Henry Sees the Stars
- Alex Thermopolous
Vincent and Maggie had left the city early that morning and arrived at the Amish town, Vertrangensville, as a day broke and the farmland was aglow with golden dew. They spent the day exploring old fashioned buildings, learning about how cows were milked and butter churned, and whispering about how simple life used to be, how absurd it is to stay in the past while the rest of the world moved forward.
They exited a barn in which young boys lounged with cows and came across a crooked eyed man with a white mane who told them a storm was coming in. The sky had few clouds as far as Vincent and Maggie could see, but within an hour it was grey and overcast. A light drizzle interfered with no one’s work, fun, or even an Amish baseball game.
“I didn’t know they were allowed to play sports,” Maggie said.
“Balls and bats aren’t exactly modern, but you’d think there’s something sinful about playing a game.”
“Maybe these are the town sinners.”
A rubbery limbed boy boy ran to first base and everyone clapped.
“For people who spend all day working physical labor, they’re not very athletic, are they?”
“Because they’re inbred,” Vincent said
Maggie slapped his shoulder, “Shut up!”
Vincent leaned in, “they can only marry other Amish people. A small population breeding within itself, naturally they’re going to be super inbred.”
“Think about it.”
“What about breeding with Amish from other towns”
“Can’t they import them? Ship in the fit boys from other towns to mate with the women.”
“You talk about them like they’re animals.”
“ That would keep the gene pool diverse. And we’re all animals, they’re just inbred animals.”
Vincent laughed and buggy eyes stared at them from the field
Next they visited a barn where they were given a demonstration of bulky Amish tools by a man with a thin beard, enormous and calloused hands, and an inability to make eye contact with women. Maggie asked vague questions. The man stared at her shoes, over her shoulder, and finally at Vincent, who nudged Maggie until she stopped.
It had grown dark in the barn and when they stepped outside the sky was purple and rain was coming in at an angle.The Amish were running in all directions, holding hats and bonnets to their heads, putting away livestock, closing shutters, calling their children in. Everyone not dressed in Amish garb hurried toward the parking lot.
“You ought to get her to some shelter,” the man with large hands disappeared into the barn and the doors shut.
Maggie put her blouse over her head and ran. Vincent followed her to where they’d parked near a windmill with only one blade on its fan.
Torrents of rain shook Vincent’s minivan as the engine repeatedly failed to turn over for a tense, irritating ten minutes. Vincent punched the steering wheel,“There’s an eighth a tank of gas. And it can’t be the battery, the lights wouldn’t be working if it was. ”
Maggie’s phone was wet and wouldn’t turn on. She sputtered rainwater from her lips in Vincent’s direction.
“Why are you blaming me?” He tried the key again. The engine clicked, rumbled, and died
Maggie fell back in her seat then shrieked. An enormous face appeared through the dark, saturated world outside her window . Two massive eyes, set wide apart, with elongated pupils, stared through the van. Black lips curled wildly around several inches of purple gums and horse teeth.
“Fucking Amish!” Maggie buried her eyes in her palms.
The horse’s face disappeared into the rain. Further on, a massive man stepped off of a buggy. He approached the van and bent before the passenger side window. His face was dark and indistinguishable inside a square beard. Maggie cracked her window and started to speak. But the man grumbled “woman” and walked around to the driver side.
Vincent rolled down his window, “engine won’t start.”
“I don’t know anything about automobiles,” the man held his hat between his face and the wind and rain, “but I can welcome you into my home to wait out the rain.There’s a mechanic three miles down the road. He also owns the nearest telephone, to my knowledge.”
Vincent was made to sit in the front of the buggy and withstand the storm alongside the man, Josiah, while Maggie shivered in the enclosed carriage. It was fifteen minute ride, they turned twice off the main road and beyond several barns lay a square two story house. Inside the front door they saw that Josiah was well over six feet tall and broad shouldered. He had olive skin and in his beard were tight long curls like natural braids. He ran his fingers back through his wet hair, doing away with the traditional bowl cut and transforming himself into a real human with a roman nose, strong brow and all. Elaborate patterns of chest hair could be seen through his wet white shirt. He told Vincent and Maggie to wait inside the front door and disappeared.
“I blame this on you. You need to get us out of here as fast as possible.”
“Just be quiet and don’t say anything stupid.”
