March 22, 2013
At 2:36 a.m. something that sounded like a demon being slaughtered bellowed in my ear. I sat bolt upright and clawed at the baby monitor on the coffee table to turn the sound down. It didn’t sound any better at a lower decibel. I ran to the mudroom, threw on my outside clothes, and raced to the barn, slipping in mud and nearly falling at the corner. One of the remaining pregnant does was lying on her side, mouth raised toward the roof, howling with pain. I stuffed my hands in all my pockets and found no cell phone. It was back on the counter in the house, charging. I looked down at her backside and saw a giant hoof poking out. No time to go get the phone.
I reached around past the hoof, trying to find the other one. It was there! Having watched so many births over the last few days, even pulling one myself with Elliot’s help, I kind of knew what to do. This kid was stuffed so tight against her, though. I grabbed a towel and dried the hoof and part of the leg so I could get a hold of it. Just then, I felt the doe start to rare back and push the baby, and the second hoof popped out. I wiped it off, and a moment later she was pushing again.
I found myself giving her lots of encouragement, like I would a person. “Come on, Mama Goat, you can do it. Here he comes, just a couple more pushes.”
One more push, and the nose and head with its tongue lolling out. The shoulders squeaked through, and plop, out came the whole kid. He was huge! I cleared the little guy’s mouth and nose and rubbed him all over with rags and pulled him over to his mother, who just stared at him and licked him once on the head. He was flopping around like a drunk seal, but clearly healthy. I was so relieved. Mama Goat snorted at me and commented that she’d rather I didn’t mess with her offspring, so I backed off. She got up and started cleaning him, steam floating up from the kid and his mother’s mouth. Within minutes, he was stumbling around his mother like a last call drunk.
I collapsed onto one of the straw bales and enjoyed the beauty of the moment. Maybe there is something to this parenting thing, after all.
Most of the other births had been twins, so I was prepared for a second delivery to happen soon. Sure enough, Mama Goat lay down and started grunting. This time, though, she wasn’t bellowing like the end of times. After the size of the last one, I was certain the next kid would be a breeze, and she was pushing the thing out like a pro. I just stood by, and moments later, a new kid plopped out on the ground behind her.
She sniffed it, licked its face, and went over to her other kid to start him nursing. I couldn’t see any movement from the new kid, so I knelt down and wiped his face with the cloth. No movement. I pried his mouth open, reached in and cleared it of a ton of goop. Still no movement. His tongue lolled to the side. I started to panic.
If I went to call Sheila or anybody, it would be too late for this one. Elliot said sometimes you have to turn them upside down and spinning them. It sounds brutal, but I was willing to try anything. I grabbed the kid’s back legs and shook it. I turned around, and its head and front legs flailed lifelessly against me. I shifted my arms around the top of its back legs and spun around, hoping anything in its throat might come loose. I spun and spun until I almost fell down. Nothing.
I lay the kid down and tried rubbing it briskly. Nothing was working! I screamed out of frustration and looked around madly for something I could use to help. I begged Mama Goat, “Please fix this one!” But she just stared at me, chewing her cud like nothing tragic was happening. The first kid was bumping into her, desperately looking for a teat. I reached down and cupped the second kid’s nose with my hand and blew into it. He was getting colder. I could tell by the steam subsiding around his body and none issuing from his mouth and nose. I picked him up again and swung him around ‘til I was dizzy. Same result.
This time, I collapsed on the straw bale, slid onto the ground, and burst into tears. Is there anything more terrible than losing a newborn life? I can’t imagine what it could be. Mama Goat seemed okay; she had one baby, and that was enough for her. But I sat there wishing I’d been more prepared, that I’d had my phone and called Elliot or Sheila or anybody even one iota more competent than me. I was sure that if I had, the baby goat would still be alive. This kid dying was my fault.
Through my tears, I saw a water bucket, knocked over and leaning against the barn wall. I half-remembered Elliot saying something about cold water. I jumped up and grabbed the bucket, still about half-full, and poured it onto the baby’s body. His body shrank bag, and his head moved! Then he pulled his tongue into his mouth and made a gurgling noise. I leapt to his side and swept his mouth of the gunk that must have dislodged from his throat. I started vigorously drying him off.
