The mare's black eyes roamed wildly around the corral while the auctioneer rattled off her description. As the man’s voice droned over the speakers, fear rippled outwards from her womb, swarming across the muscled slopes of her lean body like biting flies that nipped at her from every side. It clogged her nostrils and burrowed into her heart. She shook her mane, whinnying against it. Her rear leg pistoned out to strike the wooden gate behind her with the crack of a gun report. Slipping through the slats, her hoof slammed into the chest of Royston Moore. The teenager crumpled to the ground with a whisper of breath as the gate swung open on him.
The mare spun, her hooves throwing hay into the air. She reared towards the open gate. Men shouted around the sale barn, some in English, some in Pennsylvania Dutch. The scuffling of shoes added to the uproar as a few crowded the fence to throw commands at those on the other side.
Lester Davis, Royston’s uncle, grabbed for the mare’s reins. His finger looped through the leather strap and caught for just an instant before the mare jerked her head, yanking him off balance. As he tumbled, he saw the body of his sixteen-year-old nephew, helpless, folded up on his stomach in the path of the crazed horse.
Lying in the dirt and hay, feeling like someone had broken through his ribs and torn out his lungs, Royston was only vaguely aware of the cacophony of hooves and voices. He was too busy watching the stream of saliva drip down from his mouth, through the dust motes under him, and into the straw.
The mare closed on the gate in two strides, her hooves finding their rhythm. Dirt exploded in her wake. Steven Torbit leapt his friend’s body as he ran up the gangway towards the horse. His hands found the gate and shoved it shut, the pin just slipping through the clasp as the mare slammed into it. Wood splintered, and Steve fell back, tripping over Royston. Behind the mare, Lester and Pete Simmons, the horse’s owner, dodged wild kicks to close in and subdue her. Steve rolled Royston over.
“Roy!” he shouted. “Roy, you okay?”
Royston’s face was white, his eyes bulging and red around the rims. He struggled to breathe in.
“Shit, man. Don’t make me do this,” Steve pleaded, looking down at his friend’s lips.
Royston’s eyes stared straight up through the rafters of the barn at the vent swirling above. It was like someone had wound a steel cable around his stomach and was cranking him into the teeth of a winch. His chest spasmed, and an electric ache shot from his back to his brain. He tried to scream, but the only sound he could manage was a dull whisper.
“Ah Roy, come on, man,” Steve said, shaking him by the shoulders.
The horse was quiet, bowing her head to the ground as Pete led her through the other side of the corral into the stables. Lester turned back to his nephew, striding towards the closed gate, through which he could see his body laying at the knees of Torbit. “Oh, his momma’s gonna kill me,” he muttered.
Steve knew what he had to do, and he didn’t like it. He licked his lips, instinctively. Shit, I’m not gay, he thought. Why am I licking my lips? He wiped them on his sleeve and bent down. His face hovered an inch over Royston’s as his friend’s wide, brown eyes seemed to be staring straight through him at the rafters above. “You better never say nothing about this, Roy,” he said. “I swear. I will kill you if you tell anyone.” He hesitated, then heaved in. His mouth closed around Royston’s, and he breathed out. When he came off, he heard the whistling of air as it left his friend’s mouth. He breathed in again and bent over Royston, pushing the air down his throat.
The cable around Royston’s chest snapped. His lungs ballooned with the breath. He coughed into his friend’s mouth, and Steve fell back. Lester opened the gate and leaned over his nephew. “Torbit, get off him,” he ordered.
Roy heaved in a chestful, wheezing with the pain. The smell of damp hay, dust, and cow piss had never smelled so good. “Shit,” he said.
“They’ll put down that damn horse for sure,” his uncle muttered over his shoulder. “Can you get up? Anything broken?”
“I think a rib, maybe,” Royston said, grimacing and lifting his hand to rest on his Mt. Union Trojans t-shirt. “Maybe two,” he said, running his fingers over each rib and staring up at the faces looking down at him from above the gangway.
“Well, try to get up,” Lester said. “This crowd’s not gonna stand around all day watching you two lovebirds sucking face.” He put his hands under Royston’s shoulders and tilted him forward.
“We weren’t-” Steve started to say, but Royston shouted in pain.
“Torbit,” Lester said, “help him up. Take him to the office. I’ll call Doc Sweeney and get him down here. Do not call an ambulance, you hear me? We can’t afford the insurance on that hassle no way. And Roy, don’t call your mother,” he added as Steve positioned Royston’s arm over his shoulders. “We’ll tell her when I take you home. I don’t want to be catching hell from her over the phone.”
The two boys crept up the gangway as Lester turned back to the corral. “He’s alright folks,” he raised his hands and yelled into the barn, where men and children were standing to get a look at the scene. “Just got the wind knocked out of him. Everything’s gonna be fine. Now who wants that horse?”
The gathered crowd mumbled laughter. Pete Simmons stood by the auction block, shaking his head, staring into the dirt. The auctioneer leaned down to him, whispering in his ear. Pete nodded his head, defeatedly.
The auctioneer turned back to the microphone. “We’re gonna start the bidding at three hundred dollars,” he said. “Can I get three hunrd? Three hunrd? Can I get three hunrd?” his voice began to rattle off.
A sixty-year-old man in a red, white, and blue plaid shirt with a Vietnam War Veteran’s hat lifted his hand.
“I got three hunrd. Can I get three hunrd tweny-fi? Three tweny-fi?”
A younger man with a jean jacket, a mustache, and cowboy boots raised a finger.
