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Caleb has only told his parents, Hannah and John, part of the story about his new wife. They know she joined the church after leaving for rumpsringa, but Caleb has decided that they not be told that his wife joined under duress. To him it doesn't matter; he knows Birdie to be faithful. But would his conservative parents - especially is overbearing mother - understand.
Then a painful crisis for the couple coincides with another surprise - the unexpected homecoming of Caleb's brother, Benjamin, whose rejection of the faith had left him a shunned outsider.
Now Benjamin wants to come back, and as the community prepares to pave the way for his repentance, Caleb finds himself dealing with deep resentment towards a brother he does not believe is sincere. And as Birdie struggles to come to terms with a personal loss, she must also unravel the true source of her husband's hostility towards his younger brother.
Can a fractured family dealing with hurt and old secrets find its way back to unity? Or will unspoken hurts build a wall that threatens to divide Birdie from the man she loves?
Although "The Prodigal's Path" is not an erotic work, its traditional themes will no doubt still appeal to readers who appreciate an old-fashioned romance set against the backdrop of a simpler culture, and the author is pleased to write something that you can show to your mother when she asks, "What are you reading, dear?"
“You didn’t have to come here. This could have waited, really.”
Birdie Troyer shut the door and then stepped over to help lift the snow-flecked cape from her mother-in-law’s shoulders.
“I know it could have waited, but I’m just so excited.” Hannah Troyer’s plump face beamed with happiness. “You just wait, young lady, until you’re expecting your first kinskid. You’ll see.”
The older woman walked from the mudroom to the kitchen and placed a basket on the counter. Opening it, she began to pull out squares of blue and white fabric.
“I know you’ve not had much sewing experience beyond quilting, but we’re going to remedy that. You’ll pick it up quicker, being motivated to sew for your little one. I had this fabric left over from some little jumpers I did for�” She looked up. “Birdie! What on earth are you doing? Put that down! I’m speaking to you, dear. And besides, you shouldn’t be lifting in your condition!”
Birdie bit her tongue. She could work and listen at the same time. And besides, she’d picked the milk can up every single morning since long before she’d found out that she and Caleb were expecting. She was nearly five months pregnant now, and well into the safe zone.
But her mother-in-law had all but muscled her out of the way now as she continued to talk. �“I’ve already started a special quilt for the baby. I’m actually using pieces from some of the overalls and shirts Caleb wore as a kin, the ones that aren’t good enough to pass on to his children. I saved them in a box in the attic and�”
Hannah’s words began to fade in Birdie’s ears as she felt a sudden wave of nausea. It seemed to hit her out of nowhere, and was puzzling. She’d been warned of morning sickness, but had experienced very little, and what discomfort she had had, was now long past.
“Birdie, are you listening?”
“I’m sorry, Hannah. Just�will you excuse me?”
Birdie walked as quickly as she could through the kitchen to the bathroom just off the hallway. The small room seemed to spin as she entered. And then she felt it � a sudden sharp pain and a rush of wetness. And she knew.
No. No. No. Please, no.
And everything went black.
“Drivers are reminded to be alert for black ice throughout the day as temperatures drop into the mid-teens. A slight chance of snow is expected tonight with an increasing chance over the weekend�”
As the broadcaster’s voice blared from the radio, Benjamin Troyer couldn’t help but hope the driver was better at navigating weather conditions than he was at finding hospitals. He’d started to fidget with worry when the taxi pulled into the parking lot. Looking up at the screen which showed the amount of the fare, Benjamin sighed and prayed he’d have enough. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the remainder of his money and reluctantly peeled off more of his dwindling dollars than he’d hoped to spend. He handed them to the driver, unable to meet his eyes. It felt humiliating, not being able to leave a tip.
As he exited the cab, he pulled his blue pea coat tight against the harsh January wind and tucked his face into the plaid scarf wound around his neck. Both were finds from the Salvation Army thrift store, practical and surprisingly stylish. Until just recently, he’d valued the latter over the former, but that had been before it dawned on him what really mattered in life.
How stupid had he been? What did style matter in the grand scheme of things? What was fashion when compared to family?
It had taken him long enough to realize what was important. The English world could be a cold place. He’d been so excited to enter it, so drunk on the potential that he felt he had to be something, to be more than he ever felt he could be among the plain folk. But it had proved unwelcoming in so many ways, and he’d come to realize that his brother had been right when he once warned him that it is roots that allow growth and sustain it. It was family that mattered; it was family that never let you down.
�That was why he was here now, walking through the glass sliding doors of a rural medical center, pushing on despite his aversion to the bright fluorescent lights and waiting rooms with tables holding magazines designed to distract from the pain and fear and heartache within the glass and concrete walls.
