A gnawing sense of guilt defines my life, yet I am too obstinate to fess up to the sin which so easily besets me. What I want to do and what I ought to do get ferhoodled in my head and in my heart. This is especially trying when it comes to my twice-weekly visits to Cousin Julia Ranck's, where I am hired to help with her two young children and do some light housekeeping ... and where I spend time working alone in the little attic room created just for me, my undisclosed haven. There, I take a measure of joy in the world of forbidden color, paint, canvas, and brushes, this secret place known only to my Mennonite kinfolk, and to the Lord God himself.
Deep on the inside, though, where it matters most, my heart is torn. I have striven to follow in the Old Ways since childhood, to match the expectations of my parents and the church, only to fail.
It annoys me no end that some Amish bishops allow for artistic expression, permitting their people to create and sell art, while our bishop does not.
I was just six when my preacher-father's probing brown eyes did all the reprimanding necessary to stir up shame in my soul when I was caught wistfully drawing a sleek black kitty, high in the haymow. From then on, I learned to hide my art from prying eyes, even though I wished for a way to put a stop to it altogether.
Usually Daed had only to read out loud the Fifty-first Psalm for me to see the folly of my ways: Have mercy upon me, O God ... blot out my transgressions.... King David's words rang ceaselessly in my ears until the next "holy scolding" for other acts of childish immaturity, though not again related to my pencil drawings ... till I was caught again at age fourteen.
Have mercy, indeed.
There were times as a girl when I would sooner have welcomed a lickin' than the righteous gaze of my lanky, bearded father. It seemed he could see straight through to my heart. He had an uncanny way about him when it came to that, as well as the way his sermons stuck in my head for months on end. More times than I can count, I endured his deliberate silence, followed by his deeply drawn sigh and then a belabored reading from the Scriptures.
Unlike my six brothers, three older and already married, and three younger and looking to get hitched, I have never had the switch applied to my "seat of learning." Seeing as how some mules round these parts are less stubborn, it sure says a lot for the patience of my father, at least toward me.
Here lately, I have been urged to join the communion of earthly saints, our local Amish district. And since I marked my twentieth birthday back the end of April, I am keenly aware of concerned faces at nearly every gathering. Daed is doubly responsible under God on my behalf, Mamm says frequently, beseeching me to heed the warning. If I keep putting off my decision, well, that alone will become a choice, and in due time, I will have to leave the community of the People. I don't see how I could ever up and leave behind my family and all that I know and love.
But what gets my goat is the intense expectation regarding my upcoming decision. Joining church won't make me a good person. I know that. I live in this community; I know what makes most of these folk tick. Some live double lives, just as I'm living now, teen boys who take advantage of tipsy girls behind the bushes at corn-husking bees, and young women who parade around in pious cape dresses but whose hearts do not measure up to the Holy Scriptures. Most of this comes from our unbaptized youth, during rumschpringe. Still there is plenty of two-facedness. We're all human after all.
Alas, another sin has embedded itself within my soul: loving Rudy Esh and leading him to think I would marry him one day. Rudy formerly held the number one spot in my heart, even ahead of the Good Lord. But now, after three solid years of courting me, he has found a new sweetheart-girl. I'm obliged to show kindness where they're concerned, the utmost tolerance, too ... things expected of me but increasingly difficult to demonstrate with any amount of sincerity. Handsome Rudy is soon to become a baptized church member and, no doubt, husband to his new sweetheart. Although I cared deeply for him, and he for me, I never shared with him my obsession with fine art. And since I wasn't ready to put any of that aside to join church, which is required before a wedding can take place, I am largely at fault for our breakup. He must surely be relieved, having pulled his hair out, so to speak, because of my resistance. "Heaven sakes, Annie," Rudy would say time and again, "why can't you just make the church vow and be done with it?" My answer always exasperated him: "I'm not ready." But I couldn't say why.
