In the church-like silence of the Pennsylvania night, a clothesline of white nightdresses billowed like captured ghosts above the grass. Dark fields drenched in dew stretched out in all directions, the careful rows of tobacco plants and corn waiting for their time to come. At the edge of the farmland, on a small hill above the house, stood an imposing oak tree. It looked down at the property like a sentinel.
Two small figures ran from the house in the direction of the tree: a pair of girls in long white nightgowns like the ones hanging from the line. The older one, Rose, looked around ten, the younger, Lydia, eight. Their bare feet slipped in the dewy grass as they ran up the hill amidst hushed giggles, both throwing nervous glances back towards the house.
Rose made it to the oak tree first and knelt beside it, setting down the thing she was carrying: a simple wooden box the size of a bread loaf, with a small heart carved roughly into its lid.
“Hurry up,” Rose whispered in Pennsylvania Dutch.
“I’m slipping,” Lydia said as she struggled up the dew-soaked hill. She joined Rose by the oak tree but hesitated to sit down. Her eyes fell on the dirt seeping into the hem of Rose’s white nightgown. Rose rolled her eyes.
“We’ll be in trouble.”
“There’s no one here to see.”
Lydia pointed a single finger upwards towards the dark sky.
Rose ignored her.
“Did you bring it?” she asked.
Lydia nodded solemnly. She knelt, wincing slightly at the feel of dirt against the fabric and produced a kitchen knife from her nightdress pocket. She handed it over. Rose opened the lid of the little wooden box and placed it on the ground between them.
“I don’t want to. It’ll hurt.”
“It’s a pact,” Rose said, holding up the knife. “We have to do it with blood or it won’t count.”
“What’s a pact?”
“It’s like a promise.”
Lydia bit her lip, steeling herself, then nodded bravely.
Rose held the knife to her palm, her confidence wavering a little as the cold metal touched her skin. She took a deep breath and drew the blade across, leaving a thin red line of gently pooling blood.
She passed the knife to Lydia, but the younger girl looked up at her with creases of worry lining her forehead.
“Will you do it for me?”
Rose took back the knife, took Lydia’s hand, and quickly made a shallow cut. Lydia winced but tried to hide it. Rose grasped Lydia’s bleeding hand in hers above the open box.
“A pact,” she said. “Wherever one of us goes, the other goes there too. Promise?”
A chill night breeze whistled around the tree, rustling their hair. From between their two clasped hands, a few droplets of blood fell into the box. Rose nodded, the ritual complete. She moved to release Lydia’s hand, but Lydia grabbed it back.
“Even when we’re dead.”
Lydia stared her down with an intense, almost accusatory expression. “Promise if you go to heaven you won’t go without me.”
“That means if you go to hell, I’ll have to go there too.”
The two girls stared at each other as the gravity of that sunk in. Even at ten and eight, it seemed like a thing of great magnitude to pin your eternal fate on another human being.
After a long moment, Rose nodded.
As the blue glow of dawn seeped across the horizon, a car sped down the desolate rural roadside. Rose King sat behind the wheel. Now twenty-four, she had brown hair in a short, jagged cut, and a face of heavy makeup that had probably looked great earlier in the night but now was smudged and harrowing. A vivid bruise was taking shape around her left eye.
Rose killed the headlights as she slowed the car to a crawl. It would be less risky to choose a random house, but she knew where her father had always kept the shovels in the barn, and she could be in and out in seconds. She mentally mapped her silent entry as she sunk lower in the driver’s seat: around the house and to the back, up the hill where the old oak tree lived, down the other side past the tobacco field, into the big red barn, to the workbench on the left, and then back again like a ghost. They’d never know she was there. She would dig the hole in one of the countless desolate stretches of land nearby, do what needed to be done, then be on the road. She’d head west. She wasn’t quite sure where.
But as the car crept along the dirt driveway that led to the house, a strange feeling settled over Rose. She squinted through the dirty windshield into the darkness ahead. It was hard to register why the place felt different, but as she drew closer she began to notice how overgrown the yard was. Long, scraggly weeds spilled into the driveway, reclaiming their territory. Rose stopped the car and after a moment of hesitation, flicked on the headlights to illuminate the farmhouse up ahead. There were sheets of plywood covering the windows; green tendrils poked up through the slats of the porch.
