Authors: Tristan Egolf
“Fill out a form!” yelled Jack, thrusting a clipboard into the white boy's hands. Then, back to Roddy: “I want you back up here in five minutes.”
He slammed the door.
Totally thrown off his game as a trainer, Jack went back to reading the paper.
The âBlue Ball Devil' Returns
,” read the headline. So inappropriate, nothing could figure it.
After a lengthy, weighted silence, Yoder's question was sensibly posed. “So what do we do?” His tone was sincere.
Jack stepped away from the paper, exhaling.
At length, he mumbled: “I'll have to call Scarlet.”
He offered no explanation. Reading the paper again, he was. Sweating.
He straightened up. More than surprised, he felt worried. And angrier still with the paper's reporter.
this guy?” he asked, dissolving the silence. He thumped
. “Who is he?”
Yoder shrugged. “I've never heard of him.”
Somebody knocked at the doorâthat white boy again. Jack opened up in silence.
“Excuse me,” the kid said with measured reserve. He held out the clipboard that Jack had given him. Both of the forms were completed. On top of them, under the clip, there was twenty-five dollars.
Absently, Jack accepted it. “Right,” he said, dismissing him. “Go warm up.”
As Jack resumed pondering, Yoder walked over to close the door and turn on a light. Having done so, he cast a random glance toward a pile of papers, letters and bills heaped up on a table by the doorwayâon top of which Jack had just tossed the clipboard. He bent over, looking at something, apparently. Then he let out an exhausted laugh.
Torn from his reverie, Jack looked up. “What's so funny?” he asked in annoyance.
Yoder, shaking his head as though punch-drunk, mumbled in reply. “You
Grabbing the clipboard, Jack, who was already lagging behind the press, regarded in print, as signed (the ink was still wet on the paper), the name of
The carload of Redcoats had just appeared when the one-man plow beneath him jammed, and Ephraim, thrown from its plank in a splay of appendages, pitched facedown in the dirt. A flock of gulls burst up all around him; scattered from picking alfalfa seeds out of the crooked and twisting wake of the plow. They hovered above him, cawing defiantly. Already caked in manure, he lashed at themâonly to meet with a splatter of gall. Streaks of it blotted his face and chest, his trousers. Squinting, he rubbed his eyes.
The carload of English erupted with laughterâall hooting and “
man, did you see that?
”s and ridicule. Their vehicle rocked to a halt at the edge of the yard. It shrouded the road with exhaust. A clamor of music blared out of itâsounding of rape in a trough, or a freighter derailing.
One of them shouted, “Nice bowl cut, Zeke!”
A bottle flew out of the driver's seat window. It clouted the mailbox.
Ephraim got up.
Behind him, the hinny kicked and brayed. It was caught in the crupper, jammed on an angle. The blade wouldn't give. The animal panicked. Ephraim attempted to calm it with gestures:
â¦ He reached for the bridle. The hinny reared. He fell back in the dirt.
A screech of rubber vaulted the cackling Redcoats south on
Weavertown Pikeâin between fields of corn and alfalfa, rolling around the bend, then west on Welshtown Road, still blasting that music.
Ephraim lay on his back, listening.
Above him, parallel bands of altocumulus clouds drifted over the sky. A cold front was coming. The wind had picked up. There was rain on the way. Before nightfall, probably.
Allowing his gaze to wander across the overhanging shelf of gray, Ephraim drifted slowly back to earth, dipping below the tree line. Behind him, a waterwheel gently turned, its long arm rising and falling in time, directing a steady trickle of creek water over an aqueduct, into the stables. Beyond, across the gravel drive, a chimney stack rose from a weed-choked garden, dividing the house's white facade and three separate levels of pine-green shutters. Farther back, in the distance, the oval-shaped side of a barn, with its crumbling trim, sat flush with a wall of tall, old evergreensâafter which the wreck of a windmill stood, the fence surrounding it, lined with gulls.
Ephraim sat up to wipe their gall from his brow. It was starting to burn his skin. He trudged to the creek to dunk his head.
Inside of the swirl, he listenedâas one might press an ear to the railroad trackâfor
intimation of death to the English, whether by famine or flame, to come â¦
He emerged with little assurance of hope.