Mama Goat sauntered over and began licking him, her first-born, confused at being cut off from nursing, bleated.
“Sure, now you’re interested,” I told Mama Goat.
Once the kid was toweled off and under its mother’s care, I pulled myself back to my hay stack. I leaned back and breathed in the barn smells and the utter joy of not losing that baby goat. I lay down on my side and stared at the perfect little goat family getting to know each other. I closed my eyes and, out of sheer emotional exhaustion, fell asleep.
March 23, 2013 (continued)
In my dream I hear boots trampling over rocks. I am climbing a hill and the other climbers are above me, just out of sight. I’m sure my dad is with them. I need to catch up. I yell, “Wait for me!” and race to catch up, sliding in the loose rocks.
Who was that? Dad?
“Billie. Uh. You should get in the house.”
I opened my eyes and stared up at Elliot, who was sideways for some reason, lifting his hat up and scratching his moppy red head. Under me, I felt the hard pack of a well-worn pony blanket over a giant straw bale and pushed myself up to join the living. The low-lying sun winked over Elliot’s shoulder.
“Oh, she went last night?” He pointed at Mama Goat. “How’d that go?”
I breathe in a thought to play it cool but ditched the idea immediately. “Huge first one, second one almost died.”
He looked at the second kid, a quarter smaller than its older brother, then back at me. “You done good.”
“I almost gave up. It was terrifying.”
“Almos’ don’t count. These late ‘uns can be the hardest. I lost two last year. Stillbirth and one deformed. A coupla years ago, one from white muscle disease. Things happen.”
“Aw, crap! I haven’t dipped them yet.”
“That’s okay, I’ll get ’em. You get in the house and get warmed up.”
“Okay. I’ll be out in a few minutes to help you.” I stood up, feeling stiff as a board.
“Whenever you’re ready. I’ll be here ’til noon. Pretty sure I can get things caught up.”
I slogged my way into the house and let a hyper and annoyed Frodo outside to do his business before I went inside to do mine. I splashed some water on my face and got ready to go back outside. My head was pounding, so I sat on the couch for a moment, trying to gather my thoughts. Selling this place, not selling this place, leaving Elliot and Jodie, Elliot quitting the farm, dying babies, saved babies, Mom and Dad … and Bill, not going back to school, facing Seattle alone, Mom and her new family. All the concerns that plagued me whirled around in my brain, none settling, none reaching anything resembling a conclusion. And all the while, one phrase kept interrupting them: walk the land.
I filled my water bottle and shuffled out the door, hoping Elliot would understand my bailing on him to just walk around and essentially do nothing. As I stood on the edge of the porch, letting my eyes acclimate to the bright sunlight, now a few more inches above the horizon, the little grey hen, then one I had struggled to corral that one day, hopped across the driveway, intent on the chicken run. Behind her, four fuzzy chicks rushed to catch up.
“So, that’s what she’s been up to.” Elliot peeked around the corner of the house. “She must be ready to eat some real food.”
I marveled at her tiny body. Although she was all fluffed out, I could tell she had lost a bunch of weight. “Is she okay?”
“Yep, she’ll be fine. She’s just been sitting her nest ’til she’s almost starved. But watch her.” He went over to the run and opened the gate, and the birds scooted inside. We crowded the gate and peered at the little family. She went straight to the feeder and began pecking. Her children edged around her to see what the feeder was all about, trying the smaller pieces and huddling close. Soon they fanned out and began nosing around the run. A curious hen sidled up to one of the chicks and pecked at it. Mama Chicken lashed out at her in a bluster of angry squawks, diving at the other hen’s head with her feet and beak. “See, she’ll clobber anybody who comes near those chicks.”
“Hey, I know this is dumb, but shouldn’t there be a whole bunch more chicks? It’s spring now, maybe too early?”
“Well, no, but we take the eggs. And we didn’t set any in the incubator. I figured you had enough on your hands already. And what’s the point? They won’t lay ’til fall, and the place will be somebody else’s by then, most likely.”
