I climb the narrow staircase to the mow of my father’s barn, the wooden steps worn smooth by man. Thin, winter sunlight streams, like shards of glass through the cracks between the wallboards. My aged parents are away. My purpose here is to feed the cats, the only welcomed creatures of this barn. There are other unseen inhabitants: the mice, the racoons, and the rats that warrant the need for the cats and the .22 rifle hanging high on pegs at the bottom of the staircase—beyond the reach of children and the view of most.
This barn is very old—the hand-hewn logs of the rafters attest to this. Unlike those of today, this barn was built to last through the years, decades, generations, perhaps even centuries. And now it sits lifeless, unused, and silent.
It is cold and yet I stand here, as silent and still as the barn itself, lingering. I see the dust-covered, spider-webbed stacks of musty bales of straw and hay, the empty granary, and the wooden ladders which run against the upright timbers high into the peaks. I stroll over to the granary and look, as if for the first time, at the rusty antique relics leaning against the wall: the crosscut saw, the scythes, and the large grapple hook. Gazing high into the peak of the barn roof are the remains of the pulley and ropes once used with that grapple hook.
And I am once again filled with a bone-deep sadness, an overwhelming sorrow, and a sense of loss for an era gone by—an era I never knew. From the time I was a child, I have often felt as if I were merely a visitor in this time, never fully belonging, never quite fitting in, always attempting to create and cling to a past I can’t quite remember—at least not while awake.
Deep in sleep, I have dreamt of other times, other lives. Times where I can see, hear, feel, and experience things as they may have been or perhaps were. Many of my dreams are reoccurring, sometimes slightly different, but mostly within a similar time period. I anticipate bedtime; I yearn to recreate another past life for myself.
In my most frequent dream I am walking across a peaceful meadow following a wagon trail. It’s evening, the sun low in the azure sky. The air is cooling and I draw my shawl around my shoulders. I glance down at my feet. The toes of my brown leather boots peek out from under my coarse skirt, the hem soiled as it sweeps the dirt. I follow the lane as it bends around a large whitewood tree, its fallen leaves lie thick on the ground. My senses are immersed with the dry, bitter scents of autumn as the leaves rustle and crush beneath my boots. Ahead lies a beautiful stand of mixed timber and, as I approach, I notice the trail divides. The bend to the right leads into the forest—it appears cold and dark, the trees casting long shadows. The bend to the left skirts around its west perimeter—it’s warm and inviting with a view of the autumnal setting sun. I stand there a moment, considering, before choosing the right. It’s always the same—I’m forever drawn to the forest. I have no fear; I know it’s not dark, nor cold under the canopy. I walk on toward home.
In another, my favourite dream, I’m in a horse-drawn wagon, travelling deliciously, recklessly fast down a hill, the narrow dirt road lined on both sides by tall maples and oaks. I’m laughing, one hand clutching my bonnet, the other holding tightly to the side of the wagon. My bottom, under the thick layers of petticoats and skirt, bounces sharply on the hard wooden seat. Through the thick foliage I glimpse another bend in the road and beyond that a familiar trestle bridge. I side-eye the driver. His hat is drawn low on his brow, shielding his eyes, his head turned slightly away from me. Although I cannot see his face, I am aware that I know and love him. His large calloused hands pull back on the reins and the chestnut horse slows her pace to a gentle trot. Her hooves clomp on the wooden floorboards as we cross the bridge, the sound of hooves and wheels echoing off the water. I gaze down into the sluggish, murky river.
And once, thankfully only once, I dreamt of the future—a dream so vivid my husband was awakened by my choking sobs—a dream too sad to recall, and one that lingered in my soul for far too long.
I’m lost in memories and daydreams. “Come back,” he pleads. And as my focus returns to him, to us, our reality, the here and now, I offer him a weak smile and reply, “Ah, but do I have to? It’s so much nicer on the other side.”
So, in the mow of the barn, I close my eyes and imagine, or could it be that I am remembering what it was like years ago?
I’m very young, perhaps eleven or twelve years old. I have orders to toss down a dozen bales of straw. My father and brother are below, feeding the fifty head of beef cattle we fatten each winter. In the mow, the strong north wind shrieks, rattling the wallboards. Snowflakes as fine as powdered sugar sift through the cracks, forming parallel ribbon-like drifts on the straw-covered floor. I hear muffled voices from below: father barking instructions, brother replying, an anxious heifer bawling as she wedges in amongst the others, fighting for her customary eating spot. The pungent odours of silage and cattle manure waft up the narrow staircase, mingling with the sweet fragrance of the hay.
I love this mow. The upper floor is divided into three sections by three-foot high walls. The east side is filled with moss-green hay, the west with golden straw. The centre section is partly comprised of a large wooden granary, heaped with oats. Father’s voice calls, “Hey, Peanut, where’s that straw?” I scamper to the west side of the barn and open one of the trap doors in the dividing wall. “It’s coming. Sorry… I got distracted for a minute.”
“Daydreaming again?” He raises his face to me and winks.
I scoot over the partition. I struggle with the weight of the bales as I heave them over the short wooden wall. “Look out below!” I yell as I shove the first bale through the trap door. One after another I push them through while my father and brother slice the twine with their pocketknives, yank them off the bales and hang them over a nail on a supporting post. I sit cross-legged on the threshold of the trap door, enjoying the warm, moist air rising from below. I watch as my father and brother deftly stab their three-pronged pitchforks into the bales and shake the straw loose behind the fat heifers’ rumps. The cattle chew contentedly on the mounds of sweet hay in the manger. The air fills with fine straw dust, my nose prickles and I sneeze.
I rise to my knees, push the trapdoor closed, and turn the little wooden latch.
The calico cat mews impatiently as it winds itself in a figure eight through my blue-jeaned legs. My hands are cold, holding the old pie tin of dry kibble and table scraps. I set it down on the dirty straw-covered floor. ‘Kitty’, the nameless cat pounces on the tin, eagerly devouring the food. She purrs loudly and calls to her feral kittens, but I know they’ll stay hidden until after I leave.
Time has passed. I gaze around the mow. The shards of sunlight have dissolved with dusk. I stroll to the west wall and peep through my favourite knothole in the weathered barnboard. The winter sun has set on the horizon. Its final rays tinge the snow clouds an ethereal golden pink. And as I tread down the worn wooden steps, the barn returns to its silent sleep.
Dawn Beecroft Teetzel, author of Paradise Acres is a retired farmer and shepherd, a spinner of tales and wool. Her short works have been published in several magazines and anthologies. She is currently working on her second novel, My Mary. Born in the wrong century, she is a lover of all things past, all things in nature, and old, musty books. Find her at https://dawnbeecroftteetzel.ca.