No, these people would only multiply. Their housing would only continue to spread. The coming years would bring legions of rental cars, neighborhood catfish carts and tour busesâand even more Amish imposter craftsmen, bakers, clerks and buggy ride driversâstalking the roads for a glimpse of the Plain Folk in whatever contextâpreferably working; or riding a scooter, even better: for Ephraim, many a slow pursuit down back roads had already left him no option but barreling into the corn for cover. Those occasions would grow more frequent. So would the drive-by camera corps. And the “scenic” motels that had sprung up all over The Basin in recent, the past five, yearsâas the one that now
bordered the Bontrager property: a ninety-yard wall of linoleum siding, with ten upper-level “observation” platforms that were built and designed for the purpose of “viewing” the local Order at work in the fieldsâin this case Ephraim alone, as the building had driven off most of their closest neighbors, leaving tourists to settle for the image of a solitary plow boy working his yard. Twenty-five windows per levelâand often, at harvest, on weekends, filled, every one of them. Children observed him in vague confusionâas now, with the red-haired kid on the ground floor, pressing his tongue to the window, gurglingâhis mother and father standing over him, training their camera's eye on Ephraim. And worse, in an upstairs window, with little attempt at concealment and zero remorse (not to mention regard or consideration for the Ordnung's stance on graven images): a video camera perched on a tripod, left unattended to film his whole day â¦
Every crop he had ever attempted to grow had been surveyed by English cameras. They felt to be bleeding him thinner each year, as they called him to account for the state of his harvest: a crop being only as good as its master, the master, only as good as his seed, and Ephraim's tobacco, Lord have mercy, the whole rotting lot of it, sealing that verdict.
After a season of improper fertilization, drought and multiple parasites, all thirty plants had been cut in the wake of a storm, leading to massive spoilage (soon to be worsened by subsequent overexposure to sunlight to curb the wilting, then speared, too close to the butt on the lathe, then hung to smother and shed-burn high in the rafter beams of a stuffy shack) so that now, including the plow being jammed and the hinny enraged, chewing its bit, the Bontrager home could boast of a haul that would probably roll down to fifty cigars.
Disgusted, Ephraim charged the gulls. They burst and fluttered, then settled nearby. He slumped back into the dirt on his haunches. He glared at the plow, still lodged on an angle. One of its blades had been caught on a root â¦ The rows of his plot were unworkably crooked. The soil was dry and craggy in spite of his
every attempt to enrich it with dung. Even Bishop Schnaeder wouldn't have known what to do with such mistreated land. In horror, the Bishop had already turned to the Minister, Ephraim's father, to that end: tobacco was the absolute worst crop someone like Ephraim, alone, could hope to produceâas, for one factor: it was hardly profitable; two: it was brutally labor-intensive; and three: no one had taught the boy how to work his land. He did
wrong. Watching the neighbors tend their fields from a distance had only crossed his signals. With the Minister off at the mill by day, and Ephraim an only, motherless child, no one was there to catch his mistakes when he made them. And so, they would only continue.
Time and again, the Bishop, and others, had appealed to Benedictus on the matter: it was wasteful, they'd argued, for his son to be working at home. He belonged in the fields at harvest.
But Minister Bontrager hadn't conceded: the boy would remain on the property, alone. It didn't appear to matter, at least insofar as the crops were concerned, what he
with itâjust as long as he watched the house, from dawn to dusk, every day of his life.
A vehicle topped the hill, approaching. Its engine dropped. Ephraim looked up. It was one of those “pickup” trucks, that's what they called themâan older model. Obnoxiously large. And faded red â¦ It was slowing down. It had come to a halt. At the edge of the field, it was sitting there now. Slowly, its driver leaned forward and looked at him. Ephraim stared for a moment, annoyed. Then he waved, as though to say
move onâthe parking lot's over there, you moron!
It worked. The driver, spotting the entrance ahead, moved on. And no sooner gone than a clopping of hooves from the north to replace his engine sounded, at once familiar â¦
Jonathan Becker rounded the wall in his topless, two-seated courting buggy. High on the box he roosted, leisurely guiding his groomed and ever-immaculate saddle-bred pacer across and over the small, meandering creek's stone bridgeâone hand on the whip-socket, empty, beside him, the other with reins in a steadied
clench, and the running gear quietly gliding below, oiled from axle to perch, down the shaftsâfrom crupper to bridle, bridle to bellyband, breeching to bitâthe entire wagon.
