Fiction | October 20, 2011

Both Abraham and Sarah had grown very old, and Sarah was past the age of
childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “I am past bearing children
now that I am old and out of my time, and my husband is old. “The Lord said to
Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child when I am
old?’ Is anything impossible for the Lord? In due season I shall come back to you,
about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah lied because she was
frightened, and denied that she had laughed; but He said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

Genesis 18:11—15

I buy bread from Jake Smucker every Friday at Gratz Crossroads. There is nothing remarkable about this farmers’ market where the Amish from the surrounding District Churches come to sell; it could be any one of many scattered throughout the abundant central Pennsylvania farmlands. But there, three years ago, in the midst of produce stalls and butchers’ cases, I saw an old Amish man and his wife selling bread—the bread Jake now bakes—and I was so struck by their appearance that I approached their stall, wanting grace.

It happened to me once, in Notre Dame de Paris, at the communion rail. Following the elevation of the host, the priest put the wafer on my tongue and said, “Corps du Christ.” I looked into an old cleric’s eyes and received grace. It has not happened since, and when I tried to make it happen—to see grace in a simple loaf of bread—I thought I had found it, but it was only my imaginings.

I suppose my mistake was believing I could make it happen, thinking grace was something I could take as easily as buying a loaf of bread. I imagined it simple, like a wafer on the tongue. But the loaf was no sacrament. It did not change, although I insisted on its elevation and tried to make it something holy. When I ceased to look for the mysteries I imagined hidden in the loaf, I saw instead its makers’ plainness: two simple Amish women and two half-brothers with the same bright blue eyes. If there is grace, it is in Jake’s and Isaac’s eyes, not in Emma’s determined face or Suzie’s arresting smile, and it was never in the bread.

Isaac and Suzie Smucker, who first baked the bread, appeared as beatific and perfect in their earthly goodness as if they had stepped off the face of a holy card. But if goodness radiated from them, protected them, as prayers tell us goodness protects the saints, why did their house burn down, and why did they move away? After the fire, Isaac sold the bread business to his younger half-brother, Jake, a mason with more work than he can do. Why he wants to get up at 2:00 A.M. to mix and bake bread I can’t imagine, unless it’s to keep the business in the family, the Community. But that’s the way it is. Now Jake and Emma bake the bread.

Isaac and Suzie Smucker moved back to Lancaster County. Now that they are gone, no one in their Amish community speaks of them. It is as if they never lived here, never existed. Their position is inferior to those who have simply died, and although Isaac and Suzie are not dead, I must speak about them in the past tense.

Last winter I spent the short hours of February afternoons with Isaac in his workshop, where he taught me how to plane boards smoothly by exhaling with the drag of the plane, as in a meditation. He was a small man, in his early seventies, with the slight build of those Pennsylvania Amish who have intermarried for generations. His hands were the competent, careful hands of a master craftsman who has made furniture all his life for the young Amish girls who marry each year in the flurry of November weddings. Isaac made beds and dressers, deal tables, sometimes a corner cupboard, but mainly chests, those standard storage pieces of all Pennsylvania households, both plain and fancy. He worked his cabinetry in white oak, a wood without pretense that lends itself to simple, functional designs. He worked in a watchful silence, but his blue eyes spoke to the wood as he patiently matched and planed the smooth white boards. Whether speckled with sawdust from his carpentry or with flour from kneading the loaves that Suzie baked, Isaac’s face had an indefatigable, often mischievous, cheerfulness. When the wood shavings in his beard caught the light of the late winter sun, he looked like a sculpture in progress—an august icon of Amish hard work.

Suzie was a few years younger than her husband. With her elegant carriage, delicate, rounded cheekbones, and perfect teeth—so white they looked false but were not—she was striking. But when I try to remember Suzie, to fix her image in my mind from those times I saw her selling bread or bringing us refreshments in Isaac’s workshop, all I see is her smile. I could not tell you the color of her eyes. Her smile was so forthright, so guileless, that it pulled me into it, away from her eyes and seemingly further. It hypnotized me. Suzie’s smile proclaimed, “Look! This is all there is and all there should be; there is nothing more.” It was both startling and mysterious, a smile I have not seen in art—”images of the World,” as the Amish say. I have never seen God, but I imagined that Suzie’s smile reflected the grace of someone who had, it was so radiant.

