A meditative haze parted and soon began to dissipate as a May sunrise spilled onto dogwood blossoms-white, pale, and deep pinks. An early morning rain had dimpled the dirt on the shoulder of Frogtown Road, populated now with pecking wrens and robins.
At the reins in the Hochstetler buggy, Annie Zook breathed in the tranquility, aware of plentiful insects and thick green grass, fresh paint on fences and a new martin birdhouse at Lapps' dairy farm. Clicking her tongue to speed the pace, she leaned forward in the seat, grateful for Zeke's fast horse, as it was a good long walk between Essie's house and Daed's.
Only four days had come and gone since she had impulsively packed up her belongings and gone to Esther Hochstetler's, so Annie was surprised to experience a sudden twinge as she made the turn toward her father's house. Am I homesick already?
She wondered if Yonie, her nineteen-year-old brother, would be at home when she arrived. I miss the rascal, she thought.
Taking in the vibrant springtime colors, she longed more than ever to immerse herself in art once again. I want to paint my beau. But Ben was no longer that, and their breakup was all her own doing. Hers ... and Daed's.
I never should've written that good-bye letter, she thought. Yet she had done so to obey her father.
Her separation from Ben was cause for ongoing sorrow. Thankfully, Esther wasn't one to ask questions, even when tears sprang unexpectedly to Annie's eyes. She had come awful close to blurting out her beloved's name upon awakening one morning, only to grit her teeth, forcing down the aching lump in her throat. Speaking his name, even in the private space of her room away from home, would not have hurt a thing. But she never knew what little ones might be roaming the hallway, and she didn't trust herself to even breathe his name lest she be overtaken with grief. Or was it pure foolishness?
There had been plenty of times in the last few days when she had tried to think of some way to return to the lovely, secret world she and Ben had so happily shared-till Daed had caught her riding in Ben's car, wearing her hair down. Exactly which of those transgressions was worse, according to God and the brethren, she didn't know. She had almost asked Cousin Julia for Ben's mailing address on more than one occasion. And even more shameless, she had been tempted to get on a bus, show up at his doorstep, and beg his forgiveness.
I'd be out of my mind to do such a thing....
Yet she was beside herself at the thought of living without him.
Annie saw a horse and buggy approaching, coming fast. She strained to see who it might be out so early. When she recognized Jesse Jr.'s wife-her eldest sister-in-law-she wondered how Sarah Mae might act toward her. Still, Annie was eager for any contact with family.
Surprisingly, Sarah Mae offered a warm smile and a wave. "Pull over and stop awhile!" she called out.
Annie was ever so pleased. She leaped from the buggy and tied Zeke's horse to a tree trunk before plump Sarah could even begin to get herself down from her carriage. Annie ran like a girl who had not seen hide nor hair of her kin in the longest time. "Ach, Sarah Mae, 'tis such a nice surprise to see you!"
"And you, too," Sarah Mae said, still holding the reins. "I've been meaning to stop by."
"Over at Essie's, ya mean?"
Sarah Mae was slow to nod. "Well, maybe so ... but-"
"I know it's terribly awkward," Annie interrupted, "but do come sometime. I know Esther would enjoy the company, just as I would."
Sarah Mae bowed her head for a moment, then raised her pretty blue eyes. "Jesse Jr. could scarcely believe it," she confided, telling how the People had been talking up a storm about Annie's winning the first place award for her covered bridge painting. "Downright surprising, 'tis."
"Jah, I 'spect so." Annie didn't know quite how she felt about this, folks discussing amongst themselves her secret sin. Well, secret till now, anyhow. Sarah Mae must think I'm brazen ... and I guess I was.
Had Jesse and Sarah Mae seen her painting featured on the cover of the Farm and Home Journal or merely heard about it through the grapevine? She didn't ask, wouldn't seek out praise or criticism. She had known it was only a matter of time till word got around. So now there were two names floating about-Zeke's and Annie's. One a confessed murderer and the other an artist born into the wrong church district-or into the wrong family....
Sarah Mae's expression was questioning, though she spoke not the words Annie might have expected. "I hope you won't be gone from home for too much longer," she said softly.
"Mamm misses me, no doubt." There was that lump in her throat again.
"Not only Mamm ..." Sarah Mae didn't need to say more.
Annie knew. She, too, disliked the discord between her father and herself. But could she make amends? He was more than put out with her, and no wonder. She had been too hasty in leaving, thinking only of herself. Yet being with Essie and the children was a blessing in disguise, a way to escape her father's rigid expectations.
"I think it best that I stay put for the time bein'," she said, leaning into the carriage. "Especially since Essie needs me."
Sarah Mae sighed heavily, her bosom rising and falling as if she were having difficulty catching her breath. "I'm sure you've heard all 'bout Zeke, then?"
"Some, but Essie doesn't know much yet. What does Daed say?"
