where the writers are
The North Farm Voices: Part Four

The Voice of the Milk House-Toolshed

From here my grandfather took freshly drawn milk to my infant father. I am able to imagine this only because I’ve heard my grandmother refer to this small, now faltering structure as the milk house.

The building doubled as a toolshed. I found here one morning some tools I could not identify, tools that bore the unfamiliarity of certain antiques to the young.

I tried but could not make those tools at home in my hand. I showed them to my dad. My father is not a sentimental man but he took those tools, closed his eyes and clutched those tools as talismans then looked at them fondly. Some objects have a way of triggering the spill of memories, renewing a time, conjuring a place.

My father kept those tools. Nothing was ever said.

I found, too, in the milk house-toolshed a rusty tin can of rusty square nails. I keep three of those nails up on a shelf with a geode, Iowa’s deceptive state rock. I keep those old nails thinking they might hold together the North Farm and me. I hold on to those rusty, square nails because I found them on the land where my roots are earthed, sprawling, decaying.

Along a wall in the milk house-toolshed Iowa license plates hang uniformly. On the opposite wall a “38” painted in red. Above a crude workbench a swallow has built a nest notice only because the bird flew into the shed and, startled by my alien presence, screamed then flew out again.

The voice of the milk house-toolshed is contained in that swallow cry. Something here, I sense, deserves fear. I look out the shed’s door, wary of the natives: snake, skunk, ‘coon, wasp. Even the cattle, I see now, resent my intrusion; they have fled to the far corner of the pasture where they wait, lowing angrily.

I remember being an early morning adolescent girl waking to the low of Angus and the bitter coffee smell at my grandparent’s farm. I peered out the window at the foot of the bed. Beyond branches, the fields thickened with the harvest of corn and soy beans. The ditches filled with tiger lilies and wild roses. Dust puffed off the gravel road as a pickup truck passed.
In the shady yard, in the shadow of the brick house, I had stood on my head during the lavender time, my bare feet against the gnarled bark of an oak tree. I imagined the landscape upside down. I waited then for branches to become roots, and roots, branches. I pictured the ground as sky; the sky, blue earth. And I saw out of the corner of my eye the incandescent flash of a goldfinch in flight, confusing my vision.

Goldfinches dart about the North Farm now, too. I think of my brother Dan dead. A car crash, and no saplings planted. My mother dead, too. Cancer. No more deep dish apple pies in winter.

Now this old farm, deserted like so many, this life is lost to me. I regret what has happened here. I regret what will happen here. And I do not belong here, and the North Farm no longer matters except in memory. The homestead, just as well, belongs again to goldfinches and flying grasshoppers, to goldenrod, to ground cherry.

So I look for apples, as I came to do. I look for apples, but find none. Not one.

Only wild plums: small and green and bitter.

 Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three