This story is by Louisa Bauman and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Come on, Lydia! I’m ready to leave,” Aden calls, his voice echoing through the gold and crimson-treed farmyard.
Lydia Martin peeks out the window with flustered brown eyes, while stabbing the last hairpin into the smooth coils of her black hair bun.
“Oh no! I haven’t changed my dress yet!”
Racing up the stairs two at a time, she throws open the closet door. The turquoise rose dress is missing! Oh yes, she’d worn it the other day and forgot to throw it in the wash. With frantic fingers, she riffles through the other dresses on the hangers. Plum daisy can’t be worn because the hem is halfway down and besides, Jesse saw her in that last week. The green doesn’t fit right.
Her eyes move to her sister Hannah’s side of the closet. Hannah is seventeen, one year older than Lydia, and there’s her new plum rose. Hmmm. Should she, or shouldn’t she? Pausing only a second longer, she grabs it and puts it on. She throws her sunbonnet on her head, and snatches the eggs and the fall vegetables her mother is donating to the barn-raising.
Aden’s horse, Billy, is eager to get going and scrapes his hooves on the gravel driveway. Lydia scrambles over the side of the two-wheeled sulky, and off they go, clattering down the country road. Billy holds his chestnut head high, his mane flowing and his ears perked forward. He picks up his feet in a high-stepping trot as they skim along in the blue-skied fall morning. Lydia admires the countryside, loving the hills and valleys adorned with old maple trees, the black squirrels dashing along their branches. The autumn breeze dances merrily over the road with the blushing-red and vibrant-orange leaves.
At the barn-raising, hammers are banging and saws are buzzing, the song of men hard at work. The barn must be finished before winter! Jesse, a blue-eyed dream of a guy, is one of the carpenters. Is today the day he will notice her? Lydia jumps off the sulky and runs to the house. Women laugh while peeling potatoes, and girls dump ice into buckets of water to carry to the thirsty workers.
“Salinda!” Lydia whoops, spotting her best friend, “Let’s carry drink together!”
The two girls grasp the handle of the pail, and head outside to the building site. Busy men swarm all over the place, and Lydia wonders how they all know just what to do. Is Jesse here? Her gaze sweeps over the dozens of men, hoping to see a certain yellow hard hat.
Jesse! He never notices her. She absently offers a tumbler of water to an older man, and he eyes her curiously.
“And who are you?”
“I’m Joseph’s Lydia.” She doesn’t know him either but she doesn’t ask his name.
The girls move on to the next worker, and while he drains his tumbler, Lydia tilts her head and peers up to the bare wooden roof trusses of the barn. A bunch of young men are tacking on sheeting. There he is, up on the trusses, a part of the glorious autumn sky! He looks down. At her? Hard to tell with those sunglasses on. She’s not minding her business, and trips on a piece of lumber on the ground, groaning when she hears Hannah’s dress rip. It’s caught on a nail. Of course Jesse would be looking now, just when she wishes he wouldn’t.
Salinda suppresses giggles as she helps her up, and Lydia surveys the dress for damage. Would she have to go around with a holey dress for the rest of the day? What would Hannah do to her? There was a small tear close to the hem, but it might as well be a foot long. Lydia doesn’t feel like carrying the rest of the water; but she brushes herself off and keeps going, her eyes firmly on the ground. She feels like a complete fool, and it almost spoils her day. But not quite. Dipping into the water pail with a tumbler, she hands it to an outstretched male hand without looking up.
Salinda clears her throat. Lydia looks up. She has just given Jesse a drink of water, and he has a wide grin on his sun-tanned face. Lydia’s face becomes hot, and she doesn’t know where to look. When had he come down? Had he really seen her fall, and come to offer medical attention?
“Are you alright?” Jesse asks, concern clouding his face.
“Me?” Lydia blushes. “Um, yes.”
Jesse returns the tumbler, “You sure?”