Sarah Mae hesitated. "Only that they're holding Zeke until they can figure out if the bones are really Isaac's. Though how on earth they'd do that, I'll never know."
Little Isaac's dead.... The hard, sad knowledge slapped at Annie's brain every time she heard it.
"Daed's talkin' of sending a letter to Zeke's father ... to let him know officially of Isaac's death." There was a little catch in Sarah Mae's voice, and she placed her hand over her mouth.
"I feel sorry for Daed," Annie said, "havin' to break such sorrowful news."
Sarah Mae shook her head. "I can't imagine it. But Daed already got his address up in Canada from their cousin Nate, I guess."
Annie shivered. "I daresay Daed should wait till Zeke's father gets over the death of his wife. Seems only right ..."
"But who's to know if that will ever be."
"I s'pose," Annie said. "Honestly, can a man be expected to suffer his wife's death and his son's all in the space of a few weeks? Ain't like Daed to jump ahead like this."
"Oh, your father's not the one insisting on gettin' in touch with Isaac's father. This comes down from higher up ... if you understand my meaning."
Annie's gaze caught Sarah Mae's. "This is the bishop's word, then?"
Sarah Mae's hand trembled. "I would not want my husband or any man I know to be in Daniel Hochstetler's shoes. But the brethren know best."
"I 'spect you're right."
"No, Annie, you know I'm right."
Annie stepped back, her anger rising suddenly at the mention of the brethren. "Actually, I don't know and that's the honest truth. Some days I can't decide whether to cling to what I was always taught or to reach for something altogether new." She paused, recalling recent talks with Esther. "Something that makes wonderful-good sense but stirs up ever so much trouble. Ever think thataway?"
A slow frown passed over Sarah Mae's face. "Can't say I ever have, nee-no."
Annie felt an urgent need to step back, and she did just that, waving good-bye.
"Aw, don't go away mad."
"Oh, I'm long past that," Annie said over her shoulder, returning to Essie's horse and buggy ... sorry she'd ever opened her mouth.
* * *
When Annie arrived at her parents' house she knew, even before detecting the pleading look in her mother's eyes, that she was upset. Mamm had pressed her hand against her cheek upon first seeing Annie at the back door, although Annie hadn't bothered to knock. She'd gone right in, like she always had when living here.
The two of them sat at the table, drinking freshly squeezed orange juice. Mamm's soft blue eyes were somber, even intense. "Ach, Annie, 'tis gut seein' you again."
"Oh, you, too, Mamm." Annie mentioned having seen Sarah Mae out on the road on her way over.
"Jah, she stopped by on her way to market," Mamm replied, staring at Annie still.
"Seems she's mighty worried 'bout Zeke. Which is why I'm here. I just felt I might burst if I didn't talk to you."
"Such a shame for all the People," Mamm said. "Right startling, too, I daresay."
"Yet how can such a thing be true?" Annie paused, wishing now she could right her own wrongs-leaving home so impulsively for one.
"Just why would Zeke lie 'bout something so awful?" Mamm said. "It makes not a bit of sense that he would tell such a story-one that's near impossible to believe. Unless he's ... not quite right ... in his mind."
"Even so, if he says he killed Isaac, then who are we to say he didn't?"
Mamm nodded slowly. "Jah, 'tis best not to judge."
Annie turned in her chair, wishing to lessen the distress in her mother's gaze. "For the longest time, I assumed Isaac was alive somewhere. Didn't you?" She looked at Mamm, whose eyes were now downcast.
"It's the most difficult thing, to think of your child as gone forever." Mamm blinked back tears. "In a way Mary Hochstetler's recent passing was a godsend. She went to her grave unaware of the fact of Isaac's death, though thinking him kidnapped must've eaten her up inside."
"And she must have supposed, even known deep within, that her little Isaac had passed over, jah?" Seeing such grief imprinted on dear Mamm's face, Annie swallowed back her own tears, not wanting to add to her mother's sorrow.
"It is one thing, though, to lose a child that way ... and quite another to lose one to her own stubborn will." The words cut Annie to the quick.
"Oh, Mamm. I never left here out of spite. Surely you know that."
Her mother's reply was slow and soft. "Even so ..."
Annie rose and went to stand at the window overlooking the backyard and the two-story barn's lower entrance. "I 'spect you want me to talk to Daed 'bout it?"
"Well, shouldn't you?"
Something winged up within, like a bird about to soar. I have no desire to say one word to him. "I've done too much damage already."
"You're his daughter, for goodness' sake! Why not speak kindly to him ... see what can be done?"
Annie turned slowly. "I don't know if I can."
"Oh, Annie.... We miss you something awful."
Annie shook her head. "I can't talk 'bout this now, Mamm." With that, she hurried out the back door, hoping to find Yonie, the one brother who had always under-stood her.