So I've lost my first and only love, which saddens me no end. Not that I should be bold enough to plead for his affection again, even though I was steady in my fondness for him from age seventeen till he decided he preferred Susie Yoder's company. All this adds up to three wasted years of faithfulness, to be sure ... and now I am as lonely as ever a girl could be. A few years ago I would have shared this sorrow with my best friend, Essie, but lately my former playmate seems weighed down with her own set of grown-up problems.
Truth be told, only one other person knows about my fractured heart. My secret thoughts are safe with Louisa Stratford, an English girl who lives far away in Colorado. At twenty-two, she is engaged to be married, and for that I am most happy, seeing as how we're wonderful-good friends. Even though Louisa is fancy and I'm Plain, she's been reading my letters and writing back since she was nearly eleven years old. And if she hadn't sent that first drawing in her little letter, those delicate blossoms of forget-me-nots, so long ago, I might never have wondered if I, too, possessed any real talent.
I wish I could honor her by attending the splendid wedding she and her mother are planning. The thought of a big-city wedding in a faraway place surrounded by flowers and candles and girls in colorful dresses entices me terribly ... things never, ever seen at an Amish wedding. Such things described in Louisa's letters have me completely intrigued, I daresay.
Naturally, I would stick out to kingdom come if I were brazen enough to go. Still I stare curiously at the pretty invitation with its raised gold lettering and wonder what it might be like.
Mamm would say it is out of the question to consider such a trip, even though I'm a grown woman. I can hear her going on and on about her fears. You might get lost or worse in the maze of the hustle-bustle. You've never left Lancaster County, for pity's sake! You might get yourself kidnapped, Annie Zook! Even so, I have yet to turn down my dear friend.
Honestly, my mother is wound tighter than a fiddle string when it comes to her children and grandchildren, often reminding my eldest brother, Jesse Jr., twenty-six, and his wife, Sarah Mae, to keep close watch on their two youngest, especially come dusk. "You can never be too careful," she has said for the ten-thousandth time. It's not her fault, only an indication that not a soul has ever forgotten how dreadful it was for one of our own little ones to be stolen away, right here in the middle of Paradise. A heavenly-sounding sort of place, but one that's seen its share of heartache and mystery.
Here lately I've been going and standing beside Pequea Creek, staring at the well-known thicket of trees where little Isaac was snatched from the People ... where I sometimes would swing double with him on the long tree swing. Where Isaac and I and our brothers, often tossed twigs into the creek, watching them float away to who knows where.
Now I can't help wondering if I dare paint that setting in all its autumn beauty, as another side to the sad story. Perhaps by spreading the radiance of pastel gold on a canvas, I might somehow lessen the ominous side of the now-tranquil scene ... even though my hand will surely tremble as I do, recalling Mamm's telling of the terrifying ordeal. When a bad thing happens to one family, it happens to us all, my mother says.
If that is true, then Rudy breaking off our courtship will also cause a wrinkle on the page of my life and everyone else's, too. For one, my future children, Daed's and Mamm's would-be grandchildren, will not have his gentle eyes and auburn hair, nor his fun-loving disposition. But even worse, I may never have babies at all. Yet if I were to abandon my paints and brushes in order to join church and marry, would I ever be truly happy? And yet ... since I gave up the chance to wed a good Amish boy like Rudy, will I ever again know love? Oh, such a troublesome dilemma I face, and one that continually torments my soul.
A late October mist draped itself over fields beseeching the harvest as Annie Zook walked along the narrow road to her Ranck cousins' house. Waving at a half dozen Amish neighbors out raking leaves, she felt all wound up, hoping for at least a few minutes to slip away to Cousin Julia's attic to work on her latest painting. Once her chores were done.
A gray and dismal sort of day was quite perfect for artistic work. Something about the anticipation of eventual sunshine, its warming glow held back by the cheerless clouds, made her feel full, yet achingly empty ... and terribly creative, all at once. Even though the desire to express oneself artistically was considered by her particular district as wrongdoing, she saw no way out whatsoever.