Lydia nods, embarrassed at his attention. When he slowly returns to work, Lydia watches him, almost forgetting to keep moving with Salinda. Was Jesse alarmed when she fell? Probably he thinks she’s clumsy. And there’s the ripped dress to worry about. She’s not going to carry drink anymore.
Long plywood tables are set up in the lawn, under the orange and golden trees, and she helps carry food from the house. A long, long row of dinnerplates is already placed. The bread is warming in the sun. Dishes of crunchy coleslaw, plates heaped with slices of garden-fresh tomatoes, platters of chocolate-chip cookies, generous bowls of applesauce, delicious-looking fruit pies, are set out. Then come steaming bowls of potatoes, roast beef, pitchers of fragrant gravy, buttery orange and yellow vegetables. Everything is made at the farmhouse, lovingly prepared by the wives and daughters of the community.
The dinner whistle blows, and the workers swarm towards the house like a colony of ants returning to the anthill. With gusto, the men devour their meal, while women scurry about refilling bowls or washing dishes. When the men are finished, the women eat. The men take a break under the trees, sitting on the crackling leaves. Some boys begin to sing, and Lydia notices Jesse with them, wishing he’d look at her.
After the dishes are done, the girls urge Lydia to carry drink again. They convince her she wasn’t clumsy at all, it was the lumber’s fault. The girls laugh and tease as they regale each other with stories of their most embarrassing moments, until Lydia believes her mishap was not so bad after all.
When she goes out again, something has happened. A huddle of men stand around a crumpled figure on the ground. Two are kneeling. Somebody has been hurt! Anxious men peer down the road. Who is it? It looks like…nooo, it can’t be! Jesse has fallen. An ambulance is on the way. Lydia is weak with shock, and she wants to get near Jesse. But there is a wall of men around him. She sees her brother Aden on the edge of the crowd.
Her voice is shaky. “What happened?”
“There was a loose board that fell away when he stepped on it, and he lost his balance and fell.” Aden’s face reflects her own, pale and large-eyed.
Eeeeyaee! The sirens! Finally. All heads turn as one towards the sound. Lydia’s whole body throbs, like an electric current pulsing through it. The ambulance men quickly attach tubes and wires, and scoop him up into the ambulance on a board. Numbly, Lydia listens to the sirens wail as they fade into the distance.
At home, Lydia hovers near the phone, having instructed her friends to call if they hear any news about Jesse. Finally, Lydia picks up the phone and calls Salinda.
“Have you heard anything?”
“We got a call this very minute. He will be okay. He was unconscious for an hour, and has a concussion, but he’s recovering in Markdale Hospital. They’re watching him for the night, and if nothing turns up, he can go home tomorrow.”
A rainbow forms in Lydia’s heart. Rain had fallen, now the sun shines again. She aches to go see him, but it’s not proper for a single Mennonite girl.
On Sunday, Lydia is amazed and thrilled to see Jesse at church. He’s white under his tan, but gorgeous as ever. Funny how a pin-striped suit, a crisp white shirt and a tie improves the appearance of the guys. Although certain ones look just as good in work clothes.
After lunch, Lydia and her friends walk through the forest at the back of the Sherk farm. They meet a group of boys coming back the other way, Jesse included. Lydia intentionally lags behind the girls, then turns around and flashes Jesse a heartfelt smile. He returns it! Warm, liquid gold flows through her body, curling her toes.
When evening comes, the singing begins. Rows of girls sit along one side of the long table, the boys on the other. Jesse and Lydia exchange sweet smiles of love across the table. Soon, it’s time to go home, and sweethearts dash away together, the horses clip-clopping and the buggy wheels spinning. When Jesse stops his horse at the end of the sidewalk, and beckons to her, Lydia floats to his buggy. Jesse claims his sweetheart beneath the silvery stars, bestowing many tender kisses on willing lips.
A sweet story. Felt like I was in Amish territory or a Jane Austen novel!