by Suzanne Woods Fisher
By Suzanne Woods Fisher
Morning dew shimmered in the warm summer sun as Jorie King led the last horse to a paddock by the road. She unhitched the halter and gave the horse a swat on his hindquarters to hustle him into the pasture. She couldn’t help but smile. A stubborn one, he was. Must be part mule. As she swung the gate closed, she noticed a car at the end of the driveway. A stranger leaned against the hood of the car, his arms crossed against his chest. When the man spotted Jorie, he waved to her and called out, “Hey there! Ma’am! Any idea how far to a gasoline station?”
Jorie latched the paddock gate and walked over to him. “About two miles,” she said, pointing up the road.
The man regarded Jorie with mild curiosity, tilting his head as he appraised her prayer cap and Plain clothes. “My car ran out of gas.”
Jorie spotted her neighbor across the street, leading some cows to their pasture to graze. “Ephraim!” she called out, waving to the boy. “Ephraim, would you bring a can of gasoline down here?” Ephraim did a double take when he noticed the stranger. Jorie swallowed a smile at the boy’s reaction—not many men in Stoney Ridge had skin the color of chocolate. A few cows split off and wandered into the cornfield before Ephraim suddenly remembered them and rounded them up. He guided them through the pasture gate, locked it, and waved to Jorie as he ran up the long drive to the barn.
Jorie waited for the tall dark man to speak again. The stranger seemed at ease with silence. His gaze followed Ephraim until he disappeared into the barn, and then the man’s eyes swept across the countryside in front of them. “I think that might just be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
Jorie looked over to take in the sight of the farm: the two-story white frame house nestled against a hill. A gray-topped buggy leaning on its traces by the large barn. About halfway up the drive, a ribbon of a creek wove parallel to the house. On the banks of the creek sat an enormous willow tree that provided shelter to a handful of sheep. And surrounding the house were acres and acres of fields, straight and even rows of corn and wheat. The only sound punctuating the stillness was a distant neighbor calling for his cows.
“That’s Beacon Hollow. It belongs to my neighbors, the Zooks.”
“Clear to see they’re good farmers,” he said as his eyes scanned the farm.
They stood silently, waiting for Ephraim, listening to the husky whisper of the dry August corn in the fields. “The Zooks have always been farmers,” she finally said, breaking the quiet. “They were some of the first settlers around here. Now the land is farmed by four brothers.” She looked up the drive to see Ephraim on his way down the hill, lugging a red can of gasoline with two hands. “Ephraim is one of the brothers.”
“Don’t tell me they’re all as young as him, managing a big farm like that!”
Jorie smiled. “No. He’s the youngest. The oldest brother is Caleb. He and his wife Mary Ann are really running the farm. Matthew—he’s eighteen—he does quite a bit of work.”
“Where’s the third brother?”
Jorie hesitated. “That would be Ben. He’s in Vietnam.”
The man looked at her curiously. “Pardon me for asking, ma’am, but I thought the Amish didn’t fight in wars.”
Jorie’s chin lifted a notch. “He’s not fighting. He’s a conscientious objector.”
Ephraim crossed the road with the full gas can and gave a shy nod to the stranger. The man poured the gasoline into his tank and tightened the cap, then handed the can back to Ephraim. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet, opened it, and took out a few dollars to hand to Ephraim. “Let me pay you for the gasoline.”
Ephraim shook his head. “No n-need.”
The man offered the money to Jorie, but she waved it away. “I’m beholden to you. And I like to pay my debts.” He peered into his wallet. “Say, do you like wild animals?” When Ephraim’s eyebrows shot up with interest, the man smiled and held out two tickets. “These are tickets to the Mezzo Brothers’ Circus & Menagerie that just came to Lancaster. Most of the animals are on the shady side of retirement, but there’s a young cougar. The trainer said he just bought it off of a trapper in West Virginia last week.”
Ephraim shot a sideways glance to Jorie before accepting the tickets. She smiled and gave a brief nod. If Cal and Mary Ann objected, she would explain the circumstances, maybe even offer to take Ephraim to the circus. Everybody knew how he loved animals.
He put down the gasoline can to study the tickets, a look of wonder on his face. “They r-really have a c-cougar?”
“They used to roam free in Pennsylvania,” the man said. “The last one was killed in the 1930s.” He put a hand on his car door, but his gaze had settled on the horses behind Jorie, as if watching them eat was the most fascinating thing in the world. “Are those Belgian drafts?”
