Lancaster County – Caitlyn Bell
June 23, 2023
Catherine stands in an open field full of wood. Wooden objects carved by other people from another time. They were the people who believed in God.
“The best pieces come from communities of steadfast faith,” she said before. Like all of the other manifestations of beauty or grace Catherine took notice of, knowledge of furniture came to her through her pursuit of family life.
“We lost a baby and we needed to fill our home with heavy things to stand the test of time. Like wood. Materials so bountiful, they become part of the ether. In wood I see the hands of a child. Soon after we filled the house I became pregnant with Peter.” I tried to conjure my husband’s hands when he was small; my imagination failed. Peter is bigger than me. This is the way it will always be.
She told me how the men and women making this furniture allow God to work through them. The Amish live outside of the world, and show no symptoms of modernity. Catherine is in-between, with one foot left in the modern world and the other out only under the circumstance of privilege. But we protect ourselves in the ways we can. We visit the Amish. We give them what they ask, and take what they have to offer.
“I suppose our money comes from modernity because it has to,” she told me. “Nothing else should.”
In the city of industry, Peter and his father work, buying and selling a new currency drawn from nothing which—they told me with gravity—would soon constitute everything. In the liminal offices and the dark steakhouses where their business is conducted, Peter and his father trade their knowledge in whispers, praying their hand in the world’s undoing will go unnoticed in the eyes of God. Under the morning sun he told me what he sells is a nothing-substance abstracted from hell. He kissed me on the forehead. “But I want to give you everything.”
Catherine did not ask me what I want. I am sure she wanted to ask me what kind of furniture we had in my home, but she knew now not to ask of my childhood.
Now she talks to the salesman, whose attention is adulterated by the thirteen Amish children orbiting the furniture in a regimented and innocent chaos. In the north-west corner of the field is a pen of newborn puppies.
“My daughter-in-law has a big house to fill. This is the first place we’ve come. I came here when your father was running it, and you were like them.” Catherine gestures to the children. “I came here and filled my house for my son.” The salesman does the math. “That was in nineteen eighty-one,” she says. “My son is a bit older than Grace. Only twenty-two, this one, but wise.”
Catherine straightens her posture, the fabric of her hooded coat loosening around her body. The forecast said rain. I hope and pray she means what she says. I hope and pray she does not observe my silence as dull or passive. The salesman looks upon me with a countenance of praise—praise for moving against all and choosing a normal life; praise for opportunism. Or perhaps I am vain and did nothing to exceed his expectations.
The salesman guides Catherine through the first rows of antiques. Secretarial desks, grandfather clocks, end tables, sideboards—all made from the hard earth. Teams of men come on Sundays to lift the sold pieces from the dirt and transfer them onto a truck. The trucks travel far always. Where we stand and for miles, no one takes ownership of anything that wasn’t theirs to begin with.
Catherine arrived when Peter disappeared into the city of industry. Three nights turned to five. He must have known this. He must have asked her. He must have seen I was worried—worried about being young and alone and a girl and a child, in a house where everything was new to me. I sought a presence born a hundred times—born into faith, into love, into family life, into happiness. Catherine was born from perpetual change into stillness.
Everything was foretold when I met Peter at a bar near campus. He spoke of the metal basin by the woods’ edge, where his mother washed the boys’ hand-sewn clothes. She kept the basin all this time, changing the water twice weekly. Behind my eyes I envisioned her kneeling over, hands wet, black hair veiling her tired back. The processes of her spine peered through her linen dress. Her knees were old but not weak; her hands were worn, despite their comfortable life in the garden of the upper class. I saw candlelight and smelt rosemary. She was close.
Six months later, soon engaged, I met her. She did not stray far from my vision—knelt on the sidewalk of the college town, talking to a child I never saw again. Her eyes were lit by the neon of the Italian place on the last block before the Country. This was the first event in my life to feel purely like faith, or getting what I want. I saw Catherine and thought, If she committed all of her memory to paper, I will undertake doing everything just the same. I will live in her shoes.
