The thinnest peel of orange sun peered above the western horizon as the pick-up pulled off the blacktop onto the gravel road and headed north. It was the only sun the man had seen that gloomy October day, and appeared now beneath the clouds like a sliver of light under a windowless prison door. Then the opening vanished as quickly as it appeared, slammed shut by the brooding darkness. The man turned back to the road ahead.
With the harvest more than halfway over, ordinary things stood out in front of the gap-toothed cornfields. Mailboxes hunched over the road like ghostly sentinels. A fox ran across the road fifty yards up ahead, and vanished into the ditch, only to reappear again in an empty field, running for its life. Deer were laying low out there too.
The man smiled. Two weeks till the opening of deer season. Just one of those wood rats had cost him $4,000 to fix his truck a year ago, and his wife had narrowly missed one the other night. He would do his part to rid the world of a few of these pests. Still each year, PETA zealots and other idiots came out of the woodwork to protest the slaughter. Let Bambi come through the windshield and kill their child – that’ll change their tune, he thought.
But for now other matters burned in his head. Bringing his mind back on task, he pressed down firmly on the accelerator and drove two miles further. Way to the north, sporadic bursts of lightning revealed the dome of a huge thunderhead, like filaments firing inside a giant light bulb. Storms were not unheard of in late October for central Minnesota. A tornado had once cut through Cambridge at this time of year, and several years before that, thirty inches of snow fell on Halloween.
He passed a large farmhouse on his right, then a cluster of barns, an open field, and at the end of the field, an old abandoned utility shed. The man slowed as he approached the shed. Behind it stretched a solid line of gnarled pine trees planted years before as a wind break, and beneath the grove snaked a one-lane service road the farmers used to access their fields. The man turned onto the dirt and slipped into the dark.
He drove another half-mile to the end of the field, where the trees broadened out into a thickening wood. The road meandered through the woods for several hundred yards and at last emerged into a sizeable clearing. What the man saw pleased him. In the center of the field, a large bonfire already raged. At least two-dozen people milled around it. This uncultivated wetland – a breeding ground for mosquitoes, ticks, and other bloodsuckers – was the perfect place for the Freedom Association to meet.
He brought the truck to the edge of the woods and parked alongside a line of pickups and aging sedans. Someone even rode over in his tractor. Exhilarated, he snapped the transmission into park and gave his keys a little toss in the air before dropping them into his shirt pocket. Out here, the drudgery of market reports and equipment repairs seemed far away. Looking out at his friends, the man felt something stir in him he had seldom felt before. Male bonding, his wife would say. What did she know? Male bonding took place down at the Muddy Moose, over a pitcher of beer and the latest Viking’s heartbreak.
Besides, the Freedom Association welcomed women into membership. What he did now he did out of love for his family and in service to his community. Some might see nobility in what he did. He reached over and grabbed a faded, leather briefcase from off the passenger seat, uncovering an untidy stack of folded up newspapers. Exposed beneath them jutted the handle of a pistol, which he tapped back under the papers and out of sight.
He strode the thirty yards towards the group, and they greeted him boisterously as he joined them. They exchanged handshakes and hugs. Is your wife out of the hospital? Get that combine working right? That new paint on your house looks great. He loved these people; the connection between them bordered on spiritual. At last they settled down and a gradual hush fell over their gathering, as though a sacred moment had arrived. Some took their seats on folding chairs they had brought. Others stood stoically, arms folded, staring resolutely into the fire. The man surveyed the group, smiled, and spoke his invocation.
“Gentlemen, Ladies, let the Freedom Association now come to order.”
They applauded respectfully.
“It does my heart good to see so many here tonight. It would be easy for us to stay home with our families and put our heads in the sand and say we can’t be bothered. But it’s for our spouses, children and grandchildren that we have come out.”
“That’s right!” echoed a voice from the side. “You can say that again,” said another. They were a diverse group, from young fathers to retirees, from farmers to teachers to insurance agents, from Andersons to Johnsons to Smiths.
The man himself was in his late-forties, with sideburns and eyebrows that were graying earlier than the rest of his hair, and a stubborn paunch that resisted crunches, ab wheels, pilates and everything else his wife prodded him to try. “It is what it is,” he said to her, though she groused anyway.
