The Solace of Water

THE SOLACE OF WATER


After leaving her son’s grave behind in Montgomery, Alabama, Delilah Evans has little faith that moving to her husband’s hometown in Pennsylvania will bring a fresh start. Once there, the last thing Delilah imagines is becoming friends with her reclusive Amish neighbor, Emma Mullet—yet the secrets that keep Emma isolated from her own community bond her to Delilah in delicate and unexpected ways.

Delilah’s eldest daughter, Sparrow, feels she is responsible for her brother’s death. When tensions at home become unbearable for her, she seeks peace at Emma’s house and becomes the daughter Emma has always wanted. Sparrow,

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After leaving her son’s grave behind in Montgomery, Alabama, Delilah Evans has little faith that moving to her husband’s hometown in Pennsylvania will bring a fresh start. Once there, the last thing Delilah imagines is becoming friends with her reclusive Amish neighbor, Emma Mullet—yet the secrets that keep Emma isolated from her own community bond her to Delilah in delicate and unexpected ways.

Delilah’s eldest daughter, Sparrow, feels she is responsible for her brother’s death. When tensions at home become unbearable for her, she seeks peace at Emma’s house and becomes the daughter Emma has always wanted. Sparrow, however, is hiding secrets of her own—secrets that could devastate them all.

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  • Thomas Nelson
  • Paperback
  • June 2018
  • 368 Pages
  • 0718075668

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About Elizabeth Byler Younts

Elizabeth Byler YountsElizabeth Byler Younts gained a worldwide audience through her first book Seasons: A Real Story of an Amish Girl and is a RITA nominated writer. She is also the author of The Promise of Sunrise series. She has consulted on Amish lifestyle and the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect two award-winning television shows. Elizabeth lives in Central Pennsylvania with her husband, two daughters, and a cockapoo named Fable.

Author Website

Praise

“VERDICT Younts’s powerful novel reverberates with love that crosses religious and racial boundaries to find the humanity that connects us all. Highly recommended.”Library Journal, Starred Review

“The Solace of Water is a gripping coming-of-age historical fiction story that will stick with readers for some time after the final word is read. Hauntingly beautiful prose is bountiful in this tightly woven tale . . . The characters demonstrate the impact secrets, guilt and unforgiveness can have on a person in this emotive gem.”RT Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars, TOP PICK

Discussion Questions

1. When Deedee and her family arrive in Sinking Creek, Pennsylvania, they encounter a new type of racial segregation. How is what they discover different from what they knew in Montgomery?

2. Emma’s entire life is clouded over by shameful secrets. What is the effect of burying a secret for many years?

3. Deedee and Emma have experienced unique losses, yet their pain binds them together. How can grief or painful experiences help us better connect with others?

4. Describe Sparrow and Emma’s relationship. Why do they take to one another, and how does Deedee understand their friendship?

5. Why do you believe Emma is afraid to have another child? Why does she take the herbs?

6. Deedee’s grief over Carver manifests itself in various ways. Can you relate to any of them? How have you experienced grief, and if anything, what has helped you cope with it?

7. Both Deedee and Emma feel that they are outsiders in the communities to which they should belong. How does that play out in the story? Have you ever felt like an outlier?

8. Though the novel is set in the past, does it echo within the present? Have times changed? How do we see racial and religious differences playing out in our modern world?

9. Why do you think Deedee helps Emma after her bout with drunkenness? What role does vulnerability and transparency play in their relationship?

10. What does Sparrow’s young perspective add to the story? How is her experience with loss unique from her mother’s?

11. Can you imagine a time or place in which Sparrow and Johnny could be together?

12. How do the characters in this novel perceive God? For them, what role does God play amid their anguish and loss?

13. Both Emma and Deedee have strained relationships with their husbands. How does grief burden a relationship, and how do you see the women’s marriages evolving throughout the book?

14. Do you believe the novel has a hopeful ending? Why or why not? And if so, what is the source of that hope?

Excerpt

DELILAH

My skin was the same color as the soil. I pushed my hands into the ground and it had hardened some since my visit a week earlier. My hands barely left a dent when I lifted them. I put them back and pressed harder. Tiny bright- green blades of grass were growing and the dirt didn’t look so newly turned over no more.

Made me mad. Grass growing over my boy’s grave. Should have known it would happen quick in an Alabama spring without no shade overhead. Still wasn’t ready to see the ground looking so settled in just a month.

But in that month’s time there had been a whole lot of rain to tamp down the old dirt. Even though the gravediggers didn’t sow grass over the colored folks’ graves, these seeds found this soil anyhow.

But I still didn’t like that. No, sir, I didn’t. With life coming up from what was dead and buried. It was unnatural. That’s what it was.

“Come on, Deedee.” My husband’s voice softened around me like a down pillow. He put his hand on my shoulder, and he would’ve had to bend over real far because he was tall and I was on my knees.

“Brother Jake is waiting for us.”

I leaned forward away from his touch. My tears dripped and the wetness slipped between my fingers and watered the new grass I hated.

“Just a minute, Malachi.” He didn’t mean to rush me, but part of me just wanted to tell him to let me be, to take hisself to Brother Jake’s Ford and wait on me ’til I was done. Might never be done though.

I rubbed my hand against the rough concrete gravestone. But it wasn’t just concrete. We didn’t have enough money for a whole bag, so we had to add in sand from the river. The sand made it weaker though. But it didn’t look different from all the other colored folks’ stones in the graveyard. Most didn’t stick up out of the ground like the white folks’ stones. They just lay flat. Flat and dead. I traced his name with my finger. I thought I’d do the lettering just like that— with my own finger— ’til Brother Joshua offered to do it up nice with his tools. He done a good job.

What I didn’t like was that someone had added a shell from the Alabama River to the corner. Just about all the gravestones at this cemetery had them embedded somewhere. But I didn’t want that for my boy. No way. I didn’t need to explain why, but that river shell got no business on his marker. I knew who snuck the shell to Brother Joshua and there wasn’t no way I was going to leave it be.

I pulled out a hammer from my handbag. I’d taken it from the box of tools Malachi had packed a week ago. With one quick swing I set a crack in the corner of the gravestone.

“Delilah Evans, why you do that? Gimme that.” Malachi grabbed the hammer from my hand. When he got mad he lost a little of his polished- up preacher voice. “Look what you done.”

“You know why.” My gaze was still on the gravestone. I didn’t like that the corner was chipped off, but it was better than having that shell there. I tucked the shell in my pocket and it felt heavier than was right.

With my pinky I brushed off bits of concrete from the gravestone onto the grass. I took a few minutes and just stared at what I’d done. But getting that Alabama River shell off was like a little bit of right in all the wrong.

With my handbag still open I took out my coin purse, my white church gloves, my hankie, and my sunglasses. I handed my stuff to Malachi without turning around. He fumbled a little but he took them. Now my handbag was empty.

When I dug my fingers into the dirt, the grit got under my nails. Beneath the surface the dirt was a little damp, but that don’t stop me. After I put the first handful in my purse, Malachi grabbed my shoulder real firm this time.

“Delilah.” He almost never used my given name, and now this was the second time in a few minutes. ’Course he was worried about me, but I wasn’t going to stop. “What you doing, baby?”

“I need some of his dirt. Dirt don’t die. Dirt don’t die.” I set my purse down and used two hands. I got some urgency down in my gut that I hadn’t felt since the day I heard my little boy was in trouble. “I’m taking little Carver’s dirt with us. Pennsylvania got to know my boy.”

When my handbag was full, I sat back and let my breathing calm down. I got dirt all over my black dress, but I don’t care none. And Malachi’s sigh got all sorts of heft to it and I felt it all down my backside.

After a few more moments in the new morning sun, he started talking again in that calm way he do. “Sister Lois say she’ll come by to take a picture of the headstone and send it to us. Her grown boy got a nice new camera.”

I nodded and sniffed again. I closed my handbag and when it clicked shut, I got half a mind to throw it across the ole misty graveyard.

It just felt too finished.

“Time to go.” Malachi offered his hand.

I let him help me up. My strength all gone.

I looked at my husband and his big, brown, glassy eyes got a sadness in them that I wonder will never leave. ’Course he was hurting too, but two weeks after our baby boy died he preached from the pulpit. It was about forgiveness and he sang along with the choir in proclamation of the Lord’s goodness. I couldn’t do that. Some fingers of my gloves stuck out of his pocket, like they was grabbing at something. I looked back at Carver’s grave. Nothing felt right.

Malachi took my dirty hand in his and we walked away. Brother  Jake sat with his hands on the wheel. He tried to smile at me but didn’t get far. I glanced in the back seat before I slid in. My kids filled it up. Malachi Jr., Mallie, sat by the door and just looked out.

I could almost hear his brave voice tell me again that ten- year- olds were too old to cry. I almost slapped him smart when he said it. Got no business keeping dry eyes when his brother died. Little Harriet sat next to him. She gave me a smile because that girl always tried to give away happiness.

Next to the other door was my oldest girl, a new young woman really, Sparrow. I raised my eyebrow when I looked at her, dug that shell out of my pocket, and held it out for her.

“You keep it, girl. Don’t you lose it.” I wanted to add too but held back the reminder.

She took that concrete- crusted shell from me and curled it in her hand and turned back toward the window. Her gaze traveled to the distant stone with the cracked corner.

I let my gaze trail down to little George sitting on Sparrow’s lap.

He had this lost look on his four- year- old face.

It was his other half that was buried in the deep down.

 

EMMA

Secret hive, whispering wind— no— breeze. Swaying branches,

dancing trees. I repeated the words over and over in my mind. I didn’t want to forget them. My fingers thrummed against my knee, itching for the pencil and paper I had at home. What would come next? What would it be like to have the freedom of trees?

“Life is a vapor. It’s just a breath.” Mervin Mast, the preacher, released a puff of air as an example. He was a new preacher who had just moved into our small Sinking Creek, Pennsylvania, settlement.

It wasn’t in the mountains with the miners or in the valley where it was lush and green, but just in between. Mervin’s beard was neat and a rich auburn, declaring that he was younger than the preachers with long schtrubleh beards—the messy beards had always bothered me.

Mervin came from Lancaster and his frau, Lena, fancied her kapp. She was round and plump and pretty. The very opposite of me.

“But the world doesn’t live like that. Their lives move like the blowing wind. They go wherever it leads. They travel fast like the many streams and creeks that come down from the mountain and just let the current lead their way without thought.”

I turned away from the sea of white and black coverings of my fellow Amish schwesters to the nearby window. Several bees buzzed around the hanging potted plant. I imagined the murmur of their collective wings. Like the hum of these same fellow sisters who surrounded me, who talked with quiet voices behind their hands.

Preachers on occasion referred to Amish communities as beehives or colonies of ants— living in groups and always working at their ordained responsibilities. And just like bees always had their golden honey ready for harvest before the summer faded to autumn, we always had to be ready too. For whatever was to come.

The cry of the most recently born baby in our church caught my attention away from the window. It was like looking backward into a past life I’d lived. I’d been about the age of this girl—the new mom—when I’d had Johnny. The bliss and wonder of new motherhood had captivated every part of me. I’d suddenly realized why my mother glowed every time she introduced me to our family’s new baby. It made sense that my alt mammie, even at the risk of her health, would travel to see the fresh little face. Through my old grandma I learned to see this new life stretch before us and it brought so much hope.

That’s what it was. Hope.

And even as I thought this, my hands rested in my lap, so close to where my son had grown. He was across the room somewhere now— tall, lanky, and as handsome as his dat had been at sixteen. I looked at my hands. They were so empty.

“Emma.” The whisper came from near me and a warm hand tapped my knee.

My daydreaming— my past- dreaming— had taken me through the rest of the service. It was time to kneel and pray. Then we would file out. We would eat. We would talk. I would hold many babies and I would hand them all back to their mothers. A few hours later I was in the buggy with my husband, John, trying to forget my reminiscing and remember my lines that I’d thought up during service instead. I mouthed the words a few ways before I recalled the exact lines. The clip- clop of the horses offered me a rhythm. I whispered them. Secret hive, whispering breeze.

Swaying branches, dancing trees.

“Vas wah sehl?” John asked what I said, with his eyes trained on the road through the open windshield— now that April had turned nice.

“Nix.” I told him nothing because he didn’t appreciate what he called my fancy lines and ideas and warned me against vanity.

“Larry and Berthy are coming on Tuesday. For a week or so.”

“In two days your brother and sister- in- law and their seven children are visiting from Ohio and you are just telling me now?”

Since Berthy couldn’t read or write, Larry usually wrote to John.

I remembered seeing the letter weeks ago but had forgotten to ask John about it. This had happened enough times I should not be surprised.

The last time was before Thanksgiving and his parents and two unmarried bruders came to visit for a week. My oil and flour ran dry and my faith was dashed clean away.

