This story was included in our November 2023 issue, devoted to some of the best writing The Walrus has published. You’ll find the rest of our selections here.
This story, about a kidnapping, is told on a tightrope, striking a delicious balance between horror and humour. Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer told me it “came burbling out” of her after overhearing a girl shriek about how cute the children in a passing horse-driven buggy were. “I want to steal one!” the girl exclaimed. Kuitenbrouwer went into the writing aware of her ignorance about the Amish; she had fewer qualms satirizing the parents of children at a private alternative school, of whom she was one at the time. At its best, short fiction drops readers into an unknown and often absurd situation mid-action, dazzles them with bright and shiny prose, and leaves them mulling over what happened, both on the page and in their minds, for days and weeks and years afterward. This story does all of that.—Dafna Izenberg, features editor, November 2023 issue
It took the class some doing to ambush, tackle, and finally capture the boy. They hid themselves on a stretch of the 62 just north of Ivanhoe and waited, giggling and getting grossed out when Markus let a fluffy. They’d done their best to work it all out in advance, but no one had properly committed to any one aspect of the job. Their approach was puerile. It was all just “We’ll stop the carriage, distract the driver, and someone will grab one of the littlies—oh my God, they are so cute.”
The fart hovered at nose level as the nostalgic clop of horses sounded and a decision became necessary. There was a great deal of wide-eyed buck passing until Becky said, “Screw this and screw you guys,” and threw herself up out of the ditch, tumbling almost acrobatically to stand right in the way of the two horses trotting up the highway. Becky held a short willow branch she had picked up along the way. She faced the oncoming Amish buggy and stretched out her arms. There were certain children left in the ditch wishing they had taken this initiative, energized by her raw courage.
The buggy driver pulled up with a “Ho!” as the horses shortened their trot and stopped, hoofing the dirt right where Becky stood.
Myra shimmied along the ditch toward the back of the carriage. The others followed. Behind the bearded man was a little boy, dressed identically to him, in a wee blue shirt and a wee straw hat. Myra whispered, “My pet! Oh, isn’t he darling?”
Becky waved her hands to distract the man. “Excuse me, sir,” she said.
The man cocked his head and waited. He seemed amused, as if regular people were strange and delightful simply because he could not predict them. He was unlike anyone Becky had ever seen. His shirt was not crisp and clean but mud or (oh, my) manure splattered, and it was fastened with safety pins. Was it possible that this man’s wife was a bad domestic, despite being loved in the eyes of God?
Becky tried to keep the man’s attention so the class could gain time. They were about to edge around the side of the buggy, where the little boy sat watching her, enrapt, she supposed, by her pink legs, denim cut-offs, and cherry-red tank top.
“How many Amish . . . ?” Becky asked earnestly (and here she raised the willow switch, noting at the same time that the class almost had their hands upon the boy). “How many Amish, sir, does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
William’s palm covered the boy’s mouth as the girls yanked the child out of his seat and surrounded him. It was as quiet as such a thing could be, and before the man noticed the boy was missing, Becky brought the stick down on the nose of one of the horses. The man’s face went from curious to querulous. Perhaps he was wondering about the light bulb, or lining up that this was a joke, however bad, and that it was on him. She switched the horses again and again. The two beasts reared, shocked and then furious at the maltreatment. The man yelled, then whipped and cajoled the horses to move. This was better than perfect. He wanted to get away! Becky moved to the soft shoulder to watch the class pet and adore the boy while the black buggy receded into the distance. She marvelled at the great space opening up between these two things.
The child was much younger than they had realized. He had doughnuts of flesh under his knees and around his wrists that smelled faintly of milk and love.
“Let us call him Puppy,” said Myra.
William told her not to be stupid. “He is the Amish,” he said. “We decided this long ago.”
“The Amish,” Markus repeated and lifted his leg to toot.
They had snuck from their tents this fine morning, before the spring dew dried on the grass, and come back with their prize. They were the grade six class of the city’s one true Waldorf school. Led by the lanky Erik McAuley—who for three years prior to his teacher training had followed a troop of Viking re-enactors around the fjords—the small, airtight class was camping this week at a farm owned by William’s parents. Mr. McAuley cocked his head thoughtfully. The boy was maybe four. “Where did you find him?”
“He was lying curled like a caterpillar on the side of the road,” Becky said. “It was more of a rescue.” She felt they had the story worked out.
“At first,” added Markus, “we thought it was a turtle. We were hoping for turtles.”
“But instead it was a boy?” said Mr. McAuley.