Her childhood home sat abandoned and forgotten.
As Rose parked on the dirt driveway—there was no need for secrecy now—and made her way to the porch, fragments of memory floated past her like dust in the breeze, uncatchable and indistinct. The plywood board on the window near the door gave way easily under her fingers, and she climbed inside the darkened house.
The interior was just as haunted. She stood in the silent, empty living room and wondered if, somehow, she’d escaped from time; if maybe she’d died on the drive from Philadelphia and been sent here to dwell alone forever.
The old wood floors creaked beneath her. Rose’s hand traced the path of the carved wood banister as she drifted up the stairs. The bedroom doors in the upstairs hallway had all been shut, except for the one at the farthest end. It stood slightly ajar, the smallest sliver of pale dawn light creeping through its crack. An image of two small girls running towards that door, sharing secrets and code behind it, flickered in Rose’s mind—but another image took its place: the car she’d parked outside in the driveway. A dark presence lurking in its trunk. A job to do.
The tools were where she’d thought they’d be; the old barn behind the house had been left untouched. Its roof had begun to sag in on itself. Rose wondered why they’d left everything in here as she took a shovel from the workbench and headed back outside. It was easier to wonder things like that than to wonder where they had gone.
She drove the car to the farthest corner of the unused field behind the house. Even when this place had been lived in, they’d never used this spot for crops. Her father had tried growing corn there once and the stalks had grown up withered and brown. He’d declared the small square of land cursed by the Lord and had never tried growing anything there again.
Dawn was rising quickly. Rose stood in front of the trunk of the parked car and told herself to act now; it would be better in the half-dark before she had to see it all more clearly. She ignored the pounding sensation in her chest, the throbbing fear around her temple, and she opened the trunk.
There, crumpled in an unnatural heap, was the dead body of a man. His wide, blank eyes reflected the few stars left hanging overhead.
Blood had pooled on the upholstery from a small round wound on his head. She’d need to get rid of the entire car. How? Where? Then what? Rose stopped herself before panic could take over. One step at a time.
She grasped the cold, rubbery skin of the dead man’s arm and pulled hard. It had taken so long to get him in the trunk. It wasn’t like the movies; it was like a goldfinch trying to take flight with a bag of wet cement.
Rose pulled harder. The man came halfway out of the trunk and flopped backwards, his arms dangling towards the grass in a way that might have been comical if it wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever seen. She gave a final pull, and he fell onto the ground with a final thump. She took him by the ankles and began to drag him deeper into the field.
The smell of death and blood wasn’t completely unfamiliar to her, having grown up on a farm. There was always some animal dying or giving birth, always some unconscious understanding that life was a cycle and inevitably it would end. In the Amish church everything anyone did was done with the implicit goal of living again after death. But the path to heaven, she’d been taught, was narrow.
The dead body of the man she’d killed left a soft trail in the grass as she dragged it.
The pot of water on the stove boiled over; the tea kettle began to shriek; an infant’s high-pitched sobs and whines rang out from somewhere in another room.
Lydia stood still in the middle of the kitchen and pressed her hands to her face as the volume of the chaos swelled around her. If she could just remember what quiet felt like…if she could just find one moment’s peace…
A pair of small hands tugged at her from somewhere around her knees.
“MAMA!” her daughter Anna shouted from the floor.
Lydia scooped up the toddler and balanced her on her hip as she rushed to move the boiling pot and kettle. In the next room, the infant’s wailing intensified.
The Stoltzfus house was spartanly furnished and fastidiously clean. Lydia had kept it that way ever since she’d moved in five years ago at the age of seventeen, taking up the mantle of its previous female caretaker who’d died of breast cancer the year before. Five years on and she still felt like a visitor here. Her husband’s late wife was one of many topics she’d never been explicitly instructed not to mention but had gotten the memo just the same. Aaron was forty-nine and the loss had hit him hard. Everyone in town had been relieved when he’d chosen Lydia as his replacement. It was tragic, of course, that he’d lost his wife, but at the same time, though no one would say it openly, it had also been tragic that that wife had never been able to give him children; maybe this was the Lord’s way of granting him a family. God works in unknowable ways.
“Thank you, Lord, for this bounty, and may we go forth and serve in your honor this day and every day.” Aaron, seated at the head of the table, bowed his head of thinning hair as he spoke the blessing in Pennsylvania Dutch.
