The barn was warm and filled with the gentle sounds of the animals awakening. This was the time of the day Jonathan loved best. It was a peaceful time. A quiet time. A time when the animals he knew and loved and trusted greeted him. The plow horses nickered their hellos from their stalls. Jonathan rubbed their velvet muzzles and pulled a couple of sugar cubes from his pocket. He held his hand flat and waited for each horse to take a cube before moving on to the cows. They nagged at him, mooing intently, reminding them that their bags were full. The cats rubbed up against his ankles, eager not to see Jonathan, but for the milk that they knew was forthcoming. Howard was there, already lifting the basket of eggs to the counter. Jonathan smiled. Of all the animals, Jonathan found he could never warm up to the chickens. He couldn’t stand their wild eyes and their cockscombs flopping about; the way they all ganged up on the weak ones. The way they high-stepped on those dinosaur legs and then sat upon the shells of their own offspring and cracked them. “Those hens like that wind, Howard?”
Howard grinned and shook his head: No. Years ago, Howard Heacock would talk the leg off of a chair. He was always going on about stars and planets and the galaxy, things Jonathan didn’t understand. Jonathan’s work was here, in the small, close world of the farm. He understood the farm; understood when to plow and start the crops. He understood how to gather eggs and milk the cows. He knew the perfect time to pick apples and peaches.
Jonathan didn’t understand out there; didn’t understand why people had to look outside to find what they needed; didn’t understand why the Howards of this world had to look elsewhere for their satisfaction. God planted you where he planted you for a reason, Jonathan believed. And an apple tree sure as sure can’t survive in Manhattan.
But eighteen years ago, Howard had stopped talking about the stars. Eighteen years ago, Howard had stopped talking altogether. And one morning, shortly after he’d sealed his mouth shut, Jonathan found him gathering eggs in the henhouse; tears streaming down his cheeks. Jonathan hadn’t questioned him then: Everyone’s lives had been turned upside down and you were as likely to find Howard in the henhouse as you were to see Andee Miller break out in tears at her cash register.
“Annie’s working on breakfast. Why don’t you start the milking while I clean these eggs?”
Howard nodded and turned to the cows.
That first day, Howard had followed Jonathan around the farm like a stray pup. Of course he and Annie let him stay on, paying him as much as they could scrape together. And in time, Howard learned to farm. In time, Howard became a valued member of the farm. Jonathan paid him a regular salary—paid him enough to be able to afford to buy a small house, yet Howard still insisted on staying at home with Daddy Sheriff. “Don’t know what I’d do without you, Howard,” Jonathan called.
Howard turned and smiled; lifted his arm in what Jonathan took to be thanks. But Howard’s smiles never reached his eyes. Howard’s heart wasn’t in the farm. Deep inside, Jonathan knew, Howard still dreamed of stars and planets and galaxies far distant.
He wondered why Howard didn’t get away; why he didn’t up and leave the way his mother did. Why did Howard stay with his father?
Jonathan took an egg and ran it under warm water. Birthing was messy, and many of Jonathan’s customers preferred to ignore that end of the business. He held the egg to the light, examining it carefully for cracks before nestling it carefully in the carton and reaching for the next one. When he had finished, he had ten dozen eggs. He would repeat the job again that evening.
Once he got the eggs away from the chickens, he liked this job. He liked the perfection of an egg—practically the same every time. He liked watching a just-laid egg shimmering on the straw harden and thicken and solidify. He liked the repetition of cleaning eggs; the reliability of it: You could count on a chicken laying an egg as much as you could count on the corn sprouting in the spring and the apple trees bearing fruit. “Howard, I’m heading in,” he called and he walked back to the house, one carton of eggs tucked beneath his arm.
Annie met him at the door, smiling, her blue eyes radiant, their argument for a time forgotten. She took the eggs. “Wash up. Breakfast in five minutes.”
God he loved her. He wished…well, where to begin wishing in a life, in a love as fragile as theirs? Occasionally, he held their love to the light, examined it for fractures, the way he had the eggs just moments ago. It wouldn’t take much, he thought, to shatter it.
“How’d the chickens treat you this morning?” She asked, once he’d returned to the kitchen.
“Howard got to them before me, thank the good Lord.” He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the table.
