August's Farm, Part 2 of 5
The other matter that took up August’s time was his barn, which had always been his great pride. Millie would often joke that if she got tired of waiting for August to fix up the house, she’d just move the furniture out to the barn and set up housekeeping there. The foundation was firm, the walls tight, the roof sound. It smelled of tools and fresh hay. It was actually a double barn, with the newer end a metal half cylinder, spacious enough for the large machinery so necessary for working modern farms. August had long ago sold the combine and most of the other equipment. One of his renters used that barn for his own tractors, and August seldom went out there. The other half of the complex—the refurbished, older barn for livestock—remained the focus of August’s time and energy. Its pens and stalls, empty with one exception, were still cleaned regularly. There was always ample hay in the loft, although the only creature in need of it was an aging mule named Harry. August had acquired Harry three years after Millie’s death, from Sam Jonesboro down the way, who’d quit farming and auctioned off everything. Sam couldn’t unload the mule, and he worried about what might happen to it, so August took it off his hands and assured Sam that no harm would come to Harry; he’d have a peaceful, comfortable life and die of old age.
Harry took to August like a puppy, or a spoiled pet goat, following the man wherever he went, sometimes waiting outside a window for August to come outside and start his day. But his old mule legs were getting arthritic, and cold weather bothered him more these days. So August closed off one corner of the barn, creating a sort of indoor corral, and installed a propane heater and some nice big lamps, to take off the chill. That corner faced the back of the house, and even though the barn was a good quarter mile from the house, August could see through the kitchen window and into the small barn window and Harry’s domain. Often August would look across and see Harry looking back at him. They had an understanding; both of them were getting up in years, and they sort of needed each other to help stay alert and not get too lonely.
August had not decorated for Christmas since Millie was alive. Yet one day of this particular December, when he was in the basement looking for light bulbs, a box of Christmas lights teetered off the shelf and landed at his feet. “There they were,” he said later, “right in front of me, one of the strings of lights trailing out of the box.” For some reason, August took the box upstairs. It was December 18, one week before Christmas. He unwound the strings of lights, laying them across the floor and the sofa. He plugged them in, and they worked. He unplugged them and left them there, not knowing what to do with lights. He didn’t have a Christmas tree.
He went outdoors awhile later, to take out the trash, and a light snow had begun, whispering around his head. It had a magical look, the way snow often does, and August stood on the east side of the farmhouse and gazed across the deserted pasture. Already the snowflakes were filling in lines on the tree trunks and making patterns along the ground. He looked in the farther distance, toward the timber, and saw a hawk swooping low, probably to catch a rabbit or field mouse. As he watched the bird glide up into the whirling snowflakes, August’s eyes lit upon a single fir tree, halfway between the house and the pond. Its form was perfect, and August guessed it to be about his own height. Without really making a plan, he went to the barn, got his axe, and walked across the stiff grass of the pasture to the tree. As he chopped at its trunk, he remembered other trees of other years, ones Millie would point out during the week after Thanksgiving. “That one would be perfect, don’t you think?” she’d say. And he knew that what she really meant was that he had his marching orders.
August remembered a lot of things, chopping that tree. He recalled what the weather had been like on specific Christmases, and what Millie looked like in her holiday apron as she mixed up her famous pecan pies. He remembered certain services at the church, and the songs they had sung, and what the night had felt like at the end of the evening when they finished with “Joy to the World” and passed out treat bags to the children and then dispersed to walk to their cars, every one of them stopping to gaze up at the night sky, and some years they could see the stars clearly and other years the rain or snow interfered, and yet at other times the land lay under steel-colored clouds that blocked out all light.
That evening, August put up the tree, not in the living room where Millie used to put it, but in the small, windowless sitting room where August spent most of his time. The area was easy to heat, and he had the television in there. He put the tree in one corner, blocking the doorway to a closet he rarely used, then strung lights upon it. They glittered in the quiet room, with the quieter land rolling away from the house and barn and fences. The colored lights winked at August, and August stared into their glow but deeper in, to his own thoughts. Having a Christmas tree didn’t bother him as much as he’d expected. It did cause his thoughts to turn to Millie, but they were kind thoughts. The lights made the room feel warmer and the air softer. He left them on when he went to bed.
