Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Highway to God

The last couple of new books I shared with you included the sequel to the novel Zo and a love story about the early years of flying (1917-1919). Now I'm working my way through another manuscript and have just about hit 40,000 words so it's time to share.

When books and book ideas are taken by your agent to various publishing houses what is called the "proposal package" is the first thing that is put into an editor's hands. It includes marketing ideas, a chapter by chapter outline of the book, a summary of the whole story, a list of the main characters, etc., etc. It also includes the initial three chapters and basically if those three chapters don't cut it with an editor, there's no contract, no sale, and no published book.

So let's have some fun. Let's pretend you - any of you who are reading this blog - are the editors at various publishing firms. We'll let you read three chapters of the new book and then you can decide if you want to read the whole manuscript with a possible view to a contract.

However, I won't give you all three chapters at once like in the real world (after all, this is a blog). I'll let you have them one week apart. Starting with chapter 1 tonight, March 2nd.

I never use a book's actual title prior to publication. Lots of titles change between submission and publication. I make one up for blogging purposes. (The actual title the sequel to Zo is being published under this month, for example, is The White Birds of Morning, which none of you ever knew before and which I only knew a few weeks ago.)

So for this story-in-progress let's call it Highway to God or just highway. You'll see why it's a decent blogging title once you read the chapters through (hey, you might even get it after a few pages of the first chapter).

The story's something different. You'll see what I mean. I hope there's something in the first chapter for you. Who knows? God knows.

