This is the final piece of this short story. There will be other shorts involving Sepp and various characters in his story, but it took me forever to get back and finish this one, so likely it’ll be after NaNoWriMo. So here it is:
* * * * *
He raised his head from the stinking sand slowly, trying to spit the rotten taste out of his mouth. He was dizzy, parched and his raw skin burned from the sand and heat. All around him were rotting corpses, the bodies of his friends and neighbors. He spied his father’s broken body lying farther down the beach, the overturned wheelchair broken next to it, and beyond that was a grove of gnarled old trees. Large birds of all descriptions were wheeling in the sky overhead and cawing from the trees. They circled and began descending, tearing at the decaying flesh to feast on the storm’s victims. A massive, gleaming raven landed on a driftwood log and perched there, gazing at him with knowledge far beyond that of mere humans.
“No!” croaked Sepp, dragging his hand up to protect his eyes. “Get away! You can’t have me, I’m alive!”
He felt the bird alight on his arm, and cruel talons dug through the skin to draw blood. Sepp tried to shake it off, but he felt paralyzed. He tried to scream but no sound made it past his lips. He prepared to die, a last desperate prayer erupting from deep in his soul. Then he woke up.
Gasping for air, he struggled to force the dream from his mind. It took time, and he needed to get up from his bed and head for the kitchen. The eastern sky was brightening. It must be near dawn, he thought. His heart was pounding furiously and he needed water. Hastily he slopped water into a glass and gulped it down. It tasted as wonderful as though he had actually been in that terrifying dream. Normally he was accustomed to being alone, but in this moment he’d give anything for another person to be there, to make him feel like part of the living world. He drank another glass of water and then flung open the kitchen door. Stepping out onto the porch he breathed in and out, over and over, and gradually he felt his pulse slow. He sank into the rocking chair. He saw that his hands were shaking. Was he going crazy? Never had he dreamed such a dream! The books were affecting his mind, those stories of ancient Greece that seemed to draw him in. There was no one he could talk to about these things, no one would understand. He groaned. Maybe his brethren had the right idea, and he should stay on the narrow path, reading only Scripture and tending to his home and work in the community. Slowly he began rocking in the chair. He would overcome this moral weakness. He must. If these sinful dreams and fantasies continued he might grow mad, and would certainly be unfit to live among Menno’s People. He let his face fall forward into his hands and let the hopeful sounds of the early morning surround him.
* * * * *
A few hours later, Sepp stepped out of the kitchen door and put his hat on. He would have to hurry or he would be a few minutes late for Sunday service, but his mind was calm now. As he strode down the lane he mused on the act of putting away the box of books. In fact he had sorted through his bookshelves and removed anything resembling those books about ancient Greece. He still recoiled at the idea of destroying books. His sinful dreams were not the fault of the written words; the fault was in his own sinful nature. The location of that wooden crate still burned in his mind, up in the corner of the attic behind his father’s old clothes and crutches. But over time that memory would grow dim and with God’s help he would grow in acceptance of his life’s work.
Sunshine fell on his shoulders as he walked quickly toward the town, warming him. The trees were still mostly a rich summer green, with only a few maples hinting at the scarlet splendor they would wear in a few weeks. Up high on the sloping hill there were black and white cows grazing placidly. This world, the place he lived in, was full of beauty. If he was stifling a tiny kernel of doubt, that would pass. He was part of Menno’s People, a unique and necessary part of this community of the faithful. Up ahead he could see the Radamacher family approaching the road from their farm. In response to Dan’s friendly wave, he quickened his pace to join them.
I’ve been pretty busy lately, but I didn’t forget about this story. I hope everyone is loving these last days of summer.
* * * *
“Good afternoon, Sepp,” said Elizabeth Millar.
Startled, he sprang to his feet, nearly tripping over the plain gray gravestone he had been trying to straighten.
“Mrs. Millar,” he exclaimed. “Good afternoon. What brings you out here?”
The woman standing in front of him looked quite different from the beautiful young woman of his strange fantasy, he thought. They had known each other all their lives, but since they came of age, and especially since her marriage at twenty, the distance had grown vast between them and Sepp realized that he hardly knew her anymore.
“I led one of the Eli Monroe’s milk cows back to their pasture, and I’m taking a shortcut through the cemetery,” she replied. “The cow was ailing and Peter tended her back to health. I heard that you take care of the cemetery, but I thought you just mowed the grass. I didn’t know it was such hard work.”
Elizabeth Millar had grown heavier after years of childbearing and from spending so much time doing housework and cooking for her growing family. Her hair, formerly bright gold, thick and wavy, had lost some of its brightness and was smooth and sedate, covered by her white cap. The most striking difference was in her expression, however. She was a good woman and devoted mother of four, but the brilliance was gone from her blue eyes. She was calm and serious, and the absence of her youthful radiance made Sepp feel a pang of loss. Having heard little Katie’s announcement at school the day before, he noticed that Eliza’s waist was thicker than usual. In one fleeting second his mind transported him back to his waking dream and he imagined that her child was his, and then flushed as reality rushed back. What had she said?
