FIRST TEN PAGES
SECRET of the AMISH
By Mark Allison
Giant Amos laid the baby in the snow under a willow tree on the hill behind the smokehouse. He chipped at the frozen earth with a heavy square-nose shovel. Wrong tool for a small, deep hole; its inconvenience a deliberate choice. Frenetically he dug, a blister bursting below his left middle finger.
Wind whipped his Sunday-meeting pants, the tails of his long frock coat. Four feet down, he stopped, breathing hard, planted the blade in damp dirt, retrieved the bundle.
He pressed the baby to his chest — one beat — two beats — three.
A gust tugged at a corner of the blanket, wicked a tear from the point of his nose. Amos leaned into the grave and gently placed their boy on the bottom.
He did not blame God. It never would have occurred to him to ask God why. It was God’s will. He accepted it. As simple as that. And as complex.
He filled the hole, pounded flat the tiny mound.
For the Amish outside Toryton, Pennsylvania, 1960 promised another year of hard work and self-denial, toiling the soil to bring forth a good harvest, allowing only God’s Word to define their lives, to dictate purpose. The race to the moon held no allure; rock’n’roll, JFK and drug store-counter protests no fascination. Amos and Sarah Miller didn’t know Dobie Gillis from Marshal Dillon. Nor were they anxious about the Cold War’s threat of a worldwide conflagration. They lived apart from the world, and in some ways, above it.
Within the contentment of their isolation, a dark cloud brooded: God had denied them a family. She knew he blamed her. Family was everything. Nothing on earth mattered more. Nothing.
They met at the wedding of Amos’s third-from-the-oldest brother, a young widower remarrying outside his home congregation. From the single-girls line stretched across the back of her cousin’s house, Sarah saw Amos when he walked in. She heard them whisper about the stranger. He was older, three, maybe four inches taller than the others. A mess of raven hair, broad shoulders, a certain noble carriage. He looked ill at ease in the gaggle of young men ogling the eligible girls like livestock at an auction. She decided he might be worth a chance.
She found him thoughtful, sober, a bit melancholy, a tad more pious than her taste. Sarah finally got him to laugh with riddles as they sat kicking their legs at the edge of the hayloft that chilly afternoon. "How many eggs can Paul Bunyan eat on an empty stomach?" She watched his eyes sparkle with amusement as he tried to guess the number and gave up. "One, silly — ’cause once he eats an egg his stomach’s no longer empty."
Amos, at 24, was desperate. He needed a wife to help him run the Millers’ dairy. His father, Bishop Jacob –– the spiritual leader to 173 families in three northwestern Pennsylvania congregations –– had little time to farm. After the three eldest boys married and moved away, Amos had been left to run the dairy with his little brother, Daniel.
“Pride hampers thee in finding a wife,” the bishop had admonished Amos as they returned from a service in Spring Creek. “Seeking a perfect wife is conceit. Choose one soon who would have thee. Ye cannot farm without a wife to provide thee with children and manage thy home.”
He did not even try to persuade his father his heart’s choice lived half a country away. Sarah wrote to Amos every day, but a pen pal — no matter how kind, funny and interesting — fell short of his requirements.
Sarah’s family was not surprised a man outside the congregation had claimed her heart. Swimming against the current defined her. Brothers, sisters, and cousins called her Sweet precisely because she wasn’t. (The nickname stuck after she chopped off her braids and refused to talk for three weeks after she learned eighth grade was as far as she could go in school.) Through her teens, her father had been admonished after numerous Sunday services to temper his willful, outspoken daughter. Early baptism, the ministers and bishop counseled, was the path to humility, a husband, and a home.
A large white egg in a basket of medium brown ones, Sarah attracted dozens of suitors, but her independence encouraged Goshen and Middletown boys to choose more docile partners. By the time she turned 23, Sarah was reconciled to her self-imposed lowly status of maiden, known for the perfection of her desserts — her apple pie above all. Then, Giant Amos Miller messed with her life.
Death reunited them. Spring Creek minister Kind Sol Beiler met his Maker while pushing a broom in the family barn. Fifty years before Amos, Solomon had fallen for a feisty Bontrager, marrying Katie three days before her parents migrated from Pennsylvania to Indiana. When word of his death reached Katie’s family, three Goshen Bontragers hired a non-Amish neighbor with a Belvedere to take them to the funeral and to bring Katie Beiler home. Sarah bribed her way aboard with four hot pies.
Despite the somber circumstances, Amos did not mask his delight when he saw her, caught her eye, made her blush. She smiled back. But dozens of cousins, crammed into her great-great-uncle’s living room kept them apart. Amos could not even reach her after the viewing, tasked by his father to drive the wagon to carry Kind Sol to the graveyard. She watched from the kitchen window as his pair of well-groomed Percherons led the buggy cortège.