“Of course you now have all heard the latest,” he continued. “Ed from Isanti Realty told me last week that a black family has purchased the Iverson place on the lake. They’ll be moving in within the next couple weeks.”
Murmurs of discontent rumbled through the group.
“It’s bad enough that Cambridge has to become yet another suburb of Minneapolis,” he said, his voice becoming more melodramatic. “We saw the warning signs when they widened Highway 65, bringing urban diseases to our doorstep. But the virus is spreading even faster than we could dare have imagined. And soon we’ll all be infected. From Braham to Ogilvie, from Milaca to Cambridge, the lives that you have known, the lives that you and I would pass on to our children will all be gone. Unless we stop it now!”
His last challenge brought them to a fever pitch, leading the man to silently marvel at the capacity of his own tongue. Speaking at school board meetings never felt this way. Teaching a Sunday school class was usually thankless. His wife long ago stopped responding to him with any enthusiasm. A man could get full of himself with too much of this.
He began to walk back and forth among the ranks of his friends, his eyes aflame. He stopped and tapped on the shoulder of one of the older men, whose face hid beneath the brim of a John Deere cap.
“John, you’re from over in Braham. Those Hispanics can’t stay away from you fellas, can they?”
The old man shook his head.
“How’d it get this way? Did they come all at once?”
“It was just a few of ’em at first,” the old man replied, “looking for work.”
“Is it just a few of them now?”
The old man laughed. “Hell no. It’s a whole nest of ’em. You feel sorry for one of ’em and let him work in your fields, and the next thing you know, they’re phoning all their relatives down in Mexico to come and join ’em.”
“And what’s life in Braham been like since then? Is Braham the same peaceful town we all remember?”
The old man laughed again. “You’re joking. It’s dirtier. Noisier. They hang out most nights like packs of dogs, only dogs smell better. And you can understand dogs. You never understand these Mexicans. Most of the time they’re probably cussing at you.”
“John’s right,” the man interjected, as he knelt down and opened up his briefcase, pulling out a stack of papers which he passed out to everyone. “John doesn’t have the exact figures in front of him, but I happen to have them right here. Since the influx of Hispanics, and Asians, and blacks into Isanti county began, crime has steadily been on the rise. Vandalism is up 47 percent in the past decade. Arrests for violent crime have increased 24 percent. DUI’s have doubled. Convictions for drug abuse are up 17 percent.”
The man looked up and saw some eyes glazing over. Statistics didn’t work with everyone. He slapped his hands together to bring them back. “But it’s not just crime! This virus is affecting the quality of our schools. Seventeen cases last year alone of guns and knives being confiscated in our high schools. What do you think about that?”
It’s not right! Our kids deserve better! Let’s stop it now!
He let them ramble for a few seconds. “Our taxes have never been higher. And why? Because the welfare rolls are swelling with immigrants and minorities who want our schools and want our healthcare and want our services but don’t want to pay the price it takes to become citizens. They want it fed to them on a silver spoon. What do you think about that?”
More rumblings and smoke belched from the group.
“Now some would listen to us in the Freedom Association and say that we’re just being racists. Rednecks.”
A couple of them looked down and scratched the backs of their tattooed necks.
But the man went on. “I’m offended at the thought. I’m looking at businessmen, and college graduates, veterans and family men. There’s enough education and ingenuity here to start a civilization.”
Some of them laughed. Others continued to scratch themselves.
“Racists? We don’t begrudge colored people or Mexicans their happiness. They can have all the happiness they want – just not at our expense. And not in our back yard!”
They whooped and cheered.
“What I’ve just quoted you men are scientific facts. Raw statistical data supporting what we all know to be true – that the good life we used to enjoy is being stolen from us day by day, unless we take it back.”
He said these last three words slowly and with emphasis. Someone near the back repeated it, then it echoed through another, and suddenly they were chanting it, like a solemn liturgy pursing their lips. Take it back. Take it back!
Priestlike, he raised his hand up, and waited till they quieted to pronounce his benediction.
“They declared us dead years ago, the day that Barack Hussein Obama stepped into the White House. I pronounce us reborn! Friends, if we don’t stop this contagion, we’ll become the next Ferguson. The next Baltimore. Not on our watch. Tonight we put our feet down, raise our voices up, and declare, Enough! We are taking our world back!”