“Can’t stand all those women squawking without a male to set them straight?” She raised her eyebrows, amused.
He chuckled. “I’ve grown used to the squawking of women.”
“Is it the shit? Childbirth is messy, Jonathan.”
He knew. Good Lord, he knew. He looked at Annie, now sitting across from him. “No, it’s just…Hell, I’ve dealt in shit my whole life. It’s…” He fell silent for a moment, rubbed at his brow. How to explain? “I just hate that pecking order business. The way one always has to be on top all the time.”
She nodded. “It’s their nature, Jonathan. Maybe it’s nature’s way of keeping order.”
“But… Why can’t they all be equal? They remind me…”
She smiled and took his hand. “They remind you of humans. Those humans who so deeply disappoint you that you decided long ago never to have more to do with them than was absolutely necessary. I know why you farm, Jonathan Fowler. You trust those animals more than you trust people.”
“Annie, you know that’s not true.”
“And now, you find out that humans are simply animals and that animals, perhaps, are a tiny bit human.”
He felt his frown deepen. He stirred cream into his coffee. “You’re reading too much into it, Annie. I just don’t like gathering eggs.”
“It’s a woman’s job, right?”
The woman was merciless. “I was thinking more like a child’s.”
They fell silent at this, each immersed in their own thoughts. Jonathan longed to have a child following him around the farm learning the ropes, starting with the simple jobs, of course; weeding, feeding, gathering eggs. But there were no children here to learn farming. Jonathan reached into his pocket and felt the piece of paper there, folded over multiple times, as if, by folding, he could reduce it to nothing and pretend it didn’t exist. But the smaller it got, the larger it loomed in his mind. “I am an old man, Annie.”
“And I am an old woman. And look at what we have done with our lives, in spite of everything.”
The lace curtains billowed inward. The October wind was laced with ice. “My God, Annie, this place is beautiful. Look in any direction and all you see is the land.”
“No humans in sight, except for us. Just the way you like it. And all those generations of Fowler men.”
And none, Jonathan thought, coming after me.
“It’s sad, Jonathan. Frightening even, to know that you’re the last. When we’re gone, there’s nobody. No children. No grandchildren. Nothing. Old Matthew must be rolling in his grave, to see that the line ends with us,” Annie continued. A rare sadness crossed her face, a shadow Jonathan knew he couldn’t penetrate. He could only wait until the shadow had passed.
He looked outside again.
“You love it here, Jonathan.”
He did. He loved the remoteness of it. He loved the fact that it was his and Annie’s to work. No, that was wrong, he thought, because he didn’t work the land, it was more that they and the land worked together. A partnership, if you will. He sighed. Partnerships come to an end when one party dies. And Jonathan wasn’t getting any younger.
“I’m afraid, Annie.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Pretty soon, I’ll be buying milk and eggs down at the IGA just like everyone else in Medford.”
Her eyes softened. “That’s a long time off, Jonathan. We can work this farm a good while yet.”
“How long, Annie? What comes after we can’t work it? Soon enough, I’ll be in a wheelchair, wide-eyed and bloodied, cocking my stupid pecked head to the side to ward off the blows of the health care workers. I’ll be worthless, Annie, producing nothing. Taking up space.” He’d sooner die than live like that.
“Why must you produce something to be worth something?” She stroked the back of his hand with her thumb.
“What is the point of living otherwise?”
She shook her head. A disappointed look crossed her face. “I think you’ve missed the point of life entirely if you can’t answer that question.”
“What is the point of life, Annie? To produce. To re-produce.”
She fell silent at this and he regretted his words immediately. “I’m sorry, Annie.”
She pulled her hand away, shook her heads. “I’ve got to tend to the pies.” And she pushed away from the table and returned to her kitchen to produce her daily quota: fifteen pies and a couple dozen cookies for Bitsy’s Diner. Even Annie, although she refused to admit it, had to produce something to feel valuable.
“Ah, hell.” He drained his cup and left it on the table. He went to his wife and hugged her from behind. She turned and entered his embrace. They stood that way, husband and wife, for a long time, each of them afraid of letting go. Each of them afraid of holding on too tight, of breaking one another with the fragility of their love.
Labels: Fiction, Novel