That Monday afternoon, Margaret Goodman's destination seemed forever away even though the Yoder farm was only seven miles from Brightwell, Pennsylvania. She was traveling alone so she was thankful for the tranquil, winter conditions. If a snowstorm had threatened before she left town, she wouldn't have been brave enough to make the trip on her own.
Watching the pristine countryside slide by her bright red sleigh helped just a little to soothe her frayed nerves. She slid under the snow laced trees that loomed over the packed road. In the swift breeze, weighed down branches swayed like stick skeletons, dancing a jig which let loose snowy clumps on her. Drifted, white mounds rolled across the pastures, making a colorful contrast with the black and red cattle milling about brown, frazzled hay stacks.
Along the way, the recent snowstorm turned homesteads, set against the dark blue sky, into scenes lovely enough to paint on Christmas cards. The Pennsylvania countryside really was beautiful in the winter. Not that Margaret was in any mood to enjoy what she slid by. In her heart, she knew she couldn't appreciate anything around her until she managed to live through this coming week and escape back to Brightwell.
The road was invisible, covered with packed snow rutted with sleigh runners and buggy tracks. If it hadn't been for the rows of snow capped, cedar fence posts on either side of her, she'd have felt like she was on a great adventure, blazing her own trail across the frozen tundra.
She knew all the beauty that surrounded her would have put anyone else in a festive mood for Christmas coming Monday next, but not her. She bounced around somber thoughts about what dreaded incidents could happen from one day to the next in the week ahead of her. When the time came, Margaret planned to muster up the strength to pretend to be joyful. She wouldn't bother to do that until after she stopped the sleigh in front of the Yoder house. Just thinking about it, her mood turned despairing to say the least. She felt unsettled and anxious. The winter scenery couldn't change the turmoil that churned inside her. She wasn't sure anything would. Like bad tasting medicine, she had to accept whatever happened in the next few days and handle each situation the best she could.
The freezing breeze whipped her dark brown, curly hair away from her head, causing a chill to run through her. Margaret felt goose bumps pop up on her legs. She huddled down in the seat, holding the reins in one hand long enough to tug her walnut dyed, wool lap robe up higher. That done, she went back to worrying. She was a day later than usual. Would it matter to any of them at the Yoder farm that she hadn't arrived on Sunday afternoon? Had any of the Yoders worried about why she hadn't shown up yet? When she did arrive, would the fact that she was late make Levi Yoder's opinion of her worse than it already was?
She'd waited until that morning to prepare for the journey. Rushing to gather everything she wanted to take, she packed the sleigh at the last minute in haste. Now way down the road, she had the feeling she might have forgotten something. She did a mental check list. Christmas gifts covered the back seat, a large, wicker basket full of food sat next to her and beside her feet was her clothes stuffed, tan, tapestry valise. She'd hidden Faith's journal under the sleigh seat out of Levi's sight until she could give it to his son, Luke. This year that diary was what she had to remember to pack above all other things. If she forgot anything else she'd meant to bring it was certainly too late now. She would have to make due without whatever it was.
She couldn't help arriving late, and she wasn't about to offer an explanation. Her private life wasn't up for discussion. Nothing she said would do any good anyway as far as Levi Yoder was concerned. She just hoped what plans Levi, his father, Jeremiah, and son, Luke, made to celebrate Christmas, for Luke's sake, didn't include something she would regret missing.
Unlike the hustle and bustle in town, the quiet countryside embraced peacefulness. The only sounds were made by her red sleigh and the four white stocking hooves on her black horse, Pie Face. The runners crunched, slicing through the ice crusted snow. The sleigh bells jingled in time to the horse's steamy, labored snorts and rhythmic tromp as he moved at a fast pace.
In the last mile, Margaret whipped the horse to hurry him to race the sinking sun. The words, Please let me get to the farm before dark, played over and over in her head like an out of tune song. Nightfall was one more reason for her to worry over her late start. She told herself she'd feel less anxious when she finally spotted a column of light, gray smoke spiraling up above the Yoder hickory and mulberry grove.
The tree lined lane was just ahead to the right. Margaret pulled back on the reins, bringing Pie Face to a walk. She entered the shaded lane, traveling under the entwined glittery white, soft snow covered branches that made a shaded tunnel.
Half way down the lane, a rabbit darted out of his nest in the drifted snow and zigzagged past the horse. Startled, Pie Face shied sideways. Margaret pulled back on the reins and brought the horse to a stop. She could feel her heart racing. She took a deep, calming breath and flicked the reins over Pie Face's back. No time to panic now. She was almost to the house.
Margaret tossed away the worry about dark over taking her like so many empty pea pods when she finally came into view of the large, two story, snow capped, farm house, but she still had plenty more worries to take its place. Pulling back on the reins, she stopped the horse by the split rail fence that surrounded the yard.
