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He gripped the handlebar of his fleetred scooter with one hand, reached up and smashed his straw hat down on his thick brown hair as far as it would go, hunkered down and prepared for the ascent.
Traverse Hill was no child's play, he knew. You had to stay sharp. Especially this morning, with the fine, hard snow just starting to drive in from the northeast, pinging against his face like midget cannonballs. They hurt.
His ears were two red lumps of ice. That was what happened if you didn't wear a beanie to school, but Dat frowned on them, saying he never wore one. In his day, you wore your Amish hat to go to school, not a beanie, which in his view, was still the law, or ordnung, of the church.
He said this in the same level way he said everything: that half smile, the gentleness, the genuine kindness that was always in his voice.
Isaac had never heard Dat raise his voice in anger. He was firm, but always kind. Ordnung mattered to him. His family was raised to be conservative, strictly adhering to the old ways, never judging others who were less stringent.
Isaac thought Dat was a lot like God. He wanted your obedience, but it came easy, being loved the way Isaac was.
Sometimes, Isaac would have liked to have a beanie, or a red shirt that had faint stripes in it, or a pair of suspenders with prints on them, gray or navy blue or red. But it was not Dat's way. Or Mam's for that matter.
Mam was a lot like Dat, only she talked too much. She said the same thing over and over, which usually drove Isaac a little crazy, but Mam was just busy being Mam.
When Mam milked the cows, she lifted those heavy milkers as handily as Dat, her red men's kerchief tied the whole way over her brown hair, her cheeks round and flushed, her green eyes snapping, always whistling or singing or talking.
Isaac's eyes were green, like Mam's. His last name was Stoltzfus, and he lived in Lancaster County, where a bunch of Amish people lived, making up a large community of plain folks, all members of the Old Order. Isaac was the youngest son in a family of 10 children. All of them were baptized, the older ones married in the Amish church. Seven sisters and two brothers.
Jonas got married to Priscilla a year ago in December. Mam said wasn't that the most wonderful thing, attending your son's wedding, being the guest of honor and not having to do a single, solitary thing all day except eat and sing German hymns, which, after talking, was Mam's favorite thing to do.
The other Stoltzfus brother, Simon, was still at home. He was 21, and worked with Dat on the farm. The German version of Simon's name was "Sim," or "Simmy," but since he was older, they called him Sim. He was already a member of the church, so he was never very disobedient.
Isaac was in seventh grade, attending Hickory Grove School, a one-room parochial school nestled in a grove of maple trees on the edge of Leroy Zook's farm. There were 22 pupils. The teacher's name was Catherine Speicher, and she was about the prettiest, sweetest girl he had ever met.
Isaac didn't think girls were of much account. Not one of them had any common sense. They shrieked hysterically about nothing and sniffed in the most annoying manner when you traded arithmetic papers to check in class. They sniffed because they were mad that they had more wrong than he did. But they weren't allowed to say anything, so they drew air in through their noses and batted their eyelashes, giving their faces something to do if they weren't allowed to speak.
Girls were all the same, in Isaac's opinion.
Except this new teacher, Catherine Speicher. She could stay quiet. Common sense rested on her shoulders, and she wore it like a fine cape. She was excellent with those squirmy little first-graders. Isaac had to be careful or he'd get carried away, watching her animated face as she explained letters and numbers to the little ones.
She was fancy, in a way. She wore bright colors and combed her blond hair a bit straighter, not rolled in as sleekly as his Mam or all his married sisters. Her eyes were so blue he thought they could be artificial, but Dat said those Speichers all had blue eyes, so he guessed they were the real thing. She was also kind, like Dat.
You could hardly disobey Dat and feel right about it. That was why Isaac wore his straw hat on weekday winter mornings. Dat was very frugal. Straw hats didn't cost as much as black felt hats, so his and Mam's boys wore straw hats, even in winter, except for more important times like church and funerals and maybe school Christmas programs.
Isaac's plastic Rubbermaid lunch box rattled in the wire basket attached to his handlebars, and the wind whistled in his cold ears. The front brim of his hat jigged up and down. He closed his eyes to mere slits, enough to watch where he was going but nothing much besides. As he swooped to the bottom of the hill, his pace slowed, and he saw the dark forms of his classmates arriving from each direction.
The schoolhouse was hunkered down under the maple trees, its yellowish stucco walls withstanding the snow and cold, the same as it always had. There were paper candy canes and holly on the windows, the red and green colors looking so much like Christmas, especially now that it was snowing this morning. The Christmas program was only a month away, which sent little knots of excitement dancing in his stomach. School programs were nerve-wracking.
"Hey, Professor!" Calvin Beiler waved from his scooter, his gray beanie pulled low over his ears.
"Morning, Calvin!" Isaac yelled back.
Isaac was used to being called "Professor." It started as a joke, when he was fitted with a pair of eyeglasses, Mam taking him to Lancaster City to an eye specialist when he had trouble seeing the blackboard. His glasses were sturdy but plain, a bit rounder than he would have liked, but Mam said they were serviceable, strong and very expensive, meaning he had better be careful with them.