She was still in her rumschpringe, the "in between" years, that murky transition between juvenile immaturity and adulthood ... and church membership. Still, being the daughter of an ordained minister put an unwelcome clamp on her as she struggled to find her bearings. And yet, the thought of disappointing her parents went against the grain of her existence, it was the primary motivation for concealing her love of art.
Annie turned her thoughts away from her life struggle to adorable two-year-old Molly Ranck, Julia's youngest, who had been scratching herself nearly raw with chicken pox two days ago. Dear thing. It had been all Annie could do to keep her occupied, what with the oatmeal bath and repeated dabs with calamine lotion. So there had not been a speck of time to work on the waiting canvas last visit.
She quickened her pace, somewhat surprised to see Deacon Byler's new house under roof already, and just when had that happened? Then, when she came upon the intersection, she became aware that the Lapps' corn was already going down and they must be filling silo, thus making it easier to see at the crossroads once again. How'd I miss that?
She realized she must have been walking in a fog of her own making since Rudy's parting words three months ago this coming Saturday. How had the changing landscape not registered in her brain?
This must be grief! When you hurt this bad, you push it way down inside. She remembered feeling this gloomy once before in her life, when, as a little girl, she'd stumbled upon Mamm in a mire of tears. But there was no sense in pondering to death that day.
She made a point to be more mindful of the details around her now, shapes, shadows, and depths of color. She took in the hazy morning splendor as it arched freely over muted green stalks, the burgundy-red barn of their English neighbors, the Danz family, coming into view, and the dark roof of the red-sided covered bridge not far from the old gray-stone London Vale Mill.
I'm painting God's creation! she thought, justifying her ongoing transgression.
She thought of her pen pal in Colorado, wanting to squeeze in a few minutes to write a letter to Louisa, who seemed to understand her best these days.
She contemplated the first time she had unintentionally embarrassed her English friend. It had happened early on in their letter writing, when brown-haired Louisa sent a small wallet-sized school photograph of herself, asking for the same from Annie. Not wanting to put Louisa on the spot, Annie had explained that the People didn't take pictures of themselves, carefully following the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
So she'd attempted to get around the Scripture and simply drew a colored-pencil self-portrait, showing the oval shape of her face, the single dimple, the soft blue in her eyes, and her golden-blond hair. She had also sketched the sacred symbol, the white heart-shaped head covering with its white ribbons dangling onto the bodice of her light green cape dress.
Such a long time ago, she thought, remembering how Louisa had written back with praise about the drawing, saying she'd immediately framed it for her bedside table. Annie wondered if Louisa still had it.
Here recently Annie had spent a rainy afternoon, counting her letters from Louisa, only to quit after reaching nearly five hundred. Smiling now at her amazing connection, not only with the outside world but with her English friend, she began to swing her arms, enjoying the pleasure of walking instead of having to hitch up the horse and carriage, as she often did to help Mamm on market days.
Yet even as she pretended to be carefree, she could not ignore the pangs of guilt.
Good thing Daed has no idea. She pondered the significance of her actions, or when it came to joining church, her lack thereof.
Sighing, she spied an enclosed gray buggy up ahead, pulled by a prancing steed with shiny new horseshoes. The young woman driver waved urgently. "Annie, is that you?"
Pleased as pie, Annie waved back just as enthusiastically. "Hullo, there!" she called, hoping Rudy's younger sister might stop and chat a bit.
"I'm so glad I ran into you," Rhoda said, pulling on the reins. She motioned for Annie to get in the buggy. "Come on 'n' ride with me, won't ya? We best be talkin' some."
Annie lifted her skirt and climbed into the buggy.
Right away, Rhoda spoke her mind. "I'm not s'posed to know, prob'ly, but Susie Yoder's cousin's big-mouthed sister said Rudy has been seein' Susie 'stead of you." Rhoda's brown eyes were about as big as gingersnaps.
Annie shrugged. "My lips are zipped."
"Aw, surely ya know something ... after all, Rudy was your beau all them years." Rhoda eyed her curiously and slapped the reins, getting the steed moving again.
"Well, if ya must know, ask him."
