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By Kate Lloyd
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Kate Lloyd
All rights reserved.
For the first time in my life I, Holly Fisher, felt like a real woman! No Cinderella—not at my age. But my dreams were wonderfully, miraculously expanding into reality, like a three-dimensional fairy–tale ending.
I hummed the first stanza of "Here Comes the Bride" as I arranged five settings at my grandmother's kitchen table—six chairs and a bench around its perimeter. I figured Mom's fiancé, Nathaniel, would meander over from next door and claim the prestigious head of the table. I noticed Mom had tidied her skirt and blouse and patted her bun into place.
"Did I tell you I invited Zach to lunch?" I said to her and my grandma, who stood at the counter opening a cookbook. I was unable to contain my exhilaration; I hadn't seen him for days.
"Yes, we know," Mom said.
"He should arrive in twenty minutes." As I folded napkins, I envisioned myself promenading down the aisle in a satin gown with a flowing train, and perhaps wearing a veil edged in lace. Unless an ornate wedding dress was too fancy for Zach's church. Not to mention my dearest grandmother—I called her Mommy Anna—Old Order Amish to the core, with her ever-present white heart-shaped prayer cap and her black apron fastened together with straight pins. I might have to compromise, but what else was new? I'd learned life was akin to one of Mom's knit sweaters—a single tug of the thread and the whole garment could unravel. Yet those smoke-and-mirror days had delivered me here, so how could I complain?
I looked around the kitchen and saw peach-colored sunlight slanting through the window and dappling the linoleum floor. In late morning, no one would know we lived without electricity.
"Has there ever been a more glorious day?" I asked, and received a sluggish nod from my mother.
She removed two loaves of whole wheat bread from the oven and deposited them on a cooling rack on a counter, then slid a casserole into the oven. I sidled over to the counter with a serrated knife in hand and sliced into a spongy loaf. A burst of steam escaped; my nostrils inhaled the nutty aroma. I lathered the slab of bread with butter and strawberry preserves. As I swallowed a mouthful, my taste buds savored the scrumptious medley of flavors.
"I wonder what kind of cake we should serve," I said, and took another nibble. Mommy Anna and Mom glanced at each other a nanosecond too long. "At my wedding," I said, when neither responded.
My mother produced a meager half smile.
"What gives?" I asked her. "I assumed you'd be ecstatic. You've wanted me to tie the knot and have kids since I graduated from college." And here I was in the second half of my thirties.
"Well, now, that's true, but—" My mother had mentioned that rumors about Zach were circulating around the county, but I'd chalked it up to Mom's being influenced by Mommy Anna, who suffered from memory problems.
"Ach." Mommy Anna opened a canister of flour with wobbly hands.
"Are you okay?" I set my unfinished bread aside on a plate. "Do you need help?"
"Nee, I'm fine, Holly. Just thinking." She measured a couple cups of flour and dumped it into the bowl; a cloud poufed out, dusting the counter. "God has been answering my prayers left and right, and I'm ever so grateful." She added baking powder and salt haphazardly. "Holly, are you sure you and Zach aren't getting ahead of yourselves?" She'd already talked me out of searching for an ornate engagement ring because Amish women don't wear them at all, and I'd caved because I did want to fit in. But eventually Zach and I would choose wedding bands. I could hardly wait.
"You sound like his mother," I said. "She's acted lukewarm toward me ever since Zach told her we were getting married." I'd hoped Beth would offer to help make my wedding gown, since Mom showed little interest, and I couldn't sew worth a hoot. And my funds were sparse; since I'd lost my job in Seattle, I was practically broke.
Mom moved closer. "Beth might have something—"
"What, you and Beth in agreement? Have you two finally resolved your feud?" A dispute to do with my father, a man I'd never met.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far. We took your grandma to the doctor's together because we needed Beth's minivan, but it was mighty tense. Beth did all the talking, like I wasn't even in the room." Mom spaced the plates equally, straightened the cutlery. "Did you and Zach pray about your impulsive decision?" She sounded preachy. Which irked me. But I was determined to keep my mind from returning to her past indiscretions. Her downright lies. How dare Mom criticize me!
"Yes, we have." I brought out coffee cups. "Have you and Nathaniel?"
She faced me straight on, her stare uncompromising. "Yah, and we've spoken to the bishop and gotten permission to marry early, after I get baptized, Nathaniel being a widower and all."
"Why does that matter? And why are you on my case?" The last thing I wanted was a hassle.
"Holly, you know their situation is different than yours." Mommy Anna leaned against the counter. "Esther and Nathaniel knew each other growing up. And Esther will be baptized and join the church. 'Tis God's will for the two of them, for sure."
"And change her last name. No longer Esther Fisher. That's fine because I'll change my last name too. Holly Fleming." I should start practicing my new signature.
