An Unseemly Wife

An Unseemly Wife

by E.B. Moore


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An Unseemly Wife by E.B. Moore

Not all journeys come to an end.... 
1867. Ruth Holtz has more blessings than she can count—a loving husband, an abundant farm, beautiful children, and the warm embrace of the Amish community. Then, the English arrive, spreading incredible stories of free land in the West and inspiring her husband to dream of a new life in Idaho.
Breaking the rules of their Order, Ruth’s husband packs up his pregnant wife and their four children and joins a wagon train heading west. Though Ruth is determined to keep separate from the English, as stricture demands, the harrowing journey soon compels her to accept help from two unlikely allies: Hortence, the preacher’s wife, and the tomboyish, teasing Sadie.
But as these new friendships lead to betrayal, what started as a quest for a brighter future ends with Ruth making unthinkable sacrifices, risking faith and family, and transforming into a woman she never imagined she’d become….

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451469984
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 667,904
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

E. B. Moore was born on a farm near New Hope, PA, and is a recent graduate of the Novel Incubator program at Grub Street, Boston's independent writing center. A retired metal sculptor, she is also a graduate of the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Moore's first book of poetry, New Eden: A Legacy was published by Finishing Line Press in 2009. Her work has appeared in literary journals including The Drum and Inkwell, as well as two anthologies of writing taken from the William Joiner Workshops. She has been a resident at Yaddo, and was accepted to the Vermont Studio Center residency on full fellowship. An Unseemly Wife is based on the life of her Old Order Amish great-grandmother.

Read an Excerpt


Fall 1867

Ashadow on the sun should have marked the day the way God marked Cain, a warning to Ruth her quiet world would soon be cast asunder. But that September morning, sunlight flooded the orchard ripe with peaches, pears, and apples, their scent carried on a breeze through Ruth’s kitchen window. She savored the smell, and, black sleeves pushed above her elbows, she worked a ball of dough in steady rhythm.

A wisp of hair strayed from her white prayer cap and dangled in her face. With a flour-smeared wrist she brushed the brown strands aside. Her glance happened out the window to the dooryard, past the white barn, to the spread of gently rolling fields cut by the lane, and there they were on horseback, man and boy. Not Plain, not any sort of Amish—English,in their sorrel-colored pants and shirts, the man with red-veined cheeks, his hairless chin smooth as his son’s, the two of them on the road. They paused at the end of her lane.

Blood surged within her, and she swelled, protective as a she-bear. “Mein Gott.” Ruth dropped the dough. She moved fast to the door of their fieldstone house, made herself flat against the frame, and peered out. “Not a peep,” she said to Esther. Her three-year-old sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor, a doll in her lap, the doll in black dress, apron, and shawl.

Ruth pursed full lips, her rounded cheeks flattening. The tip of her nose felt cold. Her Opa had warned her against English. He’d told stories of hooded men in the Old Country, their torture rooms and his escape across the ocean.

Here,the dreaded Them rode hatless, fancy collars and buttons down the front of their shirts. These two, the first English ever to step on their land, hers and Aaron’s, pristine Lancaster farmland.

Granted, these English came without hoods and thumbscrews; nevertheless, having them at her door gave Ruth a chill.

She put a finger to her lips. “Shhh.” She wished Aaron in from the barn, where he’d been all morning. The boys were safe in the woods, Daniel, responsible at eleven, sent to watch Joseph and Matthew collecting nuts.

“Stay away from Gropa’s oak,” she’d told them. Who’d have thought the ancient tree climbed high would be a lesser danger than those close to home?

The English guided their horses into the lane. Ruth leaned toward Esther, her voice urgent. “Stay in the house.” The strings of her white cap flying, she left the child working on the doll’s bonnet, latched the door, and, unmindful of floured hands, clutched her skirts as she rushed to the barn. She’d head the English off, but she needed Aaron.

Ruth stopped in the tack room doorway, one eye on Them,and hissed toward the stalls. “Aaron.”

Thank God Joseph and Matthew weren’t in the yard. Too curious by half, what would they do faced with hatless English? They might talk to them.

Hallooing, the English reined in. Aaron came from deep in the barn, handed Ruth his pitchfork, and ducked under the lintel. He smoothed his beard and brushed straw from his black clothes.

Ruth gripped the fork’s handle and stood behind the door, her nose pressed to the cool hinge. She watched through the gap. If the English made a move toward the house, she’d . . . she’d what? Stab them with the pitchfork?

She set the long handle against the wall. Aaron would deal with this intrusion. She listened to pigs snuffling in the barn and felt their restlessness, a change in the air to match the change in her body. Aaron, too, had been off his feed for months now, as if he were the one blessed with new life in his innards.

From his horse, the English looked down at Aaron and said, “People say you raise the best horses.”

So it was voiced throughout the Plain community, but it was something Aaron never claimed. On his tongue, the words would be prideful. A sin. He took pleasure in the raising and training as Ruth did, their work blessed with accomplishment.

“Do they?” Aaron said. He waited, square beard below his collarbones, no smile softening the line of his smooth upper lip.

