Avon Inspire (April 2010)
“Children, it is time to clean up,” Clara Slabaugh said. “We must wash off the blackboards and set our room to rights. Now, who would like to sweep the floor today?”
As expected, a chorus of twenty-four voices groaned loudly in reply. As she looked from one imploring face to the next, Clara fought to keep a stern expression. Sometime near the beginning of the school year, the children had started this game. Each afternoon, they did their best to delay the inevitable.
But she knew better. Clapping her hands together, she lifted her chin a bit. “Come now, it is necessary to keep our schoolhouse neat and tidy, jah? One cannot learn if the room is as tangled as a bird’s nest.”
After another few seconds of protest, ten-year-old Anson Graber raised his hand. “I’ll sweep today, Miss Slabaugh.”
“Thank you, Anson. Then perhaps Peter would care to help you water the crocuses when you’re done?”
“I’d like that, yes,” he said, his smile revealing a new tooth gone missing. Peter, too, looked pleased to have the special job of watering the patch of dirt right next to the doorway.
After assigning jobs to some of the oldest students, the rest of the children gathered their things together and pulled on coats. Not a one of them took time to button.
Clara understood why. It was March first, and what a pleasant March first it was! As the saying went, it had come in like a lamb. Outside, the weather was in the forties, and the sky was clear and sun shone bright.
Just as Clara had all but Anson and Peter in line to be dismissed, little Maggie Graber had a question. Clara bent down to her level. “Yes, Maggie?”
“Teacher, how come Anson must water the crocuses? Nothing’s coming up.”
“You are right, but we must have faith that the flowers will one day come and bloom brightly, just like they do every year.”
One of the seven-year-old boys broke from the line to peer out the open doorway. “It’s still just dirt.”
“There’s beauty just underneath,” Clara promised. “Under the ground, as under our skin, beautiful things are just waiting to be discovered.”
“Even for you?” Maggie asked.
Maggie’s sister Carrie gasped. The others were stunned to silence.
Clara’s hand flew up to her scarred cheek. The innocent question startled a lump in her throat. “Yes, even me, Maggie. My scars are only skin deep. Inside, I’m just like every other person you know.”
Around her, the other children’s eyes widened. Clara knew Maggie’s question and her answer had embarrassed them. Well, it had embarrassed her as well, to her shame.
She sought to set everyone at ease by ringing the dismissal bell a full minute early. “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, then, children. Do be careful going home.”
Ten hugs later, she watched the last of her scholars wander off to their homes, the littlest ones carefully watched over by their older siblings.
When she was finally alone, Clara leaned against the doorframe and breathed deeply. Another day, done.
Her second year of teaching was almost done, too. In a mere two months, classes would end and the joy of her existence would be taking a three-month break.
Clara tried not to care so much about that.
But still, she couldn’t deny how hard it was not to feel melancholy some days when there seemed to be so little else to look forward to. At twenty-two, she was well on her way to being an old maid. She had no sweetheart to call her own.
In fact, she’d never been courted.
No, all she had was her job and her mother, who relied on her almost to the exclusion of all others.
Of course, Clara had her dreams, too.
In her dreams, she wasn’t bound by a bossy parent’s needs. In her dreams, parts of her face were no longer marked by scars. Neither was her right hand. Nor the rest of her body. No, in her dreams, she was beautiful.
Of course, she shouldn’t care about such things. Feeling shamed, Clara got to work on grading the children’s papers. It wouldn’t do to stand around and wish for things that could never be. No, she should be counting her blessings—and she had many, she knew.
She had a job she enjoyed. She loved teaching, and for the most part, her students were respectful and enjoyable. She had a bright mind, and a wonderful-gut library from which she could check out as many books as she wanted.
And she did have a mother who loved her, no matter what she looked like.
It was only sometimes, in the late afternoon—in the time between her time with students and the work at home—that she wished for something more. For someone to see beyond her imperfections and reckon that she’d make a fine wife.
But here in Sugarcreek, Ohio, all anyone ever seemed to notice were her scars. They’d never taken the time to see what kind of person she was underneath.
Wishing for something different would surely be a mistake.
“Cousin Tim, you’re still here!” Anson called out the moment the young boy spied him next to the barn.
Tim grinned at the ten-year-old who was running toward him at breakneck speed. Oh, but that boy always ran like his feet were on fire. “Where else did you think I’d be?”
“Don’t know.” Anson shrugged as he approached. “Guess I ain’t used to ya being here yet.”
“Sometimes I can say the same thing.” Though Tim had been living in his uncle’s home for two weeks, there were times that he still felt taken by surprise.
Anson scampered closer to Tim, his blond hair every which way, and dropped his books on the ground. “Whatcha working on?”
“Oh, this and that. Your father asked me to do some mending and fixing up around the house and barn for a bit. Today I decided that his fence here needed repairing.”