In the elevator a young woman held the door for him just before it could close. As he stepped inside, he turned to push the button for the third floor but saw that she’d already pushed it. She was holding a bouquet of dyed blue carnations and a teddy bear with a balloon tied to its hand. She smiled at Benjamin when she noticed him looking at the balloon. “IT’S A BOY!” the balloon announced.
“My sister and her husband,” she said by way of explanation. “It’s their first.”
�“Congratulations,” he said, his voice hollow. Then he looked away.
The elevator doors opened and the young woman got out and headed to the nurse’s station. Benjamin followed after her as far as the waiting room, which he scanned until his gaze fell on the familiar, plump form of his mother sitting in a corner chair.
“Ben!” She looked up at that very moment and stood, her arms spread open as she moved across the room. Benjamin accepted her warm embrace, closing his eyes as his face met her shoulder. Her dress smelled faintly of Castille soap and bread. It smelled like home, and he felt his heart twist in his chest.
Reluctantly, he stepped back. “How is she? How’s Caleb?”
Hannah Troyer started to answer but instead put the handkerchief she was holding up to her mouth and barked a quick sob into it before composing herself. “As well as can be expected, I guess. Your bruder is with her. It was just such a terrible shock. I’ve not been this disappointed since�” She looked away.
Benjamin started to respond but decided to wait. Later. It can wait until later
“They’re in 311,” his mother was saying. “Don’t stay long. She’s tired. But I know it will lift Caleb’s spirits to know you came all this way.”
Benjamin nodded. It felt incredibly awkward, meeting his brother’s wife for the first time under these circumstances. But he hoped that his presence would help Caleb. If something terrible happened to him, he’d want Caleb there, despite their differences. Despite everything.
There was a lobby by the nursing station. A set of locked double doors was to the left beneath a sign labeled, “Maternity Ward/Nursery.” He could hear the faint cries of infants beyond them. He wondered whether the cries reached through the other, unlocked doors that read, “Women’s Health,” where women like his sister-in-law lay with broken hearts and empty arms.
Room 311 was halfway down the hall, which was eerily quiet and dimly lit. When Benjamin entered, he saw a curtain drawn partially around a bed, obscuring the occupant save for the lower half of her covered body. His eyes moved to the hunched figure sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed.
He would not have recognized his older brother if he’d not known it was him. Caleb now had the beard of a married man of the faith. And with the worry etched into his face, he looked older, sitting there with his elbows on his knees, his hands folded as if in prayer. For a moment, Benjamin wondered if he should intrude. But then he remembered his mother’s encouragement.� When he quietly rapped on the doorframe, Caleb looked up. He clearly was expecting someone else. Anyone else. The weariness in his eyes was replaced with shock.
“Hey, bro,” Benjamin said. “Can I come in?”
Caleb stood, his expression tight. Benjamin inwardly kicked himself at this first gaffe. He knew his older brother hated the casual language of the English world.
Caleb turned his head to the side. But he didn’t say ‘no,’ so Benjamin slowly walked into the room. He could see the woman on the bed now. His sister-in-law was pretty, even in sleep, with fine features and hair the color of summer wheat.� Beside her, an IV monitor beeped softly, the line from a bag on the other side running to her pale hand. Benjamin tried to imagine her as he should have seen her for the first time, standing beside his older brother as they exchanged their marriage vows, but the image wouldn’t come, not with her like this. He dragged his eyes back to Caleb. “I’m sorry about the baby.”
“Who told you?”
“I am sorry, Caleb. And for not being there at the wedding.” Benjamin stepped closer to his brother but stopped when he saw the broad shoulders stiffen. “I would have come if I’d been invited.” He paused. “Mama called me after you and Birdie were published, to let me know. She was so excited�.” He looked down. “I would have come to the wedding, but it was pretty far away, and Mama said you might not�” His voice died away.
“Mama was right.”
“Caleb�” Benjamin held out his hands. “Come on, I’m trying, okay? I’m here.”
Caleb stepped forward, his face hard, and for a moment Benjamin thought he was going to speak. Then the woman on the bed stirred. Caleb looked from his brother’s face to the bed and turned. He pulled the chair from the footboard up to the side of his wife and sat down.
Benjamin felt an uncharacteristic hitch in his throat as he watched his brother cup his wife’s small hand in his and use the other to smooth a strand of hair away from her brow. The wall that erupted between him and Caleb since Benjamin’s shunning had made him forget what a caring man his older brother actually was.
“Birdie, I’m here.”
Birdie turned her face to Caleb and her eyes fluttered open. They were light blue and, Benjamin thought, surprisingly bright for someone so weak. She smiled a small smile. “Hey�.”
“How are you feeling? Did you have a good rest?”
She nodded. “How are you?” She raised her hand to his cheek. “You look so sad. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” he said quietly.