“An Amish,” corrected Myra. “We shall keep him as a class pet.”
Mr. McAuley’s eyebrows dropped over his eyes. The hairs were red and extravagant, even in so young a man. Several strays looped out from the pack, giving him a foxy look the children adored. “We cannot keep someone’s child,” he said.
“An abandoned child,” asserted William, and the other seven children, even the shyer ones, chimed in, almost shrieking, that they must keep the Amish. They must.
The Amish sat cross legged, picking blades of grass and gathering them into a bouquet in his plump hand. He held them to his face and blew at their tips, playing at being the wind and rustling them. Mr. McAuley and the children watched him crumple after a time and sink to sleep on the farmhouse lawn, a heap of blue cotton and baby flesh, the straw hat having slipped off his head in the process. It lay next to him, glowing round.
“Someone will surely miss him,” Mr. McAuley said. “You don’t just leave a child on the side of the road.”
“But that is exactly what we thought when we saw him,” said Becky. “And so we took him.” The last bit was the only true thing any of them had yet uttered.
The Amish was cherubic in sleep, the bouquet of grass clutched in his fist. The children looked back and forth, watching Mr. McAuley watch the boy and seeing his heart melt.
“What we should really do is call the police,” he said, but by the way he said it, the children knew he would not. Then, without conviction, he muttered, “The school won’t approve,” and the children rose up into a hurrah. A celebration ensued around the prone Amish. Spontaneously, the class held hands—and pulled Mr. McAuley to their cause—and formed into a fairy circle, dancing back and forth around the foundling, as they had already come to think of him. They sang a dirge-like song, a round, that sprang from the earth into their mouths.
They already loved him so.
They brought the Amish around the property when he woke, admonishing him about areas where he was not allowed—the ancient pop bottle mound under the ragged hedge that bordered the northern verge of the civilized part of the land, where the old limestone house sat, and also the pond, which had a sludgy, dangerous beach. They took him to the pioneer dump in the western field and held up blue and amber medicine jars, indicating the corroded metal lids and the menacing shards where things had broken, and waggling their index fingers to convey simple boundaries. The boy never spoke during all this time, and it was only by the way he moved his pretty mouth, and looked in wonder at them all, that they knew he was listening.
“The Amish people don’t speak English,” said Mr. McAuley.
“Mr. McAuley?” said William, by way of diverting the conversation. “It must be time to start lunch.” The children did not wish to learn anything about the Amish. They only wanted the feeling that seemed to come from him.
“Beans and wieners!” Mr. McAuley said and turned to march toward the house. “Who is on schedule to help?”
William and Myra scrambled after Mr. McAuley, chanting, “Beans and wieners! Beans and wieners!” They were already thinking of rhymes for this: “Makes you meaner, keeps you cleaner.”
William thrust his hips out on “wieners” and whispered, “Look, look,” to Myra, who did not get it.
Becky muttered how she hated wieners, and that is when the eyes of the Amish wildly lit up, and he said, “Wienerwienerwiener,” very quickly.
“Say it again,” said Becky. She hugged the Amish, delighted that he had finally spoken. “Say it again! Do you like wieners? Do you?” She peered into his eyes and shook him a little. The Amish smiled. “Wiener,” he said. He had a raspy voice, which served to shift Becky’s idea of what an angelic voice might really sound like, so that in the end, it gave her insights into a heaven she had never thought possible. “Wiener,” the Amish repeated.
Becky straightened his little hat. “The wieners,” she said, “are 100 percent organic. We also have a vegan option.”
The Amish pulled the wiener from the crease of the bun and wiped off the ketchup using the lawn.
Myra said, “What’s he doing?”
“Shh, we must observe,” said Mr. McAuley, taking on an air, pedagogically speaking, of loving compassion.
The class sat decorously around the now-cold campfire, having sung a blessing, closed eyes, and looked inward, and were trying for the sake of anthropology not to interfere in any way with the Amish’s experience. Clutching the tube of meat in his pudgy right hand, the Amish wandered around the class, taking bites.
When he finished the wiener, they gave him another, and this he kept tucked into his hand for the rest of the afternoon, so they had to wonder at the significance and whisper about it among themselves. When they asked Mr. McAuley, he nodded in a knowing way but would not answer.
The significance seemed to grow in the late afternoon when menacing weather cracked the sky open. Lightning and the approaching rain forced the children and Mr. McAuley to make haste with the tents, the sky tumultuous behind and around them. The foundling, his hot dog held aloft, scurried across the lawn while they dragged the sodden tents into the farmhouse, yelling joyfully. Becky first called, then sang to the Amish, holding the screen door open, until finally he ran in, his wiener frayed but intact. He was soaking wet.