At this they exploded in applause and resumed intoning, “Take it back!” Simultaneously, the wood in the fire shifted and a tower of embers burst into the night air with a gaseous hiss. In the distance, a rumble of thunder shook the air. The man allowed their clapping to continue while he followed the flight of the highest spark. It drifted well beyond the reach of their circle and just before it was gathered in by a dwarf juniper, its orange glow vanished.
He looked back at his friends, adding, “Tonight we will light a fire that will not be extinguished. Tonight we summon the dormant white spirit which made this nation great to arise again in us. And no one will stop us!”
* * *
Luke Rawling’s sweaty hands guided the yellow Ryder truck up the entrance ramp onto the divided highway. The blare of a horn rang out and a blue Bronco went speeding past him, its driver saluting him with a thick middle finger.
“Yeah, yeah – moron,” Luke muttered as he settled into his lane and breathed out heavily. “We’ll just stay right in this lane till we get to Isanti.” Since the day he ripped a gutter off the garage of his parents’ house several years before with another moving van, maneuvering vehicles larger than his Honda unnerved him. The prospect of driving this 24-foot behemoth had cost him his sleep for the past week. He thought that he would have the roads to himself at mid-afternoon, but the Friday rush hour began building earlier than he anticipated with people escaping Minneapolis for one more crack at a weekend outdoors. He would have to make the best of it.
Luke looked over to the passenger seat and smiled. His four-year-old daughter Jenna was fondling the hair of a Barbie doll. The doll’s lithe legs stuck out straight on Jenna’s lap, as her own legs barely reached over the edge of the oversized seat.
“Daddy, why’d you call that guy a moron?” she asked, not bothering to look up from her work.
He felt a pang of conviction. “Because that man didn’t want to let…more on…the highway.”
“He wouldn’t let you on?”
“Not till we almost hit him.”
A cloud came over her little face. “Moron,” she said to her doll.
“But that probably is not a nice thing to say to people,” he quickly corrected.
Someone would not be happy with Daddy’s new vocabulary lesson. He looked at the side mirror and caught a glimpse of the blue Honda hugging close behind the truck carrying the rest of his earthly treasures – his wife Amber, a cat named Tigger, and a back seat full of clothing.
They had moved from Boston to the Minneapolis area a few months before. Luke was halfway through seminary, and they had come west so that he could find a church to pastor while finishing school. In New England, job openings were sparse for an aspiring young preacher. And the cost of living was a killer. In addition to his full spate of classes and part-time youth ministry, Luke worked nights as a fine-dining waiter, but the pace had become unbearable. Even with Amber working, they barely stayed afloat, and Luke slowly watched his fire for ministry die out.
Then came the day when he was reading in his Bible from the book of Acts. The early church was busting at the seams with growth, so much so that the apostles couldn’t keep up. They called into action the first church committee in history to assist them, saying, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
As Luke read those words, sirens went off inside his heart. It was as close to a burning bush as he would ever come to in his life. Some of his friends questioned his interpretation of the passage, but he knew then the time had come to lay aside his apron and bow tie.
In her weariness, Amber gave little resistance to the idea. In the flurry of a couple weeks, Luke registered for classes at the new seminary, and initiated a dialogue with the Midwest headquarters of his denomination. With nothing firm in place, they left New England with a forwarding address known only by God.
Luke was so convinced a church awaited him that once they arrived in Minneapolis he refused to fill out even one restaurant application as a fallback. Just in case, Amber urged him, but he wouldn’t listen. Their meager savings dwindled as a couple months went by. Church after church shut their doors to him, and then, Luke heard of an opening at a small country church an hour’s drive north of the Twin Cities. On a lark, they paid the church a visit one afternoon late in September. Several hastily arranged meetings later, the collective membership of Dalarna Baptist Church, all 23 of them, voted to call Luke as its new pastor.
As he drove, Luke mulled over this whirlwind of change. Good grief, what am I doing? The thought overtook him out of nowhere. But it was too late to turn back now. Highway 65 was bearing them, stoplight by stoplight, away from the safe confines of the suburban lives they had known.
“Daddy.” Jenna broke his reverie.
“Can you see Mommy?”