"I'm askin' you!"
Annie kept her eyes forward, wishing she might've continued to walk instead of accepting the ride.
"Can't ya give me a hint ... the least little one?" Rhoda pleaded. "Honestly, I'm in your corner. I wouldn't want Susie Yoder for my sister-in-law."
"Oh, why not? She's a right nice girl."
Rhoda paused a moment. Then she said, "Well, I'd have to say it's because she's nothin' like you."
Ain't that the truth, thought Annie.
"Surely Rudy didn't have a fallin' out with ya, did he?"
Puh! Truth was they'd fussed like two cats toward the end. One of them feistier than the other. Even so, Rudy had been the most wonderfully kind, even affectionate, boy she'd ever known during the years of their courtship. She had accepted rides home from Sunday night singing with several other fellows before him, but the minute she'd met Rudy, there was no other for her. Rhoda knew as well as anyone there was nothing bad to report about her own brother. He was not a troublemaker like some fellas. If anything, she had been the problem, unwilling to join church when he was ready to.
"We've parted ways, Rhoda, and that's all I'm gonna say."
Rhoda sniffled, like she might burst out crying, but Annie decided no fit of temper was going to change her mind. What had transpired between Rudy and herself was nobody's business. Least of all Rhoda's, who Annie just realized was something of a tittle-tattle.
They rode a good quarter mile in silence. Then, hesitantly, Rhoda asked, "Where're ya headed?"
"To my cousins, Irvin and Julia's, but I can get out here and walk the rest of the way." She wished Rhoda would take that as a hint to halt the horse.
"No ... no, that's all right. Ain't so far out of my way."
In a few minutes, they arrived at the redbrick house, set back a ways from the road. Irvin Ranck owned a harness shop across the vast meadow behind the house, in a barnlike structure he'd built years ago. Daed had always spoken well of his first cousin. Irvin was a good and honest man, one Mennonite the Amish farmers didn't mind paying for their stable gear. Just maybe that was the reason her father hadn't protested her working for the Rancks, even though Irvin's family had left the Amish church many decades before.
"Denki for the ride," Annie said, hopping down from the carriage.
"I'll be seein' ya," was all Rhoda said with a quick wave.
Hurrying up the walkway to the prim house, Annie spied four-year-old James pushing a toy lawn mower over a pile of leaves in the side yard. "Hullo!" she called and was delighted to see his eager smile.
"Cousin Annie!" the towheaded tyke called, running toward her with open arms.
"How's your little sister?" She gave him a quick squeeze and let him go.
"Oh, Molly's got lots of bumps ... you'll see." James hurried alongside her as they rounded the corner of the house, entered through the back door, and walked upstairs to the nursery.
James was quite right. Molly had oodles more chicken pox bumps than two days ago, wearing mittens now so she couldn't scratch. She was plumped up with several pillows, sitting in her toddler-sized bed made by her father.
"Annie's here ..." said Molly, trying to smile.
"Jah, I'm here, sweet one. And we'll look at lots of books together, all right?" Her heart went out to the little blond girl with eyes blue as cornflowers.
That brought a bigger smile to Molly's face, and James promptly went to the small bookcase and picked up a stack of board books. "These are Molly's favorites," he said, placing them gently in Annie's hands.
Bright-eyed Julia sat on the edge of her daughter's small bed, looking pretty in one of her hand-sewn floral print dresses. She wore her light brown hair in a bun, similar to Annie's, only Julia's was set higher on her head. Atop her bun, she wore the formal cup-shaped Mennonite head covering.
"I need to visit one of my expectant mothers in Strasburg today," Julia said softly. "She wants me present at the birth of her baby in a few weeks. I hope you don't mind."
"Ach, no, we'll be fine," she said. "Won't we?" Annie looked at both children, who were bobbing their heads and smiling.
Cousin Julia went on to say that the word was getting out about her being a "gentle midwife, although I'm not certified at all."
"But you have such a comforting way," Annie commented. "I can see why folks depend on you."
Later, after Julia had left and Annie had read each little book twice, she pulled up the quilted coverlet and smiled down at Molly, already asleep and clinging to her favorite dolly. Annie turned and raised her pointer finger to her lips as she and James tiptoed out of the nursery. "Time now for your nap, too, young man," she whispered, and the boy willingly followed her down the hall.
When James was tucked in, Annie hurried to the attic. Instead of closing the door behind her as usual, she left it wide open, tuning an ear to the children.
Over the years, she had managed to purchase everything she needed to create her landscape paintings, as well as her few attempts at portraits: Irvin and Julia's children, either from memory or from photographs. Naturally, she didn't dare bring even James up here for a sitting. And both Irvin and Julia knew her love for creating was to be held in the closest of confidence, even though Julia had admitted to being tempted to hire a professional tutor for Annie.
Mixing paints on her palette, she dabbed some purple onto the sky, making repeated attempts to blend it to create a rich lavender streak. Next, she gave the clouds a wispy sweep with her brush.
She eyed the canvas and scrutinized the creek bed and cluster of trees. She had stood on that very spot some weeks back, studying and pondering what precisely had happened there so long ago. But now she checked off each aspect of the painting in her mind ... the sunlight twinkling on the wide stream, the covered bridge, the density of the trees, the depth of gray and the basket-weave texture of the trunks, complete with thorns protruding from trunk and limb. And the pale autumn yellow of the leaves.
The trees could not be climbed due to the wicked thorns, yet locust wood was the toughest kind, much stronger than cedar. It made the best fence posts, too, according to her eldest brother, Jesse, soon to be considered a master carpenter.
Annie stood in the middle of the unfinished garret where the easel had been positioned so that light from the two dormer windows, especially in the afternoon, could spill around the canvas like a crown. But the grayness outdoors was hardly adequate today, so Annie turned on the recessed lighting, which Irvin had so kindly installed last year. She always felt a thrilling sensation when flicking on the light switch.
Going back now to stand before the painting, she contemplated the waft and wisp of clouds. Several bluebirds populated the painting, one in flight, two others perched on a distant branchâ€”feathery flecks of color.
She moved closer, her brush poised. The connection of hand to brush and brush on canvas sometimes triggered something important, something subconscious pulled into awareness.
Holding her breath, she touched her brush to the first tree.
The long swing, that's what!
Steadying her hand, she drew a thin line down. Jah ... good.
Suddenly, she heard her name being called. "Annie!" The sound came from downstairs. "Are you up there, Annie?"
Someone was coming up the staircase!
"I'm here," she called back, her heart in her throat.
"What the world are ya doin' up there?"
Now she recognized the voice as her sister-in-law Sarah Mae.
No ... no, dear Lord God, no!
Dropping her brush, she grabbed the nearest rag and began to wipe the paint off her hands. She heard Sarah Mae's footsteps on the wide-plank hallway at the base of the stairs and her heart began pounding.
She's going to discover my secret!
Quickly Annie stepped out of the studio, pulled the door closed behind her, and ran down the staircase, bumping into Sarah Mae as she did. "Oh, hullo," she managed to say.
Sarah Mae's round face was flushed and her blue eyes were inquisitive. "I knocked on the front door but guessed the children were asleep, so I just let myself in."
Annie nodded, feeling nearly dizzy with fright.
"What're ya doin' clear up here?" asked Sarah Mae. Then, without waiting for a reply, she added, "Does Julia have you redd up her attic, too?"
Not wanting to lie, Annie paused, thinking what to say, stumbling over several answers in her head. She stared down at the rag and said, "Jah, I'm cleanin' up a bit."
"Well, I stopped by to see if you'd be wantin' a ride home, since it looks to be turning a bit cold ... and I'm headed there to drop off some blueberry jam to Mamm."
"I need to stay put till Julia returns. But thank you."
Sarah Mae nodded, "All right, then." She inched her way backward down the narrow staircase.
Whew! Annie blew out a puff of air. I must be more careful!