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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Highway (Chapter 4)

“Are you going for a walk, Michal?”
“Yes, mama, a long prayer walk. I need to clear my head.”
“So long as you remember the bishop and the pastors are here to speak with us at four.”
“Ja, ja.”
The day was bright. Michal walked quickly down the drive and across the road, opening a gate into a hayfield. A small beaten path skirted the field and headed toward the river. Michal took it. Her pace remained brisk. As she made her way through the green grass that was as high as her chest she whispered prayers and hoped God would provide her with answers she could clearly hear and clearly see.
Sometimes you speak to us in ways that are not obvious, Lord, you know that yourself, and no doubt you have your reasons for doing so. But here we have such a strange set of circumstances it would be helpful if you did not add to them. Sometimes we are to ask for signs, sometimes not. Well, I must ask you for a sign. It is one thing for me to up and travel across America. I don’t even know if I want to be Amish. But is it fair to ask it of Milwaukee? He is ready to commit himself, to settle down, to marry. His Rumspringa is over. Why should he be pushed into spending months on the road when his heart is here? Surely this is not just.
The Susquehanna was swollen with the rains of April and May and moving with strength through the green hills. Michal opened another gate and took a path that followed the riverbank for miles. Most of the time she could see the water, but other times the trees that had burst into leaf blocked her view. Robins and blackbirds streamed from branch to branch, calling back and forth. As always, the river and the life that thrived on its edges combined to lift her out of the gloom she was struggling with, but still there were no easy answers.
Of course, when is it that you make things easy? It would be enough to ask you what we should do about my father’s request, yes, and now my mother’s plea. But I treated Milwaukee so badly that afternoon in the barn how on earth can we travel together? I have not spoken with him since. Really, there is nothing to say. I told him to get out of my life and he has done what I asked, gentleman that he is. I do not feel inclined to hunt him down and apologize. There are no words I’m aware of that can make up for my rudeness. And if I were he, I would not wish to spend a year or half a year on a motorbike with me, myself, and I.
Now and then, at any time of the year, even winter, Michal might run into deer if she took the path she was on or any of the others that wound through the trees and brush at the top of the bank or along its sides. Suddenly, as she prayed, she came upon two spotted fawns without their mother. They froze and stared at her. She stopped walking immediately and spoke softly to them. Their wet black noses twitched and their large dark eyes studied her intensely. Then, lifting their hooves high and stepping carefully, they slowly turned and moved down the bank into a thick cluster of trees with fresh yellow-green leaves.
I wish I could just live in the forest like the deer. Mother says make peace with Milwaukee. I am too ashamed to make peace. I am too ashamed to go to his house. And even if I did apologize, so I still don’t believe it would be a good idea for us to go together on this search for a needle in a haystack. It would not work, you yourself know it would not work, Lord. He is almost Amish. I am almost not Amish. We both need to move on. Don’t you agree?
She came through a thick screen of brush and there was Milwaukee. He was seated on a boulder 30 or 40 feet straight down the bank from the trail and hurling stones as hard as he could. Now and then she saw that he was rewarded by a far-off splash as his throws connected with the Susquehanna.
Lord, do you find this funny? Was it a slow day?
For a moment she thought about carrying on and going quietly by without saying anything. He wouldn’t even know she’d been there and gone. But she realized that would be cheating – whatever game God was playing, she had to go along with the rules. Milwaukee should not be there. The two of them had never gone to the riverbank together, it was not one of their spots. Other young people, both Amish in Rumspringa and non-Amish, came to the river to neck in the bushes and smoke cigarettes or drink beer. But this was not something she and Milwaukee had done. Yes, and others came to walk and pray as she was doing, but again this was not something the two of them had done. She had no idea if Milwaukee had ever come to the river before today. But he was here now. And it was no accident.
