The Old Barn


Portents. Ball of light. The dust motes gather before his eyes. He’s blessed with the faith of the Magi, and a memory that won’t let go of those places where Heaven meets Earth in moments of grace and revelation. Ravens and road kill. Screech owls and the Queen of Cups. Signs sent and signs received. His journey marked by omens of change. He sees the sunset of Elko, and the storm clouds of Cheyenne. And Nebraska, all those lonely miles, a day out from the ghettos of Des Moines, just he and the dog now, through pastures of new cut hay and morning cornfields, green-sprung iridescent. There’s a cold night in a truck stop in Joliet before the shimmering smokestacks of Indiana, the rolling hills of Mennonite Ohio, a quick detour up to Michigan, to the grounds of Hemingway’s youth. Gray comes the rain-slicked granite of west Pennsylvania, and rusted the iron constructs of man. Trestles and train tracks. Towers of transmission and light. He’s back where he began. The green uplands of Maryland, on toward the Chesapeake, he crosses those tributaries that lead to his boyhood sea. Atlantic to Pacific and back again. The journey is done. Four straight days on the road comes to an end. He pulls into the motel where Charlotte and the girls wait for their new life to begin.


There was a time when the good life was California but that time had passed. When the letter came certified he knew just what it was, foreclosure, and he knew what they had to do. Go east. Horace Greeley be damned. He told Charlotte it was a chance at a new start, where rent was cheaper and their dreams could live again. He set out a week before them to ferry the car and the dog while she settled what there was to settle of their affairs before traveling with the girls by plane to meet him at the place where they’d start again. On that first night they prayed together. And what they asked for was strength to see them through.


At sunrise on the first day, he is alone again in the woods. He’s out behind the motel with the dog, on the very spot where ground will be broken for a condo they cannot afford . In the meadow he watches deer feeding on the bright new grasses – the whitetails of his youth. Memories of his father. Pipe smoke and aftershave. Lilacs and bourbon. That sour perspiration. His blood stained hands. The deft work of his boot-knife and the belly of the deer, cut open clean and easy like a bag of grain, the gut-sack wobbling there on the ground. Thin deer mean hard times to come but these deer of the east are fat and tawny and he moves toward them in silence, the way he was told. But the dog barks, and they lift their heads to see. The dog spooks the deer. Their ears flicker, and they break for the trees.

They crash through the woods and cross a small creek that forms a barrier between the meadow and the road. He follows them, with the dog chasing ahead for a line at their flank. There are three, and he can tell from the impressions in the mud that they are well-fed does. The dog barks once, and he cannot see him. He scrambles up the opposite bank and cuts through a hole in the fence to find the meadow stretching out before him like a hidden sea, lush with Golden Rod and chicory, tall grasses, a hundred acres diamond blue, and in the distance he sees a barn tucked away behind a clump of trees. Black roof and gray walls. The sun doesn’t shine upon it this early in the day. He sees the silo like some dark tower of medieval design, and a large automobile turned upside-down in the weeds. The dog sees it too. He stands erect beside him, a low growl rising from someplace deep within. The dog stomps his foot and turns his head.  He waits for a sign. The man’s already thinking about what he might find there, in the place where they kept the horses and the ploughs and the harvest of whatever had been farmed here long ago.


The meadow’s covered in dew. Everything sparkles. The world is alive and he is alive within it. The oak trees whisper, the river stones speak his name. In the distance he can hear the creek. The dog walks ahead, erect, jaunty. He’s confused by the disappearance of the deer and the sudden presence of the old barn. Its weather vane is a cast iron rooster and there’s a window in the hayloft where he sees the silhouette of an owl. The dog growls and turns. The man holds him back with a slow, downward gesture of his hand. They cut off to the left, so as not to spook this grand bird.


The wind blows through the trees he remembers from his youth. Black Oak. Chestnut. Beech. The weeping willows rustle and the barn looms up before them like a great ship carried here on the wave of the century. Gray timbers. A keelson of river stone. The hull spangled with a celadon moss. The dog shies and his back bristles. There’s a hole cut through to accommodate a much smaller man. He can see the hinges where the door once hung, the iron hasp, the stone above the lintel buffed smooth from generations of pausing hands.


Inside it’s cool and dry. The light pours in through a thousand cracks and holes. Gold bands. Shafts of amber. Pools of ochre in the dust at his feet. Moldering hay bales stacked high as the surrounding trees. An ox cart with a broken axle listing on wooden spokes. Rusted tools still hanging in familiar places. An iron stove with a coffee pot resting on a burner. A Wagner fry-pan. An enamelware cup. Deer antlers, horse tack, their petrified leather reins. Yokes and bridles. A tin box of anthracite coal. The world beyond no longer exists. He could remain here forever. He could live here. He could build this place into a home and set up a small desk in the loft. They could live here together and work the land. They could till the meadow over and turn it back to fertile ground. They could home-school the girls and teach them the ways of the land. If only the barn could be saved. If only the farm and all of its acreage could be spared from the imminent development that will bear the condominium they cannot afford. If only this were another time.


He stands in the barn and cranes his neck to see the small window at the top most reaches of the eaves. He watches the owl while the dog snuffles in the hay. The owl does not move and he suddenly knows why. It’s stuffed, placed there long ago to keep the swallows from nesting in the rafters. If he could find a ladder it would make for a fine souvenir. He’d like to save it from the fate that awaits the barn. But there’s no ladder, no way of reaching it without risking serious injury from a fall. He makes a mental note to come back before the bulldozer comes.


He’s alone in this place but he’s not alone in the world. He has Charlotte and the girls. He has a new life and old dreams and this time they’ll make it work. Even here, in the barn, he’s not alone completely. He can feel the hand that held the cast-iron pan to the fire. He can smell the coffee, and the horses. He can smell the cows and the new hay. He hears the tractor struggling in the meadow mud and the shouts of the young men in the field and how they joke to each other as they go about their work. Hammers, hinges, steel upon steel. He hears the last gasp of the farm before it falls. Soon it will be gone and new homes will rise from the ground, and the children of those places will shout too, and their fathers will struggle with their mowers and their mothers will dig with trowels to plant bulbs that will erupt in the spring.


He calls to the dog and the dog comes. They pass through the meadow, no longer searching for the deer. The deer are gone. They’ve passed on to a new meadow to feed. In the meadow he can see their droppings. Black, glistening. Grasses. Leaves. Nibbled with fine white teeth, the wispy steam still rising from the heat of the gut. He’ll find these marvelous piles again and again on the freshly planted sod in his yard. They’ll remind him of the barn, and the meadow. They are good signs of a new life.