On the other side of the wooden expanse, Lydia clasped her hands in prayer and fought the blasphemous thought that it was she and not God who deserved thanks for this bounty, being the one who’d cooked it. She assigned herself an extra few minutes of prayer as penance.
Her mother, Sarah, blessed herself with somber gratitude. She’d moved in with them a few years back after Lydia’s father had passed. It had been so sudden; one day he was here and the next he simply wasn’t. “Gone to his just reward,” as the Amish elders liked to say. Little Anna sat beside Lydia, and six-month-old Rebecca lay nearby in a crib that once was Lydia’s.
It was once someone else’s too—but thoughts of this person were not allowed, and to speak of her would be unforgivable.
Breakfast passed in silence. Most meals in Aaron’s house passed in silence. The air hung heavy here.
And then when the ritual of the family meal was done, there was another to contend with. Lydia lay on her back in bed and tried to focus on the familiar sound of wood knocking rhythmically against drywall. She heard it sometimes in her sleep, that knocking sound, and she would wake up in a state of fear only to breathe an exhale of relief when she saw her husband still asleep beside her. But right now, he was wide awake and on top of her, thrusting as he always did with a strange, unplaceable anger in his eyes. The headboard knocked against the wall like it was keeping score.
As Aaron came in silence, the phrase his just reward echoed in Lydia’s head like a sick and twisted joke. She thought wistfully of dying, then assigned herself more penance.
Main Street was always bright and assaultive in the mornings. Rose blinked away the sunlight and stood on the sidewalk like a lost child as her eyes adjusted.
It felt so strange being back here.
The town was a bizarre meld of old and new: an Amish quilt shop beside a Starbucks, horse-drawn buggies sharing the road with cars. Although the Amish tried to keep to themselves, they were also a community that lived on tourist dollars. Once when she and Lydia were small, they’d been waiting for their mother outside a shop, dressed in their plain dresses and little white bonnets, and a woman had come right up and snapped a photo of them. Eventually you got used to being an animal in a zoo.
A dirt-streaked buggy clip-clopped down the road and rolled to a stop outside the general store across the street.
Rose watched it in slow motion—
Daniel Fisher hopped down from the driver’s seat.
She had never known him with a beard before, but now he had one. It looked strange on him. Adult. In the church, unmarried men stayed clean-shaven.
Daniel moved to the front of the buggy with the leather reins in hand, but his gaze drifted as he went to tie his horse. Before she could move, before she could wonder whether she wanted to, he looked across the street towards Rose and the two of them locked eyes. An electric current ran between them, cutting through the street, burning scorch marks in the air. Rose held his gaze and didn’t look away. She could feel herself turning to stone. A familiar hardened mask was slipping into place: the one she wore like a Kevlar vest against men who’d caused her harm.
Daniel seemed to sense it.
After an instant that seemed like a lifetime, he averted his now-flushed face to the ground in a gesture that could only mean one thing: shame. He rushed back around the buggy and climbed inside. The crack of a whip, the turn of the wheels, then the buggy sped off the way that it had come.
Thread through the needle.
Needle through the quilt.
Ten Amish women in plain blue dresses sat in a circle in a sparsely furnished living room. A huge, in-progress quilt was spread on a table in the center, and each woman held a piece of it and worked carefully on her corner of the fabric.
Lydia sat among them. Her eyes were dark with exhaustion, the hand that held her needle trembling slightly. She pulled the thread through her piece of the communal quilt; the stitches in her section were loose and messy. She winced as the needle stabbed into her index finger from below. A dot of bright red blood appeared and fell promptly onto the white fabric. She stared down at it. The sound of quiet chatter and polite laughs faded away into a tinny buzz. The ringing in her ears amplified until it was rattling her skull.
She could feel herself unraveling.
She looked up in alarm to find that everyone was staring at her.
Across the quilt on the other side of the room, her mother Sarah fixed her with a stern glare.
“Mrs. Yoder asked you a question.”
Mrs. Yoder, a thin, austere-looking elder, surveyed Lydia with pursed lips.
“I said, how are your girls?”
“They’re well,” Lydia said. Her head felt too light, her voice sounded too high-pitched.
“Children are a blessing,” one of the women chimed in with an admonishing edge in her voice.
“When can we expect your next one?” another asked.
