January, eleven months later
Adam King hoisted the wooden bench from the wagon and lowered it to his younger brother’s reach. “Go on and grab the end there, Simon. Think we can carry this in together?”
“Ya.” Simon’s face lit at the prospect of an adult task as he gripped the end of the bench. The boy’s crooked smile shone like a break in the clouds.
At last, Simon was coming around. As Adam navigated into the living room of his uncle’s house, which had been emptied of furniture for the benches, he considered the boy’s recently renewed interest in family events. Nearly one year since the murders, and at last his brother was showing signs of progress.
Simon had been silent for months after the deaths of their parents, a tragedy that had hit him particularly hard as he’d been the only witness. Last summer when the boy finally started speaking, there’d been only basic words--yes, no, denki. Over time, Simon had volunteered more conversation, but the boy rarely mentioned the traumatic episode. When he did he seemed confused about details, saying that a bear was to blame. Sometimes it worried Adam, who felt sure that one day Simon’s memories would overflow like a bucket of milk, and memories from that terrible night would spill forth. So far that had not been the case. So Adam contented himself with the occasional string of words from his kid brother, and the sure knowledge that Simon would be shadowing him when he wasn’t off at school or doing other chores.
Inside the house the rugs had been pulled up from the floor of the large room, and from the gleaming wood floors and shiny windows it was evident that the women had been hard at work cleaning the space for tomorrow’s preaching service. Come the morning, dozens of buggies would line the lane, along with men and women dressed in their Sunday garb for the preaching service, which was held in members’ homes or barns, weather permitting. Although this was not Adam’s home, he and his siblings were happy to help his uncle and aunt, Nate and Betsy King. In the future, Adam hoped to hold a preaching service at his own house, but right now the preparation would bog down his sister Mary, who would be responsible for cleaning, cooking, and baking for more than a hundred members.
“This is the last of the benches from the wagon,” Adam told Uncle Nate, who was supervising the setup.
“Right over here.” Nate motioned Adam to a space near the windows, and they lined up the bench with the others, completing the last row of one section. “That should be enough seating for the women. Good work.” Nate clapped Simon on the shoulder.
Simon straightened and brushed his hands together, such an adult gesture for a small boy.
“And look, you’ve been growing, ya?” Nate’s eyes twinkled as he assessed the boy. “How old are you now?”
Simon steeled himself, his lips tensing as he pronounced the word: “Nine.”
“So I thought.” Nate’s voice was gentle, as if he understood how difficult it was for Simon to participate in conversation. “Have you started going in with the boys on Sundays?”
“Not yet,” Simon said, meeting his uncle’s gaze. “Mamm wanted me to learn the Loblied first.”
Adam touched his brother’s shoulder, pleased that the boy had responded so well. “Mamm made us all learn the hymn before we could walk with the boys.”
“Ah, a family tradition.” Nate nodded.
In their congregation, going in with the boys was a rite of passage boys experienced after their ninth birthday. At Sunday worship services men and women sat on opposite sides of the room, and members entered in a specific order, with ministers first, married men next, followed by women with the little ones. Then boys and young men entered as a group, as did girls and young women. Age nine was the time when a boy got to leave his mamm’s side and walk in with the group. It was considered a privilege for a boy like Simon to walk in with the boys--a rite of passage--though their mother had required that they first learn to recite the Loblied, a hymn sung in High German during every service.
“So . . .” Nate clapped his hands together. “You are learning the hymn?”
“Ya,” Simon said solemnly.
“We’ve been practicing,” Adam said. With Simon’s reluctance to speak, it was hard to tell how much of the hymn the boy had learned.
“Gut. You keep working, Simon,” Nate advised. “Practice until you hear the song in your heart, ya?”
Simon nodded, his shiny hair bobbing.
Nate lifted his bearded chin, his dark eyes scanning the room. “Our work here is done, though I can’t say as much for the women in the kitchen. Last I heard, Betsy was making another chocolate cake.”
“You can never have too much chocolate cake,” Adam said.
“Speak for yourself.” Nate patted his round belly, his ruddy face relaxed with a gentle smile. “Mary will probably be a while yet in the kitchen. Before you go, I have a problem in the barn I could use your help with. One of the doors is rotting, I think.”