Uninvited, the English slid from his saddle. “We’re going west,” he said, with a satisfied air. “Lock, stock, the wife, and three boys.” He spread his arms. “I’ve a big wagon, and nothing to pull it.”

Aaron, hat in hand, passed the flat brim through his fingers.

“Uncle’s out there,” the boy offered from his horse. He was maybe nine, like Joseph. “Got a thousand acres. Idaho land, beats Pennsylvania hollow.”

“Free land, stake it and it’s yours,” the man said. “A government promise.”

Aaron’s shoulders twitched, his usual answer to something laughable. Government. Aaron and Ruth’s people had nothing to do with government, never would.

The man nattered on. “Apples, peaches, and apricots”—whatever those were—“all big as the boy’s head.”

Aaron eyed the boy and grunted. “Did you see?” Aaron said. “Your own eyes?”

“Sure. Couldn’t risk the family on hearsay.”

Behind the door, Ruth kept her hand to her mouth. Oh, those English.

“What’s your land?” With a swing of his arm, the man took in Aaron’s fields. “Seventy-five, a hundred acres? Nothing to what’s out there.” He swaggered toward Aaron. “Got to get moving ’fore it’s gone.”

“Won’t be gone.” The boy slouched in his saddle. “There’s lots.”

“So they said in ’49.” The English gave Aaron a knowing look. “And where’s the gold now?” He took Aaron’s sleeve. “I need horses.”

Aaron withdrew his arm and started toward the pasture. Still talking, the English followed, spreading his hands bigger and bigger to illustrate whatever his mouth announced. Aaron nodded, a matter of politeness, Ruth assumed.

She nipped to the house and hovered by the door, an eye on Esther and one on the field where Aaron showed horse after horse, smoothing his hand down a haunch, rubbing tendons, exposing the frog on a hoof of each horse.

The men came back to the dooryard, the English all a-chatter, leaning close to Aaron. Aaron shifted away and inclined his hat as a buffer. Finally the man mounted his mare. He and the boy turned toward the road.

At that moment, Ruth’s three littles in black pants, jackets, and low-crowned hats broke from the woods. They ran across the stubble field toward Aaron. Joseph in the lead, always in the lead despite his short leg. His built-up boot clumped the ground.

Out of breath, Matthew lagged behind. He worked his stocky five-year-old legs. Behind him, Daniel, the eldest, walked with the bag of nuts. Joseph raced into the dooryard. “Papa, who’s that?”

The English looked back.

“Hurry,” Ruth said. She calmed her voice. “In the house.” She pushed Joseph along. “It’s near dinner. Esther’s waiting.”

Joseph balked. He shaded his eyes at the sky. “Not by the sun,” he said. Nine, and he questioned most everything.

“Verrückt,” Aaron said. “The man’s crazed—you should’ve heard him.”

Ruth checked the lane once more. The English, their backs to her, gained the road and set off at a trot. To her left, the noon sun fell on the orchard where branches burdened with ripe fruit bent toward the ground. This abundance, Ruth and Aaron’s reward for loving care, had been a blessing, but today the blessing weighed on her, as if their overflowing cup might exact a toll.

A week passed, and Aaron’s sister Anna bore her eleventh child, a son. Ruth dropped all thoughts of English.

Anna couldn’t hide her disappointment. She’d made no bones of wanting a girl, and, oddly, Aaron seemed to share her distress.

His nights grew fitful.

By day, he walked the farthest hedgerows of the farm and scratched his head. He ignored weeds flourishing around the dooryard fence posts. Paint peeling on the barn went unscraped until Ruth did it herself and brushed on whitewash.

He counted his sheep, then ignored them as they overgrazed the field. He traveled the county talking to whom, she didn’t quite know. He held his own bubbling council.

“Aaron,” she’d start. “Shouldn’t we . . .? ” And he’d walk away midsentence as if he hadn’t heard. At moments he seemed a different person.

Ruth moved the sheep to their upper forty, where alfalfa grew knee high. What could these unknown people be telling him?

One restless bedtime with Ruth beside him, he lay on his back, arms folded across his chest. “Another child,” he said. “What will they do?”

“Your sister has a son—aren’t you happy? Wouldn’t you want one?”

“Yes,” Aaron said. “But when he’s grown, he’ll need a farm of his own. What then?”

He worried about Anna the way Ruth’s brother Dan’l worried about her. Family. She knew the pull, the sweet ache, love wrapping them warm and safe.

“Acreage,” Aaron said. “They need acreage.” He rolled on his side and tapped her hand.

“I’m listening,” she said and bent her head, her long braid falling between them.

“They’ve a scant seventy.” He twined work-worn fingers in hers. “A farm for each son—they’ll sit cheek by jowl. They best think ahead.”

“How?” Ruth said. “Stop babies?”

“No.” Aaron laughed. “Only old age does that.” He stretched and pulled her against his body. “English would say go west.”

“Verrückt,” Ruth said. “They’re crazed—you said so yourself.”

Aaron nuzzled Ruth’s neck. “I’m crazed for you,” he said and kissed behind her ear. Pink surged from lobe to crest. She couldn’t hide her feelings if she wanted to. This man, the Aaron she knew and loved.

