Isaac Bowman's Birthday: An Excerpt from "Plain Love: A Novel"

"But all of us together are but a party of children wandering in from the country, travel-stained, tired, and bewildered with glory."

-Robert Hugh Benson


Like a prince Isaac sat there, like a prince at his table. He swung his legs, glanced over at his closest friend, Luke Sauder, and back at the wooden clock beside the window. The second hand swung triumphantly up toward twelve o'clock. 57 seconds, 58.

'It's time,' Isaac cried, as the clock struck twelve. 'It's time.'

At the stove, his mother kept stirring. Finally, she turned, her blue eyes wide with warning. It was no way to look at a prince. Still, very briefly, Isaac felt chastened.

'But it's twelve,' he said. 'You said we'd start eating at twelve o'clock.'

'Don't you want to wait for your father?'

'He should already be here,' said Isaac. 'It is my birthday,' his anger at his father's lateness masking the fear that still quivered in the back of his mind, even though the day was bright.

His mother sighed deeply. 'I guess if you want to so badly, we can sit down.'

Isaac turned to his friend, Luke. In battle, they were always victorious. All morning in the meadow, they'd routed their mortal enemies: the Dolts of the North and the Dullards of Nod.

'Rachel?' Isaac shouted, leaping up. 'Naomi? It's lunchtime. Come on in.'

As his older sisters marched in, Isaac narrowed his eyes. They were his subjects. The tiny tenant house was his castle. The green-cabineted kitchen was his banquet hall. In her apron, his mother came toward him, her soft face flushed and frowning.

Something about her distraction punctured the completeness of his conviction. He was a prince, and not a prince, at the same time.

'All right,' his mother said, as they all sat down at the table. 'Let's bow our heads.'

Isaac nodded at Luke somberly, clasped his hands in his lap.

'Dear Lord,' his mother prayed, 'bless this meal. Bless Isaac on his birthday.'

Please, Lord, Isaac prayed. Bless me: Help us not to have to live on a farm.

'In all we do, may each of us imitate Your Son Jesus, in kindness, obedience, and peace.'

Lord, he prayed, help Dad to realize that he needs to do something else.

He could be a seed salesman. He could drive a feed truck. He could do any job that did not demand the help of his son, who, as a prince, should not have to sully his hands with menial labor, and who, as a boy of ten, was terrified of all tractors, implements, and livestock.

Isaac lifted his head and gazed at the steaming bowl of noodles in the center of the table. A door slammed in the driveway.

Let it be Dad, and when he walks in, let him renounce farming. I command it, Isaac added, the way all morning in the meadow, he'd commanded Luke.

The door to the mudroom opened and his father, still in his stinking barn clothes, leaned in. 'Happy Birthday,' he boomed.

'You're late,' Isaac said, refusing to meet his eye.

'I'm sorry about that,' said his father. 'We got a little carried away on the shop roof. You all just keep eating. Let me get out of these coveralls and I'll be right up.'

The same tiresome cheerfulness. The same delight in his work routine. The same infuriating love of the farm.

'Here,' said Isaac's mother. She was beside him now, holding the bowl. 'Let me dish some for you.' She dropped a big dollop of the noodles he'd chosen from the Martha Stewart magazine he'd bought at one of the improperly-churched neighbor's garage sales.

Fettuccine Alfredo, he repeated inwardly. He'd had the congregational schoolteacher, Miss Shertzer, help him with the pronunciation.

The stench of the parlor wafted from the mudroom, destroying the fragrance of pasta, parmesan, and parsley. He glared around the table. Couldn't they all smell it?

'Howdy, Luke,' his father said, sitting down at the table. 'Good to see you.'

'Hello, Mr. Bowman.'

'Are things still humming along over at your place?'

Luke shrugged. Nausea filled Isaac. His father adored the Sauders, adored Luke, adored all children who wanted to be perfect farmers and obedient Mennonites, like their fathers.

'So, Isaac,' his father said. 'How's your morning been?'

'Fine,' he said, staring at the puddle of noodles on his plate.

'And what's this we're having? Looks real good. But hang on.' His father stopped and bowed his head in a private prayer.

Isaac bowed his head, too, along with everyone else at the table. He was prince, but he was still a Christian, even if he couldn't fathom the Mennonite rules on non-resistance. If the teacher had had a gun in the Amish schoolhouse, all those children might not have died.

His father cleared his throat to signal the end of his prayer, and Isaac lifted his head.

'Delicious,' said his father, as soon as he'd taken a bite. 'What did you say it's called again?'

Isaac scowled. 'Fettuccine Alfredo.'

'Now that is something I am sure we've never had before,' said his father.

'It was what Isaac wanted,' said his mother. 'It wasn't hard.'

Isaac clutched his stomach.As if they cared about what he wanted. The pang in his stomach tightened. He tried to fight it, but the pain turned molten. 'Can I be excused?'

'But you hardly touched your food,' his mother said quietly.