Highway to God

Chapter 1

“Wake up. Come on. Wake up. It’s my birthday.”
Michal opened her blue eyes and stared at her younger sister. “It’s still dark out, Mischief. I can hardly see your face.”
She watched the slender body in the white nightgown flit to the window that faced east.
“No, I can just see some silver,” Mischief said. “The sun’s coming up.”
Michal propped herself on an elbow. “The only silver I see is from the stars. They’re still out.”
“Not much longer.” Mischief ran back and jumped on Michal’s bed. “I’m 16 finally – holy, sweet 16, can you believe it?”
Michal smiled. “It is rather hard to believe. Considering you act as if you’re nine or ten.” She reached out a hand. “Come here.” She kissed her sister on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Mischief.”
“Brush out my hair?” She gave Michal a brush and untwisted her long braid while she sat facing the window and the dawn. “I was outside already, you know.”
Michal sat up and began to run her hand over the young woman’s hair, looking for knots and tangles. “Really? Doing what?”
“Oh, you know, talking to Sprinkles, hunting down Kitkat. Old Brownie guarded me the whole time, don’t worry.” Sprinkles was a horse born the same year as Mischief, Kitkat a cat almost as old as the horse, Old Brownie a dark brown bloodhound that doted on everyone in the family and who was at least ten.
“I’m not worried. We live in Marietta, Pennsylvania, not Pittsburgh.”
“I used the door, you know.”
“Ah, and papa said you could?”
“Sure. He gave me the talk last week.”
“The Rumspringa talk?”
Their ground floor bedroom had two doors. One led directly outside. Another opened into the hallway and kitchen and the rest of the house. Mischief had not been permitted to use the outside door until she was of age. To use it would have been considered “sneaking around” and trying to “get away with something.” She would have been punished. But now she was 16 and she could use the outside door without any fear of discipline. Michal had been going in and out of it for more than two years.
“So tell me about the Rumspringa talk,” prodded Michal as she began to use the brush on her sister’s long dark hair.
“Why? You’ve had it.”
“I want to know if anything’s changed in two years.”
“I don’t think so. Papa said I can do whatever I like. Even leave Marietta if I want. When I am ready to be baptized and truly become Amish then it all changes. Then I am making the big commitment to God and to the people. Mama and papa hope I will do that, he said. But first I must “get everything out of my system” and be sure that when I take my baptism vows I really mean them.”
“Your hair seems thicker and darker every week. It shines like a raven’s wing.”
“Oh, you used to say crow’s wing.”
“Not since you were twelve. Have you been using egg on it or something?”
“So what if I have? Nick says it’s like black gold.”
Michal stopped brushing until Mischief turned her face toward her. “Really? Nick said that?” Michal asked.
Mischief narrowed her eyes. “Why is that so hard to believe?”
“I did not think St. Nick had poetry in him. Just carburetors and camshafts.”
Mischief tossed her hair. “Men who ride bikes are winged warriors, he told me. So why shouldn’t he have a poem or two in him?”
Michal put a hand over her mouth so that she would not laugh out loud. Mischief glared at her. “What is it?”
“Come on. Winged warriors? Did he read that in one of those motorcycle magazines that is always rolled up in his back pocket? American Rider or Hot Bike?”
Mischief tossed her hair again so that a great part of it hit Michal in the face. “What would you know about it?”
“Sometimes I see Milwaukee with one.”
“Milwaukee?” Now it was Mischief’s turn to suppress a laugh. “What would he know about bikes?”
“Why, you know he has one of his own.”
“He has some scooter made in China. Get real, Michal.”
Michal frowned. “Get real? He has a motorbike, Mischief, a Honda Rebel, and it is not made in China.”
“Oh, 250cc, excuse me, look out, Thunder Road. Nick’s Harley is a 1979 1000cc Ironhead.”
Michal gave Mischief’s hair a hard yank with the brush.
“You have been spending too much time among the English,” Michal growled.
“So what? It’s Rumspringa now. I can see Nick as much as I want. Papa said it is all right for me to date now.”
“Yes. I’m sure he had Nick in his mind when he told you that.”
“Oh, I apologize, it has to be a good Amish boy.” She turned around and grabbed the brush from Michal. Then she gave her a sharp smile. “Not for me. Not when it’s finally Rumspringa.”
Mischief bounced off the bed and went to the window. It was full of golden light. “Here it comes. I am truly of age now.”
“Maybe not. Didn’t mother say last week you came out at seven in the evening?”
Mischief laughed. “No one counts their birthdays that way. I’m official.” She continued to look through the glass and began to hum, “You’re all ribbons and curls, oooh, what a girl, eyes that sparkle and shine, you’re sixteen, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine.” Then she turned back to face her older sister, the sharp smile still on her lips. “You have been Rumspringa for two years now. What about you? Are you satisfied with life among the plain people? Do you want to be Amish forever?”
Michal nodded. “Yes, I think so, yes.”
“Then why haven’t you taken your baptism vows?”
Michal hesitated. “Well – I’m not ready yet.”
“Why not? You’re 18, almost 19, why haven’t you made up your mind? Why won’t you make the commitment?”
“I’m still praying about it.”
“Oh, praying.” Mischief began to brush her hair herself. “You and Milwaukee are always praying, aren’t you? And not getting anywhere with each other or your Amish vows.”
