Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The face in the mirror was barely recognizable. Philip Fairbanks winced at the black-and-blue mask that spread like a handprint over his broken nose and encompassed both eyes like tattooed sunglasses. Most of the swelling had gone down—it’d been almost a week since those thugs had attacked him—but he still looked like the poster boy for a horror flick. The forty stitches that started on his forehead and ran in a jagged path along the right side of his head didn’t help, especially since they’d shaved his entire scalp to avoid leaving him with a bald spot on only one side.
“Don’t you worry, honey,” the plump nurse’s aide—they called them “Patient Care Technicians” now—had chirped cheerfully as she’d shaved away his fifty-dollar haircut. “Hair always grows back. And bald heads are rad now, verrry sexy.”
“I can’t go to the office looking like this!” he growled to his reflection. He was on enough shaky ground with his business partner at Fairbanks and Fenchel without also freaking out their clients. What in the world was he going to do?
He had to do something. Before Henry made good on his threat to sue him for the money missing from their account.
Tentatively opening his mouth—Uhnn, that hurt—Philip inserted the hospital-issue toothbrush and carefully waggled it around his teeth. If he was going to be discharged today, he had to clean up. But brushing hurt. Chewing hurt. Talking hurt. Blowing his nose hurt. And that was only his head! His broken right arm and the three broken ribs where he’d been kicked repeatedly meant that almost every movement hurt, even breathing. Especially breathing. The sharp pains in his gut still made him grit his teeth when he took the required daily walks around the nursing floor, even though none of the x-rays or blood tests had turned up any definitive internal injuries.
Probably just bruising on his organs, the internist had said. But they’d kept doing tests since he still had pain. Seemed like something would’ve shown up by now.
Coming out of the bathroom of the private hospital room, Philip saw that his breakfast tray had been taken away, and someone—probably one of those “senior volunteers” who roamed the place—had laid today’s Tribune on his bed. He was tempted to settle into the recliner and read the paper until housekeeping had changed the bed and cleaned the bathroom, but it was such an ordeal to get comfortable and then struggle to get up again, he might as well get the morning walk out of the way since he was already upright. At least they’d unhooked him from the IV pole and let him eat real food—if you could call Jell-O and Cream of Wheat and lukewarm chicken broth “real food.”
Reaching for the brown terry bathrobe Gabby had brought him, he pulled it over his shoulders with his one good hand and started for the hall. He couldn’t remember who’d loaned it to him, maybe that tall Baxter kid, the young one who’d moved into Gabby’s building to be the property manager or something. He didn’t like wearing someone else’s robe, but at least it covered the yawning gaps in the back of the faded hospital gown.
Walking was tedious. Past the room with the old man who always seemed to be asleep with his mouth hanging open . . . past the room that always had at least three or more visitors yakking it up . . . past the room full of flowers and balloons, and the room that had none . . . thirty-seven steps to the nurses’ station, situated so the staff could keep an eye on the comings and goings of visitors and patients and the call lights outside each room. Philip stopped. “Excuse me, nurse? When is Dr. Yin coming around? He said I might be discharged today, and I’d like to get out of here sooner rather than—”
“He’ll be here, Mr. Fairbanks.” The closest nurse didn’t even look up from the computer where she was typing in notes. “Just be patient. Glad to see you walking . . . that’s good. You got somebody to pick you up?”
Philip didn’t answer. No, he didn’t have anybody coming to pick him up—though he supposed Gabby would if he called her and let her know what time he was getting released. Today was Saturday—she’d said something about P.J.’s cross country meet in the morning and a dedication thing at that shelter where she worked, then she’d bring the boys to see him.
The boys. Philip grimaced as he turned into the next hall. He wished she wouldn’t bring P.J. and Paul. He hated having his sons see him like this. They were both good sports but—wait. He sniffed. Smelled like fresh coffee. Oh! What he wouldn’t give for a good cup of hot coffee. But where . . . ?
Philip glanced down the hallway. It was deserted except for a young man, maybe college age, leaning against the wall outside one of the patient rooms holding two tall Starbucks cups with molded plastic lids, sipping from one of them. Drawn by the fragrant aroma, he approached the young man who was wearing faded jeans, gym shoes, and a thin jacket over a white T-shirt. He had longish, sandy hair escaping from beneath a baseball cap and a backpack slung over one shoulder.
“Uh, say, sorry to bother you, but where’d you get the Starbucks? Do they have a café here in the hospital?” Philip winced, hearing his words mushing together.
The kid looked up, his eyebrows shooting skyward as he took in Philip’s arm cast and battered face. “Whoa, dude! What’s the other guy look like?”
Great. A smart aleck. “Never mind.” Philip started to walk away.
“Hey, wait! Didn’t mean to be rude—you just took me by surprise. Uh, yeah, sure, there’s a nice place on the first floor. They sell Starbucks. You want somethin’?”
Philip hesitated. “Well, yeah. Could use a cup of good coffee. But . . .” He held out both hands as far as his sling would allow to indicate his stocking feet and hospital gown. “Not exactly dressed for public viewing.”
The kid chuckled. “No problem. I’ll get it for you. What d’ya want? Oh, hey. Why don’t you just take this?” He thrust out the second cup of coffee he was holding. “Brought it up for my nana”—he tipped his head to indicate the patient room behind him—“but she zonked out. Snoring happily. It’ll be cold by the time she wakes up. Go ahead, take it.” He held it out farther. “Just black, nothin’ in it—but I got some creamers and sugar packets in my pocket somewhere.”
“Black’s fine. You sure? I’ll pay you for it. Wallet’s in my room.”
A shrug. “Whatever. I’ll carry it back for you. Where’s your room? Looks like you could use another hand anyway.”
Philip had meant he’d go back and get his wallet, but the kid was already starting to walk alongside as he headed back the way he’d come. It meant cutting his walk short, but . . . so what? The coffee wouldn’t stay hot indefinitely.
Back in his room, Philip opened the narrow closet storing the jogging clothes he’d been wearing when he’d been attacked and rummaged in the duffel bag Gabrielle had brought him that held a clean set of clothes, his keys, and wallet. Fishing a few bucks out with his good hand, he turned around to see that his benefactor had moved the rolling table next to the recliner, set the second paper cup on it, and settled into the other visitor chair.
Looked like he had company, whether he wanted it or not.
Philip handed the dollar bills to his visitor, then lowered himself gingerly into the recliner. Reaching for the coffee, he sipped carefully. Mmm. Still hot. Perfect. “Thanks. Appreciate the coffee.” He studied the young man slouched in the other chair, nursing his own cup. “I’m Philip Fairbanks. You are . . . ?”
“Oh yeah.” The kid laughed. “Forgot my manners. Nana would box my ears. I’m Will Nissan—yeah, like the car. What happened to you? Car accident?”
The kid sure was nosy! But for some reason, Philip found Will’s straightforward friendliness refreshing. Somebody who wasn’t ticked at him like his father was for messing up his life. Somebody who wasn’t being nice to him—like his wife—in spite of how he’d treated her, making him feel like a snake in the grass. Somebody who wasn’t out to get him, like those thugs, trying to squeeze him for the money he owed their boss.
Philip shrugged. “Actually, I got mugged.”
Will Nissan’s eyes widened with ill-concealed delight. “You gotta be kidding!”
“Nope. Truth.” But that’s all he was going to say. Philip didn’t want to think about those thugs who’d worked him over. Or the fact that they were still out there and knew where he lived. “What about your grandmother . . . she going to be all right?”
Will shrugged. “Probably. Nothing seems to keep her down long, though she gets this bronchitis stuff easily and her doc’s worried about pneumonia. But, nah, Nana ain’t gonna die until she finishes her mission in life.”
“Her . . . what?”
