Last fall I entered a short story contest hosted by Everyday Mormon Writer. I would include the link, but their website is unfortunately infected with some kind of malware and isn’t safe to visit. Due to a current conversation in the blogosphere discussing the lack of—or lack of interest in—Mormon tragedy, and because I want my story “Little Karl,” to be accessible should anyone want to read it, I’m reposting my entry here. It is most assuredly a tragedy. Some have described it as a nightmare of sorts; others call it a ghost story. I grew up learning it as a true story; Andrew and Annie are my great-great-grandparents on my father’s side. Karl has become a family name; my great uncle, the poet and historian Andrew Karl Larson, is known to the family as “Uncle Karl,” and my father’s middle name is Karl. The following was a result of me sitting down one day and, as part of a writing exercise, trying to recapture the story as it had been told to me. Naturally there are embellishments for the sake of aesthetics, and some details are lost to history, but 90-95% of the story as it’s told here is true.
It’s quite a jog from Malmö to Missouri to say the least. But Andrew and Annie came, all heart and faith; and that was the sum of what they had: heart, in the form of their son, two-year-old Karl, and their faith, newly discovered. Faith brought them across the Atlantic to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi, and finally helped them build a house on the prairie near Independence. Here they lived and worked for the means to go even further—to Utah.
Andrew and Annie didn’t speak a stick of English between them. It’s a marvel that they accomplished all that they did, leaving one land for another so different and, for all intents and purposes, beginning again.
Their neighbors seemed nice enough at first—a flinty, middle-aged couple we will call the Johnsons. Mrs. Johnson was a pious woman who spent her Sabbath mornings kneeling in hard prayer. At first she was wary of her new neighbors; too many foreigners were coming into Missouri than suited her taste. But the boy—the boy was too sweet for her to stay away, so she took a basket of jam and head cheese through the summer shade to the small homestead Andrew Larson had hewn out of the woods.
Little Karl was just past two, towheaded and round-cheeked and walking on his own, however lopsidedly. Mrs. Johnson would sit on the porch with him, and sing to him, and braid dandelions into golden crowns and call him Prince and knight him with imaginary swords. She laughed with the boy as she seldom laughed, since laughter is of course the doorway to excess, and we all know where that road leads.
One day Mrs. Johnson came into the clearing and saw that the Larsons had company. Her spine stiffened when she recognized Jacob Hales sitting in a rocker on the porch—Jacob Hales, the Mormon bishop.
Mrs. Johnson remained cool as she was introduced to Bishop Hales, nodding politely while staying at enough of a distance to make a handshake impractical. She let go of a nearly audible gasp when Annie put little Karl on the bishop’s knee. How sad it was, she thought on her walk home, that her young neighbors had been thus corrupted. Mormons! She shook her head. And poor little Karl, too small to know any better.
At first Annie appreciated the regular—and then frequent—visits from Mrs. Johnson. But it began to trouble her that, as the edges of the summer days thinned and crisped, her dear little boy spoke words she didn’t know and phrases she couldn’t comprehend. It would tug at her, here and there, with tiny little patches of discomfort, like the hundreds of tiny little hooks catching at her skirt as she walked through briars. She felt badly for complaining of it, since Mrs. Johnson was so good to them, but she could not make the feeling subside.
Late one afternoon Annie was much occupied with salting fish while Mrs. Johnson, her Bible open to Psalms, was trying to teach Karl a phrase in English. The sounds were so odd, so hard to grow accustomed to—
The wicked will be sent to hell—
What could it mean? Annie could only wonder.
A butterfly, its wings gilded with the setting sun, caught the child’s attention, and he stumbled after it, wandering to the edge of the clearing. Annie, at her makeshift table in the yard, made to follow; but Mrs. Johnson held up a reassuring hand and followed the boy into the woods. Annie stopped. Bit her lip. Though she wanted to, she did not follow. She turned away, and realized that somehow the goat had gotten loose and was moseying through the garden, snacking contentedly on everything she could set her trap to. Annie had to chase the thing, unfortunately tramping through the potatoes a bit before getting a hand on the lead. Eventually the goat was caught and returned to her pen. Setting the latch on the gate, Annie felt those hundreds of tiny briars turn to thousands all pulling at once, jabbing at her, suddenly, a terrible prickling up and down her spine, behind her eyes, along the backs of her hands.
