A/N: Italicized words related to Pennsylvania German culture are described in more detail on my profile page.
All place names in this story are real, and all are located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with the exception of Virginville, which in RL is a bit further away, in Berks County. Otherwise, this is obviously a work of fiction. I've tried to keep the general facts about the Amish straight, but please note that there is quite a bit of variability among the different Plain groups, and also some variability in how they are described by researchers. When in doubt, I referred to Amish Society by John A. Hostetler, which seems to be one of the most respected sources in this field.
Disclaimer: All SVM characters belong to Charlaine Harris. I'm just taking them on a tour of Amish country.
Ch. 1: On the Verge
My gran often seemed to be a woman on the verge.
"Bake me a banana cake, Sookie," she'd say, pulling the big round tin of buttons out of the cupboard and prying off the lid.
I'd sink my hands deep into those cool buttons and squish them around and around between my fingers until I was good and ready to scoop them into the lid, pat them in place, and carry them to the stove. Gran's old white enameled cast iron stove hunkered along one wall all by itself, its four legs braced against the floor in a show of strength, proving to everyone that after all these years, it could still carry its own weight. With its many doors and compartments and knobs and handles and doodads so different from the stove my mama used, it seemed brand spanking new to me. I'd stash the button banana cake in a side door, my very own secret compartment.
Waiting was hard. Having set the white plastic timer, I'd fidget with Gran, impatient, until we couldn't stand it anymore, when I'd cheat and nudge the dial along toward its weak, tinny bleat. Pulling the pan out with two potholders, I'd present it to Gran with great fanfare. And I swear—every time—I truly did think she was only a moment away from eating up that button banana cake for real.
"Stop!" I'd squeal, and Gran would cackle along with me.
Or when a big storm would come through, breaking up the dull, plodding quiet of all the farmlands pressing against us, and the rain would spray itself across the tin roof of her farmhouse like buckshot from a firing squad, Gran would stand tall against the onslaught and say in her "Dutchified" English, "Aye, yi, yi! It's really makin' don, ain't not, Sookie?" It's really making down (raining hard), isn't it?
An expression of devilish amusement would open her face wide. I could imagine her emptying her cupboard of her pots and pans, as we had once done, and crashing them all together to join in the rumpus and show that she could hold her own. She had it in her, for sure, but the storm would speak well enough for her.
"Let's go blow bubbles for Buck," she'd suggest when she needed to take a break from her chores.
I'd grab the bubbles and follow her out to the barnyard along the well-traveled route. That scar of a path from the farmhouse to the barn had been trodden so many times over the years the farm had been in operation, it looked like someone had taken a big knife and sliced the ground right open. Its permanence seemed certain; no one would ever be able to alter its course, even when everything else changed. I imagined that long after the farmhouse and barn crumbled down, that path would stay put, waiting for any takers on a course to nowhere.
She and I would walk from the house, past the butcher house, alongside the failed apple orchard, underneath the walnut tree, and across the intersecting path that cut up the bank to the road, and finally out to the back of the old lumbering barn, covered entirely in white siding. When Gran and Gramps's farm had been running, the barn had stored a tractor up top and sheltered two pigs, one or two cows, and some chickens. Now it stood mostly empty, still smelling of hay and gasoline and manure. It's single adornment, an oak leaf hex sign painted with great flourish, had faded in the sun.
I say the barn was mostly empty because Buck, my daddy's hunting dog, a black lab, had the whole thing to himself, along with some swallows that would nest in there. He usually slept in a pile of hay in the corner immediately inside the doorway on the lower level, which opened out into the barnyard. He was Jason's pet now, too big and excitable for Gran or me to release.
"Donnerwetter! Tie that dog loose!" Gran would shout at Jason when Buck's big, muddy paws would nearly knock her backward. But he was a gregarious dog, a disappointment to my daddy, actually, and always glad to have some attention.
Especially if we blew him bubbles.
Buck would wag his tail and gallump around the barnyard and chomp at bubbles until the soap and his slobbery drool would turn his mouth into a frothing white mess that would make Gran and me giggle. I'd imagine him a frightful, rabid beast who would charge us both, nearly reaching us with his snapping jaws, when Gran would pull Gramps's hunting rifle up to her shoulder and shoot him dead.
It was the certainty that she would actually pull that trigger when necessary that made her so impressive and redoubtable.
Uncle Bartlett learned how much Gran meant business. Once I finally got up the courage to tell her about the way he'd been touching me, she chased him away for good. Her own brother! We never saw him again. It was the first time in my life anyone, Mama and Daddy included, ever took me so seriously, and with such respect.