That night we ate bread and steak and she asked me about the life I killed in order to arrive here. I answered with little words. Perhaps I seemed humble.
Now, in Lancaster, away from all, we stand between the heads of two dining tables—one of oak and one of pine. I give the choice to her.
“I like pine. Like Christmas. The oldest story ever told. Did you know, when Peter was a teenager, he went to the forest by himself and burnt a pine tree? The tree was near death; he took a match and watched the wood disintegrate, through the night, into nothing. He was thirteen, newly confirmed.”
I want to know if this broke her heart.
“Understanding took time but ultimately came. I saw he is my son, and he felt the same grief I felt when he looked at the dying tree. But his impulse was different. He grieved in action.”
Grieved in action.
We met online. Peter was p3trovich; he came to the group to find others like him—other sets of eyes confused and heartbroken; other sets of hands, looking defiantly to play some part in the great undoing. We found each other in providence, both living in the college town. When I learned who he was in reality, I enrolled in his course. The course was carefully designed and taught once but never again, due to a petition signed by thousands of non-students who emerged from the internet in an organized resistance against the past.
Peter saw I was unhappy and nearing empty. Soon I fell under his persuasion to leave college and pursue a different life.
Catherine sweeps her graying hair from under the coat. The hair falls halfway down her midriff, reminding me again of the first time I saw her. After dark in October in the college town, the air falls light and smells of firewood. These are the things I remember most. Something close to falling in love—of which I know nothing.
Each morning since the wedding, since we found a home far from the college town and the city of industry, I look at myself in the mirror and dry my face and whisper to myself: BRAND NEW. I wash my hair. The cleanest strands disappear down the drain. Soon I may be bald but when milk fills my chest my hair will grow back dark and full, not unlike Catherine’s. Brand new. Since Catherine’s arrival, at night we eat soup of earth and bones. I read to her by the fireplace—the lives of the saints of Carmel, who were so hungry and so chaste. Meanwhile in the city of industry my husband reeks of whiskey and success and boyhood. He is with his father, studying the way to walk. In the mornings Catherine and I walk through the woods, speaking of children and memory and art and God. Catherine sees God in everything but speaks of him only implicitly, as the undercurrent to the story of the entire world. Grace is best identified in parables of daily life and wisdom gathered from motherhood.
As Catherine and I grow closer, I grow more afraid of the chemicals and the germs and the memories and the filth Peter will soon drag in from the outside world. Memory of my old life, my six-months-ago life, faded to a memory of a feeling—a guilty, uncomfortable feeling. In my mind the college town and the city of industry have only one street, one train, one set of eyes watching the dead Grace (I killed her) as I act in vanity and self-hatred. I try to forget everything and start new, but memory does not bend.
Catherine chooses an armoire for the third bedroom. “For when you have a girl. For her Sunday clothes.” She tags other things, too, and makes predictions about my future. Catherine is excited like my children will be born into a different world.
We sit now where we entered, a grass-covered parking lot with two other cars which have been here forever, near the pasture, where there’s no horses—only light.
“I’d like to take you to a place, a bit far.” She veers from the grass onto the narrow gravel driveway. “When we arrive it will be near dark. Are you okay with that?”
I think of my hunger and that she must have some, too, but she set it aside to show me something. Maybe the something will be beautiful.
As we drive the rain comes, slowly and then all at once. The air in the car becomes thicker, and I gather the sense I am drawing from her lungs directly. I try to remember what my own mother looks like, or the sound of her voice. Gold light floods the car and Catherine drives slowly through the fields, into a town and then beyond. The radio is off; the silence feels light and purposeful.
On impulse I ask Catherine what her life was like before.
She sips milk from the paper cup she took, this morning, from the hand of the farmer. It gathers on her cupid’s bow. “Before I had kids?”
Before you were married.
The sun after the rain fills Catherine’s eyes but she seems unbothered. “We don’t have to talk. You don’t have to ask.”