“She’s right behind us.”
“Can you see Tigger?”
He checked the mirror. “I think he’s driving right now.”
She thought about it for a moment, then giggled. “Tigger can’t drive, Daddy.”
“Are you sure?”
She laughed, allowing her wispy brown hair to flop around her eyes. “Well then either Mommy has grown a black beard or Tigger is on her lap.” The cat was black with distinct white markings on his chest and feet, and Luke could just make out his head peering over the Honda’s dashboard.
“Why did you name him Tigger?” asked Jenna. “He doesn’t look like a Tigger.”
“No, but when he was a kitten, he sure bounced like one.”
“He doesn’t bounce now.”
“Because when you were born, he had to learn how to run!” he exclaimed, and an impish grin came over her face.
“So little girl, what do you think about our moving to Dalarna? Are you excited?”
“I’m ‘cited that we’ll be living in a white house.”
“And you picked it out, didn’t you?”
She smiled proudly, and kept bobbing her head because she was amused by the way her hair danced around her eyes. Even before they crossed into Minnesota, Jenna insisted that they would be moving into a white house. She had dreamed about it one night, and announced it to her parents the next morning. It was a foregone conclusion then that the parsonage beside Dalarna Baptist Church was an old white farmhouse.
There were other things that felt right about this situation. Luke was a decent enough speaker, and at Dalarna he would have the opportunity to climb into the pulpit each Sunday and fine-hone his preaching skills. It didn’t hurt that Luke played a mean guitar. What’s more, the people in the church seemed eager for their little community to grow.
But Dalarna Baptist had no choice. Churches by the hundreds across the Midwest prairie were shutting their doors, as the townships around them went to seed. Dalarna once had its own car dealership, school, grocery store and gas station, not to mention a creamery that supplied cheese to a large dairy company, and all on the half-mile stretch of highway that went through the heart of the town.
But in a little over a generation’s time, it was all gone, erased by a faster, smaller world. Except for a cluster of houses on either side of the highway, no one driving through would see anything worth slowing down for. All that now remained of Dalarna besides its post office were two taverns, two churches and, oddly enough, a regional sales office for a local insurance company. The way Luke figured it, the two taverns and the two churches would destroy each other, leaving the insurance company to mop up.
Luke was the church’s last, best hope for survival, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing, as his Greek professor at the new seminary pointed out. He’d be given a longer leash, the professor said. Whatever that meant.
As they continued north, the distance between traffic lights widened, and the scenery around them began to open up noticeably. It wasn’t New England, that was for sure. There were no hills to be seen anywhere in his line of sight, but a surprising number of spruce and hardwood trees filled the landscape.
The next town up was Isanti, more than five thousand people strong. Luke took note of the Sony Cineplex as they went by. At least some vestiges of civilization lingered nearby. Most of Isanti’s 4.8 square miles of land spread out west of Highway 65, and if you didn’t catch a red light at the Route 5 intersection, you’d miss it altogether.
But appearances were deceiving. All around the little township, on up into Cambridge five miles to the north, construction equipment was chewing up farmland, converting it into housing tracts to accommodate the flood of newcomers moving up from the Twin Cities. Dalarna was nestled further north and west of Isanti another twenty miles, well beyond Highway 95, which functioned as a sort of Hadrian’s Wall, holding back the barbarians to the north who lived in trailer homes and drove fifteen-year-old Buicks. Few commuters ventured past it.
As Luke approached the stoplight in Isanti, he switched lanes and slowly lurched the truck to a crawl, hoping to catch the light and continue west. The truck had manual transmission and it was a killer getting the thing moving from a dead stop. But a quicker motorist zipped inside the lane ahead of him just as the light turned, forcing him to stop. He vented a heated sigh.
Jenna looked up. “Was that a moron, Daddy?”
“Afraid so, hon.”
“How ‘bout that!” she exclaimed to her doll. “Two morons on one day.”
Luke reached out and tousled her hair, suppressing a laugh. They continued through town, then wound their way through numerous side roads before coming to Highway 56 which took them north to Dalarna, and beyond that, to the heart of Minnesota fishing country. Lake Wobegone was probably out there somewhere too, and presumably 10,000 other ones, if the license plates told the truth.
