It was a good two-mile walk to reach the county highway along the network of gravel roads that linked the community together. He knew that any interaction had the power to make him change his mind. If someone asked him to lend a hand with something, he wouldn’t be able to refuse. But he met no one.
He hadn’t been up Cording Road since the evening of the accident, but because the accident had everything to do with his decision this day, it seemed necessary to pass the spot where his boys died. There was no visible sign, and he resisted wading into the ditch grass to search for one. And then he saw, on the fence, the remnants of a bouquet someone had tied there with twine. Anyone who didn’t know about the accident would assume it was just a tangle of wildflowers blown off a windrow after haying.
People grieve in different ways, goes the cliché. As we follow Abraham Zimmerman through his grief for his dead sons, it may seem somewhat familiar: the urge to escape, the bottling up of emotions, the insistence of memory. But consider how the story is written: how it uses negative space to great effect, and how it shapes itself very much like the Hero’s Journey. Abraham’s grief may seem different, but when it comes down to it, grief is pretty much the same for all of us, even an Amish roofer.
I’m using the art term negative space to refer to the narrative technique of shifting third-person narration from one character to another, sometimes called head-hopping. It’s drawing Abraham through the eyes of others, through background characters:
Simply put, the definition of negative space is the area around and between a subject. It appears in all drawings and paintings, and one of the best examples of it is the optical illusion called Rubin’s vase.
…. Negative space traces the outline of a subject to reveal its form.
Sara Barnes’ article at My Modern Met
Each person Abraham encounters sees him from a slightly different perspective. Some of the other characters know who he is and are aware of his recent loss; others seem to have no idea he’s a runaway Amish. A couple of the encounters have elements that seem almost sacred, while others contrast sharply with Abraham’s straightforward honesty. The encounters often evoke memories for both participants. This enriches the portrait of Abraham beyond his own thoughts, but it’s still subjective, unlike an omniscient third-person narration might be. All of the participants are, if not unreliable narrators, at least narrators with factors affecting their impressions. Most of the characters who meet with Abraham end up lost in their own memories; in this way, he affects them at least as much as they affect him.
The Hero’s Journey is first evoked by the existence of two worlds – the Amish, and the Other – both of which have signs that indicate passage between them at the beginning and end. The paragraph above shows the sign of a wreath of flowers as Abraham first sets out. The existence of two worlds is referred to both by Abraham himself, and by several of those he encounters. His shedding of his Amish identity in encounters with the barber, the clothing store, the car salesman, the bartender, and the thief, are all challenges along the way with different elements. And when Abraham decides to return home, he recognizes another sign and knows he’s back in his world:
Getting to his feet, Abraham Zimmerman realized he was desperate to get home. His desire was akin to thirst. He started running down the road until he came to a sign he recognized. It was a yellow caution sign, warning cars that they were in Amish county. The sign held a black silhouette of an Amish horse-drawn buggy. Someone had shot up the sign but not hit the image of the buggy.
I love the detail that, although the sign was defaced, the buggy was intact, as though the Other World was held responsible while the Amish World was held safe. It’s a repudiation, an undoing, of what the barber had heard from other townspeople who adopted a more blame-the-victim mentality.
He remembered the days after the accident, how his customers had talked of what a tragedy it was, then proceeded to offer their opinions, which, aside from slight differences in tone, were more or less the same: if the Amish insisted on driving buggies on county roads, they’d better be prepared for the occasional accident. The men didn’t say that that’s what you got when you tried to live in a dead world in the midst of this living one, but that’s what they were all thinking.
Nelson Julius respected the Amish, even admired them. They seemed not only of another time but of another dimension…. One world had met another on that road, and Nelson Julius was of the world that had triumphed, and that made him feel guilty.
Now who’s world has triumphed?
I mentioned sacred elements in some of the encounters; the barber is a prime example of that. He takes a very professional approach to the thick Amish beard – “surprisingly soft, almost silken” – and switches out his electric razor for his old straightrazor kit when Abraham flinches at the sound of the clippers. His focus and expertise are eloquent. When he searches for and applies the rosewater, this feels more like an anointing than aftershave. The reader won’t know until almost the end of the story, but there’s also an irony there: in this sacred space is evil that will make itself known. But it’s evil that will bring about peace.
Throughout Abraham’s day, we’re aware he has little knowledge of the Other World. Often common sentences make no sense to him. He buys a t-shirt because he likes the color, unaware that the slogan “Much Fishigan” has a meaning to those he encounters. These might add a touch of lightness, but I’m not sure I’d call it humor. Ok, the shirt is funny, particularly when a guy giving him a ride asks what he has against Michigan. But it’s still quiet humor.
We follow Abraham as he breaks every tie with his Amish identity: he has his beard shaved, buys new clothes, buys a car, and gets drunk. It seems perhaps that he’s angry at the injustice of his loss and is turning his back on the community that seems to have somehow let him down. But we find out that’s not his motivation. The title informs the story, though we don’t realize it until we find out one more thing about Abraham’s youth:
Around this time, a cousin had left the community. Most who went through Rumspringa promptly came back, but this cousin hadn’t. The world had gotten ahold of him like a river you try to cross, underestimating its current, that bears you away. The elders never spoke his name, as if, by entering the world, he was dead to them. But Abraham Zimmerman regarded this vanished cousin with awe. His leaving the community had opened a door that he hadn’t even know was there. Maybe this was why, when it came time for his own Rumspringa, Abraham Zimmerman had declined to take it. He was afraid he would be sucked into the world like this cousin had.
Though it’s not explicit, I get the feeling that this late Rumspringa isn’t Abraham making up for lost time, or seeing what the world has to offer. It’s in honor of his boys, who never got to take their turn.
The story ends with hope. Abraham’s quest is successful:
It was only another mile or so, though he had never measured it that way. There was the oak that the road seemed to bend around, and the old house they had harvested stones for fences from, though not so many that it wouldn’t be able to stand, and the farm where his cousin Aaron lived with his wife Hannah and their sons, Jacob and Daniel and Moses, and their daughters, Mary and Rebecca. He passed their house, candlelight dancing in the windows, and the thought of those children, which had pained him before, made him so glad that he started running, his jeans slipping down his waist.
The pain of other children has left him – it will probably come back from time to time, but now he can see it’s possible to be happy rather than sad – and the clothes of the Other World, clothes that never fit well because he had no idea about sizes, fall away from him. The story ends with thoughts of his now-naked face as tears fall down, and of the barber who so carefully shaved him “without drawing even a single drop of blood.” Abraham knows he was anointed, and he can use that to move forward.
I had trouble getting into the story. It took me several tries to get past the first page. But persistence paid off; it’s a really nice story. And now rereading, I can’t imagine what it was that kept bogging me down. I read some reading advice recently: if you keep getting stuck at the same place in a book, start after that place; you can go back and pick up anything you need later. Maybe the short story version is: just keep reading. Either it’ll start to work, or it won’t, but if you don’t keep going you’ll never find out.
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Complete story is available online at Narrative (registration is required, but it’s free and painless).