“Sweet Sarah,” her cousin Fannie Beiler whispered, hot breath on her neck making her jump. “Ye must stay here with us ’til harvest.”
“I would not want to impose.”
“T’would be nice to have thee. We have room.” Fannie rubbed her pregnant belly. “Number-two boy is tiring. I am not much help.”
As they mashed potatoes in a wash tub, Fannie leaned next to her ear. “Doest thou know Giant Amos lives but three miles ’cross the valley?”
“I did not know he lives so close.”
“Art thou blushing, Sarah Bontrager?”
“Shhh.” Sarah puffed her cheeks until her ears popped. “I shall stay. Besides, they’ll need room to take back Uncle Sol’s Katie. I may stay for a long time.”
Amos and Sarah spent the wee small hours of every Saturday and Monday that summer together. She would meet him about midnight at the kitchen door and they would lie for hours in a bed in their cousin’s spare bedroom talking about farming, families and their faith, stealing small, sweet kisses, like spoons in a silverware chest, fully clothed, dozing under a light quilt. She was amazed such a big man could be so tender. Before the sun came up, he would ride his mare bare-back to his family’s farm for chores and chauffeur the bishop to a service. By midnight Sundays, he was tap, tap, tapping at the screen door.
They married the second week of December; the sixth and oldest couple in the congregation that winter. After the last frost, Amish friends and neighbors helped them build a house next to Bishop Jacob’s house, the white-washed two-story houses 72 inches apart, an extension connecting Jacob’s front porch to Amos’s. Jacob and his wife, Mary, longed to call their home Grossdaadi Haus. Amos and Sarah were just as eager to start filling the six bedrooms on the second floor. Children strengthened the enterprise of their farm and likely sealed the call of God for Amos. His devotion to family and faith was so profound, members of his congregation whispered he would be their next minister — if it was God’s will. But, without a family, no matter how pious, no matter how much he was admired, Amos could never be considered a leader.
Two months before they built their house, they discovered Sarah was pregnant. In late March, she began spotting. Stomach pains ambushed her as she scattered cornflower seeds along the dirt edging her in-law’s front porch. Blood trailed her across the living room and to the door of their bedroom.
Six days later they were trying again to get pregnant, and by early August she was showing. The baby was kicking and poking so much, Amos told his parents God would give them with a healthy boy to make up for losing the first one. Sarah was cleaning celery for supper when she felt a stab in her stomach. The baby never moved again. She said nothing to Amos before he left the next morning to escort his father to a service in New Wilmington, a day’s trip by buggy. Sarah went back to bed after chores. Contractions started about noon. Mary found her and a baby-born-too-soon in twisted bloody sheets.
The seven-pound boy had a shock of black hair. He never cried. Never took a breath. Amos and Jacob returned late Monday night, frozen to the bone from an arduous journey on icy roads. When his mother greeted him at the door and held out the swaddled baby, he stoically handed her his hat and carried the bundle to the barn to collect his shovel.
In March, Sarah miscarried again, standing at the kitchen sink, preparing the 11 o’clock meal, captivated by the snow swirling outside her window like one of the snow globes her cross-the-lane neighbor kept on her kitchen window sill. She cleaned up the watery blood and changed by the time Amos and Danny turned up for dinner. Amos thought she looked pale, but preoccupied with how the unexpected snow would hamper his plowing, didn’t pry. That night as they rocked in their chairs in the living room, she told him about their loss. He nodded and returned to The Budget.
Accepting the futility of having a conversation, Sarah went to their bedroom to sob away her guilt in her pillow.
A small advertisement in the newspaper had given Amos an idea. He planned a trip that summer to see relatives near Intercourse, in central Pennsylvania. He did not tell anyone, not even Sarah, the real reason for going. Three times God had said no to giving them a child, so he would ask a man in Gap to heal Sarah — a healer who claimed a specialty in charming.
Amos and Sarah boarded a Greyhound at the old train station in Clay. The newlyweds sat two rows from the front, gawking out the windows. Relatives they didn’t know, but with whom they could trace their roots in America to six generations, met them at the Lancaster station. Three middle-aged women helped Sarah into the hay-filled springboard, cooing over her belly. Amos spent the next day working with relatives to raise a non-Amish neighbor’s barn destroyed by a lightning strike. As Amos applied his carpentry skills, Sarah blended with the other women fixing food for the crew, throwing herself at her tasks, assuaging the guilt of having wasted a day of work riding the bus.
The next day, Amos borrowed an open buggy, ostensibly to take his new bride on a ride through the countryside. They clipped along behind a fresh quarter horse named Buster, doing the only proud dancing the Amish allowed. The couple rode in companionable silence along Route 772, admiring the handsome farms in the world’s most famous Amish region. As they crossed the Pequea Creek bridge, Amos cleared his throat, the nervous way he did before leading a hymn. He had never talked to his wife about babies and pregnancy.