After seven more miles of endless farm fields, Luke remembered what someone had told him back in Boston: “Minnesota – it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.” A momentary pall came over him. You’re not cut out for this, said a Dark Voice he knew well. What makes you think you can be a pastor to these people? Let alone even be a pastor? He gripped the steering wheel tightly and groaned. And with that groan, the Dark Voice ceased. These were his and Amber’s cornfields now. His and Amber’s roads. His and Amber’s people.
The road took a wide, sweeping curve westward and suddenly there appeared a weathered sign saying Welcome To Dalarna. To the left of the road stood the firehall – a large pole barn where the lone firetruck within ten miles was kept. To the right Luke saw the empty hull of the old creamery, rising up like a ruined castle, its gravel parking lot overrun with knee-high weeds and empty beer cans. Luke slowed the truck down as he rolled past the creamery into the town. Two trailer homes and six houses lined the left side of the road, followed by the old gas station (with gas for $1.03 a gallon – wonder how long had this place been shut down?) Five houses were on the right, followed by the Muddy Moose tavern and the insurance office. After them was another half-mile of farm fields, and then just on the outskirts of town two more buildings appeared on the left side of the road – a white farmhouse, and behind it, just visible peeking through the empty oak trees, the brown roof and bell tower of Dalarna Baptist Church.
* * *
In 1871, seventeen Baptist families from the Dalarna province of Sweden sold their homes, embraced their relatives and neighbors one final time, and sailed to America in search of religious freedom. These seventeen families were part of a vast migration of nearly a half-million Swedes who came across the Atlantic in waves throughout a period of twenty years.
The Dalarna Baptists heard rumors of the American West, a place where the land was so plentiful and the soil so rich that a farmer could retire from his labor after five or six harvests. Surely that was an exaggeration – ten years was probably more like it. Inspired by a dream (and bolstered by the generosity of the Homestead Act which promised them land for labor), the Dalarna contingent landed in New York City, climbed aboard trains and continued their journey west.
As they traveled, they heard more and more talk about the young state of Minnesota, a place said to have an uncanny resemblance to Sweden. The group agreed to make Minnesota their destination. They disembarked at Rock Island, Illinois, chartered a ferry north on the Mississippi River to the bustling lumber town of Minneapolis, then continued north until the onset of winter stopped them. Here they built their homes, and Dalarna, Minnesota, was born.
As Luke and Amber pulled into the wide gravel driveway leading up to the farmhouse, two older men came out of the house, both descendants of the original seventeen families. A white plank fence bordered the driveway on both sides, along with a line of frost-ruined flowers, leading to the two-car garage attached to the house. Luke brought the nose of the truck up close to the garage and shut the engine off. The sigh pursing his lips sounded like a discharging steam valve. He massaged his throbbing forehead, then tugged disgustedly at his soaked sweatshirt which didn’t have a dry inch on it.
“Gross, Daddy,” said Jenna, as she attempted to unbuckle herself.
Amber had pulled up beside them and congratulated Luke as he stepped down. She had shoulder-length black hair and beautiful hazel eyes which he could look into for hours. Her eyes twinkled as she said, “Well husband, no casualties, and no one run off the road – I’d say you did unusually good work.”
He reached out and high-fived her as the two men ambled around the truck.
“Well, hello there,” said the first man, Morris Olson. He had just turned 70, and he walked with a slight limp. Morris’s great-great-grandfather was the first baby born in Dalarna, though the Fryberg family had contested this for generations, claiming that they had a descendant born two hours earlier. The town records were lost in a fire during the Great Depression, leaving the two clans to battle it out until Christ’s return. Morris was born in his patriarch’s original house, in his very bedroom in fact. He was baptized at Dalarna Baptist Church at thirteen, married his wife Elizabeth there ten years later, and moved far away to set up his own farm – all the way across Highway 56 to the house on the other side of the road from his boyhood home. He was as true a Dalarnian as they came, and even served the town as its postmaster for 23 years after he left farming.
The second man was Ivan Carlson who was well in his 80s and looked it. “How could a man look so old and not be dead?” Luke said to Amber after one of their earlier meetings with the church. Like an aging oak, Ivan’s face was etched with rings, brought on by year after year of facing down the elements in his fields. He wore thick spectacles, behind which his eyes seemed distorted and unfocused, and he seldom spoke, except in muted syllables which his wife Marge said was because he never learned English very well. He wore blue-jean overalls that were too big for him, and a John Deere cap that seemed to slip off to one side of his head.