Having made up her mind not to try and slip past and instead to see where this chance meeting led – a meeting she knew was not chance at all, but had God’s fingerprints all over it – on impulse she decided to throw a few stones of her own. Bending down and picking up four or five, she stood up, braced her legs, twisted her arm back, and threw the first one with all her might. It did not reach the river. She tried again, biting her lip and trying to summon every ounce of strength into her right arm. This time she saw the splash and so did Milwaukee. He had not been throwing anything for a few minutes and she sensed his confusion as he sat with his back toward her in his Levi denim jacket and faded jeans.
He must think it is a fish jumping – bass or walleye or perch or even rainbow trout or catfish or northern pike.
She took three stones in her hand this time and flung them all at once, hoping at least two would make it. To her surprise, she did better than that – all three stones reached the river and all three raised big white splashes. She had no doubt this was God again. It made no sense otherwise. Milwaukee sat staring straight ahead a few more moments then he slowly twisted his neck and looked behind him.
Michal was sure she would see a frown. After all, she had practically picked him up and hurled him from the barn. Standing there in her navy blue dress, black apron, and white prayer Kapp she timidly put up her hand in a small wave. Their eyes met. His were brown and warm. She felt a quiver go through her and was more than a little shocked. What was this? What were her head and body doing to her? Milwaukee was just a friend, and an estranged friend at that, thanks to her.
He smiled his big, full, beautiful smile and some of his light brown hair was in his eyes along with the sunlight. The quiver went through her again. For a moment she didn’t know what to say, what she was feeling was so unexpected. Why should his hair or eyes or hair matter to her or affect her? A few days ago she’d wanted to pitch him on his head. But the worse – or the best, she thought later – was yet to come. She heard him speak her name for the first time in almost a week.
“Michal.”
She froze like the fawns had frozen.
“You always had the arm to go with your looks.”
She felt the blood come to her face, starting at the throat and working its way up over her nose and cheeks and forehead to her hairline.
“Uh – Milwaukee – hi,” she finally got out.
“Did someone tell you I was here?”
“No, no.”
“Because I didn’t say a word to a soul. I didn’t even know I’d wind up here myself. Esau pretty much ordered me to take the day off. Go pray, he said. Go think. Go listen. Then you will know what you should do. So I wandered this way and at first I was going to go back to the house and get a fishing pole, but then I realized I really didn’t want to see anyone, not my brothers or mother or father, there was no one I wanted to speak with, so I came straight here without fetching my pole. But I was wrong, you know.”
Michal continued to feel upended by the surge of strong emotions seeing Milwaukee had unleashed. “You were wrong?”
“Yeah. ‘Cause I definitely like seeing you.”
Now something started up in her chest.
“Do you have any idea how beautiful you are standing there all Amish like that? With the sun pouring over you? Black apron, black hair, blue eyes. My good, good, stunningly good-looking friend. Man, I’ve missed you. I’m sorry we quarreled.”
Michal’s head was reeling from his lavish compliments. “You’re sorry?”
“I was going to come by and apologize. But the whole week has been crazy with that idea of your father’s going the rounds. Some people are saying, hey, it’s Rumspringa, if Tabitha Troyer wants to go to Mars or Pluto, let her go, it’s time to stop living her life for her. But others are saying, look, this is dangerous, it’s not as if Tabitha is 20 or 21, she is only 16 and she is out on the streets and highways of America with a boy who has no connections to the Amish faith. So who knows? But your father and I have met a couple of times on our own.”
Michal finally managed to get her focus back enough to make her way down the slope to the boulder where Milwaukee was sitting. He moved over and she sat beside him, her hands in her lap, looking at him as if she were seeing him for the first time.
“Did you know that?” Milwaukee asked.
Michal had no idea what he was talking about. “No, I didn’t.”
“Once we met by chance at the post office and went off a ways and chatted – though I suppose it wasn’t by chance, was it? Do you think anything is really by chance, Michal?”
Why am I still light-headed? This is crazy. “No,” she replied.
“And the other time he dropped in and spoke with my parents and my brothers and myself. Everybody has their opinion about your father’s request, Michal, and everybody has their own ideas about what I should or shouldn’t do, or what you should or shouldn’t do for that matter. Of course, I have been working all this through, praying all this through. My parents think I should help your father, by the way, so do my brothers. Hey, since you’re here and I don’t have to get up the nerve to go to your house – ” the fascinating smile – “I wanted to tell you, well, I noticed how well you sang on Sunday.”
