Promise to Return
The scent of cherry pie and warm taffy tickled Miriam Coblentz’s nose. Her hands slipped through the soft taffy she was pulling. She and her partner, Eli Brenneman, were working over the soft, shiny candy ahead of the other teams. All those years of kneading dough, milking cows, and scrubbing the wooden slats on the floor with a brush had made her hands strong. Unfortunately, every other girl in the lineup next to her had the same upbringing, so she had no advantage.
She looked left and right and watched as several of the girls and boys that were partnered up would occasionally steal an innocent kiss as they leaned forward, folding and stretching the taffy. When she turned back to Eli Brenneman, she caught the twinkle in his eyes and she set her jaw.
“Don’t even think about it,” she scolded him playfully.
“You know you want to.” He winked at her.
His tenor voice danced in the air like laundry on a line in a lazy breeze. She wouldn’t let it wrap around her enough to touch her heart, even though she felt weakened in the moment. Her heart skipped a beat when the face of her boyfriend,
Henry Mast, broke into her mind. He was far away at a Civilian Public Service camp, serving out his draft with hundreds of other conscientious objectors. She hadn’t seen him in over six months.
“What I want is to win.” She bit her lower lip and smiled at Eli.
She began pulling with more vigor. Next to her stood her best friend and cousin, Ida May. This was the last Singing Ida May would attend before she married Jesse. Since Singings were only for the unmarried in the community, how would it be to attend them without her? Ida May and Miriam had been attending them together since they were sixteen and talking about them for years before. They’d already said goodbye to the others in their tight group of friends and Miriam would be the last one left. She hated being one of the oldest spinster girls in their Amish community. All the other unmarried girls couldn’t be called girls any longer. They were in their late twenties or older and didn’t even attend the Singings. Their chances at marriage were left to the occasional widower or visitor. At least Miriam had a boyfriend, despite their separation.
The taffy toughened in her hands. She and Eli were almost finished. She smiled as she worked faster, wanting to win. Eli’s white-blond hair, dampened with sweat, set off his deep-set blue eyes. He gave her a crooked smile, as though he knew taffy was not the only pull she was feeling that night.
She felt eyes on her. A few people down from Eli stood Sylvia Mast, Henry’s sister. Her gaze narrowed in on Miriam. Miriam inhaled and held her breath for a long moment. Sylvia wanted to be paired with Eli, along with half the other girls, but he always chose Miriam. Should Miriam have told him no? She already had a boyfriend. She and Eli had gone out a few times before Henry asked her to date, but it was years ago and unimportant. Was it wrong of her to enjoy her friendship with
Eli, taking him away from all the eligible girls? Apparently, Sylvia thought so. She tensed her jaw before she finally turned away, relieving Miriam.
The sunset through the window fell across the row of arms, making the darkening taffy glisten against the orange hues. Pull. Pull. Pull. Why did she want to push instead? The chatter among the other couples picked up as there were several ready to claim their win. Pull. Pull. Her fingers were fatigued and every pull wearied her joints. Pull. It would be easier to just give up. Her muscles had worked hard enough. Small beads of sweat formed at her forehead around her kapp. Pull. Pull. Her teeth clenched. Pull.
“Miriam.” Eli gestured toward the taffy. “Look.”
Her arms stopped moving as she examined the taffy. It had started out shiny and crystal clear and now it was a hazy, golden color.
“We’re done!” she called out as she and Eli held up their taffy.
Miriam’s sister Fannie, who was hosting the Singing, waddled over, holding her back as her large belly led her through the small crowd of young people still pulling taffy. She declared Miriam and Eli the winners. She patted Miriam on the arm.
“Looks like you and Eli are good together.” She lifted her eyebrows.
“Nah, Fannie, don’t say that.” Miriam pretended to pinch her sister’s arm, giggling at her. Miriam was the youngest and only unmarried sibling in her family. She had grown accustomed to her older brothers and sisters chiding her about getting married. Though they all knew that she and Henry had had to postpone their wedding when he was drafted, she knew they just wanted to see her happy and moving on with her life. It made for a difficult choice. Waiting until Henry’s service was fulfilled to marry made her ungeduldich, impatient, but she was
determined to have the life she longed for, and that included Henry.
She looked to see if Eli had heard Fannie, and his wink and nod told her that he had. He squared his wide shoulders, towering over all the boys in the lineup. A movement behind him, through the window, suddenly caught her attention. A slow swagger, an easy footfall, hands in pockets, hat tilted to the side.
