Walnut Creek, Ohio, 1883
Amish Midwife Sara Lapp stopped at the base of the farmhouse steps and tilted her head, as much to keep the autumn wind from slipping beneath her black wool crown-bonnet as to meet the eyes of the man towering above her on his porch.
Adam Zuckerman stood taller and more forbidding than usual in the eerie pitch of night, even barefoot and unflinching on a cold porch floor. One suspender crossed his open-throated union suit, the other hung in a loop at his side -- an oversight that should make a man seem vulnerable. But Adam Zuckerman was as about as defenseless as a grizzly.
Sara swallowed and raised her chin, determined to say what no one else dared. "Abby should not be having another. You're killing her with so many babies so close."
Adam Zuckerman reared back as if struck, raising the hair at the nape of Sara's neck, skittering her heart.
Even the wind howled a wild lament.
A moment of fury claimed the taciturn man, another of rigid control, before he raised his lantern high, and examined her, inch by slow insulting inch. "What know you, Spinster Sara," said he, "of such things as should or should not happen between a man and his wife?"
A hit, dead center. Mortal -- or so it seemed. Spinster Sara. And if she called him mad, like the rest of the world did, how would he respond?
Mad Adam Zuckerman, whose scowl could stop a man cold, whose presence could turn children to stone, even his own . . . especially his own. Why had this self-chosen outcast, of all people, called her to tend his laboring wife, despite the community's stand against her?
No one could figure him out.
No one tried anymore.
Sara climbed to the porch, despite his defiant stance. "Time I looked in on Abby."
But Abby's husband stepped in her path. "Get out." That flash of emotion appeared again and vanished again.
She was the lesser of evils, Sara knew. None of her people -- man or woman -- wanted a man around during labor and birth, doctor or no, but without care, childbirth in their Ohio Amish Community was too-often deadly. "If you have no need for my skill as a midwife, why did you send for me?"
"Skill or no, the right to judge is not yours."
Given the accuracy of his statement, the catch in Adam's voice disturbed Sara. "But the right to save lives is," she said. "Leave Abby alone for a while after this."
His eyes went dark and hard as flint, making Sara look away, and pull her cape closed against a sudden chill.
A newborn cry rent the air, forcing their gazes to collide, Sara's born of shock, Adam's of regret. "Move aside and let me in," Sara said, but Adam turned, entered, and let the door shut in her face.
Raising an angry hand, Sara shoved it hard and smacked him good, taking no solace from the hit. Stepping into the farmhouse kitchen, she was assaulted by the lingering scents of smoked ham and cabbage. A kerosene lamp on the scarred oak table flickered and hissed, hazing the perimeter of the room, but Sara knew her way and made straight for the stairs.
She stopped and rounded on him. "For the love of God, Abby could be bleeding to death!"
Adam paled, defeat etching his features with an unforgiving blade until emotion dimmed and none was left. "She's not." He hooked that forgotten suspender over his shoulder with slow, even precision.
Not his words, but his misplaced action and calm voice gone brittle held her. Sara shivered. "Did you deliver the baby, then? Before I came?"
Adam did not move so much as a muscle, yet Sara watched, mesmerized, as he struggled to tear himself from some agonizing place. "She delivered it."
Despite the blaze in the hearth, cold assaulted Sara with knife pricks to her skin. "Then how do you--"
Her denial as involuntary as her sob, Sara grasped a chair-back for support, but none was to be found. Her pounding heart took over her being.
The babe's cry came again. Louder. Angrier.
The old walnut regulator clock grated in the silence -- the commencement of eternity marked in counterpoint to the commencement of life.
As if from nowhere, and without acknowledgment, a grudging if temporary amnesty flowered between Mad Adam Zuckerman and Spinster Sara Lapp. She read it in his eyes as clearly as she knew it in her soul, and she was shaken, because deep in a place she tried to keep sealed, Sara feared she had been altered.
But panic was not to be tolerated. There was death to deal with, and life. She took the stairs at a slow pace, no more prepared for one than the other.
As she approached Abby's room, Sara saw inside where a row of pegs lined the wall. One of Abby's dresses hung beside Adam's Sunday suit. If marriage had a picture, this would be it. On the floor below, an aged walnut bride's box sat open, baby clothes spilling out.