'I have to go to the bathroom,' he said through gritted teeth, bouncing lightly on his chair, clenching the cheeks of his bottom.

'Certainly,' his father said.

Isaac scooted back and started for the staircase, his father's voice trailing behind him. 'So now tell me, Luke, what's the herd average at your place like these days?'

Isaac thunderedup the stairs to drown out his friend's honeyed reply.

It is not fair, he thought, as he undid his trousers and sank onto the toilet in relief. The words of his mother returned like a further indignity: 'The Lord never gives us more than we can bear.'

Isaac lowered his head, his moan plinking in time with the toilet water. He does. He does. He does.


Isaac's stomach trouble wasn't serious. He just had to listen whenever his belly got hot—and afterwards do his best to forget about that distracting annoyance, that grossness, which was possible so long as he was not confronted with the filth of the livestock, the barnyard, or milking parlor.

Most of the time, he succeeded. The moment he got home from the schoolhouse, he raced upstairs to his room, threw himself on his bed and lost himself in whatever mystery novel he'd picked out from the Kuernerville library that week, in this way avoiding his father, who always spent a good half-hour before the evening work sitting at the kitchen table with a tall glass of meadow tea or a hot mug of coffee. During summers, of course, there was no dodging certain chores. Summer mornings, he pulled weeds in the mammoth garden. Summer afternoons, he helped his mother and sisters in the farmhouse. These were his favorite times: canning and cleaning, freezing sweet corn, freezing applesauce, letting the heat of the day soften his anxiety and his ambition to flee the farm. And there were other soothing moments. Hazy summer evenings on his grandparents' back porch, drinking milkshakes while the fireflies flared luminescent over the lawn. While the adults murmured on about corn prices and milk prices and the cost of seeds, his thoughts could drift like the hot air balloons that often floated over the township. Autumn afternoons when the red leaves of the maples drying-down corn on the rolling hills shone in the golden sun. Winter mornings waiting for the school van when the frost crackled in his nostrils. The first mild, watery days of spring when he could unzip his jacket and let the breeze wind its way through his collar.

But certain chores were unavoidable, and inevitably horrible: helping to load calves, picking up rocks in the fields, following his father into the parlor, doing anything with his crotchety grandfather, the old man almost as unpredictable and ill-tempered as the 'cleanup' bull they'd kept in the years before the artificial insemination technology started proving reliable.

It was all so unpredictable. That was the part Isaac hated most in farming. At any moment, one of the cows in the stanchions might kick. The cows might get loose. Slugs might devour the corn seedlings. The summer rain might not come. Fear might seize him whenever he closed his eyes.

Each night, when he when he prayed with his mother, he asked the Lord to touch him with peace. And so long as his mother prayed, he felt steady. So long as she rubbed his shoulders, raked her fingernails down his spine.

'Dear Lord Jesus.' That was how her prayers always started. 'Please be with Isaac. Bless him. Give him the strength he needs, and the peace to sleep easily. Hold him close, Lord, as he waits for the fulfillment of your special plan. Help him to always remember that there is a reason you've given him such a bright and sharp young mind. And the fears he's facing now will soon be behind him, and his future is going to be so bright. And help us all to remember'—for this was the refrain she always came back to —'as it is written in Scripture: the Lord never gives us more than we can bear.' And then the words she whispered in his ear each night. 'I love you so much, Isaac. I'm so proud of you. I'm so glad you're my son.'

'I love you, too,' he'd whisper.

And her face would glow. A portion of the Lord's peace would spread through him.

But panic always gripped him the moment she closed the door and vanished into the hall.

And lately his fear had been so terrible. The newspapers his parents had tried to hide from him described the violence, eight little girls--eight children--blasted at close range. Five had died. The others were grievously wounded. Every day, before recess, he skimmed the headlines the schoolteacher kept on her desk. And the man who had done it had not been some Muslim terrorist or a Catholic. He was milk truck driver. In the mug-shot the paper had published, he didn't look so different from stocky Earl Holzhauer, who twice-a-week picked up the milk at the Bowman farm.

Anyone could do it, any of their neighbors. It could happen at his school, the compact congregational schoolhouse that stood beside the meetinghouse. And yet whenever he tried to voice this possibility, the teacher, like Pastor Wenger, always insisted that they had nothing to fear, that this was all part of the Lord's plan. That the Lord's ways were higher, that it was their duty pray for the family of the man that did this, and assume the same calming spirit of forgiveness as the Amish families whose daughters and sisters had died.

At the mid-week service, the Wednesday after the attack, Pastor Wenger had prayed for victims, their families, and that milk truck driver alike, asking the Lord to bless them. All the while, Isaac had seethed. Turning the other cheek was all well and good when some rough, unchurched youth spun donuts in your field, or a salesman overcharged you for a tractor part, but it was an entirely different matter to 'turn the other cheek' if members of your family were slaughtered.