“Her mission in life!” Will chuckled and leaned forward. “See, Nana’s big sister ran away from home when she was sixteen—oh, it’s gotta be sixty-plus years ago now. Nana’s seventy-seven at last count and Cindy was a couple of years older. Anyway, last they heard from her, big sister was working in Chicago, but nobody’s seen her since. My Nana got married, raised a family in Detroit—I was born and raised there too—but she never gave up looking for her sister. When Gramps died a few years back, she moved here so she could keep looking for her.”
Philip shook his head. “It’s been over sixty years? She could be anywhere! People move all the time. Or she might be dead. Sixty years is a long time.”
“Try telling that to Nana! ‘I know she’s alive!’ she says. ‘Can feel it in my bones.’ ” Will shrugged and leaned back in the chair. “My folks think Nana’s crazy, but I don’t mind. I’m staying with her now while I’m going to UIC, and I’ve been helping her do all these Internet searches. Kind of like detective work.”
“Nah, not really. We did find somebody with a similar name who worked as a hotel maid way back when, but that was decades ago. Not much since then—oh.” Will jumped up as the door opened and a thirty-something Asian man strolled in wearing a tan corduroy sport coat and black slacks, an ID tag and a stethoscope sticking out of one coat pocket identifying him as medical personnel.
Philip nodded. “Dr. Yin.”
“Good morning.” The doctor glanced at Will, a pleasant smile creasing his smooth face. “I see you have company. Your son taking you home?”
“Nah. We just met actually.” Will grabbed his backpack. “Gotta go see if Nana’s awake.” He held out his hand to Philip. “Good luck, Mr. Fairbanks. Better stay away from the prize ring, though. Don’t think boxing’s your thing.” The young man’s hazel eyes crinkled merrily as they shook hands.
Philip smiled at the joke, sorry to see him go. “What’s the name of your missing relative? Never know who I might run into.”
Will grinned. “Yeah, you never know. Lucinda. ‘Great-Aunt Cindy,’ we always called her. The myth, the legend! We kids always imagined she became some famous movie star. If so, she’s probably sipping daiquiris in a swanky nursing home in Hollywood.” The young man sidled toward the door. “But, hey, if you do need a ride home, just let me know. I’ve got Nana’s car, I’d be happy to drop you off.”
With a cheerful wave Will Nissan was gone.
Dr. Yin pulled out his stethoscope. “So, Mr. Fairbanks. They tell me you want to go home.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Might let you do that. But I wouldn’t go back to work yet if I were you. A few more days rest—even a week—would be smart. You’ve still got some healing to do. Tell them ‘Doctor’s orders.’ ” He stuck the earpieces in his ears and placed the stethoscope on Philip’s back. “Deep breath now . . .”
Sunday, April 24, 2011
“Come help us, mamm!” The excited voice of six-year-old Laura floated across the lawn. Abby grinned, watching her daughter and four-year-old son, Jake, chase lightning bugs through the grass with jelly jars in hand. Despite the industrious efforts of the kinner, the fireflies successfully evaded capture to blink and glow another night.
“Why are you two off the porch? You both were already washed for bed.” Abby walked back from the barn with her palms perched on her hips.
She glanced up as a squeak from the screen door signaled the arrival of the final Graber family member, herehemann of ten years. “I thought you were reading them a story,” she said with a sly smile.
Daniel slicked a hand through his thick hair, his hat nowhere in sight. Then he braced calloused palms against the porch rail. “Relax, wife. That grass looks pretty clean from where I’m standing. You won’t have to start from scratch. Didn’t it rain just the other day?” His smile deepened the lines around his eyes. With the setting sun glinting off his sun-burnished nose, he looked as mischievous as one of their children.
Abby watched the warm summer night unfold around her family with no desire to scold. The young ones would have the rest of their lives to have perfectly clean feet, but the summers of childhood were numbered. Besides, it was too nice an evening for anyone to go to bed on time. Walking up the porch steps, she stepped easily into Daniel’s strong arms and rested her head against his shoulder. Within his embrace, and with her two healthy offspring darting about like honeybees in spring clover, she savored the almost-longest day of the year.
Swifts and swallows made their final canvass above the meadow before settling for the night in barn rafter nests or in the hollows of dead trees. Upon their exit from the sky, bats would take their place, swooping and soaring on wind currents, gobbling pesky mosquitoes. The breeze, scented with the last of the lilacs and the first of the honeysuckle, felt cool on her overheated skin.
“Everything all charged up for the night?” he asked close to her ear.
Daniel’s question, the same one he asked nearly every night since she’d become a midwife, broke the idyllic trance she had wandered into—the all’s-well-with-the-world feeling one gets after a satisfying day. “Jah,” she murmured. “I ran the generator long enough to charge my battery packs. And I put a fresh battery in my cell phone for tonight, but I don’t expect any middle-of-the-night calls. After yesterday’s delivery, no babies are expected for several weeks.”
“Hmm,” he concluded, nuzzling the top of her head. “We both know how well babies stick to doctors’ timetables. I’m fixing a cup of tea and heading upstairs. Yours will be cooling on the table for whenever you’re ready.” He brushed his lips across the top of her kapp before going inside, the screen door slamming behind him.
The nice thing about being married for ten years is that a person gets to know someone very well. Daniel Graber knew she enjoyed her beverages at room temperature—not too hot and not too cold. And she knew he needed to take mental inventory before going to bed to make sure the family’s ducks were all in a row. So she didn’t mind being asked about her cell phone charger each evening.
After all, a midwife, even an Amish midwife, needed to be accessible twenty-four hours a day. The Ordnung, or rules that governed their Old Order district, didn’t stipulate how Amish wives had their babies. A woman could have an obstetrician deliver at an English hospital, or she could go to a birthing center where a specially trained, certified nurse-midwife would bring her baby into the world. But many Old Order Amish preferred to have their babies at home, the center of their rural lives. Unlike their English counterparts, they usually continued to work during labor—washing dishes, picking beans in the garden, even giving the porch rocker a fresh coat of paint—until the baby made its grand entrance.
At thirty, Abigail Graber was an experienced midwife, having assisted the local physician or nurse-midwife in hundreds of deliveries. She’d received training and apprenticed with a nurse-midwife for several years, but she’d never set foot in college because she was Amish like her patients. And though her time-honored vocation allowed Abigail to witness the miracle of creation firsthand, even without advanced education she understood how quickly things could go wrong for either mother or child.
Ohio and Pennsylvania, the two states with the highest population of Amish families, didn’t license midwives who weren’t registered nurses under current guidelines. Therefore, Abby’s duties generally involved preparing the mother—and the father—for the baby’s arrival. She would give the women back massages to loosen tight muscles or have them soak in warm tubs to speed the delivery. Because their rural doctor refused to sit around people’s kitchens waiting for babies to be born, Abigail would monitor the mother’s contractions to keep him informed. Abby loved the waiting time while fathers debated possible names and mothers crocheted last-minute socks. Dr. Weller would usually arrive just in time to deliver the infant, and then he returned to his office patients or his own warm bed. Abby would remain to wash the new mother, bathe the infant in the kitchen sink, and finish the paperwork at the table. She never left a home until the newborn was comfortably nursing at the mother’s breast.
Home births were solely for healthy women with low-risk pregnancies and not for women with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or if a previous birth had been difficult. Patients were to receive regular prenatal care in the doctor’s office to monitor their medical condition and the baby’s development. For that reason, Abby knew none of the doctor’s patients was due any time soon. But, as Daniel aptly pointed out, babies didn’t listen very well.
And God often had other plans when a woman grew too comfortable, too placid in the sheer flawlessness of her life. On that June evening, as her own two healthy children scrambled up the steps to bed, their feet surprisingly clean, Abby almost felt smug in her contentment. She rocked in the porch swing, sipping tea and contemplating the planet Venus as it sat low and bright on the horizon.
The ring of her cell phone jarred her senses. “Hello. Graber residence.”