“Let’s have a look,” Adam said with a nod, noticing that Simon, too, was nodding with interest. My shadow, he thought as Uncle Nate uttered “Kumm,” and led the way out to the barn.
When Nate pointed out the wobbly door, Adam extracted his pocketknife and pressed it to the wood. The blade sank right in, like a knife in butter. “Dry rot.”
Simon’s eyes grew round with interest. “Can I try?”
“As long as you’re careful.” Adam handed him the knife, and both men watched as Simon pressed it easily into the soft wood.
“Ya, it’s rotten,” the boy agreed.
Adam tapped the door, then the strip of wood overhead. “The door is fine, but the frame must be changed. The hinges and hardware can probably be saved. If you want, I’ll measure now and cut the wood in my shop.”
“When you have time,” Nate said, tipping his hat back as he watched Simon poke the wood once more. “You’ve got a list of chores as long as the day, and you’re still a young man, Adam. I hear you’ve barely attended one singing since you returned to us. You must give these young women a fair chance to win you over, ya?”
The smile froze on Adam’s face, his jaw aching with regret as he sensed where this conversation was heading. “I can handle the door repair, Nate. You don’t need to worry about my social life.”
“But what of the singings? Will you be attending tomorrow night?” He nodded over at the corner of the barn, where Adam’s teenaged cousins cleaned the stalls. “Ben and Abe are in charge of preparation. You wouldn’t want to disappoint them, ya?”
“Of course not,” Adam agreed, nodding at his cousins, who seemed to be making a game of hockey out of a cow-patty puck. At seventeen and nineteen, Ben and Abe were at the prime age for singings, casual youth events intended to give young people a chance to socialize with other Amish their age. Their age. If Adam attended tomorrow night, he would no doubt be the only person there in his mid-twenties. “But the singings . . . they’re not for me, Uncle.”
Nate’s mouth puckered. “How else will you find a wife?”
It’s hard to find something when you’re not looking for it, Adam thought as he rubbed his clean-shaven jaw. He didn’t want to be disrespectful to his uncle, who had kept their farm running for the past year. Hardy, genial Nate King was a gifted farmer who could turn a handful of soil into a bag of beans, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Whenever Adam had a question about the farm, Nate had the answers and explanations as to why potatoes were too labor-intensive to grow or when it was safe to put tomato plants in the ground. Nate’s support was a blessing. But pressure like this . . . this Adam could live without.
“Was denkscht?” Nate prodded in the language used in conversation among Amish. “What are you thinking? Perhaps you already have someone in mind . . . a courtship I’m not aware of? I know, it’s none of my business, but in some ways it is. If your father were alive, he would have had this talk with you long ago, ya?”
“Uncle Nate . . .” Adam paused when he glanced down and saw that his younger brother was hanging on their every word. “Simon, do you want to see if Ruthie is still out by the pond with the others? I’m sure you could borrow a pair of ice skates.”
Simon shook his head. The boy was staying right here.
“Adam?” Nate prodded. “Are you trying to change the subject?”
“That would be great.” When his uncle squinted critically, Adam added, “Just trying to be honest.”
Nate’s low chuckle was full of mirth. “I appreciate that, but I do worry about you, Adam. Gott will provide, but we must have our eyes open to see His gifts. What you’re doing, trying to manage a family without a wife, it’s like trying to plow your fields without a horse. Everything is one hundred times more difficult.”
Adam grinned at his uncle’s inadvertent comparison between wives and plow horses. “Ich vershteh,” Adam said. “I understand what you’re saying. But right now, I’m not interested in going through courtship.”
Besides the fact that he felt far too old to participate in courtship rituals involving girls as young as fourteen, courtship reminded Adam of his past pursuit of a girl outside the community, a relationship that had led him far from his family and faith. At the age of nineteen he had fallen for Jane, a college student he’d met in Philadelphia. He had followed her to her home in Providence, where things had fizzled between them in the first few months. But while working odd jobs he’d nurtured a skill for building furniture by hand under the guidance of a salty old artist who took a liking to him. Cap Sawicki had taught Adam how to design around the natural elements in the wood, allowing the grain or color or slight imperfections to stand out. The handmade furniture had brought in more than enough money to pay the bills, but the real satisfaction was in rubbing oil into the wood or making dovetailed joinery by hand.