Luke noticed that both his cap and jeans were splotched with yellow paint. And now that he looked closer, both men had specks of paint on their faces. Luke smiled and shook each of their hands robustly. “Hello, Morris and Ivan. It’s nice to have a welcoming party.”
“The others will be along in awhile,” said Morris, “We’ve been finishing up some painting in the house.”
“I can see that,” said Luke, looking down at his own hand which was now smeared with paint.
“Daddy, I want down,” said Jenna who was perched on the edge of the van’s driver’s seat. Luke leaned over and cradled her with his left arm and swung her gently earthward. She giggled and ran up to Amber, hugging her legs. Then her face became serious. “Mommy, did you see all the morons on the road? Weren’t they everywhere?”
“Morons, huh?” she asked, as she reached inside the Honda to pick up Tigger. “Is Daddy teaching you new words?”
Luke patted his daughter gently on the head and laughed unconvincingly. Morris looked down with a hint of a smile.
“Well, let’s only let Daddy use that word,” whispered Amber, as she tried to console the squirming cat. “He has a specialty in that area.” She winked at Luke, then pointed discreetly down at Jenna’s hair. It had paint on it.
“Well, I think we’d do better if you back the truck into the driveway,” said Morris. “Then it’d be easier to unload, wouldn’t you say Ivan?”
A chill swept over Luke. Back the truck up? This idea had to be discouraged.
“Well, there’s not too many things that are all that heavy. I think this is all right,” he offered.
“Yah, but see, we have the garage already cleaned out,” said Morris, pointing to the two empty, immaculate bays of the open garage. “A guy can set the ramp right down on the concrete and take your things straight into the house.” He smiled broadly. He had a point. A door led directly into the house from the garage, and the closest distance from Point A to Point B was to back the truck up. How could Luke counter that logic, and that smile?
Amber leaned over to him and said quietly. “They’re old men, Luke. Don’t ask them to walk further than they need to.”
His eyes screamed at her. But he said nothing, except, “I’ll a…back the truck up.” He pulled himself into the cab and gripped the wheel with dread, then saw that he had now transferred paint one more place. Good Lord! Latex from hell, he thought to himself, then wiped his hand frantically on a Dairy Queen napkin that he snatched up from the floor.
He started the truck. With a grind of the gears, he put it into reverse and checked both side mirrors. Like I know what I’m doing! There was Morris, still smiling, and Ivan looking off into space.
Amber deposited the cat in the house, then returned to coax him along with a variety of hand signals which were more irritating than helpful. “I don’t speak sign language, dear,” he mumbled under his breath as he crept backwards.
Her eyes were actually the biggest help, because they registered alarm well before her hands swung into motion. Twice he almost took out the fence, but for her eyes which grew large both times. At last he reached the highway and when the road was clear in both directions he swung the beast out onto it so that he was facing back towards town. With a few quick maneuvers, he was poised to back towards the house.
He stared into the passenger mirror which was his only helpful point of reference, but Amber was now pointing vehemently to the north. He checked his own side mirror and grimaced. It was filling up fast with the reflection of a charging semi that was right then gearing down to round the corner and head into Dalarna.
“Oh crap,” mumbled Luke, who had been enjoying not having to work under a deadline. The truck slowed to an unwilling halt to let him clear, but in his rush, Luke didn’t cut the angle sharp enough. Neither was there room for the semi to pass, so Luke repositioned himself and tried again while the other driver rapped his fingers on his steering wheel.
On his third attempt, he stalled the truck. Panic set in. Rushing, he started up the truck again, jammed it into gear and jabbed at the pedal. The boxy van jerked back into the driveway, but in his concern for getting out of the way, Luke had forgotten the fence. His heart sank as he heard a horrible sound, a sound he had heard once before at his parents’ house – a distinct and robust crack.
With an indignant roar and belch of diesel smoke, the semi accelerated on its way into town. Luke could just make out the driver enjoying a full belly laugh at his expense. For a moment of imaginary pleasure, Luke could see himself standing atop the rental truck’s hood, hoisting a rocket launcher to his shoulder, and giving Dalarna its biggest news story in decades.