“Ich hap fageseh.” He was a plainspoken man and would not provide more explanation.

“How can you forget? We don’t have close to enough food to feed nine more people.” Of course, I knew why he’d forgotten. He knew also. But it wasn’t something we talked about.

“Nah, Emma, you’re making something bigger out of this than it is. Most of the women around here are feeding more than nine for every meal. You got it easy with just me and Johnny. Stop being spoiled. You just need to make our food stretch. We make more money than Larry does, and Berthy still finds a way to feed all nine of them. Why don’t you ask her to show you how?” He never looked at me when he spoke.

He remained elbows to knees with the reins loose in his hands.

The mild weather was suddenly too hot for me because I knew he was right. I only had one son and husband to feed and care for.

Berthy worked small miracles to feed her brood. But feeding twelve instead of three without time to prepare made my stomach drop. I wasn’t good at working without a plan.

“We got all those empty rooms— shouldn’t complain about filling them up. You cry because they’re empty and get ornery when they’re filled.”

“John— ” My response was disrupted by a buggy racing by, throw – ing gravel toward our horse, Brian. Johnny.

John let out a hoot and holler and our son offered a wild response. Johnny had just turned sixteen and John had paid for half his buggy to help the boy out. I wished I’d had a say in the matter.

Johnny was an irresponsible rabble- rouser and should’ve had to save the entire amount for the buggy himself. He would be prepared for baptism this fall, which could calm some of the ambitions of the young people. Maybe it would settle him down.

“Sehlah buh muß schlake.” I was half teasing.

John laughed and the heartiness of it softened me a little. We didn’t often laugh together. “I’d like to see you try and spank that boy— you’re too hard on him.”

While racing buggies was normal behavior for our youth, I worried about Johnny’s irresponsible ways.

The chickens and geese scattered as we pulled into our drive.

If we turned to the left it would take us to the back of our white farmhouse and the walkout basement, but we went off to the right to park in the red barn.

“Last week I found him watching television.” Though a typical rebellion, it still concerned me. Johnny was far too comfortable with the English neighbor’s son, Arnold. “I was taking some herbs to Lisa— she hasn’t been well for weeks—and Johnny was sitting with Arnold in the living room watching something on the television. He didn’t care that I saw him because he knows you won’t do anything about it.”

“Emma, I remember the two of us raising a little Cain when we were running around.”

I hadn’t seen the twinkle in his eyes for so long my heart flopped. I played along and jabbed him in the ribs. He smirked.

He had raised Cain; I had not. I’d done little more than hem my dress a little higher and write poetry that I was told was prideful.

His twinkle didn’t remain and his stern jaw returned, set like stone.

I reverted just as fast, returning to my concerns about our son.

“I know all about rumspringa, but because you’re the aumah deanah, people expect certain behavior from the head deacon’s family.”

His chest tightened and his movements were stern and snappy  when securing the reins. “Listen, you don’t have to remind me of what I am.” He threw the words over his shoulder as he stepped out of the buggy.

I hopped out and walked around to his side as he unhitched the horse. I got close to him, but his hands didn’t stop moving and he didn’t turn toward me. He didn’t want to have this conversation. I didn’t either, but Johnny—

I moved my hand to cover his so he would look at me but then laced my hands together instead. “He knows he can get away with anything, John, because— ”

“Because what?” He turned toward me.

I couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked into my face so fully. His brown eyes squinted at me. I took in his appearance. His dark hair still without a single gray strand— unlike mine that mixed evenly with my dark blonde, making me seem older than my thirty-seven years. He’d been so handsome when we first married almost twenty years earlier, and remnants remained, but in the last few years his cheeks had become unnaturally red against the edge of his beard. The strong features in his face had hardened and I knew why. His tall body had become softer, but it wasn’t because of age— he wasn’t even forty yet.

His jaw tightened and his Adam’s apple bobbed. “Because what?”

His voice was thin and his face twitched when he repeated his words. I could smell the peppermint leaves he chewed for his breath and as a comfort. He always had some handy, even if pressed between the pages of his Bible. His question hung unanswered.

Because the answer would bring pain to us both. I avoided all pain. And I loved my husband and I didn’t want him in pain. I wanted to be what brought him solace even when he was lost in sin. It was what drove me.

But as I walked away the answer still plagued me. Johnny knew he could get away with anything because the aumah deanah, his own father, was a drunk and no one but me was the wiser.