Two days later, August found a cow wandering in the south pasture, near the creek. She was clomping through the snow, which was now nearly a foot deep, and making quite a racket, mooing as if entirely put out with whoever had left her there. August couldn’t tell who she belonged to but walked alongside her and, with some low commands and pats on her rump herded her slowly across the field and into the barn. He put her into Harry’s comfy corner and lavished her with lots of fresh hay. He filled her water trough and patted her side. She was hungry for sure but didn’t appear ill or malnourished. She and Harry regarded each other like two travelers who had landed in the same hotel lobby.
August went back to the house and called the two neighbors who still kept cattle. They weren’t missing a cow. He called the sheriff, who said he’d see what he could find out. In the meantime, August had a cow. He went back out to the barn to see how she was doing. She seemed happy, munching the hay. “You’ve got big ol’ moon eyes,” August told her, and she blinked at him. “I’ll call you Moony. How’s that?” She kept munching.
When he went out to tend Moony and Harry the next day, a pair of doves cooed at him from the nearest rafter. He’d not seen them there before. But they weren’t hurting anything, and he liked the ruffled look of their feathers and the melodic purring of their voices. They reminded him of two old neighbors, Tom Jansen and Ike Tillard, who’d grown up together and farmed adjacent properties. Jan and Till took their coffee and eggs together most days at Brownings, where they’d sit and gossip and joke. Yes, if they’d been doves they would have cooed and bobbed their heads just like these two. “Hey there, Jan & Till.”
He shook his head at this humorous thing—birds named after his neighbors—as he headed out the barn door. He was about to close it behind him when he spied Mooney making her slow, distracted steps toward the old hog pen. She must have walked right past him while he tended Harry and watched those doves.
“Hey there, Moony, what you lookin’ for? All the good stuff’s back in the barn.” He caught up to her, patted her rump, and got her turned around. “No wonder you’ve lost your owner. You might come from some other state entirely.” When he got her back inside, he took down a cowbell that had been hanging from the same hook for about twelve years. He attached it to an old halter and slipped it over Moony’s head. “I’ll just follow the sound.” He stroked her forehead while she flicked an ear and stared at him with her large brown eyes. “Just don’t ever go too far—my hearing’s not as good as it used to be.” He shook his head again and took care to latch the barn door before walking back up to the house. The temperature had dropped. Even without a television forecast, August could tell that rough weather was on its way.
Once in the house, he located the ceramic doves Millie had always placed on the mantle, along with greenery from the fields. August brought in some cedar boughs so the doves would look right. Then he went to town and bought some feed for the cow. Who knew how long he’d have to care for her until the owner showed up?
When he took the feed to the barn later, he heard a snuffling sound from one corner. When he got close enough to check it out, the sound turned into a whine, and he saw a skinny German Shepherd barely visible in the shadows. He called it softly, and it came out, looking frightened but hopeful, the way dogs tend to look. The shepherd let August touch its head, and it sat down and raised a paw as if to shake the man’s hand.
“Well,” said August, “you’ve belonged to somebody, sometime.” He looked at the boney haunches. “But that’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Come on, Sonny.” Sonny followed him to the house, and when August held open the door, Sonny walked right in. August made them hamburgers and fried potatoes for supper. He didn’t bother calling around about who might be Sonny’s owner—whoever it was hadn’t done right by the creature.
August’s spirits were so lifted by having Sonny for company that he went to the basement and found more of Millie’s Christmas decorations. He put on the radio that evening and found some holiday music while he decorated the tree and set candles around the room. He found a nativity scene made of cloth and cornhusks and placed it on the coffee table, while Sonny watched from a spot near the gas heater.