She came around the house to see her boy and did not. She circled the shed and henhouse and the pens to see her boy and she did not.
Karl was gone.
Mrs. Johnson was gone.
When Andrew returned home from his day at the mill, Annie was frantic, her words fighting each other to come out. Andrew was at a loss trying to think what was best to do. He sat Annie on the bed, but she followed him out. He sat her on the porch, but she paced. Finally he sat her in the rocker and she rocked. She rocked as he walked out of the clearing by lantern light. She rocked as his footsteps faded amongst the trees. She rocked as her own heart pounded too fast, too high in her chest.
Andrew went first to see the Rogers, their nearest Latter-day Saint neighbors. But while Brother Rogers sympathized, he could offer no assistance. The Johnsons were a prominent family; it wouldn’t do to cross them. Andrew then visited the McLellans, and the Tylers, and the Grays, but none would go with him. Memories of the mobs and violence of fifteen years ago—the massacre of Haun’s Mill in particular—were still fresh, and the Missouri Saints, now few in number, were wary of alerting even the smallest attention of their Gentile neighbors. At last Bishop Hales suggested Andrew go to court; surely the law would give them back their child.
In the days following, it was a lawyer, Mr. Yancey, who was first to decipher—or at least, mostly guess at—the mix of Swedish, broken English and fervent gesture. Mr. Yancey went to the District Attorney on behalf of the young couple, and a rider was sent out to fetch the Johnsons.
The case caused quite a fervor in town. Spicy stuff, better than any theatrical. The Johnsons were good people, good Christians. And this couple, these Larsons, what were they, Swedes? Huh, Swedes. No-good freeloaders, and Mormons to boot. Mormons! Rancor spread through the populace like milk spilling across a tabletop.
The boy needed to be saved. He couldn’t go another day in his parents’ heathen company, that’s what the Johnsons said. They only had the child’s best interests at heart. They would raise him as their own, they would give him all that his parents could not; chiefly, a personal connection with Jesus, proper schooling, and a solid American upbringing. He was too smart a lad to waste as a slave to Brigham Young.
Annie could not understand what was being said. Words were flying everywhere in that hot little courthouse, but all Annie could hear was little Karl calling for her. He was being looked after in a nearby house, though it seemed no one could calm him. He was crying incessantly: Mama, Mama. Mama.
The court, convinced by Mr. Yancey that Annie was indeed Karl’s mother, reunited the small family. Back in his mother’s arms, Karl stopped his wailing, and there was a golden silence.
The Johnsons were initially fined eight dollars, but the charges and penalty were overturned the same afternoon, as the couple were thus far outstanding contributors to the community.
Exhausted, grateful, always praising God, Andrew and Annie began their long walk home through the woods.
Four or five miles from town, with nothing in any direction but trees, they heard hoofbeats. Andrew stopped at the distant sound, realized it was coming closer. He couldn’t tell where from. But then there was a second set, and it was getting dark. He spun quickly from one side to the other, looking. Searching the trees. Annie knelt with Karl in her arms—praying—
The horses were upon them. Two men on horses, at least. Andrew called out to Annie to—
The rifle butt came down squarely on the crown of his head and he fell face first into the groundcover. The lantern rolled out of his fingers and went out.
Annie screamed. Hands grabbed at her in the dark and Karl was wrenched away from her. She was shoved to the ground, shoved hard to the ground, Karl’s coat still in her hand. Stunned, she wondered if the wetness on her face was blood; she raised a trembling hand to her cheek and realized it was spit.
The next day, when Mr. Yancey and several lawmen arrived on the Johnson property, things were strangely quiet. When they tried the door, it opened at a touch; the latch string was not pulled in.
The house was empty, the ashes in the fire cold. No one could say where the Johnsons had got to. Perhaps no one would say. They were gone, and so was little Karl.Previous post: Lizzy and Lottie
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