“Are you all right?” asked Eliza, eyeing him with concern. “You look like you’ve been out in the sun too long. Maybe you should go home and have something cool to drink.”
“I’m fine,” he said abruptly. “In the winter, freezing and thawing can move the stones. I try to get everything stabilized in the fall so when spring comes there’ll be less to do out here.”
“I didn’t know it was so difficult. Maybe we should all help more with it. It doesn’t seem right that you should do this alone,” she told him.
How strange that she was persisting, and why was she even here? They hadn’t spoken with each other alone in years, he thought, irritation rising in him.
Forcing a tight smile, he fumbled for a courteous answer. “I have the time, and really, I like doing this for the community. I think it’s a good way to spend a Saturday, and this is a way I can contribute to the community.”
Their eyes met, and a faint confused frown wrinkled her brow. “But isn’t it lonesome, working out here all alone?”
She seemed to really want to know, so he chose his words carefully. “I’m in the school with the students most days, all day long, so I don’t get tired of being outside. I enjoy being alone with my own thoughts while I work here.”
She smiled. “I guess I do see. I’m home with little Matt all day, and that child talks all day long. I enjoy the afternoons that he’ll take a nap. But you’ll find out what he’s really like next year when he starts school. He’s a smart boy, but he’ll be a handful.”
He nodded pleasantly. This was comfortable and familiar, talk of school and students, and it steadied him. “How is your grandmother?” he asked, recalling that the elderly woman lived with her and was reportedly in declining health.
“She sleeps most of the time these days, and the visiting nurse says it won’t be more than a week before she passes,” said Elizabeth. “She doesn’t seem to be suffering, and she has some good times when she knows we’re with her. Katie and John are grieving already. They’re too young to remember when my dad passed.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“We’re grateful for your concern. Grandmama is in the Lord’s hands, as we all are,” she replied calmly. “She’s had a good life and soon she’ll go home.”
What more could he say? The silence would soon be awkward, he thought. Luckily, she seemed to realize this too.
“I should be heading home then,” she murmured. “I left Katie to tend the baking, but if Matt wakes up, I’m afraid she’ll forget. It’s been good to talk with you, Sepp.”
He wasn’t sure if he agreed with her, but nodded pleasantly. He watched her stride briskly down the hill, headed for home. Maybe it was good for him to realize how much they had both changed since they were young together. Eliza no longer had that spring in her step that used to delight him. She was mature and serious, as befit a mother and homemaker. She seemed many years older than he felt. He turned his attention to the grave marker he had been trying to straighten when she appeared. This one and a few more still needed his attention. Then with his work finished, he could head for home. He glanced up at the sky, and saw that clouds were quickly rolling in to block out the sun. It smelled like rain too. He bent to his work, hoping he could finish before he had to walk home in a thunderstorm.
Sepp could feel his neighbor’s eyes following him as he strode away from the old house, into the growing darkness and heading for home. He inhaled the clean cool air gratefully, and the peace that usually came with solitude infused his body with a quiet pleasure. Once he was under the cover of trees, he slowed down. There was no hurry, no one waiting at home for his return. When he came to the fork in the road, he ignored the way home and instead, headed off toward the small woodland he had played in as a boy. The moon glowed with a silvery brilliance, nearly full, and the black shadows beckoned. There was a rustling somewhere on the ground among the ancient trees. The shadow shape of an owl in flight covered the moon for one startling second, and then it was gone again. His pace quickened. A strange energy propelled him along almost without conscious thought and he let the cold magic of the moonlight have its way with him.
His steps grew more urgent still, drawing him deeper into the darkness under the gnarled trees. Deep in his soul a longing for escape sprang forth, denied until now and almost terrifyingly vivid. In a waking dream he knew suddenly that he was embarked on an odyssey. Was this what it would feel like to be plucked from the dreary path he trod, to see wonders and learn of life’s mysteries? His body was strong and his mind was ready for this test of his will and courage. Tales of arrogant foreign gods and proud heroes played through his mind, stories of war, of fierce enemies and of kings striving for the most beautiful of women. He would play his part, struggle valiantly against adversity, and had faith that eventually he would find himself at home with his own wife who would wait for him over the lonely years, faithful and lovely.