She gasped. How was it even possible? His camp in Hagerstown, Maryland was over three hundred miles away from her small Delaware town, Sunrise. He hadn’t written to her about having any leave time.
She pushed the taffy into Eli’s arms and grabbed a towel to wipe her greasy hands, dropping the towel on her way out the door. Her legs couldn’t carry her fast enough. She stepped down the stairs and ran down the small hill, meeting Henry in the drive. He pulled her into the shadow of the house’s awning and into his arms.
She cried. She nestled deep into his chest, her head just below his shoulder as she breathed him in. How was it possible that after all these months, the scent of his bar soap and the slightest bit of cologne was still so familiar? She felt his hat fall and his warm breath and mouth against her ear, her neck, and, finally on her lips. She returned his passionate kiss, letting all the frustrations of waiting and longing fall away.
When they released for a moment she looked into his dark eyes. He had been worth the wait. She brushed her hand through the side of his black hair, shorter than the other Amish boys’. Her heart pounded a little harder, wondering what people would say about his shorn hair. Would he be challenged over it, even given his special circumstances? Her mother’s
debilitating cataracts would be to her advantage for once, but her father would be critical of Henry. She peered over his shoulder, seeing the warm yellow glow from the windows of the daudy haus. The grandpa house, across the driveway, was where she lived with her aging parents. She could almost hear their hickory rocking chairs creak against the floorboards. While it was tradition for one of the older siblings to build a small home on their property for their elderly parents, it had never felt like home to Miriam. Fanny’s house had been the home of her youth, she missed living there. She was supposed to live in the daudy haus that Fanny had built for their parents only temporarily, but now, after several years, she’d felt herself aging as she waited for Henry.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” She returned her gaze to Henry, then took his hand and began leading him toward her sister’s house.
“Wait, not yet.” He pulled her back into his arms and peered into her gray eyes.
“Everyone will want to see you, and you haven’t told me how it is that you’re even here,” she pressed. “Not that I’m complaining, but if I’d known, I would’ve made sure to make a lemon meringue pie for you, and cinnamon rolls, and whatever else you would have wanted.”
“Miriam, Miriam.” His silky, deep voice enveloped her, running smoothly over her face and hands, warming them against the cold November air. “Slow down. Let me just see you and have you to myself for a few moments. I’ve missed you.”
At his words, her heart felt as smooth and warm as the taffy inside the house. His soft, easy speech mirrored the quiet and private Henry she had fallen in love with years earlier. While he had all the friends he ever could ask for, he often desired to be with only her. It was what drew her to him from the beginning. He was so different from the loud and rowdy boys that filled
their community. His serious and thoughtful ways had always intrigued her.
“I wanted to surprise you.” He traced a finger along her jawline.
She began to shiver from the inside out. The cold and the thrill of Henry’s arrival caused a physical reaction she couldn’t have anticipated. He rubbed his hands against her arms, warming her, then took off his coat to wrap around her.
“Your suspenders. Where are they?” She looked around his back, finding the essential piece of clothing hanging loosely down his backside. “And your shirt—your collar is folded down.” She put her hands on her hips. “Are you trying to be fancy now that you’ve been with all those Mennonites at the camp?”
“The shirts you and my mem sent with me are so worn through, they are not worth wearing unless I’m working. I had to buy a shirt off of one of the boys at the camp.” Henry’s eyes veered from her own, concerning Miriam.
“So it is a Mennonite shirt?”
“No.” He pulled up his suspenders.
Miriam didn’t budge her gaze as she patiently waited for answers. Henry’s shoulders sagged and he sighed.
“It was a boy from Ohio. They don’t wear stand-up collars like us. Don’t be upset. I have some shirts at home and can change as soon as I get there.” He cupped her face, his smile nearly dripping onto her set jaw. She softened at his touch. His love was palpable, and she wanted to carry it as close to her heart as she could.
“How long are you home?”
“Four days.” Henry’s jaw tightened, and his eyes wandered from her face again.
“That’s not too bad.” She pulled his coat around her more tightly, fending off the shudders that still wracked her. “Last time you only had two days.”
The light of the fading sun caught Henry’s eyes just right. Was it the shining of their joy that emerged from his eyes? He sniffed and diverted his face from her. A tremor burned through her stomach and heart.
Something was wrong.
Was the camp extending his two-year service? Had some other girl caught his eye, someone who served their food or cleaned the barracks? Many of them weren’t even Amish.
“What’s wrong?” Her voice was insistent.