I would like to know.
Catherine’s eyes widen with surprise, though I can’t decipher if she is surprised by my interest or my persistence. Catherine knows me as a girl, quiet and tired; she wants to help.
“Well, I came from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to study divinity. My parents wanted me closer, at the college where my father taught. Out of love, they let me go.”
Catherine names the school where her father taught. A Calvinist seminary. I look for more but Catherine grazes her family history until she came upon her Peter, my Peter’s father. They met on a boat, she says, at a fraternity party where Catherine was tasked with accompanying her third cousin as his date. In exchange, her father promised Shepherd’s Pie on Christmas Eve. “Normally we had vegetable stew prepared with the rejected children of the crop.” She did not live on a farm, but her family took their sustenance from a farmer. They ate scarcely. “My mother said that food was to be celebrated and cherished. My father said that extreme hunger brought us closer to God.”
I ask if Calvinists fast.
Not at all, she explains. This was something her father believed based on feeling alone. I look at her wrists, peering out from her sweater as they grasp the wheel. She has the bumps some women have which never seem to indicate vanity.
“I saw my Peter there. He talked to me. He was in the economics school. He seemed out of place. I let him run his fingers through my hair—his breath smelled of gin—and he told me he was a guilty Catholic. In his eyes I saw faith, though. The sort that comes from a place of privilege. I felt desired for the first time that night. Or perhaps it was only the first time the desire was wanted.” Catherine slips away for a moment, into her inner world, which I will never know. “But I decided to convert when we were married. I learned a lot in my time at school, which I never finished. I changed my mind about freedom. I decided to believe in it. My mother died, and so my father allowed it, so as to feel less alone. I took care of him until he died, which was soon, and then I came East again, an orphan, to build a family with Peter. It was similar for you, I gather.”
I stare ahead into the dusk and think that Catherine’s childhood was marked by providence and autonomy. Mine is governed by vanity and does not feel over yet. I take Catherine’s grief as my own. My grief is long expelled.
We are here. Catherine pulls onto a dirt road leading to a small house—a school house. In the yard there are all the flowers you can imagine in the world. Catherine asks if I know what happened here.
A memory of a memory. I was so young. Some girls. A man.
“Some young girls were shot here.” Catherine says nothing else and stops the engine. She takes flowers from the backseat, where they spent the day dying. She adds them to the pile. The clouds come together to block the sun for the last time; the world turns grey. Catherine is sorry for the children and their families. In my stomach, my head, my heart—I can only find sorrow for her. I pray she can’t hear my thoughts. I pray she doesn’t know the secret of my life. I came here for a reason, but I can’t remember now. Now there is only her. “Don’t tell,” they whisper—the choir. Don’t speak. Don’t let her past the front gate. You are here only to learn. For the rest of your life, until death—
A girl of about nine years in an Amish dress comes from the school house. The school is closed forever. The girl knows where she is. She comes here everyday. I watch Catherine, who does not see her. Our worlds separate. The girl is my own. A ghost, maybe. I wonder if my noticing has anything to do with my closeness to God. I set an intention; perhaps I am in His favor.
The girl smiles and waves and continues straight ahead. She is going home for dinner, I guess. I am hungry, too; so is Catherine. I know because Catherine and I eat each day at the same time. I know because I studied her like a book.
We may go hungry, but the girl will be nourished. I am certain. She saw grief here; her parents wept. Still the schoolhouse sits the color of bones with a gray slate roof, set under rolling hills that seem to take up the whole world between us and the city of industry. Inside maybe there are more fables; maybe the fables are what brought her here.
If the hills went on forever, maybe I could be like her, but now I feel ready to die.
I am drawn back by the sound of Catherine’s boots pushing across the dirt. She nudges a strand of hair behind my ear. Briefly I feel loved.
At night from the highway we can see the light of the City, but we keep driving. We spend the ride in silence, driving towards Brand New, where there is sustenance and fire and sleep.