Yes, she had it in her.
She was on the verge the day she and I had gone out to pick strawberries in the patch alongside the house. "Copperhead!" I heard her shout, or so I thought, and then I caught an image of a snake darting within inches of her feet. Looking to her for guidance, I noticed her lips, frozen and silent, only poised to say something that neither of us had ever acknowledged out loud directly to each other. After another tense moment, she finally laughed, saying, "Ach! It's chust imachinin's, Sookie." Just imaginings.
Gran had been thinking about the time she'd scared up a copperhead and nearly got bitten.
I had heard and seen her thoughts.
We both knew they weren't imaginings. Calling it what it actually was—my telepathy—wasn't necessary between the two of us. Somehow she and I understood each other, connected in a way that allowed it to remain unspoken, our special inside joke. Around anyone else, it was my disability. But with Gran, I liked hovering with her right there on the edge, oh so close to the tipping point. We balanced together, two beads of dew clinging to a spider's thread, only a scarce moment away from dropping or disappearing under a drying sun.
We hovered on the verge of poverty too. Had my parents been alive, they would have continued to help keep the farm going. But once they died, the burden of the hard labor that comes along with a farm was too much for Gran. She did what was practical: within a month of my parents' deaths, she called in an auctioneer.
He brought in his trailer and his podium and stage and his loudspeaker equipment. People from all walks of life came in their carriages or their machines or bicycles and matted down the grass as they scanned, picked through, and evaluated the very innards of a living, breathing farm. Satisfied they had seen everything, they stood or sat in their aluminum chairs with sagging canvas straps and waited for the fast-talking auctioneer to bring up the things they coveted most. He had a long, gray beard, and thinning hair which he'd parted, slicked down, and covered up with a black baseball hat with gold lettering advertising himself: Auchenbach Auctioneers, LLC. Occasionally, he'd pull his red printed schnupftuch from his pocket, lift his hat, and wipe the sweat from his forehead. Standing there up on that stage with his suspenders framing his rounding belly, he attacked a bucket of assorted nails with as much vim and vigor as Gramps's tractor or Gran's only set of china dishes, or the livestock from the barn.
It was all a cacophony that day. The overwhelming mash of noises from the auctioneer speaking in tongues and the chatter of the Englishers jammed on top of the Pennsylvania-German utterings of the Amish folk and the old Dutchies sent me straight to my bedroom, where I curled up in my closet in the tightest knot I could, one I thought might never come undone. Gran waited until every last person had cleared out before she came to rouse me out of my exhausted sleep. I could feel the emptiness surrounding me—the relieving silence as well as the scavenged, hollowed out, shell of a farm that was now my home. And I heard the shouting absence of Mama and her hiccup-like pattern of thought and Daddy and his ongoing reel of moving pictures with spoken subtitles.
Gran led me to her rolltop desk and let me slide it open, verboten on most other occasions. I scrambled through all the secret drawers and cubbies that held the special items I loved most—the old toys Gran would let Jason and me play with on special occasions. They were all still there. I tested them out. An old Jacob's Ladder, grayed from the touch of so many grubby, small hands, snapped and cascaded down. There was a wooden clown that collapsed in a heap when you pushed a button on the bottom of his base. When I released the button, he still sprang back to life. My favorite was a set of men on magnetic bases who would spin when they'd sneak up on each other. The trick was to push a sneaky little man up behind the other holding an outstretched gun—as close as you could get him—right outside that very point the magnetic force would spin the gun-wielding man around. "Bang! You're dead!" Jason would always shout when I pushed the little man too close.
"A bird in the hand, Sookie," was what Gran reminded me that day. Is worth two in the bush.
The auction brought the Amish farmers a bit closer to us. One by one, young Amish men came knocking on the farmhouse door, inquiring if Gran would re-consider selling her land, so desperate were they for space. Families had divided and subdivided the land so many times amongst themselves that they were finally being forced to either look elsewhere or develop other businesses, such as furniture making. Gran refused to sell, holding on as hard as she could to the land for its investment value.
She offered to rent the land out to them instead. I heard passing doubts in her head, wondering whether the Amish would agree to do business with an Englisher such as herself. She chased those thoughts away with sturdier ones, reminding herself that young Amish folk interacted plenty with the outside world. They sold their wooden picnic tables and Adirondack chairs and playsets in gravel lots along the highway, and they sold baked goods from stands outside their homes, and they even left their farms to work construction jobs building porches and sheds and garages and so forth for Englishers. So yes, she reasoned, the Amish farmers would do business with her.