Michal was startled. “I sang well?”
“Not the same as the old days, but you weren’t half-hearted, you know? You sang as if you were reaching out for something, reaching out for God.”
“Oh.” She smiled. “It must be my anguish.”
Milwaukee’s face grew somber and he nodded. “You miss your sister. You are worried about her. You wonder how your parents are going to hold up.”
Again she looked at him as if she were seeing him for the first time. “Yes, all those things.”
“I don’t know what to say to you. Your father thinks you can talk Tabitha into returning home. I think Tabitha is so strong-willed she won’t listen, at least, not right away. But if we did go on the road the chances of finding them anytime soon – unless God intervenes – are pretty slim. So that would mean there was plenty of time for the highway to get inside of her head and, who knows? She might be ready to come back to Lancaster County by August or September if you put things the right way.”
Michal put a hand on Milwaukee’s arm as if the incident in the barn had never occurred. “You don’t need to feel you must go on this journey or my family will fall apart. We’ll make out all right. Lots of other Amish families have faced worse Rumspringa experiences than this – jail time, teen pregnancies, drug overdoses, driving under the influence, car wrecks. Tabitha is smarter than that.”
“But she’s far away, Michal. Anything could happen to the two of them and you wouldn’t know for days or weeks if they needed your help. I think the people who support your father’s request are the ones who can truly put themselves in his shoes. If it was their daughter, they would pray for God to send someone who could help them. Those who say his idea is a foolishness, well, it’s not their daughter, the emotional connection isn’t there, they don’t get it. I feel a lot of, I don’t know, sympathy, empathy, what’s the word I want?”
He looked at her for help. Then he shook his head and began to laugh.
“What?” she asked, smiling at his laughter. “What is it?”
“No Amish girl should look like you look, Michal. You are so distracting I swear it’s a sin.”
The heat was in her face again. “Why do you say that? I am dressed as plainly as I can dress.”
“Yes. Which only serves to highlight your incredible eyes and skin and three AM hair by contrast.”
“My three AM hair?”
Milwaukee leaned back and closed his eyes, still laughing in stops and starts. “The whole thing is crazy. I swore I would never talk with you again after our spuckte, our spat. I really felt low. Avoided you at church. I suggested to your father he get one of my brothers to go on this – this rescue mission. Mark rode a BMW during his Rumspringa, yes, a big one too, 750, it should be Mark I told him, not me, all because I didn’t want you and I to be stuck together for six or seven months. So your father says to me finally, My Michal is suddenly an ugly duck to you?”
Michal burst out with her own sharp laugh and grasped Milwaukee’s arm again. “He did not.”
“He did. Anyway, it’s all crazy, how could Mark be Amish and ride a bike? But I’m trying to work up all these feelings against you, you see, no more Michal, no more Michal, and then you drop out of the sky here today and I can’t stop talking to you, blah, blah, blah, on and on, like I’ve had all these thoughts in my head and no one to share them with until you come along, it’s been pent up in me and now I’m some sort of gusher. I am supposed to be cross and look at me – I’m so happy to see you. Even if you were your father’s ugly duck I would still be babbling away. But – ” He sat up and opened his eyes and looked at her. “You are very easy on a man’s eyes.”
Oh, I am going to burn up if he keeps talking this way and looking at me like that.
“Well, Milwaukee, well,” she stumbled. “I – it is – not just you who feels this is all very – strange – our meeting like this. I did not think – we should travel together either, I had convinced myself we were – incompatible. For a moment I thought I should just sneak past you here, but I think – I really think – God had something to do with this.”
“Oh? God Almighty? You truly think you and I are that important?”
“Are you teasing me?”
“I never tease blue-eyed girls.”
She smiled. “No? Well, I do think this chance encounter by the river was – planned in advance – by someone – else.”
“If that’s so, what are to make of it? We are sitting here together after we both swore we would never sit together again – what does it mean?”
Michal looked down at her hands. A ladybug was slowly making its way along her thumb. “I guess I’m not sure.”
“Well, can you tell me what you think of your father’s idea now?”
“Now?”
“Yes. Right now. Not what you thought last night or at breakfast this morning.”
Michal’s lips curved upward again, but she kept her eyes on the ladybug. “I suppose – because it matters so much to mother and father – I would go – if the church is behind it – I would go – ”