In his parents' home in Kentucky, Ben Martin awoke early with an unnamed dread. In spite of it, he was determined to make a fresh start. Since returning home, he had not been able to shake his frustration at the way things had ended with Annie. He missed seeing her, talking to her, and spending time with her. He thought of her nearly constantly.
He also thought of her bridge painting, the one he'd stumbled upon in the Rancks' attic prior to his leaving. As close as they had been, why had Annie kept her artistry a secret from him?
Getting out of bed, he reached for his robe and stepped to the window, staring out. Since discovering Annie's painting, he often found himself imagining her at work ... how she might look as she pressed colored pencils or brush to paper or canvas. Did she stand at her easel or sit on a stool? Where did she work-at home or some secret location? And when would she ever have the time? Considering the great planning that would have gone into the painting of the covered bridge, he was baffled. With all the clamps put on Amish women, he was surprised such self-expression was permitted-or was it? Had she attempted to keep her work hidden from view, just as she had hidden him away, slipping out of her father's house and going to their private rendezvous place?
He recalled her eagerness whenever she walked out to meet him at his car. His heart had always pounded at the sight of her, as well. Smiling at the fond memory, he pictured a studio, unknown to her father and the People, where Annie happily hummed while drawing and painting. A cottage in the woods, perhaps? Julia's attic, where he'd seen the marvelous painting? And did she whisper to herself in Pennsylvania Dutch as she worked? There was much he wished to know about Annie-even more so now that he was here and she, there.
He stared down at the street, glad for the stillness before the neighborhood grew noisy. There was no question in his mind that Paradise, Pennsylvania, was as peaceful as any place he had ever been. One of his dreams from the previous night floated into his conscious memory: he had dreamed he was again walking through the covered bridge over Pequea Creek. How long would it be until his subconscious comprehended he was no longer in Pennsylvania?
Ben shuffled to the bathroom. Picking up his electric shaver, he wondered, How would I look with a full beard? He stared at his reflection, noticing the unusual dullness of his eyes. Absentmindedly he began to shave, pondering the fact that he'd never known how to go about courting Annie Zook. At first, he figured he'd just wing it, hoping all would go well. And it certainly had, but only for a time.
Then, right when things between them had begun to pick up speed and he was beginning to think she might be falling for him, she'd cut him loose. Even now his curiosity over what might have happened if her father had not caught them together was driving him a little crazy.
If we hadn't taken the long way back that evening ... if we hadn't run into Preacher Zook, I might still be seeing her. But her father had laid down the law and she had chosen to obey him, denying her own heart.
Ben wondered how he ever could have convinced Annie to leave her world for his. In short, that was the kicker. Nothing he imagined, either in the hush of midnight or in the reality of early waking hours, would ever change the cruel fact that they simply were not meant to be together. After all, it had been a no-no from the very beginning for Annie to acknowledge his attention, let alone his affection. Why couldn't he just accept that Paradise was not his home and never would be?
* * *
Later, after his two youngest sisters, Sherri and Diana, had rushed off to school in Dad's old beater, Ben washed breakfast dishes and contemplated his plan of action. It was time to get on with real life and stop fantasizing about what might have been. He had always wanted to extend himself to people in need, and he liked the idea of doing something useful with his hands. So building houses in a Third World country seemed like a good way to go. If nothing else, it would distract him and help get the preacher's daughter out of his system.
He plodded across his mom's kitchen to the coffee maker, poured another cup, then settled at the table while his mother dried the dishes. "I've been thinking about making a big change in my life," he said.
"Getting married?" She turned from the sink to wink at him.
"No, the Peace Corps."
Her grin faded but he rushed on. "I started researching this possibility more than a year ago. I think now might be a good time to apply." Since I can't have Annie.
Mom froze in place at the sink, dish towel in hand. "Oh, Ben," she said, shaking her head. "Please ... you can't mean it."
"I'm entirely serious. I meet all the requirements. They prefer people who speak more than one language, but ..."
"Well, you did," Mom murmured, almost to herself. "Not that it would help you any."
"What?" he asked, not understanding.
"Benjamin ..." she said, as if she had only enough breath to form a single word.
She walked to the table and stood behind a chair across from him, no doubt formulating her next attempt to talk him out of it. "This doesn't make sense. First you rush off to Pennsylvania for no apparent reason, and now you're home for only a few days and you want to volunteer overseas?" She stared down at her hands, fingers tense as she gripped the back of the chair. "Ben, please forget this idea."
"I can't think of you leaving again. I can't-"
"Mom, relax. It won't be forever." But even as he spoke, he was aware of the quiver of her lip, the pallor of her face. Why such a dramatic reaction?
With a loud sigh, she pulled out the chair and sat down. "I know your father will be glad when he hears what I'm going to tell you. You see, it's been a long time coming. Perhaps even too long."
He hoped whatever she was about to say was not as alarming as her somber face seemed to forecast.
"Oh, honey, I don't know how to start.... This is so difficult." She blinked fast, as if she might cry.
"Mom? What is it?"