She was right, of course. She had no trouble renting her land.
Across the road, in the field my daddy had worked with Gramps's diesel-powered tractor, an Amish family turned under the soybean crop using a horse-drawn plow. Neighbors from all over the district came in droves to help dig holes and fill them with row upon row of blueberry bushes.
Jason and I wandered up the bank toward the road, playing an aimless game of catch, mostly using it as an excuse to watch the intense flurry of activity. Women helped measure and mark off neat, regular intervals for plantings. Children pulled bushes off spring wagons and walked them out onto the field, collected bits of trash, or carried tools. There was a job for everyone. Occasionally, a little child would "escape" from the group and make his way toward the road, only to be ushered back by an older child minding him.
I couldn't help but listen in for a bit. In spite of all of the activity, the inside of their heads reminded me of a calm sky, like Gran's mind when she quilts. As they busied themselves, their minds emptied of most everything unrelated to their work. Any stray thoughts flitted through like passing clouds snagged on a gentle, steady breeze. In one of the young boys, I caught an image of myself, standing alongside the road, toeing the gravel with my worn sneakers, my bare legs sticking out the bottom of my shorts. He saw me as he saw any other Englisher, different from them, but the same as any other Englisher. I pulled out of his head.
"What are they saying? What are they saying?" Jason pestered me. He couldn't understand them because they were mostly speaking their first language, Pennsylvania German. Though most of the non-Plain folks our age never learned the language—rapidly dying—it remained a sore spot to Jason that I had picked it up. He hadn't tried hard. For me, it had been about a special connection with Gran. Plus what I never acknowledged was that hearing her think in Pennsylvania German helped too.
"They're mostly talking about their work. And they said your hair's all stroubly." That last part was a bit of a lie. One of the girls had thought it, but only briefly, and in a flirting kind of way.
Jason's hands flew to his hair, smoothing it down at first, and then messing it up again. He gave up in disgust, walking away. Jason wasn't used to being teased, or feeling disconnected from others. He had tons of friends, collecting them effortlessly.
The kids at school were merciless with me. They poked fun at my clothes. They said I was stupid and clumsy. They called me a crybaby.
"Here, pig! Sooie, Sooie, Sooie, Sooie!" They'd chant. When the grown-ups weren't looking, they'd toss their lunch scraps at me—their crusts to their Lebanon bologna sandwiches and apple cores and pretzel pieces. Somehow they'd always have enough scraps to make me cry.
Then they'd sing, "Oh! Susanna! Oh don't you cry for me." On and on. Sometimes the grown-ups would even look askance and think what an odd child I was. And sometimes I'd lose my temper and yell, "My name ain't Susanna!" which only encouraged them to laugh more. Or I'd slip and say something a little too pertinent to an adult, like how Mr. Sandusky shouldn't play with Linda Dietrich's long, blond braids, and then I'd get in trouble for my impertinence.
"Ain't no shame in being different, Sookie," Gran would tell me. That was about as close as she'd get to acknowledging my telepathy outright. She'd wrap me up in her scrawny, but somehow all-encompassing arms. (She wasn't a weak hugger.) Then she'd lead me over to the day bed that was pushed against the kitchen wall opposite her sink and counter and would pull out her box of assorted glossy photos, the ones she'd clipped neatly from her wall calendar year after year. Exotic animals. Landscapes the likes of which we'd probably never see. Famous buildings from far-away cities. Lush tropical flowers and foliage. Eventually, I'd fall asleep with my head resting on her lap, and when I'd wake up, she was always puzzling over a word search book. She'd go through those books page by page, as neat and orderly as she kept house, never jumping ahead until each puzzle was complete. She pressed her pen so hard, I could feel the ridges on the backsides of the pages. They rattled like parchment paper when I browsed through them.
On that day the Amish neighbors planted the blueberry field, Gran came out of the house carrying the giant thermos we used to use at picnics. Surprised it hadn't gotten sold at the sale, I ran to help her.
"I thought you'd like to help me take this here lemonade over."
I relieved her of the heavy load and grabbed the bag of cups too as she trotted ahead of me, across the road, and into the fields, looking for the farmer who'd rented her land. I lagged, finding myself suddenly surrounded by a group of children and not knowing what to say.
"Wie geht's?" I stammered. How's it going?
The girls giggled and shuffled around each other.
I tried again. "Wie heescht du?" What's your name?
