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Excerpts

Excerpt from CHAPTER ONE


Switzerland, 1526 A.D.

16th century religious Europe is in chaos.  Martin Luther is trying to reform the corrupt Catholic Church from within while others openly defy the religious government’s iron fist.  The rebellious grass roots movement draws more and more supporters and they become increasingly bolder, questioning the church-state on many issues.  Their determination to re-baptize themselves (the Catholics scoffingly call them “Anabaptists”) is a flagrant affront to the church practice of infant baptism.  This ultimate offense brings swift and terrible retribution.  Thousands of men are dragged from their homes and burned or drowned.  So many, that for a short period in history, surviving Anabaptist men take multiple wives, the widows of their best friends and brothers; one more reason they are so hated.

All week, the cold had expanded, plunging deeper, creeping into every crevice, under every rock.  The snow crunched.  The wagon axles squealed.

Jakkob shifted his weight on the icy wagon bench, soothing the impatient team of horses he had brought to a halt here on his favorite spot high on the bluff.  He could see Zürich in the distance, and felt his throat tighten.  The low slung ice clouds engulfed the small city, swirling and embracing the coal smoke as if inhaling, and then drifted on, sullied.  When the winds were just right, Jakkob would get a whiff of the acrid stench of dust, dried horse droppings and decaying carcasses, left to rot on the street where they fell.  Raw human waste ran slowly down the open ditch in the middle of most streets, lazily winding its filthy way to the cesspool at the edge of town.

Sometimes he could see the Devil’s horns in the smoke spiraling up from that wicked place.

In the early years of their marriage, Jakkob and Orpah were casual Catholics, like all their friends, socially religious.  Life was full of other distractions, God could wait.  Go stand by the wall, God.  They had kids to raise, crops to plant, a garden to grow, a house to build.  But with time and the responsibility of a family, they grew stronger in their faith and their bond to each other.

Life was calm and fulfilling.

Then a small group of farmers split with the Catholic Church over the issue of infant baptism.  It should have been a small thing, and Jakkob took his family with them.

The townsfolk didn’t care if the strange farmers and carpenters in the valleys south of Zürich sounded and looked different.  The country folks kept to themselves, they would say.  But the state church’s official position, its decree, was to baptize infants.

This affront of adult baptism by the Anabaptists was a blatant act of insubordination that could not be tolerated.

This time they had crossed the line.

It had been almost a month since Sarah first knocked on the front door.

“Hello, Sarah.  I’m so sorry to hear about your husband.  Will you come in?”  Orpah embraced the young widow warmly.

“Yes, please, thank you,” Sarah answered, curtseying to the older woman and stepping inside, stomping the snow off of her high-top, laced-up leather boots, tiny boots.

“Here, come over by the fire, you must be freezing.”  Orpah took the coarse wool blanket from around the young woman’s shoulders.  She shook the snow off, shooed several squawking chickens out of the way and hung the shawl on a wooden peg on the main vertical house pole.  Several more hens peered down from their perch on a cross-beam, trying to comprehend this human activity, cocking heads first one way then the other.

The two women, one old enough to be the other’s mother, made small talk…how was the crop last year, that sure is a nice table…and then Sarah finally asked, “Is Jakkob here?”

Orpah studied Sarah, older hazel eyes scanning young dark brown eyes, the young girl quickly dropping her gaze to the floor.  Orpah realized for the first time why Sarah had come over.  It hadn’t occurred to her that this young woman, this girl, would be interested in an old man like Jakkob.  He was nearly thirty-five.

“Why do you ask?”

Sarah blushed and continued studying the freshly swept rough hewn wood plank floor.

“I have nowhere to go.  And I can’t feed myself.”  She looked up plaintively and continued, “I don’t want to impose, but God told me in a dream that I was supposed to marry Jakkob.  I am strong.  I can help with the chores.  I know how to milk a cow…”

The older woman silenced Sarah with a wave of her rough, cracked hand and looked away.  After a moment, she turned back and said, “Of course, child, if it is God’s will.  I’m sure Jakkob will be willing.  God has been good to us, there is plenty to eat.”

The first years of Orpah’s marriage to Jakkob had been an innocent, happy, blissful time.  Two vines intertwined.  Neither of them ever imagined she would be the “first wife”.

But so much had changed.
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Excerpt from CHAPTER TWO

Jakkob was perfectly comfortable with his new pair of wings.  He found that he could not only flap his way up to great heights, dizzying heights, almost to Heaven, but with a little practice hover in one spot, like a giant hummingbird.  He had always expected his wings would be bright white, and was a little puzzled that they were the dirty golden brown of wheat ready to harvest.  Jakkob slowly, calmly, soared over Zürich, up one street, banking sharply, and down the next one.