With the battle lost, Luke now found it easy – of course – to nurse the truck back up toward the garage. As he slid past the fence, he winced at the newly missing eight-foot section of planks and posts. When he stepped down from the truck, Morris and Ivan were still standing there as if nothing had happened, but Amber wasn’t so tactful.
“That’s the Luke I know and love,” she said with a smirk.
“Daddy, you’re in big twuble!” Jenna added with amusement.
“Now, not to worry about it,” said Morris with an assuring smile. “We can fix that easy enough, right Ivan?”
“Yah sure,” Ivan nodded. “In a jiffy. Few nails ought to do it.”
The funny thing was, Luke knew them just enough by now to know that they would have reacted the same way even if he had driven the truck clean through the house.
Yah sure, not to worry. Just a board or two and a few nails and we’ll get the house back up like new in no time.
* * *
The sun was just setting as the men hauled the last pieces of furniture off the truck. By then they were joined by other folks who stopped by to help. Wayne and Ruth Magnuson were the first to arrive, along with their three daughters. Wayne was Dalarna Baptist’s head deacon, and one of only two farmers in the church, though the way he did farming astounded Luke.
Wayne’s office was like an agricultural war-room, crammed with computer and lab equipment, its walls plastered with graphs, market reports and detailed maps of his fields. His tractors seemed NASA-designed, with interiors like a 747 cockpit. If asked, Wayne could tell you about the price of corn in Brazil or the drought conditions in the Ukraine. And for good measure, he always had a rolled-up copy of the Farmers’ Almanac in the glove compartment of his pickup.
His fields were fertile, and so was his wife. Ruth had just learned she was pregnant with their fourth child – and when she wasn’t blowing noses or chauffeuring her girls to dance lessons, she effectively ran the farm’s office, not to mention the church’s Sunday school programs.
No sooner did they arrive, than Ruth sent the girls off to play and began imposing order on things, first breaking up a logjam of boxes in the kitchen. “Amber dear, let’s have the men take these right to the rooms where they belong.” She began to lightheartedly bark out orders, with Amber’s direction. As Ivan walked by with a box, Ruth’s eyes lit up and she snatched a coffeemaker out of it.
“The first order of business is coffee,” she said with a laugh. “Not much gets done around here without it.”
Amber obliged by digging around for the coffee itself, and by the time the pot was brewed, Albert and Sarah Swenburg had arrived, with a crockpot of chili and piping hot cornbread. Albert was the church chairman. He owned a machine shop in Cambridge, but lived on the farmstead south of Dalarna that he had inherited from his parents. Their only child, Bethany, had recently made them grandparents but it was a bittersweet promotion. Bethany had barely squeezed out her sophomore year of college at Winona State before the baby came. Its father had run off early in the pregnancy, and Bethany was now living in a campus apartment for single moms.
All bets were off for a degree, for marriage, for happiness – so Albert figured, the shame of it being he had warned her and preached to her all through high school. He would forgive her – like a good Christian should – but not yet. Better she should feel his anger for awhile, as an incentive against going down this road again. And so Albert refused to see her, and forbade her to come home. Sarah’s oven however was busily cranking out breads, pies and casseroles which she drove to her daughter and grandson most every weekend.
After the last box was hauled out of the truck, the men sat content inside the empty cab and sipped their coffee while the women talked and kids played inside the house.
“Well that was enough fun for one day,” Albert said with a groan, stretching his back.
“Running that machine shop, I don’t supposed you’re quite used to real man’s work, eh Albert?” cracked Morris with a smile.
“Morris, if you weren’t 110 years old, I’d slap you to the ground right now,” Albert replied, and for a minute Luke wasn’t quite sure what to make of this exchange. Then Morris’s body began to tremble like a tea kettle on the stove starting to boil, and Luke realized he was laughing, the kind of laughter that bubbles up through the belly and out of the nose, till the eyes start to water. Albert meanwhile just exploded into a robust belly laugh, and the others joined in till the whole truck rattled.
“Speaking of hard work, I don’t see too many calluses on those hands,” Albert started again, pointing at Luke. “Are you sure you’re ready for this country living?”
