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Literary Cumshaw
Tuesday, August 1, 2006   |    Fiction

Excerpts from The Burning Bonnet: A Tale of Love and Longing Amongst the Amish

by Mike Richardson-Bryan

Try as she might to keep her mind on her washing, Sarah’s eyes kept drifting back to Ezekiel. How powerful he looked as he guided the plow, his broad back straining to steer it straight through the rich Appalachian soil, urging the oxen on with the odd word in that mild-but-commanding voice of his. Oh, lucky field to be so plowed, Sarah thought to herself, bringing a warming flush to her face, and to other, less wholesome places as well.

* * *

Without warning, Sarah and Ezekiel reached for the same millet cake and their hands perchanced to brush. It was only a fleeting contact, and it was perfectly innocent, but Sarah nearly jumped out of her own skin as a jolt of what she imagined electricity must feel like shot through her whole body. It was a bit like the flick of a buggy whip, she thought, or the bite of the vicious red ants that plagued the community every spring, but of course she would never know for sure.

* * *

Sarah ran to Ezekiel, threw herself into his arms, and buried her face in the wooly depths of his beard, which was still redolent of the beet harvest.

* * *

As Ezekiel looked on with eyes as wide as wagon wheels, Sarah untied her bonnet and flung it aside. Uncovered at last, she shook out her bun, unleashing a torrent of hair as black and untamed as a flock of ravens in flight. Ezekiel swallowed nervously as she continued, tugging playfully at her shawl until it slid from her shoulders and dropped to the floor. More clothes followed, one plain woolen garment after another finding its way to the growing pile. By the time Sarah shed her hose to reveal a pair of elegantly arched feet and the daintiest webbed toes in all of Pennsylvania, Ezekiel was no more than putty.

* * *

Sarah knelt at Ezekiel’s grave and wept. Gone was not only her love, but her love of life and of everything that made it worth living—quilting bees and warm shoofly pies and sleigh rides and all the rest—as if swallowed whole by the very same sinkhole that had swallowed Ezekiel himself that horrible day. She shuddered as a chill gripped her, a chill like that of the first stiff autumn wind after a failed harvest, a chill that penetrated her very bones.

* * *

They all gasped as Caleb strode nonchalantly into the room, and Sarah gasped with them. So it was true that Caleb had returned, and one look told Sarah that he had not changed one bit. The same fire still smoldered in his eyes, the same half-smile still tugged at the corner of his mouth, and he still wore the same hat with its four-inch-wide brim in open defiance of the elders and their time-honored three-inch-wide brim rule. Yes, Caleb was back to turn their well-ordered world on its ear all over again, and there were bound to be casualties. Sarah wondered coolly whether she would be among them.

* * *

Sarah wanted nothing more than to haul off and slap Caleb across the face as hard as she could, but she knew in her heart of hearts that violence was not the answer and never would be, so she did the only other thing she could do to stifle that insufferable smirk of his, and it surprised them both: she kissed him.

* * *

Misunderstood by those she loved most and abandoned by the rest, Sarah tried to lose herself in her chores, and as it happened it was her turn to churn the butter. All through the day and well into the night she straddled the butter churn, gripping the thick wooden pole of the plunger with both hands, and relentlessly worked one creamy load after another to sticky completion. There would be no shortage of butter that month, that was for sure.

* * *

Suddenly, Caleb pushed Sarah up against the wall of the barn and pinned her there with the full length of his own body. The sudden commotion startled the horses, which whinnied in protest and stamped back and forth in their stalls. The tumult of the large, powerful animals excited Sarah in ways that her eighth-grade vocabulary couldn’t hope to articulate, and she didn’t try.

* * *

Sarah and Caleb lay together, spent, in the long grass of the north field. Sarah marveled at how well their bodies fit together, a perfect match of bumps and hollows, like the mortise and tenon joints of a well-built shed. And just like a well-built shed, they would endure, seeing the seasons in and out, weathering together, until they were one.

Mike Richardson-Bryan lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada with one wife and two dogs. Almost no one is interested in his plan for lasting peace in the Middle East. His work has also appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency.