Rock of Ages, cleft for me
Mount Joy, Pennsylvania
The rain’s finally stopped. We’re late. I’d better get you home before your father comes looking for us carrying his squirrel rifle—thunderstorm or no.”
“Hmm,” replied Amy. John’s attempt at humor fell short of its mark.
“With my next paycheck, I should have enough money for a load of insulation to be delivered next week,” he said with great animation. “I’ll check the total weight. If it’s not too heavy for my flatbed wagon, I’ll pick it up at the lumberyard with your daed’s Belgians. That will save us the delivery charge.”
“Mh-hmm,” replied Amy, trying to shake off the odd sensation snaking up her spine. It was probably the two lemon bars she ate after the sloppy joes. Sweet and spicy didn’t always set well in her stomach.
“And I’ll pick up one of those fancy whirlpool tubs with at least a dozen water jets and also a tanning bed so your mamm won’t get so pale during the winter months.”
“That’s nice. Whatever you think would be best for the dawdi haus addition.” Amy laced her fingers together and pressed both palms down on her roiling belly.
John Detweiler pulled on the reins and steered the open buggy to the side of the road. “What has you distracted, Amy? You haven’t heard a word I’ve said since we left the cookout and singing at the Lapp farm.” His expression revealed concern rather than irritation.
Amy straightened against the bench seat, grinning as his previous words took root in her mind. “Mir leid,” she apologized. “I don’t feel quite right. I should watch the combination of foods I eat at get-togethers instead of nibbling on a dozen different treats.” She offered an apologetic smile. “I do believe mamm and daed would frown on the Jacuzzi and tanning bed ideas, so just stick to insulation.”
They laughed companionably as John checked for traffic and then guided their buggy back onto the roadway. “At least I got your attention.” He patted her knee. Even though her legs were covered by a pine-green dress and black apron, it was still an inappropriate gesture.
But Amy didn’t scold him for his affection, because everyone in the district knew they would announce their engagement this autumn and marry in November—the traditional wedding season in Lancaster County. She opened her mouth to ask him to explain his house addition plans when the acrid smell of wood smoke assailed her senses.
“Fire!” she gasped. Alarm turned her voice into a childish squeak. Her mild sensation of unease quickly escalated into full-blown dread.
“Easy, now. We just left a bonfire and s’mores roast. Who’s to say some Englischer isn’t doing the same thing over the next hill?” Nevertheless, he clucked his tongue to the horse to step up the pace.
As they rounded the bend in the road, Amy saw a streaky orange glow reflected against low-hanging clouds. “Oh, dear Lord,” she gasped, half standing in the buggy. “Bonfires don’t light up the entire sky, and that’s the direction of our farm!”
John gently pulled her down to the seat. “There are plenty of houses in that direction, Amy. Let’s not get worked up until we know for sure.” He spoke words of assurance, yet his tone wasn’t very convincing.
She squeezed her eyes shut and began to pray. Over and over silently in her head, she pleaded for the blaze to be a brush fire, or perhaps an abandoned ramshackle barn torched by the volunteer fire department for training purposes. Every few years the fire marshal scheduled an exercise and invited all surrounding fire departments to participate. Amish and Englischers arrived with lawn chairs to watch the volunteers battle the flames.
“Git up there,” John shouted, slapping the reins with urgency. The Standardbred complied, breaking into a fast trot.
The horse’s effort only hastened the inevitable conclusion for Amy King. As they reached the top of the next hill in Lancaster’s famous rolling countryside, she stared across hay and wheat fields at a daughter’s worst nightmare.
Her fervent prayers weren’t to be answered.
Her parents’ farm—her home for all twenty-two years of her life—was fully engulfed in flames. Sparks from the inferno shot thirty feet into the air as the entire yard glowed with eerie yellow light. Paralysis seized every muscle in her body. She tried to scream, to holler for more people to come help, but no sounds issued forth. Hot, stinging tears filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks as the breeze carried smoke and soot in their direction. The horse neighed loudly and fought against the harness, expressing a strong opinion about getting closer to the fire. John slipped an arm around her shoulders as he turned the buggy into the next driveway.
She barely felt his touch as she again tried to speak. “Why is no one ringing the farm bell?” she managed to say between choking coughs.
John jumped out to secure the horse to the hitching post of the house next door—the home of Amy’s aunt, uncle, and grandparents. Then he reached up for her hand. “I’m sure they rang the bell plenty. Everybody who could come is already here.” He also coughed from the bitter smoke that drifted across the yard like a heavy fog.
Avoiding his outstretched hand, Amy jumped from the buggy and sprinted through the meadow separating the two farms. She scrambled over the split rail fences with childlike agility.
John followed close on her heels, trying without success to catch hold of her. “Slow down, Amy! You’ll twist an ankle or break a leg.”
She ignored his warning and focused solely on the total destruction of the hundred-year-old wood-and-stone structure. When the wind shifted, her vision cleared briefly. The back and side yards were swarming with people. Two neighbors aimed green garden hoses ineffectually on the fire. The fire department’s larger hoses rained a steady stream on the back of the house, the side still intact. Firemen in full gear pumped water from the King pond using diesel generators. Some Amish men still clutched full buckets of water, passed to them by lines of women and children from the pond, but the intense heat prevented them from getting close enough to dump their buckets on the blaze. With soot-darkened faces they moved back, acknowledging the inevitable.
