July 25, 1975
When it’s late at night, I lay in bed and think about Aunt Emma, and how she makes her quilts. She showed me, more than once. I don’t think I could ever learn to stitch so close together, and so perfectly. You know, Mother, I have tried. And tried and tried. I just can’t get the rhythm to come together, the rhythm of thread to cloth, sewing over and over. Oh, I have tried, I have tried. I prayed to God, “Let me learn, make me like it!” But I can’t learn, I haven’t learned, and I can’t like it. I have asked to like it, over and over again, but it won’t happen. There is something wrong with me, and I have been too ashamed to tell you. This shame, it makes my heart heavy and sore and I feel a million blisters burning. I want to see a doctor, so they can put a salve on my heart and make my blisters go away, but there is no cure. If there is, tell me!
I sneak outside when I can, when I’m not in the kitchen baking and washing dishes and learning about something I am supposed to know, because I am a girl. I sneak outside and I get on the black gelding, and he lets me ride him bareback across the pasture. I’ve never told you, Father, because you would scold me and tell me to stop, because it is not what I’m to be doing. Jake knows I ride, because I’ve seen him hiding behind the oaks. I feel him watching me, and every time, Father…every time, I am right…but I don’t care what my brother or sister say, I love riding, I love being outdoors, and to stay inside learning to cook and to clean, and gathering celery when a wedding is due…it makes me want to scream! Why, why, I do not know, but this is something that has to end. It is a nightmare. I talk to my friends about it, and some of them agree with me. Not all of them…Sharon…she does not agree…She says, “Hilty, why are you so strange?” And I shake my head, because I don’t know. I know there is more out there, and I am a fish in a bowl and everywhere I turn, there is glass. I want to break the glass with my hammer, but if I break the glass, won’t the water drain away, and won’t I die?
When we did the barn-raising…the only one I have ever been involved with…I was inside, baking. I was put in charge of the desserts. But what did I think about when I was making these desserts? In my mind, I was outside where the sky was bright blue and I know there wasn’t hardly a cloud in the sky that day. In my heart, I was riding Sam, and the field was clear and nothing stopped me. The gate was open, and Sam and I rode out the gate and I wasn’t afraid, because I had Sam and the sky was blue and nothing was stopping me. Nothing. That’s what I thought about when I made the apple pies and the cobblers. I was outdoors, where my mind was. I was up on the roof with you, Father. Nailing with the pegs you made. I was not in the kitchen. And I know, I was supposed to be in the kitchen.
Haven’t I told you that I love the nights at home when it thunders and rains? I hear the rain as it pounds and pounds and pounds against the window panes, and I ask it if it’s trying to get in, or is it trying to help me get out, to escape? Because as I lay there in bed, shivering, I want to run. I’m a wild animal, and I don’t belong here in the white sheets with the quilt over me; I don’t belong here, and I am crying. But I like these dark summer nights, because I can cry and scream and you can’t hear me! I am part of the Night. I am part of the sad, wet, torturous night and nothing can take me back home to the Amish Way. I am me, and I go to the window and look out. Lighting is far away, but sometimes it comes closer and I ask God to make it come even nearer so it could strike me and I could feel its power and might and tears sting my cheeks. I want it so much. The Other Side. God, I want to be free! But I look at the outside from within, and the glass that separates us is what can cut, and make me bleed, and it keeps me a prisoner, this glass.
I am afraid to be cut. I am afraid of Blood.
Do you remember, Mother, when I was six? We were in the kitchen, making a cake for Miriam’s birthday? Remember? I asked you where Father was, and you told me, “In the barn, with the animals. He has to take care of the stock.” I begged you to let me go outside. You told me no, that I had to stay here and help with the cake. You let me break three eggs into the flour, and you let me stir. You allowed me to measure the milk and pour it so I could keep stirring the batter. I hated you for that, because I did not like stirring, or pouring, or baking. I wouldn’t have minded it so much if I could have had a taste of outdoors, but I wasn’t even allowed that. On the morning of my sister’s eighteenth birthday, I had to stir and be happy and act like nothing existed beyond our four walls. I didn’t understand, yet I understood everything that day: A girl is inside, cooking and cleaning (oh, but life is good!). A boy is outside, caring for stock. He is under the blue sky, and out in the pouring rain. But he feels, he is alive! Us, we are destined to be where and how we are. Tie your apron, you tell me. The day is long, you say. I tie my apron and I feel empty and I cannot stand it here another moment. Yet I stand it. For many years. The apron cuts off my circulation, and I can’t breathe.