�Benjamin got the impression this was not the first time they’d had this conversation since Birdie had been rushed to the hospital three days earlier. He suddenly felt like an intruder. His brother was right. Even though he’d not said so, maybe he shouldn’t have come. Benjamin was about to quietly leave when Birdie’s eyes locked on him.
“Hello,” she said. “I take it you’re Benjamin.” Her voice was weak but her words were clear and surprising.
“How did you know?” He took a step forward, unable to resist the urge to smile at the young woman in the bed.
“Oh, by now I can tell a Troyer when I see one,” she said. She limply held out the hand Caleb wasn’t clasping. “I’m Birdie.”
Benjamin didn’t look to his brother for permission to step forward. The woman on the bed drew him. Her kindness and acceptance drew him. She was a woman of faith who did not care that he’d showed up with shoulder length hair and a pea coat. He gently took her offered hand.
“I’m pleased to meet you.” The smile he’d felt coming to him faded when he remembered why they were all there. “And I’m so sorry�”
She nodded, and he could see her swallow the lump in her throat as she moved to clasp his brother’s hand in a reassuring squeeze. “Thank you, Ben,” she said. “It’s been a very sad time.”
“Is there anything I can do?” he asked.
Now Caleb stood. “Coming by was enough,” he said, but his words lacked the conviction and sincerity of his wife’s. “I’ll show you out. Birdie needs her rest.”
Benjamin felt the strong hand on his back guiding him to the door. Out in the hall, his brother continued walking with him until they were back through the double doors and nearly at the nursing station. There they stopped. For a moment, Caleb was quiet, and Benjamin could tell he was trying to be strong.
“The doctors don’t know why it happened.” Caleb wasn’t looking at Benjamin as he spoke, but past him, as if it made explaining easier somehow. “It just came on her real sudden. It’s a blessing that Mama was there or else�.” His eyes dropped to the floor. “She lost a lot of blood. She had to have a�procedure. And a transfusion.”
Benjamin felt helpless in the face of his brother’s pain. For nearly all his life, Caleb had been the strong one, the optimistic one. Benjamin had seen him disappointed, when the woman he’d originally intended to marry chose another. And he’d seen him angry, when Benjamin had rejected his vows to leave the church. But this was new, and unsettling to the younger brother who thought his older sibling a rock.
He didn’t know what to say. The trite response of “It’s God’s will” came to mind, but he knew it would sound hollow. And besides, he wouldn’t have meant it anyway. Benjamin had never thought God purposefully willed or allowed the horrible things that happened to people, and such simplistic thinking was one of the things that had led him away from the faith.
“I’ll pray for you,” he said, and now Caleb’s eyes did meet his, searching them.
Caleb’s response was cold. “You do that,” he said, and turned away.
Benjamin watched him go, pained by the realization that his brother thought he was mocking him. “Caleb.”
His brother ignored him, and Benjamin started to call after him again, but changed his mind. Caleb had enough to deal with. He headed back to the waiting room, his head swirling with emotion and frustration. He couldn’t help but see his sister-in-law in his mind’s eye, her kind smile juxtaposed with his brother’s tacit expression.
“How is Caleb?” Hannah Troyer stood when her youngest son entered the room. “I didn’t tell him you were coming. I thought it would be a nice surprise.”
“Well, he was surprised, all right.” Benjamin looked at his mother. “Maybe you should have told him, Mama.”
She didn’t respond as she picked up her knitting.
“Why didn’t you tell me how serious it was?” Benjamin continued. “I knew she’d lost a baby, but I had no idea... Caleb said she had to have a transfusion.”
Hannah sunk back down into her chair and picked up her knitting. “I told her every day not to pick up those heavy milk cans. She’s stubborn, Benjamin. And now�oh, poor Caleb. He wanted that baby so bad.”
“I’m sure they both did.” Benjamin took the seat beside her.
“Oh, they did, but Caleb was the more excited of the two. Birdie is more�” Her brow furrowed as she searched for the right word. “She’s more secretive. Closed.” The needles in her hand began to click as she worked. “I’m still trying to get used to her, but I won’t lie. It isn’t easy. She’s not the one I would have picked.”
Benjamin was about to gently tell his mother that it wasn’t her choice anyway, but by now Hannah Troyer had dropped the knitting into her lap and was looking at Benjamin with adoration. “I am so glad that you are back. You just don’t know. I miss you every single day of my life. The whole community misses you, Benjamin.” She reached over and took his face gently in her hand, turning his chin until he was looking at her. “How are things among the English?”
It seemed like the wrong time to tell her. There was a time and a place for everything, and the waiting room of a country hospital where his brother and sister-in-law were coming to terms with a devastating miscarriage did not seem to be appropriate. But as he looked into his mother’s soft, loving eyes that held the acceptance and security he’d walked away from, Benjamin could not help himself.
“Oh, Mama,” he said. “I was wrong. I want to come back.”