The older one spoke up. "Kannscht du Deitsch schwetze?" Can you speak German?
"Ya, gewiss." Yes, of course, I said somewhat defensively, though it was in no way a given. The older girl was trying to remember whether she'd ever met an Englisher her age who could speak Pennsylvania German. "Schwetscht du Englisch?"
They giggled again. "Ya, gewiss. I'm Rebeccah, and this is Katie, Mary, Susie, and Edna."
They were thinking I talked funny, but I was more of an intriguing curiosity, just like they were to me. I relaxed a bit.
"Sookie!" Gran called, striding toward me, "Why don't you help pass out some drinks?"
Rebeccah picked up the thermos and hauled it over to the open edge of a spring wagon. Together, we wandered the field, passing out cups and collecting emptied ones. After we served everyone once, we paused by the cooler again.
"Is it all yet?" Rebeccah tipped the cooler forward. "It drinks good."
"You talk funny too. You sound like my Gran."
She shrugged. "Do you know Cat's Cradle?" She pulled a string from her pocket.
"Ya, gewiss," I joked with her, as our fingers flew together.
"Rebeccah!" A stern voice called from the field. "Kumme." Come.
Her fingers flew to her pockets, tucking the string away. "Good bye! Denki!" she called as she ran off, the strings of her Kapp trailing behind her. I didn't know why she was thanking me.
After that day, the Amish neighbors weren't the only people who came closer.
The tourists came too. Our neighbors working the fields with their horses drew in tourists, who drove by slowly in their fast machines, even getting out to snap photos and shoot videos. They wore t-shirts that said, "I heart Intercourse, Pennsylvania" and "I've been to Paradise, Pennsylvania," and "Blue Ball Fire Company."
They brought their nasty, uncharitable thoughts too. They ridiculed the women's dresses. They joked about the men's beards and haircuts and suspenders. They scoffed at the number of children. And they wondered how much they had sex.
Or they thought their lifestyle quaint. And remarked on how well-behaved the children were. And wished they could trade their own, harried existences for an Amish one, never considering fully the sacrifices. And they admired their devotion to God. And they wondered how much they had sex.
Or they pitied the obvious hard labor, and their lack of access to most modern technologies. And thought what a shame it was that their youth would never be educated. And they assumed the reason most people stayed was because they'd been brainwashed into thinking it was their only option. And they wondered how much they had sex.
Understanding first-hand what it was like being the brunt of such attention, I wanted to protect my neighbors from it, but in reality they didn't need me. Only I heard the full extent of what the Englishers were thinking. Plus they had each other, anyway. Though I was gradually accepted as a trusted helpmate in their blueberry field, I knew I'd never really join their group. Their lifestyle was not my own and never would be. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be woven into the fabric of a tightly-knit community, to be an integrated part of something much bigger than myself. To fit in and be accepted.
I wondered, too, how they stayed and tolerated the staid monotony of their daily lives so willingly. Within myself, I felt the maddeningly steady, eroding, drip-drop of sameness, day after day. Would the craziness building up in me burst out one day? Where would it go? Pent-up, stuck, and restless here in Lancaster County, I held little hope of ever seeing change.
After all, some things about my life simply couldn't be changed. I didn't think I'd ever be able to live in a big city, where the din of thousands of thoughts would invade my head. Any kind of school beyond high school seemed impossible. There were so many distractions in a classroom full of other students, I doubted I'd make it even that far. We probably wouldn't have enough money to pay for schooling anyway.
A bird in the hand, I'd remind myself.
Occasionally in the summer, I'd convince my only friend Tara to ride her bike with me to the location of the Sunday church service, held every other week at a member's home, usually in their barn at this time of the year. We'd hide out until everyone had filed inside and then we'd lean up against the barn to hear the opening hymn, which sometimes lasted as long as thirty minutes.
Yes, it was wrong, but there, with my face pressed against the rough, weathered boards, I listened in on them for a hint of dissent, anything that mimicked the growing stirrings inside myself—a dripping bead of dissatisfaction on the heated brow of a disgruntled member, a tickling of wonder at the world at large, a gnawing ache of loss and longing, a bedeviling seed of rebellion against the bonds of the district's Ordnung, its set of rules governing its members.
But there was little of that. People don't always think about what you want them to. And in a big group, it was hard to pick through the preachings and songs and collections of different thought patterns and mix of German, Pennsylvania German, and English to find what I was seeking.
