Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My First Mennonite Fiction

It happens every time I rant about Amish fiction. Everyone says, and rightly so, "Why don't you write something better?"

And my answer is always, "I have no idea how to write fiction. I never write fiction. I have no idea how to get started. It's not something I can do."

Kind of like climbing Cape Perpetua, come to think of it. Or typing, back in high school, finishing those quilts, or any number of other things I just know I can't do.

So last night we were sitting around having this same discussion, again. And Emily and Jenny said, "Mom, of course you can write stories. You just need to do it."

"No," I said, "I don't know how."

"Here." Emily put the laptop on my lap. "Just start writing. About anything. Write about Jenny and her cats."

Ok, fine. I started writing. Two paragraphs later I suddenly realized I was having fun. Emily posted this on Facebook: "Mom: (looks at me with big eyes, like she's just discovered the secret of the universe) I guess if you just take facts, and embellish them any way you want, you can write a story!"

I had so much fun that I wrote late into the evening, and then I went to bed and thought of more details, so I got up and wrote some more.

Today I took turns between writing and housework.

And here it is, my first Mennonite Short Story.

I'm tempted to flood you with disclaimers first such as, be kind, it's my first attempt, it's not meant to be heavy theology, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

So I'll just post it and you can be honest about what you think.

What Needs To Be Done
by Dorcas Smucker

Jenny had been crazy about cats since the age of 10 when she found a half dead kitten under the oil tank on a cold, dripping Oregon-winter day. She pulled it out while their big German Shepherd licked his chops over her shoulder, then held it tight so the dog couldn’t eat it, took it inside, and bathed it in the bathroom sink with her mom’s Midnight Orchid Bath and Body Works shampoo and blow dried it with her mom’s hair dryer, without asking her mom about either of these. Jenny believed, as Mom had taught her, that you just did what you needed to do. And this needed to be done.

She named the kitten Fluff because she was young and the kitten was fluffy and needed a name. She convinced her dad to let it sleep with her, just one night, which led to two and then a week, but then Jenny got sloppy with changing the cat litter and out Fluff went, where it scratched the dog across the nose, once, and then reigned on the porch like a queen. Once a week Jenny fed it tuna, and Fluff would abandon her mouse-hunting in the ryegrass field, streaking to the back porch just as Jenny scraped the last of the tuna into the cat dish, because she loved tuna more than anything except Jenny herself.

Jenny was now 17 and had owned at least six additional cats in the meanwhile, most of them rescued strays. On summer afternoons she sat reading on the hammock with cats lying like sacks of warm liquid on her shoulders and in her lap. In winter she opened her window and let them in off the porch roof and held them while she did her homework.

She loved her cats with a pure and unselfish devotion. She even loved Fescue, the yellow half-blind cat someone had dropped off beside the road three years before, who sat on the porch rail by the hour, glaring at everyone but Jenny, and who flew into a frenzy at the sight of bare feet, particularly on men, which was not a problem most of the time because the men in the house, being farmers, wore heavy work shoes. But Jenny always had to tuck her bare feet under her skirt when Fescue joined her on the hammock.

Even Dad no longer complained, much, when the cats came indoors, unless they actually jumped up on the kitchen table. Everyone in the family indulged Jenny because she was the youngest and charmed them all.

Jenny also loved Travis. Ah, Travis. 19 years old, tall, curly haired, already making a name for himself as the best mechanic around, having quickly graduated from combine driver to mechanic the previous summer when he worked for the biggest grass seed farmer in the valley and nonchalantly replaced the header clips when the rollers got plugged, using and ruining the only tool he had, the fork his mom had packed in his lunch, and impressing Mr. Powell, who didn’t need to know that Travis had simply Googled the problem on his Iphone and followed the directions.

Travis had told this story to all the guys at a Sunday evening youth group gathering, around the fire pit at Mark and Nancy’s the youth sponsors, soon after it happened, while the girls went in the house to fetch the marshmallows and graham crackers and sticks and Hershey bars to make s’mores, and also lemonade and watermelon and hot chocolate and brownies and chips and popcorn, this being a Mennonite gathering.

Just as Jenny had come over with a stack of paper plates, Travis had said, loud enough for her to hear, “and Don was like, ‘WHOA, no way did you fix that all by yourself!‘ and I was like, ‘Dude, it’s just me and the combine out here!’”