“Three tweny-fi. Can I get three fiddy? Three fiddy?” The auctioneer’s eyes scanned the platformed benches of the barn, taking in the hundred or so people inside. “Three fiddy? Three fiddy?”
The Vietnam veteran lifted his hand again.
“Three fifty,” the auctioneer said. “How bout four hunrd? Four hunrd?”
The man in the jean jacket put a stick of gum in his mouth, shaking his head.
“Three seventy-fi?” the auctioneer came down in sympathy for Pete standing at the base of the auction block, pushing the toe of his boot in the dirt.
A hand went up in the back, the owner of that hand, and a flat-brimmed, straw hat, silhouetted by the window behind him. He was Amish—one of a great number of Amish and Mennonite farmers and tradesmen who lived in nearby communities around Big Valley and attended the Belleville Sale on Wednesday each week.
The auctioneer pointed at him and continued. “How bout that four hunrd? Four hunrd? Who’ll give me four hunrd?”
The Vietnam veteran raised his hand again.
The Amish man pressed his lips together. He had watched the black mare almost trample that teenage boy to death. A horse such as that was like to be a trial on the man who owned it for the rest of his natural life. He had no use for it, and not the money to buy it today and feed it tomorrow. But he knew that man in the red, white, and blue plaid shirt was Ronald Kauffman, a kill-buyer who was only going to take the horse for slaughter. He didn’t know why he wanted to buy this horse. He’d let Ron Kauffman buy plenty of other horses for the slaughterhouse—plenty of better horses. Four hundred dollars was three hundred dollars too much to pay for a tribulation like that one. He decided against it.
“Four hunrd going once. Going twice,” the auctioneer said, raising the gavel.
“Eight hundred dollars,” the Amish man raised his voice, sitting up straight so that the young boy leaning on his lap almost fell down onto the next platformed bench.
Every head in the room, from Pete Simmons to Ron Kauffman turned towards the man sitting erect on his bench, his right hand clenched and white on the splintered wood beside him.
A moment passed, and when the auctioneer regained his composure, he looked at Ron, who sat, arms crossed, shaking his head.
“Sold to Mr. Nehemiah Zook,” the auctioneer said, bringing down his gavel with a clack. “And may God have mercy on your soul,” he muttered as he looked at the register for the next animal.
“Nothing too strenuous, you hear?” Doc Sweeney said, handing Roy a pair of Tylenol. “You’ve got two broken ribs by my count. They’re probably just hairline fractures. You’re lucky that gate was in the way.”
From beside the filing cabinet, Steve watched Roy wince, pop the pills into his mouth, and take a swig of water.
“Not much you can do for a hairline fracture, except let it be,” Doc Sweeney said. “No sports or heavy lifting. You play football?”
“Yes sir,” Roy said, groaning out the last part of the words.
“Well, I think it’s safe to say you won’t be playing for a few weeks. Have your parents write you a note.”
“So he’s gonna be alright?” Lester asked, both his hands planted on the desk behind Roy and the doctor.
“He’ll be fine. Like I said, he’s lucky that fence took most the blow. I’d still go by the hospital and get an x-ray to make sure.”
Lester thanked the doctor and paid him, then saw him to the door of the office. He walked back to the fridge and pulled out three bottles of Budweiser, setting them down on the desk and cracking them open with the corner of the table. “I reckon you boys earned this,” he said. “Torbit, you think you can keep it in your pants if you get a little alcohol in you? I don’t want you molesting my nephew on the way home.”
Steve scowled, glancing from Lester to the floor. “It wasn’t like that,” he said. “You know it. I thought he was dying. I thought maybe if I just-”
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to enjoy it so much. I mean, jeez, when a man starts coughing, let him come up for air.” Lester grinned, handing him a beer.
Steve took it, mouth watering, but eyes only gingerly making contact with Roy’s uncle.
Lester handed the other to Roy, then said, “To Torbit. May he find a woman to make him a man or a man to make him a woman.”
Roy laughed sharply, cut short by pain. He lifted his bottle to Lester’s and clinked it against the side.
Steve didn’t find it so amusing.
“Come on, Steve,” Roy said. “Lighten up. You saved my life twice today. Everybody saw that. Uncle Les is only kidding.”
Steve leaned forward, tapping his bottle to the other two waiting. “If this is the thanks I get, then don’t count on me doing it a third time.” He sat back in his seat and pressed the bottle to his lips, swiping the hair away from his eyes. A piece of straw of the same color hung down below his bangs. He plucked it out and wondered how long it had been there without him noticing it.
Lester gulped his bottle dry, then set it on the table with a thunk. “Well, I better get back down there. You want me to lock the door behind me, Torbit?” he asked, picking his hat up off the desk.
“It isn’t funny,” Steve muttered into his bottle.
Lester started to close the door, then pushed it back open. “Roy,” he said, “don’t say nothing to your mom, alright? I don’t want her thinking this was my fault.”
Roy took another swig and gave his uncle a lazy salute.
“And nothing about the beers neither,” Lester added.
“Never have,” Roy answered.
Lester nodded, then looked at Steve and laughed as he shut the door behind him.
An hour later found the two milling around the flea market outside the auction barn. Roy cradled his ribs. Steve cradled his ego. He sulked beside Roy as they walked between the white tents and foldout tables. He could just hear all the jibes and snickers that would be scampering like rats down the hallway the next day. Sure, he’d saved Roy’s life, but nobody would be singing his praises. He’d heard the murmured questions at parties. “So, is Steve, like, in love with Roy or something? I always see them together,” and, “does he have any other friends?” With his luck, someone had probably already taken a picture of him pinning Roy to the ground in a french kiss and posted it online. He imagined stepping up to his locker in the morning and seeing the word “queen” carved all over it.