Tara would tire quickly of watching the horses battle the flies with their twitching, quivering coats and swatting tails and ears that folded and twisted every which way. Plaiting long, coarse stems of yarrow and Queen Anne's Lace and wild daisies into crowns would lose its appeal. She'd giggle and mimic the singsong pattern of the preacher's voice, rising high and then rapidly dropping at the end of each phrase.
"What is he saying?" she'd pester me.
I'd translate his sermon for her. "He's preaching that 'The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God'" (I Cor. 3:19).
By that point in the service, I'd usually gathered only meager evidence of any kind of dissatisfaction. A few people sleeping. Some young people from the Fastnachts thinking about the singing that night. Somebody wondering who was bringing the birch beer. A mama making animals out of a hand towel for her toddler. A cute bunny. It was too hard to hear them.
They all stayed by choice, at least as far as I could tell. I was aware of no one who had chosen to leave this particular community. They all went through Rumspringa, a period when the youth were given greater freedoms and the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to be baptized and formally join the church, committed to this lifestyle for the rest of their lives. In spite of all of the hard work and sacrifices that went along with being Amish, nothing else bested what they already had. What I didn't have: a place to fit in.
"The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God" (I Cor. 3:19), I'd heard the preachers repeat many times, and then a buzzing, vibrating kind of feeling would wash over me. They rejected most of the ways of the world outside of their own community.
If Gran discovered what I was doing—eavesdropping—she'd have her floral print apron untied so fast, I'd barely have time to get my backside off the ground before she snapped it in my direction. At times like this, I wished she would come along and shoo me out of there before I got to wondering too hard about my own place in the world. There were things about this world that I wanted to know—like where in the devil my telepathy had come from—that I wasn't ready to let drop. And if wisdom was foolishness, then why did I seem to be built to know things I wasn't supposed to know? Did that mean I was doomed from the very start? Maybe since I seemed to be the only person on this earth who was able to know things this way, God was willing to cut me some slack. I made myself all ferhoodled thinking about it.
It was usually Tara who would get me out of there.
"Sookie, do you think the rest of us are going to hell?"
"Then let's go help your Gran put up chow chow."
Gran always had some kind of vegetable for us to chop when she was making chow chow. Corn, of course, plus green beans, peppers and onions and whatever else she wanted to use up. Once she'd mix everything with mustard and sugar and vinegar and put it on her stove, the kitchen filled with a scent so stringent our eyes watered. It was the only time it was okay for all three of us to cry at once.
I liked sharing Gran. I didn't consider Gran a possession that was mine to give, but the way Tara eagerly fit into our fold reminded me of how lucky I was to be able to have and share the love of my grandmother. And with Tara included, our numbers grew.
Eventually, Gran would send us outside.
Sometimes we'd head over to the north end of the property, once a small pasture cut in half lengthwise by a spring-fed crick, now invaded by "those cussed multi-flar (multi-flower) roses," as Gran called them. She'd threatened to mow them all down herself, and on many occasions, I'd accidentally caught her thinking about riding on a fantastic beast of a machine that chewed them all up with its sharp, gnashing, metal blades. Gran never pictured herself younger or prettier in her own mind, and she'd watch herself, dressed in her work overalls and straw hat, expertly operating levers as she drove that machine straight over the tangled, thorny mass. This image usually lasted for only a flash before it was followed by a softer view of Gramps—dressed in a white tank style undershirt and khaki work trousers—digging holes and planting a hedge of young rose bushes in dewed, unnaturally green grass, with morning mist lifting around him. I knew enough about thought patterns to not linger for that view much longer.
But the old pasture was the perfect place to play Sleeping Beauty. Tara and I were both fascinated by the idea that an evil spell could put someone to sleep, but neither of us wanted to play the boring part of the sleeping princess. So usually, playing Sleeping Beauty meant the two of us hacking our way through the flowered, thorny bushes until we reached the crick, where we'd lift rocks and look for salamanders.
On other days, we'd head to the east side of the property, where Gramps's other failed project, an apple orchard, still clung to the rocky slope. When Gramps had finally given up hope that his orchard would ever produce more than a few measly, hard, sour apples, he didn't have the heart or energy to clear out the trees. Eventually, many of the apple trees died, replaced mostly by birch and ash trees that grew tall and spindly, fighting for the sunlight. There were a few apple trees that held on, still bearing fruit that would give up and drop well before they'd ever ripen.
