SHALLOW ROOTS, WIDELY PLACED – Part 1
Three days after his ill-fated encounter with the thresher, the larger, arguably identifiable chunks of Axel Hooley were buried adjacent the farmhouse where Isaac and Annie Hooley hosted church services in their basement the third Sunday every other month. The Hooleys, like the larger community around them, were a devout, modest folk, preferring to deal with private matters in the traditional Amish ways. Outsiders were a necessary nuisance, of course – their livelihood largely depended on the popularity of Amish Acres, a quaint traditional village and tourist trap in nearby Nappanee, Indiana – but with regard to matters of birth and death, an entry in the flyleaf of the family Bible was generally considered more than a sufficient amount of paperwork.
Axel Hooley was different from his six older brothers in one significant respect, however – Axel had a birth certificate. Two years prior to the ill-famed thresher incident, when Isaac Hooley recognized that the urgent needs of his wife Annie were well beyond the skills of the midwife attending to Axel‘s birth, he wasted no time summoning outsiders for their crucial assistance, despite the somber objections of his Amish brethren. Modern hospitals and expert medical attention were necessary wonders every now and again as far as Isaac was concerned, despite the fact that such wonders often led to official recordkeeping, which in turn never came to anything of any further good to anybody.
So as far as the outside world was concerned, Axel Hooley existed, and if he existed, then Isaac supposed that eventually something would have to be done to make him un-exist. He just hoped that the circumstances of his youngest son‘s tragic death wouldn‘t be too assiduously rehashed by the outsiders, mostly for Annie‘s sake, as she blamed herself for allowing young Axel to toddle beyond the relative safety of the immediate barnyard.
But the days became weeks, and the weeks passed into months, which one way or another flew past two years; when eventually, as these problems sometimes do, the quandary of what was to be done about the death of Isaac and Annie‘s youngest boy managed to resolve itself.
The resolution to Isaac‘s dilemma waddled into the midst of the autumn harvest festivities and presented itself, wearing an elfin grin and a filthy diaper. Though the child was likely in search of food and comfort rather than spiritual guidance, the womenfolk readily provided the first two, then set the wheels in motion as required to supply the more divine, yet utterly essential, third element to make the toddler whole.
After some discussion among church Elders, the foundling was handed off to the still grieving Annie Hooley with the hope that a convenient and reasonable substitute might curtail her relentless weeping. Subtle inquiries were made around the village, of course, but nobody stepped up to claim the tanned child with the long dark hair.
Certainly no more than two, the toddler could scarcely pass for the late lamented youngest Hooley, who would by now have nearly reached the age of five, but Isaac imagined that wouldn‘t make much difference over time. As far as he was concerned, the strange child with the curious gaze had been supplied by God to relieve him of the burden of illuminating the local authorities as to the challenges, difficulties, and occasional failings that composed his simple life on the farm. Besides, a lady at the hospital had gone to all the trouble of making up a birth certificate; somebody might as well get some use out of it.
The newly anointed Axel Hooley was washed, nourished, clothed, and promptly scolded because a child of almost five years of age should no longer be in need of diapers. Annie and Isaac would keep the boy well fed and far away from the threshing machine, but New Axel was going to have to grow up some, and he was going to have to do it right quick.
Like her husband, Annie Hooley supposed that the child had been dropped from heaven in a basket. She further suspected that he was quite rightly expelled, in fact, and likely remained on several angelic watch lists specific to seraphic terrorists. Annie had raised six boys (seven if you counted Axel the first) and felt that this child‘s curiosity extended well beyond normal childhood inquisitiveness. It would be a miracle if New Axel managed to steer clear of the farming equipment and livestock, and if Annie or one of the boys didn‘t one day fling him into the thresher outright, it would be an even bigger miracle.
The Hooleys prided themselves on their benevolence, however, and took whatever challenges God provided. New Axel was cared for and tended to, and though never truly loved in the tradition of the other Hooley children, he was educated and set on a righteous path. Annie came to believe that perhaps God had very little to do with entrusting the disarming stranger into her care, but she shouldered the burden anyway and didn‘t complain for the most part, no matter how unusual or challenging the tiny intruder turned out to be. And oh, he was unusual and challenging beyond her wildest dreams and worst nightmares.