“Ahh,” he said.

A warm shiver took her, and she curled into the scent of him, myrrh and aloes. How she treasured the touch of his fingers at the back of her neck, his nuzzle, his heated breath as he whispered loving words. Words she’d be embarrassed to repeat.

Where would she be without him, his guiding hand at her back, the strength of his arms around her, their devotion like a stone bridge built rock by rock. Without him her world would be rubble. But why think it? She arched against him, losing herself in the surge of their bodies.

Two evenings later, the Englishreturned with money. Aaron gave horses in trade; they had little use for money.

Ruth stayed in the shadows of the barn milking Bathsheba, the smell of hay and warm milk rising around her. The man didn’t leave. He and Aaron lingered by the stalls, where she heard the talk talk talk he stuffed in Aaron’s ear.

As the cow chewed her cud, the man made the westward trek sound simple, over the river and through the woods to Pittsburgh, as if Oma lived there. But instead of Oma, there’d be a gathering, hundreds of English from all over the east. Leave it to them. Ruth would stay snug where she was, on the farm. She milked faster as she listened, her head pressed to the cow’s side.

The man said, “Forty, maybe fifty wagons in a line, protection against highwaymen and Indians.” They’d live in the wagon for half a year, more if they wintered over short of the mountains, the wagon their home.

What home? A box on wheels with a canvas bonnet, its tongue sticking out for horses to pull? A box made of beams and planks and slats in an order so exact the box had a name, not a useful name like corn crib or coffin, but a proper name: Conestoga. Still, just a box on wheels, so big it demanded a six-horse team. Ruth’s hay wagon used but two. So conspicuous, one could say fancy. Fine for English, but not for Plain like Ruth and Aaron.

The man’s voice rose. “. . . river, that’s the Mississippi,” he was saying. Over plains and mountains and deserts, and there it would be, free land. “The heaven of it.” He gave a triumphant laugh. “Sitting there waiting.”

How could anyone be so daft? Idaho wasn’t heaven.

Without realizing, Ruth squeezed hard on Bathsheba’s teat. The cow kicked. Her hoof hit the pail and with a clang it tipped into the straw. The evening’s milk flowed to the gutter. Bathsheba lifted her tail and let loose a yellow arc.

“Amen,” said Ruth to the cow.

One early November evening, after supper, the littles in bed, Ruth and Aaron sat warming by the stone hearth. In her armchair, Ruth sewed in the light of a candle, the flame playing shadows on the whitewashed walls. The dark wood windows and doorframes glowed. Red coals sank in the ash. She couldn’t have been more content.

“West,” Aaron said. “Where the land is. That’s where they should go.”

“Your sister?” Ruth laughed. A separation like that? No. Their lives were too entwined, the same as Ruth and her family. When Ruth married and moved to the other side of New Eden, the distance, only a few hours by buggy, felt enormous. She’d missed her parents and Dan’l most of all.

“Yes,” Aaron said. “With all those littles, they’ll have to. They can’t stay here.”

“Leave the Fold?” Ruth wasn’t laughing now. “They’d never—it’s against the Ordnung.” They all lived by the Ordnung, and the Elders held them to its rule.

Ruth flicked her hand as if green-heads buzzed in her ear.

Aaron sat forward in his chair. He took off his boots and scooped tallow from a tin. With a cloth, he rubbed first one boot, then the other. “There’s no better place.” He didn’t raise his head.

“Not better than here,” she said. “I know what happens.” Ruth rested the needlework in her lap. “People die, if not from hunger, then worse.” She held up a hand and counted off on her fingers. “Tainted water, no water at all, frozen dead in the mountains.” She pushed her sewing into a basket on the floor. “Delia says Indians take people’s hair and skin to the bone.” Delia, her friend and constant visitor, had a gruesome story on every subject, from root rot to childbirth, and now Indians. “You wouldn’t wish that on your sister.”

“Wild tales. What does Delia know?”

“Horst told her.”

“He’s her brother—she has to believe him, but he doesn’t know everything.” Aaron worked the rag on his boot and scowled. “You can’t believe every wagging tongue.”

“You seem to.” Ruth shifted forward, hands on the wood arms of her chair. “Free land indeed!”

He lifted his head. “It’s true.”

“Land or no,” she said. “They couldn’t live among English.”

“Don’t be a goose.” Aaron dropped his boots on the hearth. “English don’t bite.”

“They have teeth,” she teased. “Great spiky teeth.”

“Nonsense.” He banged his stocking feet on the floor and stood.

“Why so angry?” Ruth said. “This is nonsense. We’re not the ones with eleven children.”

“Not yet,” he said and stomped from the room.

Ruth blanched. He couldn’t think they themselves would go west. No.

She wouldn’t worry. Their eleventh child was a long way off. Aaron always said, Tomorrow’s sorrow is not for today. His habit of rhyming away her fears made her smile.

They couldn’t leave. God and community the structure of their life, Aaron the bread of hers, together her existence made whole. He wouldn’t ask her.


