Country Life: a lyrical non-fiction essay

As a child in a furrowed field of yellow grass, in an out of breath hurry, I ran past, what was in yesteryear gone by a home, now three walls of crumbling stone, and one wall a bank of burnt wood and grass, red bricks tumbled and broken glass.

I ran four miles to see my friend, to play and dream in the summer’s end. In the muddy fields that the farmer plowed, I lost my shoe, and my sock somehow. I found my shoe but my sock stayed stuck somewhere deep in the earthy muck. I cried to think of my mother’s glance when I came home with a one sock stance, but I ran on to tell my friend of the stray dog I had encountered then, and how I had followed it to the knoll where the shrubs and bushes hid the hole that I knew was meant for us to be the foundation of friendship, a secret country. The hidden walls were to be our fortress, she and I, both Queen and Princess. We were sovereign, to care for shrubs and flowers, the subjects there.

Then the butterfly came like a fairy’s wing to bless our kingdom… then the insect sting, or was it the panic run up the castle wall that caused my friend to slip and fall, or the loose earth, burnt wood and yellowed grass, the crumbling stone, tumbled brick or broken glass, that hurt her leg and made her hurry home, leaving me there to dream alone, and her mother said not to go back again. Good bye Careforsythia and then; the summers end.

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There are no apple trees on our little acre but Mumma needs apples red and gold. She’s gonna make, jams, and jellies, and crumble like Quaker’s, apple butter, and apple pie when winter is cold. She’ll need apples to fill the freezer for when we’re craving that sort of thing. I like apples and I want to please her.

“Go find a wild apple tree” Mumma says to me, “One that’s got no claim, or no one to care. I saw one two miles up – apples falling on the ground. It’s a sin when you’re hungry to let them pile there higher than even the wild can eat down.”

So I’ll go and get the basket as big as I am tall, and strap it to my back.

Mumma says “fill it high as much as you can carry, till over the top they fall.” I find what I’m seeking, every apple not half eaten. Bruises cook away, no matter how hard they land. To reach the good fruit I climb as best I can while beaten’ and shaken the limbs with a branch in hand. The fruit is wild and sour, even the ripest prize, good for baking, freezing, and rhubarb apple pies. I’ll pick until I can hardly lift the basket to my back, and hurry home to hear my Mumma’s praise.

“Aren’t there any better? Too many of these are bruised and black. With sorting and cutting this won’t last the winter days. Find another tree to pick apples that are sweet.” So off I went a mile or more, and I found what I was looking for just as it started to pour. Now me with wet feet, but I’m a good child. I can’t disappoint, so I started picking, sweeter than the others wild.

Then I heard from a house across the field a shout “What are you doing there?” An elder lady was questioning my yield. If the tree was hers, or if she didn’t care, I didn’t think to ask. My face turned ripe and apologies fell out as she chided me in my task.

After lengthy talk of thievery, manners, and disrespect of youth, “Take what you have and be on your way!” she said without a smile.

Off I went saying “Thank you, thank you” her back turned all the while. However, my basket being not as much as I could carry, not yet piled high, I found a few lesser trees and hurried home, my back aching. Hoping my mother would be proud although I wanted to run home and cry. Mumma was busy cutting, sorting, peeling, freezing, and baking. I didn’t mean, the elder ladie’s apples to be taking, but there is too much to be done, no time for tears or praise.

Mumma says “Better known for next time, now to sorting and peeling.” All that’s left are the memories of apple picking days.

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I searched all summer long for not house, but home. I knew what I wanted. I wrote a list. All the things from childhood that I dreamed of having or that I had and I missed.

  1. A place for animals.
  2. A horse someday.
  3. Chickens
  4. Ducks
  5. Maybe geese.
  6. A goat for milk.
  7. Maybe a donkey.
  8. Fruit trees.
  9. Berries
  10. Gardens of flowers and herbs, and vegetables, to can and freeze.
  11. A home in land to walk out of doors for hours.
  12. With a yard to sleep under the stars.
  13. A home in house of comfort and character.
  14. With at least three bedrooms so no one must share.
  15. A den to be office and library, to write and play music, to sculpt and paint.
  16. A room to gather
  17. One to spare.
  18. Oil to heat the cold.
  19. A wood stove to warm the cool.
  20. If I could afford to dream, a fire place for fancy.
  21. A home in community
  22. A small or private school.
  23. One fitting for the feeling of country with neighbors not to close and not too far away, to walk the mile house to house in day, and at night a drive into the city to shop and play.

This I thought I found, the old farm, and a price I could afford. Praise the Lord! One hundred years and maybe twenty five more, but good for the wear. With little over one hundred thousand to spend, I had twenty five thousand to spare.

Now I won’t have to go the store ‘Cause it has fruit trees, three apple, and berries, razz and blue, and if I could haul in some loam I’ll have a veggie garden too. It has lilies and rhubarb, St. Johns, and lilacs, milkweed and more.

With three bedrooms upstairs and a full bathroom as well, and another downstairs with two more rooms to spare, a den and one for gathering, why would they sell? Oil to heat and wood to burn when the weather is chill, and not one but three fire places, and an Elle; whose structure is solid. It could be of some use, if I spent some money, and I have extra to spend. It has a barn and a building out back and one in between and one on the side and one built-on, on the end, with running springs, and acres of land to walk.