“This baby. Our baby — ” He swallowed like his tonsils hurt. “I shall not live another day if we lose him. Let us do what we must to make sure this baby is born healthy.”
“Thou art saying we have not done so before?”
Buster, heeding the swat of a willow sapling, galloped up a small rise to busy Route 30 and down to Gap.
“We must charm the baby. To make sure he is healthy.”
“But, ye — thou doest not believe in faith healings. Thy father hath preached against it as sorcery.” She glared at her husband.
“Thou hath spoken the truth.” He looked straight ahead, eyes hurting.
“Thou hath brought us here for this? A man heals in Gap?” He nodded. Sarah was silent. A Rambler American sailed past, buffeting the light carriage. “We have come too far not to try.”
“Yes.” He sounded brighter. “A notice in The Budget claims he feels the sickness with his hands.”
“I am not sick, Amos Miller. I am pregnant.”
At the crossroads in Gap, Amos guided Buster into a diner parking lot near the Route 41 intersection, next to a gray buggy.
“Canst thou show us the way to the Fisher farm?” Amos asked a teenaged boy leaning against the buggy.
“Healer John? Up the hill, take the first hard left, Strasburg Road. Second farm at the north side of the road.”
Amos waved their thanks.
By 8:45, seven buggies lined the driveway next to Healer John’s house. It was Wednesday, so things were quiet.
John Fisher had divided his living room into a waiting room and treatment area. The white-haired 74-year-old accepted no appointments, seeing patients in the order they arrived. The Millers, seventh in line, found seats in the simple wooden chairs placed along the wall. A Swiss-made clock, chiming the half hour once and every hour twice, was the only decoration on the gray walls. In each window a green shade was partially pulled in preparation for the afternoon sun.
The electric healer took in the Millers about 10 o'clock. After courteous introductions, they sat quietly for a moment.
“Tell me thy problem.”
“It is my wife.” Sarah sighed — angry, put her hands on her tummy. “She cannot have a baby.”
“Sarah, is it?”
“They die.” She shuddered, looking at her husband and then at her fingers, laced across the top of her belly.
“Thou canst make sure our boy is born?” Amos sounded skeptical.
“Well, I can try.” The healer reached out to place his elegant fingers on her hard tummy. Sarah felt a pulse of energy in his touch and pulled back.
“I will not hurt thee or thy baby. I lost my first wife and our baby girl in childbirth. Thy pain passeth not my understanding.”
The warmth of his probes comforted her. The baby kicked.
“My, my. She hath spirit, this one.”
“Thou knowest our baby is a girl?”
“I think — no, I’m certain. This one is a girl. She shall have her mother’s temperament, her father’s countenance.”
“Ye know this from touching her?” Amos's disbelief was palpable.
The healer shrugged. “The baby is not sick. It is Sarah we must alter.”
He asked her to lie on her side on a low chiropractor’s table. He moved gracefully down her spine, tiny jolts of energy marking his finger probes. When he laid his hand on the small of her back, a feeling almost erotic bathed her womb. He chanted as he walked around the table:
Long may you live,
Happy may you be,
Blessed with eight children,
Four on each knee.
Retracing his steps, he twice repeated the verse, then he helped Sarah to her chair. She hugged her tummy.
“Place thy hand on her belly, Amos.”
The farmer obeyed, willing belief from his heart to his head.
The old man sucked on his right thumb, then pressed saliva the size of a dime to Sarah’s forehead. As he went into a momentary trance, Sarah felt something kinetic pass from him to her.
The healer stepped back. “It’s done. Ye are healed. Thy girl shall be fine.”
He pulled the couple to their feet with his left arm, his right emaciated, dangling. Amos dropped two $10 bills on the examining table.
“The Lord bless thee.” The farmer reached to shake Fisher’s hand, then realized his mistake. Surprised, Amos found it strong, no longer shriveled.
“God’s blessing on thy journey home.”
A surprise awaited them when they returned Friday evening, excited, refreshed from their trip. The Barlons, their non-Amish neighbors from across the lane, picked them up at the station. They had news. They too were going to have a baby — “our fourth and last,” Rachel told Sarah. Their children would be close: Rachel was due in late November, Sarah in mid-December.
Sarah’s pregnancy sailed smoothly through the summer into early fall. “I have a sense of peace,” she told Rachel. She and Amos had agreed not to mention Healer John.
By Halloween, Rachel’s baby was reminding her with every twist and turn why he would be her last. “This one’s a fighter,” she told Sarah over Saturday morning coffee and toast.
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