By Michael Harper
This Story Was an Honorable Mention in Our Contest
My father’s eyes look blank. Spider-webbed trenches trail away from their corners, merging with other highways of age criss crossing his face. He’s lived his entire life on this farm. Besides one trip to Korea.
He’s a man that never told you what things were. Only what had happened to them in his presence. The farm—his birthright, the place of his expertise, a place no one knew better—did not belong to him, even though he paid the taxes and his name was on the deed.
The farm didn’t belong to everyone, he wasn’t some hippy, it was closer to nobody’s. Un-ownable. When he spoke of the animals, it felt as much their home as his. Until he slaughtered them, I suppose.
Now he forgets things. He disappears. When I enter the house, he smiles like an excited baby, cackling to himself. Then he calls me Tom, his older brother’s name, who has been dead for three years.
“What’s it like out there?”
“Cool for how hot the last few Septembers have been.”
“I should get down to the barn. There’s a sick sow I’m worried about.”
The barns are empty. Housing only rusty tractor parts and nests of crafty raccoons. But there’s no convincing him. I help him into thick-soled New Balances and let him pick between John Deere hats like a child choosing their bib color.
We trudge down the dirt path, covering my wingtips in dust. He points toward the old silo, cracked with age and standing alone at the edge of the corn field.
“Tom, you remember when Pa asked the neighbors to help us clear the silo, which meant we had to help slaughter their chickens in the spring? Harold raked the corn down the shoot, unclogging it when it got stuck—an old man or child’s job. His boy, Dill, who always said his th’s funny, helped us shovel the cobs around the wagon, so the weight stayed even. Pa worked faster than all three of us combined, even though he was six years older than Harold.
I heard a yelp and looked up from the dirty yellow hues. Harold yanked a coon out of the shoot with the rake and tossed it to Dill, who caught it in midair and pinned it by its throat to the side of the wagon. Its short limbs struggled helplessly and eyes bulged until everything went limp. The tip of its tongue fell into the pile of cobs. Dill jumped out of the wagon and put the corpse on the wagon wheel. It was stocky from the buffet of corn.
I looked over at Pa, who shook his head and laughed. I thawed out from the shock and forced the corners of my mouth to twitch upward.
‘What the hell was that, Dill?’ Pa asked. At that point, he was laughing so hard he was almost crying.
‘What’s so funny? No marks on the pelt. Just common sense,’ answered Dill.
Pa shook his head and started shoveling. ‘Your sense is a lot of things, but it ain’t common.’
Harold laughed with him.
When a scythe swipe of ruby ripped across the horizon, Harold and Dill went to the well to wash up for dinner. The sky was entire. Going on forever. Enveloping everything.
I asked Pa, ‘Why’d you ask for help today? We could’ve done this ourselves in not more than a few extra hours. You shoulda asked them to help with something harder. Now we’re gonna have to spend two days butchering chickens that ain’t even ours.’
He spat a stringy mess of tobacco, which looked like a fleeing amphibian. ‘You need to learn to think with more than just your head. We’ve got more hands than them, he answered.”
The story ends, and Dad’s eyes linger on the silo. I’ve never heard the story before. I’ve never heard him repeat a story in my entire life. He seems to spin them out of thin air, like a spider spitting out thread. I coax him toward the barns. The walk is good for him. After ten minutes of looking around, he admits, “I must not have that sow anymore.”
“Don’t worry, Dad, I’m sure you took good care of her.”
We start back toward the house. It’s slow going. He talks about repairing things that no longer exist. Friends who need to be gotten in touch with who are long dead. He stops and looks toward the west. It’s pleasantly cool after the unbearable summer. The early chords of autumn fall across the land in shades of gold and red.
“Ah, yes. That’s why we came out here,” he says.
The sunset explodes across the expanse in a shower of uncapturable hues. It’s prettier than pretty. Bigger than anything you could ever get your mind or arms around.
I’m momentarily a child, wrapped up snug in the arms of this place, and I forget to feel sad. Nobody’s going to want to keep the farm once he’s gone. None of us can sit out here forever and just remember.
“I used to know everything about this place,” he says. “Every day’s weather and every critter. How to make it through the bad years and be thankful for the good ones. What’s going to become of that?”
I swallow hard. “We’ll do our best. Don’t worry, Dad.” Even though I’m afraid all we know how to do is forget. Forget and move forward.