“Abigail Graber?” asked an unfamiliar voice. “This is Nathan Fisher. Ruth and I rented the Levi Yoder place here in Shreve after the elder Mr. Yoder passed on. I’m calling you from the neighbor’s house.”
Silence ensued as Abby wracked her brain. Fisher was a very common name, but she didn’t recall meeting someone named Ruth Fisher in Dr. Weller’s office. “What can I do for you, Mr. Fisher?” She finished her tea in one long swallow.
“My wife wants you to come see her. She said that I should call you and nobody else. She got your number from one of the gals in our district.”
Abby frowned, feeling annoyance take hold. Her Plain brethren maintained the old-fashioned habit of never referring to a pregnancy directly, as though babies arrived under blessed but unknown circumstances. “I take it your wife is expecting a boppli ? She needs to contact the doctor’s office for an appointment and then be examined by him before—”
“No, you need to come over right now. She’s crying out and is in a lot of pain.”
Abby’s annoyance changed to fear. “Are you saying your wife is in labor rightnow ?” She tried unsuccessfully to keep her voice calm as she paced the porch. No sense in waking the rest of the family. Her kinner had probably just fallen asleep.
“Jah, she is.” His three succinct words conveyed none of the same apprehension that tightened her stomach into a knot.
“Who has she been seeing? Who is her doctor?”
“Nobody. She saw a lady doctor back in Indiana, but then we moved here so I could find work. She heard at preaching service that the doctor who makes house calls in these parts was a man.” Nathan Fisher stated these facts conversationally.
Abby’s knuckles went white from gripping the porch rail. “There are plenty of lady doctors at the clinic in Wooster, plus they have a van that would pick your wife up and bring her home afterward for a nominal charge.” Daniel slipped out the door behind her and put a reassuring arm around her shoulders.
“I’ll debate what my wife should or shouldn’t have done with you another day, Mrs. Graber, but right now she is having a baby.”
Despite the joyous connotation those last five words usually contained, Abby’s gut clenched with dread. “I want you to call an ambulance, Mr. Fisher. Or, if you prefer, I’d be happy to call one for you.”
“My wife said she won’t go to a hospital, so don’t call any ambulance.” His tone brooked no further discussion on the matter. “If you don’t want to help us, then don’t come. But you have no right telling us our business.”
Abby breathed in and out several times as though she were in labor, but it took her no time whatsoever to make up her mind. “Give me your address and specific directions on how to find your house.” She stumbled back inside the kitchen for pencil and paper. Despite having lived in Wayne County her entire life, she didn’t know the whereabouts of the Levi Yoder farm.
Nathan spoke slowly while Abby scribbled notes on the pad. He recited a complete description of road landmarks to find his farm. “So you’ll come?”
“Jah, I’ll be there as soon as possible. Go back and tend to your wife. Do everything she tells you to do, and don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid, Mrs. Graber.” Nathan’s voice lifted with renewed excitement. “Even though this will be our first baby. Danki very much.” He hung up without another word.
Her first pregnancy, and she’s probably had no prenatal care, Abby thought. She sent up a silent prayer.
“I’ll hitch up your buggy while you gather your supplies.” Daniel had followed her back into the kitchen and leaned against the sink with his arms crossed over his chest. “Don’t worry, Abby. It’s probably not as bad as it sounds. You know how green most first-timers are, especially if the woman doesn’t have her mamm and sisters living nearby to give advice.”
“It sounds as though they just moved here from Indiana.” Abby covered her face with her hands and rubbed away her sleepiness, and then she headed to the sink to wash. She would scrub her hands, arms, and under her nails for five minutes, even though she would do it again once she arrived at the Fisher home.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Daniel asked. “We could take Laura and Jake along and they can sleep in the back of the buggy.”
His question took her by surprise as she collected supplies and checked the first aid kit for things she might need. Daniel never offered to accompany her. If there was one job he considered “woman’s work,” this was it.
She emerged from the bathroom and found him where she’d left him, looking even more exhausted. He had been cutting hay that day from sunup until sundown. “Oh, no,” she said. “You go up to bed after I leave. Make sure our two little ones are under the covers and not still playing. Tomorrow morning you’ll have to get up with the chickens, but I’ll be able to sleep in.”
He flashed her a smile, and then he loped out the door to hitch up their fastest standardbred horse and attach several battery-powered lights on her open buggy. Abby changed clothes and carried out a case of bottled water along with her medical supplies.
After she climbed into the buggy, Daniel gave her a quick good night kiss and then sent her off with his usual jest. “Let’s hope it’s either a girl or a boy this time.” He slapped the mare’s hindquarter to get her moving.
Abby waved before tightening her grip on the reins. It was a silly thing to say, but Daniel’s joke never failed to bring a smile to her face.
It would be the last happy expression she would wear that night…or for many nights to come.
During the four-mile drive, she punched in the doctor’s speed dial button on her phone. Typically at ten o’clock at night his answering service would pick up. This time was no exception. “Doctor Gerald Weller’s answering service,” came a perfunctory voice after the third ring.
“Janice? This is Abigail Graber over in Shreve. I’m on my way to the Nathan Fisher residence. Mrs. Fisher is in labor. I don’t think she’s a patient of the doctor’s. At least I know I’ve never met her. She might not be a patient of anyone.” Just voicing those words sent a chill up the midwife’s back. Most of the things that can go wrong during delivery could be avoided if the medical history of the woman was known and the baby’s development had been tracked. “Apparently, they just moved here from out of state. Please ask Dr. Weller to meet me there. Tell him I’m sorry to get him up if he’s already gone to bed—”
The woman on the other end cut her short. “He’s not home, Abby. He was called down to Ashland. There was a multicar pileup on the interstate. Fortunately, no fatalities have been reported, but a tanker of chemicals overturned and dumped its contents. Ashland asked for all medical personnel in the surrounding area to treat possible respiratory distress from toxic exposure. He will be tied up in that mess at the emergency room all night. You’ll have to call the paramedics for Mrs. Fisher.”
“That’s what I plan to do.” Despite the cool evening breeze, Abby’s back began to perspire. “Their farm is in sight. Let me give you the address and directions of where I’ll be in case something changes with Dr. Weller.” She recited the exact description Nathan had provided as her mare trotted up the loose-stoned driveway.
The Levi Yoder farmstead was one of the few that didn’t conform to the usual standard of Amish orderliness, but probably not from lack of trying on the part of the young couple. After a certain number of years, paint and caulk cannot repair old, dry-rotted wood or crumbling foundations. However, she wasn’t here to take photographs for Country Living magazine. She had a job to do.
As the buggy rolled to a stop and she set the brake, Nathan Fisher came running from the house. He bounded down the sagging steps and grabbed her horse’s bridle. “Please go on inside. I’ll tend to your horse. My wife’s hurting real bad.”
Even before she heard the ominous words his blanched complexion terrified Abby. “Just turn my mare out into your paddock and don’t fuss with her because I might need you. And bring in the case of bottled water when you come.” She hefted her bag of supplies out of the buggy and ran to the house.
Abby set the bag on the table and punched 9-1-1 into her cell phone. When the dispatcher came on the line, she identified herself, gave the address and explicit directions, and stated that a woman in labor needed an ambulance. Her hands shook as she held the phone next to her ear. If the situation beyond the closed door turned out to be anything less than an emergency, she would take the blame for the call. The dispatcher repeated the information, stated that an ambulance was on the way, and, blessedly, allowed her to hang up instead of keeping her tied up with unnecessary details. The dispatcher offered no approximation of the estimated time of arrival. Next, Abby scrubbed her hands and arms at the sink as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
Drying her hands on a paper towel, she glanced around the Fisher kitchen. Vandals wreaking mischief or a storybook cyclone usually caused such havoc. Cupboards stood open, water had been spilled between the sink and the stove, soiled linens lay in a heap near the steps to the cellar, and someone had knocked over a box of Cheerios across the counter. Never had she seen spilled food in an Amish home that hadn’t immediately been cleaned up.