Becky took her beach towel and rubbed him all over, carefully drying his eyes and trying to wick some of the moisture from his clothes. But when she accidentally patted him too brusquely and the hot dog broke in two, the Amish began to weep. The children nestled close to him, cooed, and watched him take bites—the pieces now tucked into both of his hands—first from one half, then the other. The storm continued. Myra stood to turn on a light as dusk fell, and that is when they learned that the house had lost power.
“Class,” said Mr. McAuley, “if things don’t improve by morning, we’ll head back to the city.”
The poor weather did not abate and the power did not return, so they packed everything into the van. The question of what to do with the Amish was circumvented when Myra reminded the class that her mother was a social welfare lawyer and would surely know how to go about adoption or fostering and generally managing the situation. Myra used the term “due processes,” which impressed all of them. She smiled at the Amish and told him not to worry, then herded him up into the back of the twelve-seater van. They had eaten muffins for breakfast—William’s nana had made them—and though the boy had taken just one small test bite, he had still managed to smear chocolate along his chin.
The ride was raucous, with the boys teaching the Amish how to curl his tongue in several different ways, how to pop his cheek, how to make wet fart sounds with the snap of his armpit over his cupped palm. They taught him the word “shit” and how to muffle it into a cough. The Amish pulled the skin under his eyes down with the first two fingers of one hand and shoved his nose up with the index of the other, and the children laughed. Somewhere west of Pickering, Mr. McAuley announced, “I have texted that we’re returning. You’ll be picked up at the school by your parents unless permission has been explicitly given that you may take city transit home. Becky will keep the Amish through the weekend.”
“Why should Becky get to keep him?”
“William’s got the bigger house,” asserted Markus.
“And a pool,” added William. “We’ve got this whale,” he said and turned to the boy. “You can float on it!” The Amish didn’t have a bathing suit, but William would have his parents stop at the Walmart. “Why does Becky always get what she wants?” said William. “It isn’t fair.”
Becky silenced the calls for fairness. “I sorted it out, is all.” She had, in fact, sat up at the front petitioning her parents for one and a half concerted hours. Her onslaught of text and voice messages had begun politely but ascended to whining and finally threats. Her parents were well aware that she would never throw herself from the Viaduct (and, anyway, the very sensible installation of a suicide veil had made this impossible), but the verve with which she argued marvelled them, and they buckled. It would be temporary, they said, and she agreed. Secretly, she knew they would fall in love with the Amish once they met him. Her father had always wanted a son.
“After the weekend,” said Mr. McAuley, “we’ll rotate taking care of him until we figure out what’s to be done,” and here he offered gratitude to Myra for the projected help her mother might offer. Then he added, “The school has agreed to this living history lesson only if we proceed with due diligence and follow the letter of the law.”
At the mention of the law, there was much shushing. They reached their hands back and petted the Amish and sang a round. Then, in the last half hour of the journey, they decided they would sew clothes such as he was used to wearing and mend his hat with straw when it required this. They would watch his diet while trying to ascertain what a more accurate one might be, wieners and . . . they did not know, but determined to find out. And for the rest—William’s pool, the cottage Myra’s family had inherited in Muskoka—these would clearly improve the boy’s lot.
“His new situation will evolve him,” said Becky, as if he were emerging from the swamps of the Paleozoic.
William scoffed and said, “We just can’t know, Becky.”
The van had the collective atmosphere of ten brooding preadolescents, their next moves grown fetid from waiting. It had become a holding tank for their futures—and the future of the Amish as they now imagined it. How they longed to arrive!
Becky stood on the front steps of the school, still and stoic, the Amish having wrapped his plump arm tight around her leg as the cars drove up and swallowed the other students. “There,” she said as her parents’ Beemer finally took the corner, slow and cool. Becky slid her palm along the boy’s cheek, watching as her father emerged glorious and elegant from the driver’s seat.
“Daughter!” Chuck Buckley said and clutched Becky in the briefest of greetings. “And this,” he added, “must be the foundling!”
“He’s very tired, Father,” said Becky.
She lifted the Amish and tucked him in the back seat. “I believe he needs a doughnut. And possibly a hot dog.”
“We are going home,” Chuck said as they pulled away from the school. “Your mother has been slaving in the kitchen all morning.”
“But she doesn’t know his dietary needs.”
“I believe she googled them.”