For one thing, New Axel never seemed to sleep, which startled Annie whenever she awoke to his otherworldly gaze. Isaac mostly steered clear of the boy, figuring that enduring the child‘s oddities and mischief was the price required for a good night‘s sleep nestled in next to a wife, no longer racked with sobs. New Axel rarely fussed, which was a blessing, but he was so unusually quiet in coming and going that Annie suspected he had somehow mastered teleportation or invisibility. New Axel could appear in an instant and vanish just as quickly with her next glance. She was never quite able to catch him in the act of vaporizing, at least not with her own eyes, though she confessed her fears to a neighbor, who had always thought Annie frivolous and a bit off-kilter to begin with. So the boy remained an outsider, despite everybody‘s most magnanimous efforts, and rumors always tend to follow such folk.
As the youngest child, New Axel suffered his share of poundings by the older Hooley boys, but it wasn‘t long before he could shinny up the nearest, tallest tree and remain there until the troubles blew over. The much older, far heavier Abner Hooley once fell and fractured his clavicle pursuing the nimble rascal up the half-dead oak that separated the Hooley land from the Fleckinger farm. New Axel was never an eager sparring partner and always obliged his pursuers to hound him to the point of collapse. He was sometimes caught, but by then his tormentor was usually too spent to inflict much damage. The Hooley Hooligans were, in many ways, the black sheep of the Amish community, and New Axel was the black sheep of the Hooleys.
The poundings came to an end around the official age of 10 when New Axel somehow convinced Amos Hooley that he was capable of harnessing the powers of the underworld and vowed to turn him into a pail of milk in his sleep. The fateful timing of ill-informed and adolescent Amos‘s first wet dream that night coincided so completely with the threat that the hapless boy didn‘t sleep well for a month.
The Amish are, historically and with rare exception, not known to be expert hustlers. This competitive void is perhaps why New Axel became such an accomplished trickster so quickly. It was a rare tourist indeed who could resist the open-faced lad in the wide-brimmed hat when approached to help secure a magazine of questionable appropriateness or sneak the eager tyke into the newest blockbuster at the Cineplex. Such straightforward forays into the English world were strictly forbidden, of course, but New Axel‘s fear of yet another trip to the woodshed was greatly outmatched by his insatiable curiosity. Besides, it was clear that he wasn‘t going to learn much more about the world from the Hooleys. They and their brethren had, after all, attempted to stop all forward movement of any kind a hundred or so odd years ago.
The Hooleys encouraged reading and personal growth, assuming that such activities were inspired by and limited to the Holy Bible, which New Axel read cover to cover under duress. While some of the tales were interesting, and he liked the bit with the whale, he found the material to be a labor-intensive and tedious read. And he had long since decided he wanted no part of the angry, vengeful Old Testament God everybody kept threatening him with. The worst beatings of his life were administered in the name of righteousness. He couldn‘t help but think that wherever He was, God probably had bigger fish to fry, and if He didn‘t want New Axel to occasionally sneak a peek at a titty magazine, He probably shouldn‘t have invented titties in the first place. And making him so darn curious about them merely in order to have him flogged in His holy name just seemed mean-spirited and not in keeping with what he hoped was the gentler nature of a universe chock full of titties.
The Good Book offered some interesting stories and solid rules to live by – don‘t kill people, be nice to your parents, and the like. New Axel eventually reckoned the Bible mostly continued to exist in the modern world in order to prevent the stupid people from fucking the animals.
Not surprisingly, dawning sexual awareness descended on the teen, or rather, preteen New Axel, like a Hoosier tornado. The apple-cheeked Amish girls, kept at a distance by tradition and the dozens of watchful eyes of the Brethren, were wooed in clandestine assignations. Rumors of sexual experimentation soon flooded the barn raisings and sewing circles. By Amish standards, New Axel was absolutely exotic – dark featured and impishly small for his legal and official age. That, coupled with his inherent lack of respect for tradition and authority, drew the eager and repressed young lasses like hogs to the trough.
While New Axel‘s seductive skills would have been rudimentary and laughable under ordinary circumstances, they worked their magic remarkably well in Amish Acres. He had, after all, the experience of several years of cinema attendance working for him, along with a growing collection of pornography squirreled away in the grain silo. So as fears for the vestal virgins of Amish Acres grew, the Elders resolved that something must be done quickly about the outsider they‘d taken in but never truly embraced. The possibility that the young interloper might soon leave a permanent reminder of his injection into their community and their womenfolk was a growing concern.