It was still early morning dark, but Jakkob could see every detail of even the smallest objects, even through the ever-present coal smoke.  There were the paving stones that made up the front steps to the Church, a hundred copies of a hundred Summons nailed to the board, over there were a couple of sleeping dogs, curled up together to stay warm, their moist breath hanging in the still, frigid morning air, like smoke curling up from a discarded cigar.  The blackish mixture of gases from the smoldering, coal-burning fireplaces drifted lazily up from the rock chimneys, forming a low black-cloud ceiling just above Jakkob, the underside illuminated by the yellow-flamed gas powered lights on the street corners.  The soot from the dirty air began to collect on the tiny brown feathers on the leading edges of his wings, slowly turning them a filthy dark gray, like the front of uncleaned ceiling fan blades in an opium den.

Jakkob had the calm of someone that knew he was untouchable, invincible.  He continued his lazy tour of the town, circling the spiral on the Catholic Church, the highest man-made point for miles around.  He curiously examined the gold shingles and the wooden cross at the very top, spreading its knotty arms to all.  Even though it was still completely dark, he could see his farm in the distance…evidently night vision came with the wings, he marveled…and slowly spiraled upwards through the sooty air to the clear air above to get a better look.

Something wasn’t right.  The lanterns in the house should be on by now, and the boys should have already gone to the barn to begin the chores.  Both structures were pitch black.

Banking hard to the right, Jakkob flew his way towards the farm, fanning his wings faster and faster, calm slowly replaced by unease.  The still completely-dark farm grew larger, and as he approached he could see the huge splash of crimson streaking the fresh snow just outside the front porch to his home, like someone had tossed a bucket of red paint off the bottom step.  Gathering more speed, Jakkob dove towards the front door, wings tucked at half-spread, cold wind streaking past his ears, eyes watering and tears streaming back across unshaven cheeks and flying off of frozen ears.  At the last minute, the patriarch tucked his wings in tight to his body, knowing he could pass right through the door to find out what was so dreadfully wrong.

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Excerpt from CHAPTER THREE

Pennsylvania, 1964 A.D.

“Well?”

“Anyone?”

Mr. Phend peered out through his thick black-rimmed glasses at his eighth grade algebra class, waiting for the answer to question 19, the square root of 47.  Not one of the twelve students looked up, instead busily studied the carved-up sloping wood tops of their desks.  Finally Ezra raised his hand, just slightly.

“Yes, Ezra?”

“6.856.” They were supposed to work the questions long hand and round the answer to the nearest thousandth.

“Yes, very good, thank you.”  Mr. Phend glared disapprovingly around the room.  “Why is it that Ezra is the only one in my class doing his homework?”

Mr. Phend had scolded his class many times before, and without waiting for a response turned to write the answer on the blackboard.  A big wad of crumpled up paper and saliva arced through the room and splattered Ezra square on the back of his neck.  The classroom erupted in laughter, but immediately went quiet when Mr. Phend angrily spun around.  He saw Ezra wiping his neck with the big red handkerchief he always had hanging out of his rear pants pocket.

“Who did that?” the teacher angrily demanded.  Silence.  “If I find out which…” The gray classroom bell hanging on the painted cinder block wall above the big round classroom clock loudly clanged.  It was the end of class, and in spite of his attempt to keep everyone there until he “got to the bottom of this,” the rowdy adolescents spilled out of the room and down to their old gray metal lockers that lined both sides of the wide hall.

“Hey, Ahmo, wait up.”

It was Jonathon.  Ezra paused without turning around.  Jonathon walked up to Ezra, leaned over and sniffed his shirt loudly.

“Ah, Ahmo, you smell so good.”  Several passing girls stopped to watch, started giggling.

This was Ezra’s last year at the small country school and he hated every minute of it.  He had longed to be part of the gang, talking to friends about girls, cars, and the latest movie they had seen.  But instead, the other students smirked at his too-short pants held up with wide leather suspenders, dirty white socks and dull, scuffed-up work boots and straw hat, smelling of kerosene smoke, horse manure and body odor.

Jonathon was the school bully, and not a day passed that he didn’t yank one of Ezra’s suspenders or knock his hat off, his torment of choice earlier that same day.  School had just started for the year, and Ezra wore the flat-brimmed straw hat that was the summer custom among the Amish.  Mr. Schneider, the coach, saw the hat flying through the air, saw Jonathon smirking and the crimson slowly rising in Ezra’s cheeks, and without much emotion said, “Knock it off, boys.”  Jonathon mouthed his customary “sorry” and the minute no one was looking, made a fake lunge at Ezra, his mean laugh echoing down the hall.