“If only he had a mustache…”
Josiah returned to introduce his wife, Marmabelle, whose bulky clothing did little to hide her shapeliness. She had a strong jaw, high cheekbones, wore her bangs down (against the rules), and smelled of burning wood and broth.
Vincent and Maggie were led upstairs to change into dry Amish clothes. Vincent was relieved not to be expected to borrow underwear– learning Amish men never wear any-.or change in front of Josiah, who had to take care of something outside before changing. In the next room Marmabelle retrieved a hidden pair of underwear from deep inside her dresser, explaining to Maggie that she owned several “forbidden pair, with elastic and frill.”
They were then told to wait in a downstairs room with a fire and an old woman knitting in a chair. Maggie asked what she was knitting.
“Blankets.” The woman patted a blanket over her legs. “We make quality blankets by hand.”
“I bet you do.”
“We don’t gamble here, but the lord is kind to travelers.”
Vincent turned on his phone and the old woman cocked her head at the noise it made.
“Oh, we’re Swartzentruber,” she said.
“We live the true way.”
“Swartzentruber,” Josiah’s voice filled the room,”It is the name the English give to our way of life, our people. What you might consider a... ‘sect’ of Amish. We don’t think of it that way.”
“Forgive my mother,” Josiah interrupted Vincent, “she isn’t familiar with your technology. We don’t allow electrical devices in our homes.”
“I’m so sorry, I–”
“I am willing to make an exception, under the condition that you use it only to contact someone who can help get home safely.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that, Josiah. My phone has no signal, anyway. I’ll turn it off.”
Maggie grabbed Vincent’s forearm, “might as well leave it on.”
“You wouldn’t believe the noise come from that thing,” the old woman said,
Josiah excused himself.
“Leave it on,” Maggie said.
The storm continued pummeling the Amish house. Inside it was stuffy and smelled like stew, which they ate for dinner on a long candlelit table in a small dark room with no windows. An empty sixth chair was at the table, accompanied by a plate and utensils. Josiah said a prayer. Vincent complimented the saltless stew and failed several times to start conversation.
A whooshing sound came through the room, air pressure changed, candles flickered, and the sound of the raging storm roared for a moment before a door was slammed in another room.
Josiah and Marmabette left. Through the pummlingling rain, thunder, and smacking of the old woman gumming her food, a Dutch argument could be heard. A shadow moved past the dining room and footsteps ascended stairs.
Marmabelle entered the room and sat down. “Our son, Amos, will be joining us shortly.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you had a son,” Maggie said.
Josiah returned a moment later, again with slick back hair. They ate silently for a few minutes before a lanky figure strode into the room with loud, intent steps straight to his seat, . “May I serve myself?”
“You may,” Marmabelle said.
The boy had a wide forehead and a chin that may as well have come to a point. One of his green eyes was lower than the other, and both were set deep under a boney brow. His thin lips were the same pallid color as his skin, appearing nonexistent and doing little to conceal a an inch of purple gums above a cornucopia of teeth.
Marmabelle cleared her throat, “Amos, aren’t you going to introduce yourself to our guests?”
“You did not, Amos.”
“Said ‘hello.’ Hello.”
“Hi there. My name is Maggie, and this is Vincent” Maggie held out a hand. Amos nodded and put a cube of meat into his mouth with yellow fingers.
“We’re from Chicago. We came to visit your town.”
“They were caught in the rain, Amos.”
“Can I play with Henry after dinner?”
“You’ve been with Henry all day.” Josiah said, “There will be no more neglecting your responsibilities and worrying your mother.”
“We’ve been keeping busy.”
“With what? Have you swept the barn today?’”
“We’re going to do it tomorrow, before lunch.”
“Idle mischief leads you astray.”
“Is Henry your best friend,” Maggie asked and Vincent kicked her under the table.
Amos put a carrot in his mouth and lay his hands on either side of his plate. Long dark nails gripped the table as is they were about the drag scratch marks through it. He swallowed after several chews. “I would do everything together with Henry if I could.”
“Amos,” Marmabelle spoke, “We have guests, not every conversation can be about Henry.”
“But I’m almost done with dinner. Can I go see him next.”
“It’s incessant!” Josiah’s slapped his spoon on the table. “No more, our guests don’t want to know about your ungodly–“
Vincent’s phone played a four note tune. Amos cowered. threw his arms over his head and turned his eyes up through the ceiling, to the heavens. The old woman made the sign of the cross and bowed her head in prayer while continuing to gum her food. Vincent apologized and fished in phone out of his pocket.
