embarrassment was not the uninformed judgment diffusing through the air. He carried himself toward the carriage he had seen every Sunday since youth and pressed his hand on the door. He knew that technically the option was his to stay, but in reality there was no choice involved. With the feeling of falling back into the pit of a well after clawing up through murky depths to catch a breath of fresh air, Ezra gathered his remaining shreds of courage and placed himself inside the carriage.
Eli shut the door, and they lingered where they parked for a moment of sanctity as his cousin led them through a prayer for safe travel. Ezra bowed out of reverence but spoke nothing, praying silently in his own way for the return to be swift. Eli concluded as the horse neighed and set the carriage into motion. Ezra did not look back, nor to the sides, but kept his narrow focus straight ahead on the road.
The day long ride from campus to the farm helped to put his mind back in context as Eli informed him of all the latest developments in their community. He patiently listened, as he was accustomed, absorbing the details of how each and every person in their family’s circle had behaved since summer’s end. Successes, failures, performances, quarrels, reconciliations, and concerns that Ezra had missed were now regurgitated as a form of oral tradition characteristic of their culture. As direct cousins they also had many friends in common, some of whom had already decided as adults to join the Order for life, and a few who were courting or even married. Ezra had not been away long enough to hear any news that surprised him, but this at least spared him the need for idle conversation later. The hours marched on through their outstretched tour across the backroads of Pennsylvania, the ultimate leaves of autumn refusing to yield, creating ample time to examine how their lives fared with those around them.
Thanksgiving was a cherished time for family, friends, and fellowship, and Ezra found himself grateful to be among familiar faces that he had known since birth. Father, Mother, Ruth, and his brothers all greeted him with a warm embrace when he arrived on Monday night, and he reverted to his familiar role in their pattern of life on the farm. He assisted with the chores that were usually required of him and crafted his words to elders as insurance for their continued respect.
No one said anything unusual to him when he returned, or even in the days that followed. Mother cried tears of joy to have her boy at home, and Father nodded approvingly that his son had returned to solid ground. Ezra considered that his brothers or even his sister might be curious about his time away in the world, but they acted as if he had never been gone and resumed their usual patterns of behavior he had always known. Assorted cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends were in and out of the house as Thanksgiving day approached, and although Ezra was certain that everyone knew of his Rumspringa, they all indicated with transparent subtlety their preference to avoid this topic altogether.
The days were full of activity, and Ezra had little time to think about school or reminisce about the end of his visit. Everyone treated him as if he had returned to stay, and some of his more distant cousins and great uncles, who only traveled across the ridge to visit during holidays, urged him to think about marriage and baptism. Others would corner Ezra to regale over the stoic zeal of their ancestors or pontiﬁcate over forgotten episodes of scriptural lore. He accepted advice without argument to maintain their expectations, but he also took care to avoid commitment to actions he did not intend. From the required maintenance to keep a farm alive to the murmuring undertones of company in greeting and farewell, Ezra spent the remaining few hours each day helping his parents play host to their never-ending stream of guests.
Thanksgiving Day arrived, and the Miller’s house swelled to capacity. Ezra’s family always hosted the annual meal, a tradition of the farm initiated long ago by their great grand-father. The yearly gathering included the expected crowd of Father’s three brothers and their wives, with a sum of seventeen children in tow. The Miller brothers all lived within a day’s walk of each other and visited often during the week, sometimes unexpectedly to borrow a tool or share important news. All his life Ezra recalls his three uncles as regular ﬁxtures on the farm to lend a helping hand during the day or lead a prayer group at night, with hope to accumulate the erratic approval of their eldest brother.
His Aunt Rose attended with her husband and Eli, along with their four younger daughters. Rose was Mother’s closest relative, just two years younger, and the physical proximity of their homes fostered an unbreakable communion that aligned their wishes and intertwined their hearts into an inseparable will. As friends since birth through school and church, they navigated adolescence, courtship, baptism, marriage, pregnancy, and motherhood together to ﬁnd the best way of life for their kin.
The sight of his growing cousins and aging elders reminded Ezra of earlier celebrations when he was still a child. The menu remained steadfast to please an expectant and traditional crowd, while even the farm itself was maintained with such staunch pride that refused to allow any signs of aging to show. As the gentle wither of older generations transitioned into a budding of the new, Ezra began to realize that the cousins he once knew as infants now admired him as an adult.
“Ezra, can you please set the table?”
The calculated lilt in the tone of her voice carried the words as an imperative, but Ezra still responded, “Yes, Mother.” He got to work and counted out the tall stack of plates and pile of cutlery needed to accommodate their sixty-two dinner guests. His assembled collection of dishware appeared in seven distinct patterns and showcased styles spanning the past two hundred years. Rose and his other aunts arranged tables both proper and makeshift to ameliorate overﬂow from a dining room that could seat only twenty. As tablecloths appeared, Ezra set out the proper arrangement of items at each place, folding each napkin with patience, and soon stood at the end to admire his efforts.