The paths that wandered through the old orchard had been established by deer. Tara and I had plans of drawing a map of all of these paths and the treasures we'd find. One section of pathway was so densely shaded and damp that it was lined with an entire carpet of moss. We'd stop to lie on it and measure whether it had grown bigger. There was the three-trunked tree, too, which held enough water in its gulley—no matter how dry it got—to host a collection of squirming mosquito larvae that repulsed us and drew us in at once. Down below, in the unforgiving shade and poor soil, a few determined plants managed to survive. In the spring, we'd hunt for trillium, careful not to tread on the delicate, white flowers. Later in the early summer, we'd occasionally find a few tenacious raspberries on a gangly stalk.
We'd started our map project many times with the idea that "this time we were definitely going to finish it," but usually we'd get distracted by something else. We'd snap off a birch branch to chew and climb an apple tree. Every now and then, Jason would show up, tossing fallen walnuts at us. Tara and I would retaliate by hurling the meanest, greenest apples we could find.
And so, life went on its mostly staid course. The blueberry bushes grew taller than I, even as I sprouted up—and out, too—and occasionally I joined my Amish neighbors out in the fields through all the seasons of pruning and mulching and picking and fertilizing. I muddled my way through school. The teasing let up a bit as we all grew up and I got better at working the hard, constant job of blocking out everyone's thoughts. I joined the softball league. I had my first disastrous kiss, and then a whole string of them, before deciding that dating wasn't in the cards for me, at least not for a while. I graduated from high school and branched out, further away from home, working a quick succession of jobs that didn't stick, until finding one that lasted—at the Virginville Tavern—which seemed too cruel to be true. (I sorely hoped I wouldn't be living up to its name forever.) But working there kept me busy and gave me lots of practice overcoming my disability. I even made a few new friends.
One sad day, Amish neighbors from all over the district swarmed the home of our neighbor, the farmer who'd planted the blueberry field, after he'd suddenly died. The waves of sadness and love and concern mixed with surprising jolts of fear and anger and roiling conflict felt like nothing that had ever come out of their community. It nearly bowled me over in a way I hadn't experienced since that day of the auction; part of me wanted to head back to my closet. I wandered around the house aimlessly, looking for a cleaning chore, until Gran finally pulled me into the kitchen and set me to work helping her bake shoofly pies, more pies than we'd ever baked. There at her big, old-fashioned farmer's table, I methodically rolled out crust after crust, while Gran scooped and measured and mixed. Eventually, in the presence of her calm sky mind, I hefted and tugged up that barrier that blocked out the turmoil. I worried I'd never be able to relax near my neighbors again.
They returned to the blueberry field—picked up the pieces, and filled in the gaps—helping the widow and her children keep their farm going. Their community demanded that no one be left to struggle or suffer alone. For the time being, I kept my barrier locked solid out of respect for their privacy and for my own sanity, which made me tired out in the fields with them. In any case, work at the tavern drew me more and more away from home.
Things went along that way for quite some time.
There were the occasional jolts of change, spiking the flat line that drew us from day to day—an accident with a horse and buggy, a particularly dry summer, an unruly tourist who needed to be subdued by the local law enforcement, some unusually rowdy Amish gang activity by the Hexenmeisters from over in Paradise, an infestation of Japanese beetles out in the blueberry field, talk of major land development by unknown investors in Intercourse.
Every now and then, the helicopters swept through, flying low over the corn fields, presumably searching for marijuana amongst the stalks.
"Did they catch anything, Sookie?" Gran asked, flirting dangerously close to asking me to use my imagining. We laughed about what fool in his right mind would try to sneak a marijuana plant in an Amish cornfield, so carefully tended by hand that any offending weed would get pulled before it was knee-high. And then we laughed even harder about what fool in his right mind would spend money searching for stray marijuana plants in Amish country.
That sobered us up a bit, actually, and made us wonder.
But nothing prepared us for the night the vampires came out of their coffins, enabled by the discovery of a synthetic blood substitute on which they could survive without depending on human blood.
"Imagine, Sookie! Vampires!" I understood Gran was using the word 'imagine' in its usual way, but in her shivering excitement, she vividly projected an image of Bela Lugosi. I managed to duck out as she was reaching to touch his fangs.
That night I thought the world finally had opened up, and there would be a sudden and fundamental shift in my life. In fact, I went to work the next evening thinking I was going to see my very first vampire.
Oh, there was plenty of talk about vampires that night and for a long time to come. "They're just regular humans who caught a virus." DeeAnne, Jason's prospect of the evening, had swept her hair off her neck and was holding it pinned to the top of her head as she blathered on about vampire lore. Jason sneezed dramatically in her direction, which made her squeal in feigned horror.