She had pretended not to hear, but resolved to ask her brother Ben later what that was all about, when she suddenly kicked a leg of the picnic table in the dark and the entire stack of plates flew out of her hands and under the camp chair that Dave was sitting in.

Dave, who was far too tall and thin and normally couldn’t put two words together in any coherent fashion when a girl was around, heard the thump and the swish and turned around curiously. He saw Jenny grimacing and holding her flip-flopped foot. “Are you all right?” he said, too concerned to be shy.

“I think I broke my toenail,” Jenny said. “But I’ll be ok, really. I just need those plates under your chair.”

Dave leaned forward, reached through the metal X of the chair, and patted around for the plates. Jenny noticed with one horrified glance that this made his polo shirt, an old school uniform from two years ago, ride up in the back. Too high. She thanked God for the merciful darkness that kept her from seeing details.

Dave finally retrieved the plates and handed them to her, his dark eyes searching for hers in the firelight. “They even landed bottom side down, all in a stack, aren’t you lucky?” he said, the longest speech Jenny had ever heard from him. The word “bottom” reminded her too much of polo shirts riding up, so she blushed in the dark, snatched the plates with a quick thanks and was gone.

Travis, who was wearing a green t-shirt with a Bible verse on the front contorted to look like a Mt. Dew logo, leaned back in his chair on the other side of the fire and smiled to himself. Dave didn’t stand a chance, they both knew that. Long ago, when Travis and Dave were both juniors at the church ACE school, Travis had flipped through a spiral notebook in Dave’s cubicle and discovered a poem, a real rhyme-and-rhythm poem, with a line of hearts in the margin, devoted to Jenny, with hair like a penny, golden and copper, with a heart as full as a seed-warehouse hopper. That was crossed out and replaced with “copper and golden, the heart of a guy to embolden.” Of course Travis had shared this treasure with everyone in the classroom.

While Travis, still chuckling, had served his detention that day, Dave drove home wishing it would be ok to drive into that large Douglas fir along Highway 228 and die quickly, and Jenny sat weeping all the way home in her brother Ben’s car while he said, “Oh, that’s just Dave, that’s just how he is, don’t worry about it, Travis would never write you a poem, believe me.”

And somehow after that she was in love with Travis, with his dangerous ways and his coolness and his grin and his way of always knowing just what to do to look smooth. Jenny’s dad wouldn’t let her date until she was 18, but there were always notes slipped under dividers in school, text messages on cell phones and meetings at the water fountain after Sunday school, when Travis gave her a quick wink as he pushed the button for her.

Everybody knew they were an item and would start dating officially and post pictures on Facebook as soon as Jenny was 18. Jenny’s parents tried to rein things in in the meanwhile, with limited success.

Jenny’s mom did not like Travis. She knew his type. She could tell a mile away what sort of character a man had, and no way was her beautiful and innocent Jenny, pride of her heart and last of her many children, tossing her life at that hollow chocolate bunny in an Aeropostale shirt.

She kept quiet, but she was a woman who always saw and knew what needed to be done, and did it.

Jenny went to school the following year, surrounded by the love and support of her doting parents and her cats and her friends and always the exciting presence of Travis on the edge of her life. Travis was taking the farm-equipment mechanics course at the local community college, paid for largely by his boss, he informed her at least once a month. Jenny graduated from high school in May and all through June she updated her dad’s books for the warehouse and baked for her mom and texted her friends and sat in her room with cats on her lap and thought about Travis and life and going to Bible school in the fall and who would be her bridesmaids when she and Travis got married, some lovely future day, and should they serve a full course meal at the reception, or a buffet with salads and sandwiches?

The grass in the fields grew heavy and brown and Jenny’s dad told them all at the supper table about who he had hired to sack seed, and which shifts they would work—Ben at night, Dave on the afternoon shift, and Shawn the neighbor boy would take mornings—and he hoped they could start cutting by the end of June this year. Jenny and Mom were not terribly interested in these details but they let him talk because they loved him.

When the youth group got together, Travis talked loudly of how he was now in charge of not only prepping the combines for harvest, but all the windrowers as well, and Don Powell told him he could beat the guys at Fisher Implement, hands down.

One evening at the supper table Dad said, “Dave came by today and offered to clean the office, the bins, anything, because he wants to be familiar with how everything works before he starts sacking. I like him. A guy that offers to do extra, that’s who I like to hire.”

“Everybody likes Dave,” said Jenny. “Bless his heart.”