He noticed his sister Ruth and several other women in the kitchen helping Mother prepare dinner, but his brothers were nowhere to be seen. All of the men and most of the boys were outside on a hike through the ﬁelds led by Father. Ezra walked to the window to try and catch a glance when he heard, “And can you help your Aunt fetch some chairs, dear?”
“Yes, Mother,” he replied. Ezra had always assumed this helpful role, and he usually gave little thought to this dynamic. He could not understand, though, why these requests were never made of his brothers, who seemed equally capable. Ezra busied himself as Mother and his aunts directed, and soon the accumulating aroma of fresh roasting meat and sweet steaming vegetables brought cries of delight from the kitchen that swiftly carried the men inside.
Everyone remained standing a respectful distance from tables as they bowed their heads in grace. Father led the prayer as the eldest member of the family, and he took the occasion to vocalize his thanks to God for their bountiful harvest and precious children. Although the protracted oration lost the attention of all but the most devout, Ezra could not help but notice that blessings were conferred upon his uncles, their wives, his distant relatives, Mother, his sister, and brothers all individually—but Ezra’s name was conspicuously absent from Father’s heavenly address. The conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer followed with a resounding chant of “Amen”, and the dinner feast began.
Father broached the subject as the tapering of the meal was supplemented with a tempting assortment of pies, cakes, cookies, and breads. “Ezra,” he said, preempted with a breath that drew attention, “explain to us all what you managed to learn about your eclipse.”
Ezra’s hesitation was seen as all eyes turned to him. Aside from the youngest children who sat separately in the kitchen, his cousins, uncles, aunts, and elder friends all listened with keen ears and stern reservations. His heart pumped in tempo with his racing thoughts, and his body tensed as he forced out his words. “I learned that it is true,” he said, “our sky is changing.”
Hushed whispers passed among his cousins, while their parents raised eyebrows with concerning frowns. Father widened his eyes in an impatient nod to continue, and Mother forced an obvious turn in her seat to face the wall instead of her son.
“They call it geoengineering,” he said, spelling out the syllables with protruded lips. He watched his family members mimic the word in silent contemplation. “It’s like dust in the sky. It makes the planet cooler, but a lot of other changes happen also. The eclipse looks dimmer now than it once did.” His head hoped that this simple explanation would sufﬁce, but his gut wrenched from realizing the truth.
Father scoffed as his chin and chest bounced forward in a defensive display. “Let the men of the world do what they will,” he said. “They have no power to alter the course of creation.”
“But it’s happening now,” said Ezra, tempering the growing excitement that he knew Father was trying to incite. Noting the edge of a smile on the patriarch, he added, “It affects our farming, too. The seasons have shifted now, and we can-not grow the way Grandfather did.”
“Again, he complains about our harvest,” Mother interjected with eyes tilted low. “Ezra, this was a good year, and we have had many bountiful harvests since you were a baby. You always remember the hard years and forget about the good.”
“I just mean,” he replied, “that the whole world is affected by this, and our future on this farm could become difﬁcult.”
“The Lord provides us what we need each year, Ezra,” said Father with staunch reverence. “He will,” with added emphasis, “continue His ways regardless of how the men of the world behave.”
Ezra had no argument to Father on this, but his Aunt Rose continued the charge. “Farming is complicated, Ezra,” she said with soothing craft, “you know this. Why would this not simply be cycles in growth as a natural part of God’s order?”
The clinking of utensils on dessert plates agreed with the line of questioning, and no one faulted Ezra as he looked to the ceiling in thought. His brief sojourn in college had taught him much, but his understanding of global affairs was still elementary.
He had started the requisite courses for certiﬁcation as a skywatcher, which served as a replenishing fountain of knowledge to rejuvenate his parched curiosity. Even in just three months, he learned that the world’s leaders had agreed—in a treaty signed seven years ago—to embark on a widespread campaign of geoengineering to protect the Earth from a climate catastrophe. Highly engineered dust particles were carried up into the atmosphere several times each year where they reﬂected away a portion of the sun’s light, all in an effort to mitigate the planet’s uncontrollable warming. Private companies, he was told by Trevor, had taken the lead in developing the technology and infrastructure, which gave this industry a growing footprint in the global market. His teachers assured him that geoengineering was needed to pre-vent economies and agriculture from collapsing, yet they also admitted that such drastic measures would have other un-foreseen consequences.
Ezra knew in advance his family’s distaste for this brand of narrative. The environment was a gift from God, he was taught, for humans to cultivate and rule. Men of the world had corrupted their hearts and strayed from the Truth, so they awaited the eternal judgment of God at death for their misdeeds in life. Yet God always remained in control, and the actions of men could never alter His desires. The family found it trite, of course, to personify well-known phenomena such as wind, rain, sun, or clouds as deiﬁc acts of animistic gods; yet deep down Ezra knew that they still clung to the fantasy of a heavenly Father God who commands the elements of Earth for His eternal purpose.
