Back of the Barn

At the time my father was living in a barn. Granted, it was a nice barn, squat and rectangular, red with a gambrel roof, and to be perfectly honest he lived in an annex off the barn’s tail end. A cozy room, heated in the winter by an iron stove, it had a couch, a desk, a few makeshift bookshelves, even a small television set that he rarely watched. He slept there alone; I don’t know how he spent his mornings.

I tended to define my father’s relationship to the barn in terms of prohibitions: This was the barn, for example, from which he ran the vineyard that he didn’t own, which produced the subpar grapes that we couldn’t eat, which were turned into a subpar wine we couldn’t drink (and of which, today, there is not a single extant bottle). But more importantly, this was the barn where he’d lived since our parents had separated. (The divorce would come later, after he’d started renting a home on the other side of town.) No big drama, this separation. I would have been eight or so at the time, too young, in a general sense, to understand the vicissitudes of marriage, the mechanism of divorce, and too young again, in our particular case, to have ever witnessed a genuine motion of love between my parents.

My brother, Grady, and I—he would have been eleven or so—spent a lot of our time at the barn. He, responsibly, helped our father with various chores (weeding, lugging, pruning), while I fiddled about errantly, spray-painting rocks or hammering together discarded pieces of wood. I had free rein of the premises, a bountiful prospect, considering that in addition to the vineyard my father also ran a peony field. There was an industrial cooler inside the barn where we kept the freshly severed flowers in five-gallon buckets of water. I’d sometimes ask my father to lock me inside it; I would pummel the inside of the door, half-laughing, half-crying to be let out, and he, playing along, would refuse. I would settle back in faux resignation, allowing the chemically cooled air to envelop me like a wintry cocoon. Alone in the dark, I sensed in my chest a new, dull, nagging sensation, which I couldn’t have known, at the time, was dread.

To satisfy a different taste—it was a business, after all— we also dried the peonies. The entirety of the barn’s attic was devoted to this occupation; a constellation of muted blooms hung from their stems on a haphazard scheme of wires, string, and clothespins. The air up in the attic was dense, dusty, soporific. I can remember inhaling deeply, experimentally, and feeling the concoction settle in my lungs like warm syrup. When I got tired, too strongly steeped in the smell, as I considered it then, of antiquity, I would retreat to the cooler, to the coolness and damp below.

Looking back, I can see that it was around this time—post-separation—that my father started allowing us to flirt more and more openly with danger. He bought my brother a BB gun, whose pellets we loosed at pigeons and the barn’s shingled roof. For me he bought a small sword at a psychic fair. I wasn’t allowed to tell my mother about it. Likewise he allowed a senile neighbor to gift me a rusty machete with a whalebone handle that had, by the effusive geezer’s account, seen action in the Mexican-American War. I sanded the handle down to get some of its old glow back, and together my father and I sharpened the blade with a portable Dremel tool. I held one weapon in each hand and massacred the bushes in my father’s backyard.

One Christmas, he bought my brother and I bows and arrows, neat, springy, lacquered things with bungee strings and real—very real—metal-tipped arrows. We became warriors, little Robin Hoods bounding about and crouching and loosing our deadly darts at trees and bushes, fences and the small animals we occasionally glimpsed: rabbits, mostly, nervous puffballs that lanced spectrally away while our arrows struck nearby earth.

After a while, one week or two, we got bored. We started playing a daredevil game in which we fired arrows straight into the sky, so high that they disappeared against the gray, ghostly welkin. Then we ran about in wide circles with our eyes upflung, trying not to get impaled by the rapidly descending shafts. As we played with the bows we could sense their power weakening, the strings thrumming flabbily and failing to send the arrows any interesting distance at any interesting speed—for two weeks we had forgotten to unstring the bows, and now the wood was slack, recoilless, the string little more than a faintly elastic yard of cloth. A ruined gift.