Mommy Anna wiped her hands on her apron. "Yes, Esther will change her surname and truly become one of us."
"And I won't?" A few weeks ago, when I'd first returned from Seattle, my grandmother had acted like I could do no wrong. But I'd perceived a subtle shift in her attitude toward me. "I'm moving clear across country to live near you," I said. "I thought you'd be thrilled."
"I surely am." Mommy Anna extracted an egg from the refrigerator. "I've waited so long." She cracked the egg on the side of the bowl, splitting the shell unevenly, a jagged piece plunging into her concoction. "And I could wait even longer for you to find an Amish beau."
I reached over and plucked out the shard of eggshell. "Did I hear you right?" My words clotted in my throat, coming out raspy. "What's wrong with Zach?"
"I like him ..." A befuddled expression warped her round face as she rechecked her cookbook for the corn muffin recipe.
"Good, because he'll be here soon." I reminded myself my grandmother's mental clarity was clouded. I mean, she'd read the recipe at least ten times and hadn't added the cornmeal. And occasionally her balance tipped off kilter, although she'd refused to see the doctor again to discuss her latest lab results.
My grandmother had lived her entire life in this slow-motion world of horse and buggy; my sudden choice to marry Zach probably seemed like a runaway train. Old people tended to fret, part of their nature, and my mother wasn't exactly young herself. I should cut them some slack. Mommy Anna was the woman I'd waited a lifetime to meet.
As I found a container of cornmeal and put it on the counter next to the mixing bowl, I heard tires grating into the gravel on the lane at the side of the house. I dashed to the window and saw Zach's pickup idling while he spoke on his cell phone.
"There he is! He's early."
An unanticipated gush of apprehension washed through my chest like a rogue tidal wave. What if Mommy Anna was right about Zach and marrying him was a horrendous mistake? I'd been exhausted when my flight landed upon my return to Lancaster County a few weeks ago. Zach had fetched me at the airport—no big deal. But on the drive here, he'd pulled off to the side of the road and kissed me—a knock-your-socks-off kiss I'd never forget—then proposed marriage. And I'd accepted—a lifetime commitment on a whim.
But I'd hardly seen him since that glorious night. He'd attended a conference last weekend and before that had claimed he'd been buried with his work as a veterinarian.
Gazing through the windowpane, I admired his thick sandy-colored hair and his classic profile. I watched his mouth move as he spoke—the soft tender lips I relished—and was aroused with desire. He didn't seem to know how handsome he was, a fact that made him all the more appealing.
Striding to the back door, I heard his engine revving. I grabbed my teal-blue jacket off a peg and trotted through the unlit utility room and onto the stoop in time to see his pickup swerve onto the main road. His brake lights blinked red—had he seen me? His pickup slowed, then he gunned the gas and sped away without waving.
In a blink, the sun hid behind clouds, as if a curtain had been let down. The remaining fall leaves lost their luster, the side of the white barn turned drab, and the air nippy.
My previous joy evaporated. It wasn't as if I weren't used to disappointments; I'd endured plenty. I heard crows quarreling in the harvested cornfield on the other side of the barn, and a cow mooing in the distance. I reasoned: maybe a farmer had summoned Zach with an emergency, needing immediate assistance with birthing a calf. Or was this the wrong time of year for calving? As a veterinarian's wife, I'd need to learn these details, and a thousand more.
Chilly air surrounded me; I realized I was shivering. I started toward the kitchen but couldn't face my mother and grandma. I was flabbergasted with their attitude toward Zach. I refused to believe their innuendos about a skeleton in his closet. But I'd been wrong about a man in the past.
I poked my fists into the jacket sleeves, made a U-turn, and headed across the barnyard, which seemed eerily vacant. Before my uncle and his family moved to Montana two weeks ago, he'd sold most of his Holsteins, and all his draft horses and hogs to Nathaniel, next door. Nathaniel had recently hired his youngest brother to come over each morning to milk Mommy Anna's one remaining cow and tend to the two buggy horses and chores. In the past, I'd avoided the barn. I'd always felt the conviction of my uncle's hawkish ministerial stare.
Entering, I noticed all stalls were empty, save one. The barn's interior was neater than when my uncle and his family lived here. I guessed Uncle Isaac had his hands full as both farmer and minister, a man chosen by God according to Amish tradition.
The sweet fragrance of hay engulfed me. I saw Mommy Anna's aged mare, Cookie, in a stall munching on grain. I'd been told she was too frail to pull a buggy. I wondered how old the sway-backed, barrel-ribbed white horse was. Would she outlive my fragile grandmother? If only Zach were here, he could answer my questions.