“Henry Mast, is that you, my boy?” Miriam’s neighbor Nancy Poole called over as she left Miriam’s front door. Nancy had been the district’s most dedicated driver and all-around helper. Miriam enjoyed her charming and enthusiastic manner, and though the Amish community only needed a driver for an occasional errand into town and emergencies, she still greatly preferred Nancy to any other driver.
“Hello,” Henry said, waving.
“Hello, Miriam. I was just over to see your mother for some tea,” Nancy said, out of breath from the short walk. Her large frame was clothed in a housedress and coat.
“I’m sure Mother enjoyed that.” Miriam’s mother, Rosemary, and Nancy were so different, opposites even, and their friendship consisted mostly of Nancy talking and Rosemary listening.
“All done with the camp life, are you?” Nancy’s eyes bounced between the two.
“I’m just home on leave,” Henry answered. “Are your boys well?” He took Miriam’s hand and pulled her closer to him.
Miriam felt the heat rise in her face. She wasn’t accustomed to any affection expressed in front of others.
“Yes, we hear from them every few weeks. So far, so good,” she sighed and the three were silent for a short spell. “Well, then, enjoy your visit. So glad you’re well and happy. And if
there’s ever anything you need, you know where to find me.”
They said their goodbyes and watched her walk away for several long moments.
“She’s a good woman,” Henry commented.
“Yes,” Miriam said quickly so they could return to their earlier conversation. “And now, tell me more about this Ohio clothing and what’s been happening at the camp.”
“We should go inside; we have plenty of time to talk later.”
“I thought you wanted us to be alone?” He was avoiding her question. She knew it.
“Are my sisters here?”
“I should go say hello.” He picked up his hat, returning it to his head, then put an arm around her waist and led her to the house. Miriam noticed the taffy pull was long over, and several of the girls quickly moved away from the windows when they saw them coming.
As they got to the door, she removed his coat.
“Here, put this back on.” She handed him the plain Amish coat, hoping it would hide his Ohio shirt collar. “And keep your hat on.”
“Are you that worried about how I look?”
“No, I’m not. I’m the same Henry I have always been.” She expected to hear irritation in his voice but there was none. He even smiled at her as he put his arms on her shoulders, looking at her intensely. Both made her feel his warmth. “I guess being at the camp has taught me how what we look like on the outside isn’t the most important thing.”
Miriam was taken off guard by his comment but steered it back to her concern over his shirt. He didn’t need any extra negative attention right now.
Usually, Miriam could handle change, but Henry had
changed because of the camp. It frightened her. She could only hope it was for the better, though his hair and shirt did concern her. Before he left, the community saw him as one of the most loyal boys in the district and even had hopes of him becoming a preacher. Had that loyalty changed as easily as his appearance?
The vivid memory of her sister Kathryn walking out the door for the last time, breaking their hearts and blemishing the family, dashed through her mind. No, she couldn’t bring any more shame to her family with Henry’s new ways. She couldn’t think of anything worse. Once Henry returned for good he would have to go back to how he used to be, his look, his seriousness, his love for the church. They both had to remain faithful in all ways. Surely, the old Henry she’d fallen in love with was not so severely changed. She hoped.
“For me? Please?” She handed him the coat.
He slipped it on and winked at her. She pulled him close for a kiss. She touched his face, letting her fingertips graze the line of his jaw. She stroked his face several more times, enjoying the feeling of his closeness and the smoothness of his skin. He had been shaving more often at the camp, instead of growing out his beard as the boys usually did when they got baptized. What would people say?
The door opened, silhouetting a large, square-shouldered figure just inside the door frame.
“Eli!” The best friends shook hands vigorously.
“Henry Mast. Welcome back.” Eli returned a wide grin as they released their grip on each other.
Miriam saw a sharpness behind Eli’s eyes, however, and his voice was softly laced with annoyance. It reminded her of their time in school when he congratulated Henry for winning a foot race when it was clear he was angry for losing. Was he upset that Henry was visiting?
“What brings you here? Afraid Miriam might fall for me?”
His words hung heavy in the air. Miriam glared at him, not knowing what to say. Why was he acting this way? They had spent more time together at the Singings, sure, and he’d driven her home on occasion when it was too far for her to walk, but those weren’t dates. She was committed to Henry.
“What, you can’t take a joke?” Eli tipped Henry’s hat off of his head.