The murmur in the house cycled a pause that obligated Ezra to continue. “Because they have already started,” he said, looking ﬁrst at Rose on his left before panning to Father at the head of the table. “They have been changing the atmosphere for years now, and the companies are proﬁting and still hiring. It seems that the men of the world wield tremendous power to do great deeds, both good and evil.” He added this last sentence as an afterthought to appease, but his transparency was met by inscrutable stares.
“You seem,” said Father with a bellow, “to have a lot of faith in the world these days, Ezra.” This was not a question, but Ezra knew it demanded an answer.
“I have learned a lot in my studies away,” said Ezra, representing the ﬁrst statement spoken by anyone that actively acknowledged his absence. “I cannot ignore what I have learned.”
“Two short months, and he thinks himself an expert.” Father and Mother exchanged knowing glances at the youthful rebellion they had come to expect from their progeny.
“Of course not,” said Ezra in defense. “I still have much more to learn.”
“What do you mean?” asked Father with increasing power in his voice. “You learned what you set out to discover, what more do you want now? Your professors will only distort your mind and lead you farther from the Truth.”
“Ezra,” added Mother as she sat straight again to look at her growing boy, “you cannot simultaneously embrace the ways of men and the ways of God. You must choose to de-part from this foolish quest of yours if you still want to live a good life.”
He knew his parents disapproved of his Rumspringa, but this direct challenge to his decision still surprised him. He suspected that the entire performance had been staged, and that his parents had intended since his arrival to use the power of their community to bend his will. As his mouth gaped open in the formation of a response, his surprise was further ampliﬁed at the sound of a familiar voice closer to his age.
“Ezra, are you still a believer?” Eli’s voice was unmistakable, though he sat along a crowded wall to the right of Ezra where he was obscured from view. It was uncommon for children or youth to speak in these large gatherings, out of respectful deference to their elders who knew what mattered most. Eli was becoming a man of his own standing in the community and anticipated his eventual baptism into the Order. He spoke with a convincing courage that made evident the virtuous contents of his heart. The hum that followed his utterance was a matted conglomeration of astonishment, admiration, anxiety, and misgiving that was shattered abruptly by a stern afﬁrmation.
“Yes, of course he is,” Mother was quick to defend. She sharpened her gaze in a panoramic display to make clear that the eternal fate of her son’s soul was not at stake. She rested her view upon Ezra until he met her eyes and knew the pain that would befall if he said otherwise.
“I just want to ﬁnish school,” said an exasperated Ezra, “that is all.”
“Fine, then,” said Father, “ﬁnish your school. But what will you do after?”
“That is for me to decide, Father,” said Ezra in a grasp for initiative met with an audible gasp in unison. Ezra knew that he now walked a ﬁne line between defending himself and offending his elders. “I can make my own decisions as I am ready.” He was vigilant to neither assert nor deny his desire to join the Order, yet he could tell from the troubled looks of his relatives that they all shared a deep and sincere concern for his salvation.
“You should not return to the world, Ezra.” Father’s commanding inﬂection was the same that Ezra learned as an infant meant not to be triﬂed with. “You must listen to me. I know what is good for you.”
Father stood up upon pronouncement and retired to his study upstairs. Two of his three brothers followed behind, as the rest of the men took the cue and decided upon a walk outside. The women began the arduous process of cleaning, and the children organized a scavenger hunt among their ranks.
Ezra lingered at his place as he watched his relatives and friends dissipate without another word or glance in his direction. He only moved when his cousin Mary, four years younger, politely requested for him to vacate the table so she could restore it to the original location. He meandered outside as the women rearranged the house. Neither the men on their hike nor the children in their games showed any acknowledgment of his presence. His body ﬂashed in momentary warmth at the prospect of being ignored, but he receded across the small hill behind the house to walk away from the crowds and upstream toward his familiar place of solitude.
The stream was colder now than when Ezra had left, but the water’s clarity had not yet surrendered to the opaque freeze of winter. He crossed and found the comfortable clearing he knew so well. He sat on the grass with his back against a bristling pine tree and let the sound of the passing stream drown out the rumbles and shouts of revelry around him. He looked to the sky and tried to pray, but words from Father and Mother were all that came to mind.
As the yellowing hues scattered through the thicket of winding branches, Ezra felt a shrill and pointed loneliness that made the familiar homeland of his forebearers an unwelcome sight. He reached into his pocket and retrieved the sturdy green pine cone he had kept with him, the memento he took just three months earlier. He let it fall to roll between his hands, watching this seed of potential life dance across the lines of his palm, before clasping it in anger and pain. He closed his eyes in silence as the reddening of the sky signaled the end to this holiday.
He paused along the bank and examined a solitary minnow in frantic spurts of propulsion that carried it downstream toward its distant destination. He waded into the creek and felt his feet turn numb. Casting one more gaze to heaven, and then another toward the house, he stretched out his hand over the ﬂowing waters and let the pine cone drop with a muted splash. Without a glance or concern to see where it landed, he left his place of childhood solace to prepare for the journey ahead.