Before his baptism last fall, Adam had tried to deal with his issues. He had made the commitment to live the Amish way here with his family, and he knew that the skills learned during his rumspringa amounted to a craft that might one day help support his family . . . if he ever found time to return to the wood shop. He could not undo those years away from home, but on more than one occasion he wanted to kick himself for leaving. His departure had brought his parents distress, and that was a wrong he would never have the chance to right.
A burden he would have to live with.
“Come to the singing tomorrow,” Nate said.
Adam shook his head. “I’m too old for those gatherings.”
“I hear your brother Jonah attends, and he is what? Only two years younger than you.”
“I’m sure he’ll attend,” Adam replied, dodging the question. Even as kids, Adam and Jonah had kept company while knowing that God had made them from two very different molds. Adam was intrigued that his quiet brother seemed to enjoy the organized social events, but he didn’t probe. Jonah was a private person.
“It looks like the women have finished,” Uncle Nate said.
The three of them looked toward the kitchen door where women filed out, their arms laden with blankets and warming bricks. Adam’s oldest sister, Mary, tipped her head toward her best friend, Annie Stoltzfus, and the two shared a laugh. Fourteen-year-old twins Leah and Susie, two dark bells bundled in winter coats, stood out beside their grandmother. Except for Sadie, who had stayed back at the house to mind the little ones, all the women of his family had pitched in with the baking, which was quite an undertaking when there would be more than a hundred mouths to feed after tomorrow’s worship service.
“Thank you for your good help.” Nate touched the brim of his hat and winked at Simon. “I’d best set to milking the cows.”
Adam nodded good-bye to Nate, grateful to end this conversation with his uncle before Nate delved too deep into Adam’s personal life. Ordinarily, the older generation left the younger ones to their own devices when it came to courtship, but there was nothing ordinary about Adam’s situation, a single man left to lead his siblings after their parents’ deaths.
He turned to Simon. “Go find Ruthie. Tell her it’s time to go,” Adam instructed, and the boy scurried off as Adam went to the back of the barn to fetch his horse.
In the steely gray light of dusk he led Thunder to the line of buggies parked in a row at the front of the house. The horse nickered as Adam hitched him up to the covered carriage, Dat’s finest, with glass windows and nearly enough seats for the entire family.
“Think we’ll be getting more snow?” The question came from behind Adam, and he turned to find his cousin Jacob checking his horse’s harness. Jacob King was still in his rumspringa, and from the stereo speakers and spoiler installed in his buggy, Adam could see he was enjoying it.
“Not today,” Adam said, “but it’s only January. I’d say we’re in for some more winter storms.”
“I’m thinking of getting rubber tires for my buggy,” Jacob said with a grin. “That would be good in the snow, ya?”
“Probably better than steel.” Adam didn’t mention the fact that sleighs were more functional in heavy snow. Rumspringa was the time for a boy to enjoy customizing his buggy.
Studying the row of buggies, he saw that Gabriel and Jonah had taken the smaller one home when they’d left an hour ago to start the afternoon milking. Eager to return and help with the chores, he climbed into his carriage, clicked his tongue, and eased Thunder toward the main house.
The King women approached the carriage, Susie and Leah first, followed by their grandmother.
“It’s cold out here.” Susie blew out a puff of air and jabbed at the small cloud with her finger. “I can see my breath.”
Adam came around the carriage just in time to notice that her fingertips were red. “What’s that on your hands, Susie?”
With a grin, she slipped her hands out from under her shawl, revealing red-tinged palms. “Beet juice,” she said with a smile. “Did you know that’s the secret ingredient in Aunt Betsy’s chocolate cake?”
“A healthy ingredient,” Adam said, “though we’ll have to check and make sure it’s on your diet.” Susie suffered from glutaric aciduria, an inherited metabolic condition that required a low-protein diet. Adam pretended to scowl over Susie’s stained hands, though he couldn’t keep it up. Susie’s smile was quick to melt the sternest disposition.
Excerpted from A Simple Winter by Rosalind Lauer. Copyright © 2011 by Rosalind Lauer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.