The Hidden Life—excerpt
© 2012, 2020 by Adina Senft
In the absence of a husband or children, the written word was pretty much the only way a woman could prove she existed. Of course, God knew the existence of every sparrow and had numbered the hairs on her head, but to Emma Stolzfus this knowledge didn’t hold the comfort it used to. Not when her thirtieth birthday had come and gone and she was left staring at the wasteland of spinsterhood on the other side.
Had she said anything like this aloud, her mother would have suggested in her humble but inflexible way that she plant something in the wasteland and make it yield some fruit. Well, Emma was doing that very thing. She loosened the strings of her black away bonnet and pulled open the glass door to the Whinburg post office. She laid the large manila envelope on the counter.
“Sending off another article?”
Janelle Baum had told Emma once that reading the addresses on people’s mail was as good as reading their diaries. People sent care packages to their boys in the Middle East. They returned clothes that didn’t fit. They sent each other presents. And Janelle found out about all of it, mostly because for the foreign packages you had to say what was in there, and for the domestic ones she’d act interested and ask nosy questions until you told her.
Emma nodded. “Family Life this time.” Which was written right there on the front, so there was no point in trying to hide it.
“Too bad you Old Order folks can’t have the Internet,” Janelle said. “It’d be a lot faster, sending things back and forth.”
“I wouldn’t want to put you out of a job.” Emma smiled, paid the postage, and left, feeling as though she’d put one over on Janelle at last. If Family Life depended on electronic submissions, there wouldn’t be much of a magazine, since its audience and its staff were mostly Amish. She got along just fine without the Internet or a computer. Her old Smith-Corona worked no matter what the weather did to the power poles running down the side of the highway, and if that wasn’t an advantage, she didn’t know what was.
She untied Ajax’s reins from the rail in front of the post office and patted his nose. “Patient boy. You weren’t expecting to go all the way to Strasburg today, were you? Now we can go to Amelia’s, and I’ll put you in her nice warm barn to visit with Daisy for a couple of hours.”
Ajax snorted and allowed her to back him around before she climbed into the buggy, pulled the heavy wool blanket across her legs to keep out the chilly air, and shook the reins over his back.
What nosy Janelle didn’t know was that Emma had two envelopes to mail, but she’d gone five miles over to Strasburg to send the other one. Its address would have told a tale she wasn’t willing for anyone to know, and the postal employees in the bigger town didn’t know her. Why should they care that an Amish spinster was sending an envelope to New York City? Or that it was addressed to the coordinator of a fiction contest?
Emma gulped and tried to calm the sickening swoop in her stomach at the thought of her envelope, probably already on a truck and heading down the highway.
She took a deep breath and let the cold air blow away her nerves. Winter might have eased its grip on Lancaster County just a little, but it hadn’t given up yet. Here they were at the beginning of March, and you’d think it was still January. Emma eased onto Whinburg’s main street and kept Ajax under tight rein until they were out on the county highway, which was straight and offered the cars coming up behind her plenty of warning that there was a gray buggy in the road, even if its color matched both concrete and sky.
The men were probably gathered even now in Moses Yoder’s barn, leaning on bales of hay and anxiously watching the sky for signs of change in the weather. If the planting was delayed, it would throw the whole year out. From her point of view, there was an even worse consequence.
Wedding season would go on even longer than it already had.
No, she wouldn’t think about wedding season. That was worse than thinking about her envelope. About the sweet young brides and awkward grooms, about the oceans of food, about the gatherings of everyone in the Gmee and neighboring communities—during every one of which at least one person would ask her when her turn was going to come.
She’d stopped coming up with witty answers years ago. Now she was reduced to a sickly smile and a swift return to whatever task she was performing. It was safer to become one of the many pairs of helping hands at a wedding. That way you always had a reason to disappear and no one questioned you about it.
And now here was her best friend Amelia Beiler putting on purple instead of black and looking at courtship a second time. If she didn’t love Amelia so much, Emma would be tempted to give in to despair, which was a sin. Everyone knew, even if no one said so, that there were more women than men in the church. Much as her heart was gladdened that Amelia’s smile now held genuine happiness instead of the wistful sadness of the last year or so, in the dark of the night Emma allowed herself to think, It just isn’t fair for you to have two and me to have none.
Which was ridiculous and selfish and—for that brief second—a betrayal of the friendship they’d treasured for two decades. In the practical light of morning, Emma knew herself to be a healthier person than that. But practicality didn’t have much say in the middle of the night.
Want to read more? This second edition of The Hidden Life comes out Wednesday.
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