“Amos,” Vincent said, “the noise comes from piece off Mr. Vincent’s English technology. Be calm.”
“I didn’t know I had service. I’m so sorry. It’s a mobile telephone, it allows me to use it without a chord, only if I have service, which is like invisible–”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“I’ll turn it off until after dinner.”
“ It isn’t a problem: Josiah said, “so long as you ensure–”
“Don’t turn it off off!!” Maggie snatched the phone from Vincent.
“As I was saying, I’ll allow–”
“Oh my God. I mean, Oh no! It’s a flood warning.”
The old woman made the sign of the cross once more, Amos pulled his feet up onto his chair and hugged his legs.
“Be calm, be calm,” Josiah cleared his throat, “the trinket in the English woman’s hand tells her’s there’s a flood, while all I have to do is look outside to know it isn’t true.”
“The flood has come!” the old woman exclaimed.
“Oh, shit!” Maggie said, “It lost service again.”
“Oh shit,” Amos said.
“Amos!” cried his mother.
“O’ lost flood! O’ shit!” Amos watched the floors for water while Maggie checked all corners of the room for service.
“Enough of this!” Josiah stood, ”There is no flood. It’s no more than a common thunderstorm.”
“The lost flood!” the old woman cackled.
Maggie left the room in search of a signal and Josiah followed, demanding she return to dinner. He blocked her way at the bottom of the stairs.
“I just want to check for service, please,” she drew out “please” like a flirty child.
“It’s best for you to return to dinner.”
Maggie told him he wasn’t allowed to touch women he wasn’t married to, and when she approached he moved out of her way, then followed her upstairs. The fire crackling and footsteps overhead were the only sounds heard at the dinner table. Vincent excused himself and listened at the bottom of the stairs.
He called up, “Maggie.” After what he thought was laughter, he heard shuffling feet and Maggie came down the stairs two at a time. She made his grab his phone against his chest, “no service, at all. Nothing but a bunch of locked doors up there.”
Dinner was finished in silence and Josiah ordered everyone take an hour to digest before heading straight to bed. He would be up by sunrise and expected his unexpected guests to leave then.
As it was a sin for an unmarried man and woman to sleep in the same room, Maggie was given a guest room upstairs to herself and Vincent a couch in the room where the old woman had been knitting. The straw stuffed burlap sack of a bed made Vincent’s usual insomnia worse, as did worrying about whether or not Maggia would find about his big lie the next day.
Maggie was asleep in the passenger seat that morning when Vincent realized the fuel gauge was at an eighth of a tank of gas, which, he knew, actually meant they were running on fumes. They were only five miles away from Vertrangensville and he had no chance to refuel. The van was most plausibly not starting because it was out of gas. Maggie didn’t not know about the faulty fuel gauge, which meant she couldn’t blame Vincent for their unfortunate sleepover situation. Vincent intended to keep Maggie in the dark about all of this.
They could walk or get a buggy ride to the nearest gas station first thing in the morning, but convincing Maggie this was a worthwhile plan wouldn’t be easy– why would the go so far out of the way to get gas when there was almost an eighth of a tank in the van? She would want to call a tow truck, and Vincent would agree, because he was committed to his lie
He lay on the stiff Amish couch while thinking through all the potential directions and outcomes of the next day, ignoring the spasms, rumblings and grumblings in his lower. Josiah abdomen had left a pot by the back door and asked that it be used only for liquids.
Vincent was shuffling through the dark Amish home with a colon full of liquid when he noticed the relative silence of post storm drizzle. He lit the lantern Josiah had left for him, put on his soggy shoes, and ventured out into the dank night toward the outhouse.
It was a luxurious outhouse, with cedar walls you could smell. Like a sauna but without lights. Vincent was more comfortable on the toilet than he’d been anywhere inside the house. Josiah must have put a lot of effort into it.
Vincent washed his hands in a large sink and no matter how he turned the hot and cold knobs only cold water ran out. The only conceivable way Amish could get hot water was by fire. There was bathing room with beautiful tile floors, a large clawfoot tub, two overhead shower heads, benches, and again Vincent found knobs for hot water that did nothing. He followed pipes from the shower heads along the floorboards and around a corner to a closet, where he found an engine, a cylindrical reservoir, tubes and pipes coming and going, and a red metal gas can.