Spring—A Snake’s Tongue

The wagon lumbered ever farther from home, the six-horse team straining on the steep terrain, Bathsheba tethered by a long rope to the tailgate. The trail west weighed on Ruth, shriveled her as she hunched on the Conestoga’s bench. The April wind with a whiff of decay shifted, bringing her a solid stench. She recrossed her black shawl tight over tender breasts and held one corner to her nose.

A carcass lay in trailside weeds, a great beast, bones disjointed, flesh devoured beyond any notion of a living shape. The family rolled slowly past, ample time to know whatever brought the creature down had been bigger yet, and eaten its fill, maybe wolves, a pack of them, followed by foxes, the bones scattered, and scattered further by birds and rats and winter-starved creatures unused to eating meat. And there, pale in the black remains of a rib cage, maggots thrived.

Ruth wished Aaron had obeyed the Ordnung. Stay separate,its rule, but Aaron had to have that free Idaho land. “Other Amish will follow,” he’d promised. “Until then . . .”

Until then, they would be on their own, no Fold to turn to, out of grace and alone.

In New Eden, Ruth had squelched her objections, her temper in check. She knew the submissive woman her mother taught her to be, the woman she never quite managed. Such a woman was God’s will, the Elders said, and her husband wished at least a semblance, so she’d held No in her mouth. She held it writhing until her lips betrayed her and “No” leapt out sharp as a snake’s tongue, and she didn’t stop there.

“The Elders will have your head on a platter, a gift to the crows.” Louder and louder, how good it felt, having it all out, a collywobble of words. And soon as the sickness ran its course, mortification set in.

So unseemly. Head low, folding her skirts close, she’d edged toward the hearth of their fieldstone house and bit her offending lips.

Yet she couldn’t squelch her thoughts. She and Aaron should have worried the bone together, but he had said nothing. Tall and sure, he’d turned on his heel and strode to the barn, where his near-finished wagon awaited the final topping, canvas he would spread over the arc of wood ribs.

And all too soon she had found herself stopped on the ridge, their farm still in sight nestled at the heart of the valley.

Ruth had climbed from the wagon. Loosening kinks in her hips, she’d stretched and walked a bowlegged circle of the family’s campsite. A bell sounded, muffled in the distance. She knew the timbre, the easy tone—her own bell calling cousin Ely to dinner.

She thought she saw him moving from barn to house. Transfixed, Ruth tasted bile, covetous of him and his bride, covetous of their new life on her land, tending her animals, sleeping in her bed. This, Aaron’s doing.

She’d wished she could talk to her brother.

That night she wrote:

Dearest Dan’l,

Dark is on us yet I see the farm as it was at sunset. The barn door stands open. The fence Joseph helped whitewash glows with sun. He still has the white in his boot seams.

I see every beam Aaron’s Gropa cut from the woods, every piece of fence you helped us hammer in place. This leaving weighs my heart more than you can imagine.

Aaron’s excitement infects the littles and for this I am grateful. I wish the same excitement infected me. Instead I am gnawed with foreboding.

Much as I love Aaron, and I do down to my very toes, I find myself resentful of being stampeded. This unwifely resentment so hard to admit even to myself I put in a letter for your eyes and no one else. If I were to write in the beautiful book you gave me these words would burn my eyes upon every opening. So I pray my feelings will disappear along with this letter.

The good news—under way Aaron is again the man I married. We will be as one soon.

After writing I feel better already.

Your Loving Sister,


Nausea took her, and pain. Was it the trailside carcass, or Ruth’s time finally come, the unborn child compressing her innards. She held her distended belly, one arm under, the other over the top, feeling the prod of an elbow, maybe a knee, as her belly tightened.

She reminded herself, this timing wasn’t Aaron’s fault. They’d had deadlines dictated by snow and swollen rivers, by mountains many hundreds of miles distant, by people they didn’t know and didn’t trust.

For the last week, she’d squirmed with twinges as the horses hauled the white-topped wagon into the Appalachians, the start of two thousand miles overland, and their fifth child way overdue.

She waited for the tightness to ebb, and as her muscles loosened, the wagon broke from bare trees. Below, three to four miles off, a sudden valley spread. So reminiscent of home.

Here, fields gave way to gardens tilled in straight rows where green shoots testified to spring and the attention of loving hands. Mustard bloomed in the hedgerows, dogwood scattered white in the edges, and at the heart of the valley houses nested beside a narrow river.

“Aaron.” Ruth’s call a whisper. His name couldn’t carry through Esther’s chatter and the boys raucous as blackbirds, all of them ahead of the horses.

Esther’s high voice rose with excitement. “Let’s live here!” Three and a half now, she rode on Aaron’s shoulders, Daniel, Matthew, Joseph, clambering beside them, their black clothes speckled with dried mud.

“We can’t live here,” Aaron said.

“Why?” Esther’s fists full of his dark hair, she twisted Aaron’s head. She leaned sideways, her cheek close to his.

He gripped her knees. “It belongs to someone else,” he said.

“I’ll hammer a stake.” She clapped her hands. “Then it’s ours.”