Amy stood rooted to the driveway, watching as the roof collapsed in a shower of sparks. Her home was lost. For a minute she stood transfixed, unable to look away. One by one, firemen repositioned the hoses on the barn to keep the blaze from spreading to other outbuildings. She heard the mournful bellowing of cows in the pasture, terrified by sights and sounds and smells they didn’t understand. John again tried to offer comfort with an arm around her back, but his touch merely galvanized her to action. She ran pell-mell through the crowd, amid smoke and sparks and confusion. Hoses and equipment lay everywhere, ready to send the unobservant sprawling.
“Where are my mamm and daed?” she screamed. Yet her strangled wail was barely audible. “Rachel, Beth, Nora—where are my schwestern?”
Several Amish women of their district hurried toward her, but Amy shrugged off their restraining embraces. Headlong toward the inferno she ran, and she might have slipped between firefighters and into the house if John hadn’t caught up to her.
He grabbed her around the waist and dragged her none too gently back from the heat. “Get hold of yourself!” he demanded, pinning her against the trunk of a maple. Even the bark felt warm through the cotton of her dress. “Two of your sisters were with us at the singing. Don’t you remember? Nora and Rachel said they would wait out the thunderstorm and walk home if no one offered them a lift. They chose not to ride with us to give us a chance to talk.” John’s face wavered in front of her, speaking words that took time for her to comprehend. “They are fine, Amy.”
She sucked great gulps of air into parched lungs. “And Beth?” Her voice sounded raw and hoarse from the smoke. “Where is she?”
“You told me your youngest sister was spending the night at Aunt Irene’s. She was disappointed because she’s still too young to attend social events.” John released her shoulders but didn’t step back. He remained vigilant for another sprint toward the fire.
“They’re safe?” Amy repeated the idea before asking a new question. “And my parents? Where are they?”
“I have no idea,” he moaned, his expression a mask of shock and horror.
Slowly, Amy stepped away from the rough tree trunk without her earlier panic. On tiptoes she scanned the throng for several moments before spotting Aunt Irene and Uncle Joseph. Mamm’s sister and brother-in-law had lived next door for as long as she could remember. Uncle Joseph seemed to be supporting someone to keep her from falling to the ash-covered ground. In her stupor, Amy didn’t recognize the elderly woman in the dark-brown dress, soot-speckled kapp and sturdy lace-up shoes. But the tall white-haired man at the woman’s side was very familiar indeed. “Grossdawdi,” she murmured. Her grandfather. With growing horror, Amy recognized the bent, sobbing woman as her grandmother. She could think of only one reason for grossmammi to carry on so. On unsteady legs, she staggered toward her family as John remained at her side, supporting her arm. Onlookers and would-be helpers parted before them like the Red Sea.
“Grossmammi, Aunt Irene,” she said as she approached.
Both her aunt and grandmother looked up with red-rimmed, watery eyes, confirming Amy’s suspicion.
“Amy, I’m glad you’re home,” said her aunt as grossmammi wrapped her arms around her. They both patted and hugged and attempted to console what was inconsolable. Amy allowed herself to be enfolded in their embrace, feeling exhausted and numb, as though she’d run all the way from downtown Lancaster.
“Where’s Beth?” she mewed, sounding more like a kitten than a grown woman.
“Your cousins are keeping Beth away from the fire. She’s safe at our house.” Aunt Irene sounded distant and muffled, as though she were speaking underwater.
“And my mamm and daed ?” she asked with her face buried in the soft cotton of her grandmother’s dress.
“No one can locate them in the crowd.”
Aunt Irene’s words were little more than a whisper, but Amy heard the pronouncement clear as a clanging farm bell. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
“Amy! John!” A shout pierced Amy’s semiconsciousness.
Amy peered up at two of her sisters running toward her. Stiffening her spine with resolve, she pulled away from her grandmother. As the eldest daughter of Samuel and Edna King, she must be strong. “I’m here, Rachel, Nora.” She opened her arms to them.
Sweating and panting, with dirt-streaked faces, they hurried forward. How long had they been running? The glow from a house fire could be seen for miles in a night sky. The two girls fell into Amy’s arms, crying and hiccuping like young children.
“We’re so glad to see you,” said Rachel. “Is Beth okay?”
“She’s fine.” Amy delivered a flat, emotionless statement, knowing what question would come next.
“And mamm and daed? Where are they?” asked Nora, extracting herself from the embrace.
Amy locked gazes with Nora, younger than her by only two years. “No one has seen them since the fire started.”
Nora crossed her arms over her ash-speckled apron. “That doesn’t mean they are still in the house!” she protested, outraged at such an idea. “They could have gone for a buggy ride or a walk in the moonlight, or maybe they both went to check on the livestock.”
The third oldest sister, Rachel, also crossed her arms, looking hopeful rather than cross. “Maybe we should check the barn.”
Amy forced her mouth into a smile. “That’s true. It’s entirely possible,” she said, even though she’d never witnessed her parents doing any of those things in the middle of the night. “Why don’t we bow our heads and pray they will soon be home?”
Nora and Rachel wrapped their arms around Amy’s waist, and they all took a few steps toward the fire. The girls watched the flames consume the final side of the house with savage fury. Then they bowed their heads in silent prayer. Relatives and friends huddled close to pray, but they didn’t intrude on the sisters’ private anguish.
Amy kept her head down and eyes closed to the stinging smoke as the sound of their home crashing into a pile of embers rang in her ears. But she couldn’t keep her mind focused on her pleas to God. She wondered instead about how she would manage as the new head of the King household. What will I do when others turn to me for direction, support, and comfort?