Lydia stared at the tiny dot of blood on the quilt.
Something was gripping her—some cruel, invisible hand had wrapped around her and was squeezing. She could barely breathe; she couldn’t focus.
“Excuse me,” she mumbled, barely intelligible, and pushed back from the table in a frenzied scrape. The quilting circle watched in alarm as she hurried out the door.
Lydia stumbled out onto the porch and gripped the railing that ran along its edge, her chest heaving. She looked out at the field beyond the house. That idyllic, familiar shade of green. When she was little, she and Rose ran through the fields of Paradise like they were invincible. They didn’t know then that life looks different once you’re grown. They didn’t know anything. She wished she could go back to that.
The door opened and shut behind her with an angry thud. Lydia didn’t turn around.
“You’ve caused a scene.”
Sarah took Lydia’s arm and pulled her around to face her mother.
“What’s come over you lately?”
“Aaron wants another child.”
The words sunk like lead into Lydia’s chest as she spoke them. Sarah’s face, however, softened into a smile.
“Ma—” Lydia struggled to keep her voice even, but she could hear her own desperation. “I can’t remember the last time I slept. I can’t remember the last time I felt happy.”
“Your children are your happiness.”
“I can’t have more.”
She spoke it without meaning to, but she immediately knew that it was true. Sarah looked repulsed.
“You’re denying your husband more children?”
“I don’t know what to do,” Lydia whispered, her voice breaking. “Didn’t you ever feel like this?”
Sarah took her hand and, for just a second, looked at her with something close to pity. Lydia prayed for any small word of comfort. But Sarah’s gaze hardened, and she said simply,
“This is what we do.”
She dropped Lydia’s hand and slipped back inside the house.
The clock was ticking. Only a matter of time until someone in Philadelphia figured out what she’d done. And yet, instead of driving out of Paradise, Rose drove her blood-stained car back towards the abandoned house. All rational thought had left her. No room remained for fear or practicality. She accelerated to ninety along the rural highway lined with fields; if she got pulled over now, so be it.
The image of Daniel on the street pierced through her like a railroad spike. His beard and the unseen wife and family it implied. The casual way he’d hopped down from the buggy, just out running an errand, free to go about his business in the town where she was now an outlaw. The injustice of it burned at her insides until she felt she was collapsing from within. A burn so deep and scalding that nothing new could ever heal over it. Those secret meetings in the loft of the barn; in the backseat of a buggy; in the tall grass behind his father’s house; had they been worth all this?
The worst part was that she’d loved him enough to do things the way they were supposed to be done, even though that was never her forte. Enough for touchless daytime dates in the living room of her parents’ house, for quiet, respectful drives in an open-air buggy where the whole town could supervise their movements, for a politely accepted proposal and a marriage in the eyes of God. She had never been quite as singularly, obsessively religious as an Amish girl should be, but she would have done all that for Daniel. She did do all that for Daniel; shy of the marriage, anyway. But she’d done other things as well.
She’d felt nothing but a strange, hollow disbelief that night five years ago when she learned that Daniel had confessed their premarital sex to the Bishop. It was the same feeling she’d had last night, after a date with a john had turned violent and she found herself scrambling for the handgun she’d hoped she’d never need to use. This cannot be happening.
Daniel told her he’d done it out of guilt.
“I’m scared for our souls, Rose. Repent with me,” he’d begged, and Rose had felt her attraction to him vanish in a way she wouldn’t have believed possible.
She’d tried to repent. But her conversation with the Bishop, the head of her church and of her world, had shifted into a steely-eyed lecture on the wickedness of lustful women, the shame she should feel for having stolen the purity of an innocent young man, the evil she clearly embodied. Daniel had confessed the sin while weeping, and Rose had only admitted to it begrudgingly. It was clear to everyone who was to blame: the sinister temptress who had lured a young man away from God.
This temptress, the idea of her, had both horrified and fascinated Rose. There, in the Bishop’s study, she made a snap decision. She decided to become her: the sinister, lustful woman who dipped her brush in tar and painted over the once-clean souls of men. Heartless, unfeeling, and far from the narrow path to heaven. It was easier than being what she was: a heartbroken teenager being shamed by the leader of her church.
So, Rose told the Bishop she would not repent.
