Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (22 page)

The book was published by Alan Hood in Brattleboro, Vermont. I called him and sometime later got a second book. A similar inspiration. Since then Lyons Press in New York has begun to publish reprints of other old farm books, and one way or another I have most of them.

This year I promised myself to do no further reconstruction of the barn. There is no money for anything remotely to be considered extra down there. Buying enough hay and grain will be hard enough. There is not enough money for lumber. Today, however, I am unable to restrain myself from dreaming. And so I pulled down the books from my library shelves and against my better judgment am beginning to dream again. It won't cost too much, take very much time, need very much material to build that chicken feeder, hang that old medicine chest in the lambing room, build that four-sided sheep trough. Perhaps I can have some of the bits and pieces that will allow my dream to become reality after all.

The books make a neat stack. The ones from Alan Hood are somewhat larger than those from Lyons Press, but they make a tantalizing grouping. And I am drawn to them. They lie on my kitchen table, on a newly ironed cloth, white and gleaming. The
cloth matches the heavily starched freshly hung curtains on the windows on either side of the brand-new kitchen stove that my family just bought me. I knew I'd never accept the gift of the stove until I had solved the problems it presented to my mind. The problems of its newness and its contrast with the old one I clung to for so long. But there is a freshness to it and a promise of creating even more of the life that I so long for. It inspired me to hang the curtains, which in turn inspired me to think. Which in turn reminded me of the grant application that may have been somewhere in my special-things-to-do basket in the living room. Maybe. I hoped. And it was.

MY HIRED MAN

T
HE CHEVY
pickup is the color of cream. The cream of milk from a Jersey cow near the end of her lactation. Its fenders are trimmed in burnt sienna lace, otherwise referred to as rust. I do not refer to it as rust. Its owner is a farmer, heart, soul, and inclination. He is also my hired man. One or two half days a week. He has been seventy-five for three years now. We drive in it. Wednesdays, country music blaring from the radio, Reba McEntire. He loves her hair. He whistles. I listen. Or try to, over the rattle of the engine, the sounds of the road, and the static on the radio.

Wednesday is the only day of the week that I can reliably identify by name. It is the day we go to town. He's tried to change Wednesday to Thursday. He bowls on Wednesday. Plays cards on Tuesday. Needs to be home by four o'clock to feed his cows. I don't know what he does on Sunday or Monday nights. I need Wednesday to be Wednesday. Thursday is too late in the week. Tuesday is too soon. The livestock auction in Unadilla is Wednesday. Every Wednesday enhances the urgency of my choice of the preferable day to go to town.

I've only just begun to go to the auction. It is a dangerous place for me. I've been known to buy a goat to save it from slaughter. I find it too much to be borne to go every week. I have been known on rare occasion to sell some rams at that auction. Against my principles. Seeing my livestock go the truckers to be sold for meat is an experience boarding on Purgatory if not hell for me. The choices, this fall, however, have been reduced to none.

On auction day, Ernest comes early, driving the truck into the barnyard, with ease born of experience, into the loading pen he built and rebuilt (as it fell apart with regularity) for me. It is now in a condition of being rebuilt for what may be the last time. I hope. The rams were all in the lambing room, to separate them from the flock now being bred by my new East Friesian ram. He is a spectacular fellow. Big. Showy. Tame. He is the future of the farm. My farm. The East Friesian breed is the milk breed of the world of sheep. Holstein-Friesians are the mammoth milk producers of the world of cows. East Friesian sheep originally came from the same neck of the woods. They are heavy milk producers. The ewes of the breed, of course. However, the Finn-Landrace breed of sheep produce milk heavier in the essential milk solids than any others. Dorsets are evaluated somewhere in the middle. The ideal sheep with which to create a sheep milk dairy are an East Friesian lamb and a dam who is a Dorset-Finn cross. I own about ninety Dorset-Finn cross ewes. And am partners in the ownership of one East-Friesian cross ram. By spring many of the ewes will have freshened with the extraordinary crossbred lambs and my dairy flock will officially be on the ground. The hard part is not winter lambing, snow and ice on the stone steps to the barn, temperatures in the low teens and subzero with the windchill factor. The hard part is that I have to sell my other rams so they shall not breed my ewes again. From now on it is only the East Friesian ram, William, Greenleaf Sire, who has that privilege.