Were the Amish more accepting of gasoline than electricity? These were funny people, absurd rules. Vincent stepped outside and turned the lantern low to admire the universe. Stars like he’d never see in the city, flickers of the past having traveled an unimaginable time and distance. He was comforted by his insignificance as he returned to the Amish home, eager to sleep.
He opened the back door, paused, and ran splashing through muddy grass back toward the outhouse for the can of gas.
It took fifteen minutes and two left turns in the buggy to get from the minivan to Josiah’s, Vincent trusted his memory and after two right turns and a thirty minute walk he saw the single blade windmill.
The gas revived the minivan and the roar of the engine rang through the Amish night. Vincent saw himself as a man from the future, long stranded in the past, who’d finally found his ride back home. All he had to do now was rescue his woman.
He killed the lights before turning off the main road. At the top of a slope near the edge of Josiah’s property he turned the engine off, not wanting to alert sensitive Amish ears, and rolled in neutral to park behind one of the barn, out of sight from that miserable Amish nest.
Vincent’s phone caught service and on it he learned he had two hours before sunrise. What woke Josiah up every morning? An alarm clock was out of the question,but maybe it was an internal clock, or sunlight on his eyelids. Vincent crept toward the house, weary of causing a premature rooster crow.
There was no real risk in running into Josiah, he wanted them out of his home as much as they wanted to leave, but if Vincent were to get Maggie safely in the minivan without waking Josiah, then Vincent had a plan which would ensure Josiah and his family never forgot their unexpected guests. This was why he snuck into the Amish house and up the Amish stairs on light feet and, hoping his memory served him correctly, gingerly tested the knob to the second door from the stairs.
It turned. Squatting, he pushed the door open a fraction an inch at a time, his face close to the expanding crack as if he were sniffing it.
“What are you doing?” a voice surprised him from behind.He fell through to door onto his knees, still clutching the knob
“What the hell are you doing?” It was Maggie.
“Were you trying to spy on me?”
“We’re leaving. Get everything you need and let’s go. Now.”
“What do you mean we’re leaving?”
“I have the van. Just be quick and get you things”
“The van’s broken.”
“Where the hell were you?”
Maggie raised her voice “I had to pee.”
“Didn’t they give you a pot.”
“Pot’s in the other room.”
“What other room? Never mind. Get your stuff and let’s go.”
The were out of the Amish hosue and rounding the barn when a voice stopped them in their muddy tracks, “Calm down, Henry!”
“Is that the kid?”.Maggie said
”I don’t know, but we should get the fuck out of here.”.”
“You need to see the stars tonight, Henry. They’re absolutely beautiful!!” The voice came from inside the barn.
”The kid,” Maggie said, “what was his name?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“He wasn’t nearly that well spoken or articulate at dinner. What if it’s not him?”
“Let’s go,” Vincent grabbed her wrist and after a little tug of war she pulled away and started back toward the barn door. Vincent followed.
“Henry!” the voice shrieked, “You’re so silly tonight?”
“We’ve seen enough Amish boys today,” Vincent said, “He’s in there with his friend, I don’t think that’s something we want to disturb.”
“Wait for me in the van, I forgot something in the house?”
“What’d you forget?”
“Please just get in the van for me.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Listen, I have an idea, a plan. I promise you’ll like it, but right now can you please just trust me.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Please, Henry!” Laughter like someone being tickled . “Come on, I want you to see the stars while they’re at their brightest! “
Heavy feet clomped around the barn, “What are you doing Henry? Let’s go!”
Wood and metal creaked and slammed and the barn doors separated to create a tall, thin line of quivering light.
Vincent and Maggie took long, careful strides to the minivan and in the last few yards Maggie ran to take the driver’s seat. They bickered over the keys, and when Vincent conceded Maggie backed the van quickly up the slope to park among some bushes. She turned the van off. “I hope they didn’t hear that.”
“What are you doing?’
“This is a much better view.” She rolled down the windows, “I thought you had to get something inside.”
“Not if I’m going to get seen. Just get us out of here.”
“I want to watch the farmboys make love under the stars. What were you going to do inside.”
“Tell me and I’ll tell you what happened upstairs.”
“What happened upstairs?”
“You weren’t going to do anything inside.”
One of the barn doors swung open, casting lantern light over damp Amish land like a floodlight like illuminating a stage or a baseball field.
“Oh, my Lord in heaven! Henry, wait!”