Suzie’s smile both captivated and disturbed me because I saw ecstasy in it. Face to face, I never thought it false. But since Jake told me why she and Isaac went back to Lancaster County, I have asked myself, Was it artifice—a mask to hide what it was not?

I have only seen Emma twice. I first saw her at the market, after she became baker of the bread. She is a small, fine-boned woman in her forties, some years younger than her sister-in-law, with only a touch of gray in her hair. Emma’s delicate features would make her beautiful if not for her knitted forehead, the visible tension at her mouth. Emma looked tired and careworn that raw May day as she pulled her insubstantial shawl tight against the wind and hurried inside to escape the cold. Her face told no Good News, professed no acceptance of her earthly lot, unlike the animated face of her sister-in-law with its startling smile. As she hurried past, I wondered whether, for Emma, baking was simply another chore in a life of chores that she performed without comment, unlike her sister-in-law, whose work seemed to be a form of prayer. But Emma’s bread is just as good.

Buying bread from Isaac, with his indefatigable cheerfulness, and from Suzie, with her arresting smile, became something more than simple necessity. In my imagination, I transformed the Smuckers into the saints I wanted them to be, and in their presence, I experienced the feelings some report when confronted with personalities like Mother Teresa. They had a charisma I had never encountered. Their presence affected me with feelings of unworthiness, even self-doubt, and by simply buying a loaf of their bread, I felt elevated.

Once during my preoccupation with the Smuckers, I saw Isaac and Suzie at a farm sale and I spent the day watching them instead of the auctioneer. Farm auctions in central Pennsylvania are held outside, on the lawns of the farmhouses. The auctioneer’s helpers pass the goods through the open windows, move them out, line them up, get them ready for the next bidding. At these auctions people bring folding chairs and form an expectant audience seated in a semicircle, their attention commanded by the auctioneer and his goods. Isaac and Suzie had only one chair between them, and Isaac sat while Suzie stood patiently behind, her hands resting on her husband’s shoulders. I offered Suzie my chair, but she declined to take it and stood throughout the auction.

All morning the young Amish men who wanted to purchase the farm or its equipment came to Isaac for his advice as an elder of their Community. From a distance, I saw a tableau vivant of righteousness, and I tried to name the source of their grace, to take in their goodness, to believe as I had once believed in the worn holy pictures in my child’s missal.

In my obsession—a staring I felt drawn into—I tried to penetrate their aura, but I could not. Some days later I asked Mima, the unmarried Amish girl who comes to dean my house, about Isaac and Suzie. Although they were in her District Church and one of Mima’s sisters had married a Smucker, she did not know them well; they had moved only recently from Lancaster County. What Mima did say was that Suzie and Isaac were unusual in their Amish Community because they were childless. Among the Amish, Mima remarked, children are seen as a blessing from God and large families are common. Some childless couples she knew took in foster children—even cared for AIDS babies from Philadelphia—but the Smuckers had not.

When Amish District Church holy days fell on Fridays, Suzie and Isaac did not come to market. I missed my bread if I neglected to buy ahead, and I always forgot Ascension Day—when Jesus Christ left the earth and went up into heaven to be with his Father. Although not as widely celebrated in Pennsylvania as in Europe, Ascension Day is, for the devout, still a holiday of closed businesses. Old-fashioned Lutheran families picnic in the woods, and the Amish go fishing. The day of the fire was Ascension Day, so I didn’t know something had happened until the next week.

“The Smuckers lost everything—absolutely everything!” Mima reported about the Ascension Day fire when she came to clean the following Monday. Through Mima I gave what she and I thought the Smuckers could accept: money, sheets, and towels. Because I am not Amish, I was indirect about my small gift; Mima took it to the elders of the District Church. Then—it was the same week as the fire—Isaac and Suzie Smucker disappeared.

“They’re gone,” Mima said, fixing her eyes on her soup when I asked about the Smuckers at lunch the next Monday. She was obviously uncomfortable talking about them. I thought it strange, but I didn’t pursue it. A week later Mima reported that the District Church had rebuilt the burned house. I asked why, since the Smuckers had left.