I had nine or ten rams in the lambing room. All but two would have to be sold. Prices at the auction vary greatly. Sometimes there are too many sheep and the price is low. Sometimes there are not enough and the prices are even lower. Sometimes there is a Muslim holiday and the price is high. And sometimes it is a Christian one and the price is high or low, depending on the number of buyers on hand
and how saturated the market is. Necessity decreed that I sell three or four at a time, every other week. Russian roulette with prices.

Ernest has been seventy-five for three years now. I've already said that. He has white hair that he cuts when it starts to curl. He is two inches shorter than I am. His hip has been replaced twice and he walks with a slight limp. The second time it was replaced he used a cane for a while. Got into an argument with it one day and threw it away. To load some reluctant rams on to a pickup truck from a small building without a ramp requires careful planning. It requires moving the spare tire from the back of the truck to the top of the cab and tying it on. Then one must string a rope across the truck tight enough to stretch when the rams are tied onto it. We then have to catch the rams. I then have to catch the rams. He can't. We both know it. But pretend we don't. He stands to the side, against the wall, so he won't get trampled as the sheep circle the room. They race, frantically, knowing why we are there. They crowd into a corner. I tied a baling twine rope around the neck of the rams I want to sell. I dragged them, one at a time, to the doorway. Ernest said, “You don't know how to do it. The knot needs to be under the chin.” I couldn't turn the rope around and still keep control of the butting, kicking animal. We pulled the rams, one by one, out through the lambing-room door and lifted the thrashing and struggling animals onto the truck. Ernest climbed around the side of the truck squeezing in between it and the gatepost and tied each ram, one at a time, onto the rope.

It is not the same maneuver to drive out of the barnyard as it is to drive into it. There is a pile of wood in the middle of it that successfully manages to disrupt navigation from some angles but not others. Ernest got stuck between the pile of wood and the barnyard fence. He rocked the truck back and forth, his face expressionless, and never said a word. Fifteen minutes later he was out. I climbed
into the truck. “You never do your seat belt until you're on the road,” I say. Always.

Ernest turns on the radio the moment he starts the engine. We drive country roads. The pretty ones. I hate the highway. And told him once. That I wanted to drive home, country roads. He asked how much longer was the pretty road back to my farm, “the other road.” A mile. (I lied. It is two.) Since then he heads to “the other road” on days that he isn't going to bowl or play cards that night.

The foothills of the Catskill Mountains are lovely. This is my life. Riding these hills in this lace-ridden Chevy truck. Fast. Ernest never takes his eyes from the road, driving and listening to Reba McEntire, taking me to the feed store to buy grain, the farm supply store to buy hinges, the Salvation Army to buy Eddie Bauer shirts, and Elena's Pastry Shop to drink espresso and eat cake.

I send Ernest to the feed store while I go to the Salvation Army and Elena's. He says he'll pick me up in an hour. It never is an hour. It is always just enough less for me to not be able to finish my lunch. Or longer enough for me to think he has forgotten me. One day he was an hour and a half late. He said he had forgotten me and drove all the way home when he suddenly remembered I was to be picked up. I believed him. We drove ten miles before he told me he'd been visiting his friend and lost track of time. I was certain he had suddenly begun to lose his mind and was so grateful to realize he hadn't that I wasn't even angry. Ernest charges me fifteen dollars each time he comes. Sometimes he'll raise it to twenty dollars. For six hours of work. I'll add a few dollars to it for gas. Sometimes I don't have any money with which to pay him. I used to say please put the day's work on my tab. I don't anymore. We both seem to understand which days I don't have any money to pay him. On those days he just pulls out of the driveway especially fast when he's finished with work.

Ernest, who has lived here all of his life and been on each road not hundreds but thousands of times, belongs here. He has always belonged. He is familiar. Deeply familiar. I know the roads running through these hills as well and love to look at them, each week changing, sometimes subtly, sometimes with great drama. They are mine, too. But barely. And I feel surrounded, completely surrounded by a world so familiar to him, one in which he, too, is familiar. And am so very much the stranger in it.