Looking at Tim’s hammer, Anson wrinkled his nose. “You might be needin’ more than that hammer.” The fence did look like it had taken its last breath of air. “Perhaps I should build a new one. Ah, well. I’ve got time to do that, jah?”
Anson nodded sagely. “Mamm says your being here is a real blessing. Daed can’t be in two places at a time.” Picking up a piece of discarded rotten wood, he added, “Plus, Joshua ain’t no help at the moment. Right now, he seems to be more interested in Gretta than anything else.”
It took an effort, but Tim kept his expression sober. It wouldn’t do for Anson to think he was being laughed at. “Joshua and Gretta are newlyweds. They’re supposed to only be thinking about each other.”
“Well, I hope Joshua starts thinking about the store more so Caleb won’t have to work as much. Then he could be around here more.”
“Is that what you say or what Caleb says?”
Anson shrugged. “Both, I guess. Caleb doesn’t like working at the store so it puts everyone in a sour mood.”
“I imagine things will settle down soon.”
“I hope things don’t settle so much that you leave. I like you here,” Anson replied, just as he tore off to the house, leaving a cloud of dust in his place.
Tim chuckled as he turned back to the fence he’d been repairing. Anson was right, the fence certainly was in a bad way. The slats were mostly rotten, and it had taken some careful considering to decide whether he should simply repair a few chosen boards or replace the whole fence around the corral altogether.
He’d leaned toward saving Frank a few dollars, but now he wasn’t so sure if that had been the wisest decision.
In the distance, he heard Aunt Elsa’s merry voice, followed by the three youngest children clambering for attention.
After something crashed and the youngest—Toby it was—started crying, Tim winced. Noise at his uncle’s home was never far away.
Most times, it was a constant companion.
It was taking some getting used to as well. Back home in Indiana, he was used to the opposite way of life. After his birth, his mother’s doctor had warned against any further pregnancies. So he was an only child.
He’d never minded that.
Actually, most days, he’d enjoyed it just being the three of them. At the end of every day, after his father had read a passage from the Bible, Tim and his parents would read together in their family room. Little by little, the worries of the day would dissipate and he’d be filled with the certainty of God’s love. It had been nice.
In addition, over the last year, he’d been seeing Ruby Lynn Kropf. Though he still wasn’t sure she was the right one for him, he’d enjoyed the idea of thinking that she might be. Tim had looked forward to one day taking over his father’s land and farming it by Ruby Lynn’s side. Together, they would raise a houseful of kinner and visit with his folks often.
But then one day his parents showed him a letter that had come in the day’s mail.
In the letter, his uncle had asked him to come live, for the spring and summer, at his home. With Joshua so recently married and the youngest kinner terribly young, they were stretched thin. Uncle Frank wanted his help with the farm, until Caleb, his fifteen-year-old cousin, could take on more responsibility.
Tim’s first inclination had been to decline. His parents needed him, and he knew his uncle was well-situated in the community. Surely there was someone else who could help?
When both his parents encouraged him to go, he’d stared at them in shock. “But I can’t leave you two alone.”
“You’ll hardly be leaving us alone, Tim,” his mother chided. “We’ve got many friends here.”
“But that’s not the same as family.”
“We’ve your father’s sisters and brothers, too.”
“What about Ruby Lynn? She won’t take it too kindly that I’ll be leaving her for a few months.”
His parents exchanged glances. “She’s special to you, we know,” his mother said slowly. “But I think that maybe Ruby needs to grow a bit. She’s two years younger than you. Perhaps you each could get to know some other people.”
He’d been shocked. “I don’t want to get to know any other girls.”
“Perhaps she might want to meet some other young men? At least she needs to opportunity, jah? This separation will give her some time.”
In the end, Tim knew he’d really had no choice after all. His parents had wanted him to move to Sugarcreek for a spell, and so he did.
But he was finding it to be a trying experience. At twenty-two, he figured he was a bit old to be helping out like he was.
“You about done for the day?”
Startled from his ruminations, Tim turned to his uncle. “Uncle Frank, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you approach.”
“I guess not. Your eyes had a look about them that said you were far away.”
He smiled at the description. “Not so far. Just in Indiana.”
“Ah. You missing home?”
Missing his parents and home sounded too babyish. “No . . . I’m missing Ruby Lynn. My sweetheart. What else can I do for you today?”
Uncle Frank’s eyes twinkled with merriment. “Not a thing. It’s time you relaxed. Go on in the house for a while.”
Just thinking about the many kinner running around made Tim shiver. “Danke, but I think I’ll stay out here for a bit.”
“You know, sometimes, when I’m eager to get away, I go for a walk.” His uncle pointed to the faintest of trails that started just a few yards away. “If you take that path, it will eventually lead you down to the creek. It’s not a river or anything, but sometimes it’s running.”
Walking to an empty creek didn’t sound terribly adventuresome, but Tim was grateful for the reprieve. Anything would be better than weaving his way through the maze of children in the house. “Maybe I’ll go on down there now.”