“A house belongs to the Community,” she explained. “When one is lost, we replace it. Another member of the Community will move into the house.”

I didn’t ask, and Mima didn’t volunteer, who that might be.

As I bought strawberries that Friday at the stand that Mr. Steele, my Mennonite neighbor, tends at market, I overheard fragments of gossip in Pennsylvania-German dialect: “. . . drying apples on the stove, and the schnitz rack got hot, caught fire,” someone said; “. . . not away, not visiting his father in Lancaster County at the time of the fire,” Mr. Steele remarked. Why had he left the Lancaster County farm where he had lived all his life, moved north, built a new house? a woman asked. “He had another fire in Lancaster County,” Mr. Steele said.

I carefully inspected Mr. Steele’s crates of strawberries for as long as I could without attracting attention, but no one mentioned Suzie. Was that the role of Amish women: in the background, outside comment?

Monday morning, Mr. Steele pulled into my driveway and made me a gift of a second crate of strawberries—his wife had no more room in her freezer. He told me what he had learned about the Smuckers.

“When I offered to help the District Church rebuild the burned house, they said my help wasn’t needed,” Mr. Steele reported, still stung by the rebuff. “All the District Church did was buy the Smuckers a new set of aluminum cookware!” Mr. Steele, who never speaks ill of anyone, added, “A gift like that is mean—out of proportion to their tragedy. My Amish neighbors on the next dairy farm down the valley won’t even talk about the Smuckers. All they said was that Isaac’s half-brother, Jake, would take over the bread business. Jake’s a mason. What does he know about baking bread?” Mr. Steele asked of no one in particular. “But,” he concluded, throwing up his hands and climbing back into his truck, “who can understand the Amish?”

Mima, who is always friendly with Mr. Steele, was inside cleaning, but she never came out of the house.

I first saw Jake after he took over the bakery business at market. I asked after Isaac and Suzie: Were they all right? Did they need anything? The Smuckers were gone, and I missed them. Like Mr. Steele, I, too, wanted to know the reason. When I asked, Jake replied, “Those things happen,” with a shortness implying that I should not have asked. Jake did not offer to introduce himself, and this made our acquaintance seem strangely anonymous. The next two Fridays, when I came to buy bread, Jake Smucker greeted me with, “Where do you live?” and I replied, “In the big house in Greenbrier, over in the next valley.” So we began to watch each other.

I saw Jake at a farm sale. By then I knew, through Mima, that he was aware that the English man had made a donation to Isaac and Suzie. Yet all that day, Jake and I never spoke Isaac’s or Suzie’s or each other’s names. He acknowledged me perfunctorily, but when our eyes met, he conveyed what seemed a different greeting—a cryptic protocol. It was a raw May day, and a painful spring damp penetrated my clothing. I huddled in a doorway to protect myself from the wind. As I watched Jake talk with other Amish, I realized that his District Church members wore thin polyester year-round. I was miserable from the raw cold but determined to stay to buy a splint basket I spied at the bottom of a pile. I also stayed to spy on Jake.

I didn’t imagine it: Jake watched me throughout the sale. Why? To see to whom I spoke? To see if I knew silence? If I understood the degrees of silence practiced by the descendants of the German population of central Pennsylvania? The Lutheran and Reformed are highly sociable, ever ready for news and gossip. The Mennonites stand apart from this jolly fellowship. While they generally abstain from spreading news, they participate as eager listeners. The Amish, in the world but not of the world, exist in a nonspeculative reality of things as they are. They do not indulge in gossip and turn from it in silence when it presents itself. They do not testify in court or bear witness against their neighbors, and when they shun a member of their Community as a sanction against disobedience, they do not speak to or of that person.

That afternoon, Jake approached me and said he wanted to buy the electric stove to use in his bread-baking business. He explained that his District Church allowed the use of electricity outside the house. The bread business was now located in his barn. He asked my opinion about the ancient stove at the sale that stood in the corner of the hot farm kitchen where everyone had crowded to avoid the harsh wind. I told Jake it was too old—he would not be able to get parts—and offered to sell him, for a dollar, a newer stove I had stored in my attic since I had redecorated my kitchen and switched to gas. He accepted.