THE AWFUL DAY

T
HIS HAS
been a terrible day. Absolutely awful. It wasn't supposed to be. It didn't even seem to be at first. Even in between the worst it still seemed as if it was going to be a good day.

The kitchen was an absolute mess this morning. I've been mixing a lot of milk replacer. The first bag of the year was full of lumps, some the size of goose eggs, and impossible to mix into a drink that would pass through the nipple on a baby bottle. Somehow I've never devised a foolproof procedure that I can adopt to mix it more easily. It would seem that after all of these years I would have figured out how to do it. But each time I come up with a system I scrap it.

This, the first bag, lent itself to the creation of a series of messes that needed my attention. I've not had hot water for nearly a week, so cleanup was made that much more difficult. When I couldn't get the lumps of dried milk replacer off of my hands, I reached for the phone and explained in no uncertain terms to the manufacturer what I thought of his product. Desperate situations inspire desperate measures. And so I decided that after the most rudimentary of care to my various and sundry charges, I'd clean the kitchen. So I'd be able to come in to a halfway-civilized room each time I returned from the barn. And so I started to heat some water on the kitchen stove. As soon as it was warm enough I ran out with some of that water to the chickens. Life for them has been rough during this cold snap. I usually give them hot mash in the evening but decided to give them some this morning as well. The chicken house in the carriage
house is home to a variety of chickens and one rooster. However, the other chickens who were born here and roosters who were, some of them, born here, and some from my friends the Daltons and therefore not born here, have been hovering around the coop picking up whatever they can glean. Spilled corn. Hayseeds, and scraps of laying mash.

There in front of the coop were two roosters. One, pitch black. The other, pure white. Both dead. They had killed each other. They were among the roosters who have been born here. Not my favorites. But they had been earmarked for the pot. I've been wanting to make a chicken in red wine for quite some time and had chosen those two for the pot. The double murders should have told me something. In the coop was another frozen chicken.

A day or two ago I had improperly fastened the barn door. Several sheep had gotten out. Annabel, one of the first ewes born here, freshened. Outside. In the sun. I had been in a rush to get to the barn, and, without looking, threw some hay over the bridgeway wall and raced down the stairs to the mow to begin to toss the requisite fifteen bales of hay. When I went to serve them out, I realized the barn was a little empty. I rushed to the south side and spotted two very fat little lambs in a snowdrift. One was warm enough to have melted the snow, the wet of which proceeded to freeze over its little face. I bundled them up in my scarf and ran to the house. The smaller of the two picked up first, took a bottle and, after an hour surrounded by plastic bottles filled with hot water and well wrapped in towels, jumped out of her basket and began to run around the kitchen. The larger was a little slower. Didn't want a bottle but regained itself nicely anyway. I chose to take her back to the barn and try to locate her mom. I found her. The little lamb dove in and nursed with vigor. The other was disinterested. I couldn't get her to nurse. And so Snow White Abernathy joined the house lambs inside while Rose
Red Abernathy joined her mother. This morning I noticed a little bundle huddled against the hollowed-out pack of the barn going down from the fiasco three years ago. It was Rose Red. Nearly strangled by a piece of baling twine embedded in the pack still there from the day the barn wall collapsed. Cold once more. Limp. Back to the house. She survived, but I could take no more chances. Two chances are a lot on a farm. She has joined her sister in the house.

I managed to get the dishes washed, working out a system of heating water on the stove and soaking the pots in the sink. It felt so good to have the sink empty. I scrubbed down the new stove and part of the rest of the kitchen. Hope slipped in and out of the day. And I began to feel that life could be manageable.

But the barn chores called and I became more and more conflicted. I put the sheep out for water and put hay in the barnyard. Something white peeped out from under a bale I had thrown over. Rooster number three. How in the world I ever could have tossed a bale more than thirty feet above the rooster and managed to hit it on its head and kill it was beyond me. But I did.

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