For a moment her eyes locked on the cereal with bizarre fascination. Then the piercing wail of a woman broke her paralysis, and she grabbed her bag and ran in the direction of the sobs. Inside the bedroom she found a woman in advanced stages of labor. Sweat ran down the woman’s nose and cheeks like spring rain. The room, hot and airless, held the coppery sweet scent of blood.
“I’m the midwife, Abigail Graber. What’s your given name, Mrs. Fisher?” she asked, trying to engage the woman in conversation.
The woman’s complexion was the color of skim milk, her kapp was on the floor, and her damp hair clung to her scalp like a helmet. “Ruth,” she managed to say between clenched teeth.
“I called the doctor, but he’s at an emergency in Ashland, so then I called the paramedics—no arguments. I’m not licensed to deliver babies by my lonesome.” While Abby rattled on, she pulled off the quilts and sheets that were covering Mrs. Fisher, as though keeping her warm was of chief importance. Once Abby had stripped off the layers down to the woman’s nightgown, her words and breath froze in her throat.
There was a lot of blood—too much. It pooled on the sodden sheet, trapped by the protective plastic sheeting Ruth probably placed atop the mattress cover when her labor first began.
Ruth dug her fingernails into the bed with the next contraction, while Abby sped back to the kitchen, pressing the redial button on her cell phone.
Nathan Fisher was just walking into the kitchen carrying the bottled water. She thrust the phone toward him. “When they answer, tell them we need that ambulance right now. Give them the address again and tell them that your wife is hemorrhaging. Then bring the phone back into the bedroom.”
“Will do,” he said with a shaky voice. All color drained from his face. He dropped the case on the counter and grabbed for her phone.
Abby ran back to the bedroom. Ruth lay back against the pillows. Her dark eyes seemed to have sunk lower in her pale face. “I’m going to examine you now,” Abby said, forcing a pleasant smile. “We need to deliver this baby sooner rather than later.” She went about her routine—one used hundreds of times—and tried to maintain professional control. Panicking this woman further would serve no purpose.
Despite the feigned attempt at reassurance, Ruth Fisher had not been fooled. After Abby checked to make sure the baby wasn’t in a breech position, Ruth grabbed her arm. “Save my baby. Don’t worry about me.” Her words were little more than a hoarse whisper. “This was my choice and I have no regrets. But save my baby so it wasn’t all for naught.”
This was no time to decipher cryptic messages. If the placenta tore away from the uterine wall in just the right place at just the right time, a woman could lose enough blood within fifteen minutes to die. Abby believed that was what was happening. Anxiety constricted her chest so that her breathing was almost as difficult as Ruth’s. “This baby must come now, Ruth, so I want you to push with all your might.”
She did as she was told, somehow mustering enough energy to send the infant into the world. Abby caught the baby and lifted him away from the sodden sheets. Miraculously, he breathed on his own and squalled with strong lungs the moment she cleaned the mucus from his nose and mouth. “A healthy baby boy, Ruth. You have a son.”
Abby held the boy where Ruth could see, and for a fleeting moment a smile flickered across the woman’s face. Then her complexion blanched to the color of ash, and she lapsed into unconsciousness. There was no request to cradle her son or comments about his size or boisterous cries. Ruth’s breathing grew thin and raspy while her blood continued to pool.
Wrapping a receiving blanket around the infant, she passed him to Nathan, who stood helplessly in the doorway. “Will my wife be all right?” he gasped.
Abby couldn’t meet his gaze. “I’m going to stay with her. You make sure the baby keeps warm. Watch for the ambulance at the front window and holler when you see them pull into the driveway.” He hurried away, carrying the baby like a fragile porcelain ornament while Abby returned to Ruth’s side.
Without hesitation she pulled out a prefilled syringe from her bag and injected Ruth with a powerful drug to stop hemorrhaging…a drug she wasn’t supposed to have. But if anything could save this thin, dark-haired woman’s life, it would be the medicine in the syringe, entrusted to her by the retiring nurse-midwife. And then she prayed. She prayed God would save this young woman with every ounce of faith she possessed.
Abby tried everything she could to stem the tide, but God had His own plans for Ruth Fisher and her son—and for Abigail Graber, for that matter. By the time the paramedics arrived ten minutes later, she could no longer discern a pulse or even a wisp of breath. They flew into the room and went to work with clamps, defibrillators, and powerful drugs. One of the paramedics came to the kitchen to check the baby’s lungs, heart rate, and airways and pronounced him sound. Then Abby bathed the infant at the kitchen sink and wrapped him in a clean blanket, while Nathan stood by helplessly as the medical personnel exhausted every heroic avenue to save his wife. Finally, a paramedic exited the bedroom with an expression that required few words. “We’re sorry, Mr. Fisher. We did everything we could, but she’s gone. We’re going to call the sheriff ’s department now.”
Nathan looked almost as pale as his wife. “May I sit with her?”
After a moment’s hesitation, the paramedic nodded. “Of course. Go on in, sir. We’re very sorry for your loss.”
Later, Abby sat at the scarred oak table with the new father and filled out the birth certificate. Ruth had selected the name Rachel for a girl and Andrew for a boy, but Nathan said he favored Abraham—the patriarch of the Jewish people. “It is a strong name, and a boy without a mamm will need to be strong, so it is fitting,” he declared.
Someone from the sheriff ’s department and the coroner arrived to ask questions and to fill out more paperwork. Abby provided what information she knew about the Fisher situation, which was a hair more than nothing. Nathan, in stupefied shock, answered the deputy’s questions using one- or two-word responses. They had to ask him twice if he wished to ride to the hospital with his wife—his late wife—to have the baby examined. At first he refused, but then it occurred to him that the midwife would soon leave, and he would be left alone in the house with a hungry infant. In the end he agreed to ride to the hospital and allow his son to be admitted for observation. Before he left, he wrote down the name and address of his aunt, his closest relative in their new community, and handed it to Abby. She assured him she would explain to her what had happened, and also inform the bishop of his district, because the Fisher farm lay just beyond the boundary line in a different district from hers. Nathan would need help during the coming days and weeks with both his home and with young Abraham.
Abby couldn’t have agreed more with his name selection. The seven-pound boy had fought his way into the world with a strong heart and good set of lungs. He might have been born with poor color, showing little enthusiasm to breathe, but Abraham Fisher hadn’t needed the paramedic’s bag of oxygen. His face had scrunched up and released a howl at birth, and he wailed while being prepared for transport to the hospital. She had expected Nathan to fawn and pat and utter soothing baby talk while the EMTs were hooking up monitors, but he did none of that. The man was in shock, pure and simple. He’d changed from a proud, expectant father to a widower and sole parent within a of couple hours.
Abby washed up, changed into the clean dress she always kept with her supplies, and wrapped her soiled smock to throw on the burn pile back home. Before leaving she swept up the spilled Cheerios so they wouldn’t draw ants in Nathan’s absence. On legs turned to rubber, she found her horse in the paddock and hitched her to the buggy. Then she drove to visit Nathan’s aunt.
Iris Fisher turned out to be a kindly soul—a widow with several grown and married sons. Without hesitation the woman said she would pack a bag and move to Nathan’s home to prepare for the baby’s return from the hospital. She assured Abby she would stay as long as needed.
“That might be quite some time,” Abby said impulsively.
“Jah, I suppose so, but he has no one else in the area for family. My sons live with their wives on my farm. They can manage without me while I care for Nathan and his son.”
“Danki,” said Abby, for lack of something better.
The aunt offered a weak smile. “Thank you, Abigail.” Iris walked Abby to the door but caught her arm before she could leave. “Do you know what? I never met Nathan’s wife. They moved here several months ago, but she never seemed to be home when I stopped by to visit. Or, at least, that’s what he told me. I couldn’t attend their wedding in Indiana, so if I ever do meet Ruth Fisher, it will be in the hereafter.”