On Monday, Mima’s cleaning day, when I took her home, I stopped at Jake’s to deliver his “electric range.” After we put it in the barn, Jake walked me back to my truck, which was parked in front of his house. I saw Jake’s family, or at least part of it. On the porch were teenaged girls I had noticed helping him at market and a brood of little blond boys, the younger two identical twins. From inside, Emma appeared, issued a stern order in dialect, and the children dispersed and disappeared. A younger woman came out on the porch of the old house across the creek. “That’s my married daughter,” Jake remarked. She was as curious to see me as I was to see her. Slowly and deliberately, she shook her rugs, hung them to air on the porch railing and watched all the while I spoke to her father. It seemed that Jake and Emma had three families—three sets of children spread over some thirty years.

“What can I do to help you out?” Jake asked as I was leaving—his way of thanking me for the burners.

“Would you have a look at the mortar on my spring house before haying season?” I asked.

“I can do that,” Jake said. “That’s what I do: fix things.”

This summer is fine weather for haying. Rain alternates with stretches of hot, dry days, and a second crop of hay comes immediately after the first cutting. Jake calls from his phone in the barn—there’s none in the house—to say that he cannot come when we had agreed because there is more hay to cut. A week passes with another postponement, a cutting for a neighbor. I keep my silence. I hope I am passing Jake Smucker’s test.

Finally Jake calls to say that he can come to have a look at my spring house. Will I pick him up this afternoon? It has been two months since I asked. Over that time, I have worried more about our still anonymous connection than about my spring, which clearly needs attention. There is a crack in its tomblike enclosure—”Built by Amos Haas, 1932,” the inscription on the enclosure reads—and the reservoir has lost some parging. Still, in this dry part of the summer, the haying time, water pours reassuringly through the moss-covered overflow. I know nothing about my spring. It is a mystery, like Jake Smucker, whom I fetch in my red Toyota. As I pull into the driveway at Jake’s house, two older Amish women appear and as quickly disappear behind green blinds pulled down quickly from inside. Just as I decide to go to the door, Jake emerges. We shake hands, and Jake finally introduces himself by name, deliberately and formally.

“My name is Jake Smucker,” he says. He offers me his identity along with his hand and looks fixedly into my eyes as he did that day at the sale. I return his gaze. If we suddenly have a bond of trust, I do not know why.

“My name is John Binns,” I say. Jake’s handshake is firm, unreserved and unguarded.

It is as if we meet for the first time. Jake is relaxed and welcoming, and I feel inhibited by his reordering that I do not understand. Immediately, he invites me in to show me the stone home that he has built. Although the masonry on the outside is fancy, inside the house is Amish plain, sparsely furnished and immaculately clean. From the kitchen, I hear quiet conversation and the clatter of crockery as the women prepare food, but we do not go there, and I do not see Emma or the children.

Outside, Jake invites me to inspect his ingenious stone spring run that provides running water for his house—pressurized indoor plumbing. We climb up stone steps laid into the hillside, just above the house, and Jake proudly shows me his spring, securely housed within its stone enclosure. From the overflow, water pours into a deep catch basin; at the bottom, an underground pipe directs water into the house. Jutting out from the steep slope, the catch basin overflows in a strong cascade into a stone watering trough for Jake’s mules and horses. Jake has built around his water and protected its source. I remember an old Bible lithograph of Hagar and Ishmael’s well in the desert. In this cool oasis, Jake’s carriage horses stand by their elegant watering trough and switch flies with their tails in the afternoon heat, while an arrogant peacock marks his territory by uttering a shrill call over the peaceful sound of falling water.

For the site of his new home, Jake has selected a hidden dale with a clear view up the valley. His new house is off the road—close, yet remote. To the east, the white spire of Klinger’s Lutheran Church, as diminutive as a crèche toy in the distant, green, rolling landscape, shimmers against an indigo sky. From Jake’s farm, no other house can be seen except his daughter’s, across the creek.

Jake removes the tethers from the horses and leads them to their stalls in the barn. The three boys I saw two months ago—without their hats, their hair is the color of cornsilk—emerge quietly but expectantly from the house and cluster around my red car.

