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The Day Before The Auction

Writing Contest home

Patricia Baird Greene, Hermon, NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
First Place in Category: Memoir Writing

The farmhouse once was white, and the faded sign that reads 'Frederick Crowningshield, Farm Fresh Eggs, Maple Syrup' stood straight. Across the street, I enter the old barn that hugs a steep incline. As I appear in the door, thirty brown and white faces turn toward me. It still makes me smile.

"Mornin' girls!" I call out. "Are you hungry?"

Fred leans on the back of the cow he milks at the beginning of the row. We greet each other as we always do with a comment about the weather.

"Gettin' cold," he says, breath frosty.

"When do you put the windows back in?" I ask. He piles them upstairs every spring.

"Not 'til December. Cows'll keep it warm."

We have forgotten that there will be no December in the barn this year.

Two months ago, Fred buried the son who farmed with him-a tractor accident. Half the town crowded into the stonewalled cemetery. Fred leaned on his cane in an unfamiliar dark suit staring straight ahead as the minister said prayers. He was mourning more than a son. Four generations of his family have farmed the hill top place on the North River. Although he wouldn't make peace with it for another three weeks, we all knew the cows would have to go. In the meantime, there were chores, so a group of neighbors organized a sign-up sheet for helping out. That's how the writer down the road ended up in the barn this morning.

A cloud of mist rises out of the valley where the North River runs. Up by the road, the tall red and white barn doors rumble and squeak on their rusted wheels. In the cavernous space, hay is stacked to the ceiling, old-fashioned square bales that a group of us brought in on Labor Day. A chest high pile of corn silage steams, smelling rich and fermented. Taking the pitchfork, I begin my morning count. One, two, three-the silage slides down a square hole in the worn wooden floor. The cows raise their heads to watch the small mountain of breakfast piling up on the center aisle below.

When I've counted to 38, I go back down. The ladies swing in their stanchions with me-first looks. They stomp, snort and strain to steal their neighbor's portion as I drop a pitchfork-full for each into the cement mangers that run along the aisle. Fred has moved halfway down the first line. The ching-ching sound of milking fills the barn.

His eyes are far away as he waits this morning. The man has been milking cows in this barn since he was 14. Last month he turned 76. It's been a long marriage. He knows each animal: which ones have only three working teats, which ones are dry, which ones give the richest milk, which ones are naughty and need to be stroked above the tail to calm them down.

He walks to lean on the windowsill, looking out over the muddy barnyard to the notch where orange begins to streak the sky. Maybe he wonders if the people who speed by in SUVs and grab milk cartons off the supermarket shelf care about what an old man has done for 60 years. Absently he scratches the calf tied beside him and rights its water bowl. Maybe his mind is blank, unable to imagine mornings not spent in the barn. The vet has vaccinated the cows; the auctioneer came by to double-check his list. Down in the valley there's talk in the farming community of this last herd of old-fashioned red and white Holsteins coming up for sale at the auction.

Fred moves from one cow to the next, down the first and over to the second row. Most likely he's trying not to think about tomorrow when the slatted cattle truck will pull up in front of the barn. I stop a moment worrying about him as I carry buckets of water to the heifers. I imagine him standing beside the barn tomorrow with his greasy Farm Exchange hat pulled low over his eyes. The lines beside his mouth will be deep as the truck drives off down the hill with its load. But hill town farmers don't cry; they just fade away quietly, one by one. And we are all diminished.

The barn is filled with the sound of contented munching. I scrape the night's manure. Grain whooshes from the silo into the bin. I push the breakfast cart along the center aisle. Grain pellets smell like chocolate. The cows reach excitedly for the gourmet treat as I measure in minerals and salt and pour each one a scoop.

Two things I've learned about dairy cows.

One is that I like them.

The second is that they are not docile milk machines; not what they seem in the pasture, heads bent to the grass. These cows have personalities, quirks. Some are rebellious, clever, neurotic. Some are loud mouths. All are stubborn. Each one knows her place. They are creatures of habit, and scold each other if one goes to the wrong stanchion. The herd is a tightly structured female society that seems to run on telepathy. It is an organism. Where one goes, they all go.

The red-faced three-year-old is the ringleader. She has ideas the others think are swell. Two weeks ago she broke through the fence to get the juicy waist-high grass on the other side before Fred could harvest it. We fixed the fence, but she seems to know where the electric pulse is weakest because of a fallen branch or old break. She coaches the others through. Come on now ladies, who wants these gnawed down old weeds. And listen-if the humans come, keep on munching, then run in the direction they don't want.

Last week when Fred went to town, Ms. Red Face not only got her sisters through the newly mended fence, she led them into my yard to drink the frog pond dry, then organized a stampede down the road! If a local farmer's daughter familiar with cows hadn't been driving up the road to block them and help me herd them back into the barnyard, they might have made it to town.

A few are fussy eaters, like the Jersey who just gave birth. Yesterday before night milking, we noticed she was missing and found her standing far out in the pasture with a brown calf not an hour old. Push comes to shove, Mom would not let us lead her back to the barn. It was cold, the light fading and the cows needed to be milked. Fred got the tractor and we loaded the little fellow into the bucket. I grabbed Mom's halter and jumped in, dried manure and all, to comfort the confused newborn. All the way back to the barn, I held him in my arms still wet from his mother's womb and smelling of salt. These are the things about the last two months I'll remember a lifetime.

Speaking of calves, next comes my favorite chore-feeding the four bottle babies tied up on the side of the barn. In the whitewashed milk room, I take the big plastic bottle, uncleat a hose and catch the warm milk before it pulses into the stainless steel tank. Then I snap on the nipple and go out to feed the first eager calf.

