Copyright 2016 by Adina Senft
“Forgiveness is the longest road … but it is the shortest distance between two hearts.”
—Whinburg Township Amish proverb
Whinburg Township, Pennsylvania
November, thirteen years ago
“Look after your sisters,” Mamm said from the kitchen door of the farmhouse, pulling her black knitted sweater around her against the chill outside. Behind her, the golden light from the kitchen lamps shone through her white organdy Kapp, making her look like one of the angels from the Bible. “Especially Hannah—you know Leah follows wherever she leads, including right off the edge of the hayloft.”
And into the feed mixer. And once, this past spring, even into the breeding stall in the very back of the barn, where she’d gotten herself and poor little Leah locked in. It was a good thing they’d only put the mare in there or the gut Gott only knew what might have been left of Hannah and Leah by the time Dat had finally found them.
“Ja, Mamm,” Samuel said. He was ten now, and while he didn’t mind babysitting, he’d often thought it would have been nice if Mamm and Dat had started off their family with a girl, who could do the things older sisters were meant to do, instead of him. But you just didn’t say things like that to Mamm or you’d get about a dozen reasons why not, right on your backside.
So he took their hands—six-year-old Hannah on his right and Leah, a year younger, on his left. That meant Hannah had to carry the basket, which was nearly as big as she was, but Mamm wanted lots of walnuts for the Christmas baking, and the trees up there in the old orchard had the best ones. It lay partway up Oak Hill, for which the little village of Oakfield on its other side was named. On this side was the town of Willow Creek, in Whinburg Township, Pennsylvania, where sometimes Dat would take Samuel to get feed or supplies or, better yet, to the mud sale in the spring, where they’d spend the day walking around looking at the equipment and talking to the other Amish men, including nearly everyone from their own church district.
Samuel loved a good mud sale. He liked all the different kinds of equipment that folks would buy and then bring to his clever Dat, who would convert them from electric to hydraulic or battery power for cash money. He liked the food the ladies sold at their tables, and he liked the fast voice of the auctioneer, who was his very own Onkel Orland from the farm down the road and Samuel’s second most favorite person in the world next to Dat.
But mud sales were in the spring, and the fire auction and Thanksgiving were both done for this year, so the next thing to look forward to was Christmas, weeks away yet. Which was why Mamm wanted the walnuts. Once they’d hulled them, the nuts would have to dry, and then they’d all be cracking and shelling for several nights, but the reward would be her Christmas nut cake, which Samuel only got once a year and which he loved above all things.
The late November day was crisp and clear, and because all the leaves were nearly down in the woods, he could see the yellow leaves of the walnut trees from some distance away. They always seemed to cling longer than the ones on the poplars or maples, maybe because the old orchard was waiting for people to come and look after it and needed to fly a flag to help folks notice it way back here.
“Hey, there’s Jebbie and Josiah Zook!” he exclaimed. “Looks like we won’t have the orchard to ourselves after all. Come on, they don’t know which tree is the best one.”
Second row, third tree down. All three of the Riehl children knew it, since Dat had said it was the best one when he’d first brought Samuel up here. At one time Mamm and Dat had talked about buying the farm, but it had become so run down and tangled up in some Englisch family quarrel that they had abandoned the idea.
Samuel was kind of glad. They couldn’t have the cows up here, he didn’t think, because there was no pasture, and he would have missed the cows.
Jebbie and Josiah Zook were his best friends. When they all grew up and turned sixteen and got to drive to the singing in their own buggies, they were going to form their own gang. They’d call themselves the Squirrels and have so much fun that everyone would want to join them.
“What are you doing over there?” Jebbie called from the top of the fence next to the tree in the first row. That was just like him. Go for what was easy instead of what was good.
“Never you mind,” Samuel called back. He’d never tell them which was the best tree. “But our walnuts are going to be better than yours, and you know what that means!”
“Mamm’s Christmas nut cake is going to be better, too!”
Howls of dismay followed this announcement, and Samuel laughed. It wasn’t easy to put one over on the twins, and he should know. So he savored his victory while he climbed up into the tree and began to shake the walnuts off the branches. The little girls ran around on the ground, gathering them up and putting them in the basket. Mamm had made them wear their mittens, since the hulls stained clothes and hands something awful, but little Leah had already lost one of hers.
And here came Jebbie and Josiah, pelting through the trees. “We want some of those!” they crowed, and the girls scattered.
“Hey, no fair!”
He leaped down and was soon defending his tree against the invading knights, just like in his book about the castle where the king had been imprisoned. Then it was two on one, rough-housing and wrestling and laughing until he was nearly sick. They knocked over the basket, but that was okay—walnuts were easy to scoop up. Or the girls would do it.
“Hannah! Leah!” he called over his shoulder, breathless with laughter and holding Josiah off with one arm. “Pick those up!”