Thus, on the day the problematic birth certificate proclaimed Axel Hooley to be 16 years of age – the agreed-upon yardstick for Amish adulthood – New Axel was abruptly thrust into the English world as a result of traditional and fortuitous Rumspringa.
Rumspringa literally translates to “running around“ – the unofficial period for Amish youth between childhood and the hopeful decision to choose baptism into the Amish church. In some Amish communities, boys experiment by dressing English, driving, drinking, or living on their own for a time: the commonly held attitude being that the outside world should be experienced, then rejected in favor of a simple life closer to God. The girls generally experimented less, but a certain amount of carousing was conveniently ignored. Rumspringa is commonly tolerated rather than encouraged, but in New Axel‘s case, it became an absolute requirement.
Isaac and Annie took New Axel for a long walk the night before his departure to provide what little information they could of his origins, or at least to recap the most often repeated rumors. While the boy‘s true parents may have merely been vagabonds, Isaac thought it likely they had enough of a working knowledge of the community to ascertain the most suitable time and place for successful child abandonment. A small circus had set down nearby for a few days that summer, and the actors who descended on the Round Barn Theatre every spring for the annual production of Plain & Fancy always seemed an oversexed and irresponsible bunch, so both were put forth as options should New Axel wish to ponder his true heritage further. But the real truth was that nobody had an inkling where New Axel had come from, nobody had done any real investigating, and whatever clues may have once existed had long since disappeared.
Annie was certain that New Axel‘s mother and father had not been married, by whatever reasoning Annie used to draw her simple conclusions, and broke the tragic news to New Axel that he was almost certainly a bastard. New Axel wouldn‘t have minded so much, but Annie was deeply troubled by this reasonable certainty and assured him that such a sinful burden would be a difficult one that must be borne well into eternity. According to Deuteronomy 23:2, “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord, even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” Annie took this to mean that, even had New Axel been a pious and decent soul, he would never gain entry to the Kingdom of Heaven, nor would the 10 generations that may follow. New Axel was only troubled to the extent that he had been threatened, beaten and coerced into reading the friggin‘ Gospel night after night in what was apparently a senseless and mean-spirited exercise. New Axel hoped that at least this revelation would take the pressure off from here on out – or at least until the day he was to be damned forever to writhe in the fiery pits of Hell under the glowing red watchful eyes of Satan.
Unwilling to be further buggy whipped as he was unceremoniously booted out the door, New Axel pointed out to Isaac and Annie the Good Book‘s prior passage, Deuteronomy 23:1: “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” When it became clear they weren‘t following his logic, New Axel suggested that, depending on the specifics of what the thresher had or had not done to the stones or privy member of Old Axel lo and behold those many years ago, they might not find his little pink cherub plucking away on a harp up in heaven, either. Annie nearly fainted, and she didn‘t share further words with New Axel until she said goodbye at the bus station.
So, with his birth certificate tucked into a worn-but-still-good valise, New Axel was presented with a bus ticket out of town and 140 dollars collected from nearly every father with a daughter of courting age in the county. Annie Hooley gave the boy a sincere kiss goodbye, and shared with Isaac the community‘s collective sigh of relief as they watched him go.
While he knew he was never coming back and would be shunned henceforward, and even though he had some sense of the reasons why, New Axel was quite moved to see dozens of the brethren accompany him to the bus station for his send-off. He had taken two catnaps on the bus before it dawned on him that the well-wishers were probably present only to ensure his bona fide departure.
New Axel was young and strong. He could raise a barn, castrate a hog, and plow a right smart piece of land with remarkable speed. With all that going for him, he knew that he wouldn‘t starve. Of greater worry was the nagging feeling that he had forgotten something important. It was as if he had left something behind, yet couldn‘t put his finger on what, exactly, it could be. Whatever it was, it had been left so far behind that it was well beyond reach, because he was certain he hadn‘t left anything important back at Amish Acres.
New Axel decided that his years with the Amish brethren weren‘t altogether bad if you didn‘t count what turned out to be all that futile emphasis on the Scripture, but now he was off to see what lay beyond. The singular Axel Hooley left on earth, the un-holiest of the Hooley Hooligans, the bad boy of Amish Acres, was about to find out what surprises the world held.