The babe in its cradle had fallen into a fitful sleep. Sara covered it with a second blanket and it sighed and slept on. When she stepped to the big bed, a second unfettered sob rocked her.
Tired. Even with her pain-etched features relaxed in death, Abby Zuckerman looked too tired to go on. Sara smoothed hair the color, scent and texture, of stale straw off her only friend's cool brow. "Time to rest, Ab."
Abby's bony arms above the quilt contrasted sharply with her swollen, empty belly beneath. Even as a child, Abby had been thin, but her skeletal form looked so much in keeping with death, of a sudden, that Sara wondered why she had never noticed it before.
Swallowing hard, whispering a silent prayer, Sara squeezed her friend's work-rough hand for the last time.
Just like Mom, Sara thought, ignoring the pull on her heart.
If only there'd been a midwife for Mom.
If only she'd been sent for earlier tonight. If only...
Sara looked up, far beyond yellowed ceiling plaster and slap-patched roof, farther even than dark, scudding clouds gravid with snow. "Miss you, Mom. Meet Abby Zuckerman. Be friends."
A sound from behind caught Sara's attention. Adam must think her daft as him. Everybody knew her mother died with her brother at his birth fifteen years before. She raised her chin and turned to face her nemesis.
"A man needs sons to help on the farm," he said, and waited, seeking understanding, Sara knew, but she did not have it to give. And after too long a time to be comfortable, he grunted and turned away. "Got to go milk. See to the babe."
From the top of the loft ladder, Adam Zuckerman gazed down at the little midwife whose passion for things beyond her control was greater than was good for her. Sometimes life cost dearly, he thought, too dearly to be borne. Spinster Sara had not yet learned this. He almost hoped she would never have to. His girls could use some of that passion.
He, however, had learned, for good or ill and at a very early age, that in life there were no choices, no control, none. It was the hardest lesson his father had ever taught him, and the most painful.
Adam descended the ladder at a plodding pace, postponing the inevitable for as long as possible. He'd plotted his course before sending for Sara, yet to give his plan voice, set it in motion, was infinitely more difficult than he expected. This was another of life's non-choices, however, and he must move forward with his intentions.
He'd heard once that a man raises his children the way he was raised, and once was enough.
No choice. None.
Adam led his silent way to the house, the would-be midwife's disapproval stabbing between his shoulder blades.
In the dawn-lit kitchen, somehow emptier for the loss of its mistress, Adam turned to face the woman who would never be a midwife if he had his way.
"The children will be awake soon," he said. "When they are, you take them." His voice cracked with the words -- words that would both save and damn him. Impatient with himself, he cleared his throat. "Keep them."
Spinster Sara, never at a loss, stilled.
Time stood as if suspended.
"The children?" she asked. "Your children? Keep them?"
A lump, scratchy, choking, and big as a hay bale, caught in Adam's throat. It swelled and tightened his chest. He could barely draw breath. For the sake of his children, he could not turn back. The nod he gave her was weak, but strong enough, because for the first time in his memory, the rebellious spinster looked as if she did not have all of life's answers.
"What are you talking about?" Even her voice trembled.
Sending his children away was the only way to protect them; his father had taught him that at least. And it had not taken half the punishment the devil doled out for him to learn it.
Just remembering brought a measure of sanity. Adam shifted and squared his shoulders. "Take them home with you. Raise them."
Sara's flash of almost childlike wonder turned so quickly to shock, Adam doubted seeing it, but even the possibility gave him hope. "I'll pay you."
"Mein Gott, you are mad."
"So they say." Madness, he believed, ran in his family.
"You can't mean till they're grown."
Forever, he prayed. "For a while . . . until I can make other arrangements." Until you cannot bear to let them go, he thought. It would happen. He knew it would. He only hoped Sara's strength and determination -- misplaced though it was with midwifing -- worked in his children's favor, rather than in her ability to part with them.
"If this is grief," she said. "You have an odd way of showing it. Those children are yours. You're their father."