Thankfully, the smell of rhubarb and shoofly pies was thick enough in the air to pull him away from brooding on that thought. He and Roy passed a stand kept by a Shawnee Indian family, where dreamcatchers spun in the crisp April breeze. The three Shawnee children sat on a wolf-skin rug and played with their iPhones. Antique dealers held the stalls on either side of the family, selling old suitcases, clocks, Civil War memorabilia, and mostly worthless baseball cards, among other crap. Some stalls sold leather goods: belts, holsters, saddles and the like. Amish, regulars, and tourists all scavenged for treasures, haggling over prices and munching on hotdogs or pizza slices.
A woman’s laugh cut through the air like a whip-crack, and Steve looked over his shoulder. She sat on a picnic table with red hair kindling in the sunlight, straddling a man whose face was buried in her neck. Tied to the next picnic table was a pitbull. The dog strained against its leash as it growled at the two of them. The man, whose leather-vested back was turned to the dog, ignored it. Steve thought maybe it was the screaming skull embroidered onto the back of the man’s vest that had set the dog off or the tattoo that wrapped around his shaved head. Motorcycle gangs came through here every now and then. Some were more respectful of the Amish ways than others.
A Mennonite mother to Steve’s left herded her five children away from the circus act at the table as a few more bikers returned to it with cans of beer and pizza. Nobody would say anything to them, and that was fine with Steve. Make those holier-than-thou tightasses squirm.
“You wanna join ‘em?” Steve asked Roy, noticing his friend staring in the same direction. “Hell, I would for that piece of ass.” Instead, the two turned and walked away, just like everyone else.
Steve bought a slingshot and snapped the rubber bands back and forth over the hand-carved wooden frame while they meandered. He’d loved them as a kid, and he’d gotten pretty good—downright lethal even. He picked up a bag of peanuts at a small trailer with the words “Pappy’s Big Salty Nuts” painted in swirling letters on the side of it. As they wandered past a stall where sweet corn sizzled on a grill, he slipped a peanut into the leather pouch and, discretely, sent it screaming at some red plastic cups left on a picnic table. One of the cups spun into the grass, and he hooted in victory, then reloaded to fire at a pink balloon bobbing above a little girl’s head. It wasn’t enough to pop it. He didn’t pull back that far. It soothed Steve’s pride just to know that he could, though, if he wanted to.
“Roy! Steve!” A voice commandeered their attention. They looked behind to see Bobby Sims, another classmate and friend, sucking on a Pepsi and walking in their direction.
“Been looking for yous all over. Heard a horse gave you a good kick in the gut, Roy. You okay?” Bobby asked.
Roy forced a smile onto his clammy face and nodded. “Yeah, she got me pretty good.”
“Heard she would have trampled you too if Steve hadn’t shut the gate in time,” Bobby said, taking a pull on his straw and looking at Steve.
“Yep,” Roy said. “He’s my hero.”
“Heard Steve got a little friendly too,” Bobby said with a wry smile, the straw tucked between his teeth.
Steve fiddled with the bands of the slingshot.
“Come on, man. I’m just playing with you,” Bobby said nudging him in the shoulder.
Steve yanked back on the slingshot and sent a peanut at the straw, knocking it out of Bobby’s mouth with a spray of Pepsi. He laughed.
Bobby was stunned for a second, then put the straw back in his mouth and sucked up another mouthful. Without warning, he whipped the straw out and shot a jet of pop in Steve’s direction.
Steve jumped back, yelling. He loaded another peanut into his slingshot, then let it fly. Bobby blocked the shot with his big gulp, but the lid came loose and sloshed a cupful onto his shirt. “Alright, alright, alright! Truce!” he yelled, holding his hands up with the cup.
Steve sent a peanut into his nose.
“Son of a-” Bobby yelled. He ducked his head and charging towards Steve, chasing him around a row of tents as Roy watched, holding his ribs in agony while he laughed. Bobby was not in very good shape, though, and, with a belly full of Pepsi, soon got tired of the chase. “No more,” he said as Steve stalked back up to him, the rubber bands of the slingshot taut in his hand, another peanut locked and loaded. “Really. I’m finished, man.”
“What about the horse?” Roy asked as the two rejoined him and they strolled towards the other end of the market.
“They put her down, right?” Steve said.
“Well, nobody wanted her at first,” Bobby said, breathing a little heavier. “But then Kauffman pitched in and said he’d give four hundred dollars for her.” They stopped at a table with trays of used videogames. The three flipped through the titles.
“Serves her right, the bitch,” Steve said. “Hope he makes it slow. Grinds her up from the feet.” He didn’t know if it was the alcohol talking or what.
“Well, he didn’t get her,” Bobby said, shaking his head.
Steve looked up from an old Mortal Kombat cartridge. “Who did?”
“Figures,” Steve said as they started walking again. His father had worked for an Amish carpenter for years. Last October, the man laid him off. At first, his dad had tried to make it on his own, but he really wasn’t that good with a hammer. Now he was just another small-town deadbeat.
“How much did he pay?” Roy asked.
“Eight hundred dollars.”
“Stupid Amish moron,” Steve spat.
Roy’s jaw had dropped open. “What?”
“I know,” Bobby said. “Everybody was talking about it when I went by. They couldn’t believe he paid that much for her.”