So because Isaac could multiply in his head, recite the Beatitudes in German, say "The Village Blacksmith" without missing a word ever since he was in fourth grade and was always at the top of his class, they started calling him "Professor."
He was secretly pleased.
He had found out early on you couldn't brag about it. That simply didn't work. You kept your mouth shut about your grades, learned to praise others and then everyone liked you.
"Didn't your ears freeze coming down that hill?"
"Oh, they're cold." Isaac grinned, rubbing them with his gloved hands.
Calvin grinned back, and nothing more was said. It was okay. Calvin's parents were more liberal, allowing more stylish things like different colored sneakers with white on them, which looked really sharp. But somehow it never bothered either of them that Isaac wore black sneakers, plain all over. They just liked each other a lot.
They both loved baseball, fishing and driving ponies. Calvin's parents raised miniature ponies, but he had a Shetland pony named Streak that was the color of oatmeal with a caramel-colored mane and tail.
Isaac had four ponies. He was very good with the ponies, Dat said, but only Calvin knew about Dat saying that, because it would be bragging to tell anyone else.
Best friends knew you through and through. You didn't have to be afraid of anything at all. Whatever you said or did was acceptable, and if it wasn't, then Calvin would say so, which was also acceptable. Or the other way around.
Like trading food. Isaac's Mam raised huge neck pumpkins, not the round orange kind that everyone thinks of when you say pumpkin. Neck pumpkins were greenish brown, or butterscotch-colored, shaped like a huge gourd. Or a duck or goose.
Mam tapped them, picked them, peeled and cooked them. Then she cold-packed the mounds of orange pumpkin, set the jars away in the canning cellar and made the best, custardy, shivery-high pumpkin pies anyone ever had.
Calvin would trade the entire contents of his lunch box for one large slice of that pie. Isaac never took it, of course, just taking one of Calvin's chocolate Tastycakes, those little packages of cupcakes Mam would never buy. Or his potato chips, and sometimes both. Then if Calvin got too hungry at last recess, Isaac would share his saltines with peanut butter and marshmallow cream.
When the bell rang, Teacher Catherine stood by the bell pull inside the front door, smiling, nodding, saying good morning. She was wearing a royal-blue dress and cape, her black apron pinned low on her waist. Her white covering was a bit heart-shaped and lay on her ears, the strings tied in a loose bow on the front of her cape.
Her cheeks were a high color, a testimony to her own cold walk to school, probably shouldering that huge, green backpack like always.
Isaac hung up his homemade black coat, putting his hat on the shelf. He ran his fingers through his thick hair, shook his head to settle it away from his forehead and slid into his desk.
Ruthie Allgyer slid into hers across the aisle, never turning her head once to acknowledge his presence.
Fine with me, Isaac cast a sidelong glance in her direction. He decided anew that girls were an unhandy lot. There she was, her eyebrows lifted with anxiety, a tiny mirror already held to her face as she scraped at a gross-looking pimple with a fingernail.
Yuck. He swallowed, looked away.
"Good morning, boys and girls!"
"Good morning, Teacher!"
The chorus from the mouths of 22 children was a benediction for Teacher Catherine, who glowed as if there was a small sun somewhere in her face, then bent her blond head to begin reading a chapter of the Bible. Her voice was low, strong and steady, pronouncing even "Leviticus" right. His teacher was a wonder.
Ruthie sniffed, coughed, stuck her whole head into her desk to find a small package of Kleenexes, extracted one after a huge rumpus, then blew her nose with the most horrendous wet rattle he had ever heard.
Isaac winced, concentrating on the Bible story.
They rose, recited the Lord's Prayer in English, then sang a fast-paced good morning song as they all streamed to the front of the classroom, picking up the homemade songbooks as they passed the stack.
Ruthie stood beside Isaac, so he had to share a songbook. She was still digging around with that dubious Kleenex, snorting and honking dry little sounds of pure annoyance, so he leaned to the right as far as he could and held the songbook with thumb and forefinger.
His shoulder bumped against Hannah Fisher's, and she glared self-righteously straight into his eyes, so he hove to the left only a smidgen, stood on his tiptoes and stared straight up to the ceiling, the only safe place.
He certainly hoped girls would change in the next 10 years, or he'd never be able to get married. Girls like Teacher Catherine only came along once in about 20 years, he reasoned.
He had a strong suspicion his brother Sim was completely aware of this as well.
For one thing, Sim had offered to bring the gang mower to mow the schoolyard back in August. A gang mower was a bunch of reel mowers attached to a cart with a seat on it, and shafts to hitch a horse into. It was the Amish alternative to a gas-powered riding mower, and a huge nuisance, in Isaac's opinion. By the time you caught a horse in the pasture and put the harness and bridle on him, you could have mowed half the grass with an ordinary reel mower. Isaac had caught Sim currycombing his best Haflinger, Jude, the prancy one. Then Sim gave Isaac the dumbest answer ever when he asked why he was hitching Jude to the gang mower instead of Dolly, who was far more dependable.