"Abby wanted you to have them." Adam hated the heat of embarrassment that consumed him -- for the simple lie, yes, but more for the canker that created the need for lies. He wasn't getting away with it, though. Sara's expression demanded more. He sighed. "They need you," which was truer than she would ever know. "They don't need me and I don't need them." Not wholly true, but close enough so it didn't matter.
"Right. They're just babes, not good for much. They can't help on the farm."
"That's so." Adam turned to hide the agony clawing at his belly and climbed the stairs to his bedroom. He was aware that Sara followed, because that knife slid deeper between his shoulders.
He watched her wrap the babe tighter and lift it from the cradle, the mighty hand of fate squeezing his chest, forcing the breath again from his lungs.
Abby would have been pleased to die giving him a son, but she would have thought she failed otherwise. He had not had the heart -- beyond ascertaining that the swaddled babe in his dead wife's arms lived -- to discover whether Abby had died fulfilled.
"What is it?" he asked.
The woman touching a tiny hand to her lips, the one who thought she could save the world, looked sharply up and all but hissed. "A babe. An innocent."
Another, he could not love. "A girl," he said, covering defect with indifference. "I guessed as much." He was almost glad. A boy would have made Sara stab him with the question of whether a son was worth the cost of his mother's life.
It was not.
Adam knelt by his wife's bed, lifted her thin, work-rough hand and turned it to stroke her callused palm with his thumb. When emotion threatened to swamp him, he reminded himself that grief and punishment must wait. Urgent matters needed settling.
Abby had promised to protect the children. Now he needed someone else to do it. Someone willful and single-minded to the point of stubbornness, someone strong -- stronger than Abby. Someone who would fill their lives with butterflies and sunshine.
Adam whispered a prayer for the dead and was surprised to hear Sara recite it with him, surprised she was still there. When he finished, he allowed his gratitude to show, but he could see she didn't understand that he was grateful for so much more than her prayer.
Sara watched Adam stroke Abby's cheek and turned from a sight too intimate to witness, her anger tempered by bafflement, her embarrassment by yearning. She had sometimes secretly longed for a husband's touch, though never from such a husband as this.
"You think I killed her," he said, surprising her, forcing her to gaze, again, upon the sight of a man grieving for his beloved wife, but Sara was too bewildered to answer.
"I think you're right," he said, and Sara knew, not the satisfaction she might have expected, but an astonishing need to offer comfort. Rather than give it, she reminded herself that this was the man who would give away his children.
Adam threw aside Abby's blanket and cringed at so much blood. "Why? How?" he asked, his gaze locked on the gruesome sight, his question filled with torment.
Choked of a sudden with remorse over her earlier accusation, which now appeared horribly prophetic, Sara raised her hand toward Adam's back. But she lowered it again without making contact. A man such as he would not welcome solace, not from anyone, but especially not from her.
She saw no sign of the afterbirth. Abby had bled to death. "It wasn't--" Sara swallowed to soothe her aching throat. "Sometimes--" She shook her head. "I'm not a doctor, just a midwife. It might not ... I mean it can happen with the first or tenth, close together or not. I am sorry for your loss, sorry for judging. I was wrong."
As if he had not heard her feeble attempt at absolution -- as if she had a right to give it! -- Adam lifted his wife in his arms.
"What are you doing?"
Again, he seemed surprised by her presence. "Get out," he shouted for the second time that night.
Her involuntary step back seemed to recall him to his surroundings. He shook his head as if to clear it, looked back at his wife, touched the sleeve of her bloody gown and sighed. "I need to wash and dress her for her final journey. Roman went for the casket after he fetched you."
Sara stilled. Roman had dropped her at the end of the drive and kept going. Had he received the request for a casket before he fetched her? Had Adam sent for her after Abby died? It made no sense. No, she must be mistaken, as she could very well be about this man. Abby had once implied as much.
Adam placed Abby back on her bed. "Dress and feed the girls," he said, sounding suddenly tired. "I hear them stirring."
"Let me wash Ab. The girls will need you."
"No! By God they won't!" His fury was back with a vengeance, but it was nothing to his aversion. If he disliked his children so much, they would be better off with her. Was it because they were girls? Boys, he had wanted, to help with the farm.
"Go to them." This was an order, and Mad Adam Zuckerman issued orders to be obeyed.