“We should find out where his barn is and set it on fire,” Steve said.
The two ignored him.
“What’s he going to do with her?” Roy asked.
“Beats the shit out of me,” Bobby said.
“Probably wants to take her out behind the barn and get her pregnant,” Steve said, launching a peanut at a pigeon flying overhead.
The other two laughed a little, more at him than the joke itself, he knew.
The smell of pecan, apple, cinnamon, and caramel stopped the three of them in their tracks. It came from under a tent to their right. Inside, rows of pies laid on a table. Behind them stood two middle-aged women in blue dresses and white, Amish caps. They were chatting with a group of tourists who were all but eating off of the table, taking slices of the fresh pies they had just purchased and stuffing them into their mouths as they rambled about how much they admired Amish life and how delicious the pies were.
“Good afternoon to you,” one of the women said to Bobby as he walked up to hover over the table. The woman had blue eyes that matched the color of her dress and dark hair tucked into a crisp, white cap. The small rise to the bridge of her nose gave her an almost Middle-Eastern look. Two children played with faceless dolls on the floor behind the table. A teenage girl sat above them on a stool, cutting and arranging flowers that she placed in pitchers beside the pies.
The woman who had greeted Bobby turned to the teenage girl. “Haddie,” she called her, then said something in Pennsylvania Dutch. The girl lifted her head from the flowers and noticed Steve standing beside Bobby. She smiled with the same electric blue eyes as her mother, but there wasn’t much else they shared. Her nose was a smooth line, for one. For another, her skin was lighter, and her hair was an auburn shade, not dark brown. She had a few freckles too, dotting her nose.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Nah,” Steve said, feeling like she’d caught him between the pages of one of his dad’s Hustler magazines.
She turned to Roy, who had wandered to the far left edge of the table, where columns of pickles and onions sat in mason jars. “Good afternoon,” she said. “Can I help you with something?”
“Uyeah,” Roy said, blinking as he looked up from the jars to her. “I’d like a jar of pickles, please.”
“Sure thing,” she said. “Any particular one?”
“Oh. This one,” Roy said, trying to lift it and wincing with the motion.
She took it. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I’m just-”
“You’re the boy who got kicked by the horse in there, aren’t you?”
The girl’s mother glanced in her direction, but didn’t say anything.
Roy gave a half smile and shrugged his shoulders. “I guess I’m famous.”
“Sure are,” she smiled. “Shouldn’t you be at a hospital?”
“It’s not really that bad. I got lucky.”
“Blessed,” she said, smiling.
“Yeah. That’s what I meant.”
She handed him back his change and a paper bag with the jar of pickles in it. “Thank you.”
“Thanks,” Roy replied, cradling the bag in his arm.
“Damn,” Steve said as they were barely out of earshot of the women at the table. “Roy got his mack on with the hottie at the pie stand.” He dipped his shoulder into Roy’s, almost knocking the jar of pickles loose.
“Oh, I know it,” Bobby chimed in.
“Yeah right. Did you see me?” Roy glanced back at the girl.
“Some boys like ‘em strange. Our boy, Roy? He likes ‘em plain,” Steve said.
The three broke out in laughter, Roy turning red.
“What do you think she’s like?” Steve asked, his mind roving back over her face and dress.
“I don’t know, Steve,” Roy answered.
“I hear they’re pretty wild if you can get them drunk,” Bobby said.
“I’m sure they are. Bet she likes it rough, huh? Whips, harness, plow and everything,” Steve laughed. “Bet she ‘moos’ when you squeeze her tits.”
“Alright Steve,” Roy said, glancing sideways at his friend.
“Right, Roy,” Steve said. “You got dibs. I did see her first, though. Tell you what, as long as you leave me seconds-”
“That’s enough, Steve,” Roy said, turning to face him this time. The two looked at each other for a moment. “Bet she’s got an older brother, though.” He smiled.
Bobby spit out the piece of pie he’d just shoveled into his face and doubled over with laughter.
“Shut up, Roy,” Steve said, turning away. “I knew I should have let you die.” He pulled the keys to his dad’s gray Pontiac Grand Am out of his pocket and jammed them into the worn-out keyhole. Wrestling with it for a few seconds, he finally got it to unlock, dropped inside and opened the other doors. He was tempted to drive off with Roy halfway into the car—just leave him on his ass, choking on dust. Instead, he waited till the doors were shut, then peeled out of the parking lot, almost clipping a row of motorcycles by the entrance.
“Steve,” Roy said, but he could see the tightness Steve felt on his face and decided, instead, to buckle his seatbelt. He had almost brought the belt down to the clasp when Steve cut a hard right and he tilted sideways. Roy reached out to stop himself from hitting the door, but let out a bark of pain and jerked his arm back. The side of his head hit the window.
“Come on, man,” Bobby said from behind him. Steve could hear the Pepsi fizzing on his arm as he grabbed the headrest to pull himself upright. “I’m gonna slosh this all over your dad’s backseat.”
“Who the hell cares?” Steve asked, but he knew Roy could see that he did. He slowed down and settled into his seat as the broadness of Big Valley spilled out around them. They rose with a hill, where two Amish men hammered sheet metal over the wooden frame of a grain silo. To their left and right, dairy cows whipped by the window, staring blankly at them in mid-chew. On the side of a barn was an eight-pointed blue and yellow star set within a circle. At its center sat a red crescent moon with a black tulip growing out of it. On another barn, they saw one with three stars laid on top of each other.
