This isn’t a regular Circle of Life post. It’s a chapter from the novel I’m writing. Yes. Long. Fiction. Just warning you now, so you can skip it if that’s not your thing. But if you read to the end, I’d love honest comments…
Early spring, John and Elizabeth’s farm
Elizabeth watched Rebekah as she carefully pulled the weeds around the little lettuces.
“Yah, that’s a good job,” she said. She smiled at her oldest daughter. “That’s why you are out here helping me instead of Luke.”
Rebekah looked up from the lettuces. “He wasn’t very happy — you giving him the chore of helping Priss read. You know I like to help her.”
“Yah, I know. But sometimes we all need to do other things. Luke helps me out here quite a bit. I don’t want my sons to be the outsiders and my daughters to be the insiders. And you are meticulous in your weeding. Luke is not. “
“That’s for true,” Rebekah laughed.
“Eli should be along in a bit. We’ll send him in to check on them and make sure they are reading.”
“He’ll have to sneak up on them.”
“He will,” Elizabeth nodded in agreement. “Bek,” she said suddenly, “sing for us while we’re working.”
Rebekah didn’t need any encouragement to sing. She started right in — “There is coming a day when no heartaches shall come, no more clouds in the sky, no more tears to dim the eye…”
When John and Eli came around the corner of the barn, John stopped to listen. Rebekah had a high soprano voice, and Elizabeth could sing a fair harmony. “…what a day, glorious day, that will be…” they sang. The sweet sound echoed up through the garden and around the hills.
The tall Mennonite farmer and his son walked up to where Elizabeth and Rebekah were working. John shook his head as they finished. He pointed up to the sheep grazing on the hillside. “Those must be the happiest sheep this side of paradise,” he said. “Listening to angel music like that.”
Elizabeth smiled and then a dark thought passed through her mind. Soon they’ll be hearing the whine of trucks and fast-moving cars.
John watched the black cloud pass over her face. He had seen it more and more often since the fellows from the state had walked over their farm. When he’d come in from walking around with them that day, she had barely spoken to him. He’d tried to talk with her — tell her how he was looking at things — but she wouldn’t hear him. “That’s not how I see it,” she’d said. “These people are just going to come in and ruin our land, and you’re talking with them. Being friendly. What are you thinking, John? Consorting with the enemy.”
He looked at her eyes and saw fear and an anxiety that he’d never seen before. Disquiet settled over him like barn dust. “Elizabeth,” he said, “love your enemies and do good to those who curse you. These people are just doing their jobs They aren’t our enemies. If we’re peaceable, perhaps we can get the best deal.”
“I don’t know why you think that,” she argued. “We are just numbers to them. They have an amount, and they won’t go over it, no matter whether we are cooperating or contrary.”
“Perhaps, but we want to be at the front of the line when they are handing out money. Don’t you see?”
“No, I don’t. It seems to me that you are…” she stopped.
“Finish your thought, Elizabeth,” he said.
“No. I won’t say it out loud.” She turned away and busied herself with the cleaning of a kitchen cupboard. He stood for a few seconds staring at her back and then turned to take refuge in the barns. The gray of the afternoon suited the chill of their words.
Later that day, Matt’s House
The paperwork was stacked in neat piles in front of Matt: one pile for receipts to be written and mailed; one pile of envelopes ready for the mail; and one pile of checks still to be recorded. There was an electric heater whirring by his feet — Ruthie had picked this room for her office because of the large west-facing window that collected afternoon sun. She had arranged the desk in front of the window, but on this dreary April afternoon the sun had gone undercover, blanketed by gray clouds. A slow drizzle of thick rain was rhythmically pinging on the metal downspout outside the window. The dog was snoring by his chair, and Matt himself felt his eyes close and his head jerk sharply while he was supposed to be collecting people’s taxes. “Ah Ruthie,” he thought, “how did you ever get me into doing such a boring job?”
He stood and stretched and thought to go make a cup of tea, when he saw Burton come out of the church across the road and look up toward the house. That was another good reason to have put the desk by that window — it was easy to see anyone who was coming to the house, either for tax purposes or visiting purposes.