"I cannot take them." Sara wondered why she refused to accept what she'd wanted forever, children, a family -- however temporary -- a treasure she had almost given up hoping for.
One of the two suitors in her life had said there would be no children for her. She was as bossy as a man, he said, too bossy to bed. The other had not been as kind.
Four little girls. Oh, Lord, she wanted them as dreadfully much as she wanted to be a midwife, but she could not take them. She could not.
They were his. Not hers.
"It's because you'll have to give up midwifing if you take them, isn't it?" Abby's angry husband asked. "Giving up would be hard for a stubborn one like you." He looked her up and down in that icy way of his and Sara wondered how a look so cold could make her so hotly aware of her own shortcomings. "Well, what is it to be, Spinster Sara?" he asked. "Children of your own? Or a life of watching others bear fruit while you wither on the vine?"
Another hit, more direct, more painful. Sara squared her shoulders to hide the hurt. "Even if I could take them -- which I cannot -- I would not give up delivering babies." Sometimes she felt as if she could do anything. Most times she knew better. But taking Abby's girls away from their father was wrong. She could not help noticing that a barely-discernible discord existed between Mad Adam Zuckerman's words and his actions, between what could be seen and heard, and what could not. Ab would have told her she wanted her to take the girls in the event something happened. Besides, Sara sensed that deep down Adam Zuckerman did not want to give away his children. So why was he?
Perhaps this was why they called him mad.
Adam sighed, in defeat or weariness, Sara could not tell. "Take them till after the funeral then. Please."
Adam Zuckerman, pleading? "Why me?"
He considered for too long, she thought, as if he were choosing and discarding a series of possible answers. "You have no one," he simply said. "No one."
Unable to bear the pain in that truth, Sara silently took the newest Zuckerman to her fast-beating heart and into the kitchen to wash, and when the babe opened her big Zuckerman eyes, Sara was lost.
Before long, the mite was clean and soft in Sara's arms, her tiny heart-shaped mouth pursed in sleep, her full head of chestnut hair a fluff of wayward curls.
Sara shut out the pain and absorbed the pure and simple pleasure of human contact. She rocked, hummed, and savored, until four-year-old Lizzie, ranked-and-professed big-sister, barefoot, hair in her eyes, dress on backward, entered the kitchen from the enclosed stairway and came right to her. "Hi Sara, what you got?"
Before Sara could answer, from the enclosed stairway came a bit of whining and some childish Penn Dutch chatter. Then three-year-old Katie, all smiles, curly hair and big eyes, dragged Pris over. Two-year-old Priscilla, eyes downcast, pouting as usual, companion-blanket in hand, stepped behind Katie.
Sara reached over and tugged on the blanket, drawing forth the shy, sullen Zuckerman who had just been displaced as baby of the family. Pris looked, not at Sara but at the floor. Sara lowered her head to see Pris's face, and with a whine, the child lowered hers even more.
This continued until Pris was on all fours, whining for all she was worth, brow touching the floor. What had always seemed a game to Sara disturbed her more than she would like, though she'd never followed it through to this sad conclusion before.
"Pretty Pris," she said, not daring to touch those dark curls. And she would be pretty, Sara thought, if she were not so sulky.
With nut-brown hair and storm-gray eyes, they were, all three, the image of Adam Zuckerman. Lord, and weren't they the most beautiful little girls in the world. Sara wanted to gather them up, hug them tight, and protect them forever.
"Where's Mommie?" Lizzie asked.
The pain in Sara's heart might have come from a blade, it cut so sharp. They had no Mommie anymore. They had no one. She shook her head in denial and determination. Even if she didn't take them home with her, they had her now. Sara held the baby forward so they could see her. "Look what you've got. A new sister."
"What's her name?" Katie asked.
"I waited for you to wake up so we could name her together. Let's each say a name, then pick the one we like best."
"Noodle!" Katie shouted on a giggle.
But Lizzie was, as usual, serious and wise. "Can we call our baby Hannah? Mommie said Hannah, if we got another sister." She ran across the kitchen. "I'll go ask her." But Lizzie stopped in her tracks and stood stiff-backed and unmoving, because her father suddenly filled the entrance to the enclosed stairway.