Aaron swung her to the ground. “When we get to Idaho, you will hammer the first stake.”

“When?” Esther skipped beside him, a hand in his. “Tomorrow?”

Ruth clutched the bench. Aaron wouldn’t want to stop. They might miss the line of wagons leaving Pittsburgh, lose the safety of numbers, the guidance they needed threading wilderness, the greater mountains, the desert.

If they missed the gathering in Pittsburgh, the wagon train would leave, and sure enough they’d be separate—not the separate God intended, close within their Old Order; they’d be alone at the mercy of . . . of who knew what. Ruth could imagine what Delia had called a Thomas-hawk embedded in Aaron’s head. She shouldn’t have confided her fears to Delia, yet she always did. Best friend or no, Delia loved to tease. Who names a hatchet anyway?

Ruth knew of Gabriel’s nameless sword and David’s slingshot, Saint Sebastian’s arrow-filled body. Any such could cut them down, clubs, lances, daggers. In the Bible, nary an Indian showed himself.

She believed she could guard against English, keep her soul safe and her littles, close her eyes, cover their ears, but the body? She couldn’t protect against attackers, and strong as he was, Aaron could only prolong the inevitable, so in this case contact with English would be a blessing. She hoped she was right, and God would understand the difference.

Ruth’s pains bit harder and closer together, sapping the strength it took to hold to the seat. In full labor, she called louder this time.

“Aaron.” His name rasped from her throat, squeezed as she clenched. They’d make up time later. She had to stop.

Aaron looked over his shoulder, his hand on the lead’s bridle. “No stopping,” he called. “We’ll eat under way.”

“But . . .”

He turned and walked backward. “What’s the—?”

“The baby,” she said.

He blinked. “Are you sure?”

She gave him a withering look.

Above his beard, his face lost its robust color. He pulled the team from the trail, across the verge, and into a field. With a crack, their wheel crushed a stray bone deep in the winter-killed grass.

Spring kept to the valley. The ridges, still waiting, smelled of melted snow.

“Daniel,” Aaron shouted. “Set the picket.” Daniel hurried to anchor the line and tie their horses.

“Matthew, Joseph, collect wood.”

“Now?” Joseph banged skinny arms on his sides. “It’s midday.” He kicked the grass with his built-up boot and headed off with a hop-skip. Matthew, half his height, followed, sausage arms out soaring like a hawk.

Aaron leapt onto the bench beside Ruth, his long legs folded. “Lots of wood,” he bellowed at the boys. “And take Esther.” He straddled the bench, his footing unsteady as he bent over and inched a hand under Ruth’s knees. Despite his great reach, her belly blocked him.

“What are you doing?”

“Helping,” he said.

“Helping what?”

“I’m picking you up?”

“No, you’re n—”

Her mouth opened, lips stretched across her teeth. Aaron extracted his hand, raised his arms in retreat, and just short of falling, he caught the wagon top.

When she regained her breath, Ruth said, “Youare not picking me up.”

A thock-thock sounded as Daniel’s mallet drove the picket into the ground. Minutes later, deeper thunks announced Joseph dropping an armful of deadfall.

“Papa?” At the side of the wagon, Esther’s little voice. “More wood?”

“Lots more.” Aaron, his words fast. “Lots and lots. Go.”

“Don’t shout—you’ll frighten her.”

“I’m not shouting,” he shouted.

With a frantic look in the wagon, then down at houses in the valley, he flexed his fingers. Sweat beaded his smooth upper lip and slid into his beard.

Aaron in a dither, she wouldn’t have thought it possible. Wasn’t he the one, in the comfort of their own home, the one who’d discounted birth on the trail?

One evening in their bedroom, Aaron had said, “We go when the mountains clear.” Slipping into bed, he’d pulled the quilt over his chest.

“But the baby.” Was he funning? She held her belly as if warding him off.

Give birth in a wagon? No, not even a Conestoga. A wagon took people places, took goods and chattels, the labor of one’s living. A wagon wasn’t meant for the labor before birth.

Aaron had settled into the thick mattress. “We go,” he said, “when the trail’s right.”

Ruth had one knee on the bed about to crawl in. She stopped and stared at Aaron. “And the birthing?”

“Can’t be worse than birthing a foal.” He put his hands behind his head. “I’ve done plenty.”

Ruth, now on her feet, hands on her hips, white nightdress hanging off her growing bulge. “And the mare stood by?”

“Well . . .”

Ruth snatched her braids loose. “You could ask Esther for help. She’ll be there watching me bleed.”

A hint of worry crept into his face. He turned away. “I pray it won’t come to that,” Aaron said. “But why argue? It’ll come when it comes—that’s what your mother always said.”

Ruth sat in the chair. She wouldn’t get in the bed.

Ruth’s mother had been there for all the birthings, her practiced touch and reassurance a godsend. If only her mother were still alive—two years, and Ruth still missed her. She wanted to ask her, Do all men behave this way?

Delia would have said, Yes, men do, Horst being Horst.

Ruth missed her too, Delia, as beyond reach as her mother.

Ruth had to remember, Aaron had always loved her, and she him.