I walked away, disgusted. That Dummkopf could snot all over a woman and she'd drop her panties at his feet.
By the end of the evening, I'd suffered through a whole heap of idiotic human shenanigans, bad jokes, posturing, and drunken speculations about my presumed innocence and vampires' attractions to virgins...but no vampires. Discouraged and thoroughly mortified, I still talked with my boss Sam about stocking up on the new synthetic blood.
He did. It went bad.
In fact, two years went by with not even a single sighting. The closest I got to a vampire was the tourist who showed up at the blueberry patch wearing a t-shirt from a new vampire bar called Fangtasia. "Vampires do it better in Intercourse," the t-shirt read. I wanted to run up and ask him all kinds of questions, but he was decidedly more intrigued by the humans in front of him, wondering what kinds of closures the men used on their trousers, and imagining various unsavory uses for their suspenders.
Picking through the mind of a tourist for vampire news and hearing his wanton fantasies about Amish men, I wondered at that moment whether I'd hit rock bottom. This was the closest I was gonna get to a vampire? The vampires had turned out to be a tease, it seemed, rather ordinary beings with not much bark or bite. Or whatever. If life wasn't going to get any more interesting for me, I decided, I should should probably stop waiting for the action and make do with what I already had.
It was the theme of my life: A bird in the hand...
I liked my job and Sam. He was a transplant from the south who probably had no business trying to open up a tavern advertising Pennsylvania Dutch food. But he was good to me, keeping me on staff—no questions asked—when even the drunks called me "Crazy Sookie." Ab im Kopp. Off in the head. I helped him out with the local traditions and the language and hiring someone who could cook regional food well. He called me "cher," which seemed exotic to me. I liked his red-gold hair.
And his tight body.
But he was my boss.
I went back to work on my next shift with my nose to the grindstone. Keeping my job was attainable.
I was still in this focus-on-work mode months later, when a quiet noise from outside, followed by the swiping glow of a flashlight, drew me out of my bed to the window.
"Sookie," a voice called in a loud stage whisper.
"Who's there?" I could see a man's figure hidden largely by the bushes. Opening my mind to him, I found for the first time in my life a blank space, not the staticky fuzz of someone who doesn't broadcast well, but a plain old blank space, like a hole. I poked again, harder, and felt…nothing.
"Don't be alarmed. It's one of your neighbors. May I come in?"
One of my neighbors? I started to reach for my robe. "Yes, of course you may come in. I'll be right there."
Here in rural Pennsylvania, in the middle of Amish farms, Gran and I rarely locked our doors. Even burglaries were uncommon. I stepped through a small vestibule-like area outside my bedroom and bathroom and then out into the living room, where I paused to think for a moment. I figured it strange he hadn't identified himself by name since I knew nearly every Amish family in the district. Shining a flashlight in someone's window wasn't uncommon, as it was a courting practice for the men to show up at his girl's window, but I hardly doubted any Amish man was coming to court me.
I was in the middle of reassuring myself that no one who intended to do any harm would announce himself, when suddenly a strong set of cool arms wrapped tightly around me, pinning my hands and arms against my body, as a hand clamped across my mouth. Struggling, I realized right away that I couldn't budge one inch.
Though my heart was beating up the insides of my chest, I forced myself to calm down enough to assess and think. I noticed he had strong, lean arms, a muscular chest, and hard, calloused hands. He smelled of the earth, with a hint of manure.
Yes, he had to be an Amish farmer. It was the only thing keeping me from panicking completely.
"Be quiet. I won't hurt you. " he said forcefully. "You know me. Look at me."
For someone I knew who had no intention of hurting me, he sure wasn't being a very polite guest. A please wouldn't hurt. He leaned his face forward enough so I could see him. He was looking at me with great concentration, as though he were trying to make me remember his face.
He did look familiar. Only he couldn't possibly be...
"You know me, and you know I won't hurt you," he reiterated intently.
I looked again. This man was so pale, he practically glowed. Clearly he hadn't seen a field under a hot sun in a while. His thick, dark hair was cut in the very distinct style of Amish men, though it was brushed back in a different way, and his face was shaved smooth. Amish men never shaved their beards. Yes, it was the smooth shave that was tripping me up.
Not to mention the fact that he was the spitting image of the Amish farmer who had died years ago.
No wonder he was glowing.