I understand. I do. We cook and we clean and we serve, and serving is noble. But is there not nobility to clean the cow’s stall, and why must I stay inside? I’ve ridden the plow a time or two, but I’m always back here, inside. The sun is hidden from me when I’m in our home, even though I know it’s alive and I’m free…that’s what I’m told…but I don’t feel free, and I feel hidden, and I feel as if something is missing from my life. I pray to God…make me like the others! Make me like Miriam. Find me a man some day, a man I can marry and make me like my older sister. Make me good, God! But at night, I cry into my pillow. I am not good, I am not happy, I am no one.
I am not destined for this, yet I am destined for Something.
So I waited, and waited, and waited.
I baked apple pies, and pecan pies. I helped with the weddings and the dinners, and I made cherry clobbers and a time or two, I went over to the Templeton’s house and I watched my first movie! I never told you! The movie was called…Where the Red Fern Grows, and it was my first movie. There must be more!!! I cried, and cried, and cried. When I got home, I hugged our old dog until he gagged, I hugged him so tight. I remember still, the movie…
And then I am here.
Writing to you.
Crying. My eyes are red, because I look into the bathroom mirror and see them. The green of my eyes are nothing, compared to the red.
I beg you, Mother, Father.
There is no secret. I am sixteen. I am in Henry and Shelby’s home. There are only twelve miles between us.
You told me, Father, “This is the time you can experiment.”
There was no hesitation.
I packed. I left. I went to stay with Henry and Shelby. You didn’t think I would.
It’s June, and it’s hot and humid. I leave my window open at night. The cicadas make a queer sound, but I like them. Shelby and I share a room. It’s a little strange for her, but not for me.
She asks me about my life, even though we’ve been friends for three years. I tell her.
I would ask her about her life, but I’m in it. I’m living her life.
The other four girls, plus Bram…they never stayed with a family. They went out and went to parties, and they eventually came home.
I’m not them. I’m not Bram. I’m not Linda, Rebecca, Fannie or Lovina.
I am ME.
Forgive me. I know what you’re thinking.
I have prayed, and prayed, and prayed. I’ve prayed so hard that my brain has turned to concrete. There is no feeling in my head any more.
One time, long ago, I read a story in school. It was about salmon. It’s kind of involved, but basically the salmon go on a really long journey and in the end, they find their way back to where they were born, or meant to be, as is my case.
It’s called magnetroception.
Human’s aren’t thought to have a magnetic sense. We’re not supposed to just know things. We aren’t supposed to just feel and be and do as our senses direct. But we have it. I read there’s a protein in our eyes that’s called cryptochorme.
That means in a sense, we’re like salmon.
We know where we belong, and so we swim.
Dear Mother and Father,
I’m almost seventeen years old, and I am dying.
I’m dying because I was born in a place where I see walls as a way of keeping me in, not as a way of keeping out the rain and the snow and the cold mornings.
I’m dying because I was born in a place where I was told to do and act a certain way, to make breakfasts and dinners and do the dishes and I was told this was how it was.
I’m dying because I was born in a world where I wasn’t supposed to know about televisions, or telephones. I could know them, but I could not use them. Rules, rules, rules.
Everyone has rules.
But the salmon? Do they have rules?
I want so badly to be held in your arms so that I can cry and be accepted for who I am.
Perhaps the dream is gone.
Perhaps the dream will always be there, but I’ve come to know certain things.
Three nights ago, Henry and Shelby and I sat on their front porch, and we made ice cream.
I showed them how to make the ice cream, actually, since Henry and his sister always bought it from the store, until I came along. His mom and dad bought it from the store, actually. Strange, don’t you think?
It was fun to show them how to turn the sugar and cream, and how, after a long while, things came together and actually produced something good that could be consumed.
It took a long while. Long for them.
Not so much for me.
It was pretty late when the ice cream was done, and Henry dished us three bowls of very nice berry ice cream.
We sat in the porch swing in this order:
Me. Henry. Shelby.
The dog. Can’t forget the dog, only he was on the floor. Asleep. He’s old.
I asked Shelby to take the first bite, and when she did, her eyes lit up (because I was watching her).
“This is unbelievable,” she said to me and her brother.
Henry took the next bite.
“Oh, my gosh.” He took another bite, and another.
I was the last one to indulge, and I thought it was pretty good.
Then we just sat there.
The porch light was off, but I heard a long-distance hum of the parents’ television.