“He’s saving money for college, did you know that?” said Dad. “He says he wants to be a teacher. Not that I think college is necessary to teach in our school, but we could sure use a teacher for the upper grades who knew what he was doing with math and science and stuck around for more than a year or two.”

Dad was the school board chairman and had spent far too many Augusts with the double burden of cleaning the summer’s seed plus trying to recruit teachers from back East who too often ended up being silly 19-year-old girls who couldn’t do algebra.

Dad grinned. “And if there’s anyone that college and the World won’t be able to pollute, it’s Dave.”

The hot weather came right on schedule and by the end of June everyone was busy from early morning til late at night. Jenny drove her dad’s combine every day as soon as the dew was off the grass and came stumbling in the door exhausted at night. Once in a while Dad took a turn on the combine and she drove the truck full of seed to the warehouse, where Dave, dusty in a summer camp t-shirt from 2004, bought her a Diet Pepsi, her favorite, from the fridge in the corner and told her to sit down and rest on the sacks while he got in the truck and dumped the seed.

“We’re having the youth over Sunday night after church,” said Jenny’s mom the last week of August, when the frenzy of harvest was wearing off and her husband had laid off the neighbor and cut back the shifts of Dave and Ben.

“Nice, Mom. Real subtle,” Jenny said. “I’ll act surprised when they all sing Happy Birthday.”

Travis texted Jenny during the sermon on Sunday evening. “Heard this same sermon twice b4 I think.” Jenny snickered but felt a whiff of irritation. She had told him her parents didn’t want her getting or sending texts in church.

Oh well, she was almost 18, nearly an adult.

Jenny’s parents hurried home after church and, as she had hoped, Travis offered Jenny a ride. The driveway was full of cars when they arrived, and out by the clotheslines a dozen young people played volleyball as the lingering dusty yellow haze hung in the air, with the smell of summer and hay and grass and wonderful possibilities.

Gradually the game slowed and the sun dropped toward Mary’s Peak and the young people drifted to the back of the house where Dad was building a fire in the bottom half of an old metal barrel. Jenny found this embarrassing—why couldn’t they have a brick fire pit like everyone else?—but she knew he didn’t want to set the ryegrass stubble on fire, as dry as it was.

They filled their plates and sat around the fire, tired and sweaty and enjoying the last of a day of rest before another busy week began. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday,” of course, and Jenny acted surprised and embarrassed.

Fescue watched, glowering, from the porch rail. Jenny, in her green camp chair, looked around, contented, taking in the magic of the late-summer air and this group of people she loved. Soon it would all change—summer would be over, school would start, the harvest workers would leave, the rains would come. But tonight it was all wonderful, and Travis was beside her, and she was almost 18.

She watched the different groupings around the circle and guessed what they were saying. Dad was over there talking with Dave and Tom about how the rain on the 8th of July had affected the ryegrass yield—she caught the words “two tenths of an inch.” They both looked attentive, bless their hearts. Ben and Shawn were planning a canoe trip down the Willamette, Edith and Sandy were giggling, no doubt about the Amish crew from Indiana that they cooked for this summer. And half a dozen guys and girls leaned in and loudly discussed the merits of EBI, SMBI, and even Calvary Bible School, whose only first-hand authority present was a Beachy guy from Iowa who was out for the summer, baling straw for Hostetlers. Travis insisted that EBI was the only place worth going to, even though he had never been there. “They say you have to study your brains out at SMBI.”

Mom wandered softly around the group, pouring iced tea, gathering empty plates. She stopped in front of Dave. “There’s one sandwich left and I’m sure you’re still hungry, sacking seed all week.” She handed it to him and smiled.

“Thanks,” he said, and took a bite. Hmmm, he thought to himself. Tuna? I thought they were all chicken salad. Oh well. Tuna’s good too.”

Five seconds later Jenny giggled to herself as Fluff leaped into Dave’s lap and sniffed at the sandwich. Dave carefully broke off a small bite and fed it to the cat, then took turns feeding the two of them. Good old Dave, such a softie, she thought. Fescue will be jealous, no doubt. She glanced up. Fescue was no longer on the porch rail. Probably out hunting mice, which was just as well.

Mom wandered slowly behind Jenny’s chair and leaned down as though picking up a stray napkin.

