Here, bales reach the uppermost beams, and we fantasize about making it, to climbing to the top and crawling across thick supporting wood intersecting the peak. At alternating hours, but never at the same time, owls and pigeons rest on this beam. I could rest there too.
We call our mother who is in a Kentucky hospital to tell her about the mountain. Our voices leave us and find her. She tells us one more week before she can come home.
Grandma warns of collapse, instability and the risk of avalanches that would trap us for longer than it took mom to crawl through the Kentucky airport. Did no one go to help, to explain to my mother what was happening to her body? And would she fly home to explain and look for us in the event of an avalanche or accident? Grandma warns of falling through trapdoors in the loft too, of falling in the far below, where the barn is painted stone, where cattle tense and bellow, and I walk to avoid being kicked with back ends on either side, moving as if on a tightrope stretched taunt at the inner aisle’s center, wishing I’d thought to argue for the packing of more dolls.
Beneath the mountain in the loft there is also a thin hallway along each wall. It stretches the length of the barn, so that feed may be distributed to a long line of stalls. One hundred heads at eye level face this hall. Ropey tongues jutting out to taste borrowed clothes and so many eyes widening, jerking, tossing, lunging, masticating, a nasty word I will learn many years later to sum up this motion of sawing jaws. I wave my arms, hope they will back up, give passage so I may avoid the tightrope. Their heads pull back on metal chains, and I run to the next opening, pressing my body into crevices and catching my breath midway.
The barn opens to calving pens, but Grandpa uses the same pen every time. The one near the hayloft stairs where we sit to see her heaving sides, hide caving into ribs, eyes white, and the loudest moan. She isn’t sure whether it is best to lay down or to stand. She stands, kneels, stands, kneels in the sea of straw. Give her space, he says. We can sit on the stairs if we want to see. The hum of the milk house continues, but I can’t make it background noise. We whisper to be heard over the constant buzz of nourishment being stored and her cries.
Grandpa reattaches the mechanical vacuum pump where it loses suction, slaps the hind legs of a cow who will not stand, brushes shit from a swinging tail.
In the morning, the cow is gone, and we sit in the feeder. Grandpa says she is drying out as if she has indeed been swimming. My sister lets the calf suck her fingers. His back legs are mustard yellow, a color my sister notes as babyleavings.
Around us, the aisles are scraped and dusted with lime after first milking. Polka plays in the background, but the barn is empty, a cavernous chamber. We build castles of lime used to coat and clean. We pick out kittens who use our castle as a litterbox.
Grandma christens one cow after each grandchild and hopes clumsy hooves will not break off teats, that the cow barring our name will not be shot in the head that scared us. We look for our names chalked above empty stalls, clip the chain to our t-shirts, press our hands into water to trigger the hose.
Someone must be the farmer who carries a yardstick, threatens us with the meat truck, brings the soybeans. I lift the soybeans, pulling the smell into me until it becomes lodged. Jagged metal teeth hang above each stall. I believe the metal to be electric, my back tall enough to touch.
In the afternoon, the hoof trimmer holds the cattle prod for us to touch. We almost do.
The German Shepard collects hoof clipping until her sides swell. These specimen twirl from the clipping cage, and she is all business in her careful sampling of large nailbeds and smaller dustings. Her paws contrast the hooves, and we imagine setting a teacup on each of her paws, lifting one toe to sip at the cuticle.
She is allowed where we are not. We are told to wait behind a barrier of straw in case cows become lose, but the dog pads around the clipping cage. Grandpa trained her to stay out of the way. He doesn’t acknowledge she exists as long as she behaves.
Days later, we will play a game of lava monsters where the clipping cage stands now, but in its place, there will be a pyramid of straw. My sister, a monster, will lunge at me while I hold a kitten at the top. The kitten will hiss and the dog will bark. We won’t realize Grandpa hears this interaction, the misinterpreted laughter. He will come out of nowhere to grab the dog by the collar, swing 80lbs into stone walls, our teacups smashed. He will walk away, and we will wonder what happened. He will say no words.
When the surgery happens, we receive a phone call, and mother heals at a distance. We won’t tell her about the dog. One more week, she says. She misses us. Everyone has a weird accent in Kentucky. No one explains about degenerating spinal cords, the same way the dog isn’t mentioned. We tell her about collecting grasshoppers in the alfalfa field. How we brought them to grandma in a mason jar, and she taught us to save crops by filling the jars and grasshoppers with water. I don’t yet tell mom about the hairless mice either. How we told grandma about the nest and what she told us to do. The kittens were puzzled, not sure what to do with motionless flesh and toes like tiny paddles, but I wanted to teach them about where food came from so they might be good, and we pried open jaws to press incisors to flesh even though the kittens were unwilling. They ran, and we were left with lumps of flesh and an angry mouse running over our feet.
We leave the farm when mom is well and return for holidays, search for those kittens. I will find the orange one sunning near a window in the diminished hayloft. Uninterested in tall or even medium sized peaks. The gray one will be missing, but coyotes have been in the barn, and grandpa’s shotgun will be hanging in waiting. The black cat will be curled to sleep in the corner of the pen where all those weeks ago the calf was born. My sister will stroke its stiff motionless body. Mother, gone for so many days, will infer to impermanence, irreversibility, nonfunctionality, universality. We will listen and remember when there was one more week and dust filled our bodies as we scaled the mountain to arrive at the place where legs might suspend over pasture. When we called our mother to tell her how our feet slid where the farmhand stopped stacking and started piling, and we pulled our shoes loose, cupping our mouths to call into caves and cannons, the sound never reaching.
Tracy Haack studied creative nonfiction and pedagogy in Northern Michigan University’s MA program. She has recent work in The Flager Review and forthcoming work in The Wisconsin Review, The Pinch, and Crab Fat magazine.