The Sadness of the Sugar Maple

Testing the bounds of forgiveness.

By Mike Newall
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 11, 2006

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The two-lane country highway leading into Nickel Mines village rises and drops through fields of corn and wheat. Harvest season is all but over. The corn stalks are yellow and stiff, the husks empty and wilting.

As you drive past, the cornfields meet the eye like columns of autumn skeletons, the twisted husks like arms and legs frozen in some seasonal dance. At the feet of the stalks lie piles of discarded corn, rotting and turning the color of candy corn. It's late afternoon on the day of the shooting, and the sun is setting.

Volunteer firemen wearing neon jumpers stand at the intersection of Belmont and White Oak roads, steering traffic away from the schoolhouse, which sits in the middle of a small valley about a quarter-mile down. The schoolhouse isn't visible from here, but helicopters can be seen hovering overhead. On a nearby hillcrest a young Amish boy stands in a barn door, looking up at the helicopters in quiet amazement.

Following the traffic you pass the ranch-style home--with kids' toys scattered about the yard--where a milkman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, lived with his wife and three small children, and then the bus stop where hours earlier Roberts hugged his children goodbye.

"Remember, Daddy ´┐Żloves you," he told them.

The media have set up camp at the Nickel Mines Auction House, where locals come every other Thursday evening to bid on antiques and farming tools and equipment. Now cars stretch a quarter-mile down Mine Road, and dozens of satellite news trucks are parked on the grass. TV crews line the sunken part of the road overlooking the valley. The news reporters fix their hair and clear their throats, their fragmented sentences floating into the chaotic din.

"The children were shot execution-style, in the head ... "

" ... a 20-year grudge ... "

" ... innocence shattered ... "

One television reporter sits on the trunk of her car, wiping the dust off her knee-high leather boots. Another yells into his cell phone: "I'm trying," he says. "Damn it, I'm trying."

It's quieter inside the auction house, a modest one-story building with a tile floor and glass display cases. Reporters drink soda at the refreshment stand and complain about a delayed news conference. Sam Fisher, manager of the auction house, works the counter, flustered. His hands are shaking. "This is a nightmare," he says. "A nightmare."

His son John Fisher stands outside surrounded by reporters. John was driving home from a fence-building project when he heard about the shootings. He immediately rushed back toward the schoolhouse. John is a stout man. When a TV reporter grabs him by the shoulders in an effort to get him to face the cameras, John doesn't budge, saying simply, "I'd just as much prefer not to."

The schoolhouse, surrounded by cornfields and a white picket fence, stands about 200 yards off Mine Road. There's a tree in the courtyard. From its orange-gold color, it looks to be a sugar maple, the leaves of which change colors earlier than other maples. The tree would've been visible from the blackboard where the bound and tied girls prayed aloud for their killer. Standing there on the road, you can only wonder if that tree was the last thing the children ever saw.

A little farther down Mine Road lives the Stoltzfus family, Daniel, Katie and their four young children, Levi, David, Anna and Michael. Six-year-old Levi sits on the steps of his house with his younger brothers and sisters. He's a heartbreakingly cute little boy with dirty blond hair and chestnut eyes. This morning, before everything changed, Levi said "bye-bye" to his momma and daddy, and then walked with his friends through the backfields leading to the schoolhouse, avoiding the main roads with its speeding cars. Now, hours later, he's worrying about one of his closest classmates, a 6-year-old girl who was still in the schoolhouse when the man with the pistol told Levi and the other boys to leave.

Levi stands in the yard, dressed in broadfall trousers and a dark coat. His hands are in his pockets and he wears a sad expression. He's kicking the ground with his boots.

This evening Levi will ask his father why the man with the pistol came into the classroom, and Levi's father will try to explain God's motive in all of this. He'll explain how in the Book of Job God allowed the devil to test Job--first by taking his property and livestock, and then by killing his children. Still, Job refused to curse God.

"God allowed this to happen," Levi's father will say. "He allowed the devil to possess that man to test our belief, to test the bounds of our forgiveness."

Then Levi will drift off to sleep, drained from the fear and confusion of the day, and Levi's father will sit up thinking how over the next few days he'll have to explain to his son that some of his classmates won't be coming back to school.

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