By Margaret Kramar
“What was that?”
Lydia bolted up in bed, hearing the music again: tinny, distant, like Big Band music from the 1920s played in a darkened theatre. A radio maybe, but now it completely faded out. She strained to hear it. Nothing.
“Did you hear it?” Her husband didn’t answer, just breathed in measured cadences. He always seemed to be asleep when she heard it. But she knew that if Steve weren’t asleep, it wouldn’t have played. She sighed and nestled down into the covers, relaxing into his warmth, snuggling into the bedroom of the old farmhouse encircled by tall pines that reached way up into the heavens. Even in the darkness, the enchantment of these old green wizards was palpable.
Before they moved in, Lydia and Steve had rounded the curve of the road many times, hardly noticing the farmstead. It was only when Steve accepted the caretaker job for the summer camp on the grounds that they penetrated the interior. Following the path of the gravel driveway, a vast panorama opened up to them: verdant meadows, shining ponds, and tall gnarled oaks leaning together, whispering and murmuring their arcane secrets of old.
One building stood out alone from the others, silent in the moaning wind. The chicken house.
“We’re not getting chickens,” Steve read her mind.
“Yes, we are, yes we are,” Lydia clapped. She had always wanted chickens: red ones, black ones, even speckled ones, crowing, flapping their wings, scratching the soil for white recalcitrant grub worms.
Through her research, Lydia learned that the farmstead had been homesteaded by the Parker family in the middle of the nineteenth century. They originally came from Virginia, migrated to Ohio, then kept moving until they stopped right here in a little bit of a valley in Kansas with tall pines on a hillside.
Having moved in, Lydia strolled around the property on a fall day when the distant oaks, ablaze with red and orange, illuminated the early dusk. She imagined the stories that underpinned the construction of the house, the rock wall, the barn. She could almost see the Parkers, and hear their conversations. She pulled a heavy metal lid ajar on the porch and peered into water slightly below.
“So he had dug a well close to the house, so his wife wouldn’t have to carry water,” Lydia said.
Lydia supposed that the wife must have insisted that Mr. Parker add on to the house because they eventually had three children, and one room just wasn’t enough for two strapping boys and a baby girl. The Parkers had milked cows, plowed with horses, and scratched out a living while the tall pines looked on.
Lydia stood on the porch, looking out to the woods beyond. Without knowing it, Lydia stood on the exact same spot that Mrs. Parker occupied on a similar morning however many years before.
“Don’t you think a rock wall would look nice around the house?” Mrs. Parker said, smoothing down her husband’s collar after drying her hands on her apron.
“Heck, woman as if I don’t have enough to do,” the husband would have said, but with one look at her little upturned nose and dark curls, he started making plans. He loved her so damn much he’d do anything for her.
“If Doc Wilson rides out this way you might have him look in on Helen.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She’s not been eating so well. Could be the colic.”
“Yeah, I noticed Bessie’s milk is getting thin. Helen should be getting better when that other heifer freshens.”
They chatted a while longer because they were worried. Then their voices faded into the rustling of the leaves.
One hundred and fifty dollars. One hundred and fifty dollars per month for rent in exchange for Steve’s maintenance skills, in exchange for this earthly paradise. An absolute steal. Steve had opened a law practice in the closest town, population 1,200. Things were slow but might get better.
Once spring came and daffodils nodded, Lydia approached the wooden door of the chicken house and turned the metal handle. Entering the silent tomb of concrete and dust, a coolness washed over her. The front sunroom had been undisturbed. Cobwebs draped the ceilings, and old manured straw littered the floor.
Clothed in blue jean overalls, she got to work with an old broom and pail.
Then she saw it. A lifeless form resurrecting itself from the chaotic jumble of junk. What was it? It was an old chicken feeder. That was probably the first time that Lydia sensed somebody was watching her.
“What’s she doing with that old chicken feeder?”
“I don’t know. I can make out she’s painting it white.”
“But what’s she doin’ now?”
“She’s painting on ducks. Little ducks. Blue and orange.”
“Chickens don’t care about no little ducks painted on the side. You women go to the darndest trouble.”