“Milwaukee and I are only friends, good friends.”
“Really? And you’ve never kissed this good friend?”
“Not Milwaukee, no.”
“But you’ve kissed Silas Stoltzfus. I caught you, remember?”
Michal flipped her hand in the air. “Don’t bring that up. I was younger than you are now. It was just my foolish period.”
Mischief widened her eyes. “Your foolish period? What about David and Samuel and Elijah? They were all last year. And Saul Miller was only, what, four months ago?”
“So I’ve been foolish a long time. That’s why I’m not ready for baptism.”
“You kiss them all, but you won’t kiss Milwaukee? That sounds to me like you are serious about him.”
“I am not.”
Mischief came and knelt on Michal’s bed. “Do you drink?”
“Not so much.”
“Not so much.”
“But you’ve gone to parties in Lancaster City and Philadelphia.”
Michal shook her head. “Really that stuff doesn’t matter to me.”
“What does matter?”
“Oh – family, God, our church – you.”
“You mean now that you’ve finished sowing your wild oats it matters.”
“What wild oats?”
Mischief got up and paced the room, running her hands back through her thick, shining hair that was gleaming like dark water in the sunlight filling the room. “In and out through the door, two in the morning, three in the morning. Milwaukee’s scooter putt-putting away. Or Saul’s truck. All of you sowing your wild oats. Did you think I really was asleep all those times? Eyes closed? Head on the pillow?” She grinned. “It’s my turn now.”
Michal sighed. “You make such a big thing out of it. I hardly did anything. The boys hardly did anything.”
“Yes, that’s the trouble, isn’t it? That’s why you’re not ready for baptism yet – you still haven’t gotten it out of your system. Well, I’m getting it out of mine. Then there’ll be lots of room for God and baking bread in an oven heated by wood and doing laundry with a scrub board. Yes, maybe I will want to be plain again, who knows? But, right now, I’ve been plain long enough.”
She came and stood over Michal with her hands on her hips. “Speaking of God, why didn’t you go anywhere?”
Michal frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean there’s more to life than Shoofly pie and Lancaster County and William Penn Pennyslvania. Didn’t God make a big, beautiful world? That’s what the preachers always tell us, ja? But how many of them go out there to see it?”
“Mischief, Pennsylvania is beautiful, Marietta is beautiful, all the rolling green hills and the Susquehanna River – ”
“Sure, sure, but what about Montana? What about Seattle? What about California and San Francisco and Los Angeles? Haven’t you ever wanted to see those places? Look.”
She got on her knees and tugged a wooden box out from under her bed. Opening the lid she brought out dozens of postcards bright with photographic images. She began to hand them up to Michal one at a time.
“The Grand Canyon – isn’t that so amazing? And Carlsbad Caverns. And Glacier National Park. Here’s the Painted Desert. And an arroyo carved out by water in Arizona – doesn’t that look like something from the Bible?”
“You should not have photographs.”
“Why not? We’re both in Rumspringa, aren’t we? Do you see me bowing down and worshipping them? What do you think of this?”
She placed a photograph of a pure white beach in Michal’s hands. The water that lapped against the sand was a shimmering turquoise as clear as freshly washed glass.
“What do you think?” she asked again.
“It’s very pleasant,” replied Michal.
Mischief snorted. “Is that all you can say? Thank our God, sister. It’s a miracle, a blessing. Don’t you want to reach out and just touch the sand? Think how nice it would be to skinny dip in water like emeralds.”
“Oh, sister, no men around of course.” Her sharp smile returned for a moment, then quickly was replaced by a look of sheer innocence that Michal could see was not contrived. “I like the boys and I like the attention they give me. I like Nick’s Ironhead. But do you know what I really want to do? I would trade all the parties and bottles of beer and cigarettes and kisses for an open road and an open sky – I want to see God’s world, I want to see mountains and oceans and the huge redwoods. I want to have a palm tree fan me while tropical air blows overhead as soft as silk.” Suddenly she stopped and looked worried. “What time is it?”
They both glanced at the windup clock on the small table that stood between their beds. It was five after six.
“Quickly, get dressed,” said Mischief, swinging her arms at Michal as if she were shooing cattle. “Let’s get outside as soon as we can.”
Michal climbed out of bed. “What’s the big hurry?”
“I don’t want to waste a minute.”
As Michal tied her hair back in a bun and put on a long blue dress with a black apron Mischief pulled on a pair of tight faded jeans and a short tee shirt she took from a corner of the closet. She left her hair loose. Then she dabbed perfume on her wrists and throat. When Michal turned from placing her prayer covering on her head Mischief was fastening her final earring. A black belt with silver studs was around her waist and a jean jacket draped over her shoulders. She used a black leather bag for her purse.
Michal could not keep the shock from her face. “What are you doing?”
“I’m 16, dear sister, and this is my Rumspringa. I’ve seen you in jeans and tees plenty of times.”
“But not right here, right in the house, mother and father and your little brothers – ”
“They won’t see a thing. I don’t have time to change in the restroom at Roy’s gas station like you always do.”
“What do you mean mother won’t see you? Soon she’ll be looking for us and asking for our help with breakfast.”
