For Jim Heynen
At Becky’s one morning, he told Bowen who farmed near Glenmore that he wanted to raise cattle. Eating the last of his bacon, Ellis said he didn’t have space for cattle in the barn where he kept his farm machinery. He’d need a separate barn for livestock, and Bowen, who was waiting for the waitress to fill his coffee, told him:
—You might call the Schwartzes.
The Schwartzes lived three country blocks from him. They were Amish, and Ellis drove by their house when he took backroads to Rockford. He saw them out now and then with their horses and buggies. The men wore shirtsleeves. The women wore dresses.
Bowen, who knew everyone, said the Schwartzes had built a house for his neighbor.
—They’re hard workers, he said. Never heard anyone complain about them.
Bowen spoke to Hamrick beside him. They were farmers of his father’s generation. Hamrick had his Cargill hat on the table and said that the Schwartzes had put up his outbuilding and that yes, come to think of it, he had a card with their number on it.
Hamrick found the card in his wallet, and he gave it to Ellis.
—Funny, said Ellis. Didn’t think they were allowed to have phones.
Hamrick stuck his fork in a sausage patty. He said:
—It isn’t like it used to be. They do lots of things they wasn’t allowed to.
—We went to the store as a family. I rode in back with my sisters. In the winter, we rode beneath blankets.
She remembered the store’s parking lot—the vast sea of vehicles.
—I knew how different we were when we walked through the store. Little boys in their sneakers. Little girls wearing pigtails. They had cereal. Candy. Those toys.
She put her hand on her cheek, where her scar was.
—We had to stay with our parents. Sometimes—not always—we went by the wall with the televisions. There were movies playing, and when I looked at those screens, I knew I wanted to stay there. In that store. By those screens. In that world.
Back from Becky’s weeks later, he heard their voices and hammers. He went to see what they’d finished, and Abel Schwartz, who ran things, left his work and came over.
—Making progress, said Ellis.
Abel was a head shorter than Ellis but wore a hat to add inches. His beard was graying and thick. He’d rolled his sleeves to his elbows.
—Any problems? asked Ellis.
They stood together in the yard and watched the other men working. It was a crew of ten. Some of the men wore their hats as they worked, and others, who were younger, left their hats by the lumber. The men shared the same globe-shaped haircut, and there were some who were beardless. The men spoke Schwyzer at times. Sometimes English.
Abel nodded toward the farmhouse.
—You have a family? asked Abel.
—Never married. No children.
—It is a fine-looking house.
Abel took the hat from his head and turned its brim in his hands. He pointed at a man who was bareheaded.
—He is mine. He is Amos. I have daughters as well. They do very good work. They are cleaners.
Abel put his hat on his head again.
—Perhaps, he told Ellis, they could help. They could clean.
—I’ll consider it, Ellis said. Maybe.
He watched the men carry plywood. Then he shook Abel’s hand. He went back to his house and saw the dirt on the floor. There was grime in the sink. Dust on windows.
Ellis went out again later, and the plywood was up. The men were done for the day, and they stood by the road. The man who’d driven them hadn’t returned yet.
Abel was by the ash tree.
—You can bring them, said Ellis. Your daughters.
Ellis stood beside Abel when the driver came back. The Amish climbed in the work van. Somehow all of them fit.
They left some tools, which they’d use in the morning.
—My sisters and I could see the road from our bedroom. We saw the cars speeding by and tried to guess where they went. They went so fast, though. We couldn’t imagine.
She closed her eyes.
—When we cleaned, we went together. We always laughed when we cleaned.
—Laughed at houses?
—At houses. Ourselves.
She turned away, toward the lampshade. Toward the book underneath it.
—My sisters. My sisters. I miss them.
He was in the fields after sunrise and came inside around noon. He cleared some space at the table. There were newspapers he hadn’t read yet. He set the papers aside. He made a sandwich. Sat down. He drank root beer.
Out the dining room window, he saw the driveway, the sidewalk. He heard the Amish men working. They were on the west side of the property, near the cornfield, and he couldn’t see what they’d done. He planned to look when he finished the sandwich.
He swept the crumbs from the table and noticed the man on the sidewalk. Abel, who wore suspenders, hooked his thumbs through the straps, and he came toward the house with a woman.
Ellis drank the last of the root beer and put the can in the sink. When he opened the door, he said:
Abel held his hat near his heart.
