Still My Forever
Chapter One Falke, Kansas (a Mennonite community) 1905
“Is that the train I hear?”
Ava gave a start and turned from placing Papa’s freshly starched and folded shirts in the bureau drawer. Mama lay with her eyes closed, but her fine brows were arched in query. Ava pushed the drawer shut with her hip and hurried to the side of the bed.
“Jo, it is.” She smoothed her mother’s once thick, dark hair, now more gray than brown, away from Mama’s cheek and grimaced. Mama’s pallor was nearly as white as the pillowcase cradling her head. Why hadn’t she listened yesterday when both Ava and Papa told her the gardening would be too much for her? Oh, how stoakoppijch
Mama could be. But then, Ava was often accused of stubbornness, too. She knew from which parent the characteristic was passed.
Mama opened one eye and pinned Ava with a narrow glare. “I wish your Foda had given more thought to the wisdom of building a house so close to the rail lines. The trains rattle the windows. I often worry our little house will shake itself from the foundation.”
Ava smiled to herself. The rail lines had been laid three years after Papa set their stone foundation. But of course Mama knew this. Once when she chided Papa about their close proximity to the silver tracks, Papa asked her how he was to know the railroad would choose to run lines behind their house. Mama pointed at him and said with eyes alight, “Ah, my husband, I used to believe you know everything. Now? I am not so sure.” And they’d all laughed. Ava missed the days when Mama teased and laughed.
She sat on the edge of the mattress and gently patted her mother’s vein-lined hand. “When Falke’s post office was right here in our house, our close location to the railroad line was fortuitous. You thought so yourself. Besides, our house is built solid. Not even last year’s tornado shifted it from its foundation, and a tornado is much more powerful than a passing train. Do you really worry about such things?”
A sigh eased from between Mama’s chapped lips. “If you are ne Mutta,
you worry. It goes with the title. You’ll find out someday when you have children.”
Ava looked aside. She wished Mama wouldn’t say such things. Of course, Mama wanted to see her only daughter married and raising children of her own. Maybe even more now that Ava’s brothers were gone. Who else would give her and Papa Grootkjinja
to spoil? But Ava was twenty-one already. The unlikelihood of marriage became greater with each passing year. Maybe she should stop stubbornly refusing her one persistent prospect. She inwardly cringed. Nä. Even for a home and children of her own, she couldn’t marry someone she didn’t love, no matter how much Joseph claimed to love her.
“As often as it stops here in Falke, we should have our own depot.” Mama rolled to her side. “Please close the window. I don’t wish to hear the squeal as it leaves town.”
Ava started to argue. The raised window allowed the sweet spring breeze to waft in. Despite her often gloomy thoughts concerning her single state and Mama’s poor health, she always found a measure of joy in the glorious scents of new life burgeoning. Might the freshness have the power to revive Mama’s spirits, too? But Ava hadn’t won yesterday’s argument about who should plant the vegetable garden. She’d only further weary Mama by arguing today.
Ava crossed to the window, settled it in its sash, then stood with her fingertips on the sill. She gazed at the black locomotive’s dust-smudged nose seeming to poke out from behind the family’s barn. The engine’s vibration gently rattled the house, sending shivers from her fingers up her arm.
If she wanted to argue, she could rebuff Mama’s claim about the need for a depot in little Falke. The community founded by Mennonite immigrants in 1873 and named for the abundance of peregrine falcons preying on the plains’ mice and rabbits was hardly a pindot on the newest Kansas map. Trains wouldn’t stop—or slow down—except to take on water from the tank or retrieve the dangling mailbag Papa placed weekly on its hook. Now and then someone who’d purchased a ticket to McPherson or Newton but only wanted to come as far as Falke would hop off the train when it took a watering break. But it was such a rare occurrence, she knew not to look for—
Suddenly, a tall, broad-shouldered man moved from behind the barn and into her line of vision. She released a self-deprecating chuckle. Of course someone would disembark at Falke the same day Mama declared the town needed a depot.
She squinted against the bright midday sun and examined the visitor. He wore a dust-smeared gray suit and a bowler hat tipped rakishly forward on his head. The brim of the felt hat threw a shadow across his face, hiding his features from view. A plump brown leather bag dangled from one hand, and in the other he carried a black case shaped like a violin. With long, sure strides he moved toward town.
A traveling salesman, perhaps? Salesmen seldom bothered knocking on the doors of Falke’s residents. The people of this little town were too frugal to squander their hard-earned money on frivolities. But if he intended to sell musical instruments, he might find some success. Love for music, Papa often proclaimed, was born in every Mennonite child. Ava had never doubted him. When the community members gathered for worship on Sundays, surely their hymn singing rivaled angel choirs. She had learned to sing in harmony with her brothers even before she was old enough to attend school. If this man was selling instruments, he had chosen the right place to peddle his wares.
She glanced at the music case, and a distant memory carried a tune, both sweet and mournful, from the recesses of her mind. As if the fierce Kansas wind transported her, she was swept backward in time to 1901, New Year’s Day. In her mind’s eye, she saw Gil with his violin under his chin, his tapered fingers expertly drawing the bow over the strings while his velvety brown eyes fixed on hers and a tender smile curved his full pink lips. Her song,
he’d called the tune he’d written, his way of expressing to her what words could not.
The remembered notes and his adoring expression flooded her with mingled longing and regret. Determined not to revisit the source of the tune, she started to turn from the window. But at that same moment, the man stopped and raised his face to the sun. The slice of shade slipped away. Recognition burst through her with as much force as a lightning bolt.
Ava stumbled backward a step and pressed her quivering hand to her lips. A single word rasped from her throat. “Gil.” Gilbert Baty
“Well, as I live and breathe, Gil Baty just passed my window.”
Gil came to a halt. Four years had passed since he moved from small and sleepy Falke to big and bustling New York City. He’d encountered more people, heard more voices, than a man could possibly count in that amount of time. Didn’t matter. Even without looking, he knew who’d uttered the statement—Bernard Flaming, the town’s postman and, more importantly, Ava’s Foda.
He stifled a groan. Not even home for five minutes, and one of the people he’d specifically prayed to avoid—the man who’d regularly taken him fishing when he was a gangly twelve-year-old—had already spotted him. In Falke, word spread faster than whitewash on a barn. He hadn’t expected to dodge the Flaming family forever. But God couldn’t give him a day, maybe two, before they knew he was back? Should he move on? Pretend he hadn’t heard? Yes, he’d ignore it and—
“Gil! You there, Gil!”
He couldn’t ignore that. Pulling in a breath of fortification, Gil turned around and strode directly to the gray-haired, barrel-chested man waiting outside the post office door. He placed his suitcase on the planked boardwalk and stuck out his hand. “Hello, sir. It’s good to see you again.” Such a lie.
Bernard took hold of Gil’s hand and pulled him into a breath-stealing embrace. “Welcome back, my boy. Are you visiting or have you come home to stay?”