“What’s that all about?” Bobby asked.
“The hex sign?” Roy said.
“Superstitious shit,” Steve answered, “to bring them good luck or keep evil away. That one with the stars is supposed to protect them from fire.” He caught Roy looking at him doubtfully and said, “What? Dad saw them carving them into rocking chairs and cribs when worked for the Fishers.”
“Why don’t they all have it?” Bobby asked.
“I don’t know,” Steve said, “Guess they’re not all idiots.”
They wound through the valley, gradually rising until they met the side of Jack’s mountain walling it in from the east. A canopy of vibrant green leaves washed over them as they turned and ascended the mountain, breaking every now and then so that Steve could see down to where shadows of clouds moved across the wheat fields, passing over the farms of people who refused to spin along with the rest of the world.
Dropping Roy off at his house, a yellow-sided colonial with a fresh coat of paint on the porch, Steve decided he didn’t want to wait around for the interrogation Roy’s mom would launch when he hobbled inside. He started, first, for the bend in the river behind his school. He couldn’t get the Amish girl out of his head, though. He wondered what she looked like, what she tasted like. Buttercream, maybe? He smiled, and only then realized he had driven past the two forked goalposts of his school football field and was on his way back to Belleville. What the hell, he thought. He still had the key to the office anyway.
Later that night, Steve stood, back leaning on the damp, mossy stones of the tunnel wall, hand closed around a lukewarm bottle of Budweiser. Her white cap came bobbing into view, moving across the street in the stifled moonlight like a jellyfish on the currents of the cool night air. The breeze felt good on his face, which was sweaty and prickling with heat. It was anger, he admitted—the heat and all. It was anger settled down in his gut like sediment at the bottom of a murky, putrid summer pond. Layer after layer it had accumulated with their too-good-for-you glances and their hypocrisy. The silt of anger had lain there in the bottom of his soul among the dead things—decaying, harmless, and still, until tonight.
The train crossing signal dinged above, yellow light flashing down on the street in front of him. Between its chimes, he heard her voice as she neared, singing. He hadn’t meant to harm her, at first. He’d just wanted to follow her, to know where she lived and who she was, to look inside that life that fascinated and disgusted him so much. He’d parked on the side of the road across from her driveway, a case of beer in the floor, and watched the lights go out in her house. He drank and let the alcohol settle down in that sediment with his anger, let it mix it up a little, swirl it into the cloudy waters of what is and isn’t possible in the dead of night on a country road.
Then the buggy had ridden up the drive and onto the street in front of him. The image of her flashed in the small window before she’d turned on the road towards town. He’d started the car, waited a good fifteen minutes, every second itching to push his foot down on the accelerator. With all the self-control he could muster, he’d crept out onto the road and followed her. He’d followed her for miles, lights off and far enough behind so that the blinking red light on the back of the buggy was a faint, murderous star on the horizon. He’d seen when she’d stopped and tied up the horse. He’d watched her walk through the underpass beneath the railroad tracks half a mile down the road. That’s where he’d waited, knowing she’d have to come back that way. Go home, his mind had told him as he touched the slick, hard rim of the bottle to his lips again and again. You’re not this kind of guy. She’d drawn him there, though. She wanted it, he knew. And he was going to give it to her good. Then she and every damn one of them would know that he was a man and that they weren’t no better than anybody else.
An Unspeakable Thing
Moonlight fought through the clouds like they were an angry mob, grappling and clawing to drag her into their grey mass. Her light filtered through their arms down and down onto the small town of Mt. Union. It reflected off the glass door of the pharmacist’s into a puddle laying before it. Hadassah Zook noticed it only a moment before her foot plunged through it. The door whispered closed behind her.
“Oh crumb,” she said, feeling the cold water soak through her socks and the hem of her ankle-length dress. She pinched its edges at her hips and lifted it up slightly, hopping out of the puddle. Tucked under the rest of the fingers in her right hand was a brown paper bag. Within it was the pain reliever and antibiotic that the pharmacist had recommended. Her youngest sister, Mary, only four years old, had taken ill with a high fever and a discoloration of the skin. Mama and Pa were at home, praying over the girl constantly. It’s not that she did not believe prayer would cure it, but she didn’t see the harm in giving her a few drops of fever reducer while the Lord was doing his work. So, she’d stolen out of the house after they’d all gone to bed and taken the horse and buggy into town. There was no place to tie him up close to the pharmacy. She’d left him at the edge of the town, roped to the back fence of a church, and walked the two miles to the pharmacy.
The clouds pulled the moon into their throng as she walked, one foot squishing and sliding in her sandal. She wondered if it was because her faith wasn’t strong enough—why she’d come out for the medicine. She wondered if her parents had found her empty bed and if they would be up, waiting and angry, her mother’s cold, blue eyes buried in her needlework and her father’s low, smooth voice mumbling scripture as he read in the light of the gas lamp. They might very well be, but Mary had been up all night for the past three nights, and they’d barely gotten a wink of sleep. If they weren’t waiting up for her when she got home, then would she hide the medicine? It was not strictly disobedience for her to leave the house at night. They’d never told her she couldn’t. It simply was not anything they would have expected. Amish girls never went out on their own, especially not into town, and never in the middle of the night. That’s why she’d taken one of her mother’s white caps instead of wearing the black cap of an unmarried girl, to make it at least appear that she had a man waiting for her at home in case anyone questioned her.