A picture of her rose in his mind, her long golden hair pulled back in a modest bun and covered by a small cap. Yearning filled him… He had been alone for so long… Would he ever see his home again or was his destiny to wander for the rest of his life under the blazing sun, friendless and despairing? Thirst and hunger drove him on as he fought despair over his hopeless plight…
He staggered as a stray rock underfoot threw him off balance and his ankle twisted painfully. Sepp shook his head and stood still, breathing heavily, and waited until the odd fantasy lifted. He was out on the road by the Partou family’s hillside pasture, with the bright moon illuminating the dark huddled shapes of cattle. Wide-awake, he had been captured by a fantastical dream. Such a thing had never happened to him before and even now he was shaking disjointed mental pictures out of his brain and trying to recall what he really was. Inhaling, he wondered how much time had passed, since he was now over a mile from home. He glanced around carefully, but no one was in sight to witness his odd behavior. He sighed and turned around, feeling foolish and pathetic. A sudden flush heated his cheek as he realized that the face of his fantasy wife had been that of Elizabeth Millar. It was time, no, long past time for him to be at home, he thought, now deeply ashamed.
Whew! Real life, or whatever we call it when we’re not online, has dragged me away for a while. Does it seem like this summer has flown by even more than usual? August 17, and Labor Day is looming on the horizon.
On the bright side, the Minnesota State Fair, the best state fair on the planet, will start on August 26. I will be there, seeing it all and eating more than is wise. But it’s only once a year and who can resist Tom Thumb donuts and Peters’ wieners for breakfast, topped off by a double shot of espresso?
On the other hand, I haven’t gotten much writing done lately. Also I’ve done little about learning to market the books I already have. And I’ll be busy over the next couple of weeks. But I do have another piece of “At Home in Heinz Hollow” to post today, and once September starts I’ll be back in business and also looking forward to NaNoWriMo in November!
Okay, I’m still not sure where this will end up, but here’s the next part of the story.
* * *
“Thank you for a fine meal, Marge,” said Sepp. “I always look forward to Friday evenings and your good cooking.” He pushed back his chair from the big kitchen table, preparing to leave.
“You’re most welcome. We’re always grateful for your help,” she replied with a friendly smile. “Many hands make light work of the milking, and we’re always glad for your company, Sepp. Won’t you stay a little longer, though? It’s a nice night, too nice to spend it all alone.”
Sarah and her husband Alex were busy washing dishes over at the sink and afterward they would all have a family hymn sing, but Sepp was impatient to leave the tidy kitchen and return home to his book. Normally he stayed with his neighbors later than this on Fridays, but this evening he was restless and craved solitude. “Thank you, but I have a few things I need to do before bed tonight. I’ll see you on Sunday morning.”
He rose and discovered that Dan Radamacher was walking by his side to the door. That was unusual. He wondered why. He took his old black hat from the hook by the door and slapped it carelessly on his head. The older man held the door for him and followed him outside to the porch. Sepp looked at him, curious.
“I’d like a word with you, if you can spare the time,” said Dan. He gestured toward two chairs that were off in the corner, facing the sunset sky.
Sepp sat down in one, a nervous feeling kindling in his stomach. Dan and Marge Radamacher had always been his neighbors. They had known his grandparents. They were godly, kind people and he enjoyed lending a hand on their farm when he was needed, but he often felt awkward if he were forced to be too close to people. All of the six Radamacher children were younger than he was, and in fact the youngest was one of his students. His solitary life was so different from their big bustling family. Dan’s blue eyes were serious as they looked at each other.
“You haven’t come to the community meetings the past couple of months,” he said abruptly. “Is something wrong, Sepp?”
His mouth dropped open in surprise and heat rose in Sepp’s cheeks. Was it so obvious that he was feeling uneasy? He fought an urge to squirm, wondering suddenly how many of his brethren watched him as he went about his everyday life. What could he say? He inhaled slowly.
“I don’t feel like my presence is really needed at every meeting,” he began, struggling to find the right words. “Since I don’t farm or produce much of anything to sell in the shop, I don’t feel like the community’s business is mine. I’m paid by all of you to teach, that’s all, and I don’t know that it would be proper for me to be advising all of you about finances.”
Dan frowned. “I’m disappointed, my friend. It’s true that our meetings are mainly to discuss community finances, but you’re an equal part of our fellowship, and what concerns one or more of us, concerns us all. You’ve got a quick mind for numbers, and you ask good questions about the figures Gebhard and the others give us.” Sighing, he continued more slowly, “Maybe I’ve spent too long working on the farm here, but those financial reports from the shop, the inventory and especially the ones about profits, they confuse me at times. I like having you there. I think it’s important for all of us to understand our common finances. After the meeting last week I asked Ben to explain again to me why we made so little money over the past season. He talked for pretty near half an hour and I left still feeling as confounded as before.”
Crickets chirped, filling the silence that followed. The sound of children’s voices drifted out of the house and Sepp realized that they were waiting for Dan to go inside.
“I don’t believe I know any more than you about how the finances should be, but if you think it’ll help, of course I’ll come to the next meeting.” He watched Dan’s frown lighten, but sensed there was something more that was left unsaid. Perhaps there’s something in the air these days, he thought, that’s breeding discontent and worry.