Abby stood in the doorway and blinked twice. She couldn’t remember a member of the Plain community ever doubting a person’s truthfulness, but she was too tired to consider the matter. She was too tired to think about anything. With a nod and mumbled, “Gut nacht,” she left the woman’s farm and headed home. It would soon be dawn…the beginning of a new day. For Abraham Fisher, it would be his first day as a child of God, and as a child without a mother. Abby stared mindlessly at the road ahead, praying during the entire drive while her horse found the way on her own. She prayed for the baby and his distraught father and for Iris Fisher. As she prayed, tears filled her eyes and ran unchecked down her cheeks.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. As her favorite passage from the book of Proverbs filled her mind, Abby wondered if that’s what she had done or if she’d acted on her own.
Save my baby. Don’t worry about me. This was my choice and I have no regrets. Ruth’s words had etched themselves into her brain like an overexposed photograph. By the time her mare clip-clopped up the driveway, Abby felt physically and emotionally drained.
Daniel had heard the approach of her buggy and left milking his cows to come greet her. With one glance at her face, he grabbed the horse’s bridle with a strong hand. “Whoa,” he commanded. “What happened?”
She stepped down on wobbly legs and threw herself into his arms, forgetting about her bag of supplies and her clothes for the burn pile. “Oh, Daniel, I did everything I could. I did more than I should have, but we lost her…we lost the mother, Mrs. Fisher.”
“And the baby? How’s the child?”
“The baby is fine, but they waited too long to call an ambulance. I told Nathan Fisher to do so on the phone, but he refused. So I called 9-1-1, but because of the pileup on the interstate, they arrived too late to save her.” Gulps and shallow breaths punctuated her words.
He pressed a finger to her lips to stem her rambling. “Easy now. Take a deep breath.”
After she complied, gasping and hiccupping, he said, “You go take a hot shower and crawl into bed. You look faint from exhaustion. Anything more you want to tell me can wait until tomorrow…later on today, actually.” The pink sun rising over the eastern fields heralded more good weather for Wayne County farmers. Without another word, she allowed herself to be led into the house.
Abby stood under the shower spray until the moist heat relieved her sore muscles and made her so drowsy she fell asleep with a bath towel still wrapped around her wet hair.
And, blessedly, she dreamed of nothing at all.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:09 PM
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Over the Mountain
Why art thou cast down, O my soul?
and why art thou disquieted within me?
General Reno’s corpse was the first I saw during the war. As the hour approached midnight on Sunday, September 14th, 1862, the thoroughly winded green recruits, among which I was proud to be numbered, crested South Mountain at Turner’s Gap. The march from Frederick, Maryland, had been long and hot, with few breaks for coffee and rations. When, during the course of the afternoon, the men heard the din of fighting erupt, and when they saw battle smoke enshroud the long ridge ahead of them, each untested man looked about at his mates. He saw jaws clenched, faces drawn, skin pallid, and eyes wide with fear and uncertainty, countenances that mirrored his own.
With nightfall the battle clamor ebbed, then stopped altogether as the men toiled up the mountain toward the gap. All were eager to end the day with a hot cup of coffee and a peaceful night’s sleep.
An ambulance was parked in the grass next to the road. A mule hitched to the front of it stamped nervously as we passed. At the rear of the ambulance a single torch of pitch blazed and a lone soldier stood guard, head low to his chest, stoop shouldered. He stirred at our approach, raising his head slowly, as if with great effort.
“What unit you boys with?”
“Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry of French’s Division,” someone answered.
The sentinel stood with his back to the torchlight, his black slouch hat pulled low, casting his visage deeply in the shadow of the half moon. He appeared a faceless phantom, breathing and moving as one of the living, but when he spoke, his voice was hollow and lifeless.
“Did you hear about General Reno?” He waved at the ambulance behind him.
No one said a word.
“Major General Jesse Lee Reno — a great patriot, a soldier’s soldier, a true fighting man, not like some of these other dandies we have. We loved him like a father.” The man spat at the ground. “Now he’s dead.” The man shook an upraised fist at the darkness to the south. “My general. He’s dead and I wouldn’t believe it unless I’d seen it myself. We’d already whipped those devils, but they just shot him down as they turned to run.” The man lowered his head to his chest again, his voice a murmur. “He died with the setting of the sun.”
Still none of us had any words for him. Our feet began to shuffle forward, leaving the sentinel to resume his mournful vigil.
“The night will be long and dark,” he called to anyone within earshot. “What will become of us now?
A few minutes later we came upon a large field. Gasps of horror arose from the column as spectral shadows flitted from place to place about the starlit meadow. But as our eyes adjusted, the shadowy figures turned out to be some of our own troops. There had been a great and bloody fight upon that mountain and our boys had won it, but there had been many casualties, both Union and Confederate. Burial details worked by torchlight on both sides of the road, moving from one black heap to another, checking for any signs of life before tagging the body for interment. The bodies of our Federal comrades would be the first to be retrieved. If time and will allowed it, the enemy dead would also be buried, albeit in cursory fashion. Otherwise, their corpses would be left to the elements and their rotting flesh would see yet another battle, this time between the birds of the air or the beasts of the field which would carry off the choicest parts.
The regiment was ordered off the road to camp for the night in this field of death. We moved slowly among the corpses, carefully trying not to stumble over them in the darkness or tread on any flailed appendage. Some of the men were fortunate to find enough room to spread out their rubber blankets and build campfires, but for most, the stiffening, bloating corpses of the enemy dead had to be moved aside and even stacked one upon the other to clear sufficient space. It was the first time I had seen dead bodies like that. I had been to several memorial services in our church, but the body of the deceased was always someone known to us, possibly a loved one, and the body was always laid out carefully in a simple coffin, making it easy for the viewer to imagine the person asleep rather than dead. But in that field, the pale moonlight revealed the bodies of those pitiable soldiers to be grotesquely contorted in every imaginable way, a terrible testament to the agonies suffered in the last moments of their struggles with death.
“Michael?” John Robinson, my closest and dearest friend since childhood, was by my side, as he had been during the last seven days of hard marching from Fort Ethan Allen. “Could you ever have imagined this just six weeks ago?”
“No, I never . . . I thought . . . I don’t know what I thought it would be like. War means killing, but this is so . . . terrible.”
John and I roamed the field in search of an unspoiled place.
“Here, this looks all right,” John said. “It’s soft and grassy and the closest body is a few yards away.”
We began to unroll our rubber blankets. “Nobody forced us into this,” John said. “We volunteered. We talked about it over and over.” John paused for a response, but I offered none. “Are we still agreed that it’s God’s will for us to be here?”
“Yes, you heard me say it. Reverend Preston was most convincing about the evils of slavery.”
“Easy to say in church on Sunday. But what about here and now?”
“I know, John. Death is suddenly so close I’m face-to-face with it. I can reach out and touch it, feel it reaching out to touch me.”
“Unless we crawl under a rock, staring death in the face is something we’ll have to get used to. That will be my prayer tonight, that God will calm and steady me.”
Perhaps the worst was the smell of the freshly dead. The sickly sweet odor of blood spilled upon the ground and the more powerful stench of bodies blown apart with their entrails cast to the four winds combined in a reeking aroma that, perhaps even more than sight, spoke sickening volumes of the gore all around. As I lay on my blanket, I could look only upward at the heavenly host above me, or I could close my eyes tightly shut against the hideous specter of those bodies, but I could not shut out the smell. I turned over, face downward to the earth, and tried to will myself to sleep. I buried my face in the crook of my elbow, hoping the odors of earth and grass and India rubber would crowd out the sickening odor of death. At last, I remembered the words of the psalmist and repeated them over and over until they grew into a drumbeat for my troubled heart, Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night . . . Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night . . . Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night. . .