“Elliot, I have to tell you, I’ve really been struggling with selling the place.”
“I kinda figured. But I guess you’ll figure it out when you figure it out, right?”
“I don’t know if I can do it. And not to lay anything on you, I’m pretty sure I can’t do it without you. I been here long enough to know I don’t know shit about farming.”
“You can read, right? How do you think your daddy learned? Besides that, he wrote a ton of stuff. You can just read what he wrote, for beginners. And there’s stuff all over the internet. Geez, you got to give yourself a break. Besides, you still got me. I’m just down the road. People do for people here. Look, you don’t owe me a damn thing. I’m just your daddy’s old buddy. Sure, I do stuff around here, but that’s my choice, AND I get some money from it. But I owe you gratitude, not just for your dad and this place but for how you helped me with my mama and all.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t like to talk about stuff, but you were kind to me. I wouldn’t return that by lettin’ you down.”
“I know that. And you didn’t let me down. I just thought you’re going to be at the vet’s, so …”
“So, nothing. Just less time here. I’ll still help you.”
“Oh.” I wanted to hug Elliot at that moment, but neither of us was very comfortable with closeness, before or since his mother died.
He clamped his hand on my shoulder. “Looks like you got more help coming.”
Jodie’s little car turned off the main road and headed down the driveway. She leaned underneath the car’s visor and grinned at me. She had a ball cap shoved tightly down on her head with a pony tail hanging out the back. Why was she always so happy? Elliot waved at her and headed off to the goat barn.
“Here you go.” She handed me a latte from the convenient store. “I don’t go in until one today. What’s up?”
I thought for a second. “I was just about to go for a walk. You wanna come?”
We went through the gate at the hay pasture and quietly picked our way through the uneven, half-frozen earth. With the dew steaming up from the field, the place looked heavenly. We stopped in a flat area and sipped our coffees.
“How are you doing?” Jodie asked softly.
“I’m okay. I had a hard night. We almost lost one of the babies.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
I sighed. “And that’s not all. I know the plan has always been to sell the place, but I’m having second thoughts. I don’t want to go, but I don’t want to wear out my welcome, either.” I sat my coffee on a fence post.
She shoved me gently against my arm. “You can’t wear out your welcome in your own house. Derp.”
“I guess that sounded stupid, but do you know what I mean? Everyone has been great, but what if I can’t take care of this place? I almost killed a baby last night, what if I ruin everything? Besides, I had plans. I would have to just let all that go.”
“Well, it would be hard to take care of the place and go to school. I had to live in Boise my senior year because my family’s farm was too much of a distraction. What is it you want to do, though? It sounds like it’s not a simple decision anymore.”
“Well, no, it’s not. I don’t want to give up my career path, but … I love this place now, okay. I don’t know why, but I don’t want it to go away. I’m no farmer, but I want …” I looked to her for something, I don’t know what. “I want to keep this place the way it is, not turned into a McMansion or to add to some guy’s farm collection. What I really want is to share it with my dad.” My face went ugly to cry, so I grabbed my coffee and started walking again. Jodie followed me.
We reached another flat area just before a stand of trees at the end of the field.
“I’m sorry about your dad. If I could, I would bring him back for you.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not very stable right now. Sometimes I have all but made my mind up one way, and then some animal does something cute or I do something stupid. Liv would like it if I stayed, and I think Elliot would, too. My mom hated farm life, but she has a new family now, and she won’t tell me what she thinks one way or the other. I just want somebody to tell me what to do.”
“Well, that’s the sucky part. You have to decide. I can tell you I wish you would stay. I’ve just barely got to know you, and I think you’re amazing. But that’s selfish, and it wouldn’t be any good if you stayed and felt stuck here. If you’re looking for permission, you’ve always had permission to go, maybe you just haven’t given yourself permission to stay?”
“Maybe you’re right. Do you think I can do this?” I raised my hands to pan out to the entire property.