“Maybe it ain’t a chicken feeder no more. I reckon she’s going to put flowers in it. Put some beauty in the yard.
“Kind of purty, ain’t she?”
“That don’t matter. You men never get over that. It’s the heart, the heart inside that counts.”
“Yeah, too many people have moved in and out. Remember those people who almost tore down the rock wall it took us a year to put up? I hope she stays.”
A few months later, Lydia flicked on the light switch to check on her chickens. A huge black snake, three or four feet long, peered at her from a nesting box. She found a stick, and timidly poked at it. It then slithered its way along the wall, until the last of its black licorice disappeared through a small hole. Lydia turned to face the wall from a new angle. There in electric letters, as though they were spray painted, were words that seemed to glow in fluorescent paint: Bill and Maudie Parker.
The first of the month. Lydia wrote out checks under the lamp. Everything was paid, but a hundred dollars would have to last them between now and the end of the month.
“Why does my job have to pay for everything? We simply don’t have enough money. You’ve got to contribute more,” Lydia yelled at Steve.
Steve rose from the couch, and padded toward her in stocking feet.
“It’s going to take time to build the business,” he said. Lydia knew he was trying, but still she was mad, just like when Maudie was so mad at her two boys she wanted to cut her a switch.
“Why’d you open the chicken door, and not even tell me they were out?” The laughing over by the barn stopped when they heard the tone of her voice. One boy stood there like a statesman, hands in his coverall pockets.
“You told us you wanted them to get some of the fresh green grass.”
“No sir, that was last week, before I planted the garden. I want you to catch them, every last one of them. Then quit for foolin’ around! Dad could use some help with that rock wall.”
She marched out to the newly planted garden and cried out loud when she saw the destruction the chickens had caused. New radishes, spinach, and lettuce, just peeping out of the ground, scratched, torn, eaten off at the base, so she couldn’t even tell where the rows were.
Her daughter Helen had toddled out after her, and when she turned around she startled. With the sun behind her like a halo, Helen looked just like a wraith, a light little wraith. How long had she been that thin?
“Come with momma into the house, child, just come with your momma into the house.” Maudie kissed Helen’s damp forehead and straightened her little gown, but she couldn’t shut down her dread.
The days darkened and a cold wind blew in. Worrisome news. The camp was being sold, which meant that the house and acreage would be up for sale. Steve’s caretaker job was terminated, so they would have to rely on his struggling law practice.
‘Maybe I should give up on this practice and look for a job in Topeka,” Steve said, as he and Lydia argued at the dinner table.
“No, we love it here,” Lydia said, throwing down her napkin.
“But look at this house. It started out as one room and they added on. There’s no kitchen to speak of. We’re better off building or buying another one.”
“But I can finally have my horse with me instead of boarding him. There’s the chickens, the gardens, and all the friends we’ve made.”
Lydia glowered at Steve, trying to find traces in his stern face of the man she had once loved.
As if they didn’t have enough financial difficulties, they also needed to look for a new car. One Saturday they decided to drive to Topeka, despite the snow swirling around outside, piling into deepening drifts.
“I can’t find my mitten,” Lydia said, as she searched through all the coat pockets and rummaged through the top shelf in the closet.
“What mitten? Just wear any mitten.”
“No, I want to wear these today, the lavender ones, with the hat that matches. Don’t tell me I lost one of the mittens from the set!” Lydia searched through the closet with frantic desperation.
The winter storm never abated that day, and Lydia never found her mitten, but they set out anyway in the perilous conditions. Once on the road, their truck fishtailed out of the lane, and they felt the panic of losing control.
“Hold on!” Steve yelled, flinging his arm across Lydia’s chest. She screamed as they spun around and around. The spinning stopped. They were in a ditch, but safe. Steve pulled out and they continued home.
A few days later Lydia came home from work. The lavender mitten, the one that was missing, was laying right smack dab in the middle of an otherwise empty floor. When Lydia saw it, she jumped back about a foot.
“They see us. They’re watching us. They knew it was dangerous, and were trying to protect us,” Lydia said.