Luke's brown and white beagle, Moses, bounced off the porch and down the path. He stood on his hind legs and looked in the sleigh while he woofed a high pitched greeting.
"Hello, Moses. How have you been?" Margaret answered back.
"Woof, woof." The beagle wagged his tail with such speed that his chubby backend swayed. Bouncing off the sleigh, he took off in a run. He circled the sleigh while he did a sniffing inspection.
"So you're happy to see me. That's encouraging." Margaret said under her breath. She looked up at the house roof. The stone chimney chugged pale gray, smoke plumbs that floated higher and higher into the sky, turning into hard to see thin wisps. A sudden change in the wind brought a down draft drifting toward her that smelled of hickory wood. Someone had recently stoked the fire.
The two story, farm house, with peeling, white paint and sun bleached wood, had a grossdawdi haus built on the east side. The addition was added for Levi's father, Jeremiah, when Levi married Margaret's sister, Faith. The outhouse, smokehouse, chicken house, and pig pen were ahead of her. The large, red barn complete with granary and root cellar stood off to the left.
Levi Yoder, tall, muscular and handsome, stalked through the deep snow toward her from the woodpile by the barnyard split rail fence. He carried an armload of lengthy fire wood propped on his shoulder. Even though she fought with herself not to feel hopeful, her heart raced faster at the sight of him. As Levi came closer, his rugged features were just like she imagined in her thoughts and dreams over the last year. A lump formed in her throat as she watched the sinking, fiery sun behind his back create rosy streaks in his straw colored hair where it curled on his coat collar.
As Levi walked close enough for Margaret to get a good look at his face, any growing excitement she felt spiraled backward to dread again. It only took a quick glimpse to make her tense up. Any sparse drop of hope she'd had that Levi would welcome her this time faded as fast as the dimming daylight. Any brief thought that the man might be worried because she was a day late, she could discard like dirty wash water out the back door just from watching his foreboding posture as he marched at her. She tried to hold back the mounting anguish that wanted to creep onto her face. She should have known better than to expect any change in that strong willed man. Nothing about him ever changed. She had to face it. He never would change.
At that moment, his piercing eyes and high boned cheeks above his bushy, blond beard appeared to be chiseled by a stonemason. The scowl on his face, Margaret knew for sure, even if he never said so out loud, had been brought on by her arrival. In all these years, her presence always had the same affect on Levi Yoder. Why did she ever hope that he would change in a year's time? That man ever changing his opinions on anyone or anything was never going to happen.
The wood Levi carried was too long to go into the cookstove. He must be ready to prepare the fireplace in the meeting room. Would it have hurt him to warm the room up before I arrived, ran through Margaret's mind. The meeting room was only used on a Sunday once in a blue moon when it was the Yoders turn to have church. Just for her, the room was opened more days in a row the once a year she visited.
However, she'd arrived a day late. Maybe Levi hoped she wouldn't show up at all. This year of all the years would be the one that he definitely wouldn't want to face her. He probably hoped she'd changed her mind about going through with her plan concerning the journal. In that case, he might have reasoned that she'd decide to skip her appearance at the Yoder farm this year if the journal had been her initial reason for the visit. There would be no need for him to bother going through the chore of opening up the meeting room that he only did begrudgingly for her. Well, Levi was wrong. It made her blood boil to think, in all the years they had known each other, that man never understood her concern had always been for what was best for Luke. Anything she tried to do to improve the situation between Levi and her wasn't enough to make him want to try to get along with her.
Quickly, Margaret glanced around to see if Jeremiah or Luke were coming to greet her. She didn't want to start out this visit with only Levi's cold, reluctant help and snappish greeting. She'd mentally tried to prepare herself for what could happen at the Yoder farm, but Margaret realized while that fair haired man strode toward her, she needed more time to steel herself for the strife to come. Although in the back of her mind, she already knew she had no real way to prepare for the clashes between Levi and herself. Like always, she'd do her best to stand up to the man and hope her bluff worked. As she watched Levi approach, she felt like prey stalked by a lion. In the next week, it was going to take all the courage and bravo she could muster to keep from being eaten alive by this angry, sullen man.
Levi's father, Jeremiah, stood in the barn door. His bent back was to her. Locks of gray hair peeked out from under his black, flat crowned, big brimmed hat. With a touch of panic, Margaret wondered where the boy was. She didn't make the effort to travel this far one time a year in the dead of winter, Levi allowed her, for any other reason than to see Luke. Especially not this time when she had to make the trip from town without her husband, Harry. Particularly this year when this visit was more important than all the other trips. Because if Levi remembered she was bringing the journal to Luke, he'd be against her showing up. She knew he'd fight her every step of the way, and she was determined to come anyway.