“With a lot of help, yeah. Yes, you could do this. You’re smart enough, and, you know, your dad had a lot of help here, too. Even a little farm requires a lot of people to do things. People to deliver things, haul away things, repair things, clean up things, plant things, harvest things. There’s no way you could do it all. My dad does a lot, but he still has had to hire somebody every spring and every fall. Even with me helping out. I know the internship means a lot to you, but couldn’t you finish the year and leave in good standing? And you have work here, too, right?”
“So, you could stay current and take some courses online. I mean, if you want to do that.”
“I would be okay with that. I guess I’m just scared to take on so much responsibility.”
“The fact is, you already have the responsibility. It’s just what you want to do with it.”
I sat my coffee down on the ground, planted my feet, and looked her square in the face. “I want to stay. I’m going to stay.”
“Okay.” She smiled. “Then stay.”
“You would miss me if I left.”
“Of course.” She gazed at some bushes in the distance. “Billie, I’ve tried not to get too close to you, since you always said you were leaving, but I really like you. You make me laugh all the time, you’re cute, you’re intelligent, and I wish I had half of your swagger.”
“Swagger?” I snorted, but my heart was racing.
“Well, persistence, maybe. You work so hard. You’ve learned so much in the short time you’ve been here. And you aren’t full of yourself.”
“Are you insane? I am about as incompetent as they get. I can barely breathe half the time. Why have you never said anything.”
“This is the part where you say out loud that you find me adorable.”
“I do. Since the day you showed up here to shovel my driveway.”
“You are a slow learner, aren’t you?”
“Not that slow.” I took her hands, leaned in, and kissed her. Her eyes closed, and her face smoothed and leaned into mine. The bill of her hat tapped my forehead, so I slipped it off and let my hand rest on her shoulder.
“I believe in you.” She kissed me again.
“I’m getting that. It means everything to me. You mean everything to me.”
“I just couldn’t be the only reason you stay.”
“There are so many reasons to stay, but I think you’re the best reason.”
“I mean it, you can’t just stay because of me. We have a lot of things to figure out, a long way to go before …”
“I don’t know, we become ‘we’.”
“Are you out, you know, to your family, at work? No one has ever said anything to me.”
“Some places, yes, others I’m more guarded. It’s complicated. Something we can talk about later.”
“Okay, get this on the books. I am staying first and foremost because I love this goddess-forsaken place and some of the people here, you being one of them. The main one of them.” I wrapped my arms around her. “I would stay even if we were just friends, if that’s what you mean, but I think you were right. I needed to give myself permission. You helped me. And, I hope going forward, whatever happens, there will be a ‘we’.”
I became aware of a crunching sound, something treading on dry leaves.
“Look there.” Jodie pointed to the dead-looking bushes, and I saw a dozen or so turkeys walking through the grass.
“They’re beautiful.” The sun highlighted their feathers, making their pod shaped bodies appear like shiny chrysalises. Their long necks jutted forward, and their legs jerked, pushing their bodies along, too. They maneuvered around the bushes, checking the grass for bugs, each moving independently, yet still obviously tied to its flock.
“Oh, just wait.”
We stood in silence, holding hands and listening to the bird calls. Nothing like the “gobble-gobble” I’ve always heard about. It was almost like a bark “rawk-rawk-rawk, rawk-rawk.” The birds edged our way, gleaning the field for treats. When they were within a couple dozen yards away, Jodie motioned for us to sit down. Instantly, the birds took flight and soared across the field towards the road. We could hear the whap, whap, whap of their wings as they nearly flew over our heads.
We lay back on the cold ground and stared at the bright blue sky for a long moment.
“So, you’re staying?”
I turned and gazed into her eyes. Every worry I’d had for the last two months seemed to fall to the way-side. I was here, lying in a cold hay field in Nowhere, Idaho with a beautiful librarian, watching birds fly across the property – my property – and enjoying this exact moment in time. There were tragic and wonderful events that led me to this place, and the best way to honor my father, my mother, Elliot, Jodie, and all of the people that care about me is to be open and let it all in. I felt Jodie’s fingers intertwined with mine and I rolled over and kissed her again.
“Wild turkeys couldn’t drag me away.”