Matt waved through the window, though he doubted if Burton could see him from that far away. He walked out to put on the teakettle, just in case, and then ambled over to the kitchen door. He opened it to see Burton coming up the walk.
“Ah, Matt, you must have been looking out your window.”
“Indeed I was. I waved, but you were still too far away. I’ve just put on the teapot. Sit down.”
Burton sat in the nearest chair and pulled out a letter from inside his jacket pocket. “Did you get your mail yet today?”
“No,” Matt said. “I wanted to get the last of the tax mail finished before I went to the post office and got another batch.” He stared at the letter in Burton’s hands. “It looks like official bad news.”
“It is that,” Burton said. “So bad, I had to sign for it.” The only sound was Burton straightening the creased folds from the papers.
“How bad?” Matt asked.
“They’ve offered us $175,000 for the church and two acres of land immediately surrounding it. That leaves us four acres, and we could rebuild…or well, Matt, you’re the first one I’ve talked to about this. I just couldn’t hold it in once I opened that letter. We’re going to have to call a deacon’s meeting, and then a congregational meeting as I see it. You’re the chairman. What do you think?”
Matt closed his eyes and let his head sink into his hands.
Burton reached over and put his hand on Matt’s arm. “Lord, help us in our grief to remember that it is only a building. That your church, your true church is not built with human hands, but your hands. That the church is people, Lord, your people, and your people can meet anywhere.” He paused.
Matt joined in, “Father help your people in their time of need. Let there not be strife or arguing or hurt. Let us be bound in our love for you and for each other.”
“In Jesus name, we pray,” Burton finished.
The men sat alone together with their own troubled thoughts. The whistle of the teakettle sliced through the silence, and Matt got up to make two cups of tea.
“Do you have anything stronger than tea?” Burton asked.
Matt looked askance at Burton, not sure of what to say. “Well there might be a dusty bottle of whiskey back there in the cupboard. For medicinal purposes only,” he added, smiling.
Burton grinned. “No, I was only kidding. But this afternoon, I could be tempted. For medicinal purposes only.”
“I’m certainly not going to be the one to give the pastor a drink,” Matt declared. He changed the direction of the conversation.
“How soon can we have a meeting?”
“There’s twelve of us. I’ll call half, and you call half. How about an emergency meeting tomorrow sometime. Then we can have a congregational meeting Sunday after church. No point in waiting to tell anyone. And I’m going over now to write a new sermon.”
Matt lifted his eyebrows in question. “Something from Acts?” he asked.
Burton laughed. “Matt, you should be the preacher.” He finished his tea and stood. “I’m going over to write a sermon, and you’re probably going to the post office. Would you like me to come with you?”
Matt shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, though.”
Burton nodded. “Well, feel free to come interrupt me, if you feel like talking. Do you think noon is okay for the meeting tomorrow? You know what they say about meetings and food… I’ll get Denise to make a pot of soup.”
“That’s good,” Matt said, “You call the top five, and I’ll call the bottom five. When I talk to Ben, I’ll ask him to bring some of Lucy’s bread. What time?”
“11:00? Making plans helps us feel like we have some control, doesn’t it?” Burton said. “That’s why we all like to plan.”
“It belongs to the Lord,” Matt said.
“It belongs to the Lord,” Burton repeated. And he walked out into the gray drizzle to write a new sermon for Sunday.
At Mary’s Cottage
Mary swished the mop around in the bucket of gray water. She’d already moved the chairs into the other room and swept, in preparation for sloshing water on the old linoleum floor. She usually waited to mop until Rufus fell asleep, because for some reason slopping water around with the mop made him anxious. But this morning she just didn’t feel like waiting. Morning was when she had energy; by afternoon she was tired. She’d put off doing this for several days now, and it showed. She pushed the wet mop around vigorously — she didn’t want anyone telling her that she couldn’t keep the house properly anymore.
She’d put Rufus in the rocking chair by the wood stove, hoping the heat would put him to sleep, but she soon heard him get up from the chair. She turned, “Now Rufus,” she said, “the floor is wet there, so you just go sit back down.”
“I can see it’s wet, Mary,” he said. “Why do you treat me like a child?”