Sunday, April 17, 2011
ROMANCE, RINGS & RINGTONES IN BED
Puppy Love — HE SAID
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Song of Solomon 8:6 NIV
I have a box of love notes I keep from my wife. The birthday cards and scraps of paper remind me of lips I kissed and tears I dried before I met my bride. I don’t know if these relics of my broken heart are an act of unfaithfulness or simply a sad testimony to the passion a romantic who loved... and lost in the pursuit of puppy love.
First Kiss: We met in her basement for our first kiss. Everything I knew about smooching I’d learned from the movie Love Story. Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw kissed a lot: mostly with their eyes closed. This seemed only natural since the idea of standing that close to anyone, much less a pretty girl, terrified me. But there we were, two high school freshmen preparing to seal our love with lips coated in ketchup and mustard and hot dog chili. I advanced; she moved. I hit a cinder block wall. My aim improved by I never fully recovered from the miss... our first kiss that came moments later.
First Love: Like so many high school sweethearts, our emotions ran hot and cold, off and on. We swapped love notes in hallways, lingering looks across cafeteria tables and class rings. I suppose we both knew it wouldn’t last but pretended it would, crafting names for our kids and careers that would allow us to travel. We parted ways the night of my first Jimmy Buffett concert: each of us leaving a piece of our soul with the other. There were others. Work girls and college girls and summer fun girls from the Chesapeake Bay. Now their tender words and hair ribbons lie wedged into a small cardboard box that remains almost forgotten... but not quiet.
I married the girl of my dreams. The shy, doll-eyed angel with the chipmunk cheeks and sundress tan who, for a time, thought I was cute and funny. When I said “I do,” I did, but I sometimes wonder: Is it enough?
Oh, I don’t question if she is enough. Of course she is. But am I enough? Have I been husband enough, father enough, lover enough? Have I provided, cherished, and honored enough.
Love may indeed blaze for a time with the passion of a mighty flame, but it is the golden embers of small coals that keep our feet warm and bed sacred.
Place me as a seal over your heart, my love. Rest your head on my shoulder and cling to my arm as we walk toward the blazing warmth of the setting sun. You are my mighty flame, the spark that ignites my spirit. Let us love and expire together in each other’s arms.
Precious Lord, I am your servant, laid before your feet to offer you praise and Glory for the almighty, majestic God you are. Accept my praise; may your love blaze within me.
BUILDING BLOCKS OF FAITH
True love is friendship caught on fire. - French proverb
Sealed with a Kiss — SHE SAID
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Song of Solomon 8:6
I’ve lost love once. But not to death: to divorce. I wondered if God would ever allow me an opportunity to know real love.
When my husband’s dad died, we comforted his mother as she mourned her soul mate. She pressed her fingers against her lips, kissed them and touched the husk of her husband. “I’ll see him again,” she whispered, comforted in her belief. When her fingers touched his lips, she sealed that belief with a kiss.
I stared as my brother eased my mother into the backseat of his car. Mom kissed one finger and pointed it tenderly toward dad’s casket. I knew the ache I felt couldn’t compare to hers. He was her lifelong mate. Her kiss sealed him eternally as her own.
I wonder how God views the fleeting commitment of today’s modern family. Instead of learning how to love in sickness, poverty and worst-case circumstance, “domestic partners” escape at the first signs of trouble.
Solomon had commitment issues to be sure. But the depth and intimacy of his writings on love suggest God’s true passion for us and His burning desire for every marital relationship. Solomon’s words testify to what love is - a holy bond sealed across our hearts.
Some years later I watched as my husband’s mother took her final breaths. I leaned against Tim and whispered, “You know she’s not coming back.” He nodded. “She’s not only seen God but she’s seen your dad. She won’t return.”
I feel sure that was the truth. When the gates of heaven opened to welcome her home, part of her reward had to be the reunion of a lifetime...the one sealed with a kiss—her husband.
God did bless me with the love of my life. He opened my heart placed within it the desire, the passion and the understanding of real love—something deeper than the deepest emotion and more passionate than the sexual relationship. Each time I kiss my husband, I know that he is sealed in my heart and that he is my burning flame.
Does the one you love burn within you? God offered us the ability to know real love. He gave us the example. Trust your relationship to Him. Seal it with a kiss.
Father, bring us closer to you. That is my hearts desire.
BUILDING BLOCKS OF FAITH
So heavy is the chain of wedlock that it needs two to carry it, and sometimes three. - Alexandre Dumas
We Deserved More Time — HE SAID
Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom—there I will give you my love.
Song of Solomon 7:11-12 (NIV)
Dear, I’m sorry.
I meant what I said—oh those many years ago when I promised you the moon and stars and days filled with rich foods and sweet drink, but then came the hard work of making a living and honestly honey, how much of the world can we see with just two weeks of vacation each year. You understood. Of course you did. You were the frugal one, the one who set budgets and banked paychecks for unseen emergencies. So we shelved our travel plans, packing our dreams into folders marked “beach house,” “Europe,” and “Yosemite.”
For a while we enjoyed weekends in cottages borrowed from friends. But the days were too few and besides, the boys needed us at scout meetings, on ball fields, and in the kitchen where you made our house a home. Here, look at this photo. Here you are sitting on the sea wall in St. Thomas. See that smile? See how, even with the glare of the tropical sun in your eyes, you’re still beaming with that carefree smile that now sags, thin and pale.
There was hope for a time after the boys left for college, but then our parents became sick and then the grandkids... my God, think of them. Would you really have wanted to exchange their laughter and cooing for a few months in the vineyards of Tuscany?
Before I heard—before the oncologist called—I was dusting off those dreams. I wanted to see if we could recapture the magic we’d enjoyed oh those years ago. But now it’s too late. Now there’s only you and me and each day there is less of you.
Were we to leave right now it would be too late. So we won’t. We’ll stay right here in this room, on this bed, among the deepening shadows that diminish the light in your eyes. All that is left is the moon and stars and they are not enough.
Oh dear, I am sorry. Please forgive me. When you said I do, I didn’t. I didn’t take you to the pyramids and glaciers and mountaintops like I promised. You deserved more. You deserved the world.
We deserved more time.
Lord, I ask that the power of a loving God would exhibit itself in peace and hope, in provision and in our relationship. Save us from ourselves… save us for You.
BUILDING BLOCKS OF FAITH
A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person. - Mignon McLaughlin
“Time To...” — SHE SAID
Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom—there I will give you my love.
Song of Solomon 7:11-12 NIV
Time is a killer. There never seems to be enough and when I held a job outside the home, plus my family, plus church, plus the ministry...there was even less.
My husband’s a shift-worker and there were days I literally passed him on the road—him on his way to work, me on my way home. I hated that.
Finances and four growing sons dictated the circumstances of time more than our desire to be together. So, when stress made me sick, my husband and I had a real heart-to-heart.
“What’s most important?” I asked. “The kids are grown and though it’s far from great, we’re in the best financial situation we’ve ever been in.”
“I know,” my husband agreed. “So if you want to resign your job, then do it. I do miss you.”
And that...was all I needed to hear. Not the, “if you want to resign then do it” part; but the three words every woman wants to hear—”I miss you.”
We’d spent the last 24 years struggling to provide for our family, digging from beneath mounds of medical expenses that nearly bankrupted us. What was wrong with spending quality time with the man I love? Selfish...maybe. But maybe not.
Solomon enticed his lover to spend time with him, to sneak off for a weekend getaway, accept his advances of love. He knew the importance of spending time with the woman he loved, wooing her, focusing his full attention on her and her on him. It solidified their relationship, bonded them—brought them closer.
I knew my plate was overflowing and my husband, kind and sweet, supported my tediously balanced plate. But when God called me into the ministry, into a different season of life with my husband, a decision had to be made.
These days my husband and I spend lots of time together. Well-meaning friends joked it wouldn’t last; we’d grow tired of one another. Instead, we grow closer. We talk more, do things together, listen better, and desire each other more. He is my lover, my friend, my brother in Christ, and my soul mate, and I make every effort to spend quality time with him...now more than ever.