—This is my daughter, said Abel. Who cleans.
Ellis had forgotten about the cleaning.
—How do you do? Ellis asked, but the woman didn’t answer him. She wore a bonnet—a black one that covered her hair. Her head was down—seemed to study the doormat.
Abel put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder.
—I misinformed you, said Abel. I thought all of my daughters could come here, but they had other appointments. This is Ruth. She works hard by herself.
Ellis smiled at the woman, but she did not raise her eyes.
—One’s enough, Ellis said. Please come in.
He opened the door a bit wider. Abel’s daughter stepped forward, and when she entered his home:
—How’s the barn? he asked Abel.
—We are further.
Abel took him to see it. The siding was up, and on the inside, they’d finished the hay mow. There was a ladder in the corner that went up to the mow. Against the barn’s eastern wall were some mangers.
Their progress told Ellis that they’d started the work early. Likely the woman came with them and had waited on Ellis.
Men moved shingles to start on the roof.
When he went back to the house, she’d cleared his things from the table. She dusted a lamp in the living room.
—I kept you waiting, he told her. I’m sorry.
The woman glanced at him briefly. She had a mitten-shaped scar on the side of her face.
She raised a hand to the scar.
—I forgive you.
Then she straightened the cream-colored lampshade.
—A dog bite. The scar. So you know.
He touched the scar with a fingertip.
—Please don’t touch it, she said.
—You’re self-conscious? he asked her.
The scar was deeper than the ridges in his palms.
—It’s the ugliest part of me, and everyone sees it.
—It’s just a scar.
—It’s a mark. A reminder.
—What I am. What I was.
She had her hand on his armchair.
—I changed my mind, Ellis said. I don’t want you to do this.
—To dust the lamps? wondered Ruth.
—No. To clean.
Ruth stepped away from the armchair.
—I do not understand.
—I’ll still pay you, he said. For the work that you’ve done. For your time.
She held the rag she’d been using and gripped the rag with both hands. Her dress was a dull, washed-out blue. Her shoes were black like her bonnet. Motes of dust were wrung out of the rag.
Her bonnet slid forward.
—Have I displeased you? she asked him.
Ellis looked from the living room. Outside, he heard a sound like an insect—a loud, lasting hum.
—Come outside with me, Ruth. Will you please?
—You can leave that, he told her. The rag.
She dropped the rag on the table. They went out through the kitchen. There were stairs out the back, and they sat on the stairs. They heard the humming again. He said:
He showed her the plane in the distance. When the plane reached his fields, they saw it dive from the sky. It sprayed a mist on his corn. On his soybeans.
The plane made a loop at the end of his fields.
—Crop duster, he told her.
She watched in silence. The plane made a number of passes, darting low as it sprayed. Sometimes it dipped beneath powerlines and turned in tight circles. Its wings were gaudy and yellow like sweetcorn.
—This is better, he said.
She held her bonnet in place, and she smiled at him.
—Yes. Yes, it is.
She joined the Presbyterian church and liked to sit near the front. During hymns, though, her voice was a whisper.
Ellis went also.
—Is it similar, Ruth?
—No. It isn’t at all. But I like it. I’m glad that we go.
She ran a hand through her hair, which almost came to her shoulders.
—There are things I’m not willing to lose.
When the barn was complete, he cut the grass in his hayfield. He put the hay in his barn and used the field as a pasture. Bowen helped with the fence, which looked straight.
Hamrick, who raised Simmentals, tried to sell Ellis cattle. Ellis said he’d think about it. He bought a fan and a stock tank. He painted the barn. He purchased Herefords from Bowen, and when Hamrick found out about it, he didn’t finish his pancakes.
—Herefords? said Hamrick. You’re kidding.
Hamrick forgave him days later when Ellis paid for his breakfast. Hamrick ate more than usual because they stayed at Becky’s till nine. The farmers argued about whether Deere machines were better or whether you were paying for the brand, and Ellis, an Allis-Chalmers man, didn’t talk much. Just listened.
Ellis drove home and went to check on his cattle. They were beyond the bend of the pasture, and he couldn’t see them from the gate. They didn’t come to the barn except to drink from the tank. He seldom shoveled the barn, which stayed clean.
A short time later, when Ruth came, he hurried back to the house. He watched the van start away and saw her wait on his doorstep, and when he showed her inside:
—I can work, she insisted.