I spun around and bumped into an Amishman wearing a straw hat. He reminded me of Nathaniel: same chocolate-brown eyes and shaggy haircut—like a barber had placed a bowl over his head and clipped—but no beard, meaning he wasn't married and never had been. His brawny chest and muscled arms filled a blue shirt nicely. Suspenders held up his dark work pants. He stood one or two inches shorter than Nathaniel, but his wide stance gave the impression of superior strength and stamina. This man must be thirty-five, maybe older, and what many women would call a hunk.
He gave me a quick looking over; I sensed he was judging my loose, shoulder-length hair and jeans, and liking what he saw.
"Gude Mariye." His Pennsylvania Dutch—what my mother and Mommy Anna called Deitsch—greeting didn't sound foreign, yet his jovial sing-songy voice clashed with my tangled thoughts.
"My name's Armin King. I'm Nathaniel's younger Bruder." The corners of his mouth quirked down.
"Hi, I'm Holly Fisher, Esther's daughter. Why haven't we met before?"
"I just returned a couple days ago. I've been livin' in upstate New York, among other places—on and off for over eight years. I come back every now and then."
Mom had often advised me to count to ten before speaking, but I rarely did. "Why did you leave?" I asked, then realized I sounded like a busybody.
He paused for a moment. "I was undecided about joining the church," he finally said. "Nathaniel's been pressuring me to get down on my knees in front of the bishop and congregation for years." Armin removed his hat, revealing espresso-brown hair like Nathaniel's, and slapped it on his thigh. "No one to blame but myself for wavering."
It occurred to me he was like my mother, only she'd left for decades. I gazed up into Armin's handsome, suntanned face—he appeared to have broken his nose in the past, which added a rugged, manly quality—while Zach's features were finely chiseled.
"I'd best get back to my chores," Armin said. "Nathaniel will accuse me of slackin' off again." He repositioned his hat atop his head.
"Sorry to slow you down." Cold air traveled up my jacket's sleeves, and I zipped it to my neck.
"Nee, don't be. I'm glad for the company. It's too quiet around Nathaniel's."
I speculated how either he or Nathaniel could be lonely with Nathaniel's spritely and curvaceous housekeeper, Lizzie, flitting about, but managed to curb my tongue. "You live with him?" I asked.
"Yah, for now. Until I can afford a place of my own."
"I might stay in the barn and pay Cookie a call, if you don't mind." I hoped she didn't nip or kick.
"Cookie would be loving a visit, poor girl. Her limp is getting worse. I don't dare put her in the pasture with Anna's buggy horse and Holstein without Nathaniel's permission."
I wandered over to the mare and saw her white hair was yellowing to the color of oatmeal and missing in patches; her tail was short and scraggly. As I approached, she turned her head and gazed at me with soulful eyes.
"So Nathaniel calls all the shots around here?" I asked Armin over my shoulder. I wondered if bad blood ran between the two brothers.
His long legs easily caught up with me. "Yah, for the most part." He gave Cookie a pat on her bony rump, and she went back to eating. Armin's knuckles were hefty—assertive workingman's hands, able to tackle any job. "I suppose he was right when he told me not to leave. Ya see, I wanted to be a horse jockey."
"You're kidding. You're way too tall and heavy to be a jockey."
"Not that kind. 'Tis what we call men who buy and sell horses. I've got a gut eye for them, if I do say so myself. But to be a horse jockey, I needed to drive a truck to deliver horses twenty to fifty miles away. Sometimes farther. So I kept putting off being baptized, and then I met a woman up in New York State and stayed on."
"And?" I tilted my head. "What happened? Don't leave me dangling."
His mouth flattened into two lines.
"Are you still seeing her?" I persisted.
"Nee." He stroked his rectangular chin. "And you. Are ya single?"
"Not for long. Do you happen to know Zach Fleming?"
"The one and only." Standing taller, I felt myself growing in height—even if still only five foot three.
"Yah, our paths have crossed most of our lives." One eyebrow lifted. "I heard tell his long-lost love is back to reclaim him. And she brought a surprise no man could ignore."
"What are you talking about?" My heartbeat began to accelerate as if I were running up a sand dune; I couldn't catch my breath. "You must have the wrong Zach Fleming."
"Beth and Roger Fleming's son?" he said.
I nodded, a spasm searing from my abdomen to my throat, suffocating my words. My hands flew up to cover my ears as I rushed past him to flee from the barn, only to trip on the toe of his boot.
His hand swung out to catch me at my waist. "Something wrong?" he said, helping me regain my footing.
I stepped away from him, fluffed my hair, and tried to appear dignified as ziggy-zaggy notions squiggled through my brain like newly hatched tadpoles.
"No—" I said. "I mean, yes. Everything!"
Excerpted from Pennsylvania Patchwork by Kate Lloyd. Copyright © 2013 Kate Lloyd. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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