When I was twelve, I went to stay with my grandparents in Cleveland for a month. It was summer and I didn’t have anything particular to do because, technically, I was too young for the labor force. I say “technically” because my father was of the mindset that I should still do something useful with my time. Somehow my babysitting resume didn’t cut it as “real work”, so that left me with the legal form of indentured servitude. I argued, but apparently my 3/5ths of an opinion didn’t have much weight.
My aunt got me a volunteer position at a ranch; in exchange for seven hours of shoveling shit and shaving some pissed off horses (don’t ask) I got to ride once a day. I loved it. Physical labor didn’t bother me and I got to spend all day around horses, dreaming about that eighth hour when I’d actually get to ride one (probably. This ended up being weirdly inconsistent). I felt pretty important running around saddling up ponies for rides and picking shoed hooves. I even got pretty good at tightening the girth to the right notch.
[An aside: Let me explain about a girth for those who haven’t spent way too much time around horses. The girth is the name for the belt that cinches under the horse to hold the saddle in place. Horses aren’t as stupid as they look, so they suck in a lot of air to inflate their stomachs when the girth is being tightened. I don’t blame them; the girth is a wide band of thick, rough fabric that sits right behind their horse armpits and across the ribcage. There are holes notched into the girth where it meets the saddle to adjust how tight it goes and you yank it up to the highest possible notch with all your might. If a horse holds its breath during this medieval process, then the girth loosens when they start breathing again. It also means the saddle is not secured and creates a safety hazard for everybody. The most effective way to make sure the horse doesn’t hold its breath is to squeeze its nostrils shut and wait. Just stand there and cut off the oxygen while you stare in disbelief at your watch. Eventually they’ll let go with a long, depressed exhalation of air, and you are free to hoist the shit out of that girth.]
Every day I would catch a ride to the ranch with my aunt’s neighbor Annie. She was seventeen and doing the same unpaid job as I was, which made me wonder if I was really cool and ahead of my time or if she had already failed in life. Either way, it was a free ride and I still was four years away from a learner’s permit.
One evening as we wrapped up at the ranch, Annie offered to drive two of the other slave girls home. There was a brief scuffle when I dove into the front passenger seat, much to the anger of the older girls, but I could be just as stubborn as any teenager. The four of us shoved ourselves into Annie’s compact and set off for home.
We were driving in the furthermost right-hand lane of the highway, going probably 25mhp with the traffic, when I glanced in the side mirror. Unexpectedly, there was a horse and buggy galloping directly behind us. I turned completely around in my seat and stared at the unlikely situation with wide eyes. The other girls saw my confusion and explained, “It’s just the Amish. They still use horse and buggies.”
“Um, on the highway?” I asked, which was a stupid question since we were in fact on a highway and, obviously, there was a horse and buggy chugging along behind us. The girls thought it was funny that I would be so shocked, but to be fair there isn’t exactly a plethora of Amish in hometown Boston. I thought it was idiotically unsafe to take a horse on the highway, not to mention a wildly impractical means of transportation.
I’d heard of the Amish before, but this was my first experience of them. I would later learn they do other fun, creepy things like Rumspringa, where Amish teens go out unsupervised into the modern-day societies they know absolutely nothing about and do whatever they want. The term rumspringa roughly translates to “running around”, but in my world it’s defined “child neglect”. I can get on board with the idea of being old-fashioned and staying away from technology, but a community-sanctioned adolescent free-for-alls bugs me (I’ve always been a social worker at heart). But I digress.
Anyway, that was the point when I noticed what was wrong—more wrong—with this picture. “No one’s driving the buggy,” I commented mildly.
“What?” one of the girls asked, though she’d clearly heard me.
“There’s no one driving the buggy,” I repeated, and emphasized by pointing at the Amish chariot thundering ominously behind us. I wasn’t hallucinating; the black Old West-style wagon was conspicuously devoid of any humans. Now the other girls didn’t look so smug. I noticed Annie starting to panic.
“Shit. What do we do? Shit.” I empathized. Aside from the safety concerns this created, we were all ranch hands. We loved horses. Watching one freely rocket down the main artery right outside of a busy city like Cleveland was upsetting and more than a little unnerving. I had no idea what to do.
“Take this exit,” I said, pointing at the one directly in front of us. I couldn’t think what else we should do. At least we wouldn’t still be on the road with the Black Stallion of Doom. Maybe we could find a phone and call the police? The internet had only recently become a household accessory, so cell phones were still a few years away from existence. That would have been helpful though.
Annie swerved to make the exit, which knocked me into the door since I was still turned partially around in my seat to alternately watch the road—Annie’s panic was not giving me confidence in her ability to keep us from a fiery death—and the surreal scene behind us. Wouldn’t you know it but the freaking horse turned off and followed our car onto the off-ramp.
Well, “off-ramp” is an exaggeration. It was an exit that led to a quiet, thickly treed little road with, thankfully, no traffic. We were still rolling along at about 7mph, just sort of taking in the situation and trying to figure out what to do now. The horse was trotting along contently behind us. I was glad it was off the highway but now we had to do something with it.
I would like to note that until this moment, I had been the calm rational one of the group. The other girls were shrieking hysterically and asking unhelpful questions like “where is the driver?” and “why is it following us?” I’m not saying they weren’t valid questions, but they weren’t helpful in addressing the situation at hand.
At that moment we saw a gap on the left side of the road between the dense hedges. It was a wide graveled driveway that led a ways back to a big barn, and farmland beyond that. That was hardly what caught my attention though. The driveway, from the leftmost side to the rightmost side, was a straight line of immobile Amish people.
That is not an exaggeration for the sake of storytelling. There was literally a wall of Amish men, women, and children facing the road, hands clasped together in front of their bodies, just standing. Waiting. Stone-faced. In complete silence. And then the horse turned purposefully into the driveway, where the people-gate opened enough to accommodate its entry. Like black-and-white-clad Children of the Corn robot zombies about to engulf their prey.
I turned to Annie. “Go.”
She gaped at me, dumbstruck. I had no time for her to process what had just happened. “Go. Annie, go.” I pointed at the road. “Go, go, go, go, GO!” I had never been more creeped out in my life.
My dutiful driver floored the accelerator, and we rocketed away from what I assume turned into an all-out shark-like feeding frenzy of blood, horsemeat, and bonnets. I count that as a narrow escape with our lives.
To this day, when I hear people talk about the Amish, I get awkward and flustered. Time has not made sense of what happened or lessened the weirdness of it. When people ask why I have such a bias against the Amish, I tell them this story (though, honestly, few believe me). I’m not a bigot; I don’t believe all Amish people are Children of the Corn robot zombies. Maybe it was just that particular commune of Amish that had been infected by Umbrella with a virus that turns people into Children of the Corn robot zombies. I assume I would have heard about it if it had spread to the technological world. So I guess it’s good news that it’s not contagious or that Umbrella was able to contain the infection.
Whenever I think about that random summer day, I always say to myself, “What the fuck?”