The old barn tells its secrets to no one
A story for the Halloween edition, is this. But it is just as true in any other season. Or is it even true at all? From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, October 29, 2006.
On that warm October night the young boy Will walked in the dark across the backyard, heading to the shop. He was a hunter, and he always carried his knife, a two-bladed barlow. He opened the big blade and raked his thumb across it as he walked. It needed sharpening, and he was going after the whet rock.
Over the hills west of Smith’s Bend—the loop of the Cumberland River where he lived—the crescent moon hung near the horizon, just left of the big hackberry tree that stood below the barn. The moon was waxing, setting a little later each night, and near the end of the month it would be full, a moon called the Hunter’s Moon.
As he reached the shop he heard a sound coming from the barn. He stopped and cocked his head, listening. Then it was louder, a nervous squawking coming from the chickens in the lower shed of the barn. At once, he knew:
Something’s after the chickens!
He could see them in his mind, sidestepping on the tier poles where they roosted, jostling and flapping for balance, mouths open, wild eyes blinking.
He took off running toward the house, shot through the back door, dashed across the kitchen and into the hall where his .410 leaned in the corner. He shook out a hand full of shells from a box sitting on the chest, grabbed a flashlight from the top drawer and snatched the gun. As he sprinted back across the kitchen he heard his mother calling from the living room, “William?” But the screen door slammed behind him about then, and he kept going.
Once through the gate and on the lane to the barn, he walked slowly and carefully. The squawking talk of the chickens seemed more urgent. As long as that noise kept up, it meant the intruder was still there. That was important. Will didn’t want to scare off whatever it was, until he could get a shot at it.
He was making plans as he approached the barn. He’d have to hold the flashlight and the shotgun forearm both with his left hand. It would be hard to aim both, he knew, but that was his only chance. The light was off now and he wouldn’t flip it on until he was in shooting position. The shed was open at the front except for a gate low enough to shoot over. He had to reach that gate without detection.
He walked slowly in a slight crouch. The crescent moon traveled with him, creeping behind the big hackberry. Leaves had already started falling from the big tree, leaving a skeletal-like crown outlined against the sky. The moon winked through its openings as Will crept toward the barn.
Will had learned to hunt a couple of years earlier with a slingshot when he was eight and nine years old. He made several slingshots, cutting the rubber straps from scrap inner tubes made before the war, using a leather shoe tongue for the pouch and a fork from a small tree for the stock. Eventually he found the perfect fork. Recording his kills, he’d already cut four notches in that fork when one day he shot an indigo bunting, a beautiful little blue bird. The hue of its feathers seemed to radiate a blue aura, a color like electricity, he thought, having felt a spark plug’s shock.
He’d been sad about the little bird that reminded him of electricity and wished he’d not shot it. He dug a grave with his knife under the big hackberry tree. The ground was moist there where runoff from the hog lot deposited manure-enriched silt—he could always find red worms there when he needed fish bait. He put up a little cross made from a horseweed stem. He didn’t want the slingshot anymore. He cut the rubber bands from the fork and threw them into the jimson weeds. He hid the perfect fork in the attic.
He never told anyone about shooting the electric blue bird, about its grave under the big hackberry tree, or about dismantling his slingshot.
But that was a long time ago; he hunted with a shotgun these days. As he approached the barn now, the urgent din of the chickens filled his ears, and his pulse quickened. He hoped it would be a wildcat. That would be something—shoot a wildcat.
He remembered Mr. Reeder. A wildcat jumped on him from his barn loft. Though in his sixties, Mr. Reeder was stout and sturdy. The cat knocked him down twice. He killed it with his bare hands. Once he got his fingers around the cat’s neck, his hard thumbs pushed in its throat, crushing out that fierce life. But the cat had fought with fury and left deep cuts to prove it. Mr. Reeder carried his bandaged arm in a sling as he told Will and his father about it.
Will edged along the front of the barn now, quietly approaching the shed opening. "Wildcat" ran over and over through his mind, merging with the squawking din into a single shrieking turmoil. He paused at the shed corner, the last cover, tensing for action.
Something’s about to happen!
He swung into the opening, shoved the gun over the gate and switched on the light all in one action. There was a flurry of motion at the far end, a rushing toward the double doors there. Will’s .410 boomed loud enough to ring the tin.
But it was gone. Will climbed over the gate and rushed to the double doors. At their junction, the bottoms of the doors were rotted away, leaving a hole big enough a hog could run through it. He couldn’t find any blood on the doors. And he couldn’t see any birdshot in the planks. He pointed the light at the hay-littered ground and couldn’t find birdshot evidence there either. It was as if he hadn’t shot at all, he thought dismally. He’d missed, he decided. That made him angry. He wished he had a 12-gage instead of a puny .410.
He walked back through the shed, flicking the light beam up at the restless chickens, safe on their poles. There was no telling bunch of feathers on the ground. None had been lost.
He climbed the gate, straddled the top plank and swung his trailing leg across. In that precise moment of precarious balance there was a sudden commotion he had no time to understand. A booming whack came like a hard slap on the ear, accompanied by what seemed like flapping and hitting, and Will knew he was falling. He thought, "feathers." Then he didn’t think.
In a while his eyes opened. A light was shining. He lifted his head. It was the flashlight, lying just ahead. The beam swept across the hard manure-soil and lighted a sprig of dead crabgrass at his face. He spit out some dirt absently. He’d fallen on the shotgun and his ribs hurt. A thought was trying to come, but he couldn’t think what it was. Then he jumped up, remembering, and ran toward the house, breathing hard.
In the living room, his mom was peeling apples she planned to dry, catching the peelings first in her apron and then piling them on newspaper spread in the floor. She cut the apples into wedges and dropped them into a white enamel dishpan. She was a slender woman with white teeth and dark hair. Will flopped unhappily on the couch.
“What was it?” she asked.
“A fox in the lower shed. It got away.”
He didn’t mention the rest.
Next morning he returned to the barn before daybreak to milk the two cows in the main hall. Dawn came and sunlight angled into the hall while he did the milking. After letting the cows out, he returned to the lower shed to look around.
Standing at the gate where he’d fallen, he inspected the ground. He picked up a nondescript feather, mostly gray, some brown. Could be a hawk or an owl, maybe even a chicken feather, he thought. Undecided, he let it drop. Then he saw something bright partially hidden under the bottom gate plank, and picked it up. It was a small curved feather, like a wing feather. In the morning sunlight it seemed to radiate a blue aura. It reminded him of electricity.
He twirled the feather in his fingers absently and glanced at the big hackberry tree.