Then there was the night when Lydia left the living room for just a second, and when she returned the closet door was wide open. She had jumped again. Not long after that, Steve fished for his keys late one night when they noticed that the front door was wide open. They entered cautiously. Nobody was there.
Sometimes when Lydia and Steve watched television, it sounded like somebody was rolling marbles across the wooden floor upstairs. There was no logical explanation, but because they became so accustomed to it that they blocked it out, when Jane exclaimed during a visit, “What the hell is that noise?”, Lydia found herself explaining in a small voice that it was just the ghosts, yes, you know, the ghosts who lived in the house.
On a summer evening in June, Lydia put the final stitches on the sunflower in her needlepoint: the flower in the foreground, a field, a barn in the distance, everything lined up in perspective. It was just after the sun had set but before the fireflies were out, and the honeysuckle aroma twining the fence floated in through the windows.
The sounds of snorting horses and tinkling harness announced the arrival of neighbors, and their softly rustling skirts swept through the door.
“She’s in a better place,” Cora said, tightly squeezing Maudie’s elbow.
Helen was laid out in the parlor, with flowers tucked around her face, wreathed in rosemary. Her gossamer hair was swept across her forehead, and her tiny feathered eyebrows and eyelashes were perfect, more intricate than spider webs. Her brothers remarked that she looked just like a china doll, a white bone china doll they had seen in the catalogues.
Tomorrow she would go to her grave in her lace christening gown, and after the last shovel of dirt was thrown on the coffin and the preacher said his final words, they’d go home and do the milking. But tonight, as they sat there, and listened to the whippoorwills, they really didn’t know where they were. They could see the neighbors, the clock on the mantel, and all the familiar features of the room, but something had changed. Now they could sense that wherever Helen was, it might not be so bad.
While Lydia finished her needlepoint, the front screen door slammed. Steve looked up from his desk.
“Hello? Can we help you?”
A middle-aged man and woman had barged in without knocking, carrying yardsticks and tape measures.
“We’ve come to measure the rooms for new carpeting.”
“We’re the new owners. We bought the place. Didn’t anybody tell you?”
Lydia and Steve retreated to the laundry room, the cold concrete underneath their feet. He looked to her for mercy and she wanted him to save her. This was the same room where Maudie used to candle her eggs, and separate her cream.
“I told you that if you didn’t get a real job,” Lydia began. Then she stopped. It was too late anyway.
The November sun was setting on the horizon and everything was almost all packed up. Lydia walked through the empty rooms. She couldn’t find her cat. Steve had yelled to hurry up, because the truck was developing three flat tires, tires that never had previous problems. Three, losing air fast, and they had a ways to drive to town.
“I want my cat! Give me my cat! I didn’t want to leave, it wasn’t my choice!” Lydia screamed at them out loud. Within a few minutes the cat came out from where he had been hiding: within the interior hump of the side of the bathtub.
That they were genuinely disappointed was of no lasting concern to them, any more than that the days were getting shorter and colder. They sighed and turned. It was enough to float down among the descending gilded leaves or bask in the mist coming off the pond. There was always disappointment, sorrow, and joy, and finally, only joy. When it came to what they eventually considered home, they got really confused, didn’t know where they were most of the time. Sometimes they went to the barn to harness up the team and got disoriented because of the dust on the reins and cobwebs on the blinders. Other times they just sat on the front porch, swinging back and forth with the white oaks, dancing with the wind at the top of the sheltering pines. They listened to the whippoorwills. They watched all the people going by, not so much different, really, than themselves. Or on a June evening, listening to the radio after Helen and the boys had collected fireflies, they’d all go upstairs to bed. This was their land, and their home, and they loved it.
Margaret Kramar currently teaches composition and literature in the English department at The University of Kansas. She has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Echoes from the Prairie: A Collection of Short Memoirs, which recently received a 2014 Kansas Notable Book Award. Margaret and her family live at Hidden Hollow Farm where they produce organically grown fruits, vegetables, and free-range eggs.
Image Credit: “A chicken coop or hen house,” Phil Catterall (CC BY-SA 2.0)