Though he’d made light of birth on the trail, and she’d been angry, Ruth knew, if he could, Aaron would have postponed their leaving.

In a lull between spasms, Ruth spoke slowly. “Spread canvas in the wagon,” she said. “Birth in the grass, that’s fine for you and the mares, not me.”

“Of course not.” Into the wagon, he stretched a long leg, froglike; then his hands and the other leg followed, swimming over their possessions.

She listened to Aaron dig through baskets, shift mattresses, heard the whoosh as he threw the stiff cloth over them. She dreaded rearranging the mess his haste created.

Back home, Ruth didn’t mind field dirt on her capable square hands, or the mess of the day building through the house, but before bed she took no rest till she’d set it right, scoured the cauldron, scrubbed and oiled the table, the sideboard, swept the floor, cleaned and pared her fingernails.

Delia could leave a pan full of dishes for morning and sit by the fire, her plump fingers tickling a cat in her lap. It was a talent Ruth didn’t have. Delia often said Horst should have married Ruth. He hated a rumpled bed, the dusty lintels over the door where he’d run his fingers. He had driven his wife to distraction all her short life, showing her the dust.

With eight near-grown boys to help, Delia said Horst could dust lintels himself. She had enough, alone all day at her cooking.

Ruth wouldn’t have traded Aaron for the world. She laughed, but Ruth knew if Horst acted that way to her, she’d have gotten her back up. Being an Elder didn’t make him God. He was already a little too nearer-my-God-than-thee-could-ever-be.

She didn’t know how Delia put up with him.

It didn’t matter that Aaron dropped his underdrawers at the foot of the bed, his socks on the floor, and sometimes forgot, tromping through the kitchen in muddy boots. He had been everything she could have wanted, tender, protective; he’d sweep a floor as readily as Ruth would put her hand to the plow or the pitchfork. They were a team wrapped in the Plain Fold, united in their vision of farm and family.

On the wagon seat, Ruth loosened her clothes. “My nightdress, can you find it?” A rush of liquid warmed her skirts. “It broke,” she said.

“Broke?” Aaron scrambled forward. “What broke?” He handed her the nightdress, eyes darting away from her face as it twisted, another contraction strengthening.

At Daniel’s birth, her first, Ruth’s water had broken, and she’d thought the baby would come right then, but nothing came, only a big pool of pink liquid. Five hours of hard labor kept her terrified, waiting for her mother’s arrival.

Ruth had been at the birthing of kittens, sheep, horses, cows, pigs. But she’d never seen the first liquid. Later she figured their water broke in the field.

Inching off the seat, Ruth’s muscles unclenched, and she slid backward into the wagon’s center. She panted.

Aaron panted.

His eyes followed her halting progress and final collapse on the sheet he’d spread without direction. He folded a blanket and wedged it below the bedding at the small of her back, and she bent her head in gratitude. In his own frantic way he wanted to help, and this time, bless him, he did the exact right thing.

Another spasm built. She closed her throat on squirrelish noises, and Aaron cried out as if pain sprang in his own body. “We need a midwife,” he said.

“Yes,” Ruth answered between breaths, “I think you do.” Like Ruth, he’d been at lots of birthings, but not hers. Her mother or Delia or a helpful neighbor, all experienced midwives, had shooed him out, much to his relief. To Ruth’s relief too. His suffering at the sight of her suffering made everything worse.

Aaron hopped over the seat to the ground, heading down valley at a run. He stopped, said, “Holy heaven,” and spun around. “Daniel, halter Jehu.” Aaron ran for the horse, haltered by the time he swung onto the animal’s bare back. “Water, heat water,” he yelled. Rope in hand, he made off at a gallop.

All those miles to the village, who knew when he’d return. Could he even find a midwife? And oh—she’d be an English.

What would God think?

Never mind God—what did Ruth think? She hadn’t imagined the English near so soon, nor this oh-so-personal nearness. She’d never considered touch.

When birthing Daniel, she’d lain in the comfort of her own bed, but the pains had seemed a harbinger of death, not life. She thought something had gone woefully wrong. Ruth pushed with all her might, and nothing but a mightier pain had come as her reward. She’d screamed.

When the clench faded, she levered herself from the bed. Aaron had gone to fetch her mother, but she needed help now. She would walk to her neighbor if she must.

Bowlegged, she’d staggered out the door. Another contraction locked on. Her knees let go, and, falling, her fingers closed on the bell rope. A clang filled the crannies of her head as she sank to the ground. She arched and dug her fingernails into the earth, just as now she tore at the cloth beneath her.

Lying on the ground, she’d opened her eyes, staring into the maw of the iron bell. The bell seemed to wait for a command. She could see inside the lip, past the sound bowl to the tuning chips hacked in a circle.

Trying to stand, she’d clasped the rope again. A great bong sizzled through her body along with another contraction. She became a child again. She wanted her mother, the gentle hand on her brow, the sound of her voice telling Ruth all would be well.