She couldn’t help it. Before she’d left, she’d seen her baby sister, lying still, pale with red streaks along her eyes and mouth, staring up at the ceiling. She was sure that her father would send her out in the morning for the medicine, or even send her younger brother Peter out tonight, if he hadn’t already. It wasn’t a matter of faith. The Lord could extend his healing hand or work through the hand of the surgeon. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was not waiting on him for his will to be done. It rattled on her neck like the reins on a horse, which only worsened the sickness she’d been feeling in her stomach since that morning. “I believe,” she prayed, “Lord, help my unbelief.” To soothe her spirit, she began to sing softly as she walked.
The road took her past the hard-angled brick buildings of the stores on Main Street, all dark and shuttered now—the movie-rental on her left and the sandwich shop on her right, the stone Methodist church with its vaulted roof and steeple. The sign above the Dollar General still glowed yellow, though there were no people inside. The town might as well have been abandoned.
Hadassah followed the road out of town, down by the Juniata, which widened to a glassy swirl on her left. She was on her third round of “’Tis so sweet to Trust in Jesus” as she came to the railroad track looming above her with its flashing yellow lights.
She smelled him before she saw him, the aroma of alcohol and old sweat wafting from the underpass ahead was enough to choke her. She didn’t think about it, though, and she kept walking. She had no reason to expect someone waiting for her in the darkness.
“Fancy meeting you here,” the voice drawled from the shadow on her right.
Its sound broke her singing. She whipped her head in that direction and saw light hitting him sideways as he stepped closer, swaying just a little. She recognized him, blonde hair laying clumped over his forehead, thin lips, and a glittering, malicious look in his eyes. He was the teenage boy from the flea-market—the one with the slingshot.
She didn’t know what to say. “Good evening to you,” she finally voiced, weakly.
“Yeah, ‘good evening, neighbor’,” he said, stepping closer.
She tried to will her feet into motion, but felt frozen by his gaze. His pupils were so swollen that they nearly swallowed up each eye. Hadassah tore her face away from his stare, ducked her head and started to walk in quick steps.
“Where’re you going? I just want to talk. You were so nice to me at the sale.”
“Please,” she said. “I’d really better be on my way.”
“You think you’re such hot shit, don’t you?” he said, following her. He reached for her, snatching the cap off her head.
She ran. The tunnel rumbled as a train approached from the river to the left. By the time she reached the far edge, the steel wheels were clattering across the tracks. Her heart pounded out the rhythm of each passing car as she broke into the moonlight. Then his hand caught her wrist and pulled her back into darkness, slamming her against the damp stone wall. The world flashed white, then black again. She screamed. The train drowned out her cries.
“That’s right, baby. Scream for me,” he said, pinning her to the wall and groping her through her apron. “I’ll scream too.”
He threw her to the ground and straddled her as she prayed under her breath, crying, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
He picked a bottle up off the road beside him and smashed it into the tunnel wall, then held the jagged edges of it in front of her face. “Lick it.”
“Please,” she said.
“It’s beer. You’ll like it. Lick it, you horny bitch.”
Hadassah stuck her tongue out, her body shaking, and tears fleeing from her eyes. He pressed the glass to her tongue, cutting into it. The sour, bitterness of the beer and the taste of her blood made her gag.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, unbuttoning his jeans as she wept, her eyes closed tightly against him. He pushed up her dress, her thighs lying on the cold, wet asphalt.
“Tell me you want it,” he said, scraping the bottle across her cheek slowly.
The stench of him was overwhelming. Hadassah felt his heart beating against her stomach. His hand pawed at her. “Please,” she said again, squeezing the word out with the last of her breath. He mashed his lips into hers, then grabbed a handful of her hair. Sweat dripped off him and onto her face. She looked him in the eye and saw his lust. He kissed her again.
His tongue pried at her teeth and, with it, something else came with it. It crawled into her mouth and skittered down her throat. She shivered. Her stomach lurched, and her own tongue came forward to meet his. He pulled his lips away, the hardness of his eyes eclipsed by confusion. For a moment, she thought he might have changed his mind, that this had been the worst that would happen. She was wrong. As the moon of bewilderment left his face, it unveiled the cruel, bitter sun behind it. “That’s right,” he hissed. “I knew you wanted it. Beg me for it, Amish whore.”
Hadassah’s mouth watered. Her eyes itched. He laid his body on top of hers and looked down to position himself. Her eyes closed and her mouth met his bare neck. She bit down.
He shrieked as the train rattled above, dropping the bottle with a clink. Blood began to pool around Hadassah’s aching teeth. They sank through skin, then muscle, then ligament as she sawed them back and forth. His hands flailed, finally finding her head and slamming her skull into the asphalt.
“What the h-” the boy started, but her hand found the broken bottle and brought it into his neck from the other side. He cried, eyes rolling back in his head as blood poured over her and shot against the tunnel wall. She leaned up, holding him above her, opening her mouth to lap at the viscous black flow. She stabbed the bottle in again, tearing at his throat, opening him up wider for her to lick at the bloody meat underneath while air whistled and bubbled across his windpipe. Oh, God, she thought. Oh, God.
Hadassah woke early the next morning, while the valley still lay under a blanket of stars like one of her mother’s quilts. Truth be told, she hadn’t slept except for one terrifying hour in which her dreams were more vivid than even her memories of the young man in the tunnel and what she had done to him.
“What kind of monster?” she’d said to herself as she’d driven the buggy, furiously, almost at a gallop, back to the farm. “What kind of monster?” She had kept enough of her wits to retrieve her cap and the medicine for Mary before she’d run from the tunnel.