“I’d appreciate it if you’ll be there. I’d like to talk these things over with you,” said Dan. “Now Sepp, you do so much to help us here, is there anything that needs doing over at your place? We’d be glad to do something to help you.”
It shouldn’t be so hard to accept help from a neighbor, he thought, irritation rising in him. Dan meant well, but… “No thanks, there’s nothing,” he exclaimed, scrambling to find an excuse that would not offend. “Next summer the house will need painting, but everything’s fine right now.”
Dan nodded. “I see you’re ready to be off. Thank you for your help then, as always, and we’ll see you at Sunday service.”
At Home in Heinz Hollow
At last, thought Sepp Klemens as he drew the heavy wooden schoolhouse door shut firmly and headed for home. The sun was still high in the sky and he adjusted his wide-brimmed felt hat on his head, grateful for the protection of it. He glanced around the schoolyard to make sure the last of his students had finally headed home to do their afternoon chores. Martha Burger and her cousin Mary were just disappearing around the curve in the road. He was alone now on the doorstep of the school and, exhaling heavily, he turned toward home, mentally preparing for the weekend ahead.
Normally his mind drifted ahead to the chores awaiting him at home as he trod this familiar dirt road, but today was different for some reason. His mind was unsettled and he frowned. Thinking back over the events of the day, he recalled Katie Millar’s announcement. “Mama’s expecting again, and she needs my help, so I have to hurry home,” she had exclaimed importantly. Eliza Millar was thirty-five, less than a year younger than he was. In their small community, he alone was a single man now. All the other boys and girls he attended school with as a child were long married and lived busy contented lives on their farms. But even now, when he thought of Mrs. Millar, he still remembered the gap-toothed little girl of his early school days, the laughing Elizabeth who had shared his childhood and been his friend.
She could have married me, he thought for the thousandth time. What would his house be like now if he shared it with Eliza, if the silent rooms were full of noise and life? In shock, he realized he still harbored bitterness in his heart, something he had tried to put behind him long ago when he accepted that his fate was different from the others in Heinz Hollow. He had always been different. His family was different. The Lord God loves all of us, his mother had told him when he was young, and he had believed her. But long years later he was pretty sure the Lord had favorites and he wasn’t one of them. Man was not meant to be alone, the Bible said it, but here among God’s faithful, he was alone. A rare rebellion stirred in him, anger at the unfairness of his fate. He had no one belonging to him on this earth, no kin and no wife. His strides grew longer as he moved along the quiet lane that led to his house. Tomorrow was the day that he would go out to tend the small community cemetery for the autumn season ahead. Fitting, he thought, that his was the task of caring for that place of the departed ones. Maybe his place was with the dead, like Hades in his dark realm. He recalled the day that his father’s broken body was brought up the hill to lie among his forefathers. It had been seven years ago. He had felt a guilty sense of relief at the older man’s death, and Sepp had naively hoped that maybe something might change for the better. Instead the house had grown quiet without the crippled man’s angry voice echoing through it. Now the silence was thick and suffocating.
His home came into view, a simple white farmhouse set pleasantly among seven venerable oak trees. It needs painting, he thought critically. Not now, but certainly next summer. Under the shady trees a gentle breeze cooled the air and a sense of resigned peace began easing the tension in him. Everything wasn’t bad, he mused. The beauty of the early autumn day began to penetrate his gloom. Mama’s old rocking chair beckoned to him from the porch and her little flower garden offered a blaze of yellow, white, crimson and violet to delight his eyes. Walking around to the kitchen door, he slipped his black vest off and went inside. The breakfast dishes were waiting next to the sink, but he still had a couple of hours before he was due over at the Radamacher house, and he decided he was going to spend it reading. A few weeks ago Rab Partou had given him a small box of old books that had been discovered in the attic of the family home. In recent years, most of the old books that turned up around town had made their way to his house, since he was the teacher and also known to actually read them. His neighbors hated to waste anything. Several books about ancient Greece and Rome by a woman named Hamilton were among this batch, and they were fascinating. He wished he could tell some of the stories to his students, but it was hard to justify taking away time spent on learning the fundamentals to learn about a long-ago foreign culture. Deep in thought, he realized suddenly that he had already rolled up his shirtsleeves and was running dishwater, and shook his head with a rueful smile. I’d make a damned poor hedonist, he thought. His mother’s words still lingered in his mind. “First we do the chores, and when we’re finished it’s time to play.” He gathered the dirty dishes and set them in the warm water, feeling calm again, if not happy. It would just take a few minutes, and then he could sink into a world of ancient gods, war, passion and heroes for a time. There was a comforting order in his quiet life, and at least he had his books.
Francesca’s Legacy, the second of the Sepp Klemens novels, is now listed on Amazon. I’m really excited!