***

One morning, our father drove us—that is, Grady and I—to the Rural King (a farm supply store) on North Saint Joseph Avenue. He’d often take us along with him on these periodic trips, business excursions, as it were, to gather bags of mulch or spare hoes or other farming supplies. While he wandered about, Grady and I would hurry to the store’s rear, where they kept the chicks and ducklings in corrugated steel tubs bestrewn with woodchips.

Somehow, I think by dint of continual begging, we’d convinced our father to buy us ducks. Giddily, our fingers folded over a tub’s rim, we pointed out the ducks we wanted, and our father directed a bored-looking, lank-haired teenage attendant.

Granted, the precise mechanism of extraction lies outside the purview of my memory, as does the series of actions that took us from the back of the Rural King to the cash register and out, in the parking lot, to our father’s truck. Regardless, I know for a fact that we left the store with six snowy-white ducklings contained in a cardboard box.

A small wonder, that box. Like a dollhouse come to life. There were half-moon holes in its sides through which the sour smell of duck shit wafted and the truncated piccolo of their quacks came to us, fleetingly, along with occasional flashes of pale yellow (a wing), toxic orange (a foot), and blister black (an eye). Phantasmal, these bursts of phenomena. I recall, even then, being under the dreamy impression that the box contained not six live ducklings but an obscure system of wires, tubes, and gears, capable of producing and then relaying these discrete images to my brother and I—like a television, or something more complex still.

Grady held the box on his lap as I plumbed its apertures with fear-hyped fingertips, my pulse stirred to drum-taps by a mixture of anxiety and hope. Beside this minor drama, our father sat driving the truck. His palms were pressed to the pleather of the wheel; he stared ahead at the inrushing pavement; he might have been mildly, comfortably proud of himself. Outside, the sky was grey, the landscape winter-ridden and muted to the point of non-existence—or at least that’s how I remember it: an extended tracking shot of frost-plated cornfields cut with telephone poles, unbearing trees, and uniform homes (low-gabled, white, with aluminum siding). If I tease my memory, the houses sprout chimneys; a cozy smoke chuckles forth, billowing out and bleeding into the sky.

In reality, though, it was springtime—funny the falsehoods that memory supplies. How to describe a Midwestern spring? To be short about it: abundant, terrible, suffocating. A classical scene of renascence, like a pastoral torn from its frame: sweet fields spangled with itinerant beasts, lowing and leaning and loafing, all of them dumbly expectant. The trees become swampy and depressed, over-burdened with foliage and invasive vines thick and corkscrewy as hawsers; smooth wire fences are bent to absurd angles by the crushing weight of waves of honeysuckle; a whole host of hidden insects scores a grand, ear-numbing, dimensionless buzz that radiates along the sinusoidal countryside like an electric knell for the magnificence of the decay to come. High flourishing now, sweet colors, the frilly bunting of rebirth. Only later the fall, decadent, into decay.

We drove to the barn. It had a small backyard enclosed by a black wooden fence. Beyond this fence spread an unworked field full of high grass that swished and fluted drily in the summer winds. It ended in a murky line of trees. In the corner of the fence, we built a chicken wire pale and placed the ducks inside: a temporary structure, slack-sided, held in place by a few slivers of pinewood traced through the wire’s latticework and driven, by a rubber mallet clumsily wielded, into the rich black ground.

That first day was a joy. We named the ducks, chased them about, held them aloft as their spatulate feet flapped wildly. They scuttled here and there, trailing one another about the yard in wide, sinuous arcs, spreading and testing the bright half- moons of their inchoate wings. They quacked without cease—brief, dry, firecracker pops—their beaks seesawing steadily in loosing these bursts, as though crank-turned, wholly mechanical. To me they seemed delicate, clockwork automatons sheathed in fine feather coats.

And while we watched the ducks, our father watched us, the sidelong rays of dying daylight tilting the cast of his ruddy complexion into something more closely resembling bronze. As a consequence of working outdoors nearly all his life, my father had, and still has, very red skin, sun-warped and interlarded with elegant webs of burst vasculature, like the pattern a drop of ink makes as it spreads through the crazed enamel of an ancient vase. Back then he wore coke bottle glasses with faux tortoise-shell frames. He was fifty years old, somewhat thin and tired-looking. He usually smelled, pleasantly, of sweat shed in the open air.