Henry’s laugh was the only one that rang genuine as he picked up his hat. He must have believed Eli was joking. She forced hers out like the bleat of a goat, and Eli’s was just as unnatural. She wanted to be mad at Eli for what he’d said, but couldn’t. They’d been friends too long, and he was the only one out of her close group of friends who was at a standstill in his life, just like her. She was waiting for Henry’s return. Though Eli hadn’t made it clear to her what he was waiting on, it seemed clear to everyone else. Miriam ignored his whispers because she enjoyed being around her friend.
They entered the house and continued through the mudroom and into the kitchen, where Henry was greeted with handshakes and hearty welcomes. Henry stiffly hugged his sisters, Sylvia and Rachel. She watched as he explained how long he’d be home.
“Don’t tell Mem and Dat that I’m home—I want to surprise them,” he said. The girls agreed, and he moved on to say hello to the rest of the group of young people.
Miriam watched him, satisfied that he was home. When the kitchen grew uncomfortably warm and a rim of sweat formed around his brow, she felt guilty for asking him to keep his hat and coat on.
“Go ahead. I know it’s hot in here,” she whispered in his ear. He immediately obliged, handing her his hat and coat to put away. She hoped that since the excitement of his sudden appearance had passed and couples were beginning to pair
up for their drive home, no one would notice his changed appearance.
“Henry, what are you wearing?” Eli pulled at his own collar. “Miriam’s dat might have something to say about your hair, too. Tell him hello for me. He and I had a nice talk after church today.”
He winked at Miriam before walking away.
“Eli Brenneman.” Miriam spoke between her teeth. He didn’t acknowledge her.
“Don’t let him bother you.” Henry waved a hand. “It’s only Eli.”
He winked at her before joining a conversation with several friends. She took care not to appear angry as she went to put Henry’s things away.
“Hmm, doesn’t really look like the same Henry, does he?” Eli must have followed her into the dark bedroom, where she put Henry’s hat and coat down next to her things. “That camp sure is changing him.”
Miriam looked around. The oil lamp was dimly lit but she didn’t see anyone else in the room. “Hair grows, and he’s been working so hard his shirts were worn through.”
She wanted to tell Eli that it was none of his business, but she knew better. Everyone knew everyone’s business in the community. That was just how it was. Sometimes it was through the expected chatter that help arrived when you needed it; other times it caused hurt feelings and misinformation being relayed from home to home.
Eli didn’t respond, which infuriated Miriam. In defending Henry, she was reminded of how she’d done the same thing before Kathryn finally left. Though this situation was completely different, she reminded herself. Henry had had no choice in joining the Civilian Public Service.
Eli followed Miriam back into the kitchen.
“I had fun with you tonight,” Eli said. “Until Henry came.”
Miriam’s head whipped to see if anyone else had heard him before she glared at him. Surely he was joking. But his wild blue eyes showed no hint of humor. Her heart thudded in her chest. She loved Henry. Eli knew that.
“Are you ready to go home?” Henry walked up to Miriam and Eli, seeming not to notice the tension between them.
“I’m ready.” Miriam ignored Eli as she walked back into the dim room to gather their things. Ida May was also ready to leave, and even though she was angry with Eli, she and her cousin giggled about Henry for a few moments as they put on their capes and bonnets.
“Eli’s as mad as a bull,” Ida May whispered.
Ida May had never brought up Eli’s interest in Miriam to her before. Heat instantly rushed through her. If Ida May noticed Eli’s attentiveness to her, who else did? She’d shrugged it off for so many months, and it angered her to have to deal with it now when all she wanted to do was focus on Henry.
“He’ll just have to stop.” She waved a hand, hoping her best friend wouldn’t notice how infuriated she actually was. “I’m with Henry.”
For the rest of the evening, she and Henry talked and ate pie in the dimly lit empty kitchen of the daudy haus where Miriam lived. Her parents had gone to bed before even realizing Henry was there. It took her a short while to relax after the anxieties of the evening. She had to force herself to stop thinking about Eli’s advances and Henry’s changes. She let herself laugh and enjoy herself more than at any other time since Henry’s draft notice. All she could think about was that she’d get the chance to see him again the following evening. A thrill jumped through her.
In her sleep that night, a haunting scene played over and again in her dreams: Henry and Eli pulling at her heart like
taffy, forcing it to toughen. They weren’t working together like the couples at the Singing, but against each other. She felt Eli’s grip tighten. She couldn’t move. It squeezed, weakening her breath. Henry’s hold was soft and gentle. It moved her instead of holding her solidly in one place. Didn’t he want to hold her tighter? Didn’t he want to win?