But instead of an indignant squeak of protest, since the boys had done the knocking over and if Mamm was here they’d be doing the picking up, too, he heard only Jebbie blowing snot out of one nostril—an ability Samuel envied something fierce.
“Hannah!” He struggled loose of Josiah’s hold and took a quick look around the orchard. “Leah! Wo bischt du?”
The orchard lay still except for the flutter of yellow leaves. Had they got tired of waiting and decided to climb up and shake the branches themselves? Wouldn’t he just catch Druwwel if one of them fell!
“Come on, you guys. I can’t see the girls.”
“Gut!” Jebbie pushed him. “You give, you lose.”
“Neh, I mean it.” They weren’t in the tree. They weren’t in any of the trees, because enough leaves had fallen that the grass was carpeted in them and he could see right through the branches.
And he could see something else, too. The sun had gone behind the shoulder of Oak Hill. They only had maybe half an hour before it got dark up here, and he for sure did not want to be walking down that trail through the woods in the dark.
“Hannah! Leah!” What had gotten into them? They knew better than to go wandering off— Neh, this was Hannah he was talking about. She was always sticking her nose into things to see why they worked (the feed mixer) and opening doors for who knew what reason—to see why they were closed, probably (the breeding stall). It would be just like her to see a deer track and go running off to see if there was a deer on it. And where Hannah went, there went Leah also.
With a groan, he turned to his friends. “I’ve got to find mei Schweschdere before it gets dark. Come on.”
Something in his face must have told them that the time for horsing around was over, but still, Josiah couldn’t resist getting in one last face-washing with a bunch of old wet leaves. Then they all loped through the orchard, calling the girls’ names.
No one answered.
Maybe his sisters had gone to the top of Oak Hill to see how far they could see. It took the boys twenty precious minutes to go up and look, but there was nothing up there but rocks and the remains of somebody’s campfire.
Maybe they’d come back by now and were picking up the walnuts. Samuel raced down the hill, but the basket lay on its side, right where Josiah had kicked it over.
Something cold and heavy settled in his stomach, prickling and clawing like it was a big eagle and his guts were its supper. He’d seen an illustration like that in the book he hadn’t been allowed to take out of the library bus that stopped in Willow Creek and Oakfield on its way back to Whinburg.
“Here, help me fill this.” He began scooping nuts into the basket. “Maybe they got tired and went home.” It was the only thing he could think of. The only thing that made sense. Little girls didn’t disappear off the face of the earth. Of course they’d gone home.
With a sense of relief, he said good-bye to the twins and jogged home, the basket getting heavier and bumping against his knees the whole way. When he staggered into the yard, he knew that Dat had come in from the fields because the barn door was open and Samuel could hear his deep voice inside. He always talked to the horses when he put them away.
The normalcy was a relief. The girls would be in the kitchen, chattering with Mamm and no doubt telling on him. But since they’d run away and left him to carry in the walnuts, he wouldn’t get in Druwwel.
At least, he hoped not.
Dat came out and saw him standing in the yard. “Samuel, are those the walnuts your mother has been waiting for?” Dat tousled his hair. “Wo ischt dei hut?”
His hat? He had no idea. He must have lost it in the orchard—probably when he’d gone down under the attack of the marauding knights.
He followed his father through the outside door down into the basement, where men removed their muddy, manure-covered boots before they so much as looked at Mamm’s spotless floors. Then they climbed the inside stairs, and emerged into the kitchen.
“Samuel!” Mamm turned from the stove. “You’re so late, I was getting worried. Look at that basket! We’ll have the best nut cake ever this year.” As Dat closed the basement door, she frowned. “Where are the girls?”
The eagle in Samuel’s stomach took another poke at his innards. “Aren’t they here?”
“What do you mean, ‘aren’t they here’? Of course they’re not here. They were with you.”
Samuel’s lungs didn’t seem able to expand enough to get a proper breath. “I thought they came home.”
“Well, they didn’t.”
Dat knelt next to him. “Why don’t you tell us what happened and we’ll go look for them.”
“I already did. I couldn’t find them anywhere. That’s why I came home—it’s the last place left.”
“They couldn’t have just disappeared.” Mamm turned off the gas burners under the pots on the stove. “What happened? Exactly.”
Samuel’s throat closed, but he cleared it and talked fast before the tears welled up and he cried like a little Boppli. “Jebbie and Josiah Zook were up there, too, picking, and they came over to our tree—the best one, Dat—and we were horsing around and Josiah knocked over the basket, and when I hollered at Hannah to pick up the walnuts I saw she wasn’t there. So then we looked all over—we even went up to the top. And all around the fence, and all along the path, I was calling and calling. But they didn’t answer. So I thought they must be here.” He looked up into his mother’s pale face. “They have to be here.”