Amy Buckley pulled the door open before her family even stepped out of the car. “Oh my God,” she said. “Hello!”
Becky held her hands out to the foundling and half pulled, half helped him down out of the car and into the laneway. He was sweaty and dirty. The Amish looked up at Chuck and said, “Father,” and Becky watched her dad’s heart chakra soften. The boy reached a hand up and tugged on the edge of Chuck’s summer wool sports jacket and smiled. Chuck moved around to the trunk, and the boy trailed behind.
“Mother, this is the Amish.” Becky gently moved the boy toward her mother, then leaned down to make eye contact with him. “This is Mother,” she said to him and pointed. “Mother.”
“Mother,” said the boy.
“His first words,” Becky lied.
“Well!” It was clear that her parents were both moved. “So nice to meet you, little boy,” said Amy, and then a look of panic drained her face of all colour. “Shit,” she said. “Shit.” She fluttered her hands.
“Shit,” said the boy, converting the word to a cough.
Amy Buckley had made frog’s-eye salad, a selection of Jell-O-suspended cold-cut dishes, and funeral potatoes. These were remarkable, all set out on the dining table in anticipation of the guest. A Mormon feast. “It’s completely inappropriate,” she whimpered, tucking each dish into the refrigerator. Then she barked out a little laugh and said, “Have you any clue?”
“I know he likes wieners,” said Becky. “And I think I saw corn growing at one of the farms.”
“When does he need returning?” said Chuck. “What’s his telephone number?”
“Father,” Becky said, “the Amish eschew technology. Besides, I believe he is adoptable. Myra’s mother will be conducting a process on this.”
Chuck’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?” he said. “I mean, if he were my son, I would be looking for him. Just look at him. He’s absolutely adorable.”
Becky glowed at the “if he were my son” and said, “I don’t expect anyone will be looking for him. He was left on the side of the highway.”
Amy said, “The poor dear,” and then, “Do you think he’d like merguez sausages?”
The Amish dipped the lamb sausage into a pool of yellow mustard on his plate. He ate mustard exclusively that first night. And the second as well. The Buckleys googled and made various internet-approved Amish dishes, but the boy refused them. The fat that had so darlingly wrapped around his knees and wrists began to look flaccid and grey. Becky spent an hour searching out Amish websites and coming up empty. “There just isn’t much online.”
The Amish grew listless and clingy.
He would not sleep in the spare room. He would not get in the bed, nor even stay put in the room. So they set up a cot at the end of Becky’s captain’s bed, and by morning he was snuggled in next to her, holding her neck with his open hands. When she moved, he startled, so she had to lie very still until he woke up.
“Don’t die,” she whispered to him. “I love you, little Amish boy.”
The Amish was kneeling in the corner of the classroom, his eyes closed tight and his fingers clasped together. “What’s he doing?” Myra said.
“He’s praying,” said Mr. McAuley.
“For what?” Markus was bending down to inspect the boy.
“There are some,” answered Mr. McAuley, “who just make it a habit to pray.” He was thinking of his mother, who prayed under her breath at all times of the day. “They believe their prayers have weight. They believe that by praying they are in service to mankind.”
William looked back and forth from the Amish to Mr. McAuley. “It’s foolhardy. He should be made to stop.” This comment so charged the air, it was clear to them all that a discussion was about to be opened. Already, Mr. McAuley had taken a deep chestful of air to sustain himself for the response he would give. Live and let live, respect the cultures of others, but none of it was necessary as the Amish quickly unclasped his hands and flew once around the room before landing in Becky’s lap.
“He hasn’t eaten a thing besides French’s mustard these last days,” she told the class. “We tried hot dogs, but he seems to have gone off them. I am beginning to be concerned.”
She was beyond concerned. Through the night, she had dreamt of feeding him raisins and then Smarties, such that she had not slept well but had hovered in that superficial sleep that offers no respite. She had grown surly as a result.
The Amish had his hands around her neck and his face nestled into her shoulder. She tried to pull him off, but he went rigid. “Mother,” he said. “Father, mother, wiener, mother, father,” and then he said her name.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Not Becky.” She knew she would have been thrilled by this only days before.
“Aren’t you happy he says your name?” said Myra. She wished the boy would say her name. She scratched along her arms out of anxiety.
“Stop that, Myra. You’re tearing your skin.”
Myra replied, “My mother says our rescue is actionable. She says if we weren’t minors, we could all go to jail for a very long time. And that we have to return him before it gets out of hand. And apologize.” Myra gave a wide smile to Mr. McAuley. “I’ve made a card for us to sign! It’s in my backpack.”