God instituted the marital relationship as a sacred and holy place—a place where one man and one woman can share their deepest, passionate love.
Make time to spend with the one you love. God blesses the hours we spend in love.
Father, I praise you for the joy and love that you bring. I praise you because you are the Master of all things, the God of the Universe, the maker of mankind. Lord, you are almighty. Thank you Lord, for this day of thanksgiving.
BUILDING BLOCKS OF FAITH
A dress that zips up the back will bring a husband and wife together. - James H. Boren
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Friday, May 22
LIKE all Amish children of ten, Jeremiah Miller had known his share of sunrises. Morning chores had long since taken care of that. Every day brought the same duties. His grandfather had made it clear. Children were for working. Life was supposed to be hard. Generally, for Jeremiah, it was.
But lately, Jeremiah had discovered something new and wonderful in his dawn chores. Something exhilarating. Also a bit frightening, because he suspected it was forbidden. It was so simple, he thought, who could object? If he arose before the others and slipped out quietly, he could be alone, drawn awake early by the allure of a solitary Ohio dawn.
It had begun last winter. None of the other children had understood. After all, who would choose to be alone? So he kept it to himself, now. Even Grossdaddy didn’t know. It was Jeremiah Miller’s little secret. At so young an age, he had already discovered that the dawn could give him a sense of identity separate from the others. And this was his first act of nonconformity. Among the Gemie, that was considered evidence of pridefulness. And pride was surely the worst of sins. He worried that it could eventually brand him a rebel. Like his father.
He’d dress quietly in the clothes his grandmother had made —clothes that were identical to those of other Amish children. Long underwear and denim trousers with a broadfall flap. A light-blue, long-sleeved shirt with no collar. A heavy denim jacket. Suspenders. And a dark blue knit skull cap. If he escaped the house before the others awakened, Jeremiah Miller was free.
In the barns before sunrise, only the Coleman lantern kept him company, hissing softly as he drifted among the animals, in and out of the stalls. In winter, there was the enchanting, billowing steam his breath made in the crisp air. The delightful crunching of his boots in the snow. There was, especially, the peace and the solitude, and at only ten, Jeremiah Miller had come to reckon that dawn would always be his favorite part of the day.
Today, late in May, it was nearing the end of a season still often raw and bleak, the usual for a northern Ohio spring. Some days were almost entirely awash in gray. Yesterday, there had been only the barest hint of a sunrise, delicate shades of pink as he had worked alone at morning chores. Then an afternoon drizzle had developed into a steady, all-night rain as a storm front moved in off the great lake, a hundred miles to the north.
Jeremiah slipped out from under the quilts and sat, wrapped in his down comforter, on the edge of the bed. He listened there a while for sounds of his family stirring. Hearing nothing, he drew the ornate quilt around his waist, eased lightly across the plain wooden floor to the window, pulled back the long purple curtains, and peered out. Yesterday’s rain had slackened to a cold drizzle. He saw no hint of sunlight at his window, but as he was about to release the curtains, the headlights of a rare car flashed on the foggy lane in front of his house. He briefly thought it strange, and then, hitching up the comforter, he let the curtains go slack. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his shirt and denim trousers. He glided down the hall, the wooden floor cool beneath his stocking feet. He passed the other bedrooms carefully and crept down the stairs. He eased through the kitchen unerringly in the dark, lifted his jacket from its peg, pulled the heavy oak door open, and slipped through the storm door onto the back porch.
There would be no supervisions on the rounds of his morning chores. No instructions if he worked alone. No corrections. No reminders to conform. The hours before dawn were his alone. The one time of each day when he owned himself entirely. Jeremiah had discovered that solitude was personal. More personal than anything else he had known.
On the back porch, he stuffed his feet into his cold boots and laced them, hooked his suspenders to the buttons on his plain denim trousers, and closed the hooks on his short, denim waist jacket. Reaching down for the green Coleman lantern, he gave the pump several adept strokes and lit the silk mantle with a wooden match. Then he rolled his thin collar up and stepped off the porch into the rain.
School would close soon for summer, he thought. He set the lantern on the muddy ground outside the massive sliding doors to the red bank barn. School wasn’t so bad. And summers could be long. So why did Grossdaddy speak so bitterly of school?
He set his weight against the sliding door and forced it heavily sideways on its rollers. Grandfather would like the teachers, if only he’d come to visit the school. It was just down the gravel lane, less than a mile. Teacher stayed late every day, and they could talk. If only Grandfather would. The other men thought well of teachers, so why didn’t Grandfather? Jeremiah only knew that something had happened long ago. Something that would never be discussed. He suspected it had something to do with his father.
A nervous black kitten launched itself through the crack between the sliding doors at his feet, and he sidestepped it superstitiously.
“Kommen Sie,” he called gently after the cat, momentarily curious. He whistled for it softly, shrugged, picked up the lantern, and squeezed through the narrow opening between the doors.
The three-story bank barn was set into the side of a hill behind the big house. At the bottom of the hill, the sliding doors opened to the lowest level of the barn. The top of the hill gave access, on the other side of the barn, to the second level. There were nine stalls down the right side of the lower level, and eight down the left. The avenue down the middle was strewn with fresh straw. Five massive oak uprights stood in a line down the middle of the avenue, taking the weight of the roof. The crossbeams were made of walnut twelve-by-twelve’s. The haylofts ran high above, on either side of the third level, planked out in rough-hewn maple and elm. Long runs of rope and chain looped through a large wooden block and tackle, which was hung from an iron wheel that ran high in the rafters on a rail the full length of the peak. Leather harnesses and collars hung in front of each of the stalls. At the far end, the rakes, mowers, and threshers stood silently in the wide avenue. Their iron wheels were easily a head taller than Jeremiah.
Inside, Jeremiah climbed onto a stepstool to hang the lantern against one of the upright beams, and hopped down in front of the first stall. He scaled the slats of the gate and made a clicking sound with the inside of his cheek against his teeth. He balanced on his toes near the top of the gate and reached up to stroke the nose of the Belgian draft horse, light chestnut brown with a creamy white mane. As it thumped ponderously in the straw, Jeremiah rubbed at its wet nose and bristling hairs, then jumped down with a laugh and took the tasseled whip from its hook beside the stall.
He snapped the black whip playfully overhead and grinned, mindful that his Grandfather’s were the very finest of all the Belgians in Holmes County. That was good, not prideful, he thought. Not prideful to admire a good horse. After all, God had made them Himself. And hadn’t Grandfather promised that his time would soon come to work a whip behind them? To learn to plow. To run a harrow. To handle a team of Belgians! A boy should not go to school forever, Grossdaddy had said. Why should a boy be smarter than a father?
As he played with the whip, the unexpected aroma of tobacco drifted Jeremiah’s way. Startled, he remembered the skittish cat and the weird headlights earlier on the lane. He stood tip-toe on the stepstool, took down the glowing lantern, held it high overhead, hesitated a fateful moment, and moved apprehensively toward the far end of the barn.
IN THE milky light of dawn, a small girl in a black bonnet stood on the elevated lawn in front of the Millers’ white frame house. Her bonnet was tied close against her cheeks, with thin cloth strands under her chin. Her narrow shoulders were draped properly with a black shawl that was knotted loosely in front and covered her hands. In the delicate morning light, her long pleated skirt showed the barest hint of rich peacock blue. She was motionless except for her large, tranquil brown eyes as they followed the headlights of a car approaching on the lane.