Beyond these details, most of my memories of him revolve around a general impression of senescence, of age overworked. I can’t say exactly where he was as we played with the ducks, how precisely he fit into the scene—in my memories he is mostly a presence: a disembodied voice, for instance—but it seems appropriate, in retrospect, to place him in a folding lawn chair, a beer in his hand (Foster’s) and, as I said before, the dying sun in his eyes. Watching his kids and adjusting his posture. Happy they were happy.

***

A few days after we purchased them, the ducks began to disappear—though ‘disappear’ isn’t really the right word. They left their mementoes: a severed wing, a tuft of bloodied feathers. We saw drops of blood pendent in the grass: rubies spilled by a harried thief.

Some creature, our father told us soberly, was creeping in from the adjacent field, at night, while we, and he, slept. Subtly parting the tall grass, it leapt the wooden fence and took its pick of the frightened ducklings. In the morning, we’d find the remaining ducks scattered about the backyard, huddled and hiding in various nooks and corners, their necks curled and bent fantastically, preposterously, so that their heads rested under their wings. The beast, whatever it was, coyote or fox or wild dog, had disassembled the chicken wire pale, carelessly compressing its walls, uprooting the pinewood stakes. We fixed it, straightened out the skein of wire, and placed the ducks back inside.

I don’t recall any speeches from my father, any half-hearted explications of the circle of life or food chains or any other anodyne ramblings. I do remember that he began to set traps, black wire rectangles with a trip inside, baited with uncooked hotdogs. Hipped on retribution, I recommended that he stay up all night on the barn’s roof with my brother’s BB gun, waiting for the beast to show up. A recommendation he didn’t take.

So things went, the ducks plucked in the night, one by one, until they were gone. My father continued to set his traps. I remember thinking they were dumb, dumb, dumb; he’d never catch anything that way. But I don’t think I told him this.

One day, in the midst of the killings, I climbed up to the attic, hoping, maybe, to gauge the potential efficacy of my BB gun plan. The big loading window was open, and its double doors, angled at the top like those of a chapel, were swung wide to accommodate the breeze: a dry, pure zephyr. Periodically, someone—most likely my father—would open these doors, hasp them into place, and allow the attic to ventilate over the course of a day, allow the stale, baked air to escape. The peonies, as I ducked beneath them, rattled drily on their clotheslines, like bones: a vast, morbid set of wind chimes.

I reached the window and gazed out for a long time at the field of high grass, undulant—waves in the crinkled summer light. The field gave out a grand sigh, disconnected in its intensity from the subtlety of the field’s movement. As if there were an ocean, broad and unarticulated, hidden just out of sight. Natural ventriloquy, I think now, but not then. Then all I could feel was a terrible foreboding, a fear of hidden venom. Somewhere in the thicket’s weave, I knew, our oppressor lurked, biding, poised. Where or what it was we couldn’t know, we would never know, and it struck me, forcefully, as an aspect of fate, that we wouldn’t know. So much so that I felt myself becoming resigned to the mystery.

Then my father caught something.

***

It’s strange to think what dimly stays with you, what reveals itself willingly, at the touch of thought, in all its banal detail. I think of my father’s barn, mapped onto my brain by near-constant traversing and exploration. Strange, too, to find what fades—beyond a few scenes of play and a handful of vivid images, I don’t really remember too much about our ducks. And yet it’s strangest to consider what remains most clear, colorful, and precise, what plays back ceaselessly, like a loop of film.

For instance, I have a distinct memory of my brother and I watching our father drown a raccoon.

The raccoon, a sleek, pursy thing, moon-eyed with fear, is locked in a cage that lies in the bottom of a disused concrete trough. A hose hangs over the trough’s lip. Sharply I spy on the hose’s head an inverted cupola of water, a bright droplet, dangling like snot. Slick and lethal. I watch it drip.