It has a country store with the city near and a school still small, and neighbors that are far enough away to have to call, and near enough to talk. Out of breath, the best house yet, someone made an offer, I’ll buy! Three showings just today, on the market just one week, a present for me, I’ll close on my birthday; the end of July.

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So much is a man to challenge fate, to set a fire just to watch it burn, to feed the flame, an enemy, create, to fight a battle, a war for him alone.

No one will notice or think to say, or show gratitude for the labor done to provide fire to cook and comfort each day, and heat the night when day is done.

A reward for himself for all the trees felled, split and piled to age, providing for winters warmth, the yield, and now the field out back, a stage, to gather the brush and pile it higher, even more than one should, to light a fire, fight the fire, feel the burn, control the wild, to see the flame hot and glowing, dancing yellow, orange, black, feeding, breathing, breeding, growing. Hades cannot turn him back.

It is his reward to know neighbors across the way contemplate his level of negligence that fills the sky with sparks. As night becomes day, neighbors envy his arrogance, to see his children dancing about, unwilling to come to supper.

His lady carries the water bucket out to bring her own fear comfort. As if preparedness could put out this fire that sparks would not stray to take the barn, the house in ire; if the field is not far enough away. He does not care to notice, with shovel in hand. Only he can win this self-inflicted war. The fire’s passions to destroy only he can understand as his children laugh and remember his reward.

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I worked all summer long to make a house a home. I knew what I needed, I wrote a list, a place for people, safe and warm, and all the repairs that I shouldn’t have missed; one hundred years and maybe twenty five more. I shouldn’t have missed.

Most every door is ajar with a buckle or swell. No wonder they kept every one wide open as a yawn. I’ve found a crack in nearly every window that I could tell. No wonder why the blinds and curtains were drawn. The old care taker had the antique man come in and stole all the old furnishings. Even the brass cover plates are taken. Not worth the complaint I’ll replace and buy used. The electrician wants to rewire more than one outlet per room, and raise them up off the floors.  Being safe as they are I’ll make due, and shave a little off the bottoms of the doors, and I’ll cut some old glass to make the windows like new… Next the water can’t run pressure upstairs. The well was said to be recently dug, and its pump as having no wear, but the plumbers say all the pipes need repairs. I should’ve known there would be things worth hiding.

They boasted of the new roof, wiring, and new siding. However, the furnace can be dated fifty years or more.  What is that smell of smoke and soil, the care taker that lived here did not know to keep house. A summer month of heat took two hundred in oil. So many holes and crevices I’m sure I saw a mouse.

The day I moved in the drunken caretaker slurred while moving out “Close down the upstairs when winter falls, the downs only fit to stay warm.” So bold! We looked, no doubt, not a stitch of warmth inside the second floor walls, and not a blanket to keep the attic from cold. The roof is sagging, the part that’s not new, and who would put plastic siding on a barn ‘cause now that it’s mine off it blew. I spent what I had on what I had to fix, and with some help from the Lord. If I had the money I had before I could fix all that I wasn’t told. Since now I have no more I’ll make due what I can’t afford.

The first summer there, the warm summer air hit 101; and that was in the shade not in the sun. So we put the tarp in the bed of the truck and filled it up for some cool summer fun. Then the fleas came into the farm house, and hid in the cracks of the pumpkin pine floors. We dusted and sprayed. We itched and we prayed, and considered moving outdoors. We didn’t though ‘cause outside we had ants, swarms all over the sand, and black flies and mosquitoes that darkened the air and evaded every hand. Then the hired hand of the blueberry man took the bee hives away midday. To beat the swarm, and save from harm we could not stay that day. At night time the skunks came about, and the bobcat too. So no sleeping out under the stars; our discontentment grew.

When the cold came it was colder than hot. I kept water boiling on the range. We sealed the side doors with foam on the spot. and it formed yellow mounds round the frame. The school that was small taught nothing at all, and tried to say my son was slow. Well I had him tested, and then they were bested ‘cause he came back above average; in the know! My daughter ran track but they tried to hold her back because her grades were too high, and she was too fast, the principal’s daughter was the favored; as the long standing neighbor, so I knew my young girl couldn’t last. Finally another summer came with too little rain, and the neighbor burned my fields by mistake. The apples were sour and small and even the raspberries by nature were ate. We were starting to be the subjects of pity. The country store shut down for lack of business in the town and we couldn’t afford to play in the city.

Our time on the farm lasted two summers; that’s all, and we decided to sell the farm before the next fall. We had bought chickens and ducks, and kept them alive with some luck, and were even given a goose. We bought two hares at the county fair, and caught the pet rabbit someone had set loose. The stray cat my son claimed became mother to three, and each became a mother till we were able to spay them. The chickens gave eggs, and we ate more than our fill but the ducks wouldn’t lay them. The goose chased my son, and the rosters chased us all, and we hadn’t the heart to kill any come fall, so away we gave them.

The farm; chickens and ducks, a goose and some hares; and we almost bought a horse. I would have called it nightmare. Now we were fixing to leave. Since we were not here long enough for the neighbors to care no one in the community would grieve. With all the work done we came so close to a dream, but that’s what dreaming is all about. Maybe somewhere else the grass will be green, but for now we just want out.

 

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