What she had done to him was unspeakable. She winced and turned her head whenever the memory came back to her. In her bed, that night, she laid there, staring at the ceiling, her stomach aching and churning with guilt, shame, and blood. She sweated and trembled, a tingling and prick of heat playing at her skin like she was being gently burned alive.
Standing under the stars now, under the watchful eye of God, she bent over her family’s strawberry patch and hid her face from him. She wanted to pray, but how could she? How could she speak to him with those lips? With that tongue? Her fingers worked the strawberries from their stems as she sobbed. She knelt in the dewy grass over the rose bushes and buried her face in their petals, breathing deep the sweet, musky fragrance. She pushed her face past the blooms and felt the thorns scrape at her cheeks. Then she cut a few. When she had placed them in her basket, over the strawberries, Hadassah left them on the stoop leading up to her family’s house and made her way into the barn.
A rooster was out, beginning to crow. His call broke the night’s stillness—once, twice, thrice. Hadassah covered her face in shame as she stepped into the barn. The animals were restless when she neared their stalls. She lifted the bale of hay and found her blood-soaked blue dress and apron where she had hidden them the night before. The sight of them made her stomach roil. Her mouth watered, and she bent over, lurching a black, sweet-smelling mess all over the dirt and hay. She used her dress to mop it up. What she couldn’t, she stamped fresh hay down over.
As she left the barn, she looked towards the road. She should run. She did not belong here anymore. She had sinned grievously against God and man, and she did not know if she could ever be forgiven. But where would she go? She had never left Mifflin county, never had to fend for herself in the outside world. She had known those who were shunned, excommunicated from Amish community—her own brother, Nathaniel. It was as horrible a fate as she could imagine. It was selfish, Hadassah knew, to stay because she was afraid of being cut off. If anyone deserved to be shunned, it was her. If she left, her family would suffer; not just the shame of two children going astray and the pain of her betrayal, but with her father’s broken arm and Nathaniel’s absence, she had borne the brunt of the work on the farm. That task would fall to her younger brother, Peter, who was only thirteen. He was a hard worker and responsible, but it would be too difficult for him and her parents to do by themselves while taking care of the rest of the children. Who would school Rachel, Obadiah, and Mary? Poor Mary. What about her? Hadassah knew she couldn’t leave. She couldn’t tell her family either. She would have to hide the truth. But what was the truth? She wondered about demons. Was she possessed? She built a small fire beside the barn and laid her clothes on it. The blood sizzled in the flames. She watched it bubble and boil, rising in steam above the fire. The fabric took and she felt the heat increase, her white cap eaten up by the ravenous flames.
When the fire had devoured her dress and cap, she stamped it out and scattered the ashes. The sky was brightening at the eastern ridge of the valley, but the stars above still watched her. She stepped back into the barn to milk the cows. Her father had brought them in the night before, because he’d heard reports of hailstorms in the area. As she approached the first one, Agatha, it shied into the back of its stall. This one had always greeted her with a wet nose to her hand when she’d entered before. Hadassah walked in with her, feet softly treading over the hay. The cow snorted and stamped, turning her back on the girl. The two Belgian draft horses in the stalls beside whinnied and backed into their own corners, while, across the barn, the animals grew agitated. Hadassah stepped alongside the cow and reached for her. Agatha’s hide shivered and she moaned, turning her rear towards Hadassah and kicking out. The kick was wide, thankfully. Hadassah stepped back.
“Come here, girl,” she said. “Here, Aggie.”
They know, she thought. Can they smell the blood?
The cow didn’t move, but stayed huddled in the corner, so Hadassah left for another stall, this one with two cows in it, Ginger and Posey. They responded in the same way.
“I won’t hurt you,” she said. “I won’t.”
Having no luck, she turned her pail over and set it down in the middle of the barn and sat and waited. An hour passed. She heard sounds coming from the house. Her mother was awake, making breakfast. Her father would be up soon, too. She dreaded seeing them. She wondered if they would be able to tell as the livestock had.
The cows mooed. Their udders were full, Hadassah knew, and that was painful. They groaned and gradually shuffled back to the front of their stalls, udders swinging like the pendulum on her family’s grandfather clock. She approached Agatha, slowly, gently cooing to her. When Hadassah looked her in the eye, Agatha jerked back, so she lowered her gaze. The cow settled. Hadassah sat beside her and stroked her broad, spotted belly; then reached under and felt along the rough naked skin of the udder until she mooed again. When Hadassah felt it was safe, she started to work the udder. The process was painstaking. It took her twice as long as it normally did. She poured all but two pails of milk into the vat and tried to let the horses out of the barn, but they wouldn’t let her touch them, so she carried the pails, sloshing with milk, back to the house. Standing at the back door, she breathed out a heavy breath, then forced her lips into a smile and pulled open the door.
“Goodmorning, Haddie,” came her mother’s voice, speaking in their native tongue, from over a skillet of eggs. At home, amongst other Amish, and most all the time they spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. It was only in classes at school and when they interacted with the English that they spoke Englisch.
Obadiah ran screaming by and almost knocked into Hadassah’s legs. Rachel chased him past. Milk splashed over the lip of the pail and onto the floor.
“Obadiah,” Hadassah snapped.
“Now, Haddie,” her mother’s voice calmed her, “no need to cry over spilled milk.” It was true, and it normally wouldn’t have troubled her. Children will be children, after all.
“Sorry, Mama,” Haddie said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Haddie, what happened to your face?” her mother said, stepping around the wooden island in the middle of the kitchen upon which mixing bowls, a discarded doll, and a pitcher of vibrant, purple anemones rested.
