The customer awkwardly approached the young Amish woman, as many of us have done these past couple of days.

"You would know," the customer said to the woman working at a produce stand south of Paradise township and east of the one called Eden. She would know, the customer thought, of any fund that had been started for the families of the girls killed Monday in the siege at the Amish schoolhouse.

No, the woman didn't know of any fund, or maybe she didn't even understand the question. The gulf between them and us is so vast, and yet we keep trying to bridge it. Or rather, those of us on this side try, however tentative and well-meaning we are. For all the reporters and other outsiders who have descended on this corner of Lancaster County, you have heard precious little from the Amish themselves.

Oh, you've seen them - the Vermeer-like tableau that they present as they walk, faces downcast, down two-lane roads and browning fields has proved irresistible to the cameras and outside eyes. But mostly they have been silent. In a cacophonous world, at a time when life is seemingly lived online and on camera or not at all, their silence is powerful.

They could be on the Today show. Surely Oprah would invite them onto her sofa and hold their hands while she made them cry. They could be on the cover of People. Perhaps they don't even know who this Oprah is, or who replaced Katie on Today, or that Katie even left. They shun TVs, electronics, cameras and other modernities.

And yet here they are, at the sad heart of the kind of tragedy that the news media springs into action to cover 24/7. We want to see the victims, their relatives, seemingly anyone who has ever brushed past them. But the families and other intimates simply haven't played along - whatever they're going through, they're going through it privately. They haven't cried on camera or lashed out at the killer in front of a microphone.

And you know what? It seems appropriate that a community that never asked for attention in the past has kept it at bay during this awful present. Maybe at a certain point, they will want to speak to the outer world, and I'd love to hear them. But for now, the police, the politicians and the news media seem largely content to stand at a respectful distance. Dignity tends to beget dignity. What little we hear about the families tends to be along the lines of how strong and resilient they've been.

Their restraint makes Charles C. Roberts' posthumous verbosity stand out all the more. One unfortunate side effect of the Amish community's silence is that Roberts' words and his story have rushed in to fill the vacuum. Especially since they're being voiced by State Police Col. Jeffrey Miller, who has handled most of the official statements about the killings, and whose white hair, blue eyes and direct manner call to mind a younger version of the actor Ed Harris.

Yesterday, he released some of what the killer said, in a phone call to his wife Monday morning, as well as in the individual suicide notes that he left behind for her and each of their kids. Oh, the self-pity, the self-indulgence: He goes on about his grief over the premature baby he and his wife lost nine years ago, his guilt over an alleged molestation of young relatives 20 years ago, his hatred of himself and of God.

Confession might have felt good for his dark soul. And yet even as he stage-managed his own exit with such drama and a plea to be understood, at the same time he simply dispatched five little girls with bullets to the head and no similar farewell to their loved ones.

We know so little about the victims. The police aren't releasing the names of the five girls still in the hospital. And we know just barely more about their five classmates who have died - just their ages and their felicitously old-fashioned names, like Naomi Rose and Anna Mae. We know two of the girls who were killed were sisters - 8-year-old Mary Liz and 7-year-old Lena Miller. We know that of the 10 families who had daughters at the school, seven families were, as the police say, "impacted."

The details seem so thin compared to what we learn about victims of other crimes that draw such intense scrutiny. And yet, for a community that is so modest that it eschews buttons as excessively decorative, maybe there is some comfort in not sending these girls in death into a world that they were never a part of in life.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com