“Come. Come outside.”
They used the special door and stepped into grass soaked in a thick, silvery May dew. Michal wore her sturdy black Amish shoes while Mischief had put on a pair of Nike runners. Immediately Old Brownie spotted them and came trotting over, his tail wagging. Both sisters rubbed his long ears and spoke sweetly into the big, dark, sad eyes. Faintly there was the roar of a jet and Mischief straightened and looked up into the blue sky. White contrails had appeared far overhead like perfectly straight painted lines.
“You see?” she smiled. “From Philadelphia to where? Denver? Mexico? Hawaii? Japan? I want to fly, Michal.”
“The Amish can fly.”
“I don’t mean as a passenger. I want to hold the wheel. I want to steer the plane.” She glanced at her sister. “You know the English girls can drive at my age. As soon as they are 16 they can drive their own car.”
“I know that.”
“Imagine. The freedom. The highway in front of you like a magic carpet. I could go anywhere. With a plane and a car I could go to Paris or London or Madrid. I could go all the way to Australia and see kangaroos and crocs.” She took her sister’s hand. “Don’t you want to do exciting things like that? Don’t you want to see God’s big world? You can’t tell me you don’t feel bottled up here like some sort of museum exhibit from the 19th century for tourists to come and gape at.”
“Really, I feel fine,” Michal protested.
“Then take your baptism vows and stay put. What’s stopping you from becoming a fully committed Amish woman and remaining here until they plant you in the ground permanently like a crop of tobacco? Wear your prayer covering and be a draw for the tourist dollars, sister – do you know how much Pennsylvania made on the quaint Amish people last year from people driving by and flying in to photograph us? Eat our pies? Buy our handmade wooden furniture and our hand stitched quilts? Nick told me. You’d be surprised.”
“I honestly don’t care.”
“The Amish are big business. It wouldn’t pay to have us up and fade away. They need good strong Amish women to stick around and make sure there’s plenty of babies.”
Michal could feel herself losing her temper. “The Amish are not fading away. Our numbers are growing here in Pennsylvania and in Ohio and Indiana. Now there are even Amish communities in Missouri and Minnesota and Iowa. And not just from large families. There are more converts now.”
“Good. They can take my place. Then I won’t have to feel guilty if the Amish cease to exist because I hit the open road.” She put her hands in her pockets. “Face it. You’re no more content here than I am.”
“I am happy enough. We have a wonderful family.”
Mischief nodded. “Yes, we do, a wonderful family. But it’s not enough, is it?”
Michal felt the heat in her face. “Of course it’s enough. More than enough.”
“Then make it stick. Spring Communion is in a few weeks, isn’t it? Say you want to be Amish till you die. You and Milwaukee both. Get the baptism. Then you can have an Amish wedding and people will give you grandfather clocks and butter churns for gifts.”
Michal felt as if a rock had formed inside her and was sinking down, taking whatever good spirits she had woken to into a dark murk with it. Mischief saw the look on her face and regretted she had said so much. She put her arms around Michal’s neck. They were the same height with the same shining black hair and the same striking blue eyes.
“Look at us. God had given us this rare match of blue eyes and black hair. How can any man resist us? Nick says he gets completely lost in my eyes. They are so blue he forgets any sense of direction and loses his way.”
“He said that?” A small smile played over Michal’s lips.
“Close enough. I’m only adding a bit.”
“Your winged warrior.”
“Yes. More than you know.” Then, arms still around her sister, she said in a low voice as if the whole Amish community was listening in, “Come with me.”
Michal made a face. “Come with you where?”
“Everywhere else. The world outside Marietta and the Amish faith. The highway. The back roads. America. Come explore America with me. Find another God with me, a bigger God than the Amish God.”
“From the back of a Harley?”
“Or the front. Girls can drive Harleys too.”
“What about Nick?”
“Oh.” She laughed quietly. “Nick is a condiment. There are spicier things to season life with. Like a Michal. Come with me and I’ll ditch Nick and we can be the Rolling Thunder Sisterhood.”
Michal was genuinely surprised. “Ditch your winged warrior? I thought you loved him.”
Mischief grinned. “Love? Love? When did I ever say anything about love?” Then she grew serious and whispered, “You and I have been together 16 years today, everywhere together. I know all your thoughts and feelings and you know mine. You are not happy here, Michal. You are not sure becoming Amish is the right step. So come with me. You and I have never been apart. Come with me and we will discover what it is we want together. Maybe it’s this place and this life. But maybe it’s not.” She hugged Michal. “You will never be content to take your vows until you leave and truly make your own decision to return. You must have figured that out by now. You have to get out. Like Peter and James had to walk away from their fishing nets, yes? Or Paul had to leave his home in Tarsus. Or Jesus himself had to leave Nazareth.” She kissed Michal on the cheek. “Or Ruth had to leave her country and all she was familiar with and follow Naomi. You are restless, sister. You have to get away if you ever want to put down roots here someday. Get away and find out what you want and what God wants. Let me be your Naomi. And you can follow me and be my Ruth.”