“I scratched it cutting roses this morning. I was awake early, and it was dark,” Haddie answered, still holding the pails of milk at her side. Her mother’s hands were calloused, but warm. Her piercing blue eyes met Hadassah’s as she ran her thumbs over the scratches on Hadassah’s cheeks—some that the boy with the slingshot had given her when he’d scraped the bottle over her face, others that she’d given herself so that she wouldn’t have to lie, completely, to her mother.
Hadassah felt the chill in her chest. Her mother knew. She knows what evil thing lives inside of me, she thought and tried not to drop the pails.
“I wondered where you’d gone off to,” her mother said.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was worrying about Mary.” It wasn’t a lie. She had been worried. She still was.
Her mother nodded.
“Oh, the flowers! I almost forgot,” Hadassah said, stealing the moment. She put the pails on the kitchen counter, where Obadiah wouldn’t knock them over and stepped back outside for the basket of flowers. She was happy for the means of escape. When she returned, she held a crimson rose out to her mother and a strawberry pinched between her thumb and forefinger. “They smell so sweet today,” she said. She popped the strawberry into her mouth and bit down. The flavor exploded over her tongue. “Oh, Mama,” she said, “you must try one. I think they are finally ripe.”
Her mother took one from her hand, looking at her, then placed the strawberry between her teeth and bit down. Her eyes closed and she hummed her appreciation.
“Hello wife. Daughter,” her father said, entering the kitchen. He kissed Hadassah on the head. “What’s this here?”
“Strawberries!” shouted Peter, walking in his father’s wake.
“I picked a whole basket,” Hadassah said.
“We’ll make some jam today,” her mother added, feeding one to her father.
“Could I bring some to Mary, Mama?” Peter asked. Hadassah loved him. She sometimes called him, “Little Papa”, because of how he took care of the younger children.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea, Peter. Haddie, will you wash and cut a bowl for Mary?” her mother said, then looked at her father. “How is she?”
He bit his lip and breathed in, his brown eyes passing some knowing look to her mother. “She’s quiet. Her fever has subsided some, but she’s not come back to us yet. I left the window open to let in the breeze. She seemed to enjoy that.”
Hadassah finished washing the strawberries and slid the knife from the chopping block. For one horrible moment, she imagined herself plunging it into Peter’s neck, blood spraying from the wound across the kitchen. She shivered and shook the thought away, then set to slicing through the strawberries while her mother and father talked.
“They’ll be bringing that horse today,” her father said.
“Will they?” her mother asked, her tone cheerful, but Hadassah knew she did not agree with her father’s decision to buy it.
Her father knew it as well. “Yes,” he said, “Old Simmons said that after what happened at the sale, he didn’t want to send her straight to another man’s farm. I understood that. She’s got a temperament, sure, but she was spooked too. Taking her away from her home and the people she knows in that condition would only unsettle her more.”
“I agree,” Hadassah’s mother said, picking a potato out of a bowl of water to peel. She needed something to look at so that she didn’t have to look at him, Hadassah knew. She had a temperament too, but she never argued with her husband in front of the children. She was modest in her dress and speech and submissive to her husband, as every true Amish woman would be. That didn’t mean they did not have their disagreements. It only meant that they kept those disagreements private. Esther Zook could give her opinion to her husband, but she always did it in a way that honored him as the head of the household, and, in the end, she let him make the final decision, trusting him to do what was best for their family.
Hadassah handed the bowl of cut strawberries to Peter.
“Who will train her, Nehemiah?” Hadassah had heard her mother say the night before as her father dotted a cold rag over Mary’s forehead. Her father had looked at his right arm, broken the day Nathaniel left. It had taken months to mend. It was painful to him and nigh useless now. After her older brother had broken it, her father had learned to do almost everything else with his left hand. Still, he was uncoordinated and weak in that right arm and that frustrated him so. He couldn’t hold the reins on a wild mare like the one he’d just bought or train her to pull a plow.
“Peter could,” her father had answered.
“A horse like that? With that wild spirit?” her mother had been averse to the thought of putting her thirteen year old boy on the back of such an animal.
“Sure. Peter’s capable, and he’s got a way with animals,” her father had answered. “He’s been asking for a horse of his own. The more work she is for him, the more he’ll learn from her; the more he’ll appreciate her.”
“Unless she kills him first.”
“There is that possibility,” her father had said.
“Nehemiah!” her mother swatted him on the arm, playfully. “You’re not serious about putting our Peter in the same corral as that mare.”
“Sure I am. I’ll be right beside him until he gets comfortable enough on his own.” Her father had patted her mother on the arm.
“What if she won’t train?” She’d asked.
“I guess she’s pretty to look at. Beautiful girl, wild temper, dark-haired, stubborner than a pack of mules in a radish patch—seems like a problem I’ve had before.” He’d smiled at his wife. “Things turned out alright.”
She’d smiled back at him and leaned in to kiss him, their faces sillouhetted by the gas lamp on the nightstand. That’s when Hadassah had left for the pharmacy.
A sound pulled her out of that memory. She glanced up from the table she had started setting to see her mother and father looking towards the window. Rachel and Obadiah ran to the sill, Obadiah trying to pull himself up to see. It was coming from the barn. Something was banging on the walls. In their pen beside the barn, pigs squealed, trampling each other into the mud. Those weren’t the worst sounds, though. It was the cows. They were screaming. Obadiah began to cry.