The hollow sound of slow tires crushing loose gravel ground to a halt as the car rolled up to a mailbox mounted on the white picket fence. The driver’s window rolled down, revealing police insignias on the sleeve of a blue jacket. The driver reached out and flipped an envelope into the mailbox. As the girl watched silently, the car sped off, throwing gravel, its taillights disappearing into the lingering fog.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Zack Cooper wasn’t your typical male, and he knew it. He couldn’t simplify life by innately compartmentalizing its various issues. If something was wrong at home, that something tried to go with him when he left for work. And this rainy June morning, as he made a delivery to Millicent’s Tea Shop in downtown Middleburg, that something felt like a passenger sitting beside him in the front seat of his truck. Or maybe like two passengers, because his teenagers, Dylan and Sherry, were what was wrong at home.
He stopped in front of the tea shop and hurried to remove two boxes of produce from underneath his truck bed’s tarp. A chatty group of women walked toward the front door and blocked his path toward the shop’s back door, so he waited for them to file into Milly’s. He would have tipped his baseball cap were his hands free, but they didn’t seem to notice him anyway.
Most of the ladies shared umbrellas, squeezing together to avoid the rain. The lone woman at the end of the group, while the last to enter, somehow seemed in charge. As she neared Zack, she tilted her umbrella back to look at him.
“I’m sorry. Please excuse us.”
Zack experienced a momentary ability to compartmentalize. The kids were nowhere in his mind just for that instant. Neither was work.
This was one great-looking woman. Exotic, with dark hair and warm brown eyes. Even though he hadn’t said a word, her lips tugged into a subtle smile, and she looked at him as if he had the driest wit imaginable.
On the contrary, he stood in the rain, holding fruit, and struggled to string words together. “Uh, yeah. Sure. I mean, yes. Or, no. No problem.”
Her eyes twinkled at him briefly before she turned and entered the shop.
He shook his head and spoke aloud. “Real smooth there, Zack.” He hefted his boxes and continued around to the rear of the building.
Milly didn’t answer the back door right away. Zack figured she was up front in the dining area, greeting the same ladies he had just passed. She was expecting his delivery this morning, though, so she had probably unlocked the door for him. He shifted the boxes to one arm and was about to reach for the door knob with the other when he heard a sweet young voice from behind.
“Who’s that handsome farmer? Locked out, are you?”
Zack turned to see Jane, Milly’s assistant. He grinned at her as she tossed back the hood of her slicker and shook out her red hair. Like Milly, Jane always managed to sound upbeat. And both of them were British, so Zack loved listening to them talk.
“Morning, Jane! I’m not sure if it’s locked. Haven’t tried the knob yet, but Milly didn’t answer. I knocked with my elbow, though, so she might not have heard me.”
Jane pulled a set of keys out of her purse even as she reached for the knob. “Ah, there we go. Not locked.”
Zack lifted his chin at her. “After you.” The moment the door opened, he could smell the irresistible pastries freshly baked or still baking in one of the shop’s ovens. He wondered if Jane could hear his stomach grumble. He’d missed breakfast this morning.
Milly walked into the kitchen just then and broke into a warm smile as Jane and Zack entered.
“Sorry I’m late, Milly.” Jane removed her slicker and swiftly exchanged it for an apron. “I’ll never get used to how timid drivers get around here when a single drop of water falls from the sky.”
Milly set a serving tray on the counter and pointed to a mat near the door. “Mind you dry your shoes off so you don’t slip, Jane. You’re just in time for Tina’s group. Would you mind bringing them a pot of English breakfast? Tina’s asked for a tray of the apple-cranberry scones. To start, anyway.”
Jane prepared the teapot, cups, and saucers. “Is Carmella with her today? I saw her over the weekend, and she said she didn’t care how early in the morning they were meeting or what else they were ordering, she planned to get some of your little berry shortcakes before leaving.”
“We’d better go ahead and whip up some cream, then.” Milly turned her attention to Zack. “Oh, Zack, I’m sorry. Here, here.” She patted the counter near the sink. “Set those right down. Such a wet morning for you! Do you have time for a cup of tea?”
She turned away and poured a cup without waiting for his answer.
“I’d appreciate it.” He set the boxes of berries, cucumbers, and watercress on the spacious counter. He was always impressed with how tidy Milly’s kitchen was, considering how much she produced in it. He removed his hat and tucked it in his back pocket. “Had another one of those mornings with the kids. Didn’t get to enjoy my morning coffee, so I could use the caffeine.” He took the delicate cup and saucer from her as if they were priceless museum pieces.
“Milk?” She stepped to the refrigerator, but he waved her off.
“No, this is great.” He glanced toward the kitchen door, the one that led into the dining area. “You’ve got a good-sized group already, I see.” He wasn’t about to ask outright about that woman he saw earlier, but he wondered if she was Tina. Or Carmella.
“Yes, one of my regular groups. We have a few that come in on a scheduled basis.”
He watched her prepare a three-tiered tray with lacy paper things and what he assumed were the scones she mentioned. His stomach growled again, and she looked up at him.
He grimaced. “Sorry.”
She smiled and pulled a tall chair over to the counter. “Have a seat, young man. Something tells me you missed more than your coffee this morning.”
Zack obeyed her, and she placed one of the scones on a fancy flowered plate and retrieved a bowl of dense cream from the refrigerator.
“Here, now. You start off with that, just as my ladies out front are going to do.” She spooned a generous portion of the cream onto his plate. “We call this clotted cream. Use it like butter, only more generously. I think you’ll like it. If you want to try the little berry shortcakes Jane was talking about, you’ll have to stick around a few minutes. Interested?”
He shook his head as he bit into the amazingly perfect pastry. “Mmm.” Apple-cranberry. His new favorite combination. He quickly swallowed and washed it down with tea. “Can’t stay, no. But wow, that’s something!” He held up what was left of the scone. “I need to make a few more deliveries this morning before heading home. I got off to a late start.”
Milly had resumed her work, spooning the thick cream into a serving bowl. “You said the kids gave you a rough morning. Is everything all right?”
He shrugged his shoulders as he swallowed another warm bite. Without his asking, Milly placed another scone on his plate. “Thanks, Milly. No more after this. I really have to go.” He sighed. “I don’t know. Seems like one day Dylan and Sherry thought I was terrific. Their hero. And then suddenly I’m the enemy. We don’t seem to be able to get through a single conversation without getting into an argument.”
“Typical teenage issues?” Milly stopped working and turned to face him. “How old are they now?”
“Dylan’s seventeen. Sherry’s fifteen-going-on-get-lost-Dad.”
Milly smiled. “I’m sure they—”
Jane walked back into the kitchen. “You have those scones, Milly? Oh, great. Thanks.” She took the tray and bowl of cream from Milly and grinned. “I was right. Carmella’s already talked some of them into adding the shortcakes to today’s order.”
“I’ll get on it.” Milly turned toward the refrigerator, and Zack stood. He hadn’t finished his scones, but he had taken up enough of her time.
“Let me get out of your way, Milly—”
“No, hold on a minute, Zack. Sit and finish. I want to give you a few goodies to take home to the kids. We’ll have them calling you a hero again in no time.”
He smiled and sat for a while longer. “Thanks.” He scratched at the back of his neck. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know how much of the problem is growing pains and how much of it is the continued aftermath of their mother’s leaving. I’ve never dealt with teenagers before.”
Milly nodded as she placed several pastries in a box. “I wondered about that too. How long since Maya left?”
“Four years ago. Still not a word from her, but I’ve heard through the grapevine she’s moved on from the guy she left with. Different guy now. I can understand her leaving me, but I just don’t know why a mother would leave her kids like that.”
Milly placed the box on the counter. “I imagine Dylan and Sherry wonder the same thing. Poor dears.”
Zack’s cell phone rang, and he pulled it from his shirt pocket. “Excuse me.” His caller ID made him frown. It was smack in the middle of the school day.
“Dylan? Aren’t you supposed to stay off the phone during school hours?”
“Um, I’m not at school. I…I need you to come get me.”
Zack stood. “Now what? Please tell me you didn’t skip class again.”
“Dad, I’m at the police station. I’ve been arrested.”