“Percherons,” Jorie said.
Ephraim pointed to Jorie’s driveway. “That l-leads to S-Stoney Creek, the K-Kings’ farm. They b-breed Percherons.” He looked back at the man. “Most every P-Percheron around here is f-from the K-Kings. N-No one knows horses l-like Atlee K-King.” He gave Jorie a shy smile.
She was surprised and pleased that Ephraim spoke to the man. He didn’t talk much, especially around strangers, self-conscious of his stutter.
“They sure are beautiful creatures,” the man said. A colt peered over the pasture fence at them for a moment, then tossed his dark mane and trotted off down a dirt trail to join his mother.
The clang of a dinner bell floated down on the wind. Ephraim’s head jerked toward the farmhouse at Beacon Hollow. “Friehschtick!” Breakfast! He gave a quick nod to Jorie and the man, grabbed the empty gasoline can, and set off at a sprint up the long drive to the farmhouse.
Jorie shrugged, lifting her palms. “When you’re thirteen years old and growing like a weed, mealtimes are serious business.” The man got into his car, turned on the ignition, leaned his head out the window, and grinned. “Meals are serious business at any age.” As he drove off, he called out, “Thank you, ma’am, for your help.”
Ma’am? Wasn’t that a term the English used to address older women? Jorie put her hands up to her cheeks. She knew it seemed vain, but being called ma’am made her feel older than her twenty- four years. A horse leaned his heavy head over the fence, sniffing for grass, and pushed his nose at her, making her stumble a step. She caught herself and whirled around, laughing. “Leave it to you, Big John, to remind me not to take myself too seriously.” She stroked his forelock. “Especially on a beautiful Sunday morning like today.” She gave him a pat and went up to the farmhouse to get ready for church.
As soon as Caleb Zook tucked his beard to his chest, a signal for silent prayer before breakfast, Ephraim bowed his head slightly and watched for Cal to close his eyes. Then he quietly stretched out his hand so that it rested on the handle of the syrup pitcher, ready to make his move as soon as the prayer ended. He closed his eyes, and halfway through the prayer, he felt Cal gently place his hand over Ephraim’s and squeeze hard, really hard, until Ephraim released his grip and slipped his hand into his lap.
“What do you think we should do tomorrow?” Cal asked as soon as prayer ended, reaching out for the syrup pitcher. Ephraim settled for the bowl that held steaming scrambled eggs. “C-cut hay,” he said, dishing out a spoonful of eggs onto his plate before taking a mammoth bite.
The sound of footsteps thundering up the wooden porch stairs, two at a time, interrupted the discussion as the door swung open and warm air swooped in. “Sorry to be late,” Matthew said, scraping his boots on the mat. He gave Ephraim a sideways glance.
“Thought you were coming back to the barn to help me sterilize those milk cans.”
Ephraim shrugged. He had gotten distracted when Jorie called him down to help the man who needed gas, then completely forgot about Matthew waiting on him for help.
As Matthew pulled out a chair and sat down, he picked up the bowl of scrambled eggs and started to dish them onto his plate. “First, wash up,” Cal said. “Then, prayers. Then, eat.”
Matthew pushed himself away from the table and went to the sink to wash his hands. “Where’s Mary Ann and Maggie?” “Upstairs,” Cal said. “Maggie’s having trouble with her hair. We can’t be running late today for meeting.”
Ephraim’s eyes followed the syrup pitcher as Cal set it down, and Matthew grabbed it as he sat down at the table. Ephraim sighed as he watched his brother pour a small river of syrup on his scrapple, dripping down the edges, pooling on his plate. “I think cutting hay sounds like a good plan, Ephraim,” Cal said. “The front that came through last night left us a beautiful day. Maybe it’ll stay clear for a while.” He smiled as he handed the pitcher to Ephraim. “Though I always have to laugh at myself when I try to plan for the week. Weather is God’s way of keeping a farmer humble.”
Ephraim tried pouring the few remaining drips of syrup onto his scrapple, gave up, and reached past Matthew to grab a piece of toast before that, too, was gone.
“Did Jorie King say yes to teaching?” Matthew asked.
“She did,” Cal said, looking pleased. “Took a month of convincing but she finally agreed. How’d you guess that?”