Markus made a fart noise with his mouth, right up close to the Amish, but the foundling just tucked his face deeper into Becky’s collarbone. “Oh, what’s the use?” Markus said. “He’s really no fun.”
“Mr. McAuley, you should never have let us,” wailed Becky. She was wondering what, exactly, Myra had said to her mother. Myra had clearly not stuck to script. “Mr. McAuley, it was very irresponsible of you to have done so.”
Mr. McAuley slumped on his teacher stool, the one he’d built as part of his teacher training. It had Viking markings on it and symbols denoting the future so that, metaphorically, it gazed both backward and forward. He seemed to have no spine. “Children,” he said. “Let me think, please. Afford me some quiet, I beg you.”
Mr. McAuley thought back to the great Wulfin battle of 2008. He had shaved the hair over his ears for that and grown out his straggly beard. He had purchased stainless steel chain mail and a fine helmet. He’d learned some metallurgy. He’d brandished a replica axe and a festooned spear. He recalled the heft of steel clothing, the way it made him feel . . . glorious and impervious and, he would admit only to himself, horny. It was a marvellous combination. He wished himself back on the battlefield with his comrades, fighting a mock war. It was real, as real as anything, and maybe more real. Mr. McAuley looked deeply, intently, at the Amish.
“We must live our dreams,” he said.
Becky flashed to the raisins and Smarties metronomically popping into the foundling’s mouth, the waft of disdain over his little tired face. She preferred not to live her dreams.
“The Amish is signalling to us our worst impulses,” Mr. McAuley whispered.
It was as if their teacher were in a trance. A hammer came down upon his helmet. Life force sprang up his legs and flowed through his every limb. He yelled in the full embodiment of his very self. He was alive!
“Mr. McAuley?” The children came closer to peer at him. “Are you all right?”
Erik McAuley was about to translate his Viking past into something useful, but already he lagged behind current events. The Amish had unwound from Becky and was running toward the windows on the east side of the room, his eyes widened in some sort of recognition.
Veeshla, the school secretary, stood in the doorway of the classroom, her blond hair groomed into a ponytail. “You have a visitor,” she said. “Outside.” She lifted her eyebrows to indicate urgency. She pointed to the window. The foundling had somehow pulled himself onto the shelf and was standing, pressed wholly—each bit of his front—up against the glass.
Becky tried to pull him back. She feared he would break through and plummet. “You mustn’t, you mustn’t,” she cooed, trying to suppress the tiny scream that bubbled in her throat. She had already seen what was below. It was a black buggy pulled by two sweat-shiny mares.
The man wore an immaculate blue shirt, crisply pressed, with finely sewn-on buttons. His beard was combed so that it spread over his chest. His hat appeared brand new. His black trousers were creased, and the buggy itself was glowing clean. There was a woman in a bonnet in the back. Neither of them said a word, nor did they look from side to side. Myra flung the handmade, never-signed card at the father. The class chorused their apologies, and Becky lifted the Amish up and into the carriage. The couple still did not turn but only nodded. Their silence was so magnetic that the class experienced an electric guilt so nervous, so amplified, and so permanent they began one by one to sob.
The father flicked the reins, and the horses burst into a trot. And here is where the foundling began to cry too, first soft heaves down in his wee belly but then audibly and inconsolably. His mother watched him. He was screaming before the carriage reached the corner, and he had climbed up the seat. He peered through the rectangular opening in the back of the carriage, his chubby hands gripping either side of the cut-out window. The class stood in the middle of the road and watched him, anguished. William made to run after the vehicle, but Mr. McAuley held him back.
And what nobody could agree on later, but which Becky knew was true, it clung to her so painfully and so indelibly, was the form his screams took. “Becky!” he cried. “Becky! Becky!” His arms flung out the hole in the buggy, reaching back, back toward them.
“I will find them when I get back to the farm,” said William, nobly, to placate poor Becky, who had stolen a living child, after all, and must feel horrid.
In the weeks that followed, Mr. McAuley led debriefing sessions in which the children were encouraged to grieve.
“Life is a battle,” he confided to Veeshla in the staff lunchroom during this trying time, and she replied that he “hadn’t better tell this to the children.” The story—for it was becoming one—was replayed and revised until it was felt that the wounds were sufficiently healed. Still, no one was alarmed when a game sprang up involving the theft of a sad “It” who must then escape. The class played the Amish Game fervently through middle school until the end of grade eight, when they graduated and lost contact with one another. William’s father eventually sold the farm to pay for college.