—We’ll just talk, Ellis said. That’s enough.
They used the chairs at the table. She wasn’t hungry, she told him, but he poured her some water.
—Will you tell me some things that you like?
Ruth had to think about it.
—Trips to town. Spending time with my sisters.
She answered all that he asked her. She was twenty, he learned. She helped her mother make noodles. They had cattle, but mostly for milk.
He saw her glance toward his living room.
—Do you live by yourself here?
—I do, Ellis said.
—All this room—
—It’s too much room. I know it.
The water glass was sweating on the table.
—Are you married? he asked her.
Her neck became pink.
—There are reasons, she said.
—I’m just asking.
She told him the reasons later.
—We are Swiss, Ruth explained, and we must marry our own. But the Swiss who live nearby are our family.
She raised a hand to her collar.
—My father knows others in Michigan. We will travel there soon. I will meet the man there and will marry.
—And you’ll stay there?
—Perhaps. If I must.
He took her out to the pasture. They watched the cattle together—watched them walk there and graze.
—These are mine, Ellis said.
—They are happy.
—They belong here. I built this for them.
She’d gathered eggs as a girl and also folded the laundry.
—We all had to help with the chores.
After he gave her the pair of muck boots:
—I milked the cows too, she told him. I took care of our horses.
—You did everything.
—No. Nothing hard.
She liked their barn, she confessed—liked its silence.
—In the house with my family, I was never alone. We shared a room. All we girls. We shared beds.
She went to the barn to escape them.
—We had a horse—a red roan one—who was glad when I came. I gave her apples—the ones that weren’t ripe yet. She was old then and didn’t do work.
Ruth was young—was sixteen—when she first started cleaning. The horse was gone by then.
—What was its name? Ellis asked her.
—We didn’t name them, she said. Names seemed silly. They all were called Horse.
After the harvest that autumn, he watched her walk through the fields. She came through the stubble of cornstalks and held her dress as she walked. The dress was long. She tried to keep it from catching.
He took her hand at the pasture and walked with Ruth to his truck. Later, at the courthouse, she wore the dress when they married. There was mud on its fabric, and they traded rings that he’d purchased on the way to the courthouse. They were sensible rings. They were small.
She’d told her sisters what she planned before she walked to his house. Early the next morning, her brother came with the buggy. They’d filled a satchel with her things, and Amos carried it up the sidewalk. Ruth went to talk to him, and Ellis listened from the doorway.
—Is Father angry?
—Of course, Ruth.
—I will ask for forgiveness.
—Stay away from the house. He forbids it.
Her brother left with the horses. Ellis made room in his closet for the clothes from the satchel, and though he bought her new clothes from department stores, she still wore dresses and bonnets. He had not seen her hair.
Ellis was patient. Feeding the cattle in the morning, he sometimes heard Abel’s horses. He saw the buggy from the pasture, and coming in from the barn once, Ellis watched the man pass. Abel lowered his eyes at him—scowled.
Ellis told Ruth about it.
—He’ll understand why you did it.
—No, he won’t. Not my father.
—Give it time, Ellis said. Then he’ll see.
Ruth cleared plates from the countertop.
—If he doesn’t, she asked him, what then?
Neither of them knew. Ruth hoped for visits or letters, and coming from Rockford one weekend, Ellis drove by the house so Ruth could look for her sisters. But there was no one outside. They drove on.
Ellis heard her cry in the bathroom. He went to town later on and bought her flowers and candies. He came inside after dark holding roses.
Ruth was in the living room.
—You put your hair down, he noticed.
She had her bonnet beside her.
—It was time now, she said. Time to change.
She didn’t blame him—her father.
—It wasn’t his fault. But I wish—
—I wish it was different.
When the snow in his fields was as high as his kneecaps, Ellis marched to the barn, where his cattle were gathered. They crowded shoulder to shoulder, and Ellis stepped between the animals on his way to the hay mow.
The ice was thick in the stock tank, and Ellis struggled to break it. He tried a hatchet, which wasn’t strong enough. He took a cobweb-covered T-post from the barn with the tractors. The post was solid and punctured the ice.
Ellis went back through the snow. He put his coat by the door, where Ruth was waiting in denim.
—You look frozen, she said.
—Feel my skin.