Besides using Jude, Sim had showered and then dressed in a sky-blue Sunday shirt which, to Isaac's way of thinking, was totally uncalled for.
He even used cologne. Now if that wasn't a sure sign that you noticed someone, Isaac didn't know what was.
It was a wonder he hadn't taken a rag to the mower blades. Polished them up.
Sim stayed till dark, even. Got himself a drink at the hydrant by the porch when Catherine was sweeping the soapy water across the cement, just so he could say hello to her.
Isaac was going to have to talk to Sim, see if he could arrange something.
That whole scenario had been way back before school started, when all the parents came to scrub and scour, wax the tile floor, mow and trim the schoolyard, paint the fence, repair anything broken, all in preparation for the coming term.
They wouldn't have had to use the gang mower. Weed-eaters did a terrific job, especially if 10 or 11 of them whined away at once.
But Isaac supposed if you wanted attention from a pretty teacher, a prancing Haflinger and a blue shirt would help.
Before they began arithmetic class, Teacher Catherine announced she had all the copies ready for the Christmas program. Amid excited ooh's, quiet hand-clapping, and bouncing scholars in their seats, she began by handing the upper-graders their copies of the Christmas plays.
Isaac's heart began a steady, dull acceleration, as if he was running uphill with his scooter.
Would he be in a play?
Oh, he hoped. There was nothing in all the world he loved more than being in a Christmas play. He was as tall as the eighth-grade boys. Almost, anyway. Sim was tall. He was over six feet, with green eyes and dark skin. Isaac thought he looked a lot like Sim, only a bit better around the nose.
Sure enough. A fairly thick packet was plopped on his desk.
"Isaac, do you think you can carry the main part of this play, being Mr. Abraham Lincoln? Ruthie will be Mrs. Lincoln."
Isaac looked up at Teacher Catherine, met those blue eyes and knew he would do anything for her, even have Ruthie as his wife in the Christmas play. When Catherine smiled and patted his shoulder, he smiled back, nodded his head and was so happy he could have turned cartwheels the whole way up the aisle to the blackboard.
Yes, he would have to talk to Sim.CHAPTER 2
Outside, the snow kept driving against the buildings, the red barn standing like a sentry, guarding the white house, the round, tin-roofed corn crib and the red implement shed on the Samuel Stoltzfus farm.
Darkness had fallen, so the yellow lantern light shone in perfect yellow squares through the swirling snow, beacons of warmth and companionship. A large gray tomcat took majestic leaps through the drifts, making his way to the dairy barn where he knew a warm dish of milk would eventually be placed in front of him.
Heifers bawled, impatiently awaiting their allotment of pungent corn silage.
The Belgian workhorses clattered the chains attached to their thick leather halters, tossing their heads in anticipation as Isaac dug the granite bucket into the feed bin.
A bale of hay bounced down from the ceiling, immediately followed by another. Then a pair of brown boots and two sturdy legs followed, and Sim pounced like a cat, grabbing Isaac's shoulder.
"You think you're scary? You're not." Isaac emptied the bucket of grain into Pet's box, then turned to face Sim. "Hey, why don't you ask Teacher Catherine for a date?"
No use beating around the bush, mincing words, hedging around, whatever you wanted to call it. Eventually, you'd have to say those words, so you may as well put them out there right away. Sort of like that gluey, slimy, toy stuff you threw against a wall and it stuck, then slowly climbed down, after you watched it hang on the wall for awhile.
The long silence that followed proved that Sim had heard his words. All the lime-green fluorescence of them.
Isaac hid a wide grin, shouldered another bucket of feed, calmly dumped it into Dan's wooden box, then turned and faced Sim squarely. In the dim light of the hissing gas lantern, swinging from the cast-iron hook that had hung there for generations, he was surprised to find Sim looking as if he was going to be sick.
Sim's face was whitish-green, his mouth hung open and he looked a lot like the bluegills did after you extracted the hook from their mouths and threw them on the green grass of the pond bank. Even his eyes were bulging.
"What's the matter?"
Sim closed his mouth, then opened it, but no words came out.
"Nothing can be that bad," Isaac said over his shoulder as he went to fill a bucket for Sam.
"Why in the world would I do something like that? In a thousand years she would never take me."
Isaac had no idea Sim was as spineless as that. Why couldn't he just approach her and ask? If she said no, then that was that. No harm done. At least he had tried.
"You think so?" is what Isaac said instead.
"Yes." Sim jerked his head up and down. "What would a girl like her want with ... well, me? She's way above my class."
Excerpted from The Little Amish Matchmaker by Linda Byler. Copyright © 2012 Good Books. Excerpted by permission of Good Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 31, 2013
This is the best true-to-life Amish Christmas story and it brought a big smile into my heart. I've read it three times already and I' m still smiling. Thank you Linda Byler for the beat all around, year round Christmas story!
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Posted November 18, 2012