Ruth had tugged the rope, the sound deafening. Seven of a Tuesday morning, no time for a bell to ring, and her neighbor Marta, with eleven children of her own, knew Ruth’s first time was near. But it seemed like hours before she arrived, the woman with her arms under Ruth’s shoulders, helping her up from the pool of blood and into the house.

In her pain and fear, the smell of dirt, of blood, Ruth didn’t care about anything, least of all opening her legs for Marta to look.

Ruth barely heard her own distracted cry and Marta saying, “You’ve a ways yet.” For all her neighbor’s concern, Ruth might’ve been baking her first loaf of bread. Marta sat hour after hour knitting while Ruth tried not to scream.

Her mother arrived in time to hold Daniel’s head as he finally came out, waxy and white all over his angry pink body, a full cap of dark hair. He wailed.

“Just like his mama,” Marta said, and picked up her knitting. “Another ten and she’ll think nothing of it.”

Each child came shorter thereafter, Joseph five hours, Matthew three and a half—Esther practically fell out after two. Never did Ruth think nothing of it, but then, Esther was her fourth, not her eleventh.

Ruth lay on the canvas, trying not to hold her breath. Time after time, spasms clenched her lower back, not her usual labor. They came closer, lasted longer, and no advancement.

In minutes between the crush, Ruth listened to their horses as they made the most of an early halt. Languid tails slapped at flies. She heard the rip of grass, their slow chewing, the shake of a mane. She’d be glad to trade places, eat grass and nicker, or join the littles collecting wood.

She tried to let her muscles rest in the in-between, but alone in the wagon, Ruth’s fears took her back to the barn, to the birth of Bathsheba’s latest calf. A bloody business.

The calf had presented one front hoof, gelatinous yellow at the tip.

Aaron had pushed the hoof back, his hand, then his arm to the armpit disappearing inside Bathsheba. He closed his eyes and groped for the head, straining, his feet slipping on the wet straw. “She’s breech,” he’d said and twisted his arm, the cow’s tail hitting him in the face. If he couldn’t turn the calf, it would die, and so would Bathsheba.

The cow’s mighty contractions crushed his arm. “Needles in my fingers,” he said. “I can’t feel anything.” He withdrew his arm, blood running down and staining his clothes, and, greasing the other arm, he dove for the head again.

After much grunting, he finally lined the calf right, and at the next spasm, his knee braced on her haunch, he pulled, and both groaning like the end of the world, he and Bathsheba delivered the calf.

The thought made Ruth tear at the sheet by her side as her own contractions came closer, lasted longer.

If Aaron remained down valley, and the baby lay breech, what then?

And yet, if Aaron were kneeling beside her, she wouldn’t want him in her innards, not to his wrist, much less his armpit; he’d be realigning her tonsils.

She rolled on her side, knees tucked, not yet ready to squat. It should be time, and yet it wasn’t. Pain took her and she drifted from her body.


Of Blood and Birth

Drifting, Ruth heard nothing of her littles’ voices, saw nothing but long-ago years. What a time they’d had, Ruth eighteen, Aaron twenty. Her gift from God, he smelled of rosemary bread, his mother’s, and something all his own. He came smooth shaven, and dressed in black stovepipe pants, suspenders, jacket, and hat. All his clothes conformed to the Ordnung, as did the cut of his hair just below his ears. The beard had come after they married, upper lip smooth, also according to rule. And Ruth would have had it no other way.

Sitting next to Delia, Ruth had seen him stride into church. With a shy smile, he nodded to the Elders, his eyes deep set and brown. He crossed the room to the men’s benches and sat, knees together, his head bowed. She found nothing disparaging about him, not even the unruly cowlick tossing a lock of brown hair in his face.

Ruth’s head should have been bowed too. He’d raised his eyes and caught hers. Had he been looking at Delia? All the boys did, not that she cared. Men too, though they’d look quickly away.

Had he hoped to catch Delia’s eye? Ruth’s embarrassment surged as his eyebrows came together, his mouth down in disapproval. But his eyes held a smile, or so she’d told herself. A smile for her, and she’d been right.

Ruth elbowed her friend. “Who is that?” she’d whispered. A thrill ran through her, something new, making her feel soft and uncomfortable, about to split her skin like a ripe tomato. Church no place for ripening thoughts.

“He’s a Holtz,” Delia said. “The other side of New Eden.” She inclined her head at Ruth and lifted both eyebrows at once.

Ruth looked away, the ridge of her ears heated. She didn’t stop to wonder how his prayer-closed eyes could have stumbled on hers. It didn’t matter; she liked the look of him. She didn’t dare look a second time, at least not then.

After months of furtive glances, Aaron offered a few words, and finally he walked Ruth home from church. Shorter than he by a head, she hurried beside him, two steps to his one long stride. He said almost nothing, his eyes on the road, but he took her hand in his right as they came in the dooryard. When they stopped at the steps, he looked at her sideways, as if head-on would blind him, and said good-bye at the door. She savored the touch of his fingers.

“What’s wrong with your hand?” her mother asked when Ruth wouldn’t wet it in the dishpan after supper. “Did you burn yourself?”