Glimpses of the old Rufus came more infrequently these days, and they were always a surprise. She wanted to snap at him and say what she felt — she treated him like a child because he acted like a child, a petulant, whining, disobedient child — the worst of childhood behaviors wrapped up in a horrible disease called Alzheimer’s. Just the word struck fear into one’s soul, but some part of her knew it was the disease’s fault, not his.
So she took a deep breath and put the mop back into the bucket; she leaned it against the door that led to the basement. “I’m sorry, dear,” she said. “It’s just slippery and I don’t want you to fall.”
“I’m not so feeble as all that, am I?” he asked. “I know I’ve been forgetting things lately, but I still feel pretty good.”
She looked at his eyes, longing for the blue sparkle that used to be there. That’s what was hardest about his little moments of clarity — they induced in her such a yearning — that when he returned to the man/child, she was so let down. The miracle she’d been praying for hadn’t happened. Again.
“Come sit down at the table, Rufe, and lets have a cup of coffee together.”
His eyes did light up then. “Yes, Mary. And let’s talk over coffee like we used to .”
“Lord,” she thought silently, “just let me enjoy this conversation while it lasts with no expectations.” To Rufus she said, “Would you go get two chairs that I put in the living room?”
She poured them cups of coffee, put two pieces of bread in the toaster, got apple butter out for the toast, and sat down across from him. She smiled. “I’m glad you’re feeling good today. Sometimes I need someone to tote chairs and heavier things.”
“Is there anything else you’d like me to do, Mary? You work so hard, and it seems like I just sit around these days.”
“Well, I need to have the wood barrel refilled. You know Eli has been doing it lately, and I’ve been giving him a dollar or two.”
“That’s a good thing. Boys need to have some spending money of their own. I don’t think John gives them any,” he said.
She spread the toast thickly with apple butter and pushed the plate over to him.
“You’ve always been such a good cook,” he smiled at her. “Mary, what will I ever do if something happens to you?”
“Oh, hush, now. I’m as strong as a horse, you know that. Plus, I’m five years younger than you,” she teased. “You’ll be seventy-seven next month. Why you’re almost an old man!”
He laughed. “I am an old man,” he said. “Sometimes there’s clouds in my head, you know. There’s someone at the door, Mary.”
He was facing the door, so she turned to look. Sure enough, it was the mailman standing there getting ready to knock.
She went to open the door for him. “Hello Tim,” she said. “Come in out of the rain.”
He shook his head. “Can’t Mary. Got to run today, but you have to sign for this letter.” He handed her a clipboard, and suddenly she leaned hard against the door frame and dropped the pen.
Tim bent down to retrieve the pen and his look was sorrowful as he handed it back. “I’m sorry, Mary. People all up and down the road are getting these letters today. It’s not hard to figure what they’re about, when the return address is plain as day.”
Mary signed her name and gave him the clipboard. He gave her a letter whose return address read Land Acquisition Department. She stood there staring at the words and never even saw Tim disappear silently into the rain.
“Mary,” Rufus called. “What’s that letter? Why did you have to sign for it?”
Mary sat down heavily in the chair and put the letter on the table. “It’s from the state, Rufus. They are putting in a new road, and they want to take our property.”
“What?” Rufus shouted, as he half-stood from his chair. “They can’t do that. We’ve lived here since we’ve been married. How long has that been, Mary?”
“Fifty-three years.” She slit the top of the envelope with the butter knife from the table and unfolded the letter with a shaking hand. “They are offering us fifty thousand dollars for the house and the land.” She read further. “We have fourteen days to decide. And they might give us a relocation payment, whatever that is.” She looked at him.
“Are we going to have to move, Mary?” he asked in a voice that trembled with fear. The Rufus she had loved for all these years had been stolen yet again, the shadowed man-child left cowering in his place.
Mary couldn’t tell how long she sat there with the letter in her hand. The coffee and toast were as cold as the air outside, when the door opened and Elizabeth came rushing in, bringing with her drips of rain mixed with tears.
She threw her arms around Mary’s shoulders and the two of them sobbed as Rufus sat staring at them, his once-blue eyes shrouded by clouds.