The old oak tree had been there for every moment of Rose’s childhood and now she stood under it again. The earth between her fingers was cool and damp. She pictured the man she’d buried in the field just down the hill as her fingers clawed the dirt. Finally, they scraped the smooth surface of a wooden box.
She pulled it up and into the light of the setting sun. Now that she had it in her hands, she wished she’d never dug it up. It seemed like a bomb assembled from all her mistakes that might explode at any second.
Meanwhile, down the hill and out of sight, Lydia walked with the strange sense of purpose that sometimes comes with giving up. She came here often, to the old-abandoned house. She’d leave the babies with a neighbor, tell them she needed to run an errand. Really, the errand was just the torture of remembering. She came here when she felt lost and alone but inevitably left feeling more so. But this time that didn’t seem possible. The old oak tree—how high was it, she wondered? What would happen, she thought calmly to herself, if she were to climb to the top and simply close her eyes and….
It came to her in a half-articulated thought that she barely allowed herself to turn over in her mind, like a smooth stone she held at the edge of a lake without throwing it.
Lydia’s boots slipped as she climbed the hill to the tree.
Rose heard her coming. She jolted upright in alarm, preparing for police, for Daniel, for the dead man’s friends—but froze at the sight of Lydia.
For a moment they stared at each other in disbelieving alarm the way a dog stares at his reflection in a mirror. Lydia opened her mouth to speak, but she stopped.
“Right. You’re not allowed to talk to me.” It came up so easily; the defensiveness and anger that Rose had left simmering beneath the surface for the last five years. She scoffed viciously; the mask slipped on with ease. “You always played by the rules. Let me break the bad news, Lydia: nobody’s watching. Nobody cares what you do or how good you act. Shun me if you want, it doesn’t—”
Lydia spoke the word like it was a pressed flower she’d been keeping in a book for years: delicate and precious, and maybe slightly secret. If there was anger in Lydia’s heart, it had been dulled by endless days of loneliness. At one time she’d been angry; livid even. She’d cursed Rose’s name for not repenting, for leaving her behind. But that anger drained away and left behind a dull ache that was constant and more painful. She had felt Rose’s loss like a phantom limb.
Rose stood in silence for what felt like an eternity, the chasm between them wide and insurmountable. Too much to say; so much that saying anything felt useless.
Lydia looked down at the box that Rose had just unearthed.
“I guess it’s broken now,” she said quietly.
The emptiness of that statement, the simple fact of it, spoken plainly with no emotion, hurt Rose like nothing else she’d felt thus far. Worse than the dead man in the trunk, worse than the empty skeleton of her childhood home, worse than Daniel on the street. It was the voice of someone who had given up. She didn’t know this version of Lydia. Looking at her was like staring into a funhouse mirror, the reflection warped and barely recognizable, but still so jarring. She didn't know her sister anymore. She didn’t know herself.
Rose felt the warnings of the coming storm as her throat tightened and her eyes began to sting, and then the cloud unleashed, and she was sobbing. She fell to her knees in the grass before the wooden box and wept into her hands like a child.
Lydia sat down beside her. Her face was blank, her chest hollow, but she touched her own cheek and her hand came away wet. Lydia looked down at the wooden box. It was comforting, she thought, that after all those years underground it looked exactly as it had the day they’d buried it. She looked at Rose, who met her gaze through silent tears. The sisters sat still for a moment, anchored by the weight of the little wooden time capsule that held their whole relationship inside.
The lid of the box creaked softly as Lydia opened it. There in the bottom, a long-dried drop of blood still lingered.
Rose flinched as Lydia reached towards her suddenly, but Lydia’s thumb just gently wiped the tears from Rose’s cheek. Lydia brought the tear-stained finger to her own face, then placed her hand in the box and pressed the mixture of their tears to the bottom, adding it to the keepsake of dried blood.
“Where you go, I go,” Lydia whispered.
The words felt like thorns to Rose. A reminder that she’d damned them both to hell. She wondered, for a second, if Lydia still believed in all that. She’d believed it herself for a long time, even after leaving Paradise, but now it seemed that the concept of hell was little more than the threat of detention lobbed at a disobedient schoolgirl. When you’re born without choices, the world chooses for you. There was not much more to say.
Rose stood up and turned to leave. But before she’d taken a single step, she felt Lydia’s hand grab onto hers, holding her in place.
Or maybe asking to come along.