She touched his face with the back of her fingers.
—Cold, she reported.
Later, after the roads were plowed, they drove to the farm store. He bought a heater for the water tank, and when he fed the cows in the evening, he brought a cord for the heater. He felt the coils on its bottom, which were warm but not scorching. Then he put the device in the tank.
The ice was thawed in the morning.
—Did it work? wondered Ruth when he came in from the barn.
Ellis put his hands in the steam above the water she boiled.
—Wasn’t frozen at all. It worked well.
And it worked well into February. Ruth wore a bathrobe and slippers as he dressed for the barn.
—I’ll make coffee, she told him.
—I’d like that.
The snow wasn’t thick, but it was bitterly cold, and the air hurt his teeth when he breathed. Ellis hurried to the cattle barn. He turned the doorknob, which stuck, but forced the door with his shoulder. The barn was warm with the heat of the livestock.
But there were some that were not warm. A few cattle lay by the tank, and they were sleeping, he thought. Then he touched them, and none of them moved.
He called Bowen, who brought a trailer, and they took them out with a skid loader. He’d set the heater aside and showed the heater to Bowen—showed the cord, which the cattle had chewed.
Bowen took his gloves off.
—Electrocuted. Ellis, that’s awful.
When he told Ruth how it happened, she grabbed her robe near her chest. She took a seat at the table, and there was hurt in her eyes.
—It’s not your fault, Ruth decided. It’s sad, though.
He sat beside her—asked:
—What should we do?
Their winter home smelled like coffee.
—We don’t need to raise cattle.
In the spring, before planting, he sold them.
She spoke the language at times. He thought the words were like music.
—Can you say something? Ellis asked. Please?
Ruth thought about it.
—Wah soh I sagge?
—What does that mean?
—I asked, What should I say?
—Say whatever you want.
—Let me think.
She covered her eyes with her hands and found some words in that darkness.
—Uv um baglie bin ie tsasse un luschtik bin i tsie. Un ie hahschi nit fer gasse, un I vetie chuhnt vierde hin.
Ellis almost asked her. She moved the pillow behind her. He put a hand on her leg.
—It’s a song, she said. That’s all. Just a song.
Some of the Presbyterian hymns were ones she’d not heard before. Others she knew but not in English.
—When I learned them, I learned them in Schwyzer.
—They’re not easy, he said. It takes time.
She wore a new patterned dress that only came to her knees. She wore some stockings beneath it, and after the service, when they went to the cinema:
—I feel so modern, she said.
They shared a popcorn. Some candy. A soft drink.
They spent the day together. Walking along the fence in the evening, they saw that the grass in the pasture was as high as their boots.
—Do you miss them? Ruth asked him. The cattle?
—It looks bare, Ellis said. All that space.
They started back toward the house and checked some flowers she’d planted.
—Does it have to be?
—What? he asked.
He knew a trainer near Jonestown. They went to ask about horses. Ellis, who’d never ridden, let his wife do the talking.
—This one’s how old? she asked.
The trainer fastened the bridle.
—Six or seven.
—And the other one?
The trainer put a saddle on the mare and let Ruth ride in the show barn. The horse changed gaits on command, and when Ruth completed a few circuits:
—Can I ride both? wondered Ruth.
The trainer nodded and brought her the gelding.
Ellis found a bench in the barn and dug his boots in the dirt. He didn’t ride—just watched Ruth, who looked at home on the horses. Her back was straight. She sat tall in the saddle.
—Are they docile? she asked the trainer.
—If they’re startled, they’ll kick.
—They’re fed hay?
—Hay and oats.
She put her hands on her hips and coaxed a price from the trainer. They brought them home the same weekend, and Ellis worked in the fields as Ruth brushed the horses and groomed them. She used a currycomb. Picked burrs from their manes.
She was to keep one herself and give the other to Ellis. They’d go for rides together, but Ruth, who liked both of them, couldn’t choose which to keep: the buckskin mare or the young chestnut gelding.
—He’s a dear, she explained. But she’s calmer.
Meantime, they picked out saddles and bridles. Bought some halters and leads.
—When will you start to ride? she asked.
She liked to ride in the pasture. He helped her saddle the horses. She alternated animals, and when she finished her rides and put her saddle away:
—I can teach you, she told him. It’s easy.
—I’ll keep watching. I’m trying to learn.