A moment later the quiet evening was ripped by a strangled cry from Travis and a stream of words that had never been heard at any Marksville Mennonite Church youth gathering before, ever, the best of which included “Crazy, blasted cat!” Jenny gasped in horror as Fescue the cat flew through the air, propelled by Travis’s flip-flopped foot, straight toward the fire and mercifully over it and out the other side, and then tore off toward the rhododendron bed with a yowl and a lingering whiff of singed fur. Travis lifted his foot in the air, a line of bloody streaks down his bare big toe.

Mom was behind him in an instant, patting his shoulder, fussing and soothing. “Oh Travis, I am so sorry, that is just terrible, that silly cat cannot stand bare feet, dear me, Jenny, you should have penned him up, tsk tsk, here, come inside, I’ll get you some Neosporin and a Band-Aid.”

Travis limped to the house. Mom followed, brushing a few cat hairs from the front of her dress.

Jenny looked around, stunned, and noticed with sudden clarity that all the other youth guys were wearing basketball shoes, as always. Except for Dave, who also wore sandals--Birkenstocks in fact, as always--with white cotton athletic socks, and who was still feeding the delighted Fluff bites of tuna sandwich.

Suddenly, Jenny knew things she had never known before, about herself and her life and her choices and what she wanted her future to be like.

What was it Mom always said? You do what needs to be done.

She got up and walked over to Dave. “Can I have a bit of that sandwich to give to Fescue? I think he might need some comfort.”

Dave looked at her, holding her gaze just a moment longer than necessary. “Yes,” he said, “I think he might.” He broke off a generous corner and gave it to Jenny, whose hand shook just a bit as she took it.

Dave slowly ate the last bite and scratched Fluff under her chin, thinking. There were things that needed to be done, yes there were. And when the time was right, he would do them. Yes, he most certainly would.


  1. oh wow! i howled. PLEASE keep writing fiction!

  2. So good, Dorcas. You definitely can do it; you use the right nuances and timing, as far as I know, anyway. Your family might even enjoy becoming fictional characters. I believe Wendell Berry does the same thing. :o)

  3. This is too awesome! I read it out loud to my husband (who said to tell you he liked it) and we belly-laughed together. Please, please keep writing!

  4. What a hoot! I am just bummed Faith Builders didn't make the list of schools. HA

    Brandon says, "Subtle, very subtle." He liked it.


  5. So hilarious, Dorcas! I could read a couple of these an evening!

  6. So when Fluff jumps into Dave's lap? My nine year old asked, "Did she do that on purpose?"

  7. Excellent! Please make this a weekly habit! :)

  8. I really think you should include that Ben guy a little more. He seems like a really fascinating individual, but sort of gets thrown to the wayside.

  9. I love it... I was instantly enthralled. So many great lines... my favorite is "hollow chocolate bunny in an Aeropostale shirt." I would LOVE to read your fiction!

  10. More please:) Aimee

  11. Yes, more please! More of the story, and MORE MENNONITE FICTION! I loved it. :)

  12. Seriously funny. Still smiling. Keep 'em coming!

  13. Bravo, bravo! Some great lines there. What I like best is that it tells you something without TELLING you.

  14. Oh, yes...definitely more of this, please! And, oh my, that description for a character... "hollow chocolate bunny in an Aeropostale shirt" is my favorite, I think.

    A big thanks to your daughters for encouraging you to start writing something. Way to go, girls! :-)

  15. I love it! Now I am left with questions about how all this will go down and I surely hope you plan to answer them! You really need to keep writing!

  16. Nothing wrong with that! Sweet, funny, interesting. I'm at work and thought I would skim through it, but it caught my attention & I read every word! Not shabby at all! Look forward to more!

  17. Dorcas-your story has the right amount of a real life setting, suspense, romance and truths to be learned. And best of all, I could identify with the cultural aspect of church life/romance. I saved it in WORD for my granddaughters to read.

  18. What a delightfully funny short story! :) Look forward to more!

  19. SO much better than Beverly Lewis. =) I totally enjoyed the story. The "chocolate bunny" line was my favorite, too.

  20. Dorcas, I wrote this to you a loooong time ago in response to a similar post....but WAY after you had posted it.

    So I figured you'ld never probably read it.
    And I was bummed, because I'm in the mood to read such a story. But nobody seems to be in the mood to write it. **sigh**

    So I went back and found it, just so I could tell you again...for the first time.

    Here goes;

    I have some fragments of almost an idea...take a youngster, say a 9 year old girl, as a main character.

    Have her watching the flurry of activity leading up to a pending wedding, and all but her and an elderly relation (granny?) are busy busy busy and busier.