Between bites, Matthew said, “Ephraim said he saw her in the schoolhouse yesterday.”
“She was s-sweeping it out,” Ephraim answered in a mournful tone.
“Getting it ready for next week’s start,” Cal said. “Did you offer to help her?”
Ephraim stopped chewing his toast. The thought hadn’t occurred to him. Cal rolled his eyes.
“Ha! Our Ephraim keeps as far a distance as possible from a schoolhouse when he doesn’t have to be there,” Matthew said. Ephraim tried to kick him under the table, but Matthew, expecting it, quickly moved his legs out of reach.
Seven-year-old Maggie galloped down the stairs with her hair firmly pinned into a tight bun, covered by a freshly starched prayer cap. Her mother, Mary Ann, followed behind her. They sat down at the kitchen table, bowed their heads for a moment, then Mary Ann jumped up. The toast was burning and she hurried to yank the toast tray from the oven.
Mary Ann seemed flustered today. Ephraim thought it might have something to do with lots getting drawn today for the ministers for the new district. He had heard plenty of neighbors say they were hoping and praying Caleb Zook would draw the lot. “So Jorie King is going to be the teacher?” Maggie asked, poking her glasses higher on the bridge of her small nose.
“Maggie, sometimes I think you’ve got ears like an Indian scout,” Cal said. “Yes, Jorie will be your teacher this year.” Maggie dusted her oatmeal with brown sugar. “Why is she called Jorie?”
“Her grandmother is Marge and her mother is Marjorie, so Jorie’s name is shortened to avoid confusion,” Cal explained. “Why ain’t Jorie married?” Maggie asked, using a fork to saw her scrapple into tiny bite-size pieces. “She ain’t that old. And she’s awful pretty.”
“Isn’t. She isn’t that old,” Cal said. “And whom a teacher courts is none of our concern.” He pointed to her plate to keep eating. “Matthew said she’s been asked a dozen times.” Maggie took the smallest possible bite of her scrapple. “Matthew said she always says no.”
“Matthew needs to remember that careless words are a displea- sure to the Lord,” Cal said, as he gave Matthew “the look”—one eyebrow raised over a stern face.
Ephraim grinned. He could tell Cal’s heart wasn’t in it. He saw Cal cast a glance at Mary Ann, at the sink scraping burnt edges off the toast, before leaning over to whisper to Maggie. “Jorie and your Uncle Ben have an understanding. As soon as he gets back from Vietnam, they’ll get married. She’s just waiting on him.” “Ephraim’s hoping Jorie will hang on a few years and wait till he can grow some whiskers,” Matthew interrupted, elbowing Ephraim. “If I were you, little brother, and had a schoolteacher who looked like Jorie King, I’d be offering to sweep that schoolhouse morning and night.” He turned his head toward Mary Ann, whose back was to him while she stood at the counter, buttering toast. Satisfied she was preoccupied, he whistled two notes, one up, one down, while outlining an hourglass shape with his two hands.
Ephraim blushed furiously, made a grab for the milk pitcher, and knocked it over. Cal jumped up and tried to mop up the milk before it spilled onto his lap. “Matthew, you fulfilled your teasing quota for the day and it’s only seven in the morning.”
“Will you teach me how to whistle, Matthew?” Maggie asked.
“Can’t, Magpie,” Matthew answered. “Not until your front teeth grow in.” He peered into her mouth. “I declare, all of your teeth are falling out and nothing’s coming in. I’m starting to think you’re going to be toothless, like ol’ Amos Esh.” He sucked in his lips and chomped down on them, trying to look toothless. “Don’t worry, though. I’ll get you a pair of store-bought choppers for your birthday.”
Maggie looked to her father with saucer eyes.
“Matthew is trying to upset you, Maggie,” Cal assured her. “Your teeth will come in when they’re good and ready. Finish up so we won’t be late. It’s a big day.”
Leaning against the sink, wiping her hands with a towel, Mary Ann said, “I’m worried you’re going to end up in the lot.”
Cal got up to refill his coffee cup. “Now, Mary Ann, the Lord didn’t intend for his people to worry.”
As Ephraim inspected the remaining quarter of his toast, butter on the edges, red raspberry jam heaped on top, Cal’s thought forever struck him as odd. Cal worried almost as much as Mary Ann.