"Aunt Margaret, you are here!" The boy shouted from the kitchen doorway. He dropped the empty water pail and the egg bucket in order to wave at her. Making a leap off the porch, Luke ignored the clatter behind him. He was long gone by the time the buckets shot off the porch and pitched noiselessly into the snow piled by the path.
With Moses right behind him, the boy sprinted through the gate hole so fast his wide brimmed hat flew from his head. It landed in the drift at the base of the yard fence. He was so excited he didn't realize he had lost his hat, but Moses did. He halted long enough to sniff Luke's hat, before he scampered over to bounce off the sleigh. In his haste, Luke's mop of yellow hair, the color of corn kernels, flapped away from his ears. He skidded to a halt by the sleigh and jumped up and down.
Excitement gleamed in the boy's glittering, blue eyes. "Wilkcom! It's so late in the afternoon, and you didn't come yesterday. You might not be coming, I feared. Hurry up and get down."
Margaret put her hand on her chest to slow her thudding heart. It was such a comfort to see this boy, a younger version of Levi. She just had to look into his smiling face to know that he very much wanted her here. Bolstered by his greeting, Margaret teased, "Sorry I'm late, Luke. You need not have worried. I've never missed being here for Christmas yet, have I?"
"Not ever, Aunt Margaret," Luke stated with zeal.
Feeling a little more sure of herself, Margaret laughed at the child's enthusiasm while she tossed the lap robe aside. She drew her red cape tighter around her shoulders and pulled her trapped, freeze dried tresses out on top of the cape. Gathering up her dark brown, wool skirt in one hand, she held the other hand out to the boy. "Please, Luke, help me down. My legs and feet are so stiff and numb from the cold, I may have trouble walking."
The frozen snow crunched under the weight of her stinging toes. The tingle in her chilled feet contrasted drastically with the sudden heat that bored into her back from Levi's eyes. Margaret twisted to look through the steamy vapors rising above the horse's back. The man watched the exchange between his son and her, but no way could she make out what he was thinking. His face was as blank as a freshly, washed blackboard.
"Hello, Levi." Her husky voice sounded mechanical to her ears as she looked into the man's cold as ice, unwavering, blue eyes. She turned back to see Luke's worried expression. He glanced at his father and back at her. At least in front of the boy, she had to make a stab at being civil to Levi for this precious child's sake. Besides the week would seem a terminally, long visit if she let Levi get to her at the very beginning of her stay. She smiled down at Luke and patted his head to reassure him.
Levi must have thought the same thing as he watched his son. "Wilkcom, Margaret Goodman. Best get inside and warm up," he said, his tone quietly clipped.
Margaret glanced over her shoulder. If Levi's short pretense at an invitation hadn't been remote enough, his face, emotionally frigid as this winter day, told her she was not really welcome in his home but tolerated for his son's sake.
Margaret concentrated on the boy. That always took away the sting of Levi's words. She pointed to the wicker basket on the sleigh seat. "Luke, please carry that inside for me. I'm ready to warm up and have a cup of tea right now." Margaret forced cheerfulness into her voice. "First, let me give you a proper hello. You've grown so much. You must be a foot taller than last year." She drew Luke to her, engulfing him in an enthusiastic, bear hug.
"Only four inches," corrected the boy.
"All out of tea," Levi put forth shortly. He looked straight ahead as he marched past Luke and her.
"Figured that. That's one of the things I brought with me in the basket," Margaret shot back at Levi's ramrod, straight back as she trailed after him.
Setting the basket down, Luke picked up his hat. He beat it against his leg to rid it of snow and put it back on. Margaret paused to look back at the western sky while she waited for the boy. The sun had slipped half way below the horizon, creating long, red fingers across the sky.
In the fading daylight, the old man still leaned in the barn door, but he faced the house now. No doubt watching with interest the underlying discord between Levi and her. She could imagine that he might not want to be any closer than the barn during their initial meeting.
"Jeremiah Yoder, come in out of the cold if you have time. Have a cup of tea with me," she hailed, beckoning to him with a wave of her hand.
Moses stopped his inspection of the sleigh when he heard Margaret's voice. The dog caught up to her and whined for attention as he sniffed at her skirt. She reached down and patted his head before she turned and trudged with Luke on the snow packed path toward the house.
Behind her, she heard the chickens squawk in alarm. Jeremiah must have scattered the flock as he walked across the barnyard. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to ease away some of the tension that had built up in her all day. She was so very thankful that Jeremiah chose to come when she called. He never liked to take sides between Levi and her. Just the same, Margaret needed that old man to be near her at first as a buffer until she had time to get use to the chilliness that radiated off Levi. It had always helped bolster her spirit to know that Jeremiah liked her to visit almost as much as Luke did. Jeremiah did his best to respect his son's wishes and Amish law when he was at the Plain people gatherings, but in the privacy of his own home, he wasn't afraid to show how much he thought of her.