    Now a girl of that age would surely have many questions...and a woman of that age would surely have many memories and interesting observations of life to share, if anyone would ask her.

    So a story developes back and forth between the current preparations and the harried participants / and the stories from the past being gently handed down from the "too old" to the "too young" to help.

    So young Jenny? hears all about how old uncle Clyde courted aunt Eliza; how cousin Tom swore he'd never marry until Anna came to help his mother with the littles when they all came down with chicken pox...well, you get the idea.

    Through the Granny and the girl, we hear ALL kinds of family history and get a real and beautiful peek into Christian lives and loves and tragedies and hope.

    Through the current wedding, we meet all the people from the stories and see them together for a celebration of all of their lives and marriages as well as the one taking place.

    OK. Sorry...I had just a little glimpse of an idea and I got carried away. But I would like to read a book something like that.

    Pretty Please?

    Mrs. Not Getting My Laundry Done

    9/03/2009 12:12 PM

  21. I am ROFL right now!!

  22. This is good stuff... I feel like you've been to that party in reality! :) Keep writing!!!

  23. Excellent read. Liked the ending. Not too much - just enough

  24. Love it! Had me lol! And that takes some doing! :)

  25. Dorcas, great story! You can defenitely write novals. Just spend more than one day and night at it. Now the story leaves one in limbo as he/she waits for the next edition.

  26. Fantastic!

  27. Awesome...only true, God-given talent can enable a person, who has been forced to 'sit-down-and write', to come up with such a GREAT story in mere minutes/hours! Also would love to see more. I believe you are on the way to replacing THE Beverly Lewis, with much better stuff! I, too, have not been a fan of her stories. I grew up in PA as a Mennonite (still am one) with 'horse-and-buggy' grandparents. I appreciate stories that are authentic FOR REAL, not stories that are deceivingly 'authentic'! ~ Lois

  28. Wow! It's a hit!
    Loved (Ben's) Anonymous comment about needing more of Ben in the story.
    Non Mennonite perspective: same as the Mennonite one, without the "been there" feeling or well...youth group was sorta like that for me so maybe the 'universal' feeling is there.
    That translates to, keep writing fiction!

  29. LOVED it!! PLEASE write more!!

  30. Any time you want to write another Mennonite short story I will read them. I think you should keep this story going. I want to see what happens with Dave.

  31. Okay I was totally entertained! Totally loved it. Your descriptions and observations of people give me hilarious mental images. =D Why not make this short story fiction a regular feature here?!

  32. I read this story on Tuesday and laughed out loud as I read. Today I just had to read it again, and it was just as good or better the second time around! I love it! I would SO read your fiction!

  33. Rosy from Plain City7/27/2011 12:35 PM

    That was a howler!! Keep on going, Does Travis make a new attempt? Does Jenny find herself thinking about him again? More, please, more! :-D

  34. Thank you to all 36 of you for your encouragement. It means a lot, like I jumped off a cliff and someone caught me. Ben, I'll try hard to include that Ben guy a bit more next time....and Mrs. Not Getting the Laundry Done, thanks for the intriguing idea...but maybe YOU should write that book?!

  35. Dorcas, I loved the story, but like others who read it, I see several ways to continue and reach a satisfying conclusion.
    Having spent a short visit with Mennonites this month, I can appreciate their adherance to biblical direction, so I especially liked Jenny "seeing" Dave's heart and allowing her mind to open to the possibilities of maybe going with him.
    Keep it up, Dorcas!! How will YOU continue this lovely story? I hope it is in installments right here on the site. That way, we who were there in the beginning will be the ones blessed with the outcome!!!
    God bless you and yours,
    Laurie G.(upper cumberlands,Tenn.)

  36. LOVE it! Great job Dorcas. Your story had what so many stories about Mennonites/Amish are lacking: humor. I grew up reading Family Life and Young Companion and while they had a moral to the story, it was all frankly a tad boring and overly preachy. We need more of these stories. Our culture needs them. Honestly. If we had better literature to read we wouldn't have to digest the junk that is out there. And by junk I mean Karen Kingsbury.

  37. I was leaning over my kitchen counter, reading this on my computer, and laughing so hard my two year old and husband were wanting to know what was so funny. Please write more. Mennonite fiction, please.

  38. great litle story....I loved how Mom had a little had in bringing out the true Travis....good humor!

  39. This was priceless! Also, I am so addicted to your blog that I laughed at the mention of 19-year-old teachers who can't do algebra. :O)