A pink pig ran out into the light at a speed neither Vincent nor Maggie knew possible for the species. Amos followed with flailing limbs and one arm extended, clutching in it’s hand a rope tied around the pig’s neck. Henry the hog grunted and trotted to a halt, but Amos couldn’t stop fast enough and fell headlong into the mud. He laughed and clapped his hands. The swine shook its head, snorted, and put its nose in the air.
“You’re so fast Henry.” Amos got up and embraced the pig, resting his cheek on it’s back He was only a head taller than muscular Henry, who was twice as wide as the boy and had a perfect loop for a tail, not far above two tight bulbous protrusions.
“Well, there’s his buddy Henry,” Maggie said.
“”All the more reason to get out of here, unless you had any unfinished business inside.”
“You’re not enjoying this? How’d you fix the van, you don’t know anything about cars.”
“Let’s go up the hill, Henry, where the stars shine the brightest!”
“Shit!” Vincent whispered. A rectangle of pulsating amber appeared on the front porch, the silhouette of a broad shouldered figure in the middle of it. The figure disappeared.
“Drive. Now!” Vincent said.
“Why are you so afraid? Did you do something?”
“Did you do something?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Amos had repeatedly failed in throwing a leg over Henry’s back, attempting to ride him. He got on, the pig bounced in a few tight circles and the Amish boy was tossed into the mud, where he giggle and squealed.
“I want you to marvel at the universe, Henry – look up!”
“Unsah Faddah im Himmel!” Josiah came through the front door in full sprint and jumped off the porch, clearing the bottom steps by several feel and landing into an unfazed stride. He ran straight through mud toward Amos and Henry. His body was revealed in the moonlight– nude, with the exception of a satchel, and brawny, with a pendulous, purple penis that alternately wrapped halfway around each of his taut thighs as he ran, making a similar, but slower, sound to Henry’s flapping ears when he shook his head. His olive skin shone with sweat and he was hairless below the neck, where an elaborate tattoo spanned from one thigh, up over an angular lower ab muscle, up his side, and spread across his chest: a dark and herculean horse rearing out from roses and curls of vines, thorns, and fire.
“Well look at that,” Vincent said.
“What do you mean?”
Amos cowered on the saturated earth and pled to his boar riend, “Henry, look at the stars!”
Josiah dove over his son, made shoulder to should contact with the Henry and together they tumbled, Josiah’s two legs in the air followed by Henry’s four, becoming a ball of mammalian flesh. They scrambled ot feet and hooves. Henry too a few steps back and charged, squealing and barking. Josiah tried to grab hold of the hog behind the ears and remained completely silent. Henry shook free and they backed away from each other then started at it again.
“I love you, Henry!” Amos knelt with his hands clasped before him
The old woman came hobbling along the lawn in pink, one-piece pajamas.
“Mother! Mother, come back!” Marmabelle stayed on the porch, wrapped in a blanket, “We’ll watch from here.”
Like a gymnast, a figure skater of the mud, Josiah managed a grip on Henry’s two hind ankles and began an elegant maneuver–two long strides follow by a tight two part turn, then a tighter, quicker turn, and alternate heels dug and spun in the same muddy hole until Henry was off the ground, horizontal, and let go of.
A few yards away, after a roll, the stunned pig was unable to get onto its wobbly hooves before Josiah had him just below the hocks and began executed the same throw, this time with even more grace.
The old woman clapped and Henry was back near Amos, but now on his rotund side, kicking the air. Josiah pounced on him, got him onto his belly and held his head between his legs. He reached into his satchel.
“At the stars, Henry!”
Josiah moved his penis out of the way of the pigs head, put a pistol to the top of it’s skull, and pulled the trigger to a final squeal. Henry twitched for a moment before becoming pork.
Josiah’s family all clapped and he stood with his hands in the air, his penis slowly movin in the wind like the single blade windmill.
“The van was out of gas. I ran out of gas, the fuel gauge is just off, but i didn’t tell you Now please drive.”
“I listened to Josiah and Marmabelle have sex for like an hour and a half. We’ve never come close to that.”Maggie turned the car on,and the lights, and while she was backing up Josiah started sprinting toward the car, “here piggy piggy!”
“Jesus Christ, drive!”
Maggie struggled with the van in the sloppy Amish soil, and almost made it to the road when Josiah stopped and he and his family laughed and clapped. They all waved goodbye to the van as it went up the driveway and back toward the city where it belonged.