For each of Adam's steps into the kitchen, his oldest took one backward, never removing her gaze from his.
Sara feared he'd tell them their mother was dead in his cold, harsh way. But she needn't have worried, he didn't tell them anything; he just passed them by.
Katie ran after him, "Datt, Datt. My got a baby. My want Mommie, Datt. My's hungry."
He ignored his high-spirited daughter, the only one who did not seem afraid of him. "Sara will feed you," he growled.
"We named the baby, Hannah!" Sara yelled at his back as the door slammed behind him. She was right. He didn't care.
With Lizzie's help, Sara got Katie and Pris dressed and fed, her need to weep having less to do with not knowing how to care for the girls and more to do with the joy Abby would never know.
Stooping down, Sara bundled Lizzie in her cape and bonnet to send her to the barn. "Go ask your Datt for a lambing bottle so I can feed Hannah some milk. I'll watch you from the window."
Shaking her wise little head, Lizzie placed her hands on each side of Sara's face, as if she must pay strict attention. "No, Sara. Mommie will feed Hannah with her Mommie's milk."
Sara swallowed hard and blinked to clear her vision. She covered Lizzie's small hands against her face with her own. "We're going to try the bottle for Hannah. Cow's milk will make her strong."
That must have made sense to Lizzie, because she nodded and skipped off on her errand.
As Sara watched the child approach the barn through the window, she touched her cheek to baby Hannah's and let her tears fall. Behind her, Katie giggled and Pris whined.
In the lower level of his huge bank barn, Adam paced. Cows lowed. A mule kicked its stall. Ginger ran to and fro barking needlessly. Even the sheep in their pens bleated; the stupidest animals God created, and even they knew something was terribly wrong.
Why had he let Abby talk him into trying again for a boy? Yes, he wanted sons. A man did need sons on a farm. Everyone knew that. But not at such a cost.
Dear God, Ab, what have I done?
She might have been content with the girls, but she thought giving him a son would make him love her. He never did succeed in making her understand that he couldn't love anyone, for their own good.
"I do this because I love you." He could hear the words in his father's voice, words he could not, would not, say to his children, not to another soul, for the cruelty doled out in their wake was not to be borne. Love. He could never dare feel it.
Abby had known and said she accepted it. She had known enough to protect the children. Now she was gone and it was his fault. He hadn't let himself love her, and still he destroyed her.
Adam punched a hay bale, over and over, until his knuckles bled. He wanted to hit something bigger, harder, throw his whole body into the fight, but he couldn't. Not yet. His punishment for killing Abby could wait until after her girls were settled.
He couldn't keep them. Not alone. Not without somebody who cared enough to keep them safe. Without Abby, no one was left who knew why but him, and he wanted to keep it that way. Neither he nor Abby had family. Ab had said that together, with their children, they were a family, but what was a family with no heart?
Only one person in the district whose heart he knew, because she was the only one ever came close enough ... Spinster Sara.
Sara visited Abby -- not often -- but when she did, usually when he was away, Abby chattered on for days after about Sara.
She'd damned near leveled him with a barn-board at Zook's barn-raising, and that was the first time he set eyes on her. At fellowship meals after service, Sara often served him first. Looked him right in the eye, she did. Wasn't afraid of anybody, that one. Spoke her mind.
Lord, she drove people crazy with speaking her mind. She was fractious all right. He'd often thought she served him just to prove she could handle anyone. Look at her trying to become a midwife. She was in for a fight with that. The whole district was set against her.
Spinster Sara. Midwife Sara.
Scrapper Sara, more like.
Bad enough she'd been earning her own living for years with her salves and remedies. Now she was trying to learn doctoring, something no woman should. Worse, she was going about it all wrong. Spending weeks in the company of the English doctor ... it was scandalous, immoral, a man and a woman tending to the intimate needs of a woman in labor, sometimes overnight. Adam clenched his fists and gritted his teeth.
And, Sara, unmarried on top of it.
He'd once lost his temper over her foolishness, and Ab had laughed at him and-- Adam stopped pacing, struck in an almost physical way with shock and remorse. Here he stood, consumed with fury at another woman, when his own wife had just died.