I also heard crickets and cicadas.
Henry smelled really nice. He was eighteen.
“What do you wanna be when you grow up?” Shelby asked me, in the half-dark.
I scooted a little closer to Henry.
“I dunno,” I said. “I really don’t know.”
“I’m going to be a scientist.” She was the same age as me. Shelby smiled in the dark; I think she smiled, anyway. I felt she did. “Not sure how, but it seems exciting. There’s a lot of world out there.”
“What about you?” I elbowed Henry. “What are you gonna be?”
“A musician.” He didn’t hesitate. “I want to make the guitar strings sing happy songs.”
I finished off my ice cream, wanting more, but not willing to stand up and dish me up another bowl, partly because I was lazy, and partly because I liked being next to Henry.
“What about you?” Henry poked me back. “What do you wanna be when you grow up, Hildy?”
“Free.” I didn’t hesitate. “I want to be able to wake up in the cold water and just be me. That’s what I want.” I smiled. “Guess I’ll be a salmon.”
We three sat there in the half-dark.
A dog howled.
“Salmon don’t have souls.” Shelby chuckled. “Are you sure you wanna be a salmon, Hildy?”
“I’ll be a Chinook Salmon,” I said. “Did you know that Lewis and Clark ate them?”
There was a long pause.
“You’re smart, Hildy.” Henry gave me a poke in the ribs.
Tears stung my cheeks, and they burned.
It was going to be a long journey.
I stayed with Henry and Shelby for five weeks.
And then I wrote my folks another letter.
Most of us, we don’t write the letters, or go home and tell our folks what we’re gonna do, or what we did when we were out, checking the world out, thinking and deciphering our lives.
Most of us go back to where we came from, because it is all we know.
Dear Mother and Father,
I was on the inside looking out for so many years. I remember getting up out of bed when rain pounded on the windowsill late at night. I’d push my face into the cold glass. Sometimes I’d cry. I wanted out. That’s all I wanted.
You let me out.
You allowed me to look around and see and feel and now that I’m out…
It hurt when the glass cut me. I fell through the window, really, I fell through with such force that I think I cut my face and arms and hands so hard that I bled for a day…it finally stopped, the blood.
But the freedom remains.
I don’t hurt any more.
We kept swinging on the front porch, me and Henry and Shelby.
Our bowls were empty and I’m sure all of us wanted seconds.
“I think salmons might have souls after all,” Henry said. “I mean, they go back to where they come from, right? They sound pretty smart.”
“Sometimes you have to go where you’ve never been.” I jabbed Henry in his ribs. “Like here. I’ve never been here.”
“My folks are OK with you living with us,” Shelby said, “at least to the end of summer. That’s what they told me, anyway.”
I wanted to cry, but instead, I placed my bowl on the ground.
Out of nowhere, thunder rumbled.
“It’s gonna rain,” said Henry. “I can smell it.”
I smelled it, too.
That night, when I lay in bed, I listened to the rain thunder rumble and tumble against the window pane.
I’m pretty sure I’m doing the right thing, but I’m scared and I don’t know what to do next.
The pastor of our church says that sometimes the answer is to do nothing, and wait.
So I guess I’ll do nothing and wait.
But in the meantime, I wrote to my folks and I’m mailing the letter off tomorrow.
Thunder bellowed, this time…really long and strong and my chest vibrated from the loud noises.
I got up out of bed, and went to the window, and pressed my face against the cold glass.
I wanted to pray, but I couldn’t. The words wouldn’t come. I think God can feel our prayers. I was banking on it tonight.
I pushed my fingers against the glass and felt the rain come at my face, and it came fast, staccato-style. I think a tear or two slipped out of my eye.
I knew at that moment that I was a salmon, and I was swimming upstream, and home was where I was meant to be, even though I had never seen it.
I was on my way home.
Lightening struck again, and I still had my face pushed up against the window; I wasn’t afraid.
“You coming back to bed, Hildy?” asked Shelby. “It’s really late and we need to be up early.”
“I’ll be there.”
The rain and thunder continued.
“That was really good ice cream you made,” said Shelby, quiet-like. “Maybe you could be a chef some day.”
As I left my spot at the window and climbed into bed, I figured being a salmon was the best goal for me right now.
I’d dream about swimming upstream, and swimming past bears, and defying every thing that might kill me.
I’d dream about going up waterfalls and swimming in the pouring rain.
I’d dream about home.
I’d dream of being me.