“Would you like to come with us?” I ask. Jake nods his assent, and without a word, the boys immediately slip into the back seat in a silent, orderly, almost single motion.

We drive up the valley. As we pass the burial ground of Klinger’s Church, Jake’s stonecutter’s eyes see tombstones, and farther down the road, bridge footers, culvert drains and the foundations of old barns. From the back seat, the three boys discuss road kill and ask Jake whether a now indistinct patch of flesh and fur is a skunk or a raccoon. Jake answers, “Ein Rakoon, ein weiss-and-braun starbt Rakoon” A raccoon, a white-and-brown dead raccoon.

Things are. Things happen.

Jake says we have had a “stalled introduction,” and, as if to make up for it, he becomes quite talkative. He says he is “twice an immigrant.” His people, Swiss Mennonites, came to Pennsylvania in the 1740s. Until four years ago, when he came north to find land that was “open and not so full of people,” Lancaster County was Jake’s home. He likes it here, just to the south of Mahantongo Mountain. It is a good place to raise the young boys. “It has been hard for Emma, as it was for Isaac, who never wanted to come up here and leave our father,” Jake says, naming his half-brother. “Emma misses her large family in Lancaster County,” he explains. “We have two houses in Lancaster County: an old stone farmhouse and a large Victorian. My father lives there, in the big house. Yesterday my father visited here. He is now eighty-seven.”

Jake’s thoughts pull him away, and he looks out the car window. The boys discuss the route and decide they have not been on this road before. I stop the car at the top of Hooflander Mountain so they can look south, through the gap in Mahantongo Mountain, at Spread Eagle and see where they live. I tell the boys that on a clear day, you can see forty miles to the south, all the way to Lancaster County.

“That’s where Isaac and Suzie went to live with our father.” Jake names them both and looks toward the Lancaster Plain that lies beyond the gap. We get back into the car and Jake says, “I’m glad to be out of Lancaster County. There, it is not what you English think. Among us here, it is important to help each other.”

Is he speaking of me or of other members of his Community? Outside his Community, I am the other. I am also the English man, who, Jake assumes, has an idyllic view of the Lancaster Amish. It is not true—it is beside the point—but I say nothing because what I hear is here andthere, and I wonder why Isaac and Suzie first left there, Lancaster County, and now here. I wonder about Jake, too. Why did he leave an elderly father? Two houses? Two farms?

“You are lucky,” I say, “to have family and live on the land close to your married daughter. I grew up on a farm. I’ve always been sorry I left, but now all my family is gone, there’s no one to go back to. That’s why I moved to Pennsylvania.”

Jake smiles wanly; his blue eyes flash. I have said the wrong thing, and he becomes quiet. I want to erase this silence I have somehow created. Was it the mention of family? Nothing to go back to? Perhaps it was Luck—something that has nothing to do with Jake, who has made choices. He joined the Church, married into his Community, stayed on the land, and moved out of Lancaster County. Luck is an English, not an Amish, word. What did luck have to do with his half-brother’s burned house? Jake’s eyes darken, and I try to mend my mistake. “Mehr Klug als Glück—More wise than lucky.” I make a poor joke in bad German. I regret having said anything, especially in front of the boys, the oldest probably nine, the twins six or seven, all old enough to understand that the English man means well but, living outside their Amish world, does not think or say the right thing—cannot see or understand.

We pull into the driveway, and my dog runs out to greet the boys. We trail the boys, who follow the dog back through the meadow to the spring house. It is half past seven and still hot. We make small talk about the weather. Jake laughs to hear the English man’s comments on the finer points of making hay. Today is a bright, magic day, probably the best day for haying of the whole year, so clear, hot and dry. As we walk up the creek bottom, the boys ask the name of every tree: shag-bark hickory, white oak, river birch, sour cherry, locust, walnut. I know the names; I could answer, but I am paralyzed by the boys’ quiet manner, their overwhelming blond youth and innocence. I defer to Jake, who knows the names of the trees both in English and in his Pennsylvania-German dialect. Listening to him instruct the boys, I withdraw into my own thoughts. Why has he come? Is it trust? Is it no more than business? With thoughts like these tumbling in my head, I am afraid to name things—to exist in the world of things as they are.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I say. “I’ve worried about my spring since I discovered the crack this May, just after the fire. Perhaps the spring has shifted and I’ve lost my water. The old spring next to the house did that: it moved.” Secure for over sixty years, a structure has failed, and foolishly, I believe this signifies something fundamentally wrong, a problem beyond mere mortar. It is my absurd thought, but there it is.