“I’ll search the yard and the barn,” Dat said, pulling on his jacket.
“I’ll look over the house and cellar, just in case they came in without my hearing them.”
But when his parents met again in the kitchen, from which Samuel had not moved, not so much as a toe, they shook their heads.
“One of them could have taken a fall, and the other is too scared to leave her,” Dat said. He collected the lantern and two flashlights from the mudroom and would have taken the kitchen lamp, too, but Mamm stopped him.
“Neh,” she said. “I’ll leave this one in the window. If they’re up on that hill and got their directions mixed up, they’ll be able to see it.”
Dat didn’t argue, merely nodded and said, “Samuel, go across lots and get your Onkel Orland and his two oldest boys. Have them bring the most powerful flashlights they have and the megaphone he uses at the auction.”
Samuel had never run so fast in his life, over the familiar fields, down into the creek, and up through the copse dividing the two properties. Coming back was even faster, for Onkel Orland had abandoned the idea of a buggy and had put bridles on the horses, riding bareback with Samuel up on the horse’s withers in front of him.
What the bishop would have to say about that, Samuel wasn’t prepared to speculate. Horses were for work and travel, not for riding on.
But Onkel Orland didn’t care. He, his boys, and Mamm and Dat combed the hill half into the night. The next day, after not very much sleep, the bishop was informed—though probably not about riding the horses. Men from the neighboring farms joined in the search, and Oak Hill and the farms at its feet rang with the sound of the girls’ names.
But they found not one thing except Leah’s other black mitten, lying on a deer trail. Which only seemed to make everyone feel worse, not better.
Finally, after a pickup supper that Mamm was too upset to eat, the bishop came and sat with them at the table.
“The entire Gmee is praying for the girls’ safe return,” he said heavily. There were tiny sticks and bits of the wispy seeds called Old Man’s Beard in his beard. Samuel would have found this hilarious at any other time, but tonight, he wondered if he would ever smile at anything ever again.
The bishop looked Dat in the face. “If I were Bishop Lapp over in Whinburg, I would tell you that this is an Amish matter and advise you to trust in the Lord and keep searching until we find the girls. But I am not as … traditional as he, and much as I would rather avoid it, I believe it is time for us to ask for help from the Englisch sheriff.”
Dat sat as if frozen to his chair. “You have lost hope, then? Is the God who brought them into this world not enough to bring them home to us?”
“It is not a matter of faith, Jonathan Riehl. It is a matter of using the resources He has given us. And I know that the Englisch sheriff has resources that reach into the world much farther than we can. Your chances of finding your daughters are greater if you accept that help as well as that of the Gmee.”
“But … that would be going against the will of der Herr,” Mamm whispered. Tears welled in her eyes, and Samuel wondered how she could possibly have any left. He had heard her crying after they’d come home, and that had made him cry, too, bundled up in his quilt with a pillow against his mouth so they would not hear.
“God’s will, Rebecca? Or man’s?” the bishop asked quietly. “If somehow human hands have been mixed up in this, we will merely be casting our net wider, giving our two little fish a greater chance to be pulled in.”
Speechless, Mamm gripped Dat’s forearm and nodded. Then, handkerchief pressed to her mouth, she went out of the kitchen.
The next day, the bishop came in his buggy and Dat and Samuel went to Whinburg with him. The man in the khaki uniform with the shiny gold star pinned to his chest pocket asked about a hundred questions, some of which Samuel didn’t know how to answer. But Dat’s grip on his hand helped him get out enough words to make the Englisch man with the steady gaze nod and write a lot of things down on his pad.
“We’ll be in touch, Mr. Riehl,” he said when they were ready to go. “We’ll do everything we can to find your little girls. It’ll be a challenge, without photographs or fingerprints or even dental records, but we’ve overcome greater.”
But in the end, nothing happened.
Nothing except a whole lot of Englisch cars pulling into the yard later that week, and a van with a big satellite dish on the top containing two guys with black cameras on their shoulders. Dat shooed them back into it by leading the big Percherons he’d borrowed from Onkel Orland right up to them so that they had to scramble in or be trampled by the enormous hooves.
Nothing except the sheriff coming a month later in his black and white car, shaking his head and saying they were doing everything they could.
He came when Samuel was eleven, too, and when he was twelve, and when he was fourteen, calling it a cold case, whatever that meant.
The last time the black and white car had come, it was a different sheriff. But he hadn’t come about the girls.
He had come about Samuel.
But Samuel wasn’t there, because by then he had a job, and freedom, and Englisch buddies who knew how to party so hard he forgot the grief, forgot the shame of what he’d allowed to happen—even forgot who he was half the time. The farm might be his legal address, but these days, that house with the lamp still burning in the window was the last place in the world he wanted to go back to.
Find The Longest Road at your favorite online retailer!