Jonathan's penchant for organization infuriated his supper gang members. The Crossbills, all thirteen of them, had never understood itâwith Ephraim included among them.
came only once in life. And, at twenty, Jonathan's clock was ticking. At the most, he had three more years left to run. Now was no time, in their frame of thought, for tuning equipment or steaming trousers. Or
, for that matter, not the way
worked, of lateâas an auctioneer. Now was the time to imbibe and partake. And to chase after women. Beautiful women â¦
He should've been savoring every moment.
His buggy swung into the Bontrager lane. Clearing the stables, it slowed to a halt. He dismounted. He adjusted the blinds of his pacer, then, turning to Ephraim, flashed a grin.
“Ach!” he exclaimed in English. “Look at the state of you, Bontrager. Wonderful soiled.”
Ephraim glared in silence, streaked with gall and manure.
Jonathan caught himself. “Sorry.” He switched to Pennsyltucky Dutch: “
All right, then. It's payday at market. You coming?
Leaving the hinny on the plow in the yard, they got into the buggy and started south. Ephraim would have to return in an hour, ahead of The Minister. Plenty of time.
Pulling away from the house, they ascended the gradual slope of Eshelman's Hill. Charlock and pennycress spilled from the ditches on either side like wild ivy. Leveling out, a gentle plateau stretched on toward a rising bluff to the westâcrowned with a plot of forgotten tombs, their headstones dating to 1750âwhile off to the east, maybe two hundred yards through a stretch of evenly cropped stubble: a wall of oak and hickory forest, its eco-tone jumbled with barren thicketsâwhat used to be Isaac Tanner's woods, before the family had moved to Ohio. The English couple who'd bought their house had let the property run to seed. The fence surrounding their barn had crumbled. Tent worms had eaten
their giant oak. And, after the turn onto Welshtown Road, piles of garbage marred their lawn.
Continuing on, there unfolded a more pristine expanse of unsullied farmland. Holstein cattle on the hillsides, grazing in black and white. A wind of manure. Fields of alfalfa in yellow and green. A patchwork of District Seven at harvest: devoid of the Redcoats, if only in stretches. Layers of orange and magenta, stratums of brown and puce and viridian green washed over in cooling, violet hues with the rolling approach of an evening shower. Storage silos appeared on the tree line. A Lutheran steeple was nestled among themâstable yards, orchards and farms below, all of them teeming with harvest activity. Every hand in the valley was out. Those who had already brought in their corn were now sowing the last of the year's alfalfa. Horse-drawn wagons appeared on all sides. Crews of men and women and children labored in packs, with the gulls at their heels.
With no sign of traffic, Jonathan drifted slowly into the middle of the road. He straddled the center line, easing up on the reins. On their nearing the Ziegler farm, a white picket fence loomed up to their left. It ran toward a water tank and onward to a barn, where three or four members of the family were manning a cutter that chopped and blew corn to storage. Above, from a second-level window of the barn, across the yard to the porch of the house, ran a clothesline, hung with the customary black and white and blue of the Orderly vestiture. Below, young Katie Ziegler was driving a push-mower over the lawn in starts. Jonathan smiled as they drifted by. He winked at her, then pulled back to his lane.
,” he finally broke the silence in Py. Dutch, leaning forward. “
I don't know if anyone told you what happened
He launched right into recounting the previous weekend's stomp at the Metzler barnâhow somebody, one of their English neighbors, presumably, had called the police to complain, how Officer Beaumont and three other deputies had driven their cruisers right up on the lawnâhow everyone had scattered and broken for coverâsome for the corn in a wild dash, others back into
the barn for a hiding place, down in the stables or up on the roofâhow four of the CrossbillsâGideon, Isaac, Samuel and Colinâhad been arrested and held at the precinct until the next morning, and how they would now be obliged to attend an alcohol counseling session downtownâand all of the rest of it, everything Ephraim had already known at the outset, as, unlike Jon, who'd been working the auction that evening and hadn't even gone to or stopped by the party, Ephraim had been on the roof of the barn, looking down, observing the course of events. He might have explained this, had it been feasible. He might have elaborated in detail.