A sudden surge of pure anger pulsed through me as I realized that life was in the middle of dealing me yet another blow. Jesus Christ, Shepherd of Judea, if my disability was making me see ghosts now, I would…well…that would be my luck, wouldn't it? Having the ghost of a dead Amishman following me and telling me all about the ways I was sinning, and how knowledge of the world was foolishness in the eyes of God. I'd die a virgin. Or maybe I'd be the first woman to die from prolonged virginity.
And speaking of disability, where the hell was my disability? The original one that had made my twenty-five years of life a living hell? Why wasn't my fucking disability working when I needed it? He was even touching me—if that's what you could call this capture—which usually gave me a reception that was too loud and clear.
Actually, when I considered it carefully, he felt solid and real, sure signs he wasn't a ghost. Plus—thinking this predicament through even more—I knew that Amishmen weren't evangelical, so I doubted he'd be staying to proselytize.
There was hope for me yet.
"I want to let you go. I don't mean to scare you. I've only come to ask you a simple favor. Don't scream and scare your grandmother. For your safety too." He twisted my head toward his face again, which I didn't appreciate too much. "You know me. Don't. Scream." His nostrils flared.
He released me and immediately stepped back as I sprang away, in the only direction I could, toward a window. He was blocking the rear exit and the curtained doorway out to the kitchen and the front door. I considered jumping out the window, even knowing that on this side of the house, the ground sloped down, and I'd be headed for a long fall. Then I realized I couldn't leave Gran here with an Amishman in the house.
Make that an Amishman who I thought had died years ago.
Maybe I could reason with him using scripture, but that would require quite a bit of brain power, and all that was coming to me was the Lord's Prayer. Only seeing him here, looking more English than Amish, I questioned whether the Lord's Prayer might be a bit of a sore subject. I decided to recite it to myself. Unser Fodder, dar duh bischt im Himmel…
I trailed off in my own head. He was still standing there, not making any threatening movements toward me, looking tense, but docile too without all of that facial hair.
"Your beard," I blurted out.
His face twisted slightly. "It's gone."
"It's actually you?"
"The same man who planted all those blueberry bushes in my Gran's field."
"You're not dead."
He held his arms out in a here-I-am gesture.
I was still here too—standing in front of a man I thought had died—but still here nevertheless.
I laughed nervously as the adrenaline in my body started to crash. I felt relieved—giddy—to be alive and in one piece, unharmed. Relieved I couldn't see ghosts.
Only, he was still standing there looking at me expectantly. What I was supposed to do now? "So, watcha been up to for the past few years?" somehow didn't seem appropriate.
"You're alive," I prompted, laughing again nervously. "You scared me. Next time, don't grab me." I rubbed at my arms. And it was then that I noticed that he was, indeed, glowing slightly.
And cool to the touch.
I couldn't see ghosts. I could see undead people.
"You're a..." I stepped toward him, reaching for him. I figured since he'd touched me, it was okay to touch him back.
He held motionless as his fangs slid down.
My hand finally reached his cool arm. I shivered not from the chill, but with excitement.
"Oh! I really can't hear you," I blurted out.
"I didn't say anything."
Boldly, I reached out with my other hand to touch his other arm. The silence was deafening, like a hole had been blown out in front of me, splitting my eardrums too.
It was lovely.
I laughed again, with crazy delight, and felt like skipping in circles around him.
Imagine! A vampire! A quiet vampire! In my home!
Good heavens! How do you properly host a vampire in your home? "May I get you anything?"
Something to drink? I laughed more.
Only then I was hit with another thought—a terrible one—that this...vampire in front of me was once a living, breathing Amish farmer, devoted to God and his community, and that maybe my gleeful delight was insulting him. I almost asked, "Are you okay?" when I noticed that the uncommitted expression on his face had started to turn into a smile. And when I started to laugh hesitantly again, he broke out a full, fangy grin.
"I knew I could come to you, Sookie."
"Bill Compton!" I exclaimed, still coming to terms with this person—I mean, vampire—in front of me, after all those years of waiting. I laughed at the absurdity. Never in a thousand years did I think I'd be standing there, in Gran's living room, in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, wondering how to graciously host an Amishman-turned-vampire.
Yes, standing there with the vampire Bill, I felt like I had finally tipped over the edge without Gran.
Little did I understand how much I was still hovering.
On the verge.
~Thanks for reading!~
A/N: Unbeta'd. Thanks to zairre for helping me with some German translations and understanding dialect differences.
Thanks to makesmyheadspin for her early comments on a vastly different version of this story.
And thanks to peppermintyrose, sociologist & SVM expert. ;)