Cal put down the coffee cup and placed a hand on Mary Ann’s shoulder. “I have more faith in our people than you do. They have better judgment than to vote for me as a minister.”
She covered Cal’s hand with hers, but Ephraim could tell she had a different idea of how folks would vote.
Twenty minutes later, after Ephraim’s and Maggie’s faces were scrubbed so they shone, Cal herded everyone into the buggy and slapped the reins on the horse’s hind end to set off down the long drive to the road. At the end of the drive, he stopped the horse and let Matthew jump out to get yesterday’s forgotten mail from the mailbox. Matthew walked back to the buggy, sifting through the mail, then stopped abruptly. He tore open a thin gray envelope.
“Shall I get a rocking chair for you, Matthew, so you can read in comfort?” Cal asked.
Matthew held up the envelope and its contents. “It’s from the U.S. Selective Service. ‘You have been reclassified from 1A to 1W and must report to the Armed Forces recruitment office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for a physical exam on September His news had an impact on the family of a thunderclap out of a clear blue sky. Mary Ann shot Cal a look of alarm. Ephraim felt the breakfast in his stomach do a flip-flop. Even Maggie stopped humming, and she was always humming to herself. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but Ephraim nudged her.
“Not n-now,” he whispered in her ear.
Quietly, Cal said, “I’ll go with you for that meeting.”
“No, you won’t,” Matthew said firmly. “I can handle this myself.”
He tucked the letter in his coat pocket and climbed onto the back of the buggy.
“How long has Ben been gone now?” Maggie asked. Mary Ann turned her head to look at her daughter in the backseat. “Nearly two years.” Matthew leaned toward Ephraim. “How many times do you think we’re going to get asked today if we’ve heard from Ben? Last time, I counted thirteen.” It was a question that confronted them every time they went to church or to town or to any gathering.
“Will Matthew be sent to Vietnam too?” Maggie asked.
“No,” Cal said in a tone that meant the discussion was over. He slapped the reins on the back of the horse to get it moving. Ephraim elbowed her as an awkward silence covered the buggy.
“What?” Maggie whispered to him, palms raised. “He’s worried M-Matthew will get s-signed up t-to g-go,” Ephraim whispered to Maggie.
“I don’t get it,” Maggie whispered loudly.
“There’s two types of conscientious objectors,” Matthew explained in a longsuffering voice. “There’s the conscientious objector who won’t serve. And then there’s the C.O. who will serve.
That’s what Ben got signed up for. He got tricked. So that’s why he was sent to Vietnam.”
“Why didn’t Ben just tell the government he was tricked?”
Maggie asked. “That he didn’t want to kill anyone?”
“He’s not killing anyone,” Cal said sharply.
Mary Ann turned and placed a hand over Maggie’s small hands.
“What’s done is done. But we pray every day that Ben is safe and well and coming home to us.”
“But why couldn’t he just explain—”
Ephraim covered Maggie’s mouth with his hand. Maggie was too young to realize that those unanswerable questions about Ben grieved everyone. But Ephraim knew.
“That’s enough talk about war and killing,” Cal said. “It’s a beautiful Sunday morning and our thoughts should turn to the Lord.”
They should, Ephraim thought, but thoughts were hard to control. Sometimes his thoughts bounced around like a game of ping-pong. Mostly, his ping-pongy thoughts had to do with getting his chores done as fast as he could so he could sneak off to the Deep Woods. But anytime Ben’s name was brought up, which was often, his thoughts hung there, suspended. He couldn’t stop thinking and worrying about him. Where was he? Was he in danger? Could he be captured and tortured as a prisoner of war, like stories he overheard when he went to town with Cal?
After meeting ended that morning, the children and nonmembers went outside while the members remained in the house to choose two new ministers for the newly split district. The bishop, Isaac Stoltzfus, would oversee both districts.
“It always gives me the chills, this lot choosing,” Jorie said to Mary Ann, as they stood in line to whisper their choice of a minister to the bishop. “All that separates one man from the other is a slip of paper and the will of God.”
Mary Ann turned to her. “I’d forgotten that your father was a minister too. Then you understand how hard it can be—adding those duties on top of a busy farmer’s life.”