Ah, and here, in loud and rattling reproach, came the cabinet-maker with his spring wagon bearing Abby's casket. His father was right. He was worthless. He'd failed as a son, and now as a husband and father. He was defective, body and soul. His children didn't need him. They needed Sara. Already he'd seen her give them a mother's smiles.
Sara would take good care of Abby's girls.
When she'd drawn them to her, without extending so much as a finger, and let them name their sister, he knew he'd been right to send for her.
And Sara was right too. He'd killed Abby as surely as that empty casket sat waiting for her body. God he could still hear Ab weeping for a son. He'd hated himself for his weakness, had vowed if she weren't pregnant after that one time, she would never be again. But she was.
And now she was gone.
Adam looked down, toward the barest whisper of sound, and wondered when his oldest daughter had arrived to stand before him. Lizziebelle.
He fisted his hands at his side to keep from reaching for her.
"Why can't Mommie feed Hannah with her Mommie's milk?"
Adam leaned against the lambing pen, seeking balance in a careening world. Guilt. Hard. Raw. He swallowed and forced himself to take a breath, and needed two more before he could speak. "What did Sara say?" he asked in a voice that did not sound like his own.
"That you would give me a lambing bottle and we would feed Hannah cow's milk to make her strong."
Adam nodded and turned his back on his motherless child, because for the life of him, if he did not, he would gather her up and ... condemn her to the punishment love enforced.
The girls played quietly in Abby's sewing room while Sara rocked baby Hannah and fed her milk from the boiled bottle and nipple.
Abby's body would soon be carried in an open box from her bedroom into her best room.
At the very thought, the sharp claws of anxiety clenched Sara's every muscle, holding her captive in the same way it had fifteen years before.
Her mother's labor had gone on for more than a day. Her father had set off in an ice storm for the doctor ... and died in a ditch with a broken neck.
Sara had been fifteen when she'd taken that lifeless baby boy and placed him in her mother's weak arms. Fifteen, when she'd pushed wadded towels between Mama's legs to stop the blood ... but watched her life drain away, instead.
The next morning, in a house gone silent, Sara had stepped into the best room to see three caskets -- two large, and one too tiny to bear. Crude boxes with covers to smother.
She'd had trouble breathing then.
She had trouble breathing now.
Once again, panic rushed her. Abby's girls were too young to see such a sight. But Sara couldn't take them, not from their father. It would be the greatest cruelty to lose both parents at once; no one knew that better than her.
And yet, with such a parent?
Her mind scrambled for an answer, examining and discarding every possibility, until....
If she took the girls ... for a time ... and taught their father, somehow, to know and love them.... It seemed an impossible task, and yet Abby said there was something worthy hiding deep inside Adam Zuckerman, something he wanted to keep buried. Sara thought she had glimpsed a shadow of that something today. She was almost certain of it. Besides, what choice did she have?
She wasn't sure which would be more difficult, reforming Mad Adam Zuckerman or letting his children go once she loved them. Except that wasn't even a consideration, because she loved them already.
Sara rose and went to the window. The clouds were dark and angry still. She sought guidance from beyond the firmament, but neither faith nor entreaty would come, only anger, and in her heart, she gave it voice. I won't let them lose both parents, she informed He who seemed to have abandoned them, almost expecting thunder and lightening in reply. Then she admitted that she could not do it alone and whispered, "Help. Please." But neither comfort nor response was forthcoming.
"Fine then," she snapped. "I'll do it myself. And this time I won't fail."
Sara hurried to the bottom of the stairway. "Adam," she shouted, angry with God for not listening, and with Adam for ... everything. "Adam, come down here, now!"
Like a mule team spooked by a jackrabbit, he came, but he stopped when he saw her, his face pale and taut, his breath short.
"I'll take them," she said. "Until after the funeral," she added in a rush. "And if I'm called to deliver a babe while I have them, I'll go if I have to take them with me."
Adam hesitated then nodded once, his relief so apparent, Sara thought she might have imagined the wretchedness that preceded it. "Shut Abby's door," she said. "I'm taking them upstairs to get their things. I'll tell them about Abby later. It's best they think of their mother smiling and happy in heaven, not cold and silent in a box."
Another single nod, a hard swallow. "I won't show her till you're gone."