Luke pondered his answer, but Wayne came to his rescue. “Some of us work with our brains, Albert,” and a smattering of “Ooos” broke out.
“Boy, you guys are brutal,” Luke remarked. “If these are the Christians, I’d hate to meet the other guys.” And the trucked heaved once again.
“Well, we like to poke fun at each other around here,” Albert said. “Seriously though, we hope you settle down nicely and stick around for a good long while.”
“I am getting tired of moving pastors in and out every two years,” Wayne added. “In fact, let’s just say right now that if Pastor Luke decides to leave anytime soon, he’s moving himself out,” and everyone said “Here, here!” and clanged their coffee cups against each other, including Luke.
“Not to worry, men,” Luke interjected. “I’m looking forward to calling one place home. I think you’re stuck with us.”
As he said this, Morris’ wife Elizabeth came outside carrying a fresh brewed pot of coffee, and she began to reheat their cups. She was a nurse for most of her adult life, and in keeping with her profession, had the gentlest spirit among all the Dalarnian folk. She could calm a restless child with just a look, or Morris for that matter when he spoke his mind a little too freely.
Luke paused, then asked, “Why do you think the church has had a tough time? Gloria Dei Lutheran seems to be doing okay.” The Lutheran church across town had a steady congregation of 125 and a long train of reliable pastorates.
“Morris’s the treasurer,” Albert said. “I don’t think he pays ‘em enough.”
“Maybe some of us don’t give enough,” Morris answered right back, and Elizabeth at once flogged him with a look. He squirmed under her glare. “But it’s hard for all of us being a small church. We can only afford student pastors or retired pastors, and most of them can’t help us grow, so they end up leaving.”
“And we end up stuck in the mud,” muttered Ivan with his heavy Swedish accent, and his thick glasses glowing from the reflection of the garage light. Everyone silently marveled that he had spoken at all.
“Well, perhaps the good Lord has a different outcome in mind this time around,” Luke said.
And this brought one more rousing chorus of “Here, here!” from all the men.
Meanwhile, Ivan repeated quietly under his breath, “Stuck in the mud” because he liked the way it sounded.
* * *
That night after tucking Jenna into bed, Luke and Amber laid down on their own bed and listened to the wind rattle some of the windows.
“This house makes some interesting noises,” Amber said. “I wonder how well it will do keeping winter out.”
“As long as I have you to cuddle up with, I won’t be cold,” Luke said, passionately wrapping her up in his arms, and kissing her.
“You did say cuddle,” she said when he finally gave her a chance to breathe.
“Well, cuddling is just one way to stay warm,” he replied with a hopeful smile, but she tried not encourage him.
“There aren’t curtains on the windows.”
“Who’s gonna look in?”
“I saw squirrels in the oak trees.”
“They’ve gone high tech.”
“The pictures will be all over Dalarna by breakfast.”
“Oh dear. That will make for an awkward first sermon on Sunday.” He paused. “But I’m willing to risk it.”
“Only if you shut off the light,” she yielded, and scarcely had she finished her sentence than he bounded out of bed to flick off the switch, but he stubbed his toe on a box while scurrying back. Moans and laughter drowned out the wind shaking the house.
* * *
Darkness. The brightest summer sun could wash her in light, but the black hole in her soul would suck it deep into oblivion and leave her in shadows.
Not that light could find her. The shades to her house were always pulled down. She wore prescription glasses tinted black, and over the years it had seemed to drain the very blue out of her eyes. Those who looked into them felt the chill of raw horror, like that which comes over a hiker peering into the throat of a cave he didn’t expect to find. Step inside and you might never find your way out again. Her husband had learned to look away while having sex with her. Yellowed issues of old Playboys lay opened on the floor, and he’d stare down at them while he got it over with, then tap them back under the bed with his grease-stained fingers.
Each morning she would sit at her kitchen table and stare out after her two children from behind the shade as they ran for the bus. Her husband thankfully had been gone since five and she wouldn’t have to listen to that wheezing voice or raspy snore for twelve more hours. Twelve hours of peace. If that’s what it could be called. The first cigarette was glowing between her lips before the bus even pulled away. The shade was browned like the skin of a roasted marshmallow in the place where she breathed against it, staring, hating, hour after hour.