This one is my pet. She tipples back and forth on spindly legs, wags her tail like a dog and sucks so hard, she gets her face wet. Melting brown eyes stare up at me as I hold her chin high so the milk goes down easy.

After I sweep the center aisle and feed the barn cats, I get more sawdust from the pile by the road while Fred finishes milking. The sun is fully up and I peel off my sweatshirt. My body has changed over the last two months-arms strong, stomach tight, thighs like steel. I've lost five pounds. This varied daily work of lifting bales, carrying buckets of water, shoveling shit and throwing silage is what my body is meant to do. Being outside and close to the earth is what my spirit craves. How odd, I think as I push the wheelbarrow, that so many of us are forced to sit inside all day and pay to go to the gym to do these same movements.

The milk truck arrives for the last time. Buster Taylor from up the road has been helping in the barn and stays for a minute to chat. I check the poundage he's written on his clipboard and we look at each other. Milk production has been up-a small miracle. Everyone predicted the opposite with so many greenhorns tromping through. I like to think it's the extra attention and the fact that in its two hundred year history, there's never been so much laughter and camaraderie in this old barn.

While the milking system cleans itself with giant sucking sounds, I let the cows out to pasture for the last time. Their metal stanchions are ragtag, rusted and old, some held together with hay bale twine like everything around here. This is a stubbornly old-fashioned hill farm-one of the dwindling few. It's been a hang-on-by-the-fingernails operation, even with milk prices up.

"Couldn't get by without my social security," Fred told me a while back. "Don't know nothin' else though. What would I do?"

What he doesn't say is that there's nothing else he'd rather do. I've seen him riding tall on his old red Massey-Ferguson tedding hay in the summer sun. I've seen the steam rise from the sugarhouse in March and how proud he is of his tasty dark amber brought in the old bucket way. Years ago he worked in the mill, like many around here, but came back to help his father farm. For all the relentless demands, Fred likes the freedom of controlling his own life; he likes hard work and being outside. I suspect he would have liked to farm right up to his last moment on earth.

"Back up, Bossy," I say to each cow, tapping them on the nose as he does. Some amble toward the door; others need urging.

"Git along there!" he shouts, breaking up a three-cow traffic jam.

Once they're all outside, Fred unscrews the bare light bulbs and takes his stick cane from beside the door. The sun is climbing into a warm, cloudless fall day as we walk up to the road. He lifts his chin and waves to someone going by. The man hasn't an enemy on earth, unless maybe you count the bull, who did a nasty little dance on his foot a few months back and ended up in the freezer. He still limps.

We turn to look out over the magnificent valley. He owns from the top of the hill behind the house down to the river across the road and back up the wooded hill beyond. It's a hardscrabble farm, not an inch of it level. The soil is clay and rock, but he has made it work. Once long ago before it got so rundown, a man came to take a picture of it for a postcard. He's proud of that.

"It's like Little Switzerland up here," I say to make conversation.

He laughs to himself at the idea. "Farthest I been is Maryland to visit my brother. Even then I fret about my girls. Might's well not go," he says with a shrug.

Off in the distance, the cows walk single-file out to pasture following well-worn paths on the sides of hills that will soon grow up to juniper and white pine.

At the end of his driveway we stand for a while. I've learned not to mind the silences. Silence is a way of talking for old farmers like Fred, if you can hear it. He stares off and pushes up his false teeth, rough freckled hand resting on his cane.

I look out over piles of old farm equipment, sap buckets, barrels, tires, slab wood for sugaring. "I'm going to miss those girls," I say, then ask just to let him say it, "How about you?"

"'Course I will. Every one of 'em."

"Thought about what you'll do?"

"Don' know. Guess my life work's over."

I'm surprised he said that. He coughs hard. His lungs are gone from hay dust.

"There'll be life after cows, Fred, you'll see."

I'm not at all sure of what I say.

"Someday I'll write a story about you," I tell him. I've been wanting to say that for a while.

He grins his mischievous grin. "Oh you will, will you?"

"Yep. You're going to have to tell me your stories."

He shakes his head and looks at the ground. "Ain't got no stories."

"Well listen, Jimmy and I'll be here in the morning," I say.

He presses his lips together as he watches me walk away toward my house. "Thanks," he calls once I'm down the road.

Back up past the hay fields, I think about stories. The man has a hundred stories. They're all just buried under the guise of everyday life.

I think of black winter mornings pushing blind against driving snow down to the barn to find the water pipes frozen. I think of miles of fence walked over the years and mended, his big hands so tough the electricity hardly shocks him. I think of lost cows rounded up and the cow graveyard I came across while hiking out in the woods, porous bones bleached and scattered. I think of breech calves born at midnight with this man as their midwife. I think of the time getting in wood several years back when the tractor rolled over Fred and only broke five ribs. His daughter kept him captive at her house in town, but not for long. I think of the year the moose came to Fred's far field and took up residence for two months with his heifers. It made the front page of the paper. I think of finding his son pinned between the hay wagon and the tractor.

Nothing romantic, these hill farm stories. It's a hard life by most people's standards, but not half bad. I know that now. I'm thankful for this chance to do farm work and admit I've looked forward to these mornings in the barn.

I look back over my shoulder. Fred still waits at the end of his driveway. My boots and old jeans are covered with sawdust and manure. It's eight-thirty and I smell barn strong. I wave to people driving by on their way to work, proud to be a morning farmer.

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