Jorie nodded. “The day Dad drew the lot, Mom cried all afternoon.” “How are your folks?” Mary Ann asked. “It’s taken awhile, but they feel as if Canada is home now,” Jorie answered. Three years ago, her parents and siblings had moved, with four other families, to start a new settlement. She had chosen to stay behind to help her grandparents with their horse breeding farm. She never regretted her decision. She loved those Percheron horses as much as her grandfather did. And, of course, there was Ben. He had asked her to stay.
Jorie glanced across the room at her grandfather. With his thick head of snow white hair and bushy eyebrows, he reminded her of a white polar bear, big and strong. He winked when she caught his eye. His familiar deep-lined face was dear to her heart, and she knew there were more lines etched into his face this year than last. Atlee King was doing all he could to keep the farm solvent. Their best broodmare, Penny, died while trying to deliver twin foals. Penny was an older horse, but she’d always been a sweet, gentle mother, producing strong and healthy babies. There were always problems with the horses, but that particular setback—losing Penny and her foals—was an enormous loss.
When Caleb Zook asked if Jorie would teach, at first she said no, but he kept asking and she kept thinking about it. The extra income could help her grandfather and she wouldn’t have to go far from home. Still, the thought of what she had agreed to made Jorie’s stomach churn. It wasn’t the teaching part—it was that blasted state exam the eighth graders needed to pass in late May. Mr. Whitehall, the superintendent of public schools, was not shy in sharing his opinion that one-room schoolhouses were an antiquated system. He was only making concessions to the governor of Pennsylvania, he pointed out, to allow for them. But if those eighth graders didn’t pass that state exam in late May, she knew it could have repercussions for all of the Amish schools.
When she admitted to Cal her concerns, he insisted that if anyone could help those scholars pass that test, he knew it would be Jorie. “Our district needs you,” he told her. “It’s an unusually big eighth grade class this year, and either they are woefully behind in their studies from the school they’ve been attending, or they might—not all, mind you—be a little . . . slow to learn. Either way, you’re the only one I can think of who can bring them up to standard.”
Oh, she hoped he was right. She was starting to wake up regularly in a panic, dreaming it was already May and the scholars all failed the test. She shook her head to clear it of that thought, and suddenly realized that she was next in line and the bishop was waiting for her.
She quickly whispered her choice to him and found a seat next to Mary Ann. “Folks are praying the lot will fall to Cal.”
Mary Ann smoothed out her apron as if sweeping away her concern. “There are plenty of other good candidates.”
Sylvia, Mary Ann’s sister, seated on her other side, slipped an arm around her sister and gently squeezed her shoulder. “Caleb is far too young,” Sylvia said, giving Jorie a thin smile. “We need ministers who are old and wise.”
Cal may be young, but Jorie knew there weren’t many men who had the effect on others like he did. When Cal spoke, others always listened. If he walked into a room, everyone in it seemed to breathe a little sigh of relief. As if all would be well.
But Sylvia obviously disagreed. The way Sylvia was staring at Jorie right now, with those piercing dark eyes, reminded her of a Cooper’s hawk, arms out wide like wings stretched protectively around Mary Ann. She knew it wasn’t right to let her mind meander down such lanes, comparing people she knew to birds and animals. The images just popped, unbidden, into her mind. Silently, she asked the Lord to forgive her for such foolishness and managed a smile in return for Sylvia.
The bishop announced that five men had been recommended by the members. Caleb Zook’s name was indeed on the list. Jorie felt torn between relief for the church and empathy for Mary Ann. Isaac reminded everyone that each nominated man would choose a hymnal, the Ausbund, and in two would be a slip of paper. From those lots would come God’s choices to lead his flock.
A library hush fell over the room as the hymnbooks were placed on the tabletop. A prayer was offered, then the nominees stood, one by one, to claim a hymnal. “Please not Cal, Lord, please not Cal,” Mary Ann whispered, unaware that others could hear her.
Samuel Riehl was the first to open the hymnal. He held up a slip of paper and his wife, Rachel, gasped. Then two more men opened empty hymnals. It had come down to Cal and Henry Glick. As Cal opened his hymnal, his shoulders slumped. He turned around, looked at his wife, raised his eyebrows, and held up the hymnal for all of the church members to see the white slip of paper.
Henry Glick grabbed Cal’s hand and pumped it enthusiastically. “May God be with you, Caleb.”
Jorie had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the look of relief on Henry’s face. She felt Mary Ann lean into her shoulder, and she shifted to look at her—as Mary Ann slumped over into Jorie’s lap in a dead faint.