“Take your time, nephew. Elsa will hold supper for ya if you aren’t back by the time we eat.”
That sounded like too much to ask. During his short time with his aunt and uncle, Tim had been made aware of just how much effort it took Elsa to run such a big household smoothly. “I’ll try to be back before supper.”
Understanding creased the lines around his uncle’s eyes. “I know you will. You’re a good man, Tim. But I don’t want to impose on you too much. Everyone needs some time to himself every now and then. Sometimes it’s a gut idea to take a look at the scenery, too. Take what’s offered.”
With some surprise, Tim understood what his uncle wasn’t saying. His dissatisfaction had been noticed, but not necessarily found fault with. “Danke, Uncle.”
After putting away the tools, he set off on his walk.
The landscape was beautiful. Rolling hills surrounded him and trees dotted the landscape. Most fields were plowed, their rich soil black and vibrant. Every so often he’d spy a jaunty red cardinal flying toward its mate or a ground squirrel scurrying with purpose.
His own path snaked its way through a vivid green meadow dotted with tiny purple flowers just aching for a glimpse of the sky. Caught by the beauty of it all, Tim breathed deep. The land around Sugarcreek was truly one of the Lord’s most perfect treasures.
After almost a mile, the ground sloped a bit and grew rockier. And then finally, like an unexpected rainbow, Tim spied the creek.
As waterways went, it wasn’t much of one. Only a few yards wide, the creek held only a few feet of water. Underneath the current, the bed was a mixture of rocks, pebbles, and sand. But the water ran clear and the gentle noise of the stream was as inviting as a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day.
He’d never been one to resist a treat.
Bending down, Tim removed his straw hat and ran his hands in the icy cool water. Unable to stop himself, he cupped his hands to have a little taste.
And then he saw her.
“I wouldn’t risk tasting that water, if you don’t mind me saying so,” a girl called out.
Tim straightened, keeping his eyes on her approach. Her skirt was violet, and the black apron she wore over it was in stark contrast to her white kapp. A small tremor rushed through him as he realized she was Plain, too. “It’s polluted, then?” he asked when she was only a few yards away.
“I’m not sure how dirty it is, but I will say that the Millers’ cows have enjoyed the waters enough to make me wary.” She smiled.
He flinched in surprise. At first, he’d only been thinking about her eyes. They were light brown and tilted up a bit at the sides, like she was about to break out laughing. But when his gaze flickered to her lips, he noticed only one side of her mouth rose perfectly. The other stopped in a maze of puckered red skin that decorated her cheek. “I think I’ll pass on that drink, then. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
She stopped. Suddenly looking uncertain.
And it was no wonder. He, too, had heard the strain in his voice. Tim was reminded of a deer in the glade, her stance was so timid, her posture ready to make a quick escape if need be.
Struggling to not stare at the scars on her face, he spoke again. “I’m Tim Graber. Frank Graber’s nephew.”
Her posture eased. Eyes, brown and expressive, looked him over. “And I am Clara Slabaugh.”
“Do you live nearby?”
She pointed to a white house in the distance. “Close enough. I walked to school today. Going home on the road takes longer, so I thought I’d cut through here.”
“Yes. I’m the area’s teacher.” She paused. “Sometimes I enjoy walking home this way. It’s a lot quicker to take a turn by the creek than to keep to the road.”
She said the words almost like an apology. As if she was the one intruding on his time. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was the one who didn’t belong.
Or, perhaps he was trespassing? “Clara, am I on your land?”
“Heavens, no. I’m not certain who exactly owns this piece of property, if you want to know the truth. For as long as I can remember, all of us in the area have used it. And we all enjoy the creek. Even the Allens. They’re your English neighbors, you know.”
“I . . . I met them.” Even as he uttered the words, he winced. Oh, could any man sound more feeble?
For a moment, her eyes held his. Then, as a faint red flush appeared in her cheek—the cheek that looked as soft and perfect as the petals of a May rose, she turned away. “I’d better be going.”
He didn’t want her to leave. There was something about Clara that calmed him. He appreciated her serene demeanor. So much so, he yearned to keep her close. “Would you like me to walk you the rest of the way home?”
“There’s no need. I walk by myself all the time.”
“Ah.” Now he was embarrassed. But not enough to not risk getting to know her better. “Are you married, Clara?”
Her eyes narrowed in surprise—and with a bit of distrust. “No.”
“Courting anyone?” Oh, but it was a forward question. What had possessed him to ever ask such a thing?
Hurt filled her gaze. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
She was right. It was not. He’d been unforgivably rude.
“I must be going.” Before even waiting for a reply, she turned her back to him and started walking briskly toward the small white house in the distance.
Too affected by his impertinence, Tim simply stood silently and watched her walk away. Within minutes, she’d gone up and down a hill, then faded from view. “Goodbye, Clara,” he whispered.
Then wondered why he was so overcome.