“You could say that.” Ruth plunged both hands in the water. She couldn’t tell her mother, not that she had anything to tell, only the feeling that she might soon have something to keep to herself.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This lilting, image-filled first novel by poet E.B. Moore, a poet and retired sculptor, shifts seamlessly among time periods, and between narrative and letters... heart-wrenching and satisfying..."—Publishers Weekly

“Moore writes with lyrical beauty...I fell in love with Ruth and her family, was gripped by her fortitude through dark days, and held my breath to the heart-stopping end!”—Juliette Fay, author of Shelter Me and Deep Down True

“A breathtaking epic...A transporting, dramatic and thoughtful read—just the way I like them.”— Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

An Unseemly Wife is a disquieting tale of dreams and delusions, community and separation, loyalty and betrayal. Ultimately, Ruth is a survivor among survivors: a woman who, despite the seismic shifts in her world, stands tenaciously at her own center.”—Katheryn Leonard Czepiel, author of A Violet Season

“Top-notch historical fiction...its characters will live with me always.”—Jenna Blum, Author of Those Who Save Us
“One of those rare novels of beauty and darkness, transfixing us with a place few can imagine and a narrator as fierce as she is true.”—Michelle Hoover, Author of The Quickening
“A harrowing and gripping novel.”—Randy Susan Meyers, Bestselling Author of The Murderer’s Daughters and The Comfort of Lies

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An Unseemly Wife 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
Ruth Holtz loves life as an Amish wife and mother in Pennsylvania but her husband has bigger, practical dreams of having enough land to yield enough crops and farm products for a large, large family.  Ruth also loves the care and cooperation of the Amish community and can’t imagine living without them.  At first Ruth thinks it’s nothing but her husband’s fantasy, so imagine her surprise when Aaron announces they are heading for Idaho.  The novel travels back and forth between their animosity once the decision is made without her input and the immense difficulty of their journey in a home-built Conestoga wagon.  The latter is an adventure in itself! At first the challenge as they travel is nothing more than a sense of Ruth’s grief at leaving behind family, friends and the Amish community.  But then rainstorms, cold, floods, ice, disease, and trouble with the “English” whom they meet looms larger and larger to the point where Ruth wonders if they will ever finish what seems to be a God-forsaken journey. During the trip Ruth makes two good friends, Hortense a preacher’s wife and Sadie a tough little woman, and much later other friends who become her new world.  Each new person has his or her own motives and ultimately some turn out faithful and one in particular an unexpected betrayer. Sadly enough there are several huge losses that almost take away Ruth’s survival spirit and make her question God and her prayers to him for so much.  An Unseemly Wife is a lovely and tough story that never fails to keep the reader totally engaged.  The reader wants so much for Ruth and the author satisfies, while never giving up honesty as in Aaron’s stubborn will regarding the future.  In some external ways, Ruth is a stereotypical woman of the time, but the author makes the internal thoughts and feelings of Ruth uniquely real and fascinating as this woman changes from a compliant, meek woman to a strong, even tough, woman, manifesting the strength necessary to live a fruitful life in the American West.  Her and her family’s journey with its losses and triumphs is symbolic of so many who became part of the westward expansion of America’s borders.  E. B. Moore depicts it so well and gives the reader a wonderful read in the process!
MaureenST More than 1 year ago
An Unseemly Wife is a very different Amish read then most of the other books I have read. Yes Ruth is willing to follower her husband Aaron as any Amish wife would; he is the head of her household, and makes the major decisions. This story was so different in the way that the Amish try to stay together for the sake of their religion and the practice of their faith. What she never ever expected was for her husband to go against his faith and strike out on his own from Pennsylvania to the unknown of Idaho. He has been told that there are acres and acres of land their for the taking. This is 1867 and the mode of transportation will be by wagon, packing up what they can transport to the unknown, and leaving behind some of her cherished memories. Hard to imagine how Ruth must have felt, she was leaving all that she had ever known, and her rock, her faith. Doubt I would have made it out of the driveway, never mind across the country, Ruth was one strong woman. We travel each mile with her, and are there for the birth of her baby. Wow, again I can’t imagine. If you want to read a story about what our country was like for a pioneering family, this will put you right into the wagon. Don’t miss this rather historical read; you won’t be able to put it down once you start. A really great read. I received this book through the Publisher NAL Trade and Edelweiss, I was not required to give a positive review
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful historical novel. Highly recommended. This is the first book I have read by E. B. Moore, but it is definitely not going to be the last. Excellent character development. I would love to read a sequel to this book. The story includes a trip toward Idaho, death, illness, cruelty, wonderful friendships, a faithful cow, and more. This book deserves an A++++
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Weird intro for a review - As a child who grew up in the 80s and early 90s, I learned to type in middle school and during typing class we played Oregon trail.  This book is a fictional tale - minus them headed to Idaho instead of Oregon!   Ok, now that we have the weird intro out of the way, let me tell you what I thought about the book.  Ruth was a great character, although I couldn't imagine her devotion to her husband, but with the time and her religion, I grew to understand and appreciate her blind devotion to her husband's plan for the family.  The things she went through were beyond belief - no spoilers, but man oh man, this journey was far from easy.