“Don’t worry. I’ll fix it. I understand springs—those things,” Jake assures me.

The boys bob along the creek bank like little yellow ducks pursued by my black dog. We watch them play fetch with the dog, and Jake’s eyes turn the deep, sparky blue they turned when I spoke of “luck” on the drive over. I am silent. I will not risk our tentative friendship by saying or wanting the wrong thing. Jake’s being here this afternoon is important to me—and not just because of the spring house. I am the fool looking for grace.

My spring house is built into a bank. It is surrounded by ancient arbor vitae and white pine. Only with some difficulty do we pry open its rusted steel door, which gives way with a great groan. It has been twelve years since I last opened the spring house, and I wonder what secrets lie inside.

“The water looks good and full,” Jake says, peering over the yellow heads of his three inquisitive boys. “I can fix the mortar. That will be easy, but I would not tamper with the spring. Springs, like people, are sensitive. You might lose your water.”

Things are better than I remembered. The spring bubbles up gently through an ancient circle of set stones, and, like Jake’s, its water runs through an underground pipe into a large reservoir. The race, formed by the overflow from the reservoir, is an orange-and-gold riot of jewel weed; the air around the spring is spicy from the fragile hay fern trampled by the curious boys, sharp from sweet nettle and watercress. Quietly and industriously, the boys inspect the spring’s environs.

“Has your spring ever run dry?” Jake asks.

“Not in the twelve years I’ve lived here,” I reply.

“You are lucky,” Jake says, repeating my word. “My oldest boy, who lives in the house we rebuilt—the house that burned—will come over next week to fix the mortar. You are fortunate to have a good spring. To have children and to be by good water is to be blessed in life.” Is Jake quoting some source, or is this his own homily? After a moment, he asks, “How many children do you and your wife have?”

“We don’t have any children,” I reply. I do not explain because there is no reason; it is something that did not happen. Comfortable with silence, no longer needing to know, I won’t ask how many children Jake has.

There is nothing more to say. Jake watches the boys peer into the spring house one last time. They gaze into the magic circle of stones surrounding the spring that has been pronounced fit by its magician, a better man than I to know its waters.

My dog decides it is time to go back to the house, and the boys tag along. Jake and I stay behind and listen to the sound of water pouring reassuringly out of the overflow. Time passes like a meditation. In the meadow, a breeze ripples the tall grass, and for a moment the boys’ image stutters in the heat, like a mirage. Jake’s eyes track the boys until only the tops of their heads are visible.

“Those boys aren’t mine,” Jake says. He speaks somewhat offhandedly, but he stares straight on with his bright blue eyes, so like Isaac’s, so like the eyes of the boys. “Those are Isaac and Suzie’s.

“Suzie looks older than she is, I suppose. She thought she could never have children. She was over fifty when she had the first—the older boy—then the twins. Of course, she couldn’t nurse, so Emma helped. Several women from our District Church helped her. When she had the twins, so late and not expecting them, she couldn’t accept it. She asked Emma to take them. She said she didn’t want them back. She laughed and said it wasn’t God’s grace but a joke. She became verloss—how do you English say?—lost, crazy. She tried to burn down the house with her and the boys in it. Not the house here, where they lived. There, in Lancaster County. We used to have three houses, my father, my family.

“Four years ago, Isaac agreed to let the farm go so Suzie could be near the boys. She didn’t want them back, only to be closer. When she burned the house here, the boys were supposed to be at home with her, but it was Ascension Day and Isaac decided they’d go fishing.

“They don’t know but that Emma’s their mother. No one speaks of it.”

Jake’s eyes catch the blue solar flash of the sun as it drops below the horizon of the meadow, into a sea of flaming grass. The sun and the boys have disappeared.


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