For sound, there is the mad snarling and clacking of raccoon-teeth on cage-wire. For motion, the neutered acrobatics of attempted escape. A punch of red tongue adds color; a gurgly, slaverous, small-dog growl undergirds the soundscape. My eyes, transfixed, refuse to leave this desperation. Somewhere, our father turns a faucet. I hear a dry creak. The hose tenses, hisses, and begins to pump the trough full of water.

The raccoon erupts, turning eel-like in the spreading water, its coat dense and opulent. Soon half the cage is submerged. A black snout pokes periscopically through the cage’s upper lattice-work, searching for air, but no such luck. Up, up, up the water goes, until the cage is completely flooded, and the raccoon disappears beneath a braided surface. There are small agitations in the watery glass, bubbles of air and wavelets, the only signs of submerged struggle. Eventually, all settles. My father turns off the faucet, and the memory ends.

I recently asked my brother about this memory. I was curious about certain details, and half-hoping, at the same time, to revel fondly, like a nostalgic lush, in the absurd antics of our childhood. He recalled the ducks, their various demises. He remembered the black wire traps. He even remembered being shown a raccoon in the bottom of the concrete trough. But the actual drowning, he insisted, was done out of sight. My father, with a bit of prodding, confirmed this version of events.

As sharp as the scene and its details are in my head, I have to admit they’re a complete fabrication. I can’t say exactly when this false memory first took root in my mind, or why it did, or what legitimate memories it might have shoved carelessly into oblivion in the process. All I can say is that, until very recently—until a few months ago, in fact—I had borne this confabulation around, cradling it like a relic, relating it to friends, turning it about in my mind. And not once had I questioned its veracity.

Strangely enough, when I felt the dislodged scene begin to fade from my mind, I didn’t experience the dim, dull, toothy ache of extraction you might expect, nor the clean sting of excision. Instead there was a certain ecstatic liberty about the disappearance—as when a weight or pressure applied to the skin is suddenly lifted and the hitherto depressed flesh bounces back, filling its natural bounds, and then, for just one moment, attempts to move beyond the corporeal, into unarticulated space.

***

One more memory, this one real: We’re zooming through the darkling vineyard in my father’s truck. He; me; Grady. It’s a Sunday night, probably. The windows are rolled down. Outside, the foreign smell of grapes dangles over everything like a lazy stitch in the atmosphere.

In the cab of the truck, my face lit only by the dim fluorescence of the dashboard clock, I feel incredibly small.

We’re driving to the fallow field that lies behind our father’s vineyard, hoping to startle and disperse the deer that congregate there in the night, sometimes inspiring one another, by sheer confidence of numbers, I suppose, to dart into the vineyard and nibble at our grapes.

We don’t do this all the time. It’s a treat. We’ve usually got to beg him, and he’ll say no, no, there’s really no point tonight as we’re driving along, and we’ll crumple into ourselves, portraits of disappointment, until he turns sharply at the last moment, a surprise, and we revive.

We reach the fallow field. My father turns his headlights on high to catch the deer’s eyes, which bloom madly in the outer dark like a constellation of diseased stars. He chooses one with our help, and we buck off in pursuit. We come closer and closer to the singled-out deer, following its balletic dives and jukes with a bloodhound’s determination, closing in so tightly that I can imagine the dashboard and windshield disappearing before the galloping hind-quarters, the intervening material dropping away like so much illusion.

It’s then, at the climactic moment, that my father presses his foot to the brake pedal, the truck’s cabin dips forward abruptly, tipping my unseatbuckled self forward, and the deer makes its getaway, prancing through the waist-high bunches of Johnson grass until it’s reached the edge of the headlights’ range, at which point it disappears, without even a backward glance.

I gasp and turn to my father, who is dimly feigning distress, turning and twisting his hands in the dark, as if to signal something like, I guess it got away.