Michal felt a surge in her heart and her eyes gleamed briefly. “Who will be our Boaz?”
Mischief smiled and hugged her sister again. “Boaz will have to find us. God will have to send him and he will have to find us wherever we are.”
There was a rumble from the road that ran past their house and it grew louder and louder. Mischief gave her sister a final kiss. “Hey, think about it. Gotta go.”
Nick thundered into the yard on his black and silver Harley Ironhead. He had a long braid of dark red hair, a red beard he kept trimmed to his jawline, and an earring. He wore dark brown leather pants and biker chaps and skullcap. Mischief’s father, a tall and lean man, stepped out of the barn. She spotted him.
“Papa!” She ran over and threw her arms around him.
“What is this?” he asked quietly.
“Nick is taking me into Philly for my birthday.”
“But – your mother has a cake for you – we have gifts – ”
Mischief bit her lower lip. “I know. I’m sorry. We can do that tomorrow. Nick and I have been planning this trip for weeks. He got time off from the garage.”
Her father nodded and could not keep himself from smiling. “So this is my girl who jumps into rivers and onto the back of the stallion we keep in stud, hey? Feet first into her Rumspringa.”
“That’s her.” She grinned. “I love you, papa. Have a good, good day, please.” She kissed him on the cheek.
“Sure, sure, I will think back on my own Rumspringa when I got sick smoking a cigar. Leave those alone, hey?”
“I will.”
“Here is your mother.”
A tall woman with broad shoulders stood on the porch. Mischief gave her father a final tight squeeze with her arms and ran across the yard and up the steps to the porch.
“Ma!” Again the strong hug. Mischief was two inches taller.
“Can’t you at least stay and have breakfast with us?” her mother complained, hugging her daughter back. “It is your birthday, my little one.”
“I’m sorry, ma, we have to get into Philadelphia and it’s the only day Nick could get off this week. I’ll be back tonight. We can have the cake tomorrow. But you can give the boys a piece each from me today, okay?”
Mischief could see her mother wanted to be cross. But she could not resist her youngest daughter’s energy and enthusiasm, something Mischief had always possessed and which the mother had never been able to scold her for. “All right. Get into your Rumspringa and get it over with. Just don’t spend as much time there as your sister.”
“I won’t.” She gave her mother the sharp smile. “Papa said he got sick from cigars.”
The mother laughed and kissed Mischief on the top of her head. “Ja, among other things.”
“What about you?”
“Oh, I got sick on plum Schnaps and pizza. Really, I was crazy. But never as crazy as you. Your father is the only man who has ever seen me with my hair down and for that he had to wait until our wedding night.”
Mischief smiled at the tone of disapproval that had crept into her mother’s voice. “Yes, I know, ma, a woman’s crowning glory is her hair. Well, mine is still my crowning glory whether all the men in the world see it or not.”
“Okay, you go, that Nick will scare the horses and wake the boys.”
“Oh, the boys are already up.” She stepped back from her mother and waved energetically at two faces pressed against a window on the second floor. They smiled and waved back.
“Have some of my birthday cake!” she shouted up at them. “Tell me tomorrow if it’s any good!”
“Hush, my girl,” laughed her mother. “The neighbors will think there’s a fire. Oh, one minute you are almost 30 and the next not yet 12, isn’t it so?”
“I guess.”
Her mother ran a hand down her daughter’s cheek. “In all this do not forget your family loves you and is here for you, all right? And do not forget the love of God. Or the grace of Christ.”
“I won’t. Thanks, ma. See you.” A final hug and kiss and she was down the steps to Nick and the Ironhead. He got a hug too. Smiling, he handed her a brown jacket like his that he’d pulled from a saddlebag. She put it on and zipped it up. Then he handed her a helmet. He himself did not wear one. Slipping it over her head she got on behind him.
Michal walked up to them. “Take care, Nick,” she said.
He gave Michal a thumbs up. “Sure I will. Don’t worry about your baby sister. This is her first grownup day.”
“Oh, yes?” Michal raised a hand in a wave. “Go easy, Mischief. Okay?”
Mischief lifted the visor of her silver helmet and her blue eyes gleamed like sky. “No worries, big sister. I will avoid Schnaps and cigars for sure. See you tonight. Or tomorrow. Whichever comes first.” Then she grew serious and her eyes darkened like evening. “Remember what we talked about. Think it over, okay?”
“Yes, I will. And I shall pray about it too.”
“Sure, pray about it. Get God involved. Why not?” Then the blue lightened again as if the sun had come out in her eyes. “I’m 16. You can’t call me Mischief anymore, you know. I’m a woman now. Next time we see each other you have to use my Christian name.”
“Even if you still are a handful?’
“Even if. Bye.”
“We good to go?” Nick asked her.
“Yeah.” She dropped her visor.
Nick walked the bike forward and then throttled up. The Harley’s roar shook the air. The Ironhead rumbled down the lane to the main road. Mischief waved her hand a final time then wrapped her arms around Nick and leaned her head against him. Her sister and parents waved in response. On the back of their jackets Michal could see an eagle with spread wings and the words LIVE TO RIDE, RIDE TO LIVE. Then the Harley was on the asphalt and speeding east into the sun, the engine changing pitch as Nick switched gears.
“Christ go with you, Tabitha Troyer,” Michal whispered.

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