“With who? With who would you go?”
The ladybug flew, its small red wings whirring. Michal looked up at Milwaukee. “With you. I would go with you.”
He did not reply. Neither of them looked away. Eventually Michal reached for his hand and held it.
Milwaukee cleared his throat. “I – I told your father I would honor you – that I would not cross the line – that I would honor you and your family – ”
She smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder. “Of course you would.”
“That – somehow I would not let him down – that I would find your sister – I don’t know how I can make a promise like that – but he is in so much pain – your father – your mother – ”
“We.”
“What?”
“We. How can we make a promise like that. You and I.”
She sat up and faced him, holding both of his hands now. He gave a small smile. The light brown hair was in his eyes again. Her emotions had settled inside her head and chest, but not by much. She reached over and gently brushed the hair aside. It made her fingers tingle. She had no idea what her touch did to him, but his smile widened.
“All right,” he finally responded. “We.”
She had never seen the brown in his eyes look so deep and dark.
“But,” he went on, “just because we want to help your family that doesn’t mean the bishop and the leadership will agree with the plan.”
“It does not matter,” Michal said.
“Of course it matters. Your mother and father have to live here for the rest of their lives.”
“And the Marietta Amish will let them, my dear. It is not my parents who are taking a Honda Rebel down the freeway. It is you and I. And we are Rumspringa. We are not members of the church. The bishop breaks nothing in the rulebook by letting us go. Until we are baptized we remain Rumspringa, the ones who “run around”. So we go and run around, and they let us go out and run around, just as we have been running around for the past two years.”
“Well, that is another thing, Michal.”
She could not help smiling as she watched him grow older and more serious in front of her eyes.
He misunderstood her smile. “I’m not kidding. Taking a 250cc bike onto the big asphalt is no joke. Every semi that roars past us will make it feel like we’ve been hit by a twister. If we get a double trailer it’ll be our own personal hurricane.”
“So we take the back roads.”
“I don’t know the back roads,” he protested.
“We get a map.” She was still smiling at his grownup intensity and at the situation God had maneuvered them both into. “I’ll navigate, you drive. Pilot and co-pilot. Deal?”
“But we don’t even know where we’re going. We don’t even know where Tabitha and Nick are. They could be on the Interstate and we’re puttering away on the cart and donkey route and we miss them.”
“Well.” She thought about that. “God will have to navigate too. You said yourself he would need to intervene if we were going to find Tabitha on a million miles of open road. God knows what we have to work with. So he has to work with us with what we’ve got.”
“And what have we got?”
“Five loaves and two fishes. If he wants us to have more than that he will have to multiply them.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
Michal shrugged. “He’s done it before.” She put out her hand. “Deal?”
Milwaukee laughed. “You are so crazy. The leadership have not even given their consent yet.”
She kept her hand extended. “They will. I told you. We are Rumspringa.”
He shook his head. Then he gripped her small hand. “Deal.”
“Now hug me. We are never someplace like this where only the deer can see us. I’m not sure why didn’t come to the river together.”
Milwaukee folded her into his arms, feeling more alive with her close to him than he had all week. “It’s because we did not care much about hugging or kissing each other.”
“Perhaps the road will change that,” she murmured.
“Perhaps.”
“You might make an Amish woman of me yet. Anything can happen on the open road.” She put her head on his chest. “Isn’t it marvelous what God has done for us today?”
Milwaukee held her more tightly. Inside his head everything was turning around and around.
“I can’t believe this,” he said.

3 comments:

EMP said...

And all I can do is sigh.

One Contented Reader

William said...

OK, I am back to "I like this book."
I do not read a great deal of fiction, dramatic fiction that is; but, this one I will read... Barbara will ask if I have read it anyway :-).

murray said...

Bill, it's ironic you should say that now. As I mention in the blog "new profile picture explained" the manuscript is finished as of yesterday (April 8) and with my agent. He will take it to the big writers conference next week in California. It's also ironic because Las Vegas figures prominently near the end of the story. I focus on places I've been and hung around at in the USA in the book and Vegas is definitely one of them. By the way, some decent pastors figure in the story too and I think you would be one of them. Thanks for your support and I hope you find Chapter 5 interesting too (Virginia).