If a madman broke into the tenant house, would it be his father's duty to 'turn the other cheek?'

'No, it would not,' his father said firmly, when Isaac posed this question the week after the shooting.

'So you would shoot the man, then?'

'I'd try to reason with him. I'd try to pray for him. I'd remind him of the Lord's judgment.'

'And if that didn't work? If he just kept pointing his gun at you? Or at Mother? Or at me?'

His father sighed. 'I don't know, Isaac-boy. But I do know this. I'd do anything I could to keep any harm from coming to my family.'

This left Isaac partially satisfied. But when, in that same conversation, he asked his father if they could at least lock the doors, his father just chuckled.

'I'd have to find the key first.'

'So find it,' Isaac cried.

In response to this, his father shook his head and returned to his farming newspaper. So Isaac started rooting through his father's desk drawers, until his father clapped a beefy palm on his shoulder and reeled him back from the desk as easily as Isaac reeled in minnows from the meadow stream.

'Nobody's going to bother us here,' he insisted.

'Before that shooting, they would have said the same thing about an Amish schoolhouse,' Isaac howled.

'Oh, Isaac-boy,' his father had said, sticking his lower lip out, smiling exasperatingly with his eyes. 'I'll ask Pop if he knows what we did with that key. But I'm really not sure where it is.'

And Isaac had groaned, charged up the steps, locked the door to the bathroom. The dim watery space comforted him, even when he wasn't having stomach trouble.

The night of his birthday, Isaac summoned a vision of his favorite fortress. Ever since the shooting, he'd tried to divert himself from his sleeplessness by designing hideouts containing layer upon layer of passageways and steel-lined doors, each door flanked by a pair of cleft-chinned, uniformed guards. In his favorite fortress, each guard held a gleaming assault rifle, like the state police troopers in the newspaper photographs of the scene at the schoolhouse. And there were cameras above each doorway, so that Isaac could surveil everyone who approached his lair. The hideout was hidden in one of the leafy neighborhoods just outside Lancaster city, in a bunker deep underground. The walls were hung with massive televisions instead of windows. (The Mennonite proscription on television was just one more irritating indignity.) But no matter how intently Isaac tried to focus on his imagined fortress—the study paneled like the dashboard of the Jaguar he would someday own, with burled walnut—the darkness kept crashing over the fields, roaring over the darkened roads, spilling over the lawn, washing against the wood-frame tenant house walls. And no one knew who was coming, who, at that instant, might be reaching for the unlocked mudroom door, slipping inside.

Right now, a murderer might be advancing. A man armed to the teeth with guns. Or now. Or now. He listened. The familiar, pesky creaking, from his parents' bedroom had finally stopped. The night was still, now. It seemed still. Everyone else was probably asleep, his parents, his sisters, the cows in their stable half-a-mile up the road from where Isaac trembled now.

This was when an assailant might fling open his door, thrust a gun into his face demand to know if he was a Christian, if he believed in Jesus Christ.

'I am,' Isaac hoped he'd say. 'I do.'

But he was not certain if he would actually say this, cowardly as he was.

Still, he tried to pray. Lord, please be with me. Please strengthen me. Please fill me with your peace.

Whispering the words, he always felt a sliver of calm. But the darkness kept seething. At night, the entire world seemed to writhe with terrible possibilities.

You're ten years old, now, he told himself. You're too old for this nonsense.

But ten years was really not that old, at all.

He fought the urge, but already it was pulling on him, like the thought of the nights his parents had their small group over, when he could drift to sleep peacefully. So long as there were five strong men in the living room, he had nothing to worry about. They could fend off any attack.

And just down the hall, his father was slumbering in his bed, slumbering mightily, great snores rumbling up from his belly, drifting through the farmhouse like an announcement that declared to any would-be attackers A MAN SLEEPS HERE.

Oh, to be able to curl up in that room between his parents, to nestle against his mother in the field of his father's heat.

Lord, please, Isaac prayed one more time, but already, he was out of bed, yanking the quilt from the sheet, wrapping it around his shoulders, clutching his pillow, easing his door open and listening.

No sound but the clank of the water pipes.

He tiptoed, mindful of the squeakiest floorboards under the carpet. His parents' door was at the end of the hall. He knelt, lined up his pillow against the doorjamb, lowered himself onto his side, tightened his quilt around his shoulders, and tucked his hands between his knees. And as he closed his eyes, his father's presence filled him, his father's steadiness and bemused calm. He drew a deep breath, and then another, doing his best to match the pace of his breathing to the rhythm of his father's.

About the Author

Andrew Harnish

Andrew Harnish’s work has been published in NDQ, the Journal of Mennonite Studies, Atticus Review, Disability and Society, The Rumpus, Journal of the Southwest, and Miracle Monocle. He is currently at work on a crip/queer coming-of-age novel set in a Mennonite farming community. In the fall of 2019, he will begin as an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Quinnipiac University.