Ellis shoveled the barn as Ruth gave pears to the horses. The horses ate from her hand and crunched the firm, just-ripe fruits.
—I want them both, she announced. Both the horses.
She cleaned the spit from her hands.
They were hers.
She’d searched for places to ride. They’d looked at buying a trailer.
—There are parks. Or out west, in Montana.
She spoke of trips to the Tetons.
—We could go for a week.
—But the farm, Ellis said.
—Just a week.
Ellis said he’d think about it.
—Promise we will.
—We’ll go soon, he said. As soon as we can.
He drove her to a beauty shop one Thursday. Then he went to the farm store. He needed horse ivermectin and a new pair of work gloves. He bought some gloves and some muck boots for Ruth.
When he went back to the beauty shop, Ellis saw her but didn’t know her. She waited beside an Oldsmobile, and her hair, which was long once, didn’t come to her shoulders.
—Do you like it? she asked him.
—It’s different. That’s all.
—But you like it?
—I like it. I do.
They went to dinner together, and Ellis stared at her haircut. He stared at it later, in their living room. Ruth was on the loveseat. She had the lamp on beside her. She read a book’s final chapter. Ellis sat in his chair—did a crossword.
She placed her book on the end table. She put her hand in her hair, which she was still getting used to, and Ellis went to the loveseat. He sat by her side. He asked her:
—What was it like growing up?
They spoke of chores and her scar. They spoke of church and the Tetons. Some of the things they’d said before, but others they hadn’t. And when the clock struck eleven and she covered a yawn:
—Can you say something? Ellis asked. Please?
She spoke in clean, careful Schwyzer, the words articulated as though the crisp, precise syllables would let him know what she said.
The next morning, he went to the barn and then back again. Ruth was asleep, so Ellis changed—went to Becky’s. It had rained a week earlier, and Hamrick, who farmed near a river, lost an acre to flooding. They talked of field tile—the cost of it. How the tile was installed.
Ellis finished his eggs. Drank his coffee.
He checked his beans coming back and saw that the rain had made them greener. Then he went to the house and looked for Ruth in the bedroom. He’d call the pilot, he thought, because his fields needed spraying, and he’d tell Ruth, who he knew would be pleased.
She wasn’t in the bed or the bathroom. Ellis sat in his chair. Probably she was in the barn again. He fell asleep in the chair, and when he woke, it was noon. He put his boots on. He went to the barn.
Ellis walked slowly. He found her in the barn, like he thought, where she lay prone near the door. He saw her cranium crushed like a pop can.
He put his hand on the scar along the side of her face. The horses were near the stock tank. Their tails were long like Ruth’s hair had been. Their tails sometimes twitched.
They’d been startled. They’d kicked. It had landed.
The long rows of soybeans reached like threads to forever. He sat on the gate to the pasture, and he stared at the field. The rows were straight like a pattern. Precise.
The horses raised their ears when he called to them. He carried apples in his jacket pockets, and when he hopped from the fence, he gave the fruits to the horses. He stroked their coats. Brushed the flies from their shoulders.
—Let’s go in, Ellis said to them. Come.
He went to the barn, where he’d found her. He passed the place where it happened and took the scoop from the feedbag. The gelding drank from the tank. The mare waited.
Ellis emptied the scoop in the mangers and moved aside for the horses. Their steps were heavy and patient. For a time, he’d weighed selling them, but the horses were hers.
He touched the flank of the mare and went out.
It was dusk and was still. He walked the path to the house. Weeks before, coming in, he’d heard a horse and its buggy. He’d stood in the gravel driveway, and he saw Amos, who steered the horse. His sisters were with him. The sisters waved when they passed and rode on.
He never spoke with Ruth’s family. He saw Abel once, outside Becky’s, after breakfast with Bowen.
—Will you keep them? asked Bowen.
—I plan to.
Ellis paid his check at the counter and crossed the street, where his truck was. There was a park a block over where Amish gathered on Sundays. There were girls on the swing set in bonnets.
Abel was in the shade of an elm and muttered something in Schwyzer. A man beside him drank Sunkist as Abel picked at his beard.
Abel looked at him. Turned. Walked away.
Sometimes, when he missed her, he’d hum a song that Ruth sang. He didn’t know what its words were but knew what it meant.
Ellis felt it.
Its notes were like Ruth.